Thin Water Conversion Page 2

Around 0400 the wind turned to the northwest, promising a great sail into Key Biscayne. Motoring past the inlet, I steered into the breeze, unfurled the genoa, and the 32 RK rocketed to over 6 knots as I turned downwind. The speed fluctuated while we were in the lee of the high-rises ashore, but once out in clear air, the Seaward moved along smartly and steadily on a beam reach. I chose not to set the main, which later proved to be a wise decision. The performance was heady enough with just a headsail.

My goal for the evening was Boca Chita Key in Biscayne Bay, about 16 miles south of the Key Biscayne lighthouse. If you haven’t been to Boca Chita Key, it’s worth the visit, provided you go during the week when it’s quiet. Weekends, on the other hand, are—how do I put this kindly?—not a good idea for horses or nervous children.

Boca Chita Key is the former estate of the Honeywell family, long since abandoned and now a part of Biscayne National Park. Several of the old buildings still exist, as does a picturesque lighthouse, and the snorkeling in the channel on the opposite side of the key from the harbor entrance is excellent. I’ve seen big rays, lots of lobster, plenty of small colorful reef fish and more, all in water no more than 20 feet deep.

Arriving there, I experienced one of the true joys of the 32 RK. With its ballasted lifting keel down, the boat has a maximum draft of 6ft 6in, giving it good windward ability. But when you raise the keel with the help of a powerful electric winch and lift up the rudder via a conveniently placed handle, the draft becomes just 20in. The channel into Boca Chita has always been a concern with my own boat’s 5ft draft, but with the Seaward it was a piece of cake.

Later, as I sailed southwest, roughly along the ICW, the wind died and I raised the main to keep up my speed. No sooner had I done so, though, than I found the wind had other ideas. Soon I was looking at a steady 15 knots, with gusts to over 25. I was also getting my first true lesson in the differences between fixed-keel boats and lifting-keel boats like the Seaward.

To sail a boat like the Seaward well, you have to reef early. Unfortunately, being used to a heavier boat—the Seaward weighs a mere 8,500 pounds—I didn’t realize this quickly enough and soon found myself rounding up into the wind. Once I’d put a reef in the main, though, and rolled away some of the genoa, things settled back down again. The boat really wanted a second reef in the main, but the lines had not yet been rigged. Still, even in the increasing seas, the boat gave me the feeling that it would hang in there as long as I could.

Then, in the middle of Little Card Sound, a crisis: the furling line snapped, letting the entire genoa roll out in the 20-knot wind. Worse yet, the sheets quickly flogged themselves into will-knots—the kind that take hours to undo—and I quickly grew concerned the sail would shred itself to pieces. I tried to lower it, but the pressure of the wind was too great for me. Now what, I wondered, struggling with the thrashing sailcloth.

Then I remembered I was no longer restricted by draft. With no worries about shoals, I could sail toward the mangroves a half-mile away and deal with the problem in two feet of water, protected from the wind in the lee of the land. What could have cost me my sail on a keelboat became a simple matter of motoring into the wind at an angle that kept the sails from flogging until I could get into sheltered water.

Sure enough, once out of the full force of the wind I had no problem rolling up and then tying off the genoa. This trailer-sailer business was starting to make a lot of sense. As the sun set, I motored through the dusk toward the Anchorage Resort in Key Largo where I tied up, good and tired after a long but satisfying day.

The following morning, I headed out into Blackwater Sound. The winds were lighter, around 10-15 knots, and my goal was to find a resort and just hang out on the beach. The sailing, though, was so good I soon lost myself in the joys of being able to really explore this part of the Keys, something I’d never really been able to do before, having limited myself to heavier keelboats. Now I could cruise almost anywhere I wished, ignoring channel markers and tacking well out into the sound and then back again. A couple of times I did find some unexpectedly shallow water. But a quick press of my thumb on the key fob was all it took to break the boat’s lifting keel from the sound’s gummy grip.

I have to admit it, I was really starting to enjoy this, especially the trip back to the Anchorage Resort, sailing fast on a broad reach. That’s when those teenage dinghy sailing memories kicked in. Raising the board, I flew over the water with just enough keel to turn the boat and the stereo cranking—a luxury my old dinghy certainly never had.

Next morning, when I headed ashore, I found that anchoring off the beach has a whole new meaning when you can back your boat into less than two feet of water. Your supply of cold drinks is always conveniently close, as is your galley, the head and other necessities. No more rowing or hauling a heavy cooler back and forth aboard a dinghy—just step back aboard, making sure to wipe the sand from your feet!

Mind you, backing up with no keel and only a few inches of rudder quickly serves to reinforce the truism that sailboats don’t back up well. As it was, a breeze on the beam kept pushing me off so that I had to start well upwind of my final goal if I was to end up where I wanted. Ultimately, I dropped the anchor about 60 feet off the shore using the control at the helm, and then backed up to the beach, letting the keel ground itself in the sand. After that it was just a matter of bringing in a bit of anchor line to hold the bow in place and step ashore.

Too soon, I had to leave to meet Tim, who was driving back down from Stuart with the trailer. My time with the Seaward was coming to an end, just as I was starting to get into this whole lifting-keel thing.

I had hoped to sail right off the beach, just for the enjoyment of it, but the palm trees overshadowing the boat held the breeze in their fronds, leaving none for me. Later, sailing back to the boat ramp, I dreamed about Katharine Hepburn sailing away with me aboard the Seaward, leaving Bogie behind. Why not? My thin-water boat had air conditioning and a shower. Bogie could never have said that about the African Queen.

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