Log: Updated June 21, 2007
Heading to Isla Mujeres, Mexico and Bocas del Toro, Panama
After thinking about if for a week and doing some planning, we are sticking with the idea to head west, and then south. It's a 350 mile run to Isla Mujeres, which we expect to make in about four days. It's another 750 miles to Panama. There are two main challenges on the first leg of this trip: one is staying off the reefs as we head toward the Dry Tortugas; the other is crossing the Yucatan Channel, which runs between the western end of Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. This channel is the only connection between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, so a whole lot of water has to flow through that narrow gap! (See the map)
The Yucatan Channel has a very strong north-flowing current, and we want to head southwest. If we pointed our boat directly toward the point we wanted to reach, the current would sweep us up and we'd end up north of our goal. So, we have to factor in the estimated current speed, and head for a point south of where we want to go, to counteract the effect of the current. In the olden days, it was a lot harder to do this, but with GPS, it's pretty easy! (We do know how to make current corrections without GPS, just in case.)
We have the charts we need, three GPS units, and radar, so we ought to be able to tell where we are and where we're headed. We just bought (and registered) an EPIRB, so if something major does happen, we can be found. We'll refuel and top off the water tank on our way out of Key West. Now all we need is good weather, and it should be a lovely trip. We're even planning on doing some fishing!
If you're curious about the tools we use to navigate from here to there, check out our Navigation Tools page. To better understand how we use the navigation tools, check out the Navigation Methods page.
If you're curious about how we provision for days at sea away from grocery stores and gas stations, check the Provisioning page.
We will update this page as soon as we clear customs and find an Internet cafe in Isla. Stay tuned.
06/06/07: New Information, New Ideas
We did some research on hurricane frequency in the Bahamas. The news is not good. In the whole Caribbean, there is statistically no place more likely to be hit by a tropical storm or hurricane than the Bahamas. stormCARIB is a good site showing hurricane frequency and location in the Caribbean since 1851. Links in the site show more specificity, if you're curious.
So we're reconsidering. Our current idea (about 180 degrees different from yesterday's plan) is to head west toward the Dry Tortugas, stop in Isla Mujeres, Mexico to refuel and reprovision, then go south to the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. There would be just a few long jumps, for a total of about 1100 miles.
The attraction of Bocas is that we have been there, know we like the area, have some friends there, and, it is below the hurricane belt. And yes, it would mean that we miss the Bahamas, and the Leewards, and the Windwards--or in other words, we miss the entire Eastern Caribbean!
I guess we'll just have to visit them on our way back around...
If you need a map, our Caribbean and Central America pages might help. And here's a map of Panama. Bocas del Toro is on the northwest coast, near the top left of the map.
To see how far we are deviating from our early spring plans, check out the Routes page.
As we have always said, the weather is the most important consideration in our plans.
We just added a picture of Landfall on her mooring in Key West.
05/17/07 to 06/02/07: Pinned Down in Key West, Florida
Photo by William R. Schrack
Well, as it turns out, we got here just in time for some really windy weather! Very, very glad we picked up a mooring ball, as the holding here in Key West is poor in most places, with just a thin veneer of loose crumbly sand over concrete-hard coral. Having dragged here in a nasty squall in 1998, Sharon really didn't want a repeat of that experience, and in the up to 30-35 knot N/NE winds and three foot waves for the past two weeks, dragging anchor was almost a certainty. Glad the city moorings are super-strong; we check for chafe multiple times a day. Otherwise, we can sleep pretty soundly. Well, except for the coughing. Tracy came down with a nasty cold and was in bed for five days. He credits too many wet and windy dinghy rides into the dock for water and supplies. That, and according to the clerk in the drugstore, "Everyone's got it; it's going around."
Today Tracy's tracing down a freshwater leak. We thought we'd been watching our water usage pretty carefully, but the water tank kept saying otherwise. As he was getting ready to change the engine oil, he noticed a substantial drip coming from a fitting on the hot water tank. Two hours later, he's now back to his original projects and the water leak is under control. It's always something!
Folks are asking what we're doing next. We'd like to know that, too! We lost a week of work with Tracy's cold, and the weather hasn't been conducive to getting an engine guy out to adjust the engine valves (a rare thing that Tracy can't fix). The wind is still creating waves larger than we want to tackle out in the Atlantic, and Tropical Storm Barry just made his way past us in the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, bringing line squalls with heavy wind and rain.
That said, we're contemplating two options:
1. Head to the Bahamas as planned, but since it's now hurricane season, not continue south, but find a protected anchorage/marina and explore the Bahamas, with a constant eye and ear on the weather.
2. Head up the east coast of Florida and hide out from hurricane season around Jacksonville, which is usually out of the hurricane paths. Northern Florida and coastal Georgia offer varied and attractive cruising grounds, with lots of places to hunker down in case of bad weather.
Some may think we are unnecessarily wary of hurricane season. All we can say to them is, if you haven't ridden out a hurricane yourself, you are welcome to do so! Our experiences with Ivan in 2004 and Dennis and Katrina in 2005 proved to us that those experiences are not something we care to repeat!
We have also promised our family and close friends that we would be prudent mariners; these options seem to fulfill that promise.
We'll keep you posted.
Addendum to the 05/10/07 to 05/17/07 Log:
Forgot to mention a couple of things in the log entry below:
We are still trying to potty train Gellie. Try persuading a scared puppy to pee on a small mat on the aft deck of a wildly pitching sailboat, in the dark. So on the third night, she decided to sneak one in on her own. Unfortunately, she picked the bed. She came close to being shark bait that night.
Additional wildlife sightings:
Numerous dolphins swam with the boat for a while on three occasions;
Tracy saw a huge turtle, but it dove before we could determine what kind.
05/10/07 to 05/17/07: Pensacola, Florida to Key West, Florida
We left Pensacola Shipyard on Thursday, May 10, 2007, almost two full months (and lots of boat work) after leaving Gulf Shores. By now we were well behind schedule, so decided to make a jump across the Gulf of Mexico directly to Key West, rather than putter along on day trips in the ICW or do short shakedown hops just off the coast, as we'd originally planned. The weather was favorable and predicted to stay that way for at least a few days. The risk with this new strategy was that we would have no time to test any of the new equipment we had installed or evaluate the work we had done before we were offshore. We knew we were inviting Murphy to join the crew, but felt the risk was manageable.
We were exhausted from all our preparations when we left the dock in mid-afternoon, so rather than head offshore tired and in the dark, we motored into the wind for a couple of hours, then anchored behind Fort McRee in Big Lagoon, just inside the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. The reminder of the evening was spent relaxing, enjoying a gorgeous sunset and raising a toast to finally leaving on our voyage.
We got a good night's sleep with Landfall rocking gently on her anchor. Up before dawn, we made tea and coffee and watched the sun rise on the first day of our new life. How exciting! It's finally begun!
In the Gulf of Mexico, Southeast to Key West
The wind was flat calm as we motored out the channel between Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. We followed the wide and well-marked channel out until we reached the number "1" green mark, from where our GPS would guide us to Key West's Northwest Channel green mark number "1", about 448 miles away on a direct line. The trip should take about four days, putting us in Key West on Monday evening or Tuesday morning. Of course, sailboats rarely follow straight lines!
The wind finally began to blow a bit around 1330 and was kindly, so we put all the sails up, main, mizzen, staysail and genoa, and killed the engine, just in time for the wind to die. So we took all the sails down and motored for a while. Then the wind came up again, so we put the sails up and killed the engine again. Then the wind died again, so we took the sails down and motored for a while. It's funny how much sailors rely on their engines. We could have just sat there, rolling in the swells, waiting for the breezes to return, like "real" sailors would, but after waiting for so long to leave, we wanted to make some distance between us and the shore! We agreed that we'd sit becalmed some other day, when we had less fuel and more miles under the keel. And so we started the engine, again.
It went like this for the first two days. Not stressful, really, but becoming just a bit tedious. On day three we were about two hundred miles into the trip south, and about one hundred miles west/northwest of Tampa Bay. At about noon in a hot calm, the boat barely ghosting over the Gulf, Sharon decided to take a dip to cool down and rinse off. As it turns out, we just happened to be passing slowly over the Steamboat Lumps Marine Conservation District. The conditions were perfect for a relaxing swim, but as they say, timing is everything.
On reflection, deciding to swim over a relatively shallow marine sanctuary may not have been the brightest idea. But without the benefit of hindsight, over the side Sharon went. Dangling from the ladder, rinsing body and splashing at the boat's muddy waterline, all of a sudden, WHAM! "Ouch!" Something had rammed her shin, hard! As she looked down, she saw a three foot shark circling around for another go at her. "It's a shark!" And her legs, cartoon-character-like, pedaled up the ladder out of the water to the level of her arms, where she was stuck--butt down and squealing! Tracy, nearby and hearing the commotion, reached down and grabbed her arm, yanking her up and out of harms' way. Yikes! The adrenaline rush subsided much faster than the bruise on her shin.
Our best guess is that it was a young bull shark, curious about a potential snack. We are just so glad his mouth was closed and not open when he butted her! This picture is not of the shark that attacked, but it sure looks like him!
A tagged bull shark pup being released in its nursery ground
About an hour later, a much larger version appeared, closer to 6 feet, trailing about 10 feet off the stern. Are we glad it wasn't that one that noticed Sharon dangling from the ladder!
New Crew Members
Monty and Ray joined us for the trip on the first full day at sea, and after their stellar performances, they have been promoted to permanent crew.
"Monty" is our Monitor windvane. He is mounted on the stern. He needs no electrical power. He steers by the wind, and does a much better job of steering then either of us can, because he feels the wind before it hits the sails. He anticipates how the sails will react when the wind hits them, and steers to compensate, rather than reacting afterwards, as we have to. Whoever invented the windvane was a genius! We owe him. Monty drove the boat for most of the trip. Actually, windvanes similar to Monty have been in use on sailing ships for centuries. It's hard to improve on perfection!
"Ray" is the Raymarine autopilot. Because he needs electrical power to work, we normally only use him when the engine is running. He steers by an internal compass. Set him on a heading, and he will maintain that heading. The only problem with Ray is that he's not as strong as Monty. When things really get rough, he has a hard time maintaining his course and heading. We keep a close eye on our heading when he is steering, but that is still easier than having to hand-steer ourselves.
Shortly before sunset the third day, we noticed a visitor on the bow pulpit. What in the world is a Cattle Egret doing this far from land? With much of central Florida ablaze with wildfires, we suspected that many birds fled first and sought directions later. This one obviously was quite lost.
We'd already had a number of other feathered visitors, including several Barn Swallows and a Golden Crowned Kinglet, who stayed for an overnight at most, and then moved on. But the Egret stayed, long enough for us to give him a name, Harold. At one point, we were surprised to see a barn owl flying around us contemplating a short break on our bow!
One thing about the weather: if you wait long enough, it will always change. And, finally, it did. All day Sunday and into Sunday night, the wind was still calm, but at about 0300 Monday morning, 5/14, the wind started to freshen. By 0600 it was blowing hard from the north, and getting cold. And it kept blowing! We bundled up, put up all the sails, and felt, finally, we are SAILING! We had a glorious day's run under full sail, playing with trim, trying to get the best speed and course we could. Landfall may be a heavy boat, but she sails well, too, and we teamed her up with the 20 knot winds to make good time under sail. We were thrilled to see and feel her gliding through the wind and waves with the beauty and grace that drew us to this endeavor to begin with. Finally, in concert with our environs.
One thing about strong winds, though: they eventually begin to build up the seas. By 2030 the wind had increased to 30 knots with substantially higher gusts and the seas had built up to 4-6 feet with a 3 second interval between swells--which means that the first wave had barely hit the boat before the next one hit it again. With that much wind, in the dark (and no moon), we'd left only the staysail flying. Trying to stay on course for Key West, the engine was running as well, with the windvane steering. It was a rolly, pounding, uncomfortable night. Dipping first to starboard followed almost immediately with a quick dip to the port side of the hull.
At one point while putting the bow through a breaking wave, about 0430, the navigation lights on the bow got doused and the "sealed" lights proved to be less waterproof than we believed. So, we would spend the remaining nights of the journey with no way for other passing vessels to tell which way we were headed. You might be surprised to know how many other vessels you see plying the Gulf waters in the middle of the night, and since most of them are several hundred feet larger (and faster) than us, we take great comfort in knowing that they can identify us from a distance and determine our course. Before they run us down! We compensated for this by turning on our deck lights when we saw an approaching ship and calling them on the VHF radio, just to make sure they knew what we were doing. While a sailing vessel has the right of way over a powered vessel, in reality, we always give speed and tonnage a wide berth!
Imagine turning your house on it's side and shaking it. That's what the waves were doing to Landfall. Gear we thought was safely stowed decided to find new homes on their own--stuff was flying everywhere! What a mess!
By early Tuesday morning, the wind had not diminished one bit and the seas continued to build. We were being broadsided by 8 foot swells with the occasional 12 footer slamming into us. After four days of 24/7 watches, we were getting tired. Instead of fighting it, we decided to "heave to" and just try to get some rest. We backed the staysail and put the helm over. The boat's motion eased, and we hunkered down for the next 9 hours, exchanging watches so the other could get some sleep, always in awe of the wind and heavy seas all around us. Just moving around the boat was fraught with hazards. We were both bruised all over by the time it settled down. Though the wind and waves and current were pushing us off course, we were so tired, we just didn't care. We'd make up for it when the weather calmed down.
As a note, for safety's sake at night and in rough seas, we all (including Magellan) wear a harness and tether when we are up on deck. This ensures that no matter how much the boat pitches and rolls, we will remain attached to the boat. Jasmine, of course, the most sensible of the crew, generally chooses to rely on the safety of her house in the aft cabin when it is dark and rough.
Our friend Craig (an experienced Captain on the Gulf) had recently told us that 4-6 foot seas in the Gulf of Mexico are not at all equivalent to 4-6 foot seas anywhere else; they are much worse. He was so right!
Our visitor Harold the Egret hadn't left; he had nowhere to go. He was clearly more exhausted than we were, and over 100 miles from the nearest land. Try as we did to keep him from getting too close to Jasmine, once the really bad weather started, he was determined to get out of the wind.
Notice how excited Magellan is about the bird? (That's her, sleeping in the orange life jacket.)
Finally, toward noon Tuesday, the wind began to relent and the seas slowly subsided. Sails popped up again, reefed, and we headed back on course to Key West.
Leaks and Sputters
Sometime during the night when we were getting beaten up, with the boat twisting and pounding and grinding through the rough seas, we noticed that the bilge was filling more rapidly than it should. Since we'd just replaced many of the through hulls, it was most likely one of them leaking. And since we only had replaced one that we couldn't see, of course, it had to be that one!
Would it get worse? Would the bilge pump be able to keep up with it? What if the engine quit, and the batteries drained? Then what?
One thing that happens to almost any boat in rough seas is that gunk in the diesel tanks is stirred up and starts to clog the fuel filter. When that happens, the engine sputters, loses rpms, and eventually dies from lack of fuel.
The engine started sputtering.
Well, we'd anticipated that! Out came a new fuel filter. Tracy drained the fuel filter bowl of dirty gunky fuel, cleaned the bowl, and replaced the filter. Vroom! Good as new. For a while, anyway.
"Hey honey, how many spare fuel filters do we have? A dozen, right?"
" Uh-huh, I think so, let me check...hmm...looks like about two."
So, just in case, we turned off the refrigeration, the biggest drain on the batteries, to be sure we'd have enough power for the bilge pump for the rest of the trip. Safety first. We could always eat the MREs.
The final three days were uneventful. The seas settled down, the wind was a manageable 10 knots or less. We motored, motorsailed or sailed as the wind allowed. Thursday morning, the Northwest Channel was in sight. By noon we were anchored just north of famous Mallory Square, Key West. We had zigzagged close to 500 miles to get here, and we were utterly exhausted, but it was all worth it. The first leg of our journey was complete! A four day trip had turned into a seven day one. We learned much about ourselves and about our faithful vessel. We had regained our sea-legs and grown accustomed to the rigor and tedium of watches once again.
Friday morning, all we have to do is haul the anchor up with the electric windlass and take the short motor to the Garrison Bight Mooring Field. Is anything that simple? Of course not. As the windlass goes to work, it suddenly stalls under the strain of our anchor and chain. It seems that we managed to hook the anchor on an old abandoned mooring chain that was coated in concrete. Too much weight for the electric windlass to handle, so once again it is up to Captain Tracy and the brute strength method. Shortly, the fouled anchor is freed and we are on our way. We motored around Fleming Key to the Garrison Bight mooring field and picked up a mooring ball. With the mooring fee comes a dinghy dock, showers, laundry facility, fresh water and trash collection. We are grateful for them all! Especially the long overdue showers!
All clean and shiny (even Magellan got a shower), we walked into town to meet up with our old friend Michael Haskins. Michael bought Sharon's Amel 36 before she left Key West in 1999, the boat that she and Tracy met over, when Tracy sold it to her in Jacksonville, Florida. Fond memories! We chose to meet at Schooner Wharf, because they allow dogs in the bar ("Hang With the Big Dogs. A Last Little Piece of Old Key West"). Gellie made several new friends at the bar. Not just dogs, either!
Michael recently got a contract to publish his first novel; check it out! www.michaelhaskins.net. And is close to completing his second. He's been in Key West so long, he's pretty much become a native, so expect all the usual Key West characters and venues to make appearances.
Well, we shook loose a few more problems than we'd anticipated, and they're going to take some time to fix. We hope to have repairs and upgrades completed in a few weeks, but by then, hurricane season will be upon us. It's not looking good for heading further south this season. But, we could fix things sooner than expected. We could get a tremendous weather window that would get us south more quickly than normal. Or not.
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