Monday, January 27, 2020

So Close, But Yet So Far

We awoke Sunday, January 19, 2020 to 5 knots of wind in Jewfish Basin. It was a beautiful calm morning and our 40th wedding anniversary. We checked the weather and discussed our options. 

The weather defines our plans in this lifestyle, but like many things in life,  the predictions are often wrong.  I look at 4 different weather services and look for agreement. For that Sunday,  they were all calling for light wind in the morning and then dropping off to no wind overnight and then light north wind on Monday building to stronger winds from the north Monday night.

We decided to take the chance and head to the place we have wanted to visit ever since we saw the pictures in Kim's National Park coffee table book that has defined so much of our lives for the past 6 years. Dry Tortugas National Park is a small island 70 miles west of Key West, out in the Atlantic ocean/Gulf of Mexico intersection. They built a fort there and called it Fort Jefferson. It is the largest masonry structure ever built in the Americas. The fort is an attraction that we look forward to exploring, but the islands are surrounded by beautiful beaches and reefs that are alive with all kinds of sea life. The water is that deep blue that is crystal clear.

We had a dream to visit this place, and that is how we got started on this crazy sailing adventure. Sure, you could get on a tour boat or a float plane, but that is not our style.  We wanted to take our home there and tour around on our own schedule.

It felt great to leave Jewfish Basin. Bad memories there, but we took some valuable lessons with us.  We were able to sail to the north channel entrance to the Key West Northwest channel. We had to turn back to the southeast and straight into the 10 knot breeze. I thought, wait a minute, that was not supposed to be there.

The plan was to pass by Key West and then turn west and stop at Marquesas Key and drop the hook for the night and then get up early and use those mild north winds to sail the last 40 miles on Monday.

The ride through the Key West channel was wild. We had the current with us, but that unexpected wind created a wind over opposing current situation called a "Rage". We went up and down some 6 foot plus waves, but SHIFT took it in stride. We were happy to clear the channel on the south end. We were now only 10 miles to our stop, but there was another surprise that the weather service forgot to tell us about.  We had a squall that was just sitting off shore south of Key West. It was producing the north wind and some pretty big swell. We used the wind and sailed along nicely.

As we approached our anchorage, we determined that there was no way we would stay there. It was unprotected from the unexpected swell.  We now had two choices,  we could turn around and go back to Key West and try to find a marina, or sail on through the night on our first overnight sail and arrive Monday morning about sunrise. It was about 3:30 PM at this point.

I looked at Kim, and it was clear what the plan was going to be. It actually made sense, we could easily sail those 40 miles even if the wind dropped out and beat the weather into Dry Tortugas.

We sailed along until sundown at about 4 knots. That was too fast, but we were expecting the wind to die, so we made as much progress as possible.  The wind did die about 8 PM and we turned on the motor and slowly cruised along in the dark.  It was very uncomfortable at first just steering on a compass heading, but we soon learned to use the beautiful stars as a reference. It was a great experience.  The only problem was my autopilot was not working properly,  so we had to hand steer the entire time.

We had nice sailing conditions after we left Key West.
This is how Kim chose to spend our anniversary. She is a special girl.

We had a beautiful sunset over the open ocean.
We took turns at the helm and taking naps in the cockpit. What a way to spend our anniversary.

At about midnight,  the wind picked up from the north as expected,  but quickly it built to 15 knots.  That was much stronger than expected.  We put out a portion of our genoa and tried to keep the speed down.  It was clear that we would arrive before day break, but we would rather be moving than just sitting in the swell rocking back and forth.

We arrived at the island about 4 am. The wind was blowing 15+ knots and the swell was bigger than I expected.  I "hove to" the boat.  For you non sailors,  that allows you to stop the boat and slowly drift downwind. We waited for about an hour and then gained that ground back and hove to again for another half hour. It was then becoming light and we headed for the channel. The swell was just as big in this channel as it was the previous day in Key West. We made it in and got the anchor down. I knew the wind was coming,  so we put out 200 feet of chain. The anchor bit hard and we are 100 yards from the Fort.

This was our view as we approached the fort in the early morning. The seas were building.

We were just getting settled in when we heard 2 float planes approaching. Before we knew it,  one landed on one side of us and the other landed between us and the only other boat in the anchorage. I  was sure we were in the wrong place. I called the office on the VHF radio. They assured me that we were fine and the planes will land and take off where they have room. It is very cool to watch.

One of the float planes in front of the fort.
It was then that I went to bed, I was exhausted! I woke up at about 1 to much stronger wind than expected. There were large waves around the boat and we were rocking pretty good. I decided that we would not get the dingy down and install the outboard and go to shore.

This was our view for two days. 
Well it is now Tuesday night, as I write this and we still have not been to shore. The wind has been a constant 20+ knots and it is not safe to get off the boat. So far, our anchor is holding well. We are having trouble getting weather forecasts on the radio,  but the last one we had was for better weather tomorrow.  We will see...

Update: I wrote all of this post from the boat during the wait. When we awoke on Wednesday morning, the weather was much better. We went to work getting the dinghy ready. We were able to finally make it to shore. We paid the entrance fee and toured the fort. It is huge! The crazy thing is it was never finished or really used for the original purpose. It was used as a prison for a time, but was abandoned after a yellow fever outbreak in 1874.

SHIFT all alone out in the beautiful anchorage.

It was a cool day, so we stayed on land. We really wanted to explore under water, but that will have to wait until we return.
I like this picture that shows the different colors of the water.
That thing in the background was a furnace to heat cannon balls red hot and then they would be shot at the enemy ships
The landing in front of the fort, SHIFT is the only sailboat out there. The moat is in the foreground.
After touring the fort we took a walk on the beach. There were some amazing shells, but you can't take them from the National Park.

Kim on a beach

I only include this terrible selfie shot because it is the only one we have of the two of us on this trip. 
There was an island at the end of the beach above that is protected. It is a nesting ground for Frigate Birds. They are a very cool looking bird.

Frigate Bird
All of those birds above the island are Frigate Birds

My favorite shell ever. I left it for others to enjoy.

When we returned to the dinghy, it was getting washed away in the surf. I had to get my legs and feet wet to save it. I then went over to the Tour boat captain and asked him about the weather. He was great and got the latest forecast for us. The bad news is that we had more bad weather coming in three days. If we wanted to sail north to the mainland of Florida, we would have to leave the next day. That sail has been on my to-do list for a while. We got back to the boat and started to prepare to depart. In my next entry I will write about our open ocean sail from the Dry Tortugas to Fort Myers Beach. It was epic!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Florida Keys Back Country, Moments of Terror

We left Boot Key harbor on Thursday, January 16. We spent much of the previous day saying goodbye to many of our new friends.  We had a very special time in Marathon, and all of the people are a big part of it. Many of our friends like to tell stories about both the good times and the bad times when living the cruising lifestyle. We have many stories of both kinds from our 6 years in the RV, but only a couple from our short time living on the boat. That would soon change.

We had this young manatee visit us at the dinghy dock the day before we left. 
We sailed and motored to the northwest. We went back under the 7 mile bridge and then up Rocky Channel. We had good wind and were able to keep the motor off for more than I had predicted. We did see one spot that was showing 4.6 feet. That is our draft, but we were on a lean and thankfully did not touch. Once we got north of the Keys we turned west. After a few miles we made a turn to port and went in Cudjoe channel. After some shallow water navigating,  we dropped the hook in front of Tarpon Belly Key. It was as a nice spot, with a small beach. There were a number of people there. We were greeted by one nice young guy who told us there was a party planned for the weekend. They were expecting about 30 boats.

The Beach and camping area at Tarpon Belly Key
Just before sunset at Tarpon Belly Key. It was a beautiful spot.
We were very surprised that we had decent cell coverage.  We were able to get an updated weather forecast. The news was not good. The storm that was predicted for the following day was gaining more strength than expected. We considered returning to Marathon,  but decided to move on the next day to our next stop. All of the charts showed the next place would have good protection. When we got going the next morning, we noticed the others were leaving,  I guess they saw the same forecast that we had.

Thanks to some help from our new friends in Marathon, we sailed with the pole out for the first time. It worked great!
We made the short 18 mile trip to Jewfish Basin. The entrance was very shallow.  One big lesson I have now learned is to watch the tides very closely when getting into these Back Country waters. We did touch the sandy bottom while we were getting anchored,  but powered off without problems. I set the anchor in the lee of a small mangrove island. I put out 75 feet of chain on my excellent Delta anchor.  I even put on my wetsuit and dove down to make sure the anchor was set well. It was, but it was in a patch of sea grass. I told Kim that I had done all that I could do.  I was wrong!

Beautiful Jewfish Basin

The water was beautiful

We had a beautiful sunset that fateful evening.
Strong winds hit us at about 8 in the evening.  We saw winds pick up to a steady 20 knots with gusts to 30. Current was also pushing the boat, so that the wind was hitting it on the side.  One particularly strong gust hit us and not long after my anchor alarm started going off. We were dragging!! I am not afraid to admit, I was very scared. It was pitch black, I could not get my bearings.  I dropped my second anchor, but that only slowed our movement and then the two chains got tangled. I was now panicked! I was so afraid we would lose the boat.

I put Kim at the helm and she tried to motor into the 30 knot wind and total darkness. I went to the bow and got to work getting the anchors on deck and untangled.  It was a mess and took me a long time. When I  got the Delta up it was full of a large grass and mud ball. That is why it would not reset.

We were now ready to get into position to try again. Kim went to the bow and I got the boat in position.  We got it set but about 10 minutes later it pulled free again. We went through the process again. It was  now about 1 am. I decided to try a different place, hopefully with less grass. I also told Kim to put 100 feet of chain down. This time it held for about a half hour. We went below and waited.  Then it happened again! I did not know what to do, but I knew 100 feet was better, so we went through the process again. This time Kim had a hard time clearing the anchor.  When she finally got it done, we dropped again with 125 feet of chain. It was now 3:40 am. We were both totally spent.  After about an hour of waiting and watching as the storm raged around us,  we went below.  Kim took a nap, but that was all the sleep either one of us got. We spent the next day taking short naps as the winds began to subside. It was a very difficult experience for both of us, but I am so thankful for my awesome wife,  who just kept working through it all.  The best news of all is that we are both safe and so is SHIFT.

We spent much of the next day talking about our plans. We could go back to Boot Key Harbor,  where it is safe. Or we could continue on with our plan to see Dry Tortugas National Park.  In my next entry, I will tell you what we decided. I will give you a hint, the next day was our 40th anniversary.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

It is Time to Move Along

We have been on the mooring in Boot Key Harbor since November 25. We did not have plans to stay here this long, but we have had a good time and we have met some amazing people. It seems like everyone here has a very interesting story of their life, and how they ended up here. Most have plans to move on, but some have ended their journey here.

They say that this harbor has a sticky bottom. What is meant by that, is that this place is a safe haven from the sea. It has been a safe haven since the beginning of time. Being safe is good and bad. If you always take the safe path, you will never experience many of the most amazing places in the world. I have to admit, there have been some times while we have been traveling in the boat that I was concerned for our safety. Most of that concern was just worry about the things I can't control. We are on a very capable boat that is well maintained. Some of that concern is good, it makes you take the time to do things right. Even if it takes doing them twice. The consequences could be significant. Much more significant than on land. When we arrived at Boot Key Harbor that safety felt good.

We have been getting the feeling that it is time to move on. When we got that feeling in the RV, we called it "Hitch-Itch". We have not come up with a saying for the boat, but we know it is time to get moving. We have so much we want to do and see.

The problem with moving in a boat is we are totally dependent on the weather. We have to wait for the proper weather to know when we can move safely and in the right direction. We call that a weather window. It is currently blowing 20 to 25 knots out of the North East. There are 6 to 10 foot seas. Traveling in that would be less than fun. We are looking at a weather window that starts next Wednesday, January 15 and is forecast to hold for about 10 days. The problem with forecasts, is they are rarely right.

We are now getting ready and planning to leave next week. Our plan is to take some time and visit some remote anchorages in the "Back Country" of the Florida Keys. We are hoping for beautiful blue water and good fishing and snorkeling. I can't wait to see how it goes. After a few days, we will again look at the weather forecast and make the decision if we go to the Dry Tortugas or we will head north to the mainland of Florida. It all depends on the weather...

As I said above, our time at Boot Key Harbor has been great. We have a busy social calendar with Pickelball on Tuesday and Thursday and Dominos on Tuesday. We also have Happy Hours to attend with great friends. There are also special events like the Polar Plunge and Chili Cook Off on New Years day. We also volunteered at a Keys Music Festival this past weekend. It was a three day festival with 45 local bands. We worked for 6 hours on Friday, (It was not hard work) and got the three day pass and cool T-shirts.

Afternoon Jazz played by some cruisers. A great way to enjoy the day. These folks are very good.
It always is about the people you meet. Geoff and Marsha are awesome people. I really hope our paths cross again. 
Nice rainbow

We never get tired of the sunsets.
Kim in the light blue cap getting ready for the "Polar Plunge" into the frigged 78 degree water. 

Another beautiful sunrise

The main stage at the Keys Music Festival

 That is about it for this entry. I hope to write again some time along our journey. Come back to see how it goes.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Freedom Day #6

I celebrate each January 2nd as my freedom day. That is the anniversary of the day that I told my boss, that I was quitting my job. That was the day that we started our new life of travel and life on our terms. This marks 6 years since that day in 2014. I am as excited about the future now as I was then.

This occasion usually causes Kim and I to talk about the past year. It always amazes us where we are and what we are doing. This year has to be the most amazing of all. If you had told us a year ago that we would be living on our boat in the Florida keys after sailing her through the open gulf from Tampa Bay, we wouldn't have believed you.

We think back to all of the things we had to do to make this happen. It was brutally hard at times, but amazingly gratifying to accomplish each step along the way.

We are very proud of our ability to start with a dream, and then develop a plan to make that dream a reality.  Then comes the hard part, execution of the plan.  We often have to develop contingencies because circumstances change or are not what we expect and we have to come up with a new strategy. We thought we wanted to buy that Cabo Rico in Ft. Lauderdale,  but clearly that was not his plan. We do believe that we must take the initiative,  but in the end, it is God's plan we follow. The good news he gives us hints along the way to help us find the right path.

Enough for now, I will leave you with a few memories from the past year.

Paddling with alligators in Central Florida.  January 2019
Kim and I standing on the edge of Mt. Nebo in Arkansas  March 2019
Sailing our boat for the first time. July 2019
Preparing SHIFT for hurricane Dorian, that thankfully missed us. September  2019
That amazing morning leaving Fort Myers Beach  November 2019
I  hope everyone that reads this blog will at some point in their life experience and appreciate true freedom.