Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Timing is everything

We are anchored on Lake Worth, on the Palm Beach side just in front of the Sailfish Club (map). We dropped the anchor in almost exactly the same spot where we had anchored the night before our departure to the Bahamas back in February, thus closing the loop.

Sweet sorrow - Bimini receding under the early morning sun. Yes, it was that calm.

We had a fantastic cruise from Bimini Monday. The eastern half of the crossing was nearly flat calm, with a moderate long-period swell for the second half. Winds were light but comfortable and temperatures in the boat were pleasant. In fact, it was so beautiful on the Strait of Florida that we stopped the boat about halfway across, shut down the engine, and jumped in for a nice refreshing swim.

Stopping for a swim. (No suits here in the middle of nowhere, so I had to edit.) Note the line to keep us from drifting away from the boat (it was not really needed). The water here was over 2,200' deep.

I say we stopped the boat, but of course that's in respect to the water itself. In reality, however, we continued moving north at over three and a half knots, since we were, at that point, in the main part of the Gulf Stream. In fact, we had such a big push from the Gulf Stream the whole way that we averaged 8.4 knots, at an engine speed that normally gives us about 6.5 knots through the water. In the main part of the stream, we flirted with ten knots for over an hour.

Our track across the Strait. The northward bump in the middle was when we "stopped." The line of arrows to the left represents the average axis of the Gulf Stream.

In addition to stopping for a swim we also did a number of housekeeping chores at sea, including emptying our waste tanks and discarding our food scraps outside the 12-mile limit (no other types of trash may be discarded at sea, so we've been keeping the food waste separate since leaving the US). We lowered with some sadness the Bahamian courtesy flag, hoisting in its place the Quarantine flag. We also made some 60-odd gallons of fresh water; Louise had run a load of laundry on Saturday in anticipation of such a long water-making interval.

I was a bit surprised to find that we still had Internet connectivity on my BTC phone number for a good dozen miles from Bimini. Cell towers in the Bahamas are very tall, since most cover several cays along with long stretches of surrounding sea. We used as much bandwidth as we could with wild abandon, since it will all expire before we return. I got the 75%-used warning shortly after we weighed anchor, so I think we did pretty well, and I have less than $5 left on the SIM card to lose. I also still have one Bahamian $20 bill, but we'll just put that away for next time.

On my big list of items to take care of on the crossing was backing up the phone, replacing the BTC SIM with the original one from Sprint, and changing network settings on the phone to be ready for the return to Sprint coverage. I thought I had done everything required, but I was getting no bars of voice signal less than ten miles offshore, when Louise had full service on her Verizon phone.

I ended up spending the last half hour of our passage on the phone with Sprint trying to get it sorted out, and eventually I was able to get 4g data service working but no voice. Sprint was little help, since they were completely unaware even of what unnatural acts I had to commit to get the darn thing working on BTC in the first place. I had to give up before we arrived at the inlet so I could focus on navigation; a couple of hours later I had an "aha!" moment about some obscure change I had to make to a system file to set the APN for BTC, and when I commented those changes out my service started working.

By luck of timing we also arrived at the inlet on the flood, and had a nice push through the inlet and into the lake. We had the anchor down and set by 4:30pm, and I called the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) small vessel clearance line from Louise's phone as soon as we had the engine shut down. Much to my surprise I got through to a live person on the first try; we've heard stories of hold times longer than an hour to get through.

We gave them all our information, declared 1.5 liters of Bahamian rum, and they gave us a clearance number and 24 hours to report in person to CBP/Immigration for a passport check. I asked if we were restricted to the boat until then but learned that, no, we were free to go ashore, have dinner, etc.. We had been cooking a delicious crock-pot meal all day and opted to just have a quiet evening at home, and defer splashing the tender to the morning.

Yesterday morning I put the last two gallons of gas from our jerry cans into the dingy and we tendered a mile over to the Riviera Beach municipal marina, paying $15, plus tax, for a 24-hour dinghy permit. We brought the remaining trash with us, one giant bag full -- if I'm going to pay that much to land a dinghy I'm going to take advantage of as many amenities as I can. We picked this marina because it is just a five minute walk to the CBP office at the Port of Palm Beach facility. After a ten minute wait they took our passports, disappeared into the back with them, and then handed them back, unstamped, five minutes later.

I'm a bit bemused that we have no documentation at all of having actually cleared in, other than the number given to us on the phone. Nevertheless we lowered our Q flag and are now officially landed. The ridiculousness of this whole clearance process was well-documented by my good friend and former master of this vessel, John, in his blog here. It's good for a chuckle if you read it, but it's stuck with me from the time I read it (before we closed on the boat), and it was in the back of my mind when we chose at which port and on which day we would arrive. If we had landed, say, in Stuart, or here on Saturday, we'd be renting a car to drive to CBP within the 24-hour window.

Port of Palm Beach from our deck. The "whale tail" ex-Carnival funnel is the Grand Celebration, the replacement ship for the ill-fated Bahamas Celebration that I posted here just over a year ago. The fancy port building behind it is where we had to go for CBP.

After we returned to the tender from CBP, we motored over to Peanut Island on our way home. This Palm Beach County Park in the middle of Lake Worth is accessible only by boat, and in our case, only by tender. There is no entry fee and the day-use-only docks are free and first-come, first-served. It's a lovely park and we enjoyed strolling around the northwestern quarter of the island. We motored the tender around the rest of the island clockwise before returning to Vector.

On Monday morning, just before we cruised out of BTC cell range, I had managed to get through to the eye doctor's office right after they opened and was able to change my Tuesday appointment from 11:20 in the morning to 3:10 in the afternoon. Had I known the CBP was going to let us roam off the boat before our in-person appearance I would not have bothered, but in any event I returned to the marina solo at 2pm, boarded the PalmTran #1 bus a block away, and rode the three miles or so to the office for my appointment.

I got a clean bill of eye health, and that will be my last "included" check-up following my Lasik and PRK surgery last April (my vision now falls somewhere between 20/20 and 20/15). A well-spent $4 for the round-trip bus fare, as I can now push out my next checkup to this time next year. I will say that it was a real luxury for me in the Bahamas to be able to swim, snorkel, and dive without having to fiddle with glasses or contact lenses, and to generally not be worried about losing or damaging any corrective lenses.

I arrived back at Vector just in time for cocktail hour, and just before 6pm or so we took the tender north past the inlet to the Sailfish Marina for dinner at their restaurant. We sat outside in the fanciest high-top Adirondack chairs I've ever seen and had a very nice dinner overlooking the marina while listening to live music, a singer/guitarist with a back-up box playing old standbys.

West Palm Beach, past a vast mooring field, as seen from our deck. My doctor's office is indistinguishable, mid-frame. The sheer number of boats here puts Nassau to shame.

We returned to Vector just around sunset, the end of a busy but productive day. I often keep the tender idling forward against Vector while Louise steps off onto the swim platform, and as usual afterwards I shifted into neutral and then revved the throttle, a technique that reduces the amount of unburned two-stroke oil dribbling from the exhaust. As I blipped the throttle (using a lever that only works when the shifter is in neutral) the tender very nearly climbed up onto the swim platform -- the transmission was still in forward.

I quickly shut down the engine, then worked the shifter back and forth a couple of times. When I re-started the engine it was still stuck in forward, and even reverse throttle caused more forward movement. Oops. As of this moment, we are without a working tender.

While my first instinct was to curse the universe and lament that yet another thing on the boat is broken, I had to restrain myself and count all the ways this worked out to be impeccable timing.

  1. It waited until we were back from the Bahamas to break. Wow, this is a big one. A failure like this might have spelled the end of our whole Bahamas cruise (it's nearly impossible to do anything at all in the islands without a working tender), or, at minimum, sidelined us someplace like Georgetown or Nassau for weeks waiting on parts and experienced technical help.
  2. It happened in Palm Beach, an area full of boating resources including chandleries, repair shops, and, of course, marinas to dock Vector, which will now be necessary to get ashore for any reason. There are also the full array of big-box stores and other resources in easy reach here, naturally. And we've been here enough times now that we are familiar with the lay of the land (and water).
  3. We made three full round trips during the day before it failed. Had it failed earlier we might have had to take a marina slip to clear in, or I might have had to cancel my doctor appointment.
  4. It failed after we had already reached and successfully docked with Vector. I probably could have made some kind of emergency approach using only forward propulsion and the kill switch, but with a good chance of damaging one boat or the other in the process.

I am also quite thankful that we had a transmission failure on the dinghy, which is only mildly aggravating, and not on Vector, which could be disastrous. It happened on John's watch, when the shift linkage broke in reverse while he was maneuvering in a marina. Fortunately, staffers quickly moved another boat out of the way, and Vector (then called Steel Magnolia) only hit a dock piling, putting a small dent in the swim step that has since been repaired. Inspecting the shift linkage has been on our pre-start engine room checklist ever since I heard that story.

At dinner last night we were ruminating about what our next move would be, whether or not we'd still connect with Blossom here, what the window for a northbound outside passage looked like, and other minutiae of moving the boat. Now that decision has been partially made for us -- we'll be right here somewhere on Lake Worth until I figure out what's wrong and we have a plan for repair. We'll probably have to take a marina slip while I get parts or even send the whole tender off for repair, and our next big decision now is just which marina that will be. There are dozens.

Our neighbor the Sailfish Club. Those are some big, expensive yachts docked at this uber-exclusive Palm Beach club.

For today, we are staying right here across from the tony Sailfish Club (no relation to the Sailfish Marina, where we had dinner), where we are getting occasionally usable WiFi, until I assess the damage, make some repair arrangements, and line up a marina. Blossom is under way from Nassau as of this morning and should be at Old Port Cove, about five miles north of us, by tomorrow morning sometime. Once they get settled in we'll try to catch up with them someplace around town, if we're not already at the same marina ourselves.

We had a fantastic three-month-plus cruise to the Bahamas, and clearly we were meant to be back just now. We used up the last of our phone service as we left, the last of our gasoline as we landed, the last of our provisions for lunch today, and the last straw for the dinghy transmission. If that's not perfect timing I'm not sure what is. We were out of the US for 99 days, traversing 995 nautical miles in 168 engine hours. We ran the generator 247 hours, and spent just seven nights docked. We did not take on a single gallon of water, making it all on board instead.

Tender loaded butt-first to access the motor.

This morning we hoisted the tender on deck bass-ackwards, so I can get to the engine, and in a few minutes I'll open the cowling and see if what broke is the linkage (minor) or the "lower unit" (major). Fortunately we still have a few adult beverages left for cocktail hour, and the result of my inspection might determine the consumption rate. We'll have leftovers for dinner and I expect tomorrow we will move along to a yet-undetermined location.

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