At least once a year and sometimes twice, Elaine and I escape to Islamorada, a gloriously lovely island halfway down the chain of the Florida Keys, where we read, snooze and mostly do very little while gazing out at the magnificent Florida Bay (Gulf of Mexico). About 400 miles away from our home, its something of a busman’s holiday for us, since we live just off a spectacular North Florida beach. The Keys are different, with plenty of beautiful water but few beaches.
Every morning, Elaine paints and I sail my wonderful small yellow trimaran, which I’ve come to think of as a water bug skimming across the surface.
She seems almost like a toy, and it alarms the power boaters when they watch me head out and then disappear, engineless, over the horizon. They know its the big water out there, and sometimes one will approach Elaine and ask whether she’d like them to find me. Nope, she’ll tell them, he’ll find his way back.
This is a Windrider 16, a plastic-hulled solo boat designed by the famous large trimaran architect Jim Brown, and sailed in several expeditions, including one (by obviously crazy people) across the Bering Straits. She is simplicity itself, but a Ferrari of small sailboats. You sit in her like a kayak. There are cables running from pedals to the rudder, letting you steer with your feet. The mainsheet – the line that controls the sail – runs into the cockpit, and I have a “heavy weather cockpit cover” that raises the sides of the cockpit and puts up a barrier to waves that might sluice down the deck and onto me. (Though there is also a hand bilge pump to get the water out when I am occasionally sloshed.)
She’ll go 12 knots or faster in a breeze, which is like lightning in a normal small boat, and the tiniest puff will move her. You can stow enough gear to go camping and you can pass through water 6 inches deep. And there’s a bimini, an awning, that you can put up to get you out of the intense Florida sun. And because she has three hulls connected by strong aluminum beams, she’s a stable platform if you want to anchor and stretch out, or perform some task.
I carry a compass, a radio, a GPS, tools, a first aid kit, snorkeling gear and plenty of liquids with me, and can cover 50 miles or more in a morning outing. I usually head out with a destination in mind – the reef 7 miles out on the Atlantic side, one of the out-islands in the Gulf. some wreck I haven’t visited before – and work my way back in whenever I’m ready.
One time I ran over to the Atlantic side, which is much rougher and fiercer than the Gulf, and blew out to the seven mile reef for a visit. There are Spanish galleon wrecks from the 18th century out there, driven into a mile from shore by hurricanes and marked with buoys. It was a particularly energetic and fast sail, with a stiff breeze coming out of the southwest. As I approached the reef, the water became much shallower and the bottom became white and sandy, which the bright sun turned a brilliant turquoise. I let up on the mainsheet and slowed, savoring the scene. In this boat you’re sitting down in the water, and your head is about 3 feet above water level. I glanced out, and just next to me, maybe four feet away, was a huge shark, maybe 12 feet, that had pulled up at the surface. Not really a concern, but unnerving all the same. So I hauled in on the sheet and sped out of there. Still, it was a reminder of where I was, and that I was in the middle of it.
When we’re not in the Keys, the water bug sits, idle, stranded on a trailer in my back yard, a little desolate, waiting for the next exhilarating trip.