Greg Duckworth | Florida Sea Base: Three Major Bodies of Water, Three Sail Boats
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05 May Florida Sea Base: Three Major Bodies of Water, Three Sail Boats

Florida Sea BaseA crew of eight from Troop 888 arrived at the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base just before 2:00 PM on Sunday afternoon, and before sunset we’d be aboard the Conchy for what would prove to be an absolutely gorgeous week of sailing and snorkeling in the Florida Keys.

After processing, we met up with our Coral Reef Mate, Jack, who hosted us while onshore. Passing the BSA swimmer test, we were issued our snorkel equipment that we donned for a rather high leap off the dock and quick intro to proper snorkel form. From there, a gear shakedown assured that every bit of our personal gear would fit into a small mesh bag (close quarters for the week). Dinner that evening was served from the dining hall at Sea Base.

Sea Base is located at mile marker 73.8 in Islamorada on Lower Matecumbe Key. The property on which Sea Base is located has a storied past and it played an important role during early efforts to tame the Keys.

In 1928, the Sea Base property was site of the first ferry terminal in the original overseas highway. The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane changed everything as the work camp was destroyed in the storm. However, the worker’s progress is still evident today. Bird Island, in front of Sea Base’s marina, is a man made island which was constructed for the highway right-of-way and eight bridge pilings protrude out of the water about a quarter of a mile west of Bird Island, for a bridge that was never built. The new Overseas Highway completed in 1938, included a tollhouse on the current location of Sea Base’s commissary. The Toll Gate Inn was built as a 10-room motel, bar, restaurant, marina and gas station. A marina was dredged in the early 1950s, but by the late 1970s, the property was is disrepair.

In 1974, a handful of volunteers came together to develop a high adventure program using the waters in and around the Keys. As luck would have it, the Old Toll Gate Inn and Marina was purchased in 1979. Renovations were made on the restaurant to form a dining hall and office for the Florida Gateway High Adventure Base. By 1982 the name was changed to the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base. Many of the Toll Gate Inn’s original buildings are still a part of Sea Base. The motel is now the Annex and houses Sea Base staff. The bar and restaurant is now the galley. The honeymooner’s suite is now used as the Ship’s Store, and the gas station is now the commissary. The Sea Base Fleet includes a fishing boat, numerous dive boats, and many charter sailboats.

At the helm of our sailboat was the captain, named Lucas Knuttel or Captain Luke as everyone calls him. Captain Luke comes from a sailing family, with salt in his hair and the sea in his eyes; we were fortunate to have him as a mentor for our Coral Reef Sailing Adventure. Luke is a kind-hearted young man who passed along tidbits of seamanship to the Crew as our week in paradise unfolded.
Spring seems to be the ideal season to visit the Keys for sailing with moderate temperatures ranging from the 80s to the 90s (it actually feels cooler on the water, especially at night) and steady breezes, but not too strong, just right for sailing!

On our first evening, we motored out of port and eventually set anchor in the Florida Bay off Lower Matecumbe Key. It was a beautiful sunset that night as we were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat and live island music drifting in from a nearby wedding ashore.

The next morning we awoke to the warm glow of sunrise and some interesting smells! Thankfully we were not far from base because the Conchy was acting up; the head (restroom) was having issues and so was the diesel engine. Captain Luke debated our options and quickly resolved the quandary by hailing another sailboat, Silent Harmony, with Captain Martin to the rescue! After a boat-to-boat transfer of essential gear and lunch, Captain Martin took it upon himself to host our Crew for the remainder of the day while his own Crew was onshore for midweek’s activities. His generosity allowed us to stay on itinerary and enjoy snorkeling at an old quarry that contained relics and fire coral. Aboard Silent Harmony, we got our first chance at sailing into the Atlantic Ocean while enjoying the musical stylings of Captain Martin – by the way, his tuna salad was mouthwateringly delicious. All the while, Captain Luke was busy limping the Conchy back to base for repairs. As fate or luck would have it, the Conchy was not serviceable in a timely manner and Captain Luke’s very own boat, a classic Morgan Out Island 41, the Lady Nell II, was docked at the marina. After a bit of effort, probably quite a bit, Captain Luke had his own boat Scout-ready and, upon our return to base aboard Silent Harmony, the Crew boarded our third sailboat of the trip.

The Lady Nell II is a wonderful boat – the level of care and detail Captain Luke puts into her really shows and, although two the previous boats are equally grand, we were grateful to share his boat for the remainder of our adventure.

Night two had us anchored in the Florida Bay for another restful evening and delicious dinner. You don’t realize just how much your body works at keeping stabilized while at sea, but after a day on the water, we were all ravenous by the time dinner was prepared. With full bellies, we reflected on our first full day at sea as the sun kissed the water and slipped below the horizon. They say that if you are lucky, you just might see the green flash as the sun is setting. This evening, as the last of twilight faded to midnight blue, the crew made itself comfortable for the night picking the ideal sleeping location. Some of the crew chose to keep warmer and slept below decks in either the v-berth or the salon. Others slept on deck in the cockpit below the canopy, while the hearty braved the foredeck and aft deck. Hard to believe it, with the late night breezes and our skin reacquainting with the summer sun, the temperatures felt quite chilly at night!

On morning three, we prepared breakfast then sailed northeastwardly to Snake Creek where we timed the drawbridge just right to gain passage, again, to the Atlantic Ocean. Today was our major snorkeling day and we sailed to a popular coral reef called Hen and Chickens. With the guidance of our captain, we successfully moored to a floating anchorage and donned our gear and then overboard, one by one, into the 5 to 6 foot Atlantic swells for a kaleidoscope of tropical fish and live coral formations in the National Marine Sanctuary. After everyone had their tour of this underwater gallery, we set sail to the Cheeca Rocks Sanctuary Preservation Area. Our favorite reef here was called the Donut – named for its obvious likeness, complete with a sandy center that happened to be hosting a school a barracuda during our visit. Teeming with sea life, including tropical fish by the thousands, moray eels, spotted eagle rays, and even a few sea turtles, the shallow reefs themselves are made up of coral heads that are the perfect spot for underwater photography!

A late lunch hit the spot as we released from our Cheeca Rocks mooring and set sail southwestward. As we rode the wind for the balance of the day, dolphins joined us at the bow and played in Lady Nell’s wake as the occasional sea turtle and a Portuguese man-of-war happened by. Captain Luke continued our introduction to sailing with an explanation of the “Points of Sail” – our boats movement relative to the wind. As deck hands, we cut our teeth on a broad reach learning to jibe with the sails and the boom crossing from Port and Starboard, as the boat would sail off on the opposite tack. Within no time, we’d learned to hoist the mainsail and use the roller furler to adjust the jib. He explained how to trim our sails for optimal performance and keep the sails from luffing or flapping in the wind to maintain a perfect airfoil. Time and several Keys flew by as we eventually set course for Channel #5, our reentry into the Florida Bay. Night three’s anchor was dropped in Matecumbe Bight – day four was to be midweek’s shore day for our Crew and returning to the marina would give our Crew the chance to help with securing the Lady Nell II at dock.

As much as we longed for the sea, day four brought about its own set of discoveries. The first of which could only be described as a mild case of Mal de debarquement syndrome or the sensation of still being on the boat swaying from side to side as our “sea legs” got reacquainted with solid ground! We were able to tour the waters surrounding Sea Base in two person kayaks and got to see firsthand, historic Bird Island and the eight bridge pilings, for the bridge that was never built. Today, a lobster company has constructed a dock and uses the island as a staging area for their lobster traps – many, many birds are using the island too, so it is indeed aptly named. Next on our agenda was small boat sailing where we honed our newly minted sailing skills and afterward took a short break for lunch. Then on to tubing out in the bay – by the way, tubing was three at a time on a high velocity ride that left you wanting for more and maybe a few new teeth! Finally, it was team volleyball where our Crew was victorious. That night after rinsing off the sea salt and eating dinner we retired to our oceangoing vessel for another night’s well-deserved rest. It was a clear and dark night – there was a strong, cooling breeze blowing in from the northwest and you could see massive cumulonimbus clouds glowing in the distance as severe thunderstorms exploded over Naples. Glad we were here!

The next morning, number five, Captain Luke said he’d been talking with another captain and suggested an unusual itinerary to round out our stay in the Keys. “Hey, what about sailing out into the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Sable?” he asked. We were all for it, three different major bodies of water and the promise of long, deserted sandy beaches with undisturbed shell beds for exploring – this sounded like adventure and was exactly why we were here. The winds were perfect for the five-hour sail there and everyone had an opportunity to stand at the helm, or rest, or play cards, or fish, or whatever.

As we transitioned from the Florida Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, the water made a distinct color shift. This happened in the Atlantic too and we noticed that each water body had it own unique character and habitats. How fortunate we were to be sailing in such a remote and beautiful place. The Morgan Out Island sailboats were designed specifically for this type of sailing. The waters surrounding the Florida Keys are particularly shallow and the draft (or depth at its lowest point) of a standard sailboat would preclude it from accessing many of the favorite destinations in the Keys, but Charley Morgan’s design for the Morgan Out Island, proved to be an ideal boat for these waters.

As we approached the Lower Cape, the winds and currents in the Gulf had shifted making our initial anchorage a bit choppy, so we sailed on for another 45 minutes or so reaching Middle Cape. We dropped anchor and swam through strong currents to the sandy beach that went on for miles. Once onshore, we explored our new found land for a while, picking up flotsam and beautiful shells. Then, purposely walked up current from our boat to guarantee making it back; we swam with a strong current on our return. That night’s dinner included delicious steaks grilled on the stern. We were all on deck for the mythical green flash at sunset – Captain Luke felt this was one of the most unusual sunsets he’d seen, with the completely uninterrupted expanse of water and the way the cloud layer hovered above the horizon – we all felt lucky to witness the magic. That night a strong wind blew across our cove and made deep sleep easy. It’s strange how quickly the sun moves as it reaches the horizon and our trip was nearing the horizon too.

Before we knew it day six had arrived, our last day at sea; the five-hour return trip was slow and steady, but not slow enough. With each nautical mile that passed under our keel, we were closing in on the end of our journey, a sailing adventure that had certainly exceeded our dreams. Pulling back into port, we enjoyed one more fun-filled night of delicious food, skits, songs, and games at the luau – then, a final farewell to Captain Luke and the rest of the wonderful Sea Base staff. Day seven, we steered northeastward to the mainland leaving the beauty of the Keys behind.

As you read this, we’re readying the Troop Bus for Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to experience the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the thrill of first flight.

Troop 888 is a boy-led Troop that meets on Thursday evenings, from 5:30 to 7:00 PM at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in North Myrtle Beach. We are advocates of the traditional Scout pioneering and outdoor skill methods. The Troop is very active, not only in membership but also in activities. We go on monthly camping trips and other high adventure outings, participate in a weeklong summer camp, spring and fall Camporees, as well as community service projects. The Scouts plan the places and activities in advance. For more information, please visit our website at: www.troop888nmb.org

By: Gregory Duckworth, Scoutmaster

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