Friday, February 14, 2020

Starring in our own late late show

We are underway northbound in the Hawk Channel, off the Florida Keys, after spending two nights off Key Largo, tucked in behind Rodriguez Key (map). Ahead I can just make out the skyline of Miami, where we should be anchored tonight.

The remainder of our cruise Tuesday was a little lumpy, but not too uncomfortable, and we had the hook down off Vaca Key, in Marathon (map) just in time for cocktail hour. After cocktails we splashed the tender to head ashore for our customary Marathon dinner at the Sunset Grille, where we arrived just in time for sunset, somewhat to the annoyance of people who had crowded onto the boat dock to watch it.

In the dinghy with us was a folding wood door that we had removed from the master shower shortly after we bought the boat. We found the door to be an annoyance, and we replaced it with a simple shower curtain, but we had stowed it in the event we ever wanted to put it back, for example prior to eventually selling the boat.

Our view from the bar at the Sunset Grille.

Long-time readers may remember that we had the shower completely re-done a couple of years ago, including adding a spiffy new tempered glass door, completely obsoleting the wood one. It was well-stowed and we've been carrying it around ever since, but in Key West we dug it out and listed it for free online. A guy in the upper keys wanted it and I agreed to haul it to Marathon to give it to him.

We had a lovely sunset and a nice dinner at the bar, since even as early as 6:15 there was a wait for tables. The guitar and lap-steel duo on the patio was decent, and the weather was perfect. The guy who wanted the door, however, never showed, even though we sat on the patio an extra half hour over another beer. We ended up hauling the door home with us, and it will go in the dumpster in Fort Lauderdale.

The anchorage was calm and pleasant when we arrived, but the wind clocked around and things got a bit rolly toward the end of the evening. Overnight it got even bumpier, and things were jerky enough when we awoke in the morning that we decked the tender and weighed anchor even before our first coffee. Steaming out of the anchorage with the stabilizers working was a great improvement.

The relief was short-lived. After we made the turn eastbound into the Hawk Channel we found ourselves bashing into steep three-footers. That's not unsafe, and Vector herself hardly notices, but the crew soon tires of all the bashing. It's an uncomfortable ride, and you can't do anything except stay glued to your seat. An hour into it, Louise asked me to turn around head back to Marathon.

Gratuitous Key Largo poster, to go with my post title.

The ride was a little better in the other direction, but we did not backtrack far. After calling around to a few $200-a-night marinas, we contemplated the prospect of staying in Marathon for days on end before we got a better window, and we decided to just soldier through for eight hours and get it behind us. Louise took some meds and informed me I'd be on my own for the passage. Well, me and a very unhappy cat.

We made it to Rodriguez Key at a dead low tide of minus one half foot, and I picked my way through the shoals into the protection of the anchorage. Things calmed right down as soon as we were in the lee of the key, where we dropped the hook just after 4pm. All of us were exhausted, and we broke out some leftovers for dinner.

We woke yesterday morning to winds of over 20 knots. We were very comfortable in the anchorage, but we knew the channel would be a washing machine all morning, with the winds laying down in the afternoon. We decided to give ourselves a break and just stay put another day. With a 50-mile leg to Miami ahead of us and no intermediate stopping points, leaving anytime other than early morning is not an option.

With an unscheduled free day, I got a number of projects done on board, including repairing the lightning damage to the autopilot with a board I bought on eBay recently. I made some progress on planning for our upcoming Orlando and Bahamas trips, and I spent too much time trying to find an app to store the myriad boat cards we've collected in some kind of database, without success.

Miami skyline in the distance, through the haze.

As forecast, the winds laid down in the afternoon, and with the water calm between the anchorage and the town, we took a 3-mile dinghy ride into Key Largo for dinner. After dinner we walked to the store to pick up milk and the gas station for dinghy fuel. We at at Skipper's Dockside, which has courtesy docks, but is at the very end of the Port Largo Canal, with its infamous "crash corner." This was our first time ashore in Key Largo, despite anchoring at Rodriguez Key numerous times.

Today's conditions are perfect, so spending the day at Rodriguez paid off. The downside is that I will have to see the Miami Boat Show on a holiday weekend rather than a weekday; I am girding myself for the crowds. If all goes to plan, we should be able to anchor just south of the show, but I will have to paddle in by kayak to land on the beach.

Things will be busy for the next few days. With just two weeks before we stage for the Bahamas, we have a lot to take care of on board and a lot of provisioning to do. I will try to update the blog at least one more time before our road trip to Orlando.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Conched out

We are underway eastbound (or northbound, depending on your frame of reference) in the Hawk Channel, bound for Marathon out of Key West. We had a lovely and mostly relaxing week as Conchs, with more or less everything right where we left it after our last visit.

Sunset from our upper deck in Key West, beyond one of the numerous charter cats and the cruise piers.

Shortly after my last post, offshore of Longboat Key, we made a slight diversion to port to keep within cell range of the coast for another couple of hours, owing to the fact that Louise's chart computer decided to do a Windows update right then. The slight diversion cost us less than a mile, or about ten minutes on arrival time, and we decided that was better than having the plotter end up half-baked for the rest of the trip.

We had a lovely sunset and a nice dinner at sea. We passed the night in wide open water, an uneventful passage. Tuesday morning, after we were both awake, we discharged our waste while outside the nine nautical mile "resource boundary" (waste discharge is normally legal three miles offshore, but the west coast of FL is an exception). When we had done this on the crossing to St. Pete, we noted a small leak from the macerator pump; this time I was able to determine it was coming from a broken case bolt on the pump head. We used a pet pad to catch the drip.

Sunset at sea, on our passage from St. Pete.

After winding our way through the Northwest Channel, we arrived at the Key West Ship Channel around 4:30 in the afternoon. We called the marina and were tied up in the Margaritaville South Basin (map) by 4:45. After a well-earned beer on board, we wandered over to the closest of our old standbys, Amigos, for dinner, and we both crashed early.

View of the Margaritaville Resort from our deck.

In the morning I walked to the office and picked up our "resort cards," basically the same as hotel room keys, which got us access not only to the marina rest rooms and laundry, but also the resort pool, hot tub, gym, and lounge areas. While we have stayed in "resort" marinas before, this was, hands-down, the most we have ever paid to dock the boat. The run-of-the-mill pool and hot tub did not make up for it.

Key West is full of feral chickens, and we saw more than our fair share of chicks with their parents.

This is the nature of Key West in high season, where hotel rooms at this same resort start at $500 a night and go up from there. Our preferred digs here are at the municipal dock a few blocks away, which has no amenities at all and is only 25% less. The other marinas in the Bight are even more, with no better amenities to speak of. Margaritaville is open to swell, and we had a bumpy stay, so next time we'll see if we can get into the Bight instead, where things are a bit calmer.

One of our neighbors, a 112' yacht, bouncing in their slip. It was a rough night.

From here, though, we did get to watch the sunsets right from our deck if we so chose, and we also got to watch the cruise ships come and go, as well as the shenanigans of their passengers. The resort also has a rooftop bar, aptly named the Sunset Deck, which is one of the best places in all of Key West to watch the sunset. It's open to the public but little-known and so uncrowded.

View from the Sunset Deck. The quayside below gets crowded every night at sunset.

We put the scooters on the ground the first day, parking them in the free dedicated scooter area of the hotel's garage. Scooters are ubiquitous here, and every block has free scooter parking, whereas parking for cars is scarce and pricey. I rate it as the most scooter-friendly city in the US, at least of those we've visited thus far.

Even though we had the scoots available, being so close to Duval street, we mostly walked everywhere. We visited many of our old haunts for dinner, and enjoyed strolling around the Mallory Square area of Old Town and into the Truman Annex, open to pedestrians during the day. It was a bit of a different view of the city from our previous visits.

This was typical of our view, one of the larger ships to call here. Boats coming and going from the north basin of our marina actually have to go under her bow lines.

Our friends Dorsey and Bruce, on their beautiful American Tug, Esmeralde, were also in town, staying at the Galleon over in the Bight, and we connected with them for dinner twice. It was nice catching up, and Bruce lent me his SWR meter for my investigation into some VHF radio issues we've been having. We're hoping to run into them later in the year in their home waters of the northeast.

We also connected on our final evening with fellow Great Loopers Sam and Revina, whom we had met in Schenectady and again in Joliet. We were mostly within a few dozen miles of each other for much of the way around, but somehow kept missing one another. It was great to finally meet up over a meal. We hope we'll see them again in the Fort Lauderdale area as they continue north.

Cocktails with Rev and Sam on the Sunset Deck.

In addition to relaxing and enjoying Key West, I got a few projects done around the boat. Those included replacing a busted connector on the davit for the wired remote, adding a dedicated switch on the davit so it can still be operated if the remote fails, testing the VSWR of the VHF radios, and replacing the macerator pump.

This latter item did not go well. I will spare you the ugly details, but the word "expulsive" comes to mind. I've rebuilt this pump twice, so with the bolts finally corroded through I just trashed it in favor of the on-board spare (also rebuilt), but it did not come out quietly. Sadly, we just tested the replacement outside the three mile limit, and it's not working. I have another adventure ahead of me in the bilge, but first I need to have another spare pump in hand. We can not go to the Bahamas without a working macerator.

Vector in her berth, with the Disney Dream behind, in hers. That pier is actually on the navy base, and passengers need to be shuttled around to town.

Speaking of the Bahamas, we got the cat's vaccines updated at the beginning of the month, which establishes March 2nd as our earliest departure date. We've started the process of getting the boat ready and provisioned for a three-month stay. While it would have been great to leave for the Bahamas direct from Key West, or maybe even Marathon as we did last time, it will be easier to get a lot of this done in the Fort Lauderdale area.

This dovetails nicely with a get-together on the calendar with my cousins in Orlando toward the end of the month. We're going to rent a car and drive up, cat in tow, for a few days, and that, too, is much easier from Fort Lauderdale than from anywhere in the Keys. Docking the boat for the time we are gone is likewise also much more reasonable. When we get back from Orlando, we'll turn around and head right back south, at least as far as Biscayne Bay, to stage for our crossing.

Departing this morning I had to thread my way between the cruise ships. We passed Carnival close aboard; the nominal 100 yard security zone simply can not be enforced here.

Tonight we will be anchored off Boot Key, where we will likely tender in to one of our old stand-bys, the Sunset Grille, for dinner. It will be a short visit; tomorrow we will continue on to Rodriguez Key and thence to Miami. The timing is right to catch the Boat Show for a day, and then we'll settle in for a few days in Maule Lake, one of our favorite anchorages.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Wastin' away again ...

As I begin typing, we are underway in Tampa Bay, approaching the Sunshine Skyway Bridge with the St. Pete skyline receding behind us. It's been a wonderful stop, and we could easily stay a few more days, but today and into tomorrow is the only decent window we will have for crossing the Gulf of Mexico for the foreseeable future, so we decided to make a run for it.

Our destination is Key West, where we will spend a few days before cruising up the keys to Miami. Our usual haunt in Key West is the municipal marina at Key West Bight, but they were sold out when I called, so we are instead heading to the Margaritaville Resort, tucked in behind the cruise ship pier. This being high season, every place in town is ridiculously expensive, but at least we can use all the resort facilities. I do not to expect to run into Jimmy around the pool, but I'm sure there will be a surfeit of parrotheads.

When last I posted here, I was actually typing aboard an American Airlines jet, en route to San Francisco. The confluence of being in a place with a decent airport, a place with reasonable dockage for Vector, and a place where we have good friends who were willing to pet-sit for us allowed us to make a trip back to our old stomping grounds to take care of various things and get some visits in.

Yosemite National Park from our flight. That's Half Dome just right of center frame, with Yosemite Valley down the middle.

To that end we weighed anchor at the St. Petersburg yacht basin in the early afternoon of the 20th and backtracked to Boca Ciega Bay, at the southwest corner of St. Petersburg. We had made reservations for the 21st at Maximo Marina on a decent weekly rate, and our plan was to check out the channel to the marina on a favorable tide, then drop the hook in the bay and perhaps tender over to the Gulfport municipal dock for dinner.

As luck would have it, we arrived in 15kt of crosswind out of the north, and even at a +1' tide, the marked channel from the ICW to the marina was incredibly shallow, we think due to water being blown out of the bay. There was at least one stretch where the sounder registered less than six feet and we plowed our way through the silt. We had been advised to follow the markers for the best water, advice which proved to be plain incorrect, but we made it all the way to the marina's entrance canal without getting stuck.

Given the difficulty we had getting up to the channel, and the fact that we'd need to come into the marina much closer to dead low tide in the morning, we opted to skip the anchorage and go directly to the marina a day early. We arrived before closing time and tied up at our slip (map), got all squared away, and walked a couple of blocks to Portofino restaurant in a nearby strip mall. It was next door to the Publix, which we also needed because we were out of milk for our morning coffee. Fortunately, I was able to buy just a pint.

An earlier window shot from the plane. I think this is Ivanpah Solar.

Tuesday we Lyfted over to Steph's place to borrow her car, which we subsequently used to schlep Angel and all her accoutrements over to Karen and Ben's place in Clearwater. Ben was traveling on business and Karen had very generously offered to watch her for us while we were away. We wanted to arrive early in the afternoon and spend a couple of hours, to let her acclimate to her new surroundings while we were still around. She settled right in, so after an hour or so the three of us went for a quick dinner at nearby Rumba's. After dinner we said our goodbyes to both Karen and the cat, and brought the car back to Steph.

We spent the whole day Wednesday flying, and the following six days were a whirlwind of appointments and visits. Among the former, we met with our financial planners in San Jose, and we also made an inspection visit of our condo in town, which we rent out. This is only the second time we've been back inside the unit since we moved out of it over 15 years ago. The tenants wanted to be present, and met us at the door.

Things were in surprisingly good shape, considering our major kitchen and bath remodel turns 19 this year. The tenants, who are very nice, pointed out a few things while we were there that clearly need to be addressed: the glass surface cooktop was cracked in several places, the microwave turntable was no longer rotating, and there was a four-lamp light fixture in the master bath with an intermittent connection in one of the lamps.

New microwave range hood installed. Maple cabinets are in great shape.

We took photos and made notes of all these things, and I sent a long missive to our management company about buying replacements and getting an electrician out to the unit to install them. But overnight it worked on me that we'd be paying thousands for work that I might get done before we left, and so I arranged with the tenants to get back in for a few hours. We dropped by Home Depot together and got a new light fixture, and after dropping Louise off for a family visit, I ran to Fry's to see about appliances.

Fry's is a chain of giant electronics stores (that also carries some appliances), which is imploding after nearly forty years in business. Ironically, they are famous for supplying Silicon Valley with all the bits and pieces to design the technology that ultimately made them obsolete. It's sad to watch; I imagine they'll be bankrupt in a few months. In any case, they have little inventory left, but I was able to snag the last over-the-counter microwave in stock at a clearance price of $130. The only glass cooktop they had was the floor sample of a high-zoot model retailing for $1,500. They were willing to knock it down 30%, but I needed it to be less than half that.

I bought a few cheap tools at Dollar Tree and spent the afternoon changing out the light fixture and the microwave. No way could I have been lucky enough for the mounting holes in the top cabinet to line up with the mounts on the new unit, but I was able to borrow a cordless drill and 3/8" bit from a contractor working on the exterior of the building, and thus did not have to drop $100 at Home Depot on them (still a bargain compared to having to send someone out).

The view on our way out of the anchorage this morning. The trawler came that close to us, too, at the other end of his circle.

No one had a cooktop in stock, so we'll still be paying an electrician to go out there and install one. But I figure we saved several hundred on the other two projects, and the tenants are happy. I drove away with the old light fixture and microwave in the back of the rental car. The light probably needed an internal wire replaced, and the microwave needed a $10 turntable motor. But without the wherewithal to repair and re-purpose them, we reluctantly dropped them off at the San Mateo recycling center just a block from our hotel, where they ended up in a scrap dumpster.

In the course of our travels around the area we made a few detours through some of our old neighborhoods just to see what's changed. The thing I found the most remarkable was the sheer number of RVs now parked on the streets, almost everywhere you looked. Long-time readers may remember us "stealth parking" the bus on city streets during our annual visits to the area; the need for stealth, it seems, has passed. Even tony Palo Alto has its "RV row" -- the bay area housing crisis has risen to epic proportions.

This is now typical of industrial back streets in the bay area. Each vehicle has to move every 72 hours.

It was a full calendar, especially with the unplanned appliance replacement project, and by the time Wednesday morning rolled around we were very ready to return home. I celebrated the completion of another orbit of the sun Wednesday by spending the whole day flying. Our connection in Charlotte was so tight we could not even stop at the bar for a celebratory beer.

Rather than Lyft back home and spend Thursday doing the whole two-Lyft dance to borrow a car to get the cat, we grabbed a cheap rental car at the Tampa airport when we landed. We were home by 11pm, happy to be spending the night in our own bed. Thursday we drove up to Clearwater to get Angel and spend a couple of hours with Ben and Karen. Thrifty let me return the car to St. Pete instead of Tampa, saving me an hour and a few bucks on my return Lyft.

Given our low-water experience on the way in, we waited until mid-afternoon Friday to have at least half tide on our way out. I plotted an exit route that avoided the marked channel altogether in favor of an unmarked route that showed as deep water on my crowd-sourced chart software, but that often proves to be imaginary. In this case it was spot-on, and we had 18' most of the way back to the ICW. We again bypassed the nearby Gulfport anchorage in favor of just returning to the St. Pete yacht basin for a few days.

Green track is the marked channel, less than 6' in spots. Red track was 18-20'.

We dropped the hook in the basin just a bit SE of our last spot (map), where a somewhat shop-worn trawler has taken up residence. The sailing cat that was there when we first arrived to St. Pete was still there; I learned later they've been anchored for a month dealing with boat and medical issues. It was pouring when we arrived and we spent the evening on board.

We enjoyed our final two nights in St. Pete, having one final dinner with Martin and Steph, and strolling downtown in some pleasant weather. The city has fixed the "parking meter" for the courtesy docks, so it cost us a few bucks to go ashore, but still less than what we had paid for a mooring ball when they were available.

As I wrap up typing we are in the Gulf, offshore of Longboat Key. We'll probably lose our Internet connection just south of Venice, not to return until we are an hour or two out from Key West tomorrow evening. So far it has been a calm ride, with gentle two foot rollers on the beam. My next post will be underway northbound (well, really eastbound) from Key West, in perhaps a week's time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Relaxing in St. Pete

Vector is in St. Petersburg, Florida, where we dropped the hook ten days ago at the South Yacht Basin (map). Construction of the new pier is well along, but it has closed off access to the dinghy dock for the mooring field in the Vinoy Basin, where we normally take a mooring ball. The city has closed the moorings, and ongoing repairs at the municipal marina have the transient docks closed as they rotate tenants in from the docks under repair.

Sunset over St. Pete and the docks of the south yacht basin from our anchorage.

For us, there is not much point to being in St. Petersburg unless we can be right here, and so anchoring was our only remaining option. Fortunately, state law changed in 2016, invalidating the local prohibition on anchoring here in the basin. There were two other boats when we arrived, and there have been a few comings and goings in the time we've been here.

Vector at anchor between the docks and breakwater of the south basin. New pier structure is behind us.

Shortly after getting settled, we splashed the tender so we could get ashore for dinner. While the marina would allow us to tie up behind the fuel dock, that closes before dinner time, and so instead we tendered all the way to the city courtesy docks at the northwest corner of the basin. These docks are $1 per hour regardless of length, with a six-hour limit. You note your slip number and then pay at a machine that is just like the ones you might find at a parking lot.

The courtesy dock "parking" meter. A couple of slips could fit Vector.

We poked and prodded at the machine for a few minutes, but the screen was either blank or simply unreadable, and we finally gave up and walked down Beach Drive to dinner at one of our old standbys, Stillwaters Tavern. In the morning I talked to the marina office about the meter; they told me it was frequently broken and not to worry about paying until it was repaired. While the slips are inside the marina basin, the meter is handled by parking enforcement.

One of the good things about tendering to these courtesy docks, versus either the dinghy dock at the mooring field or the marina transient docks, is that they are right along the waterfront and a very short walk to the restaurant district along Beach Drive. It's also a comfortable walk to the Publix, the weekly farmer's market, the multiplex cinema, and even a nice spa.

Our more usual anchorage, the Vinoy Basin, as seen from tony rooftop bar Canopy. Vinoy hotel at left, pier at right. The ferry is a seasonal service to Tampa; this same vessel serves Provincetown in the summer and we've now seen her both places.

Wednesday morning our friends Martin and Steph invited us to join them at the yacht club for lunch at their weekly gatherings. Louise opted out of meeting Steph at the Salty Sisters meeting, which often involves club business, but I tendered ashore stag and met Martin at the informal Briney Brothers group, mostly comprising husbands with time on their hands while their wives run the show. We remember this whole dynamic from our last vist, and I enjoyed reconnecting with several folks I had met there last time, as well as a few new faces. We returned the following week together.

Another sunset. You can see taxiway lights of the airport at left, and the Dali museum behind the boats.

After lunch Martin walked me over to the office and sponsored us for a temporary guest membership, which allows us access to the club facilities for nine days, with charges billed to our credit card. Among other things, this gave us access to the club's dinghy dock, which is gated and also closer to the grocery store, farmer's market, and museums. We signed in with the dockmaster and have used it several times.

In the course of our time here we've eaten at a handful of downtown restaurants, got massages at the day spa in town, got haircuts at the joint next to the Publix that still had our preferences in their computer from three years ago, and have generally been relaxing and visiting with our friends. After about a week we went over to the fuel dock for water and a pumpout before setting back in to more or less the same spot.

The bathroom sink at Ford's Garage burger joint, with gas-nozzle faucet.

In addition to Steph and Martin, we also had a nice dinner with fellow boaters Kristina and Atle, and Ben and Karen came down from Clearwater to visit the Dali Museum, where they are members, and met us for dinner afterward. Martin and Steph are customers of our long-time friend Steve, and they were nice enough to invite us along for a couple of meals while he was in town for a customer visit.

A, umm, different fixture in that same bathroom, made from a beer keg.

Our stay has not been without some amount of drama. You may recall we hightailed it out of Clearwater to make it here before things got rough on the bay, and the high winds behind that had us dragging a bit in the tight anchorage. We had to re-set the anchor and let out more scope, and even then we found ourselves plowing through the mud at a rate of about two feet per hour before the winds abated. We had heard that the holding here is poor, with loose silt over a hard bottom, perhaps marl. The 40mph winds really warranted more scope than we could deploy in such a tight anchorage.

I strolled through Albert Whitted Park, and I spotted a familiar but ancient logo on the "tail" of this airplane-themed play structure. My very first flight was on National Airlines, which went out of business decades before this structure was built.

We were anchored immediately adjacent to the Albert Whitted airport, and the other drama involved a minor plane crash, wherein a canard-wing Velocity Elite with three persons on board overran the runway and ended up on the rip-rap leading down to the bay. All three walked away unharmed, and the phalanx of emergency vehicles that responded left a short time later empty-handed.

The view of the crash site from our deck. You can see the wing of the plane behind the fire trucks.

We took the dinghy around to the bay side of the field to get a better look before heading to dinner; by the time we returned to Vector they had removed it from the rocks and towed it back to the ramp. Going outside the breakwater gave me a chance to breeze out the dinghy, which has otherwise spent the entire visit inside a slow speed, no-wake zone.

Closer view of the canard-wing, pusher-prop Velocity Elite on the rocks.

I've gotten a few projects done around the boat, including the very important one of getting new insurance. The majority underwriter of our last policy withdrew from the marine market, leaving us high and dry at our renewal date this month. Of course they barely gave us one month notice and so it has been a mad scramble. Between having a weird nearly-one-off steel boat, a claim on our record, and massive industry losses from storms over the last two years, insurance has become expensive and difficult to get. I am happy to report that we were able to find suitable coverage at a reasonable price, owing in part to my new professional license, and in larger part to our USAA membership, courtesy of Louise's dad.

We'll be departing St. Petersburg in about a week, when it will be time to continue south toward the Keys. Our next planned stop is Key West, and whether we proceed direct to the gulf, or make a couple of stops on the inside route first, will depend on the weather. My next update here will likely be under way, to one or the other.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Creative Cruising

We are underway southbound in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), headed for St. Pete, with Clearwater in our wake. We had a very nice week in Clearwater, spending a good part of it with longtime close friends Karen and Ben, who now have a nice home here in addition to their awesome vintage Flxible bus, the Creative Cruiser.

This "pirate" tour from Clearwater Beach passed us twice a day in our cozy anchorage.

The week got off to an inauspicious start, arriving, as we did, through the Clearwater inlet on Wednesday morning at dead low tide. After clearing under the inlet bridge, we made the left toward our planned anchorage in Clearwater Beach, and promptly ran aground on a growing sandbar. While the sounder said we had touched bottom, and I could feel the boat slow, we never stopped, and almost as quickly as it happened, we were again fully afloat.

Moonset on my watch in the Gulf. Best my cell could do.

We continued another few hundred feet en route to the anchorage, furiously studying charts to try to guess if we might run out of water again further along. While soundings with the tender later in the week revealed we would have been fine, we ultimately decided the wiser choice was to turn around and take our chances with the bar we'd already touched once. We altered our line with a little guesswork, and made it back out without touching.

These dolphins played in our bow wave before dinner on our passage. The clear Gulf water makes for good viewing.

We proceeded instead all the way to the GIWW at Clearwater, where we dropped the hook in an uncharted anchorage just south of the causeway bridge (map), just inside the No Wake zone. It was a little exposed, and many skippers took liberties with the No Wake signs, but it made for a short dinghy ride to the day dock at the Clearwater Municipal Marina, where we had docked Vector a couple years ago.

Approaching Clearwater from sea on a perfect morning.

By late afternoon we were both recovered just enough from the passage to splash the tender and head ashore for dinner. We walked to downtown eatery Clear Sky, one of perhaps a dozen eateries along the main drag, Cleveland Street. Tasteful, understated holiday decorations adorned the street, and we saw brightly painted fiberglass dolphins throughout town.

Sunset over Clearwater inlet from our anchorage.

By Thursday evening we were pretty much fully recovered, and Ben and Karen picked us up at the dock for cocktails and a quick tour of their beautiful, very modern house just a few minutes away. Afterward we had dinner at one of their nearby favorites, Rumba, a casual tiki joint. We enjoyed catching up after too long an absence.

When not dealing with pirates, we instead had sharks in the anchorage.

We got together each evening over the next four days, and a couple of days I also spent most of the afternoon at their house helping Ben with the Creative Cruiser. We replaced the three hard-to-reach Group 31 start batteries under the master berth, and diagnosed a misbehaving door-opening solenoid.

Vector anchored in Clearwater. The aground sailboat was our only neighbor; they were very quiet.

We ended up celebrating their anniversary at another old favorite, Slyce in Indian Rock Beach, and one evening we walked into town and met them at the oddly-named Sicilian place, Soul. The other two evenings Karen cooked in their commercial-quality kitchen; she's quite the chef, and our final evening yesterday she served a scallop over gnocchi dish that could easily rival any of the top restaurants in the state.

Best place in town.

I got a few projects done around the boat, and spent way too much time working on getting new insurance when our current policy expires in less than two weeks. Sunday morning we took the tender over to the Clearwater Beach side for a wonderful brunch at the Clearwater Yacht Club, where we have reciprocity. They might just be the best dining deal in all of Clearwater; sadly, it's too shallow there for us to dock Vector.

I passed this cone guarding protruding bolts from a lamp post. Apparently it's been there long enough to have become an art installation.

We also rode out quite the storm in the anchorage, with winds steady at 30 and gusting to 45, but we had a good set and we were not uncomfortable. The dinghy acquired quite the crust of salt, however. We managed to dodge getting wet or plowing through too much slop in all our visits ashore. I had a nice walk through town on my way to get tender fuel; every other building (or more) appears to be owned by the Church of Scientology.

A flock of feral parakeets settling in a tree at a Scientology retreat center.

Today is the last good transit weather on Tampa Bay for a while, and so this morning we weighed anchor while the going is good. We got an early start, because we are facing something of a question mark on arrival: the mooring basin where we normally stay, as well as the transient berths at the municipal marina, where we have stayed on occasion, are both closed. The moorings will not reopen until March, and the transient docks in February.

There is a small anchorage behind the marina breakwater, and if we can squeeze in among the other boats already there, we can get ashore at the municipal courtesy docks. If not, we'll be hunting around for alternative anchorages.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ringing in the New Year at sea

We are under way in the Gulf of Mexico, with the barrier islands of St. George Sound, off Carrabelle, Florida receding behind us, and plenty of open water ahead of us en route to Clearwater Beach. We're already several miles from the nearest cell tower, and soon we will be offline until we are a few miles from our destination.

Not long after I last posted here, perhaps a mile from our turn into the Carrabelle entrance channel, the fog thickened, until we could no longer see more than a few boatlengths ahead. We turned on the automatic fog signal, somewhat alarming the cat, and adjusted the radar. I made a Securite call before we re-joined the channel, and I switched to the quieter fog signal as we approached town.

Fortunately we had no other traffic, and equally fortunately, our planned anchorage was empty. We dropped the hook off-channel right downtown (map), a feat we could not manage on our last visit because we did not have detailed enough charts. There is nary a single decent eatery in all of Carrabelle, so we girded ourselves for fried food and tendered to Fathoms, immediately across the channel from the anchorage. The place was charmless but the food was acceptable, and we both found options that were not deep-fried.

Vector at anchor in Carrabelle, as seen from next to Fathoms.

Yesterday we had a leisurely morning aboard, and after lunch I made a quick run back to town just to see how things had changed since our last visit and the storm, and also to pick up some beer at the local IGA. I wanted to grab a couple of six-packs of the Oyster City Hooter Brown before we left the panhandle; I'm not sure how far this local Apalachicola brew is being distributed. I also stopped by the marina office to confirm the fuel price and that they had enough for us.

We weighed anchor as soon as I returned and headed over to the fuel dock. My logbook says we started fueling before noon, and we did not finish until 2:20 -- a very slow dispenser. We ended up bunkering 1,100 gallons, which will cover us for quite a while. For quite a bit of that time, fellow looper Matt, from Long Way Home, stood with us and chatted. Regular readers may recall we had met him and his family briefly at the dock in Detroit, some four months ago, and somehow our paths had not intersected again until now. We were off the dock by 2:30.

We motored just five miles back down the river and across the sound to Shipping Cove at Dog Island, where we dropped the hook in as much lee as we could find (map). Three other boats were also anchored in the cove, presumably waiting on Gulf weather. It was nice to make the trip in excellent visibility, enjoying the sweeping views of white sand barrier islands and coastal wetlands that we were denied by the previous day's heavy fog.

Sleepy downtown Carrabelle.

We enjoyed a nice dinner aboard and a mostly comfortable night. In anticipation of tonight's watch schedule, Louise turned in by 9pm, and I stayed up until 2:30ish. By the time I turned in, the cove had become a little bouncy, but not too bad. That same chop is what kept us from making the crossing yesterday instead of today.

This morning we again had a leisurely morning aboard, since our departure window did not start until noon, lest we risk arriving at Clearwater inlet too early (during my sleep period). We weighed anchor just before noon, and after battling two knots against us rounding the point, found ourselves with nearly a knot of following current coming out the inlet. If the Gulf Stream is kind to us, we'll arrive towards the early end of our arrival window.

Since Louise will be (we hope) asleep in her berth at midnight, we will celebrate the new year on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), more or less the same as Greenwhich Mean Time, when it will be midnight in London. That will be just 7pm here, after dinner and before Louise turns in and leaves me alone on watch.

No visit to Carrabelle is complete without a stop at the tardis world's smallest police station.

The last time I started "celebrating" New Years on UTC was exactly 20 years ago today. I was running a telecom carrier network, and while we were pretty confident, prudence dictated that we be extra vigilant for any Y2K issues (yes, it's really been two decades). Because carrier networks all work on UTC, I had full staff on duty from an hour before midnight UTC until an hour after midnight PST, where our Network Operation Center was located and also as far west as our network extended.

Of course there were no problems at all, but we all sat around for ten hours just in case, and I had a first-class NYE party, minus the alcohol, catered in the NOC. Small consolation for having cancelled anyone's planned vacation on New Years.

We wish all our readers a very happy and safe New Year celebration, and when next you hear from me, we should be at anchor in Clearwater Beach.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Hurry up and wait

We are under way across St. George Bay in the Florida panhandle, en route to the bustling metropolis of Carrabelle. There's nothing, really, in Carrabelle, unless you count their signature claim to fame, the world's smallest police station (a blue phone booth). Nevertheless, they have the cheapest fuel in all of the gulf coast of Florida, at $2.50 per gallon, and so even though we have no need to see the place again, we're making the stop to take on fuel.

Historic Cape San Blas light, now in Port St. Joe, festively lit with light strings.

Thursday afternoon we arrived in Port St. Joe at 4pm and dropped the hook pretty much right outside the remains of the city marina (map). A large No Trespassing sign forbids access to the basin, which otherwise might have been a protected anchorage. That did not stop a couple of small boats from going in there to fish, and there is one remaining tour boat using what's left of the city dock.

The view from our anchorage. San Blas light at right, old marina entrance at left.

At dinner time we tendered around the nearby shoal and over to the municipal boat ramp, which has a long face dock where we tied up. We strolled the town, which was nicely decorated for the holidays. I was quite surprised by how touristy the place was, with a half dozen or so decent restaurants and several shops along the main street. A nearby chandlery and a grocery store make it an excellent cruiser stop, even with the marina closed.

Downtown Port St. Joe.

Equally surprising was the lack of any industrial port activity or even evidence of any equipment along the deepwater wharfage. Perhaps the dredged deepwater channel and quayside is merely a strategic asset for nearby Tyndall AF base. In any event, there was no sign that it is ever in use, but we made sure to anchor out of the turning basin anyway.

Decorations in the park near the boat ramp. The fish flashed alternately.

We had a nice pizza dinner at Joe Mama's (lots of businesses here play on the Joe theme), which made up for the disappointing pizza we had in Panama City Beach. It was a nice stop, and would have been good for two or three days had we been so inclined. The Cape San Blas lighthouse was moved here in 2014 to preserve it from the eroding cape, and we noticed it festively lit on our way back to the tender. It made a nice backdrop from the boat all evening.

Friday we weighed anchor and took the Gulf County Canal from St. Joseph Bay to the GIWW, where we rejoined our previous track. We followed our breadcrumbs back to Apalachicola. On our last pass, we had arrived in Apalachicola after a long, hot cruise, with Louise feeling under the weather. That, combined with relatively lower experience and comfort with river tactics and shallow-water anchoring, we opted not to stop, anchoring a few miles upriver instead. On this occasion we wanted to get ashore, and so we dropped the hook off-channel in a wide spot across from town (map).

Vector at anchor in Apalachicola, as seen from the park and dinghy landing.

That put us directly across from the city dock, a very short tender ride away, and with an early arrival I tendered ashore stag to explore the town. Once again, I found the place surprisingly touristy, although it's less of a surprise here than it was at St. Joe. A half-dozen well rated restaurants, a few shops, and one of my new favorite breweries, Oyster City, are all right downtown, and a Piggly Wiggly is a half-mile walk.

We returned together for dinner at the Owl Cafe, and strolled the town a bit. As if to underscore our choice of dinner venue, we found a live owl perched on a piling, keeping watch over our tender. We returned to Vector to find her exactly where we had left her, and I mean exactly. Strange, considering the tide had turned completely. We turned out to be in some weird hydraulic where the current quickened and slacked with the tide but never changed direction; we did not move more than ten feet in any direction in two full days.

Appalachicola's "tree," a fishnet decorated with pot floats and liferings, and holiday lights at night.

When we first set out for Apalachicola from St. Joe, we hoped to continue on almost immediately, fuel up in Carrabelle, and then make our jump across the gulf. But the forecast deteriorated steadily, and by yesterday morning it was clear we'd not have crossing weather until New Years. Since Apalachicola had far more, and nicer, services than Carrabelle, we opted to spend another day, with an option for two. We walked to the Piggly Wiggly for provisions after lunch, and last night's dinner was a casual affair at kitschy burger joint and raw bar The Station, in what formerly was clearly a classic three-bay service/gas station.

The Station, which I snapped mostly for my good friend Ben.

This morning we awoke in pea-soup fog, with the Coast Guard issuing dense fog advisories through noon on the radio. It looked for a while like that would make the extra-night decision for us, but by noon it lifted to the point where we could see the bridge and downtown, so we weighed anchor to get under way. The fog is still with us, but we can see the markers and other traffic.

This classic Harley hack was parked outside Bowery Station, a local watering hole with live music.

Arriving today will give us all day tomorrow to make our way to the fuel dock and take on around 1,100 gallons of fuel, roughly a two-hour process. We can then head out to Dog Island, the barrier island to the gulf, and anchor to await our opportunity, perhaps Tuesday. We've opted to skip the Steinhatchee stop, as we'd need to arrive close to high tide and that window is passing, so our next hop will be overnight, either to Cedar Key or Clearwater, depending on weather.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Boxing Day after a quiet Christmas

Happy holidays, everyone. We are under way in the Gulf of Mexico, our first open saltwater passage since leaving Atlantic City for New York Harbor seven months ago. Vector is back in her element, and we have perfect conditions here in the littoral waters from St. Andrews Bay to St. Joseph Bay, where we will anchor in the vicinity of Port St. Joe.

Sunday morning we weighed anchor in considerable chop in Choctawhatchee Bay, getting an early start before things got worse. As soon as we were off the bay and into the "canyon," as we heard the tow skippers calling the canal, the water became flat calm, and even the wind was significantly attenuated by the trees on both sides.

The closer we got to West Bay, the more damage we started to notice. We again found ourselves in some chop as we exited the canal into the bay, but with far less fetch than Choctawhatchee, it was not bad at all, especially with wind and seas behind us. Damage was in evidence all along the bayfront, with sunken boats scattered about, many missing or damaged docks, and the ubiquitous blue tarp "FEMA roofs" characteristic of post-hurricane recovery. It has been 14 months since Hurricane Michael devastated the area, and the community still has far to go.

With the bay a little lumpy, and spring tides on a bay-emptying north wind, we decided that the anchorages nearest downtown Panama City were either too shallow or would not permit us to get ashore, and so we continued down the ship channel to Grand Lagoon, which penetrates the eastern end of the barrier island at Panama City Beach. We dropped our hook as close to the north shore as we dared get, before the deep water narrowed down into a marked channel (map). That left us about a mile from town.

The closest place to get ashore, other than the state park dock south of the lagoon, would have been the dock at the sprawling Sheraton resort. That would have been a great place for Christmas or Eve dinner, and they even have a spa. But the docks were destroyed by Michael and have not yet been rebuilt.

Vector at the otherwise empty dock at Treasure Island Marina.

Instead we tendered the mile west to the small cluster of marinas near the bridge. We landed the dink at the fuel dock of the Lighthouse Marina, closed for the night, and had a nice dinner at the on-site restaurant, the Grand Marlin. Sunday night was Prime Rib night, and we split a piece, as is our custom. I give it decent marks.

Monday was much calmer, with the wind clocking around to the east but at much lower intensity. I took the dinghy out stag, sounding out a somewhat closer anchorage (it was deep enough but we decided there was no point in moving), as well as the channel and the docks at the Treasure Island Marina, where I had booked the two nights of Christmas Eve and Christmas. I also scoped out other options for getting ashore in the evening for dinner.

Suspecting, correctly, that the marina would actually be closed both days, I went in to the office to get our slip assignment and anything else we needed to know before arriving. We were assigned to a T-head that was likely the only spot in the whole marina deep enough for us, but the dock was only 30' long and there were no cleats, just pilings. Good to know ahead of our arrival.

We returned ashore at dinner time, tying up at Captain Anderson's for a short walk to the Panama Pizzeria. The pizza was just so-so, even by Florida standards, but after a month in Bayou La Batre with no pizza at all, we were happy to have it. Captain Anderson's has its own restaurant, too, another dinghy-in option, but they were dark Monday.

We got a fairly early start Tuesday morning, arriving at our berth by 9:30 or so at a blissfully quiet and empty marina (map). We were the only transient boat in the whole town, and the only boat of any sort on our 18-slip dock. Enterprise picked us up at 10:15 for our rental car reservation.

I knew PCB was a popular summer resort area, and so I expected beach bars, mini-golf, and surf shops. What I did not realize was that it was yet another locus of what we like to call "cheesemageddon" -- decidedly un-beachy tourist attractions that we've seen in land-locked tourist traps like Gatlinburg. But on the way to the car rental, we drove right past the Wonderworks "upside down building," and, across the street from it, the Titanic, sinking into the pavement.

Cheesemageddon. The Titanic is actually Ripley's.

Fortunately, it is low season here, and we did no battle with crowds or traffic for anything. Well, except at Walmart, across the channel in Panama City. As long as we had a rental car for two days, which we needed to get to Christmas dinner (in hindsight we could have used the scooters, but we did not know ahead of time we'd have such nice weather), we spent the afternoon of the 24th running errands.

That included a much-needed stop at Petsmart for another bag of prescription food for Angel before her current script runs out, and a stop at Joann's for quilting supplies. As long as we were out in suburbia with a car, we opted to stock up on provisions, and we braved the zoo that is Walmart on Christmas Eve. We waited less than five minutes to use the self-checkout, so it was not too bad, and it had some entertainment value as well.

Since we had to cross the bridge to Panama City anyway, we took a loop through downtown and swung by the municipal marina, where we had stayed on our last visit three years ago. The marina was completely destroyed, and a year later not much has been done towards rebuilding. Also damaged were the nearby performing arts center, and City Hall. Both are closed, likely permanently. City Hall has moved to a brand new facility on higher ground.

On recommendation of our Enterprise shuttle driver, a local, we had Christmas Eve dinner at the Saltwater Grill, which was very nice. We wanted to do something a little upscale, since our Christmas reservation was essentially at a beach bar with one of those kitschy, only-in-a-beach-town names.

Yesterday the waterfront was dead quiet. With a car and an entire day before us, we decided to take a drive out to Mexico Beach, to see how the recovery is coming along. Mexico Beach, straddling the time zone boundary and open to the gulf, was ground zero for Michael. The row of homes along the beach was obliterated, with widespread destruction continuing well inland to the other side of town. Close to 300 people were estimated to have defied mandatory evacuation orders here, and many paid the ultimate price. 53 were killed across the state, in the first Cat 5 US landfall in a quarter century.

While evidence of the destruction is everywhere, still, the town is bouncing back. Many homes have been rebuilt, and resorts are coming along. A number of restaurants are open, some operating out of kitchen trailers with tent pavilions for dining rooms. It is sobering to see how slow progress can be, though, even in this first-world place where goods, materials, and labor are only a highway trip away. It puts what is happening right now in the Bahamas post-Dorian in context.

The road to Mexico Beach runs through Tyndall Air Force Base, which also suffered considerable damage. The surrounding forest  looks like so many broken matchsticks, the trees all uniformly snapped off at about the ten foot mark. The base is off our port side right now, some of the nicest sugar-sand beach in all of Florida, closed to the public. We'll pass Mexico Beach later as well.

We came home for the usual round of holiday phone calls before setting back out for dinner. We had 5:00 reservations at Harpoon Harry's on the beach, the final hour of their holiday buffet. The place has clearly been rebuilt since the storm, and the dining room was actually nicer than I had expected. It was a great spread, with all the traditional holiday flavors and then some. Other than the fact that all the veggie sides were in heavy sauces, it was actually a perfect meal, and we had a great table with a wonderful sunset view. A nice way to finish the holiday.

This morning I squared up with the marina, which had been closed since our arrival, and returned the rental car by way of the post office, where I mailed off a couple of packages. We were singling up lines by 9:30. The plotter is telling me we will have the hook down by 3:30, except by then we will be in the Eastern Time Zone and it will actually be 4:30. The Port St. Joe marina was destroyed in the storm, with no estimate of when (or if) it will be rebuilt, so we will land the tender at the boat ramp to get ashore.