Home Port

The Schooner America reefed and reaching through Key West Harbor

The schooner America reefed and reaching through Key West Harbor

While it may seem odd to become nostalgic about a home port before having even left it, Key West is the kind of place that a person cannot leave lightly. I am thinking about my home port today as I watch schooners tack across the harbor in preparation for the annual Wreckers Race.

The schooners represent a golden age of sail when over 100 ships per day passed by Key West. The waters they were sailing were known as some of the most treacherous in the world. On average, at least one ship per week would wreck somewhere along the Florida reef. The captain of the first ship to reach a wreck became the “wrecking master” and he controlled the salvage operation. The goods salvaged from the wreck would later be sold at auction in Key West with the wrecking courts awarding anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of the profit to the wreckers.  In 1822, the U.S. Navy chose Key West as its base for suppressing piracy in the West Indies but by 1860 wrecking had made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida, and the wealthiest town per capita in the United States.

The Key West economy has always been fueled by a little bit of piracy. The wreckers were followed by sailors running guns and ganja. Refugees still wash ashore clutching figurines of the virgin Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba and protector of those who go to sea.

These days the schooners race to the reef with a cargo of sunburn tourists but Key West is still a seafaring town. From the vantage point of a balcony on a widow’s walk over Duval Street it is possible to look north to the Gulf of Mexico and south to the Atlantic Ocean. Our little Island in the Stream is less than a mile wide. I’ve made my living on the water in Key West for more than three decades. Our daughter was born here. It is home.

Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Pliny said, “Home is where the heart is.”

I will keep those words close to me as I set my sails for points west next year. It may end up being a voyage of 36 months and 36,000 miles, but I know if I just keep following the setting sun that it will eventually lead me back to Key West.

Into the Night

Sailing at night, without a horizon, and only a star to steer her by. Photo: Paul Carson / www.SailValis.com

Sailing at night, without a horizon, and only a star to steer her by.
Photo: Paul Carson / http://www.SailValis.com

On a dark morning this week I will be en route to the Marquesas–the Marquesas Keys west of Key West, not the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. That trip across the Pacific will come later–next year, God willing. Nonetheless, the Marquesas in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge is still one of the most beautiful places on this earth. I know these islands well having made this 20-mile passage from Key West more than a thousand times during my 30-year tenure as a Florida Keys fishing guide.

I have always loved the pre-dawn departures, especially on moonless nights when when the sea and the sky seem to blend together as one. Those passages to the Marquesas were made in a small skiff, not a sailboat. It was work then and not what John Masefield called the “vagrant gypsy life.” Still, I cherished these mornings. The route west of Key West is away from civilization. There are no city lights, although on a very dark night in the Marquesas it is possible to see the lume of Havana glowing in the clouds 90 miles to the south.

These dark nights on the water have always reminded me of being alone on my transatlantic passage nearly 35 years ago. In mid-ocean on a calm night the stars would reflect off the water. Without a horizon it would seem as if I was a celestial being hurtling through space; as if the little sloop was in a physical universe beyond the surface of the earth. And how often is that possible without the help of mind-altering substances?

So, as I wait for my new ship to be built, and my star to steer her by, I will be content to to find my way on the water by whatever means possible and I will consider myself blessed when I can make a passage through the darkness.

“Sea Fever
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

By John Masefield (1878-1967).
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)

Sun and the Stars

A 17th century astrolabe from the Museo Galileo

A 17th century astrolabe from the Museo Galileo

It is difficult to imagine that getting from Point A to Point B was ever any more difficult than pushing a “Go To” button, but maritime historian Randy McDonald gave an excellent lecture on Ancient Navigational Techniques in Key West this week reminding us that it wasn’t always so easy finding our way at sea.

Randy is a craftsman as well as a historian and he has replicated instruments used by ancient mariners thousands of years ago. Included in his collection are 14th century cross staffs, latitude hooks, astrolabes, quadrants, and a remarkable Polynesian stick chart.

Maritime navigators have always made due with whatever materials were available to them and with ingenuity they navigated safely across thousands of miles of ocean. Singlehanded sailor Steve Callahan spent 76 days adrift in an inflatable raft after his small sloop sank near the Canary Islands in 1981. He found his way to safety in Barbados by measuring the angle of the sun and stars using three pencils bound into a triangle.

My 1981 singlehanded transatlantic crossing in the 23-foot sloop Betelgeuse was made just before the era of GPS became prevalent among offshore sailors. I had no electronics. I used a sextant, passed down from my father, for the celestial navigation from Florida to Portugal.

The voyage of Flying Fish, scheduled to begin next year, will be different. The navigation station on the new IP460 will have an array of computers, flat screens, radios, and electronics. Prudent sailors, however, think about worst-case scenarios and if all those fancy electronics go blank… I’ll always have Dad’s sextant to help me find my way.

I may choose to use the sextant anyway, just to be a little closer to the sun and the stars.

Birth of a Boat

My specifications for the new construction of a transoceanic sailboat were simple:

Build me a boat that is not going to break apart when I am 2,000 miles from the closest land. And build me a boat that if it rolls over in heavy weather will return upright, quickly. Hull integrity and safety in mid ocean were non-negotiable factors in my selection of a design for Flying Fish. I have confidence that the Island Packet 460 is going to keep me upright and afloat.

Island Packets have established their ocean cruising credibility by logging millions of sailing miles around the globe. The owner of the company, Bob Johnson, holds a Master of Science degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering from MIT. At the core of each of his designs are construction features chosen with an unwavering focus on the demands of sailing offshore in safety. The International Marine Certification Institute has awarded them its highest rating—Category-A Ocean—meaning the boats qualify for ‘unlimited offshore use.’

Much more will be written here about the details, construction, and ultimate performance of Flying Fish but as her first fiberglass is being laminated I’m sleeping easily with the confidence that Island Packet is building me a good boat.

For more information read the chapter on IPY in: The World’s Best Sailboats Volume II, by Ferenc Máté. He is one of the most widely read and respected of sailing authors. His books, From a Bare Hull, The Finely Fitted Yacht, Best Boats, Shipshape and The World’s Best Sailboats Volume I are all nautical classics.

Construction begins on the new Island Packet 460 Flying Fish

Construction begins on the new Island Packet 460 Flying Fish

The Internal Grid Unit, IGU, will be fitted and fiberglassed into the hull mold

The boat’s internal structural grid will be fitted and fiberglassed into the hull mold

Explore. Dream. Discover.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain


There is saltwater coursing through my veins—literally.

There is saltwater in all of us. The salinity of our blood is nearly identical to the salinity of the ocean. This may be a biological explanation for why I feel compelled to set sail across thousands of miles of open ocean.

When I was 25 years old, I left Florida for Europe alone in a 23-foot sloop named Betelgeuse–eight days after I was married. It was a voyage of high risk and adventure and, remarkably, 34 years later I am still married. My life has been a blessing. Now, work has begun on a new boat, the sailing vessel Flying Fish. It is a 46-foot Island Packet cutter designed for transoceanic passages.

In the next 12 to 18 months, I will raise the halyards on Flying Fish and embark on a new journey across those miles of open ocean. Many of the passages will again be sailed single handed. There will be challenges and discovery. (At age 59, I am no longer bulletproof and this time I will chart my course though different oceans.) It will be voyage of memoir and a reaffirmation of life.

Capt. Jack Sparrow said it best: “Now… bring me that horizon.”

Follow the odyssey of Flying Fish by subscribing to this WordPress blog, or on Facebook at Jeffrey Cardenas. A portfolio of photography can be seen on Instagram @flyingfishsail Thanks for joining me on this voyage!