Afloat

This is our now ‘wrapped-up’ travel log of our 2012-13 adventures aboard our sailboat, Erwin James. We shipped her from our homeport of Sheboygan, Wisconsin at the beginning of October 2012. We had it unloaded at Turner Marine on Mobile Bay, Alabama. After about 4 weeks of working on her we splashed her into salt water for the first time. We left Turner mid-November. We sailed the Florida panhandle, it’s West coast, the Dry Tortugas, the Keys, made an attempt at Cuba, and then spent months cruising the delicious Bahamian archipelago.

We put the boat on the hard in Green Cove Springs, FL end of May 2013. After a jaunt out to California for the summer, and then 6 months at home in Wisco, we returned to the Bahamas—this time to the Abacos, from Februrary to April 2014.

*Update* 5/9/2105 – This week the Erwin James arrived home (or close) in Wisconsin, via the same trucker that brought it south. She’s dirty from a year on land in tropical Florida, and the mast is waiting to be stepped next week. It’s exciting to have EJ back in fresh water and a block from our house. I wonder what we’ll do this summer? Cheers.

Jason & Nicolé Lanius
S.V. Erwin James ~ 1976 Morgan Out Island 33′
interactive map… 

View ErwinJames 2012-13 in a larger map

Land Ho!

Yup, on land. It was either battle the hurricanes and heat, or head really far south (Trinidad?) to avoid the storms. So instead we opted for a land based summer. We’ve headed out west in a “land-yacht”, aka Truck-Camper. Made it to Cali, and have been hiking and loving the Tahoe area for awhile. Maybe I’ll blog about it, but until then here’s a link to our photo gallery…

OutWest photos…Above: Enjoying LAKE TAHOE…

 

The Run Home…

Sun, salt, swimming, sea-monsters (cute creatures), yachties, and all the bright blue goodness of this ocean life can pile up on top of you like a group of sweaty rugby players. We need a break. We need land, and space, and mountains, and nice people we’ve known our whole lives around us… at least for a little while!

So, Nassau  Last visit in Nassau was fine. Got the paper done, did some blogging, saw some friends from the last time and relaxed some. We had a to delay a bit in leaving due to very low wind speeds, and then took off in what seemed like a sketchy front, but we knew better. So we bombed out of the crazy Nassau harbor some morning, bound for the Great Bahama Bank and the Bimini islands. The day went well, and we made the NW Channel Light before dark with no mishaps. The night was a little trying as it tends to be, but we did fine and even ran for awhile under reefed main only (though I think we motor-sailed a bit). We worked our way off the Bank and up into Nixon Harbour on South Bimini for a long sleepy overnight. 

We kept on truckin’ by leaving early the next morning, intending to sail the 70nm to Lake Worth and arrive later in the afternoon. BUT, we’d seen Pilot Whales and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, and the Gulf Stream is so fast and wonderful when it’s going your way that we decided we were superhero enough to just ‘choose’ to keep on going. Through the night, northward, to where? No idea. It was a bit torturous, and we where tired by mid morning the next day and made for the nearest port. Port Canaveral was directly west of us and we motored the 30nm through the fluky useless wind. From there we thought we’d cruise the ICW for some relaxing travel north to our storage spot. But in the end we got rested and then restless and decided we’d do yet another overnighter and make Jacksonville (St. Johns River) in one more hop.

We found this great marina to store our boat. It’s Green Cove Springs Marina and it’s no secret among frugal cruising sailors. The price is right and the location is very protected from hurricane mischief. To get there you need to sail to the St. Johns River entrance on the Atlantic and then about 40nm down the river, past Jacksonville, to the little town of Green Cove Springs, FL. When we got into the river we anchored at a spot about 6nm in from the ocean. After that we headed to downtown JAX for some free slips and great food. If you’re in Jax, eat at Fionn MacCools at the Landing. Damn good.

Eventually we got to the GCS marina. The ‘trip’ at that point was ‘over’. I didn’t realize it then but the next week or so would be nothing but cleaning, processing, and moving stuff. Preparing the boat to sit in the heat and humidity of the South, and have it survive the onslaught of the local termites, cockroaches, ants, and other creepies, we would need to go through a mountain of work. Not fun. Not, fun. Though anything is at least ‘pleasant’ with my lovely Nicole (though at times, it got ugly). (sometimes you make a photo that captures precisely the feel of the experience…like this one >>

I really don’t want to relive the experience, but I will say that since this was our first time and we knew next to nothing about what worked or didn’t, we certainly applied the ‘belt and suspenders’ philosophy to our preparations for storing EJ. We even hauled and stored all the vulnerable items (sails, cloth things, etc) at Nicole’s Mom’s place that is nearby and is the place we stored the car. If we arrive back at the boat sometime late autumn and the boat is bug and mold free, all the credit should go to Nicole. She made this happen, which I resented at the time, but now appreciate immensely. 

Thunderball Grotto

I’ve considered not sharing anything about the Thunderball Grotto. Knowing that I hope to bring visitors here I don’t think I should ruin their surprise. But I suppose a trip online and they’d see what it’s all about. So here’s a peek…

Every once in awhile you have your expectations wildly exceeded. When I read in guidebooks about a ‘cool’ or ‘popular’ destination or feature I get defensive. I’m no regular tourist. And certainly if something like ‘James Bond’ is associated with it then it has to be totally cheesy. Right?

The world famous (I think) Thunderball Grotto, near Staniel Cay, in the Exumas, Bahamas is simply spectacular. From descriptions I assumed it was a cave-ish feature that you could swim into a little ways and then swim out and look at all the fishes and get excited about it being sort of a cave that you swam into… etc, etc. Well I’ll tell you that my heart was pounding hard from my first entering the place till awhile after we were back in the dinghy talking about it.

It’s nothing much to look at on the surface and outside of the Grotto (capitalization out of respect!) It’s at the end of one of three limestone islets, mid channel, between the cut to Exuma Sound and the Exuma Bank, very close to Staniel Cay Yacht Club. The southwest corner of that islet seems to be broken down, tumbled and cracked, sinking. This descent into chaos, increase in entropy, is the source of the Grotto and all the uniqueness it possesses. Erosion and the uneven durability of limestone (something to do with acid also…?) allows these features to form.

You are advised to go at low slack tide, so that you do not have to fight any currents and the water is lowest which might allow you to avoid any ducking under overhead rocks. Our first visit was on a rising tide the very afternoon we arrived and anchored nearby. We had some mild current and the water rose while we were inside, but it presented no issues. As usual when ‘not’ doing something at the ‘recommended’ time you avoid crowds. Usually I like a group of people to be around when diving on a site… giving the scary man-eaters more to choose from, but at the Grotto less is definitely more.

On arrival four snorkelers popped out of the Grotto and seemed excited and happy. Their skiffs were the only boats present, so once gone we had the thing to ourselves (Nicole and I). We tied the dinghy to the only mooring buoy at the site and got our gear on. The first plunge underwater is always a rush. Its never quite the scene you expect, and it takes a minute to orient yourself to that completely different world. A quick scan 360º for anything terrifying and you’re ready to roll. We were over a fairly shallow sandy area dotted with a few brain corals and other things, and directly in front of us was the lower wall of the island. The arcing surface was plastered with the oddest Jackson Pollock smattering of corals and creatures that we’ve ever seen underwater.

The number of species of fish in that first glance was impressive, but the big parrot fish gnawing at various goodies were the most prominent. Throughout we would be treated to large Nassau grouper, giant prehistoric looking burrfish (like a pufferfish), queen angelfish, the invasive but beautiful lionfish, the largest crab we’d ever seen (2 feet across), iridescent purple corals, and school after school of so many other types, colors, and sizes of fish and coral that we couldn’t possibly remember them all.

We could see where the entrance was, but it was shrouded in shadow, and when you’re in bright sun underwater, the area in shadow is essentially featureless. But as you approach your eyes adjust fairly quickly to the new light so you can proceed. Here we entered what I would call the ‘Crack’. This ran through the corner of the island and was a tumble of worn broken off stone that created a series tented openings that made for what I would term ‘theatrical’ lighting and cradled a myriad of lifeforms. We didn’t proceed down the Crack it’s full length (during the first visit), our attention was instead drawn to the next shadow. Upon entering the Crack, to your fairly immediate right is the feature that earned this place it’s name. The Grotto. I’ve heard the term used to define a number of various spots on land, even restaurants, so we had no idea what to expect.

The Grotto, above water, is a circular domed cathedral of rock, stalagmites, dripping vines, and openings to the sky allowing shafts of sunlight to penetrate the air and underwater world, creating even more dramatic spot-lighting and a dazzling splintering of light on every surface. I would guess the Grotto’s dome to be 30 to 40 feet above the water and about a 40 foot diameter, giving it the proportions that a Renaissance architect might choose. After you settle yourself enough from the heart racing beauty of the space you notice the other openings and areas of light. The most prominent is the one I seem to recall from the Bond film, a large oval-shaped opening through the island wall, this time toward the opposite side of the island. Beyond is the corals of the outer wall and the sandy sea floor stretching out toward the channel. Positioned in the center of the opening, hunting, and surrounded by hundreds of fish (keeping their distance) was an impressive Great Barracuda gently swimming within the current of the opening but not moving a single inch. He eventually moved on out into the open water, and was not in the slightest interested in us.

This place is really beyond anything but a very lengthy and intricately worded written description, for which I do not have the requisite energy at this point in our travels. Therefore photographs will have to suffice.

The Tropic of Cancer

I almost forgot to post this… Silly, but it was a goal… here we are crossing the
Tropic of Cancer (the schoolbook version at 23 degrees 30 minutes North) just south of George Town at the very end of the Exumas. It is the northern boundary line of the span of latitudes that constitute the ‘Tropics’. This was approximately our Southernmost point of the trip. WooHoo!!

Crux

Part of the mythology of ‘sailing away’ has always involved the warm, the blue, the tropics. And one symbol has always stood out to me as the quintessential south seas object. The Southern Cross or Crux. The smallest constellation, but one of the most storied. Well, unexpectedly we were able to view this little jewel, just above the southern horizon, while at about the Tropic of Cancer on Elizabeth Harbor in the Exumas, Bahamas.
Photo is not mine, but shows Crux… 

The Lanius/Kose Invasion!

Awesome fun visit! We boated all over, hiked all over, swam everywhere, snorkeled the ocean blue, ate & drank & watched Nemo, and soaked up the big sun (too much for some of us ;)… Here are some visuals…

Feeding wild stingrays…Chillin…
The Family Island Regatta races… Nate rooting them on!
Hiking Stocking Island’s Monument Mountain…Surfin fun…
All of us did a lot of Snorkeling… even Nate, who’s only 4!Flying out of the Exumas….

Dolphinius Maximus!

This could be a long gushing tale…but I’ll save it for the book ;) For now I’ll just say… we swam with three gregarious wild bottle-nose dolphins in Elizabeth Harbor, George Town, Exuma… for hours! On three different occasions/days. Totally unexpected.
(took mostly video, but here are some of the better photos and frame captures)

George Town

We heard about the gathering of cruisers in George Town, a bit in the US, and then often when we got to the Bahama Islands. I was a little leery of the whole concept…to us it sounded like another crowded, organized place, like Marathon in the Keys. We worked pretty hard to get here, against some annoying winds and in the face of predicted storms and squalls. But once here we understood.

It would take more energy than I have right now to fully describe or give George Town the justice it deserves, but I will give it a start and tell more later. I’ll let some images speak for me for now…….

Bahamas Wildlife…

Oh my my, I love being in the water! I love the chill of after, and the warming up after that. I love the healthy weariness, the invigoration, the runny nose and crackling ears—all of it. Hot tea in the wind and talking over what we saw with each other… “What kind of sea turtle were those two? Hawksbill maybe, the island’s namesake? Did you notice the fish swimming underneath the turtle? How about that other fish you spotted—what the heck was that anyway? It changed colors three times and then it took off like a bat out of hell. And the lionfish, wow, too bad it kept hiding. Wait till you see the photo of the swaying anemone, so beautiful. Sorry you missed out on the caves, they were pretty cool. Did you see the barracuda? It saw you. Can you believe that little remora? It was so peculiar, and it definitely was going to attach itself to me. It thought I was a shark! Simply amazing. Oh, and we have to look up what sort of lizards those are. That big one was almost tame—it tried to eat that berry right out of my hand.”

No sharks today. Not like back in the Berry’s, at Bonds Cay. During a beautiful early afternoon I left the boat on the dinghy to explore a bit. I only intended to poke my head in at a few of the ‘dark’ spots to see if there was any coral or anything interesting for us to go snorkeling over later. Out to the southwest of us was a very big swath of bright water—a shallow shoal of all sand. I motored out onto it just to experience the color of the water and the expansive feeling of the space. I easily noticed the dark spots, and one was clearly moving. Cool! Could be anything, but I knew what I hoped they would be. As I got closer I could see they were probably sharks and one was not moving at all. I knew that Nurse sharks will sometimes hold completely still and that they even sleep. Most sharks don’t stop moving, but nurse sharks can. As I came close I popped my be-goggled head under the surface to see what was there. Awesome! A gorgeous six foot nurse shark, with a huge remora type fish alongside, breathing slowly as if it was asleep was lying beneath my little boat in six feet of air-clear water.

I really do think they are among the most beautiful animals on this planet. Nurse sharks have a richly dark, suede-brown skin with a matte texture that appears lighter or deeper depending on the light and it’s angle. Their eyes are not oversized, but just right, and lie upon a subtle chine running along from their nose backward to blend into the lines of the rest of their body. The eyes are bright blue-green, like the waters surrounding them. Their mouths are not visible from above and therefore project no malice like other sharks. They have fat short whiskers below their snouts for feeling out crustaceans I assume. Their fins and tail are further back on their bodies than other sharks and they have a softer, more graceful look about them. When they swim they are as sinuous and lovely as anything you’ve ever seen move, and though they cover a lot of ground it seems to come from such minor effort and minimal movement.

Eventually my fumbling with resetting the dinghy’s anchor and futzing with the underwater camera perturbed this nurse shark enough for her to move on. I stayed with her for a while, comically attempting to photograph her while moving. At one point I was even dunking my upper body into the water, camera in hand and mask donned, while the dinghy was motored forward into the little waves. Unfortunately no one got to witness this hilarity, but I did have a good laugh at my own expense. Eventually I stopped tormenting the shark and moved on. After some exploration of the island’s work camp (apparently the singer Shakira owns the island and is developing a resort so she can have somewhere to sing…oops, I guess she is a ‘model’ not a singer) and the route out to the deeper water I swung back into the bay and went up to an interesting spot with a little beach. The day before, Nicole and I had snorkeled briefly off another beach and were surprised to see much more wildlife than we expected in such shallow water with very little structure. So even though I did not have my buddy there for safety I thought it would be harmless enough to do a little beach snorkeling again.

I brought the dinghy near shore and put the anchor on the beach (the wind kept it off). I plopped down in about 12 inches of water and was, as always, amazed at how it is like entering an entirely different world, instantly. With no fins I kicked out to about 3 feet of water and started poking around. It wasn’t long at all before I noticed a familiar shape moving in a familiar way up near the rocky shore to the left of the beach. I immediately got my camera out of my pants (I keep it tucked in my spandex swim shorts) and readied the video setting. As I started shooting she swam along the shoreline in the same 12 inches of water I was just in. Nuzzling her snout into the sand every few feet or so, you could see that she was out hunting. This nurse shark was much smaller than the two out on the flats, and was probably around 4 feet long in total, but just as stunning only in a smaller package. She then swam directly toward me for a bit so I made some movements to let her know I was there. She saw this and seemed to react by stopping and then swinging sideways and swimming very slowly in front of me before continuing on. I can’t be sure, but it seemed she was checking me out, determining if I was a threat and whether or not she should turn and run. She kept her cool and graceful left me behind. It seemed like it all happened in slow motion and took forever, but as the video will attest it was all over in probably less than a minute.

Eager for more I climbed out of the water to the beach to have a vantage point to watch for more sharks to swim with! Unbelievably I did not have to wait long. Two large dark shapes cleared the weed bed and came onto the bright sand in front of the beach. With a bit of caution I went into the water and went under. I could see that they weren’t sharks, but instead were their cousins, large rays, probably spotted eagle rays. I would say they were 4 to 5 feet across and totally awesome. Unfortunately I did not have fins on and could catch them very well on video because they decided I was creepy and they slowly swam away (slow for a ray, super fast for a barefoot human).
So back to my post, I waited. Bingo, I saw another dark ‘thing’ and it was coming my way. It was smaller than the last two and too square to be a shark. So I got in the water and positioned myself to wait for the ray to come to me. It turned out to be a good size stingray. Around 36 inches, it gracefully winged its way near me. It then set itself down in the sand and vigorously slapped its wings so the sand flew up all around him. Aha, he’s burying himself. Stingrays do this, I’m not sure why, but it’s probably to hunt with stealth. And I can testify that it is effective stealth. I could still see the raised ridges where his eyes are and the black line of his tail and stinger behind him. That’s all that could be seen. I did not feel he was a threat to me so I approached him slowly. I wanted him to take off again so I could video him flying through the water. Creeping slowly, I was able to get within inches of this ray and he seemed completely at ease. I can only assume he was counting on me not being able to see him, and therefore he was safe. By this time I was freezing cold, the water sucking all the heat out me after hours of play in it. Back in the dinghy I poled and paddled my way out and over the top of the stingray. Only then, with the giant inflatable monster directly over the top of him, did he break cover and flap away, tail arched for defense. He was an impressive creature, completely alien to anything I’ve been around, and certainly a beauty. We’ve often heard on this trip that you should shuffle your feet when walking in sand, so as not too step on and surprise a stingray. Well, ‘seeing’ how invisible they really can be, after watching one land and bury himself, I have newfound respect for that advice.

On the way back to the boat I stopped a couple more times, once for a giant orange cushion sea-star and another to film another nurse shark swim along the rocks (this time from above the surface). When I got back to the boat Nicole was content and happy to hear my stories (I was worried she’d be jealous).

Easter…in the Exumas

­Easter Sunday. For some reason it’s on March 31 this year. I always thought of it as being an April holiday. I guess the resurrection moves around. Nicole and I woke this morning to quite a bit of rolling back-n-forth. Most of the night wake still and we slept very well, especially true given that we had a sleep deficit due to the previous night’s anchorage. That was at Highbourne Cay. Tidal swell all night, and pretty substantial. Oddly there were at least 40 boats at that anchorage, and probably 4 mini-mega yachts. Those big boats don’t feel that kind of swell. But that’s the idea I suppose, insulate the fortunate from any discomforts or inconveniences.

I lay here full as a tick. We dinghied up to a trailhead this morning, climbed the path to the British Loyalist’s ruins, walked across the island to the Eastern beach and crashing surf, seeing hermit crabs, a heron, big spiders, many lizards, butterflies, and Easter egg colored dragonflies. Back at the boat I put together ‘brunch’. A new concoction I’ve developed while on this trip involves a tortilla, hamburger, shredded cheddar, red onion, jalapeños, seed mustard, blue cheese, and Greek yogurt. Nicole thinks it’s the best burger she’s ever had. It’s basically a fat quesadilla and it is very satisfying I must admit. Preparing them was a bitch. The boat is tossing and I’m handling an open flame, hot pan, and grease. But I like making Nicole food that makes her happy. Oh, and we opened the coveted ($8) bag of Doritos too.

Now I lay here digesting in the v-berth with the boat helping the churning. A little later we plan to get into the water and dive and snorkel some of the coral in the area. Yesterday a Canadian told me that a 12 foot Tiger shark came cruising through this anchorage. I guess a couple of the people with jetskis chased it away. Apparently they have some history with the local Tigers. The water is so clear and the sand so white that you could easily see any large fish, turtle, or ray hundreds of yards away from the surface and probably 150 feet away under water. We’ll probably stay close to the beach today, it’s very windy from the east.

We are at Hawksbill Cay in the Northern Exuma chain of cays in the Bahamas. The Exumas stretch around 100 nautical miles running from north-northwest to south-southeast—just a narrow sprinkle of little islands. They terminate at the line of latitude known as the Tropic of Cancer (remember that from school?). It is North 23º 30’ and defines the northern edge of the zone called the tropics. It’s determined by something the sun does no farther north than there, but I can’t recall what that is exactly. In the old days when sailors would cross the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn (the southern boundary) they would often get the tattoo that was symbolic of that milestone, a swallow. Oddly, today we saw the first swallow (a barn swallow I think) that we remember seeing on this whole excursion.

Other than the wind and the swell this is the first place that resembles the ‘paradise’ one has in their mind’s eye when imagining cruising the Bahamas in a sailboat. With the more than intense blues of the water, the bright sands, sweeping beaches, eroded limestone hills and coral shore with caves and tortured textures, and under-waterscapes that seem manufactured by Disney for your viewing pleasure. Even the palms and other trees are delightfully scaled and composed so as to seem cultured by some island Bonsai master. And there is a little fat lizard that is pure whimsy, created clearly by Tim Burton, and made friendly by their natural ‘island’ disposition. How can you resist a tail that curls in on itself up into a perfect spiral as he scampers away only to turn his head back and wink coyly?

Before jumping down to the E’s we spent four nights in the capital city of Nassau. I wanted to stay longer actually, but we were finished working on the latest Border Bulletin and had no real reason to stay longer. And of course it had to do with weather. There was an opportunity to sail southeast on Friday, and after that it didn’t look good for awhile. So we scurried around Thursday getting provisions and readying things for an extended stay in the Exumas and beyond.

Nassau was beyond my expectations and I would like to spend a bit more time there. We had great library facilities for working, both downtown and on the eastern side of town near our marina. The downtown public library was a very old colonial building that was hexagonal, pink, and housed a historic museum. The internet connection was by far the most reliable and fastest we’d had in the Bahamas. It made working on the paper a breeze. I also filed our tax returns there, all online, no sweat.

Our marina was one that wasn’t even listed as a possibility in our ‘much to be desired’ Waterway’s guidebook. But in Bimini a fellow we met named Charlie Parker tipped us off to it. $1 per foot per day is an amazingly cheap price. Electricity and water were included at no extra charge—even more rare. No shower, but you could use the neighboring marina’s showers (and laundry) for a small fee. At the entrance was a Texaco convenience store, much like in the US, and about a block away was a large mall area that had a Fresh Market that would put many US supermarkets to shame. Prices were high, but not insanely, and you are so relieved to find such luxury that you are willing to pay for the privilege. Finding Greek yogurt again was a special treat. We also ran across a ‘manager’s special’ on Frontera tortilla chips at $1.99! I bought 8 bags. Tortilla chips on Great Harbor Cay in the Berry’s were $7 a bag, and they weren’t even available on Bimini.

Nassau is stretched along a long roadstead harbor that encompasses its cruise ship docks (up to 5 at a time), major local fishing fleets and markets, and our little section of about 5 marinas. Two enormous arching bridges span the harbor, each one-way, crossing over to another world called Paradise Island. Paradise is where the famous Atlantis resort is and you can see its buildings before any other when approaching Nassau (New Providence Island) from the sea. We hiked up to the top of one of the bridges for the view but never did cross over to the shiny side. The gritty craziness of the people and places of Nassau had not driven us there yet.

We met a bunch of people but only one stood out. Charles Butler (aka Butler), is a happily married 53 year old Bahamian from Eleuthra who worked at the marina as night watchman and dock assistant. When I first met him he was in the fuel-dock hut and was settling in for a night of guarding the place. I joked a bit with him and asked him if he wanted any reading material. He said he would and was very into reading. I brought him a couple of recent National Geographic magazines from the boat. You’d think I’d given a kid a new fire engine. His reaction was genuine and a pleasure. Talking more later on, we came to know him as a sincere, honest, frank, and happy person. Whenever he’d get excited telling a story or a joke it was a little tough to understand him with his Bahamian accent, but we always enjoyed the exchange. If we make it back to Harbor View Marina it will be because Butler made us feel very welcome (and it’s cheap!).

Have I written about my shark chasing expedition?

 

 

The BAHAMAS…

Weds, March 27, 2013
What can I say? We DON’T miss Florida! The Bahamas are wonderful so far. We’ve seen a cross-section of the country and we approve! We crossed the Gulf Stream on March 6th (I think?) and went to Bimini. Then crossed (and anchored out on) the Great Bahama Bank to the Berry Islands. Hopped around there for awhile and we are now docked in the capital city of Nassau. I really dig Nassau so far. Tropical 3rd world colonial era urbanism, serving the tourist and banking industries, while remaining aesthetically pleasing and genuinely friendly (I hope it’s genuine). I’m enjoying a break from out-island grocery stores, anchoring in big winds, and the constant search for a connection (internet or SSB radio) to the larger world (for weather reports mostly). Though, we did love all that too, and made some really cool acquaintances with some colorful Bahamians.

We’re already cranking out our 2nd Border Bulletin here in the Bahamas. I’ve also just finished filing our taxes, all online, and it went very well indeed. We’ve got a Bahamas SIM card with voice & data, and I was just able to set up our iphone to be a personal hotspot…which is huge in a country with sketchy wifi connections and due to the fact that we’re often way out there with only a scant cellular signal. It will allow us to travel more freely and still accomplish what we need to for our clients and the newspaper. We’ve discovered Nassau’s lovely public libraries… I’m sitting in one right now. We’ve eaten well and shopped well. Lots of walking. I may need new sneaks soon. Oh, and they sell the latest DVDs here for a measly $5 each (no copyright laws here)… I got Les Mis and The Hobbit yesterday. Dockage is actually cheap at our marina. It doesn’t have a shower room, but it offers free water (which is very rare in the Bs) so we just suds up in the cockpit. Tis awesome.

More soon. I’ll get some visuals up… waiting to get to the downtown library with its super fast internet connection. Until then you can see our photo collection on the Photos page…I’m updating the gallery now.

 

 

Marathon pitstop…

(Written the beginning of March…)
Why are we here? I mean, we never planned to come here. In fact we planned to avoid it. Everything we heard, all that we read, described a place that was simply not for us. Yet, here we are.  Marathon, Florida. Boot Key Harbor & City Marina’s mooring field. One might describe it by metaphor, say, a western plains cattle yard, a neo-natal ward, or possibly a floating version of a drive-in theater (with nothing to watch). Or, the Matrix? Brains in tubs of goo, all connected and kept warm, in order to simulate a lost reality (with a good supply of alcohol and conch horn blowing at sunset).

To the people here this is what ‘cruising’ means… finding a warm place to park your live-aboard boat and co-mingle with like-minded cohorts of your own generation. Morning community radio, a fun center and meeting room, free WIFI (sometimes), a boat that comes around to pump out your boat’s toilet, plenty of seafood restaurants (anything heavily breaded and dipped in butter… and make sure it doesn’t taste ‘fishy’), organized meet-n-greets, and the endlessly-important Pot-Lucks! Heavens forbid you’d leave your socializing to chance, or serendipity… now that’s asking for trouble buddy! Sailing? Maybe to get here and back, but that would likely be motoring in protected waterways in the very best weather. But isn’t it romantic to live on a boat?

Though it really isn’t our cup of tea, it must certainly be wonderful for all the folks here. Gregarious, extraverted early retirees and seniors make up most of the crowd, and they are probably thrilled to have such a place. We’ve met people who just love it and come back every year, and they were pretty cool cats. But, you’d never know it by visiting. There’s a tension here you can feel. I’m good at catching a vibe of a place fairly quickly, and I’ve been wrong before, but this place feels unhappy. Now I am probably reflecting my own low expectations and loathing with even a concept like this place, but Nicole has sensed it too. The staff seems disenchanted, the harbormaster is a snot, most of the couples (always couples) seem to be just going through the motions, we saw a waitress today close to tears or blows after an altercation with a customer, and the Publix was a densely packed hive of jittering pensioners banging carts and reaching for sale items–a recipe for despair.

We had to wait for a day, but then we were able to get one of the 242 moorings that Boot Key Harbor has. This is the only harbor I’ve ever seen that is quite literally full of boats, either at anchor (a minority) or tied to white mooring balls. Moorings allow a much denser pack of boats to reside in a given area of water. It’s neat and efficient, maximizing income for the harbor. At $22 a night it’s much less expensive than a marina dock (more like $80 a night here), but you are basically at anchor and any facilities are a fairly long dinghy ride away. Everything from the mooring to the showers is highly organized. Card keys for doors and even for laundry machines.

They also control your shit, quite literally. When we signed up I filled out the form and in the proper spot circled “Porta-Potti”. I won’t get into all the reasons we use one, but we have always used one and have been satisfied that we have the least terrible version of a marine head. When Mr. Harbormaster spotted that little item he seemed to sparkle with smug satisfaction. This little Napoleon then swaggered over to me and happily explained how they are not allowed, are against Florida law (not true), that they are for weekenders only, and that I’ll need to sign a form stating that while here I intend to purchase and install a proper marine head ($1000+). I was humbly taking in what he was saying, letting him know I had no idea, and basically throwing myself upon his mercy. Softening, he told me that it would be okay because I’m only staying for a week, but I would have to use their special Porta-Potti dumping station (it’s illegal, but you have a special place for it?). The reason it’s frowned upon is they assume that if you have a way to dump your shit and pollute the ocean, you will. We find that insulting. These ‘Johnny come lately’-environmentalists don’t know who they’re dealing with! Keep in mind that ‘proper’ marine heads have a split discharge valve that allows the boater to select to shoot the effluence out the side of his vessel directly into the water. But this boater is simply told not to do that unless he’s offshore. Different standards?

So why are we here? A few reasons. One, we needed to catch the bus that runs from Marathon down to Key West to retrieve some contraband that I taped to the underside of a white wooden bench in the locked men’s shower room in the public bathrooms near the dive shop at the edge of Key West Bight. Said item was stashed so to avoid possessing it while we were searched and scrutinized by the Cuban officials and their sniffer dog upon reaching Marina Hemingway. Two, the weather has turned nasty, threatening many storms and even gale force winds on Saturday night. The weather is why we’ll be here a week. Reason number three: morbid curiosity. I just wanted to know what all the fuss was really about.

The trip down to Key West was good. We took the public bus and it took around 2 hours each way—with the many stops—but was only $4 one-way.  We grabbed a coffee at Cuban Coffee Queen then were planning to go to the butterfly place, but decided to see if Life of Pi was still playing at the movie house. It was and this was its last day. It’s an incredible book and the movie lived up to it. It was visually spectacular and it’s a powerful, moving story. I was in tears quite often. That theatre was super swank with really cozy intimate screening rooms. The ride back on the bus was very crowded with kids coming home from high school and people getting off work. It is always informative to see and listen to the people that really live and work in a place, not just the passers-through. We like meeting people, but we prefer to meet folks we wouldn’t have met at home!

Like Rigoberto and Raisa over at the Upper Crust Pizza restaurant. Our first night here we went ashore starving for anything good. This was right across from the marina and we love pizza. The pie turned out to be very satisfying, traditional, and tasty. We sat up at the curved bar, reading National Geographics, watching CNN, and chatting with the owners. Rigo had a long corporate career here in the States and in his home country of Venezuela. They got sick of that life and decided to give something else a shot. They bought the business 12 years ago and improved it. Yes they’re South Americans running a Pizza joint, but they do it well and the food is good. Rigo grew up on the coast near Caracas, and told us about his slice of paradise. Playing on the beach, swimming out forever on inner tubes, deep free diving, and spearfishing in the fear free elixir of youth. He told us how now it’s all high-rise buildings and the water has changed its color from an almost impossible blue to something much less impressive. Though he is a pretty mellow guy you could really see the sparkle in his eyes when he thought of those early days, and the sadness when he related his home’s current state. We’ve been back for a second round, and we’ll likely go again before we leave here. (I’m actually here at that pizza joint right now, posting this)

On day two we took the boat out of the harbor to sail to Sombrero Reef, about 6 nm away. (see photos of this reef in “Underwater” post) Once out there we circled the area to the southwest corner and picked up one of the provided moorages (they help to preserve the reef by keeping people from anchoring). Only a couple other boats were there, but many more were soon to arrive. We got into the dinghy and went on into the center area of the reef. Like always, we were nervous to jump in so we spied the water under us by sticking our heads over the side of the dinghy with our masks on. Right in front of our noses were schools of yellow and black stripped fish, coming over for the shelter the little boat offered.

It was so much deeper than the other places we’d snorkeled. We put out our new ‘diver-down’ flag, plunged overboard, and took in our surroundings. What an amazing feeling of space! Deep and wide and big. All around were coral mountains and ridges, with ravines of flat sandy expanses cutting under overhangs that gave so many fish a place to hide. And the fish were spectacular. We saw many new fish, and many of the ones we’ve seen but now in schools and sometimes much larger individuals. I’ve never seen so many Great Barracuda together. They were in every ravine, little ones in groups, and even giants schooling together and swimming past me into deeper waters. They were not as intimidating or spooky, though Nicole is not completely at ease with them yet. The water was much warmer here, at around 79 degrees, so we were comfortable much longer.

I took off on quite a few dives, heading straight down while equalizing, and then cruising laterally at depth in another world. Free diving is certainly my favorite part of these snorkeling outings. There’s nothing quite like it. I seem to be paying for it though, with some sinus problems. I hope it’s nothing serious because I would hate to think I would have to give this up. We’ve been talking about learning SCUBA and getting into that in the future. Out there that day we had a whole class of SCUBA divers learning the ropes right around our moored dinghy. It was fun to watch them sink right down to the bottom 25 feet below. Many of them seemed kind of freaked out by it, but I know we’d love it. I took the classroom end of the training in college (which is how I learned to equalize pressure in my head while diving) but I didn’t go on the open-water dives that are necessary for certification. I wish I would have.

Things that Go Bump…

Things that go Bump in the Night…
by Nicolé 

Remember being afraid of the dark? How our imaginations still make things at night scarier than they are during the day? Well, now think about that plus not having solid ground under you. Or that the structure around you moves with the weather, I mean really moves! No stick and mortar for protection.

There are all sorts of things to consider when anchoring your boat for the ah-peaceful night. Is your anchor the right type for the ground you’re above? Will the ground hold your anchor in the conditions you’re experiencing? Or better yet, how ‘bout the boats around you? What if the weather suddenly changes? Is everything secure? These are things I think about every night before, during and after turning in for the night. It’s all for good reason but it doesn’t sound very peaceful, does it?

Now that you get the picture, let’s visit Key West. There is this perfect anchorage just west of old town – easy access to all things Key West, it’s a beautiful day, there are more boats out sailing than we’ve ever seen (It happened to be the end of race week.), and even shower access! We set our anchor in among the 60 or so others and go enjoy the electric atmosphere after being secluded out in the Dry Tortugas for over a week. Upon return to our boat, the guy in the boat next to us is complaining to another new boat that he is too close and then he starts in on us. Both assure the old codger there’s nothing to worry about, and he says 5 boats have hooked his anchor. Note to self: keep an eye out!

On January 31st, a couple days after our arrival, everyone was doing fine and enjoying the beautiful Florida weather. But when we got back to the boat there was a catamaran anchored just north of us. Why there? It’s a no anchor zone, the wind is supposed to pipe up from that direction, he has a lot of windage (translates into can get pushed into us), etc. We watch for a bit and all seems okay so let it go. That night I wake up just to check on things… low and behold about midnight I peak out, and that boat is only about 20 feet away from us. I’m peaking my head out of the front hatch, he is staring out past his stern – can he see me? – no one says anything. I wake Jason up – not a nice thing to do when someone’s sound asleep whether your house floats or not – and of course the boat doesn’t get that close again. But we keep an eye on him since we’re already awake now. And then the cat drifts into the “No Anchor Zone” buoy. Woohoo – he decides to pick up anchor and moves!

Now to complicate things a little… Remember your science days? There are ebb tides and there are flood tides, depending on whether the water is flowing out to sea or flowing in from the sea. Over the days in Key West we learned the tide/current in this particular anchorage is quite interesting – it flows hard! This is the reason the old curmudgeon didn’t want anyone near him. And then the wind picked up from the North, from which there is no protection. Hard flowing tide + strong North wind = what we started to call “Fun Tide”. Obviously everyone felt similar anxieties because all the boats started leaving or spreading out nicely until all were comfortable again (even we moved a bit away from the curmudgeon).

But even so, I make my bed right next to the companion way for easy visual for next time I wake up with that 6th sense. I didn’t need to wait long… notes from the log…

2/2/13 – 00:00
Nic got up to check on boat/others. Notice running lights on a new boat just North of us again. Once wind had picked up day prior, all boats were nicely spread out – only wind & current immediate concerns. But now this guy is between us and next closest boat – really?! Not even off to side/triangle? Sat up for couple hours, seemed okay enough. Stayed on boat all next day (so did they) – still seemed okay enough even though would prefer something else.

2/3/13 – 01:00
Nic up checking again. Woke Jason up – “They’re like 5 feet from us!” By the time he got up it was more like 20’ and stayed at least that. Watching, doing other stuff, keeping a lazy eye on them. Both down below when, say 15 min. after first “alarm”, all of a sudden hear this awful noise. Nic runs up to see their bow sprit coming into our cockpit at our port side gate!! Nic pushes them off our life line as Jason starts knocking on their hull and saying “Get the hell up! You just hit us!” Guy eventually came on deck, hadn’t heard a thing other than knocking, “damn, thought we were good, sorry.” Pulled in 20’ of his 100’ of chain – and that’s it. “Sorry.” And went back to bed. “Sorry.” (picture below is only a simulation ;)

The sailboat that ran into us… 

2/4/13 – 08:30
We had to go to town to provision for leaving next day. Plan to be back by “Fun Tide” just in case.

11:30
Couldn’t believe they hadn’t moved while we were gone! Got back just before FT – Jason keeping an eye out. Noticed maybe only 20’ from us again & guy popped out just then. Guy said “I think maybe I should move” …Jason replied “Ya, I was just going to ask you what you were planning to do.” …”Yup, it’s just too close” Guy stated. Watched them pull up anchor (manual windlass – wanted to see how it worked – too much work, too slow, too cumbersome). Turns out their CQR (Old-fashioned anchor that is notorious for not holding well) was fouled with what must have been their TV coaxial cable, because of the way it was twisted up their chain, like it caught on deployment and ripped out as it was going down. They moved farther east and north – more like the triangle they should have originally. BUT it was a “No Anchor Zone” (original spot was too but less obviously). A local going by in his dinghy swung out of his way to go by them & mention this. They blew him off, even flipping him the bird as he motored away. We left the next day – happily! : )

addendum… We’ve since started using a GPS navigation iPhone app to mark and monitor our position. We also discovered an app called DragQueen (love the name!) that is a GPS based app that sounds an alarm when you move too far. Definitely makes sleeping a bit more peaceful. Now they just need an app that shoots missiles into boats that get too close… I will sink you!! Thank the gods (and Jess) for the iPhone!

Underwater in the Lower Keys

After our unsuccessful foray to the Forbidden Land… we started visiting the many reefs and diving areas on the ocean side of the Keys. Off our Saddlebunch anchorage we went to American Shoal, with it’s big old metal tower. The coral and fish were all on the towers base, which was only in about 5-6 feet of water. We anchored Erwin James then launched our dinghy to motor over to the tower. Nicole did not dive that day because of the risk of shark attack! (it was her ‘time of the month’ and not good to be in the water) So she used her mask and snorkel over the side of our zodiac.…at Saddlebunch anchorage >>
Manatee behind Nicole, in the mangroves.

Our next reef was near the Newfound Harbor Keys and off Munson Island. These were two spots just off the shore of these islands. This is an established dive spot and therefore there are moorings that are there for anyone’s use. This is to protect the coral from boat’s anchors. Again Nic had to stay in the dinghy. I really enjoyed this shallow-ish spot. This area had a lot of dimension, a large variety of corals, and a great amount of fish. No sharks, but a few big ‘cudas. These areas are protected from harvest lobster, and under one overhanging formation I found 3 or more enormous spiny lobster. They were impressive, but really tough to get a proper photo of!… from Newfound Harbor anchorage >>

The next spot we visited was Sombrero Reef, 6 nm off Marathon. It was easily the best so far. And, even better, Nicole was able to join me in the water! It was deep, at around 15-35 feet, and it was like an underwater badlands. Sombrero Reef had mountainous corals growing in every configuration with ravines bottomed with bright sands and endless fish. Schools of amazing reef fish were everywhere. Barracudas of all sizes lurked in every ravine, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. Many other dive boats arrived eventually and it was crowded, but you really couldn’t tell underwater. And I must say, as opposed to most situations, I actually prefer having lots of other people around when I’m diving. This blue parrot fish was at least 3 feet long!

 

The Lights of Havana…

­There is something so reassuring about sunshine. It must tap a deeply buried and permanent part of our gray matter that simply knows that sunny days are just plain better. Not far ahead, beyond the spotty gray blanket we were sailing under, was a light blue world dotted with the happiest looking clouds. It was as if we were leaving the heaviness of the North, along with all our cares, and entering the lightness and innocence of the South, the tropics, the other world.

At any rate, there wouldn’t be any more rain or nasty looking clouds for awhile. By then I would say we were around 30 nautical miles (nm) south-southwest of Key West, Florida. We had been sailing along well, with a beam breeze, since leaving the Key West Bight Marina fuel dock at around 10:30am. We had what we calculated to be a 21-24 hour passage ahead of us, so by leaving then we could expect to arrive at our destination between 7:30 and 10:30am. Our fuel tanks, food provisions, and water tanks were topped off. We had a book for sailors on Spanish, we’d bought drinks and goodies for the officials, and we’d found a souvenir flag to use as a courtesy National Flag (to fly from our boat out of respect, a custom).

According to the oceanographic authorities and our water temperature gauge, we had been in the great North American Gulf Stream current for many hours now. As you enter the wide stream (around 30 nm typically) the water temperature rises and you notice a current that can run at speeds up to 5 knots (which would be a bear to deal with). The current could not have been very strong and we noticed very little affect on our course-made-good. The infamy of crossing the Gulf Stream comes from the tendency it has of producing very large waves. That happens when the wind blows against the current. The water basically ‘stands-up’ and creates very steep and close together seas. The conditions on this day, Tuesday, February 5, 2013, were not extreme, and in fact the wind was beginning to die off and shift from an east to a north-northeast breeze. Soon we had no choice but to douse the sails and begin to motor with the light wind on our stern.

We had begun our cycle of alternating shifts at the ‘watch’ at around 4:00pm. Our trusty Autohelm 3000 relieved us of most the steering duties, enabling us to monitor our surroundings and the boat itself… a good thing in a shipping-lane. We had already encountered two enormous cargo ships and an even larger ship that looked like a 1000-foot long garage (in gigantic letters the word AUTOLINER was stenciled on it’s side).

During my first watch I was treated to some of the magic of the Gulf Stream when I spied a flying fish. Supposedly very common, this was our first encounter with these amazing little athletes. Not at all what I expected, they would pop out of the water (startled by the boat) and zoom along its surface for up to 100 feet I would guess. And they do not soar or glide, as I expected, but buzz their pectoral-fin/wings very fast and fly level like a dragonfly. Their wings are silver-white and their torpedo shaped bodies are an intense translucent blue. In the dusky light they seemed to me like little fairies zinging over the waves. We would see many more of these aviators and other marine characters, like squid (eyes shining in the spotlight) and thousands of tiny engines of light glowing happily in our wakes.

By six o’clock the wind seemed a bit stronger from behind and we considered raising sail and running. It was the start of Nicole’s watch, but I stayed on deck to see what developed in case I needed to help with getting the sails up (which would involve the large spinnaker pole–my job). I was on the foredeck, considering this, when I first spotted the motor-yacht on the horizon. Until that moment I had more-or-less forgotten about the looming possibility that we could actually be turned back from our goal. Not by weather or mechanical failure, but by armed forces and a 60-year-old embargo. Still, I felt it was unlikely, and looked upon the ship as just a fisherman or a research vessel out in the Gulf Stream studying turtle migrations.

It was passed sunset, and the light was dim, but I do recall thinking that I could just barely make out a dark band marking the bow of this small ship in the distance. We waited and proceeded under power not sail. We joked about what it could mean, what it might entail, what we might say or admit to. We agreed that our only option, should it come to it, was the truth… we were just too far out to sea to spin any other yarn and be believed. I think we felt very vulnerable during those moments. Then the VHF cracked to life and the United States Coast Guard’s radioman requested contact.

“United States Coast Guard, United States Coast Guard, calling sailing vessel at approximate position North 23 degrees… etc, etc…”  Since it happens very fast and we couldn’t confirm our position, that they were calling “us”, we waited for their second hail (also giving me a chance to compose myself). We saw that it was in fact our position, and that a USCG Cutter was hailing us, in the dead center of the Florida Straits, about 45 nm north-northeast of Havana, Cuba. Oh shit. “United States Coast Guard, this is the sailing vessel Erwin James, over”, I calmly replied into our radio mike. “Sailing vessel Erwin James, reading you loud and clear, please switch to channel one zero, over”. So we switched from channel 16 to 10 and began our “discussion”.

I will say up front that throughout this ordeal each person from the Coast Guard we dealt with was perfectly professional, courteous, understanding, and personable. The voice on the radio proceeded to request the name of the vessel, the flag the vessel was sailing under, the registration numbers, the number of people on board, and our names and dates of birth, our citizenship… pretty standard stuff.  But then he asked me for our last port-of-call and our next port-of-call. The tail end of his request was garbled, so I wasn’t sure what the second request was for… So I replied, “Our last port-of-call was Key West, Florida.”

“Good copy on that captain, Key West was your last port-of-call… What is your intended next port-of-call?”
“Could you repeat that, over.”
Sounding just a tiny bit annoyed, he said, “What is your next port-of-call?”
Gulping, I replied, “Our next port-of-call is Marina Hemmingway, over”
Holding breath.
“Ok, good copy on that… your next port-of-call is Marina Hemmingway, Cuba?”
“That’s correct”
“Ok, please stand by on channel one zero”

After some time, “Erwin James… Captain can you tell us the type of special permits issued to you, allowing you to travel to Cuba?” Doing the best I could, I radioed, “We do not have any permits. We may have been misinformed, but we were under the impression that we no longer needed any special permits to travel to Cuba. Over.”

It was hard to know how to feel. We weren’t ‘scared’ but we were apprehensive. We didn’t know what would happen next, and most importantly we didn’t know if there was a snowball’s chance in the Gulf Stream that we would be able to continue on our way. In hindsight it was idiotic to think they’d let us go on, but at the time we didn’t know for sure. They sounded so nice and lenient. We didn’t take it as a good sign when, a little later, the man on the radio asked us when we left Key West, and then asked “and your arrival time in Cuba was going to be tomorrow morning?” Somehow that past tense didn’t bode well for the Erwin James and her crew.

They told us to maintain course and speed, and let us stew for quite awhile. We handled it well and maintained good spirits, waiting and joking about what was next. Eventually, radio hailed once more, we were told that a boarding party was being prepared and would soon be coming over to us. Soon is a relative term, and for the USCG it to means something different than it means to me. I don’t want to be negative, but every step did take a long time… all the while we’re motoring along, southward, knowing we’d most likely be turned around in the end.

At long last we spotted a separate set of navigation lights (red and green) lower to the water. I would say the Coast Guard cutter was about a quarter mile away from us… within their firing range, but too far for us to mount any effective attack… I suppose. The Zodiac they launched seemed to zigzag it’s way to us at first, maybe looking for jettisoned contraband, but then straightened up and arrived at our stern. We had opened both entryways in the lifelines, and they chose to pull up to the port side (probably because that’s where Nicole was sitting, and she is far less repulsive). While two of the four dark-blue clad young men clambered aboard in their big boots they asked us if we’d ever been boarded by the CG. We hadn’t, so they explained that they would run through our safety gear, making sure we had what we needed.

As soon as they boarded, after introducing themselves, they asked me if we had any firearms on board. Now, our gun is a gun we were given and we have no documentation nor do we even know if we are supposed to have documents or a license for it. So, confidently as possible, I said, “Yes, we have a handgun.”

“Is it in a secure space?”
“Well, it’s up in the v-berth, in a soft-sided case.”
“Ok, sounds good. I need you to show me where it is. I need to secure it.”

So I lead him into the v-berth’s hallway and showed him the case above the hanging locker on the port side. He told us that he simply needs to keep us away from the firearm, and that they’d be positioning themselves between the gun and us. Therefore their ‘area’ was the central cabin, and ours was the companionway or out in the cockpit. He asked me later if it was indeed a normal single-shot pistol and not an automatic weapon, but he never looked at the gun.

Fire extinguishers, PFDs (we were each wearing one), placards, and other things were checked out. We didn’t have any standard violations or shortcomings. Then, leader guy, asked a bit about our intentions concerning our traveling to Cuba. I told him about our newspaper and told him that I intended to write a nice story about visiting Cuba for all our readers. I also said that it has been a dream of ours for a long time to sail to Cuba and see it firsthand. I think he simply wanted to know whether it was business or pleasure (or something sinister), but I was trying to do a little selling… curry some favor, catch a break, fingers-crossed you know. The second guy, backpack guy, sat at our navigation table and was filling out paperwork most of the time. He took all our pertinent information down, including our mailing address, social security numbers, etc.

We were in the 80-degree water of the Gulf Stream and it was hot down below. So we all got out into the cockpit eventually. There we were, with two Coasties on board with us and two in an orange Zodiac off our stern quarter. I said hello to the Zodiac crew and commented on the amazing stars out tonight. They were cool, and said they were just talking about the stars too. These four were apparently the ‘operations’ arm of the cutter crew, doing the hands-on face-to-face work while the decisions are made by the upper-brass on board the cutter and on shore. We chatted amiably with the two seamen aboard while we all waited for word from the Mother-Cutter (as Nicole calls it). We talked about the constantly changing situation concerning vessels going to Cuba, and how the USCG responds.

Leader guy said their stance has been more relaxed under this current administration. He was from Boulder, Colorado, and was formerly stationed in the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska. This came up by way of chatting about the enormous tides in Alaska and elsewhere. Backpack guy had been stationed in Maine, and commented on the big tides they dealt with. As we rolled with the seas, I asked them if the Coast Guard tested recruits to see if they are prone to seasickness. We laughed, but it turns out that backpack guy worked with someone in Maine that wasn’t able to captain one of their heavy-weather cutters (due to debilitating motion-sickness) and subsequently was discharged from the Coast Guard for not being able to perform his required duties.

It was pleasant but tedious. We still held out hope, and it even seemed these guys were rooting for us (privately). Eventually they received a radio call. They took it in the cabin so we couldn’t listen in. After they got some paperwork together, and then leader guy actually seemed to pause awhile to steel himself for the next part in this drama. They came up to the cockpit and laid it out for us. We will not be allowed to proceed. They gave us each a document to read that spelled out all of the regulations concerning Cuba, trafficking people and drugs, Cuban waters, etc. We had to sign it and he gave us a copy to keep. Then, almost comically (though it did not seem so at the time), leader guy asked us to verbally acknowledge that we understand what we’ve been told and to promise not to sail into Cuban waters (within 12 miles of the Cuban coastline). We promised.

Up to this point we were not surprised by what he was saying, but we certainly were by the next statement… “Unfortunately, even intending to travel to Cuba is a violation. Therefore you may be contacted by a USCG hearing officer concerning any repercussions deemed appropriate” (or something like that). So he handed me a document with all our information on it that looks to be the standard ‘ticket’ you’d get if you didn’t have enough life jackets or your fire extinguishers were too old. I would think they’d have a special document for people trying to enter Cuba, but I guess they don’t differentiate. Though we shall see. We could receive a large fine, or even jail-time, according to the document.

After that they wrapped it up pretty quickly. Nicole commented about the enormous backpack, so he replied, “Yeah, I know, and I only used one little pamphlet!” He hefted it out of the cabin and they went to the rail to be picked up. I said, “Be safe” and they replied in-kind and where gone without another word.

What had transpired was strange enough, but it was truly surreal to be left alone, in the dark, bobbing through the Gulf Stream above thousands of feet of seawater, straddling the world–45 nautical miles from Cuba and Key West. What hit home for me was looking at the nighttime horizon to the south and clearly seeing the city-lights glow from what had to be Havana, Cuba. A dream dashed. While in the opposite direction glowed the smaller but brighter devil’s-den of Key West, USA. I was surprised it didn’t glow red.

During the hours long ordeal we had slowly accepted our defeat, so when it was ended we set to the work of heading back northward. Many days later I would read in Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent” an apt description of how I felt as Cuba slipped away from me…
> My long-planned perfect structure turned to dust before my eyes the way a long-buried artifact does when the air strikes it. … It’s a shock to throw out a plan so long considered, so many times enacted that its consummation is just one more repetition, but I tossed it out, threw it away, closed it off. I had no choice. <

Though we considered returning to Key West it somehow made it all feel even worse to just plod back on the same path we’d left on. A few jumps up the Keys (eastward from Key West) were the Saddlebunch Keys and a little anchorage recommended to us by Mark, a live-aboard back at Turner Marine in Mobile, Alabama. We needed to be away from ‘the things of man’ and gain some perspective, so Saddlebunch Harbor sounded perfect. We put up the mainsail for stability in the moderate seas and motored north-northeast. We were both very tired so we started our watch shifts right away. The night was gorgeous and the stars tented us in a dome of glory that certainly helped raise our spirits and give us energy.

We had some fun using the spotlight to shine the water, exposing the big eyes of squid (an assumption) and the streaking flying fish that seemed to be everywhere. Fittingly, in the dark, the things that grab and mesmerize you are the things a-light. Nicole glanced to the black water near the boat and noticed more glow in the frothy wake than the mast-light could account for. At first I didn’t see it, then it got stronger, brighter, and much more beautiful. Little creatures in the water, being disturbed by the boat’s turbulence, reacted by generating their naturally occurring bioluminescent glow. It’s the light green glow you see in those plastic sticks you crack and shake. We’d seen it before, in front of our house on Vashon Island, on Puget Sound, but this was the first on this trip. A little later, while I was alone on deck, I was startled by an extraordinarily bright falling star. It shot straight down in the Northern sky and was so bright and large that I felt it must have been very close to me or a very large chunk of whatever. I only saw the one. Nicole saw some others later on, but not anything out of the ordinary. Oddly, the Coast Guard issued a Secüritié radio announcement stating that there was a significant meteor shower currently over the Florida Straights. Since we can assume they didn’t announce it for the mariner’s entertainment, it must be a hazard or of some concern to shipping.

On another shift of mine, much closer to the Keys, I heard a radio call similar to the one we received way down south. I checked our position, and sure enough, the Coasties were calling us again. I had seen a ship’s lights ahead, and was half expecting this call, so I was ready to respond. This was the layer of ‘defense’ that the Coast Guard has to contend with vessels that are coming into the US (Key West) on their way back from Cuba. I replied, they started in with the questions, and I shortened the process by letting them know we were boarded 40 nm south of here and everything was taken care of. They asked the name of the unit that boarded us, I told him it was the Kodiak Island 1341, and he bid us a pleasant morning. I would say you’d need a submarine to make it to Cuba or back by way of Key West, but maybe they use sonar too!

We stayed south of the reef bordering Hawk Channel until daybreak, simply to avoid motoring through all the crab and lobster pots that are strewn everywhere in the shallow waters of the Keys (and all of Florida). When it was light we navigated this ocean-pox northeastward to Saddlebunch Harbor, our “next port-of-call”. Anchored, and slept the sleep of the dead.

*If you’ve read this far, maybe you’re curious enough to look up exactly where we made it to out in the blue. You can use Google Earth to enter coordinates.
We were boarded at approximately: North 23º 55.962 – West 082º 08.028
Our southernmost point reached was: North 23º 55.367 – West 082º 07.043

Dry Tortugas National Park!

We did it. That’s what I keep thinking and saying to Nicole. It’s seems a small thing, but after all the trudging through mainland Florida it seems shiny and big. We made it to a remote island, Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park. Today is Wednesday. We arrived after an all-night sail (motor) early Sunday morning. We left from Marco Island’s Factory Bay and shot out into the blue for 107 nautical miles, using technology to guide us to a few small specs of sand 70 miles away from any other settlement (Key West).

The moment we arrived it was obvious we weren’t in ‘Kansas’ anymore. The flat wide ocean of cerulean blue, broken by bright sand stripes of island and even more by a three-story high, hexagonal, brick fortification looming and lit. Fort Jefferson is the centerpiece of the Dry Tortugas and is an impressive structure, more so by it being visually unexpected. A bit over to the west is another key, Loggerhead. A streak of sand stretching south-southwest to north-northeast and supporting a beautifully proportioned lighthouse tower, surrounded by tall palms and various out-buildings.

We knew the weather wouldn’t be perfect once we got here, the wind has been building and the northerly flow has been bringing cooler air with it, but Sunday and Monday were delicious. When the anchor was down I wanted to take a look into the clear waters we were in. Eager to see anything aquatic, since the Florida we’d been in had only disappointingly cloudy waters. My first glance over the starboard stern made my heart leap. So huge! What in the hell is that giant fish? The mystery would have lasted through a cycle of Shark? Dolphin? Whale? Illusion? … had I not read about the giant grouper that live in the harbor of the Tortugas. 8:15 in the morning, a Goliath Grouper (aka Jewfish) had come to greet the newly arrived Erwin James and see what we might have in store for him or her. I was excited!

We slept a few hours that morning to recover from the passage, then deployed the dinghy and went to shore. In the mean time a white and blue float plane, maybe an 8 passenger De Havallind (yup, an Otter), had barreled into the harbor and triple-decked high-speed catamaran ferry had brought it’s own load on sight-seers and history buffs. Even so it did not feel crowded. The docks, the beach, and the fort are spread wide and feel spacious and pleasant. We went to the headquarters office, tucked into the fort’s southeastern wall, and met with Ranger Wayne Mitchell. Wayne was from Kenai, Alaska and had been posted in many other parks and even been part of the Mexico/US Border Patrol. We liked him immediately. He reminded me of Chris, my roommate in college. We filled out a form, about us and the boat, then Wayne let us know the rules, boundaries, and features of the park.
Skimmer Birds

It was mostly sunny and fairly warm Sunday, so of course we were dying to get in the water and do some sub-marine sightseeing. We dug out our snorkeling gear, for the FIRST time, and loaded up the dinghy. Many of the tourists also had gear and were in the water when we arrived at the pretty little beach to the west of the fort’s entrance. All around the outside of the fort’s mote wall is an area that is cordoned off with buoys, keeping boats out, and is shallow enough for snorkeling. There is bright coral-sand and sea-grasses spread throughout, but the best coral growth was on the moat wall itself. This is also where the fish tend to hang out. The water wasn’t crystal clear due to recent weather stirring up the bottom, but visibility was plenty good for the depth. Out in the open water were many mini fiefdoms, guarded by small, colorful, territorial fishes. It’s fun to test their determination and take their picture. Near the wall were many more reef fishes and things like; sea anemone, urchins, squid or cuttlefish (color-shifting and ink-squirting), queen conch, and many types of colorful corals layered upon each other. Bone chilled by the cool water we got out and into the sunshine.

>> So, I wrote the above after a couple of days in the DTs…
so much more happened after that!

I won’t do a day by day… Snorkeling, we started donning wetsuits and I wore a weight belt (to dive and stay down) and a dive knife on my leg (ya never know, tourists can be dangerous). After a couple of rounds at the mote-wall we kicked over to the old coal dock ruins to see if that was any good. The wind had picked up and stirred the sand in the water, so the way over there it was cloudy and not promising. But holy cow, ala kazam!

Kick butt coral and structure and wildlife! We were totally psyched. And the water was pretty damn clear (it must be even better when it’s calm and warm in the summer months). The old metal tripod type dock supports made for great dimensional structure that you could dive through, and it gave tons of surface area for beautiful coral to grow and fishes and critters to hide. I’ll let the photos do most of the describing…

And remember those giant Groupers? It came back one day when we were on the boat… So, wow! We jumped into the dinghy, tied to the stern, with our snorkel masks and took a look. I had my underwater camera and started shooting… Captain Hook we called him (he had a big fish-hook in the crook of his mouth) was back for another visit. He was plenty amazing, at over 6 feet and just enormous… but was soon joined by one, then two, then three more Goliaths… all just as huge as the others. One, lighter colored one, was clearly the “Boss” and he often took his spot directly below our faces, seemingly guarding the best spot to snag whatever we might give him. Of course I reached down and touched his back, but he didn’t seem to like that.

So… brilliant me, thought… “this is a chance of a lifetime!” “I have to do it”… ‘Doing it’ was jumping into the water and swimming with these behemoths. They had no big teeth, and what could they do to me? So I worked up the nerve, for a while, then slipped into the water still holding onto the side of the dink. I was only in a few seconds when Nicole yelled “Right behind you!”… Of course her tone made me panic a bit, I looked back and saw the Boss and a partner rushing toward me. Yup, I sprung out of the water into the dinghy faster than a man being chased by a 300 pound fish! But at least I did it! Swam with 1200 pounds of Grouper. Oddly, the view wasn’t really any different from sticking my head into the water from the dink… but I wanted to dive down and swim around them. Maybe next time… but I did read a fishing book later that said these Goliaths are potentially dangerous due to their size… whatever that means.

The biggest ‘unexpected’ for us was how much we loved being in and around Fort Jefferson. You have free range to explore the fort’s 3 stories, including the roof with zero railings and bologna. The view is mind-blowing, in all directions is open ocean, with Loggerhead Key to the west and it’s Hollywood quality lighthouse and palms, and other sandy keys dotting the area.
You can gaze upon all the anchored boats in the harbor, Sand Key with its bird sanctuaries and constantly soaring Frigate Birds. But I’d say the nicest part of the place (and a nice view from the roof) is the green space contained by the hexagonal walls of the fort. The space is just the right size… human-scale expansive without feeling like an intimidating sprawl. Gorgeously dotted with trees. Buttonwood trees. Very old. Have you seen Lord of the Rings? Remember Fangorn Forest and the Ents? That’s what the trees remind us of. They are ‘tree-lover’ trees and Nicole was enchanted. She found a great spot for us to read, and another for some yoga. One afternoon I had an exhilarating jog around the mote, into the courtyard, and up on the rooftop… with music it was especially inspiring. If you were to live out at the Dry Tortugas this greenery space would definitely balance the wild blue surrounding the island… it certainly did that for Nicole and me.

We had to get to civilization sometime soon to tackle another Border Bulletin (no cell, internet, or even public phone service in the DTs), and the only issue really was the wind. It was heavy for a few days and wasn’t going to let up much. Also it was mostly from the northeast or east… which was generally the way we were headed (Key West). Eventually a window opened that made sense, marginally lighter winds and hopefully north enough to let us sail most of the way. We left on Saturday, about 6am, intending to stop about 40 miles to the east at the Marquesas Islands, cutting the trip into two day-trips instead of an overnight.

Saturday went well. We angled to the southeast for the first 10 miles and sailed a nice reach through a big swell. After that we headed directly east and had to use the motor to assist so that we could point that far toward the wind. In that area there weren’t any shoals to break up the seas and we enjoyed a rollercoaster of 6 footers for a few hours (sincerely, we loved it!). Eventually we made the Marquesas and snaked up to Tin Tin Key. The anchor wouldn’t bite the first couple of tries and I was too tired to go anywhere else… so luckily, it held nicely at the third spot we tried and we whiled the time away till bed.

The next day we knew we’d have a motor toward Key West, since the wind was to be easterly. Fortunately it was angled just enough so that we could keep our mainsail up to steady the boat in the waves. 25 miles later we arrived at a very busy Man of War harbor at Key West. It was the end of the KW Race Week (sailing) and we’ve never seen so many sailboats sailing at once than that day. We puttered up toward Flemming Key and made anchorage just off the southwest end of that island. Surrounded by probably a hundred other anchored vessels. We figured out the current, made sure the anchor was going to be okay, and then took the dinghy into Key West Bight to the dinghy dock. $6 a day. Showers are $4 a shot (but we get two for one ;). Pretty awesome deal since a marina slip would be about $120 a night here. We like it here, and have found a great library and cozy coffeehouse for working on the paper. I’m in Sippin’ right now, owned by Onnete (sp?)… and N. Carolina corporate dude that gave it all up to come down here and give owning a coffee shop off Duval St. a shot. A lot of stories like that here… including ours I guess.

Till next time… Ciao’

 

Jerry & Kathy

Cape Coral would be just fine without friends to hang out with. But it was a very special place, because of the friends we hung out with!

About 10 years ago we started kicking around the idea of buying a sailboat and getting the heck outta Dodge. About that same time my best friend’s parents put their boat up for sale (sail). We had some very pivotal ‘history’ with that sailboat, and in a lot of ways it was just the kind we’d be looking for, so we took a look and then hemmed and hawed over it. In just our style it took about 3 years for me to finally decide that it was indeed going to be our sailboat. I bought it in secret and gave it to Nicole for Christmas 2005 (Hey, I drew her name.. I had to get her something decent!).

Now, many years of blood-sweat-&-tears later, we are in the Florida neighborhood of the folks who sold us our Morgan Our-Island 33, Erwin James. Jerry and Kathy Wellens, John’s (Haxsaw’s) parents, formerly of De Pere, WI, now live most of the year in Cape Coral, condo #111. About 20 feet from their back door they have the beautiful sloop-rigged Catalina 36′, Slo Dance, tied to their private dock. After a couple of nights anchored just down the way from them in Bimini Basin, we accepted their offer to raft-off of their boat. Being tied to their dock allowed us to plug-in to 110v power, rinse the sea salt off our boat, fill our freshwater tanks, and to really feel our boat was secure. Of course we were also welcomed into their comfortable condominium completely: guest bedroom, shower, and all the perks of a home-away-from-home.

Anyone who knows Kathy & Jerry Wellens already knows this, but I will say it anyway… these two are the most generous, caring, and pleasant individuals you will ever run across. If you’re lucky enough to be considered ‘family’ you are treated to extraordinary acceptance and love, the kind only offspring are usually afforded. And they are FUN too! We laughed and played, sailed and swam, walked and dinghy’d, shopped and ate (Costco hotdogs and 25¢ tacos for instance!), talked boats and diving, traded stories and advice, drank a little and laughed some more (even cried a bit too.. went to see Les Miserables!). I’m sure I’m making them blush, so I’ll stop, but they deserve the praise.

Thanks Jerry, thanks Kathy! See you soon.

Jump to Cape Coral

Thursday, early afternoon, we pried our big boat out of the little marina slip at Dunedin, FL and motored our way out to the Gulf. Conditions were promising, so we shot out into the blue and started our passage to Cayo Costa, about 100 nautical miles down-coast. We had a uneventfully pleasant run and broad reach the entire way. The 28th was full moon and there were only sporadic clouds so we had good light all night long! We also had a sailing breakthrough of sorts, by utilizing our big spinnaker pole for the first time. We poled-out our working jib for a run that lasted quite a few hours. It was a thrill to overcome the fear of using the pole and it really worked well.

Was we got there, Friday at 9am, we did some hiking on the island. Same old thing. Neat tropical type forest and shelly beaches. We were meeting Jerry and Kathy Wellens at Cayo Costa, as planned, and they arrived at dusk on Friday. Their sailing club had a new years trip planned to go there and then Punta Gorda to party at a marina. The weather took a turn and it was blowing stink all day Saturday and Sunday. Made it uncomfortable. The four of us did some ‘xploring via dink, spotted a manatee and I saw my first wild gator. Due to the wind and cold J&K cancelled their plans for the Punta Gorda end of their trip and headed back to Cape Coral on Sunday. We decided to follow them Sunday to an anchorage (Bimini Basin) a block from their condo in CC. We will probably raft up with their boat at their dock tomorrow for some AC powered living. We’ve been honored with guest quarters in their place, so we may not see the boat for awhile!

We bought our boat from Jerry & Kathy up in Oconto, WI back in 2006. So it’s been fun to have their old boat around down here in Florida. Lot’s of history there, but too much for this posting! The Florida Keys are getting closer and closer… only about a 100 miles away now. I’m pumped to finally do some diving, snorkeling, and maybe some spearfishing. The weather is not looking very pleasant at the end of this week, so we’ll likely stick around and do some more preparations for the islands and beyond, here in Cape Coral.
The Wellen’s Catalina and condo, at sunrise, Cape Coral.

New Year’s Eve at dusk, Bimini Basin in Cape Coral, FL.

Birds of Dunedin

The Dunedin Marina was thick with tropical shore birds and the biggest gathering of ospreys we’ve seen. 
Osprey eating a fish on someone’s mast.

Little Blue Heron, eating a lizard.

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron.

Our little buddy, the “chicken”… a Green Heron.

A diving bird, a lot like a Cormorant, but lighter in color. An Anhinga.

The Anhinga asleep.

 

“Home” for the holidays

As I sit here, beneath a warm LED wall sconce, listening to old Dylan folk songs, and with a full belly I feel the peace only felt while surrounded by family and familiar surroundings. The wonder is that it is here aboard Erwin James, a place I sometimes wonder if it could ever feel like home, for real. Well it feels real tonight.

My beautiful wife is wearing a quirky hippy apron, moving back and forth to the little galley oven, baking her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from heaven. The small space is filled with that sweet aroma, and my teeth are coated in chocolate. Nic’s father Lee is here with us, coming down spur-of-the-moment last Sunday. He flys out tomorrow, and we’ve had our Christmas dinner together this afternoon. It’s been a good visit.

I let an eye-of-round roast cook all last night and this morning, added multicolored baby-potatoes, and a Caribbean marinade that we picked up from “Mr. Hey Mon” a block away at the Dunedin Farmers Market. The market also provided rosemary bread, very old cheddar, and blueberry banana bread.  We decorated a big pine cone with a plastic star and colorful lead fishing jigs, set it in a coffee cup wrap and on top of a clay flower-pot. My wonderful sister Jessica mailed us some delicious and fun Christmas cookies that my nephew Nate and those guys decorated (along with a great card). That really made the table homey. The meat was delicious, and I think beef is quickly becoming our traditional holiday meal (thanksgiving was T-bones). Why not, it’s the best.

It’s chilly outside, hitting the high 30’s tonight is the prediction. But the cabin is warm from the oven and stove going most of the day. Sitting in the cockpit after dinner, in the sunshine, watching an osprey chow down on it’s catch, it was hard not to comment on what a life this can be. Home, wherever that is, is what holidays are about for me. Today we had that, and I’m glad.

More Carrabelle…

So, we wrote a bit previously about Carrabelle, FL. (C-Quarters Marina specifically), but we really had a nice time there and met and hung out with some very interesting folks, and thought more coverage would be good. It was a cultural experience, as much as going to another country would be. Almost all this action took place a few feet from our boat slip, on the “Porch”… and we felt like we were part of the ‘gang’ by the time we sailed off. We’ll be back someday…Jim, Harold, and Tim. The “Porch” in the background.

Sunrise, Charlie’s sailboat

Booger the cat (or Lefty, depending on who you ask)


Nic repairing our dodger, on the Porch.

Christmas lights and a tree.


The chute to delivery ICE to fishing boat’s holds.

Nicole and James, our bud.

Charlie and his dog Twain, aboard Adelante.


Twain loved to de-flea James!

Aflac, the duck. Stray duck they’d feed at CQ.

The ‘center of the universe’ at the Porch. Almost empty beers tossed from a distance…

This is the squished down version. Fisherman’s Wife burger at dinner with George and Pat Maier. George helped me extensively with the alternator problem.

Carrabelle’s beach.

Former Blue Crab.

The new, and much too shiny, alternator. Works awesome.


No shoes required.

Sunset over Erwin James.

Overnight to South Florida…

The longest leg of our little journey thus far has clearly been the 1000 mile jump from Sheboygan’s marina to Mobile, Alabama and Turner Marine’s work yard. But since that only took part of 3 days to complete (by semi-truck & trailer) we don’t really consider it much of an accomplishment. Though our second longest leg, the passage from the eastern panhandle to the beginning of South Florida, we certainly hold up as our most significant sailing effort to date…

As many know, in Florida and most of the East coast, you can travel by boat in very protected waterways. Most of it is called the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW), and is essentially a combination of natural lakes, bays, barrier island protected areas, and man-made canals. Affectionately know as “The Ditch”, it is mostly about motoring, steering, and looking out for the next buoy or day-mark to stay in the deep channel and not run aground.On our first jump from Mobile toward Pensacola we crossed the large Mobile Bay and then took the ICW to Ingram Bayou, and anchored there for two days. It was a beautiful spot free from any visible development whatsoever. Dolphins fished and osprey, herons, and kingfishers entertained us. It was a good halfway point to Pensacola. On day three we continued in “The Ditch” eastward to Big Lagoon just off Pensacola Bay and Caucus Pass, anchoring there between two sand islands adjacent to the National Seashore and Fort McCree. We spent one pleasant, calm, and starry night there. After dark we were surrounded by armies of alighted fishing skiffs poling there boats in search of something (rays?). Though it was an eery spectacle, we didn’t see any of them catch anything.

Pensacola (PFL) was our next stop, and we were there almost a week, which I can discuss in another post. From PFL we headed back to Big Lagoon to get an early jump on our first Gulf of Mexico jump… to Destin, FL. Though the distance was reasonable, it being fall/winter, it is difficult to fit long sails into the daylight hours. In the summer you often have 16 to 17 hours of daylight visibility to complete a journey. If you are heading somewhere unfamiliar it is imperative that you avoid trying to make port in the dark. It’s not so much the not ‘seeing’, but the problem is the background lights obscuring reality during the night coming into a new harbor, marina, or anchorage. During this time of year we have about 11 hours or less of visibility, and this can make daylight passages tough to pull off. Sailboats are slow, relative to other modes, so to get to Destin with decent sunlight, to see the shallow entrance as well as possible, we had to leave at dawn.

That jump to Destin was a nice mix of motor-sailing and sailing, with generous use of our old but recently born-again AutoHelm auto-pilot. We were treated to at least four surfaced giant Leatherback Turtles, which would raise their enormous heads up to look our way as we glided by. These are the largest sea turtles on earth and they look it, even mostly submerged. We also saw our first group of large ocean-going Bottlenose Dolphins stream towards us and cruise in our bow wave. We hung over the bow rail to get as close as we could to these water-borne cousins of ours. They would turn to look at us if we whistled and really seemed to be having fun. Magic stuff… and it’s amazing how often it happens out there. …Another flavor of magic visited me while at the helm. A large fish surfaced and rolled, off to port, and then rotated and swam away toward the stern. At first I couldn’t recognize it at all, just large and gray… then when it swam away I could clearly see it’s sharp dorsal fin, detached at the base of the following edge, and it’s vertically aligned tail. It could only have been a shark. Given it’s size and that it did not have white or black tips on its fins, I’m guessing it was a Bull Shark, which are common in that area.After a stay in Destin’s harbor we again left very early to make Panama City or possibly further east. Panama City held no draw for us so while en-route we made plans to make it to an anchorage at the northern tip of Cape San Blas, called St. Joseph’s Point. Given the distance we’d have to sail we knew that we would arrive sometime after dark. Because it was a remote area and we had detailed charts covering the depths and shoreline, we were confident we could negotiate those waters, get close into shore, and safely drop the hook for the night. We did just that, a couple of hours after sunset, just off the point; and enjoyed a very starlit night in the sandy wilderness of St. Joseph’s Bay. I called my Mom and Dad from the foredeck to share my new “point of view” of an area they were very familiar with (Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe).

From St. Joseph Point we had a good sail across the bay to the entrance to the ICW. A 5 nautical mile (nm) straight cut led from the bay to the ICW proper, which snaked through natural rivers and lakes all the way to Apalachicola, 20 nm away. We took the ICW route to Apalachicola simply because going the Gulf route would be about 3 times further and around an unpredictable Cape San Blas. At Apalach I proceeded to dock at the free community docks… that unfortunately were adjacent to a major bridge that created swirling currents that always tend to embarrass captains and damage boats. Luckily I only tore some shear rub-rail when slamming against the immovable wood piling, and it was easily repaired at our next stop in Carrabelle. Avoiding all other stationary objects in Apalachicola, we anchored blissfully out in the river for the night. We had the required Apalachicola oyster dinner at Boss Oyster (over-rated), dinghy’ing there and back again. Oddly enough the restaurant had on its tables a newspaper that explained in an article that currently the Apalachicola Bay oyster haul was way down and that most restaurants were serving imported oysters.

Nicole and I are in Carrabelle, FL, at a rustic marina on the river (Carrabelle River?). We’re here after a successful and fun sailing session from Pensacola, that spanned 5 days, all nights at anchor. I feel like we’ve had a little destiny with this town, Carrabelle, FL. We drove the coastal highway last year on a trip, and more than anywhere I remember this tiny marine-focused village.

Dolphins greeted us on our way up the river, and the current and wind helped us enjoy docking the boat immensely (arrgh). It was cloudy the first few days but now (Friday) it is clear, warm, and cozy. We had visitors twice already, though the same people both times. Nicole’s Mom and Ralph have offered to store our car at their place here in Florida.

So they drove from the central part of the state across to Pensacola where our car was left in a parking lot. On their way through they discovered we were tied up along their route, and swung by for lunch. Then the next evening they came back the same way and stopped for dinner, and to stay the night in Carrabelle. They were travelling with their friends from England, who turned out to be delightful conversationalists and a lot of fun to hang out with.

We had planned to only be here two nights, and provision for our crossing of the Gulf to the Clearwater area. As it turns out a ‘problem’ raised it’s head on the way here. The engine was not charging our batteries. So we’ve been tackling a problem with our alternator since we got here. Luckily we’ve had many helpful volunteer mechanics and technicians. George specifically has helped us figure out the problem and we’ve even fitted a couple of alternators of his to try out. None worked, so I ordered a new and more powerful alternator online (60 amps, old one is 35). After that George found that the original only had a bad regulator (a $25 part). But no worries..I’m glad to get a better alternator and keep the old as a backup. Being on a boat is about bleeding money and feeling good about it, or at least not convulsing over every gouge.

I have to say that the primary characteristic of this place, that we will always remember, is the culture of this marina’s riverfront ‘porch’. Now this is simply the lower deck of the marina building, an expanse of wood and rocking chairs, but it is like the magnetic center of the world for the guys and gals who gather there. And they gather. At all hours of the day. To shoot the shit, drink coffee or cheap beer, and laugh with each other. Even console, as two of them did yesterday after they’d both lost a loved one. These are country boys, or at least that’s the role they’re trying to play. Many are clearly not as ‘simple’ as they act… but they’ve all chosen to keep it simple, in Carrabelle, at least on the Porch. Easy to talk to. Easy to not talk to. Social energy without any expectations or judgement. Our boat is docked basically right in front of all that, so sometimes I wish they’d bugger off, but mostly it’s just more colorful with them around.

Now getting to the topic of this post, finally, we left C-Quarters Marina in Carrabelle on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 5. We headed a couple of miles across the bay to a hook in the western end of Dog Island, called Shipping Cove, to anchor. This was another ‘staging’ for an early departure the next day. What we had ahead of us was something new and more demanding than we had tackled before. We had a simple navigational challenge, a straight line really, but the distance was 148 nautical miles to Clearwater Pass near Clearwater Beach, FL. If we averaged 5 knots this trip should take us 27.5 hours to complete. So by leaving early morning we could expect to arrive during daylight hours the next day; advantageous for aforementioned reasons.

This ‘jump’ is made by many cruising boats simply because the alternatives are less desirable. There are shorter hops, but the ports are under-developed and almost without exception very shallow. This is the only significant portion of the US eastern coasts that does not provide a protected ICW path. We had been looking forward to this simply because it would show us what a long passage with alternating watch shifts and long spans of low visibility sailing would be like and how we’d fare. How we handled this challenge would tell us a lot about how we could expect to proceed in our travels… whether or not passages like this one would be an uncomfortable problem or something to be savored.

Just about to leave our anchorage we received a phone call from our new friend Charlie, who was also staying at C-Quarters and waiting for a good time to make his passage. He asked about the conditions in the Gulf and said that his friend Ivan had just left and would be just behind us during the passage. We turned on our VHF to channel 16, so that Ivan could hail us and we could share the Gulf conditions with him. Ivan was sailing the same boat that we sail, a Morgan OutIsland 33, and we should be pretty close to each other during the entire crossing (and within radio range). Charlie ended up waiting and eventually left for his crossing on Saturday (and we just now heard that he made it ok, to Dunedin, FL we think). We continued out of the bay into the passage that leads to the Gulf. Winds were brisk and from the east, which was ok but not great. That would mean a close-hauled reach, a point of sail that is somewhat more aggressive and uncomfortable than we were hoping for. The seas built as we existed protected water, and were rising from the southeast, which was dead on our nose. In a way that made it easier to helm, but it certainly kept the boat seesawing up and down (which never really subsided).

I should mention, I suppose, that the night before we had eaten a dinner that did not sit well with my pathetic gastrointestinal system. I don’t understand exactly what it was but the pain and vomiting kept me (and Nicole to some extent) up almost the entire night. My big concern all night was possibly an appendix problem, since the pain was acute and low. This would be an issue because we were far from town, and town was far from a decent hospital (in Tallahassee). Hospitalization aside, I also had to consider the wisdom of proceeding with this passage on almost no sleep. Eventually the pain passed (3am) and I got something to eat and rested until dawn. We decided to go ahead since we both felt good and we figured there would be tons of time for catching up on sleep/rest during the passage. As it turns out I had plenty of energy and only felt about 10% nauseous the entire trip.

We couldn’t quite keep the heading we wanted while under sail alone, missing by about 10-15 degrees. The heading we could hold was about the course we’d need to head straight to Key West… a possibility that I admittedly did entertain for a spell. After quite a few hours we decide to use the motor to assist the sails so we could point closer to the wind and maintain a 140 degree course to our destination. We did not need to run the engine at a high RPM to achieve this, so we hummed along fairly quietly for those hours of motor-sailing. Eventually though the wind-gods blessed us with a backing toward the North, giving us east-northeast winds, allowing a beamier reach and for us to keep course with sails only (a wonderful thing to happen!).

The wind also began to build. Our wind meter has not been calibrated since we reinstalled it in Mobile, so we do not know exact wind speeds. I would say it eventually built to around 15 to 18 knots and was steady, not many gusts. This is great, fun, powerful wind, but a little intimidating in the dark. We had a full mainsail and our working jib sail up. Nicole felt the wind would continue to build and that we should reduce sail by reefing our mainsail. This can be tricky but is a critically important skill to know. We pointed further into the wind to luff the sails just enough to take the tension off the leading edge of the main. Once that was set Nic, up at the mast, lowered the main enough to get the reef-hook into the #1 reef’s tack grommet, then she tightened the main halyard. Next she pulled in the reef line that leads to the reef’s clew along the luff of the main. Once this was cleated off we both tied the three nettles, which gather and hold the bunched up extra sail along the boom. It was a good call. We sailed a bit slower, but only until the wind did increase and then we were in perfect shape to take advantage of it. Sometime during the morning we shook out the reef and raised a full main once more, and enjoyed an even more northerly wind and a beam reach most of the rest of the way to CW.During the day, Thursday, we moved along pretty well, got used to the motion, figured out what berth to use to rest, and set up a system of timed watches.During the day we’d switch off keeping watch every hour, then at night it would be every two hours. More time at night would provide better rest for off-watch crew member. This worked out well, and for us seemed an effortless, natural arrangement. We also set up our jack-lines. These are tubular nylon webbing safety lines that run from one end of the boat to the other. We wear sturdy chest harnesses (that are also auto-inflating PFDs) that we clip webbing tethers to. The tethers in turn clip to the jack-lines. Using this system we are harnessed to the boat at all times, whether we are in the cockpit or walking to the bow or mast. We agreed that at all times, while alone on deck, we would be clipped in. Going overboard without your partner knowing it would be about the worst thing that could happen to a sailing crew. Another precaution was that the deck-watch always carried a waterproof handheld VHF radio. With the ship’s VHF turned on, the overboard crew could call the ship. Now that our parents are terrified even further I’ll move on…

I really enjoyed myself during this passage, and I think Nicole did too. For me the night is comforting and exceedingly beautiful. Our world is faded to the background and the universe around us is exposed. I love that on a cloudless night you can really grasp the perspective of yourself standing on the surface of a rock in the infinite sea of stars, distance, dust, and energy. The day’s blue sky is a mirage. There is nothing like laying back on the cockpit cushions and looking up at the mast and sails, with the dome of space beyond, and the seawater swooshing along beside you. Also during the night I was visited by a pair of bottlenose that took a couple leaps near the stern and proceeded to the bow to ride in the wave the boat pushes in front of it. Clipped in, I ran up to the bow rail to watch. On the starboard side they were well-lit by the green navigation light and otherwise by my little LED headlamp. It was reassuring to have other intelligent creatures out enjoying the night as if it was the best part of the day.

As we approached CW in the morning it was hazy, cloudy, and we heard a Coast Guard sécurité radio announcement that the Tampa Bay area had limited visibility. I was not looking forwarded to navigating the tight channels in the Clearwater area in fog. As it turned out the sky cleared by noon and when we came into CW at 1:30pm the sun was shining and the scene gorgeous. We made some calls to area marinas to get rates and availability but in the end decided to throw out the hook in an anchorage we’d been told about and get some rest. At this point we did not suspect that Clearwater would be another very special place for us: exceedingly livable, interesting, varied, and beautiful. More on CW in a future post…