Gales and Gusts: Daytona Beach, Florida

Balmy breezes can bathe an afternoon to perfection, whisking our workaday concerns away on invisible currents of air. Whether basking in the sands of an unpopulated beach, pitching a lure toward a lake-ensconced bass or even mowing the lawn, we feel all the more alive when a warm wind accompanies our activities.

On my way to Daytona Beach, I anticipated such soothing breezes and looked forward to the relatively warm weather a Florida spring promises. After all, thousands of snowbirds head to the Sunshine State each year for its pleasant winter temperatures, so my presumption that a Daytona Beach spring visit would be balmy didn’t seem unreasonable. Luckily, I packed a windbreaker, since the spring warmth I sought proved to be as elusive as the 7,500 stock options I once received from a Web site, just before it went belly up.

The frosty spring winds were so strong during my Daytona Beach visit that locals were traumatized, rubbing their hands together for warmth and expressing disbelief that such temperatures were possible. Adventure activities that were
penciled in when more clement weather was expected were crossed off the itinerary: Surfing, parasailing and deep-sea fishing all got scratched. Since I’m the kind of traveler who can readily turn lemons into lemon bars, I jumped at the chance to stay out of the wind by kayaking through a forest primeval.

At Cracker Creek, adjacent to the historic Gamble Place Nature Preserve in nearby Port Orange, a guide and two of us soft-adventurers shoved off into the waters of Spruce Creek. We pointed the very stable, relatively short plastic boats
upstream, then began to paddle through the tea-colored tannic water. A spring upstream delivers water to the creek, creating a gentle current that flows toward the Atlantic Ocean. In turn, the ocean’s tides push inland, turning Spruce Creek brackish. The sources of the water and the liquid’s movement, however, are not what make a kayak or canoe trip
out of Cracker Creek special. The primary attraction is the lush, overgrown vegetation that huddles on the banks, blots out the light, knocks down the wind, presents obstructions, demands detours and requires kayakers to perform numerous acts of aquatic limbo.

Downstream from our put-in spot, boaters will encounter a hardwood forest, a stretch of sawgrass, then mangrove islands, but that day we paddled through a wonderfully spooky cypress swamp. Maple, ash, sable palmettos and American holly trees stretched skyward among the prevalent bald cypress and their bony knees. Between paddle strokes through the tranquil water, I took the time to study a dozen or so zebra caterpillars, then tried to sneak close to a turtle sunning itself on a log, but it splashed before I could snap a photo.

On the whole, this may be the perfect paddle for beginners who appreciate the wonders of nature but who don’t want to exert themselves too much. And Spruce Creek proved to be a fine place to dodge the wind. Sometimes, however, travelers should face what nature gives them head-on, so when nature stubbornly delivered strong winds, this stubborn traveler went sailing.

Captain Eric West owns and operates Eagle Yachts Inc., out of Adventure Yacht Harbor, and within minutes of meeting him, then stepping aboard his 36-foot Morgan sailboat called the S.V. Eagle, I knew I was in for a memorable afternoon. Eric looks the part of a seasoned sailor, his beard seeming somehow to hint at the adventures he’s experienced at sea, yet
his demeanor is as calming as a warm bath.

As he maneuvered the craft out of its slip and into the channel of the Intracoastal Waterway, Eric described various aspects of the boat over the buffeting gusts of wind. I had always wanted to learn to sail, but I had really only tinkered with tiny boats on tiny lakes, so I listened intently as Eric related how his large, beautiful craft operated. One rule Eric imparts to all of his sailors is the Bliss Rule, an edict that simply states: “If I give you a job, and I don’t say anything, you’re doing it well enough.” The Bliss Rule, therefore, eliminates criticism from other sailors, a concern I didn’t have, since only Eric and I were aboard.

Almost immediately, I found myself behind the wheel, still under motor power, steering the boat toward Ponce Inlet,
between the red and green channel markers. As nearly everyone does, I tended to over-steer, but then corrected my aggressive corrections. Since the wind was pronounced, Eric put two reefs in the mainsail, a technique that is more forgiving in extreme conditions. Then he killed the motor, and we were sailing. The large boat proved to be amazingly responsive, as I quickly learned when Eric instructed me to employ the Manatee Observation Maneuver (which required me to turn hard left, toward the manatee we saw swimming in the distance).

I could recount my Eagle Yachts sailing experience mile for mile, describing the scenery we passed along the way, poking fun at the motorboat that cut us off and attempting to convey the excitement I felt in the pit of my stomach as gust after gust grabbed hold of the sails, then forced the boat to lean in a manner that made me uncomfortable. I could declare that eventually I understood that the boat moves most efficiently when it is, in fact, leaning just that way. I could reveal the measure of satisfaction I took from learning to work the genoa sail quickly, winding and unwinding the ropes as Eric shouted the commands, “Ready about,” then “Hard alee,” tacking together time and again, as we made our way back to port.

To describe these aspects of my experience in detail, however, would be to deprive future sailors the pleasure of discovery that I experienced that day. I have been on many adventures over the years, but I can say without reservation that the one that will appeal to the most number of readers is to go sailing with Captain Eric.

Cracker Creek Canoeing, (386) 304-0778, www.oldfloridapioneer.com.

Eagle Yachts, (386)
295-2578, www.marinesource.com/eagleyacht.

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