Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Very Good Week

imageWhen we first started this adventure, we were told that the best part of cruising wasn’t the sailing, or the places you visit, but the people that you meet who become lifelong friends. We met the crew of MV Dubhe (pronounced “doobie,” it’s the name of the pointing star in the Big Dipper) when we were stranded in St. Augustine by a burned out engine starter. We traveled with them for a day to Daytona, then parted ways… but we kept in touch. The Dubhes crossed the Okeechobee Waterway from Stuart to Ft. Myers and explored the Florida Gulf coast while we slogged our way to the Keys. We met up again in Pelican Bay at Caya Costa State Park at the north end of Pine Island Sound, which lies between Ft. Myers and Charlotte Harbor.

imageWe motored from Ding Darling to Pelican Bay on Sunday, arriving in the early afternoon, and found a suitable spot to anchor. A couple hours later, Dubhe arrived and anchored right next to us. We had a great reunion that evening over sundowners on Madge. Perry and Nancy planned to stay at Caya Costa for at least a week. Suzy and I figured we could do that, too. We all hit the beach the next day, relaxing under perfect weather, shelling, or just laying out. That evening we had sundowners on Dubhe and dinner on Madge. We made plans to take our dinghy over to Cabbage Key (about two miles) on Tuesday for lunch at the renowned restaurant there. We woke to fog Tuesday morning. Before long, Perry motored over in his dinghy to show us the huge sea trout he had just caught while trolling along the mangroves near our boats. The fish was too big for Dubhe’s cooler, so we stashed in in Madge’s fridge and made plans for a big dinner that night. The fog lifted enough for us to keep our lunch plans at Cabbage Key, and we explored the small island while we were there. The only problem with the trip was that I couldn’t get the dinghy to plane, and the passage was a bit slower than expected. The trout dinner that evening was excellent. Perry fried up the fish using Nancy’s special Parmesan breading, while Suzy and I provided black beans, yellow rice and the wine. Perry promised to take me fishing the next day. Suzy and Nancy planned to hit the beach again.

imageI am no fisherman. In fact, I had never really been fishing before. Sure, I’d held a cane pole with a hooked worm at the end of a line with a bobber in it, off the end of a lake dock in some campground as a kid with my dad and brothers, but I’d never fished as a serious sport or for food. Perry, on the other hand, had tons of experience. The fishing gear I had on Madge was all wrong. Perry loaned me some gear. I couldn’t cast. He taught me how. He knew where the fish would be. He knew what lures to use. He caught two more good sized trout. I hooked one that seemed fairly large, but it got off. I, on the other hand, was hooked solidly. I see new gear in my future.

imageWhen Suzy got back from the beach, we headed off in the dinghy to a little pocket in the mangroves where a large group of manatees had been sighted. I turned off the outboard and rowed into the small basin. Kayakers from the state park were there also, but everyone was very quiet and the manatees were surfacing all around us. Some were within a few feet of our dinghy. Even so, it was hard to get a good picture.

 

 

 

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Later that afternoon, I pulled the dinghy up on the beach and flipped it over to scrape four months of growth off the bottom. The photo shows before and after scraping. It was obvious why the boat wouldn’t plane when we went to Cabbage Key earlier in the week. With four adults in a dink and a filthy bottom, the poor outboard didn’t have a chance. After I got the bottom clean and the dink put back together, the little boat could fly. I became the terror of the anchorage. On the way back to Madge, we spotted MV Santorini in the anchorage. We had met Santorini when we anchored in Daytona in January. We chatted a while and got caught up, and promised to look them up when we got to the Chesapeake this summer.

Perry and I went fishing again the next morning. He caught two more trout. I caught one, too – my first ever in 62 years! – but it was an inch shy of being keeper-sized, so I had to let it go. But I caught it. In my opinion, that counts. Since Perry had already packed in as much as Dubhe’s cooler could hold, he let me have the two fish he caught. We filleted them – I do know how to fillet a whole fish – and grilled one of them for dinner that night. The other one went into the freezer.

By the end of the week, time was catching up with us. We needed to move Madge to Ft. Myers to get ready to cross the Okeechobee Waterway, and Dubhe had some commitments that would keep her in Ft. Myers Beach for a couple of weeks. And some weather was moving in for the weekend. The Dubhes wanted to stop over in Captiva, and since we had never been there, we planned to go to Ft. Myers and Ft. Myers Beach, respectively, in two short hops. We made it to Captiva on Saturday just before some thunderstorms caught up with us, but the afternoon cleared off and we toured the small island, having happy hour and dinner shore. On Sunday we parted ways with Dubhe once more, and made our ways to our appointed destinations in stiff 20-kt winds.

It’s hard to explain how such a short relationship has become so strong. We spent a lot of time together in Caya Costa and got along great. Things just clicked. The Dubhes live only a few hours from St. Marys by car, so we know we will be seeing them again, either on the water or on land. They are kindred spirits, and such nice decent people. We keep running into otheir boaters that have met them and also like them. I can only say, we sure know how to pick ’em.

 

Oh, My Darling…

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Today is going to be a lazy day. We are anchored in a cove on the north side of the J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Management Area on Sanibel Island. There are a few other boats in this well-protected spot, though they will probably leave at some point today. We’re staying. We plan to rendezvous with our friends on MV Dubhe tomorrow afternoon just a little north of here, so there’s no need to travel today. Suzy and I are in the cockpit watching the sun climb over the mangroves. She’s sipping her coffee. I’m sipping my tea.

Yesterday we made a fast run up from Naples. We made the 35 nm trip to Ding Darling in about six hours. Madge was flying. I’d had some concerns about the trip before we left. The forecast wind and sea state was a little rougher than I would have liked, but we had used up our allotted four days in the Naples mooring field and I didn’t want to go to the trouble of jockeying the boat around to get more time. Winds were expected to be ESE switching to southerly in the afternoon, between 10 and 15 kts, according to the National Weather Service. Seas were expected to be about one foot nearshore and 2-3 ft offshore. Our route would keep us about a mile off shore the whole way, so I figured we’d be fine. However, another weather service I use was predicting stronger winds and rougher seas, building through the day. That’s what concerned me – who to believe. I decided we should leave at first light, so if the conditions worsened in the afternoon, we’d be closer to our destination when they did. It turned out to be a good choice.

The City mooring field is about five miles from the Naples inlet at Gordon Pass, so I figured it would take us about an hour to get back out into the Gulf. We dropped off the ball at seven o’clock. The tide was running with us, and we made good time, clearing Gordon Pass just after seven thirty. The wind was just north of east, and our route was northwest, putting he wind on Madge’s starboard beam. We pulled out the jib to steady the boat, and suddenly we were doing about 7 kts, motor-sailing. Seas were about 1-2 ft, and we weren’t much farther off shore than the end of the Naples pier. I backed off on the engine and our speed dropped considerably. I decided that instead of proceeding under sail alone, I’d keep motor-sailing to make the best speed. The wind was about 13-15 kts, occasionally higher. Looked like my secondary weather service had the better prediction. Even so, we had a comfortable ride. Madge had no trouble with the conditions. By mid-morning, the winds were consistently above 15 kts. There were some gusts to 20. Madge didn’t care. I was beginning to rediscover my boat, and it felt good. The wind shifted south sooner than expected, aligning more with the direction of the waves. We stayed about a mile and a half off shore, but were in 2-3 ft seas. We were running almost dead downwind with rollers on our stern, which started Madge rolling from side to side a bit. What made matters worse, we were still having to dodge crab traps, and with whitecaps on the waves, they were harder to pick out. Regardless, we passed the San Carlos Bay marker just before noon, and crossed under the Ft. Myers-Sanibel Bridge into Pine Island Sound soon after, dropping the hook at Ding Darling around one o’clock.

So here we sit. The mangroves in our cove give us good protection from the 10-15 kt winds shifting between east and south. The sun is shining. The temperature is mild. I’m reconnecting with my boat.

Looks like I’ve successfully made it back on the horse.

Yee-haw!

 

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

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We went off the grid for a while when we left the Keys, so let me get you caught up on where we’ve been. The map segment on the left shows Lower Florida and the Keys. Center-right on the map is Biscayne Bay. For reference, Dinner Key is at the northwest edge of the Bay, just about under the first M in Miami. Tarpon Basin is about the center of Key Largo on the Bayside. The red line is not our actual course, but roughly shows our stops along the way from Key Largo to Naples.

 

We left Tarpon Basin at Key Largo on a Wednesday, and went down to Lower Matecumbe Key to stage for our hop back to mainland Florida. Our route from Largo to Lower Matecumbe was littered with crab traps, and their floats were a constant threat to the boat. You can do a lot of damage to a boat, even sinking, if the boat’s prop happens to twist around the line connecting the float to the crab trap. We had to be constantly vigilant, which made the relatively short trip extremely tiresome.

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At one point, as we traversed a cut through a shoal, we noticed a line of objects that appeared to be mounted on stakes along the shallow sides of the channel.

 

 

 

 

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When we got closer, we saw that the objects were live cormorants roosting on the top of each stake. They looked like decoys. Occasionally, one would fly off only to be replaced by another. Odd. How many cormorants can dance on the head of a pin? Apparently, only one.

We never quite figured out what the stakes were for.

 

 

When we dropped the hook in Matecumbe Bight, a group of people in a powerboat stopped by to chat. One of them, Arthur, had previously owned a 27-ft Watkins sailboat (Madge is a Watkins). They are a rare breed, especially a 36-footer like Madge. Even stranger, Arthur had once known a 36-ft Watkins that had been named “Imagine,” spelled with a “g” (Madge is “Imajine” spelled with a “j”). We gave him a tour of our boat, and learned he’s from a town on the Chesapeake that we plan to visit this summer — so we may see him again.

We left Lower Matecumbe Key early Thursday to cross Florida Bay and round Cape Sable, which is the southwest tip of the Florida peninsula. It would be our longest travel segment to date, in excess of 45 nautical miles. There was practically no wind, and what little we had was “on the nose” (from directly ahead of us), so it was another day of just motoring. What’s worse, the entire route was covered with crab traps. The only relief from the crab traps was to travel as much as possible inside the boundaries of the Everglades National Park, where crabbing is prohibited. However, such a route would take us off our shortest “straight line” route, making the trip even longer. In the end, in order to make our destination before too late in the day, we had to suffer the crab traps.

imageWe pulled in Thursday afternoon at the Little Shark River. All reports were that it was a beautiful place. They were accurate. There were three boats anchored in the bay near the mouth of the river when we arrived. Nobody was moving. No one made a sound. As soon as we anchored we discovered why. The bay was alive with wildlife! Dolphins were herding fish into the shallows, trapping the fish and then devouring them. Sea turtles glided by. Rays were jumping out of the water as they chased their prey. One ray jumped so close to Madge, and came so far out of the water, that we got a clear view of him (or her) from the tip of his mandibles to the point of his long whip-like tail. Pelicans dove all around us. Shore birds meticulously worked the banks. After the Dolphins fed, they toured the bay inspecting all the boats. We could easily hear the “phew-whoosh” as they exhaled and inhaled in the calm water. Suzy swears she made eye contact with one. (She didn’t say whether it winked at her.) The most amazing thing in the bay was the reaction of the humans. Everyone was on the deck of their boat with binoculars, but nobody made a sound. As the afternoon turned to early evening, four more boats came in off the Gulf. Each one, in turn, joined the mesmerized audience. Only the arrival of the mosquitos and sand gnats (“no-see-must”) at dusk ended the show. We passed a calm, peaceful night. Definitely, our most favorite day so far.

We would’ve liked to have stayed at Little Shark River for another day, but our weather window for getting back to civilization was closing. On Friday morning, we pulled out for another long day northbound. Our course was northwest, and the wind – which was a little stronger than the day before – was also out of the northwest. Sailing would mean tacking through the crab traps, reducing our overall progress, so we cranked the engine and slogged on. Our target was an anchorage in Russel Pass behind Indian Key, on the route from the Gulf through the Ten Thousand Islands to Everglade City. As we got closer to Indian Key, the wind built and the sea got rougher. Nothing dangerous – just uncomfortable. We had turned far offshore trying to avoid the crab traps – fewer, but still there – and observed another sailboat paralleling our course closer to shore. As we entered the pass at Indian Key, that boat fell in behind us. We recognized them as having been with us the previous night at Little Shark River, but we hadn’t spoken with them. We ended up anchoring next to them in Russel Pass, and had a nice visit with Joe and Carol of SV Toby Too before the darkness fell. Except for one lone sea turtle that popped up briefly, there were only Pelicans with us in Russel Pass.

Toby Too only drew three feet, being slightly smaller and much shallower than Madge, so they planned to take a different route than us leaving Indian Key. We were both heading for Marco Island, but Toby Too would take the inside route and follow a leisurely path through the Ten Thousand Islands to get there. Madge is too deep for the inside route, so we had to head offshore again to slog around the shoals extending southward from Cape Romano. The wind was 5-10 kts out of the north, and we were actually able to pull our jib out during our westbound leg, but it was only good for steadying the boat, and didn’t provide any speed, so we ended up motor-sailing. As we turned north, we rolled up the sail and bounced along by diesel alone. We had one scary moment just as we were approaching the shoal. A breaker tripped, and we lost all electronic navigation, depth and autopilot systems. Fortunately, I had been tracking our progress with the boat’s compass and a paper chart, but I had no intention of crossing a shoal with no depth sounder or GPS positioning. As I tried to devise options, Suzy reset the breaker a couple of times, and it finally held. All systems came back online, and performed normally the rest of the day (and since). However, I immediately dug my handheld GPS out of the ditch bag for redundancy. My heart can only take so much.

We pulled into Marco Island by mid afternoon Saturday and decided to take a slip at the Marina at Factory Bay. After the day we’d had, I didn’t want to have to look around for an anchorage. Plus, Suzy wanted to do laundry and I wanted to flush the holding tank, and both were free (well, after we paid for the slip). Sunday was predicted to be a blustery day, so we decided to stay two nights. We played tourist a little on Saturday evening, and satisfied a sudden craving for pizza at a place called Joe’s Hideout, which had great New York style pizza. We did our chores on Sunday and did some shopping (another West Marine, right next to Publix – score!). Marco was an easy place to walk around, and we did our share. The marina had a four-day limit for transients (WTF?), so since moderate winds and seas were predicted for Monday, we kept with our original plan to leave, only we changed our next stop from Ft. Myers Beach to Naples – only seven miles up the coast.

imageThe short trip on Monday was a little rougher than we expected, but not too bad. We still had to be on the alert for crab traps, which was discouraging. Don’t know when we’ll be rid of those. Suzy is so perturbed by them she will no longer eat crab cakes. It was a long, crowded ride from Gordon Pass – the inlet to Naples – to the City marina. Lots of wake from speeding power boats. We took a ball in the City’s mooring field. Boats are required to pump out holding tanks before taking a ball here, and the wind was so stiff pushing Madge into the dock that we almost couldn’t get off. We have a couple more scrapes on our hull to show for it. The Naples mooring field is tiny, basically in the fairway between two sets of docks. The balls are so close together that our dinghy almost touches the ball behind ours, which fortunately is empty. As in Marco Island, we were told we can only stay on the mooring for four days. We could go away for a night and come back for another four days, but I’m not sure where we’d go. I don’t see many possibilities for anchoring near here for a boat with our draft. Or we could take a slip in the marina for a night, then go back on a ball for four more days. You can only do that once. We’re here mainly to wait out some strong winds, which will hopefully subside enough for us to leave on Friday, when our time is up.

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Naples is a beautiful town. Very lush. Walkable. We’ve done a lot of walking. Went to Tin City and the old waterfront. Walked the Design District and the high-end shopping district. Visited the Naples pier and looked at the beach, but didn’t get on it. Toured the historic Palm Cottage and heard the history of Naples. Looked at a lot of expensive houses. Most are expensive just because of location, but some are what the locals call “faux chateaus.” Some of these are very big and pretty; some are just very big.

 

All week, the wind has persisted at 15-20 kts. The weather forecast predicts the wind will drop into the 10-15 kt range on Friday. We’ll head up to Pine Island Sound near Ft. Myers and Sanibel Island, and meet up with our friends from MV Dubhe. Our plans after that are undefined.

Keysie

There’s a word to describe the sort of off-beat, kitschy way things are in the Keys. Keysie, as in, “That concrete manatee statue with the mailbox in its belly really gives a keysie look to that trailer park.” Things are just different here in the Conch Republic.

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After Skimmer departed, we stayed in Largo another three days. One of our first stops was the bar at the hotel near where Madge was anchored. It was an outdoor tiki bar with wildlife of both the human and non-human kind. The bartender was a crusty old cruiser who lived aboard his boat in the anchorage with his parrot, which went to work with him daily. Squirrels (did you know I hate squirrels?) roamed the bar begging for peanuts. Ibises pecked around your feet looking for crumbs or bugs on the floor or in the flowerbeds. They were oblivious to the humans. Iguanas sunned themselves in every warm patch of light. Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

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Another uniquely Keysie thing is the fact that there’s basically only one road in the Keys – US 1. It’s the string that holds the pearls together. There are few traffic signals on US 1, so if you need to get from one side to the other, you get to play a real-life, high-speed version of Frogger with the traffic. Madge was anchored on the “Bayside,” meaning the side of the islands that faces Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the places we needed to go were on the “Oceanside,” meaning the side that faced the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately, there was a median in US 1 in Key Largo, so we only had to cross two lanes at a time. As outsiders, we were timid crossing the traffic. The Conchs (as the natives are called), on the other hand, jump out into traffic in cars, on bicycles, or on foot, with suicidal abandon. Otherwise, they might have to wait a long time. We had all the time in the world to wait.

The picture above shows the wide walkway that parallels the highway. Even though there’s a bike lane on the highway, almost all non-motorized traffic uses the walkway. We had to dodge some bicycles, but I don’t blame them for staying as far away as possible from the motorized vehicles. Suzy and I used that walkway a lot. The marine store was about a mile and a half northeast of our anchorage on the Bayside. The grocery store was about a half mile southwest on the Oceanside. These two types of stores typify our stopping places. Suzy claims we’re only traveling from one West Marine to the next along our route. That’s true. I can’t think of any place we’ve gone ashore that we haven’t gone to West Marine to buy something. In Largo, I was looking for charts to take us up the west coast of Florida to Ft. Myers. I found some, but they weren’t that useful. Fortunately, Madge’s electronic charts are very good, but I like to have “real” charts in the cockpit with me. So I bought the charts. At least they were better than the cruising guide I had bought in Marathon on the way back from Key West. That thing, I have sadly learned, is poor.

Hey, at least it’s sunny and warm and the water is clear. So we took the dinghy and toured the mangroves along the shoreline of Tarpon Basin. A great way to spend an afternoon.

 

Of Horses and Sailboats

Upon our return from Key West, we took the first opportunity to escape from Dinner Key. We got back to Madge on a Monday, provisioned on Tuesday, then waited for the weather to improve just enough so we could leave, which was on Thursday. It would’ve been better to wait another day until Friday, but I was determined to leave. Winds were supposed to have dropped to 10-15 knots, but were still in the 15-18 knot range when we left, out of the northwest. Biscayne Bay was supposed to have a light chop (surface condition of short waves), according to the forecast. This seemed reasonable, since the mainland would prevent the wind from having a long distance across the water to rile up the surface against us. But such was not the case.

The wind was mostly behind us, so the waves in the Bay – which I would put in the 2-3 ft range (much worse than light chop) – were catching us astern. It was a very bumpy and rolly ride. I should’ve at least pulled out the jib to steady Madge against the wind and waves, but didn’t. It was a miserable day. The winds continued in the 16-20 knot range, and we caught several gusts up to 24 and 25, all the way into Tarpon Basin in Key Largo.

imageAs we motored down Biscayne Bay, the sailboat pictured at left fell in behind us, neither gaining nor fading. My AIS receiver identified the boat as SV Skimmer, so we hailed her on the radio. Skimmer was heading to Largo also, and as we discussed potential anchorages, they decided to also stop in Tarpon Basin. We stopped at a marina in Blackwater Sound to top off Madge’s fuel, so Skimmer beat us to Tarpon Basin. We pulled in around 4 pm and anchored a few boat lengths away from her. They invited us over for sundowners, so we dropped the motor onto the dinghy and headed over to officially meets some new friends. Over drinks and appetizers, we discussed our respective cruising histories and current plans. Skimmer was waiting for a weather window to cross to the Bahamas. On the other hand, we were trying to figure out what to do next, now that we no longer had any timelines to keep.

Skimmer is about the same size and weight as Madge, so the two boats should have similar sailing characteristics. I asked Wayne, Skimmer’s captain, if he’d motor-sailed from Miami to Largo. “No,” he said. Skimmer had stayed right behind Madge all day sailing under jib alone with no motor, while we had burned fuel and breathed exhaust – not even using the jib to steady the boat. When he asked me why I had not used the sails, I was struck with the realization that I’d been afraid to do it. As we talked further, we figured out that I had not really sailed Madge in over two years. She had sat on her mooring ball in the St. Marys River while I wrapped up my landside job, or been in the boatyard as I installed new equipment prior to the cruise. I had not sailed. And since leaving on our cruise, we had traveled over 400 miles “in the ditch,” since weather or timing prevented us from doing any of our trip segments offshore. I had lost the feel of my boat, forgotten the sort of conditions she could handle, and was afraid of the wind and sea conditions we encountered in Biscayne Bay. I knew how Madge handled while motoring, but was reluctant to let her be a sailboat. I had lost my nerve.

Wayne was a good therapist for me. He was only a little older than I am, and had even had some similar experiences. He had also gotten timid at some point as age and wisdom made him more aware of his vulnerabilities, which made him back off on his sailing style. The bottom line, though, as you would expect, was that I needed to “get back on the horse.”

We stayed in Tarpon Basin for several days. On the third day, Skimmer headed out to catch her window to the Bahamas. We wished her a safe voyage.

We stayed in Largo.

I have a lot to think about.