Monday, March 2, 2015

Fox Town

Notwithstanding my assertion in my last post that we'd be pinned down at Great Sale by weather until this morning, we woke to a beautiful day yesterday. The wind had died down considerably, and the forecast improved, so we called Blossom first thing in the morning and collectively decided to get under way.

It was the right decision, as we had a very nice cruise, with some light chop on the nose on the eastward leg. We ended the day here, at the anchorage north of Fox Town, on Little Abaco Island (map), protected by Hawksbill Cays to the north. We're close to a cell tower, and there are some services ashore, although we abandoned plans to have dinner there when the small restaurant and grocery did not answer the phone. We surmised that, like many things in the Bahamas, they were closed on Sunday.

Our view to the north of the rocks west of Hawksbill.

Shortly after we dropped the hook, some locals came over in a skiff looking to sell us stone crab claws. We're not big fans, and did not want to go through the trouble of cooking and cracking them, but we knew Martin absolutely loves them, so we sent the Bahamians over to Blossom, the better part of a mile away. We heard later that they did buy some and that they were delicious. They were certainly fresh.

It was quite fortuitous that we had good weather yesterday and were able to get under way. I say that because the generator quit in the morning, right after we made the decision to leave, filling the engine room with an unmistakable burnt exhaust smell. I surmised a destroyed impeller. We went into power-conserving mode, but cruising for several hours let us put quite a bit of charge into the batteries, giving us a margin to get through last night if we had needed to.

As it turns out it was just a bad impeller, and, having done this drill once already (photos of the process in the linked post), I was able to fly through the repair without even cracking the manual. This time I drained enough coolant out of the heat exchanger beforehand to avoid getting it everywhere, and I topped it up with fresh when I was done. We also took the opportunity to clean out the sea strainer and change the fuel filter.

In a few moments we will weigh anchor and continue on to Green Turtle Cay. We'll likely anchor again tonight; if we'd not gotten the genny going, we'd instead have to wind our way into the shallow harbor and go to the marina there.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Great Sale on weather

We are anchored in the "North West Harbour" of Great Sale Cay, which is actually to the southwest of the cay (map). This is a very protected anchorage for winds out of the north or east, and even though it was blowing ten to fifteen out of the south when we arrived Thursday afternoon, the winds clocked around after dark and it was nearly glass calm here overnight. We dropped the tender and had a very nice steak dinner aboard Blossom.

By mid-day yesterday the first part of this storm system had already moved in, and we decked the tender before the winds got too high. Three more boats joined our two here just at dark, and I expected they'd be riding out the storm with us here until Monday. We were all surprised to see them leave this morning; later we heard them on the radio plowing into it and looking for shelter.

Great Sale is completely uninhabited, and the four of us are again alone here. (Correction: as I was typing, a sailboat motored in, looking a bit uncomfortable. He's anchoring now.) I had figured to be off-line here, too, as we are quite far from the nearest tower, but we're getting a high-speed connection courtesy of our cellular amplifier and mast-mounted antenna. It turns out this amp works better here than on the frequencies we commonly use back in the states.

We do need to be careful -- we've already blown through a quarter of our 2gb of pre-paid data in just three days. In addition to downloading our email and researching routes and stops moving forward from here, I also went back and cleaned up my last post, adding map links to our anchorages and a few photos from our first two stops. It's too windy now to get a decent shot here for this post, but I'll try to snap one before we leave.

Winds now are around 20 knots steady, and we're expecting 30 before the storm is through with us. At this writing we expect to be pinned down here tomorrow as well, with a plan to depart first thing Monday morning, in the direction of Green Turtle Cay.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Little Bahama Bank

A short post here before we leave BaTelCo cell coverage, under way southbound to Great Sale Cay across the Little Bahama Bank. I do have some nice photos, which will have to wait until we have better connectivity.

We had a very nice crossing Monday from Palm Beach. We left about mid-exodus, with several boats passing us on their way out while we were still at anchor. Near-coastal waters were actually pretty rough, three to four feet on a short period of perhaps four to five seconds. By the time we were ten miles offshore, though, things had calmed down to the forecast one to two feet on a long nine-second period, and the ride was quite calm.

After clearing the inlet, we angled north toward the White Sand Ridge, which gave us quite a push from the Gulf Stream and we made over seven knots the whole way. We also left behind the conga line of other cruisers, all of whom made a bee-line for West End on Grand Bahama Island.

The crew of Blossom had chosen White Sand Ridge as a deeper-draft entry to the bank, and on reports of a large pod of dolphin living there. I was the lucky winner on the dolphin front, spotting one breach a good dozen feet or so out of the water, the sort of display you might see at Sea World. Blossom had a small group play in their bow wave for a while.

We ended up anchored on a high spot of the ridge, so high that my NOAA chart showed it as awash (map). That made for a very rough night, though, with winds 15-20 and a swell to match. A bit too close to, and unprotected from, the ocean at that spot. We did, however, have a lovely sunset.

Our first Bahamian sunset.

While we had hoped to wait for higher sun, the roll had us weighing anchor around 9:30 Tuesday morning and heading across the bank for Walker Cay, our chosen port of entry for clearing in. We anchored in the bight of a large sand bar (map) and had a very calm afternoon; Blossom dropped their tender and came over for cocktails.

Yesterday morning Martin picked me up and we tendered in to Walker Cay to clear in, tying up across from the now defunct marina there. We walked the length of the small runway looking for Customs and Immigration, but the island seemed deserted. Eventually we found a couple of guys working on renovating a building there and they informed us that Customs had moved over to Grand Cay while a new office was being built for them on Walker. We had half expected this, so back to the tender and on over to Grand Cay we went.

The defunct marina at Walker Cay, from the end of the airport.

We tied up at Rosie's and walked the half mile or so to the administration building, where the very accommodating Sheryse took our paperwork, but apologized that she did not have the proper forms on hand to clear us in; she expected them on the boat from Freeport around 2pm. She gave us verbal permission to go to the Batelco office, and to bring the ladies ashore for dinner, and we agreed to return to the office around 4pm to finish checking in.

Martin and I spent well over an hour in the BaTelCo office getting pre-paid SIMs for our phones and getting data working, and so now we have limited Internet access whenever we can see a tower. I also have a Bahamian phone number so we can call local businesses and they can call us back -- much simpler and cheaper than the sat phone.

Around 3:30 or so Martin and Steph picked us up in their tender and we all headed ashore to Rosie's. Martin called Sheryse when we landed and learned that the boat was late, so she still had no forms. Instead we all walked the entirety of the small island community and then landed back at Rosie's for a round of Kalik beer. We saw the boat arrive from Freeport and had just about finished our first round when Sheryse called back to say she was ready.

The docks at Rosie's marina, from the deck of the restaurant. Far too shallow for us to get in.

Martin and I shuffled off to check in, which was easy and painless if a bit lengthy. I can declare Walker Cay/Grand Cay to be cruiser-friendly for check-in. We now have a cruising permit good for six months.

We finished our visit up with an excellent meal of lobster and conch there at Rosie's. I had the lobster and it was some of the freshest I've ever had, in a generous portion. We did have a wet tender ride back after dark, as the wind had picked up a bit.

Today we got under way for the protected anchorage at Great Sale.  We are expecting a very big storm to blow in tomorrow, with winds steady over 30 knots, and we want the protection afforded there. It does mean we'll likely be off-line for another couple of days, as I don't think BTC's signal reaches that far.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Our window arrives

We are at a favorite anchorage, in north Lake Worth just off Old Port Cove marina (map). I had originally planned to anchor off Prosperity Farms, a bit quieter location, but we needed to pump out when we left Soverel Harbour, and Old Port Cove has a high-speed pumpout available for just $5. Our view consists of expensive housing units, and Tiger Woods' 155' yacht, with the unintentionally ironic name Privacy, which is for sale for a cool $25M.

One of our final sunsets at Soverel Harbour.

It's a ten-minute dinghy ride from here over to Blossom at the North Palm Beach marina, and we've been tendering over there to join up for dinner and some last-minute grocery shopping. Today we had to dinghy over to the landing under the Jack Nicklaus Boulevard bridge, for a final stop at Publix for more cat food, and the ATM at the CVS next door to replace some cash I unexpectedly had to shell out here pre-departure. Cash is much harder to get once we're in the islands.

The haul from the penultimate provisioning run, consisting mostly of fresh produce.

I also managed to find a straw hat at, of all places, Publix; I've been looking for one for the past month to keep the sun off my ears in the islands. The boat is now hexagonally close-packed with provisions and supplies, so even though we stood there for ten minutes, surrounded by the excess of a typical American grocery store, we could not think of a single other thing we could use in the next three months to fit aboard. We're as ready as we can be.

A bilge full of beer.

That's good, because our weather window has opened, for just a single day: tomorrow. In a few minutes we will deck the tender and chug down the ICW to somewhere near the inlet, to save a bit of time in the morning. If all goes well we will weigh anchor in the pre-dawn hours and be on our way to the Little Bahama Bank, where we plan to anchor off the White Sands shoal as our first stop outside the US.

Once we are five to ten miles offshore, our cell phones will stop working until we return to the US, probably sometime in May. Email will be the best way to reach us while we are away, but I expect we will only be able to access it every week or two for a short while.

I posted here a few days ago about how to follow us once we leave US waters, and I'll try to remember to kick it off by posting our location tonight via Spot.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Stocking up

We are docked at the Soverel Harbour Marina, on the ICW just north of the PGA Boulevard Bridge, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (map). We arrived last Wednesday afternoon after a very pleasant and unhurried cruise from Stuart down the ICW. It was a bit tricky maneuvering into our slip, at the very end of a circuitous fairway, but we were docked in plenty of time to get our Enterprise rental car before their office closed.

Having a car meant we could drive over to North Palm Beach Marina to meet up with Blossom for dinner, the first of several during our week-long stay here. We drove down to Lake Park, and, ironically, ended up dining at the very same place to which we all had walked when we were docked there for Trawler Fest a year ago.

The main impetus behind the rental car was to head down to the Miami Boat Show on Thursday. For a while it looked like I'd be going solo -- Martin and Steph were both too wrapped up with Blossom projects to take the day away, and Louise had no interest in the show itself. But at the last minute she decided she'd come along for the ride, and maybe get some provisioning done with the car while I was at the show.

Other than an hour mid-day, when Louise and I met up with our good friend Steve and his daughter/assistant Katie for a pleasant lunch off-site, I spent the whole day at the Miami Beach Convention Center covering as much of the show as I could. I had a small list of items I was trying to find there, but came away only partly successful.

A tiny fraction of the organized chaos that is the Miami Boat Show.

Chief on the list was new boat insurance, to cover a possible excursion to Cuba later this year (more on that in a separate post). As it turns out, though, yacht insurance is not well represented at the Miami show, and I struck out on this front. Also on my list was getting some technical questions on the engines and transmission answered, and here I was much more successful, at least in regard to the engines. Our transmission manufacturer, ZF, was notably absent from the show, but Steve put me in touch with them afterwards.

I got some good information about charts in the Bahamas and Cuba, and nailed down the correct type of emergency "man overboard" beacons we'd like to have before getting too far offshore. I also picked up some more LED strip lights to replace some that are failing prematurely from exposure to the elements. In all it was a decent show, but not nearly as beneficial as it was for us last year. Still, it was worth the effort and expense to go.

A full-day excursion to the show meant renting the car for two days, or else having to miss a few hours of the show. So we had the car for most of the day Friday, too, and we started the day with a visit to a nearby vet to get Angel's International Health Certificate. We spent most of the afternoon with Martin and Steph on a Costco run; we had let our Costco membership lapse when we lived on the bus because we simply had no room to store the size packages that Costco sells. Gearing up for the Bahamas, though, it's just the ticket, and we came home loaded up with fresh meat, wine, dry goods, and other provisions.

One of the "house" cats at the vet's office, looking a lot like a throw rug.  This cat was huge, as were the two others we saw; all were super friendly.  Angel was not amused.

We had unloaded one scooter when we first arrived, and after we returned the rental car, we took turns running errands and making provisioning trips on the scooter. Most of the week has been spent provisioning and getting the boat ready for three months out of country. Here are just a few of the things we've loaded aboard:

  • Gasoline. I ordered a pair of six-gallon cans from Amazon, and I've filled both of those as well as the two-gallon can we already had. I also used the two-gallon can to top up the tank on the tender, which took four gallons, so there were three trips to the gas station just with the smaller can. We now have 14 gallons of extra fuel on top of the eight or so in the tender itself, which ought to last us several weeks. We'll probably still have to find gas somewhere in the islands, too.
  • Beer. Rum is everywhere in the Bahamas, but beer is scarce and expensive. We loaded some 200+ cans/bottles aboard. I ended up making racks in the bilge to store it, to get it out of the way and keep the weight down low.
  • Wine. Again, expensive in the Bahamas. We bought perhaps a dozen bottles between red and white, and I loaded another nine liters of the boxed variety.
  • Canned goods. Lots and lots of cans -- we expect our fresh produce to last a couple of weeks, and then we'll be into frozen and canned veggies.
  • Pickled items (pickles, peppers, beans, etc.), for the same reason.
  • Frozen vegetables.
  • Meat. I bought an entire tenderloin at Costco and sliced it into individual portions for freezing. We also bought a tray of lamb chops, a couple of pork loins, and a metric ton of chicken and stew meat for the crock pot.
  • Ultra-pasteurized milk. The fresh stuff will be gone in a week or two, and we take milk in our morning coffee.
  • Motor oil. Eleven gallons are now stowed in the bilge, enough to change the main and generator oil once each, with some for make-up.

Eleven gallons of 15w-40 squirreled away in the bilge, starboard of the engine stringer.

We have yet to stock up on fresh produce; that will happen just a day or two before we head offshore. No sense in having the clock ticking on that stuff too soon.

Today was our last full day in the marina, and I had Dockside Petroleum send a fuel truck; we took on 520 gallons of diesel at a very competitive price. We now have a full 1,200 gallons aboard, which is more than plenty for three months in the Bahamas, and will preclude our having to fuel there at island prices.

Yesterday and today were a mad scramble to gather up items from far and wide. I needed Bahamas charts and some repair items from West Marine, Louise needed fabric for quilting projects, and there were the inevitable lists for Home Depot and Walmart. I also made a run on Trader Joes and spent an hour in the T-Mobile store straightening out a SIM card issue with our iPad, which we use as a backup for navigation.

In and among all this, I spent a good deal of time setting up the new Iridium satellite phone, one of the many things we had delivered here to the marina in anticipation of our stay. Squaring away all of the minutia of our lives for an extended absence has occupied what remained of our time; we'll be out of the country and mostly away from the Internet when our taxes are due, for example.

Lest I sound like I am complaining, I should also point out that we've mostly enjoyed dining out in the Palm Beach area each evening, and tonight, while the northeast shivers, we dined al fresco, in short sleeves. It's been a mostly pleasant stay.

That said, we're ready to leave. For one thing, our slip backs up to a cigar bar, which, besides the cigar smoke, has been loud almost every evening, with live music into the wee hours on the weekend. For another, the sense of entitlement in this general area is palpable, and it's not a vibe that agrees with us (yeah, I know: says the guy typing from his yacht, in the marina).

We booked a week here, on a weekly rate that was much more attractive than the daily transient rate. Our week will be up tomorrow. Blossom is not quite ready to depart, and weather does not look good for a crossing anyway until after the weekend. So rather than extend our stay here at a higher daily rate, we'll shove off in the morning and go anchor someplace.

The dock served it's purpose: we needed an address to have some things shipped (gas cans, satellite phone, our accumulated mail, etc.), and a place to do some of the "heavy lifting" of provisioning for an extended cruise. What's left to do can be done at anchor, and we have a couple of options for tendering ashore for the final provisioning of fresh produce.

Cigar bar notwithstanding, this marina has certainly been convenient. There are three restaurants right on the property, along with a gourmet market, and most shopping is a moderate walk, an easy bike ride, or a slam-dunk on the scooter from here. It's really a hidden gem. It's a "dockominium" -- each slip is privately owned, with owners putting their unoccupied slips into a transient pool -- and not well publicized to the transient ICW crowd. The loud surroundings, particularly on the weekend, is really the only downside. Staff have been very attentive and there is full-time security on site.

We'll linger here till mid-day sometime and then head over to Old Port Cove. They have a pumpout there, which we sorely need.  We'll probably end up dropping the hook not far from there, in the northern bight of Lake Worth, an easy tender ride to Blossom or to the Publix grocery store.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bahamas bound: updating blog settings

A quick time-out here from my usual posting format, wherein I tell you where we are and what we've been up to, to do some blog and social media housekeeping.

As I have mentioned here previously, we are getting ready to head offshore to the Bahamas, our first destination outside of the US. As exciting as that is, there has been a great deal of work involved, from provisioning food and beverage (we now have some 100+ beers stowed in our bilge, about half of plan), to taking care of maintenance, to putting our taxes, finances, and insurance in order.

One of the checklist items has been to deal with communications and Internet access once we leave the country. We have a multipart strategy on this front, and I've spent several days lining everything up, then configuring and testing the hardware, software, and web services involved.

We do, of course, have both VHF and SSB marine radios aboard, and so we'll never be out of range of help. And the SSB, on a good day, will even allow us to do some very low-bandwidth text-based email and weather. But otherwise, those radios don't really help us to stay in touch with our family, friends, or extended community here on the 'net. Worse, over the last decade we've become accustomed to, perhaps even reliant upon, Internet access to deliver our weather forecasts, world news, and even troubleshooting information for various systems aboard.

We hope to have Internet access occasionally through marinas or other WiFi hotspots ashore. On our cruise around South America a few years ago we became veterans of public Internet kiosks and storefronts, and we'll take advantage of those when available. But in the Bahamas, we expect to mostly be anchored out, away from WiFi signals or even enough civilization for a kiosk.

Our next option is a cell phone from the local provider in the islands, Batelco. My Sprint smart phone has a slot for a GSM "SIM" card and our first attempt will be to pick up a card at the first Batelco office we pass, and see if that works. If not, we'll likely buy a low-end smartphone from that same store. This should get us limited email and web browsing any time we are in range of one of their cell towers.

Even cell towers are few and far between in a nation of 700 mostly tiny islands spread over some 180,000 square miles of ocean. And so we expect we'll go days or sometimes weeks with no access to a working cell signal.

For those days, we've purchase a satellite device that works on the Iridium global satellite network. Rather than buy a traditional phone handset that would require us to be outdoors in open sky (or to use an external antenna) to make or receive calls, we opted for a newer technology, the Iridium Go device. I won't bore you with the details, as you can just click the link, but we can place this device on the boat deck whenever we need to use it and then use our smartphones to make calls, send and receive text messages, get weather reports, and do very limited browsing from the comfort of our salon.

The very limited bandwidth, along with the high cost of satellite air time, necessitated some changes in our social media strategy. For starters, my trademark overly wordy blog posts will mostly have to wait until we have WiFi, or maybe cellular access, on an occasional basis. If there is something to be said of an urgent nature, we do have the ability to post here via email, but that's clunky and still expensive over satellite.

Fortunately, social media is well-suited to brief, one-way status messages of the sort that are easily sent by satellite. In order to take full advantage of this capability, we've created a Twitter account just for the boat. If you use Twitter, you can follow us there at @my_Vector (anyone can see our tweets; you do not need to open an account).

I've pointed our Spot satellite messenger to this new account, as well as to my personal Facebook page, and Spot "check-in" messages will likely dominate this feed. These messages all look alike, with a url-shortened link to our current GPS position followed by "All is well aboard m/y Vector." Spot's advantage is that I can send as many of these messages as I'd like without additional fees. The disadvantage is that, once set from the web, I can't change the message text; only the position coordinates will change. When it's in use, you can access the recent history of all our Spot position reports here.

We've also set the Iridium device up so we can post tweets to this account. I expect we'll do this whenever we have news to report. These posts do not cross-post to Facebook. I can post to Facebook over the satellite, too, but that requires more air time. So if you want the most up-to-date news of our whereabouts or status, check the Twitter feed. Note that we will not see any replies to tweets until we again have access to a higher bandwidth connection.

In order to avoid duplicate posts, I've disconnected the blog from my personal Twitter feed, @slwelsh. So follow @my_Vector if you want to be notified of blog posts via Twitter.

If all goes well, this post will show up on Twitter and Facebook within a day.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Comfort in the familiar

We are anchored in the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Florida (map), about halfway between the old Nordhavn/PAE docks where Blossom was commissioned, and the Apex Marine docks where we spent a few months this time last year. It is now a familiar and comfortable place for us; we've even anchored here before.

Another fantastic Stuart sunset over the water, from our deck; we never tire of these.

We spent our final night of our Okeechobee Waterway crossing at Indiantown Marina, near the eponymous community (map). That made for a nice stop after the lake crossing and locking through at Port Mayaca, a drop of just a couple of feet. It's a real cruisers' marina, with lots of pleasant outdoor spaces for gathering, including fire pits, and a fairly well-stocked chandlery on site, to complement the small yard operation and the much larger DIY work around the enormous haul-out facility. Blossom and Vector shared the fuel dock for our overnight stay.

Pleasant outdoor space at Indiantown Marina.

The four of us ended up walking a little over a mile into town after sunset cocktails, to dine at the local Italian establishment. The food was decent and we all enjoyed getting out and stretching our legs.

Wednesday we made the final push through the waterway to here, with Blossom continuing on another few miles, through the Roosevelt bridge and anchoring near The Crossroads for a head start on their final leg to Palm Beach. Technically, we are still on the Okeechobee Waterway here, being at about mile eight or so, but we've closed the loop, and the final eight miles are now well-trodden ground for us.

CoE St. Lucie Lock Campground, from the lock.

The final lock of the trip was the St. Lucie lock, familiar to us from having stayed in the adjacent Corps of Engineers campground several times. This lock lowered us a full 13 feet, our biggest lockage ever, and required both of us to tend the lines on the long trip down. That meant I could not get a shot of the water pouring out of the ajar lock gates ahead of us.

Vector awaiting lockage.  I'm working the foredeck while Louise has the aft.

Martin got a nice shot of us in the lock, with both of us on deck waiting for the drop to start. Louise also got a nice pair of shots of Blossom, showing quite clearly the difference in water level from start to finish.

Blossom in the lock, with the upstream gates closing behind her.

And the same view after lockage -- quite a difference.

We splashed the tender shortly after arriving here, and we've been enjoying going ashore daily for errands or dinner. The city has a free dinghy dock at a nearby park, with easy access to groceries, the county bus, several shops, and other services. There is also a free city dock right downtown, and we availed ourselves of that to walk to one of the many fantastic eateries in town.

This is the first place we've been able to test out our new shoreside, dinghy-accessible transportation, namely the pair of full-size folding bicycles we bought back in Baltimore. We've used the bikes elsewhere already, notable Key West, but this was our first time actually tendering them ashore.

Bikes folded and nestled in their "rubble bag."  Dark bag to the left is their cover when stowed on deck.

Using the crane to lift the bikes off the deck.

Louise had picked up a large reinforced polyethylene bag for the express purpose of loading the bikes on and off the dinghy, and protecting the dinghy from them in transit. The bag is actually made for the lifting/hauling of rubble, and it's quite beefy. It turns out to be just the right size to lift both bikes simultaneously, in their folded aspect, and the whole kit and caboodle fits nicely amidships in the tender.

They just fit amidships, with room for the two of us in the bench seat.

OK, so I do have to stand to see over them when in close quarters.  I can see around them in open water.

Once ashore we muscled the whole bag onto the quay, set the bikes back up (really just a single hinge pin), and folded and stowed the bag under the dinghy seat. We were a bit leery of leaving the bikes unattended overnight at the city park, so when we finished with them for the day, we locked them to the bike rack at the nearby marina, where there is a lot more traffic and more eyeballs on them.

The bikes made an easy chore of the ~5 mile round trip to the UPS store to pick up our mail, which we had sent there from our mail service. I had parts for maybe a half dozen projects waiting for me in there, and I've been making progress over the last few days, now that I have them in hand.

As tempting as it is to dive right into project-land and elaborate on those, I want to save them for separate posts to which I can link back later. So for now I will just say that I replaced the crumbling flybridge stabilizer control switches, and resuscitated the old Northstar chartplotter and then mounted it at the flybridge helm. I also added an external speaker to the chart PC so we can hear the alarms better, and I've now got more LEDs to start adding some DC lighting to some heretofore unlit places on the boat.

In addition to boat projects, we are now in full-on Bahamas prep mode. Louise has been working on the provisioning lists, and making some grocery runs to support that, while I've been busy buying and downloading updated charts of the region for our main plotter. I did manage to make time for a massage today, my first ever Ashiatsu. Louise has an appointment tomorrow.

Tomorrow is our last day here in Stuart, and we're a bit sad to go -- we just started to settle back in. But we need to move south to Palm Beach Gardens, where we've booked a week at a marina. That will let me rent a car for a one-day run down to the Miami Boat Show on Thursday, and we'll use that same car to get Angel to a vet for her Bahamas health certificate on Friday.

If all goes well, we will wrap up our marina stay just as Blossom is getting their service work completed next Tuesday or so, and we'll then just be waiting on a weather window for the crossing to the Bahamas. More on that as the time draws near.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Lake "O"

As I type this, we are somewhere in the middle of Lake Okeechobee. This vast, freshwater lake constitutes the headwaters of several rivers, provides the operating water for the locks of the Okeechobee Waterway, and is the sustenance of the sugar industry and other agricultural interests in central Florida. The lake is so large that it has its own wave forecast; today we have quite a bit of chop, from north winds with some 25 miles of fetch.

Lake O.  The north shore is over the horizon, and only a navigational marker is visible.

We've spent the last two nights at Roland Martin's Marina in Clewiston, FL (map). Long-time readers may remember that we've passed through Clewiston many times in Odyssey. On this visit, Steph and I ran out to Walmart in the marina's courtesy car, and I noticed that signs now only prohibit overnight parking for trucks; there were several rigs in the lot that looked to have spent the night.

Blossom locks through behind us.

We had a pleasant cruise Sunday from Calusa Jack's. The western half of the Okeechobee canal system is quite picturesque, passing through state parkland and pastoral farms and ranches. We did transit three locks, with the familiar W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam first up. We remembered staying in the Corps of Engineers campground there.

A familiar campground, as seen from the lock.

This was a good first lock to tackle, with a lift of just a couple of feet. The Corps here floods the lock chambers by opening the upstream gates a bit, so the higher the lift the more turbulence there is in the chamber. That makes for a bit of swinging around, but with such a short lift, Louise was able to tend both lines while I remained at the helm.

Locking up.  If you zoom in you can see the water rushing in, between the slightly open gates.

Between the locks the canal was wide, with good depths almost all the way across. At times the water was glass calm. We saw virtually no other boat traffic at all, apart from the occasional skiff or bass boat out fishing. We passed through the communities of LaBelle and Fort Denaud, and a pair of drawbridges.

Glassy water.  For us, anyway -- Blossom was behind us.

For the most part, I drove visually. The charts are off enough here that the plotter showed us driving on land for a good part of the day. At one point we were cruising along in 20' of water in the north half of the channel when, all of a sudden, the depth alarm screeched and we could feel the boat slow considerably as we ran over something, we knew not what. I immediately shifted to neutral and chopped the throttle, but by the time I could even react we were over and past it and drifting forward again in 20'.

At that point I looked at the chart and we noticed we had passed about 50' north of a red marker, that should have directed us to pass to the south. We both looked back, and saw no marker at all. In a panic and thinking that, perhaps somewhat distracted, we had actually run the marker over, we went to have a look at the bow, but there was no evidence of an allision. Discovering no damage or issues with stabilizers or other gear, we shrugged and continued on.

I learned later that the marker had been removed in September and deleted from official charts in November, and my raster charts show it absent. Apparently the NOAA vector charts have not yet caught up. Presumably the marker was there in the first place to mark whatever we hit, so I'm not sure why it was removed. I'm guessing all we lost was a little paint, though.

Islands in the stream...

At one point we came upon an "island" dead ahead of us, in the middle of the channel. Great rafts of this sort of vegetation break free in the lake, meander down the channels, lock through downstream, and end up in the canal. They can tangle props and stabilizers, so we passed this one to port; fortunately, it had drifted away from center by the time we reached it.

A little closer view from our port side as we passed it.

The Ortona lock had a lift of over eight feet, and we had a much more turbulent ride. With that much lift and turbulence it took both of us to tend the lines, so I did not manage to get any photos of the impressive influx of water as the gates opened. Neither did I capture the faces of the two folks on the tiny bowrider in the lock ahead of us as Vector and Blossom maneuvered in. Priceless.

Sign adjacent to Moore Haven lock.

We made it to Moore Haven by 2:30.  The city docks were completely empty, as was the marina next door, and we could easily have stayed. But on the way we learned the one decent restaurant in town, a Mexican joint, was closed Sunday, and Blossom had already decided they'd like to press on to Clewiston to have a full day off of cruising on Monday. So we headed straight into the lock and emerged into the lake.

The gateway to Lake O, ahead of us.

I say the lake, but, really, from Moore Haven to Clewiston you are in a channel, with the CoE having dumped the dredge spoils on the inside of the route and built large dikes on the outside. Depth in the channel depends on the lake water level; right now the "controlling depth" is just 8.6', which makes for some tense moments. We wandered all over the channel at times looking for the best water.

It did not help that right in the middle of the route is a giant construction project that has a structure coming right out to mid-channel. In order to pass safely it is necessary to navigate immediately adjacent to the structure, and even then we passed over one shallow spot of about 9' depth.

Blossom, a much larger boat than Vector, passing the construction behind us. She's dwarfed by it; if you zoom in you can see she has fenders out, just in case.

We made it to Clewiston with plenty of daylight to spare. Clewiston is actually outside the dike, and it is necessary to transit yet another lock to reach the marina there.  This lock, however, is typically open at both ends when the lake is at normal levels, as it was this time. Still, it is the narrowest of the locks, at under 50' wide (about 15' either side of Vector), and, coming from Moore Haven, requires a
sharp right turn to enter. I was too busy keeping the boat away from the lock sides to take any photos.

After we got the boats squared away, we headed over to the Tiki Bar for dinner. Ever since the dining room at the U.S. Sugar Company's Clewiston Inn closed, this is the only dinner restaurant in town. They were expecting a big crowd for the Superbowl, which was on every TV (perhaps a dozen), but it was relatively quiet and we enjoyed having the game, and the ads, in the background over drinks and dinner.

In the tiki tiki tiki tiki Tiki Bar...

We knew that mutual friends Moose and Kathy were crossing the lake westbound yesterday, which is why we all stuck around an extra night, and so we took yesterday to catch up on some maintenance. Louise washed the boat and cleaned some rust stains from the starboard  side, and I touched up the Rustoleum on the starboard rub strake that I had put there after our tangle with the dock in Morehead City last year.

It was great to see them, and Moose generously picked up dinner at, you guessed it, the Tiki Bar. They're headed to Key West, and perhaps we will run into them again in the Bahamas.

Vector from the Tiki Bar this morning.

This morning we shoved off at 9am. We could have pushed the 50 miles to Stuart today with an early start, but Blossom is actually a day ahead of schedule for their service appointment in North Palm Beach, so we decided to make it a shorter day and stop tonight in Indiantown, about half way. Unfortunately our friends Lou and Renea, who have a house there, and Steve and Harriet, who keep their boat there, are all in Virginia this week.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The real Florida

We are docked at Colusa Jack's Marina, on the Okeechobee Waterway east of Fort Myers, Florida (map). It was a pleasant four-hour cruise here from Glover Bight in Cape Coral. Even though today was Saturday, the traffic on the river was much lighter than when we came through the Miserable Mile yesterday.

Joe and Shawna, the proprietors here, are very accommodating, offering to drive us to the store or whatever else we needed.  They keep chickens, and we now have a dozen fresh eggs, as does Blossom. Our two boats are probably the biggest things they've seen here, and they admitted that most of the big boys stay in Fort Myers. We wanted the extra hour's jump on tomorrow's run to the lake. We did have to ask them to line us forward half a boat length, as we were bumping the bottom every time a boat passed by.

Fresh eggs!

Notwithstanding all our machinations yesterday, our stuffing box continued to overheat today, and we ended up doing half the run at reduced rpm, adding about a half hour to the days' total. Once we were tied up here, I removed all the packing, flushing the glad out with plenty of river water, which was very nearly fresh.

We washed all of the packing rings in warm water and brushed as much silt out of them as we could with an old toothbrush. I also cleaned the inside of the gland as best I could before repacking. I'm happy to say that even with no packing at all, the shaft sump pump easily kept up with the inflow of water, and we only got a few ounces of spray into the bilge during the process.

We shall see, tomorrow, if this cures the problem. Of course, we will first need to seat and adjust the packing, a tedious process which will take numerous small adjustments over several hours. I will be ordering a spool of new packing in case we need to replace it all with fresh once we get to Palm Beach.

Goats.  We were not offered any cheese.

Now that we've moved inland from the coastal metropolises of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, we are entering what the tourism brochures like to call "the real Florida" and where old-time Floridians would say the crackers live. Long-time readers will know we've spent a good deal of time in this area in the bus. In addition to live chickens, we found a herd of goats here on the property, and just down the road can be found the kinds of back-country lots that might as well be a hundred miles from Fort Myers.

In the morning we will get an early start, with our first lock just 20 minutes eastward. We have two locks to Moore Haven, at the edge of the lake, where we hope to find spots at the city dock. Another lock will take us to lake level in the morning. If the city dock is full, we'll have to press on through the lock and southeast to Clewiston.


We are anchored in Glover Bight, a small basin off the Caloosahatchee River in Cape Coral, Florida (map). We are a stone's throw from the Westin Hotel and the Tarpon Point Marina, where Blossom is tied up. Tarpon Point is also the home marina for our mutual friends Brad and Lorraine, who have a Nordhavn 55, Adventure, which is similar to Blossom.

View from our deck of Glover Bight and the Westin. We met the couple on the blue ketch; they painted their steel hull with Rustoleum, which looks fine to our eye.

We had a nice cruise yesterday from Useppa Island, which started out very serene. We passed tony Captiva and Sanibel Islands, rounding the southern end of Pine Island and making our way across San Carlos Bay to the mouth of the Caloosahatchee.

As we entered the dredged cut across San Carlos Bay, however, we were suddenly inundated with a flood of boats heading in the other direction. It seems all of the Fort Myers area gets in their boats Friday afternoon and heads out to the various island destinations in the bay. Our draft mandates we stay more or less in the center of the channel, and oncoming boats were passing to both sides of us. It was, honestly, quite nerve-wracking. I had to get on the radio more than once to warn an approaching boat that we could not veer off, and all of these guys were going great guns to get out of town.

It did not help that in the middle of this, the computer that runs the chartplotter had a BSoD. I could not take my eyes off the "road" even for an instant, and poor Louise had to reach around me to resuscitate the machine and restart the plotter. Fortunately, we always have a fully separate and redundant backup running at Louise's station on the pilothouse settee.

Sunset from the dock.

We had a very nice dinner aboard Blossom with Martin, Steph, Brad, and Lorraine. We learned that the stretch where we encountered all the boats is known locally as the Miserable Mile, and Brad gave us some current information about the Okeechobee Waterway, since they just came through in the other direction a couple of months ago,

In a short while we will continue east and north, through Fort Myers and into the Okeechobee Waterway.  It will be a short day, stopping at Calusa Jack's Marina, the last stop which can accommodate both our boats, for certain, before Moore Haven at the lake.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Exclusive island retreat

We are anchored just off Useppa Island in Pine Island Sound, Florida. Across the ICW channel from us is Cabbage Key, where Martin and Steph treated us to dinner for my birthday at the Cabbage Key Inn on the island. The place was deserted; we were one of only three dinner parties, and the island's marina was empty.

There's a restaurant on Useppa Island, too, but the island is so exclusive that one needs an invitation from a member to dine there. While Cabbage Key gets tourists from a daily ferry, Useppa is completely private and lined with high-end cottages.

We arrived here yesterday afternoon after an interesting cruise which was, unfortunately, not totally uneventful. We left Sarasota at dawn, which proved to have been a tad too early, and we arrived at the first trouble spot, across from Venice Inlet, at the lower of the two daily high tides. We would have had a bit more water a few hours later. We made it through without incident, but I did see the depth sounder register 6.6' at one point, and Blossom touched bottom there.

The route yesterday involved a half dozen or so bridges that had to be opened. There were two bridges that we squeaked under but still needed to open for Blossom. As we were on the radio listening to the first pair of bridges, we heard a disturbing report -- the Boca Grande bridge, our final for the day, was closed for repairs from 1000-1400. Our plotter said we'd be there before 1300, giving us an hour wait with no good options for anchoring.

When we heard this news, we slowed down to steerage speed, putting along at just over four knots. That still gave us an arrival time of 1345, leaving us with having to station-keep among a pack of waiting boats in a narrow channel. I opted to pull out of the main ICW channel instead at the last spot where my chart showed acceptable depths off-channel, so we could sit without doing as much fiddling with the controls.

That proved to be a mistake.  Even though the chart showed depths of six to 12 feet, we promptly ran into a five foot hump of silt and mud, and I spent the next five minutes extricating the boat from the soft grounding, sending giant plumes of stirred-up mud in every direction. We did manage to get off unassisted, and proceeded the mile to the bridge at idle speed, where we ended up waiting for ten minutes.

Somewhere in all the maneuvering in the mud, we must have powered some mud back up the shaft tube and into the packing glad, because one the next engine room check, Louise reporting the stuffing box temperature had skyrocketed to unacceptable levels. We ended up circling around in the open water of Charlotte Harbor, shifting between ahead and astern. to try to clear it all out.  Today we will need to keep a close eye on the temperature under way.

All's well that ends well, and we had a lovely dinner last night and a very pleasant and quiet anchorage.  In a few minutes we will weigh anchor and proceed to Cape Coral, where we will reconnect with friends Brad and Lorraine on Adventure.