Pigs and sharks and iguanas. Oh my !

I had expected to see amazing wildlife in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and I wasn’t disappointed! The giant rays playing under our boat, turtles, even the tiny hutia, which is the only native mammal to these islands – it was wonderful to see these animals thriving in the protected areas. But I was completely surprised and thrilled at the wildlife encounters on the next few Island south on the Exuma chain.

Staniel Cay is known for its posh Yacht Club, tiny airport, and proximity to the famous swimming pigs.

Pigs

On a sandy beach, off Big Majors Spot, several families of wild pigs (and more than a few chickens) live a happy, beach bum sort of life. They walk on the beach when it’s cool, lie in the shade of the sea grape trees when it gets hot, and eat and drink like visitors to an all-inclusive resort. The eating is courtesy of boatloads of tourists who zoom in every day on power boats to feed the pigs, take photos, and yes – even swim with the pigs. ‘Cause these pigs have learned that little boats mean big eats, and in their competition to be the biggest porker, they’ve figured out that the pig who swims out to the tour boats gets first dibs on all the scraps.

In another example of how cruisers are different than tourists, we don’t want wild pigs, with their razor sharp hooves, anywhere near our inflatable dinghies. And with our questionable levels of health insurance, we are wary of their snouts and teeth. But that doesn’t mean we skipped the chance to motor in and visit the Staniel Cay pigs – just that we treated them with all due respect. (And we let the tour boats provide the food and the entertainment)

Apparently things are a little bit different on pig beach this year than in past years. Where they used to wander completely wild, now a pig conservation team provides drinking water, a bit of supplemental feed, and presumably some sort of pig veterinary care. In a way, I think that’s an improvement. People tend to love things to death, and last year several pigs were found dead, either from bad food, or from being given alcohol. A little bit of protection is probably warranted.

Good thing they warned us to beware of Big Momma Karma! We also received a tip that if the pigs were getting too close, and we felt threatened, just hold our hands out high and completely empty so that the pigs could tell we had no food, and they’d leave us alone. It works! Mike tried this once with a phone in his hand. Apparently Big Momma Karma can’t tell the difference between a cell phone and a candy bar, because she just kept on coming!

The pig keepers told us that Ollie is the sweet one. So I felt a little more comfortable getting up close and personal with this cutie. And of course, the baby piglets were adorable! But also shy, and not so interested in sticking around for photos.

Sharks

After our visit to the pigs, we did explore the Island of Staniel Cay. There’s not much to it! But we did make the rounds through the tiny town, stopping in both the pink grocery store and the blue grocery store to see what fresh produce was available. I snagged two tomatoes, a bunch of green onions, and one small hot orange pepper. We cooled off with a well-deserved bushwhacker frozen drink at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, where we experienced another wildlife encounter.

When Sharon, on Z-Raye, said, “Let’s go see the sharks!” I thought that meant, “Let’s go watch the sharks swim around, looking slightly menacing and shark-like.” I had no idea it actually meant, “Let’s go watch dozens of sharks fight over bits of bait fish, throwing themselves out of the water onto a stone step to snap up the treats, and hoping a wave comes in time to wash them back into the ocean before they lose their breath.” Oh, I also didn’t realize it meant we could walk down those stone steps and get close enough to the nurse sharks to look into their little beady eyes, and to pet them. Do you blame me for not envisioning this crazy experience when invited to “see the sharks”?

Two little girls, presumably staying at the posh yacht club, had brought 8 boxes of squid to feed the sharks, and they weren’t scared of these ocean predators at all. It was exciting and nerve wracking to watch how close their cute little fingers and toes got to the pile of sharks. Of course, after we watched for a few minutes, and nobody lost a toe, we decided it was safe and that we wanted to pet those darn sharks ourselves. Although all fingers and toes are still accounted for, I’m not sure this really was completely safe. When I looked into those cold shark eyes, it was pretty clear that they didn’t care whether they ate squid or human toe for dinner, as long as their hunger and greed was satiated.

If you can’t tell, I was very careful not to leave those toes anyplace remotely within their reach.

Iguanas

Drew suggested sundowners on the beach, with the hope of seeing iguanas. It was quite a long dinghy ride to the correct beach, and our group of four buddy boats were the only people there. As soon as we beached the dinghy and Mike said “I hope we get to see some iguanas” they started appearing out of every rock outcropping and streaming down the beach toward us. Do you think people feed them? At one point about a dozen iguana had joined us on the sandy beach in quite a variety of colors and sizes. I didn’t know how cautious to be around these critters; I knelt in the sand to take a photo of one of the little guys, and he scrambled toward me so quickly, I jumped up in alarm.

They make the coolest tracks in the sand, sweeping their feet, with the tail track sliding down the middle

Eventually, I got comfortable enough to turn my back on one of the big daddies for a selfie. A very brief selfie – I wasn’t that comfortable!

Another beautiful sunset!

Our First Overnight Passage

When you find a break in the winter weather, you just gotta take it! So, after hiding from 35 knot winds for four days at Factory Bay on Marco Island, we saw a 24-hour period of calmer winds and seas approaching. If we missed that weather window, we’d be staying on the island for another week. Key West was calling, so we decided to go for it!

The trip from Marco Island to Key West is about 93 Miles. To put it in perspective, that’s almost the same distance as St Petersburg to Marco Island. Sanitas averages about 5 knots, so we planned for an 18 hour trip. Do the math…. we’ve only got about 11 hours of daylight, so one end or the other will be sailing in the dark. We decided it is better to start the trip in the dark, leaving a harbor we know very well, and then arrive in the daylight, at a new harbor and a new anchorage so we have plenty of daylight to help with the tricky parts.

So we checked out of Rose Marina at noon, anchored in the harbor, and rested up for our big night adventure. Around 8pm, in full darkness, we were sitting below decks at the salon table looking at charts and weather forecasts, prepping for a midnight departure. When Mike looked up through the companionway and saw A BOAT about to run us over! Well, maybe not quite that dramatic, but it was definitely the bow of another sailing ship drifting into the stern of ours at a slow, but still alarming pace. I think Mike levitated from the couch to the cockpit without touching the floor or the stairs, and literally pushed the other boat away from Sanitas to avoid damage. Apparently the other boat’s anchor wasn’t well set, and she dragged and drifted with the current. We left her captain to sort out his anchor issues, but with hearts pounding and adrenaline rushing, we couldn’t get any more rest, so we decided to simply GO!

From 9pm to about 4am, we still had 15-20 knot winds on the nose and 3-4 foot seas with high frequency waves coming through every three seconds. That made for a bumpy, splashy sail and a good chance to learn how Sanitas handles in those conditions. All the sailing books say that sailing up wind is “uncomfortable” for the crew, and I now understand what that means. I didn’t really sleep on my first rest shift – just bounced around in the V-berth and kept calling up to Mike, “is everything ok?” whenever I heard a new sound. We each took turns being on watch, looking for crab pots, other boats, or changes in the weather. But our autopilot did great, and we really didn’t have any problems. We motored quite a lot, because with the direction of the wind and waves, we were only moving forward at about 1.5 knots without the motor and at that rate it would takes us days to make it to Key West!

On my watch shift at 4 in the morning, I realized that the wind had died down to almost nothing, and the seas had calmed as well – just as the weather forecasts predicted. Pretty cool to see those forecasts come true. I had an almost full moon, and a dolphin leaping beside Sanitas at sunrise. I also had lots of small rain storms, and cold temps to deal with on watch. But Capt Mike pulled the longest shifts and did an excellent job of keeping Sanitas on track and arriving at Key West right about 4:00 pm as expected. Drew and Sharon and Chris and Stan cheered our arrival at the anchorage and helped us get settled in.

We really enjoyed our stay on Key West. The architecture and gardens in the historic district are beautiful, the people watching is fantastic, and all the restaurants have half price seafood at happy hour! We took the opportunity to be tourists for a few days, even meeting up with Anne and Tony again for a delicious dinner at Hogfish Grill on Stock Island. We celebrated to arrival of Bob and Laura from St Pete with a night out on the town at Capt Tony’s and Irish Kevin’s. And then we celebrated the arrival of Pat and Melana. Everyone winds up in Key West! And yes, I can really rock the cowbell. I’ve finally found my musical talent!

We don’t understand electrical stuff

The trip from St Petersburg to Key West was intended to be our shake down trip. There’s a West Marine in Key West, and a K Mart and plenty of hardware stores to buy anything we’ve forgotten or broken. We’ve used this trip to wrestle with our electrical systems. Day after day, we’ve had the cushions pulled up, the batteries exposed, and the voltmeter out. Mike has little drawings of circuits all over his legal pad. We don’t really understand how our 12 volt system is wired, what all the switches mean, and how it all works. They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it.

We observed that the starter battery hasn’t been starting our motor. When we turn our Perco switch to 1 which we think means that we are using our starting battery instead of our house battery banks, the motor doesn’t turn over at all. We’ve been working around that problem by using our house batteries to start the motor, but that’s not a good long term solution. So in Marco Island, we measured the current at the starter battery while turning the key in the ignition, and learned that we don’t have enough CCAs or cold cranking amps to start the engine. So we had to plunk down some money for a new 70 pound battery.

We also found that running the engine isn’t charging our house batteries the way it is supposed to. In fact, after running the motor for hours on end during our Key West crossing, we were depleting the batteries instead of charging them. I spent one night shirt with the motor and generator running at the same time! Yuck! On the positive side, our solar panels work great, and we have figured out how to interpret the single blinking led light on each controller to confirm that each panel is connected correctly and charging at a high current or low current capacity.

We reached out to Jock, Sanitas’ previous owner, and he sent us a wonderful detailed email about the electrical systems. But we still weren’t smart enough to understand it! Finally, after another day of messy chaos in the boat and reading smelly old users guides and manuals, Mike got a win. He deciphered the flood of error codes transmitted by the alternator regulator to find that it thinks our house batteries are 96 degrees Celsius- almost at the boiling point of water. Since they are clearly not that hot (we can put our hands on them and touch them) there must be a faulty temperature sensor someplace in the system. It is telling the alternator not to put out any charge for our own safety. Well we showed that stupid piece of metal! We disconnected the temperature sensor! Ha! From that point on, the alternator charges the batteries at a rate of 43 amps. Yee haw! Mike did a happy dance in the cockpit to celebrate.

Now with a working alternator, new starting battery, and fully functioning solar (plus that little Honda generator) we should have plenty of electricity for our needs. Mostly lights, navigation systems, and of course the iPad I am using right this minute!

The Rest of the Way to Marco Island

After our long day of bridges, our next stop was just off the coast of Gasparilla Island. Not much of a stop, just a place to anchor after a long day and to get some well deserved rest. Then a short hop to Punta Rosa, within sight of the bridge connecting Sanibel Island to Ft Meyers. This was an extra fun stop, because Tom and Jeanne Lounsbury hopped in their bother-in-law’s fishing boat and came out to visit Sanitas on the hook!

They were very good sports, attempting a cockpit picnic in the slightly unpleasant drizzle. Lots of fun to congratulate them on their recent retirement, and to hear about their current east coast road tip, and even more exciting plans for a cross country RV extravaganza! Thanks to Don for zipping us over to Ft Meyers Beach for a delicious lunch at Matanzas Inn Marina… this same trip by sailboat the next morning would take us almost 2 hours! I definitely need to get used to slow travel. Also thanks for their ability to find Sanitas again to bring us home safely in the crazy fog!

We finally slipped “outside” and left the GIIW for the relative wild of the Gulf of Mexico. Sanitas was happy to finally cut off the motor and actually sail! After this small taste of freedom, we arrived at Marco Island and found ourselves more or less trapped in the Rose Marina by high winds and seas for the next four days. Foiled again!

We had more visitors to entertain us, and to break up the stay. Mike’s Uncle Brad and Aunt Marcia drove all the way over from West Palm Beach and we exchanged travel stories of their Italy adventures and new retirement lifestyle. They brought us the sweetest gift, a silver wine bottle opener with Sanitas’ name engraved on it!

We had the wonderful surprise of meeting Mike’s mom’s friend’s husband Casey (did you catch all that?) on Marco Island. Casey and Dodie have been splitting their time between western New York and Marco Island for 30 years, and own a lovely home on the island. Casey was gracious enough to take us out to dinner, listen to our excited stores, help chauffeur us to some critical boat repair errands (more on that later…) and even leant us a car for a day so that we could explore more of the island than our own two feet could cover. So far, the best part of this adventure is meeting such wonderful people!