My First Overnight Passage

By Tony DiStefano

My plan was to take my boat from St. Petersburg marina to Key West Florida to spend Christmas in Key West. Iím not a big planning type person more of a wing it person but since Iím the captain I do have responsibility. I knew the boat was in good shape and had the charts necessary and my GPS was updated so navigation was complete. Food would be purchased from Publicís 3 blocks from the marina so all was good. I read the cruising guide and then realized the trip would be about 210 miles each way (actually 249). With a sail boat (mine has a hull speed of 8.5 knots) that is a long distance and what will the winds be like and can the motor go that long. I started to question the trip. But as I have a dream to see the world from a boat I knew I had to do it. The friends who were to share the trip with me had to cancel so it became just me, this added a little to the stress level. Local knowledge is the best so I spoke to a few people who had made the trip and each said it is great and fun and I should do it but they had not done it alone. They also said that the closest I could get to Key West was 60 miles before Iíd have to make a passage. At five knots thatís 12 hours, its winter, and the day is not that long. With charts in hand I left St. Pete at 6:15 am. I was excited just to be able to leave the dock without help (a 37 foot boat is a bit to handle alone) and in the dark made it better. Out in the bay the red and green marker lights to the Gulf looked great. It was almost like looking at a training book. There was a little fog but my eyes confirmed the plotter as correct. This gave me a lot of confidence in the plotter. The closest place to Key West was Flamingo in the Everglades. Consulting the chart I realized the water was a bit thin for a boat that draws 5.5 feet. So I made Naples the jump off point, 80 miles away. I stopped in Venice for fuel then Charlotte Harbor for the night prior to getting to Naples. So far I had been averaging just over 5 knots mostly motor sailing as the wind was poor. So it was 14 hours of travel (never believe books when it comes to mileage chart it out) It was actually 96 miles St. Pete to Charlotte Harbor then to Naples where I left at 6pm just before sunset and felt great I set the plotter to the center of Key West and sailed. It got dark fast and I forgot there is a period between sunset and moon rise. Gee it is dark at that time. I wanted to go back, the motor seemed to be sounding different and as I passed Marco Island I knew that these would be the last lights I would see for the night. I was not afraid or scared but I was in a new element and this was a bit more than being out on the Hudson River at night for a few hours, there was no shore in sight, no boats, no markers, no nothing. The rising of a full moon helped and soon I got into the flow of the boat and the water and started to enjoy the music and the adventure, the seas were a little rough as the inclinometer showed over 30 degree heal at times. This means I would have to pick up all the stuff I did not put away properly in the cabins. Staying awake became a problem with only one on the boat a 24 hour watch is difficult. I would nod off only to be awakened by the heal of the boat which would keep me awake for another hour then a quick nod and awake this went on till 5am when I checked the charts and realized I needed to find the north west passage to get into Key West. There is a lot of thin water in the keys and entering Key West from the north has a lot of that. Iím sure it was being tired but I cold not find the passage on the plotter and the plotter would not let me enter the longitude or latitude for the entrance marker. I started to get a little worried but a pod of dolphins showed up and played alongside the boat and calmed me down and I found a marker close to the point I wanted and set the plotter course to that point (as a note I was keeping my progress on a paper chart as I was in fear of an electrical problem). As I got comfortable I started to play with the plotter and it had a function to overlay longitude and latitude grids on the plotter which I did and just put the curser on the coordinates I want and zoom in to see the buoy that marked the channel. As I got closer to the entrance to the channel my plotter showed the proper course and markers. I followed them right to Wisteria Island and anchored. Things I learned from the trip were to plan better for anchorages on the way, do not leave the cockpit without my life jacket, trust my plotter more, read the book and learn what it can do, get more food on the boat that does not have to be cooked, and most of all that if no one says I cannot do it, I can. On the way back I did two more over nights and it got better when I was more comfortable and could enjoy the sky more. I do not feel at any time during this trip I was in any danger but when you do something new you tend to get nervous and do not always think correctly. If there was another person on the boat I could have asked questions or asked their thoughts which would have reduced stress levels. I would suggest if you plan to do this bring a friend, but the alone time was great.