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February 20-28, the Everglades, Keys and back, the training wheels come off.

March 1, 2011

February 20th, Flamingo, Enough TV

North Miami sunset

I could not watch another hour of TV in my Hollywood condo. The winds were not ideal but hanging around another 4 days to get a favorable Northern wind was out of the question. The 15 miles per hour easterly wind my VHF radio was forecasting would have to do.

I drove to Bruno Munoz’ place to get my kayak. Bruno lets me store stuff at his place. This is really useful for me! Thanks Bruno, always a friend, I now count you amongst my supporter and sponsors!

I left Bruno in a hurry, no time for a drink with Bruno, and sped all the way to the Everglades. The rangers took my reservation for Little Rabbit Key just before closing. I made it to the ranger station with only twenty minutes to spare. The campground office was open later and had plenty of sites to offer. I chose the walk in section of the campground thinking that perhaps the people choosing to leave their car to go camping may also be slightly better behaved.

While I pitched my tent, I could barely hear the children screaming over the sound of the game playing on the radio over a hundred yards from me. So much for campgrounds, I’ll have to pack more earplugs.

Birds at Flamingo Campground

February 21, Little Rabbit Key, GPS mayhem

At the Flamingo campground, I woke up just as the kids went silent. I packed my tent in the dark. It was 3:30. I had to assemble my kayak, set my gear and launch before the tide changed. Also, an early start gave me the option to skip Little Rabbit Key entirely and go directly to Long Key about 15 miles further if I did not have to go around too many oyster beds and mud shoals.

I launched at 5:40, in the dark since the sunrise was at around 6:50. I knew I had to follow a channel to make it out of Flamingo. The posts were not illuminated and my GPS was not really cooperative.

It took me about 20 minutes to figure that my GPS was totally out of its mind. It was indicating west when I knew full well that I was going east. I thought of turning around but I figured I could navigate by looking at my breadcrumb trail that appears on my tiny GPS map as I move.

As I’m trying to navigate in the dark with barely an outline of islands as reference, I’m grow more and more confused and frustrated. I’m starting to think that I may have to turn around after all.

Shallow water!

In time, I figure out that it’s the GPS internal compass that’s not working properly, so I set the GPS to always point the map north… Obviously the GPS is not really pointing the map towards the north since north is south, or almost, but at least it makes it easier to look at the map and figure out how to place the GPS according to the few landmarks I can see. This is all very stressful when you do this in the dark in a foreign place at the beginning of a long crossing. How was I going to deal with this further out to sea? I did have about 30 miles of navigations through the shallows to get to the Keys.

As I’m playing with my GPS and loosing my mind, I have to sail really close to the wind since the wind is coming from where I want to go. The forecasted easterly turns out to be a south east wind. To make things more interesting, the bottom is no deeper than 1 foot. I have to pull the dagger-board out of the water. This makes me drift too much to have any chance to go into the wind with any effectiveness.

Pretty soon, I cannot even use the rudder. I barely have enough water to move. I use my paddle to steer and look into the water to find signs of deeper water. I can see the bottom really well since the muddy waters stop few miles offshore and become the typical Keys’ turquoise water.

OUPS! At around ten, my GPS stops showing maps. I open the casing, take the batteries out and push the chip card further in place. The maps come back on. Relieved and reenergized by my achievement, I try to resolve that compass problem. My idea is to turn the compass off completely and have the map point the direction of my movement like all traditional GPSs have always done. This would settle the problem but I find something even better… the recalibration of the compass function. It says to press start and to turn the GPS on itself twice. Bingo!

I made it to Little Rabbit Key at 12. I had told myself that if I got to Little Rabbit any later than 11 that I would stay there. So I did. The wind was not very cooperative anyway and my GPS ordeal, although formative, drained me.

Little Rabbit Key

February 22, Little Rabbit Key, playing the naked native

I woke up to a windless day. It was expected and confirmed that I would have to spend an extra day on the island.

No wind, no ripple...

So flat that the island appears to be floating on air

Little Rabbit Key is very pretty from the outside. Its mangroves all around except for a little opening where you can enter the island. Inside the island there are weeds, no trees.

When I got here I took my damp kayak clothing off and walked around wearing only my sandals. Since there is no water on the island, there are no bugs. I mean none. I thought that I would be totally alone until I heard a boat engine, then another. Most of the boaters come here to fish next to the mangroves but there are also bird watchers. One bird of prey, an osprey, keeps taking fish to a nest above my hammock.

Osprey in nest

I was alone most of the time but I had visitors on both days. I swam in the supposedly crocodile infested waters, taking pictures of snappers, lobsters and crabs. I saw what looked like a snapping turtle before getting in the water but I did not find it once in the water with the camera. Huge rays were lying here and there, I also saw a small black grouper and I could hear a pod of dolphins. The dolphins felt close, yet I never saw them while in the water. They come maybe 20 meters from kayaks but not much closer. I wonder if there are ways to get them to come close enough for a picture.

In real life, I do like everyone else, I stay busy. Alone on a small island, I found stuff to do but it was not real hectic. My blood pressure was so low that I had to be careful to not stand up too fast. I really felt for Robinson Crusoe, the poor guy. This place would be a lot of fun with a bunch of people but a day is enough if you happen to be stuck here for lack of wind.

By the evening I was pretty resolved to try to make it to Tom’s Harbour the next day. The wind was supposed to pick up.

February 23, Tom’s Harbour, the sea flat as glass, rip tides, heat strokes and the meaning of life

In the early morning, as I stood naked on the edge of Little Rabbit Key, I got a chill because of the Northern wind! I was hoping forward to such a wind since spending another day at Little Rabbit was not in the program.

I was aiming for Tom’s Harbor since I had no way to know for sure if I could sleep at Long Key National park. Tom’s Harbor was an 18 miles bird’s flight. I still had to go around a couple of mud flats and go over at least one.

The North eastern wind was fine for a while. It got a little slow when I got to the one mud flat I could not go around. I took my pedals and centerboard out of the water. I kept my rudder in the water as long as I could but that did not last long. Quickly I was using my paddle to steer. I got almost to the center of the mud flat before I had to push myself with the paddle and then get into the mud and walk the kayak. The mud was too loose to actually stand in it. It was more like using my feet to move the kayak like I did with the paddle. Fortunately, made it across pretty easily considering how dire it would have been otherwise. I can see myself stuck in the mud waiting for a favourable tide, perhaps six hours later, perhaps never.

Once out of the Everglades’ mud it should have been easy sailing all the way to Tom’s Harbour. Save for there was not even a glimpse of wind. Nothing, the water was like glass or oil, you choose. I was cranking out the miles at 2.2 miles an hour with only 10 miles to go if I managed to go in a straight line and over islands. The Adventure Island is not very good at going straight. You have to constantly steer with the cute little tiller that you operate with your left hand.

Slow burn

Six miles from my objective, I felt like the sun and the heat were going to do me in. I got more appropriate clothing from the front hatch. It’s not like the wave were going to swamp my boat.

As the sweat and salt stings my eyes, I see some wavelet reminiscent of a breeze. Oddly, this patch of wavelets was not moving at all. As I got close to them, I could see that it was a tidal rip. Now, with no wind I cannot fight much of a current and this current was going away from the keys… I figured out its speed and was now aiming for land instead of Tom’s Harbor with renewed fervor.

As I fight this current, in the heat, I can see that the current is taking me further along the Keys but it’s a bit scary to think of what will happen if I miss the land before the next big sea opening. I can anchor and wait for the tide to change but I’d rather make it to land so I pedal even harder.

By the time I make it close to land, I drifted almost straight in front of Tom’s Harbor. As I get maybe 300 meters from land the wind picks up. I had to take the mast down to go under the bridge. The irony was not lost on me. I got to the primitive campground at 3 pm. It took me 8 hours to do maybe 20 miles.

Tom's Harbor

Tom's Harbour

February 24, Molasses Key, trash town

Tom's Harbour sunrise, low tide

I woke up with the sun and set sail at 9 am. It was two hours after low tide. I had to use my kayak wheels to get out of the mud flats. Good thing I have those, by myself I would have had to disassemble the kayak and haul each part individually.

The 10 miles per hour wind was from the North East. It was a very easy sailing day. I had the wind at my back the entire time. I kept a speed of about 5 miles per hour.

I stopped at Pigeon Key to get some water. I entered by the abandoned harbor section instead of the docks at the back of the island. Pigeon Key is an historical landmark. A man named Henry Flagler built a railroad from Miami to Key West. The work started in 1908 with the building of the seven mile bridge. Pigeon Island is in the middle of the seven mile bridge. The railroad was completed in 1912 and lasted until 1935 when a hurricane swept it away.

As I got into the old marina, no one greeted me. The place looked abandoned but I got my water. I went on the other side of the island to see if anyone was there and I found a care keeper with a group of tourists. She did not appreciate my scruffy looks and said that I would have to pay the entry fee of 11 dollars if I wanted to stay on the island. The island was really nice but I left for Molasses Key that was less than 2 miles away.

Molasses Key

Molasses Key is not very far from the bridge and it’s a local powerboat hangout. The island is covered in garbage. There are many badly kept fire circles with more garbage strewed around them. Otherwise it’s paradise. I did a little cleanup and got to appreciate the openness of the island. For once, not every inch of land was occupied by mangrove. The Everglades is really nice but it does feel a bit stuffy after a while.

“As I’m writing this, my tent is being tossed on all sides by the wind. It’s going to be great sleeping weather. Maybe I’ll even sleep inside my sleeping bag for once. Tomorrow I’m going to let the wind decide what direction I’ll be heading. I VHF weather says South East. If that’s true I may head back to Long key.”

February 25, Long Key, platform heaven

On Molasses Key, at around 2 am, my tent was barely hanging by its pickets. It was no gentle toss anymore. I could not sleep because of the sound of the wind and the sides of the tent banging into me all the time. I got out admire the furious wind. As I was doing a poor imitation of the Titanic girl in the wind I started thinking about Betty a woman I had spoken to earlier. Her sailboat was anchored right next to my little island. I’m sure she was thinking about how well her anchors were holding.

For fun, I turned the VHF weather information to see just how strong these breezes were. It took a while to hear the 2 am weather for Molasses Key. While other places were experiencing winds of 25 knots with gusts at 28, I was happy to learn that Molasses Key was being spared. According to the robotic voice of the NOA weather announcer, we only had 13 mile per hour winds at Molasses. Right.

By the way, why does do the VHF weather announcers have a robotic voice? It’s not a VHF thing because no one else does. Also, why do they continually switch between miles per hour and knots? Is it to sound more nautical? This usage of miles is also a bit misleading. They will use nautical and statute miles in the same sentence. It’s like they have a special code they use so no one will fully understand that they may be feeding us garbage.

Another oddity, with the GPS this time, two tide stations that are not a mile apart (both at Tom’s harbor) announced a high and a low tide at the same moment. I knew that something was wrong when I read the high tide information as I was looking at the mud banks drying in front of me. The water was at least a foot lower than when I showed up the night before. Low and behold, the other Tom’s Harbor tide station had it right. I switched back and forth to try to find an explanation but I could not find one. I will now check more than one tide station to make sure I have credible information.

These discrepancies are a tad scary since I plan my travels on these sources. I just don’t have a choice. I have to rely on the VHF and the GPS. Fortunately, sometimes I can see that the information is wrong but it leaves a sour doubt that I just don’t need when I’m planning a 40 mile crossing or for when I’ll be face seven foot tides at breachways up North.

In the morning, I sailed towards Long Key since the wind was from the south east. Given that all winds have an Easterly flavor around here, going further east was not too tempting. Going against the wind for 40 miles to get back to the Everglades was not in my program. The entire upper Keys are aligned from East to West. Unless you get a westerly wing you are going to have to tack all the way back to the middle keys. The other problem is that there are no free or affordable places to stay at Key West or anywhere near.

When I left Molasses, the wind was really strong from the south east. The waves were what NOA would call 4 to 6. Pretty choppy and it was really uncomfortable so I chose to go behind the bridge and then behind Marathon. It was a great choice. I had all the wind and very little chop. I sailed an extra 5 miles on my 30 mile journey but it was worth it. Generally, you would save miles by going inside but since both my departure point and my destination were outside I added quite a few miles.

It took me 7 hours to sail about 35 miles. Not bad with a side wind. Once at Long Key, I called the park rangers to ask about the primitive sites. They told me to show at their offices. I had to sail back about 2 miles but they set me up on their platforms for only 8 dollars! It’s reserved for the true paddlers, a really good deal since the normal campers pay 43$ for a standard campsite. It turns out that the coordinates for the primitive campsites that I took from the Florida Keys Paddler’s Atlas were pointing to campsites that had been closed for seven years. The rangers told me that people would simply trash the place so they had to close it. After what I saw at Molasses I could totally relate.

February 26, Long Key

I spent the day enjoying Long Key and the bridge.

Last night a raccoon ate one of my dry bags. I repaired it with goop and duck tape. I am now hanging everything at least four feet from the ground. These raccoons are really aggressive! Fortunately the snakes are not. I crossed a four foot black snake on the cycling path coming back from the bridge. I ranger told me that those were constrictor snakes. The one we have to worry about is the water moccasin which is green and has a cobra type head. I also learned about poison wood. It’s a tree of the poison Ivy family. I’m really sensitive to poison Ivy or sumac, so I’m taking extra care to stay away from those. I don’t know if I’d prefer to get bit or to have a poison Ivy spell.

Poison wood!

“Right now, all I want is to get going on this trip of mine. If the winds are favorable I’m heading back to Flamingo. In any case there is no way that I’m paying 50$ for some cheap Key campsite. Unfortunately the overpriced commercial sites would have been the only option until Elliott Key.”

February 28, Flamingo

“Yesterday the wind blew about 15 knots with scary gusts.” The gust made steering really difficult. This became even more difficult when I had to use my paddle to steer. Much of the way back was in water less than a foot deep. Miles and miles of floating over a grass beds, I even made it over a mud flat with only two inches of water. I could hear the mud and debris rubbing my hull. I was doing at least four miles per hour over the mud. It only took me only six hours to navigate more than 30 miles (the birds flight distance is a little over 23 miles but the Everglades rarely let you go in a straight line).

Stirring by paddle gives the Adventure Island owners the great advantage of being able to cut through the shallows but it comes at a price. Since there is only one sail, the boat relies heavily on the rudder to keep its direction. Once you take the rudder up the boat want to head into the wind in a hurry. At first, it’s no big deal to use the paddle to steer, especially if you catch on that you can use the hull as a lever, but the boat needs constant steering and if you have to go let’s say five miles, you will get very tired of this. The other problem is that steering with the paddle induces a lot of drag. You have to block the water left or right. I estimate that this slows the boat at least 20%. I never was able to go much faster than 4 miles per hour while paddle steering. This is a lot faster than going around anything but you need a good steady wind since you will not have the option of dropping the pedal drive into the water once you are committed.

At the beginning of my crossing, while passing under the old bridge between Long and Marathon Keys, I noticed how narrow the bridge was. I knew that this was first a narrow train track. The tracks were only two feet wide and it must have been a balancing act to stay on them. As I previously stated, the railroad ended with a Hurricane disaster. I don’t know if the narrowness of the track had anything to do with it but 400 WWI veterans were killed in the train coming back from Key West when a hurricane hit it and put it on its side. A 17 foot swell swept the train. That was in 1935. I can only guess how the veterans felt about getting killed together almost two decade after escaping the trenches.

  1. Great writing skills, this will be an excellent book. Boy, I never liked FL but now really don’t. If everyone was a paddler or sailor, there’d be less trash on the shores, thats for sure. Also isn’t it funny how much can go wrong – almost everything. Makes it seem like the early pioneers had it better. No wrong forecasts, no GPS acting up, no campground managers, no kids screaming in a nearby tent! Talk to you soon.

    • Thanks, you’re too gracious, you’re right about everything becoming too complicated but the tools we have sure make my life easier when they do work. I navigated the last few miles without my GPS coming back to Flamingo and I worked real hard to find deeper water, the markers were not visible enough to be helpful when you come from outside.

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