|Blue Water? Bahamas?
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
"Spike, my man! How're you doin'?"
So begins the conversation when I call Fred on my cell phone. He is Fred Beechler aboard North Star. We voyaged together down the ICW all the way from the Dismal Swamp to St. Augustine. That was in the fall, but now it is January and we haven't seen each other since early December. Fred is down in Venice, Florida, and I have just returned to St. Augustine after a month in Utah. We won't be crossing paths, but since Kobuk is now back on the water after a month in wet storage I thought it would be good to see how Fred's winter is working out--he ordinarily heads out to the Bahamas but decided this year to do Lake Okeechobee and the west coast of Florida instead.
When Fred and I parted ways, he was passing under a bridge south of St. Augustine as I turned right to go up the San Sebastian River. I was headed for Oyster Creek Marina where Kobuk would be bedded down for a month while I was away. Now today Kobuk and I have just run back out the San Sebastian River and reached the ICW. Seeing the bridge near at hand has stimulated me to call Fred. Now as we talk and I steer towards the bridge, the flooding tide is carrying us along at a handsome clip.
"Uh, oh, Fred. I just lost my steering. I've gotta go. I'll call you later."
Kobuk is spinning around like the Jumblies' seive, curling to the right whilst drifting ever closer to the bridge, with no particular tendency to aim for the confined channel that runs between two of the columns that support the structure. It's ok, though: the main engine fires right away and directional control is reestablished. We motor through the cut under the bridge while I contemplate what just has happened. The Remote Troll's pulley wire has snapped and I have but one replacement left. Nothing to do but find a stretch of sandy shore and beach Kobuk to do the replacement. With the bridge still in view behind us, I notice a small inlet off the starboard side that has a short stretch of sandy shore. We motor into there and I throw the anchor onto the beach. This appears not to be private property: here along the shore it is marsh grasses, mud, and (happily) this short stretch of sand.
The first thing to do is plant a stick in the sand at the waterline. It is more or less high tide, not a good time for beaching a boat. I keep my eye on the stick to can guard against Kobuk getting stuck here. The sun is out but it is a cold day. Temperatures last night were down around freezing but the clear skies and lack of wind make these midday hours really quite bearable. Replacing the wire on the Remote Troll turns out to be easy. I have done it a number of times before and every time it was a struggle, but never has it been done with Kobuk beached. In the past it has been a headache because I had to hang out over transom while threading the wire and pulling the spring. Doing these tasks when you actually can see what you are doing and when you can employ leverage for stretching the spring--well, the work conditions make all the difference.
I have changed into a bathing suit to make the repair, and so this appears to be a good time for scrubbing down the hull below the waterline. A remarkable amount of sea grass is well established all along the waterline, but since no barnacles or other hard stuff have yet gotten a grip it doesn't take long to clear away the growth and scour off the slime. By lying on my back next to the hull, with only my face above water, it is possible to reach most of the distance to the keel. If Kobuk is left with a little "furry strip" down the keel . . . well, maybe it will help her track a straight line a little better. A small dose of wishful thinking is sometimes needed to sustain and nourish a dream.
This little embayment typifies the sort of seclusion one can find in so many places along most any waterway. Even in an urban zone where houses compete for waterfront views, the shoreline almost always contains a handful of hideaways where obstructions of one kind or another mask their existence. Kobuk is lying in a small slough with a marsh grass island immediately offshore, a narrow bar of sand where the anchor is set, and a sharp embankment rising no more than three feet above the slender beach. There are no trees of any sort anywhere near. Back from the beach, rough grasses lie on dead flat land that stretches only a few tens of feet before terminating on the shoulder of a local highway that passes by and there on the other side of the highway is a string of houses with a view that stretches across the ICW and over to the other side. What the view does not include is the narrow redoubt at the base of the bluff. Anyone who cares to look could most likely see Kobuk's cabin top and canvas bimini, but the panorama of the middle and far distance almost surely captures the attention and my existence would be known to them only when I stand. If I am sitting on the sand--or working as I have been in the water--then the only sight. In such a place, I have no doubt, one could make love, or relieve oneself, or clear the barnacles off a hull, and nobody would be the wiser.
It is good to have something go wrong right off the bat. It teaches patience and reminds the restless spirit that to step outside the conventional world is to step into a less predictable realm. That, after all, is what we are after here. It also makes it easier to appreciate the ensuing hours of trouble-free cruising as we slip on down the coast to the small village of Flagler Beach.
Depart Oyster Creek Marina, St. Augustine: 29* 53.213' N / 81* 19.278' W
Arrive Flagler Beach Boat Ramp: 29* 28.627' N / 81* 08.142' W
Distance: 34 miles
Total Distance: 8,066 miles
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Yesterday afternoon when we reached the Flagler Beach Boat Ramp, I was surprised to discover that it consisted of a carefully engineered basin, two launch ramps with a floating dock between them, and lengthy docks on pilings to either side of the launch area. The ramps were wide enough and the pilings docks long enough that I was able to tie off Kobuk without fear of obstructing passage for any boats coming or going. It was a park-like setting with restrooms, well maintained lawns, and plenty of parking space. All of it was located almost directly beneath the high bridge that connects Flagler Beach to the mainland. The good thing about bridges from my point of view is that they typically pass over a small stretch of shoreline that can safely be considered public land and that often has adequate characteristics for tieing off overnight. On this occasion, though, the facilities were comparable to a small marina. Not only that, the flow of launch ramp users was sufficiently light that no one was likely to complain about Kobuk's intransigence.
The only person around when we arrived and tied off was a thick set fellow of retirement age named Dave. He spoke with a New England accent. His origins were confirmed when he admitted to being a winter resident only here in Flagler Beach, spending most of each year up in Maine where he owns a whitewater rafting outfit called Magic Falls. When I confessed to him my love affair with Maine and emphasized the bias by commenting on the relatively inferior charms of Flagler Beach relative to any place Down East (even though I had yet to see this town, my mind was already made up and was not to be confused by facts), he retorted that it was damned cold up there in the winter. I could not disagree, but I guess that aspect of north country has not yet poisoned my passion for winter. When Dave and I parted, the invited me to stop by for a visit when up in Maine. I was trying to use the name of his rafting operation as a tag to put me onto him if I did get back that way, but couldn't seem to fix in my mind what was "Magic." Dave solved the problem. As he walked away, he shouted over his shoulder: "Not Magic Balls; Magic Falls!"
Now with the cold snap continuing, Kobuk and I begin a new day of heading south. Birds migrate south for the very purpose of escaping the cold, I suppose, but our voyage south seems to be at so slow a pace that we never get ahead of the curve. I keep expecting to suffer from the heat but every day it is just a little more shivering. Back in Utah I never spent this much time preoccupied with getting warm.
Housing development along the ICW here in Florida is not continuous but certainly it is considerable. One minute we may be passing a stretch of untouched shoreline but then a minute later it is just one damned house after another. Of course most of the houses are elegant and well maintained, and a great many of them are custom designed, but after a while it is hard to avoid that cynical view originally expressed about old growth forest: you see one designer house and you've seen 'em all. People go out of the way to give their little plot of paradise a touch of individuality, and for those who have money the options are of course much greater. The prize today, however, goes to a tract house that looks rather similar to all the others along this stretch of the shore. Individuality has been achieved by installing a most unusual piece of landscape furniture. There in the yard between the house and the water's edge, artfully positioned on the sward of green is a tank. I don't refer to a water tank or an aquarium: the tank is of the military type. But the owner has used discretion: he (or should I say "she"?) has postioned the tank's gun so that it points towards a stretch of wilderness and not at the ICW or at some poor neighbor.
Near the end of the day's voyage, after passing under a bridge, a small island appears of to starboard. It is infested with pelicans. Low shrubs crown the island, but the pelicans are perched on them in such numbers that they look as if a lace doiley were tossed over the whole place. Pelicans are in fact extraordinarily abundant in this part of the world. Ever since getting to Florida they have been the most commonly sighted form of wildlife. They often cruise at or near water level and if Kobuk us running a course that looks likely to intersect with theirs, they do not hesitate to assert their higher claim to right of way. They give ground grudgingly and seem even less hospitable than New York pedestrians. I would like it if pelicans could talk, not in order to query their haughty street behavior but because it might then be possible to find out how in the world birds of their sort can possibly manage the G-forces to which they occasionally subject themselves. I have seen a pelican divebomb the water from Brooklyn Bridge height and then peel away only feet above the surface--presumably because their prey had become in one way or another less desirable or less catchable. But the question is, How do these oddly designed creatures manage to keep their wings functional when the sudden arc that they scribe has multiplied the mass of their bodies by a factor of five or more? We can't build planes with wings so strong. How do birds manage to do it?
New Smyrna Beach City Park: 29* 01.546' N / 80* 55.160' W
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance: 8,102 miles
Friday, January 16, 2009
The ICW along this east coast of Florida follows a string of rivers and sloughs that parallel the coast and lie immediately inland from it. Many of the coastal towns are burdened with a difficult choice because on the one hand they wish to take advantage of their ocean front beach situated on the eastern side of the barrier island but on the other hand they need to be connected to the rest of the state via roads and highways located inland of the slough or lagoon. Some towns take the bull by the horns and make a real decision. St. Augustine, for example, opted for the interior location whereas Flagler Beach chose what its name suggests. New Smyrna Beach, couldn't handle the stress, however, and ended up with a split personality. It has two "downtowns"--a more traditional and less glamorous one on the west side of the ICW and a more modern and glitz encrusted one on the east side.
There has to be a bridge, of course, to connect these two separate worlds, but the waterway has lots of sailboat traffic so the bridge has to be either very high or very easy to open. New Smyrna Beach actually has two bridges, one of each type. The Coronado Bascule Bridge crosses the Indian River a little to the north of the traditional town center, but feeds directly into the main street of the fashionable beach resort. Less than a mile farther south, a generic fixed bridge arcs skyward to provide over sixty feet of clearance for boats passing under (60' appears to be the benchmark clearance for any ICW fixed bridge). This bridge runs eastward across the Indian River straight out of the traditional downtown. It seems that when it came to bridge building New Smyrna Beach was no more decisive than when situating the downtown.
There are, of course, very many fixed bridges over the ICW and in addition to giving a minimum clearance of sixty feet for boats,they all appear to be engineered in the same way--an upthrust parabolic road bed strung along the tops of evenly spaced columns. This design works fine when the waterway is reasonably wide, but often that is not the case, and then there is a problem. If traffic is going to ascend to such a height above the water without being subjected to an excessive gradient going up or down, then the bridge will have to be of a certain minimum width. From the looks of it, one of these bridges has to be at least a third of a mile--and maybe even a half a mile in length. In other words, a narrow waterway obliges the bridge to start its ascent well inland from the shoreline on one side or the other. And actually, there is little flexibility as to which side because the boat channel typically is very narrow and the highest span of the bridge has to be directly above it. The consequence for a little city like New Smyrna Beach is that the fixed bridge running out of the downtown actually has to start its ascent a couple blocks inland from the heart of Main Street. An openable bridge would resolve this problem, of course, but in doing so would create even more distressing problems: frequent interruption of vehicular traffic, mechanical systems needing maintenance and repair, and constant monitoring by a hired bridge master. It is no wonder that the old, elegant bascule bridges are giving way to the new, parabolic, fixed bridges. The newer bridge here in New Smyrna Beach is the bascule one, but this probably was unavoidable because the sliver of land on which the upscale downtown is located only has about five blocks of width. A fixed bridge would have had to fly right over much of the main drag before coming back to ground.
By now you must be getting tired of reading about bridges, but please hang in there for one final observation. Peninsular Florida is obscenely low lying. Hardly anywhere does high ground stand more than thirty feet above sea level. If global warming were to raise sea levels that much, then fixed parabolic bridges would be one category of engineered items left protruding above sea level. They would be a hazard to navigation, of course, instead of a facilitator--but even so Kobuk would be able to pass under.
Last night I was eating dinner in the LTF Deli near the waterfront when a half dozen people came in and seated themselves in the booth next to mine. A man in the group was standing beside the booth when their conversation turned to his place out West where they all were going to go for a vacation next week. He described his place and explained that it was located next to Deer Valley Resort, more or less in Park City. As I was leaving, I couldn't help mentioning to everybody that I had overheard their conversation and that I work at Deer Valley. Then I let them know that all the positive things that had been said about the place were absolutely true. This led to everyone coming down to the waterfront to see Kobuk (in the darkness) and then to offers of assistance with any problems or needs that I might have while here in New Smyrna Beach. There was nothing that I needed, though, and eventually they all drifted off into the darkness and headed home.
South of New Smyrna Beach, the ICW works its way past a warren of sloughs and hammocks off the port beam. On the starboard side, the shoreline contains sporadic eruptions of development--everything from the palatial to the mobile, with a few fishing camps thrown in as well. These folks lined up along the shore need only cross the ICW in a small skiff or runabout and then they can lose themselves in a marshland world of palms and waterways, birds and fish. Dolphins are everywhere in this particular stretch of the waterway. Kobuk passes at least a couple dozen of them within a two hour period and as usual they love to run up near the hull. Often one will come at us head-to head, and then gently dive as Kobuk passes above. Each time I can feel a gentle rocking of the hull as the submerged dolphin leaves behind swirls and eddies. At one point, there is a great commotion of splashes in the distance and when eventually we arrive in that area it is a gang of dolphins behaving erratically. I cannot tell for sure, but it looks as if they are attempting to pounce on fish. The birds must think so too since they are wheeling in great numbers directly above the scene of the action.
Finally, the waterway enters a long stretch of open water that the chart labels as Mosquito Lake. We run down it for many miles and as the hours pass the tailwind out of the north gradually builds bigger waves. The farther we go, the more Kobuk slops and slews, but it is all in good fun and nothing about it suggests risk. As we push on towards the south end of the lake, the peculiar towers associated with the Kennedy Space Center launch pad begin to draw a profile of themselves dead ahead. They are nothing but a small, dark silhouette on the distant flat landscape, but through the binoculars their profile is unmistakable.
Before reaching the south end of Mosquito Lake, we bear right and pass through Haulover Cut, a charming passage along a straight and narrow channel lined with low pines that angle out over the water. Any little break in the trees and there is a fisherman standing there with his line in the water. None of them look very serious about their pastime; they all seem more intent on nothing more than being a part of the picturesque setting.
By the time we reach Titusville, the wind is a steady torrent out of the north that has to be blowing at over twenty miles an hour. There is no gusting and no backing and veering--just a steady blow from a single direction, as if this particular stretch of the ICW were located inside a wind tunnel whose giant fan is operating at a fixed speed. The Titusville Municipal Marina is located inside a rectangular basin that affords good protection against the waves but lies exposed to the direct assault of the wind. Once in there, Kobuk calms down, but crabs across the water with an exaggerated sideways vector. Up in the north corner of the basin is an isolated launch ramp for small boats. It only has a very short dock extending out from shore and the ramp runs down on both sides of it. But the ramps are rough and narrow and a boat tied to the dock would inevitably block the use of one of them. Nevertheless, this is the one place I can get Kobuk into without drifting broadside onto some nearby obstruction.
Titusville Public Launch Ramp: 28* 37.312' N / 80* 48.588' W
Distance: 33 miles
Total Distance: 8,135 miles
Saturday, January 17, 2009
At gray light this morning, two rigs arrived to launch their boats. They didn't come at the same time so it was no problem for them to work around Kobuk who was hogging one side of the launch ramp. Nevertheless, it was a sign that we should depart forthwith and, after a quick trip up the road to purchase a couple jerry cans of gas, that is what we did. As we motored out of the harbor, a gentle northerly ruffled the surface of the Indian River and golden sunlight skittered on the wavelets. Titusville is now a memory; next up, Melbourne.
I wonder why anybody lives in Titusville. It's not a pretty place and the downtown was a hollow shell last night. If it were a struggling rust belt town trying to cope with hard times I could understand, but this is sunny Florida and there is nothing to indicate that the inhabitants of Titusville are "trapped in poverty." If a place doesn't look good, I really can't understand why people stick around. I know there is more to life than looks, but the presence of good and friendly people in Titusville is hardly evidence that such stock cannot be found elsewhere. Considering the fact that America is the place most reknowned for its rootless population--for people who move on a whim--it is somewhat mysterious to me that less appealing towns don't go extinct with fair regularity. But no, if an urban center exists then its will to continue living seems to be more tenacious than a pit bull. Why is this? I simply cannot believe that the residents of Titusville have such a strong sense of being a part of this, their home, that they find it emotionally impossible to leave. I guess they just can't sell their houses.
By way of contrast, six hours of cruising gets us to the more charming and livable Melbourne. Most of the passage is done in the Indian River, which is famous for oranges or grapefruits--I can't remember which. But actually, it's not a river; it's a lagoon. Images of pure, fresh water flowing to the sea are inaccurate since the actual situation is one of salty water ebbing and flooding with the tides. The Indian River is wider than the Mississippi. It is strewn with islands and shoals and runs for many tens of miles parallel to the coast south of Cape Canaveral. It is just one part of the brakish water network running down the entire southeast coast of the country behind the string of barrier islands that face the sea.
When we arrive at Melbourne, the channel in takes us to a small basin that is over half filled with docks and boats. There are two marinas in here--the city marina and a yacht club. The lie on opposite sides of the basin but space is so limited that the channel between them is only a stone's throw in width. Past the marinas are two bridges with low clearance and in the hope that they may obscure some nifty hiding place for Kobuk I steer us under the first bridge into a basin that has a lovely city park that more or less says, "Don't even think about parking your boat along this shore." We pass under the second bridge and another, equally lovely basin presents itself, but this time all the surrounding land appears to be private property. With these options exhausted, I succumb to expediency and take a slip at the city marina.
Melbourne seems to be undergoing some sort of renaissance. The main street, just a few blocks removed from the boat harbor, is lined with spruce specialty shops. Cafes, bars, and restaurants abound, all of them looking as if they just started business this season. Everything is clean; lots of people are out on the sidewalks; vehicular traffic is minimal. It is easy to like this place, and especially easy for me since to cycle here I actually had to pedal up a hill! It is not that I like pedaling up hills. It's just that I like the idea of hills, and also the fact that the gas station is the first thing you encounter when you ascend means that my little expedition for gas benfited from the downhill run all the way back to the marina.
In the evening, I drop in at Ichabod's, the cafe/bar associated with the marina. There I meet a mustachioed, white-haired gentleman who ends up taking me out into the parking lot to watch for the 7:33 pm launch of a NASA rocket. Supposedly, it has a big payload (Mustachio Joe claims it will be a "Delta Heavy") and is surrounded with lots of secrecy. Anyway, we end up standing at attention for ten or fifteen minutes in a parking lot before learning that NASA has scrubbed the launch.
Melbourne Municipal Marina: 28* 04.662' N / 80* 36.061' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 8,178 miles
Sunday, January 18, 2009
A late start today means that the voyage to Vero Beach may not be be completed until sometime late in the afternoon. It is a good opportunity, I think, for checking out the main engine by using it to arrive a little earlier in the day. After a few hours of leisurely cruising down center of the broad waterway referred to as the Indian River, I switch Kobuk over to the Mazda and we fly along under the midday sun with a discontinuous string of small islands passing by on the starboard side.
The mild temperatures have the boaters out in larger numbers than we have encountered since North Carolina. We seem at last to be in a boating world where skiffs and runabouts and all manner of vessels smaller than Kobuk dominate the scene. Cruising at nearly twenty-five miles per hour, the river life slips by with the landscape. For many miles, the green and red buoys that define the channel of the ICW run in straight line legs that are easy to follow. Even as a pair of buoys approaches, the subsequent two or three pairs define the straight track extending off into the distance. A quick look with the binoculars confirms that they are what they are, and Kobuk can press on swiftly without running aground.
But then near the town of Wabasso, less than ten miles from Vero Beach, the ICW tucks in behind some larger islands over on the port side and passes through a narrow channel that has twists and bends to it. The hazards recommend a reconversion to Yamaha power, and so for the final few miles to Vero Beach we motor along at a leisurely pace with all sorts of quite remarkable homes fronting the ICW on both sides. Manicured lawns and maintained docks are not simply the norm: they are mandatory. When we finally arrive at Vero Beach, the scene is similar but raised to a higher power. There is a fixed bridge here on the northern edge of Vero Beach and although the center of town is on the western side of the waterway the boating center for the town is on the east side, tucked up in a side channel immediately north of the fixed bridge.
To maneuver in this busy side channel, I switch over once again to the Mazda, but have a hard time getting the engine to start. It coughs and sputters but won't fire up and run smoothly. After a number of tries, it begins to behave and run as it should, but the problem is disturbing. In just a few days we will be in position to cross over to the Bahamas. The prospect of doing that leg with an unreliable engine is thought provoking. Not only that, during the day when we were running swiftly with the Mazda, the temperature gauge gave a reading that was slightly--but undeniably--higher than it used to do. I am going to have to look into these issues before doing the crossing. There is a growing list of things to do before the crossing, actually, so it looks as if we will be faced with a few days of preparation before setting off.
The Vero Beach Municipal Marina is the most overstocked boat facility I have seen. All the marina slips look occupied and everywhere within the confines of the side channel there are mooring balls with yachts attached. Indeed, in many instances two boats are rafted together and attached to a ball. Just past the marina is a very narrow channel leading to a small basin, and in there are dinghy docks. I take Kobuk in to look around. The dinghy population is so out of control there that every square inch of dock space is occupied with inflatables squashed together like little piglets competing for suckling privileges. I have thought I might tie off here, but not now, evidently. Kobuk eases back out of the dinghy dock inlet and we make our way up the narrow channel to see what can be seen. A short distance along, there is a split in the channel and we bear off to the right, only to end up grounded on a shallow bar. With homes and docks and boats along both sides, I am stranded out in the center of this little inlet with deeper water evidently running along both shores. It is an easy job getting Kobuk free, but the routine of changing into a bathing suit and jumping overboard to push Kobuk into deeper water is something I cannot remember doing since leaving the upper Missouri River, many thousands of miles ago. The water temperature is definitely less imposing than it was in the good old days.
In the end, I find a place for Kobuk at the dinghy dock and leave her there looking like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. On the other hand, she has for so long been the midget in yacht harbors catering to larger boats that I do not feel bad about her new role as the local bully. Off I go on Bike Friday to cross the bridge and reach a Panera in Vero Beach where it will be possible to do my Internet work. The route there takes one past all manner of highly planned, cleanly landscaped, and widely spaced commercial establishments--the sort of American shopping zone that is so functional and yet prettily done that one can hardly complain. As my only view of Vero Beach, however, it leaves a vacuous impression. When I return across the bridge after dark, I wander around a little back on the eastern side and discover a lively nightspot located almost directly under the bridge--a people magnet offering television coverage of NFL playoff football and live music by an eclectic group of bearded and bandana-wrapped musicians who play the washtub string instrument, the harmonica, and guitars. A couple hours in there gives me a more favorable impression of the Vero Beach scene. The name of the place is Riverside Cafe. It must have at least fifty cars parked outside.
Vero Beach Dinghy Dock: 27*39.520' N / 80* 22.131' W
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance 8,214 miles
Monday, January 19, 2009
Before the sun comes up, Kobuk slips out of the small inlet where she has been tied to the dinghy dock. Yesterday afternoon there were so many dinghys in here that it took two tries to find a place to tie off, but now the place is empty. That was expected and its reality motivated me to get this early start: I didn't think the Vero Beach Marina authorities would look happily on a tethered dinghy that doubles as a liveaboard so I resolved to get under way before anyone might notice.
The morning finds us cruising slowly down the middle of the broad ICW, keeping to the regularly marked channel. Still the wind is out of the north, just as it has been ever since I returned to Florida ten days ago. This makes the cruise south an easy downwind run, but it bodes ill for the crossing to the Bahamas. Only a south wind will do for that, and so far I have seen no evidence that such a thing exists.
After six hours of motoring past distant shores and myriad strings of islets, Kobuk fetches up to St. Lucie Inlet where the St. Lucie River comes in from the west. The town of Stuart is located here, a few miles up the river, but even before Stuart an inlet called the Manatee Pocket comes into the river from the port side. There are a number of marinas in the Manatee Pocket and the town of Port Salerno arrays itself around its innermost extent. Since this is a few miles closer to the ICW than the town of Stuart, I decide to seek out a marina here and spend a couple days preparing for the Bahamas crossing. My choice is the first option as one enters the Pocket: Sailfish Marina. Once settled in, I do laundry, sort out things on board, and pedal into Port Salerno to see what's up.
From the Manatee Pocket, it is only about 35 miles to the Lake Worth Inlet where Kobuk will leave protection behind to cross the Gulf Stream. That is only a six-hour cruise from here so we should be in position after only one more day on the water. I will only attempt the seventy mile crossing to the West End of Grand Bahama if the winds are light and blowing out of the south. I listen regularly to the NOAA weather forecast on the VHF radio, and it usually provides a prediction of local offshore wind and wave conditions for the upcoming four days. Naturally, the prediction for the first day is a lot more reliable than the one for the fourth, but in any event my main concern is with two days out. I like it here in the Manatee Pocket and so I figure I can stay until the forecast looks good for "the day after tomorrow." When that happens, I will leave for Lake Worth Inlet "tomorrow" and then start the crossing early in the morning on the next day.
Here it is Monday, and NOAA is saying that the north winds will continue until Friday when the expectation is that they will shift to the southwest quadrant and be light. If the forecast is right, I will have two days here to get prepared for the crossing before leaving to reach Lake Worth Inlet.
Sailfish Marina, Port Salerno: 27* 09.633' N / 80* 11.728' W
Distance: 38 miles
Total Distance: 8,252 miles
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Since Kobuk will stay put for a while, I'm late getting up in the morning. These days, the overnight temperatures are quite chilly--there was frost last night and even colder conditions are anticipated for the next two or three. Daytimes are fine--once the sun is up the temperature heads fot the sixties (cold for the locals but acceptable to me). Without a good reason, therefore, it makes no sense to abandon the sleeping bag before the sun has had a chance to insolate Kobuk's living space. By the time I've had breakfast and cleaned up, the morning is mostly gone and it is time to get to business.
The business at hand is the elephant in the living room--the chronic Mazda problems of overheating and balky starting. It wouldn't do to have such misbehavior while trying to cross the the Gulf Stream. If the engine were to fail then, and the little Yamaha perversely pack it in at the same time, I would be at the mercy of the Gulf Stream's 3-4 mile per hour current. It's a long way to Norway.
I track down Raymond, the yard foreman, and he agrees to come over and take a look at my rig. He identifies a number of possible explanations for the overheating but seems to think the best place to start is with the raw water cooling system. Water is syphoned off from the jet drive and run through two heat exchangers before being ejected out through the exhaust. One of the heat exchangers is located on the port side of the engine and cools the engine oil; the other sits on the front of the engine and cools a separate, internal, antifreeze-filled cooling system. The heat exchangers must come off to be inspected. The one on the side is particularly awkward to get at and I diddle around for a few hours before finally figuring out how to do the job. The floorboard has to be removed, but once it is out of the way it becomes possible to reach the nuts that must be undone before the oil cooling heat exchanger can be gotten free. I am chest down on one of the stringers to which the engine is mounted, reaching underneath to do the job by feel, but finally there is success and I can take the two long yellow tubes over to Ray for him to inspect. Yep, he thinks, there seems to be substantial foreign matter collecting in them and it is time to have a radiator shop clean them out. He directs me to where the yard sends its work and I bicycle over to deliver the heat exchangers. The owner of the shop starts to work on them immediately and when they are delivered back at the end of the day there is a general concensus that they were outrageously dirty and that now the engine will run smoother and cooler. The men in the shop were keen to deliver the heat exchangers to the boat because they are Mazda aficionados and have never seen a boat driven by rotary power before. When these men leave it is too late to reassemble the system, but at least I can go to bed in a hopeful state of mind. I think my problems are a little less extant than they used to be--and they surely are less grevious than those Mr. Obama must face on "the morning after."
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Once again the cold keeps me bedbound for a while, but by ten in the morning I am up and starting work on the reinstallation. All things considered, it goes smoothly and by early afternoon I am ready to turn to other things. I cannot test out the system until after shopping for replacement oil and antifreeze--both of which were bled out of the system to some degree when the exchangers were detached.
When I go up to the marina office to discuss my slip arrangements, Kay Soldo answers all my questions and reassures me that I can stay for as long as I wish. Kay is a soft-spoken South Carolinian with dark hair and the lustre of youth. She is not so young--for she has two teenage sons--but so far the ravages of middle age have passed her by. She is by nature unassertive and yet it would be wrong to call her shy. She is at ease in conversation and doesn't labor for any particular effect. She must have some sort of attitude and surely she has a point of view, but these are not things she feels a need to broadcast. She is a relaxed enigma.
She is also generous: when I first talked with her yesterday she offered me the use of her car if I need to go shopping. Although I originally declined, saying that it would be easy for me to do whatever is necessary by bicycle, I have now come to realize how much easier it would be to shop using a car. The thing is, this jump to the Bahamas has implications that are rather weighty. It isn't just a blue water passage: it is a transit of Kobuk to a different country with no prospect of returning to the United States for many years. All through the Caribbean and South America it will be harder to locate all those things that keep a boat on the move--belts and filters, water jugs and fittings, line and lubricants. I have made a list of items to be added to the ship's store and the reality of what must be gotten has convinced me that I should not have so readily dismissed Kay's offer. When I tell her that I would like to use her car after all, she hands me the keys and directs me to the blue Dodge Stratus out behind the long storage shed. By the time I return from my buying binge, the afternoon is well-advanced and the back seat is full.
After unloading everything and sorting it all out, it is time to add oil and antifreeze to the engine to see if the new installation is successful. With fluids topped up, I start the Mazda and wait to see what happens. What happens is that after a few minutes the engine alarm comes on and the bilge turns black. It seems that the engine oil has drained from the system and taken up residence in the bilge. I must not have properly reattached the heat exchanger that cools the engine oil, but now the sun is setting and the problem will have to wait until tomorrow. I leave Kobuk in this unseemly state and pedal off to the movies.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Once again the floorboards come up. All people, I should imagine, detest doing something again that was not done right the first time, but the thought of having this in common with all humanity does little to assuage my irritation at having to remove and reattach the heat exchanger. I cannot deny, however, that the process has taught me something: this second time around the procedural steps are much easier and as soon as the assembly is detached I can see where I went wrong. When everything is reassembled, I give it another try and this time the engine runs without setting off alarms. While the engine is running, careful inspection of the fittings shows no leakage of oil. The job is done.
But now there is the mess. How does one clean a few quarts of oil out of a bilge? It turns out that there is a way. There are these gauze sausages filled with some sort of substance that readily sops up oil but remains impervious to water. Sailfish Marina has passed some sort of standard that allows it to call itself "green," and the certifying authorities honored the occasion by giving the marina a boatload of these nifty things. The Marina, in turn, gives me some. A few hours later the black pool down below has been reduced to an acceptably low level of bilge sliminess. The floor has been reinstalled and the boat itself has been scrubbed clean.
The afternoon is still reasonably young so I decide to go for a bike ride. It is too late in the day to set off for Lake Worth Inlet and, besides, the weather forecast still doesn't suggest that a crossing should be done two days hence. The south winds that early in the week were expected to arrive on Friday are no longer part of the forecast. The strong winds will begin to taper off tomorrow, but then on Saturday when they should diminish and come out of the west, the pattern is not expected to last even for twelve hours before a return to northerlies. This window of opportunity is too small for me to chance it. I'll go for a bike ride and think about things.
I cycle out to the east, across two bridges to Hutchison Island where the Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge is located. After an hour or so of looking through this halfway house for shipwreck-surviving sailers (a hundred years ago), I return across one bridge and run north and west through the uninspiring little town of Rio before crossing back over a different bridge to look around in downtown Stuart. The outing does me good and by the time I get back to Kobuk a decision has been made. If tomorrow morning the weather forecast does not give me a clear green light for a Saturday crossing to the Bahamas, I will do something entirely different. I'll head west across Florida to Fort Meyers and then run south to the Florida Keys. I'll take Kobuk out to Key West--and maybe even across the twenty miles of open water to the Marquesas Keys--and then work back up-chain to Miami. This will be about 500 miles of cruising. If we cannot get so far before the middle of February when I must return to Utah then I'll store Kobuk in the Keys and return in the fall to make the crossing to the Bahamas.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Last night, Kay and Ray invited me to have a beer with them after work. We met at a local hot spot and spent a couple hours sitting at the bar discussing the boating life. Kay was with her partner, Mike, and Ray was there on his own. It didn't take Ray long, though, to strike up a conversation with the unattached blonde who chose to sit next to him. As he was casually engaging her in conversation, Kay leaned over and whispered to me that Ray is something of a Don Juan. I think Kay did Ray a slight injustice since Ray wasn't the one who started the whole thing, but on the other hand Ray seems mighty comfortable in the company of women. With his expanding midsection and increasing signs of fleshiness, Ray may be showing some of the signs of middle-age. But his full head of wavy gray hair floating back and away from the knowing look in his eyes has a certain appeal that even men can understand.
When it was time to leave, Mike and Kay asked me to return to their home for dinner. They bought their house only six months ago--a foreclosure deal that needed a lot of work. They have been hard at it since then, removing walls, refinishing floors, refurbishing the kitchen, and a host of like projects. Mike is one of those men who loves to figure out ways of doing things without help, and this is a mentality I can understand. We spent some time discussing the many choices that he and Kay are having to make in the process of doing the home renovation, and then Mike went on to show me the idea he has for constructing a modular cabin up in South Carolina (where Kay is from and Mike wants to move). When I described something of my yurt project to Mike, he suggested that I consider using a simple solar heating system with tubing installed under the floor. I explained that I wanted to do something like that but that since the yurt will be set on a deck rather than a foundation, I couldn't figure out how to create the necessary mass for heat storage in the floor. In an instant he solved the problem: "Why not heat an insulated water tank set down below the deck?" This idea gives me a subject matter that I will be able to spend hours thinking about while guiding Kobuk through the backwater areas of southwest Florida and the Keys.
Since the forecast this morning does not project any sustained change in the pattern of north winds for tomorrow, I will head west. But this means I need charts for the Okeechobee Waterway, the southwest coast of Florida, and the Keys. I spend much of the day tracking down these things. A chart book of the lower Keys is on sale at half price in West Marine, so that pulls its cost down out of the stratosphere. Then in a consignment store for boaters I locate a handful of nautical charts that cover the southwest coast of Florida as well as the upper Keys. They are twenty years old, but they only cost five bucks each. Between the charts and the chartbook, I am out about fifty bucks, and that seems reasonable to me. As for the Okeechobee Waterway, I don't really think charts will be needed. It is nothing more than a channel and I'll know which direction to go in it.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
There is really no reason for not leaving today. I would have done so, but the Port Salerno Seafood Festival is scheduled to happen this afternoon down at the town waterfront. Ever since arriving here in the Manatee Pocket I have seen signs posted advertising the event, so let's see what it is all about. I'll pull out of here tomorrow morning and that means I can use the morning to figure out a method of attaching the inflated kayak to Kobuk's Bimini top. That way, it will be relatively easy for me to get it onto the water, a singular advantage since it will allow me to anchor off without feeling cut off from shore.
After fastening pad eyes at strategic locations on both sides of the stern and both sides of the cabin, I find I can attach the kayak upside down on top of the Bimini using bungee cords. I am convinced that they are taut enough to inhibit any sort of shifting or bouncing by the kayak and the only drawback to the system that I can see is the fact that a bungee cord could be dropped and lost in the water--a contingency for which I have prepared by purchasing a couple spares. There is some concern with the weight of the kayak (maybe thirty pounds), but the aluminum framing for the Bimini top seems to be strong enough.
With the kayak giving Kobuk a new profile and all other preparatory boat tasks completed, I cycle into Port Salerno. Eyepopping crowds jam the midway where white pavilions to either side sell sundry seafood items. All transactions require purchased coupons, so I imagine that this is a fundraiser of some sort. If so, it must be highly successful. There are many, many people, coupons are a dollar each, and it takes three of them to buy a Bud on this hot afternoon. Food items are more reasonably priced, but that only encourages higher levels of spending. I do my part by purchasing ten coupons and spending only seven of them. And then, after being swirled around by the crowd as if swimming at a beach with undertow, I retreat to a nearby coffee shop that has free wifi.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Light winds out of the west--that's the forecast for today when I am not in position to make the crossing. For tomorrow the forecast is less encouraging. Well, that does it: I'll take the other path. I'll head inland. There's no getting around my dependency on the weather, but at least this way I can delude myself otherwise. We set off for Lake Okeechobee and I resolve not to listen to weather forecasts for the next couploe of days. If a weather window opens up for a crossing to Grand Bahama--I don't want to know about it.
Anyway, today is perfect cruising weather--sunny and warm and calm, but with the temperature low enough that cruising creates a cool breeze. We motor out of the Manatee Pocket and turn left instead of right. We run under the three bridges connecting Stuart to points north and curl around the peninsula on which the town is located. We leave the estuary behind and head up the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. For the first time in years, Kobuk runs in fresh water.
Suburbanization has run up to the riverbanks hereabouts, but the Kiplinger Preserve has kept things in a natural state for a few of the miles nearest to Stuart and after that the distance from town becomes sufficiently great that not all riverbank land is yet developed. Where the Caterpillars have not yet arrived, the lush greenery is thick and variegated along the bank and presents an impenetrable mass of vegetation. Then around the next bend it has indeed been penetrated and a swale of lawn looking like a golf fairway sweeps up from the water to a row of widely spaced homes, any one of which has a front yard that could host the coronation of the shah. This sort of development is most elaborate, it seems, when the other side of the river still stands as jungle. Well, that won't last and when the jungle gets flattened the cross-river residents will bemoan their great misfortune.
We have not gone far up the river before we reach the first of five locks that must be navigated in order to cross Florida via Lake Okeechobee--two locks on this eastern side and three on the western. This in spite of the fact that the lake cannot be any more than 15 feet above sea level. Well, first the south-central Florida natural drainage system was engineered so as to threaten the very survival of the Everglades and now the Everglades are being engineered back to health. Is there any better evidence to support Bill McKibbin's claim that humanity has become so technologically powerful that in the future all the natural world is going to have to be engineered?
This first lock, however, is not an engineering marvel. When we arrive, it is full of water, and boats are still entering it coming from the west. Eighty minutes lapse before we motor out of the lock and into the St. Lucie Canal. I have neither read anything nor spoken with anybody that drew attention to the slow cycle time for the lock so perhaps this experience is exceptional. But eighty minutes is indeed slow. Kobuk has been through dozens of locks since this trip started--including some built over a hundred years ago and others capable of raising or lowering ocean-going vessels as much as forty feet--and none of them took this long to fill and empty.
Once in the St. Lucie Canal, I switch Kobuk over to Mazda power and we glide along leaving behind a great white wake. There are three agendas at work here. First, I only have a little over two weeks until it is time to return to Utah and I want to see something of the Keys before then. We're going to have to cover more miles than usual if this is to happen, so I have resolved to open the wallet and shell out more money so that the big engine can be used each day.
Then there is the question of the heat exchangers. They need to be tested and the only way to do that is to use the engine at a high rpm level for a sustained spell. Today is the test. Also, I am wondering if the inflated kayak will ride ok on top of the Bimini, held in place there by nothing more than four bungee cords. A passing grade is achieved on both counts. The engine runs at least ten degrees cooler than it did before, and all day long the kayak stays put. There are problems still, but I am beginning to know how to cope with them. There is still a tendency for the Mazda to not start easily after having run for a spell, but it seems that the problem can be overcome by insuring that gas is manually pumped to the engine using the squeeze bulb before trying the ignition. It is not the best of arrangements, but it does seem to work consistently. As for the kayak, it rides fine but slows us down a little bit. The wind resistance becomes an issue when we are going fast. Well, I'll only leave it up there when I expect to be voyaging slowly--and that will be most of the time.
When Kobuk reaches Lake Okeechobee, the lock for getting onto the lake is open and we can pass through without delay. Evidently, the lock is used to keep the lake at a "high" level during dry times, but this is not one of them.
Once out onto the lake, I am a little confused about how to do the crossing. I do not have any kind of chart for the lake, but yesterday I was able to look at one that showed a buoyed route running across from this, the eastern, side over to the town of Clewiston on the southwestern side. The distance across looked as if it would be about 25-30 miles and the designated route looked as if it jogged abruptly out in the middle of the lake in order to cross over a ridge of shallows running north-south. But now we are here in the lake, there are no buoys and visibility is limited. It is a rather cloudless day, but a haze hangs in the air and once we leave the shore a few miles behind it is as if we have moved out into the middle of a great yet peaceful ocean with nothing but a vaguely defined horizon running around us. I angle Kobuk southwest and set off across this sheet of faintly wrinkled water. I stand next to the steering wheel with the clamshell top open. My eyes shift constantly from the surrounding disk of placid water to the depth reading on the GPS. For mile after mile it reads 13-13.5 feet. The miles fly by with no other boats in sight. We are droning along at about 25 miles per hour. The haze has somehow blotted out any view of the lakeshore except of to the southeast where it is vaguely visible as a smudged silhouette. Land cannot be seen at all there, but the faint outlines of lonely, bedraggled trees jut upward to diminished heights--as if dwarfed and deformed by some environmental catastrophe. In all other directions, the lake sweeps away and disappears under a smudge of haze. Above us the sky is clear.
I stand alert, looking ever more frequently at the depth reading, but mile after mile it does not change and when I think enough time has passed for us to reach the shallows there still is no change. Bits and pieces of the shoreline can now be seen off to the south, and then the southwest. We must be closing with the town of Clewiston on the southwest shore, but I wonder whether it is to the left or the right. When a stack finally appears as a small, dark pole higher than any tree, I hope it signals the location of Clewiston and head for it. Sure enough, as we close with the coastline a buoyed channel shows up on the far side of some sporadic stands of marsh grass and I slot Kobuk through an open water passage to reach it. Then it is a few miles of slow cruising with the marshes closing in ever more on both sides. The entire crossing was done with no boats around, but now they are everywhere in these marshes--long, low rockets with large outboards hanging on their transoms. They zoom around like race machines, running in and out of the maze of channels that pass through the pervasive marshes.
When we get to Clewiston, I tie Kobuk to a long dock sitting below the rustic, open-air Tiki Bar where rock music blares. It is part of the Roland Martin Marina which charges me the princely sum of eight dollars to overnight at their dock space. Then I sit in the Tiki Bar and watch the setting sun blaze the eastern side of the narrow channel. Over there, an enormous iguana poses under a palm tree. He is five feet long, I would say. He has at least a dozen stripes on his tail and that weird thing hanging down at the neck is so large that you can see it shake.
Roland Martin Marina Dock, Clewiston: 26* 45.430' N / 80* 55.122' W
Distance: 65 miles
Total Distance: 8,317 miles
Monday, January 26, 2009
Clewiston is set back in away from the Okeechobee waterfront, and to reach its harbor from the lake one must transit a small lock that is now fixed in the open position and that evidently functions in the standard way only when the lake level is low. Once past the lock, the harbor takes the form of two narrow waterways that branch sharply from each other immediately inland of the lock. Like channels in Bangkok, the waterways have weedy, overgrown banks with fields of water hyacinths occasionally running out from shore. The more deeply one penetrates a channel, the more seedy it becomes. Bits and pieces of vegetal matter float in the still sloughs, only to bob and rock whenever a boat passes by. The two channels get narrower and narrower. Large boats often come in and then find themselves compelled to back out.
The main street of town--several blocks removed from the rustic harbor--is nothing more than strip development along the only highway passing through this secluded part of Florida's thinly populated interior. There are no other highways coming in from elsewhere--Clewiston is a roadstead town that presumably came into existence largely because the highway happens to approach the lake in this vicinity. This is a quiet place anyway, but if one were to remove all the vehicular traffic that happens to be passing through on the singular highway then the hum of insects might be heard even in the heart of town.
I steer Kobuk out through the lock and then turn left to pick up the channel that runs along the southwestern perimeter of Lake Okeechobee. Actually, the lake is now out of sight. A broad flatland, barely above water level is thick with brambles and dead trees and a surfeit of bird life. It is a dryland swamp of sorts that looks as if it used to be a part of the lake before eutrophication and sedimentation raised it up. After many miles of this, we arrive at the Moore Haven Lock which--like the one on the eastern side of Lake Okeechobee--can be passed through these days without any change in water level. Onward we run, now at a fast speed, as the long, straight stretches of the Caloosahatchie Canal slide by monotonously. Another lock, and this time we do make a small drop, deposits us in the somewhat less modified Caloosahatchie River. We follow its twists and bends for a few miles before reaching the bridge that indicates the presence of the town of LaBelle. I had planned to go farther today, but the afternoon heat has made me lazy. LaBelle is nice for boaters because there is actually a choice of free docks. The favored one is just past the bridge on the town side--a city park where boats can drop anchor away from shore and then back in to tie the stern at the dock. This "Med style" of docking, however, does not suit Kobuk for she can only back up slowly and that makes her vulnerable to sideways drift when there is wind and current. The wind is light but there is a current. Kobuk would be too headstrong for me: I would never be able to convince her of the need to back up without sidestepping. Over on the other side of the river, though is another city park and a public launch ramp with ample dock space beside it. We go there to spend the night.
The town of LaBelle reminds me of the little hamlets that Kobuk and I passed through on the Illinois River back in America's heartland. It has the same staid solidity of age and the same dated bridge running out of town and across the river. There are some signs of resurgence, though. A few of the old buildings have been refurbished and occupied by more contemporary sorts of businesses. But there is one thing here that bothers me a bit. It is only a small town and yet when I cycle through its business district I spot two separate businesses that specialize in providing bail bond. Isn't that a little worrisome? When I get back to Kobuk I check to make sure everything is as I left it.
LaBelle Launch Ramp Dock: 26* 46.203' N / 81* 26.443' W
Distance: 38 miles
Total Distance: 8,355 miles
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
I'm up before the stars have faded. I expect to leave at daybreak, but while working through the pre-departure checklist a man and his dog appear in the city park. He is an old salt. He has a tanned-leather face with fissures rather than creases and his white beard is streaked with residual dark streaks. He wears a stardust blue cap with little seahorses and seashells imprinted on it in yellow and orange. His untucked button shirt also is blue and hangs on his blocky frame like polyester. He has the knowing gaze and macho poise of Papa Hemingway in his later years. His name is Don. He takes an interest in Kobuk and that opens a door. He talks to me about his life and dreams, and the sun climbs high in the sky before we finally say good bye to each other. Don has lived on boats for over twenty years. He has been down to the Keys many times and even now he is preparing his current boat for a voyage to Honduras. I ask him countless questions about how to get around and what to watch out for when going to the Keys and he has nuggets of information about where to store a boat, where hurricane holes are located, how to navigate the Gulf of Florida, which marinas are cheaper, and other such practicalities. I will forget more than I remember of all the useful tidbits he had to offer, but even the few remembered greatly increase my store of "local knowledge" about the Keys.
All day, Kobuk eases down the Caloosahatchie River on Yamaha power. I lounge in the cabin and pay only barely enough attention to keep us out of trouble. The river is largely unspoiled and unbuoyed, and this gives the illusion that we are doing the voyage in the last century instead of this one. Off to either side, the river banks frequently peel away to carry an arcing loop of black water off away from the main channel. These are the remnants of oxbows and almost any one of them would be a fine anchorage, out of sight of civilization.
It would be easier to sustain the "beyond civilization" illusion if I were not listening to the radio. I'm perched on the top of the seat back. The clamshell top is open and I am soaking up the breeze like a puppy with his head out the pickup window. The radio is tuned to NPR and I am listening to an interview with Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes (as well as two more recent books). I haven't read the book--although friends have strongly recommended it--but I find Mr. McCourt's interview highly compelling. Here is a man who never went to high school and yet ended up spending thirty-three years as a high school teacher. Here is a man who never found the time to write as long as he was working as a teacher but who took it up as soon as he retired. He's a man who, rather than lecture about it, taught creative writing by having his students fabricate obituaries for their various teachers. No question--this is someone I would like to know better, and especially given the parallels I see between his life experience and my own.
Late start; short day. Kobuk and I get no farther than Fort Meyers before packing it in. The city rests beside the estuary of the Caloosahatchie River and seems still to be at rest. It has fitted itself out with the sort of up-scale, refined infrastructure that most towns would sell their souls to have. The waterfront is parklike and clean, the downtown is a colonnade of restored 20th century buildings that have been painted up in the appropriate Floridian pastels. The sidewalks and the streets are being systematically converted from concrete or pavement to lovely brickwork (an ongoing project that has many sections of many streets closed off entirely). But all the people must be exhausted from the effort required to accomplish these sorts of things: pedestrians are few and only a meager trickle of shoppers are going in and out of the various establishments. Perhaps it is nothing more than a bad day, but I cannot seem to locate all the lively activity that presumably would have been the reason for all these structural investments. Maybe there are lots of great attractions in the suburbs.
Kobuk is tied off at a city launch ramp pier, next to a park. There are marinas with countless boat docks on both sides of the park, but the park itself runs along a good stretch of waterfront and the launch ramp pier projects out from a bower of green lawns with fountains and stately palms. Off to one side, the waterfront is cloaked in mangroves. I know one is not supposed to stay here overnight, but the signs also say that one can tie here during the day--and when the day is over Kobuk remains there cloaked in a mantle of darkness.
Fort Meyers City Park Dock: 26* 38.778' N / 81* 52.353' W
Distance: 31 miles
Total Distance: 8,386 miles
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Fort Meyers is situated a dozen miles up the Caloosahatchie estuary. The Gulf of Mexico is nearby, but we are not yet there. To get there, Kobuk and I run down the broad waterway in early morning light while heavy dew evaporates off the misted windows and the moisture beaded canvas. Not far from San Carlos Bay, where the Caloosahatchie joins with Matlacha Pass and Pine Island Sound, and Sanibel Island shows straight ahead, the channel becomes a shallow trace meandering between small islands and a wild promontory of the mainland known as Shell Point. There is a difference now from anything I have yet seen in Florida. The islands are shrouded in mangroves and the waters are beginning to show varying depths of water. Where shallows lie, the aquamarine bleaches out to ever paler shades until the sandy bottom, so close to the surface, replaces the color of water with that of beach sand.
This channel carries only a half dozen feet of depth. This appears to be the only passage for ships bound for Fort Meyers, and so it is understandable that the city has no significant commercial docks. What remains mysterious is why the town would have developed in such a place to start with. I suppose in those days six feet was only moderately shallow for commerce, and not prohibitively so. Since then, it has been a matter of adaptation.
We cross under the Sanibel Causeway and head out into the Gulf of Mexico, bound for Naples. From here to there is a thirty mile run with a more or less continuous beach off the port side. It is a stretch of open water that cannot be avoided. As soon as Kobuk is in it, I realize what we have been missing. Since leaving Chesapeake Bay a few months ago, we have been running down constricted waterways--straightened, dredged, and buoyed--with only occasional and brief stretches containing something of the natural sinuosity of a stream. It has been 1,300 miles of organized passagemaking, a route designed and prepared by others. But I am tired of others guiding me on my way; I'm happy to once again be under the control of impassive nature.
Today, impassive nature has decided to give us clear skies and a brisk breeze out of the south. It is 10-15 mph winds hitting us on the nose with the accompanying 1-2' waves to match. This is a condition with which Kobuk can cope, but always it is a rough ride, bucking and banging for hour after hour as the miles disappear slowly to stern. There is a strong current coming from the south as well, so our speed is even slower than usual. At this pace, it would be late in the day before we get to Naples, so I decide to knock off most of the distance using the big engine. Our rate of progress increases to a little over ten miles per hour, but this is the limit if I wish to not beat poor Kobuk to death. Crunching along at this pace, using the main engine to plow through the roughness, draws the gas gauge down at a distressing rate, but today I am prepared to pay the price.
By mid-afternoon we have passed the Naples pier and bring Gordon Pass into view. Gordon Pass leads to downtown Naples, tucked in behind the coast next to a lagoon. All the way to town the shorefront contains homes that look as if they have been inspired by Naples, Italy. Not the seedy side of Naples where tenaments and squalor are teammates but the Mediterranean coastal Naples where fanciful homes front the water. Actually, I have never visited Naples and have no factual basis on which to estimate its character, but I think the well-to-do people who have chosen to locate here in Naples, Florida, have imagined that Old World city as I have done, and then contracted architects to design for them something that would fit into the neighborhood, so to speak.
As Kobuk moves in close to town, where the lagoon narrows and becomes a busy freeway of boats coming and going, a ray leaps clear of the water straight ahead. In this modern era of queerly designed aircraft, the ray's delta wings look as if designed for airborne maneuvers and not just for nautical propulsion. The illusion is strengthened by the fact that those delta wings remain stiffly extended throughout the brief flight. No sooner does the ray drop back into the water than it emerges once again to do another brief flight. This is the first ray that I have seen, and thus I comment on its appearance. Dolphins have become too commonplace to mention any more. There have been a half dozen sightings today, for example, but their appearance has been similar to the earlier descriptions I have given for them. It is a sorry commentary on the human circumstance that familiarity blunts our awe and curiosity. I wish it were not so, but there is no denying it.
The Naples inner harbor is chockablock with development, as you can imagine, all of it clean and upscale. I wonder where it ever will be possible to put Kobuk up for the night without the cost being prohibitive, but then the problem solves itself. I am able to locate a launch ramp next to a small city park, and it has usable docks to either side. The facility is tucked into a very narrow inlet that can hardly be seen from anywhere except directly out from shore in the bay. The inlet is mostly a heavily wooded park, and no tall buildings overshadow it. There is a traffic of small boats being launched and pulled there, but not so much as to tax its capacity. The docks beside the ramps are parallel to shore and plenty long to accommodate two or three small boats each. I tie Kobuk in the least desirable spot, from the point of view of boaters who wish to launch or retrieve, and sit there in the late afternoon as the sun drops towards the horizon and use of the facility fades away to nothing.
The Naples Landings: 26* 08.120' N / 81* 47.581' W
Distance: 52 miles
Total Distance: 8,438 miles
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Last night I took a little trip on Bike Friday to visit Fifth Avenue where the tony shops of Naples draw the tony crowd. One of the things that happens when a certain critical proportion of all shops takes on the look of luxury is that all the others no longer view as profitable any marketing approach based on saving money. All shops, without exception, go upscale, and the consequence is a district of extremely good looks, high quality products, and astronomical prices. I ate dinner, for example, in a Mexican Restaurant whose architectural detail and interior design were an understated blend of columns and arches, hardwood and tile. Most telling of all, however, was the fact that it billed itself as offering not just a Mexican cuisine but a Mexican and Spanish one. As far as I could tell, the dishes all were Mexican but appending "Spanish" gives the place a little cachet, don't you think?
Later on, I stopped by in an art gallery that seemed to specialize in African art. There were elephants and lions and zebras adorning the walls and all of them looked really very sleek. Somehow, the artists always seemed to capture handsomely muscular creatures that looked no more average than your typical Vogue model. There was an exception, though: I saw a sculptured elephant so scarecrow thin and emaciated that it might have been an allegorical commentary on the human condition in that part of the world.
This morning I cycle to a different part of town--the old town dock area located almost within shouting distance of Kobuk's secret hiding place. Here one can find the large city marina that has taken over the town dock area. Immediately inland from it is a nice collection of modest commercial establishments that cater to the boating crowd. I am here to visit the Naples Ships Store which, I have been told, can provide me with information about the Everglades National Park and the nearby coastal zone known as Ten Thousand Islands. I do find what I need there, and then slip in to a nearby cafe to catch up on work. While answering mail messages and handling online course issues, a crowd of elderly cyclists arrives to take a break in their tour. They all appear to be well past retirement age and none of them looks particularly athletic, but they belong to a cycling club and do this routine every week. Their club jersey is yellow with touches of orange and most of them are wearing it. Rather strange, don't you think? So many cyclists getting to wear the yellow jersey?
After an arduous day yesterday, I am not keen today to push all the way through to Everglades City in one go. I decide to break the voyage into two easy passages, with a stopover at the little town of Goodland en route. Since each day will only be a four hour stint, I don't hurry to get started and only make it out onto the harbor waters shortly before noon.
The passage to Goodland is entirely protected . We scoot on down a meandering lagoon, narrow and irregular with mangroves as continuous company. Even though there are no buildings or docks or other evidence of land based development, the boat traffic is considerable and that must surely be a sign of something farther on. I expect, therefore, that our arrival at Marco Island will open up a vista of homes and highrises. It does, and to a degree surpassing anything I had imagined. It looks as if planned communities have been put here; no sign can I see of any historic town. It is colossal in scale and it wouldn't surprise me if more people live here than do in the city of Naples. And all so new--nothing here looks as old as, say, Paris Hilton. That't one of the odd things about Florida: most everything here is fresh and new and young, except the people.
On an eastern extension of Marco Island, tucked in a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, lies the town of Goodland. It is a fishing village that has been around for a long time. Its residents must have looked on dumfounded when the building explosion started a few miles away out next to the ocean. Kobuk and I reach Goodland late in the afternoon. After having finally worked ourselves free of the hustle and bustle of western Marco Island, we thread a narrow estuary and round a bend to catch our first sight of town. It occupies a thumb of land surrounded by an oxbow of water. The waterway is narrow and on its other side a host of mangrove islands form a panorama of untouched nature. This is the way settlement should be: small enough in scale to soothe the human spirit, clearly bounded by a natural border, and in some mysterious way given organic life by the fact that it could not expand outward and had to live within its skin.
The Old Marco Lodge is an obvious landmark. A spacious, one-story structure with deck all along its two sides fronting the water, it has advertised itself by simply erecting a flagpole and running up the stars and stripes so that it flutters in the steady north breeze. The lodge and all the other buildings in town are relatively muted in color--either by age or by the regional penchant for pastels--but the very boldness of red, white, and blue banner draws you in. It least it did us. With the binoculars I can see a sign on the waterfront docks of the Old Marco Lodge that says "Dock at Your Own Risk." That sounds like an invitation to me, so I tether Kobuk and go inside. With a beer half drunk, I talk with the manager who readily agrees that if I eat dinner here then it will be ok for us to remain at the dock overnight.
Old Marco Lodge Dock: 25* 55.631' N / 81* 38.848' W
Distance: 25 miles
Total Distance: 8,463 miles
Friday, January 30, 2008
It has been a long run of dry and sunny weather. Every day since leaving St. Augustine has had more sun than not and many days have been nearly cloudless. Today, though, conditions are supposed to be different. A cold front is moving in and trailing along behind are supposed to be not just cold temperatures but also heavy cloud cover and occasional showers. But when I get up in the morning the sky is clear and the temperatures still warm. I go off to a nearby breakfast spot on the water, and as I sit on their porch drinking my coffee the weather moves in. Dark clouds drift down from the north. The sunlight is eclipsed and everything turns gray. When I leave to return to Kobuk, light globules of mist are falling.
I put off departure because NOAA expects the front to pass quickly and calls for diminished winds from a more favorable quarter in the afternoon. That's the logic. The reality is that haze and overcast and generally dark skies give open water an ominous and vaguely threatening aspect. I would rather not be out there when the heavens are lowering and NOAA has provided the perfect rationale to delay. Conditions do indeed improve shortly after noon, and I point Kobuk off to the south as the skies lighten to become more milky and less oily.
We run along the seaward edge of the Ten Thousand Islands. This fantastic warren of mangrove outcroppings lie off the port beam, carved and diced into small pieces by a mesh of narrow channels. No settlement here: this is wilderness, an appendage to the surprisingly extensive Everglades National Park that occupies the remainder of Florida's coast between here and the southernmost extent of land. The myriad islands that we now keep to our left occupies a zone that is perhaps thirty miles long and a half dozen miles deep. When we have passed by half of it, we sight a marker buoy and turn inland to thread our way towards the little coastal village named Everglades City.
There is a designated channel, and we adhere slavishly to it. All other channels lead to nothing but shallows so thin that even Kobuk would end up grounded. The tidal range in this region is only 2-3 feet, but it is critical. When the tide is in, Kobuk might wander for days amongst all these islands, but when the tide goes out all non-buoyed stretches of water would be a hazard. These little channels and mangrove hammocks are lovely in their configuration, but only very rarely does an island have any stretch of sandy shore, and one would have to have a pretty desperate need before trying to make landfall along a mangrove shore.
It is entertaining to think that there might actually be ten thousand islands hereabouts. Such a prodigious number; so many islands! But more impressive in a way is the remarkable degree to which the number of islands changes with every passing hour. One can be sure that the count was made when the tide was in, for when the tide begins to ebb great bands of mud flats emerge and begin to link these islands together. Many islands would continue to exist even at low tide, but by then their numbers would have shriveled like the great armies of Gettysburg after the battle.
I cannot help thinking about the absurd factual data one sometimes reads or hears about the number of miles of coastline belonging to a given country or state. How, exactly, might that measurement ever be done? Does one add it all up at high tide or at low tide (nautical charts base things on mean low tide)? Do islands count? What about rivers and their banks as they run in from the sea? It is pretty clear that any measurement of coastline mileage would have to involve a whole bunch of arbitrary decisions in answer to such questions, and wherever a coastline is complicated the actual measured distance would depend more on such meaningless decisions than on anything real. Places like this--and there are many of them--are so intricate and convoluted that the mind cannot grasp it at all except by making generalizations about its pattern.
By the time Kobuk reaches Everglades City, the sky has cleared and the sun is out. With hundreds rather than thousands of residents, the "city" label is a triumph of attitude over actuality. Even though the place has such a small population it has found a way to emulate a defining characteristic of American urbanism: sprawl. The commercial zone is a sporadic eruption of enterprises strung loosely along a handful of disconnected streets. Residences are even more dispersed. There appears to be a grand plan for the place. The center of town is a traffic circle with avenues coming from the the cardinal points of the compass. Each avenue is a boulevard with a median strip between the two directions of traffic and of course the one-way streets to each side of the median strip are two lanes wide. All four of these grand boulevards peter out pretty quickly, but what else would you expect in a town so small? The City Hall fronts on the great roundabout marking the center of town, but what really captures your attention is the pencil-thin, erector-set type radio tower that shoots skyward in the middle of the circle and is held in position by guy wires that run from the top of the tower to distant locations in each of the four boulevard's median strips. It is not pretty, but it certainly is memorable.
Not everything in Everglades City is homely, however. When Kobuk and I arrived in town we tied off at a riverside dock in front of The Rod & Gun Club, a building with a history. It has been around for as long as the town, I think, and a half dozen presidents have seen fit to visit it. The white, clapboard exterior is attractive enough, but what knocks you out is when you walk inside and discover that the entire place, room after room, is done in dark wood paneling that glistens under some sort of epoxy finish. It is not just the walls that are done this way. It is the floors and ceilings too, and the doors as well as all the window frames--to say nothing of the many pieces of furniture. The bar, the front desk, the sideboards and small tables for lamps. Many of the window are stained glass. You have to see it to believe that it is not oppressive in its darkness--but really, it's not. Well, maybe a little bit.
Rod and Gun Club, Everglades City: 25* 51.515' N / 81* 23.241' W
Distance: 22 miles
Total Distance: 8,485 miles
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Everglades City is where you go if you want to spend some time in Everglades National Park. The park border is at the edge of town and anyone wishing to spend some back country time in the park would logically stage their trip from here. One can set off by boat and run all the way to Flamingo at the southern end of the park using a back country string of rivers and lakes called the Wilderness Waterway. The passage is ninety nine miles long. I am here in Everglades City because I'm hoping to take Kobuk along the route, but whether such a large vessel can pass through is something I do not yet know. Many parts of the route are very narrow and in some places overhanging vegetation can be an obstruction. Equally questionable is the extremely shallow water in many sections.
In the morning I go to the National Park Office located at the south edge of town and spend over an hour talking with park rangers in hopes of finding out whether Kobuk can make it through. Two different rangers give me thoroughly unconvincing answers to questions. They are well-meaning and do their best to help, but neither of them has ever actually done the trip. They seem to think that Kobuk's shallow draft will allow for a passage and that the problems of transit are tied to one particular stretch known as The Nightmare. It is here that the waterway becomes most shallow and narrow and overgrown, but this short stretch can be bypassed by using alternate waterways. I don't feel reassured by the advice I have received but when I leave the park office one of the concession shop employees directs me to a local woman who is a professional captain and has been along most of the route. She listens to my plan and shakes her head: these north winds, she says, have blown all the water out to sea so that high tide is more like low tide and low tide is below mean low water on all the charts. Better not to try it, she says, but agrees that I could cut in at Shark River and do the final third. There the water is deeper. Her advice is disappointing but sounds believable, so I take it.
By going part way on the outside, the distance will be less--nearer seventy miles instead of a hundred--and this makes for an easy two-day trip. We are late to get started so it is well along into the afternoon before finally Kobuk heads back out into the Ten Thousand Islands. We follow the buoys and thread our way out through the islands until clear of them all and a couple miles off shore. Even here the water depth is only about seven feet. We run southeast with the islands to starboard until at last they give way to a continuous coastline that has the occasional promontory or scalloped setback but no real capes and bays. Mangroves still are widespread along the shore although now there appears to be some other species of tree in competition with them.
The late afternoon sun stares at us from out across the Gulf of Mexico and when I look landward the golden rays make the green shore no less radiant than candles would do to the faces of believers in a dark church. In the last hour before sunset we begin to search for the mouth of the Lostmans River, a task no less difficult than spotting a chameleon that is color coordinated with its background. We do have an advantage, though: the GPS. The chart shows a subterranean "canyon" with depths of 6-8 feet running out from the mouth of the river to deep water, so I bring Kobuk in towards shore until the depth finder reads four feet and then try to keep the reading there. We still are a mile away from shore, but finally we do locate the canyon and begin to close with shore. Only a very short distance upstream on the Lostmans River the chart shows it bulging into a circular pond with depths of 2-5 feet. It is called First Bay. We creep in slowly and move out into the middle of the pond. With the depth finder reading four feet, I drop anchor. It is approximately high tide now and will be about the same when we leave in the morning so the fact that we got in here should mean that we will be able to get back out. We might be grounded during the night, but that doesn't matter.
The sun sets quickly and the still pond lies in utter solitude. Nautical protocol would have me turn on our anchor light as a sign of our presence for any nocturnal passagemakers. But we are in the sort of place that only very occasionally gets visited even in daytime. That someone might try to navigate the river at night almost belies belief. The risk of a night collision is infinitesimally small whereas the chance that the anchor light will kill the battery is slight but conceivable. I opt to protect the battery instead of the boat.
First Bay, Lostmans River: 25* 33.157' N / 81* 12.048' W
Distance: 32 miles
Total Distance: 8,517 miles
Sunday, February 1, 2009
I was somewhat anxious about anchoring here because of the possibility that pushing Kobuk free from a grounding would be made impossible by a bottom of deep, thick muck. When I raise the anchor this morning it is coated with nearly a foot of mud that has to be scraped off before the gear can be stowed. This causes me to pay very great attention as we slowly motor back across the pond, out through the short stretch of narrow river, and then far offshore. We are two miles out to sea before it is safe to leave the canyon.
The depth finder is a wonderful aid in shallow water and I don't really understand how early navigators managed when all they had was a lead line for plumbing depths (not a feasible option for singlehanders, though). But even with a depth finder it is quite stressful trying to feel your way. The problem is that charts are never entirely accurate because areas of shallows are almost by definition areas of shifting shallows. If what you see on the chart is what you actually get, well, then you are fortunate. The chart, therefore, can give you a best guess as to which direction will bring you to deeper water, but it is not anywhere near a certainty. When the depth finder is reading eighteen inches and there is a current, which way do you go? Choose the right way and you may slowly ease into deeper water, but choose the wrong way and you are almost surely aground. My method in a murky but soft environment like this one is to let the little Yamaha push us and if we go the wrong way then the lower unit of the outboard will begin to labor as it churns in the mud. If this happens, I shut down the Yamaha and put it up on its lift. Now with the jet drive our draft will be seven inches less so the Mazda is pressed into service and we proceed, ever so slowly in some new direction. Progress is slow because even mud can sometimes clog the jet intake to make the system useless.
But we're past all that. Now we're running down the coast again and it is a sunny day, not too warm, with a flotilla of little puffy cumulus clouds all headed west. The wind is out of the east for a change. The east wind puts us in the lee of land and even though we have to stay a couple miles out the wind is too light to whip up more than the mildest of broadside assaults on Kobuk.
When we get to the vicinity of the Little Shark River we head up into one of its many distributaries. Here everything is much easier as the water depths are greater and the coastline more readily admits the existence of river channels. In no time at all we are moving towards the interior of the Everglades along a buoyed channel. Off to both sides are insular slices of land that are a thicket of mangroves. When you look at where the water disappears into a mangrove forest, all you see are intertwined clusters of roots arching down from tree trunks to disappear into the water. It looks like the properly held fingers of hundreds of concert pianists, all trying to occupy the same keyboard.
The channel leads us into a large and irregularly shaped interior lagoon that looks like a lake. The entire body of water has no singular name--only the separate bays do. We first motor across Oyster Bay and then pass through a fleet of small islands before entering Sweetwater Bay. All around the shores are draped in mangrove, but the landscape does have a little shape to it. Even the islands gently crown in their middles, implying that solid ground exists there and in fact rises a few feet out of the water.
The landscape is a visual delight, but its reality does not bear close scrutiny. Everywhere the broad expanse of water sparkles at the surface, but hardly anywhere would I want to stand in it--my feet in mud and the surface at my navel. The luscious green islands and distant shores are mangrove mazes where one might walk only by stepping carefully from one slippery root to the next through a thicket of trees in search of solid ground.
At the far southeastern end of this great lagoon, we pass into another small lake and then run down the Buttonwood Canal that connects these inland waters to Florida Bay. There is where the National Park Visitors' Center is located and there is where I discover that it is not actually possible to exit the canal. A weir has been erected there to separate the canal from the bay, and an old hoist operates a sling that presumably was designed to lift boats from one side of the weir to the other. I soon discover that the hoist has not worked for years. After securing Kobuk to a decrepit dock, I walk over to the Visitors' Center to ask about the weir and how a boat might get past it.
The answer is, of course, that everybody is terribly sorry but it simply cannot be gotten around and the only thing to do is backtrack to the Shark River and run around the outside (a trip of about sixty miles). I mention that I couldn't help noticing that there are launch ramps on both sides of the weir and wonder if it might not be possible for the Park Service to use a trailer and haul Kobuk out of the water on one side and relaunch her on the other. I explain that the rangers up in Everglades City never informed me about this blockage preventing passage and try to impress on the Park Service that they do have some responsibility for my plight. They are sympathetic. They are very, very sorry. They have no trailers and they are oh, so sorry. Perhaps I should talk with the people at the marina because they might be able to help me.
I walk back
to the marina which
is located next to the weir. They do
nothing but operate a concession that has a convenience store, a gas
some slips that rent out to boats on the
Flamingo Launch Ramp Dock: 25* 08.541' N / 80* 55.400' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 8,560 miles
Monday, February 2, 2009
When I went to bed last night I felt no urgency to get under way this morning. The crossing to the Keys would not be a long day so a mid-morning departure was what I had in mind. But then at dawn when I listen to the weather forecast for the day I realize that the passage is going to have to be to windward and that light winds in the morning are expected to freshen in the afternoon. An early start would make everything easier so we leave the little harbor even before breakfast.
It is quiet out here--the wind is very light and, off to the southwest where it is coming from, small islets of green and low-lying sandbars of brown float on an expanse of lightly ruffled waters that are shimmering in the morning sun. I peruse the chart to make sure we are clear of all hazards in this area of notoriously shallow waters and can't help but notice that place names aren't always serious. Directly astern, for example, a narrow channel that runs into the distance has been given the name of Snake Bight Channel; up ahead off the port bow is a very extensive submerged sandbar called First National Bank.
In these hard economic times, I wouldn't want there to be a run on the bank, so for ten miles I steer Kobuk to the west before turning south towards the Keys. For this stretch, with the wind abaft the beam, we go fast and cover the miles quickly, but shortly after turning left I shut down the Mazda and turn things over to the little Yamaha. Out here now at this slower pace there is time to appreciate what a different world this is from the Everglades and all the rest of Florida. Here the water is clear jade and there is a touch of the tropics in the air. Elsewhere in Florida there are plenty of visual cues to suggest the tropics--palm trees and mangroves being the most obvious--but this broad shallow bay with its emerald waters under a powder blue sky somehow has a tropical feel to it. I cannot put my finger on it, but as I sit up on the back of the seat drinking in the mild breeze I sense that we have at last arrived in the land of no winter.
After a few hours, a discontinuous line appears on the southern horizon and then slowly we close with land. Directly ahead is Boot Key where the town of Marathon is located and in our last hour of the passage the wind begins to rise. But just as the waves start getting big enough to be a hinderance, we approach the protection of a lee shore. A sleek white runabout comes flying over towards us with lights flashing. It is two young officers in a Fish and Game Department vessel (the department is called something else in Florida, but I cannot remember what) and they "pull me over," so to speak. They ask about weapons and contraband and check on Kobuk's safety equipment, but it soon is evident that their decision to stop me is motivated more by curiosity than suspicion. After giving me the "all clear," they throttle up their two big outboards and bound off to the west.
There aren't many places in the Keys where I will be able to find a free place to tie off Kobuk and good anchorages will be scarce, so I have already resigned myself to the need to take a slip in a marina. When the young wardens leave, we motor in closer to shore and I shut down the Yamaha to make some calls. As the offshore breeze gradually pushes us back, I contact the marinas in the area and find that Banana Bay Marina is the only one with a vacant slip. Its entrance channel is nearby. Kobuk motors in and Captain Billy, the Harbormaster, helps tie her to one of the slips near the harbor entrance.
Here next to shore, the breeze is muffled and Kobuk rests peacefully. This evening, a front is supposed to come through, bringing rain and north winds and another spell of cold weather, but when you're in the tropics it's hard to think about anything but the present. Right now, the sky is clear and the balmy air is an extension of the skin. As sunset approaches, I cycle off to have dinner at The Hurricane, a little restaurant close by. Not long after dark, as I am finishing up my meal, the heavens suddenly go berserk. The first thunderclap is directly overhead and is accompanied by lightning bolts and a downpour like nothing I have ever seen. In addition to its extensive interior, the restaurant has a large outdoor seating area covered with a hard roof. When the door to this area is opened, the wind is blowing so hard that heavy rain coming down thirty feet away is blown horizontally in through the doorway. It is no longer rain; it is mist. But it is a mist with an attitude, blasting in to dampen everything before the door can be closed a few seconds later. Then the indoor roof springs two leaks and buckets are brought out to collect what is more flow than drops.
The fury only lasts for 10-15 minutes but when it is over I immediately head back to check on Kobuk. I left her with the lee side curtain unzipped and I think the wind has suddenly shifted to the north. Deep ponds of water have grown to occupy sections of the sidewalk and parts of the drive leading into Banana Bay. As I approach Kobuk, a fellow from the neighboring boat comes out to meet me and lets me know that Kobuk's stern line worked free causing her to swing around and hang from her bow line along the inner dock from which her slip projects. Fortunately, the distance from her slip to the next one is great enough that she was not crunching her stern on anything. When the storm abated he came out and retied the stern line for me. He says that in just a couple minutes the water level in the small marina harbor rose at least a couple feet. This has to be true because Kobuk's deck now lies nearly two feet lower than the slips, but when hanging from her bow line her scow-type bow took some damage. Below the topsides, curved chines run down to form the break between the blunt bow and the rest of the topsides. The chine on the starboard side has been chewed and shaved, and the white paint on the edge of the dock shows that the surging waves caused Kobuk to saw up and down on the sharp edges of the deck planking. The damage is unsightly but does not appear to be a threat to the structure. In the dark, I pump out the water that was shipped and think about my negligent behavior.
Out closer to the entrance channel, a boat tied to a different slip has been swamped by the storm and sits with her stern completely under water. Only the very top of her 250 horse Yamaha is above the surface back there. I let the office know about the situation and within ten minutes the owner shows up to save the boat from sinking altogether.
Banana Bay Marina, Boot Key: 24* 43.013' N / 81* 05.050' W
Distance: 42 miles
Total Distance: 8,602 miles
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
All night long, the north wind drove down the entrance channel of Banana Bay Marina, sending Kobuk and all her neighbors into a wave-induced dance made clumsy and uncoordinated by the abrupt way in which the mooring lines limited their freedom of movement. Kobuk was to leeward of her slip and constantly hanging from her lines, and this meant the motion was awkward but confined at least to open water away from the slip itself.
While doing my laundry in the morning, I get to talking with a woman who is staying at Banana Bay Resort with her husband. She explains how it happens that their son and daughter-in-law are staying with them. Eventually it becomes clear that her husband and son both are mechanics. The son has recently taken over the small family garage and now does all the repair work while the parents keep the books. He is, according to the mother, a naturally gifted mechanic. What mother would not say such a thing? And yet, the way she says it--with no real attempt to emphasize the fact and no obvious sign of pride sweeping across her face--leaves me believing that it is true. I comment that he is just the man I need for advice on how to troubleshoot a couple problems I am having. She says she will send her son over to talk with me.
A short time later, the son and his wife appear at the dock. He looks very young. He has the face of a teenager who has yet to cope with any real problems in life. His spritely exuberance seems to yell at me: "No experience!" But when I explain my mechanical concerns, he responds almost immediately with answers that are direct and decisive. I explain, for example, that the oil pressure gauge, which for years has been steady in its reading of pressure at different Mazda rpm settings, now is occasionally behaving erratically, he immediately asks a few questions and concludes that the problem almost certainly is in the gauge, the sensor, or the wiring between them--and not a real loss of oil pressure. He launches into a rapid explanation of how I should go about checking for this. Next, I tell him about how hard it is to get the engine started sometimes and explain that it always seems to be a temporary state of affairs that can be overcome by pumping up the squeeze bulb that I have installed in the gas line. He explains that most likely a valve is starting to leak and that this allows gas in the gas line to seep back into the tank, leaving the engine starved for fuel when I try to start it. He suggests removing the squeeze bulb and checking to see if air can be blown through in the wrong direction. If so, replace it. After he leaves, I remove the squeeze bulb and, sure enough, I can blow through it the wrong way. The squeeze bulb gets replaced right away but the problem with the oil pressure gauge is put on the to-do list.
There is a backlog of other things to do on shore this morning and I hustle through the list in an effort to be prepared for a noon departure. A short passage is planned for the day so the limiting factor is marina check-out and not the question of arrival before dark. The worklist progresses well, but before the morning is over it becomes obvious that a full day layover would not only ease the hectic pace but also give sufficient time to do something reasonable about the damage to the hull. Since there is less than a week of cruising left before hauling Kobuk out of the water and into storage, it makes no sense to undertake a proper repair. But to leave the damage like it is will invite deterioration as water works its way into the exposed end of marine plywood.
After all the small tasks are done, I shop supplies and set to work on a temporary repair. Kobuk is still pitching and rolling in the rough water coming in from the north, but the motion is not so great that the damaged area ever plunges enough to get wet. Hanging over the bow with my foot hooked around the anchor box to avoid slipping into the water, I use a knife to cut away what I can of the rough and jagged ends of exposed ply. Once it is trimmed back as much as possible, I go to work on it with sandpaper and try to feather its transition into the healthy surrounding area. Then it is time to wash it and let it dry. The breezy conditions help with this and a short time later I can do a final cleaning with acetone. Now it is time to mix up some Marine-Tex and apply it to the traumatized chine. Marine-Tex is a two-part epoxy putty that, in addition to being waterproof, adheres to most anything, and can be applied with any sagging or running even when working upside down. I do the best I can to cover the damaged area and then build it back up to its former shape, but the putty cannot be worked quite that easily. When it is done, the repair is a major aesthetic improvement if you look at it from afar. Once you get close, though, it looks a little like a manufactured piece of plastic that has been left too close to the heater. But that is ok--a real job of it will be done after Kobuk gets hauled out. The important thing is that for now the damaged area is protected from the water.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
The north wind continued to rock the boat last night, but this morning the breeze died away. Now the water is calm and the sun no longer has to work at making the world warm. Kobuk lies in waiting all morning as I wile away the hours doing little last minute things. There is no rush. We are headed out towards Key West but plan to stop for the night at the east end of Bahia Honda Key where a state park maintains a small protected basin where boats can be tied up overnight free of charge. Only a few miles in length, Bahia Honda is one of the few keys that lies on the route 1 thoroughfare but that has no residential or commercial development. The entire island is part of the park; except for its west end campground and small marina facilities, and of course its transiting highway, Bahia Honda remains in a natural state. To get there will take us no more than three hours, so we do not depart until late morning.
We slice our way through glassy waters and cover the miles without a care in the world. This is where the highway to Key West runs across its longest bridge and so for seven miles we motor towards our destination with the bridge to leeward. Then the bridge makes a landing at Little Duck Key--a diminutive piece of real estate, hardly bigger than a thimble. Thereafter we pass in quick succession the equally small Missouri Key and Ohio Key before Bahia Honda appears off our beam. Bahia Honda is bigger--somewhat more than two miles in length. As we come abreast of it, a whiff of wind puts a ripple on the waters and within ten minutes we have a big blow with two foot chop and whitecaps. To get protection in Bahia Honda's little campground marina, we must first pass under the highway bridge and this has the potential for problems. Kobuk is sliding and slewing along a wobbly path towards one of the breaks between support columns for the bridge, but the Yamaha is being overwhelmed by the unruly water coming up behind us. I have to shift over to the Mazda to maintain steerage, but everywhere on the surface of the waters are large floating islands of seaweed. It actually does not look like seaweed but instead a sort of matting made out of grass, but even this has the potential to clog the intake for the jet drive and leave us without steering control. I must pass through some of these floating islands so I accelerate immediately before entering one and then throttle down before the jet intake can suck the grasses in. We drift forward until clear of the floating island and then I throttle up again. Once past the bridge stanchions, the pressure is off, the waves are a little less nasty, and the harbor is near. When we enter the harbor, its entire south end, where all the long docks are located, is packed full with the floating detritus and we must curl up into the small north end where dinghy docks protrude. Kobuk takes up a place there like mother goose among all her little ones and somehow I manage to fasten her twenty feet of length to a fifteen-foot dock.
A sortie with Bike Friday reveals the layout at this end of the island. The campground marina fronts on the Bahia Honda Channel directly to the west. The channel has two bridges crossing it, the highway bridge we just passed under and the derelict remains of an old railroad bridge. The entrance channel for the Bahia Honda boat basin lies between the two. Bridges are a big thing here in the Keys, of course, since they tied a scattered string of isolated islands to the mainland. It all started when Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's business partner in the creation of Standard Oil, decided to build a railroad that would run down the east coast of Florida and all the way out to Key West. Construction of the Key West part of the line occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century, in spite of the naysayers who did not believe it could be done, and this improbable line continued to operate until the 1930's when a hurricane devastated it. Later, the bridges and the track bed were used as the road bed for the highway to Key West. Since then, many of the bridges have been supplanted by more modern ones, but here as in other crossings between keys, Flagler's bridges remain standing--although sometimes with a section removed to allow sailboats to run the channels.
Near the small boat basin there is a store that sells such basics as simple food, curios, and boat tours. Of course it also sells T-shirts, one of which is imprinted with a tropical scene showing a palm tree tilted out over an arcing coral beach. Above, it reads "Bahia Honda, American Paradise." Below are the numbers "22* N, 83* W." I am shaken by such inaccuracy. Rounding off is one thing, but willful modification of the actual coordinates is simply unacceptable in the boater's world. When you spend a lot of time using nautical charts and rely so heavily on the universal system of latitude and longitude, it gives a little jolt of shock to see clear evidence of inaccuracy. As you can tell from the coordinates given below, Bahia Honda is nowhere near the position touted on the T-shirt. These two positions are over 150 miles apart. My guess is that America's paradise actually is in Cuba.
Bahia Honda Campers' Marina: 24* 39.475' N / 81* 16.684' W
Distance: 14 miles
Total Distance: 8,616 miles
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The wind will not lie down. It spent the night knocking us about--even in this well-protected basin--and now this morning it continues to stalk us from the north. It is not quite as fierce as when we arrived yesterday, but more than fierce enough to keep us in port. Wind speeds may diminish this afternoon, but the forecast does not expect them to actually become light.
One would think that weather would be less of an obsession for a power boat than a sailboat, but that's just not the case. Kobuk and I have ended up in the Keys purely because of the weather and now a new decision is being shaped by it. I have been thinking of running out to Key West and then turning around to work back through the Keys and up to Fort Lauderdale. There I could store Kobuk and return to Utah knowing that we would be well positioned for a crossing to the Bahamas. But now I realize that time is too short. It is still physically possible, but it would require us to cover a considerable distance every day and there would be no time to relax in the Keys. Either I must head for Fort Lauderdale today or else carry on to Key West and store Kobuk down in this area. I spend the morning pondering this decision, and once again the deciding factor is the weather. The forecast sees no change in the steady north winds for the next few days, and that means a trip back to Fort Lauderdale will give us angled headwinds all the way. Even though today a passage to Key West would give us tailwind conditions, I don't think it sensible to go offshore with such a chop on the water.
In a sense, the persistent north winds have chased us all the way from Stuart down here to the end of the Keys. Unless we're eventually going to cross to Cuba, the only option will be to backtrack. That should be easier in the fall, though, when winds are more often from the south and west.
With this big decision finally made, I resolve to stay here another night even if the winds do die in the afternoon. To make something of the day, I cycle around here on Bahia Honda Key but then cross the bridges over to Missouri, Ohio, and Little Duck Keys. Each of these islands is just a speck in a vast sea--a shallow sea with water that looks as if it has been dyed a dozen different colors of aquamarine. Other islands can be seen in the distance if you are looking on the Florida Bay side, but off to the east and south the horizon is nothing but a meeting of water and sky. These keys are small enough that the sea is nearly always a presence.; even when you cannot see it you feel that you need only step around a corner or just down the road a few feet, and there it will be.
Unquestionably, it is the sea that makes the Keys special. Along their southeastern side, a continuous reef miles offshore creates a sort of sub-surface breakwater that keeps this side of the islands from experiencing any big waves. Between that reef and the string of keys runs the Hawke Channel, a deep water causeway that makes it easy for boats of any sort to pilot along the chain. The protection from big waves is, of course, relative--even the limited fetch of a few miles is sufficient for the occasional build-up of waves that would challenge Kobuk. Over on the Gulf of Mexico side, reefs and shallows often extend miles offshore with no convenient channel near shore. A craft like Kobuk could manage quite handily in these conditions, but only if piloted by someone with local knowledge. Shallows often thin to less than a foot at low tide and the bottom in this area is as likely to be reef as to be sand. I do have detailed charts of this region so when the voyage begins again in the fall it might be fun to poke around over there for a few days. There are lots of isolated keys and weaving in and out among them might give the illusion of discovering a new land.
The Keys certainly are a distinct region in Florida where a sense of isolation and eccentricity is a part of the regional identity. In the early years, after all, the largest city in all of Florida was Key West and its economy was based on salvage. So many ships foundered out here that Key West made a handsome living out of salvaging them--so handsome that at one time it was the richest city in the country. And while that was the case, the only way to get to and from Key West was by boat. Only ninety miles of deep water separate Key West from to Havana whereas the distance to Miami is closer to a hundred and fifty. But in those days, Miami didn't exist and the nearest community of any significance must have been St. Augustine, a few hundred miles farther north.
Since the advent of trains and cars, the Keys have become very accessible and all that isolation has been compromised. But really what it amounts to is that any key transited by the highway is either heavily developed or ripe for speculation. The many smaller, more scattered tidbits of land floating nearby on the Gulf of Mexico side, however, remain pristine. One of the disturbing things about the Ocean Highway and the way it runs all the way to Key West is that its mere right of way across such small islands--even the larger ones of which tend to be long and very skinny--has meant that a large proportion of all land has been consumed by the transportation corridor. Here on Bahia Honda, for example, virtually everywhere on the island is so close to the highway that you hear the passing traffic.
Friday, February 6, 2009
We're off to Key West. It is afternoon already. The strong wind has just moderated a little. Conditions are marginal, but we will be on the leeward side of the chain and we will be going with the wind.
Coming out of the little basin into the open water between the two bridges, the jet drive clogs and has to be cleared. Rather than hopping overboard in deeper water, I run us onto a small beach to leeward and lie on the sandy bottom to do the job. A few shore based onlookers are puzzled by the entire operation. The wind keeps grabbing Kobuk and sweeping her along the beach towards a coral headland and I have a devil of a time trying to hold her in position while ducking under the hull and pull grass from the grating. It is an awkward job of it, but eventually we are set to go. I push us out to sea and roll over the gunwhale to fire up the engine and draw clear of the coast. We motor under the Flagler bridge to reach the leeward side and set off for Key West.
To stay clear of shallows, we must stand off from shore a mile or two so there is little opportunity to use land as a windbreak. Out here, Kobuk bounds and plunges as she charges along in the two-foot waves. We are running fast to make sure we get to our destination before sunset, but after a few miles the oil pressure gauge starts acting up and--even though it almost certainly is not an engine problem--discretion dictates a slower pace with the Yamaha.
We rollock along with the waves. They nudge us and then pass by, but every once in a while we catch one just right and the little Yamaha keeps us momentarily surfing. This is fun, but I do notice that the Remote Troll steering seems unreliable. I go to the stern to take a look. What I see is failing hardware. One of the eye bolts that holds part of the pulley system has been stretched to its limit. What I mean by "stretched" is that the tension of the system has opened up the eye so much that it is holding its pulley only by a slight hook on its end. If there were no tension, the pulley would fall off. But tension is the problem. The opening of the eye has diminished the tension and this has in turn removed virtually all the stretch in the tension spring. This is why the steering is unreliable--reasonably functional when turning right with the torque of the prop but only fitful in its functionality when turning left. Only when a left turn cooperates with the directional shove of a pushy wave does the Remote Troll do its job. I can live with this. We have been in this situation before and there has been lots of practice at nursing in the desired direction. My main concern is the potential for a double failure--a broken small engine system simultaneously with a malfunctioning large engine.
Both systems still function but both are threatening not to. Since the beginning, the idea of two independent propulsion systems has been the failsafe intended to keep us from ever being dead in the water. Whenever one system has developed problems, I have turned to the other--but that has always been a worrisome time until the failed system can be gotten back on line. Now, for the first time on open water, there is the prospect of a double failure. Fortunately, we are in the Hawke Channel where the water is only about fifteen feet deep. If all fails, we can drop anchor and figure out what to do. Well, eventually I try the main engine once again and the oil pressure gauge works so we do the last half of the passage using it.
Kobuk comes to rest in the protected waters of King's Point Marina. I make arrangements for her to stay moored a few days before being stored and then grab the bicycle to go to town. We are located on Stock Island, separated from Key West by nothing more than a narrow channel, and I am eager to make it downtown in time to see the sunset. I pedal the half dozen miles into the heart of Key West and turn right at Duval Street to reach the water. Here the bars line the sidewalks and the fun-seeking crowd mills and flows. Already, music is floating out into the street from many different sources and when I get to the end of Duval I can see the long pier where everybody gathers to watch the sun go down. I am a few minutes late and the sky is glowing hot over a slate ocean off to the west. The crowd is still enjoying the color and a country music band has some of them dancing on the covered boardwalk that forms the pier.
As the sky purples, I make my way back to Bike Friday and then spend time pedaling slowly around in the few key blocks that form the downtown. It seems as if everyone on the island comes downtown at sunset and it is action, action, action. The atmosphere is more like a carnival than anything else, and it vibrates with energy. There is the bar where Hemingway used to hang out--I'll have to go there later in the evening. But first there is something else to do. I'm looking for a policeman but none are about. Eventually I see a young man at a tourist information booth and go over to him to ask my question:
"Where's the best place to get a piece of key lime pie?"
King's Point Marina: 24* 33.838' N / 81* 43.793' W
Distance: 32 miles
Total Distance: 8,648 miles