By Sunday, September 3 (Labor Day weekend) 2017 it became apparent that Hurricane Irma was taking aim on Florida, with the Keys as a certain first landfall. This was the worst case scenario that I had dreaded and had hoped would not happen during our stay here. No hurricane had come near the Keys since 2005’s “Wilma.” Twelve years! Couldn’t we have just one more? The answer was No. By the time it is certain that a hurricane is going to hit you, it is too late to get a slow moving sailboat out of its way. This is the reason sailboats should not be in a hurricane zone during the season. I broke this rule, and now I had to pay for it.
We planned to evacuate on Wednesday, so that gave me just a couple of days to prepare Swedish Fish for what may very well have been the greatest challenge of her 39 year life. I know she has seen many other hurricanes over those years, but could any compare to this – a direct hit of Category 4 force with very little shelter to be had?
On Monday 9/4 I set to work immediately after dropping Dana off at work. I worked like mad all day, and the heat was incredible. The first thing I did was run to West Marine and buy one of the two remaining 44 pound Rocna anchors they had in stock; I knew they would both sell this week, and I didn’t intend to be the one left without. I also bought a couple more shackles, a chain hook, 40 feet of ¾” nylon rope and a matching eye thimble. The previous Saturday I had purchased 150’ of 5/16” chain from a friend of mine. I got home, spliced the thimble into the line (which would serve as a snubber for the anchor chain) and put all this together for a hefty ground tackle ensemble I anticipated to be essential for the coming hurricane.
I carried the kayak off the boat, and took it by dock cart to a secluded spot behind the marina building where I tied it down and left it. I dropped the jib, folded it (with help) and put it in the dock box. I wrapped the jib halyard in a spiral around the forestay before making it fast, and then pulled it tight at the mast. That way it would not be caught by the wind at all. I pulled off the mainsail and the sail pack. Because of design faults, this is an extremely difficult task. (I will be correcting those faults before the sail pack goes back on.) I spiral-wrapped the main halyard around the mast in a fashion similar to what I had done with the jib halyard. I had to keep a towel with me all day to continually wipe off the profusion of sweat from running into my eyes. I removed the massive whisker pole which normally stows vertically along the mast. I laid it down on the deck to further reduce windage.
I also began packing on this day. I only packed what I really needed, plus all my personal electronics (laptop, micro-desktop computer, tablet, etc.). I brought my basic tool bag, but all other tools and instruments stayed with the boat. There was not room or time to pack them. It made me very sad to think that I would probably lose not only Swedish Fish, but also everything else I owned on her. But beyond that, I was fearful that we may not even be able to escape the Keys, what with many thousands of other people all trying to evacuate at the same time down one, skinny little highway, US1. I stopped our Netflix account, and began notifying everyone via Facebook of our evacuation plan. Dana and I were both under a great deal of physical and emotional stress.
On Tuesday 9/5 I began taking the bimini top down even before I took Dana to work at 0830. First I had to disconnect and remove a vast tangle of wiring which served the four large solar panels on top of it. With recruited help, I carried it over to the grass behind a nearby condo. Soon it was raining, but stopping work was not an option and I continued in the pouring rain. At first I’d hoped to keep all of the bimini components for reassembly later, but that turned out to be an impossibility. I had used some rivets in its construction, and there was no way to remove them cleanly and quickly. Besides, the fiberglass panels had become brittle under the harsh UV exposure. I was able to save every component but the fiberglass panels themselves. Those I snapped into small pieces and put them in the dumpster. This was another sad task, a deliberate dismantling of something I had planned, designed, bought, and painstakingly assembled myself just 18 months ago. But much bigger things were at stake, and it had to go pronto. I stowed all the solar panels below in the aft cabin. I loaned our 1600 watt generator to our dockmaster Bill (who had informed me of his plan to remain on Marathon through the storm), and he was grateful to have it. I later learned that it had been a lifesaver for him and his wife at home, keeping their refrigerator and other essentials running during the 3 day blackout that followed the storm.
That night Dana joined me in the continuation of the packing, and we got into a heated disagreement over what to bring. She insisted on bringing everything she owned, and I tried to convince her that this was folly as we were fleeing a hurricane, not “moving.” But she would not budge. I realized that the most important thing was to keep our evacuation plan on track, not whether we agreed on everything else, so I relented and we packed all of her stuff into her little Honda Civic. Each of was sane enough to recognize that we were under tremendous stress, and that we shouldn’t be terribly impressed by the fact that this would cause some friction here and there; it was dismissible.
Up until Monday my strategy to protect the boat from Irma was still not finalized. At first I even considered sailing to Cuba, but abandoned that idea when I realized that Irma was going to hit hard there too. Then I considered taking the boat back to Boot Key Harbor and putting her on a mooring. Many other boat owners were doing just that, including competent captains I knew. But there were aspects of that idea that I disliked:
- It would cost another $350 just to pay for the mooring. Three fifty isn’t much compared to the cost of losing the boat but, I had already spent hundreds of dollars making other preparations, we needed more for our evacuation trip, and the bank account was getting low. We were also less than a month away from our planned departure from the Keys, and what little I had saved was supposed to help finance that voyage.
- It’s five miles of solo offshore sailing to get back there from Bonefish Marina, and I’d have to manage picking up the mooring by myself too. This is a sometimes tricky maneuver even with two people on board.
- Getting on a mooring would be no guarantee of safety. There are 300 moorings in that harbor, and a couple hundred more boats at anchor. I figured the odds of a few of them breaking loose in a major hurricane were pretty good, and if so, they would then wreak havoc on every boat to leeward. I didn’t like that idea.
There was an alternative. Just behind Bonefish Marina, across the street, there is a series of canals, some of which have never been developed as real estate. I could take the boat there and anchor it securely, and run some lines out to the mangroves to tie off. I didn’t personally know anyone else who was planning to do this, and that made me a little uncomfortable. But I knew that this technique had worked for other boats (through history), and really nothing is ever comfortable when it comes to dealing with a hurricane. To get there I’d have to go offshore for about a half mile, and then follow the narrow canals up to the spot. I had just come back from there barely a week prior, as this is on the way to the boat yard we went to. This map shows the route and proximity of the canal anchorage to/from our slip at Bonefish Marina.
On Wednesday I began making preparations just after sunrise. I shut down the window unit AC we keep in the companionway door, and brought it into the boat. I had to reassemble the hinges on the companionway doors to put them back on. After I dropped Dana off at work I carried our dinghy outboard from the marina work shop back to the boat, and laid it inside. I asked our dockmaster Bill if he would come pick me and the dinghy up with his pickup truck later that morning after I finished mooring Swedish Fish. He agreed, and I made final preparations to motor Swedish Fish over to a canal inside Marathon to tie her down for the storm. Everyone I knew at this point was incredibly busy making their own hurricane preparations, so no one was available to help me. After what seemed like an endless list of “one last thing(s)” I finally got underway a little after 0900 and motored the boat over to the canals. The sun was blazing, and the temperature would climb to near 100 that day. The plan was for me to secure the boat, pick Dana up from a (half day) at work, and get the heck out of Dodge.
- Could I get the boat secured without complications?
- Was there enough time for all this?
- What kinds of problems would I run into?
- Would Dana get off work in time? She often doesn’t.
- Would our evacuation proceed without more problems?
- Could we negotiate the massive traffic jam and growing sense of panic sweeping over everyone?
- Would the car run OK? It was loaded to the gills with our stuff and even a 5 gallon can of gas in the trunk.
- Would our thin tires hold up to this urgent trip?
Boy was I feeling stress!
Once I picked out my canal, I eased in carefully, having very little idea of the depth, and none of any underwater obstructions. I found the spot where the main anchor should be, and dropped it. The latest forecast hurricane tracking models as of this morning were predicting that Irma would move up the east coast of Florida. That would put Marathon on the west side of Irma’s counterclockwise rotation, meaning the strongest winds would be from the north. So I pointed Swedish Fish in that direction to minimize her windage as much as possible. Down below, I closed every seacock except the one that serves the cockpit scuppers, and I double checked that every hatch was dogged down as tight as possible, and switched off all the electrical breakers. I moved things that might get tossed down to the deck, and generally made the boat ready as if she were going on a rough offshore passage.
Then I had to launch the dinghy by dragging it over the lifelines and dropping it. It weighs 110 pounds and is difficult to maneuver (out of the water) even for two people. It scooped up a few gallons of water in the process which I had to bail out. Hand over hand, foot by foot, I lowered the first 200’ mooring line into the dinghy. This was actually an anchor line I was using as a giant “dock line” which I would tie to a stout mangrove trunk. Once I had it in the dinghy, I grabbed the oars and rowed it a nice long fetch to the south (back) end of the canal, and shoved myself up into the mangrove thicket. Fortunately the mosquitoes and no-see-ums were mostly absent. My only adversaries were the oppressive heat, and the ticking clock. I found the biggest mangrove trunk I could reach, which was about the diameter of my calf. I took the end of the line that had the thimble in it and wrapped it around the trunk three times, and then passed the other end through the eye and pulled the entire 200’ through, making sure to cinch it down tight after it was all pulled. That line would never come loose from that mangrove on its own. I then rowed the remainder of the line back to SF, and brought it on board to make it fast to one of the stern cleats. While I was hastily doing that, I looked down at the dinghy and realized that I had forgotten to tie it to the boat, so it was slowly drifting away! In hindsight I might have been able to grab it with the boat hook, but in the rush of the moment all I could think to do was to empty my pockets, kick off my sandals, and jump into the canal to grab it. The canal water was warm, but it still felt a little refreshing. What next?!
Back on the boat in that heat, my soaking wet clothes were not even noticeable. I then repeated the above procedure for another long line to be attached to the opposite stern cleat: row the line over the the other side of the canal, find a big mangrove, fix the line, row back, (tie the dinghy this time!), make the line fast to the other stern cleat. Then I turned my attention to another bow anchor. I lowered the 33 pound Rocna anchor into the dinghy with fifteen feet of 5/16” chain and another 200’ of line. I rowed this anchor out to a position approximately opposite the other anchor making a “V” formation from the bow of the boat. I adjusted all of these until the boat was held by four points securely, yet loosely, in her spot. I tried to strike the balance between lines that were taut enough to keep the boat stationary, yet loose enough to allow for a possibly record-breaking tidal surge – which would come with winds in excess of 150 mph that may sustain for 24 hours. Honestly, I doubted I would ever see Swedish Fish in one piece again after this day. How can you prepare any small boat for such punishment?
I had no more suitable lines to run out. Ideally, I’d like to have six heavy lines on a boat for a hurricane tie-down, one on each corner and one going out from the beam on port and starboard. But I only had three such lines plus the anchor chain, and had to make do and pray that they would be enough. So after I’d done all I could with those, I duct taped everything and anything I thought the wind might catch. I wrapped two bands around all the lines encircling the mast, taped down the whisker pole gooseneck, taped down the pigtail for the solar panel wiring, and fully taped every seam of the companionway and the canvas covers which protect the engine instruments and cockpit speakers. I added an extra tight line around the canvas cover that protects the binnacle so that it could not blow off. I made an elaborate “X” framework of rope around the entire bimini frame so that it could not shudder at all in the wind. I lashed the whisker pole down to the deck. I put reinforced vinyl hose around every chafe point on all the mooring lines, and duct taped them into position.
Finally, I looked around and realized there was nothing more I could do. Here she sat, waiting for her punishment.
I put my tools in the dinghy and rowed to the one private dock that was in this canal. This dock was built for use of the owner of a new house that was less than half finished. But the dock did have a late model Beneteau 38 on a side tie. I didn’t like the looks of his small mooring lines or his small fenders, though the dock itself looked sturdy. This boat and dock was north of me, and it did concern me. I knew there was a good chance it would break free and then smash into Swedish Fish. But what could I do? I had made my bed, and now I had to sleep in it. Only after Irma did I realize that fate would have it all another way.
I called Bill and he came and picked me up in a few minutes. I didn’t even look back.
Back at the marina, I securely lashed the dinghy on its side, to two small trees next to the marina building. I took a shower with all my clothes on. Then I sat and waited anxiously for Dana to get off work. It was now about 12:30, and I still hadn’t heard from her. I waited another 45 minutes or so, and finally became too antsy to just sit there, so I drove to the clinic where she works and waited in the lobby for her. The clinic had installed steel shutters all the way around the building, they were battened-down. An hour went by, then another. I saw a few people pass through the eerily-quiet lobby, and each time I told them to tell Dana to “hurry up,” with a nervous laugh. I tried to distract myself with games on my phone, Facebook, and what not, but I was as nervous as a condemned man. Wouldn’t Dana please come on, so we can get on the road out of here? It wasn’t her fault. Most of the staff which were supposed to be responsible for pre-hurricane preparations had instead skipped town, evacuated already. Dana was not about to leave her patients, and her employer, in the lurch. She made sure all was taken care of, and finally, at about 1500, she came out, we got into the fully loaded car and headed straight north on US1.
At first the traffic flowed pretty smoothly, and I was relieved. But by the time we got to Tavernier Key, things had bogged down quite a bit, and we were hungry, so we ducked into Burger King there and grabbed some late lunch. When we merged back into traffic, we were just a couple of cars behind the same truck we had been in front of when we pulled into Burger King! Soon, however, traffic began moving again, and we didn’t have much more traffic problems after we escaped the Miami area. I attribute this mainly to the fact that I navigated with the Google Maps app on my phone, and opted to avoid all major highways, i.e., Interstate highways and Turnpikes. And I must say that Florida has an impressive network of secondary highways. It was smooth sailing all the way to my cousin Paula’s house in Lakeland Florida, where we spent that night.
I had hoped we could stay there until Irma passed, but as we continued to monitor the tracking forecasts, it became clear that all of Florida, including Lakeland, was going to be hit hard by Irma. So Friday (September 8) we got back in the car and headed toward Dana’s daughter’s house in Pell City, Alabama. Then we got into some real traffic jams. Even the secondary highways were jammed with vehicles, and to make matters worse, buying gasoline was extremely difficult. On several occasions we thought we would have to use that gerry can in the trunk to fill our own tank. But we decided not to do that until it was certain that it was the only option. Twice we waited in lines to buy gas only to find out that it was sold out by the time we got to the front of the line. We finally came to a gas station in the town of Perry, where cars were also wrapped around the block, and there were people out controlling the traffic flow in and out of the gas station. We waited about 20 minutes but finally got in and got our tankful, and continued north. We had few problems with traffic after that, and arrived in Pell City around 21:00 that night.
Finally we were able to rest and stop worrying about evading a hurricane. I considered even going further when I saw that Irma was headed straight for Pell City too; was she following me??
But I continued to watch the progress of Irma, obviously keenly interested in how she hit the Keys. To my defeated sadness I learned that Irma had not gone up the east coast, but instead her eye had crossed right over Big Pine and Cudjoe Keys, which are just west of Marathon Key. That meant that Marathon got hit dead-on with the dreaded northeast quadrant of the hurricane. Specifically:
- Marathon was hit with some of the highest possible winds.
- Swedish Fish was pointed the wrong way, taking those winds on her square stern instead of her streamlined bow.
But it didn’t matter really. As Irma approached, her first winds were N, NE, and ENE. That gave her anchors a nice gradually increasing pull which set them securely.
Bonefish Tower condominium had a web cam set up which we watched Saturday afternoon. We could see the waves crashing over the condo complex across the Key Colony channel (right next to our marina), and we could see the palm trees bowing way over against the screaming wind. Later that night, the camera quit of course as the hurricane knocked out both electrical power and communications networks.
Almost a year ago, at our going away party, my friends Katherine and Larry Harms gave us a special bottle of wine. It came with a cryptic message instructing us not to open it until the “worst possible moment.” Dana and I took that ominous admonition to heart, and never touched the bottle. But as we packed to evacuate, she had grabbed it without my knowledge. When I found out that she had done that, I too realized that this was the time. On the night of Saturday, September 9, we somberly opened the bottle. This was the night that Irma was going to do her worst to the Florida Keys, and our home, Swedish Fish – the boat I had put so much of my blood, sweat, tears, and money into for the past three years. The wine was bitterly dry, and somehow that seemed appropriate. We were already starting to sketch plans together for a new future without the boat; I didn’t expect her to make it.
By the time Irma’s remnants reached Pell City on Monday and Tuesday (9/11 – 9/12), all that remained of her was ordinary rain. There was no wind left.
There was little to no news out of the Florida Keys for those first couple of days after the storm. Somehow, a few people were getting some information posted to Facebook. I think they were able to do this when they drove north toward Miami and picked up a working cell network. Tragic information trickled in. Boot Key Harbor was nearly destroyed, with dozens of large yachts ripped from their moorings and tossed up into the mangroves. Some boats were left stranded right on US1. We began seeing photos of demolished mobile homes, and many buildings with roofs torn off, signs thrown to the ground, and limbs and debris piled everywhere. Marathon, like the remainder of the lower and middle Keys, had been devastated.
I desperately waited to get any information regarding the whereabouts or condition of Swedish Fish. On Tuesday NOAA started posting new satellite photos of the areas hit by Irma, starting with Key West. By early Wednesday (9/13) morning, photos of Marathon had been published, and there we could plainly see Swedish Fish sitting in the center of the canal, right where I left her, apparently undamaged!
This photo and information was shared on Facebook, and delighted cheers from family and friends everywhere went up in unison. A couple days after that, I received two more ground-level photos taken by friends, corroborating the good condition of the boat.
To provide some perspective, here is an aerial photo of Driftwood Marina & Boatyard, where Swedish Fish was on August 28. Barely two weeks later on September 11, it looked like this:
The canal where I anchored Swedish Fish is only about a half mile from this spot.
In hindsight, I’m so glad I did not take the boat to Boot Key Harbor. Two thirds of the boats there were wrecked, sunk, or thrown into the mangroves. It turned out to be one of the worst places to have a boat during Irma.
A week later we began our return trip to Marathon, arriving at sunrise on Wednesday, September 20. There were many utility workers and every sort of law enforcement and emergency response agencies abundant. This was appropriate because the need was acute. When we arrived at Bonefish Marina, things were in a sad state. The marina waters were full of pilings, boards, flotsam, and huge rotting masses of sea grass. Ashore, docks were mangled, the shore near the docks was washed out (gone), and most vegetation was either ripped out or dead. Bloated carcasses of dead iguanas lay here and there. Most boats in the marina had damage ranging from total (sunk) to cosmetic. Our dock box had come loose from its anchors, and had come to rest in the small yard behind an adjacent condo. Everything was still in it, including our jib, but all was also covered in mud and sand. The two trees that our dinghy was tied to had each snapped off at ground level, and the dinghy had been rescued by the marina staff prior to our arrival. It was sitting undamaged, in a parking spot.
Our dockmaster Bill took us and the dinghy back to the canal where Swedish Fish was anchored. He and the assistant dockmaster helped up re-launch the dinghy, and soon Dana and I were alone, back on board the boat. Everything was indeed fine. The chafing gear on almost all of the lines had shifted, but they had remained in place long enough to do their jobs. Only one line showed significant chafe, but it had held regardless. I went back out in the dinghy and started removing the lines from the mangroves while Dana took down my spider’s web of “X” reinforcements on the bimini frame, removed all the duct tape in the cockpit, and went below to start opening some hatches. There was some mold starting to grow in the boat, but nothing an hour or two of cleaning couldn’t wipe away.
The hardest part was getting the anchors up, particularly the first one. Because that one really needed to be lifted by hand from the dinghy. Other boats were now also in the canal, and one was so close to that anchor that I could not bring SF to it to pull up. It took everything I had in my arms and back, and working with the buoyancy of the dinghy, to rock that first anchor out of the mud. It was buried to the hilt. I counted on the steadily rising winds of Irma to set the anchors securely, and in this she did not disappoint! Thank God I finally got it in the dinghy, and there it stayed until the next day when I pulled it out at the marina to clean it. A couple hours later all that remained holding us in the canal was the one primary anchor on its chain. For that we could use the boat’s engine power and buoyancy to break it loose. It had a massive ball of mud surrounding it, so I let it dangle in the water off the bow, and we slowly motored out of the canals with it dragging there just below the surface.
When we exited the main canal and were back at its mouth where it meets the ocean, we realized that all of the channel markers had been washed out and blown away by Irma! And like most channels, this was one you dared not stray from if you wanted to stay afloat. In fact there are very shallow shoals around this channel that were there even before Irma. Had Irma also expanded them? Had the channel filled in at any point? All we could do was try. We had our depth sounder, basic indications of where the markers should be on the chart plotter, and Dana’s eyes as she stood at the bow peering out and ahead. There was nary a cloud in the sky, nor any wind, and despite of the near 100 degree heat, the flat conditions made finding our way a little less difficult. I brought the throttle down to a crawl, and we inched our way out, mostly relying on where the chart plotter said the channel should be. We made it, hallelujah!
Once offshore, Dana reported to me that the anchor was now clear of mud, but that there was a rope fouled around it. What!? I put the engine in neutral and asked her to trade places with me. When I got a good look at it I realized that it was not a rope, but an old rusted ¾” steel cable! And apparently we had dragged it all the way from our anchorage in the canal to here. Fortunately, the bitter end of it was visible, just a few feet from the anchor. And it wasn’t badly fouled, it was merely wrapped around a half-turn. Using the boat hook, I was able to pull it off in just a minute, and I watched it sink to the bottom like a rock. I gingerly put the boat back in gear and got out of there!
Less than an hour later we were back in our own slip, and starting to put things back together again, the first order of business being to get the air conditioner back on! Things improved quickly after that. The next day the marina staff had virtually all of the major junk pulled from the water. The stench in the air began to dissipate too, and within three days the tide had removed all of the dead sea grass which had been choking the marina.
One annoying (but kinda funny) setback occurred when I emptied and rinsed out our dock box and opened its lid to dry. I had situated it in its normal position along the edge of the dock. I walked away to do something else, and a small gust of wind caught the lid and blew the thing into the harbor! I watched helplessly as the air inside escaped through the various screw holes and it sank to the bottom. On Saturday I timed my salvage operation to coincide with low tide, and I went in after it with diving mask and fins. It wasn’t deep, but getting a handle on it was very difficult because, well, it has no handles! I passed a small cord through the hole on the lid hasp, and using that, and the boat hook which Dana had snagged a hinge with, we were able to pull it back onto the dock. Yuck, I hated getting into that water after Irma had peed and crapped in it!
As I write this it is September 24, just three weeks since I began preparations for Irma, and the sad truth is that we are nowhere near out of the woods for this hurricane season yet. Wilma hit the Keys on October 24th! That a hurricane like Wilma should approach the Keys in late October this year is a prospect so dreadful that no one dares speak of it.
So is Irma the new “Worst Storm Ever?” The answer to that isn’t clear to me. The January storm badly damaged the boat and nearly wrecked it, and it both worked me and scared me to death. Irma worked me to death, scared me quite a bit, but she didn’t actually damage or take (much of) anything from me. I can’t complain about the road trip too much, because it was great to see family and we even got some badly needed maintenance work done on Dana’s house back in Alabama. But Irma’s scale and overall impact to Florida and other areas is phenomenal. I’ll just say that the January storm is the “worst storm ever” and Irma is, well, Irma.
And I thank God all of that is in our wake.
[Caution: Some technical mumbo-jumbo is in this post, but I tried not to let it get too boring or incomprehensible.]
With our planned voyage to Alabama coming up in just a few weeks, the time to get necessary repairs done in the boat yard was imminent. The repairs mainly consisted of getting the damaged propeller and propeller shaft fixed. This work was prearranged to coincide with the haul-out, and if all went as planned, we might be out of the water for a few as three days. Relating this to a boating friend, he replied with a smirk and a slight shake of the head, saying “It never goes as planned in a boat yard!” As we’ll soon see, truer words were never spoken.
Miraculously, we found a comfortable place to stay while the boat was “on the hard,” and as scheduled, we hauled out on August 15. That would be Blessing #1.
As usual, the bottom was pressure washed, and while I went to lunch, the boat was blocked up. I came back from lunch and gave Swedish Fish‘s under parts a thorough inspection. It didn’t take long to find that the rudder gudgeon on the port side was sheared clean in two.
This is an absolutely critical component of the boat, something akin to one’s Achilles tendon; you can’t go anywhere without it. The gudgeon embraces the rudder post about halfway down it’s length, supporting it laterally from forces it sustains primarily while turning the boat.
This was a big unfortunate surprise. However, had we not had the problem with the propeller which mandated this haul out, we never would have caught this issue. And at some point (probably 60 miles offshore and halfway between Marathon and Marco Island) the rudder post would have taken a wave and bent over, or very possibly even broken clean off, sending the rudder to the bottom. This would have completely disabled the boat and required a rescue tow back to safe harbor, and then a very expensive repair, clearly in the multi-thousand dollar range – also requiring the boat to be laid up in a boat yard for perhaps months while a new rudder was made. The fact that I had found it early, only because we were in the yard for a simpler issue, had saved us from that grim scenario. That was Blessing #2.
But I knew immediately that getting this fixed or replaced was not going to be easy, fast, or cheap. It instantly took center stage as the most urgent and challenging issue to be addressed on this yard visit.
At first I thought I might be able to get the broken pieces welded back together (however one welds bronze?) but first I had to get the old part off. As I worked to get it removed from the boat, two more chunks of it broke off, and it was apparent that it was too brittle to be thinking about welding it. An entirely new one would have to be made.
I took it to three different welding / metalworking shops to find one that was willing to take the job. It was decided that the new one would be made from stainless steel, as that could be fabricated using basic metalworking tools and methods, unlike the original bronze which was cast and machined. Price to make a new one: $450. That was not part of the budget for this haul-out, and neither was the extra week in the yard, which totaled up to an additional $245. But again, this is chicken feed compared to what a broken rudder post or missing rudder would have meant.
To fabricate a new gudgeon would require a round stainless steel bushing three inches in diameter, with a 1.5″ hole down the center. The sooner I could find that stock material, the sooner we could get the new gudgeon made, and the sooner I could put it back on the boat and we could get back in the water. Every day we delayed cost more money, and required further imposition upon the grace of our hosts where we were staying. I drove all over Marathon, checking every boat yard, and even two scrap yards, so see if anybody had a piece of the needed 3″ stainless bar stock, but nobody did. So the welding shop had to order it special from a bigger machine shop up in Miami.
Meanwhile, the propeller had been pulled and sent to the prop shop for repairs, and the bungled up threads on the propeller shaft were cleaned up by the guys at Bottoms and Props.
A few days later, the fully restored prop was reinstalled, with new nuts.
Thankfully, everyone concerned with the gudgeon fabrication did their job in a timely manner, and the following Friday (August 25) I had it in hand. But it was 1400 by the time I got it, and that just wasn’t enough time for me to get in installed before the yard closed for the weekend. With the help of my friend Bill Ballard, we got it installed on Saturday morning.
But since the gudgeon project had delayed our stay here in the yard, I had time to do some other projects that I otherwise had intended to postpone:
1. Replaced the 6×12 grounding plate bolted to the hull.
2. Repacked the stuffing box.
3. Polished the hull.
Had it not been for the broken gudgeon, none of these things would have been done, and all really needed to be done. Electrolysis wears grounding plates out within a year or two, and this one really needed to be replaced. I’m so grateful that the gudgeon problem made it possible. That was Blessing #3.
And the stuffing box hadn’t been re-packed in almost three years, so I figured now that I had extra time in the yard, I would do it. It wasn’t leaking or anything, but if the boat is out of the water, that’s the time to re-pack it. For readers that don’t know, the stuffing box on a boat is part of the assembly through which the propeller shaft penetrates from inside the boat to outside the boat. It has to allow the shaft to turn, but at the same time not allow water to enter the boat, at least not much. Again, I had not originally planned to even look at it, but for this delay over the gudgeon, I did. And it’s a very good thing.
I removed the packing nut, pulled out the old shaft packing material, and put the new in. Mind you, it was about 90 degrees inside the boat, with no power on to allow a big fan or anything. I was shirtless, and sweat was running and dripping down my body during this routine. I went to reinstall the packing nut, but for the life of me, I couldn’t get the nut to thread back on to the male part on the stuffing box. I pushed and turned, again and again, but no go. I rested and tried again. No. I wire brushed the threads, and cleaned every tiny crumb of debris on the inside of the packing nut threads, but still, no. I was sweating like an NBA player in triple overtime. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so profusely before. It was running into my eyes, and dripping off my chin and nose onto my work, while I tried again and again to get that stupid nut back where it belonged. This was not in any way an optional task at this point. That nut had to go back on correctly before this boat could be launched, or the boat would take on water and sink, it’s that simple. I grumbled, and I prayed, and for 45 minutes I tried repeatedly until my left hand was beginning to blister from pushing and twisting that nut. The muscles in my hands, arms and chest, were sore from the effort. I finally realized that what I was doing was never going to succeed. I took a break and got off the boat.
I reluctantly decided to go talk to one of the boat yard guys about it to get their opinion, if they had one, of what the problem might be. I’m so glad I did. The first (and only) guy I spoke to had an explanation right away. He said that the engine mounts had settled, bringing the engine down along with the propeller shaft as it sits in the shaft log, which was causing the packing nut to be unable to correctly align with the stuffing box. The only way to fix it is to raise the engine mounts to correct for the misalignment. I thanked him for his advice, but I really did not want to hear that. Adjusting engine mounts, especially on a boat, can be and usually is another big can of worms.
The shaft log is the fiberglass tube to which the stuffing box is clamped. The propeller shaft must be aligned directly in the center of it to prevent friction, undue wear, and vibration. If you’re still reading (!) here’s a diagram showing how all this generally goes together. Note the Shaft Log is essentially part of the hull of the boat. The “reinforced hose,” “packing rings” and “packing gland assembly” all screw and clamp together to constitute the stuffing box. (There is a photo of mine further down this page.) You can see from some of the engineering notes that alignment of all this is critical.
To confirm what the yard worker had said, I completely unclamped the stuffing box from the shaft log and slid it forward so I could see the shaft as it entered the shaft log. What that guy had said was 100% spot on. The propeller shaft was indeed sitting in the bottom of the shaft log, instead of being centered in it as it should have. This is a serious problem – remember: friction, wear, and vibration – and if it goes unchecked long enough, damage to the shaft, or worse still, to the shaft log.
But the most significant thing about all this is that, once again, had it not been for the broken gudgeon, I would not have been delayed in the yard, and I would never have looked at any of this! Now this serious yet previously unknown problem had been revealed, and I had time to fix it. That was Blessing #4!
The next step was to raise the engine mounts. I was still hot and exhausted, but felt somewhat encouraged now that I knew what the problem was and what needed to be done to fix it. I really dreaded getting into engine alignment. Who knew if the mounting nuts would even turn? They’ve been sitting there close to the bilge for nearly three years. And getting to them, blah! One in particular is in the most inaccessible dark, cramped corner of the engine compartment.
Another reason I dreaded getting into this was the concern for mission creep. I was beginning to get the idea that things may be spiraling out of control. Would I ever get to the bottom of these projects? Was this boat trying to kill me? First of all, I had to find the tools. The mounting nuts are 15/16″. I needed a deep socket of that size to loosen the top mounting nuts, and of course, I didn’t own one. That meant a trip to Home Depot and more time and money to spend (mission creep). Secondly, I needed a box wrench with a stubby handle that was short enough to reach in and maneuver around that back corner mount that was so tight. And even if I had such a wrench, would I be able to turn the nut with such truncated leverage?
I stayed focused in spite of myself. I was glad to get off the boat for a little while anyway. I drove to Home Depot, making sure to stop at my favorite convenience store to buy a giant frozen smoothie-slush junk food drink thing. (These are my summer survival essentials, seriously.) Drink in hand and mouth, I quickly found the socket and I was back to the boat yard in minutes. Next I needed to make a stubby 15/16″ box wrench. So I took my perfectly good wrench to the shop at the boat yard, put it in a vise, and cut it in half.
Tools now available, I set to the project of adjusting the engine height. On none of the mounting nuts can one rotate a wrench (even a stubby one) very far, due to obstructions everywhere. So as I went from mount to mount, I had to estimate the partial turns required to raise all four mounts equally, and in each case it was different because each had a unique accessibility situation. To my delight, the first three mounting nuts turned with ease. I just “knew” that #$% one in the back corner was going to be the problem child. Simply to be able to reach it, I had to lay on top of the engine, and then stretch my arm out to it’s fullest extent, with that stubby wrench in my hand, and a headlamp on my head just to get any light at all in that black hole. Even so, I could just barely see in the area for all of the hoses, wires, and engine accessories everywhere around it. But I was able to turn that nut with my stubby wrench, even with a 500 pound engine sitting on it and me laying on top of that; with each turn of that wrench, I was raising all of that!
After I felt like I had raised all the nuts evenly, I went back and again looked at the shaft entering the shaft log. I had definitely improved the alignment, yes, it was close. Then I looked again, and measured the gap all the way around the shaft. No, it wasn’t close, it was perfect! I was already done with the engine mount adjustments, after only a few minutes at it! All I had to do was take the socket wrench and tighten down the top nuts, and then I was back to reassembling the stuffing box. It all went together pretty as you please. I replaced the rusty clamps on the stuffing box too, so now it was fully serviced with corrected alignment, new shaft packing, teflon grease, a bit of cleaning, and new clamps.
In between and after all these projects, I had some time to polish the hull. It’s no big deal really, just imagine wet sanding, washing, and waxing A THIRTY-SEVEN FOOT CAR WHILE STANDING ON A LADDER IN 90 DEGREE HEAT WHILE HOLDING AN EIGHT POUND HIGH SPEED POLISHING TOOL THAT IS CONSTANTLY TRYING TO LEAP FROM YOUR GRIP. Yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like. I lost count of how many hours I put into that, and it was one miserable job, but the boat did look considerably better for it.
I also worked at West Marine for two days in the middle of all this. Dana was at her regular job during this entire time. I think she thinks I just lay around and watch YouTube while she’s at work. 😛
But getting the gudgeon back too late on Friday to install turned out not to be a good thing, because it provided the extra weekend in the yard, which allowed enough time for these unscheduled projects, so that was Blessing # 5.
On Monday morning (August 28) I finished up the hull polishing, tossed a little paint on some bare spots on the bottom, cleaned up my messes, and we launched the boat at 1420, just minutes before high tide. I had to coordinate my departure with high tide because the channel which is the only way in or out of this yard is very shallow. Even at high tide we have just a couple feet beneath our keel in some spots.
After the boat was launched, I had to work quickly to finish up pre-departure preparations to make sure I was in the channel at high tide. I re-attached the backstay, adjusted the packing nut until it seemed right, and set the locking nut. I had to operate solo today, and it bothered me that I would be unable to check the stuffing box while underway. I wanted to make sure that it was dripping correctly. A certain amount of drip is necessary to lubricate the movement of the shaft inside, and to keep it from heating from friction.
I put up a bunch of tools and washed the decks a bit. I cranked the engine, turned on the instruments, broke out the binoculars, and found my glasses. I got another yard worker to push the bow out as I cast off, and I was underway. I exited the long channel without incident. Once past the last channel marker and in the ocean, I turned her bow toward home and throttled up. I brought her up to 2900 RPM and exceeded 7 kts SOG with nominal vibration. That’s what we were after. Those extra two knots equate to 48 miles/day difference on long trips! There was only a moderate chop out, but at that speed her prow cut through the waves and threw a nice spray up and spritzed me a few times. It felt great to drive her along at that clip.
An hour later I was met at our slip by a dock hand at our marina, and that was that. Air conditioning and all the comforts of home were restored, and life was soon back to normal. Now we train our focus on October first, as we prepare to drive her north again on our next passage adventure, bound for Alabama!
For the past couple of years, Dana has been taking prerequisite courses to enter an LPN to RN bridge program. We looked at a few programs, but the only one that made financial and practical sense was at Bishop State Community College in Mobile, Alabama. There she could have the advantage of lower in-state tuition, and it’s a place we can get to and continue to live on Swedish Fish. In March we actually drove up there, looked the place over, and enrolled her in the psychology course which she completed last week. (Another “A” – congratulations again, Dana!) She works very very hard at her school work.
The full-time program begins in May 2018, so we have had a plan in place to migrate to Mobile since at least March of this year. The only question was, when exactly would we go? We had hoped to work and save some money during our sojourn here in the Keys. We were able to find work, but unfortunately saving money has not been possible. This is a very expensive place to live, but wages are the same as anyplace else. It’s lovely, enchanting even at times, but it’s not a practical place for most people to live long term. “It’s a great place to visit, but…”
With that in mind, we decided in July to make our trip to Alabama sooner rather than later. But I still had to get that bent prop fixed which was damaged in the storm back in January. Between the abundance of yachts here, and the large commercial fishing fleet, boat yards around here stay booked up for large periods of the calendar, especially summer. So when I called the local yard last month to inquire about getting a haul-out, August 15 was the earliest date they could offer. I made the appointment, and next Tuesday Swedish Fish will be hauled out of the water so that we can get the prop fixed. Yes, there are services which can pull the prop with the boat in the water, but we also have an issue with the prop nut threads on the propeller shaft. They were damaged (before I bought the boat) by another yard which cross-threaded the nuts. So in order to fix that, and the bent prop, we’re going to be hauled out for a couple of days.
The haul-out cost is reasonable, but dry storage at any boatyard around here costs $30/day ! In North Carolina, it was $10/day, and I thought that was high. But yards have to charge a lot for dry storage, because if they don’t, too many yahoos will haul their old clunkers out and then never come back for them. The yards must have their empty real estate in order to stay in business. That’s just how it is. Hopefully we will not be in the yard more than three days. The prop service company says they can make a turn-around that quickly. They’d better! And, unlike in North Carolina, none of the local yards allow liveaboards on the boats. So we had to find some place to sleep while the boat is in the yard. Thank God, our church has a little apartment, set-aside primarily for the use of visiting missionaries. It is currently vacant, and our pastor made it available for us to use. Without that, I don’t know what we would do; hotels around here are out of the question – that would more than double the cost of this whole evolution.
Perhaps now you’re starting to get the general picture that this is a difficult place to live.
We had already paid our first and last month’s rent here at Bonefish Marina in Marathon, so after some discussion, we decided to make September our last month here. We will cast off our lines on or near October 1, 2017, weather permitting. That is still well within hurricane season, so I am watching that every day too. Hurricane Franklin is pounding the Yucatan peninsula right now. God willing, we will have favorable weather similar to what we have enjoyed all summer here: abundant sunshine and gentle breezes.
My cousin John Watson, who accompanied us for half of the voyage from New Bern to Key Largo, has agreed to join us again for this voyage. We can’t wait to see him again. 🙂
I have been working on route scenarios. The exact route wont be known until we actually do it, because of weather and other unforeseen circumstances. But I intend for us to follow the general route shown in this map:
We could sail straight for Mobile Bay from Marathon, and that would only take about four days at sea. But Dana wants to see some sights along the way, and I agree that it would seem a waste not to. There are at least five offshore legs to this voyage, two of which are significant: Marathon to Marco Island at 80 nautical miles (16 hours), and Clearwater to Apalachicola at about 145 NM (29 hours).
There is the issue of the car and our bicycles. After talking over different plans to get them to Mobile, we decided to take turns driving the car along with us, hop-scotching along the shore route with the car, meeting up again with Swedish Fish at each port of call. If it goes as planned, the driver will only need to stay in a hotel one night (in Apalachicola) while waiting for the boat to arrive. At all the other anchorages, the car will get there in a fraction of the time required by the boat, but a hotel won’t be necessary; we can dinghy the driver back to the boat to sleep for the night.
I am excited about this trip for a few reasons. One, we’re going somewhere again, and that is virtually always a good thing; new adventures await. Two, I will be closer to my extended family in Tennessee, including my daughter Brooke and my dad, who lives in the Nashville area now. All my siblings also live in TN (scattered all over the state) and aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, many cousins, and old friends too. Mobile will put me within practical visiting distance to all of them. And three, I anticipate that the cost of living in Mobile will be much more down-to-earth than it is here in the Keys.
But first we must go to the yard, and get this boat fixed up a bit. I’ll write about that after it’s over next week.
This is a progressive follow-up to the article I wrote in November 0f 2013 about using acrylic floor polish to put a shine on the hull.
When I put the polish on the boat back in November of 2013, I didn’t know how long it would last, in what manner it would deteriorate, whether I could touch it up later without having to completely strip it first, or what. But based on the anecdotal information I had, the low price, the small amount of effort required, and spectacular initial results, I was willing to give it a try.
Here are the answers the those questions. The shiny finish held up quite well, all things considered. The hull still looked good two years later, and I did apply additional coats in Fall and Spring of each year with no problems. In May of 2016 I had the boat on the hard again. Under close scrutiny at that time, I could see numerous small patches where the polish was flaking off. I decided to apply a couple of additional coats on top of the mess as it was, and see how it would do. It didn’t look as good at the original finish back in November of ’13, but it still looked passably good. I had plenty of other fish to fry, so I let it be at that and moved on. Over the course of the next year, I learned that these were warning signs that the finish adhesion was approaching wholesale failure.
The two photos below were taken during the May 2016 haul-out. Click on them to see the full-sized versions and more detail of the finish.
It was the following year (from May ’16 until May/June ’17) that defined the end for this particular finish job. By early 2017, large sections of the finish were sloughing off, giving the finish a mangey appearance.
The photos below (June 2017) illustrate the heavily deteriorating polish at this stage:
Putting new polish on top of this will not work. It would be like trying to paint over old paint that is peeling and flaking off; the new finish is only as resilient as whatever it is stuck to. But the problem is bigger than that because you can actually see the blotchiness of the finish immediately, as noted in the May 2016 photos.
OK, so what’s the solution now? There are four options:
- Ignore it.
- Strip it off, and re-apply a completely fresh floor polish finish.
- Strip it off, wash and wax the hull, or some variation thereof.
- Strip it off, and paint the hull, same as the topsides were successfully painted.
Option 1. NO.
Option 2. I considered this, but decided that I wanted a longer term solution. There are some discolored areas on the hull that came from imperfect gel coat color matching when gouges were patched, and ultimately I’d like to address that problem too.
Option 3. This is going to be my short-term solution.
Option 4. This will be the long-term solution. I will do this next haul out.
So how does one get the remaining polish off? I didn’t know either, so I looked it up. Janitorial services routinely have to remove floor polish (from floors, of all things!) for basically the same reason I need to, so how do they do it? Its done with a solution of ammonia, vinegar, and powdered non-bleach dish detergent mixed with hot water. Apply with a scrub brush and elbow grease.
I plan to use a power brush like this one to make the job a little less difficult.
I already tested this removal method on half of the transom, and it works. It’s not exactly easy, but considering how tenacious the polish has been over the past 3 years, that’s not surprising.
As for the wax portion of Option 3, I won’t use any sort of heavy wax. My goal will not be to make the boat shine, but simply to make it not look bad until I can get it painted. I want to avoid heavy waxing because (a) it’s a LOT of work to do (b) it won’t solve all of the issues the hull has, and (c) it also would have to come completely off in order to prepare the hull for painting later this year. So I’m going to try a basic wash-and-wax combo product and hopefully that will look better than the peeling polish I have now, but it won’t put down a barrier to paint adhesion.
So, given what I know now, do I recommend using floor polish on your boat? It depends.
- If you’re planning to use either New Glass or Poli Glow, then yes, by all means use floor polish instead. You’ll get the exact same results for pennies on the dollar versus those expensive products, which are the same thing with a different label on them.
- If you want a high-gloss finish fast, cheap, and about as easy as you can get it, then yes, use floor polish. It is a good option to pretty-up an old boat you want to sell.
- If you don’t want to mess with paint, or get into the intensive labor of waxing your boat, use floor polish.
The only downsides to using floor polish are that you’ll have to strip it and re-apply it in about two years, and like wax, it will not hide any coloration problems you already have.
OK, I wrote about it. Now I have to go strip off all that peeling polish. Ugh!
April 1, 2017 – June 20, 2017
For me it was a relief to have the boat on a mooring instead of having to tend to my own anchor(s) all the time. If the wind shifted, the boat would simply pivot around the mooring and that’s that. Many locals consider the moorings at Marathon City Marina (MCM) to be so secure, they bring their boats there to ride out hurricanes. And I appreciated the bathrooms, laundry, mail service, and other small amenities that MCM provided.
Dana liked our assigned mooring, because it was on the edge of the mooring field, near the thick mangroves of Boot Key, and there was a broad fetch of open water just to the west of us, affording a pleasant view.
When we first arrived, there were still quite a few “snowbirds” staying at MCM. They are the true sailors that make the place interesting and vibrant. But by early April, many of them have departed for points north or the Bahamas, or they are about to. And by mid May, they’re all gone. What remains are a few stragglers like ourselves who have other reasons for being here, some who live here on boats simply because its the only affordable housing they can find, and a few who have been overcome by age, and this just happens to be the place they were when they became too feeble to take a boat anywhere. And then there some who can be characterized as boat bums; they apparently have some source of subsistence income, so they spend much of their days drinking beer, smoking cigs, and jiving amongst themselves under a big shade tree at MCM, almost always lacking shirts and shoes, but never lacking beer. They shuttle themselves to and from their boats on a ramshackle fleet of dinghies, kayaks, and all manner of floating conveyances filled with the clutter of broken bilge pumps, faded fuel cans missing their caps, empty beer cans, garbage bags they forgot to toss out, and so on. It isn’t charming.
So when the snowbirds leave, the atmosphere at MCM sinks a bit, but at least its not crowded. (During the winter months there is “NO VACANCY” among the 300 moorings at MCM.)
Dana settled into her new job, and for the first few weeks I focused on boat projects, including installation of more solar panels and an overhaul of the electrical system. But I needed to augment our income some, and I needed to occupy more of my time with constructive activity. So lacking opportunities to teach sailing or work as a captain, I took a PT job at the local West Marine store. (There are plenty of captain jobs if one wants to fish, or work as a mate on a fishing boat, which I do not.) Working at West turned out to be a good option since, as liveaboard boat owners, buying stuff for the boat is a constant, and as an employee I get discounts on everything in the store. And I can get just about anything we need there, so I consider it a significant part of my compensation.
But as the cool of Spring yielded to the heat of Summer, the appeal of living on the mooring at MCM really began to fade. Personally, as a liveaboard sailor, I have always preferred life in a marina over any other option. Dana generally prefers life away from marinas. But I’m often the one who has to do the work to make life away from a marina possible. Some of that includes:
- Dinghy trips to and from the boat to do ANYTHING (five minutes each way)
- constantly monitoring battery levels to ensure there is enough power
- running the generator at night and on overcast days
- fueling the generator
- changing the oil on the generator
- hooking up the generator
- disconnecting the generator
- hooking up the inverter
- disconnecting the inverter
- fueling the dinghy
- bailing out the dinghy every time it rained
- making regular (dinghy + car) trips to buy gas for the generator and the dinghy
- continually filling, toting, hefting, and emptying water jug
And there are other tasks mandated by mooring life that both of us do, such as watching the weather and opening/closing hatches accordingly as rain comes and goes. And if that weren’t enough, the heat became the final straw. Though the Keys are not as hot as other parts of the US south are in summer, they’re plenty hot enough, and the humidity is always maxed out. We had sort-of acclimated to it, but it was never comfortable. Dana had resorted to sleeping in the the cockpit so that the evening breezes would waft over her. I slept below with a fan on me all night.
In late May we began looking in earnest for a marina to put Swedish Fish in. That would eliminate the entire list of work (above), plus restore the day-to-day luxuries to us that most Americans take for granted: climate control, unlimited electrical power, hot & cold water, television, safety and security at home, etc. We almost joined the local yacht club, and only withdrew our application when we learned that they had no available slips in their marina. And we looked at a couple of other options that didn’t quite cut it. Long story short, by way of info garnered from a colleague at West Marine, in mid-June we were able to secure a slip in the very nice Bonefish Marina at the east end of Marathon, about five miles from our mooring at MCM. It is part of a condominium complex, and each slip is owned by a corresponding condo owner. So the available slips are sub-let from the condo owners to the marina tenants. This would double our monthly rent versus staying at MCM, but the security and amenities gained would be very well worth it.
On Wednesday June 21, while Dana was at work, I moved the boat. The same colleague who tipped me about the marina also came along as crew, and at 1400 we slipped the mooring at MCM, went back out Sister Creek, and turned the bow northeast to head for Key Colony Beach and Bonefish Marina.
At Bonefish we began an entirely new existence in Marathon. We are so much more comfortable and content now. It feels like life is sort-of back to normal. 🙂
I started doing improvements to the electrical system onboard almost from the start. Notably the 110v outlets in the salon were completely FUBAR and had to be replaced immediately. For some reason I don’t understand, the factory had situated these two outlets -one port and one starboard- on the horizontal shelf surfaces outboard of each settee. So when water inevitably intruded into this area, it went straight for these outlets, pooled there, and quickly turned them into garbage which had a dual disadvantage in that they were now also electrical fire hazards. So when I replaced these, I also re-located them to the adjacent bulkhead where they are now generally free from the risk of getting wet.
I upgraded them too, to the new water resistant GFCI style Leviton sells. Since there are so few outlets on the boat, I decided that whenever I replace or add one, it will always be this improved, albeit expensive, type.
Fast forward three years, and I finally got around to a real electrical overhaul.
I never liked the location that Irwin put the electrical switch panel in, under the cockpit, behind the companionway ladder. One, it’s hard to see and access, and two, you can only get to the wiring behind it by going through the very cramped engine compartment, or by removing the panel entirely. Either option was bad. I decided to re-locate the entire switch panel to the nav station. There I could easily see, use, and maintain it as needed. But I also needed more space. New additions in this department included a new 110 VAC breaker panel, and a host of battery maintenance and control devices, including:
- battery switch
- solar panel charge controller
- 110 VAC battery charger
- additional USB and 12 VDC utility outlets
There was no way all this stuff would fit together in either location. So I decided to create a new “Battery Control Center” in the location of the original switch panel, and move the new AC and DC breaker panels to the nav station.
It took some weeks to do all of this, one step at a time. Yes it could have been done much faster, but as usual, I am doing everything myself, while simultaneously attempting to lead a somewhat normal life. Fortunately I am in no urgent hurry – a general status I prefer to remain in.
February 1 – March 31, 2017
After the two storms in the last week of January, I needed no further convincing to leave Buttonwood Sound and find a better anchorage. The simplest solution for the time being was to move about 2 miles north into Tarpon Basin. This would be my fourth – and final – Key Largo location for Swedish Fish. The map below shows these four locations:
- red tack – the canal dock behind the boss’s house
- green tack – Buttonwood Sound mooring that failed
- orange tack – protected hideout hole from the NW storm
- blue tack – Tarpon Basin anchorage
On February 1, I recruited a couple of staffers at Key Lime Sailing Club to come with me, and we moved the boat to Tarpon Basin. Tarpon Basin is just as shallow as Buttonwood Sound, even more so in places. But I was able to secure an anchorage just a couple hundred yards away from the Murray Nelson Government & Cultural Center.
This would be home for the next two months. It was so-so. It wasn’t as exposed as Buttonwood Sound, but I was still living on anchor, which is the least attractive living arrangement for a boat. I managed with it. But storms and stiff Caribbean SE trade winds are typical in winter for the Florida Keys, and this year was no exception. There were few days when the wind was not whistling through the rigging. I had to constantly have two anchors set, and I had to move them around with the shifting winds to have any peace of mind that we were going to stay put. I was not happy with any of it. There was no relaxing.
On multiple occasions the wind would shift to the north, which was a threat to the dinghy dock area because the small harbor there had no protection from that direction, so it became like a violent washing machine. The first time that happened we were away from the boat, and came home to a dinghy completely swamped, and the outboard had been submerged too. That meant a tremendous amount of extra work unmounting the outboard, hauling it to a mosquito-infested work area at KLSC where I would undertake a multi-day overhaul to repair it, and then return it (by car) back to Tarpon Basin and re-install. Its a lot easier to read about it than it is to do it, believe me. On subsequent northerlies, I had to haul the dinghy out onto the jagged coquina rock shoreline to avoid the swampings, and that was gouging huge gashes into the dinghy hull.
Isn’t home supposed to be your safe place, and the place you go to relax? I had neither, and was very dissatisfied with this living arrangement. And there were other things – bad neighbors, for one. Quite a few of the “boaters” here are not really boaters at all. They’re ‘special’ people who may have once had a shirtless cameo on the TV show Cops. And they have discovered that they can live for next to nothing in the Florida Keys by picking up a barely-floating, derelict vessel, and moving aboard it with their mutt dog and tattoo-covered chain-smoking woman with whom they are only occasionally not fighting. I became neighbors to some of these – for a while.
We did a few extra-curriculars during this time, including visits to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier, the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, and (my favorite) the Monkey Jungle in Miami, because…who wouldn’t want to go to a place called “Monkey Jungle?”
Dana also set to seriously looking for work. She could not find anything suitable for her as a nurse on or near Key Largo. And Miami was out of the question – no big city life is for this girl. However eventually she did get an acceptable offer from a rehab center in Marathon. A lot of nurses won’t touch that kind of work, but it’s Dana primary professional experience, so it is what she wanted to do. We talked it over. If we moved to Marathon, I would in all probability not be able to continue working in Key Largo. But, we’d still be in the keys, and how hard could it be for me to find suitable work there? Not very, I presumed. And another thing that made the decision easier for me was that in Marathon, there is the City Marina in Boot Key Harbor, which meant that we could get on a reliable (commercial/municipality installed) mooring, something I keenly desired as an end to the insecure life at anchor. And the marina is only walking distance from the facility where Dana would be working. I was pretty much at the point where I believed that almost anything would be better than what we were experiencing at Key Largo. That settled it, we were moving to Marathon!
After many preparations had been made and a nearly full day of work (off the boat), on March 30 we excitedly pulled up the last anchor and got underway at 1625. That was awfully late in the day to be heading out anywhere, but we just wanted to get started. It’s about a 50 NM trip, and we didn’t intend to squeeze it into one day anyway. We would be in the ICW on the Florida Bay side for part of the trip, and there were many places to anchor any time we were ready. We motored south on the ICW for three hours, and at 1925 we dropped the anchor in the Cowpens Anchorage behind Plantation Key. We were both happy to be going somewhere again.
My original plan was to get offshore via Snake Creek the next day, and scoot on down to Marathon. But the weather on the 31st was not good, so we waited. It looked like we would lose the entire day. We talked this over too, and I called my cousin John who knows these waters. We had to get offshore at some point between here and Marathon so that we could enter Boot Key Harbor. All sailboats have “vertical draft” limitations (bridge restrictions due to the height of the mast), so we can’t go under just any bridge. But John reminded me that there are other places to cut through, notably the Channel Five cut, which has a 65′ bridge for us to go under. With little more discussion, we decided to make another late start and skip the Snake Creek cut, instead of continuing to sit here going nowhere. So at 1600 we pulled up the anchor and continued south on the ICW. At 1915 we found a good anchorage in Matecumbe Bight and settled in.
The next morning we took our time, since it wasn’t a great deal further to Marathon. We passed under the Channel Five bridge at 0910, made it offshore out into Hawk Channel, and found our way into Sisters Creek about 5 hours later. We raised the Marathon City Marina dockmaster on the VHF, who assigned a mooring buoy to us, and at 1439 we picked it up in Boot Key Harbor. And a new chapter was about to begin.
“Really, worse than Katrina?!”
No, wise guy, I’m talking about the storm that caused me personally more trouble on my boat than any other I have had to deal with.
I started boating when I was a kid. Things on the water were pretty much always happy and carefree then. I may have been caught in some rain, or some wind a couple of times, but nothing notable. Years later, when I was in the US Coast Guard, I got to experience some pretty bad weather at sea. The one occasion that stands out most in my memory was a time in early spring of 1984 when a gale passed through the northern Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana coast. And whenever the weather is bad, it’s axiomatic that the Coast Guard will be called to go out into it to rescue somebody. On this occasion we were tasked with retrieving an 80 foot derelict shrimp boat, which was adrift 90 miles offshore. The crew had been air-evacuated, leaving the vessel unmanned. (Nowadays the USCG does not go on such missions. Derelict vessels adrift are tracked by air, and eventually they are turned over to commercial salvage companies to pick up.) When we got on scene my CO estimated the wave heights at 18 feet, based on the fact that when we were in the troughs, the wave crests were approximately even with our bridge, which was that height above water level. My level of alertness was elevated, but I was not seasick and I was not frightened. Our 82′ cutter was designed for speed, not stability, and it was a very uncomfortable platform to be on in those conditions, rolling pretty wildly.
I was selected, along with a petty officer, to be the salvage crew for the vessel. With another crew serving as coxswain, we were put into our ship’s 14′ RIB, and sent over to the shrimp boat. Eighteen foot seas. The shrimp boat would ride up on the crest of a huge wave, towering above us while we were in the trough on an adjacent wave. Then in two or three seconds, our relative positions would alternate, the giant outriggers swinging and clanging dangerously near us. The only strategy for getting aboard the shrimp boat was to approach closely, and then with split second timing, to leap onto one of the tires hung from its sides, and scamper aboard. There would be one chance to get it right. By the grace of God, the petty officer and I both succeeded. We later attached the towing hawser from our cutter to the samson post of the shrimper, and took turns standing watch while we were towed home over the next couple days. That was a “good one.”
Then there was that time back in 2012 when I was caught in a storm on the Alligator River in North Carolina. That was pretty messed up!
But then came January 23, 2017.
[I’m sorry there are no pictures to go with most of this story; photography is the last thing on one’s mind while managing a crisis.]
I was solo because Dana was still in Alabama, and I was still on that questionable mooring in Buttonwood Sound next to the Key Lime Sailing Club. I’d heard something on Saturday about some storms expected that weekend, but (foolishly) I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. On Sunday I started to look at the forecast more closely. It looked like the worst of it would hit in the wee hours of Monday morning. Great. I gave a passing thought to the uninspected mooring I was on.
Nevertheless, I went to bed Sunday night, pretty much expecting to be woken by the arrival of the storm. Indeed I was at about 0300. The boat rocked hard as the first blasts hit, the rigging began howling, and the temperature dropped fast. I later learned that there were gusts on the leading edge of that storm in excess of 50 mph. I knew almost immediately and instinctively that I had underestimated the ferocity of this oncoming storm, and that I was unprepared. A feeling of dread crept over me as I hastened into my clothes and heavy foul weather gear. Lightning was flashing with intervals of only seconds, and thunder was almost constant.
The wind was coming out of the NW, the worst possible direction for this body of water and my relative location on it; I was near a lee shore and at the end of a fetch of water over a mile long – that allowed the formation of waves. The wind howled and whistled through the rigging, and I could hear heavy sheets of rain crashing down on the deck inches above my head. The boat was rolling, and pitching, and yawing at her mooring. I almost knew that something really bad was going to proceed out of this. Even if my mooring held, there were several boats to windward of me – would all of their moorings hold too? If one of them broke loose, they would drift right down on top of me with possibly catastrophic impact.
I thought of the dinghy, still afloat and tied to the stern with the little outboard motor riding just a couple inches above the water (on calm days). And I remembered loose gear I had neglected to secure out on deck: all four of our new fenders ($60/ea), the dinghy oars…what else was surely blowing over the side right now? I could hear crashing sounds out on the deck, I knew some of that stuff had already gone over.
I sat on the lurching settee in the salon, and waited, and prayed. Perhaps five minutes later I heard a tremendous crash, and grinding, crunching sounds. Obviously the boat had drifted into something, or vice-versa. I had to go out and investigate. I flipped on the spreader lights, and went out to see. I put two and two together pretty quickly. My mooring had failed, Swedish Fish had drifted downwind, and the rudder had fouled the mooring line of a boat (a Catalina 22 belonging to KLSC) in our lee, and that is all that was holding me. In the meantime, the Catalina and Swedish Fish were fouled up and parallel to each other, grinding and crunching with every wave. When the C22 would rise on a wave crest, its gunwhale would catch the overhang on Swedish Fish‘s varnished teak toe rail, breaking off piece after piece. A section about three feet long was almost completely broken off, and deep gouges were being cut into the gel coat beneath that on the starboard quarter. If the fenders hadn’t blown overboard, I could put a couple between the boats to stop the continuation of damage. All I had left were a few type IV throwable cushions. So I tied some rope to those and tried to wedge them in between the boats. This worked somewhat, but the pitching of the boats constantly squished the cushions out of the gap, so I had to sit there and continually put them back in to prevent further damage.
Somewhere around this time I put the Rocna anchor down at the bow, and I cranked the engine. In hindsight, I wish I had not put the anchor down, but just cranked the engine in preparation to get underway immediately if I were to drift free. I also untied the dinghy from Swedish Fish, and transferred its painter over to a stern cleat on the Catalina 22. It was almost full of water. I did this because if I broke free, I didn’t want another obstacle involved that might start a domino effect of further problems.
The situation with the cushions over the side was really just a cosmetic concern, even though the damage being inflicted was substantial and would be difficult and expensive for me to repair. The bigger concern was the tenuous mechanism by which the boat was being held. If that small mooring, or the modest line attached to it gave way, Swedish Fish and the Catalina 22 would both be adrift and blown quickly toward the nearby lee shore. It was a very real possibility. The rain had let up some by 0400, but the wind was strong and steady, I estimate at this point it was around 30 mph. I baby sat this situation until the first light of dawn.
At about that time I could just make out two figures on the dock over at KLSC, about 150 yards away. I knew it was Stephen and his girlfriend Felicia. They were running the waterfront operation at the time, responsible for maintaining all of the boats, and much of the other property too. They saw me too, out on deck under the illumination of the spreader lights. I waved to them in a manner that I hoped would convey an urgent request for assistance.
They were brave to venture out in this weather and sea state in a ten foot inflatable dinghy. The sky was completely steel gray with clouds skidding across it, the wind was still blowing at least 30, the waves were three feet and capping, and the rain was coming and going. With grim determination, they finally made it out to me, their faces half-hidden behind their foul weather hoods. While they were underway, I could see occasional cascades of water coming over their bow and into the boat. When they arrived, I explained the situation to them, yelling to be heard. I asked Stephen to please bring me a couple of large fenders, and in about 15 minutes he was back with them. I put these between the boats, and waited, not really sure what else I could do.
About a half hour later, Paul Keever, the owner of KLSC, came out in a twenty foot center console boat with a 100 HP engine, and he had a couple of his workers with him. I explained the situation to him. After realizing that there was no way to separate the two boats without cutting the mooring line, he reluctantly agreed to that. I would cut the line, he would throw a tow onto the Catalina 22 to pull it away, and I would stay at anchor (I thought).
In hindsight, I wish I had asked him to let one of those guys stay with me, because very soon I would desperately need help.
I already had a box cutter blade on me ready to do this. I hung over the side, and just lightly touched the blade’s edge to the small mooring line. It cut instantly with a pop, as if it were about to pop on its own at any moment anyway. I saw Paul and the other guys going immediately for the Catalina, and I focused on getting my (already down) anchor set.
To my horror, the anchor was not set, and would not set. I let out more and more scope, and still, no set. I ran to the stern and tossed a 33 pound Bruce (aka Claw) anchor out, also with 13 feet of 5/16 chain and generous scope, but it would not set either. I was drifting sideways downwind toward a lee shore, at what I estimate must have been three or four knots, with anchors dragging bow and stern. I looked up, but saw no sign of Paul’s boat anymore, and even if I had, he would have to come immediately to have been any help at all.
The situation I was facing was dire, it was immediate, and it was all mine. There was no prospect of assistance.
The lee shore was perhaps a quarter mile away when this started, but it was drawing closer with every passing second. There were houses with pilings and private docks studding the area I was bounding toward. If Swedish Fish hit any of those, it could possibly hole the hull, and almost certainly total the boat with tremendous hull damage, and who knows what else.
I ran to the bow, and let out all the scope I had – 200 feet. Still, the anchor could not get a toe hold. Apparently, due to the speed of my drift, the 33 pound anchor and 13 feet of 5/16 chain was just skipping along the grassy bottom. Then I ran back to the stern and let out all of the scope that anchor had, which was another 200 feet. The depth in this area is consistent, and only about six feet, so 200 feet is a tremendous amount of scope for the depth. But still, neither anchor would set. We continued to drift rapidly to leeward, and the shore was growing closer and closer. I could hardly believe what was happening, that neither of these two heavy anchors could even slow the boat down.
I ran to the cockpit, put the boat into gear, and throttled up. The big girl began to power her way up wind, dragging the stern anchor and approaching the bow anchor. I steered askew enough to avoid running directly over the bow anchor rode. But that strategy only succeeded briefly. Soon the bow anchor rode would inevitably begin to stream under the boat, putting it in the direct path of the whirling propeller. If the line from the bow anchor got fouled in the prop, this nightmare would be fait accompli, and all hope would be lost. Honestly, there was precious little hope remaining, but I fought for it with every fiber of my being.
In the back of my mind, I thought about Swedish Fish, and everything the two of us had been through in the past three years. The blood, sweat, and tears I had put into her, not to mention the MONEY. I had slowly, painstakingly brought her from a state of ignominious dereliction to a beautiful, sea-worthy yacht. I had rested very little during those years, sometimes doing multiple restoration projects at once, but always, relentlessly staying at it, from the bottom of her centerboard to the top of her mast, from the bobstay to every detail of the engine and all of its systems, to the stern ladder. Losing her would be much more than a financial and practical loss. Its a thought I generally forbid to entertain.
And now I was fighting for her in a concentrated fit of effort that was pushing me to my very limits. In spite of continuous hard physical labor, I hadn’t had a sip of water in hours, and I was desperately parched for some, but there was no time for me to go below to get one. The muscles in my hands, arms, and back ached from the incessant work of pushing and pulling boats and anchors and anchor lines without rest for the past four or five hours. (What time was it now? I had no idea nor did I have time to care.)
I realized at this point that the anchors had to come back aboard so that I could drive the boat away from the lee shore. Since I had two out, they were at opposite ends of the boat, the rodes were ALL the way out, and I was alone, the urgency could not have been more acute. This was going to be a herculean challenge. I put the engine in neutral and ran to the stern and hauled in on the rode like a mad man. This in itself was extremely difficult, requiring all of my strength, because the boat was simultaneously drifting and dragging the anchor attached to it, against my pull. I did this for perhaps 30 seconds or so, until the lee shore drew closer than I dared allow, and then I re-cleated the line, ran back to the cockpit, threw the engine back into forward, and hit the throttle to power away again until the bow started drawing on top of the bow anchor rode again, risking running afoul of the propeller. At that point I repeated the above process – throttle down, tranny back to neutral, run back to the stern, haul away until I couldn’t delay powering away again, re-cleating the line, then back to the cockpit, etc. etc.
I can not overstate the desperation of the situation. I was only mildly concerned about my personal safety, but I was deeply concerned that the boat was about to be destroyed. I took a few seconds to send a “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY” text message to Paul Keever, but ultimately it was to no avail. There was no one to help me, I had to manage this crisis completely on my own.
After repeating the above described work cycle a few times, I finally succeeded in getting the stern anchor on board. But the crisis was still not over by a long shot. In hindsight, I should have focused on the bow anchor first, since it was the one that was threatening to foul the prop. But given the panic-stricken nature of the circumstances, that mistake was not too surprising. Thinking straight? Not really, I was in a survival mode that gave me not even one second to spare.
Then I began the above process for the bow anchor, but by then it was too late. The lee shore was at hand, less than 150 feet away. Again I tried to power away from the lee shore at a skewed angle, but this time something else went wrong. I heard the engine bog down, followed a second later by a “pop,” and then a repeating “whump whump whump” coming from beneath the boat. My first thought was that I had indeed fouled my own anchor rode on the prop, it had cut, a piece of it was wrapped around the prop, and the tail of that piece was being slung around and around by the whirling prop, slapping into the underside of the boat there as it went. But since I was now apparently free and I still had forward motion under throttle, I continued trying to power away. Then I saw my bow anchor rode rise up out of the water as it grew taut, trailing away from the bow and back toward the water. Huh? So I had not fouled on my own anchor line. But…what had I fouled the prop on? It was something else. Whatever it was, I had no time to speculate on it now, my emergency was still at hand.
So I continued to try to power away, but the problem of the anchor rode running back under the center of the boat kept recurring.
And now the lee shore was less than 100 feet away, and drawing closer with each passing second. I decided to cut the bow anchor loose so I could finally power away from the lee shore unfettered. That anchor alone cost over $400. The chain and the rope were another $250. If at all possible, I didn’t want to add the loss of them to the list of stuff I had already lost to this storm. So as I ran up to the bow, I grabbed one of the large fenders that Stephen had brought to me at dawn, intending to tie it to the end of the anchor rode before I tossed it overboard, so that with the fender acting as a marker buoy, hopefully it could all be located and retrieved later. When I got to the bow to deal with the anchor line, I realized with crushing exasperation that I could not simply toss it overboard, because months earlier I had secured the bitter end to the base of the chain locker down below – so that I would not lose it by accident. Now I wanted to lose it on purpose, fast, but couldn’t unless I cut it.
I looked up at the shore we were hurtling toward. I was perhaps 60 feet away now, still getting closer. I am not exaggerating any of this. It was do or die now, I had to act quickly and deliberately and without fail. I still had the box cutter tool on my belt. I drew it, cut the anchor line right at the hawse hole, tied the quickest knot in history to the line attached to the fender, and hurled it overboard while bolting back toward the cockpit to grab the helm controls.
By the time I got back to the helm, Swedish Fish was broadside to the lee shore, drifting faster than ever now, being free of her dragging anchors, and less than ONE boat length from smashing into the pilings and docks there! I threw the tranny control into forward, slammed the throttle down, put the helm hard over, and to my dazed relief, the boat turned and pulled away from the crunching jaws of that shore. When she showed her stern to it and began pulling away, there were only a couple of yards between them. It was just dumb luck that I wasn’t aground there, the water level being raised by the storm.
Whatever was wrapped around the prop continued to “whump whump whump,” as we went, but as long as I was making progress away from the lee shore, I didn’t care. And now I was making good progress, powering hard directly to weather. Which meant heavy sheets of spray were flying up over the starboard bow as I went, which the fierce wind would then catch and sling with sadistic force right into my face. This happened continually, about every three to four seconds as I drove the boat away. (No dodger, remember?) The salt water stung my eyes. I wiped it out just in time for another one to slap me. I was dying of thirst, my muscles ached, and I was trembling from the catastrophe that I had just narrowly averted. My hands had cuts on them, and only then did I notice blood smears on the boat here and there. It was now approaching 10:00 (I think), and I had been working hard and ceaselessly since before 0400.
I intended to take the boat as close as I could get to the windward shore on the opposite side of Buttonwood Sound. There is a little pocket there on the west side behind uninhabited Pelican Key. That would be a good place to put down my remaining anchor and wait out the rest of this storm. When I got almost there, Paul returned in his runabout with his two workers, and approached alongside. I gave him the quick report on what had happened, and he had one of his guys (Nick) climb aboard with me to help me get Swedish Fish secured into a protected anchorage. I told him where he might find the fender floating that was attached to the anchor I had to cut loose, and asked him to please try to recover it for me. He agreed to do that, and peeled away.
Nick and I continued on toward the intended anchorage area. While I drove, I got him to carry the anchor on the stern up to the bow, and prepare it for deployment. Of course, the closer we got to the windward shore behind Pelican Key, the calmer the waters became, and the less intense the wind seemed. We got within about 50 yards of the shore, and I asked Nick to lower the anchor. The water here is very shallow, with less than a foot between the bottom of my keel and the sea bed, so I didn’t expect to need a whole lot of scope (length) on the anchor line. I let the boat drift back, and let out about 30 yards of anchor line and cleated it. I left the engine running until we were sure we had good holding. We didn’t, the anchor was dragging. I had Nick let out more scope. Still dragging. I asked Nick to let out all the scope, but still we dragged.
A few hundred yards alee of us was a large, newer power-cat style yacht, probably worth at least a quarter million dollars, maybe much more, anchored there to ride out the storm. As our anchor dragged, we drifted closer and closer to him. I kept hoping, hoping that stupid anchor could get a tine in and hold, but it was in fact hopeless. I had Nick stand by with our only remaining fender, and by now the owner of the power yacht was out on deck, arms akimbo, watching us intently. Our drift trajectory put us narrowly by him instead of on top of him, but by now it was past time to get the anchor back on board and start over.
So Nick pulled the anchor back up and we returned to the spot where we had started, though this time I got even closer to the windward shore line, only about two boat lengths offshore. We re-set the hook, and this time it held. Of course I don’t normally anchor in that close, but it was the only way I could get the ground tackle I had available to hold us in the existing conditions. If the wind were to shift 180 degrees, Swedish Fish would be shoved into the mangroves on shore. But I was on board, there was no indication in the immediate forecast for a shift in wind direction, and even if it did, I would deal with that when it came.
Just a few minutes after we got the anchor set, Paul returned and I was very relieved that he had indeed located the other anchor that I had cut loose, and he had brought it back to me. I took the anchor, he took Nick, and suddenly I was alone again. I didn’t even have a dinghy to allow myself to get off of the boat. But none of that mattered to me much at that moment. The important thing was that Swedish Fish was now in a good, protected and (relatively) peaceful anchorage, and I could finally sit down.
I looked out the windows in the salon at the wavelets on the water just outside, and at the larger waves still rolling along beyond Pelican Key. The wind was still howling. I felt shell shocked, and then I realized that I was also short of breath, but no amount of deep breaths would relieve it. It felt like pressure on my chest. My hands weren’t trembling anymore, but that feeling was still with me. It dawned on me that I’d been traumatized. I was experiencing a form of PTSD. Somehow I felt different, as a person. This experience had changed me. I didn’t know how exactly, but I could feel it. Part of me was resentful that this change had happened to me without my permission, but another part of me felt that good may somehow come out of this. I was wiser and more prudent now, and it was a lesson that only such an ordeal could have taught.
I stayed there anchored behind Pelican Key for the next two days. I got a couple ferry rides from folks at KLSC back and forth to shower and get supplies. But on Tuesday afternoon Paul texted me to advise that the wind was going to ease off that night, and that I had better consider moving the boat soon, or else when the wind shifted or eased, the water level in the sound would drop, and I would probably find myself aground in that shallow spot behind Pelican Key where I was. At first I didn’t take him too seriously. But that night while I was relaxing down below I suddenly became aware that the wind had eased way way off, down to almost nothing. Paul’s words began to ring in my head.
A glance at the depth sounder confirmed that I had already lost a couple of tenths of a foot beneath the keel, and there was precious little depth remaining. I didn’t feel like doing it at all, but I finally realized that this may be my only chance to get out of this pocket before going aground. So I got dressed, and went out on deck to prepare to get underway. I cranked the engine, hoisted the anchor, and turned the boat back toward the mooring field next to KLSC. The boat was moving, that was good. I got about 150 yards when I realized that I was no longer moving. The engine was running, the prop was turning, but the boat wasn’t moving. I had soft-grounded. I tried steering the boat this way and that. I tried reverse. I tried leaving it in gear and throwing my body weight port and starboard. None of that worked. I was firmly aground. Calling Tow BOAT/US would probably take too long since I was now in a race with a falling wind-tide; by the time they got to me I would be even more firmly aground.
Reluctantly, I called Mike Williams for help. (This wasn’t the first time I had called Mike Williams for towing help, so I really hated to do it.) Mike suggested that I raise sail, and perhaps the wind would heel the boat over, and allow me to sail off the grounding. Great idea! I tried that, but by this time there was not even enough wind to heel the boat more than an inch or two. It wasn’t going to work. I called Mike back, and asked him to please bring the runabout out to me so we could hopefully tow me off of the grounding. It was about 2130. In 20 minutes Mike pulled up, we got a tow line on the bow, he was able to pull me off the grounding with relative ease. He went on home, and I motored back over to the KLSC mooring field area and put the Rocna anchor down. No worries about it holding this time, there was virtually no wind or waves. The anchor sunk into the bottom, and Swedish Fish held fast. And I went to bed.
That Wednesday I put on snorkeling gear and jumped over the side to see what I had fouled my propeller on. It was a surprise – there was some small rope, about 1/4″ diameter, and some kind of fabric, wrapped tightly around the prop and shaft. I came back at it with a bare hack saw blade to cut it off. It took over a half dozen dives to get all of it off. That was good, but there was bad news too. The prop blades were bent, the tips of them were bent over like a dog-ear bookmark. Great. Thank God that at least they weren’t so badly bent that the prop wouldn’t work. I brought the pieces I had cut off up to examine them more closely. The fabric was delicate. When I looked at the larger chunks I realized that it was part of…a woman’s blouse! No, I hadn’t run over anybody. Believe me, nobody was in the water during Monday’s storm. The blouse was just some flotsam that was in the water, tangled up with that loose piece of rope, which my prop just happened to encounter in the middle of my Monday morning crisis management. Nice. A clothing item like this is not surprising to find in the water around here. On nice days, many of the docks lining Buttonwood Sound have vacationers sunbathing on them. Ladies take off their cover-ups, and set them on the docks beside them. Of course it’s not unusual for them to later be distracted when they walk off the dock and leave something there, which the wind then blows into the water.
Here are some pictures of the damage to the boat, which I took the same day I dove to clear the prop:
Things were relatively normal/peaceful for the next couple of days. But then on Saturday, January 28, another storm came through! This one did not arrive with the same ferocity that the previous one did, but the sustained winds were very similar. But this time I was on anchor, and the anchor had been set for three days. I also had put out a second anchor. So the boat was well secured this time, it seemed. Nevertheless, I was very exasperated that this kind of weather was hitting me twice in the space of one week. I became determined to find a more sheltered anchorage than this, asap. This storm also lasted more than a day, so on Sunday I was able to get some video of the conditions:
I also took a selfie out there.
These two storms became a line of demarcation in my Key Largo sojourn. There was everything that happened there before them, and everything that happened there after them.
But now I was mad. I’ve come all the way to Florida to enjoy some of the good life, and this ain’t it. I positively must find a protected place to moor my boat, preferably in a marina slip, but if not, then an anchorage that is actually protected. There must be one around here somewhere, right? They are in abundance in North Carolina, but here, they are actually rare and hard to find. Long story short is, after searching assiduously for the next several days, the best thing I could come up with was another anchorage in the next bay over, called Tarpon Basin. It is just through the mangrove cut, one section east and north of Buttonwood Sound.
Tarpon Basin is much smaller than Buttonwood Sound, so therefore the water is much more protected. I determined to move Swedish Fish there asap. That experience, and what followed, is the subject of “Key Largo, Part II,” coming up next.
December 16, 2016 – January 22, 2017
After we arrived in Key Largo my friend Mike Williams, whom I originally met in New Bern over three years ago, put me to work almost immediately for American Sailing Academy and for Morningstar Charters. We arrived on Friday, and on Monday I was already out on my first charter – as a mate, not captain. I had to learn the boats and the area before I was ready to captain.
But within a couple weeks I did my first charter as captain, taking snorkelers out to Molasses Reef, where we would pick up a mooring ball, and allow the clients to snorkel around the reef, and later we would take them back, usually under sail since by afternoon the sea breeze would kick in. When I wasn’t captaining these charters, I kept a fairly full schedule teaching new sailors how to sail on board the ASA‘s fleet of Catalina 22s.
We quickly found a church we liked, and began attending. We went to a packed-house Christmas Eve service there, which was a very homey, heart-warming experience for both of us. At times like that we didn’t feel like newcomers or foreigners at all. 🙂
On Christmas day Mike and his girlfriend Mandy invited us to join them for some holiday celebration. We were glad to accept. They took us on a little sightseeing tour of the upper and middle keys, driving us all the way down to Marathon Key where we had a fabulous waterfront alfresco Christmas buffet at the Sunset Grille. It was unlike any Christmas celebration I’ve ever been part of. Most people were in their bathing suits, the tiki bar was doing a brisk business, and the pool was full of people, many of them sipping on margaritas or some such. The pool/dining patio is ocean front, the Caribbean blue color of the sea stretches all the way to the horizon. It’s still one of our favorite places to eat in the Florida Keys.
After the big meal, we drove (snooped) around a bit, scoping out other marinas either they or we might someday inhabit. We stopped by the Marathon City Marina, and I got to look out at their 300-space mooring field, which I believe is the largest in all of the Keys. We also stopped by Mangrove Marina and had a drink by the peaceful open pit fire, and later that night, we returned to Key Lime Sailing Club and enjoyed a couple more adult beverages with some of the guests staying there for the holidays, around their open pit fire. The weather was perfect. We had a wonderful Christmas, and much of the credit for that is due to Mike and Mandy.
For the most part the work was pretty steady, and the pay wasn’t bad at all.
Dana was settling in, and beginning to look for work of her own, as a nurse. But more urgently, she needed to re-claim her car which we left behind in New Bern, get our bicycles and other things which were in storage, and go back to Alabama to try to establish some sort of permanent management arrangement for her house and a few other items (her precious kitties) there. After that was done the plan was for her to pack up the bikes and other things and drive back down to Key Largo to re-join me.
So on December 29 she took the bus to Miami airport, and then a connecting flight back to New Bern. I think she was in New Bern for less than an hour! She was in a hurry to get back to Alabama to manage the situation there. So after she got off the plane, she got a ride back to New Bern Grand Marina to pick up her car and the other things, and immediately hit the road. She was in Alabama for the next two months. We missed each other while she was gone, but there was work which had to be done.
In the meantime I stayed pretty busy with charters and sailing classes, and with more projects on the boat, such as installing a second 100 watt solar panel on top of the bimini, and some more dome lights in the salon and another in the aft cabin.
After three weeks at the seawall dock behind my boss’s house, it was time for me to find a more permanent home for Swedish Fish. I was quite comfortable where the boat was, but the bylaws of his neighborhood homeowner’s association forbade any permanent liveaboards on boats behind the houses.
Before I accepted this position here, before I decided to leave New Bern and move here, I had been assured that there would be a slip provided to me as part of the agreement; that was a significant key to my decision to come. However we didn’t see the marina in which the slip was offered until we got here – my failing. I don’t want to get too specific, but suffice it to say that while the assurance was in fact genuine, the marina was not acceptable to Dana, and honestly there was very little that I liked about it either. It was a well-protected slip yes, with power. But no available potable water, and the tiny, hole-in-the-wall marina could hardly have been in a more inconvenient, isolated location. Put bluntly, it was in the middle of nowhere; the word desolation came to my mind. It wasn’t even on Key Largo. It was in an unincorporated area of Dade county, south of Homestead, basically in an Everglades backwater off the highway. What it did have in abundance was solitude and mosquitoes. So yes, that was a BIG disappointment. I could even get angry about it, but what good would it do?
There were several boats on moorings behind (on the bay side) of Key Lime Sailing Club, and for the time being, it looked like the only option. So I made arrangements, recruited a crewman from the staff to help me, and early on the morning of January 17, we departed Port Largo, motored down to the drawbridge at Snake Creek (which separates Islamorada and Key Largo) brought the boat back over to the bay side, and back northeast again to arrive at the KLSC mooring field in Buttonwood Sound, Key Largo at 1330. It took five and a half hours to move the boat less than one mile!
At first, this didn’t seem too bad. But it sure wasn’t what I had in mind for living aboard in Key Largo. I suspected that the mooring I was on was old, and possibly intended for a boat much smaller that Swedish Fish. I didn’t trust it. Over the next few days I kept thinking to myself, “I have to dive down and check out the integrity of this mooring.” The water there is just barely deeper that Swedish Fish‘s keel (centerboard up), and it’s very clear most of the time, so it would be an easy dive. The water was little cool, it being mid-winter, so I procrastinated. That turned out to be a very, very big mistake. Six days later, I would be put through the worst ordeal of my entire boating life, the subject of the next chapter.
December 15 & 16, 2016
On Thursday December 15 we got an early start as usual, and were underway at 0700, headed south and right into the maw of the big Miami seaport. Lookout giant container ships, giant cruise liners, megayachts, and massive ocean tug boats – Swedish Fish is coming through! (I’m certain they were all on high alert for our royal passing.)
If I may use an exhausted cliché, it all happened so quickly. Within what seemed like just a few minutes, we were under this bridge and that, and suddenly we were surrounded by a soaring, mirrored urban skyline to starboard, massive ships to our port, and all manner of navigational aids and obstructions in between. All the while I’m splitting my attention back and forth between the unfolding scene around us, and the charts, trying to make sure I don’t make a wrong turn in here somewhere. Markers and buoys are everywhere, “danger” signs, preferred channel markers, traffic separation markers, range markers, yadda yadda yadda! All that is true, but actually it wasn’t that difficult. Thank you modern technology for the wonders of the GPS chart plotter. With that one amazing tool, I can manage my way through almost anything with little fuss.
We took it all in, but never stopped or slowed down. Right on through Miami we went.
I had gotten some advice on a recommended stopover point between Miami and Key Largo, a tiny island called Boca Chita Key, in Biscayne National Park. (Did you know there was a Biscayne National Park? I didn’t before this day – doy!) So we were headed for little Boca Chita, not really knowing what to expect there. The cruise from Miami to Boca Chita that day was magical. As soon as we entered the broad water of Biscanye Bay, we raised sail and cut the engine. It was a perfect sailing experience. Steady wind right at our backs, pure sunshine, and Caribbean blue water stretched in every direction. And once we left Miami, it seemed as if immediately it was all ours, we saw almost no other boats. It was even a tad eerie that way – were we doing something wrong? Had we entered the Twilight Zone? Regardless, I was so charmed, I wished I could slow time down at that moment. I didn’t want it to end, but Swedish Fish kept charging along. Where would she take us today, what was next…?
I followed my navigation right up to Boca Chita. We doused sails and motored closer. I really had almost no idea of what I would find there. Was there an anchorage? Where? Peering though binoculars, we nudged in closer. There’s a lighthouse! (A lighthouse?) Throttle way down now, we inched in a little closer. Is that…is that…a cut going into the island? A harbor?! Yes, it was. And now I could see one other boat already inside, moored to a seawall in there. Creeping along, half expecting to touch bottom at any moment, we followed the little channel into Boca Chita’s picturebook inner harbor. It was shaped something like a giant comma, completely lined with a concrete seawall, conveniently studded with evenly spaced mooring cleats. One could tie up anywhere, at least on that quiet Thursday in mid-December.
We entered the harbor without incident, circled around, put out the fenders, and tied up at 1225. A dock (seawall)! The last time we had tied to the boat to anything was at the fuel dock way back up at Vero Beach, five days ago. It would have been nice to have stepped on terra firma almost anywhere, but this…this place was magic, even if we had been compelled to anchor and dinghy in. The fact that we didn’t have to just compounded our delight.
We spent the remainder of that Thursday exploring this little postcard of an island, combing its beaches, walking the grassy inner parts (kept cut by the NPS) and just listening to the constant rustling of the palm fronds in the breeze, while taking in the colorful blue water, green palms, mangroves, grass, and bright blue sky. The whole island can’t be more than just a few acres, but it makes a big impact on a day like this.
I had finally had enough of my ever-lengthening hair, and Dana agreed to cut it for me that evening, sitting on our boarding steps on the seawall. We were both pleased with the result. We cleaned up, had dinner, enjoyed a relaxing evening, and slept like children, nestled in this coziest of spots.
Friday, December 16, 2016
We awoke to another day of fine weather, and reluctantly departed Boca Chita at 0725. (I almost had to pry Dana loose from it.) But this would be a BIG day, and the good weather window was not to be missed. This was the day we should complete our 850 mile sea journey from New Bern NC to Key Largo, FL! But there were still many mysteries to unfold, reefs, narrow cuts, and a bit of ocean to navigate. Oh boy, let’s go!
First we had to backtrack about 3 NM to return to the Biscayne Bay ICW. There are no short-cuts here. If one were to try it, he would quickly be hard aground in this somewhat remote area. In fact, I almost put us aground myself when I misread one of the markers, and I thank Dana for catching the error. We backtracked our backtrack (!) and got back on course. Once back on the ICW, we turned south and soon had to thread the next eye of a needle for the day, this time through a collection of shoals and mangroves called the “Featherbeds.” Past that, it was another 6.5 NM to the inside entrance to Caesar Creek, the cut between Elliot Key and Totten Key (another “needle eye”) which we had to get through to enter the ocean to begin our sail south around Key Largo. The tidal current was strong through Caesar Creek, and it was afoul of us, but we were able to progress slowly through it with enough throttle applied.
After we passed through Caesar Creek, we were back offshore again, and once safely into deep water, turned our bow south and west toward Key Largo. The area between the barrier reefs and the Florida Keys is known as Hawk Channel. Its sort of a natural navigational channel for boats making any offshore passage between Miami and Key West. Its also extremely popular with the sport and professional fisherman, being chock full of all their favorite quarry. So down Hawk Channel we went, usually about two to three miles offshore.
By 1500 we were at the approaches to the Key Largo ocean side channel entrances. The question was, which one? I thought I knew, and we entered. But about 10 minutes into this narrow channel bordered by thick mangroves, it became apparent that this was not the right place. I later learned that we had entered the channel for John Pennekamp State Park. We did a 180 and went back out. What we were looking for was the entrance to an area called Port Largo, but that term was not on my chart, or even on my road atlas. And Googling “Port Largo” only showed real estate. Pfft! Anyway, after a few phone calls to my new employer at Key Lime Sailing Club, I was finally coached successfully into the Port Largo canal system channel entrance. Our temporary destination was the canal seawall (dock) behind my boss’s house. Once inside the canal system, it was easy enough to find the house and dock based on the directions I had been given. At exactly 1600, we tossed our lines to our hosts there, and made fast.
We had done it! We had taken ourselves and our ten ton boat, over seven weeks and 850 miles of water, from New Bern, North Carolina to Key Largo, Florida, through cold, and rain, and dark of night – safely and without incident. What a great feeling that was – we were ready to celebrate – though Dana was admittedly sad that the voyage was over. For her, that meant no new sea-going adventures for a long time, and a return (soon) to the daily grind of employment. I was looking forward to a new job, and a new place. But all that would be the subjects of blog posts yet to be written.