2000 Trip Up From Mobile

May 12, 2000

It is almost midnight on Friday the 12th of May, and I am sitting under the stars as we motor due south toward Key West.  Jon and I left Sanibel Island around nine this morning and have covered a good 70 miles so far.  With about 40 miles to go I suspect we will arrive around 8am tomorrow morning.  As we are headed into what little wind there is we have not been able to sail, but are motoring instead which is a bit noisy and not as much fun as sailing, but it is getting us where we want to go.

It is nice just to have a functioning engine, for last week and part of the week before Jon and I were stuck in St. Petersburg, Florida trying to get the diesel working.  First it was waiting for parts to be shipped, then it was trouble-shooting the fuel system.  And while St. Pete’s is not a bad place to be stuck, we were getting very frustrated that we were being waylaid by engine trouble we couldn’t figure out.  But, fixing the broken bits is one of the main past times while cruising, so one might as well get used to it.  We’re not working too hard, for we did get in some sight seeing in St. Petes, seeing a local production of 12th Night in the park (awful), and catching the great sounds of a band called Ozomatli at a local pub on Cinco de Mayo (awesome).

Being on the move again is a good feeling, and while we haven’t gotten any sailing in during the past week, we have seen a lot of interesting things while motoring down the Intracoastal Waterway.  The ICW, as it is known, is a rout that snakes along the shore of the gulf coast down the West coast of Florida and back up the Atlantic coastline, staying close to shore or actually inside barrier islands the entire way.  At some points it passes through large bays, such as in Tampa, in some spots it is only a few feet wide.  As we left St Pete’s and headed south we motored a section of the ICW that is all mangrove islands.  Every few miles there are signs warning boaters to watch out for manatees, dolphins flash by on occasion, and the bird life is prolific with herons and pelicans roosting everywhere you look.  Every five miles or so we would come to a draw bridge, and go through the set routine of calling the bridge master on the VHF, requesting an opening of the bridge, and then waiting for him or her to stop traffic and open the bridge so we could pass on to the next one down the line.

After three days of motoring we arrived in Sanibel, where 9 years ago I had spent a summer studying marine biology.  Since I hadn’t been back since that time I was anxious to go ashore and see what had and hadn’t changed.  Jon and I paddled ashore (as the dinghy engine is not working) and rented bikes.  We spent the day riding around the island, visited the Ding Darling wildlife refuge (where we saw some Alligators), and did some beachcombing since Sanibel beaches are renowned for their numerous shells.

The lure of clear water, and good snorkeling is calling us southward so we upped anchor this morning from Sanibel and are again on our way.

We arrived in Key West Saturday morning, just as planned, and found our way into the harbor amongst the many other boats that are constantly running about.  It is quite a lively place, and we found that our fears of having to row a long way into shore to get to town were misplaces, because every time we start to head in a fellow sailor comes along in a dingy (with a working outboard) and offers us a tow.  In fact Monday morning when we were rowing in to take our own engine in to be fixed we were passed by a guy who happened to be heading out to the outboard shop himself.  So not only did he give us a tow, but he took us in his car to the shop saving us the hassle and money of getting a cab out there.  On the way over we chatted, and discovered that he knew the dock master in St. Pete’s who had been so kind to us only last week, where we were waylaid there.  This is what cruising is about, and it is good to be back into it again.

It seems we move from spot to spot waiting for this engine or that to be repaired, and that’s not far from the truth.  We are going to spend the next few days here in Key West, which is fun, but the touristy atmosphere quickly gets tedious.  After doing the mandatory rounds, Hemingsway’s house, the local bars, the Southern most point in the continental US, we have decided that the coral reef 7 miles south of the island is a lot more interesting.  We sailed out to the reef Sunday, and we were so happy to be back snorkeling, enjoying that environment, that we spent all day doing it, taking breaks here and there to eat and nap.  Every few hours a big catamaran would moor next to us, drop their boat load of tourists in the water, wait a half hour, then collect them all up and head on back to Key West.  They came and went so fast they were hardly a nuisance and we watched their antics as if they were just more strange creatures on the reef.

Ben and Jon

Thursday, June 1 2000

We are headed up the Intracoastal Waterway again, motoring along for an average of 8 hours a day, sometimes more sometimes less.  Like on a highway, there are interesting spots, but also long stretches of nothing much.  Yesterday we motored into Lake Worth, adjacent to West Palm Beach Florida.  We will spend a few days here while Jon finishes up his Med School Applications.  He is nearly finished, which is a relief to both of us, as we can stop our daily hunts for payphones and Internet access, for the needed contact to his editor (mom). 

Last I wrote we were in Key West, waiting for repairs on the dinghy engine, that never did happen.  We had lovely southerly breezes on our departure from Key West, which meant we were able to sail North East along the long chain of Keys on a broad reach to run.  The Keys sit on a shelf of shallow water that extends about five miles south of the islands themselves, a geological formation that is actually a very southern, very old, extension of the Appalachian Mountains.  Where this shelf meets the Caribbean Ocean and drops off from depths of 15 feet to 50 there are scattered many coral reefs.  As we sailed along from key to key we would head off shore to find these reefs for the occasional snorkel.  I was impressed by the distinctiveness of each reef.  One was notable for the wonderful terrain full of nooks and crannies that one could dive into and through, one sported a great variety of soft corals and sponges, one was hiding a good quantity of strange looking fish (puffers, filefish, cowfish), while yet another yielded the multitude of colorful parrot, angel, and butterfly fish that become familiar friends after a few tropical dives. 

We then headed up to the tiny Pigeon Key.  Originally the base for construction of the Seven Mile Railroad Bridge that once spanned this part of the keys, the tiny island has had numerous incarnations.  And for a few weeks in 1991 it served as home to me and the other members of the Sanibel marine biology program.  Having spent most of those weeks snorkeling I became quite familiar with the underwater terrain of the grounds surrounding the small island.  Snorkeling around it again I was surprised at how much I remembered. Like walking through woods or streets from the past, each corner I turned revealed a geographical feature, or landmark (watermark in this case I suppose) that had been forgotten until that very instant. 

At the north end of the Keys sits Miami, a city in which neither Jon or I had ever spent much time.  Memorial Day weekend was upon us, and we were snuggly berthed in a municipal marina right downtown, with warm showers and laundry – We weren’t going anywhere!  So, between bouts with his application essay Jon and I explored Miami – Little Havana where we overheard many conversations about Elian Gonzales, and saw signs urging him to stay in the US – South Beach where you go to see and be seen (unfortunately Jon and I forgot to put on our bikinis and oil up before strutting our stuff up and down the boardwalk) – and Miami Beach where there was still some evidence that it had been the place where my great grandparents and so many other New York Jews had spent each winter.  Every so often among the pierced navels and tiny bikini we would see a little blue haired woman looking a little confused, but getting along with her shopping just fine. 

The international feel of Miami was really fantastic.  I watched a Soca band play in the outdoor amphitheater while people from all over the Caribbean danced and sang along.  The singer called out for girls from Aruba to grace the stage, then girls from Jamaica, then Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Puerto Rico…. all the islands, all the countries were well represented.  This was a real example of why, despite its geographical location, Miami is often considered the center of the Caribbean. 

But there is a tension in Miami that stems from this diversity, and it is not always hidden.  For on the very first night I arrived I sat at a bar enjoying my beer and the Gypsy Kings on the stereo, when the jerk next to me yelled at the bar tender that “he couldn’t take any more of ‘this’ music, he needed some good American Rock ‘n Roll.” 

Up from Miami we motored, the gigantic mansions slipping by one by one.  They were mostly hideous. Both Jon and I agreed that these people had plenty of money and they certainly could have afforded buying some taste!  As we ducked through one draw bridge after another (14 in just one day) the mansions thinned out, and were eventually overtaken by more modest houses and even some park land. Ft Lauderdale offered a good opportunity to use the dingy engine that I had fixed in Miami, for there are miles and miles of canals to explore.  And we did just this until the thunder clouds rolled in and we were forced back to the boat.  The cooling rain was welcome to us and the rest of Florida which has been experiencing a record dry spell. 

The rain has passed, and the high pressure has moved back in for now. But the showers and the official start of Hurricane Season today are helpful reminders that we must continue pushing north.


Wednesday June 15, 2000

I am sitting anchored in the cute little port town of Southport, NC where I arrived last night.  Just behind Cape Fear inlet, it is often a jumping off point to the Caribbean since it has a large inlet/outlet to the ocean.  I will not be using that inlet, as I am headed North up the Intracoastal Waterway further. 

Jon left to head off to camp on Monday, but let me go back further than that and fill you in on our adventures.  When I last wrote we were in West Palm Beach, where we had spent a few days, collected our mail, and rested in the air-conditioned library where we had free e-mail access. 

We decided that we would make some time, and instead of motoring all the way up the Intracoastal, we would cut across most of Florida and all of Georgia, and sail outside all the way North to Charleston, SC.  Before we could get to the cut that would take us outside we needed to motor north a little more.  We were doing just that when we stopped to top off our fuel and water, and get another bag of ice for the ice box.  It was supposed to be just a quick stop, but when we went to start the engine again it wouldn’t turn over…. 

We had made it all the way from West Palm Beach to North Palm Beach, probably 10 miles at most!  But being stuck on the gas dock of a marina was much preferable to being stranded somewhere.  So, Jon and I tore into the engine, and the first thing we realized was that there was salt deposited all over the heat exchanger, the alternator and the starter.  Not, a good sign.  Salt water was obviously getting in somewhere and evaporating on the hot engine, leaving behind its salt.  A closer look revealed that the heat exchanger (where cool water from the sea cools the hot fresh water that circulates through the engine – roughly equivalent to a cars radiator) was corroding and leaking quite a lot.   Jon pulled apart the starter and tried to rehabilitate that while I worked on stopping the leaky heat exchanger the best I could.  We then put the engine back together and it started. But our troubles were not over, for unwittingly I had only made the leak worse. 

We spent the night at the marina, and decided we would still go outside to Charleston, for we would not need the engine once we were out in the ocean.  So the next day we headed out, and started our 350 mile trip north to Charleston. 

It was a beautiful sail.  The wind was on our beam most of the way making the ride very pleasant, and we got Shaft, our windvane self steering unit working, and he was able to steer for us a great majority of the time.  We could sit back eat lunch, read, or just enjoy the starts while Baggywrinkle sailed along Northward with the Gulf Stream.  The Gulf Stream flows northward at about 3 or 4 knots, so our 6 knots was actually 9 or 10 over the ground for about a day.  Because of this we made excellent time our first day out. 

The third night we approached Charleston.  The wind began to pick up and turn onto our nose, making it hard for us to go where we wanted to go.  At this point we just wanted to get in to port and sleep a while, so we decided to crank up the engine and motor the last two hours into port. 

The engine started fine, and we were pounding into the waves and wind, going slowly, but going where we wanted to.  Then all of a sudden a little red light accompanied by a buzzing sound came from the engine panel.  The Battery dummy light had come on, and a quick look at the engine made it clear that the heat exchanger was spraying salt water everywhere, and the alternator had been the latest casualty.  We now had no way to charge the batteries, but this did not present an immediate threat to our sail into Charleston.  I disconnected the alternator, and we continues to slog along. 

All this while we had left the jib up to attempt a little motor sailing, but the wind had headed us to much now, and the wind was also picking up to over 25 knots, making the sail slap and bang around.  So, we decided to take it down.  Jon got strapped into his harness and made his way forward on the dark, wet, bouncing deck and let the halyard loose that brought the sail down to the deck.  Mid way through this exercise the engine stopped…..and not only had the engine stopped but I suddenly had no steering, the wheel was stuck!  I yelled to Jon and when he got the jib secured on deck he came back to see what had happened. 

We were now drifting in moderately rough seas, at night, with the wind building, about 10 miles off shore.  If we had had steering we would have raised the sails and tacked into port, but this was not an option without the ability to steer.  We thought of trying to steer her with the sails alone, but the rudder was most likely not stuck in the center, and the wind was getting to strong to start experimenting with sail adjustments. 

Although it felt a little like we were giving up, we decided the safest thing for us to do was to get a tow into port.  So, we hailed the Coast Guard on our VHF radio.  They responded and took us through a whole check list making sure we were not injured, making sure we had life vests on, and getting the positing and condition of our vessel.  After that they contacted a private tow company for us, who were able to get out to us in about an hour and three quarters. 

The tow back lasted from about midnight to five in the morning, and Jon and I were exhausted.  The Coast Guard was calling us every half hour to check in on the status.  Each time I would start out of the half sleep stupor that I had fallen into, and grab for the microphone, in order to respond in a timely manner.  When we did make it into the Charleston City Marina, Jon and I both collapsed on our bunks. 

When we woke up a little investigative work revealed that what had stopped the engine was completely unrelated to our previous engine problems.  While lowering the job one of the sheets had gotten wrapped in the propeller shaft!  We felt very dumb for letting this happen, but the lesson was learned. 

The task ahead of us of fixing the engine seemed daunting.  But a combination of factors led to our stay in Charleston being a very pleasant and surprisingly short one.  The first morning we were tied up at the marina two divers were about to go into the water in order to clean the boat next to us. “I have a line around my prop,” I said to one of the guys.  “20 bucks under the table and I’ll take it off he said.”  It was a deal. I was able to call the engine manufacturer and have the parts I needed sent next day UPS, and I also was able to get in touch with family friends, Ellen and Frank Avenoso, who live in Charleston.  They gave us hot showers and real beds to sleep in, not to mention wonderful food prepared by master chef Frank.  This went a long way to alleviate the worry I had about the engine, and a further distraction in the form of an arts festival was also a lot of fun.  Charleston was enjoying their annual Spaleto festival, in which hundreds of acts, musical groups, dance, theater, art, all converge on the city.  Jon and I enjoyed a performance by the Second City comedy troupe, and a fun pops concert with fireworks and the 1812. 

And the rebuilding of the engine went very smoothly.  In one day we were able to take out the old heat exchanger and alternator and put in the new ones.  We refilled the engine with coolant, and started her up.  She purred like a kitten. 

The Avenoso’s were heading north for the Summer and Jon decided to catch a lift back home to Falls Church with them. So this past Monday morning they dropped me at the boat and we all headed north, they in the car, me in the boat. 

I have been motoring up the Intracoastal Waterway again, making about 40 to 50 miles a day motoring about 10 hours each day.  The days are long and hot, but I have an auto pilot so that I can escape the wheel to eat and pee.  It is not hard work, but I have to be attentive the whole day since the waterway twists and turns, and shoals.  A few minutes of not paying attention or straying away from the marks can lead to running aground, such as happened to me yesterday. I have about 300 miles to go to hit Norfolk, VA which if I pushed it hard I could do in 6 days, but there is no need to push myself that hard.  There are plenty of pretty little towns to visit along the way. Yesterday as I motored up the Wacamaw river the landscape was beautiful.  Trees lined each side of the brown river, osprays flew overhead everywhere, frogs and turtles sat upon the fallen trees at the riverbank, and the occasional dolphin splashed by.  I even saw an Alligator slinking along the riverbank, his head only half way out of the  water, and the scales on his back breaking the surface in a straight line back to his tail.

It’s time to go ashore and explore Southport on this day off from motoring that  I have given myself.


July, 1st 2000

Two weeks of single handing taught me a lot, most of all not to worry so much about the paint job. Docking the boat alone has left additional racing stripes of various colors on the white hull.  At least it gives me something to work on now that I am back in port! 

I left Elizabeth City, “Port Of Hospitality” astern and headed into the Dismal Swamp…. Sounds Ominous doesn’t it!  Far from that, it was quite beautiful.  The Great Dismal Swamp connects Albemarle Sound to the Chesapeake Bay, and it has quite a history which I know little of, except for the fact that the initial survey of the Swamp was done by George Washington.  While motoring through one can almost imagine (if the diesel engine is ignored) that it is still the late 18th Century, for the canal is much the same as it was back then, with some of the original retaining walls still in place. 

I anchored in a beautiful creek-like nook with one other boat (French Canadians) waiting for the lock at the southern end of the Dismal swamp to open.  The trees were growing up to the edge of the water, drooping their branches inward, so as I swung in the narrow area the boat occasionally brushes the oak leaves to stern.  There were a few birds singing half heartedly, but it seemed the only things really thriving In the heat and humidity other than the plants, were the insects!  It really was a swamp….. I keep wondering if George W. had to tolerate his wig while surveying! 

Before heading through the swamp the Canadians called over and asked if I wanted to tie up along side them while in the lock, making it easier for me since I am single handing.  I readily took them up on the offer, as it was my first experience with a lock and I really had little idea of what was in store.  It turned out to be quite easy, as we were the only two boats locking through.  They tied up to the port wall of the lock, and I tied up along side them.  The lock master took the information for each vessel and then slowly opened the flood gates so that we gradually rose about 8 feet in the big tub of swirling dark brown water.  Once we were up, the gates at the far end opened, the Canadians threw me my bow and stern lines, and off I went, motoring up the narrow, shallow, beautiful canal through the swamp. 

During the four hours or so it took to get through the swamp the oppressive humidity gave way first to showers, and then to one great thunderstorm.  Hail, lightning, and thunder pounded down all around me, making visibility almost nil, and slowing my progress to 1 or 2 knots.  I figured this was the fastest speed that was safe, for while it wasn’t hard to tell where to steer since the canal is so narrow and straight that it is hard to get off track, but there are many fallen logs that sit just under the surface and make loud klunking sounds when they hit the hull.  The rain on the water broke the normally placid surface and made spotting these partially submerged sticks, trees, and stumps, almost impossible.  When the rain stopped I was able to speed up once again, and avoid most of the obstacles by keep a close watch ahead. 

I spent the night just inside the swamp cut, and locked through the next morning, again tying off the Canadian boat.  Once through the lock it was a short motor to Norfolk, where David Spevacek was to join me for the three day sail up the Chesapeake Bay.  Sailing through Norfolk was fascinating, and quite a contrast from the natural beauty I had just left behind.  Huge Navy ships lined the channel, aircraft carriers, battleships, communication ships, and every other kind of watercraft imaginable.  Cranes loaded cargo onto commercial carriers, and huge drydocks cradled massive ships giving men, mere specs against the backdrop of the beached whales, access to hammer, weld, and paint. 

The SW wind was kind to us as we sailed up the Bay, blowing pretty consistently from our Port stern quarter.  A couple of days up the Bay and we were in the familiar waters of the Patuxant River, where my parents kept their boat.  The first warm feelings of being close to home came when I walked through a parking lot at the north end of the Dismal Swamp and saw only VA license plates.  But, now sailing in the waters where I had spent so many happy weekends I felt a real sense of homecoming. 

While heading up the Bay I was able to rendezvous with some cruising friends, Bob and Angelique, aboard their boat Beach Bum, and they too (with orders from my mother to act as surrogate parents for the time being) welcomed me home.  We sailed up the Bay in tandem and the company was very welcome.

I arrived here in Annapolis last Tuesday, and on Wednesday motored around to the Magothy river just north of Annapolis (a 5 minute drive, a 3 hour sail) to where I will be staying for the next couple of months.  I have stumbled upon a fabulous situation in which I will be house sitting for a couple who have an empty house and empty boat slip until September since they are spending the summer cruising in Maine.

It is back to the so called 'real' world…. driving in traffic, paying bills, hunting for a job, and worst of all wearing socks!