To Boca Grande under sail …

To Boca Grande under sail …

■ BY TIM SEIBERT

The following was written in 2005 by island resident Edward “Tim” J. Seibert. It’s an interesting piece, and with his upcoming honors at the SarasotaMOD event we thought it was also timely to run it now.
Seibert’s lifetime achievement in architecture will be the focus of Sarasota MOD Weekend November 10-12, sponsored by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. The fête, which will feature lectures, discussions, exhibitions, and parties, as well as walking and trolley tours, coincides with Seibert’s 90th birthday.
Go to sarasotamod.com for more information.      
Seibert is also a board member of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board.

 

When I was in high school I sailed my catboat on Sarasota Bay. Later, in the early 1950s, I started sailing down to Boca Grande. There was no Intracoastal Waterway below Venice then, so we came down from Sarasota Pass outside. Boca Grande was a busy deep-sea port, the best natural harbor in Florida. Sailing through the Swash Channel we would usually see several rusty cargo ships at anchor, wearing flags from countries all over the world, waiting their turn to load phosphate.

My longest and toughest voyage ending in Boca Grande was in 1958, when I signed on as crew on Loon, a 30-foot yawl, to race from St.Petersburg to Havana. The distance was 284 miles.

The night before the start the race committee announced that the race would be diverted to Miami. Fidel Castro, a trouble-making ragtag revolutionary, and his gang had shot holes in some sails the year before just as the boats finished off Morro Castle. Senator Vidana of Cuba, who had entered his 65-foot yawl “Criollo” in the race, said we should not be speaking of politics but should give our full attention to the great sporting event in which we were soon to be engaged. Castro was but an upstart revolutionary, and after 25 years the traditional race must not be canceled! Revolutions are temporary he said, and this one would be, too.

Most of the crews of the 30 boats, about 180 sailors, agreed with the senator. They wanted to go to Havana for the after race parties and the welcome that was a cherished tradition at the race’s end. I, too was looking forward to Havana and a reacquaintance with its exotic nightlife. But the race committee held firm.

“It’s our club and our race and we will not put anyone at risk,” they said.

The next morning we started for Miami, 396 miles away. We were a crew of five – Captain John and his two teenage sons, Harvey, an experienced deepwater sailor, and me. It was a downwind start and I was on the foredeck in charge of flying our big spinnaker exactly when Captain John barked the order. In spite of the tension of jockeying for the best place on the starting line, I couldn’t help but enjoy the beautiful sailing machines maneuvering around us. It was as if Leonardo de Vinci had been making these toys for rich men.

The Loon was quite different, a locally made boat, built lightly of plywood, made to take advantage of the frequent light winds of Florida. Our best chance against the big boats was careful sailing and light winds, for then we could achieve our maximum rated speed while the big boats needed lots of wind to get up to their maximum speed.

There was a complicated handicap formula, and every boat in the fleet except one, the Brisote, had to cross the finish line at Miami many hours, even a day, before we did to beat us. Loon was considered by some to be a rule beater, even a freak, and if light weather slowed the big boys, we had a chance.

A 20-knot breeze blew the big fleet down Tampa Bay at a rapid rate, and the leaders were nearing the new Sunshine Skyway. Captain John was grumbling about how the new bridge made navigation too easy for those “Yankee boats.”

“Now you don’t have to know a damn thing about Tampa Bay, just head for the middle of the bridge. Local knowledge used to give an advantage at the start,” he grumbled. Minutes later we noticed we were drawing abeam of Criollo, which meant the boat had to be aground. A dinghy splashed overboard manned by several of the crew, carrying out an anchor to kedge off. Use of the engine would have disqualified the boat.

Before dusk we jibed the spinnaker and rounded the Tampa sea buoy, steering a course for the Rebecca Shoals Light. Loon was rolling heavily and became hard to steer. I had the beginnings of seasickness, and was starting to think of home.

Looking astern we saw that Criollo had pulled off the sandbar and was about to fly past us. She was created by Olin Stevens, the best of America’s sailing yacht designers, and was in function, purpose and form as much a work of art as anything man could make. Every sail was trimmed and she was charging along in sea conditions perfect for her purpose and design.

The setting sun made a rolling ball of fire along the side of her varnished teak hull. We all thought at that moment that we might not see such beauty again, for such vessels require creators of rare talent and patrons of enormous wealth and understanding of the creator’s art. It is moments such as this that make up for the sometime misery of life in a small boat at sea.

The five of us stayed on deck until midnight, for we were all of us tense from the excitement of the start. We alternated steering, about 15 or 20 minutes each, for Loon was wearisome to steer. We had a copious quantity of ham sandwiches. I was able to wash down half of one with a cola. About midnight the boys and I went below to sleep, or at least rest. It was like sleeping while going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. My foot braced against a stanchion and my arm inside a locker I lost consciousness, if it wasn’t sleep.

About 4 a.m. Captain John shook me awake: It was my time on deck. Loon was rolling along as fast as she could go, every working sail she had plus spinnaker and mizzen staysail pulling. She was trying hard to plane on the surface of the sea, like a motorboat. The two boys and I steered, alternating every half hour or less. There were no electronic marvels then that told you exactly where you were anytime you wanted to know. Steering an accurate course was the only way we were going to find the Rebecca Shoals Light. Any bearings I, the navigator, could get on the Radio Direction Finder swung through five or 10 degrees and my position lines formed a triangle as big as my hand on the chart.

When dawn came I was surprised at the dark blue of the sea, and the size of the waves and whitecaps. There were birds hunting for breakfast. I saw life everywhere while the sun warmed the ache in my shoulders. Captain John made some ferocious coffee on the alcohol stove and we wolfed down the ham sandwiches with canned peaches for desert. Life was better. We were shipmates, comrades now.

All day we stormed along. There was little sail trimming to do, but she was hard to steer. The designer had placed the rudder quite far forward on a short keel. This might be fine for around the buoys races, but it wasn’t good at sea. Later the rudder was moved aft for other races. Harvey had an onion sandwich and a beer. We told tired jokes and tall tales to pass the time. Captain John told us about his time as a Marine aviator in Nicaragua and how he got airsick in his spiffy new white leather helmet.

Just after dark we spotted Rebecca Shoals Light, to my vast relief, athough I tried not to show it. We found our buoy and changed course to the East. We dropped our mizzen staysail and took off the spinnaker, setting a Genoa jib. Harvey and I were on the foredeck wrestling in the big sail. The boat would go up, then down and when I also went downward I hoped the boat would still be there under me.

Now we were not rolling. Loon had her big jib on and we were hard on the wind. The spray flew and the boat was pounding to weather. We had heard the Navy was holding submarine training off Key West. I wondered how you could see one in the dark as it broached the surface. We were holding as close to the buoys and lights alongshore as we could, to shorten the distance. The bigger boats, we figured, would go further south to pick up a boost from the Gulfstream. It was going to be a long, cold night.

At dawn we saw Brisote on a course that might fetch the finish line. We crossed tacks, deciding to head further east, as Captain John thought they had changed course too soon. The Brisote crew was all on deck, sitting on the weather rail just as if they were on an afternoon race. Harvey said she looked like a Star class with a mizzen. Accommodations and food aboard that boat were even more primitive than ours, but obviously they were still in the race to win. The boat looked very small, and the crews gave each other languid salutes.

As we headed east the wind moved southward, and Captain John decided we were overstanding the finish line. We tacked and headed for the line. We arrived shortly after Brisote. She was sixth in our class, we were seventh. We had sailed a good race, and had made virtually no errors. I don’t think the Brisote crew knew the wind would shift any more than we did. Luck is always necessary at sea, and particularly on races.

We believed the weather had favored the bigger boats, and that next time it might favor Loon, as it subsequently did.

The awards party was not up to Havana standards, although being ashore and having a shower and clean clothes was more than comfortable. Not having the plumbing move about was a plus too. When I first looked in the mirror I saw a salt encrusted stubble of a beard and a face that had been in the sun too long. Hot water, soap and a nap did wonders.

All of us welcomed Captain John’s decision to go home via Lake Okeechobee. The macho swagger of salty sailors was worn away, and we puttered along under the faithful four-cylinder Kermath, past miles of condominiums and hotels. Just like an automobile trip, we stopped off nights at motels and had restaurant meals. Somewhere along the way the entire crew had caught colds, and we sneezed and hacked too much to sleep in the cramped cabin. Going down the Caloosahatchee River it turned cold and windy. The wind was fair so we set the spinnaker and roared along the narrow ditch under the startled gaze of hundreds of cows.

We arrived at Miller’s Marina on Boca Grande about lunchtime on a sunny warm day. Miller’s then was a small well-kept store, with gray siding and red brick paving, surrounded by blooming flowers. There was a gas pump out front that some time later was run over by a tourist and caused a fire that entirely destroyed the little store. The present building is the replacement, with years of “improvements.”

Our colds seemed to miraculously vanish in the sunshine and leisure of walking around Boca Grande and taking in the sights. The new bridge was built but yet to open, and the town seemed then a long way from the rest of Florida, a very special place. In the sense of long ago and far away, it was a romantic. I believe I came here on the ferry once or twice, but usually I came by sail That helped in the feeling of apartness, for it takes a lot of time and work to get anywhere on a sailboat.

Where the bike path is now was then the railroad track. A diesel engine might rumble by, a long line of hopper cars loaded with phosphate on the way to the port, to be loaded on ships bound around the world. Boca Grande was populated year round by trainmen, sailors, port workers, fishermen, fishing guides, harbor pilots and crew, boat builders and mechanics.

That night at the old Pink Elephant we went upstairs to the bar and met a few of these people. The best seat was a sort of booth at one end of the bar where there was a window view of a thriving garden of poison ivy. Outside of the bar was an open deck with tables and chairs where couples sometimes danced to the jukebox. The dining room was down stairs then, where the bar is today. We realized that some of the men we met that night were on the water every day to earn a living, and that we, salty though we might feel, only went out once in a while when we wanted to. We admired the good sense and skill that we found that night. There were fewer damn fools in Boca Grande then than now.

We walked back to the boat among ferocious mosquitoes. There was no waterway between the Pink and Miller’s then, and apparently no mosquito control. Well fed and somewhat the worse for rum we tumbled into our bunks.

About dawn the snoring and itching of mosquito bites woke me. We had forgotten to put in the insect screening, and I no longer had the anesthetic of rum. I sat on the cabin top to watch the sunrise. Moored across from us was an ancient yacht of perhaps seventy feet, made in the long lean style of the 1920s. Soon a wild-looking guy came topside and was very ill. He stepped onto the dock and stuck a sizeable hose in a porthole, and turned on the water. A gaggle of scantily clad ladies came bursting out of several hatches, using language of a vile sort. “Sunrise in Boca Grande,” I said to myself. “This is where I want to live.”

It took me almost 30 years, but here I am.