Fleecy cotton candy clouds were stacked high across the southern horizon that summer afternoon as my Hobie 16 catamaran, Kat Baloo, ghosted silently along the low-timbered shoreline, leading us closer to the shipping channel into the Gulf of Mexico.
We had just launched out of St. Andrew State Park near Panama City in Florida’s Panhandle. With me was my long-time diving and sailing buddy Mike Dilts, from Point Edward, Canada. Mike is a goldsmith whose special interest is survival camping in the more primitive reaches of his native land. I hoped to give him a taste of my kind of sail camping.
As a boy I’d read about Huckleberry Finn drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft and always wanted to try it. I thought it would be neat to ride that raft all day long and then beach it at night and tell tall tales around the fire while puffing away on our corncob pipes.
Now I had that raft, though it was admittedly a bit more sophisticated than Huck’s, with an eight-foot-square nylon-coated canvas stretched across an aluminum frame, two slender 16ft 7in pontoons and 218 square feet of sail. Since her decks and tramp were powder blue, I’d named her Kat Baloo. Over the years she’d carried my buddies and me on many barebones sail camping trips.
Anyone who has ever sailed a Hobie 16 knows what a unique experience it is. With its large sail area and minimal wetted surface, it is a speed machine more influenced by air than by water, more bird than boat. Created by Hobie Alter in 1969, everything from the drop-shaped cross-section of the 26ft 6in mast to the upward curve of the boat’s wing-shaped aluminum deck frame was designed for speed. The faster it goes, the more lift that wing has. Eventually it flies a hull, the deck canted high out of water with only one knife-shaped fiberglass hull slicing swiftly beneath it. That’s Kat Baloo in full flight!
Flying, however, was exactly what I did not want Kat to do as we neared the ship channel. I knew from experience that in the open channel she might well snort once and then take off if I wasn’t careful. Out there, where the sea breezes come in a straight line across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Straits, they are sometimes not too gentle. “Hang on,” I said quietly to Mike.
As we slipped past Sandy Point, the northern extremity of the western rock jetty, a shiver ran through Kat. I knew that feeling well. She was whiffing those Mexican breezes, sniffing those salt-tanged puffs that told her that soon she could fly if she wanted. I kept a firm hand ready to pop the mainsheet. Kat quivered again, a more excited shiver this time, and moments later leapt forward at a full run and began sizzling across the choppy swath of deep channel water, sails full and straining.
We were across almost before we got to enjoy that smooth gliding ride. Then, just as quickly, we lost speed again as we entered the lee of Shell Island, one of the barrier islands that protects the coast of Florida’s panhandle. Part of St. Andrew State Park, Shell stretches for seven and a half miles to the east, where it terminates in Land’s End. Most of the island is narrow, separating St. Andrew Bay from the Gulf of Mexico with only a few hundred yards of pristine white sand that scientists have traced to the bottom of the Yucatan Straits. There are also small stands of pine trees, scrub brush and coastal zones of wild sea grasses that park biologists fence off as areas for nesting seabirds.
A third of the way to our destination we angled over to sail close to what I call “Millionaires’ Row.” Here, large and small sailboats, giant cruisers and rental pontoon boats all moor opposite a long white strand of sand, which was blown or washed across the island by Hurricane Opal in October 1995. After that we continued on to a single strand of beach with a relatively deep lagoon in front of it, where we beached Kat and unloaded our cargo. This would be our base, where we could lighten the boat and go sailing in the bay.
I’ve learned that everything you put on an open beach may get blown away, so we made sure to secure our large, colorful beach umbrella with a set of SunTwister sand anchors and stowed the beach chairs nearby. We also used sand anchors to secure a small nylon dome tent, where we stowed our soft-sided cooler, water supply and camera gear. For the sand anchors, I’d sawed several 1in x 4in x 12in pieces of cedar and drilled holes in their middle through which I secured a two-foot length of rope. We dug down a foot into the sand with a garden trowel, buried each anchor and tied off to the four corners of the tent. No wind would take it away now!
Open fires are not allowed on these beaches, so we brought an inexpensive grill with legs to hold it above the sand and filled it with self-lighting charcoal that never flames up and burns to a fine gray ash. As a backup we had a storm-proof matches kit with extra long matches that light even when wet, a Coleman gas stove for brewing camp coffee, and boxed juices and granola bars for breakfast.
I’m a firm believer in living off the land whenever possible, so I also brought a 20-foot-long Douglas minnow seine. One sweep yielded a large group of minnows, which we deep-fried for lunch. Mike and I had snorkeling gear, too, which we donned to dive up some bay scallops that were in season. Blue crabs caught with short-handled nets and stone crabs caught with gloved hands could have been added to our menu as well, but our cooler was already full of hotdogs and turkey sandwiches.
Knowing we’d have no electricity, we’d brought a limited supply of electronics, including a solar-
powered radio with a hand crank, which we used for checking weather reports. We kept our cell phones in waterproof cases and saved the numbers of local marine patrols on them. For charging purposes, we carried a paperback-sized waterproof portable Brunton Restore Power Device. AC- and solar-charged, it juices up anything that accepts mini and micro USB adapters. Before setting out, Mike had used Kat Baloo’s boom tent to wrap up our waterproof bags and gear, and then tied the bundle snugly onto the trampoline so everything was protected from waves or a sudden downpour. We also brought along four big jugs of water, which we stowed out of the way on Kat by tying them to the four aluminum corner pylons under the trampoline. These jugs went into the tent on land.
Kat Baloo’s boom-tent set-up is as simple as it gets: a 12-by-14-foot poly tarp draped over the boom and secured with four brass grommets to the four corners of the boat. It works anywhere, whether Kat Baloo is on a beach or anchored in some quiet cove. The trampoline with a pillow and sheet for each of us was all we needed for comfort. Of course, we had bug spray handy, but as long as we had a good sea breeze and stayed away from vegetation, we remained bug-free.
And now, with our base camp set, we were gear-free too!
Kat Baloo without gear aboard moves about as swiftly as one can travel under sail on the water. Her kick-up rudders enabled us to quickly sail the length of the island and check on areas that we never would have been able to explore aboard a deeper fixed keel sailboat.
Over the course of the next four days we dipped around coves of the barrier islands, enjoying the scenery, the breezes and the shallow waters. Whenever we wished, we shot back to the state park where we were registered as campers so we could beach the boat and take advantage of its shower and bathroom facilities. All the while, we had our beachside campsite beckoning us home at night.
In the end, our boom-tenting trip was pretty basic. We didn’t bring much or sail far. But we proved yet again how easy it is to expand from just camping and just sailing to sail-camping, and thereby increase the enjoyment of both.
I’m sure that Huck Finn would happily approve of our “rafting” adventure—even without the corncob pipes.
Story and Photos by Bob Burgess
Bob Burgess spent decades travelling the globe before settling in North Florida, where he became an avid small-boat sailor. He is the author of The Handbook of Trailer Sailing