Archive | August 2022

Marina Life and Death

“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.”

Max (June 2004 – Nov. 2020) on the swim platform.

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.

Phil and I next to our boat on Dock 500. Taken by a dock neighbor.

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.

The inside of our Catalina 380 is comfortable and spacious. The wine and flowers were an anniversary celebration.

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.

Maggie, on a rare appearance in the cockpit. She is 18 now, and stays mostly indoors.

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.

Here are some of the friends we met on the dock. We would gather in our dinghies and head to Whiskey Creek with beverages.

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.”  

Max was completely unafraid of the water and wandered freely around the boat, even at anchor.

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.”

Catmandu at her new dock in Marathon. Come visit, friends!

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.

Our view from the cockpit, and some friends we met in our new home.

Night Passage to Marathon

“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.

Phil reading the repair manual, Marine Diesel Engines, by Nigel Calder.

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.”

Our surroundings in No Name Harbor. Our new Honda generator is on the seat to the right.

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 headed out, with the seawall to port and perfectly flat seas.
The water seemed to change color as we left the Florida Cape Lighthouse in our wake.

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.

A wrecked green marker, probably hit by a boat (like ours?) on a dark night.

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.

Phil at the helm.

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.

Phil at the wheel and Reinhard studying the course. We could not have done this without his help.

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.

A thunderstorm appeared over land, but never reached us. It teased us with stronger, variable winds.

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.

We passed this odd structure as the sun started to drop behind the thunder clouds.

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.

The moonrise gave us a little more light to steer by, and a golden ripple leading straight to our boat.

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.

  1. hi Kay. I loved reading this. I miss you around here. Loved hearing abt Max and Maggie.

  2. Kay, your writing style makes me feel as if I’m right there with you. Keep me on board with your…

  3. What a wonderful post! I lived aboard for 10 years at Port Annapolis and then National Harbor. I loved it…

  4. Well written! You are now officially cruisers. Wishing you a speedy recovery of all your boat problems.

Off the Dock and into a Harbor with No Name

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.

Phil releasing the lines on Dock 500

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.”

Kay at the helm, fighting motion sickness but functional.

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.

Phil at the Helm

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.

Cape Florida Light to the east of No Name Harbor

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.

Kay in the dinghy at No Name Harbor, Catmandu in the background.

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.

Stiltsville houses in Biscayne Bay. These were built offshore in the 1920s, partly to escape prohibition laws.

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.

Sunset, with the open-air bar, The Cleat, shown on the left.

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.