Guest blog: Sailing the Florida wilderness

Ida Little and Michael Walsh, co-authors of “Beachcruising and Coastal Camping,” sailed with me for a few days in February. Ida graciously submitted the following essay and photos about the trip.

I remember lying on the cabin sole of our little canoe cruiser listening to the ‘gators growl. It was spring and love was in the air. This spring Michael and I were aboard Thorfinn, re-living the wild life of Florida Bay.  After taking a swim off Cape Sable, there were mutterings to us about crocs in the water.

Michael Walsh and Thor Emory

Michael and Thor swapping tall tales below.

One of the reasons Michael and I were so eager to join Thor on his recon of the south Florida waters was the chance to get up close with wildlife and far away from signs of civilization. Warnings of gators, snakes, panthers were the enticements for us to come cruising.

We set out from Marathon, the four of us, Thor, Austin, Michael and myself. Michael and I had previously met Thor at his shop in Maine, and again at the Newport Boat Show. Austin Matheson, Thor’s good buddy, we met the night before we set sail. By the following night a stranger would have thought we’d all been buddies going ‘way back. Finding two people who laugh about wearing a sponge for a hat is like finding a boat that can sail the shallows and also be a home. Pretty special.

What I hadn’t expected was for the Thorfinn to be so fast. Michael and I are used to sailing shoal draft boats that are challenged to break the 4 knot barrier. With Thorfinn, we were cranking along at 6 knots in a gentle wind, which we thought was fast, but then Thor hoisted the mizzen staysail and we stepped up to 8, 9, 10 knots as the breeze freshened. I looked at Michael, laughing about fastening our seat belts. I’m not in a hurry. But arriving at a nice anchorage or destination sooner rather than later got to be pretty addictive. I may be ruined now for any boat without Presto’s speed.

Michael Walsh, Thor Emory aboard Thorfinn

Thor and Michael running the mangrove gauntlet.

At Cape Sable we anchored the stern to the beach with the bow faced out, and stepped ashore. Thor’s friends from Outward Bound happened to be camping on the beach so our evening turned to camaraderie with like minded souls. The Bounder boats served as models for the Presto 30, seaworthy, easy to handle, fast, commodious. But I was glad to be on Thorfinn with a snug cabin and an even snugger V Berth. Thor and Austin let me and Michael have the Honeymoon Berth, being a couple; one of the blessings of marriage.

That night I lay awake listening to the lap lap lap of wavelets against the shore, the barred owls asking Who Cooks for You??? and sneaky crocodiles knocking against the hull waiting for the first swimmer of the morning.

The winds blew our way from Cape Sable all the way to Ft Myers. Our own personal energy source for sailing into the Little Shark River, through Oyster Bay, back out another winding river, and northward once again through the Ten Thousand Islands. We knew it was special, being out there with cypress, mangrove, wading birds, osprey, eagles and kingfishers, without another boat in sight for miles (the overpopulated coast northward would drive the appreciation home). For the present, we played our way through a sanctuary all our own, and anchored at night beside an uninhabited island.

I reckon Michael and I could have stayed for a long long time in among these islands. Indian Cay and Panther Cay were only two of the keys we walked and explored for hours, and they were both worthy of poking around for days. In a few hours we found spines of some unidentified sea creature, heard the crackle of a wild creature in the bush (raccoon? panther?), ran our hands over the bones of old trees, whitened into beach sculptures by time and the elements. I watched an ant clean itself from a small water drop clinging to a leaf. Where else do we take time to really see?

Thor Emory at the rudder

Our fearless captain shoots us across the shoals

And I guess that goes for the Seafood Festival show at Everglades City. I did stop to watch the Shark Ride and admire the newest in tattoos, listen to some country music, and watch the fishing boats slide back into the harbor.

But my heart is in the wilds, and next morning we left all the trappings of town behind in less than an hour and anchored that night just off the beach at Panther Key. With a breeze keeping the bugs at bay, we made dinner, drank wine, watched the sun go down and swapped stories. Almost forty years ago we wrecked our boat Sheldrake in the Bahamas, sat ashore on the beach that night wondering how we could cruise beautiful wild places without fear of shipwreck and without anchoring so far away from shore.

With Thorfinn Expeditions, we’re continuing to live the life we dreamed of then. Better yet, we get to be with Thor, who is fun, willing to veer off at (almost) every whim, at play while seriously at the helm and watching the weather and our course and the wildlife. Besides everything else, we felt safe as well as entertained. I’d sail anywhere with Thor.

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