Romantic. Historic. Remote. There are many ways to describe the set of seven Stiltsville houses literally on stilts and literally on Biscayne Bay, more than a mile out to sea from Miami Beach or any other piece of dry land. Kay and I are members of the Gulfstream Sailing Club, which for the past few years has has overnight access to one of the seven remaining houses for one night per year. The Club’s commodore has a connection at the house belonging to the Miami Springs Powerboat Club, that built its house in the 1950s. Of the 27 Stiltsville houses that used to be in the bay, only seven remain, and they cannot be rebuilt if they are more than 50% damaged by, for example, a Florida hurricane. The next Florida hurricane could wipe out the house, as hurricanes have wiped out the other lost houses, so when one has the opportunity to sail there and stay overnight, one must take advantage.
The Miami Springs Powerboat Club (“MSPC”) house is about 38 nautical miles from our marina at Port Royale Apartments in Fort Lauderdale. Since the MSPC is the sponsor of a historic place, I tried to find more information about them. However, the MSPC has absolutely no internet presence, which I find very suspicious. But then again, south Florida is full of things that are very suspicious.
Because of the 11 bridges we had to negotiate between Port Royale Apartments and Stiltsville, we decided to make it a two-day motor sail down and two-day motor sail back. Our first leg was from noonish on Saturday, April 9 to noonish on Sunday, April 10. We had to leave on Friday morning and return on Monday evening, but Kay could not get out of work on Friday.
I prepped the boat with water, four home-made ice blocks, full tank of gas and two red gas cans tied up on deck, and motored by myself halfway down on Friday, April 8. (Yes, Mom, I had my life jacket on.) The current was very strong against me, and it was tough getting through the Dania Beach Boulevard Bridge against the current. Currents are always stronger around the bridges on the ICW because the water gets channelled into a small area. In addition, the bridge was being renovated and had only one span open, so boats going north or south could only go through one at a time. At full power with a 30 horsepower engine, I could only make about 1.5 knots. Afterwards, I tried to get gas at the Hollywood Municipal Marina. However, a larger sailboat had gone hard aground and blocked the whole fuel dock. They had to wait for the next high tide, which was after midnight.
I tied up Catmandu at the home of our dear friends Jim and Rosemary Mahon, who live on the Intracoastal Waterway in Hollywood, Florida. Kay met me there in her new (to her) white Toyota Prius, and we enjoyed a comfortable, and free, night at a secure slip. Kay brought our groceries and ice. Jim and Rosemary were not there because they sailed their 34 foot sailboat Alberta Rose down to No Name Harbor earlier in the day.
Saturday morning, with 18 miles to go, was exciting since we have never been south of Hollywood, Florida, on Catmandu and were relying on our chart plotter and Mark & Diana Doyle’s “Managing the Waterway Guide,” the same guide that led us down from Annapolis to Fort Lauderdale. We were able to get gas at Hollywood Marina for the main tank and two jerry jugs tied to the bard board. The ICW takes us past the west end of Dodge Island in Miami where all the cruise ship terminals are. Kay and I have sailed from there a few times. After a few more miles, we entered the wide expanse of Biscayne Bay and hoisted sail. We were sailing in the Keys!
We had a little trouble getting to the Stiltsville house since no one thought to publish the latitude and longitude of where the house actually is. One must approach a Stiltsville house a particular way because the depth of the water is only about three feet at high tide, except for the unmarked channels you need to take. They said to turn to port at the green number one buoy. Unfortunately, there are many green #1 cans, and the one I thought they meant was near the club’s staging area at No Name Harbor on Key Biscayne, over a mile from the Miami Springs Powerboat Club house. We went back and forth north and south and discussing the situation on the VHF marine radio for over an hour until we finally figured it out and found our way in.
There were eight sailboats at the house overnight! It was probably a record, since a police helicopter buzzed us on Sunday morning. Where two or three are gathered in his name, there are probably shenanigans going on, somebody wise once said.
What is a Stiltsville house like? It is literally on stilts, and they are concrete reinforced and tied together by steel rods to better survive hurricanes. The lower level is a foot over the water and has the docks, picnic tables, storage rooms, a rope swing, a water slide, propane barbeque, port-a-potty, rain barrel (large), a very quiet diesel generator, and a short staircase down to the water for swimming and snorkeling. Upstairs is like a modest suburban-like house. There is a kitchen with refrigerator, gas stove, and microwave oven, pool table, a few bunk beds, and a large screen TV. Last year when we caught a ride to Stiltsville, people were watching the Stanley Cup playoffs on TV. We enjoyed a fine dinner and drinks, listened to music, and talked until late, marveling at the beauty of the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Miami skyline at night on the other. And then we had a restful night sleeping on Catmandu. About forty people slept there overnight, either on their boats or on the floor in the house. It was breezy and about 75 degrees during the day.
In the morning, a crew made pancakes for everyone and set up a bloody mary bar. No useful work can happen on a day that starts with a bloody mary bar. Fortunately, all we had to do was sit and steer to get home. Since Catmandu was the outermost boat in a particular three-boat raft attached to the dock, we had to leave first. Our friends Sheryl and Joe on Island Gal left after us. Island Gal is a larger boat, and briefly went aground trying to get back into the channel. Catmandu motored against the wind and the current through Miami water traffic, which is almost as bad as I-95. However, the scene at Baker’s Haulover Inlet included some wonderful kites flying above us, including a giant squid with its tentacles waving back and forth. We tied up Catmandu again at Rosemary and Jim’s place on the ICW and had a relaxing evening.
On Monday, we motored back to Port Royale together. The wind had picked up and it was too windy, and especially too gusty, to sail. When we arrived at our little man-made harbor at Port Royale Apartments, it took us three tries to get into our slip. As we would back up toward the dock, the wind would blow us sideways, and we had to abort the landing twice and try it again. Our icebox still had some solid ice left after three days on the water. We hope to go back to Stiltsville again next year.
Since Kay and I moved to Port Royale Apartments last August, we have been enjoying living in our little apartment and finally having Catmandu docked at the marina where we live. We have been active in the Gulfstream Sailing Club, of Fort Lauderdale, and I am now the Membership Chairman, and Kay is the Editor of its newsletter Tiller Tales. I had the opportunity (and obligation) to write an article for the latest issue of Tiller Tales, and here it is:
After cruising northern New England for a long time, Kay Harrison and I sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway (“ICW”) to Fort Lauderdale on Catmandu, our Catalina 27. We have cruised here for two summers so far. I have found there are huge differences between cruising up north and cruising south Florida. Here are my top three lessons learned.
1. Lightning! Florida is the lightning capital of the US, which I knew before I arrived. More people are killed by lightning in Florida than any other state. Now consider that the sport of sailing involves traveling along a very flat part of the country under a very tall metal pole, and one could reasonably conclude that sailors are just asking to get hit by lightning.
We had bad thunderstorms back in New England as well, but there were reliable ways to determine if a thunderstorm is headed your way. Checking the weather radar on a smart phone is the best way, since everyone knows which direction the weather comes from and it is easy to see if you are in its path. Another way is that the National Weather Service would send an alert that causes an alarm on the boat’s VHF radio which would then tune the radio to its thunderstorm warning on the WX channel. Also, in the old days, one could also turn on an AM radio and listen for crackling sounds that indicate lightning. Things are different in Florida.
In Florida, thunderstorms don’t just travel down to you from upwind in a predictable way like they do in New England. There is so much heat and moisture and energy in the atmosphere that thunderstorms actually form and grow over your head while you are sailing. Several times I have waited in port for a storm to pass, only to have another one sprout and emerge fully grown right on top of me. I have experienced many close calls of lightning strikes very close to me, but luckily I have never been hit.
What should one do to avoid being hit by lightning, or to survive being hit? I do not have the definitive answer, but I have some common sense practices, and have done some research that I try to follow on my boat. My first strategy is the “buddy system.” If I cannot get into port right away, travel with or anchor near a boat with a taller mast. My other strategy that I learned from online research is to go below, unplug all the antennae and electronic devices you can, and avoid metal objects by staying in the middle of the cabin.
2. Bring your own pump-out adapter. Most cruising sailboats have a holding tank that should be pumped out regularly. Pump-out facilities at most marinas on the East Coast provide a hose that has a cone fitting at the end of their hose that will fit almost any size of deck fitting on a boat. But not in Florida. We have been pumped out at many different marinas, and most of them in Florida have no adapter at all at the end of their hose, and they expect boaters to provide their own. Since I did not have one when I arrived, I would have to improvise by making a cone out of neoprene or whatever material I have on hand and will not want to use again. I mean, when you gotta go, you gotta go! I shopped around and could not find the 1.5 inch diameter adapter that fits my deck fitting at West Marine, Sailorman, Defender, or other retailers. I got mine at the Walmart RV Department, and I treat it like treasure.
3. You cannot get block ice in South Florida. People, if there is one thing South Florida marinas and grocery stores could learn from the rest of the country, it is that block ice lasts a lot longer than cubes. Like most boats the size of Catmandu, we have an ice box and do not have powered refrigeration. Up north, we would get a block of ice and a bag of cubes every two or three days, which would be entirely sufficient. One cannot get block ice in South Florida, and a bag of ice cubes lasts less than a day in the Florida summer heat. I have given up searching, and have resorted to making my own block ice. I bought plastic storage bins and make ice blocks with them in my freezer at home. I have to start freezing them about a week before a cruise.
A farmer has to cross a river in a tiny row boat. He has a goose, a fox, and a sack of grain. He can’t leave the goose alone with the fox or with the grain. He can only fit one item in the boat with him. How does he get across the river?
I could never bear to tell the ending of our journey to Fort Lauderdale, but it has been over 16 months since the last leg of our trip, and it’s time to finish the story. I have it in my head that I have cursed Catmandu by leaving the last chapter unpublished. She hasn’t been herself since I stopped writing. Our friends, Dan and Jaye Lunsford, called it “The Curse of the Blog.” So, here’s the ending – or maybe another beginning.
* * *
When we arrived at Vero Beach City Marina in January of 2014, we rafted up with Robin’s Nest, a 25-foot derelict sailboat that looked like it would sink at any moment and drag Catmandu to the bottom. I had to climb aboard the derelict to attach lines, being careful not to step where I might fall through. I was hoping the slimy creatures hanging from the light blue hull would not jump ship and attach to Catmandu. Poor Catmandu was probably ashamed to be rafted up or associated in any way with Robin’s Nest, and we had left her there for three weeks, until we could have a three-day weekend to get her home to Fort Lauderdale.
That chance came on Valentine’s Day, a Friday night with a full moon. We made a pact not to exchange gifts, but together bought a red heart-shaped box of chocolates to bring with us, and a box of our favorite red wine. Boxes of wine are a boon for boaters, who don’t like to have glass aboard.
We drove up from Ft. Lauderdale in the afternoon, stopping first to drop off our rented car at our new slip on Isle of Venice. It seems impossible that two drivers and one car are not enough to manage a shuttle, but it’s true. We need two cars, one to leave at the takeout point and one to take us north to Vero Beach. At the end of the boat trip, we would have one car in Ft. Lauderdale and one in Vero, so we would have to go north again to retrieve the other car. (Thinking about these logistics reminds me of the word puzzle about the farmer, the goose, the grain and the fox. As far as I know, there is no way to cross that river in the tiny rowboat without endangering the grain or the goose.)
Saturday we tanked up and motored out of Vero Beach. The wind was against us in the morning, but by afternoon it was a strong and steady northwest breeze. Since we were sailing south in the wide Indian River, we could put up the genoa and sail. We sailed on a broad reach for most of the afternoon with a full genoa – and at one point, we were going 7.4 knots. For Catmandu, that’s speeding.
We spent the night in Manatee Pocket, a large anchorage that marks the beginning of the Okeechobee Waterway. It heads west to Florida’s largest lake. In Manatee Pocket, there were many boats anchored, but no manatees. The sunset was remarkable and the moon nearly full. I wished this were my life again: living aboard, sailing and anchoring in a different spot each afternoon, spending most of my time outside on the water.
We started out early on Sunday. We had a long way to travel, and many bridges. For those who don’t know, bridges generally open just two times every hour, and if you’re just a minute too late, it’s a half hour wait until the next opening. We hoped to reach Loggerhead Lantana Marina, but bridges slowed us down quite a bit. We crossed Hobe Sound and came to Jupiter Inlet where we motored past the dark red tower of Jupiter Light.
In Lake Worth we experienced the worst “waking” incident of the whole trip. The boat traffic was amazing. There were hundreds of boats, mostly power boats moving at very high speeds. Our little sailboat was bounced around from multiple directions, and the water was choppy from boats going too fast. One large boat pulled up way too close to us on our starboard side and then took off with its three large outboard motors roaring. The wake was huge and came at us like a tidal wave. Catmandu leaned over dangerously and I saw the mast swing down toward the water. It knocked me off the seat, dumped everything off the starboard shelf onto the deck below, and – worst of all – knocked over our cooler. We lost all of our ice, which is our only refrigeration on board.
Yes, I remember the name of the boat. It was Timber. So, Timber, here’s a maritime lesson you should learn: You are responsible for your wake. If you had injured us or caused any damage, you would have to pay. Please, power boaters, be considerate of sailboats and watch your wake.
We made it to Palm Beach that night and anchored south of the city. We were one of two sailboats in the anchorage, and after the chaos of Lake Worth, we loved the solitude. We could hear live music from a city park and enjoyed the nice sunset and the almost-full moon.
There were some concerns, though. The engine seemed to quit at every bridge. It started again, reluctantly, but only ran well at slow speeds. On Monday, we passed Hillsboro Inlet and were faced with four more bridges before we got to our slip in Fort Lauderdale.
In Lake Boca, the engine failed completely. While I lounged on the deck and watched the party going on all around us (poor me), Phil was below, working on the engine. He installed a new electronic ignition, but it didn’t solve the problem and 20 minutes later, it quit again. Phil got it started, and the boat limped along at low speed into the afternoon.
Phil saw two manatees at Oakland Park Bridge in the fading light. We were almost home, but had to stop for another bridge. While I was spying my own manatees off the bow, Phil saw two real manatees and pointed them out. I wasn’t quick enough to see them and mine turned out to be coconuts. The engine was barely going, fading and rallying half-heartedly as we limped along through the highly populated canal.
Just a mile or so past the bridge, the engine quit and would not start again. We raised the mainsail and I tried to sail a little while Phil worked on the engine, but the wind was nearly still and the sail useless. We dropped the anchor. We had motored and sailed the 31-year-old boat for nearly 1220 miles from Annapolis, and three miles from our final destination, she refused to go on. She was on her last legs.
I can’t say enough about the towboat drivers for TowBoatUS. From the pair of ill-fated North Carolina rescuers who towed us from their own broken boat through the Alligator-Pungo Canal in the dark, to the skilled solo captain who came to rescue us in Fort Lauderdale, these guys are good. They go the extra mile, so to speak, and I have seen them skillfully bump the sailboat gently into a slip, stern first, and never endanger a piling. It’s remarkable.
Shortly after we anchored in the waterway, a police boat came by just to be sure we weren’t staying there. The towboat came five minutes later, helped us raise the anchor and put on the tow bridle. He opened the Sunrise Bridge for us, and we were on our way. However, we had never been to the slip by water, and only by land during the day. It was full dark by then, and we didn’t know where we were going. With the tow boat driver’s local knowledge, and Phil’s GPS coordinates, we made our way to the right canal (among many canals) and overshot our slip by a few hundred yards.
“Oh, no problem,” the tow captain said, “I’ll just do a 360 here and get you back.” In the narrow canal, with mega boats on either side, he managed to make a U-turn with us in tow, return to the right slip, and nudge us into place. We could only help by attaching our lines to the pilings and pulling Catmandu, stern-first, up to the dock. We were home.
Except that we had left a car in Vero Beach. “Not tonight,” Phil said. “We’ll get it in the morning.” We got into the rental car and went to our apartment. Finally, our home and our boat were in the same city. With the engine out of order, our travels were over for the time being.
Don’t think Catmandu became an abandoned derelict like Robin’s Nest. Every weekend, Phil tried one repair after another, getting closer each time to solving the mystery of why the engine quit and wouldn’t start again. Personally, I think she was just tired and needed to rest. She gave all she could and nearly got us there but couldn’t go one more mile. Exhausted after 1200 miles, she deserved a quiet respite and she got it.
Meanwhile, Phil is planning weekends on the water, looking at charts of Miami and south, dreaming of a week in the Keys. We are bound to venture out soon, and so this isn’t the last blog post. I’ll never forget the trip south on the ICW, when we had to arrive somewhere down the line every day. But now, we have nowhere special to be and can truly explore the warm waterways and anchorages that surround us. Maybe we will see dolphins and even manatees. Surely we will see spectacular sunsets fringed by palm trees; we will feel warm ocean breezes and enjoy the tropical beauty of our new home. Catmandu will sail again.
June 14, 2015: Catmandu is still having trouble. We’ve been out for weekends but can’t stray far from home because the engine is unreliable. Last May, we planned a long weekend in Biscayne Bay, but around the first bridge, the engine started sputtering and we turned around. Recently, we planned to visit Lettuce Lake a few miles north and had to sail the last half mile. The engine quit and wouldn’t start again. Finally, many repairs and new parts later, we thought it was fixed and took the boat to Loggerhead Marina a few miles south of here. We were ecstatic! The boat is fixed! But coming back, just before the 17th Street Bridge, the engine quit again. We put up the sail and barely made it under the bridge. We had to drop the anchor. TowBoat came to get us.
Is it the heat? Is the boat just afraid of bridges? Or is it the Curse of the Blog? Now, we will find out.
St. Augustine to Titusville, January 6 – 7, 2014
This is Phil, and I’m taking my first turn at writing the blog! Kay has shouldered the entire burden for the whole trip so far. I sailed solo out of St. Augustine for two days in early January, so this one is up to me.
Backing up a little bit, we had run out of vacation by the end of October. I had to find a desk with internet connection to work for awhile and work until I earned more time off. I knew that Cinderella was going to stop in St. Augustine, so that is where Catmandu tied up for more than two months: St. Augustine Municipal Marina. I became a Florida resident. I got my driver’s license, registered to vote, and got Florida stickers for Catmandu and Catnip (the dinghy). Kay flew back to New Hampshire, and was unceremoniously and unfairly laid off from her job as soon as she got home.
Time passed. I rented an office in town, and became fast friends with many people through the St. Augustine Cruisers’ Net. Then, our besties Dan & Jaye Lunsford invited us to their epic 30th anniversary party aboard the pirate ship Black Raven on January 4!
Kay and I had to go. It was a long trip from New Hampshire, but we needed to make it happen. It was the perfect opportunity to finally get ourselves south to final destination of Fort Lauderdale. Just before, Kay moved out of her condo, put it up for sale, packed up her two cats in her Saturn Ion and drove down to St. Augustine. She picked me up and then we both went to Fort Lauderdale and rented an apartment, left the cats, and drove back to St. Augustine on 1/4. We had a fantastic time on Saturday night, and spent Sunday on the mooring, recovering and getting the boat ready to sail south.
Monday morning came. I tanked up with gas and water, motor sailed south. It rained for the first three hours, but I tried to stay mostly dry. I had a big northeast wind at about 20 knots, and I was able to make better than 6 knots with the genoa fully unfurled.
I always check the cruising guides, like On The Water Chart Guides and the Salty Southeast Cruisers’ Net, for the latest ICW trouble spots. They had both indicated shoaling (shallow water) at the Matanzas Inlet, just 20 miles south of St. Augustine. The ICW typically shoals around the inlets due to the constant flow of water and sand between the sea and the waterway. However, I followed others’ advice of trusting the buoys as they are placed and adjusted by the Coast Guard and not the electronic chart plotter. I zigged and zagged through the inlet and did not run aground – even though my chart plotter said I was sailing on land for several hundred yards (a situation which makes a sailor’s butt pucker). The larger sailboat behind me did a 180 when they got to the inlet until they figured out that they could follow the path I had shown.
The wind was still howling at 5:30 at night, so I anchored with the 35 pound big honkin’ anchor (“BHA”) and 70 feet of chain just south of Daytona Beach. The flags were banging on the shrouds so loudly I had to take the flags down. The weather turned cold. I bunked down in the cabin next to stove while heating a big clay flowerpot to disperse the heat.
The forecast low temperature for Daytona Beach was 41 but it was only 32 degrees when I got up in the morning. I didn’t have warm winter clothes since they were still in my storage unit in Annapolis. So, I made hot coffee and put on all the clothes I had. There were no gloves so I wore some ski socks I found on my hands. The wind was still strong and it was extremely hard getting the anchor back on the boat. The regular way to get the anchor onboard is to have your partner (Kay) motor up to the spot just above where the anchor is set. Then the bow person (me) muscles it up onto the bow. Because the anchor is straight down, it should then pop right out of its muddy set on the bottom. It is almost impossible to pull the whole sailboat up by hand by the anchor rode under 20 knot winds.
Improvising, I motored up beyond where the anchor was. I put the engine in neutral, and scurried up to the bow and pulled up as much anchor chain as I could. When the anchor rode was taut again, I wrapped the chain around the cleat and scurried back to the cockpit. After the first round trip, my hands were so cold I could hardly move my fingers. I had to spend 15 minutes warming my hands each time before I tried again. It took me four tries, going back and forth, before the anchor finally broke free of the bottom. It felt like hockey season in Minnesota.
The temperature did not get above 42 degrees the whole day, but I stayed active and hydrated and made the best of sailing solo. I enjoyed unexpected inspiring views of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, and relaxing New Smyrna Beach. Then came the wide open waters of the Mosquito Lagoon. I saw about a dozen dolphins and a medium-sized turtle but no manatees. Fifteen miles out from my destination of the Titusville Municipal Marina, I saw the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building on Cape Canaveral getting larger and larger on the horizon.
At the Haulover Canal, I left the Mosquito Lagoon and entered the Indian River just north of Titusville. Kay was waiting for me at the Titusville Municipal Marina, which is very close to Cape Canaveral. We tied up Catmandu in a slip around 1530 hours, had a hot Italian dinner at a local restaurant, and then Kay drove me back to our new apartment in Fort Lauderdale.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”
The Interrupted Journey – The morning I returned to work, after renting a car, flying to Boston, and taking a bus to my own frozen Saturn at the Portsmouth Transportation Center, the president of the company called me into his office. They had gotten along just fine without me during my five-week leave of absence. He said it “made no sense,” from a business standpoint, to keep me on staff. They let me go. I had spent nearly $400 to leave Phil and get home to my job and I was there for twenty minutes.
I have come to believe, like Marilyn, that it happened for a reason. It was the biggest favor they could have done for me. I was pretty sure I would eventually rejoin Phil in Florida, but my long-range plan was to save some money, get my 2013 tax refund, and then decide when to move. It would have been a six-month process and we would have been alone, 1500 miles apart. But now, I had to move quickly.
Decisions came fast: rent the condo, sell the condo, stay until Christmas, move before Christmas, get rid of furniture, get help with cleaning and painting. I had to go through every room, every closet, every box, and keep only what was dear to me or necessary for life in a new place. (If you have not done this lately, I urge you to start. It’s not something you want to leave for your heirs after you’re gone.)
There was one decision I couldn’t make by myself. I had to be sure Phil really wanted me to come to Florida and live with him. We had talked about it while we were coming south on the ICW. But I had to be sure, because there would be no going back. When I asked, “Are you sure?”, he didn’t hesitate for a second. “Yes,” he said. “Please come to Florida.”
For the next two months, I was job hunting long-distance and trying to sell my furniture and belongings. Every day, I tried to consolidate my stuff, pack dishes, throw out clothes, and get my condo ready to sell. I had lived there for six years, but it was a large space and I had somehow filled it. In all, I gave away more than 10 “lawn and garden” bags of clothing to Goodwill. I donated three computers, three televisions, two bookcases and odds and ends of furniture to the Epilepsy Foundation. There was so much to do.
But this is a sailing blog. I was headed back to St. Augustine, and Catmandu, and Phil. I finally said goodbye to my two sons, my New Hampshire friends and my mother in Connecticut. There were tears, and sadness, but I was “advancing confidently in the direction of my dreams,” and I felt strongly that my future was with Phil.
In late December, I arrived in St. Augustine after two 12-hour days on the road with my two cats, my poor little car stuffed to the ceiling. Phil met me at the pet-friendly motel, and after a breakfast with our cruising friends, Dan and Jaye, we headed south to our new apartment in Fort Lauderdale. Yes, we left the boat behind on a mooring in St. Augustine.
It felt strange to be moving into an apartment, but with two cats and Phil’s need for reliable internet service, there was really no choice. We found a place with palm trees and swimming pools, and the January weather was hot and sunny. Phil swam on New Year’s Day.
It would be a few weekends yet before we could get the boat down the coast. At around 6 mph, St. Augustine is 5-6 days from Fort Lauderdale. It would involve a logistics nightmare of renting cars, dropping one car at the takeout point and driving to the put-in, then going back to get the car at the northern end of the route. Don’t worry if you didn’t follow that. It makes my head spin.
We are together, and it does feel like a dream. We’re happy. Sometime in the future, we want to be cruisers: To live on a larger boat, cruise the islands, explore the aqua Caribbean waters. It’s a good dream, and we will go confidently in that direction. But for now, we are CLODS: Cruisers Living on Dirt.
None of them knew the color of the sky.
Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them.
These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white,
and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.
— Steven Crane, The Open Boat
It is cold. An unusual snap of winter grips North Florida but doesn’t extend to Fort Lauderdale. It’s two different climates. Ours is controlled by the Gulf Stream, warm, tropical, breezy and did I say warm? So on January 24, with the boat safely tied to a pier in Titusville, we head north for another installment of our “get the boat to Fort Lauderdale” saga. The marina had informed us that we had to move Catmandu to a different slip, so we decided to move it to a different slip 100 miles south. For me, the cold wind would be a surprise.
We rent a car in Fort Lauderdale and drive two cars north to the marina in Vero Beach. We drop the rental car there, make arrangements for a mooring, and continue 84 miles north to Titusville. We remembered to bring the boat cushions with us, because we had been sleeping on them at home. My furniture is in hiding somewhere between New Hampshire and Florida, with an expected delivery date still a week off. Sleeping on sheets on the floor gives us the world’s largest king size bed but it is a little hard on my hip bones and shoulders. On our last trip, we had borrowed the boat cushions for the apartment. So, we park the car in Titusville, load cushions and provisions onboard, and get ready to set off in the morning.
It has been a while since I’ve spent the night on Catmandu and I feel a sense of homecoming as I step into the cockpit and then down the ladder to the salon. It is cozy here, a little cave of warmth and comfort. It looks, smells, feels like home. We curl up in the v-berth and sleep.
Rain falls during the night, and the face-chilling drizzle continues into the daylight as we carry our steaming coffee cups up to the cockpit. I have to go back down to grab a foul-weather jacket. Our “foulies” are both warm and waterproof. With no help from dockhands, we cast off lines and back out of the slip, round the point to the east and turn south into the ICW.
The water is slate-gray and choppy, and the sky is overcast. The standing joke – “I think it’s getting brighter!” – really works today as the rain lets up and the clouds separate, revealing patches of blue. We can sail here! Phil pulls out the genoa and we motorsail most of the day, speeding along at over 5 knots (a real speed-fest for Catmandu!).
Coming to the first bridge of the day, we experience what a cold front really is, as the wall of wind comes in from the west and suddenly spins the boat around. As we wait for the bridge opening, we feel the air get noticeably colder and the bank of clouds to the west overtakes our patches of blue.
Dominating the landscape as we head south is the huge Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. It is by far the largest thing on the horizon for many miles. It was built in the late sixties to house the Saturn 5 rocket used in Apollo missions, and is today the largest 1-story building in the world. Just to give a sense of the hugeness, in the picture below, note that the stars in the US flag are each 6 feet tall.
Our anchorage for the night is in Melbourne, and we find a spot on the west side of the ICW. The skies cleared and we enjoy drinks in the cockpit as the sun sets and the moon rises. We put out the BBQ grill and make a late dinner. I think this is the life; I want to be on the water as the sun sets and fall asleep in the gentle rocking motion of a boat at anchor. This feels like home.
The next day is bright, clear and warmer. We set out early and make boat breakfast on the way. We have to make it to Vero Beach in time to get the car, drive back to Titusville and drive home to Fort Lauderdale – a very long trek at the end of the day.
We begin notice changes in the water. The deep gray-blue changes here and there to a lighter blue, and we start to notice an aqua hue. Then a light green color shows up in swirls and eddies. I am staring at the water, fascinated by the colors.
What causes the color of the sea? It could be depth, or shells on the bottom, or the color of the sand. Maybe it is as changeable as the sky, reflecting the gray of rain or the clear blue of cloudless days. I prefer the aqua of the Caribbean, and remember swimming off of Cable Beach in the light blue-green water where we could look down and clearly see our feet.
I don’t want a scientific explanation. That might ruin the fascination. Let the colors of the ocean be ever-changing and mysterious.
Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
I am home now in New Hampshire. I realize I have missed my favorite season here, when the air gets crisp and cold, and trees put on their fiery display. The view off my deck is of October gone, and winter coming on.
Once we made the decision to make it to St. Augustine, we felt better about the whole trip. We would end up where we wanted to be, and there was no stopping us. We arrived in Brunswick, GA after two nights at anchor and checked into Hidden Harbor Marina, managed by friends of Phil’s. The next morning, we were off at 8am to start two marathon days that would bring us to Florida by Halloween night.
We stopped for fuel at Jekyll Island. As we were filling up, Phil cracked a joke and the dock attendant promptly dropped his iPhone into the water. “Dang it,” he said. “That’s the third one I’ve dropped here.” The dock hand told us we had just traversed the dangerously low passage into Jekyll Island at the most risky time, low and falling tide. We had gone slowly, picking our way through the shallow channel but never touching bottom. Others would have waited for higher water, but our 4.5-foot draft hasn’t slowed us down at all (well, except for the one night on the mud flats of Rock Creek).
Phil took my picture, in my usual docking position on the bow, handling the bow line.
We crossed St. Andrew Sound and into the Cumberland River. We crossed the state line into Florida before noon, and motored past the last of the deserted creeks into more populous areas. On Wednesday night, we anchored at the Amelia River and were attacked without mercy by swarms of little gnats – “No see-ems” that left us itchy and drove us inside. Phil put a mesh screen on the forward hatch. We left early the next day, knowing it would be a 10-hour day that would bring us to St. Augustine. It would be the last cruising day of our trip.
I took the helm on the Guana River, which was narrow but not terribly shallow. The homes were getting larger and more beautiful by the mile. Soon we were passing mansions served by private, two-story docks with spiral staircases.
After the St. Johns River, I began to recognize the names of bridges. I lived in Mayport when my ex-husband was in the Navy years ago. We passed under Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. As I was driving, I was watching the chart plotter when we entered a narrow channel. I noticed that the chart showed our position on dry land. Then I was really confused. “Phil, this shows the water ends up here!”
“What? Oh, no! I think we sailed off the end of the chart,” he said. “Did we pass Jacksonville?”
“Yes, back on the St. Johns River.” Our chart chip had run out. Luckily, Phil had the next chip and quickly installed it. Back on the water, we continued into the hot afternoon. Just past the St. Augustine airport, Catmandu’s engine started slowing down and revving up. It nearly quit several times, but always recovered. We started making plans for what we would do if it stopped. Just a few more miles to go! Phil knows this Atomic 4 intimately. “Dirty fuel filters or water in the gasoline,” he guessed. “Or, sticky valves. I’ll give it some Marvel’s Mystery Oil.”
The mystery oil made the engine run a little better, and we kept on. We had to slow down to keep the engine happy, and I let Phil drive so he could monitor the ailing motor. I kept thinking, don’t quit now! We are so close!
We spotted St. Augustine light after crossing under the Vilano Beach Bridge and crossed the St. Augustine inlet. I called the Bridge of Lions, so afraid I would slip up and call it by our nickname, the Bridge of Loins. It opened and we motored into our new home in slip 67 of the Municipal Marina. On the dock, there was a Cruisers’ Happy Hour. After tying up, we walked over to the party with our box of wine. We were welcomed like old friends, and met some new friends. One of the cruisers said, “St. Aug gives you a big hug when you arrive here.” We felt as if we had arrived at our home.
St. Augustine is a wonderful town, the oldest in the country. It is steeped in history. On our dock is a pirate ship, the Black Raven, and pirates walk by us on the pier, sporting tri-corner hats and long curved swords. It’s not because it’s Halloween. They dress like this all the time.
We played the part of tourists for the next two days, visiting the St. Augustine light and taking the Red Train tour around town. We climbed to the top of the light, all 219 steps. Here is Phil at the top.
I had rented a car to drive to Savannah on Sunday, so I could catch a plane to another plane to a bus to home. It would be an ordeal, but I travel well and don’t mind. We had one last night at Maria’s on the waterfront, where we fed the catfish and watched a giant Great Blue Heron on the nearby marker. I didn’t want to think about leaving the next day. I wanted to stay.
The next day, Phil got up with me at 5:30 and walked me to the rental car. We kissed goodbye and I drove away. I’ll be back one day, but I don’t know when. I’ve been there, in my thoughts, ever since. This is not the last blog, just the last one for a while. I blinked back a few tears on my way to Savannah, but Phil didn’t see them.
Now, I am home, sitting at my dining room table. In spite of two purring cats by my feet, it is lonely here. For five weeks, I lived on a 27-foot sailboat with a wonderful man. We traveled 900 miles in 33 days. Catmandu was my home, for a brief, special time.
Home is where the heart is. I left mine in St. Augustine.
“What mystery is the sea, whose stirrings speak of a hidden soul beneath.”
— Herman Melville
Our days in Georgia are spent motoring through winding creeks, watching the depth. Phil is singing Country Western songs: “Shoaling, shoaling, shoaling (Rawhide)” and “Back in the Channel Again.” The weather has finally turned warmer and we have sun every day. Our first stop after our night aground is Skull Creek Marina, where we share the dock with big awkward pelicans and one Great Blue Heron who wasn’t afraid to perch about six feet away in the dusk.
Queen Bess Creek is our anchorage for the following evening, and presents us with an incredible sunset. We sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down.
We have less than a week left of our time together, and only two days until we get to our agreed-upon stopping place, Brunswick, GA.
“I feel so badly that we didn’t get you to Florida,” I say quietly. “I still think we could have made it.”
I can see he is thinking. “How many miles is it from Brunswick to St. Augustine?”
We go below and check the chart book. “It’s a hundred and ten,” I say. “Two long days.”
The wheels start to turn. Then the wheels come off of Plan C, and suddenly Plan B is a possibility. We will be in Brunswick on Tuesday. We can be in St. Augustine by Thursday night. Phil’s face lights up.
“We can do it!” He is so excited, I can’t bear to remind him that I just bought a non-refundable ticket home from Savannah. I’ll worry about that later. We are happy.
The next day, a dolphin breaches right off our port bow and lingers alongside us. It’s a good omen. We pull into our anchorage at Queens Island, in view of the red and white striped Sapelo Island Lighthouse. Dolphins are swimming around the mouth of the creek, and Phil catches a fin in a photo. Finally, some evidence. And another sunset to remember.
The night is warm and clear. Since there’s no moon, the stars are brilliant and the Milky Way is visible above us. Phil lies on his back in the cockpit looking for shooting stars, but my attention is drawn to the water. I hear soft rippling sounds, as if someone is dangling her feet in the water. I peer into the dark ripples, but can’t see anything. Then, from just a few feet away, I hear a loud huff. It scares me; it is strangely human, as if someone is letting out an exasperated sigh.
“What is that?” I whisper. We are quiet for a while, listening. Another huff, farther off, breaks the silence.
“Dolphins breathing!” Phil whispers, and we hear another one. They are all around us in the dark water, and as I scan the surface, I see a reflection of our cockpit lantern in a round circle. An eye. They are watching us, too. Like so many moments of this adventure I’m on, this is an experience I will never forget. We sit for a long time under the stars, listening to the breathing of dolphins.
“There are two types of cruisers on the Intracoastal Waterway – Those who have run aground, and those who will.” – Attributed to Mark Doyle, author, On the Water Chartguides
Leaving Charleston, we find fewer and fewer grand homes along the waterfront, and a gradual return to wild places. I am becoming more confident in steering and can help spell Phil for a few hours at a time. I have the GPS chart plottter, the charts, and a quick yell (such as, “It’s getting shallow here!”) will bring him to my side.
We plan to anchor at Rock Creek, 47 miles south of Charleston. Thankfully, I am not the one driving as we turn off the ICW and enter the creek. Our cruising guide cautions us to watch for shoaling and a shallow place near the trees, so we plan to drop the anchor in 18 feet of water just short of the trees. Like a dog who circles before lying down in the grass, we need to circle our anchor spot to be sure we have sufficient depth when the current swings us around. “She swings like a monkey,” Phil says.
We are just making the first turn when the depth sounder switches from 18 feet to 5 feet. Phil reacts quickly, slowing the boat, but before we can reverse, the depth sounder registers a 3, and the boat comes to a full and sudden stop. Oops.
Catmandu needs 4.5 feet to float, so we were hard aground. Phil puts the engine in reverse and tries to wiggle us out, but she won’t budge. The next plan is to “kedge,” a new word for me. He explains that he can put the heavy anchor in the dinghy, row out to deeper water and drop it in. Then, with a line running back to the boat, he can “kedge” us off the mud by pulling the boat toward the anchor.
I am getting a little worried, but Phil is not at all, and goes about readying the anchor, climbing into the dinghy and rowing away. He drops the big anchor and then rows the dinghy back to the boat, carrying the line. Wrapping it around the winch, he starts to pull. As the line tightens, he pulls harder. I wish I could help, but all I can manage is to look more and more worried. The boat doesn’t budge.
If you’re going to run aground, it’s best to do so in a rising tide. Eventually, the water will come back and float your boat. It’s 5 o’clock, and the tide is falling. The water is rushing out of the creek all around us and the boat is starting to make strange creaking noises. I must have looked panicked, because Phil says suddenly, “It’s going to be all right.”
In my mind, the boat was about to settle into the mud on its side, and nothing would keep the water from rushing in. Having seen “The Guardian” the night before, I am imagining a red Coast Guard rescue copter lowering a basket for us, and the rest of our trip cancelled as Catmandu becomes salvage. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I’ve never been on a boat that was slowly settling on the bottom, and I begin to notice that we are not quite upright.
“What’s going to happen?” I ask.
“We will probably heel (lean) to starboard as the tide goes out,” Phil explains, “but when it starts to come back in after 7pm, we’ll gradually be upright again.”
I do have faith in his experience and ability, and he knows the boat well from 13 years of ownership. But I am looking around for help, and spot a small shrimping boat a few hundred yards away. “Can they help us?” I ask.
“There’s nothing they can do. We are stuck.” he says. “We might as well have a drink.”
I have to laugh at that. He has a way of making everything okay. The boat is heeling badly, but Phil seems able to walk around the tilted deck, take pictures of the sunset, and descend the crooked ladder to make gin and tonics. We sit on the deck (on the high side) and look down into the dinghy. “Maybe we should sleep in the dinghy tonight.” At least the dinghy will be level.
As we are drinking and trying to balance on the high side of the cockpit, Phil tells me he once tried to anchor in Cocktail Cove on the coast of Maine and couldn’t get the anchor to hold after three tries. On the fourth try, he hooked the anchor in 11 feet of water. From fatigue after a long day of fighting the coastal Maine waters, he considered it a good anchorage and went to bed. The tide in that area was nine feet. By the time morning came, the boat was on its side, the fresh water tank was emptying out of the galley faucet, and they were walking on the bulkheads to get around. Using the head was out of the question. They waited for the incoming tide, and the boat floated free and upright.
“Let’s have dinner, and watch a movie,” Phil suggests. I think he’s enjoying this. I need to have a little faith, relax, and go along. So I get out the iPhone and take a few pictures. When we carefully pick our way down the tilted stairs, I settle into the settee and lean back. It’s like being in the dentist’s chair.
Phil checks the tilt-o-meter: 34 degrees! He offers to cook dinner, but I don’t see how. The stove is tilted beyond its gimbel, and the dinner plan was tacos! I can just see tomatoes and lettuce shreds dropping everywhere from tilted bowls, and hot taco fillings spilling in our laps. “Okay, but not tacos!” He fries up a couple of veggie italians and we eat them in bread.
As we settle down into the settee, Phil rigs a bungie cord to hold the laptop on the table, and we lie back, literally on our backs. He looks over at me and smiles. “Living the dream!” he says. My laughter probably sounds a little hysterical.
As we are watching Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest, the boat is making creaking and groaning noises. The yacht lamp is lit, and leans at an angle over the computer. By the time he gets up to make Jiffy Pop, the boat is starting to right itself. We set the alarm for midnight so we can adjust the anchor when high tide comes.
“Hello! Are you okay in there?” Someone hails us from outside. Phil climbs out into the tilted cockpit to find the shrimp boat just off the stern. They understand that there is nothing they can do to help, but they offer us their leftover ice. They had been on a “shrimping date,” and saw our plight. “You’re on the edge of a mud flat,” the man says. “When you go out, be sure to back out.” Phil explains that he has a kedge anchor out, and the man says, “Oh, okay. You know what you’re doing.” (I’m glad to hear it.)
At midnight, we get up and hope the boat is floating free. Phil gets out on deck first. I hear him say, “Oh!” Right behind him, I climb into the cockpit and gasp. Over the stern rail, in the light of our little hanging lantern, I see grass. Grass? Yes, marsh grass. We have not only floated free, but we have floated into the marsh grass on the opposite shore. Luckily, the anchor is holding and we are afloat. All we have to do is get to the middle and adjust the anchor. I’m driving, and Phil pulls the anchor and drops it again in a better spot.
We go to bed. The next morning is cold but bright. We can’t wait to get out of there. On the way, I see what a brilliant, beautiful sunrise we have. Phil is looking at it, too. “Did you ever see the Poseidon Adventure?” he asks. Oh, yes.
There’s got to be a morning after.
“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”– Mark Twain.
We are not going to make it to our destination. The miles flow by pleasantly and we finally have sunshine, clear skies and cool breezes. There are dolphins, eagles and vast acres of marshlands. On our way south to Charleston, we meander through marsh grasses as high as a person. There are no houses for miles and the waterway branches out into wandering creeks on either side. We pull in to Georgetown for gas and see a bald eagle on the marker. He is not as much of a tease as the dolphins, so here is his portrait.
Later, We drop our anchor in 12 feet of water in a small inlet just off the waterway. There are no lights around. Phil checks us in on Facebook “in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s not really the middle of nowhere,” he comments. “But you can see the edge from here.” We are the only humans for miles. The stars are brilliant and close. Before the moon rises, the Big Dipper seems to reach down to us alone.
Our original plan was to take Catmandu from Annapolis to Ft. Lauderdale in 5 weeks. It was an ambitious plan that would have required long hours and perfect weather. Friends from Annapolis are wintering in St. Augustine, so that became Plan B. But as the days wind down, and we have yet to reach Georgia, Plan B looks unlikely, too. We are looking for a stopping place where Phil can work for a couple of weeks and I can get to an airport to fly home–maybe Savannah; maybe Jekyll Island.
We are seeing dolphins every day, even in unlikely places that seem too narrow and shallow. These dolphins are gray, not black as the ones farther north. They surface and then disappear, too elusive for pictures.
There have been some wonderful surprises on this trip. One surprise is the number of unspoiled wild places. Living in New England, I thought these were rare treasures in the world. But traveling by water through the Carolinas gives me hope that we still have some of the natural world left, unspoiled by traffic, industry, and strip malls. We travel through days of marshlands where birds and dolphins make their homes, unbothered by humans.
We reach Charleston Harbor early in the afternoon on Wednesday, October 23. The wind forecast was 5-10mph, so we were surprised by the white caps, heavy winds and wild water that greeted us in the harbor. Catmandu bobbed and splashed into the waves, occasionally soaking us with cold salty water. I can’t help but laugh; it seems so deliberate. Cut it out, Catmandu!
When we arrive at the marina, Bob and Lester greet us at the dock. He heard our radio call. Our friend and writer, Jaye Lunsford (Life Afloat) is right: Cruisers form fast friendships quickly. Bob is on a layover, waiting for boat parts and visiting family. We hope to see the Bonnie K down the line.
Charleston is a good place to settle down for a day. Phil puts in a work day while I take the courtesy van to a supermarket. I do laundry and talk to locals. At night we hear strange clicking noises around the boat. It sounds like the popping of small-scale bubble wrap. Phil posts a link on Facebook: “We have been hearing the sounds of snapping shrimp through the hull of Catmandu since arriving in Charleston. Sounds like Rice Krispies® and we are in the bowl of cereal.”
It’s dark morning in Charleston and I am awake. I look up through the forward hatch and see the bright half moon directly overhead. I hear the crackling of popping shrimp all around the boat. They will snap this way until daybreak and then we will be on our way, destination unknown.