Day 15 - Fri 11 Jun 10
The ocean trawler got underway very silently in the predawn. The early morning sky was very pretty and I let Clyde come topside. Diane awoke right after dawn feeling better but not great. Weather permitting, tomorrow morning we start the long passage home. We have enjoyed many aspects of this cruise, but with the temperatures this hot, it will be nice to get back home to the air conditioning and our swimming pool.
Following a delicious breakfast, we dressed in our cleanest (least smelly) casual clothing and took the dinghy ashore to stroll around a bit. The beach was empty except for one swimmer, but the campgrounds were bustling with those who were vacating today. Inside the fort, we first hit the visitor center; it was air conditioned to a mighty cool and welcome temperature. I found myself reading the same material over again just to linger in the comfort.
We pressed on, however, and at least the self-guided walking tour kept us in the shade for the first portion. We had heard the excellent guided tour three years ago, courtesy of the ferry boat guide, but it was nice to stroll the fort at leisure in private. I also took a few more photos for this blog.
Next, we went back to the boat to change into swimwear for snorkeling the dilapidated iron framework from the old coal docks. Much coral have colonized the pilings and some of it is quite nice. There were tens of thousands of fish there, too, but 99.9% of them were less than 1.5 inches long. We swam through huge clouds of these tiny fish and the sensation was like driving through a torrential rainstorm; visibility of everything else was greatly obscured.
We did see one small nurse shark (maybe 5 feet long at most), a small grouper, and a medium-sized hogfish, and two queen conchs. Other than that it was pretty disappointing. We got back to the dinghy in time to change into dry shirts and then stroll over to the larger of the ferries for a deli sandwich lunch.
Back at Diva Di, we washed off the snorkeling gear knowing it was the last use of the cruise. This morning, we had cooked and otherwise prepared the meals we will have on the 24-30 hour passage home, so other than raising the dinghy onto the davits, we are ready to go. So far, the forecast 10 kt breeze from the southeast is only 3-5 kts, but at least they got the direction right.
Napping and typing took up a little time, but the winds are so light that the sun feels blazing hot. It was time to get back in the water and hang off the anchor rode at the bow in the shade. That was quite refreshing and just looking out over the fort and boats, and looking down into the water was very enjoyable, almost mesmerizing.
By 1700, the forecast wind had still not arrived, so we are hoping it will tomorrow. Even if it is too light to sail with, if it stays out of the east to southeast, it will keep the seas state calm and will not impede our motoring progress. There are many dangerous shoals (shallow spots) to our northeast, so we will head due north for about 5 miles and then be able to turn on a north-northeast course for home.
Near 1730, I dinghied over to New Hope with a beverage to see if they were interested in a chat; they were. We talked of this and that for an hour and I made my way back to Diva Di, whereupon I promptly went into the water and hung on the anchor rode in the shade. The crew on the boat next to us started a conversation and we chatted for a while, too. It is similar to land-based neighbors chatting from their front porches, but here we were all floating off our boats.
The bottom was very visible and I happened to see a five foot nurse shark swim by on the bottom just 15 feet below me. Within five minutes, I turned around to see a four foot barracuda just six feet off my left shoulder. He wasn't the biggest I have encountered, but surprising to turn around and see him so close.
After my cooling soak, I got back aboard to find Diane had reheated the crabmeat and rice dinner leftovers from two nights ago. It was delicious the second time, too.
We both had a short swim off the ladder after dinner and then I secured the dinghy on the davits for the passage home. Diane's intention is to get this unpleasant experience (24-30 hours underway) behind us as soon as possible. I think the part that bothers her most is traveling through the night, for the unease that night brings, and the fact that she will be required to alter her sleep pattern to stand watch. I truly believe this will be a piece of cake, but I will be prepared for whatever may occur.
Relaxing in the cockpit with a beverage, we were enjoying a decent southeast breeze, which we hooped would continue through the evening and next day. The tarpon were feeding as the light waned and then we enjoyed a nice, red sunset. Red sky at night - sailor's delight. There's scientific reasoning behind that, but I'll spare you.
Diane went to sleep early, while Clyde and I watched the sky grow dark and the brilliant stars appear. Eventually, he went below, I secured the hatch boards and drifted off to sleep.
Day 14 - Thu 10 Jun 10
I suppose it might say something about my personality, but I kept dreaming about our passage home. I was ruminating over various tactics for various wind and sea conditions and how to account for engine or sail plan failures. The end result was that I feel comfortable with the plan; now we just enjoy our days here until the weather is right to go home.
Following a nice breakfast, I dinghied ashore to use the lavatory, which is a composting design using no water or chemicals. The odor was surprisingly inoffensive, but I will advise others not to glance down the hole. Next, I met some campers who had their pre-teen sons there on a little fishing trip. They came over (almost 70 miles) from Key West on a 23 foot boat. Lots of folks do it; you just have to have adequate fuel, a working radio, reliable propulsion, and good weather.
I got back to Diva Di and Diane asked me about the weather posting. I had forgotten to look, so I went back. They had not posted today's forecast yet, but I did use the Iridium Satellite payphone there at $1.25 per minute to make an important call. When I got back to the boat, our friends from Marathon were in their dinghy and ready to go to Loggerhead Key.
Even though we are still breaking in the new engine, it has enough time on it to go wide open throttle for 10 seconds to get on plane, and then back off to a lesser power setting. We were zipping across almost dead flat water, which was changing hues with the depths and bottom condition. When we would approach a section that shallowed, it was like flying the dinghy across the highly visible bottom with the clear water seeming like air.
First stop was the pier near the lighthouse on the east side. There were several large tarpon feeding in that area. Next, we went to the west side where there is a coral reef called "Little Africa." It covers a wide area and has many beautiful corals, but very few fish. The one big event occurred when I did one of my frequent 360 degree turns to survey my surroundings and saw a 7-8 foot nurse shark just 10 feet away, between Diane and me. I stuck my head up long enough to get her attention and point and she got the message. We both agreed it was the highlight of that visit.
A visit to the Key was needed, so we found a place to beach the dinghies on the southwest side and then walked a ways to check out the various buildings there. While the place is a national treasure for the waters and marine life, the man-made structures are obviously in disrepair. It is a stark existence there for the volunteers that man the island much of the year, I am sure.
On the ride back, we saw a loggerhead turtle and many feeding fish. I can't say enough how beautiful the water and sea bottom looked as we cruised along.
Starved from snorkeling against a mild, but pervasive current all morning, we had a late lunch. It was incredibly still, which helped make for such a nice day of snorkeling and the smooth, fast ride on the dinghy. It also made for an incredibly hot day. Not long after lunch, we both went into the water to hang off the stern ladder and cool down. A quick fresh water rinse afterwards keeps the salt from making your skin itchy.
We did a few boat chores and then took a brief nap. For some reason, the rest of the afternoon seemed to disappear without much at all happening, but maybe that's how you know you are finally relaxing enough to call it cruising.
About 1800, our buddies from New Hope came over with their beverages and snacks to share and we had a nice visit for over an hour. It is always nice to get different people's opinions on things. I also got to try pickled okra for the first time and liked it.
It may not have been the most nutritional decision, but the snacks seemed to sate our hunger, so we skipped dinner. Diane was not feeling well; I suspected dehydration and encouraged her to drink more water. She went to bed very early in hopes it would help.
I listened to music in the cockpit and took in the amazing marine life around me. There were baitfish making surface disturbances that looked like raindrops, tarpon rolling in the middle of the anchorage, and blue runners leaping out of the water as they chased their prey. One kayak fisherman hooked up a tarpon that could have been 80 lbs and it pulled him all over the anchorage until he got it to the kayak and released it.
Another nature spectacle is the presence of the sooty terns. Each year large groups migrate to and from Africa. They leave in August and return for mating and nesting on nearby Bush Key (300 yards from Garden Key where we are) in February. They are not nearly as noisy this year as they were three years ago, but at that time we also had strong winds from the direction of their Key to carry the sound. The terns spend an amazing amount of time flying; it is reported that many hardly touch the ground except for brief periods.
The boat next to us has two couples and two other guys and they were all jumping in the water and having a good time after a long hot day doing who knows what. It made me reflect on the various people here all enjoying this park: fisherman in 23 foot boats making the 70 mile trip in two hours and then living in tents on the grounds; campers with kayaks that came over on the commercial fast ferry; two young couples on a fast powerboat that don't know the difference between an anchor light and navigation lights; a couple on an ocean trawler that could probably make a transatlantic passage; and a bunch of us cruising sailors with various boats who take at least 12 hours to get here from the nearest civilization.
Diane stayed in the v-berth all night. Clyde and I enjoyed the early evening until he decided to join Diane below. I made my cockpit berth, closed the hatch boards, and settled in to sleep. There was very little breeze, but just enough to provide some comfort. As the night wore on, the breeze increased a little and it was very nice, indeed.
Day 13 - Wed 9 Jun 10
We awoke to the same comfortable conditions, except the wind is out of the east this morning. The thermometer inside the boat is registering only 81F, when I had never seen it below 85F on this cruise; that is a significant improvement.
After breakfast, I will be off to shore to register our boat with the Park Service and see what new rules there are since the last time we were here in 2007 with our friends Dan and Sharon.
Registering the boat and paying the $5 per person fee (valid up to 7 days) was quite simple. Meanwhile, Diane had Clyde ashore behind the campground area. I checked the posted weather forecasts and right now it looks like Sat would be a good time to start on the direct passage home of approximately 170 nm with the southeast winds at 10-15 kts.
Back at Diva Di, I was floating off the stern when a Park Ranger came by and without so much as a "Hi, how are you?" told us we had to move our boat because we were too close to the large mooring buoy where the Park Service cargo boat spends the day (she's alongside the dock at night). I am usually a little too eager to please the authorities, but I couldn't give in to this guy that easily. When I asked why we weren't told this by the Rangers when they came by yesterday, he had no answer. When I asked him how many feet I was away from the buoy that said to "stay away 200 feet," he said he had no idea but we were too close. I knew there was no winning this argument, so I told him we would move.
I dinghied over to the companion boat traveling with my buddy, since I knew he was leaving today. He agreed I could drop my anchor close aboard him and then when he leaves, we should be fine. Right now, however, the shifting light winds have our boats too close for comfort under normal circumstances. Fortunately, there is someone staying aboard his vessel the entire day.
Not long after that little "anchor dance," four of us took our two dinghies to various marker buoys on the southern flank of Garden Key to snorkel. Two of the three areas we tried had nice corals and abundant fish of many varieties, including ones you would love to have on your dinner table. We saw one large turtle (couldn't tell the species, but probably a loggerhead), and a number of large lobsters, too. It was a nice excursion that gave us another reason to be glad we came. We plan to snorkel Loggerhead Key before we leave.
After a nice lunch aboard Diva Di, the rest of the afternoon was pretty laid back, but with much going on around us. We watched the seaplane arrive and depart, both fast catamarans get underway, and a mega-yacht come into the anchorage and make several unsuccessful attempts to anchor. Diane kept up a running commentary, mostly about how we got chased away for being too close to the Park Service buoy, and here is this 100 foot yacht much closer. They decided to leave the anchorage for reasons unknown, and anchor about three-quarters of a mile from the fort.
There was a brief rain shower after a thunderstorm passed us to the east, but it wasn't enough to do much. Although no one wants the lightning close by, a nice shower once in a while is a real treat to wash off the accumulated salt and other stuff that accumulates. Since you are not near land, that "stuff" is (in our case) cat hair, Duane hair, and bird droppings.
We had been eating well on this cruise, but I managed to burn the bottom of the pizza last night. Regulating the temperature on our oven is not easy and apparently I failed to do it right. Oh well, one bad meal out of forty isn't too terrible to endure.
The night sky was almost as gorgeous as at Boca Grande Key. We were each resting in different locations at times, depending on what Clyde was doing, and Diane said she saw the most spectacular meteor she had ever seen. Later, Diane elected to sleep in the forward berth and I chose the cockpit.
The wind piped up for a bit due to a passing thunderstorm and we had some rain spitting at us for a while, enough to close the hatches. Diane said it was mostly comfortable, but warm for a bit during the night after the hatches were closed. I found the cockpit to be delightful for sleeping and only came below due to the brief rain.
Day 12 - Tue 8 Jun 10
The sun had not yet risen as we motored out of the channel to the southwest. Unlike the forecast, the wind was out of the west, our direction of travel (no surprise). Motoring was the only option for over nine straight hours, but there were brief times that wind variations let us put up a sail. I did not run the engine at more than 50% of full RPM to conserve fuel, but we still made 5.1 to 5.9 kts depending on the current conditions, which did vary along our track. I made sure the bottom was clean and the prop was smooth at the previous anchorage.
We left Key West with 25 gals in our fuel tank and two 5-gal jugs of diesel. We can motor all the way to the Dry Tortugas and then home (over 240 nm) with the fuel we have, but I am sure hoping that when we choose our day to come home there is some wind to help us along. This is supposed to be a sailboat with an auxiliary engine, but on this cruise it is a motorboat with auxiliary sails.
The day was really pretty glorious in that the water took on gorgeous shades of blue, varying with the depths, and there were clear blue skies for the most part, with seas less than 1 ft much of the time. This section of water has some depths up to 80 ft, but also some small sandy shoals of about 12 ft. It is a surreal experience to be completely out of sight of land, and usually other boats, and be cruising in less than 20 ft of water. Come to think of it, much of the Bahama Bank is like that, too.
I trolled several heavy shiny fishing lures that I had been given by my stepdad many years ago. Three of them got a strike and all three were carried away by the fish, or whatever caused the reel to start spinning. We boated no fish, but at least we had three exciting moments as we quickly leapt to action, slowing the boat and turning so I could retrieve the line without the boat speed affecting us.
Diane won the bet as to the time we would first spy the fort on Garden Key. At 1405, she was late by five minutes, while my guess was for 1430. It is really great to have your landfall in sight, but we have learned that actually getting there takes a long while at only 5+ kts.
Fortunately, the channel east of the fort was open and that saved 15 minutes off our approach. We had seen through the binoculars that a large vessel was anchored there, but we didn't realize the magnitude of the problem until we entered the anchorage and saw that of high percentage of the useable space was taken by a National Park Service vessel of some 100 ft in length. We circled for five minutes assessing the situation when Diane noted that one sailboat was weighing anchor. We circled close aboard and asked if they were leaving; their affirmative answer solved our problem. We were able to set the hook in 15 ft of pure sand and it held great.
I set about my usual post-anchoring tasks, as did Diane, and soon we were relaxing. At that time, a small boat from the National Park Service boat came by attempting to speak with each of the boat operators. Diane quipped that they were informing boaters of an approaching hurricane or oil slick, but they were trying to gather information on some people who were camping outside the fort and left in a 30 ft boat and never came back, leaving all their gear there. It is very strange, indeed. [We found out later that they needed something back at Key West, so they took their boat over, stayed at a hotel, and then came back two days later. In the meantime, a search and rescue operation had been initiated.]
As I surveyed the anchorage, I noted a sailboat with a name and shape I thought I recognized. Sure enough, it was my buddy on New Hope from Coco Plum, just outside Marathon in the keys. I dinghied over to say hello and we and his buddy chatted a while. We made plans to go over to Loggerhead Key to snorkel tomorrow.
Back at Diva Di, we sautéed some canned crab, prepared some rice pilaf, and had more of the fresh cole slaw we made the other night. It was a pretty great meal; Diane has done a great job of provisioning for our cruise, as usual. Breakfasts are cereal and milk for me and special fruit bread and butter for her. Lunches vary from dinner leftovers to nice deli sandwiches. Snacks usually include fruit and pretzels.
I should note that now we are in an anchorage where there is little tidal current. That is significant because our boat will swing on the anchor and face the wind where our wind scoop will funnel whatever breeze there is through the boat. In a strong tidal current situation, the boat will lie mostly with the current flow, irrespective of the wind, which often leaves you with little air flow. Hopefully, our present situation will give us a comfortable stay here.
Clyde spent some quality time topside with us as the cooling breeze and calm anchorage provided just the comfort we were craving. It was barely dark when we crawled into the forward berth and slept soundly all night.
The engine inspection showed that everything is in order, but I will need to do some careful inspection and some hose, belt, and pulley replacement later this year. After a cleanup, we went ashore to deposit some trash and find a cool place with free Wi-Fi. Harpoon Harry's was recommended to us by a neighboring boater, so that's where we went.
Both of us thoroughly enjoyed the air conditioning and our cool beverages. Diane watched TV while I spent just over an hour catching up on almost 100 emails, posting this blog, and checking weather sources. Reluctantly, we left the air conditioning to sit outside at the Schooner Wharf Bar to listen to music and have some appetizers as our dinner. The coconut shrimp and calamari were pretty tasty.
From there we slowly strolled along the wharf back to the dinghy and off we went on the three-quarter mile ride back to Diva Di. It is really important to have a reliable dinghy.
The next few hours were pretty miserable in terms of the temperature and humidity. There was barely a breath of air and it was stifling. At this point the heat got to us both and we decided to cut short the cruise. I went so far as to suggest we leave at that time while we could safely exit the channel of Key West before dark and then continue for the 30 hours or so straight home. Diane suggested we wait until morning, which got no argument from me.
We decided to sleep in the cockpit where the air would likely be a bit cooler and any little breeze could help. As it turns out, we did that in shifts and that proved helpful, although the seat cushions (which are intended as flotation devices) are not all that comfortable.
Day 11 - Mon 7 Jun 10
Clyde got to enjoy some extra time on deck in the dark this morning since I was already up there. He seemed to be much happier not to be stifling below, as well. I am writing this before 0730 and the plan has changed back to continuing the cruise at least for another day or so.
We weighed anchor and motorsailed out to the southwest to Sand Key light and its coral reef. The conditions were amazingly calm and the light was good despite the mostly cloudy/hazy sky. The portion of the reef we snorkeled was nothing terrific, but a worthwhile stop to be sure.
Back aboard Diva Di, we showered on the transom and made way for Boca Grande Key, a little island about 14 miles due west of Key West. We had been here before three years ago and loved the solitude and natural beauty. If the sky is clear, it will reward us with a blaze of stars as there is virtually no man-made light for about 14 miles.
After anchoring, we lowered the dinghy (it takes three minutes I am finding out) and took off for the pure sand island on the other side of the channel from Boca Grande Key. We were disappointed to see many signs warning people to stay off the island; we assume it regards nesting of some protected species of bird. We heeded the warning and Diane just collected shells in shin-deep water while I floated with the dinghy staying cool and comfortable. The water is 87F, so cool is a relative term, but it is better than baking in the sun.
I took the time to raise the dinghy engine one position higher and that seemed to make a big difference in getting on plane. When Diane was done there, we moved to a shallow, sandy spot off the main island where Diane looked for shells and I floated in the water. She found some interesting shells that will add nicely to our collection.
Back at Diva Di, we showered (again) and relaxed in the cockpit with music and a book. We both remarked at how "this" is what we wanted our cruise to be like, and we finally have it. We have decided to take the next step and sail to Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas tomorrow. The weather is very settled which means no stormy conditions expected, but that also means little wind for sailing or comfort. My gut feeling is we will have enough to help us, but not too much.
Diane's main thought right now is about the passage home. To me, it makes more sense to go directly home from the Dry Tortugas, as long as the weather is good and the boat is running well. Another option is to come back to Key West, but then we are stuck with almost the same distance home from there, or the prospect of working out way up the coast and roasting at every stop along the way.
We decided that the key to our comfort was to sleep in the cockpit with the hope that the nice breeze would remain and the bugs would not come. Using the cushions from the main saloon on the hard cockpit seats made for a really comfy, if narrow, berth. The breeze stayed perfect throughout the night and the stars were indeed magnificent. The only negative was a number of mosquito bites before I fell asleep and quite a number when I awoke. At 0530 I was driven below by the bugs, but by then we were both awake and eager to get underway.
Clyde did not care to be locked down below without us, so he awakened us once in the middle of the night and we let him come topside with us for a while. After his nocturnal visit, Diane took him below and elected to stay there.
My admiral is saying I am taking way too much time on the computer, so I just realized I posted some things twice, but I don't have time to fix it.
[photo: our Key West anchorage]