The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.– Mark Twain, on Hawaii
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet,– Khalil Gibran, The Wanderer
and the winds long to play with your hair.”
Some people don’t like visiting the Florida Keys. It is hot here in the summer, which stretches from May through October and brings temperatures in the 90s and high humidity. They don’t like the traffic, which is limited to one road that connects the tropical islands from Florida City to Key West. Route 1 does get clogged on Friday and Sunday afternoons when weekend visitors come and go. Crossing the busy highway is nearly impossible at times. To go left, you might have to turn right and find a place to take a U-turn.
The route is lined with strip malls housing sandal-and-t-shirt shops, dive stores, and bait and tackle sellers. There are seafood grills, tiki bars, and mom-and-pop breakfast cafes. Hotels and motels are expensive, even when they look like something out of the 1970s painted over with aqua blue gloss and decorated with pale starfish. The exclusive resorts along the coast are hidden by dense acres of mangrove trees and long shell-paved driveways. These luxury enclaves are even more expensive, and their waterfront restaurants feature $50 lobster dinners complete with conch salad and key lime pie.
Yes, it’s expensive, sometimes crowded, and oddly run down for a vacation paradise. But there is much to love here, too. Some of those strip malls include art galleries where local artisans sell their driftwood sculptures and sunset watercolors. The dive shops offer half-day snorkeling tours of a local reef just six miles out, where the pink, yellow, and striped fish swarm around your feet and the coral fans wave beneath you. We have done this once, and we will do it again. (See Phil’s photos, below.) Next door, we can rent kayaks and go paddling through the cool mangrove creeks in search of manatees.
“Chickee” or Tiki bars are magical places where you might find the mayor of Marathon singing and playing his guitar. Local musicians can be heard in the waterfront tiki bars from early afternoon until closing time. It’s cool under the thatched palm fronds, a result of native Miccosukee (or Seminole) engineering. The steeply pitched roof draws heat upward and brings breezes in through the open walls. The drinks – what Jimmy Buffet calls tiki-pukey drinks – are made with fresh coconut, Florida orange juice, key limes, and island rum.
The food here is a problem for a vegetarian such as Phil. We can usually find veggie fare in Mexican restaurants and Italian or pizza places. The nearest Mexican place seems to be in Islamorada (a 20-mile drive). But for me, a seafood-eating pescatarian, options are plentiful. If the prices scare you, order appetizers. Last night I had a super delicious coconut shrimp appetizer at a fraction of the dinner cost. It was crunchy and light and came with a pina colada sauce that was dangerous to my blood sugar level. Other offerings at Porky’s BBQ and Marina were crab cakes, peel and eat shrimp, alligator bites, and of course, conch chowder. (They had a mediocre veggie burger for Phil.) Next time, we will arrive by dinghy and tie up at the restaurant’s dock.
We haven’t even started exploring all the entertainment venues here in Marathon. We went to see “Where the Crawdads Sing” at the local cinema, where patrons sit at tables and the concession stand sells beer, wine, award-winning popcorn, and nachos. It is only big enough for about 100 people, but shows first-run movies. They also have a community theater run by people who live in Boot Key Harbor. There is a turtle-rescue hospital just down the road that offers tours, and a dolphin encounter beyond that. (We encounter wild dolphins here in the harbor, so we might skip the captured dolphin show.)
The natural wonders are the real draw for me. The sky is big here and the clouds are fascinating. Our boat’s cockpit faces the incredible sunsets and the frequent lightning storms. The bay to the west of Boot Key Harbor is very shallow, only 2 to 3 feet in most places, and features a rusting train engine that washed here from the 7-mile railroad bridge during a storm. (We call it “the little engine that couldn’t.”) It just sits there, hosting a party of birds until the tide comes in and hides all but a single spire. On that single spire, we will often see a lone anhinga bird drying its wings. This morning, we saw a great egret sitting there as two dolphins swam past.
The road to Marathon goes through Key Largo, Islamorada, Lower Matecumbe, Long Key, Duck Key, and Grassy Key. Marathon, on Vaca Key, is a little more than halfway from Key Largo to Key West. All along the route there are expansive views of the shallow, light blue water on both sides of the road. State parks line Route 1 from John Pennekamp to Long Key, to Curry Hammock and Bahia Honda, with dense green mangroves protecting the narrow beachfront. When I was in college, I spent one spring break camping with two girlfriends along this stretch of wild tropical islands. I’m happy to say, it has not changed much in nearly 50 years.
In coming months, we will wander westward by car or sailboat down to the next keys and on to Key West. Along the way, we may fall in love with this place. Eventually, we will sail to other islands and leave the Florida Keys behind. For now, we are explorers – by dinghy, kayak, or sailboat. We have a lovely fleet of tropical islands to discover beneath the expansive skies, anchored in aqua waters. Through the dense cool mangrove creeks, palm-studded beaches are waiting for our footprints.
“The great courageous act that we must all do, is to have the courage to step out of our history and past so that we can live our dreams.”Oprah Winfrey
We lived on our sailboat in Loggerhead Marina for nearly three years. We got used to boat life: endless dishes to hand wash, trips to the local laundromat, walks up and down the dock with a rolling cart because the groceries or boat parts were just too heavy. We met wonderful, interesting friends who are nomads and disappear sometimes in the early morning on their way east to the islands or north to other ports. That is our story now. People will walk down Dock 500 and say, “Remember that couple with the cats? I wonder where they went.”
We are moving on, first to the southwest to explore the Florida Keys and then on to Dry Tortugas; perhaps we’ll turn east to the Bahamas or up the west coast of Florida. It’s time to start our cruising journey. First, we have a list of boat projects to do, and an engine to refurbish. Six more months of marina life, and then we’ll be moving – probably. But this edition is dedicated to life on the dock.
Marina life attracts mostly couples and single or divorced men. The live-aboard community doesn’t include many single women, but I think that may be changing. It’s an inexpensive way to live, especially if you can find a boat you can afford that provides a comfortable way to sleep, eat, and shower.
Our 1998 Catalina 380 was less than $90,000, fully equipped and ready to go. We didn’t want a project boat since Phil and I were still working. Dockage can be expensive and hard to find, but for our size boat, it ranges between $900 and $1300 a month. That includes water, electricity and pumpout services. (If you’re looking for a dock, it is helpful if you say you would like to “stay aboard” instead of “live aboard.” Some marinas frown on the latter.)
Marina life has some down sides. Boats don’t normally have washers and dryers, so a visit to the local laundromat is a recurring treat. Most marinas have a laundry room for the boaters, but often the dryers don’t work or are so busy you can’t get a machine. Another inconvenience is the pumpout service. It is not easy to get on the list for some reason, and a regular emptying of the boat’s waste tank is essential.
There are other things that some people wouldn’t like. Your neighbors are very close, like 10 to 15 feet away. If they are good neighbors, that’s fine. If they have barky dogs or loud music you hate, it’s not. We have been fortunate to have great neighbors for the past few years, so we have no complaints. We made good friends at our last marina, and became part of a community that we really enjoyed.
And that’s where the joys of marina life come in. Boat people are a breed apart. At the risk of generalizing and stereotyping, I’d say people who live on boats are interesting, courageous, fun-loving people. Our dock had lawyers, real estate brokers, doctors, and business owners in various stages of work/retirement. Some sold boats for a living, one was a working chef, one owned a solar panel business, and one was a bronze star recipient. Then there were the entrepreneurs who took any project for pay, started and lost ventures, and got along however they could. They are the most interesting.
Just like a small town, there was gossip, tragedy, love stories, and scandal – and everybody knew. One neighbor with a heart problem (and a ferocious dog named Marco) called 911 when he had chest pains, and the dog kept the paramedics from boarding his boat. I’m sure the poor dog was protecting his master, but the man died before animal control showed up to remove the dog. People talked about that death for months. Another man we knew fell from his boat, hit the dock with his head and never fully recovered. In fact, that story repeated often with varying tragic results.
Our cat Max was popular on Dock 500. He discovered he could leap from the boat to the dock and did it often. He was also smart enough to know which boat people would offer him a bit of deli meat if he visited. After he passed away, the neighbors started telling me how much they would miss him. I had no idea how many boats that cat had visited until he died. (He was old; he passed from natural causes.) “I’m going to miss that cat,” one neighbor told us. “He used to jump on board, find me, and tap me on the shoulder for a treat.”
People on the dock were always willing to help grab a line, walk a dog, provide a bottle of spirits or a takeout meal for dockmates in need. We tried to do the same, leaving flowers and wine on one boat for a captain whose husband was in the hospital for ages. People brought us gifts from their travels (delicious Wisconsin cheese curds), and one neighbor cooked us Creole tofu when he found out we were vegetarians. We cared for each other; we were family.
As one who has moved around all her life, it’s not easy for me to find a sense of community. My birth family was a military family, and we moved every two or three years. I attended three different elementary schools. It is hard to put down roots when they get torn up the next year or the next. So I loved marina life, and even though I might have been shy about making friends, I will miss Dock 500 at Loggerhead. I appreciated the feeling of belonging, and I crave that now.
We had been to our current marina several years ago on our previous boat and visited friends who lived here on two occasions. It has many of the amenities that we look for in a marina: a great swimming pool, a tiki bar, an exercise room, and laundry machines that work. It also has neighbors, and we have met a few. The wider community includes another marina and all the boats attached to mooring balls in Boot Key Harbor. They talk together on the radio every morning at 9 a.m. on the “Cruisers Net.”
Maybe saying goodbye is the curse of the nomad, and if I find that painful at times, I know I did it to myself. I embrace marina life, and I know (with any luck) we’ll be sailing away one day. I hope, in the meantime, that there is a place for us here: a community, a family, a home.
“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
― Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Sitting in No Name Harbor, we contemplated our options. The good news: we were safely at anchor, we didn’t have a schedule to keep, and we had plenty of food. The neighbors in the anchorage were polite, for the most part, and kept their music soft. Some nights, there were only two boats anchored, but on Saturday night, there were many. We kept cool by swimming and running the air conditioning by generator for an hour or two before bed. The bad news: we had an engine that spewed white smoke and wouldn’t power up past 2,000rpm.
It was scary to think of continuing our trip without solving the problem. We could be anchored off Rodriguez Key with no engine, no wind, and no way to get towed to our destination without spending thousands of dollars. We were out of options until a friend called with a suggestion, and an offer.
“I can join you onboard and help limp the boat to Marathon in one overnight passage,” Reinhard said. “We can sail if there’s wind, and just motor slowly if not.”
Phil and I had never sailed at night, and it was not something we planned to do in the near future. To be honest, we had precious few working flashlights, no spotlight, and the compass light did not work. We also had some doubts about the auto pilot. Our running lights worked fine, and if we were able to maintain a speed of four knots, the 90-nautical-mile passage would take just short of 24 hours. At the end of that journey, we would be in a place where sailboats were more common than power boats, and diesel mechanics might be available. There is also a travel-lift and a boatyard right at the marina. Plus, we would be home. We said yes, and planned to leave on an outgoing tide Monday at noon.
I discovered a free transportation service called Freebee in a blog posted about No Name Harbor, and downloaded the app. We requested a ride to the Wynn Dixie store a mile or two away and went to the wall in our dinghy with our grocery bags. It was amazing! The electric vehicle came quickly, the driver was helpful in every way, and we were able to replenish our drinks and some small food items. Normally against our principles because of the plastic waste, we even bought a case of bottled water since our tanks were a little low. (There is no public drinking water at No Name Harbor.) The return driver even helped us carry the water to our dinghy.
Monday came, our guest arrived with his wife Nina, and after brief goodbyes, we cast our lines off at 11:40 am heading out of the harbor. It was hot, still, and flat calm – a mixed blessing.
We turned to the southwest and saw a disturbing sight: the wreck of a green navigational beacon. We hoped the others marking our way through shallow passages were in better shape, especially those we had to pass in the dark. We really wanted to sail, to help the engine a little and practice our skills with an expert on board. But the wind was directly on our nose, so no chance of forward movement with that angle. We motored, watching whisps of white smoke flow off the stern.
Reinhard discovered the auto pilot was broken but not dead. It could be repaired, once we were able to take things apart and put them back together. So, we had to hand-steer for 90 nautical miles, taking turns at the wheel. Phil had expected to stay up all night, but I thought we could nap in turns. I had underestimated my ability to stay awake, and I did the most napping. During the day, we all took turns steering, but once darkness fell, I took the helm just once. It was too dark and dangerous to rely on my poor night vision and limited skill level.
As we gradually changed our course from southwest to west, the wind also changed. It was definitely taunting us, keeping our sails furled and useless. We could sail by heading off course and then tacking back, but it’s a slow way to go. The plus side was the complete lack of waves. It was quite flat. In fact, the battery died in my motion-sickness band, and I didn’t even notice.
By late afternoon, we had passed some familiar landmarks. We spotted the Boca Chita light – where we had anchored the night Fidel Castro died (another story, another boat). Elliott Key’s long shoreline gave way to Key Largo, where Phil saw the Fowey Rocks Light – a favorite snorkeling spot opposite John Pennekamp State Park. We passed the first anchorage we had planned to use on the way down, Rodriguez Key, and I whispered a “see you later, sometime” as we passed it by.
We started to feel a little whisper of wind, and got our hopes up, but the direction kept changing. It turned out we were alongside a small weather system, and rain appeared in a gray curtain to our starboard side. We watched it get closer, but it never really reached us except for a few fat drops that made plopping sounds on the bimini above us.
The sun started dropping into the clouds above the storm, and we kept trading places at the wheel. There were snacks of bagels and cream cheese along with a large jar of peanuts, but no dinner. The voyage started to feel long, and the hours crawled by as I noted our progress on the paper chart. If you ever think of this planet as a small world, consider how long it takes to go just 90 nautical miles by sailboat.
The chart plotter kept track of our expected arrival time at the marina, and it looked for a time like we might arrive before first light. Luckily, currents kept us back a little and it looked like we would arrive just past daybreak. The sky became inky black with a miraculous display of stars. It was a little cooler, and Phil and Reinhard took turns at the wheel while I stared at the sky. Objects in the total darkness were hard to make out, and there were navigational beacons with no lights marking shallow spots. This is terrifying, and we passed close enough to one marker to make out its hulking shape in the shadows off to our port side.
Boats with improper lighting gave us a few mysteries to solve. Off in the distance we saw a white anchor light and two fainter red and green running lights. When we got closer, we realized it was a catamaran anchored two miles offshore with a dinghy attached to stern davits. The lights were glowing on the dinghy, creating a strange configuration in the dark. Another mystery was a steaming light above a set of brighter spotlights and no running lights. It looked like a huge ship on the horizon but turned out to be a small-powerboat captain trying to repair his engine under his bright deck lights. He was anchored, it was the middle of the night, and he had our sympathy.
First light saw us alongside Key Marathon, and we made a slow turn toward land. I could see the headlights of cars on the Seven Mile Bridge, and the one green marker with a 4-second light. Four seconds seemed too long, and we knew if we got out of the narrow channel, the water was only three or four feet deep.
Eighteen and a half hours into our trip, we made the turn into Boot Key Harbor as the sun came up, and Phil steered us slowly along the row of boats to our spot on the west dock. Reinhard stepped off the boat onto our pier, and tied up Catmandu in her new home, slip 98, Safe Harbor Marathon.
Safe Harbor – There are few nicer phrases after a long passage in the dark.
hi Kay. I loved reading this. I miss you around here. Loved hearing abt Max and Maggie.
Kay, your writing style makes me feel as if I’m right there with you. Keep me on board with your…
Read the whole article … good job …
What a wonderful post! I lived aboard for 10 years at Port Annapolis and then National Harbor. I loved it…
Well written! You are now officially cruisers. Wishing you a speedy recovery of all your boat problems.
August 8, 2022: Day 1 to Day 3
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than those you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”– Mark Twain
It started out well enough – perfectly, in fact. We were up early, ready to go on a hot Wednesday morning. There was no one on the dock for farewells or bon voyage. We said a quiet goodbye to Dock 500, released the lines and retrieved the power cord. Phil backed Catmandu out of the slip as if it were a Fiat, as one dock friend once remarked. Fenders up, we were on our way a half hour early.
Three bridges later, we were crossing the turning basin where cruise ships live and heard a loud wap-wap-wap sound from the engine. Phil’s face fell. After years of owning a small sailboat with a terrible gas engine (the Atomic Bomb), he was used to breakdowns at the beginning of a voyage. But instruments looked good, and the noise stopped quickly so Phil went below while I kept us on course.
“Everything looks fine,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”
So we did. It was an eight-hour motorsail to our first waypoint at No Name Harbor on Key Biscayne. (Motor sailing means we kept the engine on while we raised the head sail, to keep our speed up in light winds blowing directly from our point of sail.) It was rougher than anticipated and hard to stay on course. With a forecast of two-to-three-foot waves and 10-15 knot winds, we thought it would be smooth sailing. It was not.
Strong currents and gusty winds kept us on our toes and my motion sickness kept me from being an energetic co-captain. I took the helm when needed, but Phil did most of the driving. He kept to himself the concerns he was feeling about the engine performance and the constant stream of white exhaust coming from our stern. He didn’t want to worry me.
We planned to stay two nights at No Name Harbor because we could. We have no deadline to get to Marathon, where a slip is waiting. We swam, took exploratory dinghy excursions, and slept under the stars when it got too hot in the v-berth. We had a spectacular sunset and moonrise the first night a we grilled veggie burgers for dinner. The gin and tonics flowed and we were completely relaxed.
There were several boats around us, all with Latino crews onboard. It seems to be a Spanish speaking area, but it was a weeknight, and the music wasn’t too loud. However, the servers at the Boaters Grill restaurant were (too loud). The yelling in Spanish was deafening at times. We had gone ashore for a nice restaurant meal the second night, but it was less than satisfying. The restaurant is overpriced and has no vegetarian options. The power went out a couple of times. “I guess it’s a lot like Cuba,” Phil said after the lights dimmed a second time.
Thursday night we ran the air conditioner for a short time but ended up sleeping in the cockpit again under a bright full moon – the Sturgeon Moon. It was idyllic until a rain shower drove us indoors at 4 a.m.
We pulled the anchor at 8 a.m. and headed out of the harbor, following our breadcrumb trail from two days earlier. As we were navigating through the channel markers out to Hawk Channel, we noticed a lot of white exhaust smoke. The engine was struggling, and when we tried to throttle up, it did not respond. Cue the Star Trek Scotty voice: “She’s not responding to helm, Captain.”
With 48 miles to go, and no protected anchorages along the way, we had a decision to make. Put up the sails and keep going, or turn back and get the engine checked out. I mentioned that we have no deadline on this trip, and that is a factor. With the prospect of light winds and sketchy engine performance, we turned around. We are sitting at anchor in No Name Harbor, waiting for the mechanic to call. Not a great start, but there is a breeze and swimming is in our future. Phil seems at ease with our decision. “There’s no one I’d rather be stranded with,” he said, and I feel the same.
The news was not good. One of our four cylinders has no compression, the head gasket may be bad, there may be damage to the cylinder caused by an overheating problem months earlier. It may be a bad fuel injector. No matter which option it is, we have to pull the cylinder head to properly diagnose it. The mechanic, Mario, was certain there was nothing else to be done. Phil asked about alternatives, and Mario pointed up. “Sail?” he said.
We have a towing plan that is “unlimited,” but actually there’s a limit of $3,000.00 so a tow to Marathon would be $11,000, just $8,000 out of pocket. Um, no. Phil called the mechanic back, got recommendations for repair marinas to try, and quickly reached a dead end. Marinas are full, they are hard to get to with our 5’6” draft, or they don’t do engine repairs. We kept trying until we ran out of options. We went swimming.
After dinner, we heard live jazz music coming from the open-air bar that overlooks Biscayne Bay. As we sat in the cockpit watching the sun set, a single dolphin swam by, doing three perfect arches and a tail slap to let us know he was there. Tomorrow, we will solve our problems. For tonight, we have strains of muted trumpet and piano, a sunset punctuated by silent lightning, and our own private dolphin show.
To cruisers, your sailboat is your “house” and your dinghy is your “car.” Think about anchoring the sailboat in a secluded bay surrounded by a white sandy beach and coconut palm trees for a week or a month. Once in awhile, you want to go ashore to buy food and fuel, buy more rum, go out to a restaurant, visit a tiki bar, or pick up guests. You also also want to visit that sandy beach, and explore the islands on day trips.
For that, you keep your sailboat at the anchorage and take your “car” to town, the beach, et cetera.
Kay and I bought our 1998 Catalina 380 — a 38-foot monohull sailboat — two years ago, and it came with an inflatable dinghy. It was a 9.5 foot long hypalon Achilles inflatable that had an inflatable keel and a wooden floor. Inflatable boats are made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabric or the more expensive hypalon. The boat could be disassembled and rolled up for storage, like we did during Hurricane Irma a couple of years ago. However, the Achilles was not the “dinghy of our dreams” (hereinafter referred to as the “DooD”).
The problems with the Achilles were myriad.
First, we could not get the boat titled and registered with the state because the previous owner messed up the transfer of title. Second, the wooden floor was disintegrating in the warm seawater environment of south Florida. Third, it would be difficult to get an inflatable boat to “plane,” which is boater-speak for “go fast.” Fourth, it would. not. hold. air.
Oh, we tried and tried to find the leaks in the Achilles and patch them as best as we could. We watched YouTube videos and bought several tubes of hypalon adhesive at thirty bucks a pop. But, they never worked well and it leaked so badly that we had to pump up the boat while we were motoring around the back canals of Hollywood, Florida, where we are docked. Even though we are not cruising the islands yet, we decided that we still want to have a dinghy to use in the meantime and it was time to shop for the DooD.
First, Kay and I made a spreadsheet to study different boat sizes, materials, features, and prices. There are a handful of dinghy manufacturers, including Achilles, West Marine, AB, Caribe, Zodiac, and Highfield. Each has a different reputation for quality in the cruiser community. As for materials, we decided on the more expensive hypalon because it is resistant to ultraviolet light, which south Florida and the tropics has in spades.
There is a type of inflatable boat that Kay and I wanted that has a hard bottom (not wood) and inflatable side tubes called a RIB. RIB stands for “rigid inflatable boat.” There are few different types of bottoms you can get on a RIB. They include fiberglas, aluminum single layer, and aluminum double layer. Fiberglas bottoms can be cracked or punctured if you run the boat onto rocks at the beach, but fiberglas cracks are relatively easy to fix. On the other hand, aluminum hulls will dent if you hit a rock at the beach, and they are unlikely to be punctured. Single hull boats, whether fiberglas or aluminum, will doom the cruiser to having wet feet forever since there is no good way to get all of the water out of the bottom of the dinghy all of the time. Double hull aluminum boats are more expensive than single hull, but have other benefits.
We decided visit some dinghy dealers in area so we could see them in person before we made a decision. Like buying a car, we wanted to kick the tires. There are several specialty dinghy stores in the area, believe it or not. But when we did some research, most were not open outside of regular 9 – 5 business hours, Monday through Friday. Why aren’t they open when buyers were available? Did they only sell to people who are retired or unemployed? We called several stores and asked how we can see their dinghies before we buy. Mostly, none of them returned our calls. I finally reached a sales rep live and found the answer.
There are no dinghies!
Due to COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most popular ways to enjoy the outdoors in a safe and socially-distant way is to get out on the water in a boat. Therefore, there has been a run on boats of all kinds over the past year, and there is almost no inventory available anywhere. You can put in an order, sight unseen, pay your money, and hope to see a boat in six months or later.
Kay and I decided to just pick our DooD and put it on back order. We decided to pay some extra money for our DooD and placed an order for a Highfield Classic 290, a 9.5 foot long hypalon boat with a double aluminum floor. It has a lockable bow locker for a gas tank and an anchor, movable middle seat with big zipper pockets, AND A DRINK HOLDER. Yes, DooD has a drink holder. Many of the cruisers we follow on YouTube have Highfield dinghies, which speaks well about their quality I think.
We ordered our boat from Nautical Ventures, a specialty store, that actually answered our phone calls and e-mails. We signed the paperwork and made a big deposit, sight unseen, hoping that the DooD would be on a shipping container toward south Florida in four to six months. But, in two weeks, we got a call from Nautical Ventures saying that a sale of an identical boat fell through and that one was available right away, still in the crate! We accepted it immediately, and had them deliver it to the water’s edge at our marina in Hollywood.
Kay and I have been enjoying the new dinghy. We travel the canals of Hollywood to see the iguanas in the mangroves, and several kinds of herons and egrets. Our small electric outboard pushes the boat at its theoretical hull speed of about 3.5 knots. We want to buy a new outboard engine between ten and fifteen horsepower so we can plane and go to destinations further away. But when we look for new outboards, there aren’t any!
Don’t look over your shoulder; you’re not going that way.
I can barely remember living in an apartment, and I haven’t lived in a house for more than 17 years. I once owned a condo in Stratham, New Hampshire. I loved the back deck facing the woods, and looked forward each year to the parade of wild turkey chicks as they passed my picture window. The trees changed colors, dropped their leaves and held remnants of snow in their limbs. In spring, they sprouted pale green buds and started over again.
I am nostalgic for my New Hampshire home, but I’m not going back. I live on a boat now. Yes, Florida is hot, but you don’t have to shovel heat or brush it off your car. Each morning, I poke my head out the companionway door to feel the breeze off the water and decide whether to have my coffee in the cockpit. We wash dishes by hand, fill our water tanks, empty our waste tank, cook by propane stove, and have cocktails outside. At night, we fall asleep to gentle rocking.
CLODS are cruisers who have to leave their boats temporarily and live on land. This happens when boats need repair or when the cruisers are between boats. It’s an acronym for Cruisers Living on Dirt. We were CLODS because we dreamed of being cruisers, and planned to move onto our boat when our lease was up. When I told my best friend in New Hampshire that we were going to buy a bigger boat and live on it, she said, “Kay, what’s a liverboard?” I had told her we would be live-aboards.
Our living quarters are small, but in that lack of space, there is freedom. It’s a freedom from stuff. The transition to the new boat involved getting rid of stuff – furniture, clothing, knick knacks, dishes, pots, appliances and pictures. Some things were harder to let go of: a clock my sister got me at a vineyard we visited in California; gifts given to me by my children, like the little snow globes with kittens inside; the sweet Hummel angel given to me at age 14 by my dearest friend as I was about to move away. (I kept the little broken angel; I couldn’t part with it.)
A friend gave me some good advice for dealing with the precious artifacts of a life on land: Take a picture of it and let it go. Slowly, the apartment began to empty out. We sold some things, gave some to charity, and gave away items we could have sold if we’d had more time. One middle-aged Latino came to look at our kitchenware and ended up with an entire pickup truck of furniture, appliances and dishes. From his limited command of English, we got the idea that he was in the midst of a divorce and had to furnish his bachelor pad. He got it all for free. Just before moving day, we took the few things we were keeping to a rented storage unit (most cruisers have one).
On Saturday, Oct. 6, we left my two cats in the apartment while we motored to the new slip in Hollywood, Florida, a 6-hour journey down the Intracoastal Waterway. We had left Phil’s car at the marina so we could return for the cats and the final cleaning. I took just one picture that day, and I barely remember the trip itself. I know the wind was blowing hard from the east and we broke two stanchion bolts with a hard bump into the fuel dock when we were trying to leave. I felt responsible for that, since I should have been fending off as we pulled away instead of wrapping up the bow lines. With only two people on board, it’s hard to be in the right place all the time.
We had some trouble backing into our new slip because the canal is very narrow, and the slips are not spacious. The east wind was blowing harder by then, and we gently bumped the bow of the boat next door, but no damage was done. Our neighbor, Joe, was extremely gracious and helped us with the lines. I was about to have my own problems with that wind, and the storms it was driving onshore.
After the boat was secure, we drove back to Port Royale to clean the apartment, gather up the cats and head back to the marina in our separate cars. The cats are mine; I’ve had them since they were tiny kittens. Phil has always been understanding of my need to keep them with me, and of my responsibility for their lives. The truth is, he would rather not live with cats, and the care of them is my duty, not his. I packed them into two carry boxes – one plastic cat carrier, and one cardboard carrier we had gotten from the vet for a hurricane evacuation.
It was getting late, and we were exhausted, so Phil volunteered to finish the cleaning as the cats and I took off in my Prius for our new home onboard. The cats cried all the way to the marina, fraying my nerves. Just as we got to the parking lot, it began to rain and I heard the familiar sound of wind through the sailboat rigging. It did not occur to me that the wind would be blowing the boat off the dock, making an unsafe gap over the water. I was about to find out.
It was dark on Dock 5, as the marina was in the process of replacing the dock lights. I found a dock cart and loaded the two crying cats in, along with a case of catfood and the new litter box. As I approached the boat with my load, the skies opened up and rain poured down on me, the cats, and – to my horror – the cardboard cat carrier. Now I pictured the gap between the dock and the boat swallowing my cat as the cardboard gave way. I would have no way of finding her, let alone pulling her out of the water and onto the boat.
So, the first order of business was getting the heavier female cat (Maggie) on board in her carrier before it fell apart. It was high tide, and the wind was getting stronger as the squall passed overhead. I pulled on the dock line to get the boat closer, but the wind kept pulling it back. I couldn’t step aboard with the carrier because I had to hold the bottom so she wouldn’t fall out. Out of sheer will power, I pulled the boat close, and as it started drifting away from me, I threw the cat carrier onto the cockpit cushion, hoping the poor thing would land upright. It didn’t. It leaned dangerously into the cockpit table at an angle. But she was on board and not in the water.
Cat number two (Max) was even harder. Even though the carrier had a handle, and was sturdy, it was heavy and awkward. I tried several times to pull the boat in, and the wind pushed it away. I was soaked and I could hear Maggie crying from her soggy cardboard box. Max was desperately trying to escape from the carrier in my hand, and I pulled hard on the dock line to get the boat close enough to shove the box into the cockpit. I got it on board, but the carrier was perched dangerously close to the edge of the catwalk as the wind pulled it away.
I decided the other items could wait until Phil arrived. I took a big step from the dock and got one foot under the cat carrier before the boat drifted away and I hung on to the bimini with my other foot hanging behind me. I shoved the carrier into the cockpit and it fell sideways – hard – onto the deck. Max stopped complaining for a tortured minute and I opened up the companionway. One at a time, I carried the cats onboard and released them from their boxes. I closed the hatch with the wooden slats and sat down inside.
“We’re home,” I said out loud. Then I put my head in my hands and cried. It was relief, exhaustion, and regret. “What have I done?” kept coming to mind. The animals were wandering around, exploring, and were finally quiet. After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I wanted to text Phil to let him know I was home safe. Then I realized my purse, and my iPhone, were outside in the dock cart along with a case of cat food cans and the litter box.
The rain was stopping as I ventured out again, but the tide was high and the dock looked like a long leap away in the dark. As I wondered how to get off the boat without going swimming, a neighbor came down the dock and asked if I needed help. As he took the items out of the dock cart and handed them up to me, he introduced himself and welcomed me. He was an angel named Patrick.
Marinas are full of characters and interesting travelers, old salts and new cruisers. There are the bachelors on boats (the “BoBs”) who divorced and lost their homes to ex-wives and children, and the families with children whose weekly laundry flaps from the lifelines. There are experienced captains who live aboard here between assignments of bringing mega-yachts to their owners around the islands. There are sailing couples who walk their dogs every morning and evening. We know their dogs’ names before we know theirs.
Marina people form a community like no other I’ve experienced. If you need help, or company, or a simple gathering around someone’s BBQ, you’ll find it. When a boat comes in, multiple residents rush to the dock to catch the tossed lines. Patrick was no different; he just came along exactly when I needed help.
By the time Phil arrived, I had the litter box set up, the cats were eating, and I was calm. We had a drink and I told him the story. He’s a patient listener, even when I go on and on with detailed complaints. When I was done, he was quiet for a minute, then he made me laugh with the phrase we always use when life on board is anything but idyllic. “Living the dream!” he said. Then he made us another round of drinks.
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams,
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined,
he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
–Henry David Thoreau
I am sitting on my boat in front of the laptop. It’s a bright summer day, and the sun is warm on my back where it shines down the companionway. Phil is at his office, but I was given a furlough from work and stay pretty close to our pier. Yes, we live on our boat now. We spent almost five years in a small apartment by the water, with our old 27-foot Catalina sailboat tied to a nearby dock. We built up our savings, made great friends, and lived our lives.
We shared a dream of moving aboard a sailboat and cruising through the Keys, the Bahamas and beyond. Of course, we needed a bigger boat. So, in 2019, we started shopping for a boat. We knew we wanted another Catalina, but would consider a comparable Jeanneau or Beneteau. Our search took us all over South Florida, from Marco Island to Port Charlotte to Port St. Lucie.
In February we found Mañana in Marco Island on the west coast of Florida. She was a gorgeous, well-loved Catalina 380 that could have been ours. But in truth, we weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger and because of our delay, we lost it. I was heartbroken. It reminded me of losing the first car I tried to buy. I lost that, too, because I was too slow to offer a cash deposit. It was a 1971 Toyota Celica, teal with a white racing stripe. I’m still bitter.
In June we found Caretta, a Catalina 380 in sail-away condition that was almost, but not quite, in our price range. We would have missed it if we hadn’t loosened our pricing limits in the search engine on BoatTrader.com. At the same time, the seller dropped his price below $100,000. We drove to Stuart, met the owner and fell in love with the boat. Walking away from the dock that first afternoon, after a comprehensive tour of Caretta and all of her upgrades, I said to Phil, “I think that’s our boat.”
What followed was a series of emailed negotiations that I found uncomfortable and embarrassing. Phil managed to get the price down to $89,500, which the seller called, “Close enough for government work.” To pick up the boat, we decided to drive to Stuart in my car, leaving Phil’s car at our apartment. We arranged for our good friends, Ben and Mari to accompany us on the trip south, so we would have extra hands on an unfamiliar vessel. It turned out to be a very good decision when trying to dock Caretta for the first time.
On Friday night, there was last-minute drama. We had booked a hotel room for one night and had dinner at the tiki bar. Other patrons at the tiki bar were in on the drama, as we waited for word. The owner did not have the money in his account and would not let us take the boat until he did. We couldn’t ask our friends to drive up from Fort Lauderdale if we weren’t sure the transaction would take place. On our end, we had the financing, but had to wait for the insurance binder. The finance company wouldn’t transfer the money until insurance was verified, so it was nearly 6 when we got the call from the owner. “Caretta is yours,” is all he said.
There was applause all around the tiki bar when we announced our news. We called our friends and they offered to drive the 90 minutes right then. Two hours later, they arrived at the same hotel and found us still at the tiki bar, celebrating. Tomorrow was moving day.
Steve Dublin had owned Caretta since at least 2005, nearly 15 years. There’s a plaque in the salon that says the boat took second place in the 2005 Fort Lauderdale to Key West race, and Dublin had the same picture in his home office. So I know it was a sad day for him, even though we had given him about $10,000 more than the “blue book” value for the boat. When I remarked at how clean it was, he said, “It was my baby.” I could see the pride in his face and felt his loss.
He met us on the dock at 9 the next morning. Steve Dublin had belonged to our sailing club once upon a time, and Phil was the current commodore. We took pictures with the club burgee, and Steve and his wife handed off the lines. They stood for a long while on the deserted pier watching us motor toward the bridge.
The trip from Stuart to our apartment near Pompano Beach took about 90 minutes by car, but it’s a two-day journey by sailboat. To make the trip even slower, there are around 23 bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway, and each one opens twice an hour. As we approached each bridge, we had to call the bridge tender on the VHF radio, then wait for the scheduled opening.
The first bridge was tricky because there was a train bridge close to the drawbridge, and a strong current. Since our mast is 62-feet high, and the highway bridges are 65 feet, it looks like a close call as we slide underneath. I’ve seen Phil doing the sign of the cross for extra assurance. We made it through just fine, and I took a turn steering on the other side.
Just past Manatee Pocket, which is a popular anchorage opposite the St. Lucie Channel, we turned right to join the ICW. It would have been much faster to keep heading east and sail the boat on the open ocean down to Hillsboro Inlet. But we had never sailed such a large vessel, and even with extra hands on board, it was too risky to take that route.
Phil was driving as we turned into the waterway, and the boat grazed the bottom in a spot where the charts indicated we had 14 feet below us. It was just a quick brush through light sand, a momentary slowdown, and on we went. It was a reminder that our draft had increased from 4’6” on the old boat to 5’4” on the new one, and that shoaling was always a possibility near ocean inlets.
With six bridges behind us, we arrived at our marina for the first night. It was close to a couple of good anchorages near Peanut Island in West Palm Beach, but it was July in Florida, and we wanted the air conditioning that a marina could provide. Trying to pull into a narrow slip in reverse on an unfamiliar vessel was a challenge. With the help of Ben fending off the yacht next door, we managed to inch our way in and dock. Unfortunately, the air conditioning would not operate, and Phil had to call Steve, the former owner. With instructions on bleeding the water lines, Phil managed to get it going (while sweating buckets!) and we all headed to the outdoor bar for rum drinks and dinner.
The next day would bring us through 17 bridges, past wildlife refuges, two ocean inlets, and traffic jams of power boats. It was hot and sticky, but we had a steady breeze while we were moving. Waiting for bridges could be miserable, but we were lucky in most cases and motored right through. Occasionally, a bridge tender would hold the bridge open a minute or two as we caught up to the boat traffic going through. By late afternoon, we started to see familiar sights and approached our home port, Port Royale, just south of Pompano Beach. We arrived at cocktail time, but we still had a road trip in front of us, so no drinks for the moment.
Pulling into our slip, we could see the huge difference in size between our old Catmandu and Caretta. Catmandu, a Catalina 27, was parked in her slip next door, so Caretta – at 38 feet – looked like the big brother. Caretta’s mast towered about 20 feet above the mast of Catmandu. Despite the size difference, we had no problem docking, tying the lines and securing our new boat next to our old one.
What I remember about our drive back to our cars in Stuart was both laughter and sadness. Laughter – because Phil’s Chrysler Sebring made hilarious croaking noises with every bump in the road; and sadness because I couldn’t forget the lonely figure of Steve Dublin standing at his empty dock watching Caretta cross under the bridge without him.
Kay and I had planned to spend our one week vacation on Catamandu sailing the Keys for some time. We wanted to time our vacation with the Fantasy Fest celebration in Key West around Halloween. Since there are a lot of miles between Fort Lauderdale and Key West, we decided to move the boat weekend by weekend farther down the Keys and start our vacation in Marathon, which is more than half way down to Key West.
This post is about our first leg from Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo. On Thursday October 6, Hurricane Matthew blew by Fort Lauderdale. We were bracing for a direct hit. So, we removed ALL of the canvas from Catmandu, doubled all the lines, and set an anchor. Fortunately, the eye of Hurricane Matthew veered slightly to the east the day before it got here, so the eye was about 100 miles away from Fort Lauderdale at its closest. We only saw thirty knot winds at our marina.
We needed to leave Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, October 8, in order to move the boat down in time for our vacation plans. The winds from Matthew subsided enough by Saturday morning that we could put the sails and dodger back on, and that took several hours. We managed to leave the dock at 9:00 AM bound for Miami Marine Stadium.
Again, we sailed offshore, exiting the ICW at Port Everglades. The hurricane had left clear skies and a nice northwesterly breeze at 10 – 15 knots. We sailed more than half way to Government Cut on a reefed main and full jib, hitting a speed of six knots or better several times. Along the way, we saw a turtle in the ocean with shell that was three feet across and many more dolphins. Kay and I anchored Catmandu at Marine Stadium, went swimming, had a barbecue dinner, and saw a beautiful sunset.
After a calm, warm, and restful night, we motored out of Marine Stadium into Biscayne Bay, back into the Intra-Coastal Waterway. The wind finally picked up, so we motor-sailed on a full jib all the way to Jewfish Creek. The ICW route is well-marked but there were several places that were only six feet deep or less. Having a working chart plotter, which shows you exactly where you are on the chart, is very important.
After Jewfish Creek is Gilbert’s Resort and Marina on Key Largo. Gilbert’s is famous for its live music, tiki bar, and full service marina. We tied up Catmandu in a slip around the back and enjoyed dinner and rum drinks at the tiki bar before we drove back home to Fort Lauderdale.
Kay and I were excited to join the Gulfstream Sailing Club on its yearly Labor Day trip to the Miami Marine Stadium. Last year when we tried to get there, Catmandu had two serious breakdowns in the first two miles. We had to be towed home by TowBoat US and we ended up driving down on Saturday to join the fleet.
This time was different. We left the marina at our apartment on Friday night after work and motored to Sunrise Lake where we anchored for the night. Kay brought Subway sandwiches for dinner, so we didn’t even have to cook.
On September 3, we got underway just after sunrise for the 35 mile trip to Marine Stadium. While motoring out to Port Everglades, we made coffee in our French press and enjoyed grilled bagels with cream cheese for breakfast. Since the wind was forecast to be on our nose all day, we motor-sailed with only the mainsail up.
The weather forecast called for a ten percent chance of precipitation. However, just as we rounded the red number 2 marker outside Port Everglades, it started raining hard. It rained so hard we could hardly see, and we had to rely on our auto-pilot Otto to keep us on a straight compass heading south. Kay and I crouched underneath our canvas dodger to protect us from the driving rain, and I popped my head up from time to time to check for traffic. They call that “prairie-dogging,” I think. We were towing our dinghy Catnip, which was filling with a significant amount of rain water, and that was slowing us down. However, we entered the Miami harbor at Government Cut and made good speed, even against the tide. Government cut is a wide and well-marked channel. However, markers 10 and 12 are in different locations than indicated on my one-year-old paper chart. The markers are in the right place according to my newer electronic chart on the chart plotter. I wonder if that might have been a factor in the recent boat crash involving Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins pitcher.
Catmandu was first boat to arrive. There were very few boats in this big anchorage on a holiday weekend. We drained Catnip and inflated our two-seater pool toy. Since our ice supply was low, I motored Catnip over to Rickenbacher Marina to resupply. I asked the clerk how much a bag of ice cost, and she said, “$5.34. Don’t stab me!” Funny. But, that’s a lot for a small bag of ice.
Marine Stadium was built in 1963 as a venue to watch powerboat races held in the large, manufactured bay. The stadium was abandoned in 1992 due to hurricane damage, but the bay remains as a favorite anchorage.
Commodore Marvin and his friend Gary arrived on the second boat, Puff, an Island Packet 42. Kay and I went over and enjoyed food and adult beverages until late. We were waiting for Bleu Bayou to arrive, but gave up. They were towed in around 10:30 PM.
On Sunday, September 4, we spent the day swimming and enjoying a long lunch at Atlantica, at Marine Stadium Marina with our Gulfstream Sailing Club friends.
On Labor Day morning, we had to weigh anchor early and motor all the way home. The temperature was 85 degrees, seas were calm, and the south wind only blew about five knots. However, we were accompanied by dolphins for part of the trip! They played around our bow wave. They swim so fast that we could not get a good photo. But it was fun to see them.
A rain storm popped up as we approached Port Everglades. However, we were well inside the harbor before the heavy rains hit. We got home at the northern end of Fort Lauderdale around 3:30 PM after waiting for four bridges, very wet, and a little less sunburned than previous voyages.