Goodland to the Dry Tortugas

Calm day on the Gulf
Flat calm on the Gulf of Mexico

I have wrestled with what exactly to make out of this blog and have decided that since I am on a long sailing trip this is a sailing blog at least for the time being, and so I will include more of the actual sailing part of my travels.

Leaving Goodland
Sailing from the Calusa Island Yacht Club in Goodland, FL

My transit from Goodland to the Dry Tortugas started out from the Calusa Island Yacht club right at sunset on the 24th of March.  I was escorted out to Coon Key Pass by Ted and Sarah on the Little Manatee with Sarah snapping pictures the whole way–something that I am grateful for because it is very difficult to get an outside perspective of the boat while underway.  I had meant to leave earlier in the afternoon, but all of the last-minute chores combined to delay me late enough that I barely had adequate light to clear the pass.  I motorsailed to get out into deeper water before fatigue overtook me.

Little Manatee
Little Manatee escorted me all the way to Coon Key Pass

The tide was falling and I am sure that I touched bottom at least once where my chart showed that I should have had 5 feet.  It was just a kiss between keel and mud–not even enough to really be one hundred percent sure that I had really touched, but enough to change the motion of the boat in a way that I was sure wasn’t a wave.  That set me on edge for the next half hour until I had cleared the shoals at Cape Romano.  It was pitch black at this point and I was barreling southward at 5.5 knots with full sails and the engine running half throttle.  I sure didn’t want to get stuck in such an exposed location even in the settled weather that I was enjoying.  There was supposed to be enough water, so my only thought was to keep the boat moving and try to find a route out with only 6’s or higher on the chart.  Even though my boat only draws a little over 4 feet there was about a 1-foot chop running, which could be enough to make me touch in a spot that might otherwise have had just enough clearance.  I don’t have a depth sounder and often joke that I never know exactly how deep the water is until my keel touches the bottom–my fiberglass “depth sounder”.  On a dark night in shoal water it would be comforting to have a little digital readout telling me how much water was between my keel and the bottom, but there are also a thousand other complications that would be nice to have at one point or another…

As soon as I was past all of the shallows I cut the engine and enjoyed the velvety silence of the black, moonless night.  Cavendysh‘s speed dropped to 4.5-5 knots without the rackety, sooty diesel banging away.  Her masthead light eerily illuminated a swatch of water on alternate sides of the boat as she rolled.  The silty water looked only inches deep in the light from the tricolor.  I set the windvane to hold a southeasterly course; monitored things for a while; scanned the empty horizon; and then went below to get a quick nap.

The wind slowly dropped through the night.  I napped for between 15 and 25 minutes at a stretch and each time that I awoke it seemed as if we were moving a little more slowly than the last time.  Luckily the wind shifted forward of the beam as it died, increasing our apparent wind.  I had to adjust the windvane 5 or 6 times during the night to keep us on course.  I always have vivid dreams on those nights when I am frequently up–the division between dream and reality sometimes gets as indefinite as my bleary vision.  It was a gentle night and the boat was moving well–not quite a “magic carpet ride” sort of night, but close.  The best way that I can describe those nights when the boat is moving effortlessly at hull speed over a smooth sea is to use the phrase “magic carpet ride”.  At those moments I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world.  The best ones are on moonlit nights when the boat glides smoothly over a sea of liquid silver without any fuss or rolling–just the sound of water chuckling along the hull as miles tick away and are lost in the wake.

Light air sailing on the Gulf
Light air sailing on the Gulf of Mexico

By morning I was sailing south south east closehauled on a flat sea.  I can’t remember ever being on an open body of water out of sight of land where it was any flatter than the Gulf was that morning.  Cavendysh didn’t roll a bit.  If it weren’t for the sound of the water trickling by the bow I could close my eyes and imagine that we were still tied up somewhere.  I have been in marinas and had more pitching and rolling.

By noon all of the wind had died.  We were making the barest headway.  If I put the helm over it would take Cavendysh almost five minutes to make a 90-degree turn.  Still, the sails weren’t slatting.  Normally out on open water when the wind dies there is enough sea left over to keep the boat rolling, which causes the sails to slam back and forth.  This is harder on the gear than a rollicking sail in a stiff breeze because every slam of the sails causes chafe–on the outhaul, the topping lift, the sheets, the halyards–everything gets jerked from one side to the other every few seconds.  Besides all of the wear on the gear the noise from slatting sails drives me nuts, so I was grateful that we were just sitting peacefully out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico that day.

I used the calm to my advantage.  I caught up on sleep first because it wasn’t too hot and I felt confident that I would not be run down in the day time since I was a stationary target and quite visible with all sail set.  Later on, I added a chafe patch to the #3 genoa where it sometimes contacts the spreaders.  I read a book and wrote in my journal and log–things that I don’t always do as often as I would like when I am underway.  And, I spent some time just appreciating this totally peaceful day out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico!  It really was remarkably calm.  The only ripples on the surface of the water were caused by great schools of 18-24 inch long fish–mackerel, I think.  A couple of schools came close enough for me to see the fish closely–clearly suspended against a background of deep blue Gulf water, but I am not an expert in identifying fish and I had no fish guide onboard.

A little breeze came up towards sunset.  It was a southwesterly, making my course closehauled.   Through the night the wind veered around to the west.  Since there were large numbers of fishing boats, I let Cavendysh follow the wind around until we were sailing slightly north, which kept several miles between us and the fishing fleet.  At one point during the night, though, I awoke to find that we were headed north.  The wind had switched all the way around to the northwest.  The fishing fleet was only a loom on the horizon, so I tacked over and set the windvane on a course directly for Garden Key.

Approaching Garden Key
Approaching the Dry Tortugas.

The next day the wind changed back to the west, keeping us closehauled and barely laying our course.  At least there was wind!  We closed the final 50 miles in fine style, making 4 knots or better all the way.  I spotted land about 3 hours before sunset.  There isn’t much to see from seaward at the Dry Tortugas–the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key and Fort Jefferson are the only things that really stood out.  The rest of the cays are barely above water and there are very few trees.  I started the engine and motorsailed the final 5 miles to ensure that I would make an anchorage before dark and to replace some of the battery charge that I had used during the passage.

Fort Jefferson at sunset
Fort Jefferson at sunset

I followed the well-marked channel into a wide, sandy anchorage that already held three other cruising boats.  It was just getting dark as I was preparing to drop the hook and I asked one of the boats that was already there if there were any obstructions that he knew of.  There weren’t, so I went off a courteous distance and dropped the hook and sails in the very last bit of twilight.  As I tidied up the boat and set my anchor light a few fishing boats came in and anchored farther to the south of where I was.  Soon there were 6 of them running generators and bright lights.  The crews were talking, smoking, and cleaning gear.  I was happy that I hadn’t anchored in that corner of the anchorage!  It had taken me just over 48 hours to sail 90 short miles.  It had been a relaxing passage, but I was still very much looking forward to an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

View of Fort Jefferson from first night's anchorage
The view of Fort Jefferson from my first night’s anchorage

When I awoke the next morning my first order of business was to shift the boat over to the anchorage at Garden Key so that I could be close enough to dinghy ashore.

Inflating the dinghy
Inflating my dinghy in the cockpit–just enough room!

I anchored across from the ferry dock on a sandy bottom in about 25 feet of water, putting out a 10 kg Rocna anchor on 33 feet of chain and about 125 feet of nylon rode.  There was plenty of swinging room with only three other boats in the anchorage and my only other concern was the federal mooring buoy, to which I had a little less 200 feet of clearance, but only when I swung directly towards it.   I inflated my dinghy for use for the first time since leaving  Dunkirk, NY.  I couldn’t believe that I had made it this far without using the dinghy!  I had only inflated it a couple of times to clean it and to play around while my boat was moored in Goodland.  Other than that, it had just been something that I stepped on each time I had to get anything out of the forward cabin.  I think of it as a pool toy rather than a serious dinghy, but it stows compactly, is light, and was cheap (used!)–all things that appealed to me when I set out, since I wasn’t really planning on making such a long voyage!

Dinghy on the beach at Garden Key
Cavendysh is the middle boat in the background–behind her dinghy

I was almost put off visiting the Dry Tortugas after having read an article in a Marco Island local paper that made it sound as if there were too many rules and permits for the visit to be an enjoyable experience.  The article said that tenders were prohibited in the park.  Well, how are visiting boaters supposed to go ashore?  That didn’t sound right, so I looked up the rules on the National Park Service website.  My eyes glazed over after a few minutes reading about permits and prohibitions, so I just decided to go to see how bad it really was.

My visit to the Dry Tortugas turned out to be a delightful experience–really a highlight of the trip so far.  The park rangers were friendly and helpful.  I was met soon after having landed my dinghy on the beach (I tied my dinghy to the sign indicating where dinghies ought to be landed) by a ranger who directed me over to the pier where the ferry lands to fill out my permit and pay a fee.  The fee was only $5 per week per person–very reasonable, I thought–and the permit was filled out while a ranger told me a few of the most important rules (don’t swim in the channel, don’t anchor on coral, call a ranger before visiting the other cays) and told me the best spots to fish and snorkel.  The whole process was totally painless and the rules didn’t seem nearly as onerous as the web had made them sound.  Fort Jefferson was really worth the trip.  It contains about 6 million bricks, which is an impressive sight to behold, and is the most modern fort of its’ type in existence–really the pinnacle of masonry-shielded fort technology.  Advancements in gun technology rendered the fort obsolete before it was finished.  There is a good collection of written history in the visitor’s center, which is also air-conditioned and a good place to spend the heat of the day.  If one prefers to have a guided tour it is easy to tag along behind a group of ferry passengers as they get shown around the fort.   Speaking of the ferry–it offers a sandwich buffet lunch for $5, which includes a make-your-own sandwich (the chicken salad is very good), fruit, cookies, chips, and a drink.  The ferry is also the only place to use toilets during the day.  Remember that all waste needs to be packed out of the park.  There are no trash receptacles on the island.

I spent four memorable days in the Dry Tortugas–much longer than the overnight that I had originally planned.  Below are some scenes from around Fort Jefferson.

Entrance to Fort Jefferson
The main entrance to the Fort
Fort Jefferson wall
A view from the top of the Fort Jefferson walls
Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson
The old lighthouse on the top of the wall of Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson moat
A view of the moat at Fort Jefferson
Coral at Fort Jefferson
A view of the clear waters over the moat wall at Fort Jefferson, with Loggerhead Key in the distance.

Goodbye to Goodland

Goodland sunset
Sunset over the mangroves of Goodland, FL

Now for the hardest part of a trip like this–leaving.  I have made quite a few close friends here over the past months and it breaks my heart a little to have to let them go.  I never know when I might see them again, though, so the goodbyes never seem final.  I try to keep in touch with everyone, but of course some relationships will fade with time.  There are equally as many that will remain bright and will continue on without skipping a beat when I meet up with the people again in some far-off time and place.  I treasure those moments–the chance or planned meetings of people that I have loved and had to leave behind.

For now I have to get underway before the day fades.  I want to be well offshore before I lose the light so that I can enjoy the dark and the stars rather than being nervous about unseen hazards.  I will be sailing straight from here to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas–a straight-line distance of about 120 miles.  The wind looks fair and light.  It should be an uneventful passage.

I have no idea what adventures may await beyond the horizon and the excitement dulls the pain of leaving.  What a strong mix of emotion!  There is the fresh pull of leaving mixed heavily with the temptation to stay.  It all leaves me feeling very alive even through the sadness.

I hope that I leave everyone’s lives a little better for having been a part of them.  I know that mine is better for having shared moments with those around me.

No trust fund here!

Yesterday the Calusa Yacht Club docks were swarmed by a group of powerboats from a Fort Meyers yacht club out for their annual week-long booze cruise down the coast. This is their opportunity to get out on the water so that they can say that they do actually use their boats.

Haughty neighbor at Calusa Island Marina
There are all sorts of boats out there. The tall cruiser behind the offensive Fountain is 42 feet long, for some perspective.

A large, fast Fountain docked next to my boat. The couple onboard immediately kicked back in the shade with cold drinks and began poking at their smart phones. The woman asked if there was a Whole Foods market nearby because I was provisioning my boat and throwing out a few old paper bags, which she had obviously spied in my cockpit. I told her that the nearest one was in Naples, and that the nearest supermarket to the marina was the Publix about four miles away. She was disappointed because they hadn’t brought their bicycles with them and weren’t willing to walk that distance. Seizing the opportunity to be helpful, I looked up local taxis in an area guide that my neighbor had laying around and discovered that there aren’t really any taxi services on Marco Island. There are limos that make airport runs, but that is about it. I let her know what I had found, and that segued into a polite introductory conversation.

This is when my opinion of them took a nosedive. It was one question in particular that really rankled me–after being asked where I am from (born in Australia, lived here for a long time though), and where I am going (sailing up the east coast from here), the next thing out of her mouth was, “What are you–some kind of spoiled rich brat out playing with your parent’s money?” Standing on my tiny boat looking up at them on their huge, fuel-guzzling speedboat I was incredulous!

I responded politely, telling them that I had saved for a long time to be able to make this trip; that I watched my pennies and that lived on a small amount of money.  I was a bit upset by the thoughtless phrasing of the Fountain lady’s question, but certainly didn’t let on.  I ended the conversation there.  That lady had no idea whether there may have been something else that I may have done to have made her life better, like arranging a ride to the store, or not, but she removed any possibility of that happening by uttering a few callous words.

That lady shares what seems to be a common outside view of what it takes to live on a small sailboat and go cruising.  However, I am here because it is one of the least expensive ways that I can think of to live–my boat cost about the same as a good used car, and my expenses are bare-bones.  I usually cook onboard and do all of my own maintenance.  On a good month, that keeps my expenses to around only two hundred dollars.  The Fountain in the next slip over could burn more than that in fuel in an hour of running.

I have become much more sensitive to how others feel in the past few years.   This has really taken the edge off of what I will let out of my mouth when around others that I don’t think that I will ever see again.  Now I treat everyone like I might be their neighbor again someday.  In this boating life, that may indeed be the case.  I treat this as one more reminder to always be mindful of what I say and how I treat strangers, and also as a strong reminder of how others perceive my current lifestyle.

Sweet Serendipity

Water Pump
Broken vane on my water pump

It is with surprising frequency that a chance series of events has led to an unexpectedly favorable outcome on this trip.  It was on a whim that I decided to inspect my water pump last week, for instance, and that one small decision resulted in more positive developments than I ever would have guessed when I first started to loosen the screws that hold down the engine cover.

I originally intended to change the oil in the engine on that day, but after I opened the cockpit floor and peered into the oily pool of water that had accumulated beneath the engine in the drip pan I changed my mind and decided to begin the day by emptying and cleaning the drip pan.  That task accomplished with the aid of a drill-powered pump I began to realize that it really was finally time to address the leaky engine cooling water pump that had caused the buildup of water in the first place.  I had known about and been ignoring the leak ever since October back on Lake Sinclair.  It only leaked when the engine was running, so it wasn’t a big deal, but it is a real pain to pump out and clean the engine drip pan due to the limited access.  The engine also leaks oil from everywhere (I look at it as a corrosion protection “feature”), and that oil is much easier to clean up if it isn’t floating around on a pool of water.

Engine work
Water pump project as seen from the cabin

I removed the pump from the engine, a task that necessitated the removal of the secondary fuel filter mount for access to the fasteners that hold the pump to the engine due to the tight clearance between the engine and the hull.  The entire removal process took almost three hours even though detaching the pump itself really only required removal of two bolts and two hoses.  Tight quarters slowed the work considerably, though now I know the process and could do it again in an hour–still longer than I would like if I ever had to repair the pump under emergency conditions.

Once the pump was out and the cover removed I could see that it was a good thing that I had finally undertaken this project because I discovered the broken vane that can be seen in the first picture in this post.  The pump was very close to total failure!  Luckily I caught it before it lost any pieces, as broken pieces from the failed vane would have caused quick failure of the remaining vanes as they were pushed around inside the pump.  They eventually would have broken into pieces small enough to pass into the engine where they could have become lodged in the cooling passages and caused further cooling problems.

I completely cleaned and rebuilt the pump, replacing the leaky shaft seals that had been the original source of concern, and also the defective impeller.  That impeller was supposed to have been new when I bought the boat.  The previous owner told me that he had asked a mechanic to replace it.  I find it hard to believe that a new impeller only lasted 150 hours!  Anyway, now I know for sure that all of the important parts of that pump are new and I will sail from here with some additional peace of mind.

So, my impulse decision to look into something that wasn’t really on the agenda for that day possibly saved me from some future disaster.  That pump could have failed while I was approaching a bridge with a strong tail current, or when I was trying to leave a harbor with the wind setting me onto a deadly breakwater…  I can let my imagination run wild on that one.  Maybe an even happier development was the friendly group of people that I met when I took the boat out to test the repairs, but that is a whole other story!

Made it to Marco Island

Birds on the Beach-Marco Island, FL

I thought that I knew what Florida was like.  I had been up and down the east coast by car as far south as Key Largo, and had made a couple of trips around the Orlando area to visit my grandmother and to go flying at Quest air park, so I thought that I had a good grip on the “feel” of Florida before starting out across Mobile Bay from Dog River to travel down the west coast of Florida on the Gulf ICW.  I figured that the coast would all be low and muddy, that there would be plenty of retirement communities and trailer parks, and that the water would be shallow.  I was right about most of those things, but the “feel” of the west coast of Florida is distinctly different than that of the east coast.

The east coast of Florida draws people from the east coast of the northern states, and from other big cities.  It has a big-city feel.  The people remind me of New England.  It is bustling and commercial and filled with traffic.  When I lived in Georgia and used to drive south to visit some of the coastal Florida towns on the weekend I used to think that I could go no farther south than Georgia because once I crossed the Florida border I was back up north again.

The Gulf coast, however, is a bit quieter.  It seems that most of the people who winter over or vacation on the west coast of Florida come from the midwest section of the US, and bring with them their midwest mannerisms, accents, and attitudes.  I feel more likely to randomly strike up a conversation with friendly strangers here on the west coast than out east.  The towns are less bustling and more laid-back, which makes me feel more at ease.  All in all, the west coast has been a very pleasant surprise and I hope to visit again.

Some Floridian details are the same on both coasts to remind me that I am still in Florida, such as the large back-lit street signs, and loads of retirees, or “Q-tips” (for their white hair and white sneakers), as a friend of mine likes to call the seas of oldsters in the Retirement, I mean Sunshine State.