So much has happened to us in our first month of cruising. My in-laws, who are veteran cruisers, have reassured me that it isn’t always like this. Thank God! Don’t get me wrong, we’re having a great time, but I could have used a little more ‘easing in’ rather than the in-your-face adventure we’ve started with. That being said, it did start off nice and easy. Our first trip off the dock was only about four miles down the ICW…not a huge accomplishment, but it was a start. We had intended on anchoring in a spot our cruising guide recommended, but we found it filled with mooring balls. Not good. Eric didn’t like it, so instead, we hopped on one of the mooring balls instead. I had never done this before myself. I’ve seen other people do it plenty of times, but I can proudly say that I got picked it up on the first try. Proud moment! We stayed here for a few days getting to know the boat a little better, her systems, her night time noises, etc. Of course Eric was itching to sail, so we agreed to leave the inlet for a bit one afternoon which…wasn’t exactly what I would call a pleasant experience. Here’s Eric’s account of that afternoon…
I decide that we should go out into the ocean for a shakedown sail. The wind is good at about 20 kts. I give my wife the helm while I get the sails up. Her skills at the helm are a little less then I had expected. In reality she didn’t know how to control the boat, trying to keep it into the wind while I get the sails up is a bit of a chore. I yell for her to stay into the wind, she yells at me that she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. (In my defense, the last time I sailed a boat was in the 90s & it was a small Mercury. So yes…I was a bit rusty. After some frustration, we went back to basics, and I did better. Sill rusty though.) Once the sails are up it didn’t get much better. It turns out that if you don’t know how to drive a boat under power, there’s a good chance you don’t know how to handle the boat under sail. After about an hour and only a few tears, she was getting better.
It was about that time we saw the black clouds coming from the West over Ft. Lauderdale. What a learning experience ahead! Kelly, however, didn’t have the same thoughts. I can see the wall of rain and wind about a mile ahead. This is not going to be comfortable. I decide that I need to take in a reef on the sail just in case. These storms come on you fast and leave you fast. Again I have Kelly take the helm while I wrestle the the sail down to get the reef in. Again I give helpful directions and my wife yells curses at me. Or that’s how I think it’s going. (In my defense, I don’t think there were curses, but I was definitely making sure that he understood that I was not having fun on our first family said all drenched and rocking about. His positive spin…”We’re cleaning the sails!” Whatever.) I get the reef in just in time for the wind to change direction by 90 degrees and increase to 35+ kts. The white caps started to grow and the rain pelted us. Now the kids started voicing their opinions of the situation which was not helpful. 30 minutes of the thunderstorm and I see it start to clear. I knew it wouldn’t take long, but it appears that Kelly didn’t appreciate the lesson as much as I had hoped. (Ya got that right, lol!)
Heading back to the mooring was a silent event. I navigated the boat back into Ft. Lauderdale, and called the bridges to raise. When the mooring field comes back into view, Kelly acknowledges my existence and we start the mooring dance. It’s a beautiful ballet, Kelly informs me where she thinks she wants the boat to go. I start moving in the direction, and overshoot. We do this several times as we approach the buoy, but we lock on and hook up with a curse (and sigh of relief).
I should point out that we were the only boat in this morning field which reinforces that most cruisers are further north now. Another example is that while we’re here, we call the marina daily to try and pay our mooring fee, but no one ever picked up the phone nor showed up to take our money. So, after another day on the mooring, we decide that we’re ready to begin the trek North. Ok, maybe I wasn’t ‘ready’, but I was ‘as ready as I was gonna be.’ Here is Eric’s account of our first stint north…
After a thorough investigation of weather, we decide to make the track north to Palm Bay inlet. It’s a 35 mile sail, so it’s going to take all day.
The sail up to Palm Bay inlet is uneventful. (Quick shoutout to the makers of Driminate seasickness meds – recommended by our pediatrician. Works like a charm!) We sail at a whopping 5-6 kts and it takes us every bit of 7 hrs. (I believe we were told it would be a 5 hour sail…which turned in to a 7+ hour sail.) There are grumblings of mutiny from the two swabs about an hour into the sail. The only question I have to answer from hour two to six is, “How much further?” I work with Kelly at the helm and try to explain the sailing aspect. I finally break down and show her the autopilot.
I tell her, “Just push this button, and it will hold the boat on course.” In 16 years of marriage I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a look, like I’d been holding back information of an affair.
She says, “Are you $&@!! kidding me?!! I’ve been fighting this steering thing for two days and there’s a damn button that will keep the boat on course?!!”
“Well yea, most big boats have an autopilot, but you still have to know how to steer without it. What if it stops working.” I tell her. That doesn’t seem to comfort her much. (Really, I was just annoyed that he hadn’t shown me this lil’ feature sooner.)
As we finally pull into the inlet at Palm Bay I can see some dark thunder clouds rising fast. Crap, I’m not going to hear the end of this. I get the sails down and we motor to our potential anchorage. We are about 2-300 yards alway from anchoring when the wall of rain hits us. The wind gusts up to 46 knots, but it’s short lived. 10 minutes, and the whole thing is gone, However brief, it was something. The anchorage at Palm Bay is nice and wide, but there is a stiff current. During peak current, if you fall overboard, swim to shore because you aren’t going to swim back to the boat.
The stay in Palm Bay is nice and we think we’ll stay about a week and catch up with my Uncle, however as I’m driving the dingy to town, which seems to be running on one cylinder most of the time now, I get stopped by the sheriff. I’ve never been stopped by anyone on a boat before. Luckily the dingy engine helped a lot by stalling out, leaving me adrift to be interrogated. He asks if I have any identification. Of course I do, and that’s when I remember my driver’s license is void because Missouri takes 30 days to renew it. The state gave me a piece of paper that was my “current license”. I do have the paper on me so I pull out my void license and a soaking wet piece of paper that I carefully try to unfold like an ancient papyrus. I fail and most of the Missouri seal rips and a third of the writing on the paper is smeared and gone. This doesn’t go well for me while I pour on the charm.
The sheriff then asks about the boat registration. Well yes, the boat is registered. What you want proof of registration? No, I don’t have anything like that. The sheriff starts to run the identification number off the dingy. I didn’t even know it had an ID number. The radio comes back, “No registration by that number.” I quickly share that my wife has the paperwork. I’ll call her and get the registration numbers. The sheriff seems skeptical, but allows it. I get the numbers from Kelly and tell the sheriff. He runs them again, and this time gets a positive response that we are legal. He then asks me how long I plan to be in town. I tell him that we are going to go to a barbecue at may Uncle’s for Labor day, unless you’re kicking us out. He looks surprised, and states, “No I’m not kicking you out. I want to make sure you’ll be around to see your numbers.” The sheriff proceeds to tell me that I have to have my numbers on the dingy, and the state seal, along with a paper copy. This seems excessive, but I agree and he finally lets me off with a warning.
However, this brings into light that while the dingy is registered, our big boat isn’t. The paperwork for registration is still with the Coast Guard. Not to get into details, but there is still some gray area as to weather we are supposed to be in Florida at all because of the slowness it is taking to get our RI registration. I head to get the provisions we need, but there is a nagging concern in my mind about the boat registration. In all reality, we are registered in RI, but we don’t have any paperwork showing that yet, and the Florida tax man may not like that and want some $$. I coax the dingy into getting me back to the boat. Lots of smoke spilling out behind me. I think it’s running rich. I finally get to the boat and tell Kelly, “Change of plans. We are leaving tomorrow.” It’s time for us to get out of Florida.
As you can imagine, this change was a surprise to me. Remember, we were supposed to ease ourselves into this lifestyle. We had planned to see family and relax for a few days. We still weren’t making water. We’re waiting on a part that the in-laws are bringing, so I guess they’ll be meeting us further up the coast. We also were really enjoying Peanut Island. It’s this perfect escape only a dingy ride away where we can hike trails then wade in the water & snorkel the day away. The epitome of cruising life, but no more. Ugh. Peanut Island…till we meet again.
We set out for Ft. Pierce at 0800. The normally one hour drive takes us nine hours in a sailboat. Luckily we had the gulf stream to help us. At this rate we will be out of Florida just around New Years. It’s this time that I talk to Kelly about the need for an overnight sail. We can bank on about 50 miles a day, but if we sail through the night we could get a good 150 miles. We are only about 150 miles from Jacksonville so we could be out of Florida and this little tax question in an overnight. The logic is sound, a little help from the weather and we are golden. Kelly agrees with the plan and we stay one night in Ft. Pierce with the intent of getting out of Florida on an overnight passage.
Overnight passages can be great. The light of the moon shinning off the ocean, the stars guiding your way, it can be a glorious time, and that’s how I explain it to the family. I neglect to talk about how disorienting the dark can be. You look out at the black and feel like you are turning, but the compass isn’t moving and you start to wonder if the compass is broken. Any little sound makes you think that something is going to snap. And worst of all what if the weather turns. There’s no reason to bother the family with those little details.
I check the weather and it looks like a typical Florida prediction; mostly sunny and hot with a chance of thunderstorms. We’ll be fine. The sun rises and I’m ready to introduce Kelly and the family to the beauty that is an overnight passage. The day sail is uneventful and we motor sail the entire way North. With the engines on we are making a blistering pace of nearly 9 miles per hour. I get Kelly to steer the boat for a little while and even get her to not use the autopilot for a stint. We pass by Cape Canaveral in the early afternoon, Ponce DeLeon inlet a few hours later, and keep heading North. As the sun is starting to go down in the west I see dark clouds over land. It’s not just an isolated thunderstorm. It looks like a black wall slowly moving East. It isn’t going all that fast. Maybe we can get in front of it and be OK. My optimism is completely unfounded and in about an hour its clear we are not going to avoid it on our current course. I change our heading, but its of no consequence we are going to be eaten up by this front. I can see the lightning slamming down to the Northwest and slowing moving East into our path. About sunset Kelly asks if that is going to effect us. In my most calming voice I tell her its not a big deal, but I’m going to need to bring down the sails soon.
Our collision with the storm is inevitable. I take down the sails and wait for the eventual maelstrom. It takes about 30 more minutes and the temperature drops at least 15 degrees. The light 10 knot breeze from the Southwest changes to 40 knots from the West. Oh we’re in it now. The waves pick up to about 3-4 foot white caps and start hammering the hull like a pile driver. This is not going well. The girls get frightened and decide to lay down in the cockpit. At this point our shift plan is abandoned and Kelly tells me in no uncertain terms that I will be at the helm all night. I tell her calmly that we’ll be out of this in the next few hours. I completely give up on my course and start a giant game of hide and seek with the storm. I use the radar and the lightning flashes to try and avoid the heavy stuff. I also change the general heading of the boat to get the waves to hit us on the port bow. I work out the sweet spot. If I head too much into the waves they crash into the bottom between the hulls, and if I head too far off the waves they hit us broadside and we roll like a carnival ride. About 30 degrees off the port bow seems to be working best. This also heads us closer to land which will help lower the waves.
About 1:00 in the morning and most of the bad stuff is behind us. By 3 am the waves are calm, the wind has died and the stars are starting to come out; however, at this time, I’m loosing it. The calmness after all the adrenaline is getting to me. I’m on my third teaspoon of coffee. I don’t really drink coffee, but to stay awake I just put the grinds in my mouth and chew them down. It sucks.There are some strange side effects, the stars and waves are making trippy shapes. I find that I can’t hold a heading. I look at the compass and we are on course, I look up at the sea, I check the gauges for the engines, I look back at the compass and I’m 20 degrees off course. I have to resort to the autopilot; however, lately the autopilot seems to be on crack. Its constantly moving the wheel, it doesn’t get off course, but is moving the wheel a quarter turn one way, then a quarter turn the other. Its nuts, but its doing a better job than I can. Only a couple more hours till sunrise and then I’ll be better.
Finally the sky starts to lighten and though my head feels foggy and slow I’m still awake and we are going the right way. The day starts to come up beautifully and I am feeling more awake. Kelly and the girls start to wake up a couple hours later. Kelly hops on the helm for a few hours to give me some sleep. The girls ask where we are and how much longer. I consult the chart plotter and tell her we are about 15 miles south of Jacksonville. She looks at the charts and asks if we should go to the St. Johns river. I tell her yes, that must be the one that separates Florida and Georgia. Another hour goes by and we are getting close. Kelly starts to talk about anchorages and where we can go. I look at the chart with her and am concerned that I don’t see “Georgia” printed anywhere. Upon further investigation Kelly figures out that the St John’s river doesn’t separate Florida from Georgia, it goes into Jacksonville. We have to go to St Mary’s to get to Georgia. That’s another 20 miles north. Are you kidding me? That’s like three more hours! I’m hurting, but need to just drive on. The whole point was to get out of Florida.
Mid afternoon we start to head into St. Mary’s. I’ve been up for 31 hours and the engines have been running for almost the same time. The engines are doing a lot better than I am. St Mary’s has a submarine base, so the channel is almost 100 feet deep in spots and has a current of over 2 knots. Luckily the current was with us and we fly, relatively, up the river to our unknown anchorage. After searching around for a little while we find a place we like. It looks like there is about 6 feet of water under the keel and its calm. We set the anchor and I promptly fall asleep.
I’m wakened in the middle of the night because the boat isn’t rocking correctly. When we roll there is a little abruptness that I don’t understand. I check my watch it’s almost dead low tide. If I didn’t know any better I’d think we were aground. Come to mention it I don’t know any better. I turn on the instruments and the depth sounder read 6.5 feet, it must just be me. I look back at the depth sounder, it reads; 5.0…3.7…what the hell…1.6…0.0 feet. Crap we are on the ground. I get out a weight on a string and check, yup, the starboard hull is just on the ground in the soft mud and the port hull is just afloat. Well, there’s not much I can do about that…I’m going back to bed.
This brings us up to the week before hurricane Irma came through and destroyed St. Mary’s harbor. Our next post will be about that adventure.