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Third Leg: Ft. Myers, FL to Houston, TX
We saluted the coast of Florida with a nice sailing between Sanibel Island and Pine Island, dodging the plethora of mostly drunk powerboaters going up and down the bay. We decided to use Boca Grande to get out into the Gulf and when we finally approached the channel I was so glad to leave the inlet and the powerboat traffic of the weekend. Winds were 10-15 knots from the SSW, so we put the boat on a close reach, let the tiller in the hands of the Monitor and enjoyed sailing on the gentle swell.
It was slow sailing, to be honest, as the Southern Cross 31 needs a bit of sporty conditions to move the 13000 lbs of displacement, but we were happy to make progress towards our destination while enjoying the perks of being at sea: a well equipped, fully provisioned boat, following our watch rotation and enjoying tasty meals cooked on the stove. The next day, Sunday the barometer started to fall to 1004mb and the wind backed to SE. I was worried about that reading, but I was still confident for our positive weather forecast and I went into my bunk for my rest time.
<<Fabio! Come out!>>. A green eye in the sky crowned by a circle of black clouds appeared in front of me as I cleared the companionway. I had just been summoned on deck from my bunk and I noticed it was getting pretty windy. It’s late afternoon, just an hour before my watch starts. The crew on watch was speechless because they just observed a pod of several dozens of dolphins jumping by and I am not quite sure if I they called me because all hands on deck were needed or just to share the sublime panorama of a violent storm brewing. The green color of the sky was so beautiful yet so menacing. I have never seen a sky like that one before.
Thunderstorm flashes made us understand how quickly we had to move and we prepared the boat for heavy weather. After the previous thunderstorms on the East coast of Florida we were well trained and we reduced the sail area very quickly. The storm’s edge slammed into the boat and for the next minutes the vessel was battered by blinding rain and blown nearly horizontally. We bit the bullet after this first hit but the evil sky showed no sign of mercy.
This system seemed not only more violent than the ones we encountered before but also the squalls were long lasting and so Roberto and I had to reschedule our watches to take turns on the tiller to catch some rest. With the minimum sail area possible (3 reefs in the mainsail and a reefed staysail) we managed to have enough momentum to keep the wind after the beam as we rode the big swell lifted by the storm. We kept working in the dark, removing the rolled up inflatable dinghy from the deck and storing it inside, in the fear that the storm would take it. The thick clouds neutralized the light of the moon and the night was pitch dark, only the flashes of lightining strikes showed the frightening sea conditions before leaving me dazzled.
I couldn’t decide wether I preferred to see the waves or to be surprised by a crest of water crashing on deck. The low pressure system showed no sign of dissipating, and beside a brief moment of calm while in “the eye” of the storm, the wind and the even bigger waves resumed their action. Again, I was lying in my bunk trying to have few minutes of rest when Roberto called me on deck. As I was donning my rain gear I could hear thunders and see lightning, the heralds of another stormy squall that hit us with incredible violence as I was climbing the ladder to the cockpit. The boat this time buried the toe rails and the starboard deck deep in the water. The water reached the cockpit coamings, and from up high the windward seats we could watch the green sea underneath as if we were on a rollercoaster approaching a dive loop. Even the little sail area was too much for the wind conditions. With no other option than take them down I started to crawl my way to the mast where without much elegance I let go of the mainsail halyard and the staysail too. I tied down the staysail the best I could while battered by painful raindrops and then I crawled back into the cockpit.
We were now running bare poles, occasionally blown over by a stronger gust but at least we got rid of some pressure from the mast and the rig. Like a cork the boat was going up and down the wave crests, responding slowly to the inputs of the tiller, but surely going the directions we wanted, with the wind behind the beam. Unfortunately it wasn’t finished for us. A sail we thought it was stowed started to act wildly: the roller furler let go a little portion of the jib that started to flog and shake the forestay wildly. At first we were paralyzed by this occurrence, asking ourselves “and now, what?” We soon realized that we couldn’t afford any paralysis. In those conditions (still well above 40 knots) the flogging of the sail could break the forestay and put the whole rig in danger. Roberto made it to the foredeck and started to play with the spinnaker halyard to bridle the sail. This temporary fix worked for very little and soon more effective measures were required. Again Roberto engaged a wrestling match with the wind this time to pull the jib all the way down from the roller-furler. I don’t know how but I am very glad he succeeded. I was at the helm, trying to avoid any dangerous gybe running after the storm and I could only see Roberto’s headlamp shining from the bow.
Like the last of Hercules’ labors the dousing of the jib was the last hazard of that long night. As the dawn light spread across the clouds the wind remained of gale force slowly decreasing. Now it was time to admire the 20 feet high, sometimes higher waves that were towering around us, the spindrift flying around and the turbulence drawn by the gusts on the back of the waves, the spectacular turquoise water under the foaming tips of breaking waves. With no much energy left we surrendered to the finest spectacle offered by Nature. Without electronic instruments to measure wind speed we could only estimate their force referring to our past experience. I personally never been in such conditions before and I can say that I experienced the strongest wind and highest waves of my life. We agreed that more than 40 knots blew for the most part of the night, with 50 and stronger gusts during the near knockdown. The night time and the bad weather surely contributed to increase the sense of danger and perhaps affected our perception, but there is not doubt it was a hellish night of severe weather.
We tried to resume the regular schedule onboard, allowing the crew to rest after the long night, but we soon realized that something was wrong inside the boat. Somehow water found its way inside the cabin, soaking everything on the starboard side, from the navigation station (charts, log book, electronics) and on the rest of the cabin, where Roberto and I stored our luggage, soaking the mattresses and the fresh lining in the bunks. All our phones, stored in a drawer, were gone after a deadly bath in salt water.
We couldn’t believe it but all the starboard side of the boat was wet and so our belongings and our sleeping place. I’ve lost many phones before to salt water (mostly falling in the water while boarding dinghies) and although it is a bad feeling, you know it’s just a phone. What was very upsetting was the bedding and clothing. I was left with only one shirt and one pair of shorts, more or less soaked from the night before. We were still 500 miles from Houston, still with thunderstoms around us and on a boat that was not as comfortable as when we left. I was suddenly reminded how important is to have completely a watertight boat.
Click here to read Part III