Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jacksonville, FL

It's Thursday, June 4, and we've left Ft. Worth, FL at noon for the 210nm trip to Jacksonville. We expect it to take 40+ hours, and hope to get to the Jacksonville entrance channel near sunrise on Saturday. We haven't done an overnight trip since our Marco Island to Key West leg, but we have our caffeine and chocolate at the ready! We've also learned that there's a space shuttle launch scheduled for Saturday morning, so we may even get to see the space shuttle on its launch pad as we pass Cape Canaveral. NASA has already set up a restricted area within 3 miles of the Cape; 4 hours before the launch, the restricted area will expand to 9 miles north and south of the Cape, and 60+ miles east of the Cape. We definitely don't want to make that diversion, so we need to make sure we're well beyond the Cape by Friday night. Off we go!

We started the trip heading to the three-mile line. We enjoyed a push of 2-3kts from the Gulfstream (or maybe just a good current) a couple of miles offshore when we were in Ft. Lauderdale, so we're hoping to get it again. No luck...the Gulfstream is closest to shore near Ft. Lauderdale, where the Florida coastline juts out to the east; the stream then heads north, rather than following the coast. Since Florida's coastline turns inward as you go north, we're getting farther and farther from the stream. Bottom line - no extra push for us. Guess those 9+ knots of boat speed we saw a few days ago won't be happening again.

Thursday evening, Rene saw a large pod of dolphins including a mom and her calf; Stacy was making dinner and missed it. Not to worry - we have no doubt that there'll be more wildlife before the trip is finished. By now the winds have shifted behind us, so we're running "wing and wing" and making better speeds. We begin to see the lights at Cape Canaveral around 1a.m. Friday. Within an hour or two, we can see the space shuttle on its launch pad lit up like a Christmas tree, with the huge Vehicle Assembly Building nearby. We're still 8-9 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, but using the binoculars we can distinctly see the the orange main fuel tank and the two white solid rocket boosters on either side (the shuttle is on the opposite side, so we can't actually see it). Unfortunately we've had to turn in towards the northwest (no more wing and wing), and the winds have died; we're 110nm from the Jacksonville entrance, and are running 3kts. Unless the winds kick up again, we'll have to motor at some point to make up some time. It's 19 miles up the St. John's river from the entrance to the dock in downtown Jacksonville, so we're really trying to arrive at the channel entrance within a few hours of sunrise.

It's Friday morning, and we're 12 miles from Ponce Inlet. we see a disturbance in the water, and realize that it's a 6' shark swimming on the surface. There's a dorsal fin and a tail whipping back and forth on the surface - this is definitely not a dolphin! Apparently this is the morning for wildlife... Earlier in the morning, Tawny had caught the attention of a seagull that landed on our dinghy davits, and she was about to go after it. Just as Rene turned to keep Tawny from jumping overboard, he saw a 5' turtle coming up for air. If only we'd had the camera ready! Oh, well. Maybe we'll get a few good shots of Daytona Beach, Stacy's old college town, as we sail by...or not. The day is so hazy that we can't even see land, even though we're just 5 miles from the coast. The rest of the trip to Jacksonville is uneventful. The winds come back up for a few hours, and then they die again. We're able to sail for part of it, but motor or motor-sail for the most part.

We arrive at the entrance to the St. John's River at sunrise (about 6:30am), and are met by dozens of fishing boats coming out of the jetties. It's Saturday morning, and people want to get out on the water for some fun. We just want to get upriver and sleep! Unfortunately, the one thing we didn't check before leaving was the tide and current tables. Water depth isn't a problem in the St. John's, but currents are. We've managed to arrive an hour or two after low tide, and haven't yet hit slack tide. That means we're fighting a 3kt current as we head upriver, and our boat speed is 1.3kts. At this rate, we should make it to Jacksonville around midnight tonight! We keep trudging ahead, and finally begin to see 4+ knot boat speeds. It's slow going, but we finally get to our first bridge 5 miles upriver. One great thing about Jacksonville is her bridges; they're all really high - perfect for us sailboats! The first bridge is the Dames Point B ridge, which has 169' vertical clearance. Our mast height is 62.5', so it's a big deal not to have to call/wait for an opening. 12 miles later, we reach the rest of the downtown Jax bridges: the red Matthews Bridge (152'), the green Hart Bridge (135'), and the blue Main Street Lift Bridge (40' clearance; fortunately it opens on request with little waiting). We arrive at the city-owned free docks at Jacksonville Landing around 1pm, and are met by a couple of guys eager to help us with our lines (for a tip and a beer, of course!). We're soon tied up and ready for a quick lunch and a long nap. We want to be lively enough tonight to check out the Landing.

Jacksonville Landing is in the heart of downtown Jacksonville. It's a U-shaped structure on the north shore of the St. John's River, and houses over 70 shops, restaurants, and bars/clubs. There's a stage in the courtyard with live music on the weekends, plus 1000 feet of city-owned dock space in front of the Landing that boaters can tie up to at no charge for up to 72 hours. It's a great deal, and we're thrilled to be so close to everything. Saturday night we make our first venture into the Landing, where we have dinner at "Cinco de Mayo". It's our first Mexican food since Key West, and we're craving fajitas and margaritas. From there, we check out the live music in the courtyard. It's really lively, and the people-watching is fantastic.

Monday morning we rent a car and drive down to historic St. Augustine, one of the oldest cities in the continental US (founded in 1565). First we shop, then we go for the history. We start off at the outlet mall (woo hoo!), followed by a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. The Spanish began construction of the star-shaped fort in 1672, making it one of the oldest standing structures in North America. Although the fort served under 6 different flags, it was never actually taken during a battle. (All transfers were diplomatic, e.g. peace agreements, between Spanish, French, British, & America.) The top level was called the "Gun Deck", and housed up to 74 cannons with firing ranges of up to 3.5 miles. Many cannons & mortars still sit on the gun deck; they're massive! Some of the mortars are big enough to put your head in (and some of the kids did). If you're ever in Florida, St. Augustine is definitely worth a visit. You can read more about it and the fort at

After our visit to the fort, we decided to explore a little more of the area. We walked around the historic area, filled with shops and dining options, as well as a bar that served something like 150 different beers. Our kind of place! Then we drove across to the beach side, toured the very small St. Augustine Beach area, and found the St. Augustine lighthouse. Back on the mainland side, we made a quick stop at Target (our first one since leaving TX), and then went back to the old city to find someplace to have dinner. As luck would have it, we parked in a public lot right in front of The Tasting Room ( It's a great little spot that specializes in tapas and wine tasting (did the name give it away?). The food was amazing: we had chicken & chorizo paella w/artichokes & peas, Moroccan pork skewers, and garlic sauteed shrimp w/peppers & artichokes. We also tried two different wine flights, each of which allows you to sample three wines. One was a combination of Spanish whites, the other had Australian, French, and New Zealand crisp whites. We really had a magnificent meal and hostess, and would highly recommend the restaurant if you're ever in the area.

Tuesday morning we made a much needed grocery run. Having given up our car, we hoofed it the mile each way to a local Winn Dixie. Now two miles may not sound like much, but it's a bear in 96 degree (plus 90+ percent humidity) weather! That called for a cold beverage, so we took the water taxi across the river to the River City Brewing Company. The food was great, as were their homemade microbrews, but we couldn't stay long. We were going to the planetarium! Forgive us if you don't have the astronomy bug, but this was a big event for us. We both loved planetariums as kids, and neither of us has been to one in decades. The Jacksonville Museum of Science & History has daily planetarium shows plus exhibits which involve Florida history, dinosaurs, marine life, and the human body. Wednesday we stay fairly close to home, venturing out in the afternoon to enjoy a Frappucino at Starbucks, along with their air conditioning, electricity (laptop recharging), and wi-fi.

Have we mentioned that we're really enjoying Jacksonville? There's just one problem: our 72 hours of free dockside tie-up expired at 1pm Tuesday. We tried to reach the dockmaster to ask permission for an extension; the dockmaster's voice mailbox was full, so we left a message on the general waterways number. We also stopped by the marina office at Metro Park Marina, but the office was locked and no one answered our knocking. Oh well, we've tried...let's see if they call us back. We'd like to stay until Saturday since there's a Craft & Microbrew Beerfest in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Friday night - over 200 beers represented plus food for $25. We originally thought of tying up at Metro Park Marina (free, first-come-first served to the public), but the park closes at dusk and the festival is from 7-10pm. We're later notified that the 72 hours is inclusive of all city-owned dock space. In other words, we can't legally stay 72 hours at Jax Landing AND another 72 hours at Metro Park.

The Waterway Police pay us a visit THU morning. Someone told them that we've overstayed our 72 hr limit, and the police will ticket ("or tow your boat" - good luck with that) us if we don't leave. There are some black thunderclouds heading our way, and we ask to stay until after the storm. 20 minutes later the storm still hasn't hit us, so we decide to leave. As we start the engine, we hear a loud noise and Rene goes to check the alternator belt, which has been giving us fits all along. Crap, crap, crap! The belt has finally broken on us. First question: do we have a spare? Yes. Second question: can we repair it and get out of here before we get ticketed? We'll see. Rene has to pull the fold-up bikes and other miscellaneous stuff out of the lazarette to get to the spare parts box, but he's soon lying on his stomach over the engine compartment. It takes about 30 minutes, but we're back in order and neither the storm nor the police has paid us a visit yet. We execute a perfect departure from the dock (go cap'n Rene!), request the next available opening at the Main Street Vertical Lift Bridge, and we're soon on our way to the anchorage behind Exchange Island. It only takes 20 minutes to get there, and it turns out to be a lovely, quiet anchorage. There's only one other boat, and it doesn't look like anyone is even aboard. We're surrounded by dolphins, and some get pretty close to the boat.

Friday we still plan to attend the Beerfest. We'll dinghy to either the marina or the Jones College pier, and will take a taxi to the stadium. Oops...dinghy is in the water, but the outboard isn't working again. It gave us fits in Ft. Pierce, but turned out that we were out of fuel (although now we wonder if that the only problem). Now Rene can get it running at high RPMs but not at low RPMs. We're stuck...we don't feel safe using the outboard, and the currents are too strong to row to the dock and back. much for the Beerfest. :-(

It's finally time to leave Jacksonville. Saturday morning we leave our anchorage at 9:30 at slack tide and head down the St. Johns to the ICW. At one point the currents have us running at 8.4kts. We request an opening at Sister's Creek Bridge at the St. Johns/ICW interchange, and we're officially in the ICW. We'll take it all the way to Fernandina Beach - our first official ICW crossing! The ICW is fairly narrow and twisting, so it looks like it'll be mostly hand-steering rather than auto pilot. We're surrounded by seagulls and pink spoonbills, and it's a gorgeous day. Things are going great for the first couple of miles up the ICW until...GROUNDED! Yes, we were in 9' of water in the channel, and suddenly we stop moving. The depth gauge now says 5', and we're stuck. Better yet, it's Saturday and people in speedboats and jet skis are flying by us, creating waves that are pushing us closer to shore. Rene tries to gun the engine to get us out of the mud, but we're stuck fast. We call Tow Boat US, tell them where we are and that we have $150 coverage with which they tell us that it'll be $12/ft (over $500) for them to get us out. We look at each other for a minute, but what can we do? We're still being pushed towards the shore, and have no way to get out of the muck. Tow Boat US arrives within 20 minutes, and the guy tries to pull us free. Even his two 250HP engines couldn't do the trick - both our rudder and wing keel were stuck, and he couldn't free us without potentially damaging the boat. The only thing left to do was to toss a stern anchor and wait for the water to rise. We anxiously watched our depth gauge for the next two hours, knowing we needed close to 5' to break free. At about 4.8' according to the depth gauge, we seemed to pop up like a champagne cork...and suddenly had 8' of water under the boat. Finally! The current had pulled us back into the channel, and all that was left to do was for Rene to get the anchor back on board. That was no easy feat, as the anchor rode had been fixed to a stern cleat and we were using the jib winch as a makeshift windlass. After fighting the anchor for another 20-30 minutes, we finally had it back aboard and we were underway again. From there on out, we followed the ICW line on our chartplotter religiously. There were a couple of nervous moments, especially when the depth gauge read 6' at high tide a few miles from our destination. Fortunately we finally made it to Fernandina Harbor Marina, where we had a reservation for mooring ball #3.

In hindsight, we've decided that the Jacksonville Waterways patrol must've put a curse on us. :-) Not that we have anything (much) against these guys, but it's curious how many things have managed to get "mucked up" since their visit to boot us off the pier...

1. 20 minutes after they left us, our alternator belt broke
2. 24 hours after they left us, our dinghy engine stopped working, preventing us from attending our much-anticipated Craft & Microbrew Beerfest at Jax Stadium
3. 48 hours after they left us, we grounded in the middle of the channel of the ICW and couldn't get free for 3 hours
4. We lost the boat hook on our first attempt at the mooring ball in Fernandina Harbor
5. We also ended up with the mooring ball underneath the boat on attempt #1, but couldn't correct it until our kind neighbors dinghied out to collect our lost boat hook (see #4)
6. Stacy was so frazzled by #4 & #5 that she ran the mooring lines through the lifelines on mooring attempt #2, requiring a 3rd attempt
7. We managed to jerry-rig our dinghy engine to get to the marina, but couldn't make the magic come alive again for the return trip; we ended up having to paddle the half-mile to the boat against the current after sunset
8. If #7 wasn't fun enough on its own, Stacy saw what she thought was an alligator swimming towards us just 2 feet from the boat as we left the marina; the alligator ended up being a manatee, and we actually saw its back and tail come up out of the water...still only 2 feet from us!

On a positive note, we had our first taste of Fernandina Beach...the marina folks have recommended a few restaurants around town, and we grabbed pizzas after our showers. The town looks like a cute spot, and hopefully we'll get to explore it in more depth once we get our dinghy motor fixed...AGAIN. Wish us luck!

Pictures associated with this blog chapter are at:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ft. Lauderdale, FL

We've made it to Ft. Lauderdale! We arrived at the Port Everglades channel on Tuesday afternoon (June 2) and made our first ever bridge call to request an opening at the SE 17th St. Causeway bascule bridge. We were immediately surrounded by massive yachts and homes, and in some cases yachts worth even more than the houses behind them. We'd initially planned to stay on the downtown city docks on New River ($0.60/ft in low season), but changed to Las Olas City Marina ($0.90/ft in low season) when we found out that the downtown docks had no shower or laundry facilities. Las Olas Marina is in the heart of downtown on the ICW, and sits both north and south of the Las Olas Blvd. Bridge. It was designed to hold mega-yachts, but also has slips for a few more "normal" sized boats in our range. The marina told us that to find our slip, we just had to look out for "Endless Summer", a 100+ foot motor yacht on the T-dock. At least we were in good company! Our slip was on F dock on the south side of Las Olas bridge with a turning basin next to us, so we had plenty of maneuvering room and didn't have to go through a second bridge opening. Even with the extra room, we still had a challenge getting into the slip. We spent an hour trying to back in, but were constantly caught and turned by the wind and currents. We finally went to the opposite side of the ICW and grabbed a mooring ball for the night. So much for air-co! At least we were able to dinghy to the marina office to check in, take showers, & do a quick provisioning run at a nearby convenience store. Having not had a "land shower" in 10 days, we were ready to take advantage of the endless water supply.

The next morning the winds were light, and we were able to get stern-in to our slip at slack tide with no problem. The crew of "Endless Summer" was there to help with our lines, and we were soon tied up, fenders out, and shore power cable connected (yay - a/c!). Now before you start thinking one of us (ahem - Stacy?) is high-maintenance about air conditioning, it was actually important that we had it in Ft. L. We planned to be off the boat more than usual in Ft. Lauderdale visiting with Stacy's college friend and seeing the sights; with the kitties shut up in the boat (sometimes overnight), we felt a lot better knowing they were protected from the 90+ temps. Anyway, we spent the rest of the morning settling in and admiring the work of the "Endless Summer" crew. They worked frantically the entire time we were there - re-teaking the deck furniture, cleaning and waxing the hull, having dry-cleaning (linens & uniforms) delivered - all so they could leave Ft. Lauderdale to go cruising that weekend. We don't know who owns the boat, but he/she sure has a dedicated team and a beautiful boat.

Wednesday afternoon, Stacy's friend, Tracy, picked us up at the marina and we got to meet her 18-month old son, RJ. What a doll! We picked up lunch and went over to the house so RJ could take his nap and we could catch up. What a lovely place - right on a canal, with a pool, a huge saltwater fish tank, and 65' fishing boat parked behind the house. RJ's dad, Sean, designs boat interiors for a living, and he'd completely re-done his boat when he bought it. It was absolutely gorgeous, and even gave Rene (die-hard sailor that he is) a new appreciation for motor yachts! That evening we left the kitties on their own to party on the boat, and we spent the night at Tracy's condo in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. We got to watch cable TV, eat pizza, enjoy beautiful views of downtown Ft. Lauderdale lit up at night, and sleep in a real bed. Ahh, the little things...

We went back to boat Thursday morning to check on the kitties; they were fine, but were ready for some company. Thursday afternoon we had a chance to visit with some other friends from Texas, Chris & Corey. We met Chris during the Veracruz race last year and got to meet his wife, Corey, when we returned to Kemah. They're really terrific people - lots of fun plus a great sense of adventure. They actually left Texas last fall to join a charter company in the British Virgin Islands. Chris is the captain and Corey is the chef on a Lagoon 450 catamaran. As luck would have it, they had been in Ft. Lauderdale for a couple of weeks, partly for work (Corey was taking cooking classes), partly for vacation. They were heading back to the BVIs on Saturday, so we were thrilled that the timing worked out to be in town at the same time. Chris and Corey came over to the boat, and we spent a few hours swapping stories and hearing all about the highs and lows of the charter business. They've had a lot of excitement, both good and bad, over the past 9 months, and we wish them smooth seas and safe travels as they rejoin their charters.

Thursday night Chris & Corey had another commitment, so we went in search of a nice spot near the beach for dinner. We came across Bubba Gump's, which we were familiar with from our trips to Maui. It's a tourist trap, but they really know how to do shrimp! We had a great meal; Stacy had a sampler platter with coconut shrimp, sauteed shrimp, peel & eat shrimp, and tempura shrimp, and Rene had crabmeat-stuffed shrimp over rice. Afterwards we found a little German beerhaus down the street for a nightcap. Friday afternoon Tracy picked us up for a get-together at Sean's. Tracy put RJ down for his nap and loaned us her minivan to run errands. We were able to have lunch, pick up a new navigation chip from Blue Water Bookstore, and provision for the party and the boat at Total Wine and Publix. After over two hours of shopping, we dropped our provisions off at the boat and went back to the house. We got to spend time with Sean, Tracy, and their friends, and had a fantastic meal. We spent the night at the house, and went back to the boat on Saturday. That afternoon, we played tourist and took the water taxi up and down the Ft. Lauderdale waterways. First we went north on the ICW to Shooter's for lunch, then south again and up the New River past "Millionaire's Row" and its homes of the rich and famous, both past and present: Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz (who once owned an entire island there), Sonny & Cher (where daughter was born), Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind), CEO of Circuit City, CEO/founder of Sunglass Hut (he and his wife bought his and hers yachts at the boat show a few years ago; hers was $50 million, his was $60 million; his won't fit in front of their house since her boat is already docked there with their other boat); another group of homes that are all in one family (millionaire plus his sister, nephew, etc.); the "Cape Fear" house, etc. We also got off the water taxi at Los Olas Riverwalk. There weren't many shops to visit, but we stopped in for a beer at Briny's Riverfront Irish Bar & Restaurant. It was a cute waterside bar with funky marine-style memorabilia.

Sunday we prepped the boat for our Monday morning departure. Since there wasn't much left to do thanks to our Friday provisioning run, we spent Sunday afternoon doing something we haven't done in 3 months...going to a movie! We took a taxi back to Las Olas Riverwalk, where we saw a matinee of "Angels and Demons". The movie followed the book pretty well, and we really enjoyed the distraction. That night we went back to the German beerhaus for our last dinner in Ft. Lauderdale. We enjoyed their bratwurst and sauerbraten, along with a couple of good German beers, of course! We wanted to get off at a decent time Monday morning for the 45nm trip to Lake Worth (Port of Palm Beach), so we headed back to the boat by 10pm. We left the dock by 9am Monday morning, and had a smooth ride to Lake Worth. We spent one night there, followed by a day sail to Ft. Pierce. We anchored off the ICW near Harbortown marina, which also had a dinghy dock that allowed for provisioning and sightseeing. From there, we'll be heading up to Jacksonville, FL. It'll probably take 48 hours to get there, but we'll spend a few days in Jax to enjoy the town. More to come...

P.S...there were more gorgeous boats than we can include here, but we've included them in the photo link at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

En route: Marathon to Ft. Lauderdale

We left Marathon on Thursday morning (May 28) for Rodriguez Key, 43nm away. Rodriguez Key is 5 miles from Key Largo and some great dive spots in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (now that's a mouthful). Since you aren't allowed to anchor in Key Largo Sound, Rodriguez Key makes a good stopover. We'd originally planned to dive Molasses Reef on Friday, dive French Reef on Saturday morning, and then sail the 25 miles up to Caesar Creek Saturday afternoon. After an overnight in Key Biscayne, that would put us in Ft. Lauderdale by Monday afternoon. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided we were in too much of a hurry. We had dark skies between Marathon and Rodriguez, and the heavy thunderstorms joined us soon after we anchored. For once, the weather websites were all correct - heavy t-storms, strong winds, and high seas for the next couple of days. As much as we wanted to get to Ft. Lauderdale and see Stacy's college friend, we didn't want to make a stupid move weather-wise, and didn't want to give up on our scuba plans. Instead, we hunkered down in our anchorage for two extra days and got out to Molasses Reef on Sunday morning. The diving was fantastic! We dove the western side of the reef first, then moved the boat to a deeper area and did a second dive after lunch and tank refills. The corals were beautiful, and we saw tons of sea life on the second dive: a green moray eel in a rock under our mooring line, a stingray, lobsters, a shark (not a nurse, but not sure what it was), huge barracudas, squid, and the usual suspects of brightly colored fish (tangs, parrots, Sargent majors, etc.). We heard thunder between dives, but the storms left us alone long enough to enjoy our dives and get back to Rodriguez Key in calm seas. What a perfect day! We took a bunch of underwater shots, but haven't uploaded them yet (the camera is still in its underwater housing). For now, we'll include a shot from a friend's saltwater tank. :-)

The underwater pics are now at:

Monday morning we decided to skip French Reef and Caesar Creek and go straight for Key Biscayne (south of Miami). We had such a fantastic dive on Sunday that we figured it would be hard to beat it, plus we wanted to take advantage of what seemed like a good weather window. We left Rodriguez Key at 8am for the 45nm trip to No Name Harbor on the south end of Key Biscayne. We hit a few good storms on route to Miami, and even had to drop speed and motor at 1kt near Caesar Creek when Rene began seeing lightning bolts straight ahead of us. We hovered in a small bay for an hour before continuing on, and arrived in No Name Harbor early that evening.

No Name Harbor is a popular anchorage for cruisers going to the Bahamas while waiting for weather window. It's part of a state park that has a small harbor surrounded by mangroves, a concession stand, and a dinghy landing. It's certainly not a big place, and we can't imagine what it must look like when it's full of cruisers waiting for their weather window. There were only three of us anchored in the harbor on Monday night, and even that felt a bit tight. While the harbor was well-protected and calm, we had a big problem with some tiny pests: "no-see-ums" are little gnats that are even smaller than the grates in our bug screens. The little monsters came straight into the cabin and ate us alive overnight. It's not like a mosquito where you hear them coming - you just feel a little annoying pinch and it's all over. Worse, they don't leave any evidence of biting you at first (other than baggy eyes from no sleep); it takes 2-3 days for the red spots to show up, and then you look like you have the chicken pox. We even tried spraying ourselves, our bedding, and our bug screen with Deep Woods Off, but that didn't seem to make a difference. If anyone knows of a trick to avoid these things, please let us know!

Tuesday morning we happily left No Name Harbor and the bugs behind. We passed by the Key Biscayne lighthouse and sailed alongside downtown Miami and Miami Beach. It was about 30 miles from Key Biscayne to Ft. Lauderdale, and there were hotels, condos, and mansions along the entire stretch of land. It was an easy trip except for a surprise off of Miami Beach. We were motor-sailing along with the forecasted 7-10kt winds when we took a 20kt gust. The boat heeled over enough that the engine died (fuel bubble or out of fuel?), and from there we were fully sailing with 20+ knot winds. An hour or two later, the winds died and we were back to 7kts...go figure. Fortunately it really must've been a bubble in the fuel line or something, because the engine started again as soon as we were level again. Once the excitement was over, we had a leisurely sail (okay, motor-sail) the rest of the way. We entered the Port Everglades channel just after lunch and made our way up the ICW to our marina. Details to follow in the Ft. Lauderdale chapter of our blog!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Newfound Harbor, Looe Key, & Marathon, Florida

To all of our friends and family who've been keeping up with our blog... thank you! We're really sorry that we haven't updated it in awhile. We've been enjoying the lazy side of retirement. :-) For grins, let's wave our magic wands and pretend it's still April...

We've arrived in Newfound Harbor on Tuesday, April 21st, direct from Key West. The harbor is wide and open, but remains shallow pretty far from shore. We've anchored in the middle of the harbor to stay in 7' depths. Unlike some of our previous anchorages, there really isn't anything out here - no homes or businesses on our nearest shore, and only a few homes on the opposite side. Add to that the fact that tonight we're the only boat out here, and it feels pretty isolated! We've decided to spend two nights here; Newfound Harbor is about 4.5 miles from Looe Key, a marine sanctuary that boasts fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving. We'll spend tomorrow doing a few boat projects & prepping the dive gear, and will dive Looe Key on the way to our next stop.

The next morning, we discover that our brand new air compressor has a defective hose. Rene spent the morning trying to fill our two scuba tanks, but they would only fill to 1200psi (out of 3000psi) before the hose blew off. Rene spoke to the manufacturer, and the compressor needs a new hose that will be shipped to us in Marathon. We won't be able to do full dives at Looe Key, but we should have plenty of air for a check dive to test our new gear (we bought new BCDs, masks, regulators, and a new computer for Rene before leaving Kemah). After getting the dive gear ready for tomorrow's outing, we make dinner on the boat and are joined by a catamaran and a lovely old sloop, both of which anchor near us. We enjoy a great sunset, an even better bottle of wine, and head to bed early. Tomorrow it's time to "dive, dive, dive!!!"

Thursday morning we get an early start out to Looe Key. All of the marine sanctuaries in Florida have mooring buoys set up for boats to use to protect the coral from anchor damage. Since this is our first stop at a Florida dive spot, we aren't sure how many moorings will be available or how busy it'll be. Fortunately we arrive at Looe Key and find that we have nothing to worry about. There are 30 moorings, plenty for us, the dive boats, and other cruisers in the area. We moor in 15' of water, don our gear, and head down. We can't stay down long, but are happy to test the new gear. It's been 2 years since our last dive trip, and the first thing we notice is that we've underestimated our weight requirements. Stacy has a hard time getting to the bottom; Rene makes it down, but could use an extra pound or two to stay there. Guess it's time to cut down on those sundowners!

After the check dive, we head to Marathon, which is about 4 hours away. The seas are 4-6' and are pretty rough; the kitties definitely aren't happy, and we aren't too crazy about it ourselves. As tempting as it is to tuck into Bahia Honda for the night and save ourselves the extra 2 hours, we can see Marathon far in the distance and decide to keep going. En route, we're passed by 10-12 "super-boats", cigarette-type boats complete with massive rooster tails. As rough as we may have it, we can't imagine how those guys must feel slamming into the waves at 60+ MPH! We arrive in Marathon at 5pm, having reserved the last mooring available for a boat our size. We hook our mooring ball on the first try (woo hoo!), and find ourselves next to a motor cruiser with a tiki bar set up on the back deck. It must be a sign. :-) We mix a couple of rum and pink lemonades in honor of Jim and Kitty Kenworthy, our friends in Kemah who loved Marathon so much that their 2-week stay turned into 11 months. We toast our friends back in TX and settle in for a month-long stay in Marathon, Florida. We're finally here!

Over the next few days we realize how lucky we were to get a mooring ball on our first day here. We had called before leaving Newfound Harbor, and were told that we'd have to tie to a mooring intended for boats up to 60' long. There are 226 balls in the mooring field, but 211 of those are for boats up to 45' and all of the larger spaces were full when we called. Pipe Muh Bligh is only 45' in length, but the dinghy davits extend 2-4' beyond that. It turns out that the winds are 25+ knots and are expected to stay that way for 4-5 days, so many boats that wanted to leave are stuck until the winds die down. The harbormaster was very helpful, and said that if something didn't come available by the time we arrived, he'd try to find us a 45' mooring ball near the big boats until a 60' mooring became available. Fortunately, a big boat left the day we arrived, and we were able to snag mooring "W6" on the west side of Boot Key Harbor.

We've heard great things about Marathon and how much the city caters to cruisers, and we aren't disappointed. There's a cruisers' net on VHF channel 68 every morning at 9am, which welcomes new boats to Boot Key Harbor, says goodbye to boats leaving, and connects cruisers to others who can help with boat questions or information about shoreside services and deals; "Treasures from the Bilge" covers buy-sell-giveaway opportunities - anything from wind generators to outboard motors to drums; cruisers can even offer up trivia to try to "stump the harbor". There's also a dinghy dock at the marina office, one dock for hard-sided dinghies and another for inflatables. Next to the dinghy docks is the new shower facility, which has 12 individual heads/showers plus laundry facilities. Washers and dryers are operated using a cash card (similar to a hotel key card), which is much preferred over having to hoard quarters! On our first Wednesday night in Marathon, we went to a meet and greet potluck in the marina office and had a great time with the folks from "Blackfoot" & "Simplicity", both of whom are leaving in the next few days. Many people have stayed a month already and are ready to leave. Some are heading back up the east coast, while others are going to Belize and places south. Surprisingly, many cruisers are even leaving for the Bahamas even though we're getting close to the start of hurricane season.

Our month in Marathon is divided into days of extreme relaxation and extreme productivity. We have a page and a half of boat projects, but still manage to read about 15 novels apiece (thank goodness the marina has a huge book exchange). We don't get all of our boat projects done, but manage to cross these off our list:

  • Boat bottom cleaning
  • Replace prop zincs
  • Install BBQ grill
  • Fix air compressor
  • Cut Rene's hair (see "after" picture, right)
  • Mount navigation lights on dinghy
  • Mount hook on head door (cat's room) to prevent swinging during crossings
  • Clean A/C strainers
  • Clean water pump strainer
  • Inventory/rearrange vacuum clothing bags
  • Replace water hose fittings with hose clamps
  • Reinstall regulator hoses on BCDs
  • Get 1-lb trim weights for BCDs
  • Re-bag/restore spare sails
  • Install anchor sail
  • Re-tighten all lifelines & tape ends
  • Put sail tape on jib sunbrella (repair)
  • Remove/dry forward berth starboard foothold (water flows behind board from forward head porthole)
  • Replace sink plugs
  • Reorganize guest room storage shelf & lockers (Tawny was especially helpful with this project)
  • Install tarp
  • Reorganize lazarette
  • Apply mold treatment to dodger/bimini
  • Apply rain-proofing to dodger/bimini
  • Genset oil change & check belt tension
  • Replace Velcro on couch headrest
  • Install scuba tank storage in cockpit
  • Replace fuse on sweet tank air
  • Repair man overboard pole
  • Clean/repair walkie-talkies
  • Bundle/tie rap wires on guest room shelf
  • Yanmar oil change
  • Install inline water filter (completed, but broke on day 2; alternate solution required)
We also get to experience something we've never seen before: Dragon Boat races! Two weeks into our stay, we dinghied through Sisters Creek to Sombrero Beach to watch the "Battle in the Bay Dragon Boat Festival". It's difficult to explain, so we'll leave that to the Florida Keys official tourism website:

"The legend of dragon boat racing dates back to the fourth century B.C. during the Ch’u dynasty in China. The emperor’s personal advisor, Qu Yuan, drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in defiance of the ruler’s corrupt and indulgent lifestyle. Local fishermen, in an effort to keep the river’s water dragons and fish from consuming Qu Yuan’s earthly body, beat drums and vigorously splashed the water with their paddles.

The modern dragon boat race is a re-enactment of these fishermen in the race to save their martyr Qu Yuan from the creatures of the deep. The dragons are a strong and powerful symbol of spring rains and growth in Chinese culture."

18 teams competed in the races, and each team consisted of 20 paddlers maneuvering a 40-foot-long race boat. Drummers sat at the front of each boat and kept the paddlers in sync; we could actually hear the races long before we ever left Pipe Muh Bligh to watch them in person. It was a gorgeous day, and we saw dolphins and even a manatee off the beach.

The next day is Mother's Day, and the marina celebrates with a get-together at the tiki hut. There are quite a few musicians in the harbor, and they often have impromptu "jam sessions". The party was announced on the cruisers' net, and the whole harbor was invited to come join in the fun. There's a lot of talent in the harbor!

Admittedly, there aren't a ton of things to do ashore in Marathon. It's a laid back place, and you won't find touristy areas like Duval Street or Sunset Pier in Key West. Our great ventures ashore tend to involve groceries and mail. Publix, the UPS Store, CVS, & Winn Dixie are just over a mile away from the marina. We usually ride our bikes to go shopping, but you can dinghy over and tie up to a barge across from the Publix ($5 landing fee). We've also found some great spots for dining and drinks around town. Dockside is our favorite - it's an open-air restaurant/bar on the southeast side of Boot Key Harbor. They have good food and drinks, and their prime rib on Wednesdays and Saturdays is to die for. Keys Fisheries Restaurant & Seafood Market is another fave. It's across US1 from the marina on the Gulf side; it has a great selection of fresh and affordable seafood in the market, and its restaurant is famous for their lobster Reuben sandwiches (over 100K sold). The Brass Monkey is a great dive bar; it's full of locals and tourists alike (of course, after spending a couple of weeks in Marathon, the tourists become honorary locals). On Saturdays, Freddy Day's band plays at the Monkey. Freddy seems to be a local celebrity, and international musicians sometimes stop by to play with him. The first Saturday that we spent in the Monkey, they had a guest drummer/singer - the ex-drummer for '80s hair band, Whitesnake. The guy has a heck of a voice, and can he wail on the drums!

A huge part of the cruising lifestyle involves spending time with friends, both old and new. We met some fantastic people in Marathon. Our first boat guests were Dave & Barbara from the boat "Shearwater" (Stacy loved the boat at first sight - it was registered in Seattle!). Unfortunately they'd already spent a month in Marathon and left a few days after we arrived, but we were able to get them onboard for a glass of wine before they headed to Boca Chica. Next up were Barry and Tabitha, who rescued us with a tow one day when our dinghy outboard ran out of fuel half-way to the dock. It turns out they were moored right behind us on their Hunter 460, "Naked Sail". We ended up spending a lot of time with them before they headed out to the Bahamas, and we hope to see them again someday on our travels. We also got a great surprise when our friend from Kemah paid us a visit. Steve had been in Key West to help his friends take their 52' boat from Key West to San Juan, Puerto Rico. After waiting for four days for a weather window (and knowing it would be a couple of more before they could leave), Steve rented a car and came to Marathon. We spent the afternoon catching up on the boat, and had dinner and too many pitchers of beer at Dockside that night. Wouldn't you know, the lightning and thunder made an appearance while we were enjoying the band, and the heavens opened around 9:30pm. Not wanting to get soaked on the dinghy ride back, we decided to wait it out at Dockside...with another pitcher, of course. The weather broke an hour later, so we made a mad dash back to the boat. We managed to get home mostly dry, and ended the night with a toast of our old marina's favorite rum, Zaya. (That requires a whole other story...suffice it to say, if you've never tried Zaya, it's a wonderful sipping rum - definitely not to be wasted with mixers.) Not surprisingly, we were all a bit fragile the next morning. Needing a good greasy breakfast, we headed to a local favorite, the Seven Mile Grill. The food was excellent and our waiter was entertaining, to say the least. Steve didn't need to get back to Key West until sunset, and was kind enough to play chauffeur to our tour guide. What a difference having a car makes! We started our road trip at Bahia Honda State Park, which has a beautiful beach and great views of the original Miami-Key West railroad bridge. The bridge is no longer in use, and a portion has been removed to allow for sailboats to enter the harbor. Next up was an early dinner at No Name Pub on No Name Key. Stacy had seen this place mentioned in a cruising guide; it looked like a funky place, with dollar bills stapled to every conceivable surface and allegedly the best pizza in the Keys (we have to agree!). If you ever go to No Name Pub, look up the address ahead of time and print out directions or have GPS with you. It really is one of those hidden gems that you'd never stumble upon unless you actively search for it. It's hard to find, but well worth the trip. As we left the Pub, we saw Key deer in a couple of yards across the street from the bar. These deer are endangered and are only found in the Keys; they're related to white-tailed deer, but are much smaller and relatively tame. The guys took a few pictures of the deer, and then it was time to head home. After dropping us at the marina, Steve drove back to Key West. The weather finally looked good for a morning departure. It was so good to see Steve, and we loved hearing about everyone back at the marina. Steve and his friends were finally able to get underway the next morning, but Steve had to change his San Juan flight to the Dominican Republic. Having lost nearly a week to weather, he and his friends couldn't make it to San Juan in time for his flight.

During our "last week"in Marathon (we'd paid up through May 23rd), we decided to extend our trip by a few days. There were a few more boat projects and some provisioning that we wanted to do, and the weather looked good to leave the following week. Locals and cruisers alike joke about the "Velcro effect" of Marathon - people intend to leave, but never quite manage to let go. As tempting as it was to stay, we left Boot Key Harbor on Thursday, May 28 - just 5 days longer than planned. We'll make a few stops up the Keys for overnights and scuba diving, and hope to get to Ft. Lauderdale early next week. Stay tuned!

The pictures for this chapter: