Mid April found us leaving Key West, bound for Florida's west coast. Prior to our departure, however, Ron finally finished installing the 'Follow-Me' satellite TV (which regular readers will recall was Nancy's Christmas present). It was partially installed earlier in the year, but it's key attribute, the ability to track satellite signals while Duet is anchored, had not yet been connected. Completion included disassembling the pilothouse roof to insert wiring, which Ron led down down from the dry exhaust stack, and connecting it to Duet's electric panel. Nordhavn does a beautiful job of wiring it's boats, and Ron has kept up the tradition established by Bill Lynn (the previous owner of Duet) by installing all new circuits to factory finish. Finally, all this wiring was led to the TV in the master stateroom. All in all, a great job and the dish works beautifully. For those of you who like technical details, the 'Follow-Me' system consists of a standard household satellite dish (we have 'DirectTV') mounted on a motor-driven mast. The motor is controlled by an electronic compass. As Duet moves around at anchor (she is never still) the dish remains pointed at the satellite. This system compensates for ship movement in the horizontal plane but not the vertical. Therefore, it is not useful while underway or in very rough anchorages. The system is marketed as an '80-20' solution (80% of the usefulness for 20% of the cost of more complex systems); our experience supports that claim. So off we went to the north, but first we went east. This type of roundabout way is frequently the rule in boating; to get to one place you go to several others first because you can't get there directly from wherever you are. We stopped in Marathon for several days and took the dogs to the beach for a swim. They also did some retrieving although it seemed that Ron did most of the fetching and carrying while the dogs took it easy. We left Marathon and headed north across the Florida Bay, which runs between the Keys and mainland Florida. This brought us along the coast to the Everglades, most of which is national park. During this journey we deployed the fishing gear, but unfortunately only caught a crab pot. It stripped half the line off the reel before Nancy managed to cut the line. It made a very impressive noise feeding out so, as Nancy optimistically pointed out, now we know what catching a large fish sounds like and we'll be ready. We spent the night at the Little Shark River, which has no sharks but plenty of mosquitos. Proving the adage you can run but you can't hide, Ron spent some time on the satellite phone. We have an Iridium Motorola satellite phone which works anywhere but the North and South Poles, which is OK as we don't plan to go there anytime soon. It has proved itself several times in areas where the cell phone has failed and is relatively inexpensive as a back up. The Everglades are a wonderful resource, with dolphins, birds and many forms of plant life. Their most impressive feature, however, is the size of the mosquitos. The park, unlike the rest of Florida, is not sprayed with insect repellent so we were able to experience nature the way the Indians and the first settlers did. Several days of this was quite enough for us. We left the Little Shark at dawn and our intrepid Captain donned his mosquito repellent outfit to raise the anchor. We escaped with minimal bite damage and great memories of an area almost completely untouched by man. We then traveled north to the Pine Island Sound, which lies between the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva and the west coast Florida mainland, and spent several idealic days anchored in little bays. Both captain and mate went swimming, using the dinghy as a personal anchor since the current flows quickly through these anchorages. Neither of us wished to find out exactly how fast the other could deploy the dinghy to the rescue. During these bathing exercises Tristan and Maggie served as careful lifeguards, watching our every move.
Unfortunately, Ron's Mom continues to be unwell so after a few days we moved Duet to a nice marina in Ft. Myers and went north to spend some time with her. On this trip Ron flew north and Nancy drove up with the dogs. Suffice it to say that Ron had the better deal. We returned to the boat after a month and, in a classic cruiser reunion, met up with old friends from our days in Maryland, Karen and Mark Zarley. We first met Karen and Mark when they were having the fuel tanks replaced on their Defever 49 Pilothouse; we just had to stop by to find out why the boat was leaning over to one side. Since then we've exchanged many an email and met up in several ports so this was a great time to renew old acquaintances. Karen and Mark's boat has one of the most appropriate names we've seen; they're in the excavation business so she's called Paydirt. A good time was had by all as we helped them prepare Paydirt to stay in Florida while they went back to the Midwest to spend some time with the other Paydirt. This is a classic example of one of the great parts of the cruising life; folks you meet and then see again and again, almost always unexpectedly.
During our stay at Centennial Harbor Marina in Ft. Myers (a very nice well maintained marina which we recommend) we had the opportunity to observe dredging and the construction of new floating docks. The dredging was quite entertaining, if a little nerve racking. The dredge is a large barge with a medium size backhoe on it. It is pushed by a small boat with an outboard motor. The dredge is very heavy and the outboard is about 50HP,which makes for some interesting energy versus mass situations. There is considerable current in the Caloosahatchee River and this adds to the excitement. The key to maneuvering is to use the backhoe as a large paddle, with directions being shouted by the helmsman as the dredge rounds the corners. The dredge came rather close to Duet but no damage was done. This procedure happened several times a day, so there was plenty of time to consider what might happen next time if the backhoe operator misheard a cue at the wrong moment. The other excitement at this marina involved the appearance of several dozen very large fish, species undetermined. Numerous experienced fisherpersons opined on their type, no one agreed with anyone else and they remained unidentified until the marina owner (a man of some local influence) identified them as Black Drum, thereby settling the controversy. From Duet's point of view, they provided extensive entertainment splashing about off our stern. We also had a dolphin come into the marina to feed frequently but were unable to ever get the camera and dolphin in the same place a the same time.
We left Fort Myers and headed south again, bound for Miami via Key West. As our regular readers know,we were planning to cross the Okeechobee Waterway but we left it too late in the season and the waterway had shallowed to the point where Duet would come to a permanent stop about halfway across, so it was out into the ocean again for us. We traveled overnight offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The weather forecast called for calm seas with isolated thunderstorms and, fortunately, it turned out to be accurate. Unfortunately, around midafternoon, one of the isolated thunderstorms decided to isolate over Duet for several hours. We saw up to 30 knot winds with sustained speeds in the mid 20's, torrential rain and 6-8 foot seas on the beam but no lightening, thank goodness. Duet's stabilizers paid for themselves on this single trip, keeping her motion steady, predictable and relatively balanced despite the continued pressure from the beam seas, and we emerged into the sunset none the worse for wear. We then took a break by running slowly with wind and waves at our stern, an attitude which provides a very gentle motion on Duet. This allows the dogs to relieve themselves on deck, Ron and Nancy to take a shower and everyone to take a break.
As an aside, we get many questions on the Labradors' toilet habits. Those of you who do not have dogs please feel free to skip to the next paragraph. Tristan and Maggie learned to relieve themselves on the foredeck on our previous boat, some 5 years ago. We took them cruising for several days and didn't let them off the boat until they went. We took along samples from home, which seemed to help. We also tried using Astroturf but it was a waste of time. This learning experience seemed to be much harder on us than it was on them, although we've heard from other cruisers that dogs can get urinary tract infections from holding it. Now they go on the deck all the time, even when we're tied up in a marina. This seems to work well as they don' have to switch from boat based to land based every time we tie up. We do take them off for walks when we are anchored or tied up but that isn't linked to any relief schedule. We keep a spray bottle on the foredeck filled with a mixture of water and Simple Green cleaner and we spray the area and then wash it down with fresh or salt water. There is no smell or staining of the fiberglass. Neither dog seems thrilled with going on the deck but it doesn't seem to have affected their health and it allows us the freedom to anchor out or travel long distances without stopping. In our conversations with other cruisers with dogs, few dogs seem to be able to learn this, particularly older ones (Tristan was three and Maggie one when they learned). Our advice to folks with dogs is don't let the dogs stop you cruising, by all means bring them, but if you don't have a dog, don't get one if you plan to cruise.
Back to the journey. During the night we divide watches, taking 3 hours or so each, depending on how we're feeling. This particular night Nancy slept until 1AM, as she was feeling seasick. Usually one or two doses of the miracle drug (brand name Zofran) with some sleep and she feels fine. So she relieved Ron at 1AM and he went below for a well earned rest. All went well until 3AM when she won the jackpot in the form of what seemed to be the entire Key West shrimp fishing fleet out on maneuvers. These boats, which look just like the ones in Forrest Gump, traverse the ocean in random patterns dragging large nets. They are lit up like Christmas trees but it is very difficult to tell whether they are coming toward you or away from you, which is an important factor in interacting with them. In addition, their behavior is not predictable as they are chasing shrimp, not watching out for recreational vessels on overnight journeys. So Nancy woke Ron and together we wove our way through them. All in all it took about 90 minutes to clear the fleet, by which point Key West was upon us. We dawdled about offshore until dawn and then passed through the Key West harbor and continued on to Marathon. We dropped anchor about 3PM and had a well earned dinner and a good night's sleep. We traveled 170 miles in 28 hours, which is a little slower than usual since we waited for the sun to rise at Key West before traversing the harbor. Throughout the journey Tristan and Maggie maintained the cruising lab's position, from which they are always ready to spring into action if they should be needed. We left Marathon the next day, bound for Miami. We anchored overnight at a small key halfway between Marathon and Miami as the weather was not conducive to traveling offshore. The Hawk Channel, which runs up the inside of the reef on the ocean side of the Keys, is riddled with crab pots and therefore it's not safe to run in it at night. The weather continued to be unsettled, with frequent thunderstorms, heavy winds and rain. We trudged along, making miles in relative comfort, but really hoping for the sun to come out. During this journey Nancy developed a new rule; try not to travel when the depth of the water is less than the speed of the wind. The resulting conditions resemble cruising in a half full tea cup which is being shaken while being refilled. We arrived in Key Biscayne, where we spent several nights on the hook before adjourning to the Crandall Park Marina to troubleshoot the watermaker, which was on the blink. Repairing the watermaker paradoxically takes large quantities of water, which of course you haven't got since you started the watermaker to make water in the first place. Hence the need for a dock with a hose. It turned out that it wasn't really broken, just moody, and once it had spent some time being admired and tuned it produced plenty of first class water. Ron also fixed a long lasting problem with the generator, which had begun overheating. This is a significant issue on the anchor in southern Florida in the summer, as the humidly approaches South American levels and life without air conditioning isn't worth living. Temperature problems have plagued the gennie since we got the boat and had been identified during the survey but no one had successfully identified the cause. Turns out that the thru-hull was becoming progressively more clogged by small marine creatures; once they were removed the cooling system worked as designed and the problem was solved.
As an aside, intermittent problems are often the most difficult to solve. The generator problem was our most insistent, except for occasional difficulties with the diesel heater. The heater tends to overheat and puff out white smoke, much to the consternation of other boaters, who tend to think Duet is on fire. Ron has gone through a series of fixes but so far none has cured the problem.
Meantime, Duet waited 5 days at Crandall Park Marina in Key Biscayne (a nice municipal marina with very reasonable rates) for the weather to settle. We were trapped between a trough stretching between the Bahamas and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and an approaching low moving down from the north and had no desire to get caught in between them offshore. Every day brought new NOAA forecasts and weather faxes but no break in the weather. We spent the time cleaning the boat, doing projects and generally catching up. We also had a unique experience, at least for us, we were interviewed by a sociology student doing a paper on subculture lifestyles. Although we hadn't quite thought of ourselves that way, apparently living aboard is considered a genuine subculture lifestyle.
During this waiting period we further refined our offshore preparations, to include rigging the sea anchor in case we need it. The key is having it ready to go, rather than needing to go out on the bow and wrestle with it in inclement conditions. Our sea anchor is 24 foot in diameter, made by Paratech. It has substantial hardware (note the 8X11 inch magazine for size comparison) because the forces generated by Duet's 30 tons pulling against wind and wave are substantial. It is deployed on 400-900 feet of braided 3/4 inch line. The length of the deployment line depends on the distance between the waves, with 400 being used in calm conditions (in case of an engine breakdown, for example) and 900 in storm conditions. Before we depart on an off-shore passage, we attach a length of 1/2 inch mooring chain to our foredeck mooring bitt. The chain is led out a hawsepipe where it is attached to the sea anchor's nylon rode (when deployed, the nylon rode does not contact the boat, thereby avoiding chafe). The nylon rode is led down the outside of the boat and over in to our Portuguese bridge. There it sits, neatly coiled and attached to our sea anchor. Our plan, yet to be tested, is to deploy the sea anchor from the relative safety of the Portuguese bridge, rather than risk working on the foredeck. We plan to test this in benign off-shore conditions. We also prepare our liferaft and our overboard bag in the salon, as well as our life vests and the dogs' vests. The key to this is not to have to go looking for things in an emergency, as there will be plenty of other things to do. We have a check list we review prior to departure (rather like airline pilots) and we add to it after every trip. Finally the weather settled down and Duet departed Key Biscayne at dawn, headed north. We came out via the Miami ship channel, which is well marked and easy to traverse. At this latitude the Gulf Stream is a mere two miles offshore and we picked it up immediately. This was our first time in the Stream and it lived up to it's reputation. Duet's speedo climbed to an average of 11 knots, far faster than we'd ever traveled. We stayed in the stream for 22 hours, riding it north to about halfway between Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville. Our plan was to stay with the Stream until Charleston but at dawn of our second day out it became apparent that both of us were very tired and Nancy was still seasick. Discretion is the better part of valor, so we turned for Cumberland Island, on the border of Florida and Georgia. The turn made for a rough ride, as the seas came off our stern and onto our bow but we pounded on for another 18 hours to the St. Mary's Inlet. We reached the Inlet at dusk and lined up for the entrance. The radar however, showed a large target about 8 miles ahead of us, between us and the entrance.
As we drew closer the target resolved into a large Navy vessel, apparently stationary. After some discussion, Captain Ron called them on the radio, "Large military vessel to my port beam, this is the recreational vessel to your starboard" and back came a female voice, very crisply, "this is the Navy warship G697, recreational vessel". So we chatted with the Navy. It turned out they were station keeping in that location. Station keeping means they are drawing a box in the water around a fixed position. We requested permission to pass them, it was granted and we started forward into the station keeping box. As our regular readers know, Duet is rather slow moving and with head seas and 15-20 knots of wind on our bow, we were slower than usual. Navy warship G697, on the of other hand, was moving along at what we're sure was an idle for them but was definitely faster than us. As a result, we got inside their station keeping box and couldn't get out, as they went around us faster than we could cross the line. So we chatted again, they turned and we escaped.
Having successfully negotiated the Navy we proceeded to the River entrance. This entrance is very well lit and buoyed as St. Mary's River is home to a group of Navy ballistic missile submarines (which may explain the presence of G697). We started down the channel at full dark, which was a whole new experience for Duet's crew. The channel has several very well lit ranges, which allowed us to line up on the center of the channel and stay there, despite considerable current push to port. Once inside the entrance, things settled down considerably and we carefully picked our way up the river to the anchorage off Cumberland Island. We've been here before, which helps a great deal in the pitch dark. With Nancy steering, Ron wielding the handheld spotlight, the GPS showing our position and the radar set on 1/4 mile resolution, we chose a spot and anchored. We'd left Key Biscayne at 7AM the preceding day and here we were 360 miles north, hook down at midnight. Total cruise time 40 hours. We had a beer, which tasted great and slept like logs.
The next morning we examined our anchorage and discovered that we were almost perfectly positioned for Cumberland Island. So we relaxed, cleaned the boat, ran the watermaker, changed the oil on the main and generator engines, and generally had a very quiet day, cruising style. As we were sitting happily at anchor, a Coast Guard inflatable, complete with armed men deployed on deck, roared up to us out of nowhere. "Captain, do not raise your anchor; we have a Navy detail exiting the river" blared the loud hailer. We assured them we had no intention of moving and rushed up to the boat deck with binoculars and cameras. Sure enough, about five minutes later down the river came a submarine, escorted by two huge tugs, two small gunboats and the Coast Guard inflatable. The sub passed quite close to Duet, as we were anchored at the mouth of the Cumberland Island anchorage. Soon enough she disappeared out the channel, headed who knows where. About an hour later her escorts returned, then all was quiet on the river again and Duet's crew returned to their chores. The next day another submarine appeared, this time inbound, presumably returning from a sea assignment. A number of crew were standing on deck, dressed in Navy whites and probably looking forward to shore leave. The attendant escorts carefully shepherded their charge into the sub pen across from our anchorage where the docking looked even more complex than docking Duet.
After waiting a week for a suitable weather window (this summer's cruise will forever be known as the weather window trip) we departed St. Mary's Inlet at 11AM on a Sunday morning, on a falling tide, with current against wind. This is not the perfect situation to depart an inlet but it was the one we had. Everything was going relatively well, considering we had 8-10 foot seas on the bow (the worst conditions we'd yet seen in Duet) until a voice spoke from the VHF radio, "Hey Duet do you really need the entire channel?" Nancy rushed to look behind us and there, about 100 feet off our stern doing at least three times our speed, was a large containership. Fortunately Nancy wasn't handling the radio as her response would have been something along the lines of "hell yes we need the entire channel, why don't you exit somewhere else". Captain Ron, however, is made of sterner stuff and calmly informed them we'd move out of the way so they could pass. Moving out of the way involved going much closer to the stone jetty at the side of the channel than we'd prefer but the alternative of being run over seemed even less attractive. Suffice it to say there were a few tense moments in Duet's pilothouse until our large companion passed us by and we could resume our original course.
The rest of the journey was relatively uneventful, thank goodness. We had more head winds than we would prefer but it was not too uncomfortable as they shifted during the night to a more benign direction. As we passed Savannah, at around 1AM, we had a great experience with a very very large containership (as opposed to just a large one). We could see him on the radar (his radar image obscured just about everyone else) and as we approached he called us on the radio. We knew it was us he wanted as we were the only recreational powerboat for at least 50 miles in either direction. He was calling to tell us not to be alarmed when he turned to let off the pilot who had guided him out the Savannah River. At night one of the most important keys to understanding what's happening is watching the other boat's running lights. Running lights are green on the starboard side and red on the port. This translates to the the right of way rules (boat on the starboard tack has the right of way) so if you see a red light you know you have to yield, whereas the green means come on by, the other ship must yield. The containership captain knew we would see his red light briefly when he turned and wanted us to know that he would then turn again immediately to resume his course and we could maintain ours without risk. He called us when we were four miles from him, which given he was doing 13 knots over the ground, was probably about the right distance. This is the first time we've received a call like that, and it was very much appreciated.
We entered the Charleston Harbor about noon, on a falling tide and against the resulting current. The harbor entrance is long and narrow so the outgoing current is quite fierce. We'd learned, however, from our experience at St. Mary's Inlet, and we planned in advance to stay on the port side of the inlet where there is more water outside the channel, just in case we had to get out of the way. Lo and behold, as we were about halfway down the channel a large containership (but not the same one from St. Mary's) came lumbering up and passed us neatly as we pulled over into our pre planned escape route. A good lesson learned.
We are now tied up at our favorite marina, Charleston City, having managed to dock with significantly less excitement than on our first visit. Charleston is famous for it's current, fortunately this time it was slack when we arrived. We'll be here for at least 3 weeks as unfortunately Tristan needs surgery to remove another small tumor. This should be a simpler operation than last time but much to Tristan's dismay, will require the special headgear again. Also our hydraulic steering is leaking so Ron is going to replace the seals before we continue. Charleston is a great place to stop and we're looking forward to sampling some of the city's dining establishments and viewing the 4th of July fireworks. We'll then continue on to the Chesapeake Bay. We wish everyone a happy 4th.