A crew of five races 456 nautical miles from Tampa to Mexico on a 38-foot sailboat

Race Day

The dark loops on the weather map are right in our path.  

It’s six a.m. and we’re in the van heading to St. Petersburg Yacht Club.  I’m reading a new email on my iPhone from our weather router, Mike.  Russ dials Mike and puts him on speaker.  We work through the forecast and talk over the strategy for our 456 nautical mile race.  

How can we avoid a big contrary current and find good wind?

It will be hard.  A high pressure system will likely block the steady trade winds, making our ride slow.  Add an unusual current and we’re scratching our heads.  

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April 23 forecast for the Gulf of Mexico loop current.  Dark areas signify faster current.  (Image credit:  US Navy)

We decide on a route that swings far south near Cuba, hoping to avoid the currents.

The Start

After a quick breakfast at the club we board our boat.  Everyone is on a job.  I’m punching coordinates into the GPS (chartplotter) on deck.  Just before nine Russ says, “let’s go” and we shove off and head to the starting area.

We’re racing on Russ’s 38 foot Catalina sailboat.   It’s a solid, big boat he bought almost twenty years ago.  Blue Heron is very well outfitted: a/c, fridge, generator, even a laptop and printer.  It also has the safety gear you need for offshore sailing.  Things like an inflatable life raft, EPIRB satellite rescue beacon and a ditch bag with life saving medical kit and food rations.

Near the starting line we warm up, practicing tacks and gybes.  Everything on this boat is bigger and heavier than on my lake boat.  Grinding the winches is a chore.

We watch other boats in our racing class.  Russ’s friend, Tom, is on a 46’ Beneteau.  A Hylas 54, Jeanneau 45 and our Catalina 38 round out the class.  Everyone is eyeing the big Hylas:  there is room enough on her deck for a comfortable stroll around the entire boat.  A sixty-two foot catamaran is out here too but it’s a support boat carrying supplies instead of racing.

The radio crackles with announcements,  “Three minutes until preparatory flag down with sound.”  

The starting line stretches between a race committee powerboat and a yellow floating mark a quarter mile away.  The fleet is milling around without purpose yet; tacking, gybing, pointing high, sailing low.  

“Squeearrk,” the horn whimpers and we’re off!  

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The Blue Heron steaming toward the starting line.  (photo credit:  Kent Irving)

We have a great start, second across the line.

We sail into the Bay toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge connecting St. Petersburg to points south on Tampa Bay.  The winds are squirrelly, a mix of fresh breezes and dead calms.

As we near the bridge the breeze freshens noticeably — so much that we have to shorten sail to control the boat.  We have to carefully steer between the concrete pylons of the bridge.  Too far left and we’ll stall and lose control;  too far right and we risk being  pushed into a pylon.  

Bob Hoadley, Russ’s nephew, steers while we approach the left pylon.  After much maneuvering and closely watching the gap we make it through.

In a few hours the rush of the start wears off and we settle in.  As the afternoon sun dips we see only two other regatta boats.  The rest are far ahead or behind.

Military Time

It’s midnight, my first night shift.  I’m trying to wake up in the pitch dark and the bunk is tilting and rolling.  I have to find my shoes, hat, glasses, knife, flashlight, headlamp, life jacket and harness.  I can’t see a thing and don’t remember where this stuff is.  I stumble around, find a headlamp (red beam to prevent night blindness) and get myself ready.

“It’s more military,” Russ says, describing the watch schedule later in the trip.

No kidding.

To keep the boat moving 24 hours a day we use two watches of twelve hours each, with breaks spread throughout.  I’m on A shift with Bob; Rick and Wells are on B  (see chart nearby).

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The ship’s watch schedule.

The first night is tough but it’s just a warm up.  The midnight shift gets harder each day.  Thankfully Russ is ready with hot chocolate and coffee when we come on duty each night.

That’s how things work for the entire trip:  we A and B shift guys on a strict schedule and Russ “floating” in and out when we need help with the sails or advice on a ship we’ve sighted.  I don’t know how Russ does it.  He gets less uninterrupted sleep than anyone.

Out There

One night I’m in my bunk shortly after 3 a.m. trying to relax.  I need sleep but with the rocking and rolling I can’t settle down.  It doesn’t help that I’m thinking about sailing stories.  Just last week I was telling my wife, “What you really worry about is hitting a big heavy object like a sea container.”  Fiberglass sailboats don’t do well against sea containers.  Oh great….just what I need to calm my mind for sleep.

On another evening the B shift guys see the lights of several ships.  To be on the safe side they hail a couple of them on the VHF radio.  It’s too easy to miss our small sailboat in the inky darkness.   They hear Russian or Eastern European accents answer the radio.

Log of S/V Blue Heron ( day 4, Mon. Apr 25 0600):  Entered shipping lane for Cuba.  Had to make contact with two cargo shops to avoid “Dolce Via” & “Battersea.”  Had 5-6 motor vessels on both sides at one point.  Dropped pole.


The Conveyor Belt

One afternoon we see 10 knots on the boat’s speedometer.  A fantastic speed!    Except that we’re not making nearly that progress.  With adverse current we’re like salmon swimming upstream.  We’re practically sprinting through the water but the GPS shows what really matters:  only 5 over the ground.

This is the worst of the loop current we were trying to avoid.

Gradually over the next few days, as we slip alongside and then past Cuba, we eventually get out of the bad currents.  Once we sail into the Yucatan Channel, the open water between Cuba and Mexico, we get heavier winds and waves but thankfully more favorable currents.

By the fourth night (our last before making landfall) we are really cookin’.  We begin to see speeds in the 8s and 9s.  It’s a wild exciting ride now, with six to eight foot waves and winds into the high twenties.  We’re rollicking over the waves on our way to Isla, feeling like a freight train.

The Finish

Around 4:30 on our fifth morning I’m still in my bunk (my shift is not until six).  But I can hear more than the usual commotion up top.  Turns out we are near the finish.

It’s pitch black so we approach the Mexican coastline with care.  Dark sailing is fairly simple if you’re hundreds of miles out to sea.  It’s the coastline that gets your real attention.

Mexican Navy ship that greeted us at the finish line.  (photo credit:  Steve Ward)

Finally we see lights ashore – something I haven’t seen in five days.  We begin to look for the finish boats.  Ahead we see lights from the Mexican Navy vessel that is part of our finish line.  The ship puts a spotlight on our finish pin.

At 5:20 – BANG! – fireworks shoot into the air, signaling our finish.  What a great way to finish a race.  We made over 500 miles and it took us just under five days (about 115 hours).

Thanks, Russ, Bob, Wells and Rick, for making this a trip to remember!


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Path to Isla Mujeres (light blue line) taking us near Cuba.  (Image Credit:  YB Tracking)


Part of the crew:  (l. to r.) Rick, Wells and Steve in the cockpit of Blue Heron.


Mid-Gulf visitors.  (photo credit:  Steve Ward)


Russ demonstrating the harness he uses to keep himself planted on port tacks.  Look closely at the stove and you can see how much the boat is tilted to leeward.  (photo credit:  Steve Ward)