A Little Limbo Dance

The Port Mayaca Lift Bridge.
The Port Mayaca Lift Bridge stands 49 feet above the water, just a foot shorter than Blue Wing.

“Tink, tink, tink” is the sound that your VHF antenna makes when it bends back and runs across the bottom of a bridge as you pass under in your sailboat. “Crunch” is the sound your wind vane makes when it breaks in two as it hits a bridge. “Criiiiinck” is the sound of your anchor light shattering, as it makes contact with steel and concrete. And “aaaack!” is the sound of the blood curdling scream emitting from you as your mast hits a bridge and folds backwards as easily as a Gumby bendy doll.

We have been under a lot of bridges as we have traversed the eastern portion of Florida’s ICW between Stuart and Miami on our voyages to The Bahamas and back. With a mast height of 50 feet we have had no problem with clearing all of the fixed height bridges along this route. But this year we are not going to the Bahamas. We are going to Mexico. And Mexico lies off Florida’s other coast.

Indiantown marina, where we keep Blue Wing during the summer, sits inland along the Okeechobee waterway, which runs across Florida through Lake Okeechobee, connecting the eastern and western shores. So this year instead of our usual left turn out of the marina (heading east), we decided to turn right and head west. This would take us through new terrain to Fort Myers where we would wait for a weather window to jump down to Key West or the Dry Tortugas or cross straight to Mexico. Great idea, with only one problem, the Port Mayaca Lift Bridge.

What is looks like when a train crosses the bridge.
What the Port Macaya Lift Bridge looks like when a train crosses it.

The Port Mayaca Lift Bridge is a railroad bridge used to transport sugar cane harvested in Indiantown. Unlike most train bridges, it opens by raising its middle section straight up, in one piece, where it stops, 49 feet above the water, an unfortunate foot shy of the top of our mast.

The solution to this problem for boats that want to cross this way and have masts higher than 49 feet is called the Okeechobee Limbo. Blue Wing would need to do a little dance and duck under the bridge to get to the other side. Now there is a guy named Billy that will do this for you. He will load up one side of your boat with 55-gallon drums and fill them with river water until your boat tips sufficiently to get under the bridge. We hear the cost for this is anywhere from $150 to $300 – equivalent to one or two plus days work for us back in Cabbagetown or 10 to 20 plus cases of beer or the price of a used accordion or getting one’s teeth fixed in Mexico, etc. In other words hard earned money we had better plans for.

Now Blue Wing tips all the time. Sailboats are made to tip (heel) to one side with the wind. Even a heavily strided man (Greg) walking on deck can make her a little tippy. We only had a foot to worry about, so we decided to save the money and do this dance with Blue Wing ourselves.

On Monday morning we took a right out of Indiantown and motored down the waterway towards Port Macaya. Along the way I checked the US Army Corps of Engineer’s website for the current height of the bridge. The bridge height changes with the height the water, which changes when water is let out of the many locks that line the waterway. That day the bridge stood at 49.15 feet. After a couple of hours we hit (not literally) the bridge, anchored, and started our plan.

View from the top of the mast.
View from the top of the mast. Below you can see Fever (our dinghy) on deck with the net that I tied for him. The orange line running from my foot down to the deck is what we used to measure the mast height with.

First step was to confirm our mast height. Now, when we bought Blue Wing, we were told it measured 50 feet, but a sailboat is just really a shell to attach stuff to and on top of – grills, propane tanks, water jugs, solar panels, etc. On top of the mast is an anchor light, a wind vane and an antenna. We needed to know to which of these items our were included in our 50 feet. I buckled on the boson’s chair and Greg winched me up with a measuring tool I had fashioned from rope and had marked with masking tape and a sharpie in foot and ten foot increments. We determined that to the top of our anchor light is 49 feet, the top of our wind vane is 50 feet and the top of our VHF antenna is 51 feet. Since the antenna is flexible and springs back, 50 feet was our minimum target.

Once I was down, we tied my measuring line to a halyard and ran it up the mast leaving a length of rope with a fender tied to the bottom that would hit the water when the top of boat was tipped to 48′, giving us a full foot under the bridge.

Blue Wing starting to tilt.
Blue Wing loaded up on the port side, starting to tilt.

Next step was to start tipping the boat by shifting weight to one side. We were already tilting a little as we motored down the waterway with all the stuff we had piled up on the port side settee down below before we left, my sewing machine, books, Greg’s beer. But even with Greg’s beer we still needed more. We moved a few more heavy things to the pile. Top side we transferred all of our water jugs and propane tanks to the port side. We had a pretty good tip on, but still needed more.

Greg fills Fever with river water.
Greg filling Fever with river water.

It was time to enlist the help of our other two crewmembers, Fever and Jethrine (our dinghies). Back in Indiantown I had tied a net that fit around Fever. The plan was to hike out our spinnaker pole, run a halyard about 5 feet through the end of the pole, tie a knot, then attach the end of the halyard to Fev’s net where he sat in the river. Greg would then paddle out to Fever in Jethrine and fill him with water and I would use the winch to raise him and the pole, which would pull the top of the mast down towards the water.

This worked, sort of. Because of Fever’s irregular shape, it was hard to figure out his center of gravity when he was full of water. Every time I winched him up he would tilt one way or the other and all the water would pour back into the waterway.

Crew number 1 watching.
The first wave of spectators before they got bored and left.

This was all taking a lot of time. And we had an audience. People had come out from the marina for a “tipping party.” Four hours had passed. After the excitement of me going up the mast, the first wave of partiers had grown bored (hopefully not like you, dear reader, have at this point) and left. But a second wave of observers showed up and was patiently waiting for the real show to begin.

After much discussion and a little experimentation, we decided on a new method. We would pre-raise Fever empty, then Greg in Jethrine would hold him steady as he filled him up and I piloted Blue Wing under the bridge. The end of my measuring line was still a foot or so from touching the water, it but it seemed close enough considering the extra foot I was adding. We decided to go for it.

Greg fills Fever with water as we head for the bridge. (photo courtesy of Liz and Chris)
Going for it. Greg fills Fever with water as we head for the bridge. (photo courtesy of Liz and Chris)
Crew number 2 cheering us on as we go through.
The second wave of spectators (who arrived later) cheering us on as we passed under the bridge.

Cue the limbo music. We raised anchor and Greg boarded Jethrine. Moving ever so slowly, I steered us towards the bridge. With a steady grip on Fever, I watched Greg start to bail water into him as he was pulled along side. I saw our friends standing on the railroad tracks on the edge of the bridge. I looked up, but only saw the top of Blue Wing’s bimini obscuring my view of the mast. We were getting closer, but I had no idea how close. Then I heard it.

Going through bridge.
My view going under bridge.

“Tink, tink, tink.” Our antenna bent back and strummed the bottom of the bridge as we glided to the other side. Time to get rid of some of that weight on the port side and drink some of that beer!

PS – If you want to hear this story from another prospective, please read my friend Ellen’s blog post. It is very funny.

PSS – If you want to see a video of this adventure and your are my friend on FaceBook, click here. If you are not my friend on FaceBook and would still like to see the video, send me a friend request.

PSSS – This plan actually started back in September. Greg is going to tell you about that:

Thanks David Littlejohn for helping us with the trig on this problem. David and I discussed the plan when we visited him and Michelle last September. I had taken a shot at getting the angle needed to heel, but my trig was rusty. David came through with an equation that showed us what angle to shoot for.

4 thoughts on “A Little Limbo Dance

  1. Great story! You are both very good at the DIY thing. And now, behold, Ft. Myers and the Gulf of Mexico.

  2. So scary! I would not have your nerve and get into a big fight with Vic in front of spectators.
    Me-We are going to die. Him- Just do what I say.
    Missed ya at the Crawl.

  3. I was holding my breath as I watched the video….very well done – literally and figuratively! Poor Billy might have some competition should you wish to take on a new career! Enjoy the Gulf – the road goes on and the party never ends…..

    Merry Christmas!

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