A Flirt with Thin Water

A pair of Seawind catamarans shows their mettle in Florida's varied waters. A catamaran feature from our July 2008 issue

Seawind 1160 368

With a sprit for setting a screecher, the Seawind 1160 (above) can power up for light air or go with working sails anytime.Billy Black

All day we've eyed the depth sounder and chart plotter as we sail south from Miami's Dinner Key Marina and keep to the buoys that mark the reefs that lie to the east of Hawk Channel. The morning began gray and cloudy as the remnants of the previous night's downpours swirled past. But now clouds are giving way to sun, turning the November afternoon into a scorcher. The more miles we put astern, the more the water all around us takes on the green and blue hues of the Caribbean, and the more excited Liz and Jim Hanson become. At long last, they and their 38-foot, Australian-built Seawind 1160 catamaran, Imagine, are in the Florida Keys.
Their journey began two months earlier, in Newport, Rhode Island. Part of their purchase agreement included sailing the boat south to Florida with Kurt Jerman of Seawind USA. He'd get to use Imagine for demos and boat shows along the way, and the Hansons would get a crash course on all the things they'd need to know about owning and handling their first sailboat. Their homeport of Madison, Wisconsin, is a long haul from the nearest ocean.

I'd joined them and another soon-to-be Seawind owner, Roy Adcock, the night before for the final leg of the trip that would take us across Florida Bay and up the west coast to the Strictly Sail St. Petersburg boat show. That's where Kurt would turn over the keys and head home to San Diego. By the time I arrived, the gin and tonics and wine were flowing, and there was a crowd aboard Imagine that included the three-member crew from the Seawind 1000XL (see "Seawind 1000XL: Airy Fun," on page 94) that was tied astern and constituted the other half of this traveling boat show. Liz was in the galley, whipping together a salad, veggies, and spuds. Kurt fired up the barbie that's integrated into the Seawind's stern rail and proceeded to broil a pile of steaks to perfection.

Sleeping arrangements that night were simple. Jim and Liz had their berth in the owner's port hull, Roy moved to the double in the aft starboard cabin, freeing up a queen berth and en-suite head for me while Kurt took the large double formed by lowering the table in the saloon.

Imagine on the Move
Out on Biscayne Bay, we hoist a reefed main, roll out the jib, and say hello to the 20-knot northeast wind. The 1000XL follows closely behind as we head for the entrance to Angelfish Creek, a pass that will lead to Hawk Channel.

Soon lunch is served. Liz has been busy in the galley, watching the world go by through large ports in the hull but still part of the crowd, thanks to the Seawind's open layout that keeps the "galley down" from seeming like it's really a cave.

By late afternoon, the wind's settled down, and we have the screecher flying from the fold-down sprit. Imagine dances along as we close on Lower Matecumbe Key and spot the bridge over Channel Five, the first cut through the keys with enough overhead clearance for the Seawind's 58-foot-six-inch mast.

With the headsail furled and the main in its boom-mounted pouch, we motor under Route 1 and duck into a hole behind Fiesta Key to drop the hook for the night. Almost before the props have stopped spinning, there's a splash, splash, splash, splash and the boys are all in the drink for a swim, arguing over who got wet last. A boarding ladder folds down from the sugar scoop on the port hull, and there's a freshwater shower waiting as we climb up to the cockpit. Refreshed, Jim soon fixes us up with G&Ts, and the table is set for dinner, which tonight will be stir-fry shrimp and vegetables, washed down with Pinot Grigio. Talk soon turns to the next day and the 190 miles we need to cover to reach St. Pete. Possible anchorages are considered, but Liz says if the weather stays favorable, she wants to sail straight through, and she gets no arguments from the rest of us.

West, Then North
The next morning, the sun warms quickly as we prepare to cross shallow, crab-pot-choked Florida Bay.

The wind's still blowing from the north-northeast when we set off on a reach, again sailing buoy to buoy and checking to make sure our track doesn't stray far from the channel. We catch a crab pot on the port propeller about midmorning, and Kurt's quick to go over the side and free us up. Jim and Liz are happy folks this morning. The boat sails like a dream, and they're about to be turned loose. They plan to spend the next few months exploring Florida's west coast and the Keys, then head to the Bahamas. They first spotted the Seawind in Miami the year before, and were convinced it was the perfect platform to take them far away from Wisconsin's frozen winters. They like the all-round visibility that the large saloon windows provide, the interior space and cockpit that flow into each other thanks to a tri-fold lifting door, and the fact that the boat's a manageable size but still roomy enough for their grown-up kids or friends to come visit.

By lunch, we're around Cape Sable and hard on the wind, sailing north past the Everglades. The breeze gusts to 20 and we reef, but within an hour it's settled back, and we find the full main and jib to be the perfect combination. The chart plotter's located at the port helm, but I find it's easier to sit to starboard, up on the hull, and steer by the telltales. As I get used to the motion, I can feel the Seawind settling in and tracking smoothly; the helm's responsive and quick. Later, Kurt takes over and shows that with a seasoned multihull hand on the wheel, the knot meter can inch higher.

By dinnertime, clouds have thickened, and the wind's whipping up a considerable chop on the Gulf. In search of calmer water, we follow the lead of the crew aboard the 1000XL and tack straight for the coast as the sweet smell of spaghetti sauce wafts up from our galley. As night falls, we've settled into two watches, with Kurt and Roy on for two hours followed by Jim, Liz, and me. The wind is up again, and we tie in a reef before the three of us head below for a nap. Our first watch comes well into the evening. I'm finding it's fun to drive through the dark, the lights of buildings along the shore making it easy to steer a course. The Red Sox are playing the final game of the World Series, and Liz frequently consults her laptop to keep us updated on the score. With the boys from Boston out in front, the evening just can't get much better.

And it doesn't. By the time we head below for some shut-eye, the wind and course have taken us back offshore, where we pound into steep, square waves that resonate like cannon fire below. A jammed roller furler has all hands on deck. As I head forward with a flashlight to join Kurt on the bow, the footing is sure, and I'm glad I'm not going hand over hand along a heeling, slippery deck.

At about 0400, our watch is about to head below when I look back to see a crab cage dancing in our wake. Darned if we didn't snag another one. This time, though, there's no going over the side. Instead, I lean over the stern, cut it loose, and then try unsuccessfully to free the remaining line from the port saildrive.

Dawn finds us weary of the Gulf and its waves. We hover off the mouth of the channel leading to Charlotte Harbor and wait for our traveling companions to catch up. Then we duck inside to take the Intracoastal Waterway along the inside route to Tampa Bay. It's on the waterway, as we approach a bridge and I try and back down, that we discover that the prop that caught last night's pot warp isn't responding. While having two drivetrains might make it twice as likely that you'll snag something, the benefits of redundant engines come clearly into focus.

By late afternoon we're off Sarasota, and Kurt remembers Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant, where you can tie up for the night if you have dinner. We wind our way along the mangrove-lined channel and just when we spot the dock, Imagine kisses the sand and stops dead in her tracks. This time, I'm the one to go over the side, and I'm glad I choose to walk down the transom steps and slide into the water rather than dive, as I might have on my own boat. With waves lapping at my knees, I confirm that we've run aground. Then I reach under and unfold the folding prop, apparently dislodging whatever line that had bound it up. For my efforts, I'm rewarded with a shower in the spacious stall in the owner's quarters, which I'm told was one of the boat's selling points.

Monday morning, I'm still basking in the glow of the Red Sox victory and relishing this chance to prolong summer a bit longer, sail a fine boat, and enjoy good company. But the fun isn't over. As we leave the shelter of the dock and sail toward Tampa Bay, the northeast wind develops an attitude. We tack our way toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Sailing closehauled, we're flying along at nine knots or better. Spray peels off the hulls, and occasionally water sweeps the cabin house as Imagine digs in and flies. Jim's at the wheel as we approach the center span that sits dead to weather. We sail our way through with a couple of well-timed tacks, and Jim's beaming ear to ear.

North of the bridge, the wind continues to gust, now pushing well into the 20s and higher. It's a wet ride, but it dispels any lingering ideas I might have had about these cats being dogs to sail.

And then, all too soon, it's over. We've furled and dropped the sails and are motoring into the calm of the basin at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. The rain pelts us as we tie to the bulkhead. I'm in a rush to get to the airport in time to catch my flight home. Jim and Liz, of course, are home, and the end of this trip is the start of their new adventure.

Mark Pillsbury is CW's senior editor.