Welcome to Marathon: Leave Your Worries and Your Functioning Liver Behind
28 July 2011 | Marathon, Florida Keys
From the moment we tied up our lines here in Marathon, we've been quite busy making new friends, snorkeling, swimming, and exploring. It's hard to believe we've already been here for a month!
Every place that we've stopped along our journey has been a little different. And although all of them have been worth our time, some are certainly more cruiser friendly than others. I'm very happy to report that after painstaking amounts of research, the boards and blogs were right on this one, Boot Key Harbor City Marina is the place you want to be as a cruising sailor in the Keys. There's a large live-aboard and cruising community here in Boot Key, and the overwhelming majority of people we've met here are extremely friendly and helpful beyond belief. Those who aren't seem to be chemically imbalanced, and they keep us pretty well entertained with the crazy stuff they do on a regular basis.
It's been nice, too, to rack up some time in the water without having to bring the sailboat everywhere. Our spot here allows us access to a few good restaurants, Sombrero Beach, and a few of the closer reefs just by jumping in the dingy. It's a really cool feeling to spontaneously hop in the inflatable and ride out to the reef for a little midday snorkeling. We're very lucky to be living in Paradise, and we constantly remind ourselves how fortunate we are.
This leg of the trip is the first time Riley's been back in the water to snorkel since we were in Cozumel last year. He's hilarious to watch, since he can barely control his excitement once he sticks his face in the water. He even manages to keep a running commentary going through his snorkel, which you must admit is pretty impressive. "Oh, look at that fish!" "Is that a shark?" "That's a big one!" "AHHH, was THAT a shark?"
In addition to the fishes, our time here as also brought with it another kind of wildlife we haven't seen in a while - other kids! (Yea for parental sanity!) Riley is having a great time; I don't know if I've ever seen him play this hard. One thing is for sure, this is how summer is supposed to be for a kid. He's running himself ragged with all of the bike riding, lizard catching, and tree climbing he's been doing. He actually passes up his allotted end of the day Nintendo time to PLAY! He comes in at the end of each day stinky and exhausted. It's one of the most beautiful things I've seen yet on the trip. He's living so differently now; it's really quite something to watch him grow and change.
Not to be left out of the action, Scott and I have been playing hard, too. Key-sters like to party, and every day here seems to be cause for a celebration of some sort. Anytime someone sits down and cracks open a beer, an ultrasonic pirating all-call goes out, and in no time flat, twenty people are gathered around, coolers in tow. There's certainly no shortage of spontaneous social events around here.
If cruisers are not careful, they will quickly find there is a dark side to this harbor. You see, one can quickly and unwittingly fall victim to the Boot Key Vortex. Not to be trifled with, the Vortex will suck you into drinking and all-you-can-eat-night grubbing your way through your entire cruising kitty. Many a well-intentioned sailor has found themselves staying in this harbor far beyond their planned season, never quite making it to their ultimate destination, all due to this epidemic.
Should you find yourself in Boot Key Harbor, be cautious and look for the following symptoms: a sudden urge to downgrade your beer preference, so as to afford more beer more often; an encyclopedic knowledge of all local buffet and/or drink specials; onset of a distended abdomen; and a new found proclivity for Jell-O shots. As these symptoms masquerade as a great time, they are often overlooked, and Scott and I have come close to the edge of the Vortex ourselves. However, lucky for me, Scott saved the day with his radical plan - SAILING. You see, there's always a reason to stay here. There's always one more party, and the allure is hard to fight. But, we certainly don't want to have spent six months in the Keys and have only seen the tiki hut, so off to explore we go!
29 June 2011 | St. Petersburg, FL to Marathon, FL
The time had come to cast off our lines from the lovely St. Pete’s and to finally head for the Keys. Our dreams of a nice 48-hour blow, which would allow us to sail and keep us from yet another noisy multi-day motor-sail, were quickly squashed by the locals. Laughingly, they informed us that “nice” wind for a trip to the Keys meant we could (a) wait until October or (b) sail there in a hurricane.
Since neither one of those options was really appealing, we decided to wait for the lowest chance of thunderstorms over a 72-hour period instead. Believe it or not, this was quite a challenge since it seems our good friends over NOAA are suffering from a case of Marine Bulletin cut-and- paste this summer.
Here’s a glimpse at the ultra-helpful weather alerts ‘round these parts:
• Monday – Light winds. Waters a slight chop. Afternoon thunderstorms.
• Tuesday - Light winds. Waters a slight chop. Afternoon thunderstorms.
• Wednesday - Light winds. Waters a slight chop. Evening thunderstorms.
Anyway, you get the picture. It looked like we were going to run into thunderstorms. Yippee! Honestly, I wasn’t too worried. We had this weather forecast for the previous two weeks, too. We’d get cloud to cloud lightening, some wind, and the occasional drizzle. Nothing too worrisome or serious.
So, we wrapped up the last of our to-do list, said good-bye to all our of new friends, and pulled out of St. Pete’s last Sunday evening (6/19) with a planned 36 to 41 hour trip ahead of us.
We had a couple of little glitches before we even got out of Tampa Bay, but nothing too tragic. I must admit, though, it was a little unnerving to pull out of the marina at sunset for such a long trip. But, we absolutely did NOT want to pull into the infamously shallow waters of Marathon at night. Leaving the now familiar territory of Tampa Bay in the evening so that we could arrive in Marathon a day and a half later during daylight hours was the definitely the better option.
The first 24 hours of the sail went off without a hitch; we had nice weather and calm seas, but, of course, no wind to really speak of. Things got a little more interesting, though, just as the sun was setting on night two. Seems the XM weather radar hadn’t updated in a while, so we were more than just a little surprised to see lightening suddenly popping off all around us. Scott quickly resituated the radar, and what do you know, there were three, huge, nasty storms all around us! Now, just in case you don’t remember from my previous posts, I’ll remind you again - I’m a wuss. I have no interest whatsoever in playing dodgeball with Zeus in the middle of the Gulf. Luckily, Scott, as usual, kept a cool head and realized that the weather systems were falling apart as soon as they reached deeper water. So, he headed us a little farther offshore, which worked like a charm. We didn’t even get a single drop of rain! Good thing, too, because I’m pretty sure my plan of running back and forth across the boat screaming, “I don’t wanna die!” wouldn’t have worked. So, crisis averted.
The next morning, as we sailed into choppy Florida Bay, we were treated to dolphins, a sea turtle, a couple of rainbows, and the clearest water we’ve seen yet. The only downside was that it appeared we had the misfortune of arriving during dead sea grass season. There were huge pockets of the yucky stuff everywhere! Of course, it clogged our engine intake three times, leaving Scott with the fun task of taking the system apart and putting it back together over and over again.
Finally, Scott decided we’d be better off sailing until the grass tapered off. This meant we had to beat it across the bay at a whopping three to three and half knots. Of course, this slowed our arrival time down by several hours, and despite all of our planning, we pulled into Marathon right as the sun was setting. Since we weren’t able to make it into the marina in time, we dropped the hook right outside of the entrance channel, toasted to our safe arrival in the Keys, and passed out.
Our 54-hour motor-sail put us getting a predictably slow start the next morning, but once we drug ourselves out of the cabin, I knew it was worth every bump in the road and peptic ulcer along the way to finally get here. This is a very cool place! We sure are a lucky crew!
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
23 June 2011 | St. Petersburg, Florida
If you’re a follower of the blog, you know we’ve had our misadventures. Let’s face it people, our luck seems to come in one flavor – bad. Sure, we had some good times along the way, but I was really starting to think we’d made a mistake, that maybe, just maybe, it was time to file this little adventure away under the heading of ‘Bad Idea’ and move on. I mean, really. We’re hitting bridges, tearing sails, and catching coffee pots on fire here (don’t ask); I seriously started to worry that it was only a matter of time before something happened that we wouldn’t be able to laugh off.
Then, we got to St. Pete’s.
St. Petes Municipal Marina is the stomping ground of lots and lots of sailors. There’s an interesting mix of yacht clubers, weekend warriors, and live-aboards there, but we spent most of our time with the live-aboard crew. These guys are the real deal, the old salts we’ve read about in all the cruising books and magazines. During our month with these guys, we picked their brains for tried and true techniques, asked their opinions on routes and weather, and laughed our asses off at their crazy adventures. We’ve also watched them run aground in the marina, pop their dingys while tying up, run out of gas, and replace major boat parts that somehow “fell off” during an afternoon trip.
We tell them our dramatic stories. They’re not impressed. Seems we’re nothing more than sailors here. I’m inclined to agree.
11 June 2011 | St. Petersburg/Venice, FL
As we make our way through our third month of cruising, things seem to have transitioned from what I will now admit was a newbie skill set to one which might at least resemble that of a novice. Our initial goals of trying not to hit other boats, trying not to hit land, trying not to hit each other, and trying to keep everything working have been replaced by a new, and far more interesting, list. Diving, museums, bike trails, and paddleboarding are working out considerably better.
The logistics of making your way to a really cool place, but not having a car has been a real drag, but it’s getting better as we make our way down the West side of Florida. Between trolleys, bike paths, and renting (or borrowing) a car every so often, things have gotten much more manageable. St. Petersburg is not only cruiser friendly, but is the best city along the Gulf that I’ve ever been to. When we changed plans on the fly to stop in St. Petes, we kinda had the impression that West Florida would be mostly like the panhandle – beautiful beaches, lots of condos, great restaurants, fishing charters, a few dive operators, etc. While it has all of those things, it also has lots of things I never expected. It has the largest municipal marina in the country, an awesome trolley system, bike trails everywhere, over a hundred parks….you get the idea.
Anyway, since we left, there have been several times that I planned on making a dive or two only to find out that the nearest dive charter is too far away, or the weather isn’t right or whatever, but the tide is finally turning. My new marina neighbor (and fellow corporate mutineer) has a car at the marina so we decided to make our way out to the shark tooth capital of the world, Venice, FL. We dove with Megalodon Charters right off the Venice coast and landed lots of cool stuff. The group found anything from whale and manatee bones to mammoth and shark teeth. As you might expect, we also collected a large pile of what Steve, our divemaster and fossil guru, likes to call “Rocks”. He was polite about it though, and always smiled before gently lugging all of our crap rocks off the boat. All in all, it was a damn cool trip that we will be revisiting soon. Riley was absolutely amazed by the shark teeth, so hopefully I can talk him into getting certified in the next few months now that he’s 10.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the Gulf?
29 May 2011 | Gulf of Mexico, Coast of Florida
We accomplished the Dreaded Gulf Crossing from Apalachicola, FL to St. Petersburg, FL last week.
As you may have gathered from previous posts, it was my biggest fear. I did not want to make this crossing. I priced flights, rental cars, and teletransportation. No luck. I had to go, unless I wanted to abandon Scott to single hand the trip. I ultimately decided that I love him too much to send him out there alone for two days. He's a lucky, lucky guy that one. I shall remind him constantly.
The weather window we chose was almost ideal. Predictions called for five to ten knot winds with one to two foot seas. Wind direction wasn't going to be perfect, since we'd be pointing the whole way, but Merissa likes to point, so we decided to go for it.
We headed out of Apalachicola right at daybreak Friday morning. It was a little rough coming out of the bay, which made me nervous. Three to four foot seas in the bay didn't seem like a good sign to me, so I tried to talk Scott into turning around. He declined my offer and badgered me into taking a motion sickness pill. I'm not sure he was actually worried about my wellbeing at this point. I think he was just hoping that the "may cause drowsiness" side effect would kick in, and he would be left to sail in peace for a while.
Once we made it out of Government Cut, the waters in the Gulf smoothed out almost immediately. We threw up the sails and glided out across the Gulf. It was nice out, actually. It was a little chilly, the skies were beautiful, and I saw the first sea turtle of the trip. It went on like this for almost two hours. We sailed and smirked. Life was good.
Then, the flapping began. Lots and lots of flapping. We were pointing too closely, and the sails just wouldn't get happy. For most people, this would just mean that they'd have to beat their way across and take an extra day or so to get there. (For our non-sailing friends: You cannot sail directly into the wind. If the wind is coming from the same direction as your destination, you have to beat. "Beating" is sailing a zigzag pattern so you can use the wind. You'll travel twice the distance, BUT you can reach your destination by sailing. Eventually.) Unfortunately, taking longer just wasn't an option for us; we had four very nervous grandparents biting their nails in Louisiana and expecting calls of our safe arrival within 48 hours. Much to Scott's disappointment, we had to motor sail. So, for the next 36 hours it went on like this - we'd motor, then we'd try to sail, we'd go absolutely nowhere, Scott would curse a lot, and we'd motor again.
Ultimately, the Dreaded Crossing turned out to be delightfully boring. As usual, though, we did get to see some really cool stuff along the way. There were flying fish, acrobatic dolphins, glow in the dark fish, and a moon rise so beautiful I could barely believe my eyes!
Despite the uneventful trip, no one but Riley slept well. Exhausted and cranky, we pulled into the municipal marina in St. Petersburg, Florida early Saturday evening, and we slept for two days. We finished the crossing in about 36 hours, the chicken crossed the Gulf, and I may get to see the Keys after all!
A Series of Unfortunate Events
24 May 2011 | Ono Island, AL to Panama City, FL
Yes, I realize the blog has been missing for a few weeks now. However, the last few weeks were rough ones for me, and let's face it - you have no interest in hearing me whine, now do you? Soooo, here's the Cliff Notes version of the recent drama.
It all started with an unexpected trip home to say goodbye to another huge piece of my heart. Bad timing lived up to its name and messed everything up, so I missed Scott's family's visit to Orange Beach, and he and Riley weren't able to come home with me either.
Sometimes things just don't work out. Allow me to prove it.
We developed a float plan to get us from Orange Beach, Alabama to Apalachicola, Florida, at which point, we would have to make a long Gulf crossing (which I absolutely, positively DID NOT want to do). Between those two cities, the following fun and exciting events occurred:
1) We ran aground. Yes, again. Only this time it was during a storm, making it even MORE exciting than it was the first time.
2) We clogged the raw water intake on the engine while trying to get the boat off ground. So, of course, the next day the engine overheated, which was an even bigger problem because....
3) We tore our mainsail at the reef point during yet another storm.
4) We lost a few sailing days while waiting to have the sail repaired, but that was okay because...
5) We were already behind schedule due to an ICW bridge's "temporarily reduced overhead clearance," which forced us to turn around and wait for low tide the next day. This, as it turns out, didn't matter because...
6) We hit the bridge during low tide any way, which caused the loss of our masthead fly and our morale.
A few other things happened, but you get the picture.
Despite these recent misadventures, there have been some very cool moments sprinkled in along the way. There was a beautiful day spent on an uninhabited island just the three of us. Scott grilled boudin and hot dogs while Riley harassed the wildlife. It was a perfect day for me; one of those magical little times when I know why I live in eighty square feet, hand wash my clothes in the sink, and walk around with an afro.
We also spent a great couple of days Panama City with Scott's cousin Kyle, where we got a very cool personalized tour of Tyndall Air Force Base. I'm pretty sure Riley would have enlisted on the spot, if the Air Force would have taken him! The next day, all Scott and I heard was "Kyle, Kyle, Kyle, Kyle, Kyle." Kyle's cool factor only increased on day two, after he took us putt putt golfing, where Riley almost decapitated Kyle's girlfriend, Mel, with a golf ball, and Kyle learned not to tell a nine year old boy to hit something "a lot harder".
In the end, there was no mutiny, Scott and I are still married, and no one lives in the dingy (yet). I'm going to call those good things, too. (Although I can't speak for Scott...)