After the Zombie Apocalypse

I assume that Bimini Sands Resort is a shadow of its former glory. There are hints of that glory everywhere: the two swimming pools, the floating docks, the abandoned tiki bar, the coral-pink townhouses that are visible from miles out to sea.

But the entire time we stayed there, I never saw a single guest staying in the hotel rooms or timeshare condos. And they are so desperate to look like the marina is still in business, that if you commit to staying for an entire week, it will only cost you $100.

The regular nightly rate of $1 per foot isn’t bad either. This is the point where I usually say, “But it has everything a cruiser needs” but this time it wasn’t really the case. The reverse-osmosis water filtration system was broken, so the only available water was salt water. We had filled our tanks in Marathon, so we didn’t really need water, but when you’re paying for a marina, you want the luxury of or a hot shower and the chance to wash to salt off your boat or to do laundry. The small cafe only served breakfast. The ship’s store stocked no produce or ice cream. There was no place to buy a beer, or even a bag of ice. And the sand flies were atrocious! After the first evening, my legs were covered in thousands of bites, and I itched too much to sleep. Capt. Mike decided we must have timed our arrival just after a Zombie apocalypse. It’s the only reasonable explanation for the fact that the only two things left alive at the resort were Donnie the dock master and the ravenous sand flies.

But we were finally in the Bahamas, and we were going to enjoy ourselves. In addition to SV Elixir, there were two other boats in the marina: SV Providence, captained by Bill who organizes the dinghy poker run during the Cruisers’ Regatta in Georgetown, and Leef Nu, owned by Kevin and Cheryl from Hamilton, Ontario. The Canadians are starting to outnumber us!

We got some work done; cleaning Sanitas up after the crossing, varnishing the steering wheel, and replacing a mysteriously missing prop anode. Then we played tourist – exploring every inch of South Bimini, including the original Fountain of Youth, and taking a $3 water taxi across to North Bimini where we took a golf cart tour with Anthony.

After a quick loop through Alicetown and Baileytown, we learned another reason why everything was so quiet. The huge Hilton Resort World which contains two marinas, a casino, and several hotels and restaurants was closed for two weeks. That meant no guests, no employees, and very little of the businesses that spring up to keep them entertained. One local said he had never seen Bimini this quiet in his 37 years. Luckily Stuart’s Conch Stand was open and serving fresh conch salad and rum punch.

We also visited the intriguing and bizarre labor of love that is Ashley Saunders’ Dolphin House. Ashley was born in Bimini, studied in the US, and returned home to become its unofficial historian and to write several books about the island. He says that after a chance encounter with dolphins out on the water, the dolphins brought out something buried deep with him, and he became an artist. To thank the dolphins for this gift, he began building Dolphin House back in 1993 and it’s now a complex mosaic-covered building that evokes Gaudi’s Barcelona Park. Ashley says that his house contains a bit of everything built on Bimini, and I believe him. It’s decorated entirely with found objects such as leftover tiles of all shapes and colors, buoys and corals washed ashore on the beach. And whatever bottles and jars and plaster animals caught his eye. I really enjoyed our tour, exploring every corner of every beadazzled room, and even climbing a narrow flight of concrete stairs to the “observation deck” and a view of the town. As we left, we taped one of Sanitas’ boat cards on the gift shop wall to prove we’d passed through.

Back on South Bimini, we visited The Shark Lab. We learned all about the almost 30 years of research that The Lab has performed on the habitat, biology, reproduction, and behaviors of nurse sharks, lemon sharks, hammerhead sharks, and tiger sharks. Fascinating stuff. Did you know that lemon sharks always return to the same nursery where they were born to give birth to their own young? Even a dozen years later and after migrating all over the waters of the Bahamas and Florida? Or than sharks have personalities? A Shark Lab investigator spent several years proving that some sharks individual sharks are shy, some are bold, some are curious, and some are aggressive and they exhibit these same characteristics in captivity or in the wild and over a period of years. The first afternoon, we weren’t allowed to walk down the beach to the shark pens because a group was filming a music video for Baby Shark Doo Doo Doo. (Ok, not really. But a film crew was working on something, and our guide was sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell us who they represented or where we’d see the results). But Jessie, our guide, did bring a juvenile nurse shark up to the beach where we could see it and briefly touch it. Jeff and I returned the next afternoon to get the chance to see the pens and a juvenile lemon shark that had been captured the day before. Each shark is kept for no more than two weeks of study and tagging so that they are not stressed, and can be returned to the wild to live a long and happy shark-y life.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to get ashore easily, so I ran everyday around South Bimini and had the chance to explore a nature trail, some lovely homes, and rustic beach art. It’s a lovely introduction to the Bahamas and island life. Just hope that the water filter has been repaired, and don’t forget your sunblock!

Crossing the Gulf Stream to The Bahamas… Third Time’s the Charm

The alarm went off at 4 am (ouch) and we were raising anchor at 4:30. It’s so crowded in No Name Harbor that another sailboat was sitting literally on top of our anchor. I took the helm and inched ever so slowly forward and Capt. Mike brought in the rode, using a boat hook to push the other boat just far enough away for us to sneak our anchor out from underneath. I made one super tight turn to starboard, and we were out of there!

Not very comfortable leaving a harbor in the dark, we carefully followed our old track on the chart plotter, making sure to avoid two shallow shoals on the way back to the channel. Each time we spotted a light ahead, we had a quick urgent debate over what it was (Channel marker? Reef light? Another boat?) and whether we needed to take action to avoid it. My favorite moment was making a 20 degree turn to starboard to avoid what appeared to be a super bright masthead light….. but actually turned out to be an airplane. Whoopsie! This morning’s sunrise was the most beautiful yet, and we overheard the two boats behind us ooh-ing and ah-ing about the beauty and the photos they took of a sailboat silhouetted by the rising sun (Sanitas!). I WILL stalk them in Bimini and get them to send me that photo!

Both wind and waves were extremely calm all day, which made for a safe and uneventful crossing, but also required us to motor all day. That’s ok by me. I consider crossing the Gulf Stream something to get over with so we can enjoy the Bahamas, not really a pleasant day of sailing for its own sake.

We left the Miami channel heading southeast with a COG of about 135 deg. This allowed us the get a teeny bit south of Bimini, so that once we really experienced the effects of the Gulf Stream current it could carry us north and east without overshooting our goal. In the stream, we gradually adjusted our heading over about an hour from 135deg to 110deg to 95deg. Then we pretty much set the autopilot to steer to a heading of 95deg and left it alone for the rest of the trip. In the fastest part of the Gulf Stream flow, our COG was 75deg, but it eased to 85deg later in the trip. We made good time because we were able to benefit from the flow, rather than fighting hard against it, and we arrived at Bimini Sands Marina on South Bimini by 1:30 pm. That’s more like it! Why cross overnight and arrive sleep deprived and stressed from all the cargo ship traffic when you can cross calmly on a cool sunny day with absolutely no drama?

After raising the yellow quarantine flag, our good luck continued as Capt Mike caught a $5 taxi to the airport, and breezed through customs and immigration with no issues. Filled out a whole bunch of papers, handed over $300 in cash, and we are free to stay in the Bahamas for the next four months. We replaced that Q flag with the Bahamas courtesy flag and celebrated this big milestone. After all, we’d been working since the end of September to prepare for this, and making significant boat repairs right up until the day before!

We had a champagne toast with Jeff and Trish of SV Elixir who were also feeling the sense of accomplishment. They are a sweet newlywed couple from Sarnia, Ontario who are cruising for a year on their Honeymoon. Making it out of the ICW and out of the US winter is certainly something worth celebrating!

Crossing the Gulf Stream to The Bahamas …. Attempt #2

After our pit-crew efficient 15-hour stop in Boot Key Harbor, we were on the move again. Anchor raised, we headed north, planning to leave the Hawk Channel at Angelfish Cut and aim our bow for Bimini. But after listening to Chris Parker’s marine weather forecast on the short wave radio at 6:30 am, we learned that a cold front would pass through Florida tonight, and we should wait for the calm after the storm to make such an ambitious crossing. So we consoled ourselves with another glorious day of sailing along at 6 knots and anchored off Rodriguez Key.

Now it really feels like we are cruising! Anchoring near just a few boats instead of crowded in a marina or mooring field, cooking a one-pot meal and digging into our canned goods, watching the sunset, moonrise, and sunrise away from city lights.

With that sunrise came a shiver of excitement. This is it! We’ll be in Bimini by nightfall, and will catch up with SV Eileen! Perhaps somebody should have knocked on wood.

A couple hours into our sail, and before we’d even left the protection of the Florida reef, Capt. Mike noticed that the bilge pump was running frequently. With calm seas, there was no real reason for so much water entering the bilge, so he lifted the engine compartment to investigate. A steady stream of water was entering the boat from the rudder…and the stream increased the faster we moved. Huh.

A couple of Google searches later, we’d narrowed it down to the rudder packing gland. Fixing the problem might be as simple as tightening three bolts….or might be as complex and costly as lifting Sanitas out of the water and replacing the packing material. With a spare part we did not currently possess. Double drat! Either way, we decided not to leave the USA with a big leak of water into the boat. So guess what? For the second year in a row, we’re making an unscheduled stop in Miami. Triple drat!

But we made the best of it this time, and anchored in lovely No Name Harbor on Key Biscayne. (Even lovelier after the brightly-lit-up, rap-music-blaring day trippers go home on Saturday night, lol). After our trek to West Marine to purchase parts, we joined a dozen Latino families at a Cuban restaurant for Sunday dinner of lechon asado, pescado entero, and sangria.

And we squeezed in a little time to enjoy the walking paths and beaches of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

And THANKFULLY we did not need to find a boatyard to hoist Sanitas for repairs. Instead, Capt. Mike gambled that our stern was just barely high enough out of the water that he could replace the packing gland material in the water. We both held our breaths when he pulled out the old packing material, leaving a hole in the bottom of the boat, and let our breaths back out when the ocean stayed on the outside where it belongs.

Lots of cruisers in the harbor planning on an early Tuesday morning crossing. Let’s hope this time we will be one of them!

Crossing the Gulf Stream to The Bahamas….. Attempt #1

Soon after New Years, we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the pleasures of Key West and headed north along the Florida Keys. We were ready to go! Boat clean, laundry done, last trip to the grocery store complete. (I must have done a “last trip to the grocery store” at least five times in Florida) Our plan was to stop in Boot Key Harbor in Marathon for a few days, then stage ourselves off Rodriguez Key, near Key Largo, and watch for a good weather window to cross the Gulf Stream. The Explorer Chart Books describe a good weather window for a Gulf Stream crossing as “Yesterday’s breeze was SE at 15 knots or less, and today’s forecast is clocking toward S at no more than 15 knots, and tomorrow’s forecast is S-SW at no more than 15-20 knots.” I was thrilled to finally find that specific definition of a good weather window, until I realized how rare those exact conditions would be. Especially in winter when we actually want to cross!

Our friends on SV Eileen had been waiting for a weather window for close to a month. An hour into our trip, as we were still motoring through heavy Key West boat traffic, they texted us, and said they were leaving Marathon for Bimini TODAY, did we want to join them. As Capt. Mike and I debated changing our plans and heading straight for Bimini (Even though we hadn’t topped up our fuel tanks in Key West. Even though my new boat cards were scheduled to be delivered to the city marina in Marathon today. Even though we hadn’t planned to do another long overnight passage so soon) the alternator overheating alarm went off. Yep. The same alternator regulator that we had just replaced. That pretty much made our decision. Not safe or smart to leave the USA until we had that issue finally beat. So we turned off the motor, hoisted all sails, and enjoyed the best day of sailing we’d had so far this season. While….also…. continuing to trouble shoot that darn regulator.

The manual for the regulator is about 12 pages long, and I read every word on every page at least three times, trying to make sense of it. I’m not that kind of engineer! Eventually, we narrowed it down to one of two problems: either the regulator was calculating the amount of time it needs to stay in bulk charge mode incorrectly, or the Belt Load Setting was wrong and asking the alternator for too much power. While sailing, Capt. Mike dug our the little magnetic programming tool and wrestled with the least intuitive user interface ever and reprogrammed the belt mode. (To “B-9” In case you are currently troubleshooting your own alternator regulator and need specifics) That did the trick! We ran the motor for two hours, and the temps never got higher than 72 degrees Celsius.

Of course, having a working motor again made it much easier to enter Boot Key Harbor. We focused on efficiency! Only 20 minutes tied to the Marathon Marina fuel dock to top up diesel, dinghy gas, and water. Then find a place to anchor in the super crowded harbor. Then get Bug in the water and make it ashore before Boot Key Marina Office closed to pick up my package and to get shower keys. Phew! All chores complete, I twisted Capt. Mike’s arm and convinced him to walk across the street to the Overseas Pub for dinner, and AYCE barbecue ribs. We’ll start cooking tomorrow. I promise!

Key West is Delightful as Always

This is the third time we’ve visited Key West with Sanitas, and we really looked forward rewarding ourselves with a bit of a vacation after all the hard work and preparation required to actually start cruising. This time, instead of staying in the anchorage off Fleming Key, we decided to try picking up a mooring ball at Garrison Bight.

For the princely sum of $20 per day, you get a safe ball to tie up to in a fairly protected harbor, access to the town dinghy dock, use of a rather spartan shower and restroom building, and access to laundry. It’s not the most convenient location in the world – about a 25 minute dinghy ride in little Bug, and about 20 minutes of walking to Old Town, but we’ve decided that the calm waters are worth it. Capt. Mike and I both slept much better here!

It was really fun to be here during the holidays – the nautical themed Christmas lights along the waterfront are amazing! The nights are long this time of year, but not at all depressing with beautifully decorated homes in the historic district, and more visitors than we’ve ever seen, all in a great mood and filled with holiday spirit.

Our vacation included a bit of culture: visiting Hemingway’s house and Truman’s Little White House. And, since we’re cruisers and on a budget, it included an on-going search for the best happy hour food and drink specials in Key West. (If you’re curious, I vote for the half-price peel and eat shrimp and smoked fish dip at Two Friends Patio Restaurant)

Honestly, the best part of this trip to Key West was reconnecting with our friends Chris and Stan of SE of Disorder who we cruised with all last season. They have settled permanently in Key West, so they’ve sure got things figured out! Chris and I ran together, training for the Key West half marathon and competing in a “Glow in the Dark” 5k.

Stan showed Capt. Mike where to find lobster right outside the mooring field. OMG, delicious!

And Chris let us use her Sail Rite sewing machine to finally finish our salon cushion project and to make a curtain to hide the chaos of the quarter berth

Oh yeah. We did also take this opportunity to repair that darn alternator regulator that tried to kill us on our first day in Key West. We ordered a new part and paid extra for overnight delivery. And then we learned the hard way that although a package might actually make it to Key West overnight, the Post Office will generally take a couple more days to acknowledge it arrived, before generously allowing us to retrieve it. Talk about living on island time! It took the better part of a day, but Capt. Mike was successful in installing the new regulator without any more close calls of fire alarms. Hopefully that’s the last of the big projects before hitting the sea and really starting cruising!

Best of all, having friends here meant we were sure to have a great time on New Year’s Eve! Key West has three different midnight “drops” to suit any style. A pirate wench drops from the top of a mast at Schooner’s Wharf, a conch shell drops at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, and a drag queen named Sushi drops from the sky in a glittery red high heeled shoe at Bourbon Street. Duval Street is closed to traffic, live music plays everywhere, and Old Town Key West turns into one big street party. We started the evening with snacks and champagne on Art and Sherry’s boat, and ended it at the Green Parrot which has the best live music in Key West. For a fun surprise, Todd and Celia of SV Eileen took a bus down from Marathon where they’d been waiting for a weather window to cross to the Bahamas and joined in the New Years revelry.

All in all, a very fun night. BUT…. I think the walk back to the dinghy dock somehow tripled in distance after midnight. It felt like we were walking to Miami. But we all made it home safely, with even out noisemakers in tow 😃