Things took such an unexpected turn earlier this month that I completely forgot to share some good news. Southwinds Magazine published one of our blog posts. You can find it on the last page of their July issue. Here’s a link if you’re interested:
While I’m not particularly motivated to try and turn writing into a paying gig (sounds too much like work, and I’m retired, afterall), earning a few dollars through magazine articles helps build our credibility as journalists. That will be important when we submit our paperwork to return to Cuba in the hopefully not-to-distant future!
Nothing to share yet about our immediate plans. As we’ve mentioned, we’ve returned home to deal with an unexpected family health crisis. It’s too soon to tell, but as of today, well, let’s just say we have our hands full and it’s not clear when the journey will resume. As soon as we figure it out, we promise you’ll be among the first to know…
After twelve days of pressing hard, we finally sailed into Pensacola Bay and tied up to the transient pier at Pensacola Naval Air Station. With the exception of a day that we spent in Bradenton waiting for a mechanic to evaluate our ailing transmission, it has been a week and a half of rising before dawn and getting underway early to make the most progress before getting shut down by afternoon thunderstorms.
They say God never gives you more than you can handle. Since the day we received the call telling us we were urgently needed back in Pensacola, it seems that we’ve been constantly tested. Not only have we had the challenges of extremely unpleasant weather, but it also felt like Eagle Too literally started falling apart on us once we pointed the bow north. It’s almost as if she was telling us that she didn’t like this new plan, didn’t like it one little bit.
First, the pressure switch on our potable water pump failed. That meant that while we had plenty of drinking water in our tank, we basically had no way to access it. Fortunately, this was just the sort of failure that we knew could be extremely inconvenient, so we had a spare pump onboard, and it was a pretty easy fix to swap out the pumps.
Next, about two days into the trip, I noticed a new sound coming from the engine. When you have a diesel sitting in the middle of your living room, you get pretty used to its presence and moods—its sounds, smells, the way it feels as it operates. One morning after getting underway, I thought I detected a subtle growl emerging from the steady thrumming pulse of the running engine. The next day, i was pretty sure there was definitely something there. One day later, there wasn’t any doubt. Something was definitely different. And my long history with marine machinery tells me that a new sound that gets worse over time probably isn’t a good thing, and it’s most likely not going to get better on its own.
At that time we were approaching Bradenton and Snead Island Boatworks, where our friends Deb and TJ on S/V Kintala are spending the summer earning money to restock their cruising kitty. A quick call revealed that the slip next to them was empty, and the next day we slid alongside them and stepped ashore for the first time in five days. The following day being Monday, TJ confirmed that their best engine guy should be able to come give our diesel a quick listen in the early AM, and if he felt the noise was not a harbinger of imminent failure, we could be on our way by mid-morning.
Since leaving Marathon, we’d spent most of our time motoring, running the engine at about 3000 rpm for eight to ten hours at a stretch. I felt it was time to do a thorough engine inspection. One of the things I took a peek at was our transmission fluid. Now our transmission doesn’t have a dipstick. It’s basically a sealed unit. You have to use a crescent wrench to remove a bolt to check the fluid level. I’d just changed the fluid (it uses automatic transmission fluid) about 60 engine hours previously, so I wasn’t expecting to find anything out of the ordinary. So it was quite a gut-check when I pulled the plug and saw that the fluid was dark brown and watery rather than bright pink, and smelled absolutely terrible. It looked like our clutches were burning up.
When the mechanic showed up the next day, he confirmed the diagnosis. After examining the fluid and listening to the strange sound I detected, his prognosis was that we could probably press on for Pensacola, but he advised not running the engine above 1800 rpm. That meant that rather than clipping along at about 7.5 knots and knocking out 60 or 70 miles a day, we were only going to be able to manage a little over 5 knots, while worrying about if or when the transmission would eat itself and expire. Just a touch more anxiety to add spice to the trip.
So we pressed on, more slowly. While crossing the Gulf, the fan belt frayed apart. I try to check on the engine every few hours while underway, and had already seen the telltale signs of a belt on its last legs, so when the loud slapping noise suddenly started, I was pretty sure what had happened. We keep spares onboard, so we only had to drift for about 25 minutes while I replaced the belt. Why were we drifting, rather than sailing? Because there was absolutely no wind. None. The Gulf was like glass. Which wasn’t a bad thing, because it made for a very smooth crossing, at least until the belt disintegrated. And yes, I did check the belt before heading out to cross the Gulf. It looked fine.
And then we found ourselves anchored in St. Joseph Bay, with just one overnight passage between us and home. A thunderstorm was bearing down on us, and we were swinging much too close to shore for comfort. Time to raise the anchor and move a bit farther away from the beach. But when I stood on the “up” switch to begin the process, nothing happened. Not a click, not a whir, nothing. The windlass had departed the premises. And so I was left strong-backing 175 feet of chain and a 55 lb anchor up onto the bow while the winds built over 20 knots. Yes, it was turning out to be another fun day on the water.
But we’re here. We made it. And we consider ourselves extremely fortunate. We spent 12 days traveling through the wrong area at the wrong time of year, but the worst of the weather always seemed to be a day ahead or a day behind us. As close as some of the storms came, we never actually received more that a few sprinkles while underway (although it did pour buckets several times once we were anchored or tied up), and none of the mechanical problems kept us from pressing on.
Now we’re just going to rest for a few days before diving into the issue that brought us back to Pensacola at this most inconvenient and unintended time.
July is no time to cruise the southwest coast of Florida. You’d have to be a little crazy (or have a really serious motivation, like, say, a significant family health issue that just can’t wait…) to cause you to sail these waters at this time of year. Why? Thunderstorms. Massive, angry thunderstorms that blow up from nowhere and make traveling on the water extremely treacherous. Since leaving Marathon in the Florida Keys a week ago, we’ve had to deal with these rapidly moving monsters every single day. If we get underway a little after sunrise, we can usually make five or six hours of progress before things start falling apart. Sometimes the day starts with a little tease that seems to say, “Today will be a better day.”
But shortly after noon, the skies once again grow angry and threatening, and distant peals of thunder and flashes of lightening start us looking for a safe place to tuck in for the rest of the day.
Sometimes we can find a hole to thread through between a pair of storms.
We constantly watch our radar, monitoring the rain clouds as they form around us, watching their strength and direction.
It has been a very stressful week. We’re pushing ourselves and Eagle Too extremely hard, and we’re all starting to feel the strain. But we’ve made good progress. We concluded our journey northward up this storm harassed coast today, pulling into a slip at Clearwater Beach Marina less than an hour before the skies opened up. Tomorrow, we strike out across the Gulf, with Apalachicola as our destination. It’s a passage of about 150 miles more or less. We’re planning to head out Clearwater pass as the sun rises, and we should be arriving at Government Cut off Apalachicola by mid-afternoon on the following day. Wish us luck!
I’ve said before that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Well, the Big Guy must have been in need of a good chuckle this week. We’ve been busy pouring over cruising guides and studying charts, planning a trip up Florida’s east coast. We were intending to leave Marathon tomorrow, headed toward Miami. But then the phone rang. We found out that a family health issue back in Pensacola requires our urgent attention. So we’re still leaving tomorrow. But rather than heading east, we’re retracing our route back to Pensacola. It should take us 10 or 12 days.
We’re obviously disappointed. It wasn’t what we’d planned. But family comes first. So it’s back to Pensacola we go, with no reservations. With some luck, maybe we’ll be able to resume our adventure this fall. Or maybe we can head out again next spring. We’ll just have to see.
We’ve taken several cruises in the past, and I told Rhonda that while stowing gear on deck this afternoon and getting Eagle Too ready to put to sea, I felt exactly like I’ve felt on the last night of a cruise. That’s when you put your suitcases out in the hallway for the stewards to collect. You’re still on vacation, but the end is in sight. We’re really hoping this won’t be the conclusion of our amazing journey. We have so much more we want to see and do. But sometimes life throws you a curve, and you have no real choice but to just adapt and deal with it. Stay tuned…
Ah, the life of a cruiser. If you count our time in the Dry Tortugas, we’ve been in the Florida Keys for three weeks now. When are we leaving? We don’t know. We haven’t yet decided. And that’s just fine with us, since there is no place else that we absolutely need to be right now. We live on perpetual vacation, after all!
For most of the last two weeks, we’ve been hanging out in Marathon, which is just about right in the middle of the Keys, halfway between Key West and Miami. Marathon’s Boot Key Harbor offers what is probably the best protected location in the Keys, and contains over 200 mooring balls for visiting boats. Marathon and the Boot Key Harbor mooring field are on the short list of things all cruisers should partake of at least once. It’s one of the common cultural experiences that defines our cruising tribe and unites us through bonds of community. It’s a boating Mecca that offers everything a sailor (or even that lesser order of mariner, a power-boater) requires to sustain themselves and maintain their vessels.
Instead of picking up a mooring, of which there are currently plenty available (it’s the off-season—in winter there’s a waiting list), we decided to go to a marina instead. Why? Because it’s currently hot. Very hot. Damn hot. I’m not talking about the kind of hot that you can deal with by pouring water over your head to cool off. I’m talking the kind of hot that leaves you feeling lightheaded and dizzy after merely taking the trash ashore. The type of hot where people on moorings wait for midnight to come so that temperatures will moderate enough to allow for comfortable sleep. No, we knew we wanted to run the air conditioner. And that meant access to shore power, which meant we needed to be in a marina. So we’re tied up to a seawall at Sombrero Resort and Marina, where we have power, water, and even cable TV for a pretty reasonable weekly rate (by Florida Keys standards, anyway).
There’s a swimming pool with a Tiki bar for our use, a pretty decent laundry room, and an address where we can receive mail and packages.
So as you can imagine, it’s been a bit difficult to muster the determination to leave and head north. I mean, we’re in the Keys, after all, a place that many consider paradise and spend a great deal of money to visit.
For the first time since leaving St. Petersburg, we’ve been able to take our bikes ashore. We’ve found that everything we need, from West Marine and a Yanmar parts dealer (repair parts for the boat) to grocery stores and numerous bars and restaurants (therapy for the soul) are all within a 15 minute ride. I will say that our Back Bay folding bicycles did not benefit from the long period of dormancy. Remaining on deck, zipped in their storage bags while we experienced Cuba and Mexico, the steel parts of our bikes did what you’d expect them do in the presence of salt water and tropical heat—they started rusting. The worst was the chain on Rhonda’s bike, which had frozen into a solid clump of oxide. Fortunately nothing was past the point of no return, and a few hours of cleaning, polishing, oiling and flexing returned everything to working condition.
It’s a mile and a half from where our boat is tied up to Sombrero Beach, which is considered one of the best beaches in the Keys. It’s an easy 15 minute ride on a nice bike path, so we naturally rode over to take in the July 4th festivities.
So where to next? Well, we’re still waiting for a new float switch for our shower sump that we’ve ordered from West Marine. Once it arrives, we’ll probably start looking northward. We believe we can be in Biscayne Bay in two or three days, where we’ll spend a night or two at anchor enjoying a view of the Miami skyline. From there, we think we’ll push farther north, maybe as far as Jacksonville. We have a few months of hurricane season to wait out before we’ll feel safe jumping over to the Bahamas, and we’ve been wanting to see more of Florida’s east coast.
Or maybe we’ll just hang around here for a while longer… 🙂