The excitement and enthusiasm had been growing for several weeks as the delivery of a new Gemini 3400 by Performance Cruising, Inc. grew near. I took delivery of the boat on the last day of the Miami Boat Show from Tony and Sue Smith of Performance Cruising. My friends and I, four die-hard Jimmy Buffett-style sailors, made the 700 mile journey from Pensacola, Florida to Miami via a rented Dodge Caravan that carried us and all the gear we could pack for the return voyage, which would include a 3-day layover in Key West.
The trip from Miami to Key West was relatively uneventful. We christened the vessel Fat Cat with champagne across the bow and dedicated an alias of Two Fingers after the tequila of the same name. The fishing was great on the trip to Key West. We caught several mackerel and a barracuda and stopped at Sombrero Reef for some awesome snorkeling. Twenty miles east of Key West a small weather storm passed slightly north of our position that produced two waterspouts, but only brought 15 knot winds. So we were on to Key West with our first stop planned for Buffett's Margaritaville and three glorious, slightly hung-over, days.
Sunday, February 27th, brought our last evening in the Keys. While dining at Kelly McGillis' Caribbean Bar and Grill I spent thirty minutes watching the weather channel to get a feel for the overall national weather picture, and the weather that we might expect for our Gulf of Mexico crossing back to Pensacola. The local coastal forecast for 48 hours was for mostly cloudy skies, and southeast winds of 15-20 knots, and 4- to 6-foot seas. The only weather system that posed a potential problem was over Texas moving slowly to the East. At our speed we might encounter the system on the third day of the trip.
One of our crew left on Monday, February 28th, to fly back to Pensacola, and at 7:30 am. We began our voyage. Local conditions were as predicted, and with a southeast wind of 15-20 knots we were cruising northwest at 7.5 to 8 knots with main sail and the 150% genoa. Our major concern at this point was avoiding the multitude of lobster traps that seemed to appear all too often.
Tuesday morning at 2:00 am. the winds began to pick up to 25-30 knots, so we reefed the main sail to the first reef point and brought the roller genoa down to 50 percent. At 7:30 am. we had covered 180 nautical miles. By mid-day the wind was howling at 3540 knots. We reefed the main to the second reef point and rolled in the genoa all the way. The seas had built to 12-15 feet but still did not appear to pose a problem. The catamaran seemed to be handling the seas with no difficulty. As darkness approached the winds did not subside as I had predicted, but instead grew stronger until the winds were sustained over 40 knots. Our winds were still from the southeast so our weather from Texas could not be the reason for the increased velocity.
Both my buddies had less than two years of sailing, and no open water experience. With the onset of total darkness I elected to man the helm throughout the duration of the heavy winds. The seas were continuing to build and were between 20-25 feet now. Taking the wind about 25-30 degrees off the starboard stem I could control our speed surfing down the front of each wave to 10- 11 knots. Nonetheless, we were all wearing our life preservers and I found myself talking to the boat as if she would respond to my wishes to slow down when the knot meter approached 11 knots. The worst thing seemed to be dealing with the blackness of the sea and sky that gave no forewarning of the pounding waves. Having survived a plane crash and four other close calls with death, I decided it was time to ask forgiveness for my sins and promise to be in church on Sunday if we would be so fortunate as to survive this trip from hell. If God was listening, he sure didn't let us know by easing the conditions.
By 2:00 am. I was physically and mentally exhausted. Even in 40 knot winds and 20-foot plus seas, I was falling asleep at the helm. I woke Bruce Kummerfeldt and asked him to take over the ship. I guess he realized the dismal situation when I handed him the EPIRB with instructions on its use and telling him not to let it out of his grasp. I climbed down to the aft port berth and immediately drifted to sleep only to be occasionally aroused by the sound of the boat racing down the face of each wave. As I lay there thinking he needed to slow down, I was physically too tired to move. Several more minutes passed and this time I was awakened by the force of bows digging into the wave in front of us as the boat stood near vertical. I expected that before my next breath she would go upside-down. Stacy Bryan and I made a dash for the cockpit and to our amazement found that the boat had settled right side up. That rush of adrenaline was enough to keep me awake.
Our Autohelm 50 knotmeter has the ability to record maximum speed and it now registered 15.4 knots. Brace also reported winds in excess of 50 knots. We had struck the wave so hard that if the hulls had separated I could not have faulted the builder. I'm sure the vessel was not intended for the punishment that we continued to endure.
Our course had taken us 230 miles northwest of Key West and 150 miles west of Tampa. My thoughts of turning toward Tampa were abandoned when we picked up an AM station weather alert of a tornado watch in the Tampa area extending up to Georgia. At this point we decided to enter the intercoastal waterway either at Apalachicola or Panama City. Two hours later I found myself at the helm in my first thunderstorm, but surprisingly the wind and sea conditions remained unchanged- Being the only object in the Gulf for as far as we could see I suppose this possibly increased our chance of a lightning strike. The nearest strike to us was less than a quarter mile away with no delay between the flash of light and the sound of the thunder. To my misfortune I was looking at the spot of the lightning strike and was blinded for about 10 seconds.
With the break of daylight and the passage of two more thunderstorms, the howling winds finally started to subside, and for the first time in two days I saw 15 knots on the wind gauge. I was the only one awake and as our speed started to drop below 6 knots I decided to open the genoa about 50 percent. Our speed picked back up to 7.5 knots and even though it was still overcast, the morning seemed beautiful. Much to my dismay, the reason the wind velocity had decreased was due to a shift in wind direction. Now the winds had shifted from the northeast and once again were over 40 knots. As I tried to manually reduce the genoa with the roller furler, the furling line slipped through my grasp and now the entire genoa was flogging in the wind. I wrapped the furling line on the winch and as I rolled in the sail it wrapped so tightly that I ran out of line on the furler with 6-feet of sail still flapping in the wind at the clew. The sound of the sail had awakened my crew to wonder what new peril confronted us.
Making little headway toward the nearest Land at this point, we decided to light up the iron spinnaker and see what the 40 HP Tohatsu outboard could do for us. We managed a respectable 6 knots pounding into the seas. I gave up an attempt to roll the sail in from the bow after a breaking wave nearly washed me overboard. If not for the harness, I surely would have been swimming. Finally, it was my turn to sleep.
After a few hours of much needed sleep I awoke to find that both sheets to the genoa had severed and the genoa was beginning to shred. We motored on another 50 miles until we finally saw St. George Island. What a delightful sight since each of us wondered if we would see land again. But as luck or fate would have it there were breakers on the near side of the West Pass that extended two to three miles out into the Gulf with several images of sunken boats on the charts and sundown rapidly approaching with the wind and current against us. After fighting to get a couple miles offshore we made a decision to cross the breakers or risk having to navigate the channel in the dark. With the centerboards and rudders in the raised position, we watched and held our breath as the depth gauge rapidly indicated shallow water until we were reading three feet. If not for the fact that the boat only draws 18 inches, we would have added on more sunken vessel to the charts. With a few well-deserved cheers we motored through the pass into Apalachicola Bay fight at dusk.
The moderate chop of the waves in the bay was a welcome relief. We negotiated the channel leading to the intercoastal waterway and upon passing under the Apalachicola River bridge we docked at the Rainbow Inn. I guess the folks in the restaurant thought it strange that three grown men on hands and knees would kiss the dock. After getting a shave and a nice warm shower I watched the weather channel to see that this storm had progressed up the entire eastern seaboard dumping inches of snow and ram with near hurricane force winds. Not exactly primo sailing weather!
What did I learn from this trip? The Gemini 3400 can take a hell of a licking and keep on ticking and that traveling the intercoastal waterway can be a smooth and pleasant trip, even in 35 knot winds. And yes, I kept my promise and went to church on Sunday.
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