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.
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.