Worse Things Can Happen Than Running Aground

Or so Captain Bill said in our sailing classes five years ago. I think he was trying to teach us the difference between “Mayday” and “Pan Pan” in radio etiquette. Our friends from St Pete had similar advice. “You’re going to run aground in The Bahamas. Don’t let it devastate you.” Still, there’s an element of “It will never happen to me” about running aground.

Well, now we’ve gotten that out of the way!

We left Great Sale harbor in marginal wind conditions, because we thought we might go crazy if we stayed one more day. Winds 13 to 17 on the nose, and seas that built gradually over the day. We got a nice early start, so even with beating into the wind, we arrived at the entrance to the Foxtown Harbor on Little Abaco Island before 2:00 pm. Theoretically, that allowed for great mid-day light to allow us to see the changing water colors indicating rocks or coral heads while standing on the bow looking at the world through polarized sunglasses. Unfortunately, what really happened, was I stood at the bow in a driving rain squall with rain washing sunblock into my eyes, wiping my sunglasses on the hem of my t shirt, and the sun completely hidden by clouds, so the water looked a uniform shade of grey across the whole harbor.

Mike had done his homework, comparing the paper charts in the Explorer Chartbooks and the electronic charts in our chart plotter and using Navionics, and plotted a detailed series of waypoints through the shallow areas and rocks to a preferred anchorage. But it is one thing to see a series of lines and dots on the chart plotter, and another to orient them to the real world landmarks and features around you in less than perfect conditions. Our friends on SV Orion radioed that they had just crossed an extremely shallow spot, that wasn’t captured on any of the charts, and they got us slightly spooked. SV Disorder took a different line into the harbor than Mike had plotted, and they were calling out depths in the 6 foot range. So we continued to follow our plan to head south and get closer to land, and then to turn east toward the closest anchorage. I was on the bow (remember that rain?) and Mike was at the helm and we had to shout to hear each other over the wind. Mike called, ” is that dark water shallow? Or it is a shadow? Which way do I turn?” But there was no good direction to turn. We were essentially aiming straight at a horizontal band of rocks that, according to the charts, we had already safely passed. Mike went from calling out safe depths of 11’4″ and 10’8″ to a dead stop in less than a minute. We jammed Sanitas into reverse, we were well and truly stuck for about 15 seconds, and then the prop walk started a turn that allowed us to spin all the way around and head back the way we came. With no clear idea of how to enter the harbor, but without needing to radio for a tow boat.

After finding a safe anchorage, Mike dove the hull and found only a few scratches – nothing too heavily damaged. There may have been a few frayed nerves and short fuses on Sanitas that night as her crew recovered from the scare!

Recovering with cracked conch and rum at Da Valley restaurant in Foxtown.

Boat Show, Baby!

The Miami International Boat Show is a completely different animal to the St Pete show. It is huge! And glitzy! And oozing money!

We scored free boat show tickets courtesy of Cruising Outpost Magazine, so, why not catch an Uber there from No Name Harbor? Took our picture with Bob Bitchin of Cruising Outpost.

Bought a new lightweight waterproof backpack from Gecko Designs. (Now I have to remember to use it, each time we climb into the dinghy of death)

And got lots of good swag: free hats, free bags ” Boat hair, don’t Care.” And drink samples. After a lunch at Whiskey Jack’s, we returned to our own reality on anchor at No Name Harbor.

Bahamas or Bust

On Friday, 16 February, almost a month after setting off from St Petersburg, we finally made our crossing from Florida to the Bahamas.

We left No Name harbor in Biscayne Bay with two other boats: Chris and Stan on SE of Disorder, and Bob and Laura on Orion, and headed east. Our goal was to benefit from the fast river of water known as the Gulf Stream to give us a little boost of speed and assist us in covering the 92 Miles to West End on Grand Bahama Island. Why cross at night? Good question! I suffered from FOMO all day on Friday, because the rest of the boats that had been anchored near us weighed anchor at 4:00 am and headed for Bimini, leaving just the three of us to wait for an evening crossing!

Two reasons:

  • Winds and seas tend to be calmer over night, as a land breeze creates winds flowing from the Florida land mass out to seas, and
  • We wanted to arrive at West End in daylight, allowing us to see the clear customs as soon as they opened, and to continue on across Little Bahama Bank when we could see the color of the water, and watch for unexpectedly shallow areas or coral heads.

Not much in the way of photos documenting this momentous occasion, because of the night crossing, but our wait for a weather window paid off, because the trip was relatively uneventful. The down side of waiting for light winds was that we could only sail about half the way, and had to motor the rest of the way to make forward progress.

We managed to stay within a couple of nautical miles of our two buddy boats all night, which was rather comforting. On watch by myself in the middle of the night, I could see a dim red light to my starboard that was Orion’s port navigation light, and a dim green to my port that was Disorder’s tri-color mast light. It also allowed Mike and me, on Sanitas, to serve as air traffic controllers for our tiny flotilla, since we were the only vessel with a functioning AIS system.

Thank goodness for AIS! Literally the last boat project we completed before leaving St Pete was to pay a technician a large sum of money to program our VHF radio, chart plotter, and short wave radio with our MMSI identification number to allow us to broadcast our information over the AIS network. As we crossed the busy shipping lanes outside the port of Miami, one of us would notice a light on the horizon and start to worry that the cruise ship or cargo ship bearing that light might be on an intersection course with our slow, teeny, sailing ships. Cruise ships, by the way, are lit up like a Christmas tree and can be seen for miles and miles (plenty of time for me to fantasize about what they were serving for dinner, and how cold the champagne must be) while cargo ships are dimly lit with only the required identification and navigation lights. Zoomed to the correct resolution, our Simrad chart plotter showed a triangle for each ship transmitting AIS, and with a click I could request the ship’s name, size, course, speed, and an estimate of when it would make its closest approach to Sanitas and how far away it would be at that closest point. Pretty cool technology, and invaluable when the horizon was filled with lights at 3:00 in the morning! Once, the City of Bismarck, listed in AIS as a military vessel, hailed us by name on the VHF radio to let us know that they saw us, and were changing course to avoid our path. None of the cruise ships or cargo ships lowered themselves to speak to us, but we did correct course several times to ensure a safer distance.

The Gulf Stream is no joke! Sanitas usually putters along at about 5 knots. With perfect sailing conditions, she gets up to 6 knots, and her hull speed is 7.2 knots. Crossing the Gulf Stream, we saw our speed over ground exceed 8 knots! (Of course that is only impressive if you don’t think too hard about the fact that I can still run faster than that for short distances.)

We haven’t quite got out overnight watch routine down yet, so we just sort of winged it. Mike slept under a blanket in the cockpit from 10:00 until midnight, when he wind changed and there were cargo ships everywhere so I woke him for reassurance. Then I “slept” until 4:00 am (if you can call it sleeping when every noise or change in motion of the boat causes me to bolt upright and yell, “Hey Mike! Are we ok?” Then Mike slept below through the rolliest part of the night until about 7:00 am when we could see Grand Bahama Island approaching.

Tool of the Day…. Six-Ten Epoxy

Before buying a boat, I had the naive notion that boats worked by keeping all the water on the outside, and all the people dry on the inside. I believed that any hole in the boat was an anomaly to be addressed and filled. Apparently, that’s not really the case, and boats live in more of a balance, managing the right amount of water inside and outside. The engine is cooled by seawater, so the seacock must be open and allow water through the strainers while the engine is running. (Don’t forget to clear those strainers of sea grass and debris!) There’s a foot pump to bring in sea water to rinse the dishes, or to use for other cleaning jobs. There are drains that allow water from the sinks in the galley and the head to escape the boat. There’s a bilge pump to clear whatever water does make it to the lowest parts of the hull. And then of course, there are the deck fittings that aren’t quite sealed correctly in a 25 year old boat, and allow water in where it was never intended.

Troubleshooting the water intrusion issues that we encountered on our trip from Marathon to Rodriguez Key, we decided that the anchor locker was the likely culprit. There are holes in the foredeck that allow a primary anchor chain and a backup anchor line to pass through the deck, into the anchor locker. Water that comes over the bow and through those holes should drain into the bilge. However, after contorting himself into some unnatural positions to investigate the anchor locker, Mike discovered that the deck had separated from the bulkhead, leaving a wide crack that could allow water in the anchor locker to get into the cabin. This crack in the fiberglass probably occurred over time, perhaps caused by the heavy windlass installed on the foredeck, or to forces pulling and flexing the bow of the boat.

So the name of the game played in Dinner Key Marina became “Plug All the Holes.”

Stan, of SE of Disorder, gave us some excellent tips he learned from doing similar repairs. We armed ourselves with four tubes of West Systems Six-Ten self-mixing epoxy, fiberglass mat fabric, respirators, and acetone, created a mound of fenders and cushions for Mike to balance on, and proceeded to do some boat yoga to fit into the cramped quarters of the anchor locker. After many painful bumps on the head, today was the day Mike first started swearing like a sailor.

I folded myself into the space where the mattress usually fits, donned gloves and respirator, and cut the fiberglass into rectangles of the size Mike requested. The hairy fabric immediately started to fall apart, resembling a muppet with a bad case of mange. Then I used every ounce of strength in my arms to squeeze the epoxy out of the caulk gun, mixing it as I squeezed. (Sometimes Mike had to leave his little cave to help me, especially when we cut the hole in the tab too narrowly.) I would goop up the fiberglass with amber colored epoxy, spreading it with plastic epoxy mixers, chopping and cutting, and completely inundating the mat with goo on both sides. Then I’d hand the oozing pile of muck to Mike back in his cave to roll and squeeze into the crack and cover with even more goop. After the first attempt, our gloves, scissors, knife, caulk gun, and screwdrivers were covered with goop and fiberglass hair and everything within reach stuck to everything else.

Four tubes of epoxy, dozens of gloves, and fiberglass everywhere, Mike had most of the bulkhead crack filled. Now we just had to let it cure for 12 hours without moving. Wait, without moving? Did I mention we were executing this procedure on a mooring ball in Brennan Channel at Dinner Key Marina, a half mile off shore, with plenty of choppy waves? To reduce movement at the bow, Mike moved the boat to a new mooring ball, and tied to the ball from the stern (the normal and accepted method is to tie the bow to the mooring ball and therefore to face to the wind.) He put me in the dinghy to get me out of the way during this maneuver. Did I mention I am not very good at driving the dinghy? I have a hard time starting the motor, and I can’t get through my head that I need to steer left to go right. So I put on a sun shirt, grabbed a bottle of water in case I was swept out to sea, and sang the theme to Gilligan’s Island to myself. I may have rammed Sanitas with the dinghy like a pirate once or twice.

we will find out if this worked the next time we sail to weather!

Moon Over Miami

I never intended to sail to Miami. I did my research, read the cruiser’s guides, and attended the boat show seminars. I decided that the best route to the Bahamas for Mike and me in our small boat, with our level of expertise, would be a daytime crossing to Bimini from Rodriguez Key in Key Largo.

But sailing had other plans.

If I did somehow end up near Miami, I never intended to pay to stay in Dinner Key, in Coconut Grove, just south of downtown Miami. Why would I, when we could stay in No Name harbor on Key Biscayne for free instead? That option is closer to our route, has a pristine anchorage in a state park with lovely beaches, bikes to rent, a snack bar, and palm trees. It would avoid the congestion and costliness of a major metropolitan area.

But sailing had other plans.

On the day that we sailed from Marathon to Rodriguez Key, winds were 15 to 20 knots, pretty much on our bow, and seas were 3 to 5 feet, with a high periodicity. That’s what sailors call “lively” conditions. Sanitas handled it well, but we definitely bashed into the waves all day long. And we observed that our top speed was reduced by almost 25% in those windward conditions. After successfully anchoring at Rodriguez right about at sunset, thoroughly tired of being tossed around, I entered our forward cabin to find everything had been soaked with sea water. The sheets on the new mattress were wet, my clothes in the cupboard were wet, my toiletries in the closet sat in a puddle, there was water on the floor in the salon, and ever a trickle in the food cupboard. It appears that as water came over the bow again and again all day long, some of that water was getting into the boat and flowing behind the headliner, coming out wherever it could find an escape route. There may have been some tears, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. We pulled everything out of the cabin, made piles of dry, damp, sort of wet, and toxic waste. Ate a can of soup for dinner, and passed out on the couch.

In the morning, we evaluated our options. It did not seem like a good idea to continue across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas without addressing the “water intrusion” (aka, leak) because we would be sailing to windward often on that trip. And supplies for a repair were more readily available and less costly in the US than they would be in The Bahamas. We seriously considered returning to Marathon to sort things out. I admit, it crossed my mind that we had had a good run, and that spending the winter on anchor in Key West wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. We watched our friends on Tapati and North Star raise anchor and head for Bimini without us.

We finally decided to continue making forward progress rather than retracing our steps. By sailing a 10-hour day to Miami, we could pick up a mooring ball at Dinner Key Marina and be within walking distance to West Marine, hardware stores, and more. But we would probably need to stay there for several days, because we’d miss the current weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream. The rest of our St Petersburg friends, on Orion and SE of Disorder, would probably also cross without us. Sanitas was on her own!