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.

1 comment:

  1. The water was warm enough in early November to snorkel, but I can see how a few storms would cool it off.


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