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The Bahamas – do they really want us here?

We spent three weeks in Key West and, if you haven’t been there, you should go.  We were very impressed with how accommodating the town is.  Everything is either within walking distance or accessible via the bus line.  This is especially important for cruisers who typically have no form of land transportation.  We enjoyed exploring during the day and we did the obligatory pub crawls on a couple evenings as well.  At some point we both realized we were beginning to see the same people on the bus.  Once we started recognizing the locals it was time to go!

We scheduled a visit by the mobile pump-out boat, made a trip to the fuel docks to top off our diesel tanks, stocked up on groceries and on April 20th, headed for the Bahamas.

We had heard horror stories about crossing the Gulf Stream and I’m sure it can get very rough, but we followed a cold front and actually had a great crossing.  Our forecast was for moderate to very light winds, so we expected to have to motor most of the way.  Turns out we had great winds with calm seas and were able to sail almost the entire trip.  Ddraig is a big, heavy boat but at times we were actually doing over 10 knots with help from the gulf stream currents

We put out a line and caught our first keeper – a dolphin fish (Mahi Mahi).

it’s a keeper!!

We dropped anchor almost exactly 24 hours after we left Key West at North Cat Cay.  Since it was Easter Sunday, we were pretty sure Customs and Immigration wouldn’t be open, so we raised our Q flag and settled in.  After a bit of research, we discovered Easter Monday is also a holiday so we didn’t attempt to check in until Tuesday. 

On Tuesday morning, we gathered up our paperwork, passports and money, put the dinghy in the water and headed in.   As soon as we pulled up to the marina, a gentleman in a golf cart comes driving up demanding to know what we wanted.  Once we explained that we needed to check in he told us it would be $112 for the marina fee.  Seems Cat Cay is a private island and there’s a fee to go onto the island.  This is above the normal fee for a cruising permit which for our boat is $300.  We decided not to pay and told him we would check in elsewhere.

We chose to sail to Chub Cay for our check in.  Between Cat Cay and Chub Cay is the Great Bahama Bank.  The banks are very shallow but there are well documented routes that are used to safely cross.  We left Cat Cay on Tuesday afternoon with very little wind.  We motor sailed until around midnight then took down the sails.  We ended up anchoring for a few hours out on the banks which was actually pretty cool.  At sunrise we pulled up the anchor to finish our journey to Chub Cay. 

At Chub, we anchored just outside the marina entrance off a beautiful little resort beach.  Once we were confident the anchor was holding well, we headed into the marina in search of Customs and Immigration.  A very nice gentleman took our dinghy line, tied us up and promptly informed us that within the last two weeks Chub had also instituted the same $112 fee!  Well crap!!  At least this guy was friendly and said we could drop off our trash and they would provide a ride to the airport.  We decided to pay up and get it over with.  Afterwards I asked if there was a restaurant where we could eat.  I was informed they did have a restaurant but only for marina guests.  Our paltry fee didn’t afford us access.

At least we were now legally in the country and could leave the boat.  For the next couple of days we explored two nearby uninhabited islands and snorkeled.

Private resort on Chub-guess who is in all their sunset pics!

Next stop was Highborne Cay where we found some of that Bahamian hospitality we’d heard about!  Highborne is also a private island but has a marina with a dinghy dock, trash disposal ($5 fee per bag), a small (and very pricy) store, fuel dock and a restaurant that is welcoming to visitors. There was also internet access until lightening struck the tower while we were there.  A short dinghy ride from Highborne took us to Allans Cay.

Allans is famous for the Iguanas that live free on the island.  The adults are about the size of a small dog and since visitors feed them, they run out onto the beach to greet you when you pull up.  I found it a little bit creepy but very cool.  There are a number of small islands that make up Allans with numerous beautiful little beaches and some decent snorkeling.  After a couple of days, we headed off in search of internet so we could upload our blog and let the family know we were still alive.

Allans Cay Iguanas

Our next stop was Normans Cay.  Unfortunately, they are on the same cell tower as Highborne so still no internet but beautiful beaches and a bar!  McDuff’s is hidden behind some vacation rentals and is also a restaurant offering lunch and dinner.  After a few very, very expensive drinks we dinghied back to Ddraig for dinner.

Our normal routine in the evening is to turn on the generator for an hour and make water.  Once we turn off the generator, we leave the engine room door open to allow everything to cool before I make dinner.  We have to remove the galley steps in order to open the engine room door leaving an approximately 3 foot drop from the saloon to the galley.  That night our timing was a little off.  I made dinner when we got back to the boat and we ate while we were running the generator.  After dinner, I made some rum and pineapple drinks and we went on deck to watch the sunset.  When I came back down it was after dark and I didn’t realize we had never put the galley steps back in.  I usually go down the steps backwards if I’m carrying anything (I had our drink glasses in my hands) so I suddenly found myself laying flat on my back on the galley floor.  Fortunately, I didn’t really hurt myself but we both realized it could have been very bad.  We’ve now added a rope that goes across the entryway any time the stairs are out.

The next day brought pretty high winds so we stayed aboard and enjoyed the view of the mega yachts at anchor.  Rumor has it the 358 foot yacht in the distance belongs to the owner of the Miami Dolphins. 

this thing is massive!!

Time to plan our next hop which will take us to Warderick Wells and the Exuma Land and Sea Park.

Key West – WOW!

We enjoyed our time in Fort Myers Beach.  While the choice of anchorages is limited, there are mooring balls available.  We were anchored just outside the channel in Matanzas Pass.  This is a very busy pass that provided lots of entertainment without causing the boat to rock too much to be comfortable. 

There is a dinghy dock nearby and we only had to walk a few blocks to catch the free trolley that basically circles the island.  We were able to catch the trolley to a Publix for grocery shopping and to the laundry.  There are several restaurants nearby with dinghy docks as well as marinas with fuel and boat stores.  The beach is gorgeous and was very busy as it was spring break time.  There are lots of little shops, restaurants and bars where you can sit with a drink and people watch.

We tried fishing in our anchorage without any luck but were able to stag some coconuts as they floated by.

Catch of the day

After a week, it was time to head out.  We left for Key West on Friday, (I know, I know, leaving on Friday is supposed to be bad luck) March 29th, since according to Predict Wind the wind conditions would be perfect. 

We had a good downwind sail for about 2 hours, complete with a dolphin visit, before the winds started to die.  After bobbing along at 3 knots for awhile we started the motor.  We ended up having to motor the rest of the way as the winds completely died.  On the plus side, seas were flat, so we were very comfortable.  We put out a lure but had no luck catching a fish.

It was getting dark as we approached Key West and since we never want to go into an unfamiliar area after dark, we decided to stay out over night and go in the next day.  There were numerous fishing and shrimp boats around, so we actually went back out quite a way to avoid them.  We ended up heaving to (which means using your sails and rudder to basically stop the boat) and waiting until morning.  As we were approaching Key West the next day, we had to dodge a lot of crab pots, so we were really glad we hadn’t attempted it in the dark.

Key West is one busy place!!  There are all kinds of boats taking tourists out sightseeing or fishing, pleasure craft and sea-doos zipping around everywhere.  There are even floating tiki hut bars.

Busy Key West

There are two main anchorages, one off Wisteria Island and one off of Fleming Key.  We had heard Fleming Key was the safer of the two, so we headed there and dropped our anchor.  I’m not sure why but both of us sort of felt that getting to Key West is a major milestone and in some strange way marks the real beginning of our cruising life.

The Blue Angels were in town putting on an air show, so we enjoyed the show as well as a beautiful sunset view from the boat.  The next morning, we put the dinghy in the water and motored around the anchorage taking in the sights.  My first time seeing a boat with a portable storage building alongside!  Seeing this did make me feel better about hanging our laundry in the cockpit to dry.

There goes the neighborhood

We made our way to shore and purchased a temporary tag that allows us to use the dinghy dock (along with dropping off garbage and getting fresh water if needed) and started to explore.  We decided to get a one-day trolley ticket and ride it around the island to get a general idea where everything was located.  The trolley driver provides a narrative as you go along so we learned a lot about the island.

Key West is a very interesting place!  The island seems to be divided in half with Old Town being the tourist area and New Key West being the “normal” side of the island – meaning that is where you will find the Home Depot, Publix, etc.  We go ashore at least every other day and explore the Old Town shops and bars.  If you don’t mind walking, you can get to everything in Old Town by foot.  Don’t worry, if you get hungry or thirsty there are restaurants and bars everywhere you turn!  Evenings on the boat are normally spent with a glass of wine enjoying the breeze in the cockpit, watching the sunset, listening to music and reading.

Evening view from the cockpit

We’ve also tried fishing from the boat, but we must be anchored in a fish nursery since we can only catch baby fish.  One day we took the dinghy to fish near some mangroves and Russell caught a shark! We threw it back but later realized it was one we could have kept and eaten.  Oh well, next time.

SHARK!!!

So far since leaving Kemah, we’ve gone 1374 nautical miles but as always, we’re starting to think about where we’re going next so we’re beginning to look at routes and watch weather conditions. 

Next stop?   Probably the Bahamas!

Fort Myers – only a month late

Pensacola was great and we were even able to meet up with some old friends I went to school with who now live there.  But we needed to get moving.  We pulled anchor at 5 pm on Thursday, March 17, for a short overnight run to Panama City.  Winds were light and seas were calm so we had to motor almost the entire way.  On the plus side, I wasn’t seasick at all (yeah me!).   We anchored in Bunkers Cove off St Andrews bay which was beautiful and well protected.  We didn’t go ashore but could still see a lot of damage from hurricane Michael. 

So long Pensacola – thanks for the safe haven

On Thursday, the 22nd, we left for Ft Myers – which, of course, was our original destination when we left Kemah last month.  We pulled anchor at 7 am and made our way back out into the Gulf.  Winds were 15 to 20 knots with 3 to 5 foot seas from behind making for very rolly conditions but we were sailing along around 5 ½ to 6 knots with the main and jib. 

We were visited by several different pods of dolphins that would play by the boat for long periods of time before disappearing again.  We saw a large sea turtle that appeared to be sleeping on top of the water.  I guess we interrupted his nap because as we got closer he swam a bit and then dove.  We were also surprised to see a number of small birds that far off shore.  A couple of which landed on our boat and then died.  Russell tried to give one some fresh water and even though it drank some it didn’t make it.  Our best guess is that they were Purple Martins migrating up from Central America.

At one point we did, kind of, maybe, sort of, sail through a little bit of the bombing area used by the military.  At least that’s what we think the guy in the fighter jet was trying to tell us as he zoomed by.

On my 3 to 6 am watch Friday morning I was seasick again because I stupidly forgot to take another Bonine (will try not to let that happen again!) but thankfully the seas settled down and I was able to recover.  Unfortunately that was because the wind died. So after a few hours of poking along at 3 knots, we started up Old Blue and motor sailed what turned out to be the rest of the way into Ft Myers.

Saturday was a beautiful sunny day of motor sailing.  We put out a lure and within a short period of time  caught our very first fish, a Mackerel.  Since our Florida fish ID book cautions against eating them (potential for ciguatera or parasites – YUCK) we threw it back.  Our next fish was a tuna!!! Well, it was actually a Little Tunny or Bonito which is only rated as bait fish in our trusty book so, back into the water it went.  At any rate, it was a beautiful fish.  As we got closer to Ft Myers we began so see crab pots so brought in the lure.

Beautiful fish too bad they aren’t good to eat

There are limited anchorages shown in the guidebooks but we choose Matanzas Pass which is directly behind Ft Myers Beach.  Since our mast is somewhere around 62 feet and the bridge clearance is 65 we planned to anchor just before the bridge.  We were coming through this very narrow channel just at sunset and the first thing I see is a sailboat laid over on its side.  Didn’t give me the warm fuzzies I have to say!  But we were able to drop our anchor in a small unoccupied spot barely outside the channel just as it was getting dark. 

Holy crap it’s shallow just over there!

Successful passage so now dinner of spaghetti with wine, lots of wine!

Figuring out life on the hook

Being newbies to this cruising life, every day is a learning experience. 

We’re currently anchored in English Navy Cove near Pensacola.  This has proven to be not only a beautiful but cruiser friendly anchorage as Shoreline Park has a boat launch where we can tie up our dinghy.

Shoreline Park

Due to the issue with the leaking window, we had quite a bit of damp/dirty laundry.   Way more than we wanted to hand wash aboard.  We were able to dinghy across the bay to a day use dock and, after only walking a little over a city block with our backpacks full of dirty clothes, found a coin operated laundry. 

We’re also big fans of Uber!!  We can schedule a pickup right at the boat launch for longer trips such as grocery shopping or the inevitable trip to West Marine.

Our days have been spent on the normal day to day chores as well as fixing the issues we had from our gulf crossing.  Russell was able fabricate and weld a new piece to fix the broken stay.  I’ve resealed all of the windows on the forward half of the boat.  We added latches to some of the cabinets that wouldn’t stay closed and I made lee cloths for the bunks.  We’ve also ordered a painfully expensive part for the autopilot. 

welding on boats

There is a full service marina across the bay so we pulled anchor, motored over and filled our tanks with diesel and fresh water.  We were also able to pump out the holding tanks. We came back and re-anchored in the same spot to wait for our autopilot part.  Unfortunately, there now seems to have been an issue with the shipping. Our original plan was to have it dropped off at a local UPS office near the park. When we called in the order the vendor told us they only ship FedEx so we changed the delivery address to a FedEx office. Turns out they shipped it UPS which will not be accepted at a FedEx office. We attempted to have it re-routed but for some reason just received an email shipping notice that it was routed back to the vendor. I guess this is just a small preview of what we can expect if we have to wait for deliveries once we’re in the islands so we might as well chill out here while we wait. Chill out being more than just an expression in our case as it was in the 30s last night! Ready to get moving south.

Our first Gulf crossing (well sort of)

Saturday, departure day.  I think we’re both a little anxious and just want to get started, so we are up early.  Of course, we’re fogged in.  We spend a few hours listening to weather reports, second guessing our route and securing items that had already been secured just to work off some of the nervous energy. 

Still fogged in but no problem, the weather man says it will burn off around 10 am.  We’re anchored about an hour away from the Gulf via clearly marked channels so just before 10 we crank up the motor and head out.  As we slowly make our way toward the Gulf, the fog is still not lifting.  According to our AIS and radar we were surrounded by ships, but we couldn’t actually see them.

Leaving Galveston Bay

The plan was to leave Galveston and enter the Gulf heading south. We would skirt the fairways to avoid drilling rigs then turn east to Fort Myers, Florida.  The wind is expected to be on our nose, but minimal, for the run south with waves up to two meters.  There is a cold front expected in a couple of days which would bring high winds from the north and we wanted to get below that.

About a half hour after entering the Gulf the fog lifted but the swells built.  Swell may not be the correct term; a better description would be washing machine effect.  They were coming from all directions of varying heights and with the wind on our nose the boat was rocking and rolling.  About that time my seasickness kicked in.  I got Russell to put a patch on me which proved to be a grave error.  I have never used the patch before and must have had some type of reaction to it because for the next 3 days I was passed out, waking up only to sip water and throw up.

Russell basically became a single hander.  Amazingly he had cell service for a short period about a 150 miles out and was able to post a picture on Facebook.  He saw some dolphins, a meteor and big waves.  I think he was enjoying the challenge and having a great time!

On Sunday afternoon he had to cross the shipping lane which was so busy, he had to wait for five ships to pass before he could cross.   Later he decided to put out the jib as he had been motor sailing with just the main and wanted to give the motor a break. 

Gulf Sailing

A few hours later, the winds increased and all hell broke loose!

I remember waking up to the boat heeled over and hearing water.  I got up and looked in the bathroom to see water pouring in through the window. As I was trying to make my way up on deck the bilge alarm went off, so I just opened the cabinet and started pumping away with the manual bilge pump.  I still have no idea what is going on because I’d been passed out for two days at this point.

Meanwhile, Russell hears a loud bang and the jib sail went slack. The whisker stay, which is a rod under the bow sprit at the front of the boat, had broken.  He had to hurry and get the sails down to take the pressure off of the rigging.

The purpose of the whisker stay is to hold up the mast and rigging.  Without it we could have lost all of our rigging.  Fortunately, he was able use lines to tie off the mast. He disconnected the bottom of our roller furler and tied it off.  He also had to take the anchor off to reduce the weight on the bow.  He then checked the window found half of the seal was missing which had caused the water that was coming into the boat when we were heeled over.

Distance wise, the closest option would have been to head north however, due to the cold front coming down, that have meant bashing directly into waves and wind.  This would have put too much pressure on the temporary fix to the rigging so Russell made the decision to continue on the Ft Myers.

I was only able to stay awake long enough to give him a short break so, through all of this. he had been functioning by taking periodic 15 minute naps.  I am amazed and grateful he was able to analyze and implement the fix to our rigging!

The patch that I had put on was supposed to work for three days so on Monday I began to be able to stay awake for more than a few minutes.  I guess the fact that I still had the damn thing on just shows how out of it I was.  Once I took it off, I was able to begin to function even though I was still a little nauseous.

We were still running south to protect our rigging as much as possible.  Because we couldn’t put any up sail to stabilize us, the boat was rolling and pitching in every direction imaginable.  Anything not tied down was flying everywhere including us.  At one point a full bottle of laundry detergent flew out of a cabinet and spilled across the salon floor.  Cleaning that up while sliding back and forth across the floor was an experience I don’t ever want to repeat.

On the plus side, we did get close enough to Cuba to catch a radio station!  Finally the winds turned enough that we could start to head northeast to meet our original track.  Although it was still very rough and hard to move around the boat, we had a couple of beautiful hot (almost 90 degree) days with a full moon at night. We had still hoped to get to the east coast of Florida but since that would have required bashing into the wind and waves, later we chose to head for the panhandle.

Looking out and seeing nothing but open water as far as the eye can see, with you in a small boat, is pretty awe-inspiring.  There were more dolphins and lots of Portuguese Man of War jellies.  We probably motored a few hundred miles north before seeing the first deep water oil platform.  These things are impressive!  While passing one of these platforms, the autopilot suddenly wanted to turn us then gave an error message.  After numerous attempts to fix it, we realized we would be hand steering the rest of the way.  Twenty or so hours of switching off every two to three we were near Pensacola.

Dolphins
Rig

Of course, this trip ended just as it began – in pea soup fog.  Using the charts, peering through the fog for the next marker and fighting a very strong outgoing current, we made our way behind Pensacola beach into English Navy Cove and dropped the anchor after five days at sea.

Now we’ll get some rest, fix what we broke and plan the next leg of this adventure!

We cut the dock lines!

Well, its that time.  We’ve checked off all the items on our to do list, made a few sea trial runs, provisioned, filled up with fuel and water, loaded up the dingy and taken the final trip to Lake Charles to say “so long” to family. 

The plan is to anchor for a few days in Galveston monitoring Predict Wind to finalize our crossing route and departure date.

People keep asking if I’m nervous and the answer is “OF COURSE!”.  This will be the longest trip we’ve taken, our first overnight sailing and it will be just the two of us.  But, we’ve prepared Ddraig, and ourselves, as well as we could.  Other than hiring experience crew to go with us, which would change the whole experience, there really isn’t anything else we could do to be better prepared. 

I know there will be moments ahead that are scary, exhausting, lonely, hot, cold or just plain bad.  But I’m also sure there will be moments that are exhilarating, peaceful, beautiful and simply amazing. 

Time to take that giant leap and just go!  Next update should be from the other side of the Gulf…

taking on fuel
cut that line

Are we ever getting out of here??

Our original plan was to retire in October 2017 and start our sailing adventure shortly thereafter.  Unfortunately, I had an iffy mammogram result which required monitoring and then Irma & Maria tore up the Caribbean.  We decided to postpone for a year so I could get a definite diagnosis (which fortunately turned out okay) and to give time for the anchorages to be cleared of debris.

You would think, given that we had an extra year to prep, we would have been ready.  Not so much!  We really spent that time focused more on making all the purchases we thought we would need, such as the electronics, and building up the cruising kitty than completing actual work. 

Fast forward to mid-2018 when both of us finally left our jobs and made the move onto the boat with full intention of being able to leave by the end of November.  As we jumped into boat work, it became clear that my hands were not up to the task.  I had known for quite some time that I had carpul tunnel issues but didn’t realize how bad they were and how little grip strength I had.  Crap, surgery on both hands which put me out of commission for a while.  Russell continued knocking major items off our list but there are some things that take two sets of hands. We also took a trip to visit our kids/grands in California which took us away from the boat for three weeks, but we were still trying to leave by year end.

As they say, anything on a boat takes twice as much money and time as you planned for so it’s now mid-January and we’re still here!!  We think we’re pretty much done with all the major boat projects unless something shows up during our sea trials.  Personally, I think Ddraig is readier than we are.  We’ve been so focused on boat mechanics/electricians/carpenters/etc, we now need to remember how to be sailors. I told Russell last night I was no longer telling anyone when we were leaving (but it really is going to be soon) because I think they are starting to doubt us.