Holy cow, what a trip. I got my tail kicked, but I also learned more in a week about cruising than I would have imagined. What an experience. I don't know where to start. Boating on this level is a world apart. It's pretty much what the cruising books and magazines all describe, but reading about it and doing it are two very different things.
One thing the book got right is that the people are friendly! We had people that we'd barely met loaning us tools, parts, you name it. It was like what I imagine small town America in the 50's was like, where everyone says good morning as you walk the docks and everyone is actually concerned about everyone else's welfare. It was a bit of a shock after being used to the callous indifference and overcrowded rudeness of Knoxville. Once you walk past the gates of the marina it all changes. I'm sure it's not always like that, after all people are people, but it's definitely different than “normal” life.
We also met some of the most interesting people, which has been a constant with this boating thing. An ex-DEA guy who used to go after international drug cartels, ex-chemist's, writers, TV people, you name it. So let me relate the tale. Try and have the theme music to Gilligan's Island going through your head as you read this…
Day one, Thursday/Friday
Left Knoxville at 7:30pm after work for the straight-thru drive to Marathon, Fl, 16 long hours away. Bill and Sue were with me, the couple we know who have done this trip in their boat. They were both real troopers, they took a lot of uncomfortable conditions without a complaint. Sue kept us fed and in dry clothes and that helped a lot. She's quite the adventurer, a scuba instructor, a kayak/camper in Canada, and ready to go cruising with Bill in about a year. Bill helped with the navigation, and it was a good thing, without him I'd still be looking for Florida. We took turns driving and sleeping and arrived at around 11am. We took Gretchen's van, as Dave is flying down later to take a vacation and then drive it back. Got to the resort where we had rooms booked, showered, and headed for the boatyard. We had to stay at an expensive resort because on Marathon there are no hotels, it's like Hilton Head or something. Everything is resorts. The boatyard had the boat done, everything went ok. New bottom paint, prop job, thruhulls, and a hull buff and wax to shine her up. We spent the weekend getting ready for the trip, Bill installed a new head while I hooked up electronics and stuff. Sue stocked up the fridge and cleaned the kitchen. We were next to an old white boat the guy had completely, and I mean completely, stripped. Not a bolt was left in it. He was going to fix it up, but man what a lot of work. He'll have thousands of man-hours in it before he's done. On the other side of us was a small plywood trimaran. That guy had built it in California 20 years ago, sailed it to Australia and back to the Keys, and was fixing it up. Half the plywood was rotted out. It was hard to believe he'd sailed it across the Pacific, but he had, rotten plywood and all. The boatyard was a cool place, boats (and people) of all kinds and descriptions all over the place. The stories are as numerous as the boats.
Day two, Saturday
Spent working on the boat and hauling trash out of it. There was 16 years of stuff aboard, and I've only got about half of it out now. I've got to do a quick triage now and sort and organize later. There's lots of good stuff aboard, but the lockers are all full and I need to find out what's aboard so we're emptying and reorganizing as much as we can. Capt Dan and Ester stopped by to show me some more stuff about the boat, get some last things off, and say goodbye. I would really have loved to spend more time with Cap't Dan now that's he's feeling better (He was sick when we left Cudjoe) but we just didn't have time to spare. Although I suspect this wasn't the easiest thing he's ever done, parting with the "Jersey Girl", so he may not have wanted to hang around much. I'm sure it was like selling your best friend. I hope to take him for a sail the first time we're down there, I think he'd enjoy that. We worked ourselves to exhaustion today but got a lot done. I had to rig the new depth finder and GPS but I got it rigged up on a board tied to the compass pedestal. Looks like farm equipment but it works!
Day three, Sunday
We didn't work as hard today as things are coming together. Sue went to the beach in the afternoon while we worked and talked to people. The weather was perfect, mid 70's and that clear Florida Keys blue sky overhead. That evening we spent over $250 at the grocery store filling the fridge and kitchen. Since the boat is still on the hard we iced down the fridge till we can run it tomorrow. Been climbing up and down the ladder all day and it wore us out. We ate supper at a neat Keys place on the water. Man, I could live here easily. Palm trees everywhere, warm soft breezes, and plenty to see.
Day four, Monday
Weather looks good and the yard is supposed to have us in the water at 8am sharp, but we're on island time. There's a 60 foot houseboat in the slings and we're waiting on them to power wash the bottom before we can get in. Frustrating but what are you gonna do. Finally at 1100 they pick us up and walk the boat to the water. It sure looks weird to see my giant boat swinging in two big slings like a child's toy. Hope they don't drop it.
After they plunk it in we run the engine, check the thruhulls, all that, and everything looks good. So we wave goodbye and head about a mile down to get fuel. Here's my first chance to be nervous. It's later than I'd like and the wind has come up. I have to drive this 40 foot long sailboat into a strange marina and turn around and get to the fuel dock without hitting any of the ten million dollar boats that are all around us. But I'm learning how to make this thing spin around in its own length by using the prop wash and the rudder and I swing around like I know what I'm doing. Cap't Dan taught me that trick when we chartered with him. We fill up without incident and head due north, bound for Cape Sable, the southwest corner of the Florida peninsula about 30 miles away. It's a beautiful day, about 75, the sun is shining, and right away we pick up some dolphins who stay with us a ways. Wow the water is beautiful. As soon as we head out I think of 20 things we need to do so Bill helms and I scramble all over the boat adjusting and fixing. Once we settle down for the run I find we're already halfway across. I get a scratchy cell phone connection with dad and get a last minute weather report. Dad was our weather man all throughout the trip, and man was that a good plan. I had way too much else going on to even look at the weather, plus once we set out we didn't have TV or internet access. He was able to keep an eye on things and all I had to do was call and get an update. Thanks again Dad!
We didn't get to sail today, the wind was barely moving. But it was a pleasant motor across Florida bay. At around 6 we got into Cape Sable and dropped the hook just offshore from the everglades. We stayed out a mile or so to avoid the mosquitoes but they found us anyway. We cooked some steaks on the grill and talked about the plan. Since we were running late and our weather window was closing we decided to run all night. The next stop was Ft Myers, about 80 miles north. We wanted to be tucked in there in a marina before the projected cold front hit. While we were eating a boat named “Obsession” sailed by and asked if we knew we were in an unprotected anchorage. He wanted to make sure that we'd heard the weather and that where we were was a bad place to spend the night. I told him about our plan to sail all night and he said to stay well clear of the point north of us. It was nice to have someone check us out like that. So after supper we headed out. Now this was a little scary. Already we're a long way from civilization, on the west edge of the everglades. The sun is gone and there's not a light in sight. It's getting really dark and we're headed out, away from land, into a pitch black night on a untried, older sailboat that's already proven itself to break down occasionally. As we glided out of the anchorage I asked myself if this was a wise move. But unless we'd all forgotten something major, it should be ok. I'd had the fuel tank cleaned in Marathon and the guy had assured me that it was clean and that we wouldn't plug any more filters. We had a sound boat, everyone I meet keeps telling me what great boats these are, so we had that going for us. And eventually it comes down to, are you gonna sail across oceans or not? This was my moment. We sailed, although I must admit I was nervous as hell. The plan was to trade off every few hours at the helm. At first it was easy going, black as pitch except for the glow of the nav lights. It felt like we were going about 50 mph because all you could see was the water close to the hull rushing by. You could see nothing five feet ahead of the boat. The stern light burned out somewhere along the way and when I looked behind us it looked like maybe it had two bulbs and one was burnt out. It was still light behind the boat, the transom was lit up, but it was dim. Then I looked at the water. The prop was stirring up the phosphorescence in the water and we were trailing a glowing white tube in the prop wash that went behind us a hundred yards. It was so bright you could read the name on the boat. Like a long white neon tube underwater. Sue came up and said that when you pumped the head the water sparkled as it swished around the bowl. Wow.
Around midnight the wind came up and the water got rough. It wasn't bad, just enough to make you hang on. Then the first filter plugged. Damn. Obviously we still had a fuel tank issue. I'd bought 5 filters in Marathon so we were prepared. I dropped below and changed it out. The engine has two, the primary one is the first one and it's the one that plugs. You take the top off and pull out the old one, drop in the new one, and fire it up. Fortunately you don't have to bleed the engine. So it runs again a few hours, all the while it's getting rougher out, which stirs up the tank that much more. About 6 am I changed one yet again, coming out of an exhausted stupor to do it, while the boat is being slammed around like an amusement park ride and things are flying all over the boat, crashing into the floor. Not a pleasant situation. If someone had offered to trade me for a RV at that moment I'd have done it in a heartbeat. I wasn't seasick, but I was nervous to the point of having huge butterflies in my stomach. Looking back I see that we made one mistake, we didn't raise any sail before it got dark. If we'd raised the staysail it would have stabilized the boat significantly and made the ride better. But being the newbie that I am, I hadn't thought of it. I won't forget that again. It was too dark, wet, and stormy to risk going on deck to raise sail now so we just rode it out till morning.
Day five, Tuesday
Around 7:30am we limped in to Ft Myers Beach and tied up at a marina that we'd called on the cell phone. The cell phone was a lifesaver, we used it a lot for making appointments and lining up work. We were on our last fuel filter. As we pulled into the marina I got sideways to the current and we had to push off yet another ten million dollar boat, fortunately the owners weren't aboard to see our klutzy entrance. These blasted ten million dollar boats are like weeds in Kansas, all over the place. Who are these people and what do they do for a living? We stayed here all day, it was cold, wet, and real windy. Seas were 6-9 feet in the gulf and we wanted no part of that. Bill and I took the tourist tram to a West Marina and bought 14 filters and some other parts and stopped at a grocery store. This place had nice showers and so we all had a hot shower and felt better. Since the motor had run about 8 hours before plugging a filter we thought we could replace it and keep going. I figured I might have to replace a few before the tank was completely clean. We also cleaned the sediment bowl while we were here, and I was hoping that might do the trick. It still had a lot of gunk in it and we thought cleaning that out might fix the problem. Check out the neighbors, we were in good company.
Day six, Wednesday
Got up early and left at dawn, but we had to cross the bay to get fuel as a gigantic gambling boat was fueling up at the marina we were at and still had an hour to go. So we filled up in cold driving rain and headed out again. Today was the coldest, wettest day we experienced.
The dodger kept most of the rain off, and we were wearing foul weather gear, but the wind was blowing it sideways under the dodger and right into your face. We took short turns today. After motoring all morning with the staysail up the filter quit again about an hour out of Charlotte harbor. I am really getting tired of this by now. So we plugged in another one and decided if it quit we'd pull into Charlotte harbor for help. It did, so I changed it yet again and we limped in to a small marina just behind Gasparilla island. The folks there were real nice and found me a guy to come and clean the fuel tank again. Since we were supposed to be in Tampa by now I had to rent a car and go get Max, who had flown down to help us with the Gulf crossing. Max had some good luck, he'd flown in the night before and the guy who was the shuttle driver for the marina had put him up for the night on his boat. He lives at the marina we were headed for. His name was Mike and he really helped us out, he even loaned us his car the first night to go out and eat! Like I said, these boat people are something else. By the time I got back from picking up Max the fuel guy was working. The tank has an inspection port in the top of it and he stuck a mop down there and swabbed out the crud. The first guy had pressure washed it, and that helped, but it needed physical cleaning to get the layer of tar on the bottom of the tank out. I inspected the whole thing with a flashlight when he was done and it was clean. But the bottom of the tank was wet on the outside, making me think maybe the first guy had banged the tank around enough to make it leak. This could be a major problem, but, hey, I needed something else to worry about, right?
Day seven, Thursday
We left Gasparilla island at sunrise, once again. Here I am, supposed to be on vacation, and I've been up before sunrise almost every day so far. We motored out the cut, which was rough and choppy, and headed north a few miles off the coast. Today went well, it was warm, sunny, and the sun was sparkling off the water. The engine was running fine and we had all the sails up. We looked like one of those pictures on a sailing calendar.
We even had dolphins cruising beside us off and on. Around 1pm we shut off the motor and just enjoyed the sail for a couple of hours. After two hours we fired her back up and motored into Tampa bay. It's huge, much bigger than I remembered. You can barely see the other side of it. We plotted a magnetic course to the mouth of the Manatee river, where our marina was located. It was getting onto evening by now. At the mouth of the Manatee is a red marker, which you're supposed to pass leaving it to your right. Red Right Returning and all that. So we did. We were a good mile from land in any direction, on the correct side of the marker, with the engine running and the main and staysail up when we crunched aground. I made two mistakes. I shouldn't have been running downwind with the sails up into an unfamiliar channel and I should have been closer to the red marker or even on the wrong side of it. Turns out the hurricane moved the freaking channel to the other side of the red! So there we were, stuck. We took down the sails and tried to get off, to no avail. We were stuck. It was sundown by now, so I gave up and called TowBoat US. Thankfully I have unlimited towing insurance. They sent out a boat, and after two hours of dragging, leaning the boat over both ways with the main halyard to reduce our draft, and much stress and yelling to be heard due to our failing handheld radio batteries and, once again, things falling all over inside the boat, we were in the channel. By now the engine had quit, whether overheated or what I didn't have a clue. The towboat guy pulled us to the fuel dock at the marina and we crashed.
Day eight, Friday
This place is nice! Regatta Pointe Marina, Palmetto, Fl. Palmetto is nice too, a quaint small village with wide streets and big live oaks. I could vacation down here a month easy. Heck, I could live here. It was recommended to me by an email list friend named Ed who lives here now and he was right, it's a great place. We spent the day getting the boat ready to cross the gulf, the VHF was acting up so we sent Max up the mast to work on it. I changed the oil and that kind of thing. Once again we spent all day working on the boat.
Day nine, Saturday
Work on boat. All day. Had a diver inspect the bottom to make sure I hadn't hurt anything by grounding, he gave us a good report. Some scratches in my new bottom paint but that's all. Talked to a bunch of other sailors about that blasted channel and the weather. The TowBoat guy said he'd pulled over 50 boats off that spot since the hurricane so I felt a little better. Then a guy told us he'd had to be pulled off once and the cleat had ripped out of the towboat and broke a lady's arm, so in comparison we hadn't had too much trouble. It was just stressful, a pain in the ass, and delayed us for what turned out to be a couple of days.
Dad says the weather is ok for the two days we need to get to Panama City so we'll head out around 5 and anchor behind Anna Marie island for the night so we can get an early start tomorrow am. Worked on the boat some more, but also enjoyed the marina and talking to all the people. Met a guy from Kingman, Kansas! After buying more groceries we headed out. Made it about three miles. The freaking engine quit again, mid channel, with the tide going out. Fortunately it's a sailboat. We raised a couple of sails and sailed into a small anchorage that we were right next to, but we didn't get where we wanted to drop the hook. The tide was pushing us out faster than the wind would let us sail. We were the evening's entertainment for the anchorage, half the boats had people on them watching us. So we ended up on the other side of the channel and dropped the hook. I went below and changed a fuel filter but the fuel looked funny. It was yellow and smelled like gasoline! Did they put freaking GAS in my boat? So we called Finn, the TowBoat US guy, and got him to come out yet again and tow us to the marina. Where we discovered it wasn't gas, it was water mixed with diesel. When we were stuck we'd been heeled over so far the fuel tank vent was underwater and we'd sucked up about a quart, which was enough to stop things cold. Crashed for the night, tied to the fuel dock.
Day ten, Sunday
Fortunately Finn knew a guy who did fuel tanks and he came out on Sunday morning and sucked the water out of my tank. I changed all the filters and bled the engine and she fired up pretty quick. The engine sounded good, I don't think we hurt anything except my pride. I thought I had another problem by now though, I had diesel in the bilge and it looked like the fuel tank was leaking. These boats have a reputation for it being very expensive if you have to change a tank, as they're built in under the floor, so I was ready to sell the thing there and then. I had put some epoxy marine patch on what I thought might be the leak a day or two earlier. When this guy sucked the water out of the tank through the inspection port I discovered the last guy hadn't put any sealant on the gasket and the port was leaking fuel on top of the tank, which then ran down and looked like it was leaking. Like I hadn't had enough already to worry about. So I sealed the port and hopefully fixed that. By now our weather window was closing, and I had talked to several guys living at the marina who were waiting on the end of April to make the gulf crossing. They had no intention of even trying it until May. It looked like we'd run out of time.
Day eleven, Monday
The weather is gone, we wouldn't be able to make Panama City before the next norther hits, and after that night at sea I have no desire to do that again. So we arranged a slip for the boat and parked it, cleaned it out, rented a car, and hit the road for home. Got in about 1am.
I just got off the phone with the boss and rescheduled my vacation from next week, when I had planned to go back and move the boat again, to the first week of May. All the indications are that it's just too rough to cross the gulf before the end of April. If I'm gonna do this I want to enjoy it, I can't see pounding across the gulf in rough seas for fun. By May the trade winds will be blowing and the sun will be hot and I'll enjoy this a whole lot more. The boat is in a secure place and in pretty good shape, now, so all I should have to do is load her up with food and take off. This will give me time to get the compass rebuilt, order some more charts that I need, get a 2000 watt inverter so I can run the coffee pot, and a few important things like that. Not to mention save up some more money, this little adventure cleaned out my cruising kitty pretty well. I learned a lot from this trip, things that will make the next legs much more comfortable and safer. And cheaper. For instance, I could have pumped out my own tank if I had an oil change pump aboard and hadn't been in a hurry. I broke two cardinal rules of cruising; don't fight the weather and don't have a schedule. Much of my frustration was because I was trying to get somewhere by a certain day. I knew all that but ignored it anyway. Size matters, too, this boat weighs five or six times what the Bayfield weighs. Not something you can push off another boat when the wind is blowing. But when the other boat is a ten million dollar yacht you'd be surprised how much you can push!
It all just goes to prove that you can read about something till your eyes fall out but you don't really learn it until you do it on your own. You can also sail for years on other people's boats but when it's your boat and your responsibility things change quite dramatically.
There were a few times I was ready to hang it up, the boat wasn't cooperating, the money was evaporating faster than I'd anticipated, the weather was wrong, and I was getting too stressed to enjoy it. Did I bite off more than I can chew? Maybe. But looking back it wasn't so bad, I was just too nervous to relax, and everything that was difficult was pretty much my own fault. Now that the blasted fuel tank is clean that worry is eliminated, and that was a big one. I feel like I accomplished something, I've sailed her about 360 miles so far, fighting every step of the way it seems like, but by golly she's whipped into shape and I know what to do now. The rest of the trip will be a lot more fun and a lot less stress.
Now I just wish the boat was home so I could start cleaning it up!