Sideways is never really the best way to enter a cut, but sideways we were as I steered my 1967 Rawson Ave Del Mar past the jetty and into Florida’s Lake Worth inlet. I was homeward bound after an overnight crossing from the Bahamas. But the journey had been much longer than the 26 hours from Great Sale Cay. In fact, it had taken months.
It Began with a Hurricane
It had begun back in the Bahamas on Green Turtle Cay where my boat had been damaged in Hurricane Dorian. Months after the storm I got a ride back to the island on a big Beneteau, settling down in the boatyard and repairing my boat. Splash day arrived and was just as quickly cancelled as Covid-19 forced the island nation to shut down nonessential services—a list that included boatyards. Three months later, as a bit of normalcy crept back into Bahamian life, the yard was allowed to reopen and Ave returned to the water.
A couple of weeks in Black Sound tied off to a mooring ball allowed me to wrap up some loose ends before I left. I resigned from the Green Turtle Cay VHF Net, returned borrowed tools, and satisfied debts of all types. New friends said their goodbyes and plans were laid for future reunions. I started watching the weather for a viable Gulf Stream crossing.
Underway without an Engine
Since Ave was engineless as a result of the hurricane, the trip home would require careful attention to the nuance of ports and of bail-out possibilities. There was simply no fallback, no iron genny to bring me into an anchorage or through a bridge. I was more excited than nervous, and I was eager to prove myself.
The first leg of the engineless era couldn’t have been easier, a straight shot just two and a half miles north on the island. I let loose from the mooring ball and pulled the jib sheet, watching the genoa fill in the breeze. A smile of satisfaction erupted across my face as we glided out through the narrow entrance to Black Sound and northwest up the island under headsail alone. Rounding into Coco Bay I doused sail and darted forward to drop the anchor. Ave rode on until the chain pulled tight and she swung softly around, safely at rest on her newly-upgraded anchor. Leg one: check.
After a delightful lunch with friends it was back to the boat and back to sailing. Ave slid northwest to Manjack Cay, where we would anchor for the night. The winds were scant as we approached, but Ave came to rest in ten feet of water off the island’s western shore without struggle.
The next morning started early. I was aiming to make Great Sale Cay, about 50 nm, all north and west sailing under modest trade winds. With the wind light and the boat running, I poled out the jib, let the tiller pilot steer, and leaned back in the cockpit with my ukulele as the hours ticked by.
Evening found me rounding the northern tip of Great Sale, making way down the western shore to the small island’s protected bay. The winds were picking up as I set anchor, a hopeful sign of things to come for the next day’s long leg back to the States.
The next morning I weighed anchor under a beautiful easterly breeze that hovered in the upper teens. West to Memory Rock and then southwest towards the Gulf Stream I sailed, but as the day ticked by the breeze fell. Nearing my waypoint at the edge of the stream, the winds were nowhere to be found. With every wave Ave’s sails would fill, only to collapse again as she rolled off the other side. It’s amazing how quickly your standards change in open water—my satisfaction with any speed over five knots quickly lowered to four and then three.
The Thrilling Home Stretch
Eventually I turned, crabbing along the homestretch to Florida’s east coast. Through the long hours of the night the sails collapsed and snapped back as they repowered, over and over. Eventually I neared the inlet riding in on a flood tide, thrilled to have a free push but fearful that under light air I would have no steerage in the moving water.
Sailing the inlet motorless would add an exciting new wrinkle. I aimed for a mark just north of the cut and backtracked to get the wind on my beam. It worked, and Ave made her approach at a decent 4 knots. That yes-or-no moment arrived, and I decided to go for it, coming hard west and into the inlet.
As the boat turned the breeze fell to her stern and her speed dropped in step with the apparent wind. With it went my ability to steer. The rocky shore of the cut loomed ahead. I shoved the tiller to starboard, hoping to cheat my way a little south. She came up slowly, eventually pointing almost due south and creeping mostly west as the half mile of inlet came in under her starboard side and out under port, the threatening rocks sliding harmlessly past her transom. The compass showed 199º magnetic. The chartplotter showed my course as 265º. I was horrified and excited at the same time.
Home at Last
Once safely through the inlet I made the turn into the narrow channel and south towards West Palm Beach. Ave and I sailed through Flagler Memorial Bridge on its 1:45 opening, reaching its fenders just as the spans yawned skyward. Off the town docks south of the bridge I doused sail and dropped anchor, coming to rest in my favorite spot in the basin.
I was slumped down in the cockpit, exhausted, when a dinghy slid gently to rest alongside Ave’s cockpit, my friend Chris manning its oars. “Welcome back, skipper,” he said with a grin. “Call me when you wake up.” He handed up a bag of cold beer and thick sandwiches, let go of the toe rail and drifted away. I smiled. I had done it. I had sailed home and parked on a dime, engineless and windless.
Hurricane Dorian had taken round one, but the rematch victory was all mine.
John Herlig is a SpinSheet columnist and a member of The Boat Galley team. He created our VHF Radio Course and also our Handy VHF Reference. John also teaches several courses at Cruiser’s University at the Annapolis Boat Show. He mostly lives aboard and cruises his 1967 Rawson 30 cutter. He has traveled the East Coast of the US several times, extensively cruised the Bahamas, and sailed much of the Caribbean both on his boat and as delivery crew. Check his tracker to see where he is now. This post originally appeared in SpinSheet magazine.