So the boat, while ours, was still down in Punta Gorda, with only one way home: across the Gulf of Mexico. The plan was to drive down on the 17th, a Wednesday, set sail on Thursday morning and, over the course of the next five days, sail her back to her new home port in Pensacola. Our first planned stop was Clearwater. That was an excepted 24 hour run from Punta Gorda (Port Charlotte on the map). Then we planned to make the big crossing from Clearwater to Panama City.
(NOAA chart for all you sailing aficionados: http://www.charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/411.shtml).
As you can see, the crossing from Clearwater to Panama City (218 nautical miles total, the majority of which would be spent 100-150 miles offshore – hence the name: The Crossing) was going to be the real beast of the trip. “The hair on the dog” as my Dad would say. Assuming good weather and good speed, The Crossing was expected to take about 48 hours. Yes, you read that right. 48 hours. That’s a day and a half of sailing or motoring, someone always at the helm and another always on watch, i.e., awake, alert and ready to assist as needed in the cockpit or up on deck). That translates to just a few hours’ sleep for each of us over a 48-hour period. In other words, not much. There were also a lot of firsts involved. Our first time on this boat, our first time using the systems and learning the lines and rigging, our first time together as a crew, our first time crossing the Gulf and, not to mention, my first time, ever, making a passage like this on a sailboat. My primary goal was to learn quickly and perform well so I could become a dependable member of the team. Survival was a close second and enjoyment was never a concern. Adrenaline pumped through me daily, jumping and snapping like a dog on a tight leash, eager to feast on the adventure. I was going to throw lines, raise sails and hold the helm with the best of them. Eat salt for breakfast, lunch a dinner. I imagined myself a real sailor.
Of course, in my mind, I was going to look like this:
while doing ALL of that. . . . Totally do-able.
Finally the departure date came and it was time for us to head down to South Florida. Because we had to drive down and sail back, we needed a one-way ticket to Punta Gorda. Cue Phillip’s folks. They did us a real favor by driving us down, but they also wanted to make the passage with us vicariously by meeting up with us at several ports on the way back. Sort of like sailing groupies if you will. We were thrilled to have them on board.
“Mary, you ready to go?” “Why, yes, Annie, I believe so!”
It took some doing, but we finally got everything (recall the lengthy Provisions List) packed up in the rental and hit the road around 1:30 p.m. on the 17th.
Now I want you to note several things in this picture. First, that we had a truck (not an SUV), which means we had to tarp everything down in the back in case it rained and watch it flap and bounce around and generally cause trouble the whole way down. Second, that our trusty second mate, Mitch, whom you see to my left here, is about 6’4” – on a good day. He’s definitely a tall drink of water. Now . . . why is that important? Because that truck Phillip’s dad had rented was about as big as the inside of a sardine can. It was tiny.
Phillip’s dad protested:
But Mitch had to eat his knees (even in the front seat) the entire 9-hour trip. I’d feel sorry for him if he hadn’t been so damn vocal about it. It started the minute we climbed in, and it was enough to drive Phillip to drink!
Me, too, for that matter. Look who’s reaching for a swig. “Save me some!”
But we crammed in there tighter than a van full of illegal aliens crossing the border and started heading south. (Why, here we are getting out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyrugCTk-xk&feature=fvwp&NR=1. Damn border patrol’s always after us!)
We finally made it down to St. Petersburg (an hour shy of Punta Gorda) around 9:00 p.m. and stopped for a feast at Mike’s Café. The chef there made us a special dish when he heard of our sailing endeavors:
That, of course, didn’t last long with this group. We were famished. We finally made it to the hotel around midnight and crashed hard. The plan was to get up around sunrise, get to the boat, get it packed up and get under sail before noon. We probably fell asleep before our heads even hit the pillow. All we could think about was that boat and the open ocean. Our adventure was about to begin.