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Bahamas
Tuesday, 12 July 2011
New Blog at marchtobahamas.wordpress.com
This blog is now located at marchtobahamas.wordpress.com - please visit there to read more entries and see more pictures!  Thank you!

Posted by march88 at 10:18 AM EDT
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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Wednesday June 15

We woke up at high tide—all sorts of little boats loaded with local people were departing the harbor dressed in the equivalent of Sunday clothes.  Where would they go? The only other land in sight is South Bomini, across the narrow canal, some two miles away. We went into the village for some shopping. I particularly wanted a taste of the famous  Bimini bread, but all the little boutiques were still closed. Tried my bank card at the money machine and it was rejected. Swell! But the gas attendant was willing to accept it and we filled out the two red canisters paying the stiff price of $6.10 a gallon (plus surtax). We left the canal around 10:00 in the morning, heading south, rounded the South Bimini and heading straight East over the Bahamian Bank.


The Bahamian bank is a wide expanse of area between the Bimini shore and Andros, some fifty miles by one hundred. The map shows surprisingly shallow depths of 6-8  feet; one could practically stand up in the middle of the ocean, at times. The waters are so clear that even when deeper than that, the bottom looks closer than that. Most of the time the bottom was sandy, with tufts of seaweed, clumps that look like sea urchins but I suspect they,re not, and an occasional, conspicuous sea star. Not a fish in sight, so I didn’t bother throwing a line behind us. We set the engine at 1500 RPMs and motored East at a cozy 3.5 KTS. We didn’t bother with the ail—the wind was practically absent.

In the afternoon, we found ourselves right in the middle of the Bahamian bank. Water, water everywhere—a flat unreal sea, the color of mercury or molten lead. The sun was blasting overhead, the engine was purring steadily, and there was nothing to do but keep the Easterly heading, with minor adjustments. Two dolphins appeared from nowhere, dove under the boat, and passed us to the right. Standing  at the prow (aptly termed ‘the pulpit) gave you an eerie sensation as you glanced over the wide expanse of indifferent waters. We ate as we motored along, and opened a chilled bottle of wine to celebrate the event, whatever it may have been. Since there was a touch of south-westerly wind, we pulled out the sails that flapped lazily and settled in a relative configuration; a couple of decimals were added to our ambling speed. Behind us, the Western horizon was strangely misty, but skies were clear ahead of us.


I fired up the satellite Weather program (we could barely reach the Miami VHF radio weather anymore). A powerful storm was brewing over central Florida. Snatches of broadcasting on the radio announced powerful winds and hail. That didn’t bother me too much, since the storm was way across the GulfStream. Another minor one was gathering momentum south of Bimini (the source of the misty horizon) moving North East. I( wondered if it would catch up with us, but on the screen, it looked like it was slowly dissipating. Good thing we didn’t head South. Our aim was Andros, the largest island in the Bahamas, that we couldn’t miss. Andros became our destination for the day—but we still had some 40 miles to go. Naturally, we didn’t even consider what we would find in Andros, a mistake that would cost us dearly in the future. 

A full moon was rising in the East, some ten degrees right to the mast. We decided to continue motoring at night, since the visibility was good and one could see shadows in the cockpit. We turned on the position lights and kept moving at around three knots. The feeling of navigating at night by the light of the moon was overpowering. I imagined a scenario of a man tossed overboard in the middle of the shallow seas, with the bottom close enough to reach standing on tiptoes. I had a cup of hot cocoa, trying to shake off the weird feeling. It was getting chilly,

Mihai took the first shift and I went below deck to snatch a little nap. It seemed like I had only been asleep for minutes, when the engine surged, and then died. I went on deck—the engine quit on us, like it did on Coralville reservoir. The starboard tank was still half full; we pumped the rubber pear which was stiff, but the engine still wouldn’t start. We changed the feeding line to the port tank and finally, the Etec started. Looks like the siphoning tube in the tank doesn’t reach all the way to the bottom. That’s a good thing to know. I took over and motor for another couple of hours, while Mihai went below deck. I was too wound up to nod at the helm, but the engine purred steadily and I relaxed, little by little. The horizons were again clear in the moonlight. The storm over Bimini had dissipated. 

When the sun came up in front of us, we still had some 20 miles to go. The wind was picking up and holding an easterly course was becoming problematic. We passed a couple of ships (or rather they passed us) to the left and I was again experiencing the same itchy feeling, wondering when the land would show up. When it finally did, I went below deck to double-check the charts and do a little reading on Andros, and the report was none too encouraging.

Andros hardly appears on any yachtsman’s itinerary. The island is mostly uninhabited and covered with swamps and mangrove marshes. The Americans have a few research bases along the Eastern shore, but the chart authors snidely point out that no one is welcome to use their facilities, or even anchor at their buoys. There are only two settlements, , Nichols Town at the northern tip of the island, the other one, somewhere in the middle, a little north of the estuaries that slice across the middle section of the island, Even those estuaries , grandly dubbed “Sweet Water”, are unmarked, brackish, and sprouting dead ends. Vandals have been reported in the area and Ostrogoths too, maybe, in case they left anyone alive to report. Worse still, Andros was the only island where infamous “doctor flies” have made the travelers’ life a burning hell, unless (as the chart authors commented) one is an insect lover. That didn’t sound good at all. At this point, we still had some options: head for Nichols Town to fuel up and continue along the Easterly shore, or veer North East and head for the Berry islands. The first option had the disadvantage of taking us to a shore bristling with dangerous reefs and strong currents that made it unfriendly for shore navigation. The other one required a change in heading that would presumably take us across some shallow waters which both SeaClear and Garmin charts specifically mark as “unexplored” and “sandbars showing at low tide”. The typical depth was around two feet.

I was so pissed that we hadn’t checked all this information earlier. We could have taken advantage of the wind and sailed straight into the Berry island, instead of fighting it all the way. We had wasted at least three hours heading for a promised land that we were now keen to avoid. So I kept the SeaClear computer program on, below deck, doublechecking against the helm Garmin and the paper charts. We made our way slowly into the sand bars. The water dropped quickly at four feet—then at three. The bottom was a mixture of sands and rocks—not too appealing if it came to beaching the boat. We pulled the fins and the centerboard up and I stood at the prow, grabbing the furler, and trying to read the bottom by its colors (mostly a murky yellow). I could see several bands of a lighter hue in the distance, and a dark blue belt at the horizon—that’s where we wanted to go.

We motored slowly over the Joulter Cay’s sandbanks for what felt like (and most probably were) hours. I tried to pilot Mihai, avoiding the bright yellow spots) but they seemed to be shifting in the sunlight. Looking behind, I could see several sandbanks already emerging. The boat icon on the SeaClear GPS was moving maddeningly slow on the screen. Since it was so large on the chart,  that added to my sense of frustration. Finally, we made our way safely to the canal north of the sandbanks (where we should have been navigating all along and from the get-go). We took and East course and headed into the Tongue of the Ocean; the depth became 10 feet, then 20, then abruptly fell to 100 and then to nothing. The Tongue of the Ocean is a deep trench East of Andros, one of the reasons why researches established their bases there, for it is the meeting place of all sorts of marine life. Knowing that we had 1800 feet of aquamarine water under our keel felt pretty reassuring.

This time I made sure I took in all the information on Berry Islands, ahead of time. According to the guide, the string of islands east of Bimini are sorely under-appreciated and worth exploring. The book mentions reefs, deep sea fishing, and all the goodies  one typically associates with the Bahamas. We aimed for Chub Cays, a southerly island boasting a thriving, prosperous community (vacationers mostly, I warrant) with a number of good anchorages and a fuel marina. We could already see the two antennas in the distance. We approached the island, passing Mama Rhonda Rock to our portside (another promising place to anchor, I thought) and got closer to the bay at the south-western end of the island that marks the entrance to the canal. A couple of other ships were anchored in the bay, but the guide indicated the position of another promising spot: the Berry Island Club, situated into the canal between Chub Cay and Frazer Hog Kay. Apparently friendly and helpful, the marina also has fuel.

We first decided to anchor close to the wide beach that expands from the southwesterly points all the way to Frazer Hog; getting closer to the land, the colors of the waters change back to the bright turquoise hue of shallow Bahamian waters.  We got closer to the white-sanded beach beyond which one could see a couple of villas tucked among palm trees,  a reassuring sight since the rest of the vegetations looked very un-tropical—dwarfish pine trees and shrubbery.  The Cays worth exploring look mostly like hunks of barren rock. Whatever. We pulled close to the beach and anchored in an unexpectedly strong breeze. I idn’t want a replay of the beach anchoring experience at Naples, five years  before, so we decided not to stick around. We headed for the Berry Island club instead—we had to get fuel anyways.


The canal we took was well-marked, large and deep. The club marina had a huge dock with four hopeful-looking tanks. Two other boats were moored at the buoys, but there was plenty of room around and more buoys to spare. We approached the dock carefully and found a place in a little cove upwind. We cast anchor in three feet of water; the bottom was strewn with rocks. I hailed the marina on the radio, but there was no reply, so I took the dinghy and rowed ashore. The tide was low, the edge of the water was hard and reefy. 

The marina itself looked deserted; an clean, well-kept building that looked abandoned “for the winter,” with a sandy bath leading to the wharf, among some palm trees and a huge pile of empty conchs (another good sign, I thought) Behind the marina, a couple of “duplexes” (motel-type buildings with two apartments in front and two in the back, several hammocks (within metal frames) some sparse bushes sprouting a few solitary blossoms and an abandoned truck with no license plate. No one in sight. The dock did have indeed several tanks labeled “Diesel” and “gas”. The only unlocked outbuilding was a wooden box with two shower stalls, off the marina—but the water was turned off. I returned to the boat and tried to raise on the radio either the marina, or the two anchored boats, for more information. A voice responded, informing me that the club was closed and there was no gas. After a short pause, the voice inquired how much gas we needed; finding out that we lust6ed for only eight gallons, the man said he would be there in the morning, invited us to moor at one of the buoys, and signed off.


We still decided to stay in the little bay, away from the other two boats. The nearer was a sail ship with a couple who took there smart-looking dinghy (with its own motor) to the dock every couple of hours to allow their marine dog to make its rounds and pee. The tide came rushing inland Hai-Hui started bobbing in six feet of water. Everything looked slightly more inviting at high tide. At sunset we heard some strange, wailing sounds wafting across the bay, the woman stood at the prow blowing into a  bagpipe and “maken” the most dismal “melodye” ever since the times of Chaucer: I vaguely recognized Amazing Grace, Oh, Danny Boy and “Little Taffin” medley. After the performance, her companion duly applauded. I briefly considered bringing up my guitar for a jam session, but thought better of it.

Mosquitoes came in droves at night. By this time, we had eaten a Spartan dinner, noticing again that the grill refused to stay lit (we ended up tossing the sausages into the frying pan, and onto our trusty Swedish Origo alcohol stove) and were ready to hit the sack. We stretched the mosquito net a tad too late, trapping several within, and smoke a final pipe, admiring the full moon over the tranquil bay. I had a hard time falling asleep. Woken up at two o’clock in the morning  with a sense of foreboding. Looking overboard, I saw the waters have dwindled again with the low tide, and the rocks at the bottom looks disquietingly close. I woke up Mihai and we double-checked on the Garmin. Low tide was scheduled two hours hence, and the graph showed that we would lose another half-foot of water past the lowest point when we anchored. But the depth was still over three feet, so we felt safe enough. We went back to bed—in the morning, we would get our gas supplies and head for Nassau. Our supplies have dwindled amazingly fast (especially in the beverage category) and there seem to be no grocery in sight for miles. Maybe we should get used to that thought. Wish I had brought around some instant tea sachets, so we could make our own soft drinks. We might find some in Nassau though.


Posted by march88 at 1:34 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 16 June 2011 1:49 PM EDT
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Saturday June 11

We’re anchored 200 feet off Angelfish Bay, pointing into the Easterly wind. Ahead of us stretches the Atlantic;  first a 15 mile wide reef with its depth varying between 20 and 2 feet, then the 40 mile wide expanse of the Gulf Stream flowing northwards at a speed of 3 knots. Behind us, a curved shore line laced with the ubiquitous mangroves, tufts of palm trees, and imposing mansions half buried in vegetation. There seems to be no beach to speak of. The ocean waves have been tamed by the wide coral belt and gently lap the abrupt shoreline. The houseowner right behind us has built a small platform that doesn’t deserve the appellation of a “dock”, with a little gazebo and a round stone table, Roman-style, devoid of any marine flavor whatsoever. The sky is overcast, especially in the West. We’re biding our time, waiting for three o’clock in the morning, when we will take the great leap. Eight more hours to go—and it’s hard to stay off the cold beer.

The past couple of days have been spent  at the South Dade marina, waiting for a change in weather. We finally saw the manatees romping around early in the morning—imposing creatures as large as cows, moving underwater with unexpected grace. They seem to be grazing the submarine pastures and minding their own business. I am a little leery about slicing them with the propeller, as we motor out of the Marina, but Rafael says they are accustomed to moving away when they sense engine vibrations. Rafael is fond of his manatees; he told us that he heard a mother go “wooo! Wooo!” when she lost her calf, just like a human being would. Indians considered manatees sacred, and I was eager to read a good omen in their sighting


I tried fishing a little off the dock, but it was too windy even for that. Besides, I seem to be lacking the right bait. Rafael asked me what kind of lure I was using, and I said, “salami.” “That’s not right,” he said. Come with me and I will give you some bits of fish. You eat the salami.” He gave me a frozen package of small dish filets which I stuffed into the freezer—it may come in handy later on.

In the afternoon, Bob showed up too and we had a little conference. There seemed to be a glimpse of hope, as the weather services predicted an unexpectedly positive change; winds shifting to the south on Sunday, then a couple of days with light and variable winds, as a low pressure trough moves over Southern Florida. Looks like close to ideal conditions for crossing—a south westerly wind component would have been even better, but we cannot be too picky. So we would probably hang around the marina for another day, motor across a string of bays to Angel-creek (the closest passage from the inner bays to the Ocean) wait  at the mouth of the creek for the opportune time (traditionally, 4:00 in the morning) and get going on Sunday.

Rafael came over to the boat later in the evening. He had a couple of shots of rum while we nursed our beers under the mosquito net, and told us improbable tall tales (which may well be true, given their outlandishness) involving the Mafia, guns, his own un-breveted mechanical inventions and the like. In the end, he insisted on showing us an excellent place to eat where two guys “like us” would eat their fill for 20 dollars. That still sounds pretty steep to me, but what the hell, this is Florida, vacation-land, so other rules might well apply. Since we were hungry anyways, we decided to follow suit. We jumped into Rafael’s Honda SUV (which he had bought for $175 as part of some shady deal) and left for Key Largo. The restaurant he had in mind turned out to be closed by then, so he furiously slammed the pedal to the metal and took us to a Cuban Café, (waitressed by a big-assed Mexican, as he quickly informed us). They still had some food available (except for Salsa, which Rafael highly deplored) but we ate a sort of schnitzel, Mihai had some beef in tomato sauce (he wouldn’t share it, the rat!) rice and beans, French fries, some exotic version of the homey potato, and a salad devoid of personality. We returned close to midnight, and we went straight to bed. There were a few nightly showers, but we felt safe at the dock.

The following morning the weather was still muggy. We drove into Miami, for our appointment with the Customs services. I also grabbed a bag of dirty clothes, hoping to hit a Laundromat on the way back. The Tom-Tom GPS took us into the harbor by a tortuous route (or maybe we missed the right exit, I don’t know) we parked at terminal H paying a stiff fee of 7 dollars for no less than 2 hours. The offices were located in a derelict building that had the unmistakable “immigrant” air about it. Numerous signs informing the visitors that the building has no toilets, as if the first trademark of an immigrant were to hasten and relieve himself. It had A/C though which again makers a lot of sense. The two ladies at the conspicuously empty counter looked anything but busy; most immigrants might well be illegal, and hence, in no need of any official services, or toilets, even. She quickly punched into the computer the data I had already provided on line, courtesy of Starbuck in Key Largo, and handed me a plastic card. When it came to registering Mihai (who has no American passport) the lady shrugged; apparently, we will have do to it ourselves, the traditional way, upon our return. I was so mad that nobody deigned to inform us over the telephone that this was the procedure, but eventually, I had to admit that we couldn’t have left earlier in the week anyway, on account of the weather. So we returned downtown looking for a Starbuck and an internet hotspot, which we found in a coquettish little mall, by the beach.

We returned to the Marina in the afternoon, once we did some last moment shopping in the Homestead friendly Walmart store. It was getting hot and the wind was still strong, and shifting to the North. To the North? That’s not what the weatherman said.  We were expecting Southerly winds—but then again, we still had one more day to go. Who knows?

We hauled all the additional crap to the boat, by way of two handy marine carts, and we hastened to launch. It was getting late in the afternoon and our plan was to go to Sandy Beach (a nifty anchoring spot that Bob had recommended ever since day one, but which we had missed on our first outing). The docking ropes we had attached several night before were hopelessly entangled. It took me forever to straighten them out and the thought that we had squandered so much time at the dock and failed to coil the ropes “professionally” irritated me to no end. The wind was still blowing strong along the canal. I pulled the anchor rode, Hai Hui followed obediently in tow, and I hauled anchor. But the fins and the centerboard were not down and a hale gust of wind pushed us into the mangroves. Another botched departure. Nothing was compromised save for our sense of self-worth which dwindled even more when we found out that the depth finder had not been set properly and the solar panels were slightly askew after our unexpected encounter with the mangroves. We anchored in the middle of the main canal to remedy these glitches and finally, we were able to leave, hoping again that no one had witnessed our hasty departure.

We motored all the way to Flat point, in the shelter of the island that we knew. Once we rounded the point, the bay became really choppy—and shallow (a pretty bad combination) But I could see in the distance the area that Bob had suggested and we headed in that direction, until we finally reached another prelude to Paradise. 

I was enthralled. We anchored in a sheltered cove, well protected from three sides by overgrown mangroves. It looked like an Amazonian lagoon to me. The bottom was grassy and the water clear. We attached another rope to the poop and tied the boat to the mangroves. There were no mosquitoes. A half-moon made everything look so peaceful that I felt like pulling out the guitar and crooning some old songs, in case I still remembered them. In between songs, we listened to the tropical frogs until late at night. … a thoroughly promising overture.


In the morning, I took a dinghy trip round the point. Everything was as peaceful as could be. The “sandy beach” turned out to be a minuscule stretch of gravel at the foot of some tropical pines and mangroves. The water was warm and shallow, so I saw around a little and took some pictures with the waterproof camera. See what would come out, since the button doesn’t seem to promptly respond. Around ten o’clock, we decided to haul anchor and slowly move towards Pumpkin Island, a place this side of Angelfish Creek that Bob Recommended. It’s a 15 mile trip to the pumpkin and I was curious how the Etec would handle it. We set off trailering the dinghy behind. The morning was already hot and muggy. We followed the BlueChart indications (the helm Garmin GPS  showed next to nothing) and Passed under Barnes point bridge, heading NorthEast until we hit Pumpkin Island—a private rock about two miles long, with an imposing dock, warning signs, and colonial-style buildings hidden in the bushy vegetation. We ate on board, I swam a little, and in the afternoon, we decided to go to Angelfish Creek and cross it anyways—the sooner the better. It will probably take us more than 10 hours to cross the Gulf Stream, and we need to reach Bimini in the daylight, for the customs and immigration formalities. Besides, we were warned that the entry in the Bimini canal was sanded up and may be treacherous.

The crossing

I set the cellphone alarm clock for 3:00 in the morning, even though I doubted that we either of us would get much sleep that night. Mihai took the first shift and I went below deck but couldn’t sleep much on account of the mosquitoes. What the hell?! We were anchored more than 500 feet away from the shore and mosquitoes were already buzzing like crazy in the cockpit. The previous night, we had anchored next to the mangroves and there had been none. Mihai was all wrapped up in his rags and he went below deck, while I took over. Around midnight I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went below deck too. I might have dozed off a little, but when I woke up with a start and checked the phone, it was two minutes past three and the phone had inevitably failed to ring. We made some coffee and last minute preparations, donned our life vests, and we left into the moonless night. According to the available charts, the safest way to get off the reefline would go south east, up to a “flashing green light” that I seemed to perceive dimly in the respective direction—only that it was neither flashing, nor green. Other lights could be seen in the area, but I had no way to assess the distance, so I went by guesstimnates and by water depths; there were two shallow areas (around 2 feet) to be avoided on our plotted course. Mihai was worried about that, but I didn’t think it was such a big deal. Two feet leaves us plenty of room to float in, and  there was plenty of elbow room to maneuver in anyways. There was no reason why unmarked reefheads would show above the waterline. We got closer to the light but the depth no longer corresponded, so we veered East, aiming for a bobbing light in the general direction of what was charted as “borderline to the Natural Preserve  territory” It turned out to be a boat, but it still took us closer to a conspicuous red light marker. The helm GPS was beginning to show more elaborate details, but according to it, we were still over the reef. I had my laptop fired up in the cockpit, strapped with an elastic bungee cord to the table, but the BlueChart program did not show our positions—only the general mapping. So I had to constantly extrapolate. It was getting close to 5;30 it was still; dark, and we were still motoring into the overcast, bleak east. The depthfinder started showing more and more depth, so it looked like we were out of the reef and into the Gulfstream, at long last…

It was a bleak first encounter: the Florida coastline behind us, with the conspicuous grid of four strobe lights flashing off Miami, and a murky easterly line ahead of us. The sea was flat—the wind, a mere 5 kts from the North East. The engine was turning smoothly. No biggie. The sun was peeking from behind the clouds so we managed to snatch a couple of pictures. None too soon, for the seas started to swell. I wasn’t too worried about that either, since the weather forecast had predicted 1 foot swells off shore… but these swells looked definitely larger. Not sure whether they measure the swells from the median line, or from the bottom of the trough to the top, but these ones were oftentimes cockpit-level. They were coming from the North East, against the grain of the GulfStream, hitting us sideways, so we often had to abandon our Easterly course and turn portside into the waves. Sometimes, the boat would slam down, making the anchor chains rattle. We were still advancing and trying to stick to an easterly course. Even though we had started off 40 miles south of Biminis, by my calculations, an Easterly course would take us right on the dot, due to the North-floating Gulfstream.


By ten o’clock we were right in the middle of it. The most striking feature aside from the swells, of course, is its notorious color: a deep aquamarine akin to the Romanian “sineala de rufe” It’s  truly unbelievable, that any water in the world be colored exactly the way a 5 year old would, resorting to his felt-tip pen. Tufts of golden seaweed were still floating around. I saw a couple of flying fish, skimming the surface like iridescent skipping stones, but not much else, marine-life wise at all. The Ocean itself seemed like a giant creature, none too friendly, but neither overtly threatening.

I took the helm allowing Mihai to go below deck to snatch a nap. Keeping an easterly course was difficult. I was trying to slice obliquely through the oncoming waves, which made for a lot of heavy rocking and rolling.  By 11 o’clock, though, we seemed to enjoy a lull, or maybe we got used to the rocking pattern. By my computations, we should reach Bimini by 13 hours. And, sure enough, peeking ahead, I thought I saw a tall antenna poking the horizon.  Mihai was doubtful that we would reach Bimini so soon, but I was confident that this was indeed a possibility—after all, the speed gauge often showed 7 knots, when motoring down the wave slopes. 

Unfortunately, Mihai was right. The antenna proved to be the mast of a lonely sailship, motoring like us against the current. Such a disappointment.  You could still see several powerboats flying majestically in the direction of Bimini and leaving us behind in the dust. With such a boat, one could reach Bimini in three hours. In the meanwhile, we were bobbing like an overgrown cork of a heavenly bottle in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf Stream.

I switched on the Marine radio on channel 16 and, sure enough, someone attempted a radio-check, just like in my old pilot days. I muttered, “Read you loud and clear” to which the interlocutor retorted with a “Thank You, Cap’tain,” which made me feel a little better. A couple of gigantic tankers crossed our path, moving leisurely at a cozy 25 KTS. I went below deck to start up the SeaClear program and double-check our position. The little Garmin GPS took a long time to spot us (the last time we checked was in the South Dade Marina) and when it did, it turned out that we were barely half way across the Gulf Stream. I realized that Mihai had been using the zoom-in function, presumably to see us better on the map, while the big picture looked totally different, in stark agreement with SeaClear. Four more hours to go.

The wind started to pick up again. Being below the deck made me feel hot and sweaty; was I getting sea-sick? It would have been the first time ever. But then again, I had never crossed the GulfStream before. We drank some juice and I chewed on some granola, without any noticeable improvement. The sky was still overcast, the waters the same shade of intense aquamarine, no more flying fish in sight. Now that I saw how far we still were from our destination, was worried about running out of gas from the service tank (we had two eight gallon tanks, and two three gallon spares, so gas was not lacking—usable gas was) We had to switch tanks, an operation entailing several awkward moves in a crouched position, squeezed between the cockpit seat and the steering column. Gas was still sloshing in the tank, but I preferred to do the switch now, rather than run the Etec engine dry. We stopped the engine and started twirling around powerlessly as the waves came at us from all sides, but managed all right in the end. I was afraid I had busted the gas valve, but the engine started right away and we resumed our course

When the Bimini coast finally appeared in the distance, it was a little farther to the South than I expected. The current had been pushing us relentlessly North, even though we had been striving to keep an Easterly heading since early morning. I pulled out the paper charts down below, just to make sure, and reviewed the markers. We had to hit the canal between North and South Bimini, and then turn left and follow another narrow waterway spiked with Marinas, into Alice town, for legal formalities—and fuel. I retrieved the Anmerican flag, while Mihai started digging up for  the quarantine and Bimini flags which, of course, had been stored elsewhere. We attached the flags with bits of rotten rope I had wisely saved from the trailer, even though we had a couple of spools of high-quality string stored somewhere below deck. As we monkeyed with the flags, the solar panels came down from one bracket. Again, we had to pull the tools out and fix the panels (two large flat surfaces mounted on a cross bar that one person can hardly lift) while the boat was ponderously swaying  with each swell. The radio was broadcasting on channel 16; the coast guards in Miami were trying to help a boat in trouble, but I couldn’t catch the details

Bimini was getting larger in the distance—but where the hell were the palm trees? I spotted immediately the pink-roofed government building. Five miles out and the depth finder still showed the bottomless trench of the Florida Straits. We approached at 2500 RPMS, eager to hit the land. Finally we sighted the bottom. The colors changed dramatically to the typical turquoise hue of the Bahamian waters; what I eyeballed as a 6 foot depth was in fact 15. We picked our way into the entrance of the canal, avoiding the shoals (unnecessarily, as it turned out, since Hai Hui would have passed effortlessly over them) and advanced cautiously to the first marina. I tried to hail the owner on channel 18 (advertised in the guide) but there was no answer. Finally, a guy saw us approach the dock and signed us to pull in the second slot. I took the wheel and, after a couple of strained maneuvers owing to the dinghy that was riding on top of the hatch, under the boom, effectively blocking our view, we tossed him a line; he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely advising us to pull up the fins and changing the docking location several times just to keep us on our toes, yelling at us in an incomprehensible reggae dialect. Another good Samaritan showed up on the dock and grabbed the nose line. We were finally anchored safely at Weech’s marina, in Bimini.


Contrary to what the Nautical guide advertised about the Bimini marinas, the guy who received us was far from friendly; a stocky black dude sporting a gold front tooth and bean-shaped, brand-new sneakers, with beefy, tattooed arms and an arrogant way of avoiding to meet one’s gaze. I asked him about availability of gas and he muttered “two marinas down.”: He immediately asked us how long we wanted to stay (I initially thought that we would do the formalities, gas up, and sleep south of Bimini in a sheltered cove). I told him that we would perhaps stop on our way back. I went to the marina office with him to fill out the forms; I complimented him on the marina which was pretty clean and picturesque, with empty docking places over clean, transparent, 8 foot deep waters, with conk shells skillfully placed in strategic points, several slothful- looking cats and real green parrot that took me by surprise by saying “Hello!” in a perfect human voice). There was a bar next to the marina where a wild altercation was in progress. The unfriendly dude  hastened to inform us that they would have live music at night but he probably sensed my disapproval and added… “but I’m not sure…”

I ran to the customs office which was several houses down and struggled with the local bureaucracy. The bill of health was duly granted and we were allowed to remove the yellow quarantine flag (another 27 wasted dollars, for I do not foresee using it any time soon again) The lady granted us the visas and collected $150 (in cash) so we were finally legal. By this time it was getting too late to buy gas, so we decided to stayt overnight at the marina with the unfriendly guy and the green parrot, for the measly price of $35 a night (water included). In the meanwhile, local cops armed with machine guns had appeared at the bar and things were tolerably quiet—maybe we would get a good night sleep, for a change…


We went to check out Alice town (the only one and capital city of this little nation that has its own currency, as well as an efficient police force). The unmistakable sense of Vama veche , a place in its own time slot. There was a garden in particular that threw me back 40 years in time—the same fence built of marine rock, the barren soil where the grass struggles to keep alive, some remnants of old masonry, and a resilient tree or two—coconut trees in Bimini, and a similarly exotic-looking  tree in Vama Veche which makes clusters of seeds and whose name I do not know. It was as if I was in a time loop. But looking down the narrow lane (pompously named “King’s Way”) I saw a couple of modest boutiques (closed) the minuscule Bimini museum (pretty spruced up) the Canadian Bank with a teller machine (that was inoperable as it turned out). People were still driving nice SUVS with Bahamian license plates (small numbers, every each one) and golf carts. We went all the way to the end of King’s road, admired the buildings and the numerous marinas, and returned in ten minutes, starved and tired.


At the boat, we enjoyed tortellini and a cold beer, along with David’s company, who showed up right in time. David is the Good Samaritan who helped us dock—an Australian by birth and brogue, sailing on a superb two-masted schooner that we had admired en passant (all expensive wood and trademark of neat electronics, plus two ladies who seemed to own the place.) I was hoping to visit the boat, but David sheepishly acknowledged that he was simply renting it, and the girls were officially “in charge,” manning and crewing the boat from Florida to Nova Scotia. The girls have a lot of experience in tugboats and this is how they got the job, David says, but they know little about sails. He didn’t think that visiting the boat was a good idea—the girls were asleep by now. Together.

After David left, I couldn’t help myself but take a dip in the inviting, unbelievably clear waters. The current was quite strong, so I had to get a hold of a line. I topped the day with a hot shower at the marina, another piper and a beer, and then—dodo! The music wafting from the bar was exclusively reggae and calypso and I slept like a rock until the next morning, when the obnoxious early risers left the canal at fool speed, making the boats buck like so many wild stallions against the dock lines.

 

 

 

 

 


Posted by march88 at 1:31 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 16 June 2011 1:50 PM EDT
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Friday, 10 June 2011
Launching
We’re anchored in a small canal off Manatee Bay. The mangroves  touch the solar panels. The water is lukewarm  and the stiff 17 knot breeze is wiping the mosquitoes away. Nothing but flatlands for miles around—stung by a vertical radio antenna and a solitary giant billboard one could see for miles around. After we arranged all the equipment on the boat, freeing up a surprising amount of space, we are finally able to breathe. We fired up the grill and heated up the barbequed chicken and the spinach cream. (recipe compliments of Radu Anton Roman) that we have wheeled across half a continent, in the electric freezer. We just had the first hot meal on the boat and things are beginning to look up.
The turning point occurred yesterday; after we drove into Miami to pick up the new head sail, we headed towards South Dade Marina—our launching pad into an alternate universe. The address we punched into the GPS was incomplete, so we had to keep in touch with Bob, the marina owner, via the cell phone. We took Highway 1 into Key Largo, which brought about some memories—it’s already been 23 years since I first travelled this road in an old, battered Ford van with a pop-up top.—and the same sense of excitement laced with some bitter apprehensions. This was also the road where Denis and I were stopped by the Miami police at gunpoint and body-searched for some obscure reason. We probably passed this side-road (the only one for miles) in the days of yore, looking for a suitable camping spot. The gate is now open and Bob, an elderly, soft-spoken gentleman with a healthy tan and a salty look about him, welcomed us inside, under some sparse palm trees and bushes of bougainvillea. The marina is small: a main cardboard office, a workshop area in the back, a narrow launching ramp into straight canal that slices right through the mangroves. Derelict mobile-keeled sailboats on trailers, for the canal is probably too shallow to accommodate the fix keeled ones.

I expected a much more run-down place, in the middle of South Dade’s poorer neighborhood, based on the disparaging reports posted on the MacGregor website by a disappointed Canadian boater; apparently, he tried to launch in February and while he slept on his docked boat the first night, he heard a volley of gunshots. It turned out that the place was being raided by several young hoodlums ikeen on stealing some plastic canoes, but the night guard Rafael kept them at bay with his trusty 22—no match for the raiders’ pellet guns that they brandished just for the show. It also turned out that in the morning, the Canadian found a hole in his own car’s headlight that was eerily similar to a 22 caliber bullet trace. On top of it, the sail master in Miami rolled his eyes when we shared our plans with him, as we picked up the new jib: South Dade Marina? Whoever cares to launch from South Dade Marina? Nevertheless, the place had the quaint, Vama Veche sort of charm; the portable outhouse (which I kind of expected, based on the disgruntled Canadian’s reports) has its modern correspondence in the back of the office, with showers and running water and the ubiquitous small lizards that scuttle underfoot. A long deck stretches in the back, along the canal, and other sailboats are safely moored there like battered pearls on a string. The dock is clean and well-lit. It has water and electricity which we would probably not need, but it’s nice to know that there is room to moor at the end of the dock, if need be, out of everybody’s way.
Bob raised his bushy eyebrows when we told him that we were planning to attempt a crossing; the weather was not going to collaborate for the next four days or so (15-25 KTS winds from the East and choppy seas) but we struck a deal quickly: $125 for a month of parking, with additional $25 a night if we decided to dock. He showed us on a map several good anchoring places in the mangroves, some five miles into the bay, he gave us the keys to the entrance and the shithouse, and he left us in Rafael’s care until Thursday.
Rafael turned out to be a short-bodied gnarly Cuban, with a crown of sun-bleached hair hanging down to his shoulders from the top of his bald dome. He hastened to inform us that he is a Cuban refugee and a private pilot, having the questionable privilege of being shot by the Cuban army down when he attempted to land illegally on the island and smuggle out his son. He crashed the plane on an island outside the territorial waters and managed to survive for four days with three busted ribs, a broken arm, a broken foot, and an aluminum spike in his right cheek. We joked a little about his web-vertised mishap with the hoodlums and he promised us to bring us coffee in the morning. Another local guy showed up, telling us that the weather is pretty bad down around Jamaica. He advised us to anchor close to the nearby hotel and attempt to piggyback on their wi-fi. I couldn’t tell if he was pulling our leg or just trying to be helpful—there was no hotel I could see for miles around. We need to go on the Internet to make an appointment with the Miami customs service, according to the rules, even though everybody else had shrugged it off as an overkill. It’s a free country. People typically come and go as they please. But Mihai is a little nervous about re-entrance procedures, so we will play it safe and legal, as we always try to our best to.

We proceeded to set up the boat, beginning with the new sail: it looks as fresh and inviting as a crisp sheet of white lettuce, even though it looks to me the luff is a little short. Setting up the boat took us hours. The cockpit cushions had been stored in the head and were now tolerably dry, but stuffing the foam mattresses back into their covers took forever. Rafael and the other guy were watching the proceedings from a safe distance, and I could sense their respect dwindling by the minute. We finally managed to back up the trailer along the ramp (which dipped unexpectedly once the trailer’s wheels got under water level) as the sun went down and mosquitoes began to bite. There was still plenty of equipment strewn around the ramp and, worst of all, we were out of beer. For the past couple of hours we had been drinking Dr Pepper by the bucket, taken from Bob’s peculiar vending machine which oftentimes spews out three icy cans for the dollar. Not a bad deal, all in all, not to mention the benefit of a certain gambling rush. Getting the boat off the trailer was another feat in itself—not enough room on the tiny dock to pull her back by rope, as I initially intended, and moor it to the dock. But we finally managed and felt a sense of undeniable accomplishment beholding Hai-Hui sway quietly across the mangroves. We parked and unhitched the trailer and rushed to Key Largo in search for cold beer. By the time we got back, it was already late, Rafael had gone to bed in his motorhome, on the side of the office, and it looked like another day was done, one step closer to  Bimini—a baby step, to be sure, but an important one nevertheless.
Next morning I rushed to Key Largo to fill up the boat’s gas tanks which were practically empty—another reason, I think, why the trailered boat tended to wag its tail at speeds in excess of 55 m/h. With two topped fuel tanks and one five gallon extra, we felt well endowed. The drinking water supplies were a little lower, so I filled out a plastic bladder as well. Just in case. It took us a little while to maneuver at the end of the canal, with little elbow room to spare, as we found ourselves squeezed between the dock where another sailboat was inconveniently moored, the rocky end of the canal, and the mangroves. It was like turning the boat in a narrow driveway bordered by delicate hedges and glass houses. Fortunately, no one was looking, so we finally took off motoring backwards—the engine propeller seemed to be doing a good job sucking us rather than pushing us as was its customary want. We entered another canal, plenty of depth and no one in sight and we soon found ourselves bobbing  on the Manatee lake, a wide expanse of water with no noticeable markers around save for the ever-present mangroves. That was a little puzzling; the Garmin GPS showed that we were still on land, which is not surprising in this giant swamp that are the Everglades. The two makeshift maps that Rafael provided us with were evidently drawn for the benefit of kayakers. We followed the dotted lines along the shore in the general direction of the Hotel which was supposed to be deeply hidden somewhere West of us, only to find ourselves in knee-deep water, thirty feet away from the shore line, with the fins tilling the bottom of the sea. I valiantly jumped overboard to prevent the boat from drifting into the mangroves, praying that the crocodiles were asleep under the “Crocodile Point”, whose ominous name was stenciled in bold letters on Rafael’s map. We motored in the opposite direction and cast anchor at the mouth of another inconspicuous canal. The bottom was seaweed and mud, the depth about four feet. There was no way of telling the depth configuration, since the map showed none. A solitary buoy was floating in the distance, but whether it marked shallow waters or a free passage was anybody’s guess. We felt we couldn’t advance any farther in absence of depth markers, and we didn’t feel much like navigating by visual water depth clues, since they were utterly different from those we expected in the Bahamas. Here, the murky bottom prevented us from ascertaining the depth correctly. By the time one could see the bottom at 4 feet, it would be rather late. With the fins and the centerboard up, and what with the muddy bottom, the worst thing that could happen would be to foul the engine’s water-pump and the impeller. I didn’t mind jumping in the tepid water and dragging the boat afloat again, if it weren’t for the crocodiles. Yet the best option appeared to return to the dock and look for more accurate maps on the other GPS computer programs we had onboard.

We decided to anchor somewhere on the side of the canal, and use the dinghy to row to the dock, thereby saving the nightly mooring fee of $25. There were a couple of places where the typically straight canal swelled like an overstuffed liquid earthworm; they all  seemed appropriate enough, but we still felt it was too far out for a dinghy trip. So we got closer and closer until we reached the end of the dock and practically anchored within throwing distance. With two anchors at either end and with an additional line to the root of the mangroves, the boat held steady in the flapping wind. We inflated the dinghy and I rowed around a little. It was easy to attach the dinghy to the end of the dock, scramble on it, and saunter to the showers and the toilets of the marina. It seemed like an ideal solution. We were in no-one’s way, close enough to the dock, but technically anchored rather than moored to a mercantile civilization, so we felt pretty clever and good about ourselves. Five hours later, Rafael (whom we courteously called over the cellphone for a beer) showed us the error of our ways. He gruffly declined our hospitable invitation and directed us to moor properly at the end of the dock. At this point, it was getting dusky, we were hungry and tired after our drive to the South end of Key Largo where we bought a new 12V convertor for the now defunct cellphone and stopped at Starbucks for an Internet hotspot and a cup of coffee. But the boat was close enough for a 50 foot line to reach from the dock, and we dragged her by this tail, freeing the nose anchor rope little by little, until we had her properly moored. There was nothing else to do but cover the cockpit with the mosquito net, eat the rest of the Iowa grilled chicken and get drunk before the few mosquitoes trapped within would drive us crazy.
In the morning, we took advantage of the perks of civilization and hooked up the computer to the 110 V dock outlet. Sure enough, the Garmin BlueChart showed a more detailed image of Manatee Lake which made us surmise that we failed to load correctly that portion of the map on the helm Garmin. The SeaClear GPS program was also fully functional and reassuringly detailed. Based on that information, we felt safe enough to attempt a crossing to the aptly named Rubicon Keys, some 15 miles away from the marina, which would be an excellent launching point for the trip across the Gulf Stream –weather permitting.

But alas! That was not to be. The WXWORKS satellite weather program loaded slowly and inexorably, forecasting pretty much the same weather as of the past couple of days: East winds peaking at 20-25 kts, day and night, 3-4 foot waves and choppy seas, 20% chance for thunderstorms daily. It looks pretty hopeless. A high pressure front to the North East, pumping Easterly winds into the low pressure area over Cuba. Moreover, the marine weather radio predictions blandly confirmed the bad news. The weather forecast at the diving shop we visited today is even gloomier; it predicts a significant change in weather only by next Saturday. Ten days moored in Bob’s marina, under the rattling, lonely masts, no matter how quaint and friendly it may seem at first (not to mention expensive) , is enough to drive anyone nuts. We could motor around, but sailing in the Manatee lake is out of the question, what with the shallower waters than the Coralville Lake itself. And we already cleaned the boat and arranged the equipment inside several times over. At least the fridge seems to be working well, leaving the batteries drained by the morning, but we get them charged again by next afternoon, even in relative sunshine. Beer’s cold but it goes down fast.  We need a radical break.
We have an appointment with the Customs services in Miami the day after tomorrow. Mihai is a little worried about the re-entry protocols, even though everybody is saying that this is a formality that few people heed. But then again, not many sailors from Transylvania in the area, I would guess. We could have launched again today and motor to the sandy beach on the North East shore of Manatee Bay, and anchor there overnight, but a spell of tropical rain in the afternoon delayed us too much. It’s 8:00 pm, under overcast skies and the gusty wind is making the halyards rattle against the aluminum masts. Bob will be back tomorrow and maybe he has some suggestions, but I doubt that anything would help; we can’t leave into a North Easterly wind and we cannot change the weather patterns. We could try motoring around tomorrow, but we need to be back at the dock for the night, for Friday’s appointment.
At least, I have managed to catch up with this blog. Sending it to Mike Evces would require another trip to the Starbucks hotspot. I remember a Laundromat in the area where we could to our laundry, at the very least. But then again, we could have well done it at home, in Iowa City.

Posted by march88 at 9:19 PM EDT
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The Journey
On Thursday morning, the weather looked tolerably stable. We woke up at 6:00, and loaded up all the equipment strewn in the living room, going by the main list that has spawned a number of sub-lists. I still had several legal loopholes (like the automatic deduction plan with Qwest and Discover cards). The perishables have already been stored in two bins. The diving equipment (minus the weighs and the flippers) in another one. We stuffed the Nissan to the gills and drove to Rodneys’s, stopping on the way for last minute shopping. Once there, I expected to finish loading the boat in a couple of hours and leave by noon. Of course, we found out that the equipment left under the tarp was already soggy, so we spread the spare sails in the tepid mud, and unzipped the cockpit cushions already heavy with last night’s rain. There were a few last-minute adjustments to be done to the boat (like carrying the old dinghy from the cove, taking care of  the main mast plug that didn’t make a clean contact, and of the nose light that was kind of wobbly, emptying the starboard tank of the fouled gasoline, and other merry little chores). What with several such adjustments, the last minutes turned into last hours, and we were finally ready to take off by 4:00. We celebrated the end of the preparatory phase with a spectacular cake that Amanda made for us and we took off at 4:30.

The wind was making treetops sway in the 90 degree heat (typical Iowa August weather). As soon as we descended the hillside into North Liberty, Mihai noticed that the boat was beginning to swing behind the Nissan (something I never bothered me before, even at higher speeds). Once on the highway, it became obvious that the trailer would wag at 45 miles/hour and higher, as badly as it did when we used to trailer with the sprightly and light Cherokee). We crawled all the way to West Branch where we moved all the heavy equipment from the Nissan onto by bunk bed in the back of the boat, thereby lightening the trailer tongue. We did have a wise plan to weigh the tongue before we left, but that important operation was lost in the shuffle. Wonder how many other wise decisions have been likewise overlooked. Getting the boat ready took us no less than a month, but it already felt like we would have had enough to work on until Christmas.
It was a joyless drive to Illinois in the gusty wind that was the cause of so much swaying (or so we hoped). The speed stabilized around 55 m/h and the Nissan was taking about a tankful of gas every 250 miles . Night fell when we had to stop to fill her up the first time and it turned out that the trailer lights were no longer working. The trailer plug ground pin was broken, so we rigged a bypass with an extra wire and “duck-tape” and we were off again. We drove for another 150 miles and we stopped in a parking lot, feeling utterly spent. I wanted to push it a little more, but it was already midnight, we were hungry and hopeless. The road stretched ahead of us for 1500 miles, and the prospect of spending three days in a swaying Nissan, with a wagging boat behind us, aiming to make it to Miami on Monday to pick up the new sail and launch, looked more and more like a pipe dream.
We woke up the following morning to the noise of revving Diesel engines; the truckers were getting ready for a brand new day. We joined the convoy, modestly keeping the speed down to 55 m/h until I noticed the “Check the Engine” ominous yellow light appear on my dashboard. What the hell?! Last time it acted up, the cause was an oxygen sensor that I had changed a year ago. We checked the engine that was still in place under the hood and kept driving on. We passed the Blue Mountains of Tennessee safely enough, where it became abundantly clear that the trailer brakes were inoperable or frozen—a minor inconvenience if we kept the speed constant, at 55 miles/hour. The sense of the brakeless trailer behind, poised to uncoil like a giant, angry cobra when we hit a downhill slope or passed the 60 m/hour limit, was anything but reassuring. The last leg of that day’s journey would take us through Atlanta—a crazily busy hub that I recalled passing through several times, with the same sense of dread and foreboding. I took the wheel and downed a cold can of Dr Pepper. T was 11:00 pm; we had lost one hour crossing into Easter time.
Even so, the traffic was hectic. We descended into Atlanta for 70 miles, keeping close to the shoulder of the road, while gigantic trucks merrily roared by, honking their encouraging curses. When we got close to the downtown, there were no less than ten lanes swarming with traffic—ten from the opposite direction, in so many strings of streaming headlights. We managed to squeeze through though, and once on the other side of Atlanta, we breathed more freely. Talked to Dan over the cell and he told us that we could stay one night at Windstar, in Naples, over at his parents’ condominium which had not been sold yet. Sweet! That meant we could get there by Sunday, do our stinking laundry dripping with so many gallons of cold sweat, take a dip in the pool at midnight, a hot shower, maybe, and sleep well for once in an air-conditioned room. The only caveat though was to leave everything spotless since the real estate agent would show the condo early Monday morning. Of course, that went without saying and we would have done it anyways. But the prospect of reaching Windstar (a paradise in itself) shone like a beacon in this hopeless murk.

I was willing to push it as much as we could and reach Naples in the morning, but we were already approaching the Florida border after another neck-breaking day. We pulled over a side road and found an excellent, quiet spot in the empty parking lot of an electric company. Everything was spotlessly clean, with empty garbage cans and little benches under the yellow sodium street lights. No guard and no other cars in sight. The highway traffic reduced to a lulling buzz in the distance. We slept very well and hit the road again in the morning, after a Spartan breakfast of cold pineapple (courtesy of IC Aldi store) and Dr Pepper and crossed into Florida by late morning.
The first disappointment was the lack of palm trees. Where the hell are the palm trees? I had been harping on this old joke for hours (“Daddy, I want to see the palm trees…”) but now the joke became grim. I didn’t remember Florida so palmless. Finally, we swerved right on highway 74, the road to Naples, and we started catching glimpses of them, mainly around parking lots. That was still a far cry from the profusion of palm trees that I remembered having seen with my mother, the previous year. Looked like blight had decimated the palm trees that used to thrive on the side of the road, or maybe a cunning entrepreneur had unearthed them at night and sold them to local builders. The highway snaked through rows of unprepossessing pine trees and puny tropical oaks, with tufts of trunkless, baby palm trees in between. Maybe after 20 odd years the Royal palm trees would grow back, but I sure do miss them now.
Dan called around noon to let us know that the deal with Windstar was off; the agent was going to show the condo early in the morning which would leave us very little time to clean up or even to rest, for that matter. Oh well. Maybe on the way back, if the condo doesn’t get sold first. On the good side of things, the “Check the Engine” light went off by itself, proving that I had failed to set the gas cap back properly, after fuelling. The oxygen sensor was still Ok—which didn’t surprise me all that much; the Nissan was topping 300 miles to the gallon by now. We still decided to push to Naples and find a place to camp in a known area—maybe go shopping to the West Marine store for a water plastic bladder and other odds and ends. The GPS wasn’t very helpful in revealing motels and campgrounds, so we relied on intuition and found an Inn at the South end of town. The first thing that caught my eye was a huge Laundromat next door. The inn was part of a golfing resort, with several different buildings and an imposing main one in front of a private swimming pool. And yes, palm tree galore all around. We pulled right in and got a room for $60 (breakfast included). A cold shower and internet connection. A humming, ass-kicking AC. We still had a couple of beers in the fridge which we transferred in the hotel room’s icebox and considered the possibility of taking a dip in the pool—which was officially open until 10, but still  available to quiet guests, according to the winking receptionist. That had to wait though since we were both hungry as hell, so we ambled to the restaurant in the main building and grabbed a table in the back, under hanging pots of plastic orchids.
The waitress who seemed to be the only Anglo-Saxon around (everybody else from the reception desk manager to the gardener spoke in heavy Spanish accents) doted on her only customers in sight. She brought us tiny cups of chili and clam chowder, too small for our raging appetites, and quickly upgraded them to more suitable bowls. She also brought us a heap of shrimp cooked in the kind of hot sauce that is typically used on chicken wings, and a jumbo shrimp cocktail that also hit the spot nicely. Mihai insisted on sampling the Beck beer (bleah!) and the Heineken (yuck!) even though I had told him that European beer doesn’t taste the same in America at all, despite its priced which is three times as high as the local one. We drank it even so and topped the bill with some Pabst industrial beer of our own that we had upstairs, foregoing the swimming pool. The spicy shrimp made me get up four times at night to water my horses. Every time I would put several paper glasses filled with water in the freezer, and have fresh, icy water for the next round.

In the morning, we took advantage of the local breakfast, rock heavy on the sugary side: Danish rolls, Waffles, flavored yogurt, cranberry juice, and the like. My cellphone battery was already half-dead, even though I had charged it the whole previous day in the car. I managed to speak to the sailmaster who expected us today or tomorrow. I also attempted to reach the Immigration/Customs office through the net, in order to finalize the small boaters’ option that would have saved us a trip to the Customs’ office on our way back. The Adobe form on the computer wouldn’t allow me to insert any information though. After a couple of fruitless phone calls with the Miami customs officers (who insisted that the form should be filled out on line, as if every goddamn boater were automatically supposed to have internet access as well), I tried my luck with the Fort Myers office which is only ten miles north of Naples. A helpful lady granted us an appointment at 2:00 today, to fill out the forms in person. That seemed like an excellent plan, leaving us enough time to reach the sailmaster before 6:00, pick up our new jib, and head towards South Dade Marina, our presumable launching spot. We could still relax an entire morning in Naples, leave the room by noon, do the laundry next door, and get to Fort Myers in our own sweet time
Our sense of elation was short-lived.  I called South Dade Marina and spoke to Bob. He sounded like a nice person who seemed ready to accommodate us, provided that we reached his marina before 5:00 today, or miss him altogether—he was going to be gone for the next three days or so. Damn! No way we could make it to Fort Myers by 2:00 and reach South Dade in three hours, even if we were to skip the sailmaster and return to Miami to pick up the sail the following day. Another change of plans for the worse. We cancelled the appointment with the Fort Myers helpful lady, settled the bill with the hotel, tossed our sparse luggage in the Nissan and left in a hurry, forgetting two beers and a small bottle of tzuica in the hotel fridge. Wonder what the cleaning lady would make of it when she found it. We took the alligator highway that slices through the Everglades for some 100 miles. Nothing around but swamps and marshes with a clump of solitary palm trees or two. Every once in a while, a sign would proclaim “Indian Village” marking settlements walled in like miniature Fort Knoxes, to keep the alligators and the tourists away. The enclosed huts with thatched roofs are not unlike our Lipovanian versions in the Danube Delta. We passed a couple of restaurants advertising alligator tail lunches, but we were too much in a hurry to sample them. The GPS took us into West Miami, straight to the door of the Doyle shop where we parked arrogantly across three spaces, disturbing the traffic.
The sail was ready, but when I asked the sailmaster to help us mount it on the furler (as he had initially promised over the telephone, and which service I had vectored into the steep price) he took me by the hand in the back of his shop and showed me a miniature model of the furling jib system, pointing at the key components and assuring me that anyone could do it in a jiffy and with no problem whatsoever. He threw in a sailbag instead and gave us some weather-related advice, hunched over his weather program on his computer. According to him, the winds were going to be pretty strong and from the east for the next week or so. We could have snatched a safe passage today, but the weather was going to deteriorate with winds peaking on Wednesday night and Thursday, so leaving before the end of the week was becoming more and more unlikely. We tossed the jib into the back of the Nissan and headed down South on infamous Highway one of ill repute, towards the mysterious South Dade Marina, to keep our appointment with Bob. The GPS faithfully followed the cheapskate directions I had given it, avoiding the much speedier interstate. We bumped along Highway one, towards ever poorer, dusty districts, stopping at every blooming redlight in sight.


Posted by march88 at 9:17 PM EDT
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Friday, 3 June 2011
Day 3
Day 3

Memorial day—aptly termed—finally rolled around. I thought we would be at least on the road to Florida by now, but what with the crazy weather, having the boat on the water is a feat in itself. We drove back to Rodney’s in the morning of what was expected to be the busiest day on the lake: winds between 20-30 kts, hazy sunshine, and temperatures shooting up in the 90’s. The weather people were right for a change. In the sheltered cove, the boat swayed quietly, making slurping sounds against the muddy bank. The waters had gone up by almost a foot. We started the engine that coughed, gasped, and piously died, but eventually caught on once we changed the gas tanks. Looks like the gas in tank 1 was fouled up—we’ll have to replace it with fresh gas and leave the dregs at Rodney’s, whose machinery is known to run on anything combustible. We motored out of the cove, rounded the bend in a stiff nose wind and passed the McBride dam that was already clustered with vacationers. Powerboats and water scooters roared by, loaded with doughy boys and sun-glasssed maidens that looked mildly confused that they weren’t having the time of their lives yet.

We found a safe place to anchor around Indian point and we proceeded to dismantle the Waeco cooler. That turned out to be a mistake. Whereas yesterday the red light still blinked in series of threes (which, according to an Australian website I found yesterday, bespoke of ominous compressor-related troubles) today the machine simply refused to cooperate, promptly popping fuse after fuse from the main bus. Looks like we will have to rely on the large cooler that fits snugly under the table—until you need to pop up the cover and access what’s insides. We plugged it in and the compressor whirred to life. It went on whirring for hours on end, sucking all the juice from the solar panels. The temperature went down and down and down, refusing to stop at the 38 degree mark that I had set for it. I felt disappointed to let the Waeco go which has been my temperamental companion for ten seasons, but it looks that we won’t have much of a choice. The Edgestar uses twice as much power and it doesn’t seem much roomier on the inside. That’s hard to tell though because its cover can’t be fully opened—unless one removes the table, which is already loaded with crap. Mihai suggested that we should read the manual (safely stored at home) but to my mind, the four buttons on the display were self-explanatory and will allow for only so many permutations. I guess we could let the cooler go down to the appointed temperature level and then surreptitiously unplug it, pretending that all’s done automatically.

From this point onwards, everything felt like going from bad to worse. I was already a little sick on account of the heat and couldn’t even enjoy the brats we cooked on the grill. We moved to a more sheltered cove which was already laced with pontoons and several powerboats, and I got into the water to inflate the flabby dinghy that was losing air (which reminded me that the new one we bought had a conspicuous hole in compartment two which we may—or may not—have patched up successfully) . As the wind picked up, Mike Severino called to announce that he, Carol, and Eben were rounding the Indian point in their kayaks, ready to join us. We hoisted the sails to meet them in the cove (noting en passant that the yellow Marine radio we had left with Rodney cannot be tuned to the one we had on board) and enjoyed a random trip to our home base. The sails looked all right at first, luffing gaily in the wind. I had been a little leery about the jib which I had stitched myself, most professionally and with Dental Floss, since the leech started to unravel two summers ago, but it seemed like my zigzagging stitches still held. The main sail still looked crisp and functional, but a closer examination revealed two small areas chewed by mice below the first attachment point, at the foot of the mast. We discussed the possibility of taping them (the sail area is always puckered there and doesn’t seem to take much wind anyway) The wind kept on shifting unpredictably in the narrow canal at the foot of the McBride dam; at some point, the boat tilted so much that the Italian glass coffee maker slipped off the galley and exploded in countless shards below deck. I managed to sweep away most of them and chuck them overboard, but some insisted on staying aboard, for a free trip to the Bahamas.

We anchored in the cove, while Mike and Eben joined us for a beer; Carol returned home; she would come back later with Rodney, Jackie, Cedric, and the baby, some time in the evening. Mike brought us two catfish to grill, and he promised to haul in some more beer. That was a great relief to our vulnerable sense of hospitality: our supplies were low on all counts, and we could not replenish them since the groceries were closed for the holiday. We chatted a little and shared a pipe before they decided it was time to return to the shore. As they were swimming across the cove, it dawned on me that the guys had actually joined us to do a little sailing. We hailed them and, sure enough, they were too happy to swim all the way back to the boat. By this time, the traffic was noticeably lighter and the winds less unruly, though still strong.

We hoisted the jib first; in a 15 knot wind, it seemed plenty of sail to me. I didn’t want to mess with the main sail and the gurgling sounds behind the transom told me that we were going faster than 5 knots. We approached Sandy Beach where dozens of powerboats were beached one next to another, like so many white piglets at the trough, when crack! A gust of wind filled the jib, tilting the boat spectacularly to one side. The jib sheet I was gingerly holding lashed out, leaving a burning mark on my under-arm and got stuck in the cleat. Mihai tried to turn into the wind. By the time I uncleated the sheet, the microburst had passed and the boat recovered nicely. Good thing we didn’t have the main sail up. As soon as we furled the jib, I noticed that the bottom end of the leech was starting to unravel—though my former stitches still held.

We returned to the cove a little shaken, not so much by the tilting of the boat, but the idea that our sails may rip in a measly 25  knot wind put all things into a whole new perspective. On the other hand, as a rule, we had avoided sailing in 25 knots winds at the Apostle Islands. No reason why we would do it in the Bahamas either.  I was willing to get a new jib, but where to get it on such a short notice? The ETEC engine was due for its first 5 year revision, and that had slipped my mind, too. On the bright side, the waters had gone up another foot, so motoring all the way to the back of the cove, on Rodney’s shore, seemed more feasible. We advanced slowly in the 3 foot canal and I kept telling myself that such a situation would be common in the Islands. We beached the boat easily and the boys left. I always liked beaching the boat on Rodney’s shore rather than anchoring out; it felt much more secure and convenient, too.



By the time Carol, Rodney, Jackie, Mike, and the baby came for a visit, we had been struggling with the grill that would not stay alit. Since it was loaded with two catfish, removing the grill to light up the burner was an impossibility in absence of a long, skinny grill lighter which, naturally, was back home on the porch. We resorted to twisted paper towels that I attempted to light up from the edge of the grill, fuse-fashion. After a while, the catfish were done—a little on the smoky side, but nice and tasty. We finished the brats, the rice, and the asparagus I had prepared for yesterday’s dinner, along with the beer, and the guests left. The weather tomorrow calls for stiff breezes and rain, but we might still be able to get the boat out of the water and fix the mast lights. Most importantly, I need to reach the Doyle sailmakers and see what chances we have to get a new jib on the way to Florida. We should have prepared for this trip from the ground up: sail, engine, and ropes first and foremost, rather than fretting about a compost toilet and a Tacktick electronic weathervane. We have no less than three different GPS on the boat, but much good they will do to us in absence of solid sails and an operational engine.


Posted by march88 at 5:11 PM EDT
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Monday, 30 May 2011
Day 2
I climbed on deck at 7:00 in the morning, finding myself in the middle of a crater of dense fog which reminded me of the episode with the helicopter pilot in Lem’s “Solaris”. Unsurprisingly, we hadn’t dragged anchor at night, but now I could hear the wind blowing through the bushes on the opposite bank. Peeking astern, I could see that the wind was blowing from the South now and the boat was swaying in a wide semi-circle (we had forgotten the anchor sail, too….) We proceeded to make some coffee and hot chocolate on the alcohol stove, noticing that we were also missing the coffee cups and the Italian coffee maker which I could have sworn I had put myself in one of the plastic bags. The fridge was still blinking red and the batteries were still half empty. No way would the solar panels work in such soupy fog.

The first batch of coffee came the same color as the waters outside, only a tad hotter. As we savored its nondescript aroma from plastic tumblers, we discussed the options for the day: go ashore and work on the trailer? Or maybe motor around and recharge the batteries in order to see what went wrong with the fridge? There was enough juice for the radio; we switched it on in the middle of a report that announced heavy weather moving North East, towards Illinois. Rain was also in the forecast and, sure enough, it was coming down hard by now. The wind started gusting, too, and Mihai noticed that the anchor was beginning to drag and we were getting closer to the muddy shore. All hands were summoned on deck. We quickly decided to forget about the coffee, start the engine, and pull away and to the middle of the cove, with the final aim of beaching the boat on Rodney’s bank. The ETEC started right away, but the depthfinder was dead, since its fuse had been cannibalized for the higher purpose of cold beer. Quickly, we scrambled below deck, pulled the cumbersome fridge out from under the starboard settee, put the fuse in its rightful place and restarted the engine which spluttered and died. The wind was blowing harder by now (past 15 knots, according to the TackTick weathervane) the boat had its fins and centerboard up and was drifting lazily towards the opposite bank, impossible to control without the engine. I jumped into the water, which was ass-deep and unseasonably cold, grabbed the anchor rode and attempted to pull Hai-Hui by the whiskers towards the shore, while Mihai dropped the other anchor to the stern, so we could pull ourselves away from the shore when we needed to. The rain was coming down hard by now and it was getting a little wetter than in the lake itself, but the shore was hard mud and I could get good traction. I planted the heavy anchor into the mud; it dug in like a claw. We pulled and heaved and finally Hai-Hui settled in a foot of water, riding over the shoreline, but still wagging its stern. I waddled to the back of the boat and grabbed the other anchor-line. It seemed secure enough, so we were able to have the boat at two anchors, which was the best we could do.


By now, the wind had picked up so much that it literally blew the dinghy out of the water and along the shore into a thicket grove some 100 yards away; we could see it from below the deck, through the streaming port windows, plastered against the bushes. The radio broadcasted in its indifferent, mechanical voice, a heavy weather advisory with winds gusting to 65 knots and damaging hail; we soon heard it rattling on the fiberglass deck, but the hail itself didn’t last long. People were advised to take shelter and stay away from the windows and the trees. There were no tall trees in our area, the shore was fairly steep and protected us from the south, even though gusts of wind were weaseling their way into the cove, following the curve of the shoreline, and spiraling around to find a way out. The boat tilted dangerously a couple of times, even though it was beached and the ballast tank was full, and the solar panels seemed to be uncomfortably flapping around, so I streamlined them and they held. The digital arrow on the TackTick showing the wind direction was swirling like crazy, and the wind speed soon hit the lower thirties, even though we were in a sheltered cove. Through sleets of rain, one could glimpse furious ripples across the main lake in the distance; by comparison, our cove offered good protection. We congratulated ourselves for the good sense of beaching the boat in a muddy area instead of motoring along the lake whose banks are oftentimes rocky; at least I knew this mud hole intimately.

The weather advisory was extended for another 45 minutes and, by 10:00, the show was over. The wind subsided and the rain turned into a mild drizzle. The main anchor held well in the hardened mud; the stern anchor probably dragged a little, even though we gave it plenty of rode. I put on my shorts, keeping the only long pair of pants I had in a somewhat dry condition, and waddled along the shore to retrieve the dinghy and returned to the boat. The only towel on boars was already wet, along with the rest of the clothes we had; there was a little water under the companionway hatch, but all in all, the boat held nicely; the cockpit cushions were soggy, but they would dry out sooner or later. We had another cup of coffee and decided to return to Rodney’s by dinghy, leaving Hai-Hui beached behind.

This was a bit of a fore-taste of bad weather that we might experience in the islands, I thought, but the comparison is still contrived; I knew that nothing truly dangerous could happen to us in the muddy cove, save for a broken, mud-plugged engine (if this is the case, the expedition will have to be postponed for at least two weeks to change the water-pump and the impeller). I was still happy to see that the panels held, along with the heavy anchor. We returned by dinghy, forgetting the tobacco and the pipes behind.

Once at Rodney’s, we had pancakes and real coffee, while the sun was beginning to peek through the haze. Maybe the batteries will get charged by tomorrow and we’ll be able to figure out what went wrong with the fridge. The other one we have, the EdgeStar draws twice as much power and I am afraid we won’t be able to keep it running along with all the other electronics, unless the Bahama days are much longer and sunnier than the ones we’ve had so far.

This little adventure left us drained; we returned home claiming to be in dire need of dry socks and underwear, ate a hearty meal and went straight to bed for an afternoon nap. The air outside is sticky and the temperature goes up by the hour. I plucked out our laundry from the clotheslines and they are still damp.

Posted by march88 at 9:38 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 30 May 2011 9:48 PM EDT
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The Captain

Posted by march88 at 9:37 PM EDT
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Sunday, 29 May 2011
Day 1

After six weeks of intensive preparations, the boat is somewhat ready for a test drive, on Coralville Reservoir--or so we hope. We have added a mast antenna, a Tacktick weathervane that broadcasts wind speed and wind direction from the top of the mast, an Edgestar extra fridge, a circuit for a laptop loaded with WXWORKS (Satellite weather service) and SeaClear (an additional GPS), desalinators, and many other things that I must have forgotten already The weather has been unpredictable, forcing us to work in spurts, either outside (scrubbing the boat clean, stretching out soggy cushions and drenched pieces of equipment in the sporadic sunshine, and hoping to get the ever-present moldy smell out of the fabric) or inside, finishing the spearguns. I took care of the humiliating chores, while Mihai worked on the loftier ends of speargunning, Hawaiian style. The Bahamians allow no triggered guns in their waters, so Mihai designed two slings with heavy wooden handles that shoot two-foot spears by way of bungee cords. The rest of the equipment includes underwater cameras, marine radios, snorkeling equipment, maps and charts, and other impressive odds and ends that litter the living-room floor at home, making us hopscotch across the temporary warehouse. And we haven't even started packing up yet.

 

The initial plan was to launch on Thursday, but the weather had been so drizzly that we decided to postpone. On Friday, we loaded up the boat with some of the equipment (judiciously chosen, but insufficiently so, as we would soon find out) which took us the better part of the day. We found ourselves at the Bobbers' Marina around 5 in the afternoon, surrounded by screaming crowds of vacationers, beer cans in hand and bemused expressions on their blanched, pre-seasoned faces. Arming the boat took us more than an hour. Mihai mounted the weathervane which goes on the top of the mast by unhitching the trailer and driving the Nissan to the back of the precariously balanced boat. He then scrambled atop of the car, looking very much as a victor, only to find out that the weathervane interferes with the solar panels, when the mast is in the down position. No matter. Everything is mobilis in mobili, as capt'n Nemo used to say--and much good it did to him in the end. We straightened the panels by brute force,  realizing that we forgot to bring along the proper hex key. We raised the mast under the stares of an awed and mildly inebriated crowd and called Rod on the cell to come and pick up the Nissan and shove us away.

 

The engine purred to life at the first touch. I dropped one of my sneakers into the water as I boarded at the prow (a bad omen, as everybody who has done it at some point will hasten to acknowledge) and, with some gentle rocking from side to side, the boat separated from the trailer and we were finally off. The water had an unbecoming cocoa-brown hue (a far cry from what we expected to sail on in the Bahamas), with bits of blackened driftwood bobbing ominously in the powerboats' wake of which there were but a few; the forecast called for occasional rainstorms on the morrow. The old cove where we used to anchor seemed shallower and smaller and the mud banks ever more conspicuous; we couldn't motor all the way to the Rodney's shore as we initially planned, so we dropped anchor in 5 feet of muddy water and breathed a sigh of relief. The ETEC engine sounded smooth and the boat still floated aright--what else may a sailor wish for?

 

As it turns out, plenty. After we straightened out below deck and mounted the grills in the cockpit, we had a hasty supper (traditional grilled sausages and ice-cold beer) and became aware of the long string of things that we forgot to pack: no mosquito net. No paper towels. No cleaning rags. No bread. No spare socks for Mihai (I had my thick woolen socks just by accident). But the sunset on the lonely lake was beautiful, and the stars soon started twinkling encouragingly; we might, just might have a good next day. We savored a pipe in the cockpit, noticing gleefully that the cushions were covered with dew which (at least in the old country) bespeaks of fair weather the following day.

 

Our sense of well-being was short-lived. When I opened the fridge to take out another set of beers, I noticed that it had stopped working. I pulled it out and Mihai checked the fuse--it was blown. No spare fuse either. We took the fuse from the GPS (thereby rendering the depthfinder inoperable) and rigged the fridge back to life; the dreaded red light came on, in three-blink cycles, which surely meant something--but there was no way to check what, since the bulky compilation of various manuals was left safely at Rodney's. Both batteries already showed half-empty, even though we had run the fridge for only a short length of time and they were full when we stopped the engine. A dull sense of pointlessness seemed to pervade the cockpit; if we couldn't get the boat going for a measly lake escapade, how are we going to manage across the Gulf Stream? But we reminded ourselves that this test-ride was supposed to enable us debug the systems, so debugging them we will. We went to bed more hopeful and slept soundly, with the boat underneath barely swaying in a gentle, cool breeze. It was cold below deck and my sleeping bag zipper was broken.


Posted by march88 at 5:28 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 29 May 2011 9:12 PM EDT
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