'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch

Boat Jobs in Paradise

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Because the work never stops, we cruise!

Above is what happens when a 20,000# boat snags your anchor rode and hangs from it in rough, windy weather. The green is bottom paint, rubbed off their hull, and the slightly hairy, frayed look is, well, frayed. And therefore unsafe.

The good news is that at the time we were dragged down on, we had deployed only 25′ of this 200′ line – the rest of it was still down below in the anchor locker.

The answer to that frayed spot, therefore, was to do what’s called “End-for-end” the line – use the other end of the line, and keep that weakened area out of the way, down below.

So that’s what we did – swapped ends, and started fresh, with a line that’s now only 175′ long, but sound as a silver dollar.

Meanwhile, I got to looking at the rode for the secondary anchor, which we hadn’t used in over a year prior to the Anchor-dragging Incident, and decided I didn’t like the look of one end – it had been spliced without a metal thimble, making it much more susceptible to chafe. The solution is to resplice it, using a thimble this time.

Above, at top, is the old end, directly spliced to the shackle with nothing to prevent wear of the rope against the shackle. Below that is the start of the new end, with a thimble being included in the eye, protecting the strands of the line.

The new end, about half-way done. Fun work, actually! Once the taper is completed, the fuzzy ends of line are burned off with a torch, for a smooth look.

So when it comes to boat projects, I’ll leave you with one, important thought:

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Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

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Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas off Florida’s Keys, is (according to our amazing Tour guide) the largest masonry fort ever built by the United States. It contains over 16 Million bricks in its unfinished state, and encompasses the entire land area of Garden Key.

It. Is. Awesome.

That said, you look at where it’s located (67 miles west of Key West), consider that there is no fresh water out there (hence the name DRY Tortugas), and look around you at those vast miles of water to the west of the islands, and you have to wonder “Why?”

Why build a fort way out here where nobody needs to go?

Which was the first question answered by the guide. The reason, as always, is money. At the time the fort was being built, most of the goods shipped into and out of the new US interior (recently expanded by the Louisiana Purchase of the Mississippi River system) went by sea: Finished goods from the Northeast, down the coast, around Florida and up to New Orleans, and raw materials in the other direction. Huge volumes, huge money, the lifeblood of the country.

Now when the fort was begun in 1846, relations with certain world powers like Britain weren’t all that friendly, and the US had almost no navy. To protect that shipping route, something had to be done. If the US could control the corner around the end of the Keys, no navy could put an embargo on us (like we’d do to Cuba a century later).

And it worked. Even though the fort was abandoned in 1876 and never finished, it still served as the symbolic fortress it was intended to be. But perhaps even more to the point, it is beautiful.

An interesting side note here: Because the islands have no natural fresh water, something had to be done to provide water for the nearly 500 souls who inhabited the fort during its service as a prison and garrison. The answer was rain catchment. The entire roof structure was a catch basin, the water directed down through masonry plumbing, through a series of sand filters, and into cisterns built below the floors of the first level – cisterns with a capacity of 1.4 million gallons!

Sadly, though, the project engineers didn’t get everything quite right. The weight of the structure’s 8′ thick walls (literally cannon-proof in those days) was too great for the land beneath it, and settling began to compromise the cistern system’s integrity. Of 105 cisterns, only one was still intact within a few years of the start of building. That’s why the second level looks unfinished – it is. It was feared that the additional weight of completeing the second level would hasten the building’s degradation, so instead it was roughed in, and the third level – with its long-range (up to three miles!) cannons – was built instead.

Cool feature – this is a bird bath, for the song birds who wander off course on their migrations, and need water to survive.

The second level looks decidedly unfinished, especially from up close.

So that’s the basic story. The Dry Tortugas can be reached in three ways: Private boat, ferry from Key West, or seaplane from Key west. The seaplanes are a story for another day – they take off and land through the anchored boats in a manner that had this former commercial pilot decidedly on edge, but I have to admit, those pilots know their business!

Neat stop, and an item checked off our cruising bucket list, for sure.

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Rough passages and Bumps

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When you leave shore and head out, you never really know what’s coming.

That may sound simplistic, or obvious, but really it’s not. Plans are made, intentions are (at least loosely) stated, best-case and worse-case scenarios are presented and planned for, with a plan “B” to follow “A”, and a “C” to follow “B”…

Most of the time our plans work out pretty close to the way we hope, so I’m not dissing the Universe when I say that curve balls will be thrown and Mother Nature always bats last. My moments of gentle sarcasm are more an acknowledgement that we are not – any of us – nearly as in control of our lives as we’d like to pretend.

For our trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas, we took it easy, three days. It’s only 58 nautical miles (67 miles as the car would drive), so we could have done it straight through in about 12 hours. But that would require really pushing it, since there are only 12 hours of daylight right now, and you do NOT want to arrive in the Dry Tortugas Park in the dark. Since hurricane Irma last fall, the shoals have shifted, and many of the navigational markers which show them are damaged or missing.

So we sailed (well, mostly motored due to lack of wind) to Boca Grande Key (no solitude there! Saturday night and it was crawling with testosterone and beer-scented sunscreen) first, then Marquesas Key (blessedly quiet and dark enough to see real stars!), and finally a 7:30am departure for the final 42 mile jump across open water to the Dry Tortugas. Where the first two days had a distinct lack of wind, the final stage had buckets of it – and from behind, which Sionna abhors. We rocked, we rolled, we waddled, we sashayed west with 20 knots of wind off the starboard quarter and making 5.8 knots average for the trip – a speed record never before approached by our good old boat.

We. Were. Smokin’.

We were also exhausted when we arrived 8 hours later. Sionna with the wind behind her is like a round-barreled pony that’s determined to roll in the grass, and only constant vigilance by the helmsman/woman can keep her from it.

So bed felt particularly welcome soon after a lovely sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, to the harmonies being strummed from Sionna’s rigging by the intensifying breeze. Anchor alarm set, we slept… and woke to check outside….. and slept… and woke to silence the thrumming halyards… and slept… and woke…

It can be understood that when dawn came, we were rested, but not well rested, and that first cup of coffee produced by my lovely wife was most appreciated. It would have been even better if we’d had a chance to drink it, but I got only a couple sips and a nibble of my chocolate-almond biscotti before an unfamiliar sound led Nicki to poke her head outside and say, not entirely calmly, “They’re going to hit us! We’re going to be hit!”

Bam!” “SCRAAAAPE…” (I hate that sound).

Houston, we have company.

No, more than company. They’ve attached themselves to us, a Remora (otherwise known as a “Sucker Fish”).

Another sailboat has dragged their anchor from upwind of us, and a dragging boat drifts sideways to the wind. They have “t-boned” us, impacted on Sionna’s bowsprit – her pointiest point – about ⅔ of the way along their length, and their bow has swung alongside, their rudder now firmly held by OUR anchor rode which is caught in the space between their rudder and keel. They have come to rest alongside, and our anchor is now holding both Sionna and 35’ Benetau .

For the time, at least, we are holding, and I’m thanking my lucky stars for oversized ground tackle, but how to get them loose? The tension on the anchor rode (¾’ nylon line) is incredible. While Sionna is mostly pointed into the wind, Benetau is hanging at an angle, presenting a huge surface area to the wind and adding her 20,000# weight to the 14,000# of Sionna. No chance of hauling it in slightly by hand to create some slack.

So much for plan “A”.

The only likely option is to drop our anchor rode entirely (called “slipping” your gear), hoping it will sink enough to release their rudder when the tension comes off. At that, we could be leaving them to a worse fate than they faced before – if our line is caught in their rudder, they’ll be unable to steer, and may end up anchored by their rudder. I think this, and I tell their skipper all this, quickly, shouting over the wind, giving orders. There is no time to be gentle, I have my own boat to save…

The far end of our rode must be freed from where it’s secured below in the anchor locker, and after doing so I gather up our life vests, don mine, and carry Nicki’s to her on deck. The remaining 150’ of ¾” line (we have 25’ of it deployed in the water, along with 75’ of ⅜” chain coupling it to the anchor) must be hauled out from below decks and roughly coiled and bound, then threaded through the stancions and furler lines until it can be tossed from the boat. Now, when we figure out how to uncleat that line against its incredible tension, it should eject overboard without catching on any part of either vessel. Benetau’s inexperienced crew – a middle aged and clearly terrified but courageous woman – finds me a float (an empty Tide bottle), and I tie it to the anchor rode. If it floats, we may get our $1000 worth of gear back.

Plan “B”: I ask Nicki to try to power forward, attempting to take the strain off, but our 27 horsepower does nothing – we gain not an inch against the pressure of the wind. Nicki finds my boat knife in the pants I’m not wearing and brings it forward.

Time for plan “C”. There is no “D”.

I retrieve a length of ½” nylon line while Nicki re-routes the standby anchor’s chain so that once we are (hopefully) free, we’ll have a clear anchor to use. My memory flashes on the knot practice that Nicki and I used to do, sitting in front of the wood stove on a winter evening in Maine, glass of red wine at hand. Which one to use? I need to secure my ½” line to the ¾” nylon rode in such a way that I can lead it to the anchor windlass and pull, thus releasing the strain at the cleat. Only the Rolling Hitch will do – and it’s one of my five “must know” knots and hitches.

Hitch applied, line wrapped 3 turns around the drum, Nicki applies pressure to keep the line from slipping (called “tailing” a winch) while I crank. SO stiff, there is SO much pressure on that line, the handle barely moving, but we gain an inch, then another, wait out a gust, gain another 3 inches or so and suddenly nothing – the windlass’s handle has folded in half near the end – useless!

But 5 inches is just enough. Nicki holds her tension so we don’t loose that critical five inches, and I uncleat the anchor rode, dump 150’ of line overboard, and touch the edge of my knife to the ½” line a foot from my hitch… “Bang!”, and it’s gone.

I watch for the float. Benetau begins to move, scraping and bumping along Sionna’s port rub rail, but I have eyes only for the float. If it appears, Benetau is free and our gear recoverable. If it does not….

Such is my focus, and such is the noise of the wind, that I don’t witness the drama unfolding aft. Benetau has swung to port as she moves, and her bow is now caught against our dinghy, suspended in the davits off our stern. Nicki tells me later that the dinghy swung up and out, lines straining, and she at the helm did the only perfect thing – rudder hard over and full power to kick Sionna’s stern – and the dinghy and solar panels – away from the other boat’s bow. At the same time, I see that beautiful orange Tide bottle pop to the surface on the far side of Benetau, our anchor rode and anchor below, safe for another day’s efforts. We are free.

Minimal damage to Sionna’s port side and bowsprit. It could have been so much worse…

The drama continues, but our part in it is nearly done. We re-anchor with our secondary without issue, and Benetau spends the next hour trying, and trying again, to get an anchor to set. This harbor is on record for having variable holding – some areas are good, and some are not – but poor Benetau can’t seem to catch a break. Finally I raise them on the radio, and nearly order them (though it is his choice, until they are secure WE feel unsafe) to pick up the one and only mooring here. It’s clearly labeled “Gov’t Use”, and sure enough, a ranger immediately comes on the radio to advise that it can only be used in emergencies. I explain the situation, and he subsides into silence in the safety of his brick and mortar office ashore.

“Small Craft Warnings” signal atop the fort.

“Small Craft Warnings” signal flag atop the fort.

And so the wind blows. The forecast calls for storm watch conditions to continue for another day-and-a-half, so we are boat-bound. Though it would be lovely to step ashore, a trip in the dinghy in these winds and chop would be both wet and risky, should the outboard motor decide to play hooky. We read, we write, we watch the comings and goings of the seaplanes, ferry, and other vessels, and occasionally we’ve watched other anchors drag with their own unknown dramas. It is good to be secure, but it will be better when the sound of the wind isn’t the biggest presence in our lives.

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Life’s little twists and turns

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Way back almost two years ago, I wrote This Blog about “a friend” who, on the eve of leaving for an extended and long planned Cruising sabbatical, learned that he might have prostate cancer. The spoiler of that post is that the “friend” was me, the story was autobiographical, and in the end, I didn’t have cancer.

But that experience galvanized both of us to LIVE life more, to DO things that mean something to us, to really step up our game, and not just coast through life, easy as that seems sometimes. I can’t say we’ve done that, 100% of the time, but we did sell out and go cruising, we have taken some chances and reaped some rewards we would otherwise have passed up, and we’re still working at it.

Part of that original post mentioned that there were four couples (including me & Nicki) all planning the same thing, and that part is absolutely true. All four couples departed in the fall of 2016, and one of them – like us – stored the boat south and went back to Maine for the summer. Like us, they returned to the boat in late fall, did a lot of work on it, and then launched for new adventures.

Unlike us, they’ve returned to Maine, because one of them has stage 4, Metastatic cancer.

That’s bad.

I cannot begin to know how that feels. I know that just the 30% chance of having a relatively treatable cancer was enough to rock me off my foundations, but for these dear friends, who face a very grave threat indeed? I can’t know.

We can weep, we can rail against the unfairness of it, we can pray, we can offer what help we have to give, but in the end, we’re powerless to effect the course they must track. A course that will, in all likelihood, never take them back to their boat, and the cruising they were just beginning to taste.

Sometimes life doesn’t wait for the timing to be perfect. Sometimes the end really is just around the corner. Sometimes the reaper really is just outside your door. I’m not saying be reckless (though some people will claim you are if you follow a dream they don’t understand), nor do I counsel going off without planning and knowledge. But I also know how easy it is to put off dreams, to accept virtual adventures and crappy reality shows as “good enough” substitutes for real-life experiences.

Don’t believe it. They’re not.

That thing you’ve always wanted to do? That trip you’ve planned, the date you’ve never asked for or the skill you’ve never taken the time to learn?

Do it. Do it now. There are no valid excuses anymore.”

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The changing of the plans… Again.

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Marathon’s Boot Key Harbor is a generally lovely place, but it’s not cruising.

That said, it is a perfect place to prepare to GO cruising, so I keep telling myself that’s what we’re doing. We’re preparing.

Provisioning? Check.

Water and fuel? Check.

Sea legs restored? Check!

Today (March 14th – pie day!) was supposed to include a shake-down sail. It’s been almost three months since we had Sionna out in open water, sails up, rail down and making way, and it feels somewhat like a distant memory. We know it’ll come back to us pretty quickly, but still it feels like a good idea to go out and test everything once before we actually drop the mooring for the season and head out to explore.

But today the weather isn’t cooperating. Wind, yes, it’s 12-15 kts from the northwest – plenty of wind, maybe a little too much, but the problem is temperature. While the northeast US is getting ready for the 4th major snowstorm in three weeks,

Southern Florida is experiencing unseasonably cool temperatures and winds from the north and northwest – odd for this time of year when the northeast trade winds have usually begun to dominate. It’s not uncomfortable, but it does dampen our enthusiasm for a “relaxed day on the water” to test our ship. At 65 degrees and blowing, it’s not very relaxing.

So here we sit. I made my version of breakfast muffins (frimbled* egg with salt, pepper and oregano, slices of Parmesan cheese on a buttered English muffin), and lots of hot coffee, then paid some medical bills (ouch), wrote a blog post, and chilled for a bit. This afternoon I’m making Caprese, to take to a little dinner and Rum Punch competition with some boating friends tonight. Plans? What plans?

I think I’ve mentioned that we’d thought about heading up along the east coast of Florida this spring? Since we can’t really do the Bahamas this year, what with all the eye stuff still pending, we figured we’d check out that section of the ICW between here and Stuart, FL that we skipped on our trip south in 2016. But then we got talking one night, and realized that we didn’t really want to deal with getting around Miami, finding a different place to store the boat, all that stuff, so the plan changed to seeing a bit more of the Keys, instead.

We’ve yet to get out to the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas (the latter is just 97 miles west of Marathon), and both are supposed to be worth the trip. There’s a significant fort on the Dry Tortugas, actually, which you can tour – sounds interesting.

So maybe we’ll go there. Maybe. We’ll see.

* “Frimbled” – An egg which has been hard-cooked in a skillet after first being very lightly stirred to break up and distribute the yolk without mixing it appreciably into the white.

This gallery contains 3 photos

Marathon

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What is a marathon? Where is Marathon? Are the two somehow related?

Well, a marathon is a long, arduous race, and sometimes the term is also applied to a process or an experience – or a business meeting… For us, it’s a pretty good description of the last few months, what with this eye thing of mine.

But we’re taking a break from all that. I function pretty well on one eye, Nicki’s got two good ones, and we’re tired of dealing with the promises and disappointments of the medical industry, so we’re back on the boat and enjoying a different sort of Marathon: Marathon, Florida.

Marathon’s Boot Key Harbor is a pretty unique spot.

First, it’s in the Key’s, so it’s warm pretty much all the time. 82 degrees on February 27th? Check.

Second, it’s cruiser and live-aboard friendly, meaning that when you tell someone that you live on a boat, by choice, they don’t automatically assume you’re either insane or running from the police. (Granted you MAY be both, but you’re given an opportunity to prove it. This isn’t the case in some areas of the state…)

And Third, there is a spirit here since Irma tried to erase it last summer that’s almost tangible. It’s throughout the Key’s, actually. Shit got real, a lot of people lost pretty much everything, but they didn’t loose hope. They took care of each other, took care of business, and they’re still standing. That’s worth a lot, and you feel it.

It looks like we’re here for about a week this stop. We need to make the 170 mile drive back up to Bradenton on Tuesday, for our court appearance on our Anchor light fiasco , then drive 170 miles back, but once that’s behind us we’re thinking to work our way east, along the Keys and then north along the Florida east coast. It’s an area we never really intended to visit, but without time to head to the Bahamas as we’d originally planned, and with an inclination to revisit a couple spots we enjoyed (Vero Beach and St. Augustine), plus a desire to be in position for the Bahamas NEXT winter, it seems to make sense.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

This gallery contains 2 photos