243 Anclote Road
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Cruise of the "Whisper"
and the "Mud Hen".
by Ron Hoddinott
Returning from a summer of camping and sailing my 17 foot Mohawk canoe in Maine and Cape Breton Island, I took a long look at my Catalina 27 sitting in her slip in the yacht club. I'd owned her for eleven years, and had other keel boats for 14 more years along the Gulf Coast of Florida. The problem was that I could only go so far in her in the time I had off, and being a teacher, most of my time off is in the summer when sailing in Florida is at its worst. Bob Wood, my sailing and camping buddy, was in the same boat, no pun intended. He owned a 34 foot Presto that mostly sat behind a friend's house on Madeira beach. He also owned a Florida Bay Mud Hen.
Decision time loomed. "If you want to get another boat, you'll have to sell the one you have first," my wife reminded me, as I showed her pictures of a shallow draft trailerable boat which might offer a solution to my problem. After racing and cruising the "Afternoon Delight" for so long, it was like selling a member of the family, but it had to be done. Luckily I knew plenty of people who wanted her if the price was right. I made sure the price was right. A quick sale was the only way to do it. I couldn't argue and bargain over the price of a loved one. She just needed a good home, and I found her one.
Meanwhile, I was longing for a boat that could go places a boat with four foot draft would never be able to. Extreme shallow draft, beachable, easy to rig, easy to launch and retrieve, and good sailing characteristics, were what I wanted. Not much, eh? I began to think the search was futile, until a friend introduced me to Matt Maloy and his Sea Pearl 21, The Magic Pearl. Matt was looking for a boat with a real cabin. He and Linda were thinking larger, while I was thinking smaller. His boat was for sale. He took me out on it. I was hooked. Unfortunately, his boat didn't have some of the amenities I was looking for. It was a basic Pearl. By the time I added the bimini top, new motor, and folding cabin, I would have been paying a lot for a ten year old boat.
A visit or two to Ron Johnson at Marine Concepts in Tarpon Springs turned up a 1994 Sea Pearl in dark green with every available option including a GPS. The asking price was a bit high, I thought, but it was in as-new condition. I made an offer, and became the proud owner of Whisper. Whisper has been everything I hoped for in a shallow draft cruiser. Her lines were borrowed and then lengthened from an L. Francis Herreshoff design called the Carpenter Dory which can be found in Sensible Cruising Designs. Her weighted leeboards work perfectly, free up the "cabin" area, and, to an old canoe sailor, don't "look funny" as they might to some people. Her free standing cat ketch rig with roller furling sails, is easy to rig, easy to reef, and can be sailing seven minutes after arriving at the ramp. Since taking ownership of Whisper, I've sailed in places in my own backyard around Tampa Bay that I'd never been before in a sailboat. But Christmas vacation offered some time to explore other areas, a bit farther afield; some time to sail over the horizon without having to come back the same day.
Bob was getting his Florida Bay Mud Hen rigged for a cruise, and we decided to cruise in company to the beautiful Lee County coast near Fort Myers. Part of the reason we chose this area for our first "camp cruise" is that we were somewhat familiar with the area, having taken our larger boats down the coast on numerous occasions. Now, however, we'd be able to poke around into the special places that keelboats can never go. Five days of unrestricted cruising in an area with more islands than you can count is my idea of heaven on Earth. The weather forecast was a high pressure ridge over us for the entire cruise. That would mean light east or south-easterly winds and maybe a sea breeze in the afternoon. Temperatures were to reach the mid-eighties during the day, and the mid sixties at night. Perfect Florida weather in December. Getting the Whisper rigged for camping and cruising turned out to be as much fun as sailing her. Using Ida Little's book Beachcruising and Coastal Camping, and a little imagination, I soon had everything I would need stowed in an accessible place on board. Bob always reminded me that one of the most important things to have on a cruising boat is a comfortable berth. I purchased the 2 inch thick 25 x 72 inch self inflating air mattress by Therm-a-Rest, and then tested it in the boat. I was comfortable.
We left home two days after Christmas on December the 27th. It was extremely foggy crossing the Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay. An hour after we crossed there was a 54 car pile up on the bridge. Picking up I-75 south and cruising at 55 MPH, we were down to the Venice exit by 11 A.M. We launched at the Placida Marina, where we were able to leave our cars and trailers as long as we liked in a safe place. Out on Gasparilla Sound by 12:30, we sailed along in a light SW breeze just east of the intercoastal waterway. Dolphins accompanied us as we ghosted along in the warm light wind at 2 to 3 knots. The Mud Hen was heavily loaded for the cruise and was not really keeping up with Whisper. I would occasionally luff up or take off on a little side trip to allow Bob to keep up. On one such jaunt to windward I noticed two spouting whales near the intercoastal waterway. Now I have sailed with dolphins most of my life, and I know they don't really spout like whales. And, having seen whales in Maine last summer, I know what spouts look like. They were probably pilot whales that show up in our larger bays on the Gulf Coast. It's an unusual occurrence here though, so I pointed them out to Bob as he caught up. We also noticed some visitors from Louisiana in the area. On one spoil island the east side was covered with white pelicans, while the local brown pelicans had taken command of the west side of the island. Seems segregation is still alive in the South. We anchored near the spoil island, and Bob took some pictures of the beautiful white pelicans.
We continued to sail down the sound along Sandfly and Devilfish Key. Our intended destination for the night was Bull Bay, just to the east of Cayo Pelau. Cayo Pelau is reported to be one of the places where the pirate Jose' Gaspar buried treasure in the misty past. In the early 70's while beachcruising this area, I'd spent a night on the island, run into some treasure hunters with guns and metal detectors, and a herd of wild goats... but that's another story for another time. Sneaking over the shoals at the southern end of Devilfish key, we eased the sheets for a dead run toward Cayo Pelau and Bull Bay. Raising both leeboards, and lashing the helm, Whisper ran wing-on-wing. The rotating masts and free standing rig allowed the sails to perfectly balance the boat, and I left the cockpit to seek food and drink in the "cabin" area of Whisper. A can of sardines, a banana and a cold drink will do for now, as we pass fishermen standing in knee deep water, casting their lures to the redfish and trout. Leaning back on a seat cushion, I feel that I could drift off to sleep watching Bob's Mud Hen following in my wake, and Whisper doing her thing all by herself.
By 3:15 P.M. we'd reached the opening in the mangrove islands that allowed entrance to Bull Bay. Bull Bay is a shallow bay with a half-dozen stilt huts for fishermen along the eastern end. It's completely surrounded by islands with Turtle Bay to the east and Cayo Pelau to the west. The incoming tide helped us slide into the bay on a dying wind. Bob put his 15 pound plow down, and I rafted off to the Mud Hen. After we were secured, and a Captain Morgan rum and Coke was enjoyed, we got down to the serious business of food. I cooked steaks that had been thawing in the cooler all day, and Bob heated up a can of potatoes. We enjoyed a pink streaked West Florida sunset as dinner was being digested and we sat in our cockpits and talked about the day over coffee. We wondered if life could get much better.
Then the mosquitoes arrived. I've been in worse swarms, but they were very hungry. Luckily, we were prepared, and I zipped up the screens fore and aft in the cabin of Whisper. Bob wasn't so lucky. He did have a mosquito net to throw over his canvas cabin, but they could, and did, find their way to him under the seats of the Mud Hen. I could hear him spraying the insects from my boat. I had a few inside the cabin, but a half hour of swatting them took care of most of them, and by nightfall I'd gotten them all.
During the night the fog returned. It was eerie looking out the cabin windows and seeing nothing but a curtain of gauzy white. It was still foggy the next morning, and we decided to wait for the fog to lift before continuing our cruise. A breakfast of corned beef hash and eggs with coffee warmed us up and we chatted and wondered how long we'd have to wait for the fog to lift. Bob started to complain about an aching back. It seems the "cabin" of the Mud Hen wasn't quite long enough for him to stretch out, and he'd hurt or twisted his back trying to get comfortable in the night. I reminded him of his advice to always have a comfortable berth on a cruising boat. He didn't find it too amusing.
About 10:30 we decided that with my new Garmin 45 GPS, we could certainly pilot our way through the fog to Cayo Costa Island and Pelican Bay. We were getting antsy just sitting around. About that time the fog lifted enough for us to see our way out of Bull Bay, and into Charlotte Harbor proper. We sailed out in a light easterly wind which died about the time we cleared Bull Bay. Reluctantly we started up our iron gennies, and using the GPS as a guide, started slowly motoring through the fog.
The seas were calm and the cry of visiting loons from far to the north cut through the fog and the sounds of our outboards. After an hour or so we began to see signs that we were approaching land. Boat traffic increased, and occasionally the fog would lift to reveal houses or structures on Boca Grande, the island to our northeast. The glassy sea was interrupted by rolling wakes from skyscraper cabin cruisers and center console fishing boats looking for a marker in the fog or searching for an elusive snook. It seems that they only know two speeds... flat out and stop. The GPS led us close enough to my plotted destination that only a slight adjustment of course was needed. We cruised into Pelican Bay on the west side of Cayo Costa.
Cayo Costa is a state park, and as such is kept in a pristine condition. Permits are required to camp on the island, and only in a designated area over on the west side by the Gulf. We tied up to the dock, and visited the ranger station. Bob obtained a permit to camp in the campground, and we inquired about taking our boats around to Johnson Shoals to anchor or beach for the night. We found out that the shoals have formed a deep lagoon that has only one shallow entrance. We didn't see that as a problem, as our boats will float in 5 inches of water loaded with camping gear. After picnicking on the island, we refreshed our water supplies, and cast off for Johnson Shoals on the other side of the island. Just as we were about to cast off, a tall lanky young man who was camping in the campground asked us if he could ride around the island with us. He was full of information about the campground and Bob took him along for company and information. Bob's back was still hurting and the thought a night of sleeping in his tent might help. As luckwould have it we sailed with an increasing westerly wind. I was hopeful that it would hold, but shortly after clearing the Boca Grande Channel, it died, and we motored south along the coast.
This was all new territory to me now. My Catalina 27 had too deep a draft to attempt the shoals west of Cayo Costa. I'd never been able to sail close along an unknown shore in 1 to 2 feet of water, watching the seagrass flow to determine the strength of the tide. After a few miles of heading south and skirting the coastal island, we spotted the cut that led to the protected lagoon. The tide was rushing in. There was a pebble and sand shoal just outside of the opening. Paralleling the shore to get inside the shoal and then turning hard left was the only way in. I raised the leeboards, lifted the engine and rudder, and let the current sweep Whisper into the quiet lagoon. Bob followed suit behind me. Once inside, the water was quite deep, and we powered to the north end of the lagoon which was close to the designated campground. We anchored right off the beach and stepped out into ankle deep water. After looking over the campground, and finding an entrenched herd of Boy Scouts, I decided to stay on Whisper. I was comfortable there, and I wouldn't have to listen to the sounds of children until my vacation was over.
While Bob had a titanic struggle setting up his tent-with-a-missing-pole in the campground, I prepared a dinner of fried burger and K.C.. Masterpiece baked beans. Traveling with Bob, who was born in Massachusetts, you have to carry a lot of baked beans. Bob returned to have dinner on the boat, and we were again entranced by the pink and pale blue sky streaked with high cirrus clouds at sunset. Our anchorage was right under a dead tree where a pair of nesting Ospreys serenaded us with their high pitched "Kree-Kree" calls. This evening a double shot of Captain Morgan would do nothing bad for Bob's aching back and would improve my world view as well, so we kicked back and enjoyed the world around us.
After washing things up from dinner, and after Bob left for his tent, I organized my tiny cabin for a night's rest. My air mattress, sleeping bag and pillow were put in place, the Sony Sports Radio played the soft sounds of a local country music station, and I settled down for a quiet night afloat. Strangely enough, there were no mosquitoes this night inside the Johnson Shoals lagoon. Were they dining on Boy Scouts in the campground?
Sadly, the next morning Bob's back was no better and we decided to pack it in for home instead of continuing our sojourn. There was however, a delightful 10 knot breeze out of the east to carry us on our way, and sparkling clear waters to sail along the way. We had lunch with the white pelicans again, and our return trip home was only a few hours away at 55 MPH dead to windward.
Marine Concepts , 243 Anclote Road, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689, 800.881.1525