Archive for the ‘Sailing’ category

A Week In a Small Boat

May 15, 2000

Day 1: Left Marion at 5:30 PM pulling a 26-foot S2 sailboat with a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Rig all belongs to Don, a friend and fellow coworker of my friend Bruce. I should know better than depart on an adventure like this with two engineers (you’ll understand later). Uneventful evening of boring driving other than a fairly strong wind from the west that makes boat towing interesting. Stopped for the night somewhere between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Parked in the rear of a McDonald’s and slept in the boat.

Day 2: Early breakfast at McDonald’s with a quick face-wash and teeth brushing in their john.

Long, long, long day of driving. Oh what fun.

Conversation included a discussion of GPS usage on the boat. Seems both engineers are smugly pleased with their prior trips and brag about using the GPS, not only for navigation, but to also tell if they are dragging anchor during the night. I had the audacity to ask how they could tell if the anchor was dragging when the government has a random error built into the GPS.

“Random error?” I am asked.

Oh Boy! I explain that each time the GPS updates (which is from one to five seconds), that there will be a random position error of up to 100 meters. How can the slow dragging of an anchor show up until you have dragged it too far to worry about?

Got real quiet in the car!

Nothing like peeing on the party. (Incidentally, the government has taken the GPS error out now. The day after we got home from the trip.)

At one of the stops for fuel, which are frequent at 10 mpg, we noticed that the VHF antenna wire was missing from the loading coil. This is mounted on the top of the mast, and must have vibrated loose and gone astray. Thumbing through a West Marine catalog we found in the car shows that there are many of their stores on our route, so plans are made to pick up another antenna wire.

We make good time even as we are passed by every car in America at our slow rate of 60 mph, and eventually find ourselves at the first of many tollbooths on the Florida turnpike. Paying for the tandem axles on the boat trailer alerts the analytic minds of both engineers, and shortly it is decided that an exit at Orlando followed by a shortcut through town leading over to I-95 will save enough money to probably pay for the trip. Um-hum!

One of the engineers, I won’t mention Bruce’s name, decides that route 50 goes all the way through Orlando with only three stoplights. This is deduced after careful scrutiny of a 3-inch map insert in a road atlas.

Seven hundred stoplights and two hours later we are on I-95 southbound to Miami. Yee-Haw!

Pull in to Ft. Lauderdale about 10 PM and locate the closed West Marine store. A couple of blocks away is a pretty little shopping center with a deserted parking lot separated by little palm tree covered islands. Neat little place to spend the night.

We park the boat and walk a block or two to a Hooter’s look-a-like restaurant for a late dinner, and back to the boat for sleepy time.

Startled awake at 1:30 AM by loud slapping on the side of the boat and the sound of Spanish accented laughter. A peek out the window reveals a street gang strutting across the lot to rob the stores, I guess. Finally drift back to sleep after a little discussion as to where Don has stored the .22, only to be jolted back awake by the sound of large caliber pistol shots from the far corner of the parking lot. It’s really quiet for a while, and exhaustion overcomes fear and sleep sneaks back for a while.

Suddenly the roar of machinery drives sleep away for good. My shiny, glow-in-the-dark, diver’s watch says 3 AM sharp. I get up and look around. Seems the night custodian has arrived and uses a leaf blower to clean the sidewalks of the shopping center. (Of bodies?) Can you believe it?

We get up and go to an all night convenience store for bathroom use and then to a restaurant for early breakfast. Get to West Marine for their 7 AM opening. They give us a whole new antenna for free. OK.

Day 3: Seems the great adventure may have already started with last night’s events. I hope that will be the peak of excitement for this trip.

We plod on down highway 1 into the Keys, arriving in Key West about 2 PM. Go to the marina right down town and make arrangements to launch the boat and leave the car and trailer at the marina. There are showers there and we make good use of them. Boy does it feel good to be clean.

We launch the boat and motor out around the Navy base. There are two bridges to go under from this marina so we leave the mast down. Big anchorage area on the northwest side of the city, so we drop the anchor and go about the business of stepping the mast and rigging the boat.

We are anchored in the middle of about fifty other boats on the leeward side of an island just a quarter mile from Key West. By the time we get the boat rigged and seaworthy, it’s time to get a late dinner cooked on the one burner alcohol stove.

Everything on the boat has to be moved to get the meal ready. We watch the sunset watchers on Mallory Pier as we prepare our meal. Over dinner we listen to the weather, which predicts the wind will die tonight. We decide to move on around the island for anchorage for the night as it seems as if our engineers have lost faith in GPS warning us of a dragging anchor, and some of our neighbors look rather expensive. Around the island we motor, re-anchoring about dark, a half mile off shore. The wind is already dying. After moving everything on the boat again to clear our bunks, we settle in for a good night’s sleep. No street gangs and no gunshots.

Day 4: Easter Sunday? The big adventure begins!

With a fizzle.

Don wants to take the northern route out, so up the Northwest channel we go, mainsail and Genoa up and tacking into a brisk one or two knot breeze. Well at least the weather report was right. The winds have definitely died. We fart around, tacking back and forth, and finally give up and start the motor (9.9 hp outboard).

As we only have 18 gallons of gas, we discuss how far we want to go under power. Unanimous decision that we save fuel in the event that we have to motor back. It just seems necessary that we at least get far enough away that we aren’t looking at downtown Key West.

We motor about five miles when we run into very shallow water. We had gone well west of the channel in our early search for wind, but had failed to keep a close eye on the charts when we gave up and started the motor. Centerboard drug a little, and as we cranked it up, a five foot hammerhead shark took off across the shallows from under the boat. Oooooh!

Back to deeper water and into the channel again. Light, shifty breeze seems enough to sail, so off with the motor. We are now every bit of seven or eight miles out of Key West. Wow! Don goes down to nap. It’s about 2:30 PM.

When he comes back on deck about 4 PM, we are hauling ass! The wind has been slowly picking up to about fifteen knots. It’s directly abeam, so no tacking. By dark we are coming up on the North side of the Marquesas keys. We had two porpoises playing just below the bow for about 30 minutes.

We move everything on the boat again, and fire up the alcohol again for dinner, while we’re making a good six knots in ever increasing winds and seas. As it got dark, we begin watching the phosphorescence “sparks” coming off the bow and in our wake. The “sparks” are bigger than I remember from previous night passages. These appear to be about the size of a dime . . . well, a small dime. They trail off up to ten feet before fading out. Really pretty.

We keep plodding on until we finally get the idea that the weather has been increasing so slowly that we hadn’t noticed that we are now having wind gusts to 25 knots and seas are up to about 4 feet.

Did I mention that it is also 1:30 AM?

I tell the captain that prudence would mandate a sail reduction. After all, we’re still flying the Genoa. We struggle through a wild time reefing the mainsail, and Bruce and I go forward to reef the Genoa.

What a bitch!

Pitching up 4 or 5 feet and then suddenly dropping the same amount into the wave trough, wind screaming and the sail flapping like a demented thing, spray coming over the bow and all of this in almost pitch black.

Bruce points to the water and yells for me to look at the phosphorescence streaming out away from the bow. I see it, but instantly recognize something different. It’s two more porpoises playing underneath the bow, weaving back and forth, just in front of us. They are glowing like ghosts from the phosphorescence and the little sparks are trailing from them! What a sight! This alone is worth the trip.

We cling to the forestay and watch them for several minutes. I then crawl my way back down the deck and take the helm to let Don go forward to see this. Unbelievable!

The boat is a little more controllable with the shortened sail. We discuss a desire to have the genoa replaced with a jib, or even the storm jib, but decide it’s not worth the effort. We are going to have to put up for the night somewhere soon, as the GPS is showing only about five miles to Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is. The charts show a rather complex channel system, involving passing the island to the north and then turning back to the southeast to enter the channel. There are some initial, lighted buoys, but the rest are just channel markers. We make a decision to anchor out, rather than attempt entry to the channel in the dark. Additionally, there are sure to be several boats already in the protected anchorage, and we are hesitant to join them in the dark with this wind.

At 2:30 AM we are near the initial light buoy, so ease off a little to the south and anchor in 30 feet of water a mile south of the main navigation route. The Danforth anchor won’t even attempt to set, so we haul the large plow out from below deck. It takes right away, I can tell this without the aid (or lack of it) from the GPS.

We get the sails down and lashed and clear the bunks for much needed sleep. I am exhausted. The boat is bouncing like a crazy thing and we take some time to wedge every thing below decks to keep from getting crushed by coolers, etc. I can just barely stay in the bunk if I lie flat on my back and brace my shoulder against the bulkhead. Any other position and you immediately roll out.

If I was not so tired, I would probably worry about the rough sea and wind, but I am about beyond caring, and the next I know it’s 5 AM and I have to pee. Sitting up is a mistake, I have to hang on to something at all times and being inside the cabin while sitting quickly brings on a slight twinge of nausea. Gotta get out of here.

Up on deck I find someone who must not have been so tired as to ignore the weather. I almost burst into laughter, but bite my lip when I discover that he is serious. Bruce is lying on his back on the cockpit bench seat. He has the jib sheets (ropes to you non-sailors) wrapped around the wench and then around both his hands, which are crossed upon his chest like a corpse. He is clothed in full foul weather gear, with a life jacket and safety harness on. He manages to mutter, “I haven’t slept a bit”, through clinched teeth. I wish it were light enough to get a picture of this.

My humor fades as I climb up on the transom and hang on tightly to the radar post with my left hand and brace my knees against the safety rail. I’m too tense to pee, and have to stand there, hanging on for my life while attempting to force myself to relax so I can relieve myself. It takes a good ten minutes of a wild ride to get the job done. Find one of those mechanical bulls that were popular in Texas bars, set the intensity to “killer” or whatever is the highest, stand on it and try to pee. You’ll get the idea.

I rummage around and fix some breakfast cereal with synthetic milk for all of us. We munch and fight off seasickness and discuss our personal experiences resulting from attempting sleep though this wild night. Mine were limited; as I slept pretty well for the few hours we were down. We sit and watch the sun rise, and then hoist the sails and off we go again.

Day 5: We find right away that the light we anchored south of is the weather-transmitting platform that I have been watching on the Internet for several weeks.$station=dryf1

We make a quick trip of the four miles to Garden Key, but decide to pass it by and continue to Loggerhead key, which is another three or four miles. This is the most distant land until Mexico and Nan wanted a picture of it’s lighthouse. I only brought disposable underwater cameras from Wal-Mart so I am not sure top water pictures will turn out. They are fixed aperture and have an 800 ASA, so I only expect the worse. Wanted to bring the 35mm Nikon and the digital Olympus, but I think disposable may be the key word for goodies on this trip. Anyway I shoot a couple of pictures of the lighthouse as we arrive a quarter of a mile offshore.

We tool up and down just off the island for a while, but the waves are still a little high for diving, so we turn around and head back to Garden Key. We are treated to a flyby of several F-18’s and shortly hear the first of many thunderclaps that we will hear this trip as they exceed Mach 1. That’s a sound I haven’t heard for almost twenty years. We are under a military AOA for dog fighting and very close to an air to ground (water?) gunnery range. Military air traffic is heavy every day, mostly F-18’s with an occasional helicopter or C-130.

As we enter the channel for Garden key, the floatplane from Key West arrives. They have upgraded since we last flew out. This is a brand new single engine turbo-prop of some kind. The two outer vertical stabilizers on the tail lead me to believe it may be of DeHavilland ancestry. Nice plane . . . sure beats the ratty Cessna 205’s that we flew out in. It lands in the channel ahead of us and taxies on around the island.

We continue on around to the anchorage between Garden Key and Bush Key, just off of the dock at Fort Jefferson. We find a spot among the ten or so boats already at anchor. We are on the side of the anchorage farthest away from Fort Jefferson, but as we prepare for shore leave, a boat on the inside of the anchorage departs, so we haul up and move to the vacated spot. This puts us about a hundred yards off the beach. As we are only carrying an inflatable life raft and no dinghy, it’s time to swim ashore. As we prepare to go, a huge motor catamaran arrives from Key West carrying tourists. This becomes the first of about four that arrive each day, each carrying about 30 – 40 people. This place appears to be getting crowded. There had never been more than a dozen people here on any of the trips we have made before. There goes the neighborhood.

We seem to be the smallest boat here, and Don comments that the marina manager at Key West had asked him if we were planning to take “that little boat” all the way to the Tortugas. Now he tells us!

We don our snorkeling gear and swim ashore for a tour of the fort. I’ve been through it twice; so don’t spend a lot of time other than to go up on top for the view. It still amazes me that this was built way out here to defend the approach to Florida. We are 70 miles from Key West and I am sure they would have had to send invitations for any enemy to come close enough to be engaged by cannon fire. Seems any self-respecting pirate or enemy would have just sailed around the place. But what do I know?

Don and Bruce take the full, self-guided tour so I spend a few minutes talking to the Ranger about us swimming ashore, as there are signs prohibiting swimming or diving in the harbor. He says no problem as long as we check for traffic prior to the swim. Well, no shit.

I then walk all the way around the fort on the moat wall, wondering why there is a moat around a fort built on a small island. Back to the dock and get back into snorkel gear and spend some time looking at the small reef fish along the fort walls. Meet back with Don and Bruce, whom I find have also discussed the swimming with the Ranger. They also got a little information on the fort that I didn’t know.

Many of the walls are buckling around the windows. Seems that all of the windows have steel frames that are heavily rusted. As the frames rust they swell up, forcing the bricks out and causing the walls to buckle. There is much concern that the fort will eventually self-destruct because of this.

They also found that the moat was built later on after completion of the fort, when it was turned into a prison. I guess the moat was to prevent any escaped prisoners from accessing the other 10 feet of island not taken up by the fort.

The place is famous for holding the doctor who treated Booth after he broke his leg falling from the cheap seats when shooting Lincoln.

We retake the walk around the island. There are little people everywhere, dressed in African safari type outfits, holding binoculars or telescope to their eyes.


It starts to be a little silly. Every tree and every bush has ten or so of these people pushed up around it, staring into the bush with glasses trained on some poor little feathered thing attempting to get it on with it’s mate. We get into the rude joke mode, naturally.

Back to the boat about 4 PM for a quick bath with dishwashing Joy and saltwater before climbing aboard for a change of clothes and a leisurely dinner.

Meals are: Breakfast – cold cereal with synthetic milk (boxed rice or soy milk);

Lunch – lunch meat sandwiches, apples and cookies. (Cooler with frozen gallon jugs of water lasted the whole trip);

Dinner – a one pot dish such as beef stew (several cans) or some type of pasta with a can of peas or something else thrown in, followed by a can of fruit. Not something you would order in a restaurant, but really good after a hard day’s sail or dive.

We took 16 gallon jugs of spring water (Wal-Mart for 55 cents a gallon) and one case of half quart bottles of spring water which we refilled from the big jugs until the bottles became too beat up. The spring water was my contribution, after Bruce told me that on a prior trip they had filled milk jugs with tap water before they left. Once out to sea they opened the first to find they had filled it with Marion water, which is probably rated as close to sewage as you can get without a septic tank. Needless to say, they lived on fruit juice for a week. Nothing tastes as good as fresh water when you are on the ocean. We drank a bunch.

While we are on this consumer report thingy, I have to advertise Bullfrog Sunscreen. I took the 45 SPF, put it on early in the morning and it worked all day long. Great stuff!

After dinner we were sitting around on the boat, watching our neighbors and discussing the bird noises from Bush Key. This is a bird sanctuary and people are prohibited from disturbing them. The birds, however, have no reciprocal agreement and spend all day making annoying noises. We hoped that the adults had already settled down for the night and that it was only the teenagers who were still partying. I think they were Terns and I had read somewhere that several hundred thousand nested on the tiny island. Not ones to overlook an opportunity, flocks of long tailed Frigate birds seemed to hover over the fort, waiting for the proper moment to raid the nests. These graceful predators hung almost motionless, riding the constant wave of air formed where the south wind lifted over the fort wall.

Don took a couple of the newly emptied gallon water jugs and was tying them up on the stern. There is a rather large (2 X 4 ft.) solar panel on a frame attached to the stern rail that keeps the batteries charged. We tied two mesh bags to the bottom of the panel for collecting garbage, and strung our empty water jugs from that also. Anyway, Don dropped three of the jugs in the water and off they go on the breeze. As he scrambles to get his shirt and shoes off, Bruce and I watch them sail away only to be nudged by a 3 to 4 foot hammerhead shark. Don hadn’t seen it, and as he prepared to go overboard, Bruce and I looked at each other, shook our heads and simultaneously snickered, “Naa.” We let him go. I suppose his splash scared the shark off, as we saw no more of it. Don wasn’t too happy with us when we told him about it when he climbed back aboard.

Watched another beautiful sunset and went to bed early, about 9:30 PM. Had a really good night’s sleep and up to watch the sunrise.

Day 6: (But who’s counting?) Snorkeled for about an hour after breakfast. Not much except the smaller reef fish, but the water was clear.

Hoisted sail about 10 AM and off we go to the south. A run of about five miles puts us well clear of the National Wildlife Area of the Tortugas and on the outside of the reef in deep water. Showing 200 feet or more. Wind is still out of the south at about 15 to 20 knots and we keep the reef in the mainsail and a jib up as the wind usually increases during the late afternoon. Us deck swabbies are growing weary of sail changes.

Seas are probably up to eight feet out here, but are rollers, so we just ride them up and down. Beautiful day, and as we turn back to the east, the wind is off our starboard quarter (love this sailor talk) so we put the spinnaker pole out with the jib on one side and rig a block and tackle to hold the boom on the other side. We make good time goose-winging it and take one-hour shifts all day at the helm. Off duty sailors munch cookies, sleep, sit on the bow and watch the flying fish or swap stories. I took a little time and washed out a couple of pair of shorts and drug them on a line behind the boat to rinse. In the case of the engineers, they spend a lot of time programming the GPS for landmarks (seamarks?) or tinkering with the radar or something else totally worthless.

We see a lot of little torpedo shaped fish that jump out of the water and then walk on their tails across the water for great distances. Not flying fish, but something else. I guess there is something big and hungry down there that they are evading, but we never see it. They are reminiscent of the “Jesus Christ” lizards.

Late afternoon puts us just off Marquesas Rock, some 10 miles southwest of the Marquesas Keys. Just below us is the south end of the shipwreck trail of the Atocha. Stretching from our position for 10 miles to the northwest is, or was, some 500 million dollars worth of treasure, most of which is now in the hands of the late Mel Fisher’s family or his investors. We stop and anchor to do a quick dive, just to say “been there, done that.” I half expected the bottom to be littered with gold and jewels, but couldn’t see anything for all of the silver bars! Oh well! Actually, although we were just a few hundred yards north of the Gulf Stream the water was not that clear. Just seemed to be sand and mud bottom, about twenty-foot visibility.

We crawled back aboard and set out for the Marquesas Keys that we could barely see low on the horizon. This is the only Atoll in the Atlantic Ocean, and has always held a fascination for me. I guess because they are just so remote, or something, but this is the area that I have wanted to go to for years. Much larger than I had thought them to be, probably 4 miles across the inside lagoon. We debated for some time about going inside to anchor for the night, but the entrance to the lagoon looks pretty tricky on the charts, with areas of very shallow water, coral heads and currents.

As dark was catching us, we opted for an anchorage on the eastern side, as weather reports predicted a wind change to west and then northerly during the night. We went up the east side to almost the northern end of the islands and then turned toward shore until we were in eight feet of water about 400 yards from shore. Took a quick bath in Joy again, before it got too dark to encourage sharks. The Joy seems to wash well in the salt water, but is a bear to rinse off.

Another leisurely meal, although prepared in the dark. We go to bed with the lights of Havana glowing on the southern horizon. Calm water and light breeze made for a good night.

Day 7: Awoke earlier than usual. Probably 4 AM, and went on deck. A little disoriented. We are at the south end of the islands and probably a mile from shore. The GPS would have definitely picked up on that anchor drag! The first on our trip. Luckily, we were on the leeward side, with open ocean behind and no other boats or obstructions.

Wind has changed and is out of the north by northwest at 15 to 20. We still have fairly calm seas as we are in the lee of the islands. Breakfast done, we hoist sail and run back toward Marquesas Rock to search for Mel Fisher’s tugboat that sank while anchored over the Atocha area. This is the boat that had a leaky valve of some type, and filled with water during the night, rolling over and sinking, drowning Mel’s son, Dirk and his wife. It is marked on our charts, but listed as “position approximate.” Big ocean, little ship.

We don’t find it, so I suggest we head south and pick up the Gulf Stream again, and head for Sand Key area for some diving. Sand Key is about 9 miles south of Key West, and is the area where Nan and I ran into a school of sharks a few years ago. GPS says it’s 18 miles from where we are, so off we go.

Passed a treasure ship going west. Had the big funnel things on the stern that they let down to direct the flow from the props to clear sand and mud off the bottom. We wistfully watched it sail over the horizon, hoping it would stop and start spewing gold into the air.

We stop for some diving at some shoals about four miles west of Sand Key Light as it is still in the Gulf Stream’s clear water. There are buoys for tying up to so we avoid the anchor thing and dive until almost dark. There are some nice coral reefs with new growths of coral and some large brain coral, but little in the way of larger fish. We do see one small nurse shark, and a couple of small tarpon and barracuda, but mostly reef fish. Nothing like I’ve seen before, where once there were schools of hundreds of barracuda, the smallest being 3 foot long.

Or another trip when there were tens of tarpon, each at least a hundred pounds as well as numerous sharks and one bright green, six foot long moral eel swimming across the reef. We have a good time anyway and have an early dinner and hit the sack, deciding to spend the night on our buoy.

What a mistake! Winds were light and seas fairly calm when we went to bed, but I was awakened about 11 PM by the pitching of the boat and banging of something on deck. I suppose the current and the wind were at odds, as we would remain bow into the seas for a few minutes, and then swing broadside to the waves, which were up to about three feet. We would hold broadside for one shallow rock, followed by a second big rock and finished up by a huge, violent rock where everything not tied down went sailing across the boat. Then bow into the waves again to start the cycle over again. I tried tying the rudder to one side for a while, and then the other. No luck. I tighten all the lines, crawled up on the bow and retied the anchor down on the deck. Back into my bunk.

The boat has evolved into a cornucopia of noise; banging rudder, clanging halyards, scraping anchor, all punctuated by the crash of the cooler or someone being thrown out of the rack on each third wave, which appeared with mind numbing regularity every three minutes. I must have made a dozen trips on deck in an attempt to re-tie something down. There was also a loud banging just beside my head on the outer hull that I never found the source of. No one slept a wink all night long. We were all up on deck early, impatiently waiting sunrise so we could get on with the day. What a perfectly miserable night!

Day 8: Raised the sails and made the short sail on over to Sand Key for a morning of diving. The reef was a little different here. More elkhorn coral but about the same variety of fish. Did see a small sea turtle and a couple of lobster, though.

Back aboard and sails up about noon for the 10 mile haul into Key West. Have to tack a couple of times to make the harbor entry, as the wind is coming directly out of the harbor. Good fast run in and we anchor just off of Mallory Pier to drop the sails, lower the mast and get ready for shore leave. An uneventful motor back under the bridges and into the marina at about 4 PM ends our great adventure.