On November 3, 2004, I heard about National Novel Writing Month. Every November, tens of thousands of participants write a 50,000-word novel. That’s 1,667 words a day. The event was already underway, but I thought, I can write more than 1,667 words a day, I can catch up. Never mind that I was flying to Florida for a week of sailing three days later.
This was to be my first week-long trip with The Sailing Club. Sailing with the group for the previous two years I’d gotten to know people and to understand how the club operated. It was different from my old gang with St. Barts Sailing in plenty of ways, but in other ways, well, sailors are sailors.
Also, I had been recruited to act as the assistant trip leader, a job without a lot of responsibility, but enough to earn a small discount on the trip. It was also a way to learn how to run a trip. While writing a novel.
Our fleet of four Island Packet sailboats departed Burnt Store Marina near Punta Gorda and worked our way north through the Intracoastal Waterway, stopping in Venice for a night, and anchoring in Lemon Bay and Pelican bay. Longboat Key was the northern end of our trip, with a stay in Sarasota as well.
Our boat, Patent Settlement, included skipper Ray, first mate John, Doug, Cecelia, and me. Ray and Doug were good friends and John had been a club member for years. But Cecelia and I were both relatively new. We soon discovered common ground as well as areas for disagreement–politics being one. Fortunately, Cecelia, who held John Kerry in high disdain, was able to make light of her crewmates’ contrary opinions. So the disagreement was lighthearted. I opted to let Cecelia have a cabin to herself (unrelated to politics. Really) and slept on one of the main saloon settees across from Doug on the other.
Every evening, if I had not found time to write my 1,667(+) words during the day, I sat with my laptop before going to sleep. Doug was fascinated. Throughout the trip he asked if I was writing him as a character? Was he the romantic hero? And he told anyone who’d listen that he was appearing in my novel. He was not. And has not yet, although I do believe I owe him an appearance at some point. I was drafting what would eventually become my first novel, Seeking Exile. I’d had the idea for it years before, so I wasn’t in the market for characters, no matter how amusing and charismatic.
Bored with the “ditch” (the Intracoastal), the fleet exited it to sail in the Gulf of Mexico to for the stretch up to Longboat. We re-entered protected waters at Longboat Key, entering a channel with an acute turn to get to our dock for the night. My skipper misread the chart and made a 90 degree turn, and within a few minutes we were hard aground on a shoal. On an outgoing tide. Two of our fleet were ahead of us, and one had not yet come through the passage from the Gulf. But it didn’t matter, none of them could have gotten near us to try to pull us off that shoal without getting stuck themselves.
Ultimately Skipper Ray called the local towing service to pull us off. He paid the $300 fee, but later the crew insisted on splitting the cost. That evening one of my crewmates bought towing insurance for her own tiny sailboat–insurance that would cover her on any boat she sailed. And the club began urging skippers to join Boat U.S. for towing coverage.
We were finally secured to the dock at Longboat Key when our fourth boat turned up. Her skipper had once been a submarine captain, and we could hear him barking orders from far across the water. His crew had lines and fenders ready as he charged at the dock, heading for the inside spot despite the rest of us shouting that it was too shallow. That’s probably why he kept his speed up, driving his keel into the mud as he bought that boat right up next to the dock. He knew, of course, that the tide was low now, but would be up by the time he needed to leave.
This was my second ever visit to Longboat and Sarasota, the first having been my friend Julia’s wedding a few years before. We enjoyed a great Cuban dinner in St. Armand’s Circle and explored the area a bit before casting off for the trip south.
After a stop in Venice, the fleet once again decided to go out into the gulf for the final stretch. We has some great sailing, and the trip turned out to be a solid introduction to the pros, and cons, of Florida’s west coast.
I finished all 50,000 words of that first draft of Seeking Exile, “winning” my first Nanowrimo. But it took me another ten years, mostly not working on it and then deciding to commit to it, to complete and publish it. Each November as I prepare to write another 50,000 words, I think back on this sojourn on the Gulf Coast.