When You’re Tired of Key West, You’re Tired of Life

We almost skipped Key West on our way home to St Petersburg from the Bahamas. But we had a line on a new dinghy outboard, and our two buddy boats were anchored there, and…well… Key West is a lot of fun!

We arrived just in time for the Minimal Regatta. Teams build their own boats out of a short list of ingredients:

1. One sheet of 4′ x 8′ x 1/4″ plywood
2. Two 2″x 4″ 8′
3. One pound of fasteners
4. One roll of 2″ x 60 yard duct tape
5. No caulking or adhesives – Epoxy paint is permitted
6. Painting of boats is optional
7. Oars/Paddles must be made out of these materials

Teams dress up in costumes and cheer their paddlers on. Some slice through the water like dolphins, some drag slowly, others sink all together. Prizes are awarded for best costumes, themes, best paint job….The crowd, fueled by adult beverages, has a great time regardless.

Celia and Todd from SV Eileen live in Key West. They’re “fresh water conch” which means they’ve live there over 7 years. (You’re not a full-fledged conch unless you were born there!) The last time we saw them, in Boot Key Harbor, they wrote me out a detailed guide to everything fun to do in Key West. So, we stayed an entire week and checked as many things off the list as possible.

Culture :

  • The Customs House Museum – has an excellent exhibit on the history of Key West (did you know, it was once the biggest city in a Florida?) and Guy Harvey’s Old Man and the Sea illustrations.
  • Lighthouse Museum – Tells the story of the men and women who kept the lights shining and kept the ship’s off the rocks for hundreds of years. Also has photos and history of all the other lighthouses on the Florida reef that we’ve been sailing past for a week. Cool to finally learn about them.
    • Tropic Cinema – Amazing Art Deco Theater (and great place to escape the heat) with full bar and homemade popcorn and art movies. We saw a wonderful movie about “Notorious RBG”
  • Exercise:

  • Yoga Sanctuary – This lovely and peaceful studio is a fabulous place to practice. I made it there three times, and always felt welcome although I hadn’t been to my mat in ages and felt a bit rusty.
  • Swimming: So remember… it’s June. In Key West. Which means it’s darn hot. Every day, I left the boat with a bag of everything I’d need for the day. Including a swimsuit. And every afternoon, we sought out a pool. Some, like Dante’s are completely open to the public. Others just might have been intended for hotel guests only. But, as long as we bought a couple of drinks from the bar, no one ever complained!
  • Eating and Drinking:

  • I have to admit…we did a lot more of this than we did exercising. Key West is a bargain hunter’s delight at happy hour time. Even at the historic waterfront district, you can find cheap drinks and delicious eats. Heck, at the White Tarpon you can not only get oysters for $1 each, you can get a whole rotisserie chicken for $6. Why would a thrifty cruiser ever heat up the galley with deals like that? And the happy hour at Mary Ellen’s, just off Duval St, starts at 11:30 and offers gluten free pizza!
  • Once again, we made good use of Todd and Celia’s Key West knowledge and noshed our way across the island, sampling tapas at Santiago’s Bodega, tacos at Mellow Cafe, breakfast at Harpoon Harry’s, shrimp at the Half Shell Raw Bar, and oysters at Alonzo’s. And we became regulars at the Sunset Tiki Bar, where Todd used to work. We introduced ourselves as sailing friends of Toddo’s and were immediately welcomed with open arms. And with the best margaritas I’d tasted since Colorado! Most evenings found us on a bar stool at the Tiki Bar appreciating the gorgeous Key West Sunsets.
  • Our last day in Key West was spent celebrating Pride. I love the fact that so many different types of people – Navy enlisted men, members of the LGBTQ community, sailors, artists, tourists, and families – all get along in Key West. We had a great time joining the festivities at the Pride Parade where everyone we met was happy, welcoming and ….. Proud!
  • Back in the Real World

    Our first days back in Florida were a bit of a let down. Here we were back “home” in the US after almost four months, but we were still far from friends and family. The endless rain brought by Alberto that left us trapped on the boat didn’t help either. And we suddenly had a mold problem. All the rain and humidity of the past few weeks triggered a full blown mold bloom on every wooden surface inside Sanitas. Since it smelled a bit funny and drove our allergies crazy, the first couple of days in Boot Key Harbor were spent moving every thing we owned from one part of the boat to another, and dousing all wooden surfaces with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Fun!

    We also watched on social media as all of our friends back In Colorado celebrated Memorial Day at the Bolder Boulder 10k without us, and as my fellow Skirt Sports ambassadors had a wonderful and inspiring time at the annual retreat. So we consoled ourselves… with food! We’d devolved into eating cold soup right out of the can on our Gulf Stream crossing. Plus, after the cost of groceries and eating out in The Bahamas, Florida seemed dirt cheap. And varied! So we made good use of the free cruiser bikes at the marina to make long, luxurious shopping trips to Publix, hit the early bird steakhouse special, the Mexican restaurant, and several visits to the Overseas Pub.

    Suddenly… everything changed. The storm passed and the sun came out, and all of the friends we met during the last cruising season started passing through Boot Key Harbor on their way back to wherever they planned to spend hurricane season! Suddenly, our social calendar was full. And we had more excuses to eat out. We spent one fun evening with Todd and Celia of SV Eileen, sharing pizza, seared tuna, and a bottle of wine in the cockpit at sunset. We met Pat and Melana of Tapati for happy hour at Keys Fisheries – the same place we sat and discussed our plans for the cruising season back in February. We met Robert and Rhonda of Eagle Too for the first time since the Georgetown Regatta. And we helped Colin and Dawn Marie of Wavelength prepare for their summer season in Cuba and Guatemala; trading currency, guidebooks, music, movies, and gluten free food back and forth between our boats. Pretty amazing when you think about it that we knew no one when we bought a boat and moved to Florida in the fall of 2017, and here we were less than a year later finding so many friends in port! I guess that’s the proof of a successful cruising season, right?

    Operation Homeward Bound (Part2) – The Gulf Stream

    Here’s a link to Part 1: Starting our sail from Nassau in The Bahamas back to Florida.

    Two days into our journey from Nassau back to the States, we were once again prepping to cross the Gulf Stream. I complained to Capt. Mike that I couldn’t find any information on the internet about crossing the Gulf Stream in this East to West direction. He said “That’s because you’ve already crossed it once, so you know how!” I guess that’s true. But I’m a planner, and I want details, charts, pictures, more details! We were complicating things a bit by attempting to make it to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon in the Florida Keys before Subtropical Storm Alberto hit. So we’d be fighting against the northward flow of the Gulf Stream rather than benefitting from its power and speed. So when in doubt, I turn to my favorite blog The Boat Galley, and learned from Carolyn’s approach of researching all of the cuts through the Florida reef, aiming for the southernmost cut until the Stream pushed us north of that destination, then adjusting for the next cut north, etc. Our realistic goal was to enter the reef at the northern end of Key Largo right at sunset.

    The Boat Galley

    Day #3: 68.9 miles, 12.5 hours

    After a horrible night’s sleep at South Riding Rock, we raised anchor at first light. The uncomfortable anchorage would hopefully be worth it, because it allowed us to start our westbound crossing 30 miles south of Bimini. Our motto for the day was “Get our southing in early” before the power of the Gulf Stream pushed us north. Winds were extremely light all day so we motored to ensure we’d reach the coast before dark. Good thing the days are getting longer!

    We started off heading southwest at a COG (course over ground) of 260 degrees in less than 10 knots of wind. Capt. Mike created a table to track our course, distance covered, and speed each hour so that we could see our progress. We compared to our GPS data on the chart plotter for a visual indicator of when the Gulf Stream current started pushing us sideways and slowing our southbound progress. Each time that our COG varied significantly from the heading we had set in the auto pilot, we knew that the Gulf Stream was having more effect on Sanitas’ forward progress than our Yanmar engine was, and we needed to point ourselves a few degrees further north. The bonus benefit of the table was that it kept Capt. Mike entertained with data gathering and math on an otherwise long and uneventful day.

    Our navigation and course planning was spot on! But it was still a ridiculously long day, especially on top of the previous two, and we were completely spent by the time we spotted the coast of Key Largo. We slipped inside the Florida Reef (the third largest barrier reef in the world!) right at sunset, and dropped the hook about a half a mile off an uninhabited shore – basically as close to the middle of nowhere as you can be in the Florida Keys. A couple of cans of soup and a small celebratory glass of wine, and we were asleep before 9:00 pm.

    Back in the United States after three and a half months in The Bahamas!

    Looking at our course on the chart plotter, we really did manage to cross the Gulf Stream using the classic S-Curve pattern. I guess we knew what we were doing all along!

    Day #4: 66 miles, 11.5 hours – Boot Key Harbor, Marathon

    The last day of our journey home was supposed to be uneventful, if a little bit annoying. Something along the lines of, “I haven’t touched land for 4 days, and Florida is right over there, but we have to wait another 12 hours to touch it” kind of annoying. But it ended up being the most challenging day of our crossing.

    Our goal was to make it safely to a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor where we could wait out the high winds of Sub Tropical Storm Alberto. But the leading edge of the storm brought band after band of squalls with it. So even though we were traveling inside the Florida Reef and within sight of the Keys, we spent another sunrise to sunset day reacting to storms and going from motoring along with no wind to suddenly dealing with 30+ knots of wind. On the positive side, we got lots of practice reefing the main!

    By the fourth mini storm of the day, Capt. Mike had the helm, and he sent me below to stay out of the cold driving rain. I sat at the bottom of the companionway, watching him like a hawk to make sure he wasn’t swept overboard. And shouting up every few minutes, “Are you ok? Do you need anything?”

    We finally made it to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon just about half an hour after the marina closed for the night. Since we couldn’t reach anyone in the office to ask for a mooring ball, we took matters into our own hands! The last time we’d stayed in Boot Key before The Bahamas, we had moored on ball Romeo 5. We knew the way there, and knew the water was deep enough, so we just helped ourselves to the same ball four months later and settled in.

    After four days we were finally home!

    After we finally escaped from the pirates…

    I wish I had a good excuse like getting captured by pirates for why I haven’t written a blog post in so long.

    Do you want to know what really happened? We came back home. To land. In the good old US of A. And life on land is very distracting. There’s cars and road trips. Restaurants and happy hours. Friends and concerts. Family and card games. And somehow the cruising life on little old Sanitas seems very far away, and blogging doesn’t seem very important.

    But now …. we’re back in the boatyard in Florida, working on boat projects and getting ready to set out on our second season of cruising. Hip Hip Hooray! I’m going to post a few quick updates to catch you up on “What I did on my summer vacation” and then it’s back life in the boatyard. (And making you very happy that you are reading this blog from someplace with heat and/or air conditioning, running water, and flush toilets. Ahhhh…..)

    Operation Homeward Bound (Part 1)

    As always, it was hard to break free from the gravitational pull of the Palm Cay Marina, with its hot showers, friendly staff, and beautiful beach club. And each time we downloaded a new weather grib file, the forecast wasn’t clear and obvious. We were either doing the right thing; grabbing a four-day window of settled weather that would take us safely back to Florida. OR… We were sailing straight west into the first named tropical storm of the 2018 season. One thing was clear. We weren’t going to get any closer to home by remaining tied to the dock.

    And since all good things must come to an end, after thirteen weeks in The Bahamas, we turned Sanitas’ bow toward home.

    Day #1: 45 miles, 9 hours

    We started out knowing full well that our safe weather window was pretty small. While our friends Orion and SE of Disorder had sailed straight from Highbourne Cay to Miami in 34 hours, Capt. Mike and I acknowledged our weaknesses and our lack of experience in making long overnight passages. And we decided to make the trip from Nassau to Key Largo in a series of four long days instead. That meant we’d be leaving before the high winds had completely laid down. And we needed to arrive before the next storm hit. Plan B, in case the storm forecast changed dramatically, would be to only make it as far as Bimini and wait out the weather there. But you know how once you get it in your mind that vacation is over, you just wanted it to be done? Yep. We were there.

    Leaving the narrow channel from Palm Cay Marina, we were immediately headed straight into the wind with higher winds and higher seas than predicted. It was rough enough initially that I asked Capt. Mike, “Is this one of those times we should reconsider our plans and return to the harbor if it’s not safe?” It always seems so obvious when you read the disaster stories and scoff at the stupid people who made bad choices. It’s not as obvious in real life. But we knew we’d be making several heading changes to round the east side of New Providence Island, and each change would put us on a more comfortable point of sail than the crashing into waves, so we put off making a final decision and just kept going. Sure enough, once we were on a beam reach, the effects were less drastic. After much navigating around coral, course changes, and hand steering, we finally made it to the busy Nassau Harbor. This is where all of the other marinas are located, as well as the cruise ship docks and the working docks, and it is as busy and crowded as the streets of downtown. After only brief rubbernecking at the fancy resorts on Paradise Island, we negotiated a super narrow pass of just enough deep water, and we were free!

    The navigating from here on out was much easier, with plenty of opportunity to set the autopilot and go. But the seas stayed large and from the starboard quarter all day, making things uncomfortably rolly and pitchy. Blech. The two boats that were at the anchorage when we arrived left at sunset to continue west overnight.

    Day #2: 75 miles, 13.5 hours

    We settled into our daily routine. Alarm set for an hour before sunrise. Get up, brush teeth, make coffee, put on sunblock. Make sure the course is plotted and waypoints entered. Secure items in the cabin and galley. Dress in boat shoes, safety gear, sun hat. Be in the cockpit before first light, and raise anchor and sail off at sunrise.

    Once again the seas were larger than predicted. I now understand a bit better the mixed blessing of “Fair winds and following seas.” After an entire season of fighting against the prevailing easterlies, we are finally sailing west. That means, in theory, the wind is pushing us in the direction we want to go and we won’t be crashing into the waves. However, the waves build in the direction of the wind (and had been building through the big blow we waited out in Nassau) so these were some of the largest waves we’d experienced. And when they hit at a slight angle, the ride is very rolly.

    I tried to capture a few pictures of the swells rising up behind Sanitas, but I don’t think I did them justice!

    This little nondescript pole is the only thing marking the Northwest Channel; the place where the “tongue of the ocean” (at pretty much infinite depth) meets the Grand Bahama Banks (of 12 to 14 feet in depth). At any time of day, the tide is either pulling vast amounts of water from the banks into the ocean, or pushing vast amounts back onto the banks causing some pretty chaotic currents and swells. Belatedly, we realized we should have treated this final cut with a bit more respect and perhaps planned our timing of the channel accordingly. But it’s better to be lucky than good, and our timing worked out well enough. We dealt with about 3 knots of current pushing us through the channel and onto the banks, and kept a sharp eye out for all the other vessels traveling that small channel at the same time.

    We don’t sail well directly down wind, preferring winds at a 90deg to 120 deg angle. So for the remainder of the day we tried every trick in our repertoire to harness the power of a downwind sail. For a while we attempted wing-on-wing (with the mainsail on one side of the boat and the jib on the opposite side) wrestling with the whisker pole to hold the job in place and keep it full. When winds faded to less than 10 knots, we abandoned that approach, and raised the asymmetrical spinnaker. This involves both Capt. Mike and I clipping in to our harnesses and moving forward to the bow to rig the sail and we haven’t exactly got the process down pat. By the time we got the asym in place today, the wind shifted and we had to do the whole thing in reverse to take it back down. Sigh.

    Most cruisers stage to cross from the Bahamas to Florida at Bimini. However, our goal was to end up as far south as possible on the other side of the Gulf Stream, so we decided to improve our odds of success a bit by doing some southing on the Bahamas side. So we spent the night anchored in about 23 feet of water (deep!) in the middle of nowhere off the aptly named South Riding Rocks. Theoretically a good idea, but this spot is effected by a great deal of current and fetch. So while our super anchor kept us safe, we spent a terribly uncomfortable night bouncing and rolling in a very noisy boat. We slept only fitfully, and both of us were awake before the alarm went off ready to get the heck out of dodge.

    ………….

    Stay tuned for Operation Homeward Bound (Part 2)… Crossing the Gulf Stream!