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A Family Affair

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At our anchorage at Useppa Island on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Florida, the sunset had been staggeringly beautiful. Now the stars overhead were nearly bright enough to read by. The January air was unseasonably warm and the wind was nonexistent. We rested motionless at anchor. Gauguin couldn't have painted a more beautiful picture. To be sharing it with our daughter and son and their spouses made it even more special.

As usual, my wife had been right.

"If we're going to take the kids on a boat trip, it has to be this year," she said. "After that, I predict it won't just be the six of us."

And so began the planning for a charter with our son and daughter, their spouses, and my wife, Cade, and me. While our family has been sailing together for decades, neither of our children or their significant others had been on a big-boat adventure. It was something we wanted to do, all of us together, before the grandkids began arriving.

In 2007, Cade and I had chartered a 42-foot Grand Banks Classic for a month, lived aboard, and cruised Florida's Gulf Coast from Sarasota to the Keys, up to Miami, and back via the Keys to Sarasota. It was our introduction to the trawler lifestyle, and we loved it (see "A Month At Sea Sets The Course For Living Aboard" PMM May/June '08). So why not take an abbreviated cruise, retracing a part of our 2007 route? We would concentrate on the GICW, moving south from Sarasota to Charlotte Harbor, to Pine Island Sound and Useppa Island/Cabbage Key, and back. We would all be comfortable on a trawler and the cruising grounds are among the most beautiful on Florida's Gulf Coast (or anywhere in the United States for that matter).

And, of course, Cade and I couldn't wait to be on a trawler again, introducing the next generation to the joys of cruising under power. We planned our trip for early January. Even if the weather was uncooperative, we'd be in the GICW and protected from nearly anything Mother Nature could throw at us.

We were excited to be chartering a trawler again: all the comforts of home at 8.5 knots under warm Florida sun. Plane reservations to Sarasota from San Diego (son James Sibley and wife/daughter-in-law Haylee) and to Sarasota from Denver (daughter Teasley and husband/son-in-law Michael Ruback) were quickly made and confirmed. By August, all the ingredients for a super vacation were in place.

In October, another ingredient entered the picture. Teasley and Mike announced they were expecting, with a delivery predicted for late June 2009. Now there would be seven of us on our voyage, although number seven would only be along for the ride. Never too early to take 'em on the water.

Before we knew it, it was January 2, and only a day left before we were to board our charter and head south on the GICW from Sarasota. By noon the following day, we'd topped off our tanks, and I'd passed muster with Capt. Paul McFadden, who trusted me/us with his 1987 Grand Banks 42 Motor Yacht, Lyssa Lin, for the next four days. We were just passing under the Siesta Key Bridge, with all hands on the flybridge and me at the wheel. I still had a few butterflies in my stomach, but the old feelings were coming back. Life was indeed good at the wheel of a trawler.

Son-in-law Mike, an MBA and finance guy who I truly believe has a supercomputer tucked away in his head, was a quick study in figuring the numbering and colors of GICW markers. After all, numbers are his thing. Within minutes of reading the chart, he was computing-in his head-speed, time, and distance, and telling me not only exactly where we were, but how far we had to the next waypoint and how long it would take us to get there. That came in very handy, for instance, when we had to calculate whether we could arrive at a particular bridge in time for its scheduled opening.

Before long, everyone had taken a turn at the wheel, knew how to keep track of our progress on the chart, and knew that we not only had to watch the waterway markers ahead of us, but those to our stern as well to keep us safely in the center of the channel. From then on, piloting and driving the boat became a shared activity. Our day-one destination was about 36 miles south on the GICW at Stump Pass on the south end of Manasota Key. The day's journey made for a perfect "shake-down" cruise. We had to wind our way down the GICW, pass under nine bridges, and request openings at two: the swing bridge at Blackburn Point on Casey Key, and the Casey Key Bridge, a bascule bridge just north of the city of Venice. Everyone watched the chart and the markers as we made our way through the S-curve that the GICW takes through Venice before entering the man-made channel that took us past the Venice Municipal Airport and on into Lemon Bay.

Before long I was comfortable leaving the flybridge with "the kids" at the wheel, confident they were closely reading the chart and keeping track of the markers and the GICW channel. Each took turns driving the boat, paired up with another who watched the chart and the waters around us. Their increasing confidence was fun to watch, and reminded Cade and me of our learning curve on our voyage two years prior. It was a time that was all about, and in a way, only about, family, and how important that commodity is to each one of us.

The GICW south of Sarasota is an entertaining cruising locale, one minute boasting beautiful second-home mansions and watercraft fit for royalty, the next revealing remnants of old fishing villages with outbuildings in various stages of disrepair or reconstruction. It was fun to try to imagine who lived where, and what kind of folks they might be. We all agreed they couldn't be having more fun than we were. The weather was perfect, the sun warmed us all, and we were escorted frequently by dolphins who cavorted in our wake and bow waves.

About five hours after leaving Sarasota, we approached GICW marker 17A, where we turned to starboard into the channel to Stump Pass, which enters the Gulf of Mexico. It's heavily used by local fishermen and boaters, and while it's narrow with shallow water on either side, following the marked channel is relatively straightforward. Our anchorage was in about 7 feet of water between Thornton Key and a small, unnamed island about 150 yards to the north. A shoal extends out from the island, requiring a wide turn to port, favoring the shore of Thornton Key. It is a quiet, protected anchorage and an easy run from Sarasota.

We picked our way in, with me at the wheel and Teasley as my second set of eyes. The rest of the crew was on the bow, with James and Mike standing by at the anchor windlass (youth, strength, and agility are great advantages when anchoring).

As we made our turn into our anchorage, Teasley informed me we were showing less than 2 feet under the keel. We backed off and made a wider approach, successfully reaching our target area. We spun Lyssa Lin, dropped anchor, and slowly backed down, confident we'd let out enough chain to set the anchor in the sand bottom. No luck: we reversed engines to set the hook and promptly dragged anchor. A spectator fleet of five boats, already anchored, calmly sipped drinks and watched as we tried three more times, unsuccessfully, to set the hook.

Finally, a dinghy from a nearby vessel approached, its skipper suggesting that we let out even more chain, and then "just let it sit there for a while, it might just set itself." Voila! We did and it did. We gently backed down on the anchor and it held. We radioed our thanks to the nearby mariner. We were safely in for the night. While driving a trawler is a most enjoyable experience, a quiet anchorage at the end of the day's run only makes the experience better. We settled in for the evening, watching charter-fishing and pleasure craft head in through Stump Pass after a day in the Gulf. Books came out and people began to find their own "space" on Lyssa Lin to read, enjoy the fading sun, throw a fishing line in the water (unsuccessfully, but who cared?), watch the other boats in the anchorage, or just snooze a bit.

As the cocktail and dinner hours approached, the sun set into the Gulf. Cool libations were poured and our first night's fare of salmon cakes, a sumptuous salad and garlic bread began to be prepared in the galley. Lyssa Lin took on the air of an Italian restaurant. The men aboard began to exert territoriality, sharing cigars on the aft deck, and proclaiming various areas on Lyssa Lin to be exclusively reserved for the male gender: the "man deck (aft)," the "man bow" forward, and the "man cave" (above), which was the enclosed flybridge. Our ladies, of course, ignored all of it, but put up with our childish shenanigans.

Our first meal aboard was a rollicking, communal affair, with much frivolity, banter, and expressions of how lucky we were to be together, enjoying this peaceful anchorage and Mother Nature's bounty. Toasts were plentiful, and Cade was-appropriately-recognized as the catalyst behind our grand adventure. And we toasted Lyssa Lin, who had already transformed herself into our new home, where we would make memories for the next three days. It was a trawler thing, we agreed.

The next day took us 20 miles from Stump Pass, into a beautiful-and dead-calm-Charlotte Harbor. The water was like glass and the wide expanse of Charlotte Harbor almost gave one the feeling of open ocean after traveling the narrow Intracoastal the day before. We crossed the Boca Grande inlet between Gasparilla Island and Cayo Costa, to our second anchorage at Useppa Island, directly across from Cabbage Key on the northern edge of Pine Island Sound. We could almost hear Jimmy Buffet in the tropical air. He reportedly wrote the song, "Cheeseburger in Paradise" at the Cabbage Key Restaurant.

Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound offer virtually limitless secluded anchorages, comfortable marinas, and nearly 300 square miles of protected waters. One could spend weeks cruising the area and still not see it all.

We dropped the hook at a popular but, luckily, uncrowded anchorage behind GICW marker 61. The weather was so perfect and the temperature so warm (in the 80s), that some went swimming in the cool water of our anchorage. The fishing rod came out again, predictably to no avail, although on one cast Teasley lost the entire rig to an unseen monster that snapped her line in one quick tug. Or so she said.

If perfection can be achieved twice in a row, we achieved it. Another glorious sunset, another onboard feast, and another night sky of brilliant stars overhead took our collective breath away.

We made one change to our accommodations. We had brought an Aerobed on board, thinking that if Lyssa Lin's third cabin was a bit crowded for two, an inflatable double bed would be handy, and could be deployed on the flybridge/man cave. Teasley and Mike occupied it on our second night, and James and Haylee on our third and final night. They all agreed it was quite a bit more comfortable than the quite-narrow three-quarter berth in the third cabin.

On our third day, we began our journey north again, retracing our path across Boca Grande inlet, into Charlotte Harbor, and bound for Boca Grande Marina on Gasparilla Island for our final night's stay. The marina had undergone a recent remodeling, we were told, and proved to be a comfortable and hospitable facility, with friendly and helpful staff.

We arose early the next day, leaving the dock by 7 a.m. in order to make a mid-afternoon arrival in Sarasota after our 48-mile return trip. We returned Lyssa Lin to her berth, with four days and 115 miles under her keel. It had been a voyage short on miles traveled, but long on great memories. The kids now had a cruising experience under their belts, and vowed to someday take a similar voyage on their own. Cade and I told one another how lucky we were to have shared it with them.

Oh, and one other detail has since emerged, revealed on a late-February visit to James and Haylee in San Diego. "We're pregnant," they announced, tracing the news

back to Lyssa Lin, the "man cave," and our four-day voyage.

As I said at the outset, Cade was right: it's no longer just the six of us. Grandchild number one, Payton Rose Ruback, presented herself to the world July 2. James and Haylee expect the arrival of their son, James Whitney Sibley V, in late September.