Archive by Author | Kay

Having a Ball in Key West

“They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

– Confucius

“Go West, young man.”

– Attributed to Horace Greeley

After 15 months at Safe Harbor Marina Marathon–with just a few sailing excursions into Hawk Channel– we took our dock rug, hoses, and electrical cords and prepared to sail away. Our friends Guy and Pam were there to help with lines, and it was sad to say goodbye. Phil backed out of the slip that early Saturday morning while I put away the lines and fenders. We wouldn’t need those where we were going.

Day One: Marathon to Key Lois

It was still, calm and sunny with no wind as we motored past the familiar vessels in the marina for the last time. We passed the boat wreck where cormorants, pelicans and ibises had entertained us as we watched them preening or fishing, or just drying their wings. Last week we watched every other species scatter as a bald eagle landed on the wreck with his fish dinner. Soon, his partner swooped in to share the leftovers. The panicked cormorants swam away in a tight group of about 20 birds, safety in numbers. There was no doubt as to who rules the roost. (We will miss the roost.)

Phil at the wheel, leaving Marathon

The sea was as flat as it gets, so the boat moved smoothly through the morning. We saw dolphins for a few minutes, surprising since we hadn’t seen any in Marathon since around June. The smart ones must have moved on to cooler waters. Our poor seasick cat tossed her Friskees under the salon table and curled up under the aft bed. She is 19½ human years old, so we forgive her.

Maggie, complaining as usual

Phil had plotted a two-day course to Key West using paper charts and our Garmin chart plotter, so it was easy to navigate. We put Otto the autopilot on and with minor course corrections for the numerous crab pots, we made our way west to the first night’s anchorage at Key Lois (aka Loggerhead Key), arriving in early afternoon.

When we found a good spot to drop the anchor, I took the wheel and steered into the wind. However, I was not very good at keeping it there, and the boat kept turning. I’m working on that. We did manage to anchor in nine feet of water and turned off the engine. We were the only boat in the anchorage. A frigate bird, with its M-shaped wingspan and swallow tail, paid us a visit wheeling close to the mast on its way around the boat. We didn’t kill it and eat it, so I think it was a good omen.

When night came, we barbecued our veggie burgers and had celebratory gin and tonics. The half-moon lit up the sky, and the stars – so many stars – were brilliant. In the distance, we could see the glow coming from the lights of Key West, the only sizable community in the lower keys. The boat was rolling side to side, but we didn’t really notice until we went below. For such calm seas, we didn’t know why it was so roll-y. With the hatches open and a breeze blowing through, we slept like babies in a giant rocking cradle.

Day Two: Key Lois to Garrison Bight Mooring Field

Daybreak at Key Lois

I awoke before dawn and fed the meowing beast before settling outside to watch the sun rise. Phil made coffee in the French press, and we toasted bagels for breakfast. It was a sunny, cool morning with a better breeze, so we were anticipating a sailing day. Sure enough, as I motored into the wind and Phil pulled the anchor, we felt the rise of wind out of the east. The wind predictions (notoriously unreliable) were for northerly winds, but any wind that allowed us to raise the sails and head west was a blessing.

Sailing wing-on-wing

We sailed downwind with the mainsail pulled to the left side and the foresail to the right. This arrangement is called sailing “wing on wing,” as the two sails look like wings pulling the boat along. We occasionally hit 4.5 knots in a 10 or 12 knot breeze, but mostly cruised along dodging crab pots at 3 to 4 knots. It was peaceful and relaxing. We passed the keys we often traversed on our many trips down Route US1 from Marathon and saw the million-dollar mansions lining the beaches, which aren’t visible from the Overseas Highway. We sailed for more than ten nautical miles.

Million-dollar mansions along the southern coast of Sugarloaf Key

Welcome to Key West

When it was time to enter the Key West channel, I pointed into the wind and Phil dropped the sails. As usual, I couldn’t keep the boat from spinning too much, but I did a much better job this time. So that counts as progress. Phil got us back on course and we made the right turn at the end of Key West. That’s when the wind picked up and we saw wind speeds of 13 knots just when we didn’t need it. A narrow, busy channel is not a great place to rely on your sailing skills.

Look! Key West!

We motored through the channel between Tank Island and Key West. I made a little video of this passage as we tried to pick out the landmarks we knew: Galleon Resort, Southernmost Point, Mallory Square, Sunset Pier with strains of live music coming across the water.

We passed Wisteria Island (a much better island name than Tank, don’t you think?) and entered a narrow passage to make our way around the northern end of Fleming Island and south into our mooring field. A small motor boat pulled directly across our path as we made the turn, with no one onboard looking in our direction. (We didn’t sound the air horn. Phil is kinder than I am when it comes to inconsiderate boat captains.)

It was around 3 pm when we started searching for an empty mooring ball. The mooring field between Fleming and Sigsbee islands holds 149 mooring balls, chained securely to the bottom of the harbor. Boats hook their strongest lines to a ring at the top of the ball and hang on without anchoring. We were told there would be balls available, but we wandered through rows of moored boats and finally found one – but it was broken.

Late afternoon in our new neighborhood

Finally, at the far northeastern end of the field, we found two available balls. Phil drove up to one very slowly and left me at the helm to get him as close as possible to the ball. He had a boat hook to grab the line, a tricky maneuver even with his experience, and trickier still in the brisk wind. As I got too close to the ball, he yelled “neutral,” indicating that I should downshift. Only I couldn’t budge the shift lever and I panicked. “It won’t shift!” I said, as we drifted past the ball. Phil came to my rescue, and figured out that the engine was revving too fast to shift, so I relearned that important lesson.

Feeling like a mooring ball failure, I let Phil spin the boat around to approach the ball a second time. This time, I was driving so slowly, Phil was able to lasso the ball, muscle it up so he could reach the ring, and attach a mooring line. We were home.

Right away, the man in the adjacent boat introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Jack,” he yelled across the water. “Phil and Kay,” we answered and waved. He appears to be living alone on his boat (which I thought was named “Arrer-ten”) and maybe he was lonely and glad to have a neighbor. Phil chuckled when I asked him what Arrer ten means in French. “After Ten,” he said. The “f” and the “t” had worn off at the top.

Arrer-Ten, our mooring field neighbor

We had just a couple more things to do: check in with the dockmaster, and have dinner. The dockmaster was a half hour dinghy ride away, but we found the right channels in the unfamiliar harbor and caught him just in time. He introduced himself as Beaver and collected $424 for a month of mooring, showers, laundry, dinghy dock and pump-out service. “It’s the only affordable housing in Key West,” he said.

The blue dot is where we live now.

Thai Island Restaurant was open, so we headed up to the outdoor seating area and got acquainted with our server, Roger. He was another Key West character, the interesting and unusual people we keep finding in our new community. (Read more about “Quirky Key West“) Roger, self-described as “fabulous!”, somehow got us to tell him our whole history, and he learned our names. We ordered two plates of delicious Thai stir fry and he brought a selection of sauces. I mentioned that one sauce was way too hot and he said, “Maybe you’re just way too white.” I wasn’t offended; he was joking. I think if your food hurts you, maybe you shouldn’t eat it.

Sunset in the Garrison Bight Mooring Field

Back in the dinghy with my tiny take-out box, we made our way back to Catmandu before dark. As we rested in the cockpit and sunset approached, we heard strains of bugle or cornet music coming from the nearby naval base. They play a familiar tune five minutes before sunset, and then the trumpet sounds the “Retreat” at sunset, signaling that the workday is over. We sat quietly and listened to the trumpet from across the waters of our new home, a poignant ending to a very long day.

Beset by Turtles

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.

– Ogden Nash, “The Turtle”

Our latest outing into the waters around Boot Key took us farther south and west than we had ever been on Catmandu. We left the dock without a clear destination in mind, thinking we would sail west and visit one of two or three anchorages that had been recommended by friends. The original plan was to anchor between the old and new bridges at Bahia Honda, but currents are known to be strong there and we didn’t want to find ourselves pinned against a bridge in the middle of the night if our anchor dragged.

Other suggestions were farther away, and since the wind was so light (4 or 5 kts), we would have to motor all the way back, even if we managed to sail there slowly. So, we backed out of the slip on a fair Friday morning with the idea of sailing around just for fun and anchoring right outside our home harbor. It would give me some practice sailing and anchoring, which we will need for our future expeditions. (Phil doesn’t need practice, but as he puts it, “we are a team.” Winning teams practice.)

Phil sailing SV Catmandu near Marathon, FL
Phil at the wheel.

Phil drove out of the channel while I stowed the fenders. As soon as we cleared the markers, Phil went forward to hoist the mainsail. The wind was light and variable, mostly from the east and southeast. I drove in a crooked line, trying to keep the bow into the wind for Phil. After that, we let Otto drive (he seemed to work better than I did). I helped pull out the jib, noting that I forgot to put a stopper knot in the jib sheet (again). Soon we were sailing slowly toward the west, and we cut the engine.

What a difference it makes when the engine goes off. Every sailor loves that moment, when the diesel engine quiets and the wind takes over. We sailed a parallel course to the 7-Mile Bridge and passed the western end. We approached Bahia Honda, headed a little to the south, and kept going. The ocean was nearly flat, and it was a peaceful few hours.

We heard splashes all around us, and saw rings of white foam on the surface of the water. Phil figured out that they were made by turtles, and called them “turtle pops.” Sometimes we caught a glimpse of a turtle’s head, if it stayed up long enough, and sometimes a flipper would fly out. Most of the time they were too fast to see, and all we got was the ring of white foam and a splash. But they were all around us or possibly swimming with us. “We are beset by turtles,” Phil announced.

From the rare parts I could see, we think they were Hawksbill turtles, with a possible Loggerhead or two. The Hawksbill turtles have a distinctive spot pattern on their front flippers, and that is what I used to identify them. Turtles do not stay on the surface for long, and they are pretty quick to dive if they spot a human or a boat. Here is a Hawksbill turtle. They are about three feet long from head to tail.

Hawksbill Turtle

We sailed for a few hours and then turned toward home. The wind was so light, it would have taken us several hours to get to the anchorage, so we had to motor sail. There were only three other boats there, so we had no problem picking out a spot. I drove while Phil dropped the anchor. He had to adjust the clutch on the anchor windlass, so I’m glad he didn’t send me forward to drop the anchor. I do have to practice that at some point.

Maggie, getting some fresh air.

We knew not to get too close to shore. In light winds, the bugs (no-see-ums) can be brutal. We had some adult beverages, listened to music and watched our old cat Maggie climb the companionway stairs and join us in the cockpit. She rarely comes outside, so it was good to see her making the effort. She took a walk around the deck and settled down beside us. In the distance, we could see a sailboat levitating over the water. Or, atmospheric conditions make it look like that.

The sailboat in the distance appears to be floating above the water, not in it.

Memorial for Mom

A few months after my mother died, the people at Seasons Hospice who cared for her during her last days gave my sisters and me a memorial lantern. We hadn’t planned a time or place to deploy it, and my sisters expected that I would light it and release it somewhere over the ocean. Phil thought it would be a good time and place to finally send it off. After grilling Impossible® burgers for dinner, we waited in the cockpit for the sun to go down.

My mother and father had a running argument about where to vacation. My dad wanted to go to the woods, and he usually won. But Mom loved the beach. She grew up in Westerly, Rhode Island and her grandfather had a beach house on Misquamicut Beach. She spent her summers there until she was 10, when the Hurricane of ’38 blew the beach house away. It also killed nearly 300 people in Rhode Island that day, including some of my mother’s schoolmates.

There was little left of the house on the beach, just a tiny bit of the cement sea wall. The top floor ended up two miles inland, the bedspreads still dry and folded on the beds. The hurricane did not dampen her desire to spend time at the beach. (It was different for her grandfather. Devastated, he sold the property without ever going back.) When my sisters and I would visit the beach with my mom, we would find that bit of sea wall and lay our towels out beside it.

This made me feel that flying that magical lantern over the ocean would be a fitting way to honor my mother. My sisters live far away, so they would not be able to participate. Phil and I got out the paper lantern kit, and making sure it was environmentally safe and ocean-friendly, we looked for the instructions to light it. Hilarity ensued. Apparently, AI has not advanced sufficiently to translate Chinese into understandable English. Wishing Light Operating Instructions (I am not making this up.):

  1. After the distribution of fuel to packaging equipment Kong Cross wire in the side of the field again deduction presses the fuel pressure lock firmly.
  2. A person wishing light take up a Top; another person fuel ignited the four angle.

After cracking up at this bit of nonsense, we figured out how to attach the fuel tile to the wire at the bottom of the lantern, and just after sunset at the anchorage, we tried several times to light it. It was old; it had been on the boat for almost two years, and it just would not light easily. It finally ignited, and we held it up off the deck, fire extinguisher at the ready.

When the “four angle” (the fuel tile was a square) was fully engulfed, the top of the lantern expanded to its full height and started to float away. I’m sorry I don’t have pictures, but it took both of us to hold the lantern and light it safely. I said, “I miss you, Mom,” and Phil let it go into the fading twilight.

We watched it float off the boat for about ten feet and then sink into the sea. We both started laughing, and I knew if my mom were looking on, she would be laughing too. The next day, as we were making our way back to the west to calibrate Otto again, I thought I saw the remnants of our memorial Wishing Light, disintegrating into the ocean as it was meant to do.

***

How does one tie up a blog with so many threads? I try to make each piece a complete tale, wrapping up all the facets in a well-constructed bundle with some kind of conclusion to make it all work, but this one is about a herd of turtles, my mom, and an overnight outing with Phil on our sailboat. A writing friend of mine asked me once if I consciously looked for a common thread to tie the blog together, and I said, “yes, I keep writing until I find it.” But the only thing I can think of to tie this one together is the ocean.

We live on it, my mother loved visiting it, and turtles pop out of it.

“I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. … It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”

― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Running in Circles

When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.

― Herman Wouk

If you were driving east into Marathon last week on the Seven Mile Bridge and looked out on the ocean side, you would have seen a sailboat with no sails up, spinning in place. That was us, going around in circles on a flat, calm sea. I could have called this article “Donuts in the Deep,” “Circling the Drain,” or simply “Calibrating the Compass,” but I was trying to imagine what people would think as they drove by and spotted a sailboat slowly rotating.

Our auto-pilot had stopped working on our way to Marathon last August, and although Phil had replaced the rudder reference (what’s that? see photos), the direction of travel was still about 50 degrees off, so we knew the compass had to be calibrated. For months, it was on the “to-fix” list, but since the engine was blowing white smoke and losing power, it wasn’t our first priority. It took many months (on island time) but finally, the old Westerbeke was patched up, fitted with all new valves and a new head gasket, and ran like a top. It was time for a shake-down cruise.

What’s a rudder reference?

This is a rudder reference – a faulty one.

We picked a calm day that promised light winds. After going through the cabins and salon and putting away everything that could go flying, we were ready to leave the dock. You wouldn’t believe the loose items we had accumulated in seven months. We had grocery bags full of loose breakables secured in the v-berth. I tied up the drawers in my mom’s jewelry box – that was a disaster the last time we sailed in rougher waters; the drawers came out and scattered earrings and necklaces all over the captain’s cabin. I locked cupboard doors, secured the cat food and water dish, and took everything off the galley counters. As it turned out, we probably didn’t have to do all that. I probably didn’t need my seasickness relief band, either.

No neighbors were around that Wednesday morning, so Phil and I unhooked our electric cord and took down the dock lines. Without a breath of wind, Phil backed out of the slip easily and we were on our way. I lifted the fenders and Phil hooked up the lifelines. It was partly cloudy, not a beautiful day, but not hot. The purring of the engine was music to our ears.

We have an 18 ½ year old cat who doesn’t like to travel much. No purring was heard from the cat quarters. Maggie hunkered down underneath the salon table, threw up, and went into the head to lie on the floor. She got extra treats when we got home.

We exited through the channel and headed west toward deeper water. The ocean was flat calm and the engine sounded healthy and happy for the first time in a year. Phil followed the instructions for calibrating the flexgate compass, pressing a series of keys on the autopilot controller. Then, when the screen said, “Turn boat,” he slowly rotated Catmandu while I thought about how comical it must look from the bridge.

The directions for calibration of the fluxgate compass.

We made two or three revolutions before the message told us how many degrees of compass deviation we had so we could adjust it to our actual course heading. Done! Our autopilot is fixed. For those who don’t sail, this device allows us to set a course, set the sails or run the engine, and relax while “Otto” steers. (Yes, it reminds me of the inflatable pilot in the Airplane movies.)

Our Raymarine Smart Pilot – so smart!

We were not ready to head back to port, so we pointed into the wind, raised the head sail and turned off the engine. It wasn’t worth raising the mainsail; there was almost no wind. We bobbed around in the water, loving the peace that descends when the engine turns off. The breeze was no more than a light caress on the jib, and we managed to move about a half mile at .5 knots. But we were off the dock. We were sailing.

Dolphins appeared off the port stern, and we heard one just behind us slapping his tail. There were several more off the port bow, swimming so close we could see them under the water. They slap their tails to stun fish and to tell their pod members where the fish are. They swam around us for a while, and after they disappeared, we spotted a large sea turtle with a patch of seaweed on his shell. The turtle wasn’t close enough to identify the species. He dove back under the water, and we turned for home.

Just one of the dolphins who visited during our slow sail.

Where are we from, and where are we going?

Our slow cruise began nearly ten years ago in Annapolis. Now it can continue. We have a working engine, an autopilot, a new water maker, and updated charts. We have the means to visit Key West, the Dry Tortugas, the west coast of Florida, the Bahamas and beyond. But hurricane season approaches, and we will have to be somewhere safe until November. We have been here in Marathon for almost a year, loving the climate-controlled pool, the easy access to laundry and supplies, and the incomparable sunsets. We travel by dinghy to restaurants and tiki bars – and back. Maybe we are a bit spoiled, for cruisers.

The sunsets are spectacular.

Living the island life just south of mainland Florida, we find ourselves in the company of other boat-dwellers, sailors, and wanderers. Phil makes friends easily, and we socialize at the pool and the marina parties, only to discover weeks later that our new friends have moved on. Most people are just passing through, but we have been here so long, we got a 10% discount on dinner the other night for being “locals.”

It is a welcoming community, and when they ask us where we are from, we look at each other for an answer.

“All over,” I say. Born in California, raised in a nomadic military family in communities on both U.S. coasts, eventually landing for a time in Colorado, Washington State, and New Hampshire, I never know what to say.

“Where’s home, though?” they might ask.

“Wherever the boat is,” says Phil.

We don’t know exactly where we are going next, and we don’t know when. But we do know we can find our way there with a working autopilot, a working engine, and a correctly calibrated compass. Until we have a float plan, a destination or at least a route on the chart plotter, I guess we will be running in circles. At least we are finally running.

Wildlife

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
― John Muir,
Naturalist

“Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”
Mary Oliver
, Poet


In The Other, a 1971 novel by author Thomas Tryon, a pair of twin boys learn a game from their grandmother, and even though the novel goes to a very dark place, I love that game. I’ve remembered it through all of these years and practice it often. It goes like this: you stare at some living thing for a long time and imagine that you can see what it sees and feel what it feels. If it’s a bird, you can experience flying and feel the wind in your feathers, feel the drafts lifting you up by the wings, imagine how it feels to swoop out over the water and soar on the breeze. In the novel, the boys practice on each other and it doesn’t end well. But try it sometime. Pick a seagull or a pelican and take it for a spin.

Birds

Being retired, I feel that it is finally okay to spend time bird watching. It’s probably not okay to spend time imagining that I’m a bird, but the mind wanders and that’s what happens. From the cockpit of my boat, I can see seagulls, ibises, pelicans, cormorants, egrets, ospreys, and anhingas – sometimes all at once sitting on a large piece of debris in the harbor. They all sit together as if they are one flock. Birds have rules, usually. One bird to a piling, and only one. But a line of different species crowds together on the rusting train car, squawking and fussing.

Pelicans on pilings: One per piling, that’s the rule.

Pelicans: My favorites are the pelicans. They are huge, with brown bodies and white heads folded down into their necks. In the air, they soar without flapping, graceful as scarves on the wind. But when they spy a fish in the water to capture and store in their massive throats, they become clumsy bundles of feathers, feet and beaks, crashing headlong into the water with a messy splash. It takes them a second to straighten out their limbs, toss the fish into their expandable throats and sit quietly, composing themselves. I’m going to make a slow-motion video of the pelican plunge and set it to the sound of a World War II bomber plane. These antics make me laugh out loud sometimes.

Pelican on a piling near the fuel dock at our marina.

Ibises: These social birds fly together to a designated tree on land right at sunset. We’ve seen it again and again; they gather in the branches and rest there overnight. The coordinated timing is remarkable. They all seem to know when it’s time to go. White ibises have bodies shaped like footballs and long, pink curved beaks, although the beaks are straight until juveniles reach adulthood. These birds are the playboys of the bird kingdom. Males have multiple girlfriends, and mate often with a variety of females. However, a male will build a nest for one particular female and defend it while they raise their chicks.

Anhingas and Cormorants: These birds look very similar in the water. They swim around in a “seated” position, low in the water with just their heads and necks sticking out. They are similar in size, and both birds tend to sit on a perch with their wings unfurled. They don’t have oil glands like other sea birds, so they dry their wings by hanging them out. The lack of oil is an advantage in making deep dives for fish. Anhingas have pointed beaks and seem to be wearing snazzy silver jackets, while cormorants have hooked beaks and wear basic black.

Anhingha, in its snazzy jacket.

Egrets and Herons: My father was proud of being able to identify birds by their minor characteristics. My sisters and I would tease him by asking what color the bird’s eyelashes were, or how many toenails they had. I guess I have come full circle: I know the difference between great egrets and great (white) herons is in their leg color. The white phase of the great blue heron is found only in Florida and has light colored legs. The great white egret has black legs. We have both here in Marathon, and we have some cranes that also look similar. They are tall, graceful, majestic. They can stand perfectly still on one leg in the shadow of the mangroves as we drift by in the dinghy.

I’m not very good at identifying the birds; I have a brother-in-law who can tell you what bird it is if you just send him a picture. But these are my few favorites, and I do love to waste my time watching them.

Marine mammals

Manatees: There are manatees at the marina for the winter. We are warned not to feed them or provide fresh water (you should see them lap up the freshwater leaks, as if the water they live in is too salty for their taste). Manatees are huge blobs of elephant-gray blubber, sometimes eight or nine feet long. They are shaped like giant loaves of Phil’s French bread, adding a flat tail, fins for front legs and a pig-like snout. When you see one in the water, it looks like an oval hump of seaweed until it raises its nose to breathe. In spite of this ugly description, manatees are actually cute. They have adorable faces.

These water-logged blimps are also mysterious and shy. We know they are here, but no one knows how many there are, and they’re nearly invisible when they hang out at the bottom of the harbor. Is that a rock, a seaweed pile, or a manatee? One day, a large adult floated for hours near the back of our boat, and we were convinced it was dying. It moved very little except to breathe. Our next-door neighbor, an ER physician, told us it was normal manatee behavior, related to mating. I guess they play easy to get, just waiting for a suitor to wander by.

Dolphins: When the dolphins come, they stay for a while. They never come alone, but in groups of two, three, sometimes five. They slide through the water in graceful arcs, silent and dignified. We have seen one or two fly completely out of the water in a frenzy, but that is rare. Mostly, they travel from south to north in our harbor, showing their dorsal fins every 30 feet or so. Twenty minutes later, they are gone, and I feel fortunate to have seen them.

When I see dolphins, like the one just in front of the dinghy, I feel like this.

I don’t know why people love the dolphins so much. People gather on the railing of the dockside restaurants to point them out, and the kayakers rush over to get a closer look. As far as I’m concerned, they are royalty – the lions of the ocean – honoring us with their presence. I know when I’ve been blessed.

A little video clip of dolphins in our harbor, by Phil.

How to Be Happy

For twenty years or more I’ve been trying to write an article titled, “How to Be Happy.” I may finish it one day, and I think I’ll put something in there about hanging around in nature. My happiest times in childhood were spent wandering through the woods in Connecticut and in California. Getting up early to catch rabbits in the backyard or deer next to our campsite brought enormous surges of joy. Sadness has no place in the woods. The birds won’t let it rest there.

So it’s not surprising that I spend time looking for wildlife in the Keys. It’s a different kind of wilderness here than I am used to, but the expanse of water just past the cockpit, the shadowy green of mangroves on either side of the harbor, the amazing oranges and fuschias of the always spectacular sunsets; they call to me. There is a lot to learn under the water and in the salty creeks where turtles and iguanas hang off the low branches. There are tiny deer in the islands to the west that I have never seen. I have a lot to do.

Sunset with cormorants drying their wings

It’s just past five now, time for the ibises to be gathering and flying off toward land. There’s a small manatee next door. We just saw him poke his snout up to drink fresh-water drips from the boat in the next slip. Maybe later there will be dolphins.

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
― John Muir, “John of the Mountains,” American Naturalist and Environmental Philosopher

And Then Came Ian

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.

– Vincent Van Gogh

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm, there’s a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark.

– “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” by Rogers and Hammerstein, Carousel

The storm was supposed to be called Hermine, but a swift upstart came racing off the coast of Africa behind it and took the name away to sea. So, then came Ian. It was a slow mover, keeping a steady pace across the Atlantic as Storm 9 until it finally earned a name as it reached the Caribbean. “Waiting for a hurricane is like being stalked by a turtle,” a friend posted on Facebook. We didn’t think Ian was coming for us.

The calm before the storm, taken on September 24.

The track was uncertain, but the tropical storm went south of Puerto Rico and made for the Western Caribbean. Like many others before it, Ian could gain strength in the warm waters of the Gulf and head toward the shoreline of Louisiana. Poor New Orleans! I really thought that’s where it would go. Local knowledge tells us that if a storm passes south of Puerto Rico, it won’t threaten southern Florida. Ominously, another storm in 2004 – named Charley – also passed south of Puerto Rico and did a lot of damage in southwestern Florida.

Friday, Sept. 23: The spaghetti models (those stringy looking storm track predictions) were promising a turn to the north across the island of Cuba and then an easterly turn toward the west coast of Florida. It wobbled to the west, giving us a little relief. But we were concerned about high winds and began preparations. The marina office told us we can move to a larger slip, to give the boat room to bob around. We made a list of high-wind preparations. Luckily, we had friends coming to visit who had lots of sailing experience and we listened carefully to their advice.

Saturday, Sept. 24: With our friends’ help, we removed the head sail and stowed it inside. Then we moved Catmandu to the larger slip, so the boat was now facing west. Since the storm would pass to our west, that seemed the most likely wind direction. This proved to be wrong, but the decision to move was definitely right.

Catmandu, caught in the spider web of dock lines before the storm. Note the color of the water.

We were able to double our lines, add more lines to the midship cleats, and put spring lines on both sides to keep the boat loosely in place. Too tight, the lines or cleats could break; too loose, we could bounce off the concrete dock or the wooden pilings. Phil went to WestMarine to buy new lines and found the stock was greatly diminished – no surprise. He came back with two new lines, shorter than we wanted, at a cost of $190.

Although we thought the storm would bring high wind and waves from the west, we didn’t base our preparations on that fact. We were looking at a long fetch in that direction, which means a great expanse of water loomed with no obstructions. Beyond the mouth of Boot Key Harbor, there is Hawk Channel with its shallow coral reef, and beyond that, nothing but Cuba to the south and a few islands to the west.

It is best to shelter from the fetch, and some sailboats in the harbor began to leave for the Shark and Little Shark Rivers, up around the south coast of Florida and into the Everglades. The eventual path of the storm put these boats closer to the eye, but they tucked into the mangroves and remained until Ian passed. They all made it with little to no damage. The natural protection of the narrow river and dense mangrove trees made this a nice hurricane hideout.

The spaghetti models were not predicting a hit in the Keys, so we felt safer.

Sunday, Sept. 25: We watched the forecasts every three hours. On the day the storm was forecast to pass closest to us (Tuesday), there was a 20-30% chance of 34-knot winds, and a 5-10% chance of 50-knot winds. In our location, there were no hurricane watches or warnings because the wind has to be 65 knots or greater to be a hurricane (75 mph). (Phil has a way of explaining watches and warnings: Taco Watch – We have the ingredients for tacos. Taco Warning – We are having tacos.)

We were never advised by authorities that we should evacuate. At this point, we knew it would not be a direct hit. In fact, we were out of the cone altogether: No tacos. So we wrapped the main sail, lifted the dinghy from the water and secured the outboard on the back of the boat. We took everything that could fly and secured it inside. We left the dodger and bimini up, a decision we questioned later. (For non-sailors, these are the canvas coverings over the back of the boat.)

Then, Ian shifted slightly. Fed by warm ocean waters, it became larger and stronger. It moved closer.

Monday, Sept. 26: By Monday, the wind was making an eerie whirring sound above the marina, and small rain showers passed through. The rain bands from Ian were approaching, even though the eye was still 200 miles away. We spent the day getting ready: tying down the solar panels, securing the cockpit table, strapping in the dinghy. Ian was moving slowly across the tip of western Cuba.

At 6 p.m., the air conditioner stopped working. It wasn’t the storm at all, just a reminder that a boat will present problems no matter what else is going on. The inlet through-hull was clogged. As Phil tried to unplug it, the plumber’s snake broke. We headed to Home Depot. Phil bought a new snake and a little plastic drain cleaning tool ($3) that busted up the clog.

As soon as we got the AC running, I started closing the hatches. There was a scary sound of distant thunder. I was reaching up to close a hatch when we simultaneously saw a brilliant flash and heard a deafening crack. I ducked and screamed but was not hit. Phil and I looked at each other. “That was close,” I said.

Before Ian arrived, we had this rainband full of lightning.

“Right here,” he said. We found out later that lightning had hit the boatyard less than a quarter mile away and knocked out the Wi-Fi signal. (A week later, it still has not been repaired.) Lightning is a danger to boats with tall masts. Phil says he relies on the “buddy system,” which means positioning next to taller boats. The wind kicked up in the middle of the night and Phil went outside to loosen some of the lines and alleviate the banging. The boat was straining all the dock lines, but the wind was primarily from the southeast. The dinghy was swinging against the stern, making a lot of noise. Sleep was difficult.

Tuesday, Sept. 27: I confess to Phil that I am having trouble writing this blog. It should have been done days ago – and it’s getting so long.

“I know how it should start,” he said.

“How?”

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

It started with a tornado watch, and then a warning. We are having tacos. I’ve always wanted to see a waterspout, but only from a distance. Tornado warnings are scary, to be sure. At 9 am, the winds were only at 12 knots but it was dark and stormy. People were starting to come out on the docks, checking lines and making last minute adjustments. We loosened the lines on the dock side to give Catmandu room to move around without hitting. Rain came in small squalls all morning and the wind started to build. By afternoon, we could no longer get off the boat. We turned on the wind instrument and saw gusts of 28 knots. I took a picture of a palm tree. Looking at that, I can hardly imagine what 120 knots would look like.

The palm tree looked like this in 28-knot winds.

Tuesday afternoon, we started rolling and heeling to the starboard side. The winds were roaring, and they made a flute-like sound going across the masts and shrouds in the marina. Outside, it was impossible to talk over the higher gusts, which were now in the upper 30s. The palm trees were all fanned out to one side. When the storm track shifted slightly to the east, it brought our location to the very edge of the tropical storm force winds. Farther up the west coast, Fort Myers was getting ready for a direct hit. Ian passed Key West and stirred up 25-foot waves in its wake.

Ian, as it passed Key West. Note our location at the blue dot.

Phil doubled the port stern line and backed it up by winding the end around the winch. The cat curled up under the table, a spot she claims whenever the boat moves around too much. By suppertime, we were rolling around so much, I had to release the gimble on the stove. This allows the stove to swing, keeping it level. We were tied to a cement dock, but bobbing around as if we were in open ocean.

The wind rattled the aluminum frame that holds the bimini, making the boat sound like it was coming apart. As evening fell, we looked at each other every time a sustained gust leaned the boat to 20 degrees or more. The winds were beating on the port stern, kicking us in the butt. The poor dinghy was swinging around like a balloon on a string.

Since the wi-fi was still out, we decided to watch a movie. I guess it was a strange choice, being on a boat in a storm, but we watched The Abyss on DVD. The winds were getting stronger outside, and we started getting periods of pelting rain. Phil put towels in the aft cabin where rain comes in to prevent wet pillows on the bed. But we weren’t sleeping. The boat was moving around so much, our Fitbits were registering steps. I was waiting for dock lines to snap and throw us against the pilings, or worse.

After the movie, we went outside with flashlights to check the lines, and all were holding despite the onslaught. We checked the wind speed and found sustained winds of 30 knots with occasional gusts up to 55, more than gale force. (We found out later that gusts of 67 knots had come through Boot Key Harbor. Hurricane force is 65.)

The wind gauge at 3 am.

Looking out into the wild night, I imagine being a primitive human, with no knowledge of weather and no advance warning for storms. In that mindset, with this kind of fury, of course I would believe the gods were mad at us. There could be no other explanation.

Wednesday, Sept. 28: After a long night, we heard a lone voice on the VHF radio. “Okay,” he said, “I’ve had enough of this!” We could not pull the boat to the dock to get off, the wind was still so strong. Phil hooked a dock line to one of our winches and used that to pull the boat close enough for him to jump to the dock. I wasn’t going to try it. He took a picture of the boat, noting the weird color of the water. It looked like pale blue milk. It was so full of sand and silt it had become opaque.

Catmandu after the storm, sitting in milky water.

Elsewhere, Ian was churning toward the west coast of Florida and gaining strength. The Waffle Houses closed – a Florida signal that something terrible was coming. We were starting to relax a little and felt renewed sympathy for those in the path of the storm. We had made it, but not without damage. The solar panels had somehow rotated to an unnatural position, and at first we couldn’t figure out how that happened with the outboard motor in the way. Then Phil discovered the dinghy davits (the stainless steel racks that hold the inflatable boat up) were bent. Yes, the winds had bent steel.

Behind the sign you can see a poor sailboat caught in the trees with tattered sails.

Aftermath: I love storms. I love watching lightning in distant rain clouds, especially over the water. A gentle wind can stir up emotions and memories along with the rustling of the palms. I’m the last one to take shelter when the first drops of rain fall. Now that this storm has passed, even after witnessing the fury of the wind, I don’t love storms any less. I will still marvel at thunderheads, feel the thrill of lightning strikes reflected in the ocean, still watch the horizon for waterspouts. But I will think twice about being on a sailboat within two hundred miles of a hurricane.

At the end of a storm, there’s a golden sky…

Love Song to Marathon

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,
and the winds long to play with your hair.”

– Khalil Gibran, The Wanderer

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.

Kay talking to the fishes: Our snorkeling excursion revealed a wild array of fish, some with delightful faces.
Phil dropped his Chapstick® when he jumped in the water, and the fish went after it.

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.

An example of a chickee hut sits in front of our marina office. Cool breezes flow through the space beneath this thatched-roof structure.

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.)

Sunset over our shallow harbor.
Phil enjoying the sunset from the cockpit of Catmandu.

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 Little Engine that Couldn’t. The spire on the left sticks up above the water at high tide.

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.

We are more than halfway to Key West from Key Largo.

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 fuel dock at our marina at quittin’ time.

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. Yippee! A great read from Ms Kay. Almost felt like I was there. Of course, the best thing would be…

  2. Nina Schumann on Wildlife

    Loved this and learned a lot! Since I don’t see well from a distance, identifying birds has always been a…

  3. loved reading this. i felt like i was there. and u both are nuts!

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.