Monday, January 25, 2021

Beginning our ninth year

We are anchored in Man of War Harbor, just off Key West, with Fleming Key to our east and Wisteria Island to our west (map). The anchorage is protected to the west and north by a shoal called the Frankfort Bank. It can get sporty in here in a northwesterly blow, but mostly it's relatively calm, save for the wakes throughout the day.

The remainder of our cruise last Tuesday was pleasant and uneventful. We ran outside the three mile limit briefly, in anticipation of our stay here, and arrived to the ship channel in very light traffic. We did have a good bit of current against us pushing into the harbor, an unavoidable artifact of where we were in the tidal cycle. I did call a couple of marinas on our way in, to see if they had any last-minute cancellations, but they did not.

Instead we made a big loop around the harbor, and found this perfect spot in 25' of water just north of the turning basin. You can't really anchor any closer than this to the dinghy dock in Key West Bight; any closer and we'd be in the turning basin, which is not allowed, even though there has not been a single ship in port since we arrived.

The holiday lights were still up in the harbor and around town when we arrived. At right the old turtle plant, now a museum, next to the turtle pen.

We have a little over 150' of chain out, which has us swinging from just outside the turning basin, to within a couple of boatlengths of several long-term denizens on moorings, meaning they don't swing nearly as far as we do. The moorings are of questionable legality, but in a place where dozens of people are squatting full-time on the no-man's-land of Wisteria Island, and dinghies zip around at high speed lit only by a cheap flashlight at night, illegal moorings are not on anyone's enforcement list.

Just before I splashed the tender, we noticed a cruising sailboat had tried to squeeze in between us and a couple of the moored boats to our north. I could see on the plotter that he was literally right in our swing circle, and we often swing quite differently from sailboats. We ruminated about calling them to ask them to move, but they shortly departed in their tender. I reasoned that when they found themselves inches away from a rusty steel boat bearing down on them with 55 tons they would figure things out.

We tendered ashore in the evening to check out the town and find some dinner. Turtle Kraal's, a normally bustling restaurant overlooking the dinghy dock, is shuttered at the moment and undergoing construction, which gave the whole landing experience a post-apocalyptic feel, and set the tone for what we would find in town. We did not venture far, going to nearby wood-fired venue Onlywood for dinner, a couple of blocks inland. It was a chilly night, and we wanted to be off the waterfront.

We've been here long enough to "fill in" our anchor circle, like those standardized test questions you answered with a #2 pencil. Yellow track was our first attempt, where we plowed the mud a little. Red track to the right is our visit from 2014.

We strolled around briefly to get the feel of the place, and that feel right now is "subdued." While the marinas are full, as a whole, Key West seems to be operating at well below half its normal evening vibe, and even less than that during the day, where the absence of cruise passengers is palpable. A short walk was plenty for our first evening, and we returned to Vector and settled in for our first night at anchor. The sailboat which had anchored too close was gone; the tide changed while we were out, and I am guessing when they returned to their boat they thought better of their choice.

Little did we realize that the evening's entertainment had not yet begun. While we were relaxing in the saloon, an urgent call came over the radio about four red flares being launched from the anchorage next door, just the other side of Fleming Key. That's a shallower and calmer anchorage than this one, but it's a long way around the key to get there, and it's a much longer and rougher dinghy ride to the dock. We went out on deck just as yet another red flare rocketed skyward; we, too, called the Coast Guard to confirm the flare sighting.

Lots of other boats were much closer than us, and radio traffic indicated several dinghies were already making way to the scene to render assistance, and so we just settled in to monitor the radio. We soon learned that there was no distress; one of the locals who had four anchors out (!) felt like some recently arrived cruising boat was anchored too close and was going to hit him, and in a drunken fit of rage was blowing a horn and using the flares to get the attention of the "offending" boat. That boat turned out to be none other than the boat that had anchored in our swing circle earlier in the afternoon.

The back side of the dockmaster's office was also festively lit.

The Coast Guard sent a small boat over to have a chat with the boat launching the flares, and I am guessing the drunken skipper got a lesson in what the penalty is for sending a false distress message (launching a red flare is no different from calling Mayday on the radio). We just looked at each other and acknowledged that, yes, we've arrived in Key West. Last time we were here, the sheriff had to go break up a fight in the anchorage, a routine occurrence, and a woman was killed when she fell out of the dilapidated dinghy that she and her partner were attempting to pilot, drunk, back to the anchorage in heavy seas.

The locals in this anchorage are very possessive of what they consider to be their space. We have a practiced eye for what is a transient cruising boat and what is a long-term denizen, often easily identifiable by large Conch Republic flags flying from the mast. As opposed to, for example, the late arrival who anchored in our circle, whom I would have sent packing at some point, we give the locals a wide berth in the anchorage, and defer to them at the dinghy landing.

As if to underscore that, yes, it really is that weird here, the next morning we awoke to more radio traffic with the Coast Guard, this time from a fishing boat that had come across a stolen Tiki Boat (of which there are many here) with yet another drunk person passed out under the tiki and drifting out to sea. The Coasties eventually arrested him and towed the Tiki back to port.

Something you don't see often: uniformed Coasties driving a Tiki Boat. USCG Photo.

We actually never left the boat that day. It was cold and windy all day, and, in fact, just as we were about to sit down to a home cooked meal, we had to scramble to re-set the anchor, which was plowing slowly through the mud in the 40 mph blow. After re-positioning a bit further from the turning basin, we put out an extra 30' of chain, after which the wind set the anchor for us very well.

That was really the last of the marginal weather, and we've been able to have dinner ashore most evenings. It's not as warm as on our visit this time last year, but comfortable for patio dining. We've been sitting down around 5:30 to have the most comfortable temperature, no trouble finding a table, and, as a bonus, happy hour pricing.

Tomorrow will mark two weeks in this spot. This is our first visit here where we have not deployed the motor scooters. which are a perfect fit in Key West, but with no crowds at all in the tourist district, we've had no trouble finding an open outdoor table for dinner even on weekend nights, and there are enough groceries, hardware, and other necessities in walking distance that it has not been an issue. If I do need to run up to Home Depot, Publix, or another store I can always take the e-bike ashore. The transit system is running here, but neither of us will get on an enclosed bus.

We've dined at many of our old favorites, some more than once, and some places we'd not have returned if not for the pandemic. In no particular order we've been to Flying Monkeys (Fogarty's), Amigos, La Trattoria (these last two now have sidewalk tables where previously there were none), Carolines, Island Dogs, The Cuban Coffee Queen (for breakfast sandwiches), Alonzo's (A&B), Thai Cuisine and Sushi Bar, Schooner Wharf, and Harpoon Harry's.

Celebratory adult beverages at brunch on Inauguration Day.

This last venue is an odd combination of a traditional diner, complete with stainless decor and waitresses who call you "hun," and a full-on tiki bar with umbrella drinks. We opted to go there for a celebratory brunch on Inauguration Day, which was delicious, but while we were there, we learned the dinner special was turkey with dressing and all the fixings. Neither of us quite met our craving for this over the holidays, and so we ended up right back there for dinner.

We've been to the post office a couple of times, most recently in search of our mail, which is somewhere in Key West but does not yet show on the web site as "delivered" (they did not have it), and I've been into the marine hardware and West Marine stores twice each. We wandered around Mallory Square, our digs from last visit and normally also the cruise port, where we discovered the Margaritaville Resort and Marina, where we stayed, changed hands early this month and is now the Opal Key. The buskers and hawkers are still working the Square, but with no cruise ships it is a shadow of its former self.

A week ago we had a bit more Coast Guard drama as they made Pan Pan calls for an EPIRB (distress beacon) activation from the vessel Cuban Missile. At first we misunderstood the call to be concerning a Cuban vessel, but on the third call it became clear. We quipped that it was a Cuban Missile crisis; someone on Facebook allowed that they thought the boat belonged to the Miami baseball player of the same nickname. It turned out to be a false alarm.

A few days ago the superyacht Kismet dropped anchor just outside the harbor. We've seen her many times at her home port of Jacksonville, but we keep crossing paths elsewhere, too. That's Sunset Key (Tank Island) to the right, as seen from our deck.

As usual when we settle in someplace like this for a while, I have been getting work done around the boat. I rebuilt the failed seawater pump for the generator, re-strung all the cellular shades, patched a small air leak in the dinghy, cleaned and reorganized the workshop, and dismantled, serviced, and evaluated two laptops and an autopilot for listing on eBay. I also got rid of a bunch of old fluids and all the recycling, including the aluminum seat base and back we removed from the dinghy, at the excellent recycling facility a few steps from the dock.

The big project, though, was the watermaker. Long-time readers will remember that we struggled mightily with the watermaker in the Bahamas last year, with air ingress into the system dropping production and ultimately destroying the feed pump. We managed to scrape through and make it back to the US with some water still in the tank, and, once back, made it a priority to keep the tanks filled until I could deal with the problem. I installed a replacement pump, had the damaged pump rebuilt, changed out a cracked filter housing, and ordered a replacement for a leaking J-tube.

At some point while still in Jacksonville I reached an impasse; the system was "sort of" working, with low production, but I still had air coming in, and we were reluctant to use it as-is for fear of damaging another pump. With fresh water plentiful, we opted to continue cruising up the east coast to either do the Down East Loop (an option which never opened up) or cruise Maine for the summer. I would resume work on the watermaker either when I had the opportunity, or when circumstances dictated we needed it.

"Opportunity" in this regard is complicated. I needed the confluence of a week or longer stop someplace (since tearing the system apart takes up lots of the engine room, making moving the boat dicey), access to a hardware store and a mail drop for parts, and being in water clean enough to run the watermaker many hours for testing. That is, in fact, a fairly rare set of circumstances while we are actually cruising. 

Three of our stateroom blinds on the saloon table for restringing. Mostly to replace the latch mechanisms, which have corroded over time.

Here in Key West we not only had the confluence of those conditions, but also the need. Well, sort of. Pushing up against three weeks since we last took on fresh water, in West Palm Beach, and also running out of clean laundry for the same reason, we were faced with the prospect of having to pay to dock for a couple of hours, maneuvering in a tight harbor with no thruster, or else make our own water. We contemplated hauling the laundry ashore to the laundromat, but that would only buy us a few days.

I was only about an hour into it when a big part of the problem revealed itself: the gasket on the inlet strainer was not making a good seal. The clear plastic bowl of the strainer was also badly crazed, so perhaps it, too, was leaking. In any event, as the very first device in the pathway, I could make no further progress on the system without fixing the strainer. My extensive collection of miscellaneous seals and O-rings had nothing of appropriate size.

At this point it was Saturday afternoon, and I had just missed the decent marine hardware place, which closes at 2. They might well have had the seal. But West Marine down the block had an entire strainer assembly in stock, and while it was for 1/2" fittings, whereas mine takes 3/4", the bowl, gasket, and strainer basket were all interchangeable. Sixty bucks later I was on my way back, parts in hand.

Original gasket and strainer bowl. Quarter for scale. I think the gasket was originally all orange. You can see the crazing or hairline cracking in the bowl if you zoom in.

The replacement strainer bowl and gasket did the trick, immediately lowering the air ingress to acceptable levels. I had to tighten bolts on the Clark pump to stop some seepage, and I have one high-pressure fitting that is weeping, but the system is mostly working. I can see that there is still a small bit of air getting in, somewhere near the 50-micron pre-filter housing that I replaced in the last go-round, but it's not enough to stop production. We're making 13gph at startup, dropping over time to about 11gph several hours later.

After making a hundred gallons or so we did some laundry, and we can now remain comfortably in this spot until we're ready to leave Key West. It's still more cost-effective to buy water at the dock, but that pesky thruster makes it more trouble than it's worth. If we have to leave this spot in the anchorage for some reason, we will reconsider.

Saturday evening we met up with our friends Dorsey and Bruce, whom we met cruising a couple of years ago. Ironically we last saw them right here in Key West, a year ago, when they were also here on their boat. They have a house in Rhode Island, and we had hoped to see them as we passed through there southbound, having missed them on the northbound leg. We had to skip RI, though, due to pandemic issues.

They were here in Key West in their Airstream trailer, staying at Boyd's Campground on Stock Island, where we stayed when we visited in Odyssey. They met us on the dinghy dock, and we walked a few blocks to First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery. In addition to serving a "flight" of beers, the brewpub is adjacent to the birthplace of Pan Am, whose "first flight" departed Key West for Havana in 1927. The pub is decorated in Pan Am memorabilia. It was great seeing them and catching up in a well-spaced venue.

The old seat bottom pan from the dinghy. Actually much beefier construction than its replacement, with extra gussets and backing material for the fasteners, but not much I could do with it except recycle it.

An anniversary milestone also quietly came and went on Saturday, which marked eight full years that we've been cruising aboard Vector. To be fair, we had a few months, on and off, where we lived ashore with the boat merely nearby, such as the early days wherein we were still moving aboard, and our first yard stay where the staterooms were torn up, when we were able to use Odyssey as our living quarters, or the few weeks we were in the paint booth, when we borrowed an RV from a friend. But January 23, 2013 was our first day under way aboard, with the generous help of her former owner and now good friend John, who met our requirement at the time to have a licensed captain on board.

In the spirit of rolling over to our ninth year, and also having just closed out our first log book, which I am going through to collect some stats before stowing it, here are a few interesting statistics from our first eight years on board:
  • Total miles cruised: 33,217 nm
  • Total engine hours: 5,481.3
  • Average speed made good: 6.06 knots
  • Number of dockings: 418 (includes mooring balls, maybe a dozen in all)
  • Number of anchorings: 760
  • Number of locks transited: 117
Our busiest year for locks (59) and docks (90) was 2019, when we closed our Great Loop. Our busiest year for anchoring, with 146 drops, was 2020, due in part to the pandemic. Our longest non-stop passage remains 879 nm in 102.5 hours (four days, 6.5 hours) from Palm Beach to Atlantic City. On that trip we only stopped in AC for dinner, then continued on to NY harbor a couple of hours later. I might have missed a few anchorings, dockings, and lockages, as it's hard to count them in the log book, and I clearly failed to log a few as well.

Along the way I accrued enough "sea days" (minimum 720) and experience for my Master's License, and we've had many adventures, and several misadventures, all chronicled in this blog. It's been a great ride, and we can think of no better place to be for the remainder of the pandemic than living aboard our own boat.


  1. Happy Anniversary you guys. Hard to believe how time has passed. Love to you both.
    John & Laura Lee

    1. Thank you for your note, and for your continued friendship. It's been a lovely eight years, and we look forward to many more.

  2. We loved Key West in our motorhome and paid 4 visits there over the years. Being the more subdued types, we avoided the bars in the evenings and were home most night except when we watched the sun set at Mallory Square.
    I always find your updates interesting and love them.
    So glad we got to meet you two while we were in the pre-lauch phase of our own 10 year run at full-timing.

    1. Did you stay at Boyd's in KW, or did you find a better spot?

      Glad you're still following along, even though you've "swallowed the anchor," as they say in cruising circles.

  3. Your mention of the Turtle Kraal's (turtle corrals) brought back a flood of memories of my first trip to Key West with mom and dad back in the late 50's. Back then the Turtle Kraal's restaurant had sea water corrals out back filled with sea turtles that were on the menu and they served up to customers. Mom had a penchant for strange foods and was excited to try a turtle steak for lunch one day. I remember when they served a big slab of green meat to her and she ate every bit. The rest of us not sharing her uh...tastes had hamburgers or some such. After we ate we could go back to the kraals to see the turtles they had captured swimming about oblivious to their fate. Its repulsive now to think what they did with those beautiful creatures but it was a different time back then, as you know. Congrats on the 8 years of a seafaring life. I have enjoyed following your adventures and repairs.

    1. Thanks for the snippet of history. Across the kraal from the restaurant, in what used to be the turtle processing building, is the turtle museum. I've never been inside, because honestly I'm not sure I want to see the evidence. FWIW, we don't eat at Turtle Kraals (even when their open) because we found their cleanliness lacking and the food overpriced and mediocre. Maybe things will be better after whatever renovation they are doing right now.

  4. I've been following from the start on the bus.
    Been a great adventure for us followers.
    Thanks so much for having us along!

    1. Thanks for following along. I was sure early on that we'd run into you in DV or some such, but somehow we missed you in that first decade. There's probably another RV and/or pair of bikes in our future though, so who knows...


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