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Jascat to the Bahamas
Another Day Touring John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John/really, really nice
03/21/2013, On a mooring ball in Largo Sound

Fellow park visitor, a White Ibis

As I was writing yesterday's blog, I was thinking that we would be moving on today. Later in the evening, however, Ann and I got to talking about how great a time we had kayaking the park's mangrove trails and how we probably wouldn't ever find a greater place to kayak. So we looked at each other and asked, "then why are we leaving? The park has 5 sets of recommended two hour or less loops and we've only done one of them." So we decided to stay over another day. (Which still means we have only done two of the five loops, we've got to come back.)

Staying turned out to one of our best decisions. I'm too pooped to go into detail but we saw more rays (5 large spotted and 2 small gray rays), another young manatee, and the days highlight, a return performance by the manatee mom and calf. And of course we saw many interesting animals on land including several types of shore birds like the Ibis above, an iguana, and a very frazzled looking squirrel. Maybe he had run into the iguana.

The most exciting happening during the day didn't actually involve us. Around noon, the park was covered with law enforcement including the Coast Guard. We found out from the marina manager that they were all there because of a botched turtle rescue. A boater returning to the marina reported an injured turtle to the park rangers. No civilian is allowed to touch a wild turtle (we found that out at the Turtle Hospital), so a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer went back out with the boater to pick up the turtle. While doing so, the officer managed to fall off the boat (or into the boat, I'm not sure which) and cut up his face. The turtle was nevertheless retrieved and taken back to the dock with the officer being quickly taken off to the hospital. The turtle, which was about one foot long and Ann says very bedraggled looking, meanwhile waited in a small tub of water until the Turtle Hospital Ambulance arrived.

There must have been a dozen officers of various types walking about the docks mulling all this over. Guess it was a slow day on the island.

Tomorrow we are off to Boca Chita.

Manatee Picture
03/20/2013, John Pennekamp Kayak trail

Here's the manatee mom and calf we saw during our kayak tour in the Pennekamp park. The gash in mom's back shows up well in this picture.

Touring John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John/warm and beautiful
03/20/2013, On a mooring ball in Largo Sound

Ann about to meet a manatee up close and personal

The John Pennekamp park turns out to be a great place to visit. Its main function seems to be to run snorkel and dive trips out to the Molasses Reef but it has many other attractions. Our visit got off spectacularly when we saw a 4 foot spotted ray during the dinghy ride from the mooring field over to the park (and marina) offices. Any place with rays automatically gets on my favorite list.

The attraction that drew us to Pennekamp was the extensive kayak trails through the mangrove islands in the park. It's been many years since my one and only ride in a kayak but kayaking has been one of the many things I wish I could do again.

The Pennekamp kayak concession is huge. They must have been prepared to put 50 kayaks in the water. Fortunately, school is still in session so the park wasn't crowded at all.

When Ann and I rented our singles (see above), a returning couple told us that a manatee and her calf were swimming in the farthermost channel in the park. Sure enough, after about 30 minutes of paddling, we found them. The mother was light gray like the manatee we saw in Boot Key Harbor a week ago but the calf was jet black. Like all the manatees I've ever seen, the mother had a gash on her back, presumably from a propeller strike. Sadly, the calf did too. Both, however, seemed in good health. The calf was very frisky, moving around like a seal.

After our kayak tour, we tried out the park's concession area. The sandwiches were excellent and the t-shirt selection so good, I bought two. We also took a look at the park visitor center which has a fine coral reef exhibit.

So, if the park is such a good place to visit, why are we the only boat in the mooring field. Beats me. I'm looking forward to coming back.

Lignumvitae Key to Largo Sound
John/warm and breezy most of the day
03/19/2013, On mooring ball in Largo Sound

Onlooker as we motored up South Sound Creek into Largo Sound

Hoo boy did it rain last night. The first part of the night was beautiful: calm wind, glassy sea, lovely near fog haze, and not a sound to be heard. Then about 4:30am I awoke to rain tapping against the cabin top and Ann scurrying about closing hatches. As I started to get up, Ann said "the winds are 20 kts and blowing us straight into the island but I don't think we have dragged yet." Seeing that the crew had the situation well in hand I decided to roll back over and await developments. The rain began to come down harder and the low howl of the wind notched up a bit so I retrieved my trusty iPhone and dialed up the anchor drag app. Sure enough we were swinging on a well set anchor just like we were supposed to be. We kept a lookout till the wind abated to make sure that it stayed that way and finally got back to sleep about 5:45am.

The trip over to Largo Sound was uneventful except for the sailboats we encountered. None of the four or five cruising sailboats we saw were sailing. They were all motoring. That's typical for the majority of the cruising sailboats that you encounter in the Keys and elsewhere. If you do find one sailing, they'll only have one sail out. What's up? Is sailing becoming too much trouble?

Part of the reason they weren't sailing today was that the winds were relatively light and right on the stern for boats going up the Keys like we were. The type of sailboat that most cruisers seem to buy, ie big, fat monohulls, don't move very easily downwind in light airs. So I guess they decided that sailing today was just too much work.

The light weight Gemini catamaran, on the other hand, moves easily in even the lightest air. And it doesn't take huge sails to do it. We were dead downwind most of the morning in 6 to 13 knots of wind. This isn't Jascat's favorite wind direction but we still averaged 4 to 5 kts using the jib and main configured wing and wing. We were able to move into a broad reach in the afternoon, and with the aid of our cruising spinnaker, averaged 5 to 7+ kts with the winds running from 8 to 15 kts. We actually out ran two motoring monohulls that followed us to Key Largo.

We picked up a mooring ball in Largo Sound about 5:15pm and have settled down to a quiet evening at home (boat?). We're the only boat in a mooring field of around 10 mooring balls. Anchoring isn't allowed so we're actually the only boat on the rather large lake. Where is everybody? Do they know something we don't? We'll be going into the office tomorrow to check in so I guess we'll find out then.

Rachel Bight to Lignumvitae Key
John/warm and calm
03/18/2013, At anchor off Lignumvitae Key

The Matheson House on Lignumvitae Key

Today's destination was the botanical state park on Lignumvitae Key. This park's primary feature isn't the lignumvitae tree as you might suspect. There are actually only a few on the island and the one shown to us by a park ranger had been planted only a few decades ago. Rather, the significance of the island is that, except for a few acres where a residence was built in 1919, the island is in the state that existed before mankind discovered Florida. To quote the park brochure, "The virgin tropical forest that thrives here is typical of the kind of scenery that was once enjoyed on most of Florida's Upper Keys." The rest of the Keys have been scraped clean to make way for development.

The island is thick with vegetation of all sorts, so thick that it looks impenetrable. A path has been cut around the entire island but to our misfortune it was closed off for maintenance. Never the less, just walking the grounds of the Matheston estate gave us a good feel for what the Keys were like a couple of hundred years ago.

The sail over here from Rachel Bight was sensational, just the fantastic sailing that the Keys are known for. We had a steady wind from the SE to S at 13 knots the whole morning and since we were in the lee of the Keys, only a light chop on the seas. This left Jascat beam reached and flying. We ran 6 to 7 knots all morning with occasional excursions up to 8 knots. As usual though, we had to dodge a sea of crab pots, the only blight on the day. (Ann wants me to admit that I did hook one pot with the port rudder. She quickly retracted the rudder and it fell off.)

The anchorage here in the lee of Lignumvitae surprised us with the amazingly warm water temperature of 80 degs. I can only guess that we were lucky enough to anchor in a pocket of water that doesn't get mixed with tidal flow much. We hopped in as soon as we got back from the island tour for a refreshing swim and caribbean shower.

The winds became calm before sunset and, as I write this about 9pm, there is near total silence. The boat is so still we might be on land. Ann has put up the window screens just in case the mosquitoes on the island discover us as we are only 100 yards off the shore. Supper tonight was stir fry rice made up from the left overs from the past several days (really, really good).

Tomorrow we are going to back track a little and go through the Channel 5 bridge back out into the Hawk Channel. We want to spend a day or two in Largo Sound visiting the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and we need to be on the ocean side of the Keys to do that.

Boot Key Harbor to Rachel Bight
John/warm and breezy
03/17/2013, At anchor in Rachel Bight off Vaca Key

John in his new wet suit

Now we are back to feeling like sailors. We left behind the sybaritic pleasures of Boot Key Harbor this morning and headed out to faraway places and unknown anchorages. Well, maybe not so far and not so unknown. Tonight's anchorage is just across Vaca Key on the bay side about three miles from our Boot Key mooring ball. It's the snorkel spot off Rachel Key we ran onto during our tour of the north side of the island in Grebe.

We got here at 1:16pm after a great sail around the west end of Vaca Key. Leaving Boot Key Harbor about 9:15am via Sister Creek, we sailed out into the Hawk Channel to run downwind to the 7 mile bridge. The winds were only around 13 kt from the SE but the waves were building up all the way from the Bahamas Bank. The rollers were about 3 foot high off the rear port side and closely spaced. Jascat wallowed around as usual but the motion wasn't too uncomfortable because we were broad reached and moving pretty fast (5 to 7 kt).

After passing under the 7 mile bridge to the bay side of Vaca Key, we entered sailor's heaven. The seas were nearly flat in the lee of the island, and the wind stayed between 10 and 13 knots. Only two short tacks brought us into Rachael Bight where we anchored in about 5 foot of water.

As I promised in yesterday's blog, this was to be our first attempt at snorkeling on this trip. The air temp was 76 deg and sea temp 74.8 deg. Those temps were about the same as the March snorkeling we did in the Bahamas two years ago. I didn't enjoy those swims as much as usual as I found myself getting chilled very fast (Ann didn't have as much trouble as I did). So this time I equipped myself with a "shorty" wet suit. I'm happy to report that it worked as advertised. Although my arms and legs were as cold as before, my core stayed a nice toasty warm. We only swam for about 15 minutes but I could have stayed in much longer. The swim was so short because there wasn't much of anything to look at. The water was reasonably clear but the sea bottom here is nothing but patchy sea grass. I only saw one little fish. However, the wet suit is proven so now I'm ready for the coral reef snorkel spots on the ocean side of the Keys. We'll be trying all of them out in two or three weeks when we come back down the Keys from Miami.

Tomorrow we are off the Lignumvitae Key state park which is about 30 miles further up the Keys.

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Who: John and Ann Barton (and Sarah, part time)
Port: San Antonio, Texas
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