A couple of years ago, in the dying days of a beautiful September in the Florida Panhandle, my friend Doug and I decided to try a tricky weekend sail into a part of St. Andrew Bay, near Panama City, where sailboats never go. The wind and currents here cause strange things to happen when bay and tidal waters collide. A ship channel has cut off a seven-mile finger of land now known as Shell Island. The dredged channel has rock jetties on either side for protection. At the other end of the island, near the original ship channel known as Old Pass—now long closed by shifting sands—the restless waters are forever sculpting the shoreline and the bottom’s sandbars into ever-changing free-form shapes with deep pools and winding channels.
I’d long wanted to explore this area’s islands and deep pools, but knew that doing so aboard any kind or keelboat was out of the question because of the man shoals. That’s when I thought of my Hobie Cat 16, Kat Baloo. When the wind was up she could sail anywhere as long as there was at least three inches of water to wet her stiletto-shaped hulls.
In my youth I’d enjoyed sailing Kat Baloo fast, often flying a hull while hanging off her trapeze. But as I grew older, I began to see that my sleek Kat might have other virtues as well— specifically, I imagined she might serve as a live-aboard over-nighter, a queen-size bed on water skis!
First and foremost, Kat Baloo was easy to push up on a beach. She could also easily accommodate a boom tent, if she had a backstay or topping lift for her boom. Granted, she had neither. But Doug and I were determined to spend the night on her, one way or the other. We were also determined to sail her where other sailboats never went—a private place with wild, untamed scenery and wind and waves that were always spectacular, a place called Land’s End.
No Man’s Land
For our weekend adventure we lashed water jugs to her tramp pylons with shock cord and stuffed granola bars, hotdogs and buns into a small cooler. At Andrew State Park near Panama City we paid for parking our truck and trailer, and then launched. Afterward, Kat sizzled across the ship channel on a brisk breeze. With Shell Island to starboard, we skimmed past miles of sand and sea-oat dunes.
I enjoyed not having to alter course to avoid sandbars. Southern stingrays darted from under our bows on their way to deeper water. As the water depth dropped to l2 inches over a massive sandbar, the rudders kicked up and I had to keep a firm grip on the tiller bar as we streaked across. Back in deeper water I lowered and locked the rudders again.
Leaving behind a small fleet of cruisers anchored along the mile-long beach that Hurricane Opal had pushed into the bay back in 1995, we angled closer to the Gulf and the contoured sand flats ahead, and then we entered a kind of watery no man’s land of winding channels and sandy shoals. The rudders kicked up automatically as we charged across flats only inches deep. We pinched closer to the wind, closer to a desolate sand plateau far ahead.
Finally, at Land’s End—the last land before jumping off into the Gulf of Mexico—we sailed ashore. This was as good a spot as any from which to explore the intricate sand shoals and islands sprawled to our southeast. Offshore, the surf raged, hiding the narrow entrance to the Old Pass. Everything here was flat and white, with a strong wind that was ideal for skimming across the barely wetted flats that opened into deep green pools. Narrow lagoons led to isolated sand islands where black skimmer birds lay their eggs in shallow sand depressions. They knew no man would tread here. Kat was just one more flying creature skimming across the countless acres of white sand. She didn’t disturb the native inhabitants in the least.
A few minutes later, we anchored our small bright red beach umbrella securely so that we could be sure of finding our way back again that evening. Then it was off to further explore the waters beyond Land’s End. As the colors shifted with the changing light, we swept across the pass for a quarter-mile run to where fishermen tried their luck on a distant shore. We flew so swiftly that when we hit incoming waves Kat never hesitated, she just split them into flying silver drops as we hissed through, yelling at the top of our lungs.
At sundown we returned to our marker and pushed Kat up onto the beach. In no time we had hot dogs simmering over a driftwood fire. That night we slept on Kat’s trampoline under the stars, using lifejackets for pillows and Mylar space blankets to stay warm. Had it rained, we would have dived under the trampoline.
Next morning, after coffee and breakfast, we sailed the flats again. Even wearing polarized sunglasses to help us read the subtle shifts in water colors, it was tricky finding water deep enough for the Hobie’s long rudders. Each time we worked our way through a maze of sandbars, often holding close to a channel near shore, a sudden shift in the bottom would catch us, and up they’d pop. It was like trying to navigate an underwater obstacle course at breakneck speed, with only fleeting seconds to decide which channels to take—which of course, was the reason we’d come out here in the first place. We thoroughly enjoyed our high-speed game.
That afternoon we spotted a stalled sailboat far out on the bars. Sailing out to it we found a distraught man and woman aboard a battered Catalina 22 with no radio. They told us days earlier they had sailed out of St. Petersburg—half a state away—heading north for Panama City, where they hoped to find work. Their old chart had shown this to be an open pass, which indeed it had been years ago. But now it was silted up, and they were aground on a sand flat miles from anywhere.
We dropped Kat’s hook in knee-deep water, and the three of us pushed their boat into a narrow but deeper channel leading through the pass into the bay. With luck they would make it to Panama City before dark.
Things I’ve Learned
Since that first trip, I’ve figured out a way to rig up Kat to accommodate a boom tent, by adding a short knotted tag line to the end of the main halyard, which I then use like a topping lift. By sliding the knot into the aft end of the boom’s sail slot, I can easily trim the boom parallel to the tramp.
Last summer, Mike Dilts, an outdoor survival specialist from Quebec, joined me for an entire week of sailing and camping aboard Kat on the Gulf Coast. The blue tarp we used as our boom tent also served to help keep our other gear stay dry when we were under sail. Other gear included a full-beach umbrella and folding beach chairs. Because a sea breeze can take away anything not firmly anchored, we brought a sand anchor to help keep the umbrella in place, while an inexpensive ripstop nylon tent served to shelter our soft-sided cooler, camera gear, water, camp toilet and other supplies. The tent could easily sleep four adults if children or other family members ever elected to come along.
Our camp stove was a single-burner Coleman, and our weather radio, lanterns and flashlights always worked because they were solar-charged. An AC and solar-charged paperback-sized waterproof portable Brunton Restore Power Device also came in handy. It juiced up anything that accepted mini and micro USB adapters, keeping our MP3s and cell phones powered up at all times. My thin Kindle reader, which fit nicely into a Ziploc bag, held several e-books about sailing the world.
Late at night, after Mike had turned in, I would read by the light of the solar lantern about sailing the South Seas, with the sounds of the surf in my ears and warm tropical breezes whispering to us off the Gulf. Reading about South Seas sailing at night under the stars on your own tropical island—it doesn’t get much better than that.
To keep things simple we made sandwiches in advance to store in our soft-sided water cooler and used a simple charcoal cooker for grilling hot dogs. Our most valuable piece of gear was a tightly rolled 20-foot minnow seine with aluminum end poles. One sweep with that in front of our camp netted enough whitebait to feed a crowd. We deep-fried what we wanted for lunch and let the rest go. I found I could handle the seine solo if I inserted one end of a rod into a screw-down anchor like the one we used for the umbrella and let it pivot as I made a seine swing with the other rod through the surf for fresh fish.
Some nights we slept under Kat’s boom tent. Other nights we slept under the stars. There were no bugs, and our sandals, swim shorts and clothing were made of quick-drying synthetics that were easy to keep fresh. We couldn’t have been happier. The beach tent sheltered our gear while we sailed or snorkeled the bay. A walk over the low dune and through the sea oats behind us put us on a wide open white beach without a soul for miles in either direction. That’s the barrier island sailor’s life for you!
Doug and I have also sail-camped on freshwater lakes just as comfortably. Because lakes often have high banks, we sometimes anchor out and sleep under the boom tent. Although there are no tides to contend with, if we camp too near foliage we will often have lots of hungry insect “visitors” keeping us company. We also learned to avoid camping on any island with nesting birds because they will inevitably talk all night.
All considered, it’s great having a bare-bones multihull that can so easily serve as a “live-aboard,” especially one light enough to push up on a beach. A multihull that can multitask—a load-carrying speed demon by day, and a Queen-Size berth by night. The late Hobie Alter would have been proud.