It ain’t sailing, but it’s better than sitting on the dock

There are two options for cruising down the Gulf Coast of Florida: “inside” on the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway (GIIW), or “outside” on the Gulf of Mexico itself. We choose the sailing equivalent of training wheels and decided to stick to the GIIW for our first few days. This croute ensured that we had barrier islands protecting us from wind and weather. And it gave us many more options of where to stop in protected anchorages each night. We didn’t have to commit to long days on the water right off the dock. The down side of this decision was the knowledge that we wouldn’t even be raising the sails for days. Instead, we would just motor along the Intercoastal, being very careful to stay in the center of a narrow channel and making sure that we kept in deep enough water for our boat’s six-foot draft.

The trip is broken up by passage under many bridges: bascule, or draw bridges, and swing bridges. On the day after Sarasota, we passed under 10 bridges that needed to open to provide clearance for our 50 ft mast.

Negotiating the bridges is an interesting process. First, I look up the name of the bridge we are approaching, to ensure I can hail the bridge master by name. Then I speak on VHF channel 9 to get the attention of the next bridge master, let him (or her) know that Sailing Vessel Sanitas is approaching southbound, and to ask for the next scheduled bridge opening time. Invariably, our cruising guidebook is out of date, and lists that the bridge opens every 20 minutes, when it really opens every half hour. Or, it states that the bridge opens on the hour, when we just barely missed the last actual opening at a quarter-till. Once we know the time, we essentially tread water to hold our place until traffic is stopped, the bridge horns sound, the two sides of the bridge fully open, and we can pass safely through the middle. Hopefully, not too many boats are coming from the other direction, or it can get quite crowded! Once we’ve passed through, I let the bridge master know that Sanitas is clear, and thank him for the bridge opening.

This can obviously add quite a bit of time to the trip. Especially when we time it badly, and arrive at a bridge just after an opening, and need to wait for another half hour for our next chance. On the last bridge of the day, we could see a beautiful blue swing bridge guarding the entrance to Charlotte Harbor. I hailed the bridgemaster, who said the bridge was going to open in 5 minutes, and that it stayed open for about four minutes. I must have sounded crestfallen when I responded that we probably wouldn’t make it in time, and would have to eat for the next opportunity. (In reality, we were thinking that if we missed this opening, we might need to stop for the night, as it was getting very close to sunset.) As the swing bridge started to open, I told the bridgemaster this was the most beautiful bridge we’d seen all day. He responded, “Flattery will get you everywhere. Hold your speed Sanitas. I’m holding the bridge open for you to pass.” Mike and I hooted and hollered, increased the rpms on the engine, and shot the the gap. And made it to our anchorage off Gasparilla Island before sunset.

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