Fort Pierce, Florida, Birthplace of Maggie May
Everything tastes so much better when you have reached the far side of an unexpected ordeal. My coffee this morning. The new box of Walkers shortbread I just opened. The breakfast eggs and potatoes Bill made. Some 16 hours ago I thought there would be no more breakfasts on the Maggie May. Just for about 60 seconds, or maybe 10 minutes, it’s hard to gauge this precisely when each second stretches and stretches beyond the theoretical elasticity of that particular unit of time.
We cast off lines in St. Augustine geared up to get south of West Palm, Florida, where we planned to take a relatively short, straight line across the Gulf Stream to reach the Bahamas. But first we would sail offshore to Fort Pierce, then get back on the inland waterway to travel another day south to the Lake Worth inlet. In central Florida the space between the Gulf Stream and land narrows to almost nothing. Fort Pierce was about as far we could go in the ocean before the current would be against us. For a sailboat whose max hull speed is 7.5 knots and average speed of 4-5 knots depends entirely on the generosity of the wind, a 2-4 knot current can send you backwards. So, we planned to go to Fort Pierce offshore, then head in for the last stretch on the Intracoastal Waterway.
When we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet, we started to head out toward the ocean but the narrow channel looked rough. We had timed it for high tide slack, but getting timing right on tide and current, especially in unfamiliar inlets, is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you get it wrong, things can go oh-so-very-wrong. And we haven’t had a lot of experience. We checked tide tables and weather and even asked for advice from a local TowBoat US captain, who said something to the effect of: Its a weird inlet. Days I think it is going to be near impassable and it’s calm as a pond. Other days I think its going to be easy and…
Not super helpful.
We hesitated at the entrance to the inlet, then turned the boat around and went to the mooring field in town. While we were talking over our options, we saw a sailboat about our size moving toward the inlet. We decided to watch them and then hail the boat on the VHF to see if it was a reasonable time to go. I made note of the boat’s name: Andiamo Two.
We followed and watched their passage through the inlet. It looked a bit rough, but they managed it and made it to the ocean side. Meanwhile another sailboat much smaller than ours was also heading out. Bill followed that boat and I hailed Andiamo Two on the VHF. “Andiamo Two, Andiamo Two. This is Maggie May,” I waited for an answer. Repeated. No reply.
We then noticed the smaller sailboat had thought better of the thing and turned about. In a few minutes we saw the wisdom of their choice as there were 6 foot very steep waves that began to crash over Maggie May’s nose. It was too late to turn back without risking a hit broad side and getting knocked down in that narrow space between two jagged rock jetties. The entire space between the jetties consisted of a cement mixer of steep and breaking waves. Wave after wave rushing toward us and on every hit Maggie May’s bow would bury in the chaos. As her nose came up, water would crash over the boat toward the cockpit and over our dodger and bimini (cockpit covering). Maggie May had never taken such a pounding. I just kept my eyes on the waves and on goddam Andiamo Two beyond the chaos. If they could get through…
Finally the waves began to subside a few feet and we began to breath again. We both looked a little bitterly at Andiamo Two, now with her sails happily up and heading south.
“Andiamo. We should have known from the name not to follow them,” Bill said.
“Who is the greater fool: the fool? or the fool who follows him,” I offered, referencing Obi-Wan. “And Andiamo Two? I think we know what happened to Andiamo One.”
With that out of our systems we began raising the sails. The waves were still somewhat steep and unpleasant, and I had gotten a good head start on some seasickness, but with the sails up Maggie May handles these conditions better than under engine. I was, since we had made it through, relieved that Andiamo Two had helped make our decision for us. We might still have been deliberating on the mooring field, or have decided to stay and wait out the cold fronts, or travel the ICW all the way to West Palm, and I was eager to be out on the ocean again.
We started our watch schedule. Two hours at the helm, two hours resting. I took the first turn at the helm.
Conditions were not what we had hoped. The forecast called for wind going east, but it stayed north/northeast. Since we were headed south, that meant we were near dead downwind much of the time with waves frequently rocking the boat side-to-side as well as hobby horsing us when the wind would slacken. The wind was also lighter than expected, 5-10 knots rather than 10-15, which makes a big difference for a boat like Maggie May when running downwind. With so little wind to fill the sails, and with the main often blocking wind from getting to the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front of the boat), the genoa would frequently flap around wildly. The waves were disrupting the angle of the wind on the sails, making the boat want to jibe wantonly. We had a preventer rigged to keep the main from jibing accidentally, but the genoa was a wild card, herking-jerking with ill timed wind and wave. At one point the unpredictable motion knocked Bill against a teak corner down below, hurting his back. Had it not been for that we would have used our new gib pole, designed to make the genoa behave in just such conditions. But it takes some effort to set up and Bill’s back together with my seasickness made us disinclined to tackle this.
Sometimes sailing can be the most beautiful, peaceful thing. Wind, sails, hull and waves in perfect connection. The best feeling, flying over the ocean quietly, as a living part of it, rather than as a machine plowing through.
This was not that feeling.
When you need to go one way and the wind strongly suggests you go another, you may be able to do what you want, but wind and water will make sure you suffer for it. We had to go our way. The wind wanted us to head toward the Gulf Stream, with a cold front blowing in from the north. That is the worst possible scenario. We were not going there. So we sailed on as best we could until the wind wandered off altogether. We also needed to get where we were going at a certain time. Inlets are often challenging for boats, as evidenced by our exit from St. Augustine. We hoped to time our arrival at the Fort Pierce inlet for slack tide the next afternoon, so we wouldn’t be facing the rage of an outgoing current against a wind coming from the east, or heading into the unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Rather than toss around on the ocean until the wind returned we switched on the engine. There was an upside to this. With just an hour of daylight left, I spotted a dolphin near the bow, and then another and another. They were following the boat, surfing our bow wake. I scrambled up to watch them darting in and out of our wake, a confluence of effortless power, speed and grace. Like creatures built of nothing but water and light, chaperoning Maggie May into the night.
When the dolphins moved on I suggested to Bill that he go rest his back, while I take back-to-back watches. He protested. But I reminded him that he had done that for me on the last passage and it was my turn.
I was on watch when the sun went down behind the Florida coast and shortly afterward, when Sirius and Orion became visible on the southeastern horizon. These two guided the boat through much of the night, with a third companion surfacing from the east shortly thereafter. It appeared first as a strange irregular orange pinpoint on the horizon. Earlier Bill had pointed out an endless line of cumulus clouds to the east and said, “I bet that’s the Gulf Stream.” That white band had become a dark band and within it was a strange orange glow, not very large, which I mistook for the light of a ship. Then it dawned, no, that’s the moon mostly hidden within a wall of moisture risen from the world’s largest ocean current. I felt a sharp pang in my chest. On reflection, it brings tears to my eyes. We haven’t come that far, relative to our initial goal, but every inch was hard won physically and emotionally and this sight is a dream.
I hadn’t expected the moon to rise quite so soon and before long it had risen above the cumulus wall and was fully visible, deep orange and enormous. Just a tad waning but fully gibbous. My mind went immediately to a memory from 25 years past of my boyfriend Dan telling me about the moon illusion. We had seen a full moon rise over Tucson, Arizona, a giant of moons it seemed. He explained how its apparent size was a trick of perception because in fact the moon remains the same size and can even be measured to show it occupies the same space regardless of where it is in the sky, but our eyes cannot see it as the same size. “You can take your finger and cover the moon from view on the horizon. Then take the same finger at the same distance from your eye and cover the moon anywhere in the sky. It is the same relative size. But your eyes see something different,” he said in awe. There are many hypotheses as to what causes this illusion, but it remains somewhat mysterious, he told me.
What a gift to have such a moon bookending memories throughout a lifetime. Dan has been gone for more than 20 years now, cancer took him from my life and the world at age 28, but he was so present with me as the moon ascended, chasing Canus Major westward across the sky.
I almost went down and woke Bill so he could see it, twice I got up to do so, but figured he should rest. After the moon had fully risen and shrunk to half its size in my eyes, he came up the companionway stairs.
“You can still rest, I’m doing fine,” I said.
“I can’t sleep, I may as well be on watch.”
So I went down to record my watch log (weather, lat/lon position, sea state, observations, etc) and then climbed into my sea berth. (This is a special bed with high sides, or in this case a lee cloth, to keep one from tumbling out as the boat rocks and rolls.) It took a while to fall asleep, and as soon as I did, it seemed, Bill was shaking my shoulder gently. I looked up at him, “My turn?”
I gathered my stuff under a red night vision light. When I climbed up the companionway into the cockpit, it seemed like a pale blue version of daylight had descended. The moon was now nearly overhead, just to port of the mast. On the starboard side, off the bow, Sirius and Orion. This orientation guided me throughout the watch. My seasickness had now ebbed almost completely. In the moonlight I could always keep sight of the horizon. I can see why so many sailors are inclined to start a passage on a full moon. The full dark can be so disorienting until you get accustomed to it. With the moon I could see everything I needed. Maggie May continued to be bounced by the ocean swell, but we were on motor through the night so at least the sails weren’t banging and thrashing with every wave. I dislike the sound of the engine, there is something troubling and tiring about the grind and vibration of it, so we try to sail at every possible moment. But if we missed our chance to enter the Fort Pierce inlet at slack tide the following day, we risked be caught outside the inlet for days without a safe window to enter. Such was the doom of the weather forecast.
Bill and I traded watches through the night and at dawn I rose and made myself some tea before taking over. When I got on deck there was already a faint glow to the east and a strange line of shadows all along the horizon, very near. The sight took me aback. For a moment I was sure I saw an impossible dark forest stretching the length of the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun about to rise behind it. In fact, while I slept we had come to our closest approach to the Gulf Stream.
“Wow, the Gulf Stream is so close!”
Before long the sun had broken the cloud forest spectacularly, the clouds fracturing its piercing rays into diffuse beams of yellow and orange. For the rest of the morning Bill and I sat watch together. When we were about 2 hours from Fort Pierce, the wind began to pick up so we were able to turn the motor off and sail the last stretch. The wind continued to increase to a steady 20 knots and we arrived early to the inlet, about 2 pm, with low tide forecast to be 3:08. We needed slack water, so we turned around and headed back out for 45 minutes before turning around again and sailing back in.
At this point we should have hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF and inquired about timing on entering the inlet. With the strengthening wind, the ocean was beginning to heave. We were torn between getting through the inlet before it got worse, or making sure the ebb current had gone fully slack. We each had read that the number one thing is not to go into an inlet when there is a current opposing wind, especially the ebb current (the current created by the tide going out). But it can be hard to judge when the current will shift in inlets, and we did not know these waters. We waited until 3:25, thinking the tidal current had surely slackened or reversed at that point since we were well past low tide. But we had seen no other boats going in the inlet, a sign it was not yet a good idea. Just then, several boats arrived and appeared to enter successfully. (Though we were still a mile out and couldn’t see the details).
We started our approach. Another boat, which seemed to have been playing the same waiting game, was following about 10 minutes behind us.
At first it seemed all was fine. We had about 3-5 foot ocean swell behind us, but it was manageable. I took the binoculars and looked at the inlet, rough, but it didn’t seem worse than what we were in. We continued on past the outer channel markers. I looked again through the binoculars at the narrow channel between the jetties. There were waves crashing occasionally against the rocks but the conditions in the channel appeared to be about what we were experiencing, I thought. I said as much to Bill. But doubt nagged me. Who am I to say? I don’t know what it should look like through binoculars. I know I’m looking at a distortion but is the real better than the distortion or worse? And if we wait does this get even worse and so is this our chance?
Bill interrupted my inner dispute. “Keep a lookout behind me for big waves on the stern. I can’t see them and a big one could cause a broach.”
I looked behind him and the waves were not large but one hit us on the port quarter and threw MM’s nose to port.
“Like that one,” Bill commented.
“That didn’t look large, but ok,” I said.
The waves remained constant for the 8-10 minutes it took to get the second set of red and green channel markers. It was clear the ebb current was still running against us, but so far it was only a knot or two. I could see the other boat behind us at the entrance to the channel, pacing back and forth indecisively, perhaps watching to see how we fared. And then I saw the wave sets between us begin to grow measurably, 5-6 feet now and increasing speed.
“You have a bigger one coming on,” I said to Bill. It lifted Maggie May and twisted us about. “And another one.” Bill struggled to keep the boat straight. Thankfully, just behind us there was a lull, the waves 4 feet and not as steep but also not relenting.
“You have a little breather, no big ones just now.”
His face was focused, intent.
Ahead of us the sea was heaping upon itself, marching in relentless battle-formation battalions toward the beach that lay south of the port side jetty. In the channel ahead, a melee of whitewater peaks and valleys awaited. The water broke violently over land and rocks. Perhaps 50-100 people were gathered on the jetty, fishing, wind surfing and perhaps as spectating at the inlet coliseum. We were still 500-1000 yards from the worst of it. I knew it was going to be hairy based on two things: the current was now 3.5 knots against us, and the waves were mounding up in front of us in a way that made our bow look improbably small. But it wasn’t until I turned around that I realized hairy didn’t begin to cover it. The lull had given way to 7-8 foot and higher waves as far as my eyes could see.
Every soft thing inside my ribcage lurched and then plunged into a bottomless pit. I looked at Bill, steadied my voice and said, “You’ve got some big ones coming. Not too big, but bigger.” This was a lie. They were too big, but that didn’t seem like helpful information.
When the first one hit it twisted Maggie May 40 degrees to port while pushing the whole boat some 10-20 feet to starboard. There were buoys marking the channel and wave after wave was tossing us to starboard and toward the red buoy and the rock jetty beyond. To compensate Bill would turn the helm to port and then starboard, the big danger being that every turn put us for a moment at least partially beam-to the waves and a direct hit broadside could knock us down or pull us under. Not compensating was not an option. Timing was everything and it was going to have to be impeccable if we were going to get through this.
I looked forward and saw massive waves, lines of them mounded higher than our decks and heads, ceaselessly breaking from the weight of themselves. This was beyond my capacity to process. I’ve never wanted to not go somewhere so much in all my life. (This is saying something, because I’ve had to go many places I really did not want to go.) But options were limited to one. There was no way out but through. Beyond the middle of the jetty the water calmed to such an extent that there were people in small skiffs fishing peacefully. But I had almost no hope at that point that we could arrive there safely. I was certain that, if not this wave then the next, would hit us just wrong, sending the SVMM hurdling out of control and that here, the very place we bought Maggie May (then known as Vilkas) 7 years ago, was where she would end. I could above all else feel my heart pounding within my chest, or stomach or somewhere, trying to pump wave upon wave of blood, trying to keep pace with the angry ocean. I looked back at the waves charging behind us, thrashing against stern and beam and I looked at Bill, fierce determination, concentration, or was it blankness? This could be the beginnings of catatonia. Or, he is in that place of focus where it’s just him and the boat and the water. I hoped for the latter. I had stopped telling him about the giants behind. It seemed redundant.
At one point, at the crest of a wave, I saw that the sailboat behind had followed us. This answered my question about the distorted image one sees from afar. Definitely worse. I wanted to hail them and say ‘don’t do it!’ but just then I could not move. I noticed then that the waves behind us were slightly smaller. I wanted to tell Bill but I didn’t know if it would last and didn’t want to break his focus. I looked ahead to an unbroken line of wave that reminded me of a hydraulic in a class 5 rapid. We entered, and when it spit us out, we were out, just like that, the end. But thankfully not The End.
I looked back at Bill and gave a little whimper before turning back forward as we passed a man in a small skiff serenely willing a fish to bite his line.
We headed to the nearest anchorage, watching the sailboat behind us navigate the inlet, ready to call the Coast Guard if need be. When the boat was safely inside it pulled past us as we were anchoring. Bill read the name on the stern aloud “Andiamo Two.”
Breakfast the next morning offered time for calm reflection. We did not arrive at Fort Pierce unprepared. We did our best to find the right information. But local knowledge is key to inlet passage, and we didn’t have all the information we needed. We know now what more we should have done, including more in-depth research into tide and current stations for this inlet and more voices giving us local insight. We won’t make the same mistakes again. But having faced the worst conditions we have yet encountered with Maggie May, we have a confidence we would not have otherwise attained. Bill has some experience at the helm in handling seas that one hopes to never have to handle. His mind went to focus, not panic. For that alone the experience was priceless. And we were never truly in danger, with so many people and the Coast Guard nearby for a rescue. But the boat and this dream was.
Less tangibly, the passage at Fort Pierce gave us this: fear, want… these emotions connect us to all living things, and to the hardships that forged us each to our own kind. Challenge, terror and survival seem to pluck a string that resonates those universal tones, making colors seem brighter, food taste tastier, each breath seem sweeter. This is what adventure gives us that a vacation does not. Not just a rest from hard work or the usual sights and sounds of life, but a passage beyond the safety and security we intentionally build around ourselves, a fortress with no visible boundaries but which makes life smaller somehow. Longer, but smaller. I’m not a person who craves danger, I do my very best to avoid it. But having lived with death or danger nearby on many occasions in life—some inadvertently sought and some that came barreling over me unawares—I understand what nearness to this threshold offers the creaturely mind. Ineffable awe for the mere fact of being alive with lungs for breathing, hands for holding a coffee cup, and taste buds that spring to life for a cookie.
We now plan to savor this life for a while in the land of manatees before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. There is a tricky dance we will need to do in order to align the demands of Covid restrictions with the implacable force of the Gulf Stream and ill-tempered winter weather. We will wait out the worst of the cold front season in Cape Canaveral, lessening at least one of the trifecta of hurdles between us and the Exhumas.