Saturday, January 25, 2020

Florida Keys Back Country, Moments of Terror

We left Boot Key harbor on Thursday, January 16. We spent much of the previous day saying goodbye to many of our new friends.  We had a very special time in Marathon, and all of the people are a big part of it. Many of our friends like to tell stories about both the good times and the bad times when living the cruising lifestyle. We have many stories of both kinds from our 6 years in the RV, but only a couple from our short time living on the boat. That would soon change.

We had this young manatee visit us at the dinghy dock the day before we left. 
We sailed and motored to the northwest. We went back under the 7 mile bridge and then up Rocky Channel. We had good wind and were able to keep the motor off for more than I had predicted. We did see one spot that was showing 4.6 feet. That is our draft, but we were on a lean and thankfully did not touch. Once we got north of the Keys we turned west. After a few miles we made a turn to port and went in Cudjoe channel. After some shallow water navigating,  we dropped the hook in front of Tarpon Belly Key. It was as a nice spot, with a small beach. There were a number of people there. We were greeted by one nice young guy who told us there was a party planned for the weekend. They were expecting about 30 boats.

The Beach and camping area at Tarpon Belly Key
Just before sunset at Tarpon Belly Key. It was a beautiful spot.
We were very surprised that we had decent cell coverage.  We were able to get an updated weather forecast. The news was not good. The storm that was predicted for the following day was gaining more strength than expected. We considered returning to Marathon,  but decided to move on the next day to our next stop. All of the charts showed the next place would have good protection. When we got going the next morning, we noticed the others were leaving,  I guess they saw the same forecast that we had.

Thanks to some help from our new friends in Marathon, we sailed with the pole out for the first time. It worked great!
We made the short 18 mile trip to Jewfish Basin. The entrance was very shallow.  One big lesson I have now learned is to watch the tides very closely when getting into these Back Country waters. We did touch the sandy bottom while we were getting anchored,  but powered off without problems. I set the anchor in the lee of a small mangrove island. I put out 75 feet of chain on my excellent Delta anchor.  I even put on my wetsuit and dove down to make sure the anchor was set well. It was, but it was in a patch of sea grass. I told Kim that I had done all that I could do.  I was wrong!

Beautiful Jewfish Basin

The water was beautiful

We had a beautiful sunset that fateful evening.
Strong winds hit us at about 8 in the evening.  We saw winds pick up to a steady 20 knots with gusts to 30. Current was also pushing the boat, so that the wind was hitting it on the side.  One particularly strong gust hit us and not long after my anchor alarm started going off. We were dragging!! I am not afraid to admit, I was very scared. It was pitch black, I could not get my bearings.  I dropped my second anchor, but that only slowed our movement and then the two chains got tangled. I was now panicked! I was so afraid we would lose the boat.

I put Kim at the helm and she tried to motor into the 30 knot wind and total darkness. I went to the bow and got to work getting the anchors on deck and untangled.  It was a mess and took me a long time. When I  got the Delta up it was full of a large grass and mud ball. That is why it would not reset.

We were now ready to get into position to try again. Kim went to the bow and I got the boat in position.  We got it set but about 10 minutes later it pulled free again. We went through the process again. It was  now about 1 am. I decided to try a different place, hopefully with less grass. I also told Kim to put 100 feet of chain down. This time it held for about a half hour. We went below and waited.  Then it happened again! I did not know what to do, but I knew 100 feet was better, so we went through the process again. This time Kim had a hard time clearing the anchor.  When she finally got it done, we dropped again with 125 feet of chain. It was now 3:40 am. We were both totally spent.  After about an hour of waiting and watching as the storm raged around us,  we went below.  Kim took a nap, but that was all the sleep either one of us got. We spent the next day taking short naps as the winds began to subside. It was a very difficult experience for both of us, but I am so thankful for my awesome wife,  who just kept working through it all.  The best news of all is that we are both safe and so is SHIFT.

We spent much of the next day talking about our plans. We could go back to Boot Key Harbor,  where it is safe. Or we could continue on with our plan to see Dry Tortugas National Park.  In my next entry, I will tell you what we decided. I will give you a hint, the next day was our 40th anniversary.


  1. Good Job!!! Although it was frightful for you at the time, it will be a good story to tell someday around a campfire. Your account had me on the edge of my seat!! Safe sailing and Happy Anniversary!!

    1. Thanks Lorne. I am working through this one. Each time we anchor in wind will be scary for a while. I will just have to take the time to overdo the scope for the conditions. If it is going to be too bad, we will try to get into a marina.

  2. Oh My Gosh! You had me on the edge of my seat! I think I'd rather just read dull stuff with pretty pictures. LOL Cathy & Kim are made of the same stuff. I on the other hand would have had a heart attack. Glad you made it through without damage to Shift or more important you and Kim. Dick & Cathy

    1. It was not a pleasant experience. We just need to regain our confidence now.