Monthly Archives: January 2016

Mayport to Spaceport

One thing I didn’t mention in my previous post is that, while crossing the St. Johns River near Mayport, we got a close-up view of one of the Navy’s new warships, being outfitted in a yard there. It was a giant, smooth, curvy trimaran — a couple hundred feet long, at least — utilizing stealth radar-evading technology. It looked more like a space ship than a warship. Except for one relatively small gun, there were no protrusions. Everything was behind hidden panels. I would hate to be in the cross-hairs of this sleek and deadly monster when it’s in a bad mood. The US Navy is definitely state-of-the-art. Very impressive.

As we were gawking at the new warship, we let another sailboat pass us crossing the St. Johns River. We exchanged courtesies and noted the name — Passages. As they pulled farther ahead of us, we lost visual contact, but heard them occasionally on the VHF radio. When we got to St. Augustine, we discovered that they ended up in the same mooring field that we were in, having arrived only an hour before us. A few days later, we were talking to some other cruisers in the marina laundry, exchanging sailing plans and boat information, and upon swapping boat names learned that they were the crew of Passages. They left St. Augustine the morning after our meeting, so we didn’t get to spend much time with them; but we learned that Passages resides in the boatyard in St. Marys during the off season, so we fully expect to see them again back on land. Small world.

Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel, St. Augustine

St. Augustine, as the oldest city in America, is a quaint old town, but most of the modern conveniences — groceries, hardware, services — are located outside the ancient district, too far to walk to. To add to the confusion, there are (I think) two different bus systems, with the “yellow” bus running routes that are designated by even more colors. It would take several days to figure out how to effectively move around, so the only reasonable alternative is to plan a short visit, hang around the marina, move on as soon as possible and provision somewhere else. Recognizing a need for a simple, flexible, cruiser-tailored transportation alternative, the St. Augustine Cruisers Net and some other locals established the Port of Call Cruisers Shuttle. Having seen an article on the shuttle in a cruising magazine, I knew we could provision in St. Augustine, and with the wind turbine arriving two days after our arrival, we wouldn’t suffer lost time hanging out there. We arrived on a Tuesday; rode the shuttle all day on Wednesday picking up groceries, hardware, and having the battery in my iPhone replaced; walked around the old part of town on Thursday, and received our wind turbine; sat out some rain on Friday; and installed the wind turbine on Saturday. (Fortunately, it worked great.) We had originally planned to shove off on Sunday morning, but bad weather was predicted for Sunday, so we paid for another night on the ball and waited. The storm on Sunday was rough, but it blew off in the afternoon. We unhooked from our mooring and pulled up to the marina fuel dock to have our sanitary holding tank pumped out, so we could depart at first light on Monday morning. After the pump-out, when I tried to start the engine, there was no response. Our starter had burned up.

So, we were stranded on the fuel dock, unable to move. Needless to say, since marinas make a lot of money from fuel sales, we were helplessly occupying some of the most expensive real estate in St. Augustine. I had to pay extra to stay the night at the dock. Being a Sunday afternoon, there was nothing I could do until the next morning. We spent all day Monday removing the dead starter and figuring out what model number we needed to order for a replacement. The Cruisers Shuttle proved critical to the effort, because as soon as I was able to get the old starter out, the shuttle got me to a parts store where I could order a new starter that could be delivered the next day. Of course, I had to pay for a second night on the dock. On Tuesday morning, Suzy caught the shuttle for some last-minute provisions. The shuttle was going to take me to the parts store to pick up the new starter, but at the last minute, the mechanic picked me up and took me, so we could install the new starter immediately. Unfortunately, the installation took us past check-out time in the marina — and past the time that we could effectively leave to head out — so we had to pay for a third night at the dock. It was a totally frustrating experience, mainly because it was unexpected and expensive.

All this is to say that, had it not been for the availability of the shuttle, it would have been much more difficult to resolve our starter problem as quickly as we did. We were saddened later on Tuesday to learn that Suzy had ridden on the last trip of the Port of Call Cruisers Shuttle. The shuttle service had applied for a grant from the St. Augustine Port Authority and the Development Authority, without which it could not continue to operate, and the grant had been turned down. The shuttle is no more. Opponents of the grant were of the opinion that the local government should not be involved in the enterprise. Supporters gave evidence of the positive impact of the shuttle on local businesses. From my own perspective, the shuttle was the one service in St. Augustine that made the city a workable provisioning and repair stop along the ICW. Without the shuttle, St. Augustine is a one-night stop. With it, cruisers can stay longer, meaning they will spend more money in the city. Had a company seeking to bring some jobs to town approached the local governments asking for many years of tax breaks, they would’ve jumped at the chance, arguing that the new jobs would result in more spending in the city — regardless of the loss of tax revenue and the added burden on local infrastructure that would cost the city to upgrade or maintain. The grant to the shuttle would’ve been pocket change in comparison. The image of cruisers is that we are a cheap and stingy bunch, but I spent close to an extra $1000 in St. Augustine because the shuttle made it a convenient port of call. The same is true for many other cruisers. That is no longer the case, and I’m sad for the cruising community and for the short-sighted city.

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, New Smyrna Beach, FLWe finally pulled out of St. Augustine at first light on Wednesday morning. We were traveling with some new best friends, the crew of the motor trawler Dubhe (pronounced “doobie,” this is the name of the pointing star in the Big Dipper). We had invited the Dubhes over to Madge for happy hour the night before our departure, and I think they wanted to travel together so they could return the favor the following night in Daytona Beach. The jaunt to Daytona was longer than any we had previously attempted in Madge on a single day, and had it not been for Dubhe, we would not have attempted it. But we made great time and arrived before dark, thereby expanding our expectation of the distances that Madge can cover in a normal day. The only mishap of the day was that I ran Madge aground at the Matanzas Inlet, getting too close to a shifting shoal that was marked by temporary daybeacons. The deep route ran so close to a shoreline that I could’ve picked up pebbles off the beach from the cockpit, so I held off a little and got out of the proper channel. I thought we were stuck hard, but was comforted that we had a buddy-boat close by. Fortunately, we didn’t need intervention as I was able to rev the engine and twist the rudder, wiggling Madge off the edge of the shoal after five or ten tense minutes. We were very fortunate. There was another boat off our port stern that was stuck worse than we were, and they probably had to wait a couple of hours for the tide to come in to lift them off the shoal. We did have cocktails with Dubhe that night. They took off from Daytona a bit before we did on Thursday morning, but we’ve kept in touch with them by radio and text.

The Dubhes alerted us to an approaching storm, and while they were able to make better time than us — they headed for Cocoa, FL — we were able to get to the Titusville Municipal Marina on Thursday, where we tied up in a slip and hunkered down to wait out the storm. It has been rough here, both Friday and Saturday with strong winds, but at least we didn’t have the snows like much of the East. We’ve been bounced around like we’re in a washing machine, but except for being very cold and uncomfortable, we’ve managed to avoid any serious trouble.

Titusville is just across the Indian River lagoon from the rocket launch complexes of the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral. I’ve heard that there will be a launch about a week after we leave. I wish we could hang around to see it, but we need to move on.

From Titusville, we plan to move on to Melbourne and Vero Beach. We may spend an extra day or two in Vero because it has good facilities and transportation, but maybe not, because it looks like it will rain most of the time we’re there. I don’t know. Part of cruising is that all plans are in flux. I’ll let you know what we end up doing.

It Feels Like Cruising

IMG_1496We left Fernandina Beach on Monday morning and had a relatively short day of motoring down the ICW to a point just north of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, FL. We could’ve gone farther, but it would have meant anchoring in an area that was exposed to strong currents and the wind. We opted instead for a protected anchorage just north of the Sisters Creek Bridge. We spent a pleasant afternoon on the hook, but it started getting cold as soon as the sun went down. The temperature dropped into the low 30s overnight, and it was 40 degrees inside the boat when we woke up on Tuesday morning. Thankfully, our down sleeping bags kept us warm through the night.

As soon as the sun came up on Tuesday, we hauled in the anchor and continued south. We were lucky to be heading in the same direction as the tidal current for much of the day, and made good time. We reached our planned Tuesday night stop around noon, so we decided to keep moving and aim for St. Augustine. We arrived by mid-afternoon. The picture above is of Suzy enjoying her favorite pasttime — taking pictures of points of interest along the way. That’s downtown St. Augustine. You will note the various jerry cans lashed to the boat’s railing: yellow for diesel fuel; red for gasoline; light blue for potable water. We also have a spare propane tank there. These are reserves in case we run low. Not much chance of that in Florida, but they will probably come in handy in the Bahamas. Needless to say, the bow is definitely a No Smoking zone.

IMG_1499

This is the historic Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine. Most states are building new bridges over the ICW with clearances of 60-65 feet — high enough for most sailboats to go under. In fact, the Sisters Creek drawbridge that we stopped next to on Monday night is currently being replaced. The contractor building the bridge is one that worked with me on a couple of projects at the World’s Busiest Airport, so it was like old times watching them working on the new Sisters Creek Bridge. Anyway, I doubt that the State of Florida will ever replace the Bridge of Lions. It’s too much of a landmark. The bridge opens every 30 minutes to let boats pass. In contrast to the tales we’ve heard of most bridge tenders, the guy working the Bridge of Lions when we passed was helpful and personable.

That brings up a point I need to make. In all of our preparations for this cruise, and of all of the people that we’ve dealt with, we have been blessed to receive generosity, patience, encouragement and helpfulness from every one. I once read a quote that went something like, “Don’t share your cruising dreams with anyone, because the folks who’ve given up on their dreams will try to sabotage yours.” Well, we’ve shared our cruising dreams with everybody, and nobody has been anything other than supportive. I was leery of telling my colleagues at work of my plans, but felt I owed it to them to give them full warning of my pending departure. Instead of booting me out the door immediately, they worked with me to reach a reasonable completion of my projects, and even expressed a desire for me to return when our cruise is completed. Other cruisers have shared their logs with us so we can get a better feel of the places we want to go. They’ve given us charts, books and helpful advise. Friends have loaned or outright given us gear and equipment. Our neighbors in St. Marys are looking after our house. Our families are supportive. The only imperative we’ve been given is, “Don’t drown.” Of course, that goes without saying. I mention all of this in order to express how deeply grateful we are for the support of our colleagues, friends and family, and to say a great big “Thank You” to them all.

IMG_1497[1]So, here we sit on a pleasant afternoon, sipping wine in the cockpit — before the sun goes down and it gets cold — looking across the mooring field at St. Augustine. The wind is calm and the water is smooth. It’s been a wild ride to get here, but my perspective is finally starting to shift. It’s beginning to feel like cruising.

Finally!

We are finally underway. We got all of our critical commitments out of the way, and we had to leave a few things behind, but we have departed St. Marys and are on our way. It wasn’t a grand start — we only moved about ten miles from St. Marys to Fernandina Beach — but we got off our mooring ball and left town. Suzy and I were both to the point that we felt if we didn’t leave immediately, we’d never get away. We didn’t even bother to stow everything we packed. We just loaded the boat up with our clothes, food, gear and charts, and took off. We left Saturday.

It was not a good day for traveling on the water — cold and drizzly. We didn’t care. We were only going a few miles, anyway. Then, when we hit Cumberland Sound, we ran into a brutal fog. I’d never been in fog on the water before. We could only see about a couple hundred yards ahead. The trip to Fernandina was nerve-wracking but uneventful. We took a slip in the Fernandina Harbour Marina by mid-afternoon, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening rearranging every locker on the boat and stowing all our stuff. By the end of it all, we were amazed at how much we could hide in all the little nooks and crannies on Madge.

We are now, officially, cruisers.

It wasn’t an easy transition. I have to admit that I’ve had some periods of anxiety about our cruise. It is sobering to realize that I’m now totally responsible for the safety of ourselves and the boat, embarking on an adventure like none other I’ve ever experienced. I’ve tried to foresee and plan for every contingency; I’ve talked to every cruiser I know who has been to the places we plan to go; I’ve read dozens of articles, bought guides and charts, studying until my brain is weary. Things got better for me after Thanksgiving when Suzy and I moved onto the boat. I felt like I had a handle on things. We would go ashore for periods of time during the day, but take our meals and sleep on the boat, just like we’d do cruising. I fixed some things; changed some things; and fiddled with the engine. We wanted to take some short trips, but local commitments kept us tied up. Then the cold weather hit, and our warm bed ashore called to us. We decided it would only be for a day or two, but it ended up being a week. Then our wind turbine — which had been previously fixed — started acting up again, and we felt like we had to shut down the refrigerator to keep from draining our batteries. We took all the perishable food off the boat. By then, Christmas was rolling around and we visited our children and grandchildren for the holidays. Just after New Years, our newest granddaughter was christened, so we were traveling for that. In addition to those distractions (pleasant as they were), we decided that there were some last minute things we needed to do to secure the house for our extended absence. Not only that, but I cracked a couple of teeth and had to have TWO crowns.

Back after Thanksgiving, when we learned Number Four would be christened on Jan 3, we tentatively set our departure date for Jan 6. This departure would depend on having good enough weather to go offshore from St. Marys and hopscotch down the Florida coast to the St. Lucie Inlet. If we didn’t get our weather window within a couple of days after the 6th, our plan would be to begin heading down the ICW — which would take more time than going offshore — but keep looking for opportunities to jump “outside.” When my teeth cracked, I was able to get an appointment with my dentist for Jan 4, since I would be in the Atlanta area for the christening on the 3rd. (There was never any doubt that I would go back to Atlanta for the crowns. My dentist — who I call “Dr. Painless” — has looked after my teeth for 32 years, and he’s the only guy for the job, as far as I’m concerned.) On Tuesday, Jan 5, when I checked out the boat before we started loading up, I discovered that the wind turbine — which had been fixed — had malfunctioned again. It had to be removed and sent back to the manufacturer for warranty repair. Then the weather forecast took a turn for the worse.

Adhering to a time-honored tradition, I began cursing like a sailor. Then we saw a silver lining. The weather situation that prevents our offshore sailing out of St. Marys means we will have to travel down the ICW for a while, meaning we will be using our engine most of the time. Sure, it will take longer than offshore, but using the engine will charge the batteries in lieu of the wind turbine. As long as we mostly motor during the time that the wind turbine is being repaired, we should be able to run the refrigerator as normal. So, we removed the wind turbine on Thursday, shipped it off on Friday, and cast off on Saturday — only three days after our target date. We suffered more angst that we should have. We spent more money than we wanted to. But we got all the necessary tasks completed and said the hell with the rest. Time to go cruising.

What did I learn from all of this? As I’ve said before, I’ve been taught that you eat an elephant one bite at a time. By training, as a Project Manager, I’ve planned projects from the beginning through to the end, trying to figure out how and when each bite should be taken. As a nascent cruiser, I’ve learned that I should still take just a bite at a time, but I don’t have to know everything about all the bites before the meal. All I really needed to do was to get from St. Marys to Fernandina. Then I just have to get to St. Augustine. Then Daytona Beach. Just the next bite. I can adjust as I go. The wind turbine can be returned to us somewhere down the ICW. There are grocery stores, drug stores and repair shops along the way. Whatever comes up, we can deal with.

Our plan is to get to Key West to meet some friends on Feb 18. They’re all land-based, so they shouldn’t have any trouble getting there on time. As for us — well, we’ll try to get there on time. Then we’ll head for the Bahamas.

What now? Fernandina is as far south as we’ve ever been by boat. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be in new territory each day. The weather in the morning should be sunny and 40 degrees with North winds at 10-15 knots. I’ll let you know when we get south enough to thaw out.