After we got settled in to our new marina in Mobile, one of the first things I tried to do was to locate a workshop that I could use for projects to maintain and improve the boat. This is not a “nice to have” thing; it is a necessity to me. Unfortunately, all of the other men at our marina are either quite decidedly “retired” (“I do not work. At anything”) or if they do work nearby, they do so out of the back of a pickup truck. So, no chance of finding a workshop through any of them.
So after I started driving the truck, I had a lot of time to think behind the wheel. I eventually came up with a solution to the workshop problem, and the lack of storage space problem. I decided to save up some of my first few paychecks to purchase an enclosed work trailer. There would be enough room inside the right one for both a workshop and storage for all the stuff we want to keep, but don’t want on the boat all the time. Things like: extra sails, the portable generator, extra fuel cans, camping equipment, the bicycles, kayak, paint and varnish, spare parts, etc. Because it’s a trailer, it’s portable and can be transported by any capable tow vehicle to wherever we take the boat along the coast of the US, or even Mexico for that matter. If we decide to sail further abroad, we can find a place to park the trailer for long term storage.
When I went shopping for one, I learned that a 6×12′ trailer cost only $50 more than a 6×10′ model, so that would provide even more space to stretch out inside. I chose a couple other options, most notably a “ladder rack” on the roof, which I will use to store kayaks, or any other large items that don’t need to be inside. I put down a deposit and by early June, our new trailer was ready for pick up.
Prudence dictates that the exterior remain nondescript, but if I could, I wanted to stencil on both sides:
SWEDISH FISH MOBILE SHORE SUPPORT UNIT
because that’s exactly what it is. The “bow” of the trailer is V shaped, and suited to accommodate construction of a workbench inside, and the remaining (aft) part of the trailer will be used for wall-to-wall shelving, and bicycle storage in the very back. I considered shelves along each side with an aisle down the middle, but realized that would waste at least a third of the available space. If the shelves extended all the way from one side to the other, all of the potential storage space would be utilized, and things in the middle could still be reached from the forward or aft ends.
In July I went to Fernandina Beach Florida for the Watson family reunion instead of going home, so I had to wait until August to start working on the new trailer. I put the big shelves in then. In September I installed the workbench in the forward end of the trailer. That pretty much completes the additions I intend for the trailer. Now the trailer is ready to fulfill it’s mission. It is parked in the marina parking lot just a few steps from the boat, and even fewer steps from a convenient 110v electrical outlet, which I can use to power the workshop via an extension cord. If I ever park the trailer in a place that does not have 110v power nearby, I can always use the generator to provide adequate power for illumination and my power tools.
It is such a relief to have all that extra stuff off the boat! Now the boat looks like a boat again, instead of a floating storage bin with barely room for the people inside. And I can hardly wait to get started on boat projects using my own workshop, all within steps of the boat. The trailer was the biggest single financial investment I’ve ever made for the boat, but I have no doubt that it was worth every penny. Every liveaboard boat should be so fortunate to have one. It has even become my de facto “man cave” since I’ve tricked it out inside with power, lighting, stereo, and everything else I could want short of air conditioning. Hmm…
Describing the Greyhound bus trip from Mobile to Cedar Rapids as “hell” would be an overstatement, but I am hard-pressed to find another adjective that fits well. If I had adequate foreknowledge of just how bad that was going to be, I would have offered to pay the difference for a rental car, or a flight. I just jumped in naively and did whatever CRST asked or suggested that I do.
CRST driving school was a bit like military boot camp without the yelling and degradation. It was horribly overcrowded, and populated with a group of pathetic souls that were a cut or two worse than a cross section of typical, actual truck drivers. This is because close to half of them were merely aspiring truck drivers, and not truck drivers to-be. I.E., they were not going to make the cut, and in fact there would be few things in life for which they would be capable of making the cut. More than a few of them were ex-cons. CRST is one of the few companies that will hire virtually any ex-con, as long as s/he can pass the drug screening, and then the rest of the training program.
Why is it that trucking often attracts the dregs of the employable workforce? I don’t know, but I suspect that it is mostly because of the isolated working conditions. Truckers must be gone for days, weeks, and sometimes months at a time. That is a condition that most average, everyday people cannot accept. They have spouses, children, extended family, and so on, that they cannot simply abandon for that long. It can be an acceptable gig for the young unattached adult, or the semi-retired empty-nester, or certain others. But a borderline bum, ex-con, misfit, or typical nut job is unconcerned with such issues.
Within two weeks, about half of our training class had been screened out. Many failed the drug screening. Others couldn’t pass the written exam to obtain their CDL learner’s permit. Some had driver’s licenses that were in legal limbo due to unresolved traffic violations. A couple were too obese to climb into the back of a trailer, so they failed the agility test. And a few others just couldn’t pass the parking or road tests.
We took the CDL learner’s permit exam during our first week at school. There were about 40 of us in the testing center, and I was the first one to finish the test and turn it in for grading. But that was of little consequence. I would be challenged in other areas. My biggest challenge was not to die from the aggravated bronchitis I contracted from being crammed in with so many germs from so many other people in tight quarters. I got so sick I had to go to an Urgent Care clinic to see a doctor, after which I was confined to bed for a full day and given a cocktail of medications. After that day of rest, I was far from cured, but I was improved enough to slog through the remainder of the program. That included daily walks of a half mile each way between the dorm and the driving academy, in temperatures that usually were hovering around 5 to 10 degrees F, with plenty of accompanying wind chill just to make sure you knew you were freezing to the bone. Often it was snowing as well. I later learned that CRST has a driving school in Jacksonville Florida. Why I was not sent to that school, since it is much closer to my home in Mobile (and not frozen solid), I do not know, but it was infuriating to discover.
After driving school, while I still had a CDL permit, I spent six weeks with my “Lead Driver” who showed me all the the ropes that they couldn’t cover in school for lack of time or practicality.
My lead driver was about my own age, and I thought that would be a good thing, and I suppose it was. We generally got along, but about halfway through that time, our compatibility was wearing thin. His attitude was that it was “his” truck, and while on board I was less than a guest, even less than a student. I was more like a tolerated underling to boss around. To some degree, I could understand that attitude. He was a very seasoned veteran of the big rig road, and I was a complete greenhorn. Nevertheless, the attitude went well beyond practical matters involving the operation of the truck. He was far more interested in earning the extra money he got as a Lead Driver than he was in actually training me to do much. Suffice it to say that by the end of the six weeks, I was very ready to get away from him, and to get on board “my” own truck with a co driver that was my actual peer. Even if we were both green, which we were, at least we were equals and could share decision making, and have full empathy toward each other for everything we were to encounter. I was ready for that.
It’s best to find a co-driver that lives near you, so that when you take your “home time” one can be dropped off and the other doesn’t have far to travel. My first co-driver was from Slidell LA, which is close enough to Mobile to suffice. We got along OK at first. I really try to be amiable with everyone. But once he got to know me a bit, his willingness to be compatible with me deteriorated. I think the thing that bothered him the most was that I did not hate President Trump, and my style of learning. I’m perhaps too analytical of new things, and this can be tedious to others who just take things at face value, even if they don’t have any theoretical understanding of what they’re dealing with. But I think his extreme and outspoken political attitudes clouded his thinking regarding everything else about me, so there was no patience for any of my peccadilloes, no matter how slight. Understand that I do not make a habit of talking politics, especially with those who disagree. But in close quarters, one’s politics will emerge eventually, so after two months we agreed to seek alternative co-drivers.
That was a great move for me. Fortunately I found a new one forthwith. He lives about the same distance away, but to the east, in Florida. We get along fine. He is very easy going and we just get the job done with very few problems.
But enough about all that. If you’re reading this I’m sure what you’re more interested in is where has trucking taken me, what have I seen, and what interesting things have happened out there on the road. With my lead driver I covered over 22 thousand miles, and much of that was in real winter conditions. We drove through falling snow in Wyoming, and New Mexico, among other places. We went through snow-covered Deadman Pass on I-84 in Oregon, and down the miles of crazy 6% grade and hairpin turns of Cabbage Hill that follows it. We have driven through the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the southern extremes of the Rockies, the Ozarks, and the Appalachian mountains. We’ve been through the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, the wastes of west Texas, and into nearly every major city except for NYC and those north of it.
All in all, in these first seven months with my lead driver, and my two co-drivers, I have trucked through every state except South Dakota, Nevada, and those north of New Jersey.
My contract with CRST expires in mid December. My general plan after that is to continue trucking, but on a less rigorous schedule. I don’t know yet if I will stay with CRST, or go to another company. But my main goal is to get a plan that has me home more often. Many drivers are home every weekend, and I would definitely be interested in an arrangement like that. We shall see, and when it comes, I’ll write about it.
This is a big course change. Those that know me know that these occasional changes are part of the way I roll.
Dana is starting school now, and will soon be starting work too. She will be quite preoccupied for a while. I still haven’t found anything suitable for myself to do in Mobile. West Marine isn’t hiring, the marinas convenient to me are not hiring, and the economy in Mobile in general at this time of year is fairly weak. Though I did well in Key Largo, I never found lucrative work in Marathon, where I was for most of last year. This, coupled with the expenses resultant from hurricane Irma and relocating to Mobile, has left me with some debt. At the same time, there are (of course) the day-to-day expenses that also must be met. And we’re going to be planted in Mobile for the next year and a half, at least, until Dana finishes her college work.
At a couple times in my life prior to now I had considered the idea of driving an over-the-road truck, but had always dismissed it quickly because I had kids at home, a wife that needed me, or something else that needed regular attention. That is not the case now. Dana is very supportive of this move, and so we decided together that I should go for it. Today, I am off to trucking school to obtain my CDL and then go on to work for CRST, a major truck line based out of Cedar Rapids Iowa. After I complete their training program, I will be contracted to work for them for 10 months. So if all goes as planned, my contractual obligation to them will be completed about a year from now. During my time working for CRST, I will also have some time off each month to go home and be with Dana and take care of the domestic front. After that, I’ll have my CDL and will be able to drive locally, or not at all, however I want, whenever and wherever I want. I will make enough money to take care of everything.
Anyone that knows me knows that I’m not a typical trucker, LOL! But you should also know that I’m not typical of anything really, so in view of that, this isn’t a radical thing for me. On the contrary, it makes sense.
When I worked for Mission Hospital in Asheville, I drove some big ambulances, the kind used for transporting Critical Care patients that require a literal truckload of life support equipment, and quite a bit of additional training to operate. They weren’t as big as a semi, but they were close, complete with Jake brakes, tandem wheels, pneumatic suspension, and DEF diesel fuel additive requirements. So I’ve already had a taste. And last year Dana and I became well acquainted with another cruising couple that also fund their cruising in this way. I have known others prior to that. All this provided corroboration for me that this was a viable option to take.
A lot of firsts are going on here. First time I’ve ever been away from the boat for more than three weeks. Dana will of course be there to look after it. First time I’ve wintered in a place where -10 degrees F is not unusual; it will reach that low in Cedar Rapids this week! (Coldest I ever confronted in Brian Head Utah was -5.) Obviously this is the first time big-rig trucking, or attending an extended company-owned trade school (not counting USCG boot camp and “A” school). And so on.
Before departing this morning, I told Dana that I wouldn’t be doing this if it did not have a significant adventure component to it. She agreed that was true. I’ll still be completely visible on Facebook, and available to answer your calls and texts. So here goes. Keep me in your prayers, and perhaps I’ll have a layover in your town this year!
When I was a young sailor I dreamt of myself behind the wheel of a a big sailing yacht. I thought there was something about that image that spoke capability, knowledge, cachet, and basic coolness. One rarely sees images of yachtsmen helming a tiller that communicate similar impressions. Besides, tillers are only seen on small boats; to be in with the big boys, you need a wheel. I thought.
I sailed for years on smaller boats equipped with tillers. I quickly got accustomed to the way they work, and took their functionality for granted. Not only that, I began to like them. Then one day I got a big boat with a wheel, and from the first time I used that wheel, I already missed the tiller! Here’s why:
- Feedback. A helmsman using a tiller never has any ambiguity in his mind about the rudder angle. He knows exactly where his rudder is pointed, because the tiller is attached to the rudder or rudder post in parallel with the rudder; the rudder is pointed wherever the tiller is pointed. And it’s just as important to know where a boat is being steered at all times as it is to know where a car is being steered at all times. Unless a wheel steering system is equipped with a Rudder Angle Indicator, the helmsman has no immediate reference to the rudder angle. Rudder Angle Indicators [RAI] are complex and expensive instruments only seen on ships and very expensive yachts. But since most yachts with wheels do not have RAI, the helmsman doesn’t really know where the rudder is pointed. He can only infer that vital information secondhand, by (1) remembering where it was approximately pointed last, and/or (2) observing the movement of the boat in response to wheel manipulations. Yes, this is exactly how we steer our cars, but that’s quite a bit different because car steering wheels do not have the same ratio of steering wheel turns to effect the steering element (the front wheels) that a boat has (the rudder). The steering wheels on cars don’t go much past 360 degrees of turn, and even if they do, you would never park your car with the wheels turned that hard over. As soon as the driver looks at the steering wheel in a car, he has a sense of the front wheel angle, because the steering wheel in an idle car is normally oriented straight, and the logo in the center of it, along with the design of the spokes, tells him that the wheel is straight in reference to the front wheels. By contrast, in order to provide adequate leverage against the heavy resistance of a rudder, steering wheels on boats often have 720 degrees of turn on each side of center. So even if the King Spoke is marked, the helmsman still doesn’t know where his rudder is pointed simply by looking at the wheel. This problem is acute when leaving or returning to cramped docking situations and during backing maneuvers.
- Feel. Feedback is again an issue with regard to the “feel” of the wheel vs. a tiller in the hand of the helmsman. A tiller will transmit all sorts of information to the helmsman that a wheel can not. The gentle vibration of the tiller tells the helmsman that water is rushing over the rudder, that he has a certain amount of boat speed. And when he pushes to tiller to one side, again, he can feel the resistance of the water against the rudder, giving him positive feedback that his tiller movement has produced a corresponding rudder movement. Wheel helmsmen do not get any of that, as they are insulated from most or all of it by the steering linkage system which connects the wheel to the rudder post.
- Simplicity. Tiller/rudder assemblies are simple levers with one moving part, which is the entirety of the tiller/rudder, moving together as one. The simplest steering systems of all don’t even have a rudder post; the tiller is connected directly to the top of the rudder, and they pivot across a pair of pintles and gudgeons attached to the boat’s transom. Conversely, a wheel steering system is complicated, involving a circuitous linkage between the wheel and the rudder post, where it then interfaces with yet another system -the rudder steering quadrant- before transmitting kinetic movement to the rudder post. These linkages involve some assemblage of sprockets, drive chains, cables, pulleys, clamps, hydraulic rams, push-pull jacketed cables, and a quadrant. There are dozens of opportunities for failure, any one of which will in all likelihood result in a total loss of steering. The back up steering system for wheeled boats is, yes, a tiller.
- Reliability. Because of its simplicity (above), a tiller is much more reliable than a wheel steering system. It would be difficult to quantify exactly how much so, but even a casual review of the facts articulated here should make the fact quite apparent. I’m sure BOAT/US has abundant statistics to back this up.
- Auto-Pilot. An autopilot for a tiller costs less than $500, and is simple to install and use. An autopilot for a wheel boat costs thousands of dollars, is complex to install, and is complex in its functionality. It seems every sailor I’ve met who has a wheel autopilot system has complained of failures or other problems at some point.
- Unobstructed cockpit. When not sailing, a tiller can be folded up and out of the cockpit, leaving the entire cockpit open as a place for relaxing and entertaining. A wheel is a permanent fixture in the center of the cockpit, and is very much in the way any time you’re not actually maneuvering the boat.
In conclusion, I always prefer a boat with a tiller over one with a wheel steering system, all other things remaining equal. I advise against getting anxious for wheel steering. If you already have a tiller steered boat, enjoy it! If you’re looking to buy a boat, I would give preference to any that are available with tillers.
Probably like you, prior to 2017 I had enchanted notions about the Florida Keys. I went to camp there when I was a teenager and have fond memories. And I had been a couple other times visiting, and everything was great. But living in the Keys is another matter. Perhaps it’s like living in a place like Alaska. Alaska is stunningly beautiful too, but do you think you could be comfortable there, long term? Only a particular breed can. The Keys have their own set of challenges. Whoever coined the phrase “It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there” must have been referring to the Florida Keys.
I thought I might want to live there, until I did for a year. I changed my mind about that. I’ll be specific. I have a long list, and I’m not sure where to start, so I’ll just launch in.
High prices / economy – Prices throughout the Keys are high, but wages are about the same as anywhere else. And yes that especially includes groceries. CATV service is priced higher than anyplace I’ve ever seen. Housing expenses are astronomical, and everyday worker bees, the folks who run all the resorts and shops, restaurants and bars, either live in very dumpy or tiny places, or in very unusual places (shipping containers, three roommates, run down boats that don’t operate…) Since so many locals are living on the edge of sustainability, it makes things harder on everybody because there is so little to share. Expect to pay 30 to 50% more in the Keys than you would in most other US locations for just about anything. And that’s IF you can find that thing you need, because…
Scarcity – You will not be able to find many of the grocery or convenience items you’re accustomed to buying in other parts of the US. Sometimes there is only one grocery or supermarket serving a span of Keys covering 15 miles in either direction. There is no Walmart, no Dollar General, and for the 70 miles between Key Largo and Key West there is no Dollar Tree, Family Dollar or similar stores. Great! Right? No. You don’t miss those kinds of things until they’re gone, then you realize that life isn’t nearly as comfortable or affordable without them. The scarcity also applies to many specialty parts you might need for your boat, your car, or whatever else. It’s often not available in the Keys, so you have to order from the Internet almost constantly.
Employment – Options are limited. If you’re not in some aspect of the hospitality industry, you may be out of work. Dana had to leave Key Largo and go all the way to Marathon to find her work as a rehab nurse. That meant I had to abandon the only good position I had as a tour boat captain and sailing instructor. I could find almost no comparable work in Marathon.
Weather – Winters are mostly nice, but they also come with relentless, daily 15 to 20 knot trade winds, and some intense storms. Summers are no hotter than any other part of the deep south, but the SUN will change your mind about that. The intensity of the tropical sun has to be experienced to be understood. You have to dress like an Arab to protect yourself from it, especially if you work near the water, and in the Keys, everything is on or near the water. The UV intensity of that sun will also quickly destroy anything you expose to it. The radiant heat of the summer sun is so intense that painting or varnishing your boat is not possible in the summer. And the trade winds blow so strongly all winter, you can’t paint or varnish then either. And then there’s hurricanes…
Hurricanes – They have hurricanes in the Keys, or the threat of them, for half the year. Hurricanes are awful, but in the Keys they are even worse because you’re trapped in a traffic bottleneck with only one way in or out for all the thousands and thousands of people there. And for a boat owner, or a liveaboard, it gets worse still, because…
Very Few Protected Anchorages – For all the thousands of square miles that the Keys cover, there is an appalling lack of truly safe anchorage areas available. Sure, there are plenty of suitable anchorages for when the weather is nice. But what about when it’s not nice? And as mentioned above, it often is not nice. Hurricane Irma illustrated starkly just how vulnerable even a supposedly reputable anchorage like Boot Key Harbor is. It’s big, and it’s crowded. That makes it a mediocre anchorage at best. But what about putting your boat in a marina…
Marinas – Hey, no problem if you’re a millionaire. Well, maybe there is a problem, because few of them have any slips available even if you are a millionaire. But if they do, get ready to shell over some big bucks, at least twice as much as you would for most other parts of the country.
No boat maintenance – Because of the situation with anchorages and marinas, most boat owners can’t even wash their boats off, let alone paint or otherwise maintain them.
Cornered geography – As mentioned under “Hurricanes” above, the entire Florida Keys chain is choked off from the rest of the country by a single highway – one way in, and one way out. Most people see a highway and think nothing more of it, they take it for granted that its an ever-present access to wherever it leads. They also take it for granted that if something blocks the highway, they’ll simply take a detour and go another way. In the Keys, there is no detour, no alternate way around. Unless you have your own plane or boat, there is no other way out. So when hurricane evacuations occur, its an extremely tense situation with hundreds of thousands of people, and vehicles of every description, trying to leave on that one highway. And if any one of them breaks down, or has an accident in the highway…you get the picture.
In an emergency, most boats will be inadequate as a viable means of evacuation because they’re too slow, and as is often the case, you don’t get a lot of warning; that’s what “emergency” means, things have suddenly “emerged.” It’s not practical to evacuate a boat every time a hurricane might hit the keys, because almost any hurricane might hit the keys; one would have to keep his boat out of the Keys permanently, which isn’t that bad of an idea in my opinion. So by the time it’s certain that a hurricane is targeting the Keys, it’s too late to move most boats out.
The cornered, choked-off geography of the Keys wouldn’t be a big deal if only a few people lived there. But that’s not the case. The Keys are quite…
Crowded – Hundreds of thousands of people are in the Keys for most of the year. And because of that one road mentioned above, traffic jams are a common, almost daily occurrence. Now toss a hurricane evacuation on top of that.
Bums – The Keys overall are a magnet for bums. I suppose they prefer it because its so easy to sleep outside there year round. Get a load of this sign posted near a bathroom in Key West. The prohibitions listed on it give you a good idea of the kind of stuff that goes on. I’m sure that after reading this sign, the guy that wanted to do all those things in the public bathroom refrained. But then, he was probably drunk and may have missed the sign.
But it’s not just bums either. Ever been to Key West? It’s a freak show and a mecca for all sorts of debauchery. If you think I’m being prudish, well, we probably wouldn’t be hanging out together anyway, so enjoy your time in Key West. I won’t be there to interfere.
Mosquitoes and Noseeums – Endless swarms of them. But these carry Zika virus and other diseases too. Trucks drive around the Keys at night spraying toxic chemicals in the air to try to control the mosquitoes. So if the skeeters don’t get you, the chemical warfare might.
Scarcity of water – There is NO fresh water naturally available in the Keys. Every drop has to be piped in from the Florida mainland. That makes it extremely expensive, and vulnerable. So much for the proud “Conch Republic.” How can you have a republic of anything if you can’t produce your own drinking water? The scarcity of water is also part of the problem throughout the Keys of dealing with sewage treatment. There’s a lot of sewage with all those people, and processing it efficiently without abundant water is challenging and contributes to the high water bills for everyone.
Corrosion – The heavy concentration of salt in the air will corrode your bicycle to rusted, useless junk in less than a year. Your car, and anything else made of steel that is left outside will soon show visible signs of deterioration. Even stainless steel will corrode quickly in that environment. We have visible rust all over our boat now that wasn’t there before we settled in the Keys.
No local TV, and almost no radio – There is one radio station, and not a single broadcast TV station to pick up in the Keys. That probably sounds charming or quaint if you’re visiting, but I’m not writing about visiting.
Many of the complaints I’ve articulated here apply equally to most other tropical island localities. So I now know that I probably would not be content for long living in any such place. As stated in the title of the article, it’s not for me. In summary, I’m not here to diss the Keys. Go visit and have a great time. I’m just explaining why I wont live there again, and why I was so obviously relieved to have permanently “evacuated.”
We got up early on Thursday, November 16, 2017 and decided to make a run for Apalachicola. This was the big ocean crossing of the trip, covering about 140 nautical miles. After that run, everything else would be on protected water in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GICW). We exited John’s Pass (just north of Isle of Palms) and made our course. The weather was clear, but winds that day were right out of the north, and in the teens, strong enough to produce a very uncomfortable three to four foot seaway on our starboard bow as we tried to head NW. We had lots of spray and things being thrown around down below. We made an honest effort for about five hours, but finally decided that this was not the day. It was just too rough, and I really didn’t want to be in these conditions at night. I hit the navigation charts and found an escape for us at Clearwater Pass. It was dramatic when we came in the pass, with an ebb tide rolling against the strong north wind, whipping up impressive breakers. Fortunately we had the wind at our backs now, and we blew in like a sleigh ride. A large ketch was exiting the pass at the same time we were entering, and his bow was dipping in to the big waves and sloughing them off in white cascades pouring down both sides as he went. At first I thought he was crazy to be going out into this stuff, but then it occurred to me that he was probably going to turn south, perhaps bound for the Keys, and if that was the case, he would have a fun, protracted downwind run just as soon as he turned in that direction.
I was disappointed that we didn’t get to continue, mostly because I was concerned that if we didn’t go now, we might get pinned down in the St. Petersburg area for another week or more waiting for a good weather window for our crossing. Stormy weather was predicted to roll over the region on Saturday night, and if we couldn’t get to Apalachicola before then, we would be pinned down indeed.
When we got back into the ICW, we turned north and went a few miles further since we still had plenty of light, and we anchored in Clearwater harbor. At least we had made about 17 miles northerly progress. I slept uneasily that night.
The next morning (Friday 11/17/17) I got up early and noticed that the wind had died. I began studying the weather forecast carefully. I checked multiple sources, Weather Underground, Weather.com, and NWS. They were all in agreement. We would have single-digit winds out of the north and northwest for the next 40 hours, at least. After that, winds were supposed to pick up to 20 mph and kick up 6 foot seas, though still out of the same direction. We only needed about 30 hours to scoot across the gulf and get into Apalachicola. Yes, there was a chance we could get halfway out there and have an engine failure, but if so, the backup plan was that we could hoist sail and go with the wind back to where we came from. I woke John up and made my case. I wanted to go for it. John was a little wary about the extended forecast, but I was able to convince him. In minutes the engine was roaring and we were pulling up the anchor.
We got underway with determination, motoring smoothly north out past Tarpon Springs and Anclote Key, and then altering course to 315 degrees to put us on a rhumb line for East Pass, the gateway to Apalachicola Bay. There isn’t really much to say about our crossing, it was uneventful, and of course that’s a very good thing! The winds varied from light to none, and seas Friday and Friday night were only a mild chop. The only blip to note was that there was absolutely no moon on the night of Friday, November 17th and into Saturday the 18th. The stars were beautiful out there, but the surface of the gulf was ink black, we could not see one single thing past our bow lights. You might say we navigated under “IFR” (Instrument Flight Rules, like pilots who must fly in low and no visibility). We had to rely on our compass and chart plotter, and simply pray that there were no obstructions in the invisible water ahead of us. There weren’t any.
The sun rose on a clear blue sky Saturday morning, the wind had died, and the sea had become as calm as a lake. We motored strait on in to East Pass like we owned the place. In truth, we did own the place; the whole sea and great outdoors was ours to enjoy as we pleased. Few freedoms can compare to the freedom of traveling great distances on board your own comfortable yacht with just about every comfort of home. Not even an RV can compare, which must pay just to park, whereas we can drop the anchor anywhere we like any time we like, and no one can charge for it. Better yet, when the wind is favorable, we actually travel for free too. There’s nothing better.
We continued westward on the GICW for another couple of hours to the little town of Apalachicola. Our entire trip from Clearwater to Apalachicola took exactly 30.5 hours. Our speed average was about 5.3 knots.
We took a transient berth at sleepy Scipio Creek Marina, well out of the reach of any stormy sea and safe from the rough weather that was being forecast. That night the wind did kick up strongly, but what did we care? We were safe and sound, and the last of our big challenges was now in our wake. We stayed in Apalachicola one extra day to allow Dana time to catch up on her online schoolwork, and for John and me to finish a short list of domestic chores: laundry, water and fuel for the boat, and more groceries.
Monday November 20, 2017
This morning we topped off the fuel again, and I was able to calculate that the engine’s fuel consumption rate while we cruised was .84 gallons per hour, at an average speed of a tad over 5 knots. The fuel tank holds 85 gallons, so that computes to a cruising range of about 506 nautical miles per tank. That’s about 582 statute miles. Nice to know.
We had an easy day ahead of us, so we left Apalachicola at the leisurely hour of 10:00. We noodled our way up the Apalachicola river and on into the Jackson river, going all the way to East Bay, just a bit east of Panama City, where we anchored for the night. The next morning there was a vexing obstacle we had to get past that I had spotted on the chart long before we departed Marathon.
Dupont Bridge crosses East Bay just a few miles from where we anchored. This bridge was different from any other I’d encountered since leaving New Bern a year ago, because it is only 50 feet high at high tide. So just before sunset, John and I carefully measured our mast height, and concluded conservatively that it is 48 feet tall above the waterline. Well, that’s less than 50, and that should be all that’s necessary, right? Nevertheless, in my opinion that’s too close for comfort. I wanted to make sure we got there at low tide. The tide tables said that low tide would be at 0842 the next morning, so in order for us to arrive there at that time, we needed to be underway at 0645. We were.
At 0839, a light wind was at our backs as we gingerly approached the low bridge, and the tide was slack. The water gauge at the bridge read 49′. I had John on the fantail, and Dana on the bow, both peering up at the bridge, because it was impossible for me to see at all standing at the helm underneath the bimini top. With the throttle at idle speed, I put the transmission into forward, and then neutral, repeatedly, to allow us to ghost up to the bridge. As we came within inches, I shifted into reverse a time or two to bring us to a near stop, and to have the boat ready to retreat promptly if necessary. No other boats were around. We drifted inch by inch up to the bridge span. At the same time, both Dana and John announced that we were under the bridge, and clear – not even the VHF antenna atop the mast was touching the bridge. By looking to either side of me I could confirm that we must be under the bridge by now, and I gave the engine some throttle and we scooted under the bridge at 0840. Whew! That was a troubling worry off my mind.
Soon we were passing Panama City, and went on for several more hours before anchoring in east Choctawatchee Bay at 1600. Thanksgiving was the day after tomorrow, and the crew was eager for a real Thanksgiving dinner. As captain, it was my job to find a way to make it happen. After an hour or so of Internet searching, I found a restaurant in Destin called Harbor Docks that sounded perfect. They were offering a traditional Thanksgiving meal for FREE (donations to a local charity were expected) and they were a waterfront business with their own docks which we would be welcome to use while patronizing the restaurant. Perfect! Or so I thought.
My plan was that we would anchor near the restaurant this night, and then moor at their docks on Thanksgiving day. We didn’t have that far to go, so we got underway at 1110, and with a good breeze at our backs, we raised the sails and cut the engine at 1225. We enjoyed the marvelous experience of sailing our big boat for a full two hours before the wind lightened up and we had to go back to the engine. In the meantime, I had been scrutinizing the chart some more and realized that we could not go to the Harbor Dock restaurant after all, because it is in Destin harbor, and the only way into Destin harbor is under a 48′ bridge! Forty-eight feet, as you may recall, is our masthead height exactly. There was no way we could wish our way under that bridge. For now, the new plan was to anchor near Ft. Walton, and come up with something else. At 1620 we anchored just north of the GICW and a couple hundred yards from the shores of Ft. Walton. There was also a park just across the waterway, and it had launch ramps and docks. This was a potential way for us to get ashore.
As soon as the anchor was down I went back to the Internet to come up with an alternative Thanksgiving plan. It didn’t take too long to discover AJ’s on the Bayou, which was offering the same free traditional Thanksgiving meal as Harbor Docks was over in Destin. All we had to do was get there. Though it wasn’t far away, the only practical way to get there was for us to take the dinghy to the nearby park, and then take an Uber car to and from the restaurant. The dinghy had been on the deck since we left St. Petersburg, so we had to launch and prep it for use. John and I did that the same night, so we wouldn’t have to mess with it on Thanksgiving day.
Again, (thankfully, pun intended) everything went exactly as planned and we could not have asked for a prettier Thanksgiving day nor a better meal at any restaurant. The staff at AJ’s was very friendly and obviously in the spirit of the season, and the place had that great tiki-hut-by-the-water atmosphere that I particularly fancy. Eating Thanksgiving at a restaurant is a poor substitute for sharing it at home with a huge family around you, but if you must from time to time (such as when you’re traveling as we were), this was as good as it gets. And indeed we were thankful. We were thankful that the three of us had each other to share this special time with, thankful for a safe crossing of the gulf, thankful for a good boat that had taken us so far and so faithfully, thankful for all of our distant loved ones, and last but not least, we were thankful for this great food in a charming place with cheerful, good people all around us, here in the American south, the place all three of us identify as “home.”
We picked up more provisions on our way back to the boat, and by 1330 we were back underway. The fact is, we had another 50′ bridge to squeak under, and we were anchored right next to it. Low tide was at 1345, so we needed to get to it punctually. We slid under it carefully, but with no problem. We continued for three more hours, where we confronted our third and final low bridge (50′ on the chart) at Navarre Beach Florida. It wasn’t exactly low tide this time, but I was tired of jousting with these low bridges, and if there was a chance we could get under it, I wanted to get it over with here and now. Since the gauge read 49′ (almost) I was ready to try. We all took our positions and repeated our approach strategy as we had done before, and again we made it under with no touching. Barely. I was so relieved that there were no more low bridges between our position and our destination. We went another half mile or so and anchored just north of the GICW at Navarre on Thanksgiving night. Getting under those bridges was something else to be thankful for, and I was thankful for Swedish Fish‘s stubby 48’ mast! It seems that (other than going fast) there are few things this boat can not do.
“Black Friday” November 24 was another beautiful day, and we only needed to run about 6.5 hours to make it to Wolf Bay, at Orange Beach Alabama. Somewhere along the way we crossed the state line, and entered the Central Time Zone. John and Dana had started talking about pizza again. Every now and then they get on this topic, and when they do, they’re serious. They want something done about it. I’m gluten intolerant and have been living without gluten in my diet for 11 years now, so I’m used to denial on these kinds of goodies that many think they can’t go without. But nevertheless that’s me, not them, and they want their pizza, today.
I spotted another waterfront park in Wolf Bay, where we were planning to anchor that night anyway. So we temporarily anchored near the park, John called the local Papa John’s Pizza, and ordered a delivery there. I went ashore in the dinghy with John to accept the delivery. It was a beautiful park, and we beached the dinghy right under a sprawling Magnolia tree. It felt great to be back in the verdant south, and away from the salty, parched, and barren environment of the Keys.
We moved the boat to a better spot about a mile away after we returned from the pizza run. That night we played our last Crazy Eights tournament, digesting our pizza (I got to scrape the topping off a couple of pieces, yum!) in the backs of our minds realizing that this voyage was almost over.
On Saturday I was anxious to get going, because this was the day we would arrive in Mobile and start a new life. We were underway at 0730, and we ran straight through, passing Gulf Shores and finally entering the huge expanse of Mobile Bay, which is some 30 miles long and 20 miles wide. By 1430 we had arrived at Grand Mariner Marina, where I was allowed to pick my slip. We carefully backed in, and made our lines fast.
I can’t quite put into words what it feels like to complete a voyage like this, but I can say that it is good, very good. Dana always feels a little sad because she cherishes the adventure so much. I do too, but not as much as I cherish the accomplishment of actually having completed it successfully and safely. That’s the best part of all.
That night the three of us enjoyed dinner and drinks at the Grand Mariner Restaurant overlooking the water right above the marina, the only fitting place for us to have celebrated. On Sunday and Monday we began settling in, and on Tuesday it was time to take John to the bus station so that he could go home to Peggy in Atlanta. I have to thank Peggy for lending him to us so generously.
And now I am beginning to look for suitable work, and Dana is finishing up her last prerequisite course prior to starting nursing school in the spring. I’m just so glad to be here, and that I can focus on simpler, less daunting tasks than navigating at 10 ton boat across 800 miles of water with everything I own and two other cherished souls on board. Life is much simpler, slower, and far less expensive here than in the Keys. I am having no troubles adjusting.
The winds were blowing freshly out of the north during our night anchored at East Cape, but we were in the lee of the cape, so it was no problem. In fact the wind was welcome as it made it impossible for any biting bugs to find us.
On Tuesday October 31, we raised the anchor and were underway at 0735, bound for whatever northward anchorage we could reasonably make it to that night. Again the wind was out of the NW, and right on our nose, so there was no sailing, just motoring. This weather condition would be consistent for about 98% of the entire trip. We had another successful run, though cold and windy, and logged about 41 NM that day before we anchored at another remote Everglades outpost, just west of Pavilion Key. We were still in a “blackout” communications zone, i.e., there was no cell phone service whatsoever. Again, there were no other boats or people to be seen.
The chart below shows the entire route of our voyage, and you can see exactly where all the anchorages are located. Clicking on any of the thumb tacks will prompt a pop-up with details.
When we departed Pavilion Key on November 1, in order to sail around the expansive Cape Romano shoals area, we had to head almost due west for some 22 miles before turning north again. The wind that morning was still northeasterly, so we were able to enjoy an hour of actual sailing on that tack. Unfortunately, the wind strength began to wane after just an hour, so we had to crank the engine again to continue making reasonable progress. About an hour after we made the turn back to the north, we began seeing some signal strength bars reappearing on our cell phones. This small milestone was another appreciated sign of success; we had re-joined civilization and truly left the desolation of the Keys and Everglades far behind. We wasted little time in sending out text messages to loved ones, and making a Facebook post of our new status.
We had planned to make Naples that day, but we were making such good progress we decided to press on for a point further north. Besides, visiting Naples would have required a 10 mile round trip from the inlet, and that was time and fuel we didn’t need to waste. So instead we anchored in the gulf at Vanderbilt Beach, on the north side of Naples. This was one of our longest runs sun-up to sun-down, with about 62 miles covered at an average speed of 5.6 knots. On most other days we would cover between 30 and 45 miles.
The winds were still NE, so moving up the west coast of Florida was fairly stress-free in terms of wind-sheltered, safe anchorages.
At 1045 the next day we were entering Mantazas Pass, and less than an hour later we picked up a mooring at Ft. Myers Beach City Marina. It was a short day, but we hadn’t had a shower in four long days, and we were ready for a rest and we also needed to do laundry and pick up some groceries. So that day we did all of those things in Ft. Myers. It is one of the very rare places where one can take his dinghy to a public dock directly adjacent to a grocery store. We only stayed that one day, but it was a very welcome and helpful stopover.
The next day was Friday, November 3, and we dropped our mooring and were underway before 0800. At 1530 we cleared the Gasparilla Causeway Bridge, at 1730 we cleared the Tom Adams Bridge at Englewood, and at 1745 we were anchored just east of the ICW channel near Englewood Florida.
On Saturday we enjoyed a pleasant run up to Sarasota.
We anchored there at 1520, just a couple hundred yards from Centennial Park, which is right downtown and has dock access. We took the dinghy in and within a very short walk John found a place to get a haircut, and the Publix supermarket was right there too. We picked up a few more supplies, and that night we were feeling good about our steady progress.
By this time Dana had made travel plans to meet us and re-join the boat in St. Petersburg, and John had separate plans to leave us for a week so that he could attend a wedding in Jacksonville with his wife Peggy. John was scheduled to depart on Tuesday the 7th, and Dana was scheduled to return on Wednesday the 8th. John was also planning to return to us the following Tuesday, November 14. This meant a one week + layover in St. Petersburg, but as it is one of my favorite towns, that presented no problems for me.
And on Sunday November 5, we were underway by 0825, bound for St. Pete. It was a gorgeous day as we wound our way though the islands and out of the northern Sarasota Bay area. There were literally hundreds of sailboats out on the water, most of them apparently participating in dinghy regattas or sail instruction courses. And it occurred to me that few places could be better suited to either activity, with the bay’s broad expanse of protected water and little to no commercial traffic or other obstructions to interfere.
We then made our way into the vast Tampa Bay where we did encounter commercial traffic as we entered the shipping channel to pass under the impressive Sunshine Skyway Bridge. But there were no problems until about an hour later when John reported that he had discovered a fuel leak on the engine. I throttled down and dashed below to inspect the situation. The rather profuse leak was coming from the #1 fuel injector pipe, at the injector fitting. We shut down the engine and I attempted to tighten the fitting with a wrench, but it was already quite tight. The leak was bad and would require remediation before we could continue the voyage north, but it as also minor enough that we could continue operating for the next hour or so required to get us into St. Pete. So we cranked back up and continued on in. By 1430 we had picked up a mooring at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, in the very picturesque North Yacht Basin, which ringed by parks, skyscraper condominiums, and to the east, the historic and beautiful Vinoy Park Hotel.
Since we were going to be in St. Pete for a while, there was not much hurry in jumping into the fuel leak repair. Besides, the engine was still hot, and John and I were just happy to be in the bustling metropolis of St. Pete, with easy access to showers, food, great restaurants, and just about anything else one could want. So we cleaned up and hit downtown, and had a great dinner at one of the many sidewalk cafes.
Here are some photos I took of a few sights around downtown St. Pete. Click on the photos for enlargement and captions.
On Monday morning I tore into the engine to get to the bottom of the fuel leak. I removed the #1 fuel pipe, cleaned it, and inspected it closely, even using a magnifying glass. Neither of us could see anything obviously wrong with it. I ran a Dremel tool wire wheel over the “olives” on both ends, and reinstalled it, tightening it carefully. We ran a test of the engine, but the leak was still there, just as before. We tightened, and re-tightened the fitting, trying different levels of torque, each time testing for the leak, and each time, the leak persisted unfazed. I also inspected the female fitting on the injector itself, which receives the olive compression fitting, but could see nothing wrong with it either. Nevertheless it too was carefully cleaned, but each test revealed that the leak was still there. My inclination was to acquire a new pipe, and try that. Surprisingly, for all of the tens of thousands of boats and boat diesels here, no one in the Tampa/St. Pete area had one of these fuel pipes to sell, not even the local Perkins dealer. It is a very specific pipe, made of heavy steel and bent in about 10 different directions to wind its way around the injection pump and exhaust manifold up to the injector.
John and I even went on an extensive trip requiring several connections on the public bus service to a hydraulic supply business that hinted that they could make one for us. But when we got there and showed it to them, they announced that they could not make that type of pipe. Harumph!
Next morning I went searching online for a supplier, calling several. As usual, Transatlantic Diesel had the part, but they wanted $120 for just that one pipe! Parts4Engines.com (in England) would sell the entire set of four for under $50, the only trouble was (1) they are in England and shipping time would be extensive and (2) they didn’t have it in stock anyway. Finally I found a company in Louisiana, Diesel Specialists, that didn’t have the pipe on the shelf but, for a reasonable price, said that they could get it from Perkins within two days, and they they could send it to me via UPS 2nd Day Air. I went for it. Unfortunately, it was now close enough to the weekend for it to interfere with this supply chain plan, but regardless, we had to have the part before we could continue our voyage.
I am unintentionally assembling an impressive and varied list of parts suppliers for my cherished old Perkins 4.108 diesel engine, whom I affectionately refer to as “Jenny,” as in “Iron Genny.” (Sailors will know what that implies.)
On Tuesday afternoon I somewhat reluctantly bid farewell to John as he departed to attend the wedding on his agenda. I was alone for exactly 22 hours, for the next day Dana arrived, and we were together again. I had been informed by the marina staff that we would have to vacate our mooring ball for the weekend, as it had already been reserved by someone else. Apparently this coming weekend was a busy one for downtown St. Pete, because a food and music festival known as Rib Fest. Rib Fest is held in a park adjacent to the North Yacht Basin, so regardless, we were going to be close enough to the action to hear the music. That afternoon we moved the boat (leaky fuel pipe and all) to an anchorage area just barely inside the jetty at the west end of the marina. On our way to the anchorage we stopped at the marina fuel dock, where I took this picture:
There were fresh NE breezes blowing all weekend, and they were whipping up a respectable sea across Tampa Bay which would run right into the break of the jetty, and right on over to us, making for a pretty uncomfortable anchorage.
However Dana and I did enjoy overhearing the music blowing downwind from the festival, listening to Paul Rogers (Bad Company) on Friday night, Styx on Saturday, and Charlie Daniels Band on Sunday night, while we held our nightly Crazier Eights tournament. In our variation, there are more wild cards and a couple other rules tweaks, so we call it “Crazier” Eights. The loser has to do the dishes.
Dana and I also enjoyed the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Art that weekend, and a couple more very delightful meals at sidewalk cafes. We stayed at the bumpy anchorage until Tuesday. Tuesday November 14 was kind of a big day. That morning we moved the boat to the marina’s pump out dock, where we got a pump out, gave the boat a fresh water washdown, refilled the water tank, and most importantly, we met with a diver who cleaned the boat’s bottom – a job which was long overdue. I’m sure our fouled bottom had cost us at least a full knot of speed on our voyage thus far; that equates to eight or nine miles difference at the end of a typical cruising day.
But that’s not all for that day. That day the much anticipated new fuel pipe was delivered, we were allowed to put the boat back on a mooring, and John returned that afternoon! Everything happened exactly as it should have (an event in itself) and we had a very successful day. It was dark when we finally got home, and I didn’t feel like starting to work on the engine at that point, so it was saved for Wednesday morning.
I got up early on Wednesday (11/15) and set straight to work installing the new fuel pipe, hoping and praying that it would define the end of the leak. It went on easily, and I gave each end fitting a good “umph” of torque. I did not give them all of my strength, as I felt that would probably be overkill for an otherwise properly-fitting connection, and could cause a leak of a different kind due to over-torquing. A minute later we cranked the engine to test it, and voilà! No leaky! It was as simple as that. I’m always dazzled on those rare occasions when repairs go easily and exactly as planned and intended.
We never learned exactly why the previous pipe had begun leaking in the first place. Even under a magnifier, we could not see anything wrong with it. However, the injection pressure they handle is in excess of 2000 psi, so even an invisible stress fracture would be sufficient to create a bad leak.
Well then, the day was young, the engine was in proper working order, our water was topped off, the crew was all assembled, so what were we hanging around for? Nothing! We had all enjoyed our time in St. Pete immensely, but time and money were ebbing away, and it was time to get moving again. We quickly agreed to get underway and resume our voyage. We only had to make one more stop back at the marina dock to top off our fuel, and then get on with it.
We departed St. Petersburg Municipal Marina at 1325, and headed out of Tampa bay. We turned east and north again back into the ICW, and found an anchorage near Isle of Palms at 1700.
We were voyaging again.
Friday October 13, 2017
My cousin John Watson had agreed to accompany Dana and myself on our planned voyage up the west coast of Florida. I had wanted to depart a week prior, but Dana’s employment schedule and John’s need to do some work on his own boat up at Long Key dictated a bit of a delay.
I did not want to leave on Friday the 13th. That’s a superstition that I’m not proud of, and aspiring to abandon. Nevertheless, it was heeded this time. The three of us worked all that day to prepare the boat for the voyage. On Saturday October 14 we finally departed Bonefish Marina at 09:20 and headed south down Hawk Channel for Boot Key Harbor by way of Sister Creek. We motored without incident, navigated Sister Creek and Boot Key Harbor, and stopped at Burdine’s Waterfront to top off our diesel fuel and gasoline. The weather was hot, sunny, and blustery with winds in the teens out of the ENE.
We motored out of the Boot Key Harbor west channel, running parallel with the Seven Mile Bridge, which we had to go under in order to turn north toward the Florida peninsula. The wind and waves were at our backs, but I didn’t want to raise sail yet; we had a lot of tight navigating to do before we could get to the open water of Florida Bay, so I wanted to stick with motoring until then. We made it out to the center of the bridge -which is 3 and half miles out- and made our turn north into the channel that threads under the high part of the bridge. We were about 300 yards away from the bridge when the engine RPM suddenly shot up. I quickly realized that not only that, the boat had stopped moving forward. We were just bobbing about with a running engine, but no propulsion. I looked behind us and could see that there was no prop wash.
Being out in the center of the broad channel between Marathon Key and Bahia Honda Key, the seas were amply whipped up here, with whitecapped rolling waves at two to three feet in height coming at us, and the wind was whistling. I looked at the bridge and realized that if we didn’t stop the boat’s drift, or somehow get it moving the other way, we would drift into the massive concrete trestles within a few minutes. John wanted to sail away, but my first inclination was to drop anchor, because I knew that by the time we got sail up and started making headway – if we could make headway upwind – we would have drifted even closer to the bridge, and at that point we would have no other options left. We put down the 44 pound Rocna with the all-chain rode, and it quickly took hold of the bottom. This was a very exposed and uncomfortable place to be. On the plus side, it was mid-day, the sky was clear, and I could call for a tow if we needed one.
[I have TowBoatUS Unlimited Gold towing insurance. This is analogous to AAA’s best towing insurance for cars on land. I pay a flat yearly fee, and if I call them, one of their well-equipped and well-staffed tow boats in their nationwide network will respond and tow us in to any suitable port within reasonable distance. This is a service I wholeheartedly endorse and recommend to anyone heading out on a boat in the coastal waters of the USA. I simply won’t go cruising without it.]
I tried to ascertain what had gone wrong with our power train. The engine was running fine, but the prop wasn’t turning. In the heat of the moment, it didn’t occur to me to go below and look at the propeller shaft to see if it was turning. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that my propeller lock nut did not have a cotter pin in it (as was recommended by the prop repair service that handled it back in August at the boat yard – which I had dismissed) and that because of that the prop must have come off the shaft and sunk to the bottom. There were two nuts holding the prop onto the shaft, and they were tight. But at the moment it was the only thing I could imagine that was causing this problem.
Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t going away by itself, and we weren’t going anywhere until we could get towed in and figure out exactly what it was. I called for a tow. The tow boat showed up about and hour and 15 minutes later. We still don’t have a windlass on the boat, and there was no way John and I could get the heavy and well-set anchor with all of it’s heavy chain back on the boat without help. Even with the tow boat pulling us, it was extremely difficult to get the anchor to un-set. We did manage to get all the scope in, so that the anchor chain was a vertical line between the bow of the boat and the anchor. But it still didn’t want to break loose. The tow boat put on more throttle, and the tremendous force was bending our bowsprit downward at an angle that alarmed me; I was really worried that it was going to break! Finally the anchor broke loose from the bottom. The tow captain shouted “What kind of anchor is that?!” He recognized that we had one incredible anchor to hold the bottom as tenaciously as that. Indeed.
Unfortunately all that force had bent a significant distortion in the shape of our bow roller frame, the roller itself was chewed nearly in half, and the 5/8″ stainless bolt running through the middle of it was bent at almost a 45 degree angle. That’s how much force had been applied to the bowsprit anchor equipment. Something else to fix, great. But regardless, for the moment I was relieved that we were safely under tow and headed back to sheltered water.
Along the way I contacted Marathon City Marina and rented a mooring ball.
The tow boat took us straight to it, and an hour later I had my dive mask on to take a look at our prop. The water was colder than I expected, it had been so warm just two months ago when I was teaching a youth sailing program here. I took a deep breath and went down to inspect the prop, or lack thereof. To my relief, the prop was firmly attached to the shaft, with both nuts holding tight, and the whole thing was rather permanently “sealed” with a nice collection of barnacles all over it. I popped back up with my report to the crew, and requested a scraper so that I could go back down and clean up the prop and small section of exposed shaft. Having done this, I climbed back aboard and cleaned up.
John and I went back to the diagnostic drawing board. We cranked the engine, and this time I went below to observe the transmission and shaft as he put it into gear. The shift cable was working, moving the shift lever on the side of the transmission to and fro as it should, but the shaft was not turning in either direction. Then I looked again and saw that the bilge under the transmission was filled with bright red transmission fluid. (Automatic Transmission Fluid is commonly abbreviated as “ATF” by mechanics). The diagnosis was now almost complete: the transmission had leaked all of it’s fluid out, and this had prevented it from engaging the clutch, and working. It is a hydraulic transmission, which means that it depends upon that hydraulic pressure to work. Without it, it simply does nothing. It doesn’t damage the transmission, it just wont work.
We weren’t going anywhere else on this day. The following is a condensed version of the tasks we completed over the next three weeks to fully correct the problems.
The transmission, and it’s attached reduction gear, weigh over 150 pounds. That doesn’t sound too intimidating to most men probably, but in actuality it is a major booger-bear to move that thing around, partly because of it’s sheer density of mass. It’s no bigger than a bread box, but what a loaf of bread inside! I went ashore and collected some 4×4 and 2×4 lumber pieces from the many available in all the post-hurricane Irma debris still lying about in huge piles everywhere. We used these to assemble blocking under the transmission to support it after it was disconnected from the engine. We built a truss of sorts to support the transmission and to manhandle it out of the engine compartment and into the boat. Then, using a 2×4 that was about 6 feet long, we carried the transmission out of the boat like a slain boar being carried to a luau. Without John’s (or some other strong man’s) help, this would have been impossible for me to have done solo.
But as soon as the transmission was pulled back from the engine, I saw two problems:
1. The damper plate, which is a mechanism with acts as a shock absorber between the engine’s drive shaft and the transmission, was completely FUBAR and falling to pieces. Two of the three steel studs that hold it together were sheared clean in half, and the last one was about to go.
2. In addition to the disintegrating damper, or perhaps because of it, the front seal on the transmission had failed, allowing all of the ATF to leak out.
I removed the damper plate along with the transmission. The following morning, we were introduced to a generous and experienced diesel mechanic who lives at Boot Key Harbor, affectionately known as “Diesel Don” Shuler. Don is well known in Boot Key Harbor, and far beyond. Over the next three weeks, we would be in nearly daily contact with Diesel Don, either for consultation or for direct assistance with aspects of this project which were better handled by someone such as he with the proper specialized tools and expertise. Diesel Don was a true godsend; without him we would have been in a very tough spot indeed. He was exactly who we needed, where we needed him, and when we needed him. Nevertheless, I did about 98% of the actual hands-on repair work myself. John assisted with consultation, heavy lifting, technical research, and ordering necessary parts.
We ordered a new damper plate and new front and rear oil seals for the tranny from Trans Atlantic Diesel. We received these a few days later, put it all together with the help of Diesel Don in putting the seals in using the hydraulic press in his work shop, and the following Saturday (October 21) we attempted to make our departure once again.
Again we motored to Burdine’s to top off our water and gasoline, and again we headed out the west channel to begin our voyage. Everything was going OK, and the weather was very similar to the last time. I motored us out the west channel again, and as we cleared the last marker, I increased the throttle to about 2200 RPM. A few seconds later, the engine RPM revved way high again, and again we had lost propulsion. I went below to inspect the transmission. I could see bright red ATF had again spilled all over the bilge. Grrrr!!!
We decided to shut down the engine, add more ATF, and see if we could limp home at low RPM. But when we re-started the engine, I could see ATF pouring out of a weep hole on the bell housing. That idea was not going to work. We would have to be towed in again. John and I were flabbergasted! Bumfuzzled! How could this happen again? What in the world was going on?
We decided to sail this time instead of putting the heavy anchor down again, but sailing dead into the wind into the narrow west harbor entrance would be impossible. So we sailed back and forth in the rough chop west of Marathon while waiting for the tow to come pick us up. This time getting the tow established was much simpler since we didn’t have to mess with the anchor. An hour later we were back on our mooring ball.
Unfortunately, Dana could wait no longer. She had a scheduled test to take in Mobile on October 28. She had to be there. So with time running out, we put her on a Greyhound bus for Naples Florida so she could pick up her car there and drive it on to Mobile to take her test. After that she could stay with her daughter a few days (in Pell City, AL) until John and I could get the boat a ways up the west coast of Florida so she could come back and re-join us.
Meanwhile, back at the boat, we had no choice but to repeat all of the difficult labor of the previous week. Again I had to go back and round up lumber for blocking, un-bolt the tranny from the engine, etc. etc. etc. What an ordeal. Once I got the tranny backed away from the engine, it wasn’t a real big surprise to see that the (new) front oil seal had unseated itself from it’s proper place and was sitting astride the tranny drive shaft, an inch forward of where it should have been.
But why, why did that happen with a brand new seal that was put in place with a hydraulic press?
This time, having learned much more about the tranny than we knew a week ago, it was only necessary to remove the part of the tranny (the hydraulic pump) that contained the seal instead of pulling the entire heavy thing out of the boat. This was about 90% less work and effort than was done the last time. I was very grateful for that. We examined the new seal closely, along with the assembly into which it was supposed to be firmly seated. I discovered that I could actually press this new seal back into place rather easily using just my thumbs. What?! No! This seal is supposed to be so firmly seated that only a hydraulic press could insert it, or a series of hammer blows cushioned with a piece of wood. Scrutinizing further, I realized that this seal was different from the original seal. The original seal had a steel ring around it that was press-fit into place, but this new seal had a rubberized outer ring that was somewhat soft. And it didn’t fit tightly like it should have. No wonder it blew out under the tranny’s high hydraulic pressure.
When we ordered the seal from TAD, we did not specify a certain part number, we simply requested “the front seal” for our tranny, and accepted what they sent us without question. That was a big mistake. Never take someone’s word for it that you’ve got the right (or wrong) part. Compare and cross-reference it yourself. (A couple years ago, when I was broken down on the road, a AAA service center tried to up-sell me a more expensive alternator for my car by telling me that the one I wanted to use was an incompatible fit, as far as the mounting hardware and brackets were concerned, because they looked different from the one that came off. I looked at it myself, and I could see that the alternator would fit, even though it looked different. I insisted that they put it on. They did, and it worked fine. Another year later a similar thing happened when I bought a new alternator for the boat. The mounting brackets were not an exact match for the brackets on my engine, and some people tried to tell me that I had “the wrong alternator.” I was able to fabricate a functional bracket mount, and used it anyway. It’s been running fine ever since.)
We ordered another new seal (this time from our local NAPA store), this time making sure that it was an exact match for the original seal. Sure enough, this seal could only be inserted into it’s seat with a press. I knew we had the right one this time. But since we had been set back for another week, Diesel Don recommended that we go ahead and remove, clean, and service the hydraulic shifting valve from the tranny too. So we did, and ordered all new parts for it too – clip, spring, and O-ring.
By the time all this was over, John and I had learned a tremendous amount about this Borg-Warner Velvet Drive 210 transmission with reduction gear. And we had learned how to remove and re-install it fairly efficiently.
So the transmission was all reassembled and ready to go, but now a new problem had emerged that had nothing to do with the boat at all. A tropical depression, 93L, was headed our way. Neither John nor I had any interest in venturing out into stormy weather. So we would be pinned-down for all of the coming weekend. I don’t like sitting on the boat in stormy weather either, even if it’s in a secure mooring, or even a marina. I just don’t like it, that’s all. I’d rather go ashore and do something in the “great indoors,” like go to a movie, a museum, or to a nice restaurant. I related this to John, and suggested that we take the bus up to Miami for an outing that Saturday. John was for it, so made a plan to visit the Vizcaya house and gardens, something I had wanted to see for many years. Unfortunately the rain followed us there too. We did enjoy exploring the house, though the gardens were drenched with rain so we’ll have to see that another time.
The storm had passed by Monday October 30, so John and I made a third attempt to motor away from Marathon at 08:35 that morning. Once again we stopped at Burdine’s to top off our water and gasoline. There was still plenty of diesel fuel in the tank for the engine, we just use gasoline for the outboard on the dinghy and for the generator. At 10:40 we had successfully made it under the Seven Mile Bridge, and turned north.
I felt a huge weight beginning to lift from my shoulders. I was actually starting to get a creepy feeling that somehow I was “trapped” in the Florida Keys. Something seemed to be keeping me there against my will. But now, finally, we had made our escape. At this point I felt that, even if the engine went kaput again, we would raise all sail and make the best of the situation one way or another, but I was determined to make it back to civilization (which means beyond the vast Everglades) on Florida’s west coast this time.
It was a wet, uncomfortable ride crossing Florida Bay that day. The wind was blowing 15-17 right on our nose, and the corresponding chop on that shallow water was giving us a rollicking ride. But the entire drive train held up, and that evening we anchored in the lee of East Cape, in a sheltered area just off the channel which leads to the isolated town of Flamingo, Florida, at the southern tip of the Everglades National Park. At 18:50 I shut down the engine and we enjoyed a peaceful night there, cut off from the rest of the world, with no cell phone service, and no other souls around to see.
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 it 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!