Guest Blog: Michael Cook

Slow Boat to Margaritaville
2008 Regata del Sol al Sol

On April 23rd, I flew from Italy to Tampa, Florida to participate in the 2008 Regata del Sol al Sol. Bob Gruber, skipper of Summerwind, an Allied Seawind 32 ketch, had asked me along as navigator for the race. Bob is a good friend and colleague at Arch Chemicals and I’ve sailed with him on Summerwind a number of times. Thus there was no mystery as to what I was getting into. But I get ahead of myself.

I had the pleasure of traveling on the first leg of the trip from Milan to Atlanta with my wife and this gave me ample opportunity to assure her that we’d take the necessary precautions and would use good judgment during the race. I suspect every sailor tells his girl this, but it seemed the thing to do.

Bob met me at the airport and we drove to the marina where Bob had Summerwind berthed. She looked even smaller than the last time I saw her. At only 32 feet, this is about the smallest boat you’d want to go offshore in. Audentes looks like a cruise ship in comparison. The Allied Seawind ketch is a full keel, solid offshore boat and they have been cruised widely. However, they were never known for their speed and this boat is much older than my grown children. Bob makes do on a relatively small boat budget – part due to necessity and part due to the enjoyment he gets from finding a $10 fix to a $100 problem (although the quality and duration of the fix… well sometimes it’s not what he hoped for). Thus Summerwind is not endowed with the latest electronics, her galley is rudimentary, her engine has a few problems (more on that later), her running rigging is a bit worn, and awhile back the larger headsail blew out and so she relies on an aging 100% jib. Still she is very seaworthy and with a capable crew, she should have no problem doing 500 miles offshore.

Fortunately the Regata del Sol al Sol is as much a group cruise as a hardcore race. You can find more details on the race at . The regatta has long been known as much for its parties and the hospitality of the Island of Isla Mujeres as the racing. Summerwind had by far the highest handicap of any boat in the fleet at 314 (that is 314 seconds per mile x 500 miles for the race) vs. the scratch boat for the race, a Macgregor 72 which had a handicap of -47. This meant if we finished within 50 hours (that’s over two days!) after the Macgregor we would still beat him on corrected time. Needless to say a high handicap can come in handy, but as all golfers know, the low handicap performer almost always wins.

On Thursday, Bob and I sailed the boat across Tampa Bay to the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the host club for the race. We had a beautiful sail across the bay and even tried out his mizzen staysail, a sail that he had had up only once since he bought the boat. With the light winds forecasted for the race, I figured we would need to fly everything he had. We got to the SPYC in good time and tied up at the slip just as the other two crew members for the race showed up – Arif Haq, another colleague at Arch and Steve Oday, a friend of Bob’s. We had all sailed together once before for a weekend, so it was good to catch up. The afternoon was taken up with pre-race briefings and meetings. After dinner, as I was the only one with jet-lag, I turned in early while the other three went out to explore the local nightlife.

Friday dawned warm and sunny with a nice breeze out of the northeast – just as forecast. The gap between us and the “race boats” was highlighted as I watched the boat next to us lay out his FIVE spinnakers on the deck to prepare them for the race. These spinnakers were hi-tech sails and probably cost $8,000 – $10,000 per sail. I couldn’t help thinking that their spinnakers cost more than the market value of Summerwind. To add insult to injury, a chef (at least a guy in a chef’s hat and apron) came down the dock pushing a cart with metal containers full of prepared meals – catered food – for the race boat.

The forecast for the start of the race was for the breeze to die in the afternoon as the building sea breeze canceled out the prevailing easterlies. By the time the race started at around 10 AM, the breeze was already starting to weaken. Still it was a beautiful start as 45 sailboats headed down Tampa Bay bound for Mexico. The breeze died completely before we were half-way down Tampa Bay. Fortunately the outgoing tide carried us out under the Sunshine Bridge and a light sea breeze allowed us to finally sail out of Tampa Bay. By that time, we had already dropped to the last boat in the fleet. This was expected, but it was still discouraging to be last after only 8 hours of racing. The boats quickly separated as they entered the open Gulf of Mexico and we would not see any of the boats again until we approached Mexico. We aimed Summerwind a bit more westerly then the direct route to Isla Mujeres, hoping to get a bit more wind and favorable current if we could get away from land quickly.

We began our four hour watches – Arif and I on one watch and Bob and Steve on the other. I’m not sure when Arif made the fateful comment, but at some point he said he only slept about 4 hours per night. This is not something you want to boast about, especially if you have never sailed offshore before. I don’t know if it was the motion of the boat or the fact that he was relaxed now that we were out of cell phone coverage, but during the next five days Arif managed to sleep about 20 hours per day. For the four hours he was awake, he had to listen to endless comments about “four hour Arif”.

The first two days we had nice winds out of the east – strongest at night and weakening in the afternoon. We were making good progress and one watch followed another. There is a nice rhythm that gets established when you are making passages. At each watch change, Bob and I would make an entry in the log with our position and speed. While we had ice in the icebox, we enjoyed fresh foods and cold beer. One of us would cook up a nice dinner just before sunset and that was usually the one time the entire crew sat around for an hour or so and discussed world politics, etc. Then it was the off watch down below to get some sleep.

By Monday morning on the midnight to 4 AM watch, were really flying with good winds and a favorable current. We covered 28 miles in that watch which for Bob’s boat is probably a record. Spirits were high and Bob was determined to beat the highest instantaneous speed I had recorded during my watch of 8.4 knots. I had a hard time sleeping down below as the boat was really moving around and I heard him calling out the speeds as we flew along (I think he hit 9 knots).

By the time the sun rose, we were less than 140 miles from Isle Mujeres. However, by late morning the wind had died and the seas went nearly flat. The favorable current kept carrying us south for a bit longer, but we were dead in the water. Unless you have sailed offshore, you don’t know uncomfortable this can be. It is hot and no air is moving. The boat rocks from side to side and it is hard to read or do anything else. In a race, it is even worse because you’re not sure whether your competition is seeing the same thing or merrily sailing on to the finish. Bob does not have a long range radio, so we had no way to get a new weather forecast. Based upon the forecast we had when we left, this was a bad sign as once the winds died they were forecast to stay almost at zero for the next three to four days.

So we sat for about twelve hours hoping for wind and doing the math. By early evening we decided that it wasn’t worth missing our flights and started the engine. The decision wasn’t that hard to make, after all this was a cruising boat not a race boat. We were out of the race and now the primary motivation was to get there for warm showers, a soft bed and parties on the beach. But Summerwind has a number of limitations and one of them is some sort of problem with her engine/transmission/propeller. You can’t run the engine past about half speed or the boat slows down instead of speeding up. The bottom line is that the boat cannot motor faster than about 4 knots through calm water and if there is any headwind you are in trouble. To get to Isle Mujeres you have to travel against the strong Yucatan current which runs up to 3 knots against you. Needless to say, it was a long motorboat ride and at times we were hardly making any headway at all. We still wondered whether we had made the right decision to drop out of the race, but as the hours turned into days and still we motored on with no wind, our doubts turned to thanks that we were not still back there waiting for wind that would be a long time in coming. In the end, 21 of 45 boats would abandon the race because of light winds. The fastest boats were able to get to Isla Mujeres before the wind died.

On Tuesday evening, the water tanks ran dry and we were down to half a case of bottled water. There was two cans of Dainty Moore stew left, some spaghetti and a can of tuna. Worst of all, the crew was in dire need of showers. It was a good thing we were closing in on Isle Mujeres. At 3 am on Wednesday we motored across the finish line and were escorted to the marina where we would clear immigration and customs. This was a novel way for me to enter a country; at 4 am in the morning we were met at the dock by a guy who gave us a bag containing cold beer and who pointed us down the dock to the government officials who cleared is in – the whole thing took less than 20 minutes!

We then had to move the boat about 2 miles to the marina where Bob had reservation, but about 75 yards after we left dock the engine on Summerwind died and would not restart. Hard to believe after motoring for a day and a half! Bob threw out an anchor and tried to clear the diesel line by sucking on it – all he got was a mouth full of diesel. In the end, our escort had to tow us to the marina; an ignominious way to finish the trip, but we were all happy to be in Mexico and in one piece.

After getting a shower and some sleep, we spent the rest of Wednesday and Thursday enjoying the hospitality of our hosts on Isle Mujeres. By Friday I was tired of hanging out with a bunch of old, inebriated sailors and was happy to catch my flight home. While we didn’t win any trophies, I love to sail and I had a great time. I think the other members of the crew had a good time as well. We finished the voyage with no injuries to the crew or damage to the boat and based upon my experience, that’s a pretty good result.

5 Replies to “Guest Blog: Michael Cook”

  1. The fact that Gruber avoided causing an international incident with Cuba is a victory in itself.

  2. I’m sorry I wasn’t there this time to dive into the December water to scrape Summerwind’s propeller with an old screwdriver.

  3. Eric Beebe says:

    I wonder if they found my sandals…

  4. Bob Gruber says:

    Ah, where to begin?
    I think you nailed me on the $10 fix to the $100 problem – is this a strength or weakness? I’ll bet Aaron can relate. You did catch the essense of the race. I’m surprized you didn’t comment on the race director at the skippers meeting. This was a time for people to ask questions about the race start, strategy, rules, etc. Everytime someone asked a question, the director bit their head off, and then told them to read it – if was was in the rules, he wasn’t going to repeat it. After several tried, everyone else just shut up and asked other skippers what they thought.

    Aaron is correct in concern over Cuba. The current goes easterly at the point we were becalmed, and next stop would have been Havana. Summerwind would fit right in with those ’57 Chevys.
    The problem with the engine was I forgot to start the fuel pump, but we don’t need to broadcast that oversight.

    The trip back was even more exciting. A fellow from Atlanta, Brandon Smith, who I met only once, agreed to fly down to Mexico to help bring Summerwind back. He was interested in getting bluewater experience, and boy did he. Mike is correct in that clearing in through customs only took 20 minutes, but clearing out took 2 days. We met with the customs offical on Thursday to complete the paper work for an early Friday departure. We were told to return on Friday morning. We showed up at 8:00am only to be told to come back at 10:00. At 10:00, we were told the paper work was still not complete. When we asked how long it might be, we were told either 15 minutes, 2 hours,. or 1 day. We then came back at 1:00 pm to check and were told to take all of the stamped paperwork to the main immigration office on the island, and get seven (7) copies stamped and then return to the dock. But, we now had our passports in hand, and after exiting the small office at the dock, we planned our escape. Let’s just leave it at the Mexican authorities still think we’re in Mexico.

    Leaving Isla Mujeres, we ended up sailing behind the Black Pearl, which was going out on a tourist sail – yes – that Black Pearl. If I would have told my wife, she would have flown down to see if Jack Sparrow, (Johnny Depp) was still in attendance.
    Before leaving we, topped off the fresh water tank (65 gal), the fuel tank, and 2 jerry cans of fuel.
    The first day had 15 kt winds from the east, and with the strong northerly current, we were averaging 7+ kts. Later in the day, the water stopped coming out of the sink, and we discovered the fresh water tank had been pumped dry into the bilge. From 65 gallons to zero in one day – another $10 fix didn’t work. we counted the bottled water and figured we could each have 3 bottles per day for the next 5 days. Fortunately, Brandon was in the Army for 10 years, including jungle warfare training, and I think actually enjoyed the challenge.

    Then the wind died for 3 days – now we were going through the diesel. After praying for wind, we finally got it on the 3rd day – straight out of thr north, and right on the nose. Maybe I should improve my attendance, to improve communication with prayer. We reviewed the charts and determined the closest port we could get to the quickest was Clearwater, and that’s where we went. We arrived with 7 gallons of fuel, and 3 water bottles left.

    It gets better. I did the paperwork before leaving the US to simply call in on returning, and give my boat registration number to clear Immigration and Customs. This is to streamline the process. I called the number I was given after returning to Atlanta, which was in Miami. They told me to call immigration in Savannah, which I did. They told me to call immigration in New Brunswick, the closest port in Georgia to Florida, which I did. They told me to call the Atlanta office, which I did. They told me to call the Atlanta Airport, which I did. They got their supervisor, who said I would need to bring the boat to the curb at the Atlanta Airport. I explained the size and cost of moving a boat overland, and he said someone would call me.

    I’m still waiting on the call, and therefore, not really here.


    ps – I’m sailing the boat from Tarpon Springs to Destin, leaving on June 18th, a 3-day trip. Anyone want to come along, you’re more than welcome.

  5. Great recap Mike! I can clearly see the whole thing…
    Having had several mini-adventures aboard Summerwind myself over the years, the most exciting of which included a fire, I think I will continue to join in the weekends of cruising around the bay in Destin but hold off on the real sailing. However, I am still heading to Clearwater with 2 others for our annual cruise in just about a week, and now plan to bring extra bottled water.

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