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Some thoughts on snakes and identification.

Close to the sea, Georgia’s low lands were mostly uninhabited. There were no rows of houses with humongous wooden docks like in Florida. In fact, there were no services, no marinas, no bridges and very few boaters for long stretches.

Since human interference on the coast of the State of Georgia was limited by the very impractical nature of the geography, the coast retained much of its fauna. I was looking forward to crossing a pristine natural setting, but I also knew dogs were referred to as “alligator snacks”. The mud banks were often marked by beastly tracks, and snakes were a common subject of conversation.

The venomous snakes of Georgia include the cottonmouth, Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus), Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), Canebrake/Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), Pigmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius) and the Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius). I knew nothing of snakes but I was expected to differentiate them from two dozen non-venomous snakes that had other exotic names such as the Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus), Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea), Black Racer (Coluber constrictor), Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus), Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi), Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata), Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta), Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Rainbow Snake (Farancia erytrogramma), Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Southern Hognose Snake (Heterodon simus), Mole Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster), Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula), Milk Snake/Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis triangulum), Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), Red-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster), Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata), Green Water Snake (Nerodia floridana), Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota), Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), Striped Crayfish Snake (Regina alleni), Glossy Crayfish Snake (Regina rigida), Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata), Pine Woods Snake (Rhadinaea flavilata), Black Swamp Snake (Seminatrix pygaea), Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi), Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), Florida Brown Snake (Storeria victa), Southeastern Crowned Snake (Tantilla coronata), Central Florida Crowned Snake (Tantilla relicta), Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus), Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), Rough Earth Snake (Virginia striatula) and let’s not forget the Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeriae).

Be aware that this venomous species list is not exhaustive. There are many subspecies. For instance the cottonmouth is divided in three subspecies: the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus), the Florida Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti) and the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma).

To make things more interesting, the names of the snakes are not really well known by the general population. The Cottonmouth is sometimes called the Water Moccasin. Some people say that the two names refer to the same snake while other people promise that they are entirely different creatures.

I think that the fact that the Georgia State venomous snake pamphlet hints that we should know how to differentiate these snakes, is marked by surprising optimism. To be honest, I don’t think that even the most anal ninetieth century Jesuit botanists would have bothered to learn them all.

Initially, I tried to learn to identify the widely feared Water Moccasin but I found out that it could have different appearances depending on the season, sex and age. I suspected that this would be true for a large part of the shake species so I chose to treat all snakes as if they were venomous.

Since I did not know how to spot snakes, identification was never much of a concern. I saw snakes only if they happened to be on bare ground in daylight. I don’t see how anyone could spot them when they are submerged, in tall weeds or submerged in tall weeds. That may explain why people don’t generally walk in submerged tall weeds or even on mud banks, but that may have to do with the alligators patiently waiting for you and your poodle; besides, it’s muddy!

A bite from a venomous snake like the water moccasin meant death since I was often more than a day away from help. Even if help was close at hand, I had no means of communication. Given that a bite from a water moccasin required an injection of what I was told is a scarcely stocked antivenin within 40 minutes, I figured that prevention was the way to go. You would think that all medical facilities would have the antivenin but it doesn’t make sense for the profit-driven hospitals to keep stocks of an expensive product, which probably has a short shelf life, that they would have to inject to people that may not be able afford it or live long enough to pay for it.

Small Craft Advisor article in issue 81

In the current issue of Small Craft Advisor (81) appears the Everglade story that starts my Miami to Montreal adventures. Get the issue! Issues 82, 83 and 84 will also have segments of my trip. Leave comments to the editor of the magazine! Cheers!

The Pearson Lark 24 saga. Winter sailing.

I did it again.

For weeks I looked and bid on boats on eBay. I lost a Cal 25 for a mere 5$ bid placed a minute before closing. Once I set my heart on a Person Lark 24, I knew what I had to do. I was not about to be had again. I sat in a café in front of my laptop, patiently waiting for the last minute. Afraid that somehow I’d miss my chance.

The last bid was 590$. It had held there for two days. The bids had stopped and people were waiting for the last minute.

Two minutes before closing, I tried to bid but my computer connection was jammed. Fortunately, I had the phone ready. I entered the eBay website, logged in, and barely had time to hit the bid button. I slipped-in less than a minute before the end. I got the sailboat for 595$!

The boat was in Westport Connecticut and it had to be moved before April 27. That gave me 10 days to drive eight hours and sail it 150 kilometers to Block Island. The weather was resolutely winterish. Most days the temperatures barely made it above freezing. Worse, the winds were strong and on the nose until the April 25. Afterwards, the forecast called for northwesterly winds in the 20s, knots that is.

Jean Jacques had volunteered to come and sail the boat in the cold weather. He’s my spearfishing partner. He had never sailed but he’d been on the ocean enough to know what he was getting into. I told him to bring his winter camping gear and to dress for an arctic expedition.

We left Montreal at three forty five in the morning. I had to drive to Westport early enough to see the boat, go to registrations and complete the purchase. I knew that the very next morning I had to be on the water at sunrise if I wanted to get to Block in the next days. I couldn’t risk not making it in one trip.

When I got to Cedar Point Marina in Westport, the boat was in the water already. All the sailing gear was in good order, but the interior was covered in mold, and the deck was soft all over. I had expected as much and the idea was to use the boat for the summer, as is. Chlorine and paint could get rid of the mold, and the deck could be repaired easily if I did not mind the esthetics, which I didn’t.

It was so cold and the mold was so bad that we decided not to sleep on the boat that night. I was exhausted from the drive and the waking up in the middle of the night. We couldn’t afford to be too tired before we even started to sail. We went to a motel in Fairfield and raided the grocery store.

The next morning we got on the boat at eight. We wore our warmest clothing and set sail. Everything was new. I had no idea if the boat was seaworthy.

The sails were in good shape. Everything worked great. The wind blew twenty miles per hour. The boat glided easily to a speed of five and a half mile per hour. I expected this to be the hull speed for the Mold Minnow, but I later got it to an easy six and a half.

The rudder was a little difficult to hold in higher winds. The weather helm was a bit tiring but there was not much I could do about it. For one thing, the main sail has no reefing lines.

By the end of the afternoon, the wind reached twenty five, then thirty miles per hour. The boat handled it well but the clouds loomed and the wind kept increasing.

We reached the Clinton Marina with very dark skies behind us. The wind exceeded thirty five miles per hour; well above what I could use. We docked the in the closed marina and walked in town. During the night the wind blew in the forties and it rained some.

The next morning we sailed out at seven, but the winds were too strong. The gusts were in the forties, so I decided to head back to shore. We docked at the Brewer Pilots Point Marina, not even two miles west of Clinton. We headed into town for breakfast and hoped the winds would die down a bit.

At ten, we were back on the water. The winds were very strong but we could manage them with the jib. When they slowed down to twenty five and the gusts were less threatening, I raised the main sail. The boat was flying. Jean Jacques got quite a ride for his first sailing adventure. The GPS indicated we were moving eight miles per hour; which is impossible on a twenty four foot keeler without the current.

I studied the mast to see if it was about to give out. It held straight throughout. The boat did not seem to mind the high winds. I only whished it had some sort of heater. The winter clothing was barely enough to keep us from becoming hypothermic.

We reached Fisher Island at three; early enough to make it to Block Island. We rounded the island and headed 120 degrees. We could see the island twenty three miles away.

The wind was not a little more manageable but the swell was impressive. Up and down we went. Fortunately they were smooth mountains of water. Some swells looked rather steep but none were close to breaking. Since the wind held, the boat was rather stable and saved us from being seasick.

It was past sunset by the time we reached the New Harbor entrance. The swell did not reach the breakwater and the water inside the bay was flat.

We celebrated our save voyage at the Poor Man’s Café.

The next morning I had to leave the boat behind so I could go back to work. It’s anchored and waiting for my return.




Bimini to Fort Lauderdale, high seas mayhem

The Bahamas is a slow paced paradise for people looking to not do much of anything for a few weeks or months. I loved the spearfishing, although the sharks often shortened my time in the water, but the lack of anything to do and the limited food variety eventually got to me. I’d visit again but I doubt I could spend more than a few weeks.

While everyone waited for a weather window to head further east, I looked for a window to head back to Florida. My Norwegian neighbor also wanted to head west but he destroyed is outboard while maneuvering in the marina, so I was leaving alone.

The first weather window promised 15 to 20 mph winds from the east. This sort of wind meant following seas and moving slowly toward Florida, while getting tossed around. The second window consisted of south winds. South winds are the most favorable you can get. Since the wind and the waves are going the same way, the waves are flattened. The problem was that the south winds were likely to not last an entire day, and they were really strong.

I chose the second window and left at 5 in the morning. I calculated that I could make it to Fort Lauderdale in a little more than 8 hours if the wind held at 15 mph. I hoped to be in Florida at 1; before the inlet was swept by an outgoing tide.

I woke up at 5 but it took me a few minutes to talk the dredging boat to get out of my way so I could leave. I eventually made it out and sailed into the night towards Fort Lauderdale. I pointed toward Miami (270 degrees, due west) to counteract the Gulf Stream.

I sailed at 6 miles per hour in waves that kept increasing in size until they reached two to four feet. It was quite manageable, but I had to crawl on the deck to reef my main sail. About 20 miles from the Bimini, I was forced to reef it again. I got tossed around while I reefed, but the autopilot held the direction. I’m sure the boat would have reached Miami had I fell overboard; a real possibility in such seas. Here is a video of me about 10 miles from Bimini :

The quick sailing lasted long enough to cover 40 miles. At that point, I could see the city but ominous dark clouds were in the way. Turning around or trying to get around them was not possible, so I cowboyed on.

The rain brought strong gust but a few minutes later I was totally becalmed. I started the engine to fight the Gulf Stream. I was 14 miles from the coast.

I motored for a while on the calm sea and the rain stopped. Eventually I saw scary ripples on the water ahead of me. The wind hit me at 20 mph with gust in the upper 20s. The wind came from the west. I had to go in the direction of the wind. I could not tack without making a major detour or stalling since the current was pushing me north at 3 miles per hour. I pushed the engine to 2500 rph, not far from its max. Still, I was merely doing 1 to 2 mph into the wind. I was very intimidated by what was happening. At that rate, it would take me 6 to 12 hours to get to Port Everglade, but what were my options?

For two hours I tugged against the wind. I felt very uneasy. I prayed for the engine to keep going.

I counted the miles; eleven, then ten, then nine miles from Fort Lauderdale. Suddenly the Gulf Stream let me go. I was able to steer the boat at 300 degrees instead of 240.  At 300 degrees my main sail caught the wind. I opened my jib at about 60% and pulled it tight. I was sailing again. I flew at 6 mph towards my objectives in winds in the higher 20s! Unfortunately, as soon as the Gulf Stream let me go, the waves increased to 3 to 6 feet! Somehow the boat had no problem moving through those seas.

I was very happy but I feared the inlet. The waves were big and i expected the water would be rushing out of the inlet; a bad combination that promised rolling waves. Again, what options did I have? I’d do my best.

When I got in front of the inlet, I saw that the wide and deep opening was not really a problem. The skies were black, the wind was crazy and the coast guards watched the solo crazy sailor entering the inlet under full sail and motor.

It was 4. I still had plenty of daylight although the clouds dimmed the lights quite a bit. I got to Lake Sylvia, set my anchor and paddled to the Raw Bar for some food.


Bimini new years spearfishing compilation

Still in Bimini. I’m not planning to leave the island for some time either! Here is a compilation of fish caught in 2013.

Bimini crossing video, catching mahi

While crossing to Bimini a few days ago I caught a few mahi. The crossing was nice and the fish were many.

My hawaiian sling skills are improving

Every morning I wake up with the sun, eat breakfast, talk with the neighboring sailboat crews, walk in town, buy bananas, go online and when the tide is almost low, I get on my kayak and head to the numerous reefs and wrecks in front of North Bimini.

Hunting with the hawaiian sling requires some major skills. The fish are not dumb and the sling will not let you shoot them from more than a few feet. I learned to dive bomb them since they often wait a little longer to get away and the gravity helps the shaft move forward; slings are not powerful weapons….

Fish for Christmas

My life in Bimini is all about fish. On Christmas eve I took my Hawaiian sling and went out to get myself some Christmas fish!

Bimini Crossing and pictures

A friend from Montreal hoped on my boat while I was in Virginia Key. I was anchored in front of the Marine Stadium. If you ever have to anchor near Miami, you should know that the view of the city of Miami from the Virginia Key bay is unbelievable.

In the morning we sailed from Virginia Key to the end of Key Biscayne. We anchored at No Name Harbor. It’s a National Park with an anchorage and a lot of services. It’s also an easy walk to the most expensive grocery store in the US.

I had chosen to move to Key Biscayne since it was 10 miles south. I knew that starting further south helped cross the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream is a strong current that goes north. It’s caused by the warm water escaping the Gulf of Mexico and goes all around the Atlantic. The 2.5 knot current can make you miss your target and make you turn back in what must be a very miserable experience. In a slow sailboat it’s necessary to aim 30 to 40 degrees south of your destination to counteract the current.

We left at 4 in the morning. I navigated the shallow waters that led to the Atlantic with the help of my GPS and Anne Louise who used a flash light to spot unlit buoys.

Once on the Atlantic, the wind was light but it pushed us for a while.

At first, I did not mind the light wind since the last thing you want when you cross to Bimini is a storm. The island is 53 miles away. A lot can happen during a crossing and not much help is available. Eventually though, the west wind diminished and I had to use the engine as well as the sails to fight the Gulf Stream.

I dragged a lure. It was a pink and blue thing with a large hook. I bought it because I was told that trolling in the Gulf Stream was part of the experience. Sure enough, I got a mahi mahi as soon as the color of the water changed, indicating the beginning of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream water is blue, almost mauve. I later caught a larger mahi and a skip jack about 30 miles from Miami.

By the time we passed the midway point the wind was too light to keep the sail open and the seas were confused: waves came from all directions. I eventually took the main-sheet down because it swung dangerously and the boom threatened to wreck my stays. I kept the Genoa out to limit the rocking of the boat. We ended up motoring most of the way.

I got to Bimini at low tide. The entrance looked like rapids and the channel was really shallow. Fortunately my GPS had a magenta line to keep me away from the shoals. A few times I saw the sand pattern but I never hit the bottom.

I pulled in Brown’s Marina. The very one that Ernest Hemingway used. Life was grand.

Motoring to Miami

On the 17th I took my new manifold for a ride to Virginia Key. Since the wind was wrong for a sea passage I motored all the way to Miami. Motoring the intracoastal at 5 mph is as much fun as being stuck in traffic with gastric cramps. To make matters worse, the canal between Fort Lauderdale and Miami has a zillion bridges. Most of the bridges opened without too much fuss except for one. The man in charge at the 79th street bridge simply ignored me. I had heard of bridge attendants sometimes being a bit strange and refusing to open if they were not hailed in time or in a certain fashion, but I had honed my bridge etiquette going through all those previous bridges. I turned and I turned and it’s only when another boat showed up and asked that he finally opened. I worried he would close on my boat as I passed but he waited.

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