Monthly Archives: February 2016

Key West

We left Madge at Dinner Key, rented a car and went to Key West this weekend. It wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do as far as the cruising budget or schedule were concerned, but we had friends who would be there and we didn’t want to miss them. They all used to work with me at the World’s Busiest Airport (WBA), and we decided at my exit interview that we would meet in Key West in February. We thought for sure that Madge would be there by now, but that was before we encountered the ALL-TIME WORST WEATHER YEAR FOR CRUISING EVER. It’s official. That’s how 2016 will be remembered. Every veteran cruiser we meet tells us they’ve never seen a year this bad. Yeah, I really know how to pick ’em. But I digress…

On short notice, I managed to get a room for two nights at the Duval House, our favorite B&B in Key West. We ordered a car to drive down on Friday and return on Sunday. So much for planning. The weather forecast for Friday called for high winds, so since the shuttle boat in the mooring field doesn’t run if it’s too windy, we went ashore on Thursday and got a hotel room ($$). Worked out fine, as we had a great king-sized bed and a roomy shower with all the hot water we could ever want. Did some shopping and got some stuff for Madge. Took off early on Friday, picked up the car and headed for KW. Stopped on the way and outfitted Suzy for snorkeling, which will come in handy later. The traffic was terrible, but we finally reached Duval House by about six. Then the fun began.

We met our friends for dinner and hopped a couple of bars before the long day caught up with us. It was great to see the gang – like it hadn’t been almost a year since I’d seen them. Caught up on some of the happenings back at the WBA, but mostly just talked and laughed a lot. While my colleagues and I picked up where we left off, the spouses were just getting to know each other – and everybody got along great. Saturday morning we all met for a late breakfast, then toured the Ernest Hemingway house, after which we resumed hopping bars and enjoying the town. After a brief late afternoon respite, we met up again for happy hour, sunset and dinner. Sunday was get-away day, so Suzy and I said our brief goodbyes and made the long trek back to Miami. We spent another night in a hotel, and caught the shuttle boat back to Madge on Monday.

My only regret from our weekend in KW was how little time we had to sit and talk with our friends. The bars and restaurants in KW seem to have live, loud bands scheduled 24/7. I just wish we could’ve spent some time in a small jazz lounge with quiet background music where we could’ve had some more lengthy, in depth conversations. But for what it was, and where it was, it was a great time. We are sure to see our friends again in June, when Suzy and I are back in our old stomping grounds for a few days visiting children and doctors. We’ll catch up again then.

Now, sitting here on Madge, we can look at our itinerary and see that we have no more commitments. Our time is truly our own. We can go anywhere, anytime, and stay as long as we want. Decisions, decisions. We’ll be moving soon.

Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the weekend. Check Suzy’s FB page for those.

Maybe We Should Rename the Boat

Maybe we should rename the boat. How about Maytag? I feel like I’ve been in a washing machine for days.

We finally got a break in the weather and left Velcro (Vero) Beach on Wednesday. It was a little breezy, but not too bad. Madge made good time and we made it all the way to the south end of Hobe Sound (about 42 nm) with plenty of daylight left to set the anchor and enjoy the scenery. We passed a peaceful night. We gained enough distance on Wednesday that we had a short day on Thursday to the north end of Lake Worth. We negotiated seven bridges on the trip, with only one embarrassing incident where I mistimed an opening and almost ran into the bridge. I had to make a three-point U-turn inside the bridge fenders, making a flock of Pelicans that was lining the fenders a bit nervous. I profusely apologized to the bridge tender, but he had a good sense of humor and told me he enjoyed the show. Good old Madge was as nimble as a cat when I needed her the most. I will never approach a bridge the same way ever again. We stopped at a marina along the way to top off our fuel and water tanks, and for a pump out. The crew at the marina was great. It was like an old time full service gas station. They did everything except put air in the tires. Cruisers, I highly recommend Loggerhead Marina in Palm Beach Gardens. Glen will take good care of you. Lake Worth gave us great holding. We set the hook easily and had another peaceful night. Unfortunately, that was the last one for the foreseeable future.

Friday promised to be a long, difficult day. The route included 13 bridges, all with staggered times that made it hard to get from one bridge to the next in the amount of time between openings, and if you missed an opening, you’d have to wait 30 minutes for the next one. It’s hard to hold a boat in one place in a canal with the current running behind you, so you don’t want to get to a bridge too early or too late. I did a lot of calculating Thursday night trying to figure out the timing between each bridge. We left Lake Worth early Friday morning, and immediately our troubles began. Lake Worth is wide, but the ICW channel through it is relatively narrow. As we were heading south, so too, it seems, was every 50-ft sport fisherman in the State if Florida. These guys would pass us at full speed within a few yards of us, pitching Madge every which way with their enormous wakes. If they passed you head-on, you could turn into the wake and cut it with the bow, but these guys overtaking us from behind caught us stern-to with the wakes, and we were badly tossed. One even passed us while we were going under a bridge, almost rocking us into the fenders around the bridge supports. Not much farther down the ICW, we had to transit the Lake Worth Inlet. This is where all the fishermen were heading out, so thankfully they left us. In the inlet, though, there was a dredging operation underway. I was confused by all they various markers and buoys that surrounded the work zone, and had a soft grounding on a shoal – but Madge easily pushed off it, and thanks to the calls and directions from the dredging crew, we made it safely through the area. We only had to kill time for one bridge after that, but there were still many power boats that knocked us around. The constant battle with the wakes made it difficult to use the autopilot, so I manually steered for much of the day, which was exhausting. We pulled into our chosen anchorage at Lake Boca Raton, only to find many boats. We picked a likely spot, but the anchor wouldn’t set. On our third try, we got a catch, but I wasn’t quite sure about it. Since the wind was forecast to pick up overnight, I set my alarm for every three hours and kept checking our location and swing room through the night. We didn’t drag or swing into anyone, but I didn’t get much rest.

Saturday was another 13-bridge day. The early day was fine. It was peaceful and quiet. There seemed to be no-wake zones from Boca through most of Ft. Lauderdale, so we weren’t fighting the power boats. At our fifth or sixth bridge, we fell in behind a boat named Mad Sam, whom we had followed through the last several bridges on Friday. Madge and Mad Sam are about the same length and draft, with nearly the same hull speed, so we hung close behind them and worked our way through the remaining bridges together. We had to go flat out on several segments to make the bridge openings, and got lucky a couple of times with helpful bridge tenders, who would hold open for an extra minute or two to let us sneak through. Our luck changed at the Hollywood Blvd bridge. As soon as we passed, it seemed all rules were off, and the power boaters tore through the canals at maximum speed and disruption. Heavy wakes from multiple boats bouncing back and forth between the concrete walls of a narrow canal turn the whole channel into a washing machine. Madge and Mad Sam were pummeled mercilessly. I don’t know what it is about these boaters, but whatever it is, I hate it. The only exception seemed to be the motor trawlers. They had manners. Maybe it’s because a lot of motor trawler people are cruisers. But the speed boats, sport fishers and luxury yachts had no manners. Out of three days of travel through South Florida, I can only recall five boats in these categories that showed us any courtesy. On the contrary, most seemed to enjoy pushing us out of the channel, making very close passes, cutting us off and creating as much wake as possible. I thought we encountered a few rude jerks in North Florida, but these guys down here make those North Florida guys seem like Gloria Vanderbilt. By the end of the day, we had been through so much with Mad Sam, and had communicated so often over the VHF, that Mad Sam followed us into Oleta River State Park and we anchored next to each other. The Mad Sam family came over for sundowners, and we enjoyed a pleasant evening with Duane and Hope, and their daughters Maddie and Sammie — hence “Mad Sam.” The Mad Sams have been cruising for three years, and have been trying to get back to the Bahamas since November, but have been thwarted by weather and mechanical problems. We wish them fair winds and safe travels.

The wind picked up overnight, but we had no problems in our protected anchorage. We bid farewell to Mad Sam this morning and headed out for the last segment of this part of our trip, which terminates at Dinner Key Marina’s mooring field in Biscayne Bay, just off Coral Gables. We’ll leave Madge at Dinner Key while we drive a rental car to meet friends in Key West. Today’s trip took us through the Port of Miami and a portion of Biscayne Bay, but the forecast called for increasing winds a rough conditions in the Bay. We made good time through all the chop and congestion and pulled into Dinner Key just after lunchtime. We discovered two-foot chop in the mooring field! We had multiple failed passes at picking up our mooring ball, including losing our best boat hook, before a neighbor in his dinghy offered assistance and we were able to catch our ball. Since then, the chop has increased and is predicted to worsen tomorrow before improving on Tuesday. We won’t attempt to mount the outboard on the dinghy under these conditions, so we’re trapped on the boat for the time being. We’re safely connected to the bottom of the bay by our mooring, but it is a very uncomfortable ride — the perfect ending to days of rough, exhausting travel. I doubt we’ll be getting much sleep the next couple of nights. Things are banging, bumping and creaking all over the boat.

imageWe are so far out in the mooring field that we can’t see the marina. It’s way over there under those high-rise buildings. We are on ball 158 out of 225.

Many boats close together.

I think we are even in a different time zone than the marina.

Definitely a different area code.

 

 

 

Everyone Knows It’s Windy

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The last 24 hours have been nerve-wracking. The winds are way up and the temperatures are way down. I’m about on my last nerve.

Aside from that, here’s what we’ve been up to recently, in no particular order of importance…

The Tuesday pump out boat had some engine problems, so it didn’t make rounds – though we desperately needed it to. That meant we had to alter our hygienic routines in order to head ashore for certain activities at a moment’s notice. Not fun. The boat was repaired in time for the Thursday rounds, though it was a couple hours late getting started. What a relief that was. Suzy did laundry Thursday morning and I tried straightening up the boat some. In the afternoon, after our critical pump out, there was a happy hour social ashore for everyone in the marina and mooring field. When we came back to Madge afterword, we discovered that we had a new raft-up companion tied up to us – another Canadian boat, this one named Rivendell. A cold front pushed through Thursday night, dropping a little bit of rain. The front left behind a lot of wind, and we were pretty much stranded on the boat all day Friday.

We got a bit of a break in the weather on Saturday, so we did chores. The items I’d ordered for Madge had arrived on Friday, so I picked them up and prepared for a day of work. My plan was to change the engine oil, then to install a new wifi booster that will allow us to pick up better signals from shoreside hotspots. Before I started the oil change, I wanted to clean up the sump in the bilge, but when I got down in there, I discovered that there was so much sludge under the engine that I needed to clean the ENTIRE bilge and put down new oil-absorbent pads so as not to risk pumping any oil overboard. What a filthy job. It took a couple of hours, and I probably ruined the  only pair of jeans I have with me, but eventually the bilge was clean and we headed for the showers ashore. Unfortunately, having been down there “up close and personal” with the engine, I have spotted a couple of broken clamps and a few missing bolts that require replacing. Afterwards, I got the wifi booster installed and working, except for the final concealed cable run from the antenna to the router. We have free wifi now (!) and no longer have to depend solely on our phones for a hotspot.

Another front rolled through on Saturday night, this one stronger than Thursday’s. Madge and Rivendell, lashed together securely, got bounced around severely. There’s a limited amount of slack in the tethering lines, and sometimes the boats would move in opposite directions, only to be arrested by a severe jolt. There were all sorts of noises topside, and I was up most of the night worrying about them, going up a couple of times to check things out. The dinghy was getting slammed into the boat frequently, and the sound of the inflatable rubber tubes squeaking along Madge’s fiberglass sides made for some horrible moaning and shrieking. The wind has yet to abate today (Sunday), but it is supposed to subside by sunset; however, another and even stronger front than the first two is predicted for Monday night. Temperatures will drop into the upper 30s, with winds in the mid-to-upper 20s, gusts in the 30s.

Since I’m trapped inside today, I decided to tackle that oil change I didn’t get to on Saturday. I shouldn’t have bothered. First, the oil wouldn’t drain out of the drain tube, even after I ran the engine for a while. Eventually it started, but it took over two hours to run out. Then, I couldn’t get the oil filter off. This is the same filter I put on at the end of December. I wasn’t any stronger then than I am now. I even bent my oil filter wrench trying to remove it. So, I’ll refill the engine with new oil and change the filter next time, after I’ve procured a more substantial wrench.

The wind is still howling. I am so tired of this. Our friends aboard Kanga, who made it to the Bahamas last week, report that they’re trapped in their anchorage, too. Our friends on Dubhe over on the Gulf coast have the same problem. The weather is squirrelly all over.  Suzy and I have discussed it, and I think we’re going to blow off the Bahamas this spring. Opportunities for crossing the Gulf Stream are down, and the weather is iffy. Our friends in Ft. Myers are planning to take their boat, Island Moon, to the Keys soon. We might try to meet up with Island Moon in the Keys and take advantage of their local knowledge, then go back to Ft. Myers along the Florida west coast and return to the ICW via the Okechobee Canal – sorta backwards from the way we had planned to go to Key West. We’ll try to get some good outside sailing in on our way back north to St. Marys.

At least, that’s what we’re thinking right now. As you know, however, all sailing plans are written not in stone, but in water.

 

Making Lemonade

It’s late. We’re sitting in the cockpit listening to Jimmy Buffett… and other sounds of the city around us. It was hot today – 82. The low tonight is 67. There’s a slight breeze. It’s a little stuffy down below. Madge is swinging gently on her mooring. Looking out behind us is like watching the feed from a slowly panning security camera of all the boats north of us.

We’ve been in Vero Beach for 9 days. We understand now why it’s called Velcro Beach. At first, I planned to be here four nights. Rain was approaching, and I needed to do some route planning. South of here, things start getting complicated. There’s more development and we get into what I call urban cruising. I had thought we might cut across the Okechobee Canal to Ft. Myers, then turn south to Key West. But I’ve heard horror stories of the north fetch and rough conditions in the mooring field in Key West, and the very long dinghy ride to shore. It didn’t sound like something I would like. As an option, we could continue down the ICW to the Keys, but I wasn’t sure if we could get there in time. Plus, Madge draws 4-1/2 feet, and in many places, the ICW through the Keys is barely over five feet. That means taking the Hawk Channel from Biscayne Bay to Marathon. We’ve been told that it’s convenient to leave your boat on a mooring in Boot Key Harbor and take the bus to Key West, but then we heard that there’s a 40-boat waiting list for moorings at Boot Key. I’m starting to think that the best way to see the Keys is by land. Anyway, we needed a break to figure where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. We are committed to meeting friends in Key West in a couple of weeks, but we have options for doing that. There’s a big mooring field at Dinner Key in Miami, and we could hitch a ride to Key West with some friends who are driving down from there.

I figured maybe four days would give me enough time to work things out. Then, we had the alternator belt problem coming into Vero Beach and decided to spend some time giving Madge some needed attention. When the rains came, we had to fix some leaks. Four days stretched into seven. We identified some other issues, ordered some items online, and are now waiting for delivery on Friday, taking us up to 11 days. There’s really no incentive to leave quickly. We’ve decided to leave Madge at Dinner Key and ride with friends to Key West. It will take us 4-5 days to get there from here, and we don’t have to be there until about 15 days from now. Vero Beach has good, inexpensive facilities and a free bus, with everything we need a short ride from here. We’ll probably kill time here until it’s time to move south to Dinner Key. After Ket West, we’ll have to decide whether we jump to the Bahamas, or come back north, cut across the Okechobee Canal and try to catch up with friends who are cruising Florida’s west coast. If we opt for the Bahamas, we’ll have to wait for a weather window. A couple of days ago, a great weather window opened up for the Bahamas, and some of our friends here in Vero made the jump. Were it not for the Key West commitment, we could’ve gone with a great buddy boat – which makes a first-time crossing much less stressful.

So, that decision is still ahead of us. In the meantime, we’re trying to be productive by working on things for Madge. Rain is back in the forecast in the next couple of days. A front is moving through. Maybe we’ll get something done. Maybe not.

 

Fixing Your Boat in Exotic Places

After bouncing around in Titusville for three days, we were ready to head south. The rain and cold wind had kept us pretty much trapped on the boat or in the marina, and we were anxious to head south again in search of that famous “Florida sunshine” we’d heard so much about, but had yet to find. It was still a bit blustery the morning of our departure, but promised to improve later in the day. That was good enough for us. On the way out of the marina, we stopped at the pump-out dock, where the wind made approach difficult and we barely missed a boat that was already there taking on fresh water. The other boat was a Canadian-flagged vessel named Wind Song II. She had ducked into Titusville on the same day we had, also seeking shelter from the storm, and we had heard some of her radio transmissions as we were just a few miles behind them on the ICW. Anyway, after a quick conversation at the dock, we learned they were heading in the same direction we were going, and cruised at about Madge’s speed. We decided to anchor together in Melbourne that night, where I had already researched a spot that should give us protection from the North wind, and which had plenty of room for both boats. So, off we went.

Wind Song tucked in behind Madge, and we had a fairly routine trip to Melbourne. After we anchored, the Wind Songs came over to our boat for “sundowners” — cocktails in the cockpit. We had a great time. Discussing our respective sailing plans, we learned that Wind Song was trying to get to Cuba (which as Canadians they can do , since their country doesn’t hold a 50-year grudge against the island), while Madge is trying to get to Key West. Wind Song was planning on an extended stay in Stuart, FL, to have some rigging work done, while Madge is on a schedule — which is an expressed no-no in cruising circles. (Now we know why.) We both assumed we would part company the next morning and continue along our respective routes.

Early the next morning, Madge weighed anchor and headed out for our 30 mile trip to our next stop, the City Marina at Vero Beach. We had just achieved cruising speed when the engine made a strange noise, the tachometer went to zero and the voltage meter dropped to about 13.0 volts. Since it sounded like the engine was still turning at normal speed, and we were still travelling at just under 6 knots, I suspected that the alternator had gone bad. Since our engine is diesel, it can run without the alternator, but if the alternator were to seize up or the belt were to break, we’d lose our cooling water pump, which would put us out of commission (since we can’t sail in the narrow ICW — or, at least, I can’t). Everything else seemed to be working okay — radios, chartplotter, autopilot and depth gauge. Over the next couple of hours, the voltage continued to slowly drop. When it got to about 12.5 volts, I figured the autopilot was draining the batteries (it requires a lot of energy), so I switched to manual steering for the last three hours of the trip. Other than the physical exertion of manually steering, the rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful. We limped into the Vero Beach City Marina just after lunch, and tied up to a ball in the mooring field.

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To our surprise, Wind Song was about an hour behind us, and when they heard us hail the marina by radio, they contacted us. They had decided to stop in Vero Beach also. Since we had taken the last mooring ball in the field, Wind Song rafted up on our port side. Rafting up is a common practice in Vero Beach, since there are always more boats than spaces, and doubling up allows more boats to stay over. This time, Wind Song hosted the sundowners.

Bright and early the next morning (Tuesday), I opened up the engine compartment to find a thick layer of fine, rubbery dust — a sure sign of a deteriorating belt. I was able to easily slide the belt through the pulleys without any of the pulleys turning, so I figured that had to be the problem. As a test, I tightened the belt as much as I could and cranked the engine. I got nearly normal readings on the tachometer and voltage meter. After giving thanks that the alternator appeared fine, I went about trying to find a replacement belt. I looked up some auto parts stores on line, then Suzy and I hopped on the easy-to-understand, convenient and FREE public transportation system in Vero Beach — take THAT, St. Augustine — and started visiting parts stores. The first store didn’t have our belt in stock, but could order one for us. I kept looking. The fourth store finally had one in stock, but just one. I wanted a spare, so I asked the first store to go ahead and place the order. When we got back to the boat, I installed the new belt and fired up the engine. Everything worked perfectly. The next morning, I hopped on the bus to pick up the ordered spare belt. The store had actually ordered two, so I got them both. Sometimes, having one spare just isn’t enough.

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It had rained on me a bit on Wednesday morning when I went to get the spare belts, and by Wednesday afternoon the clouds opened up and we got more than we bargained for. The rain continued all day, overnight and all day again on Thursday and into Thursday night. We bundled up in our rain suits to dinghy ashore and go places, but we were constantly wet. At least the temperatures had risen to the 70s, unlike the cold rains we endured in St. Augustine and Titusville. There is a riverfront bar and grille about 200 yards down river from our mooring, just across (and under) the Route 60 bridge. Dedicated cruisers that we are, we dinghied over to the bar Wednesday evening for happy hour with our friends from S/V Kanga (we met them in St. Augustine), ignoring the persistent rain. On Thursday, we donned our heaviest foul weather gear to slog through the downpour with the Wind Songs for some last-minute socializing before they headed out Friday morning for Stuart. Fortunately, Friday morning dawned clear, but chilly. We waved goodbye to Wind Song, not knowing when we’ll see them again. Saturday morning was again clear and a bit warmer, and with the opening of a passage window across the Gulf Stream, our friends from Kanga departed for the Bahamas, leaving us alone in Vero Beach.

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While we had resolved our alternator (belt) problem, the heavy rains had revealed some problematic leaks in the deck, so after we dried out the inside of the boat, we set about to do some recaulking, along with other boat projects on our to-do list. I installed a jam cleat to help control the boom topping lift, and fabricated a hoist for lifting the dinghy, motor and all, out of the water along the side of the boat (“on the hip,” as they say) for nightly security, if needed. Suzy and I then tackled a task that had been waiting for some time — replacing the slugs on the foot of the mainsail. The slugs are little plastic tabs sewn into the foot of the sail about every 18 inches, that fit into a track in the boom. The slugs hold the foot of the sail tight against the boom. When we first mounted our new mainsail, the slugs were just a tad too small, and would not hold in the track. Even though the new slugs were “technically” the same size as the slugs on our old sail, there was something just off about them that allowed them to jump the track. We’d been carrying the new, slightly larger slugs for several months, but the job on removing the old slugs and sewing in the new slugs just seemed too daunting, so we put it off. With time on our hands and no other excuses, we tackled the task as soon as the dew dried off the deck, and were surprised to have the task complete by lunchtime, even though we had to completely remove and reinstall the mainsail, topping lift and sail flaking system. We then spent the afternoon trying to adjust and optimize our shortwave radio antenna. Today was spent on the free busses again, traveling to various stores to pick up odds and ends to adjust or improve other items on the boat. In addition, we started work on an upgrade to our wifi system to improve our reception of nearby internet hot spots.

We had a nice breakfast this morning with the crew of S/V Our Dream, whom we had met at the Cruisers Thanksgiving gathering in St. Marys a few months back. They winter in Vero Beach and summer in the Chesapeake. We’ll look them up when we head north ourselves later this year.

It’s been just over three weeks since we left St. Marys. In that short amount of time, we’ve met folks we know will be friends for life. We’ll follow them on their blogs and Facebook, and send them texts and emails. If we don’t see them again on the water, we’ll catch up with them on land. It is said that cruising consists of fixing your boat in exotic places. Well, I’ve certainly been fixing the boat. But it’s not the places that are exotic — it’s the people you meet in those places that make it truly special. We’ve found them to be warm, open and generous. Most will become fond acquaintances. Some will become solid friends. A few will become genuine kindred spirits. And that’s what makes all the fixing worthwhile.