Marine Concepts, LLC

243 Anclote Road
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Marquesas' Magic

by Ron Hoddinott

The Marquesas are a group of approximately 12 small, mostly mangrove, islands gathered in an atoll-like circle, about 17 miles west of Key West, Florida. Their origin remain a mystery, although some believe that they were created by a meteor landing in what is now the central lagoon. They are separated from the other islands west of Key West by a relatively deep channel known as Boca Grande Channel. The currents in this channel run northeast and southwest, depending on the tides. The Marquesas offer the cruising sailor a look at an unspoiled and often overlooked island group. The sea life is abundant, and sea birds make their rookeries in the mangrove jungles of this ring of islands. . It was this strange, unusual group of islands that three Sea Pearl sailors and one canoe sailor made their destination on a weeklong expedition from the Florida Keys.

The West Coast Trailer Sailing Squadron is a loose knit group of sailors made up mostly, but not exclusively, of Sea Pearl owners who love to explore the offshore islands, and inland lakes of Florida. I founded the group two years ago after making a solo sailing exploration of the North Channel of Lake Huron in my Sea Pearl, Whisper. While sailing among the granite bound shores of the North Channel, I dreamed of having a group of sailors who would share my love of sailing in wild places. When I returned from Ontario, I set about gathering interested small boat people and "The Squadron" was born.

Now, almost two years after starting the group, we were to make our most ambitious cruise. Paul Waggoner, of Pine Island sailed Wag's Folly, a Sea Pearl Trimaran. Bud Tritschler sailed his engine-less Sea Pearl mono hull Nutshell. I was sailing my Sea Pearl mono hull, Whisper. Hugh Horton was actually the first to ask to go along. Hugh is the owner of Solid Comfort Boats, in Mount Clemens Michigan. He has built a light but sturdy, decked sailing canoe, known as Black Puffin, and recently completed a more developed model for none other than Meade Gougeon, of the famous West System Epoxy Company. His article "Magic Carpet Ride" in the June, 2000 issue of Sailing, tells more about his unique approach to minimalist cruising. Hugh and Black Puffin arrived at my doorstep on June 12th, and we loaded her onto my van for the trip to the Keys.

Because Key West is a nine-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area, we decided to stay at the Sugarloaf Lodge, about 17 miles from Key West. There we could launch our boats, and leave the vehicles and trailers safely until our return. Sugarloaf Lodge turned out to be an excellent choice to stage such an adventure. The motel, marina, and restaurant complex had exactly what we required, and the price was quite reasonable. Launch day, and every day thereafter during our cruise, was a combination of warm 15-knot east winds, with an occasional gust into the 18-knot range. There were thunderstorms on the horizon, but they were scattered and we never suffered a direct hit. Our first destination was Key West. We sailed on broad reaches through gin clear waters between the outer barrier islands and the Overseas Highway, also known as A1A. The waters here are shallow, and the leeboards of the Sea Pearls were ideal for finding the bottom occasionally. We used the time-honored method of reading the water depth, and occasionally got more accurate measurements from a bamboo rod close at hand. Blue cruise on through, Green in between, Brown go aground. By noon the swift Sea Pearls had reached the northern edge of Key West, and we took shelter from the wind behind an unnamed island north of Fleming Key. Hugh, in the sailing canoe, was lagging behind. He had to stop several times to readjust his gear, and reef his sail, so that the canoe wouldn't threaten to pitch pole in the rising seas. Keeping everything loaded just right, and everything at hand is a fine art when your craft is only 15 feet long and 33 inches wide.

By the time Hugh arrived, the tide had left us grounded on the flats. There was maybe four inches of water around the Sea Pearls, but they need six to float. Hugh was able to sail right in and raft up to Whisper. Two Wave Runners provided the only entertainment of the afternoon, rushing into our shallow water anchorage, only to become mired in the crusty, white marl bottom. Getting out to push they sank up to their knees in white muck. One asked Paul if he could tow them out, to which Hugh replied "No," as we stifled our laughter. I suppose they felt that they could certainly go where any sailboat could go. They were wrong this time, and were stuck for over an hour, which is a very long time for a personal watercraft rider. After dinner, Hugh set up a tent enclosure on Puffin, and dropped off astern of Whisper for the night. The cool night breezes blew through the opened front of the convertible cabins on the Sea Pearls, and we enjoyed a pleasant bug free night afloat.

We sent out next morning for the Marquesas. With a following wind we lumped across a choppy Northwest Channel and onto "The Lakes Passage", which is a fifteen mile stretch across four to five foot deep crystal clear water past several small islands. The largest island, Boca Grande, was our first stop. Its western shore had a prominent beach with a deep approach. About noon the Sea Pearls landed for a swim, and to discuss the crossing to the Marquesas. Black Puffin was again lagging behind, but we were able to talk to Hugh with a handheld VHF radio. He had suggested that we perhaps should go our own way and meet up later, since he was stopping frequently and could not keep up with the speedy Sea Pearls. Paul and Bud wanted to cross while the weather was settled, even though there was a strong wind opposing a swift tide. We shoved off from the beach and were soon running downwind through pyramid shaped waves suggestive of the Gulf Stream in a norther. Whisper was bounced port and starboard, but kept plunging on ahead under greatly reduced sail at an average of 5 knots. Bud, in Nutshell, seemed to be having a steadier ride up ahead. He had more sail up, and was using the water ballast feature of his Sea Pearl. The crossing to the western side of the Marquesas took only 80 minutes, but that was enough. Paul later said he saw the bottom of Whisper more than once during the crossing as she slid sideways on a breaking wave in a near broach. We cruised on around the island chain to the west side where we found a long stretch of pure white sand. The beaches of the Marquesas did indeed exist. I made a "fish salad" of lettuce, sardines, tuna, olives, smoked oysters, and mayo, while Paul made a chicken casserole with cheese, mushroom soup and onions. We shared our concoctions, and it was all washed down with a light Chardonnay. As the sun made its violet and rose colored descent into the warm tropical sea, Bud played a classical guitar tape on Nutshell. I warmed some water on the stove, and took a sponge bath. Again there were no mosquitoes to intrude on our solitude during the night. We slept well.

Thursday we agreed to sail around the island to explore the entire chain, and then anchor somewhere near the eastern side to make our departure easier on the following day. After a brisk beat to weather on the south side, we entered the inner lagoon on a high tide. At once we realized that we were sailing over waters that dry out at low tides. One and two feet depths were common, although there were a few channels where deep draft vessels could go. Paul and I were exploring one of the eastern cuts through the islands when I heard a call on the VHF.

"Whisper, Whisper… this is Black Puffin."

I dove for the radio, in disbelief, and keyed the mike. "Hugh, where are you?"

"I'm right over here by Nutshell. Bud and I are having a little chat."

I couldn't believe it. Hugh had sailed Black Puffin across the dangerous Boca Grande Channel in 15-knot winds. The only thing that made his morning passage easier, and perhaps possible, was that the tide had matched the wind direction. We sailed over to Black Puffin and Nutshell, and Hugh rafted the sleek black canoe to Whisper.

After a brief respite, all four of us tour the rookeries and beaches of the east, north and west sides of this ring of islands. Sharks play in the clear shallow water under our boats. The sea fans and soft corals that pass under us are pastel green and orange explosions of color. Ospreys and frigate birds circle over our heads. Giant spotted leopard rays explode off the bottom in clouds of white marl at our approach. The rookeries come alive as we slide silently along the shore. Cormorant, herons, egrets, and the graceful ibis make their nests here, where human intrusion is rare. The north and west sides are lined with sugar-white sand beaches, but Key West Marine Sanctuary signs warn that it is not legal to camp here. At last we find the perfect beach on the north west corner of the Marquesas. A small cove and a high sandy point make it seem an ideal campsite, but again the signs warn us not to linger here. After a brief rest on this idyllic beach, we decide to continue around to the eastern islands, so we will be staged for our return to Key West.

Friday dawn is much like each day of the cruise. The wind is blowing quite strongly through the gap in the islands where we anchored last night. Our objective is Key West, but first we have to cross the treacherous Boca Grande Channel. This time, if we get an early start, the tide should not be opposed to the wind, and the seas should be more manageable for us. At eight we are ready and raise anchor. But Hugh isn't ready yet. He has to break camp and load the canoe for the rough trip ahead. The other pearls go ahead, and I wait for the canoe, to be sure he gets back safely. Nutshell and Wag's Folly sail over the horizon while I jog offshore under reefed mizzen. An hour later, Hugh decides that it's too rough, and climbs aboard Whisper. Black Puffin is taken in tow for the trip to Key West. The seas on this return crossing are steep. Waiting for Black Puffin has cost us the favorable tide and now we punch through breaking seas and slide down steep rollers. Bailing the cockpit becomes a regular chore. For three hours we fight our way to windward against the tide and wind. Finally we again find ourselves in the shallow but calmer "Lakes Passage." The wind is dead on the nose, and the current is running about one knot against us as well. With visions of a cold beer, we decide to crank up the iron genny and get to Key West. My calculations determine that we have just about enough fuel (2 gallons) to get to a gas dock at Garrison Bight City Marina. We arrive there about four in the afternoon, after dropping the masts under way, and powering against a 5-knot current through the Fleming Island Bridge. We have no idea what has become of the other two boats.

On Saturday we are making coffee in Whisper's cockpit when I spot a Sea Pearl beating toward us. Bud in Nutshell is making tracks for Sugarloaf Lodge. He had a very long beat yesterday, and was exhausted by the end of the day. Hugh has convinced me that we should spend at least one more day here in the Florida Keys. We don't have strict schedules to keep, and we have plenty of food and water. We decide to visit the Snipe Keys, which are described in a kayak guidebook as having the best beach in the keys. Later Paul, aboard Wag's Folly, radios us that he's waiting for Nutshell by the cut through the mangroves that leads to Sugarloaf Lodge. The tide is rushing through it and Nutshell has earned a tow back to the ramp.

The Snipe Keys turn out to be the best part of the trip. We snorkeled over rocky reefs and expanses of white sand. Hugh took Puffin sailing into and between some mangrove channels between two islands, and Whisper was intentionally grounded on a huge expanse of flat white sand for the low tide during the night,and Hugh Horton saw his first "Green Flash" as the sun dipped below the horizon. I'd told him to get ready, because the conditions in the atmosphere were just right, and suddenly there it was… a half second of brilliant emerald green, shaped like a pill on its side, just as the sun's upper limb dipped below the horizon. A fitting ending to a truly great cruise.
Marine Concepts , 243 Anclote Road , Tarpon Springs, FL 34689 , 800.881.1525

"Captain Run-Aground Harvey's" is a floating restaurant tucked away in the corner of Charter Boat Row in the Key West marina. Two cold Heinekens, a grouper sandwich, and a cheeseburger in paradise, and we're ready to head north to find a suitable anchorage for the evening.