Just after January break my roommate Matt brought up the idea of sailing for spring break. He had suggested this a few years ago but it never amounted to anything. This year was very different. We are all seniors and needed an adventure. Matt elaborated saying it would be epic to buy a sailboat, drive it down to Florida and sail for the week. We have friends in Tampa, so the starting point was set for Tampa Bay. There were some skeptics but 3 other guys we on board, then there were 5.
Immediately Matt and I started searching for the best way to do this. We clicked through every craigslist listing within 200 miles of Elon. We started narrowing down what kind of boat we needed for 5 guys and what price range we were looking at. Obviously we had a fairly limited budget and really weren’t looking at anything over $3000. Seeing that none of us had owned a sailboat or really spent a ton of time on a small boat, this was going to be a learning experience. Thankfully Taylor and Matt had some knowledge about how to sail.
After narrowing our search down to boat above 20 feet with a trailer we had a few potentials. So we went to look at them. I went and looked at one boat in Raleigh. It wasn’t in perfect shape but that was alright with us, but once Matt came and looked at it with me we noticed a lot of issues we didn’t want to deal with, like a bent mast, broken trailer, etc. That boat was out. After calling several other people and thinking about spending more money than we wanted to, we found the one.
The craigslist ad didn’t have much information, but it looked to be alright. We drove 2 hours up I-85 towards Virginia with our fingers crossed. After looking at the boat inside and out, this was what we were looking for. $1250 got us a 1977 23’ North American Spirit with a rusty old trailer. We knew that as soon as we came home with a boat the skeptics would have to bite their tongues. After visiting the local ATM and paying all in $20s we drove away with our boat. The boat was a joint investment between Matt and I to keep it simple so 5 people didn’t own a boat, but making it so one person didn’t have all the say. It worked out.
We had exactly one month from purchase until it was to be floating in Tampa Bay. We quickly made a to-do list which grew and grew and grew, both in time and cost. But we were motivated by the idea of it. Here is a short list of the things we had to get done. License and title both boat and trailer, repair wood on outside of boat, buy a motor, fix the electrical (nothing worked), replace the moldy carpet, install a marine radio and antenna, fix the mast support mounting, buy an anchor, buy dock fenders and lines. That’s just the short list. The costs soon added up, but we were still hovering around our first cost estimates.
Having a 23’ sailboat in our driveway was certainly interesting. In addition to Matt’s horse trailer and my utility trailer, about 5 bicycles, and usually some kayaks, it was a hobby haven. Talking with neighbors, friends, and coworkers about our planned trip was always fun. Many didn’t believe us, then I’d show them the boat, others were excited or jealous. It was a fun distraction.
Several weeks went by and progress was being made. Justin was busy planning out and researching our route. Matt had got several navigational maps which helped greatly on the trip. But in all reality we were still winging it pretty good. We also gave each other pirate rolls. I was the boat swain. Taylor was a powder monkey. Andrew was quarter master. Matt was captain. Justin was navigation master.
I was responsible for fixing the electronics and making sure the motor we found worked. Thankfully the wiring for the lights and bilge pump were mostly there, but it was still a task making sure everything worked. We drove off with the front navigation light unattached and lost that but besides that everything came together just fine. My other task was to figure out why the outboard motor we bought wasn’t working. I’m no mechanic, but I can get frustrated enough to focus on fixing it. We bought a little 4.5hp motor to ideally just be used to get us in and out of port. However the first time we took the boat out for a test run, the motor would start then just cut off. I must have pulled the start cord 500 times out on the lake. When we got back home I found a barrel full of water to continue trouble shooting. After tampering with everything from the gas cap on the tank, to the lines, to the water level, I finally took the time to just stare at it for a while. I felt dumb once I figured it out. The tell-tale line, to flush the water out wasn’t connected. Instead the water was spraying directly on the spark plug and shorting it out. After connecting a line that was already there, the motor ran perfectly. My jobs were finished just in time for me to head to Florida to see Chelsie for a few days before spring break. We went diving in Panama City, FL and started to plan our wedding!
When I left on Wednesday the to-do list was still fairly long, but I knew my roommates would get it finished, hopefully! The guys trailered down from North Carolina on Saturday night and picked me up in Florida and continued to Tampa. We spent the night with a few guys who used to be on the Elon XC team. There were 12 people there for the night in a 2 bedroom apartment, it was fun and we were exhausted. We needed our sleep as our sailing endeavor began the next morning.
Day 1 –
El Fiesto, from Burrito, Rio Grande was ready to sail. The boat was going to be a party, so La Fiesta was suggested for the name, but since it was 5 guys, a feminine name wasn’t appropriate. El Fiesto was the perfect fit, the misspelling only helped.
We set sail early afternoon and motored out into Tampa Bay. The winds were fairly dead but we attempted to sail anyways. It was a great accomplishment to be sailing in Florida just one month after buying this boat. We ended up motoring out towards the Skyway Bridge and once we made it under it found some more favorable winds. The waves we big too but we were hitting over 10 mph under sail, slightly better than the 6 mph the 4.5 outboard could push us at.
Once out in the bay we decided to blow up our dinghy, or 4 person raft. I bought this more for convenience if we wanted to go ashore and also for emergency. It was huge. Almost half the length of our boat. Better yet, after we inflated it and put it behind our it nearly dove underwater and slowed our boat to a crawl. So we strapped it to the side of the boat. I’m sure it looked rather ridiculous.
Justin was steering and testing the boats limits. The boat has a degree dial which measures the angle of tilt. Anywhere from 0-10 is comfortable either direction. With the waves and aggressive steering, along with pressure from me, Justin was creeping up into the 30 degrees area. The people lying down inside were being tossed around slightly. It was fun.
We left the bay and started heading down the intra-coastal waterway. We were new to the navigational buoys and quickly realized why there were there. Justin was still steering and Matt and I were resting inside. Andrew and Taylor were chilling outside. The weather was gorgeous all day. Next thing we feel the boat hitting something. Matt quickly sits up and the face expression was priceless. Everyone quickly realized we had hit a sandbar. Matt and I jumped overboard and started pushing the boat. The waves were not helping. After some chaos we pushed the boat back into deeper water and were on our way again. I distinctly remember Matt saying weeks before that running around was not a concern of his, well that was proven wrong, although it wasn’t a huge hassle.
Probably the most amusing story of the trip involved the first draw bridge we approached. None of us had used the VHF radio before and had no idea how to call the bridge for an opening. We were listening to the radio to learn from other people but had to wing it. We looked on the map and the bridge coming up was listed at “Bascule Bridge” which we assumed to be the name. So we got on the radio: “Bascule Bridge, Bascule Bridge, this is El Fiesto requesting an opening”… nothing. So we try again. Nothing again. We start searching through the books about how to contact a bridge and we realize that the bridge is actually called Anna Maria Island Bridge and bascule bridge is the type. So our radio message was going out to every draw bridge within a 20 mile radius. Needless to say we made it through the bridge and I can only imagine how hard the bridge master laughed when he saw the name of our boat.
We docked after the second draw bridge about 30 miles from our starting point. We stay in Bradenton Beach. We walked downtown and got dinner at The Beach House right by the water. We settled in for the night. 5 dudes in a 4 person sailboat.
Day 2 –
We woke up to the speedboat next to us idling next to us, filling our boat with exhaust. Such a great way to wake up. The 3 XC guys went for a morning run, while I charged the battery and organized the boat a little. We settled the docking fee and headed south. One of the freshman XC girls was vacationing in Longboat Key and we stopped in to say hello. We left the ICW and headed for the Gulf of Mexico. We had to pass under one more draw bridge, New Pass Bridge. We called ahead but the bridge was having some troubles. Finally after about 5 minutes of attempted openings it opened. The bridge master asked if we were coming back through later, we said no, he chuckled and said it was probably for the best.
After going under the bridge we steered over to a shallow part and decided to try and work on the swingboard our boat had. We have a fixed shoal keel which has a swing board inside of it. We couldn’t get it to crank down, so we jumped overboard and tried pulling it down. The water was extremely clear and the blue. We didn’t have any luck getting the board down so we hoped for no huge waves or strong winds!
And then we were in the Gulf! Open water as far as we could see was to our west. We attempted to sail, but the winds really weren’t working. After fooling around for an hour or so we decided to motor for a bit. After a good bit of lazy relaxing on the boat we made it to Venice. The tide was working against us as we motored into Venice. The pass had 3-4 foot waves and water rolling out to the sea. It was perhaps the rockiest part of the trip. We made it in and docked at The Crow’s Nest.
The best part about the Crow’s Nest was they had free bicycles for us to use! After determining that the restaurant on site was a little too pricey and elderly, we asked about other options. We hopped on the rusty beach cruisers and rode a few miles into downtown Venice. We ate outside at Pineapples. Their inside dining was the darkest restaurant I’ve ever seen. Perhaps even darker than candlelight. Outside was a little better. Musician John Reno was playing and he had some good tracks. He was similar to Jimmy Buffett and wrote some originals too. One of his tracks had the line “It’s cheaper to keep her than leave her”, another was about road rage. He also had a song about S.P.O.R.E or stupid people on rental equipment. Entertaining music over dinner. We biked back in the dark down tree lined roads and had an awesome time singing “Piano Man”.
Day 3 –
The guys went out on their morning run while Taylor and I tended to the boat. I filled up the gas and talked to the parrot in the dock master’s office. Taylor deflated our massive dinghy and folded it back up.
The guys made it back and we headed back out to the Gulf. Our destination for the night was Boca Grande. We navigated our way south, avoiding the thousands of crab pots scattered off the coast. We enjoyed a long day of relaxation. The other guys soaked up the sun as I lathered on the sun screen.
As we got closer to Boca Grande we radioed into the marinas to reserve a slip. Both of the places said they were full. We weren’t too excited about this, but thought we’d go double check. Matt and Andrew had to do another afternoon run and an idea popped into their head. What if we drop them off at the beach, they run to the marinas, and we continue around the bottom of the island and up to the marinas. This was going to be an awesome amphibious assault.
We directed El Fiesto toward the shore and the guys got ready. Just off shore they jumped in with their shoes over their heads and ran up the beach as we continued heading south. Shortly after that Matt called and informed us he sweet talked Widden’s Marina into letting us stay the night. We docked our boat next to “Hey Moma” and several other local fishing boats and went for a stroll around the island.
Boca Grande for those who haven’t been there is a place that seems stuck in the 1950s. It is extremely nice but certainly for upper class white people. Widden’s was where the working class docked their boats, whereas Boca Grande Marina was for the yachts. We went in search for a place for dinner and just to explore. We walked past the Pink Elephant and the Loose Caboose, but found ourselves at Sisters, a pizza joint. During our walk we saw a dolphin chasing fish around a channel, which was entertaining.
After dinner we made our way to the only bar on the island open past 8pm, perhaps the only place open past 8, Temptations. It was empty except for this couple in their late 60s, Ralph and Erving, a couple from Germany who had retired to Boca Grande. They were a few bottles of wine deep and extremely nice to talk to. Ralph came to the US on a boat in 1963 with $75 in his pocket and worked in the shipping business. He eventually owned his own business and sold it to someone in Texas. To top that he ended up suing them for another half million because he didn’t get the job they had promised him during the deal. What a boss. His wife was great too. She attempted to guess all of our heritages and wasn’t half bad.
Both of them were extremely excited about our sailing trip and happy to see college students out doing adventurous things. Ralph ended up buying us a round and shooting the breeze with us for over an hour. We talked about everything from education to the shrinking work force in this country. They were awesome and even welcomed us to dinner any time we were back in Boca Grande.
Towards the end of the evening a girl just a few years older than us came in. Her name was Emily and she was from New Hampshire and ran XC. She was another great person to talk to. She was a mystery. Her story was that she came down to Boca to nanny her aunt’s kids and then met her husband, and then got divorced and now owns two shops on the island. We all agreed that she needed to get off Boca before she went crazy and find a good guy.
We walked back to our end of the island and settled into El Fiesto for the night.
Day 4 –
Today started with everyone going for a run. Boca was a very nice place to run, flat but pretty. Obviously the XC guys ran a little further than me… After we got to experience Widden’s idea of a shower, basically a garden hose up over a rafter. Well it was slightly better than that but pretty close.
We set our course for Cabbage Key. Its claim to fame is that Jimmy Buffett supposedly wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after eating there. Regardless of whether that is true or not, it was a great little island. We got lunch and experienced the Cabbage Creeper, their signature drink.
We took a stroll around the island and up the water tower and then headed back out. On the way back up to Boca Grande pass we dropped anchor near Cayo Costa island. It is a state park and has very clear sandy waters. It was how I pictured this trip to be.
We had been under sail most of the day and the winds were certainly in our favor. We crept back through the pass. Justin and I were feeling nature calling, so we prepared for another amphibious assault. This time the beach was rather crowded. So I can only imaging people’s thoughts when a sailboat came within 15 feet of shore and two guys jumped off, swam to shore, and ran up the beach. Once we had finished our business, we ran around the point and jumped back in the water and swam back out to the boat. By this time the boat was moving and it was a challenge to grab ahold of the boat, but we managed. Again, people on the beach must have been curious as to what was going on.
We were headed back north. Our first truly successful sailing day. We had our destination set for Stump Pass. Our navigational book had us slightly concerned about Stump Pass because it said “pass should only be attempted by those with local knowledge as there are no navigational aids. Once we made it to the pass, we weren’t as concerned. We made it to the marina with no issues.
The Stump Pass Marina was an interesting place. There were hardly any boats in the water, but two huge boat storage places. The place seemed nice, but had nothing around it. It had a tiki bar/restaurant where we got cheap drinks for Thirsty Thursday. One person told us about another bar down the road “a half mile” that had cheap tacos and live music. Well we walked down the road over a mile and found the place they talked about. We were the talk of the town. Several people asked us about our trip. We got some ice cream for the walk home. We settled in for the night.
Day 5 –
We headed back out stump pass and continued north. The wind was blowing, but coming from the direction we wanted to travel. We tried zig-zagging but it was going to take over 12 hours to go anywhere, and we didn’t really have the patients for that. Once we made it up to Venice we cut back into the ICW and made our way up towards Sarasota.
We started calling marinas and everyone was full again. Granted it was Friday night, but one place had over 300 slips! Finally we started calling the less popular places in the book and found a slip outside the Hyatt hotel in Sarasota.
We had to make a few more draw bridges open up for us. This was always a fun experience, because we started to calculate just how many people we were backing up! By this time we had gotten a hang of how to radio in to the bridges. Also it was nice to see some of the controllers had a sense of humor.
We made it to Sarasota fairly early. We cruised into the Hyatt and docked up. Our boat certainly seemed out of place at this 4 star resort. It didn’t take us long to settle right in. We were in the pool and using the laundry in no time. El Fiesto didn’t mind being parked near some much more expensive yachts.
We strolled downtown, which was fun because I had been to Sarasota before. We ended up eating at Barnacle Bills which had the most extensive menu and beer list I’ve seen in a long time. After dinner we went to the convenience store and got some beer and headed back to our dock. We sat on the floating dock admiring the skyline and the Ritz across the harbor and killed time. Around midnight we crawled into bed.
Day 6 –
The boys went out for their long run, over 15 miles. This gave me time to clean the boat and work on the motor which broke the yesterday. The pull string lost its spring, it would pull out but then had to be manually wound back in. This was extremely annoying and proved troublesome. Taylor took a taxi to the gas station to fill the tank up.
We finally got the motor going and started our trip back towards Tampa, over 50 miles away, our longest day yet. And the wind wasn’t blowing very strong. We gave sailing a try and shut the motor off. We weren’t moving very fast so we decided we would motor for a bit, only problem was we couldn’t get the motor going. Thankfully during the hour we spent trying to fix the spring, the wind was still pushing us in the right direction. Finally we found the missing screw and replaced it and she started right up. After two more draw bridges we were back in Tampa Bay. Although it was the home stretch we still had over 20 miles to cover.
We pulled into Davis Island harbor just after sunset and began taking down the sails and rigging. Matt got the truck and trailer and in no time we were taking the mast down and heading back to Rick’s place in Tampa for the night. Thus concluding our sailing trip! Felt like much more than 5 days, in an awesome way.
Day 7 –
The long drive home. Tampa to Elon. 14 hours going 55 mph.
This was the perfect senior year spring break. An awesome way to round out college. A week with 4 friends out on the ocean, winging it, on a sailboat we bought a month ago. I am so happy that Chelsie and I seriously want to incorporate a sailboat into our lives at some point. Hopefully a catamaran that can cover some serious distance. Can’t wait. This was a perfect way to introduce myself to sailing. Now all we have to do is complete the circle and sell the boat! Any takers?
To see photos from the trip… look here.