Amps In The Bank, Water In The Tank, And Spending A Day In Nassau

After four long days, the winds have finally stopped howling, and Rhonda and I are getting ready to make our next move. It’s about time, as 96 hours of listening to the rigging hum and feeling the boat rock and rub against the pilings was just about all we could stand. It’s a little over 30 miles from Palm Cay Marina to Allen’s Cay at the northern end of the Exuma island chain. Our plan is to settle our tab and throw off the lines in the morning and skirt Yellow Bank as we head southeast. The charts say the Bank is 12 feet deep with numerous coral heads that reach to within 3 to 4 feet of the surface (our keel is 5 feet deep). It requires visual piloting, which means we have to make sure the sun is high and the sky is clear so that we can read the water and dodge the keel munching stacks of coral. We’re thinking we’ll probably take the scenic route, skirting the edge of the bank rather than cutting straight across. It will add a few miles to our sail, but it should be quite a bit easier on our nerves.

To prepare, we spent the day giving Eagle Too a much needed bath. I also ran the water maker to fill the tank, and turned on the battery charger to top off our house bank with plenty of fresh electrons. With everything full, we’re basically ready to go.

So I mentioned in my previous post that Palm Cay Marina has a little car available for running errands. Your use is limited to two hours, and since it takes 20-25 minutes to get into Nassau and the same to get back, you have to plan your trip to make the most of the just-slightly-over-an-hour that’s left to do whatever it is that you need to do. On our grocery/pharmacy/liquor store runs, we literally plot our movements in advance and head into town with lists in hand to make the most of every minute. But the other day we had an idea. We wanted to spend an afternoon just sightseeing. More than you could fit into a two hour window. But we didn’t want to have to rent a car. So when we found out that Bob and Wendy on S/V Journey also wanted to play tourist for a while, a plan was hatched. We signed up to take the car from 11AM – 1PM, and they took the 1 – 3 PM. And like that, we had a ride for half a day!

We headed for The Queen’s Staircase, which was hand-carved by slaves from a hill of solid limestone in the 18th Century.

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We hiked up to Fort Fincastle, with its commanding view of the cruise ships in the harbor.

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We wandered through the grounds of the government buildings.

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And stumbled upon a rum distillery.

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We explored the former gracious manor home Graycliff, now operated as an exclusive hotel. We were in awe of their lobby “tree” made entirely of wine bottles!

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Graycliff has its own cigar factory, which I had to see (and sample the wares).

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We took in the general sights around town.

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And then stopped by the Rum Cake Factory, where they sell absolutely amazing cakes for only $5 each. They were better than Tortola Rum Cakes for a third the price.

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A quick stop to pick up some “takeaway” street food to bring back to the boat for dinner later.

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And then our time ran out and we had to return to the marina. But we packed a lot of the sights, sounds and feel of all that is Nassau in four short hours!

Waiting Out Weather

We originally planned to stay here at Palm Cay Marina for three or four days in order to make a grocery run and catch up on our laundry. But then we looked at the weather. The forecast called for wind. Lots and lots of wind. Gale force wind. The kind of wind that makes sitting at anchor damned unpleasant.  So we decided that we’d much rather wait it out here in this snug little harbor tied firmly to a pier. And like that, our three to four day visit is now entering its second week. And there are at least two, possibly three more days of this wind yet to come.

While we may be sailors, we’re the leisurely cruising sort. There’s nothing about heading out under a gale warning that we find appealing. Since I often tell people that we have no place in particular to be and all the time in the world to get there, we feel no urgency to get moving until the conditions are right. Besides, this is a pretty nice place. There’s a bar, a restaurant, a beach and a pool. The washers work in the laundry room. They even have a little Toyota that you can check out for two hours at a time to run errands. We’ve used the time to do some shopping and a little sightseeing, and we’re taking advantage of the pretty decent marina internet to catch up on our banking and start our taxes and do some software updates on all our various devices. We’ve even been able to catch up on a few of the TV shows we’ve missed since leaving Florida by streaming episodes (which is not as easy as it sounds, but I’ll have more on that another day).

But still, our marina fee of $80 a day really starts to add up after a while. It’s putting quite a dent in our cruising budget. So hopefully in the next few days this wind will blow itself out and we’ll be on our way. From here, we’re jumping over to the Exumas to start working our way south towards George Town.

But for now, let’s take advantage of the fast WiFi to catch up on pictures!

We’ll start with this taste of what it’s like to wake up after a night spent anchored in the middle of the Great Bahamas Banks. No land in sight, but only 18 feet deep!

On the second day of our trip from Bimini to Nassau, we tucked into what we thought was a nice little anchorage between Chub Cay and DIamond Cay. Chub Cay has been a major mecca for sport fishermen that want to hunt for the big ones in the deep waters of the Tongue of the Ocean. Unfortunately for them, it was clobbered by hurricane Matthew last year, and is only now starting to get back on its feet. And the nice little anchorage turned out to be a mirage. When I dove on the anchor to check its set, I learned that the nice big patch of white sand that we’d settled over was actually a flat table of white limestone, and the anchor was just sitting on top of it. Fortunately, extremely light winds were forecast overnight, so we just put out a hundred feet of chain and called it a night. Besides, there was an unlocked WiFi network available that let us check weather and update Facebook.

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The next morning we rose with the sun and pointed Eagle Too towards Nassau. The day started dead calm.

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We tried to motor-sail, but there just wasn’t any wind to be had and we eventually gave up. When it did finally start to blow, it was dead on the nose, and since we needed to be at Palm Cay Marina before they closed the gate in the evening, we continued motoring. Rhonda put out a couple of fishing lines, but only managed to add to her collection of seaweed.

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By mid-afternoon, we passed Atlantis on Paradise Island, which anyone who’s been to Nassau will recognize.

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Dodging the cruise ship and mega-yacht traffic, we hooked around the eastern end of New Providence Island to reach Palm Cay Marina, our destination, where we quickly settled in and made ourselves at home.

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Among cruisers, Nassau is considered a bit of an armpit. The main harbor is crowded and dirty, and crime is rampant. Even marinas with security have had problems with thieves approaching at night from the water on paddle boards to burglarize yachts. Palm Cay Marina is several miles from Nassau, and has security both from the land side, and from the water as well. To enter from land, you have to get past this guy.

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And believe it or not, they pull up a chain barrier to lock the waterway into the marina at dusk.

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It’s a shame it has to be this way, but it is what it is, and as the Capitol of the Bahamas, Nassau is the best place to run parts, obtain stores, fill prescriptions, or send and receive any type of mail. So we picked a place where the security is tight enough that many people don’t even lock their boats. And did I mention the free loaner car?

OK, it’s not really much of a car. And the steering wheel is in the wrong place. But the streets get a bit narrow and they drive on the wrong side of the road here, so it works. With Rhonda helping remind me to keep left (especially at traffic circles), we made it into town and back without incident. My biggest problem was my tendency to turn on the windshield wipers whenever I wanted to signal a turn, because the control stalks were reversed on the steering column.

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If you’re weeks out from seeing a major grocery store, we discovered you’ll find everything you need at Solomons. And the prices weren’t even that bad. Some things were a bit higher than we expected, but the meat and vegetable prices really weren’t much more than we were used to paying at home. And the selection was terrific. And we could even buy beer by the case! In Bimini, we had to purchase by the can or bottle, as the stores didn’t want to give a case price, but rather protect their margins by charging by the can.

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So if ever there’s a reason to deal with all that is Nassau, the opportunity to re-provision at a well stocked grocery store is right up there.

Our groceries stacked on the pier waiting to be brought on board.

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In our next post, we’ll go a little bit rogue in order to use the loaner car, which is really for running short errands, to do some sightseeing.

 

That Went Well

Maybe we’ve learned a thing or two in our first year of cruising. Or maybe we just got lucky. It was probably a bit of both. But I had a plan to move us swiftly and safely from Marathon in the Florida Keys to Bimini in the Bahamas. A plan based on a careful analysis of the winds, currents and predicted weather. And it played out perfectly.

First, some constraints. I promised Rhonda when we left Pensacola that we’d only sail overnight if absolutely necessary. She really doesn’t like it, and the truth is I’m not really a big fan either, although I’m willing to do it when it makes sense.  But our weirdest occurrences have always happened in the darkest of night, like the time a flailing jib sheet rolled open the valve on one of our deck-stored scuba tanks and I thought a bomb had exploded, or our encounter with the fleet of weirdly lit UFOs (unidentified floating objects) in the middle of the Yucatan channel. Things that go bump in the night are always much less frightening if there’s no night and you can plainly see what’s bumping.

Some people sail a single leg from Marathon to Bimini or Gun Cay. But it requires you to leave in the afternoon and travel through the night for arrival the next day. So I knew we needed to move closer before crossing. I’d made a promise, after all. I wanted to stage the boat where we could make it across the Florida Straits in the span of a single day’s light. The first step was to hop up to Rodriquez Key, a trip of about 45 miles. The moderate cold front that had just blown through Marathon and cost us a night’s sleep promised a day of 15-20 knot winds from the northwest. Normally this is a bit sportier than we would prefer to head out in. When the winds get to 20 knots or higher, things can break on a sailboat if you’re not careful. The margin that allows you to make a few mistakes without hurting anyone starts getting a bit thin. But I knew that because it would be a broad reach (wind from behind the boat), it would be easier, and traveling up the Hawk Channel on the southeast side of the Keys, the islands would block the wind some and the seas would be flat. And it worked! While it wasn’t a pretty day, we had a rip-snorting sail under reefed jib and double reefed main, regularly topping seven knots even though we were towing our dinghy, which was 1/3rd full of water from the following seas.

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A brisk downwind sail in flat seas. In case you noticed, don’t worry, Rhonda fixed her harness shortly after I took this picture.

We sailed the entire way, arriving well before sunset and tucking in between Rodriquez Key and Key Largo for shelter. Even though the wind was still blowing 15 knots or more, the water was like a calm lake, and we had a good night’s sleep.

Many sail from Rodriquez Key to Bimini as a day trip. But to do it in a boat like ours, which usually travels at six to seven knots, requires leaving at around 4AM to get into Bimini by late afternoon.  With sunrise currently occurring at about 7AM, this means several hours of travel in pre-dawn darkness. While we’d normally take that deal in order not to have to spend a night at sea, there was a big problem. This time of year, the entire area is heavily mined with crab traps, since it’s the season. And a 4AM departure meant one of us (probably me) would have to spend several hours sitting on the bow with a spotlight searching for a clear path, until we made deep water or it got bright enough to see the traps. Miss one crab trap, sail across it and tangle the prop, and then we’d be drifting until it got light and we could break out the dive gear to cut ourselves free. No thank you.

So we had to move even further toward our goal to stage for our crossing. At this point, we were only 24 miles southwest of Angelfish Creek at the northern end of Key Largo, a popular jumping off point for people headed to the Bahamas. An easy four hour trip, especially since the weather for the second day of our trip was supposed to be calm with a light southeast wind. So we took advantage of the conditions and motored though mostly placid seas, arriving in mid-afternoon.

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Bringing our dinghy on deck gains us an extra half knot of speed when traveling.

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Negotiating traffic off Key Largo

This is where I decided to take a bit of a gamble. Entering Anglefish Creek from the Atlantic Ocean side to reach the protected anchorages within requires clearing a shallow bar. Our cruising guidebook said to be extremely cautious if your draft exceeds four feet, and with our five foot draft and a dropping tide, it was a chance I just didn’t want us to take. Instead, we decided to anchor north of the mouth of the creek (off Old Rhodes Key}. It’s not marked as an anchorage in any of the guides and it was a location that was completely exposed to the south and east, but the prediction was for 5-10 knot southeast winds through the night, and the sandy bottom meant our anchor would set well. So counting on the mild conditions, we basically dropped anchor on the edge of the ocean off a lee shore (wind blowing toward the land, which can be dangerous). Not only did this save us from having to cross a shallow bar twice at low tide (once to enter the creek and anchor, and again on the way back out), but it put us almost an hour closer to Anglefish Pass through the offshore reef to gain the open ocean the next day. And that extra hour made a daylight-only crossing to Bimini very doable!

The prediction was accurate, the winds blew sedately from the southeast, and we had a pretty decent night. Getting up before the sun the next day, we were underway at 7AM, and had about 45 minutes of avoiding crab pots and crossing the reef, and then we were in two thousand feet of water with nothing but 54 miles of open ocean between us and our destination.

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Departing the US for Bimini

A mild southerly breeze calmed the northward flowing Gulf Stream, and we motored-sailed in two foot swells as the miles flew by. We pointed the bow about 15 degrees south of our destination, and let the rapidly moving stream sweep us northward, the current adding to our speed, which topped 8 knots at times.

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Passing time while crossing the Gulf Stream

We saw humpback whales. We saw the purple-blue crest of a sailfish broach alongside us as he checked us out. We saw the ocean change colors from blue to bluer to bluest. We clearly saw freighters crossing our path from miles away rather than as colored blobs on our radar and AIS screens. In the end, it was worth it. We enjoyed so many things that we would have missed traveling in darkness. All the routing and planning and waiting for suitable weather resulted in our having the easiest Gulf Stream crossing we could expect.

Unfortunately, others were not as lucky. The VHF crackled with calls from boaters requesting offshore towing or assistance. We listened raptly for an hour as a sportfishing boat sank 20 miles off Bimini, and the 300 foot mega-yacht Tatoosh (apparently owned by Paul Allen) vectored to their position to rescue three people in the water. We heard the next day that a sailboat sank in the darkness after our crossing. A friend of mine and fellow cruiser recently commented that those of us who chose this life sometimes don’t realize how close to the edge we actually live. I prefer to think that this life rewards the cautious and punishes the foolhardy. Maybe all of our careful planning and weather analysis paid off. Or maybe we were just lucky.  But to paraphrase something a famous man once said, we feel we’ve been very lucky in this life we’ve chosen, and we’ve found that the more we plan and prepare, the luckier we get.

We arrived at the Bimini Sands Marina and Resort at 3:30 in the afternoon, two months and a day after leaving Pensacola (yes, we took the scenic route).

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We had plenty of time to unstow and assemble our folding bikes and peddle the two miles to the airport to clear customs and immigration. Our Bahamas courtesy flag is now flying, and Eagle Too has safely delivered us to our third foreign country in the last year.

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Next up, we’re pouring over our guides and charts to work out how we will start working south towards Georgetown. There are literally hundreds of islands and cays to explore between here and there. It should be an interesting few months…

It’s Not All Fun And Games

While this Life On The Hook™ does provide its share of picture postcard moments, it’s important for any of you who are considering heading down the cruising path to know that every day isn’t straight out of a Jimmy Buffett song. Take today, for example. Eagle Too is anchored off Boot Key in the outside anchorage (just off the town of Marathon), with a beautiful view of the sunsets and the Seven Mile Bridge.

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But the anchorage offers no protection from winds from the south through the northwest. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as the winds are predominantly from the southeast here, with some north winds when a cold front passes. The past few days have been gorgeous, but today we’re feeling strong southwest winds, and we’re paying the price for our selection of anchorages.  There is nothing except a few reefs between us and Cuba to calm the swells, and two-to-three footers are pitching the boat like a rocking horse. Rhonda and I have spent all day hanging out in the cockpit, because it’s just too nausea-inducing to spend a great deal of time down below, unless it’s flat on our backs in bed.

Why not go into Boot Key Harbor to get away from the swell? Because it’s high season here in the Keys. There’s a 45 boat waiting list for a mooring (which means we’d probably be waiting until May), and the small areas to anchor inside the harbor are packed tight with boats. Many of these boats look worn and neglected, with several feet of sea grass growing from their hulls and sadly soggy partially deflated dinghies sitting awash alongside. I have no confidence that the ground tackle on these boats (anchor, chain, associated shackles, etc.) are any better maintained than the rest of the boat. So I just don’t trust them, and wouldn’t risk our boat by anchoring among them. Better in our opinion to suck it up and stay “outside,” where we can put out 100 feet of chain in 8 feet of water, and have a quarter mile of room to drag before we’d hit anything. Since we were only planning to be here for a few days before heading up the Keys to stage for our Bahamas crossing, it just made sense to hang out here. Besides, we love the sunsets. Just think how much these people paid to enjoy the same view as us…

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So to cope with today’s conditions, I made of quick batch of Mac & Cheese with diced Spam, and a couple of Bacardi and ginger ales. It’s a great meal for a rolly day, the kind of thing you can just pop down below and give a quick stir occasionally and then go back above before vertigo sets in.

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The mix of carbs and protein settles the stomach, while the Bacardi and ginger ales really explain themselves. Meanwhile we’re reviewing our charts and doing passage planning.

We’re currently waiting for a line of thunderstorms to move through the area overnight, which is causing us a bit of anxiety. A storm on the water is always 10 times worse than the same store ashore. But tomorrow is supposed to be clearer and the winds are predicted to shift to the northwest at 15 knots, which means that if we head eastward tomorrow morning, we should actually be able to get in a day of sailing, something we’ve done entirely too little of since leaving Pensacola back in December (it’s been about 85% motoring or motorsailing). Our plan is to go at least as far as Channel Five, with the goal of making it all the way to Rodriquez Key to anchor for the night. Then we want to move on to Angelfish Creek. At that point, we’ll be about 25 miles south of Miami, which means we’ll be perfectly positioned to jump across to Bimini. If the predicted south winds develop over the weekend, we should be able to point the boat due east, and let the Gulf Stream carry us northward towards our destination. We learned during our passage from Cuba to Mexico and then back to Florida that it makes more sense to use a current to move you toward your destination rather than fight against it.

We’ve been working on a post for a couple of weeks that outlines our journey south from St. Petersburg to the Keys. We’ve made the trip three times now (twice south, once north), and we definitely have our opinion on places to stop along the way. I still intend to finish it, but truthfully, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to soak in all there is to enjoy and also spend a couple of hours hunched over a computer. When the writing starts to remind me of work, I just stop. Those of you who follow us on Facebook have seen our regular updates, and if you’re interested in monitoring our progress, we strongly suggest you like our page. Our internet access has been pretty spotty since leaving Marco Island, and we’re relying primarily on cellular data now, so it also saves us data to throw a quick picture and a few words on Facebook rather than maintain our blog site.

With a little luck, our next blog post will be from Alice Town on Bimini Island. That’s all for now, Eagle Too out…

Moving On

Rhonda and I have thoroughly enjoyed our month here at Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg, and we’ll probably soon have another post or two that talks about some of the things we’ve seen or done while here, but it’s time to move on. The engine checks are complete, the bikes are lashed down on-deck, the speed sensor is re-installed, and Eagle Too is ready to get underway. We postponed our departure by a day to allow an intense storm front to blow through, but tomorrow morning and the next few days are supposed to be beautiful, so after a quick breakfast we’ll be bringing in the lines and pointing the bow south. Next stop—Sarasota, where we’ll take a mooring for a few days. I hope that this time we’ll be able to linger long enough to visit the Ringling Museum!

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A Tale Of Two Shackles

I spent about 30 minutes today working on a little task that probably did as much to increase our safety and security here aboard Eagle Too as almost any of the many other improvements we’ve performed in the last few years. What was it, you might ask? Well, I’ll show you.

If you own a boat, you know how vital a good anchor and a robust anchor rode (chain and/or line that attaches the anchor to the boat) are. When you’re sitting at anchor and the wind picks up or a storm passes through, your boat’s safety is completely dependent on the ability of your ground tackle (anchor, rode and associated components) to hold up. A 20,000 pound boat like ours, being battered by 40 knot winds, can create hundreds, even thousands of pounds of force yanking on the anchor. But even though we carry a two-sizes-too-big anchor and almost 300 feet of high-test (G4) chain, I’ve always been a little concerned about the weak link in the system, the piece that ties it all together—the shackle.

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When it comes right down to it, no matter how over-sized your anchor or robust your rode, that little link of cast metal is all that stands between you and being dashed against the shoreline in a blow. The problem is that not all shackles are created equal. The 3/8ths shackle we’ve been using for the last few years was one we picked up at West Marine for about $5.

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If  you look closely, you’ll see that the shackle is stamped WLL1T. This means that it’s rated for a working load limit of one ton. Now a ton might sound like a lot. But when a really good blow gets the boat sailing around at anchor, jerking up short on the rode as it completes each arc, the shock loading can be pretty intense.

So today I replaced that shackle with a new one. It’s the same size as the old one. But look closely…

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It’s a bit hard to make out in the photo, but this shackle is stamped WLL2T. Same size shackle, but rated for twice the load of the previous one. Why the difference? Pretty simple really. Let’s look at the other side.

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The new one is stamped “USA”. Now go back and take another look at the first one. You’ll see that it’s stamped “China”. And that’s all you need to know. The new one is the same size shackle, but much better quality, resulting in twice the load rating. It’s a Crosby G-209A, which you can pick up from Defender for a whopping $15.

Here’s another look at the issue. I dug though our parts box, and found another shackle onboard with a 2 ton rating.

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The one on the left is another Chinese made item, and is way too big to work with our 5/16ths chain. But even though it’s much meatier than the Crosby shackle on the right, they both have the same load rating!

If all you ever intend to do is occasionally drop the hook to grab lunch, then any old shackle should do. But if your goal is to cruise, and you want to be ready for whatever Mother Nature might throw at you, then do yourself and your boat a favor, spend the few extra dollars, and just say no to cheap Chinese shackles.

Market Day

On Saturdays, St. Petersburg puts on a big public market in the parking lot of Al Lang Stadium, the waterfront home of the local soccer team the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was a quick 10 minutes by bike from our marina, a popular form of transportation in this town where the sun seems to almost always shine.market1amarket1

It took over an hour to explore it all.

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There was a fabulous selection of produce…

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…and a wide variety of food and crafts, along with live music.

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It was yet another delightful adventure in this town that we’ve lingered in to explore in depth.

Ah, the life of a cruiser… 🙂

The Focus Begins To Shift

We’ve relaxed into a comfortable routine during our time here in St. Petersburg. For example, yesterday was Tuesday, which means it was movie day. Every Tuesday the Sundial Muvico, a large multiplex theater that’s a ten minute bike ride from our marina, offers $5 tickets and deeply discounted concessions.

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So for three weeks now, we plan our Tuesdays around the afternoon matinee schedule. The first week we saw Rogue One, and last Tuesday we caught Passengers. This week, looking for a change of pace, we watched a little jewel of a movie called Collateral Beauty.

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Do yourself a favor and go see this film. I don’t care what the reviews say on Rotten Tomatoes. If you can make it to the end of this movie without shedding a tear (or a flood of them), you have no heart.

Anyway, today is Wednesday, which means it’s dinner at The Hanger, where they offer their $12 gourmet cheeseburger for half price. So I’m pretty sure I know what we’ll be doing this evening. 🙂

But our time in St. Petersburg is growing shorter, and we’re starting to look at what comes next. Over my morning coffee, in addition to catching up on the latest news, I’ve started perusing the Waterway Guide to outline some possible options for our next few stops. And today, we’ve started some of the maintenance chores we’ve been putting off until we were closer to moving again.

For instance, before putting too many more hours on the engine, I wanted to make sure our shaft alignment was still within specification. We last aligned the shaft after reinstalling our rebuilt transmission while we were at Pensacola shipyard. But the boat was on the hard (out of the water, supported by stands) at the time. And here’s the thing about fiberglass boats—they’re made of plastic, and they bend. Sitting on stands doesn’t support the boat the same way as floating in water does. I know this is true because while we were on the hard, we noticed that the cockpit seat that has to be flipped down in order to access our swim platform would wedge and jam, making it difficult to open. It was due to the way the hull was being flexed on the stands, and the problem completely went away once Eagle Too was floating again.

So while we had gotten the alignment dead-on in the shipyard, I wanted to make sure it was still running true. If you have a boat with a direct shaft, it’s not really a difficult task (if you have a V-drive, best of luck to you. And if you have a saildrive, just completely disregard what I’m about to say. And check for corrosion. Daily! 🙂

Basically, checking the alignment just requires removing the coupling bolts.

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Then you measure the gap between the coupling faces with a feeler gauge. The general rule of thumb is that you’re allowed up to a .001″ gap (that’s one one-thousandth of an inch) per inch of coupler diameter. So for our 4 inch coupler, I was looking for less than a .004″ gap at any point around the circumference.

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I used the .002″ feeler gauge, and it wouldn’t slip between the coupler faces at any point. So we’re good. While our boat may have been bending a bit while on the hard, it apparently wasn’t enough to upset the alignment. I’m glad everything checked out OK, because if it turns out that your alignment is off, you have to start loosening engine mounts and making adjustments, and that’s just way too much to get into today. Google it if you need to know how, as you’ll find several really good online guides on how to do the job.

While I was back there, i also checked our transmission fluid, and I’m happy to say that it’s still nice and pink after about 35 hours of use, rather than brown and burnt smelling. So far it seems that sending the unit out to be rebuilt was definitely the right thing to do, and will hopefully allow us to have weeks, months, years of trouble-free travel in the future.

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To finish up, I pulled the vacuum breaker on the vented loop, cleaned it and reinstalled it. It had started leaking a little salt water onto the top of the engine while motoring. These vents usually have some type of little rubber flapper or check valve inside, and in time they’ll usually accumulate some salt crystals and start to leak a bit. Normally a good freshwater flush is all they need.

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A quick check of all the hose clamps (there are a LOT of hose clamps on our engine, and I always find a few loose ones that need tightening), belt tension (no more belt dust to clean up since we put a new pulley on the alternator during our refit), and a look at the fluid levels and fuel filter bowl, and our engine underway checks are basically done.

We can’t say for sure yet what our next stop will be, but I’m confident now that if called upon, the engine will be ready!

Back Bay Folding Bikes – Long Term Review

We’ve noticed that one of our more popular posts here at Life On The Hook has been our first-look review of the AMC Back Bay folding bicycles we bought at West Marine 18 months ago. To help out anyone who may be considering purchasing one or more for themselves and who may come across our site while Googling reviews, here’s a look at where things stand after 18 months of life in a marine environment.

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First, the good news. The bikes are still doing their intended job, getting us around town to stores, bars, restaurants and local attractions. Now that we’re back in the very bicycle-friendly city of St. Petersburg, we’re using them almost daily, and we peddled the heck out of them when we were down in Marathon in the Florida Keys. And people will often say “nice bikes!” to us as we ride by.

One thing we changed almost immediately was the stock seats the bikes came with.  After a few longish rides, I was noticing the narrow, hard seat was causing some, ahem, discomfort in places where I’d rather not be feeling pain, and Rhonda didn’t particularly care for the way hers felt either. So both bikes now have cruising saddles with wider seats and spring suspension for a more comfortable ride. Mine also has the anatomically correct (and pretty darn important) furrow down the middle to relieve pressure on certain essential nerves. We also added some small LED lights to make riding at night a bit safer.

In the so-so news department, we learned that while the bikes are mostly made of aluminum and stainless steel, they actually snuck in quite a few mild steel parts. A lot of the nuts and various fasteners, while still doing their jobs, are getting pretty rusty. And it turns out that most of the front forks have turned a deep copper color due to corrosion, and the front suspension tubes have to be regularly sprayed with penetrant and lubricant or else they just seize up.

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Now the bad news. The biggest problem has been how totally unsuitable for the marine environment the original bike chain and brake/shift cables are. When we first set out to cruise full time, we stored the bikes folded in storage bags lashed to the lifelines. This keeps the sun off them, but it unfortunately traps moisture, which viciously attacks the steel parts. When we broke out the bikes in Marathon, the chain on Rhonda’s bike had corroded into a flakey clump of rust, and I had to work through the chain link by link with pliers and penetrant to get it to function. Once we returned to Pensacola, the gears on both bikes froze, refusing to shift any longer. It took two days at the bike shop to get them back on the street. The shop replaced the galvanized shift cables with stainless wire, added full-length cable sleeves in place of the partial sleeves the bike had originally, and fitted new, corrosion resistant chains.

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We decided when we headed back out last December for the next leg of our adventure that we’d just store the bikes on deck sans bags. We remove the seats to store below and collapse the handlebars, and then just bungie cord them to the lifelines. They’re exposed to the sun every day, but we’re hoping that regular fresh water rinsing from rain or a dock hose and having the chance to dry out more often will slow down the rust.

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So 18 months later, our Back Bay folding bikes are still serving our needs. But we’ve had to spend an amount equal to the original purchase price on upgrades and repairs to keep them functioning. We’ll still recommend them, because after all, a boat is a pretty harsh environment. Just be aware that you’re going to have to do some upgrading if you want them to go the distance.

La Dolce Vita

A friend back home in Pensacola who follows our blog recently texted. He said Rhonda and I are living La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life. Now I can’t say that a cruising life is the never-ending vacation that some people might imagine, but I have to admit it can often be quite sweet. For example, when we passed through St. Petersburg, Florida back in April on our way to Cuba, we couldn’t linger long. But we knew we’d love to come back again someday. Well, it’s someday, and now that we’re here again, the fact that we live the cruising life means we can stay as long as we’d like. Really get to know the town. Here’s just a taste.

We arrived two days before Christmas, and enjoyed biking around, taking in the holiday decorations.

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There’s a Publix supermarket just a five minute bike ride north of us, and we take great advantage. Departure planning and preparations took up so much of our December that we forgot to plan holiday meals, and found ourselves on Christmas Eve with nothing good in the larder for Christmas dinner. But a quick stop at Publix, where we found the perfect boat-friendly rib roast (i.e. on the smallish side to fit our oven), and we were all set for a truly terrific meal.

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Love those LED candles, by the way. They add just the perfect touch of atmosphere, without setting off our smoke detectors!

As we pointed out last April in our post St. Petersburg And A Very Good Day, this is a terrific town to explore by bicycle. And one of the things we’ve noticed as we’ve cycled up and down the streets and avenues is that a good nickname for the town would be “City Of A Hundred Fountains.” They really like fountains here. Big fountains,

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Small fountains,

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even fountains in restaurants.

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I could probably do a lengthy post on just the fountains of St. Pete. Maybe I will someday. 🙂

When we arrived in town, we took a chance on a marina we’d never been to before when it turned out that there was no room at the inn (the municipal marina). The Harborage Marina at Bayboro is located less than a mile south of downtown, immediately adjacent to the University of South Florida St Petersburg campus.

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We initially had our doubts, because we really enjoyed the municipal marina’s location right in the middle of downtown. But Harborage does have some advantages. The biggest is the floating docks, which are actually hard to find in these parts. We’re less than five minutes from the heart of town by bike, and it’s a pleasant ride, past the USFSP campus and several small parks (which this town has in abundance).

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While researching the marina on Active Captain, we saw mention of a nice restaurant at the nearby Albert Whitted airport. Since it was so close, we thought we’d give it a try.

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They have a $6 gourmet cheeseburger special every Wednesday, and so far we’ve been there two Wednesdays in a row. It’s fun to have a tasty and inexpensive dinner while watching the planes and helicopters arrive and depart.

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Exploring the local dining options is one of our favorite activities, and we love how many bars and restaurants here are set up for al fresco dining. Eating outside in January (and being comfortable doing it!) just never gets old. We watched the Seahawks play at The Avenue.

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And we try to catch the happy hour at 400 Beach as often as we can, as they have half price draught beer and house wines from 3 to 6 PM.

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It’s hard to beat $3 for a cold pint while people watching and taking in the street scene. Plus it’s right across from the north yacht basin, so there are boats. Boats make everything better. 🙂

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Even though it’s in the heart of downtown, when you sit down in the courtyard at Red Mesa Cantina for dinner, you feel like you’re someplace truly distant and exotic. The surrounding wall of bamboo completely shuts out the city. And there’s a fountain.

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We even found a family run Cuban cafe just down the street from the Post Office. It’s fun to talk to people who run a Cuban restaurant about our experiences in Cuba.

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Eventually, perhaps in a couple more weeks, we’ll continue our journey south. But for now, we’re content to linger. Afterall, we’re in a place where the birds you see in trees and on power lines are likely to be parrots,

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and you can eat outside almost everyday.

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