Thursday, January 29, 2015

Happy Birthday, Captain Sean

Not a bad way to spend the day, cruising in the sunshine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The "other" ICW

We are tied to a mooring ball outside Marina Jack, in Sarasota, Florida (map). Tonight will be our third night here, and we will drop lines at dawn to continue south to Charlotte Harbor and beyond. It's been a great stay, but all too brief -- there's lots more to see here than we had time for, so we'll be back.

Sunset over Sarasota Bay.

As I wrote here at the end of my last post, we spent our final night Sunday in St. Petersburg secured to a mooring ball in the north basin. We tendered ashore for a final meal with Martin and Steph after relocating and getting squared away.

Monday morning I picked up our good friends Karen and Ben in the tender after they parked their car at the marina lot. Karen took some shots of Vector in the yacht basin from the tender before we got them and their gear aboard, and I headed back to drop off the gate keys. By 10:30 we had the dinghy hoisted back on deck and we were dropping lines to head out into Tampa Bay.

Blossom made an early start from their slip, anticipating progressively building winds, and so they were ahead of us for the first half of our bay cruise; we passed them shortly before the Sunshine Skyway Bridge so that we could lead the way through the skinnier sections to come. Winds were on the beam in the bay, and the stabilizers were maxed out trying to keep us upright for the duration.

Once we made the turn southward into the ICW, winds were from astern and the ride got much more pleasant. Long-time readers are, by now, used to me writing "ICW" here and know that this stands for "Intra-Coastal Waterway," but there are actually several intracoastal waterways in the US, each with different characteristics.

Heretofore, when I have talked about the ICW I have been referring to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which in official documents is actually abbreviated AIWW. That waterway starts in Norfolk/Portsmouth Virginia (Mile 0) and runs some 1,280 statute miles all the way to Key West. We've done most of that waterway from Mile 0 to about Mile 1,112, off Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay. The final 170 miles, south of Biscayne Bay, are too shallow for Vector.

There is a separate ICW in New Jersey, from Manasquan Inlet to Cape May, which is also too shallow for Vector. There are additional connecting waterways from Cape May to Norfolk, including the Delaware River, the C&D Canal, Chesapeake Bay, and the Elizabeth River, which permit vessels of moderate draft to transit the entire east coast from Delaware Bay to Biscayne Bay without venturing out into the ocean.

There are also two long sections of ICW here in the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and officially abbreviated GIWW. One section runs from Brownsville, Texas all the way to Carabelle, Florida, and a second section runs from Tarpon Springs, Florida to Fort Myers, Florida. It is this second part of the GIWW that we've been traversing since leaving Tampa Bay.

Whereas the AIWW, at least from Biscayne Bay north, has a "controlling depth" of 12 feet, the controlling depth in this section of the GIWW is only nine feet. Controlling Depth is a fancy way to say that the Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with maintaining a navigable waterway with at least that amount of depth at low tide. They have varying degrees of success, and regular readers have heard me talk here of sections of the AIWW where we could only pass at high tide, because the channel at low tide had shoaled to depths below our six foot draft.

With a nominal controlling depth of just nine feet, there is a lot less wiggle room here on the GIWW. We knew there was a trouble spot across from an inlet known as Longboat Pass, which separates Anna Maria Island to the north from Longboat Key to the south. The GIWW passes just behind Jewfish Key, a small island just inside the inlet, through a dredged cut. Currents from the inlet are constantly depositing sand into the cut, and there is one section where the Corps has moved the buoys marking the channel so close together that there is not even room for two boats to pass each other.

We wanted to arrive at this section as close to slack current and high tide as we could come, and so after transiting the two lift bridges along Anna Maria Sound, we dropped the hook for an hour in a convenient spot to wait on the tide. We probably did not need the wait, but Blossom draws a full eight inches more than Vector.

We made it through the cut at Jewfish Key without drama, steering by hand and relaying our soundings back to Blossom as she followed us. The lowest sounding we saw was 8.6', which meant Bossom still had two full feet under her keel.  We had a foot and a half of tide in our favor, though -- at low tide they'd have been holding their breath.

That put us into Sarasota Bay in plenty of time to make the anchorage here in the daylight. Unfortunately, we arrived in high winds, over 20 knots steady and gusting above that. Picking up a mooring ball in those conditions was quite a challenge, and I don't think we could have done it had not Ben been available to help Louise on the foredeck while I jockeyed the boat around. Several people on neighboring boats came out to watch the festivities and wonder who the crazy people were who would try to moor in 20 knot winds.

Vector on her mooring, in calmer seas.

As if mooring was not crazy enough, we also had to splash the tender and make our way ashore. We loaded all of Ben and Karen's expensive camera gear into a big plastic bag to protect it from spray and wrapped everyone up in artificial fleece blankets, but we made it to the dinghy dock without incident. We had cocktails aboard Blossom at the dock, meeting some of Martin's extended family from the area, before Ben treated us to a very nice dinner at the restaurant right there in the marina. Karen and Ben made their way back to their car by way of Uber, and I was impressed by how quickly they got a ride and made it home.

Sarasota by night, from our upper deck.

Yesterday we spent the morning getting some chores done around the house. In the afternoon we strolled around the lovely waterfront parkland here in Sarasota, enjoyed cocktails at O'Leary's Tiki Bar right on the beach, and had a nice dinner with Martin and Steph downtown. Today we took the marina shuttle over to the Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium and the adjacent bird rescue and sanctuary before ending up back downtown for dinner again. We loaded the dinghy when we arrived back at Vector.

Sometime in the morning I will complete another orbit of the sun while we are under way. If all goes well, we'll be celebrating that fact with Martin and Steph on Cabbage Key, near Cayo Costa, south of Charlotte Harbor. Between here and there are a few dozen more miles of shallow GIWW, which means highly focused helmsmanship. I'll have earned my birthday libations.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

splash? SPLASH!

We are docked at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina in St. Petersburg, Florida (map).  We've been here for a little over a week now, and we've really enjoyed being right downtown in the thick of things.  St. Pete is a vibrant town, and we'll be back this way someday to spend a little more time.

We arrived here a little after noon last Thursday, after a very brief stay of just a half hour on a mooring ball, our first ever, at the north basin just a short way from here.  We had called the marina after we landed in Tampa Bay last Wednesday, but as luck would have it, Blossom got the last slip, owing to a blues festival in town last weekend.  We asked to be put on a wait list and reserved a ball instead.

No sooner had we picked up the ball, got secured, and shut everything down, than the marina called to say they had a cancellation and could put us in a slip.  We thought about staying put, but with a cold front moving in and a decent weekly rate, we decided to move over to a slip with power, on the same dock as Blossom.  We're both in the more permanent section of the marina, as the transient docks were full up due to the aforementioned festival.  Ironically, we are docked right next to the second boat we ever looked at, a Selene 43 now called Off the Grid but then known as Live Wire II.  They wanted too much money at the time.

Vector behind Off the Grid. We ended up with a larger, more comfortable, newer, and more capable boat for less.

We spent our first night in Tampa Bay anchored just southwest of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, in the lee of the south causeway (map).  It would have been easy enough, mid-day Tuesday, to just continue here, but after a long overnight passage from the Dry Tortugas, neither crew felt up to navigating into a harbor and docking, particularly considering we made landfall in fairly high winds.

The causeway provided good protection and we had a pleasant night there, although we could hear the bridge traffic.  We left with the flood in the morning to have a fair tide all the way here.  The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, by the way, is famous for having been knocked into the water by a wayward ship; when they built the replacement, they surrounded the central portion, near the ship channel, with large fenders to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again.  We passed well south of the fenders, as we had no need of the central span's height.

With a full week booked at the dock here, we had our mail forwarded and also ordered quite a few items to be delivered by Amazon Prime to complete a number of projects that have languished.  I also ordered a replacement for the GPS that failed on our way out of Key West, a critical system that I wanted to repair before we left the dock.  Not eligible for prime, so I spent extra to have it overnighted from GPS City.

Even though we've been here longer than a week now, we've barely scratched the surface of the downtown dining and entertainment options even within walking distance.  We've also reconnected with several friends who are also staying in the area.  Lastly, I was able to get a much-overdue dental appointment for an exam and cleaning.

This last item, which happened on Thursday, the very last day of our week-long reservation, necessitated a return visit Friday morning for some drilling and filling.  Since I needed the scooter to get to their office, about 20 miles away in Clearwater, we extended our dock stay by a couple of days, to today.  The route to Clearwater goes through our old stomping grounds of Pinellas Park, where I was sad (but not surprised) to learn the Elks Lodge where we used to park Odyssey when in the Tampa Bay area has closed.

As long as we had the scooter down, we got all our provisioning done for the next couple of weeks, and I also stopped by a tax collector to get the new Florida plates for the scooters (the office in Key West had run out of motorcycle plates).  I also made a stop at Radio Shack and West Marine for parts for the GPS install.

The big excitement around here, though, happened Tuesday.  For anyone who does not follow my Twitter or Facebook feeds, where this has already been posted, the cat and I both ended up swimming in the marina first thing in the morning.

Ever since George passed away, Angel has been asking each morning to be let outside.  I open the door, and she patrols the deck for a few minutes, making two or three laps and then asking to come back in.  If it's nice out, she'll sometimes lie in the sun on the aft deck for a while first.  Up till now, she has never left the boat.

Over the previous couple of days I  had caught her on the dock just outside the boarding gate a couple of times -- the tide here is such that the dock is an easy step for her at low tide, rather than a leap. On this morning I would guess she made it perhaps as far as the end of the finger pier.  That might have been the end of it, if not for a passing dog that had some words for her.  Even though the dog was leashed, Angel got spooked and probably took off down the main dock.

There's really no way to be sure what happened next, but our guess is that in her panic she tried to jump onto another boat and missed.  I heard her crying and popped outside.  At first I thought she was just on deck someplace in some kind of distress, but then I realized she was not on the boat.  As I walked down the dock calling for her, she answered each call with a cry that could only be interpreted as "Help!"

The piling to which Angel was clinging.  Hard to see the oysters in this photo.  We have no idea how far she swam to reach it.

Thinking she was on another boat, I passed her a couple of times before realizing she was in the water between two boats, clinging to an oyster-encrusted piling.  There was no way to reach her from the dock or even the boats, so I ran back to Vector to get the pole-mounted fishing net that we keep explicitly as a cat-rescue device.  I also knocked on the hull to alert Louise that I needed help.

It looks like a fishing net, but this is our Water Rescue Emergency Cat and Kitten Extraction Device (WRECKED).

It took the two of us, with Louise on a sailboat with the net, and me on the adjacent power boat with a boat pole, to dislodge her from the piling, into the net, and get her on the deck of the sailboat.  And then there she was, cold, wet, and crying on the deck of an unfamiliar boat.  I came around to the sailboat and volunteered to get my clothes wet carrying her back onto the dock and back to Vector.

Getting back onto the dock involved crossing a fairly large gap past fiddly sailboat rigging, and I held Angel tightly to my chest with one arm while I reached for a 4x4 fender post affixed to the dock with my other hand.  We have these same posts on our dock and they are firmly attached.

Mind the gap.  The post with the angled top was loose.

This one was not.  One of the bolts was missing and the other loose, and it was vertical only courtesy of the 20 pounds or so of oysters clinging to the bottom.  As I grabbed it, it began rotating toward the water, and me with it.  I don't know how I did it, but I managed to get the cat onto the dock before I fell, in slow motion, the six or so feet to the water -- it was lower low tide.

Taken at another low tide, you can see the oysters high and dry on the loose fender post.

Louise brought the cat back to Vector while I swam, as best I could, to the swim step of a nearby power boat and extricated myself from the water.  When I went in, my training told me to kick off my shoes, but they were nearly brand new and the only decent pair I own, so I kept them on.  I was glad, at least, that my cell phone was still back aboard Vector.

With my clothes soaked in salt water I ended up stripping  to my skivvies on deck and coming in through the pilothouse door closest to the stairs, so I could head straight down to the shower.  At least the water and air temperatures were both in the 60s -- it might have been much worse.

Wet clothes outside the starboard pilothouse door.

In the meantime, to add insult to injury, the first thing Louise had to do with the cat was to rinse her in fresh water.  She spent the rest of the day grooming, and would have gotten sick if we didn't get the salt off.

One wet cat.  This is after the rinse with warm fresh water -- not a happy camper.

When I fell in I soaked not only my clothes, shoes, belt, and jacket, but also my wallet and its full contents, along with everything else in my pockets.  After a rinse we had cash, cards, and other items spread around the house to dry for hours.  I'm happy to report that other than a couple of paper items in the wallet, everything recovered after a thorough wash, including the shoes, although they are a slight shade darker now.

Installing the new GPS proved nearly as traumatic as the cat rescue, with the boat fighting me at every turn.  It started with a complete re-wire of the NMEA junctions and multiplexers, due to the new GPS running at a higher data rate than the old one.  I tried several different configurations before settling on adding a switch so that the primary and backup GPS units can share a single input port.

As long as I had to run a whole new cable for the new unit, I also opted to mount it to the mast, whereas the old one was mounted to the frame for the flybridge soft top.  It's been a long-term goal to extricate all the permanent wiring that connects the mast to the soft top, preventing us from lowering the mast if needed.  I didn't want to add yet another cable that would have to be relocated later.

The new GPS on the mast spreader, between the GPS antenna for the AIS on the left, and a VHF antenna on the right.

That meant drilling holes for a new mount and the cable into the starboard mast spreader and fishing the cable down the mast.  The design of the mast forced me to disassemble yet more of the soft top to access the underside of the radar to finish fishing the cable.

That turned out to be fortuitous, as I discovered that the radar cable passes through a sharp hole without benefit of chafe protection.  The cable was abraded but not chafed through, and I added some chafe protection before closing it all back up.

Radar cable lacking chafe protection.  My new pull-line is zip-tied to it.

It took a full two and a half days, but the new antenna is installed and working.  We now have much more accurate position fixes and they are updated more rapidly than before.  The new unit, a Garmin, can receive not only the US GPS satellites, but also the Russian GLONASS system.

I also installed a much-needed indicator for the transformer circuit feeding the induction cooktop, and wrapped up assembly of our "hookah" dive compressor system for underwater boat maintenance and shallow-water diving.  We did all the paperwork to renew our boat documentation and insurance, and I ordered the parts to fix the Northstar plotter.

On the more pleasant side of things, we've been enjoying the great dining opportunities downtown, eating out most nights and also a couple of brunches.  We made it to the Saturday Market right across the street from the marina both weekends, and we took the little trolley tour of downtown for 50 cents apiece.  We also walked to the Dali museum with Martin and Steph.

The fancy roof of the Dali museum.  Today's cover photo is our part of the marina looking through some of these windows.

In a few minutes we will shove off from the dock here and head back over to the mooring field.  We're expecting a good deal of wind in the morning, and we'd rather not have to deal with getting off the dock in those conditions.  It's also a good deal less expensive.  The plan is to head down to Sarasota tomorrow via the ICW; we'll have good friends Ben and Karen aboard for the ride, and Blossom will follow us.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


As I am typing this, we are in the Gulf of Mexico, about 40 miles off the west coast of Florida at approximately Sanibel Island.  Louise is off watch and asleep, and I have the conn on the 9pm-3am watch. Other than our friends aboard Blossom, about a half mile off our port quarter, we are alone in a vast expanse of empty ocean.  There is nary another target on the radar or the AIS, and I can see nothing but emptiness to the horizon in all directions.  I have two hours till moonrise, so to see anything at all I need to take the glasses out on deck, which I do three times an hour.

Dry Tortugas Light, now extinguished, on Loggerhead Key.  We had a view of this our whole stay.

There is, of course, no cell coverage here, so the fact that you are reading this means that we've already made it back to the land of cell towers and Internet access and I've been able to upload it.  We've been incommunicado for an entire week, since we left sight of Key West last Monday morning, with no phone service or Internet access, and only our satellite TV system to keep us somewhat abreast of world news.  I'm certain I will be spending all morning tomorrow plowing through a mountain of email.

Vector (center), Blossom, and a pair of sailboats in the harbor, as seen from the top of the fort.

We've had a wonderful week in the Dry Tortugas.  While the water was just a bit too cold for us to want to snorkel the island or dive the Windjammer Wreck near Loggerhead Key, we did spend a couple of days wandering around Fort Jefferson (seen from the north in today's cover photo, on our way in) and walking on the beach and the moat wall.  While the fort never saw any military action, it has an interesting history, and is the largest and perhaps best preserved of all the Third System coastal forts.

The welcoming committee on the dinghy dock.  They casually walked out of our way as we walked ashore.

Even though Dry Tortugas National Park is among the least-visited in the park system, there was nevertheless a steady procession of tourists who mostly arrived on the giant high-speed ferry from Key West.  The ferry arrives every morning by 11am and departs promptly at 2:45, and we crossed paths with it on our way in to the park.  We had no need, but the ferry sells ice, beverages, lunch, and snacks to any comers, which might include those of us in private boats, park staff quartered on the island, folks staying for a few nights in the campground, or visitors who arrived on one of the multiple daily seaplane flights.

The daily plane.  Yes, it was that close to us.

We had a perfect cruise to the Tortugas from Key West, in calm seas and sunny skies.  A group of dolphins joined us and frolicked in our bow wave for several minutes.  The ferry skipper gave us a report on the anchorage on our way in, and we arrived to find just a single other boat there.

Dolphin escort.

He departed first thing in the morning, leaving just the two of us to weather the incoming storm.  Us, that is, and the several commercial fish boats that arrived each evening to anchor for the night in the only protected harbor for 50 miles.  By Wednesday the winds were so bad that most of the fishermen sat out the day there as well, with the rangers hoisting the small craft advisory pennant over the fort in lieu of the US flag.  Blossom's anemometer recorded the winds at 35 knots.

The docks as seen from Vector. The ferry and/or the Park Service supply ship use the face dock.

Both our beefy anchors held fast, and other than a little roll and some porpoising, we were quite comfortable and slept soundly.  The same can not be said for the one fish boat that cut loose in the evening before I turned in.  The crew was below decks asleep, unaware they were drifting through the anchorage.  I hailed them several times on the radio and some other boats lit them up with spotlights.  When I saw they were headed for Blossom I sounded five blasts on our enormous Kahlenberg air horns, which woke the crew and likely the entire campground and staff quarters.  They managed to get their engine started and back under control just in the nick of time, and ended up spending the night on the "Government Use Only" Park Service mooring buoy, as they had apparently lost their anchor entirely.

The boat that narrowly missed us and was headed for Blossom.  Note the empty anchor roller.  Yes, the water really is that color here.

By the end of the week things were calming down a bit and more boats came in; by this morning when we weighed anchor there were no fewer than six.  After the first couple arrived Martin and Steph invited everyone over for cocktails, and we enjoyed meeting the crews of Sea Monkey and ViZu.  Other than the few days it was too rough to run the tenders, we had cocktails and/or dinner aboard one boat or the other each evening.

A gorgeous green-flash sunset seen from our aft deck, along with Blossom.

Notwithstanding the handful of boats which arrived earlier (though a couple of them had rough passages), the weather here on the Gulf for a northbound trip was unacceptable until today.  Even then, we bashed through four foot head seas this morning are are doing so again here in the middle of the night.  At least it was calmer this afternoon and into dinner, and I am hoping for a calmer morning as well.

The parade ground inside the fort, from the top level.

Walking along the parapet toward a bastion.  The harbor light sits atop one of the six circular staircases.

Since we were pinned down by weather for a full week, and there's not a lot to see on Garden Key once you've done the fort, I occupied myself with the unending list of boat projects.  That started with a full day of diagnostics on the Navman GPS that feeds our primary chartplotter, which started spewing garbage as soon as we left Key West.  I made a quick switch to the backup GPS in software, but it's less precise, as the receiver and antenna are built into a radio in the pilothouse.

I was hoping to resuscitate it with a hard power cycle and/or sending commands to it with a terminal, but, alas, it was not to be.  I'll send the output to Navico and see if they have any suggestions, but I have low expectations and I am figuring I will need to buy another GPS mushroom.

A pelican struts his stuff for Scalar, our tender.

This is the same GPS that came with the Northstar chart plotter that was on the boat when we got it.  Regular readers may remember that the Northstar itself crapped out last year, forcing me to accelerate the PC chart plotter project.  I called Navico for support at the time, and they basically told me to pound sand -- they don't make or stock parts, so buy a new plotter.  I expect the same of the GPS.

The guts of the fiddly Northstar plotter.  Not much to it, actually.

Speaking of the Northstar, it's been on my list to disassemble it and get the CCFL backlight tube out of it.  As far as I can tell, that's the only thing wrong with it.  A week incommunicado in the Dry Tortugas was a perfect place to knock this out, and now that I have the tube out I can hunt around for a generic replacement.  If I can get this plotter working again I will install it on the flybridge.

Why does our depth alarm keep sounding?  Perhaps it's one of the giant grouper hanging out under the boat.  This one is maybe six feet long, and they seemed to like just hovering under us, occasionally clonking into the hull.

Emptying all the safety gear out and then squeezing through the narrow door to access the GPS wiring, in order to switch the main plotter to a better backup source, prompted me to knock off another wait-listed project.  I took the fixed (but removable, by four screws) center post between the two narrow doors and permanently affixed it to one of the doors, relocating the latches to accommodate.  Now I have a single wide opening, making it much easier to load the bulky medical kit and life jackets in and out of that cabinet, and also to get my butt past the door when I need to work under the helm.

Ahhh.  Much easier.

I also installed a weatherproof fan in the shower compartment to help keep the mildew at bay, and had to replace some of the fancy multicolor LEDs around the flybridge coaming, which had succumbed to the elements after only a few short months.  I had low expectations, though, for $35 worth of lights direct from China.  The original dinghy painter also wore through its splice (we had anticipated this and put an extra safety line on it, thus keeping it from drifting away), but fixing that will have to wait until I have access to a chandlery.  Lastly, I fully caught up on my backlog of periodical reading.

Can you hold my dinghy?  I'm a frayed knot.

In the morning we will pass back into civilization, and I will upload the blog and download my email.  With no cell coverage I did not generally carry my phone around the island, so I did not get many photos, but Steph brought her DSLR and took lots of nice shots, some of which I expect she will post on their blog shortly.

A gunner's view of Vector, seen from a casemate.

We should make Tampa Bay by midday some time, and we'll drop the hook someplace easy for a night to catch up on our sleep after the passage.  I expect we'll land someplace in Saint Petersburg on Thursday.

Sunset at Garden Key.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

We're Conchs...

Today is our last day in Key West.  It's been a great stay, nearly three weeks.  Tomorrow morning we will shove off before sunrise, and I expect to be out of cell range shortly thereafter.  We'll be out of range and thus off-line for a week or perhaps longer, so this is the last you will hear from me for a while.

That said, if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you've probably already seen a couple of posts that looked like "All is well aboard m/y Vector" along with a link to our GPS position.  That tweet is generated by our Spot satellite tracking device, which allows me to "check in" periodically with our position.  (If you are not on Twitter or Facebook you can also see those check-ins here.)

As long as we are incommunicado I will be checking in this way daily.  It's a way to let everyone know we are OK and where we are.  There are also buttons to summon assistance, but those messages do not cross-post to Twitter and Facebook.  Neither should we need them; while we will be out of cell range and thus off-line and unavailable by phone, we'll be well within VHF radio range.

Bourbon Street Pub.  Zoom in to see the giant shoe, in the middle of the row of rainbow flags.

We had a fun time on New Years Eve.  It was actually much lower-key here than we expected; apparently the TV networks have moved on to more fertile ground, and the crowds were more subdued.  We had no trouble at all being seated for dinner at Mangoes, right on Duval Street (quite tasty).  We also were able to stroll quite easily up and down the street, which was blocked to auto traffic after perhaps 8:30 or so.  Even at 10:30 the only crowds were gathered around Bourbon Street Pub, where a drag show was in progress in anticipation of the lowering of the drag queen, Sushi, ensconced in a shoe, and Sloppy Joe's Bar, where bubbles were emanating from a giant champagne glass and the enormous conch was poised to be lowered at midnight.

Sloppy Joe's.  The MC is left of the champagne glass, on the roof.  I managed to cut off the top of the conch.

We had already resolved to spend the midnight ritual on the flybridge of Blossom, which is taller than most other boats in the harbor and where we had a nice, albeit somewhat distant, view of the Pirate Wench being lowered to the deck from the mast of the schooner America 2.0.  We could also hear the music quite clearly, and saw most of the action even though the stage lights were pointed nearly right at us.  As a bonus, we got to blast the air horn at midnight, and Blossom's horn was louder still than a few of the superyachts around us.  Vector has an even bigger horn; I'm sure our neighbors were glad we were gone for the evening.

Our view from Blossom.  The Wench is mid-drop, about where the blue light is, center-frame.  Not that you can tell in this photo -- we needed binoculars.

Since we now live on "cruiser time," generally up before the sun and where 9pm is considered "cruiser's midnight," we struggled for several days ahead of New Years to shift our circadian rhythm to stay up that late, and we barely made it to the Wench Drop and back to Vector before collapsing into bed.  We've spent every day since then working on getting back to our normal rhythm so we can be under way tomorrow at zero-dark-thirty.

Earlier in the day on New Years Eve we made our move from South Dakota to Florida official by spending two hours at the DMV getting our scooters registered and our Florida driver licenses.  We've declared our official domicile to be our new mailing address in Green Cove Springs, where hundreds of other cruisers and full-time RVers also make their home.  That's legal here in Florida and many DMV offices (which are actually run by the counties, as part of their tax collectors' offices) understand the process.  However, that's not universally true, and we've heard that some counties won't issue you a licence at all unless you reside within their jurisdiction.

Monroe County, which comprises the Florida Keys, was happy to issue us licenses and plates.  However, they absolutely insisted on seeing a lease on a physical address in the state -- they knew the Green Cove Springs address is a mail service.  They accepted our slip agreement from the marina as proof of residence, but then insisted on putting that address on our licenses -- knowing full well we'd be leaving in a matter of days.  So I now have a Key West license -- we're conchs!

We'll fix the address in the DMV system on line.  It will cost us an extra $25 apiece to get new licenses with our correct address, all because of bureaucratic nitpicking at the tax collector.  In the meantime, I've been flashing my new driver license all over town; in this tourist city, many bars and restaurants offer an unadvertised discount to locals, usually around 10% of the check.  At that rate, though, we couldn't make up for the fees to fix the licenses.

I spent the first day of the new year attending to some overdue maintenance on the boat.  I changed the main engine oil, oil filter, fuel filter, and air filter, and sent an oil sample to the lab.  The fuel and air filters were the ones already on the engine when we got the boat.  While less dramatic than it was on the bus, it's always sobering to hold a new air filter up against the old one -- I try not to think about what my lungs must be going through.

We bought a pair of scuba tanks on sale in town, so we should be all set for diving from the boat when the opportunity presents itself.  And I picked up parts for several projects that I can tackle on our down-time over the next few days, including the beginnings of our surface-supplied-air system (AKA "hookah rig") for underwater boat maintenance and shallow-water diving.

Among all this we've sampled a few more of the colorful local bars and restaurants in the company of good friends.  The weather has been perfect and we've mostly dined al fresco in short sleeves and sandals, yet it has been cool enough at night that we've not needed to run the air conditioners.

In the morning we will head to the Dry Tortugas, a ten-hour run of some 63 nautical miles or so.  The much faster passenger ferry will pass us on the way out and again on its way back before we arrive at our anchorage.  Blossom runs a bit faster than Vector and they have opted to let us get a head start; they too will pass us and scope out the anchorage shortly before we arrive to join them.

I'll leave you with the obligatory cheesy Key West tourist photo, at the giant plastic fish on the next pier. I'll post again when we arrive in Tampa Bay in a week or so.

This is the only billfish we've seen since we arrived.  It's fiberglass.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy Holidays from the Conch Republic

We are well-entrenched at the Key West Bight Marina, the municipal marina here in Old Town Key West (map).  We've had a pleasant and mostly quiet week and a half since arriving from the anchorage last Wednesday, but things are really starting to heat up now in anticipation of the big New Years Eve celebration.  There are two hundred-foot superyachts on the dock next to us, and a 123' Palmer Johnson just across the fairway from us.  Most of the small slips are also taken, and I expect them to fill up by tomorrow.

Vector docked at Key West, before the crowds arrived, and sporting her new signage.

We've been pretty busy since we docked.  Since we are here with friends, we've been very social, and what time we have left has been split between the never-ending project list and trying to take in a few of the sights around town.  As long as we have the scooters on the ground, we've also been catching up on shopping for provisions and projects.

Key West, by the way, is a perfect place to have a scooter.  While auto parking is scarce and expensive, there is designated scooter parking all over town, and it's free.  After unloading the scooters from the boat we pushed them down the dock and parked in some of the free designated parking just a few steps away.  We also unloaded the bicycles and locked them to a nearby rack.  Conchs (what the locals call themselves) generally get around town on two wheels, too, with bicycles outnumbering scooters by a small margin.

Temperatures have been in the 80's most days, and we've been content to just walk to anyplace within a half mile of the marina.  While Blossom is docked just a few hundred feet from us across the fairway, it turns out to be a half mile trip between the boats over land.  Mostly we've been meeting for cocktails or dinner in town, saving someone another half mile of walking.

Louise, Sandy, Steph, and Martin at Sunset Pier for cocktails.

Where the pier gets its name.

We did host dinner aboard Vector on Christmas Eve, and Martin and Steph returned the favor with a wonderful spread aboard Blossom on Christmas day. Steph's mom, Sandy, also came to town for the holiday, spending about a week. (Steph just updated their blog as well, and there are a few good photos of us there, too.)  It was a very relaxing holiday all around.   For those of us from more northerly latitudes, there is something surreal about celebrating in the warmth and sunshine, but both boats were festively decorated, and we are surrounded by holiday lights in the evening, including on the palm trees.

Holiday lights from our flybridge.

We've been very low-key on the tourist front, mostly just strolling the streets and taking in the scene.  We did do a trolley tour of holiday lights -- some Conchs go over the top -- with the gang from Blossom, and separately we went through the Butterfly Conservatory.  Most of the "historic" attractions in town, unfortunately, are inundated with tourists and have succumbed to the cheese factor.

One of the denizens of the Butterfly Conservatory.

Key West is now a fairly major cruise ship destination, and there have been from one to three large ships in port every day we've been here (including AIDAvita last week, which seems to be following us). Fortunately, cruise passengers generally do not eat in restaurants, and most of the ships depart by 6 or 7pm anyway.  Wednesday morning will be our last chance to see anything without competing with cruise passengers, as the first ship does not dock until noon.

Little good that will do, though, because the NYE crowds have arrived.  The town was almost sleepy leading up to Christmas, with vacancy signs all over town.  Not so today; the town, like the marina, is sold out.  That's largely due to the fact that NYE in Key West started being televised a few years ago, sending visitor counts through the roof.  I'm not sure we'll even be able to move on Duval Street after about 8pm.

Roosters are loose everywhere you look in Key West.

All that said, we're enjoying ourselves enough that we have extended our stay to the 5th.  That's the last morning we can have the slip, and it makes an even week, which is a lower rate than daily.  Even if we shove off on the 4th we will be ahead of the game, so this gives us a bit of weather flexibility.

On the project front, I changed the pressure switch on the domestic water pump, which had become intermittent.  We also put "Vector" on either side of the flybridge coaming so we can be identified from the side or just a little off head-on, and not just from astern.  I finished removing from the engine the hokey contraption that had been supplying cooling water to the stabilizers, thus allowing me to put the zinc anode back where it belongs.  And today I picked up seven gallons of oil so I can change the main engine oil before we leave -- the marina here has waste oil recycling.

This cat has found a benefactor in one of the local fishing charter operators, who throws him a fish every evening.

Somewhere in all of this my old shoulder muscle injury came back to haunt me, and I have been moving slowly for a few days, notwithstanding getting a massage the same day it happened.  Also, my laptop keyboard quit, and I shipped it back to Asus this morning for repair, so I'm having to make do with my old one that also serves as our navigation computer.  And I missed the boat, so to speak, on dentists -- I could not get an appointment while we're here, so it will have to wait till Tampa Bay.

Whenever we make our exit here, our plan is to head west about 70 miles to the Dry Tortugas for a few days, where we will have no Internet connectivity whatsoever.  From there it is an overnight run due north to Tampa Bay, where we plan to spend a week or so before working our way down the west coast to the Okeechobee Waterway, which will take us across the state to Stuart.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Dolphin Marathon

We arrived in Marathon, Florida early Monday afternoon, where we dropped the hook just west of Boot Key (map), which offered some protection from the easterly winds and swell.  Martin and Steph dropped their tender in the water and picked us up for dinner.  We briefly cruised the Boot Key Harbor just to get a look at what 230 boats on closely spaced moorings looks like (not our style) before heading to the Sunset Grille, just a half mile from our boats, for quite literal sunset cocktails and a nice dinner.

Not long after my last post here Monday morning, we were joined by two different pods of dolphins, who swam with us, frolicking in our bow wave, for quite a long time.  Dolphins often come over to check out our bow wave, but Vector is not quite fast enough to keep them interested for long, and our experience is that they will typically stay with us for less than a minute, hardly enough time to snap a good photo.

Not so with either of these groups, who each swam with us for several minutes, enough for me to get a handful of photos and even a short video.  We speculated that these must be Keys dolphins and thus more laid-back and chill than their northern cousins.  The water here is so clear that we could see them swimming well below the surface. The second pod, which numbered perhaps a dozen individuals, included a juvenile swimming with its mother, but those two swam away before I could get the camera out.

We enjoyed our brief stay near Marathon and could easily have spent a day or two, with at least another couple of restaurants with dinghy docks and even a way to get ashore for groceries and other supplies.  But we were concerned that the sea conditions would deteriorate and decided to press on while the weather was nearly perfect, weighing anchor yesterday morning.

That meant arriving in Key West three full days before our scheduled arrival and thus our marina reservations.  Blossom's slip turned out to be open and available, and they headed in to their marina yesterday afternoon when we arrived here in Key West.  Our slip, however, is not available until after 11am this morning, which left us having to anchor yesterday afternoon.

Usually that's not a problem for us, but Key West is a notoriously difficult place to anchor.  The best spots are off-limits inside a security zone around the Navy base, and what's left is chock-a-block with derelict boats, sunken wrecks, boats half aground, marginal liveaboards in ratty (sometimes dismasted) sailboats, and a handful of actual cruisers desperately looking for a safe spot to anchor.

On top of that, some enterprising outfits have discovered they can run watersports playgrounds out here in the anchorage, complete with bouncy pads and PWC rentals, without having to pay tax to the city, and two such outfits are taking up valuable real estate that could accommodate quite a few boats.
 We drove around the anchorage for a full hour before finally finding a usable spot (map), ironically just a stone's throw from our marina -- we could see Blossom snug in her berth across the water.

Once we had the hook down we had a pleasant evening.  We watched the enormous Carnival Dream depart her berth (we previously had to dodge out of the way for the smaller Carnival Ecstasy, which departed as we were coming up the ship channel), enjoyed the sunset over "Sunset Key" (really, Tank Island), and watched the city light up for the evening.

All is quiet this morning -- Key West is a late-night town.  We'll weigh anchor mid-day and head over to our slip at Key West Bight, where we will settle in for the remainder of the year.  It will take some patience and a lot of jiggling to get the boat stern-in to the dock, so we can unload the scooters.  We definitely don't want to be here for a full two weeks without wheels.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Key Largo

We are, finally, in the Florida Keys.  As I type we are under way, headed southwest toward Tavernier Key; this morning found us anchored off Key Largo, near an uninhabited island known as Rodriguez Key (map).  We are cruising the Hawk Channel, a somewhat protected waterway between the Keys, to our north and west, and the Florida Reef which protects them, to our south and east.

This morning's anchorage, with Blossom silhouetted against the pre-dawn light.

We left our cozy anchorage in Hollywood's South Lake Saturday morning for the short cruise to Miami, with Blossom following right behind us.  As the shorter, and thus slower, boat, we are the limiting factor on bridge timing and arrival times in general, so it's easier for us to just be in front. We also have the shallower draft (Blossom draws a full eight inches more) and can report back if there is anything skinny enough to warrant a change in their course.

We dislike traveling popular waterways on the weekends -- it's amateur hour, with plenty of skippers who don't know how to drive, and yahoos who just don't care.  Towboats do a booming business, and law enforcement has a field day.  So cruising the very popular waters from Hollywood to Miami on a Saturday would not have been our first choice, but we really needed to be positioned for the outside run by Saturday night, in case the weather window slid up to Sunday.

We managed to time the bridge openings perfectly, with a minimum of station-keeping involved, and we both made it through the single operable span of the Broad Causeway bridge with great anxiety but no incidents.  (The inoperable span is that way because it fell on top of a $20M megayacht last week, doing considerable damage but causing no injuries.)  A good bit of the traffic we encountered was northbound, likely heading to Fort Lauderdale for the holiday boat parade.

We found no fewer than four giant cruise ships when we arrived at Port Miami, which meant the ship channel through the harbor was closed to us.  We had to go around the south of Dodge Island via what is popularly known as "Fishermans Channel" which is, nevertheless, a busy deepwater channel sporting a cruise ship of its own, along with three freighters.  We turned right at Fisher Island into a system of unmarked channels and dropped our hooks in Norris Cut, between Virgina Key and Fisher Island (map).

Saturday's anchorage.  The superyacht Petrus II anchored uncomfortably close to Blossom, but they stayed only a few hours before returning to their marina on Fisher Island.

Other than the usual noises of a busy port, that's a beautiful spot, with a view of the Atlantic to one side and the glimmering lights of downtown Miami to the other, framed by tony and exclusive Fisher Island and verdant Virginia Key.  Even though it appears open to the Atlantic, it is actually protected by a very shallow bank, and we had a calm and lovely night.

Our view of the Miami skyline at night.

Acceptable weather for a Sunday passage held, and it looked like the other end of the window might be closing in, so we weighed anchor in the pre-dawn hours and headed back around the west end of Fisher Island to the ship channel. Ironically, on the way out the channel we passed the AIDAvita on its way in to port, the very same ship we passed (also on its way in) when we left Port Canaveral a week ago.

I loved the way the undersides of these clouds were lit in the moments before sunrise.

We were treated to a spectacular sunrise as we exited the inlet.  We had a bit of a bumpy ride for a couple of miles, until we made the hard right turn to head southwest toward the keys.  It took a full hour just to come all the way around Fisher Island and see our anchorage again from the other side.  South of Key Biscayne the barrier reef begins to rise toward the surface, and the ride improved steadily throughout the day.  About mid-morning we passed Elliot Key, which is as far south as we made it last year (though we were on the other side, in Biscayne Bay).

Stephanie snapped this photo of us heading out the channel into the dawn.

We had a fair tide out the inlet, and a fair current heading south, so we made excellent time.  We reached Rodriguez Key shortly after 2pm, well ahead of my 3:30 projection.  While we could have pressed on another dozen miles, protected anchorages are few and far between on this side of the Keys, so we just made it an early day.  Martin and Steph tendered over for cocktails and dinner aboard Vector.

Steph sent this to us, saying we looked like we were cruising on a sea of diamonds.

Today's cruise has been lovely, albeit a bit of a slalom among the numerous crab and lobster traps that dot Hawk Channel along most of its length.  With fewer miles to go, we started a little later, after sunrise.  This evening we should be anchored west of Boot Key and the city of Marathon.