The Heartbeats


I found mine sixty miles west of Cuba in the Yucatan Channel.  

The wind is gusting in the high twenties.  The wind is coming over our left shoulder and the current is against us so the boat is pitching and rolling (and yawing too).  We are flying ten knots through the water.

It’s day four of the 48th Regata Del Sol Al Sol, a sailboat race from Tampa, Florida to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  We’ve had twelve hours of fresh wind and hard sailing.  Night is coming so Russ wants to take down the whisker pole.  Leaving it up would be risky:  if the boat were to broach, we’d have a mess of lines and sails in the water.  Not a good prospect at any time – but worse in the dark.  

Russ is owner and captain of Blue Heron, the Catalina 380 we are sailing.  

Russ and I go forward to the mast while Bob steers.  It’s a good thing that Bob Hoadley, Russ’s nephew, has owned boats and sailed for decades.  It takes a good eye and sense of timing to steer in these waves.  I know because I was just doing it.   

I’m not here looking for risk for its own sake.  Russ is one of the smartest, safest skippers I know.  But the risk is there and along with it the thrill.  

Russ stands at the mast, I’m just to his right.  The pole, hooked to the mast on one end and the jib sail on the other, is twelve feet long and weighs about thirty pounds.  Taking it down in this weather is an ungainly ballet — a combination of strenuous maneuvers.  

The boat charges forward, crashing over waves, heaving to and fro.  Bob tries to steer right in the peaks, left into the valleys.  The pole could become a battering ram so we have to handle it carefully when we release it.

Finally we are in position.  We’re wearing offshore life vests, hooked to sturdy jacklines on the deck.  Russ pulls a thin line, retracting the keeper inside the jaw on the pole’s outboard end.  Wind pressure holds the thick blue jib sheets tight so we have to wrestle the pole free.  Meanwhile I’m grabbing and holding down the halyard which keeps the whole contraption from crashing to the deck.  

Now the pole is free — good but dicey.  We have to keep it under control.  

Next: pull, turn and lift the pole vertical alongside the mast.  We’ll latch it onto the mast, storing it out of the way.  With so many moving parts (upper hook twelve feet up, lower hook near the deck but adjustable, heaving boat, flogging sails) it’s like threading a big clumsy needle.   

First we get it wrong.  The lower ring is too high so the top end won’t fit.  

Hold the pole.  Untie the halyard.  Raise the pole.  Steady.  Heave.  Steady.  Pull the pin, lower the ring.  

Whoa!  Too much slack on my rope and the pole is falling and swinging.  It nicks Russ in the chin, a spot of blood.  Thankfully not serious.  Quick!  Pull the halyard – HARD!  

We’re hooked back on.  It’s not perfect, but the pole is secure against the mast.  We’re done for now.  Unhook tethers and scramble, crouching low, back to the cockpit.


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Boating App: Navionics Boating

“Wow, where can I get that?”

That’s what boaters ask when I show off Navionics Boating.

This $9.99 app gives lake sailors features that our coastal and Great Lakes cousins use on chartplotters costing thousands of dollars.  You can even get some features in a free version of the app but the included government charts are lower detail.

I’m not saying I need full-featured charting on my lake (about 2 miles at its widest), or that the iPhone screen is a substitute for bluewater electronics.  But it is pretty cool to have similar data when I’m tacking around Lake Travis for an afternoon.

Last month I used Navionics to set the anchor for a race committee boat when we couldn’t find a spot shallow enough to drop anchor.  The onboard depth finder was fine for measuring depth where we were.  Finding where to go – now that’s better!  Using Navionics we motored around to a shallower spot and dropped anchor there.

Local readers will know that Lake Travis’s depth changes dramatically (up 50 feet this year alone).  So it’s great that Navionics has level adjustment.  Just look up the current lake level and punch in the adjustment (minus 11 feet, for example) before your trip.  Now all the charted depths are accurate for the current level.

I used Navionics on our family charter in Puerto Rico this summer and the charts were a nice backup to the boat’s chart plotter (Puerto Rico was an extra $14.99).

Boating is available for iPhone and Android.  Although I haven’t used it much, it also has crowd-sourced charts that include updates on marinas and other points of interest added by fellow boaters.

A screenshot below of a trip this summer using Boating.


Chart of Lake Travis, Austin, TX on my iPhone.  Notice the dramatic depth contours in just a few hundred feet.  It’s nice to know where the deep (and shallow!) spots are.



Guest Post: First to Cuba

Editor’s note:  Russ Hoadley, my friend and fellow sailor, graciously wrote this story about sailing to Cuba in the Pensacola a la Habana Race.  Please enjoy this very first guest post on Sailing with Steve.  You can reach Russ at

HAVANA, Cuba – This sun-drenched island has changed from 15 years ago when I first raced here aboard Mac Smith’s 44-foot Lafitte Twilight (from Daytona Beach, FL).

This time I’ve had the privilege of being on a crew of eight on XTC, Tom Glew’s 46-foot Beneteau (from St. Petersburg, FL) that made a clean sweep in May of a race to Isla Mujeres, MX (1st in class, division and overall).

The event that has brought us here is the first-ever Pensacola a la Habana

Russ Hoadley at the helm

Race, one of a growing number of yacht events to the Communist isle since the Obama State Department began to relax the embargo. 

Havana shows signs, albeit halting, of rebirth from the 50-plus years of decay which came with the Castro Revolution, Russian missile crisis and subsequent U.S. embargo. Some elegant old-world buildings have been buffed up. Many others still are moldering away.

We’ve just finished five days of hard sailing, hammered by squalls, plagued by electronic and mechanical gremlins, and still we will collect first in class and division at the awards party.

We are at the enormous but deteriorating Marina Hemingway, 15 miles west of the storied old city. Hemingway International YC is our host, with

Street musician Angel Kindelan

Comodoro Jose Escrich doing his effusive best to make us feel welcome. A roast-pig dinner and exotic entertainment by undulating dancers are to follow. 

The 500-mile slog here started in uncertain weather in Pensacola Bay at 0800 Saturday, Oct. 31. Twenty-one boats in five classes reached east across the bay, then beat out the channel in 15-20 knots from the southwest. Squalls were predicted as we eventually locked into a long starboard tack, and the forecast was not wrong. Through three days, sporadic downpours occurred with winds into the high-30s.

Day 4 brought an expected southeast shift, allowing a tack onto port past the Dry Tortugas, Havana now just 90 miles away.

XTC heads into more squalls

After pounding through the night across the Florida Straits, we finished in a squall at the hard-to-find sea buoy. Soon we were led through the reef-shouldered channel to smooth water, a lengthy but courteous Customs check-in and a berth with modern hook-ups. The nearby hotel was visibly doggy (crumbling façades, uncertain water, no toilet paper), but the marina itself was quite satisfactory.

Our five days in Havana were a kaleidoscope of colorful old Chevys, Buicks and Fords, deluxe night clubs, sensuous dancers, magnificent cigars and rum, lyrical music and historical and revolutionary stories.

Cubans we met seem pleased with their country’s progress even as they acknowledged the scarcity in their lives. “Money isn’t everything,” said Carlos, a philosophical 47-year-old father of two. He is a taxi-driver, a self-educated man who takes quiet pleasure doing triathlons with his sons and his girlfriend.

Cubans were cheerful, fit, hard-working, friendly, smart people who love their land, their culture and music, their families and friends … and their languid, long-playing way of life. It rubs off easily on us.

Visits to the Museo de la Revolucion and the Plaza de la Revolucion underscored how important the six-year uprising was to these people 50 years ago. They seem to revere the Castro brothers, along with Che Guevara and Camilo Cinfuegos, the leaders of the conflict that toppled Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

A tidal wave of change appears on its way to them now, as tourism swells, and thousands – perhaps millions – of Americans jump the barriers to visit this land of sun, rum and music.

As we cleared out of Cuba Customs and looked back at the Havana skyline, a gunboat shadowed us, reminding that normalcy has not fully arrived.

We felt the pull of the island. We were pleased to be in the vanguard of sailors who are leading the way. We will be back.

Crew celebrates victory – front: Loren Hoffman, Adam Gautier; rear: Hank Brautigam, Russ Hoadley, Ron Gagne, Tom Glew (skipper), Tony Dimattia; not shown: Charlie Marts

Survive 76-Days Lost at Sea?

A short review of three of my favorite books.  See my previous list of books here.

Adrift:  Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan (2002; Mariner Books; $10.68 print, $9.99 Kindle)

Shortly after leaving the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, sailing solo, Steve Callahan’s boat struck an object and sunk from beneath him.  Callahan abandons ship into a life raft and survives for seventy-six days.  He gives rich detail about his struggle to survive and encounters with birds, fish and more frightening sea life.


Longitude by Dava Sobel (2007; Walker Books; $11.34 print, $10.49 Kindle)

If you like history, you’ll love Dava Sobel’s story on longitude.  Long before GPS-enabled smartphones, the oceans were a mysterious, frightening place littered with the bones of ships and mariners alike.  Sailors had to know the time to find where they were.  Problem was: in the 1700s a sloshing, rusty, swaying boat was a very difficult place to accurately tell time.  Sobel takes us through the competitive and sometimes conniving invention of the chronometer.  A fascinating book.


Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen (revised edition) by Mary Blewitt (1994; International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press; $10.24 print, $7.49 Kindle)

A slim but excellent explanation of celestial navigation (I have many).  Divided into theory and practice sections.  A technical manual that requires intense study, but worth a look if you are interested in how cel nav truly works.  I’ve read this one over and over.


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(Feature photo:  Flying Juniors in the Austin Yacht Club Centerboard Regatta, Sept 12.  Photo credit:  Steve Ward)

The white Hobie 16 catamaran is flipped over on its side, one hull floating the other seven feet off the water.  The righting line is supposed to help us flip it back over.  So I’m holding the rope and hanging with all my weight.  It’s not working.

The Hobie Cat 16 is the classic beach catamaran designed by Hobie Alter in California and first sold in 1969.  It’s a rocket ship of a boat, fast and light.  More than 100,000 were sold, bringing fast, fun sailing to the masses (source:

Without gloves the rope is biting into my fingers.   I can bear it for two minutes before I have to let go and drop into the lake.  We climb back on the overturned hull and try again.

I’m here because I offered to crew this morning at the end-of-summer AYC Centerboard Regatta.

The second floor clubhouse was electric when I arrived at 9:30 on the breezy, sunny Saturday morning (I’m keen on logging racing hours to meet the club’s 15-event minimum for new members).  Kids are running around in life vests, rash guards and flip-flops.  Hot coffee and donuts are being consumed by all.  The emcee has to call for quiet over the mic more than once to settle the crowd of sailors eager to get on the water.

The commodore and race committee talk us through the rules for the day.  They talk about the floating race markers, which direction to round them (left or right), fleet starting sequences, penalties and more.

On the water Evan and I get a rocky start.  We’re both new to this type of racing, so we have a lot to learn.

A Nacra Catamaran in the AYC Centerboard Regatta.

Minutes into the first race we have two problems:  the mainsheet* traveler is binding and the sail’s not up all the way.  We unhook the block and sheet and try to figure out what’s wrong.  After struggling around the course, we sail back to the dock to work on the problem.  This is Evan’s very first time sailing the boat, so he doesn’t have a hang of the rigging yet.  When we haul on the main the traveler should slide smoothly – but it won’t.  It’s binding and making a mess of our sailing.

On my iPhone we find a groovy 80s video on “Rigging a Hobie 16.”  I watch while searching for water and a snack.  About two-thirds into the grainy video the host demonstrates rigging the mainsheet through blocks, fairlead cam cleat, traveler and finally a padeye on deck.

Back on the boat we follow the instructions and the sheet works smoothly now.  We sail back out and instead of re-entering the race we spend the rest of the afternoon learning the boat.

Evan’s Hobie 16 started as a Hobie Mexico Worlds Race boat in 2004.  He bought it on the secondary market for a great deal.  The hull and sails are covered with big name sponsors (e.g., Dell, Coca-Cola).

A foiling Moth, rumored to sail over 20 knots.

With the boat properly rigged we gradually improve our tacks and other maneuvering.  Evan’s on helm and main, I’m on jib sheets.  Hobie Cats are notoriously hard to tack, so we spend several rounds trying to perfect the move.

Finally, we start to get the hang of things.  As the wind puffs we get more confident and start pointing higher which makes the boat lean way over.  We have to hike out to windward, using our weight to counter the boat’s desire to dunk us again.  Now the speed is really coming on.  We slice through the water, passing other boats now (we’re not racing, just cruising around the lake).  We’re catching power boats and gaining on much larger sailboats with ease.

“This is why I got this boat,” Evan yells with a big grin.  It’s my turn to grin and yell when I hike out over the water from the trapeze for the first time.  It’s like dangling in a child’s bucket swing, skittering a foot above the water, nearly spinning out of control.


The secret to righting the boat was:  climb on the floating hull, stand, pull the righting rope down, clip onto our body harnesses and lean back.  In that position our weight is most effective and the sails slowly peel away and rise out of the water.  “Watch your head!  Unclip!” I said as the boat flopped over and stood upright.

I can’t wait to do it all again.


* A rope that controls the bottom of a sail is called a “sheet”

Sunfish and FJs competing in the Austin Yacht Club Centerboard Regatta.

Our Caribbean Vacation: Ordeal or Adventure?

(above photo credit:Andrew Bennett, via Flikr)

The sky is gray and the temperature drops into the seventies, feeling cool in the normally hot, steamy mid-eighties of late June in the Caribbean.

We’re in Fajardo on the eastern edge of Puerto Rico at the start of a sailing vacation.

As I steer the catamaran from behind the shelter of the marina breakwater, the seas grow and the wind sprays salt water, stinging my eyes and cheeks.  My glasses are useless, too wet to see through.  My shirt soaks and sticks to my chest.

The author at the helm of the Lagoon 400 Catamaran Caicu on the Vieques Sound. (Photo credit: Laura Ward)

How is this happening? I ask myself.  I checked the weather this morning – winds were forecasted for high teens to low 20s.  In the excitement to get on with my first Caribbean charter in nine years, I hadn’t re-checked the weather.

We are starting our vacation in a tropical thunderstorm.

The wind builds to the mid-thirties.  The forty foot, 16,000 lb. yacht is hobby-horsing like a toy.  Our 65′ mast whips back and forth.  A wave pattern develops.  Three or four car-sized crashing waves and then a much larger trough – crash.  Repeat.

I glance at the anemometer: 40 knots (46 mph).

On this boat the helm is up high, above the hard bimini that the rest of the crew is sheltering under.  Almost everyone else is new to sailing in open water.  The three kids are already crying.  (Laura tells me our child is “hysterical.”)  The adults look worried.

I feel bad for everyone.  They’ve traveled all this way from Texas to be hit by scary, ugly weather right out of the gate.

I yell for the crew to repeat anything they say — the wind is too loud to hear them.

My wife, Laura, asks if we should turn back.  It’s a possibility but for now I focus on keeping the bows into the wind, goosing the twin diesels and cranking the wheel to keep from being pushed sideways.  I know that if I allow the tall, wide hull to turn broadside to the wind things will get even uglier.  So I focus on two things:  keep the boat headed into the wind and keep the crew safe (from falling overboard, hitting their heads, banging a knee).  The two seven-year-olds are in their ocean harnesses.

Seawater weighs 63 lbs. per cubic foot.  Fifteen to thirty thousand pounds are crashing into our boat every few seconds.

I’m getting worried.  Our crew is inexperienced and this is a fast-hitting, severe storm.  Mostly I want to know what’s coming – is it getting worse?  From the helm I ask Scott (the other dad in our group) to grab the handheld VHF radio.  Then on second thought I decide to use the cell phone.  This is very unusual to me — calling from a boat on the cell — but things have changed and the charter company tells me during the briefing that the cell phone is just fine to reach them.  So I ask Scott to call the charter duty captain and ask for a forecast update.

In a couple minutes, Scott comes back to the cockpit.  “Graham says, ‘Come back.'”  I’m a little surprised, but at the moment it seems the best move.  It’s not far back to the safety of the marina.

I whip the wheel around and goose the port engine.  I do this to spin the cat around quickly, minimizing time spent sideways to the wind and waves.  The new course is quieter and calmer.  The waves are lifting the stern, but the boat is more stable.  In a few minutes we are back inside the heavy marina breakwater, tied up at the dock.

I have learned two valuable lessons:  mother nature is always in charge and always recheck the weather before leaving the dock.

After we are settled, the kids are smiling again and the first beers have been cracked, Ziggy from the charter company is on the boat checking things over.  The air conditioner pumps need to be bled because of the hard ride.  Ziggy saw our mast pitching back and forth in Vieques Sound, so he knows the boat needs some attention.  We are all chatting, relieved.

Ziggy emerges from below, looks at me and asks:  “What’s the difference between an ordeal and an adventure?”  I say “ten knots,” thinking I’m clever.

His answer is better:  “Attitude.”


Our crew of seven ended up having a wonderful time in the Spanish Virgin Islands.  The kids, being resilient as kids are, fell in love with the islands.  We left again later that day after the storm had passed (and a thorough weather check).  On our five-day charter we snorkeled reefs, hiked to a natural “jacuzzi” on Culebrita, saw sea turtles, cooked out on the boat, enjoyed several deserted beaches with crystal blue waters.  We ate great seafood at The Dinghy Dock in Dewey on Culebra.

We can’t wait to do it again.

Anna (left) and her best bud sailing the big cat.  (Photo credit:  Laura Ward)
Anna (left) and her best bud sailing the big cat. (Photo credit: Laura Ward)
The Dinghy Dock restaurant in Dewey on Culebra.  (Photo Credit:  Laura Ward)
The Dinghy Dock restaurant in Dewey on Culebra. (Photo Credit: Laura Ward)
Snorkel stop at Cayo Luis Peña (Photo credit: Laura Ward)
A sign evoking the laid back attitude found in Puerto Rico
A sign evoking the laid back attitude found in Puerto Rico (Photo credit:  Laura Ward)
Playa Tortuga on Culebrita. Rumor is this boat caught fire. (Photo Credit: Laura Ward)
Anchored at Cayo Luis Peña (photo credit: Scott Rosen)

Three Great Sailing Books

Here are three of my favorite sailing tales.

Sailing Alone Around the World – Joshua Slocum

Joshua Slocum's Spray.  (photo credit:  Wikipedia)
Joshua Slocum’s Spray. (photo credit: Wikipedia)

This classic sailing tale by Captain Joshua Slocum has been in print continuously since 1900.  In 1895 Slocum left New England aboard his gaff-rigged yawl Spray and returned in 1898 having circumnavigated the globe single-hand.  Along the way he meets an array of figures including a shadowy late-night visitor in the cockpit.  He fights off thieves with sly methods.  He writes of whales, birds and flying fish for breakfast.  He is a guest in many homes along the way and even “meets” royalty in Samoa.

It’s a book that belongs in every sailor’s library.

Endurance with dogs in foreground (photo credit: Wikipedia).

A Voyage for Madmen – Peter Nichols
A book about the world’s first solo around-the-world sailboat race.  In 1968 The Sunday Times (London) sponsored the race with a prize of £5,000 (about $51,000 in 2014 US dollars) for the fastest time.  It’s a wide-ranging story of adventure, personalities, difficulties and an unusual mid-ocean maneuver by one of the competitors.  This 2001 book should get more attention now that a fiftieth anniversary edition of the race was just announced (to be held in 2018).

Endurance –  Caroline Alexander
The 1914 story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s mission to be the first to put a man on the South Pole.  In the years since I got this book as a gift from my wife, I’ve returned to it many times.  It’s hard to decide which I like more:  the hundred-year-old black and white photos (by the ship’s photographer, Frank Hurley) or the shipwreck and rescue of the sailors aboard Endurance.  After his ship was beset and crushed by ice near the South Pole, Shackleton took a crew of five men 800 miles in a 22-foot boat to search for help.  It’s a story that befits the name of the ship – Endurance.

Sailing Through a Drought


Thankfully not my boat.  I took this picture in October 2014.  The owner needs to watch out because the water is rising again.  Lake Travis, October 2014. (photo credit: Steve Ward)


(Note: beginning with today’s post I am using a new format.  I hope you like it.  — Steve)


In 2007 a baby girl arrived and put my sailing on hold.  We sold the boat shortly after Anna arrived.  If anything could compete with my love of sailing (and win) it was this child.  By 2013 I was desperate to get back on the water and now that Anna was nearly six we had more time for boating.  But Lake Travis was so low I reluctantly stopped the boat search.

No substitute for sailing.

Water was so low that all but one or two boat ramps were closed.  Many ended several feet short of the water’s edge like the cliffs in a Looney Tunes episode.  I even considered buying a pop-up camper for my outdoor itch (I didn’t).

Then one day at lunch high above Lake Travis we saw five or six boats sail by on the lake.  I couldn’t believe it.  The bad news I heard had me thinking no boat could sail on that thin water.  (sadly that restaurant, Iguana Grill, is now closed, another casualty of the drought).

I was obviously wrong.  In fact, parts of the Colorado River bottom are over 100 feet deep, even at today’s low level.  My Navionics Boating iPhone app shows a spot a quarter mile from my marina that is 95 feet deep.

My search was back on.  By May I had purchased Wild at Heart, a Hunter 25.5 and bigger brother to our old Hunter 23.

Shopping for sailboats with Anna.  This is Wild at Heart which we eventually bought from a great guy named Doug.
Shopping for sailboats with Anna. This is Wild at Heart which we eventually bought from a great guy named Doug.

Now two years later the lake is looking even better.  The spring rains have raised the lake ten feet this year alone!

I look forward to even more sailing with my girls Anna and Laura this year.

Anna helping with the lines. The girls generously took me sailing on my birthday.



First mate Anna helping with the tiller.


A wonderful birthday for Daddy on Lake Travis.