I originally wrote this post on April 28, and then promptly forgot about it, and never posted it – oops! It’s about our first foray into the Exumas, the chain of islands that’s kind of in the middle of the Bahamas. It runs about 100 miles north to south, and is no more than 1/2 mile wide for much of that. It consists of over 365 mostly-small islands (“cays” – pronounced “keys”, not “cays”), with lots of cuts between them that connect the “big water” (the Exuma Sound) on the east side to the shallow bank on the west side. In the middle is Staniel Cay, near the famous Bahamas Swimming Pigs. Great Exuma is the southernmost island, and that’s where George Town and Elizabeth Harbour are. Literally hundreds of cruisers spend their winters there.
What follows is from our first visit to any of the Exumas – the northern part, most easily reached from Nassau. If you want only the pictures, scroll to the end.
Click here to see the path we’ve taken so far. Click the “+” next to Fran’s name.
We anchored just off a beautiful beach, put Killer (our dinghy) in the water, and explored around the island. This would become almost a ritual as we moved from cay to cay. Norman’s was the home of some serious drug smuggling in the late 70’s and early 80’s, run by a guy named Carlos Lehder. Drugs came and went by plane and boat. There’s a rusted out hulk of an airplane in the harbour, and some bullet holes in a few of the buildings from those days. Now, Norman’s is home to a small restaurant and bar, a few rental bungalos, and one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had, anywhere. (For $25, it better be!) They don’t make this claim, but if they did say it was the inspiration for “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, it would not be hard to believe.
We didn’t find any great snorkeling around Norman’s, so the next day, we moved north a few miles to Highborne Cay. Highborne is home to a fancy-schmancy resort, a very nice, but very small, well sheltered marina, and a restaurant. We took Killer into the marina to fill his gas tanks, and had some lunch at the restaurant. While we were there, a barge was bringing in a massive amount of stuff for some rich dude’s birthday party. Apparently he had rented out the whole island for a week, and it was going to be a real blow out! We were not invited – can you imagine? We did find a few small places to snorkel, but still, nothing we would go out of our way for. Unfortunately, this has been our experience so far in the Exumas – most places, as beautiful as they are above water, don’t have much to look at under the water. We’ve found exceptions, and we certainly haven’t stopped searching yet – but it’s not like there are beautiful coral reefs off the shore of every cay. We’ve really had to search.
There’s supposed to be great fishing for mahi mahi on the outside of Highborne, and the seas weren’t too bad, so out we went. (“outside” refers to the east side of the islands – the ocean side – and the west side is the “inside”, where it’s shallow and protected from the ocean waves and swell, for the most part.) We took Killer. A little small for ocean fishing, but we weren’t going to be more than about a half-mile offshore, so it was OK. We trolled up and down the drop-off in about 100 feet of water for 45 minutes or so, and then decided that we really should have either a bigger boat, or calmer seas, for trolling in the ocean.
There are native iguanas on a small number of cays in the Exumas, but Allan’s is probably the most famous one, because when you beach your dinghy, the iguanas come to greet you. Well, not really – they come expecting you to feed them, which most people do, so they keep coming. Within minutes of us arriving, we could see 15 of these prehistoric-looking lizards on the beach, most of them within throwing distance (the distance we could throw the lettuce, not the iguanas). But apparently they’re accustomed to grapes, and we had none, so most of them turned their nose up and showed us their tail as they retreated to the shade of the scrub.
And then we found beautiful coral reef! We were buzzing along the inside in Killer, in search of coral heads as always, and Fran noticed a white float ahead of us. We pulled up to it and realized it was a mooring ball, and under it was coral reef – lots and lots of coral reef! At least an acre of it. There were actually three mooring balls on it, and the next day, at slack tide, we came back with our scuba gear. It wasn’t very deep (28′ if you laid on the bottom in the deepest spots), but we had a wonderul hour and twenty minute dive. It was exactly what we’d been looking for – and parts of it were shallow enough to snorkel. If we’re in the northern Exumas again, you can bet we’ll be back to this spot! (We learned later the reef is called “Lobster No Lobster” – and no, we didn’t see any. If you go there, the current is totally slack for over an hour, starting about 30 minutes after low or high tide at Nassau. At mid-tide, the current is ripping so fast you don’t even want to attempt it.)
Ship Channel Cay
This is the farthest north cay in the Exumas. North of it, the chain becomes just rocks sticking out of the water, too small to be called cays. (There’s supposed to be some nice coral reef up there, but it’s a long dinghy ride to reach it.) We anchored near the remains of an old house that had been made from limestone blocks, cut from the island. (Interesting tidbit – the only native rock or stone in the Bahamas is limestone. No granite, marble, slate – nothing but limestone. It’s what all the islands are made of, and why it’s so difficult to do any serious farming.) The house seems like it was built at least 50 years ago, maybe 100. Long since abandoned, it looked to still be structurally sound. There are so many abandoned homes throughout the Bahamas – one day, we’ll do a picture gallery of them.
A very long, wet tour all around the island in Killer revealed nothing at all that we wanted to snorkel on.
At this point, we needed to get back to Nassau. The repair parts for our watermaker were due to arrive, and we needed to have them installed before continuing. (That didn’t actually happen at that time, but that’s another story!)
Summary: We’ve heard many people say the Exumas are their favorite part of the Bahamas. At this point, we’ve explored only the northernmost 10 – 15% of them, but if the rest are as beautiful as this part, it’s easy to see why people feel that way. The beaches are absolutely beautiful, as is the water in front of them. Our only disappointment was the lack of excellent diving and snorkeling. There’s probably a lot of that on the outside – we know of at least four live-aboard dive boats that come to this area from Nassau over and over – but with the wind blowing like it was, we didn’t get a chance to see for ourselves.
In case you’ve been wondering what the crew of Smartini (Fran and me, but not May the Cat) has been up to lately – we went to Italy! For two weeks with Bennett (my son, Fran’s step-son), and Bennett’s mom, Terri Henderson (yes, that’s my ex-wife – we get along great these days), then just Fran and me for another week.
I’d love to give you all the details, but in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “No, it’s too much – lemme sum up.” We left the USA on May 12 (Terri and Bennett from NYC, Fran and me from Miami) and flew to Rome. A few days there, then a few days in Venice, then a few days in Florence, then some more days in the countryside of Tuscany, a few miles from Siena. Terri and Bennet had to go home at that point, but Fran and I stayed for almost another week, driving a few days to Rome, and then flying to the island of Sicily for four days.
It was a great trip. Bennett is in art school, and Terri was a fine arts / art history graduate from Indiana University, so the art we saw in person, that they had been seeing only in books for years, was enough to make the trip a success for them. (Fran and I really enjoyed that part, too – except maybe for all the pushing and shoving in the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel – that was a bit much!) The four days hanging out at the old (OLD! Everything is old there! Like, hundreds, even thousands, of years old!) house in Tuscany was relaxing, and beautiful, and fun as we explored nearby Siena, and the countryside.
We really loved every place we went: Rome, Pompeii / Amalfi Coast, Venice, Florence, Tuscany / Siena, and Sicily. The people were, almost without exception, welcoming and wonderful, in spite of our many, many utterances of “Mi dispiaci – non parlo Italiano.” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian.)
It’s too much to write about, and even if I did, you’d still need to go yourself to really understand what it’s all about. If you’ve ever fantasized about going – do it! I can’t imagine you won’t love it!
Here is a small selection of the hundreds of pictures we took, with comments describing a lot of them. (You have to click on the little “thought bubble” icon to read the comments – sorry!) https://photos.app.goo.gl/UDgWLtQxscsiyGwL9
No description of this trip would be complete without sending a huge “Thank you!” to Paul and Denise Magnus, who flew all the way from Minnesota to George Town, in the Bahamas, to spend almost a month onboard Smartini, to take care of May the Cat. We met Paul and Denise while we were in the marina in Titusville, FL for a few weeks back in 2016. They lived on their boat for a very long time, but sadly, lost it to Hurricane Irma. When Denise found out we were looking for a cat-sitter for three weeks, she immediately volunteered. Thanks so much, Paul and Denise!
Lots of years ago (late 1990’s), I was traveling to Australia annually to help support the dealer of our dental practice management software there. He had a trainer – Claire – who was awesome, and at some point that neither of us can recall, we became fast friends. Since I stopped going over for business, she’s been to visit me (us) in Florida twice, and in 2016, Fran, Maddie, Bennett, and I visited her and her family in Australia. This year, it was their turn to cross the pond, and on May 28, Claire, her partner Anthony, and their adorable 5 year old Zoe came aboard Smartini as part of Anthony’s month-long 50th Birthday Celebration. Today, we sadly told them “bye!” This is the report of their visit. (Picture gallery at the very end.)
They flew into George Town, Exumas, and took a cab to us at the Emerald Bay Marina, a few miles north of the airport. The following day was going to be the only nice weather day for awhile, so we scooted up the Exuma Sound (the “big water” on the east side of the Exumas) 44 nautical miles, all the way to Big Majors Spot, home of the famous Bahamas Swimming Pigs. (Everyone thinks it’s Staniel Cay, but that’s the next island over, the one with the marina and the people.) Just before we made our turn into the cut, we hooked up two mahi mahi, which provided us with what would be the first of several fresh fish dinners of the week.
After the fish were landed, we motored into the cut and anchored just off Pig Beach, and of course, had to take Killer over to see them RIGHT NOW. After waiting her entire life for this moment, Zoe wasn’t going to wait one more minute!. Her squeals of delight (and a little fear) were louder than the squeals of the pigs for our veggies. One of the bigger ones wasn’t happy with the way Anthony was handing out the veggies, and he got chased and bit for his slowness! No good deed goes unpunished, even with pigs.
On Monday, we went into Staniel Cay to look for Bahamian bread and to see the nurse sharks in the marina. We were not disappointed on either count. We were going to snorkel the famous Thunderball Grotto, but low tide was rather late in the afternoon, and by then, we had already each had a couple of Kaliks at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, so we missed that particular attraction. We did not, however, miss the shiver of sharks that gather in the marina whenever someone is cleaning fish there. I counted over 20 nurse sharks milling around the ankles of our Australian guests, patiently waiting for the next bit of fish skin, fin, tail, or head that would come flying from the cleaning table.
Staniel was the first chance we had to introduce the Aussie’s to conch salad. Kenson makes it on the beach there, between the Yacht Club and the grocery stores, so although it was at full tourist price ($15 for a single conch’s worth – ouch!), we ordered it up. He squeezes some orange juice into his, along with the normal lemon juice, which is a nice touch. Anthony absolutely loved it, but being allergic to some seafood (mostly crustaceans), he had to be careful. A few cautious bites… no tingling of the tongue and lips… and he was all in!
The forecast for the rest of their time with us was for high winds, mostly from the East, so our plan was to pick our way down the islands on the inside. If you’re familiar with the Exumas, you know that means a stop at Black Point for fresh bread! (After a quick stop at Bitter Guana Cay to feed the native iguanas, of course. They’re mostly gray, with pinkish edges, and they look like small dinosaurs – quite different from the green South Florida variety.)
Black Point is a small, mostly non-touristy settlement with a couple restaurants, a bar or two, and a bakery. Actually, the bakery is just the kitchen of the mother of Lorraine, who owns one of the restaurants (cleverly named “Lorraine’s). We took Killer into the dock and walked to the bakery. Inside, we found Lorraine’s mom standing on a stool in the kitchen, kneading a giant pan of bread dough with all of her strength and weight (the latter of which there is not much – she’s a tiny woman!). We bought a loaf each of cinammon raisin and coconut bread, and when we walked back to the road, ran into four other cruisers who said “You guys going to happy hour at Scorpio’s?”
We had not done our homework, or we would have known that Club Scorpio is a “must do” stop for cruisers in the area of Black Point. Three nights a week, happy hour means two-for-one of Scorpio’s infamous rum punch. Once we found this out, we, of course, joined the parade to Scorpio’s! The rum punch, being made mostly with cheap, sweet, fruit flavored Ricardo rum, wasn’t all that potent (despite the numerous warnings we received to not have more than two each!) – but the experience was well worth it. Just the sight of the one cruiser practically sprinting inside when it was announced that fresh popcorn had been made was worth the price of admission! (Some cruisers we have met are doing it as economically as possible, so free popcorn and two-for-one drinks were just too tempting to resist.)
Already being ashore, and having no dinner plans on Smartini, we decided to have dinner at Lorraine’s. Cracked conch, grilled grouper, peas and rice – all quite tasty, and at prices far more reasonable than most tourist-focused restaurants we had visited previously.
With no change in the forecast (wind gusting to 30 knots), we continued south on the inside the next morning, setting our sights on Little Farmer’s Cay and the Farmer’s Cay Yacht Club. Fran and I had decided that we’d get a mooring ball in the harbour where Great Guana Cay, Little Farmers Cay, and Big Farmers Cay all come together, because the west side of these islands is pretty shallow, and we’d had an uncomfortable rolly night there a few weeks ago. But with the high winds that were forecast (gusts over 30 mph), we decided to tie up at the dock instead. Probably not our best nautical decision making to date, as the wind (from the East) and the waves coming through the cut (from the East) battered Smartini the entire time we were there. If not for our awesome inflatable (and somewhat oversized) fenders, we wouldn’t have gotten any sleep at all that night. The west side, although probably rolly, wouldn’t have induced the kind of excitement we experienced in the harbour. Lesson learned – I hope.
We wanted to go to Little Harbour on Little Farmer’s, to experience the turtle feeding there, but it was just too rough. So we opted for Kaliks, Mr. Nixon’s rum punch, and dominoes inside the yacht club. It’s a yacht club in name only – probably the most egregious stretching of that term we’ve encountered yet! But Mr. Nixon, who built the club from nothing over the past 29 years, is an excellent host, and we decided to stay for dinner – cracked conch, fried whole snapper, and the ever-present peas and rice.
Claire and Anthony were quite keen to get a conch horn to take home to Australia, so the following morning we walked over to the settlement on Little Harbour and found JR. JR is the local wood carver who also knows how to craft an excellent conch horn. But he didn’t have the raw material – the conch itself. So he walked us all down to the harbour to see if any of the conch men there had what they call a “perfect” – a pretty conch shell that didn’t have a hole knocked in it. (The easiest way to remove a conch from its shell, to harvest the meat, is to knock a hole in the shell and then stick a knife into the hole to sever the muscle that the conch uses to hold itself in the shell. Consequently, most of the conch shells you find have a big hole in them, which makes them less than ideal for a conch horn.) Sure enough, one of the men had three beauties from which to choose. Zoe picked her favorite, Anthony ponied up the cash, and then we gave the shell to JR to make into a horn, while we walked around the harbour a bit, looking for the turtles that are almost always there.
JR is an interesting character. An enviable character, I suppose. He lives on a beautiful little island in the Bahamas, completely off the land. He’s planted fruit trees on his property, and a garden. He fishes and conchs, and carves pretty things to sell to the tourists from native tamarind wood, and seems to be completely content. And with just a bench grinder, a hammer, and an old screwdriver, he converted that “perfect” into the most easily blown conch horn I’ve ever picked up. And he charged only $8 to do it. He told me he’d been wood carving for 56 years, and that, when he was young, he was quite popular with the girls because he always had cash in his pocket from selling his carvings.
Conch horn in hand, it was back to Smartini for what was to be the final cruise of their visit. We were tired of getting beat up by the wind and waves, and just a few miles south of Little Farmers lies Cave Cay, and the Cave Cay Marina therein. We decided to take refuge there, and I think it was one of the best choices we’ve made in our two months in the Bahamas so far.
First of all, it’s as protected as it can be, from all four sides. There’s only one narrow entry into the manmade harbour inside the island, and it’s only about two boat-widths wide, so the waves can’t get in. The terrain rises up to at least 50 – 60′ high most of the way around, so the howling wind outside is tamed considerably. When I say it’s protected – well, I wouldn’t mind riding out a hurricane here! The marina is all floating docks – every boater’s favorite kind. The water is clear, and you see several turtles each day cruising around. There’s a beautiful white sand beach inside the harbour, and a pretty little lagoon with its own beach just a few minute’s walk away. There’s an airstrip. A shower house with hot (HOT!) showers. And everywhere, there are signs of a failed (or, at best, not fully realized) dream of creating a boater’s paradise in the Bahamas. The big, beautiful building overlooking the harbour that was supposed to be a bar and restaurant, but that has never served a single drink nor meal. The three villas that were supposed to be rentals, that sit empty except for the staff. The hangars by the airstrip that now house only rusting hulks of heavy equipment. The vehicles, trailers, boats, outboard motors, freezers, air conditioners, building material, etc., etc., etc. that are wasting away all over the island that hint at the potential of this place, which will, sadly, probably remain only potential forever. Millions of dollars have been pumped into this place that, as of now, at least, is just a nice little marina that almost no one uses.
But for our purposes – which were to get out of the weather, and show our guests a good time in the Bahamas – it’s been pretty wonderful! Our first afternoon here, we walked over to the lagoon to hang out on the beach and snorkel a bit. Just across from the beach, on the rocky point, we found a nice little patch of coral that was loaded with fish! Somehow, I’d not gotten the memo that one of Anthony’s biggest hopes for this trip was to do some fish spearing, but once we found this little bit of coral, the message was loud and clear! After Zoe’s first-ever snorkel (she’s only five), we walked back to Smartini and got the steel – a pole spear for Anthony, and my new Hawaiian sling for me. In fairly short order, we had three gray snappers, a schoolmaster, and a queen trigger, for our second fresh fish dinner. We also picked up a good sized conch, which would become conch salad.
The weather continued to be both windy and occasionally rainy, so we alternated between relaxing on Smartini, jumping off the dock in the marina (Anthony and Zoe – over, and over, and over, and over), and exploring the island. And spear fishing. Always spear fishing. Anthony is as consumed by it as any fishing or hunting friend I’ve ever had – I think he would have been happy to snorkel around that little bit of reef several hours every day! And he’s productive – on our second day, he bagged a nice (4 lb.) mutton snapper and two more gray snapper, while I managed to get a head shot on a small cubera snapper with the Hawaiian sling. (Boy, do I still need a lot of practice with that thing!)
No description of Cave Cay would be complete without mentioning Shark. Shark is the Bahamian who has been working at the marina for about 10 years, and who is, without question, the happiest human being I’ve met in a very long time. He is the smiling face and voice of Cave Cay. His attitude is positive about everything, all the time. If you need help with anything, he’s happy to give it. (He gave me a conch cleaning lesson and expected nothing in return.) And from the first time she met him when we arrived in the marina, he was Zoe’s new best friend. (Supplanting Fran, who had been her new best friend up to that moment.) When he took us to see the cave, she held his hand on the walk there and back, and asked him a hundred questions while we were in the cave. Another boater told us that Shark really likes fish, so we gave him three of the ones we got on our second day – you would have thought we bought him a new house, he was so grateful! I think I’d stop in Cave Cay Marina for a night or two just to spend a few minutes with Shark – no kidding.
Speaking of the cave – wow! I would have never thought of visting a cave in the Bahamas, and yet, on Cave Cay, there’s a cave that surprised all of us. Stalagmites – stalactites – bats – cave geckos – evidence of long-ago culture. It was so unexpected, and so cool. If you ever find yourself at Cave Cay, you really need to get Shark to take you to the cave!
Yesterday afternoon, we walked over to the lagoon again, this time to see if Claire might be able to see her first-ever sunset over the water. That’s right, folks – she lives within a few miles of the coast of Australia, but had never seen the sun set over the water! (To be fair – they’re on the East Coast – so lots of sunrises, but no sunsets.) We took our beverages and conch horns to that side of the island, and although it wasn’t the most spectacular sunset on record, it was good enough for Claire to put another check on her To Do List. And we had a chorus of conch horns! (To be fair, the locals might substitute “cacophony” for “chorus” in that sentence.) Zoe is the best conch horn blower in her family by a wide margin. She can’t wait to take it to Show and Tell back home!
Today was their last onboard. Anthony got up with the sun, walked over to the lagoon, and returned a few hours later with four more snappers. (Guess what we had for their last lunch with us?) We walked over to the aptly named Rough Beach on the ocean side and found some beautiful shells. We met Steve (the man who has owned the island for the last 20 years), swam a little more in the marina, and finally, about 4:00, put our Aussie friends on a fast boat to Great Exuma Island, where they’ll spend tonight and get on a plane for Florida in the morning. Captain Hiram’s (for Anthony’s 50th birthday!), Disney World, and Cocoa Beach are in their immediate future, followed by 10 days on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, before finally heading back to New South Wales, Australia. (These people know how to go on vacation!)
Eight days went by in a blur, and in spite of the less-than-perfect weather, I think they had a decent time. I know we did!
“Killer” is the name of our dinghy – the little boat we carry around with us on Smartini that we use for all local excursions after we arrive in an anchorage. He figures so prominently in our adventures that I decided to give him his own post.
Smartini came with a dinghy – a 10′ long RIB (rigid inflatable boat – a little boat with a fiberglass bottom, and big inflatable tubes forming the sides). At least 9 out of 10 dinghies are RIBs, and if all you’re using one for is going between your big boat and shore, I guess they’re OK. But we didn’t like the one we had, so we sold it to a friend, and bought… another RIB. Doh!!!! <Smack forehead with palm of hand>
This one was a little bigger (11′), had a bigger motor (25 horsepower instead of 10 on the first one), and had seats and a console with a steering wheel. (The first one had what’s called “tiller steering” – you steer by holding onto the tiller of the outboard motor with your left hand, which also operates the twist-grip throttle.) And the first time we had four people in it, we realized we had screwed up. There was no room in it, and it wouldn’t get up on plane (run up on top of the water, rather than ploughing through it). And it had the most significant disadvantate of an inflatable – eventually, they become a DEFLATABLE. The seams start leaking, or you poke a hole in one of the tubes, or general entropy takes over, and they lose air, so you’re constantly having to pump them up again.
After a few months of not liking that dinghy, we decided no more RIBs for us – we were going to get a real boat as our dinghy. (A real little boat, to be sure, but a real boat.) I started researching them, and came across someone’s explanation of their dinghy strategy: “we go long distances slowly in our trawler to get to beautiful places – and when we get there, we want to be able to get around those places quickly.” It made perfect sense to Fran and me, so we started looking for little boats that would get four people and some stuff to places quickly. It didn’t take long for us to decide on a 13′ Boston Whaler.
All we knew about Boston Whalers was that they’re incredibly popular with native Bahamians – we’d seen them in heavy use everywhere we’ve been in the Bahamas. We also knew that one would fit in the available space with almost a whole inch to spare! What we didn’t know is that they have an almost cult-like following. The first Whaler was a 1958 model (same as me!), and it was the 13′ – same as ours. We ended up buying one from a nice guy named Drew, after finding it on Craig’s List. (Interesting tidbit – Drew was a Goodyear blimp pilot for the last many years of his working life!)
Drew had a good friend who bought the boat new in 1979. He used it extensivly in the Chesapeake Bay area, and then he passed away about four years ago. His widow felt like he would want Drew to have it, so she gave it to him. He used it for a few years, then it sat in his garage for a few years, so he decided to sell it. Drew’s nickname for his friend was “Killer”, so he put the name “Killer” on the transom of the boat. We liked the story, and liked the name, so we kept it!
Killer just barely fits in the dinghy space on Smartini’s upper deck. He’s hard to get off the boat with the crane, and even harder to get on. I’m not at all happy with the cradle we had made for him to sit in when he’s on the upper deck. If there’s even a 6″ chop, there’s a good chance you’re going to get a little wet at speed. But we LOVE him! He is exactly what we wanted in a dinghy. Four people, up on plane. With just the two of us, he cruises at 16 knots at 3500 rpm – just loafing. Fran and me and full scuba gear, no problem. We can snorkel, scuba, and fish from him. He’s fun to drive. What more could we ask for in a dinghy? He even has a cool, retro-looking 35 HP outboard motor! Yes, Killer will be a major player in the Adventures of Smartini!
Faithful readers will know that Smartini recently completed yet another longer-than-anticipated haul out (when the boat is out of the water for various repairs, which either can’t, or can’t easily, be done while IN the water). “Why does it always take you guys so long?”, you might ask. “Shut the hell up!!”, I might reply. But no, that would be rude. So lemme ‘splain. No, there is too much – lemme sum up.
This post is a list of pretty much everything we and three vendors did to Smartini from December 4 to February 22. I didn’t try to make it funny, and it’s long, so unless you’re really interested in what it’s like to own and maintain a boat like Smartini, it probably won’t be all that thrilling.
I should point out that a lot of these things didn’t NEED to be done. In fact, all of the biggest projects were discretionary, and so were a lot of the small ones. We just like to torture ourselves. If you’ve ever done a home remodel project that started with new faucet handles and ended up costing $30,000 for a whole new kitchen, you’ll understand a lot of the psychology that was involved.
1. Replace all the hydraulic hoses with new ones. We could have waited until a hose burst, but since that would disable every hydraulic item on the boat (anchor windlass, bow thruster, stern thruster, dinghy crane, and stabilizers), and would have made a helluva mess, and would likely have been difficult to have repaired wherever we happened to be when it burst – we decided to do this maintenance item preventively. Almost everything in these two pictures was replaced, relocated, or is brand new. Plus at least 300 feet of hydraulic hoses that run between these points, and from them to all over the boat.
2. Switch the stern thruster from an electric motor to hydraulic power. We could have left it electric forever, although we would have had to change out the two giant batteries that power it – they were rapidly dying. But the hydraulic motor is stronger, and it can be run non-stop for as long as you need it. An electric motor will overheat if run too long, and we didn’t ever want to really need that thruster, and have it overheat and shut down just when we needed it most. Besides – with those two giant batteries gone, we have a LOT more storage space back there – and I’ve used every bit of it. (See item 17).
3. Remove the mahogany caprail from all the way around the boat, and then add a stainless steel rubrail to replace the one that was on the mahogany. Hurricane Irma knocked two sections of the caprail loose, and we could have repaired them. However, we knew that there was some rust forming on the metal lip that the caprail is fastened to, and as long-time readers will remember, Rust Never Sleeps on a steel boat. If we didn’t get rid of the wood eventually, we’d have a lot of rust to deal with one day, and we hate rust! So we decided to bite the bullet and get rid of the wood now, rather than some day later. Fortunately for us, the painters volunteered to remove the caprail, thinking it would be a trivial project. Two men, two days, two big hammers and chisels, and one Sawz-All later, they had it off. After they got it off, and primed and painted it, Fran, Kelly*, and I had to remount the stainless steel handrail, which involved drilling 117 holes, and tapping about 20 of them. (*Kelly is the nephew of Romeo, the man who owns the painting company we used. His help with this project was invaluable – thanks, Kelly!!!)
Separately, another vendor fabricated and installed 3/8″ stainless steel flat stock around almost the entire boat (not the transom – we can’t run into anything back there because of the swim platform), and then reattached the heavy stainless rubrail, which had been attached to the wooden caprail, to this new flat stock. It took two men the better part of two weeks to do this, with all the trial fitting, drilling, and tapping, but they did a great job, as you can tell from the picture.
Finally, the wood caprail made up the top edge of the dive equipment storage bench and tackle center that Pratt Plastics custom made for us in 2016. Without the wood, there was a nice, big gap for water to get inside, which would eventually have caused rust. Besides, it was kinda ugly. With Richard Pratt’s help on a Saturday, we now have trim pieces to cover those gaps, and they look like they were made that way from the start. Thanks, Richard!
This was a huge project, considering all the aspects of it, but it was something we knew we’d eventually have to do, and now it’s done. We’re very pleased with the result, and as a bonus, we’ll never have to clean and seal the wood again!
4. We didn’t have to get a different dinghy, but we really didn’t like the last one we had, and visitors DeDeAnn, Heather, and Katie will probably cheer this decision the next time they’re onboard. Of course, a new dinghy meant a new way to store it on the upper deck, so a ridiculously expensive stainless steel cradle was made – which I’m still not happy with (more on that later). But we sure are happy with Killer, our new-to-us 1979 13′ Boston Whaler Sport! (It came with that name, which came with a good story, so we’re going to keep it.)
5. Replace stabilizer fin shaft seals and bearings. Smartini has two big fins that move back and forth under the water to reduce the amount of rolling (side to side movement) we experience, adding greatly to the comfort of a long trip in not-so-calm seas. These fins are hydraulically activated, and I had dealt with the hydraulic actuators last summer when one of them started leaking. But since their shafts go through the hull, there are seals to keep the water out, and bearings to make them move smoothly. We could have waited until we started to see some leakage, but at that point, it would have required a haul out. Doing it now means we don’t have to do it again for at least three, probably four years.
6. We could have limited the painting to only those areas that were scratched during Irma, but we had a bunch of little scratches and rust spots developing all around the bulwarks*, so we decided to have all of that fixed and painted, all the way around the boat. (*Bulwarks are the part of the hull that extends upwards above the deck; the part that keeps you from falling overboard as you walk around on the main deck.)
The above items took 95% of the time of all the work done, and maybe even a higher percentage of the cost of all the work done. But as you can see, every one of them either made Smartini better in some way, or addressed a potential problem before it could become a problem. We kept telling ourselves “When we leave the yard this time, we don’t want there to be a single major project that we know needs to be done. We want to go enjoy Smartini for a long time before we have to do a major haul out again.” I sincerely hope we’ve accomplished that!
The list below is in the order that things were completed, simply because that’s how we were using our To Do List – when something was done, we moved it to the bottom of the “DONE” list. (If it were in order of Frustration Level, or Cost, or Value of End Result, it would be sorted very differently.) Here goes!
7. Replace the transducer. This is the device that sends and receives sonar signals from the boat to the bottom and calculates the depth, so you can see it on your various displays. Since Smartini is made of steel, we can’t use the kind that can transmit and receive through the hull, so ours actually pokes through a hole in the hull. That’s why we HAD to haul out – almost everything else COULD have been done in the water, but many of those things would have been much, much more difficult. The transducer we had to replace was new in December 2016 – and they’re supposed to last forever! Why did this one fail after less than a year? No idea.
8. Replace the circuit board in the Master Stateroom air conditioning unit. We had the board in the Salon (aka “living room”) unit replaced last summer when it blew. Not long after, the Master unit stopped working, and I suspected its board. I bought a new one (plus a spare – we still have one more unit that hasn’t failed!), and decided to tackle the replacement myself. I wasn’t sure I’d know how to recognize a bad board – but look at the picture!
9. Remove the anchor chain, take it to a chain and rope store, and have them add 100 feet of rope. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but we currently have 175 feet of ⅜” stainless steel chain, all of which had to be lowered to the ground (into the trunk of the car), and then hoisted back up onto the boat after the additional rope had been added – about 20 feet off the ground. It was a workout! And then, because the loop that the rope store had spliced into the bitter end of the rope (that’s the end that fastens to the boat, down inside the chain locker) wouldn’t fit through the hole into the chain locker, we had to cut off his very nice splice, and watch about a dozen YouTube videos to find one that showed us how to do it ourselves. This picture is of the SECOND one we did (just for practice). The FIRST one (on the anchor rope) wasn’t nearly as pretty! Guess we should have done the practice one first.
10. Install a “Total fuel used” reset button on our fuel flow meter. For some reason, such a button had never been installed, so if you wanted to reset the total (like when you fill the fuel tanks), you had to actually cut off the main batteries to the whole boat for a few seconds. I installed this little red button that lets us reset it to zero whenever we want.
11. Whenever you have different metals in an electrolyte (salt water is an electrolyte), you create a battery of sorts. So a steel hull, a bronze propeller, a stainless steel propeller shaft, bronze through-hull fittings – all of these things are part of Smartini’s submerged parts, and collectively, they create a very large (although very low voltage) battery. Over time, as electrons flow through the electrolyte from one metal to another, they corrode the “least noble” (think “softest”) metal. You don’t want any of the parts of the boat to corrode, so you add one more part to the mix – some zinc. Zinc is less noble (softer) than all the other parts of the boat, so the zinc is the metal that corrodes. Every so often, you replace the hunks of zinc, so the new ones will corrode, rather than any other part of the boat. Smartini has eight such zincs on her hull, each one weighing about five pounds when new. I removed all of them, cleaned the stainless steel studs that they attach to, and reattached them with new washers and nuts. (They don’t work unless the attach points are clean.) Except one, which was pretty corroded – I replaced that one with a new one.
12. Drill out the mounting tabs for all the new hull zincs we bought. They come with no holes, because every boat’s mounting studs are a different distance apart. Now we have a full set of zincs, drilled and ready to mount, for when the existing ones corrode too much. We can easily do this in the water with scuba gear and a single wrench, whenever needed.
13. Smartini has two three-drawer tool chests mounted under the workbench in the engine room, which is awesome. Under them are the eight “house” batteries (the batteries that run all the lights, the refrigerator/freezers, the pumps, and most of the rest of the electric things on the boat). To keep tools from falling onto the batteries (resulting in a massive shower of sparks and probably a ruined tool, maybe a ruined battery, maybe even an explosion!), the tool chests and batteries are behind some cabinet doors. Which means that every time I needed to get into one of the tool chests, I had to open two cabinet doors, which then kept me from moving fore and aft in the engine room. Doesn’t seem like a big problem, but I tell you, I was constantly cussing this design. Not anymore! I removed the doors, took them to a cabinet shop and had them cut them down to my specs, and then I reinstalled them. I had to relocate the latches, too. But it was sure worth it! Now I can get into my tool chests without opening a cabinet, and my batteries are still protected. The drawers lock in the closed position when underway.
14. We have a really bright handheld spotlight that’s very nice as a backup to our permanently mounted spotlight. (Which I had to repair when we were in Key West.) On our oh-so-bumpy voyage from Key West at the end of November, the handheld light fell from its perch at the flybridge helm station onto the floor with a great THUD, and stopped working. Fortunately, it was only the lightbulb, which is a common automotive halogen headlight bulb. Unfortunately, you have to completely disassemble the whole spotlight to replace the bulb. Which I did.
15. Update the firmware on all of our electronics.
16. Update the charts on our electronic chartplotters. In this case, we actually switched from one provider (C-MAP) to another (Navionics), so Fran had some fun with that! (Not.)
17. Remove two giant batteries and all the wiring and other wiring and other gizmos for the now-removed electric stern thruster motor from the lazarette, then create a storage area for spares. (You can’t believe how many spare parts we have onboard – and they all have to go somewhere!)
18. Replace all main engine coolant hoses. Smartini’s engine, an 838 cubic inch Izuzu Industrial diesel, has fouteen hoses for keeping things cool. Half of them move anti-freeze throughout the engine and between the engine and the keel cooler (our “radiator”, which is on the outside of hull), and the other half move seawater through various heat exchangers (to cool the transmission fluid and the hydraulic fluid), then inject it into the engine’s exhaust, to cool the exhaust and to get rid of the seawater. All in all, it’s about thirty-five feet of hose, involving almost thirty hose clamps, and lots of “chafe guard” to keep holes from getting rubbed into the hoses. It hadn’t been done since the boat was built, so it was way past time. And yes, I did this one all by my lonesome.
19. Modify the air conditioners’ seawater cooling system to allow it to be flushed periodically, to clean it out. This was a lot trickier than I thought it was going to be, mainly because I had very little room to add the 2-way selector valve I needed. (See picture.) Also, I had to add a manual switch to engage the seawater pump, so that I can do the flushing without having to fire up one of the air conditioners. (The pump comes on when any one of the A/C units comes on, but there wasn’t a way to run only the pump, for my flushing circuit.) Now, I can run a mild muriatic acid solution through our air conditioners’ cooling lines to get rid of the crud that inevitably builds up inside of them, and don’t have to run the A/C units to do it. I’m actually pretty pleased with myself on this project!
20. Replace all the low pressure hoses that supply water to the watermaker. This also involved relocating the sea strainer (a filter that keeps out big stuff – there’s one in every seawater intake: main engine, generator, air conditioners, water maker), and that was the challenge. It had originally been mounted in a very weird spot that was practically impossible to get to for inspection and cleaning. I cut out a big section of wood to make an opening into a hard-to-reach spot, and remounted the strainer where I can now easily inspect and clean it.
21. Create a cradle for our new dinghy, Killer. This was, I believe, the most annoying thing done during the haul out, because the vendor took it upon himself to modify the design from what we had originally agreed on. When I first saw it, still in “rough” condition, I should have yelled “Stop! That’s not what you were supposed to make!” – but I didn’t. I let myself be talked into this new design – and each subsequent modification that was necessary because of the deficiencies of the new design. Well, it’s not what I wanted, but it sure was expensive! However, it works, and that’s what matters, I guess. It just won’t ever be what it was supposed to be. Grrrr….
22. Add four new tie-downs to the upper deck to make sure we never again have a loose dinghy while underway. Each one involved drilling and tapping three holes in the deck.
23. Remove the hatch lid from the aft deck to the upper deck, take it to have the Plexiglass replaced, and remount it.
24. Remove the hatch on the foredeck that opens into the VIP Cabin and flip it 180 degrees. Because for some strange reason, it was mounted backwards when the boat was built. In other words, when you opened it, the opening faced aft – so almost no air came in through it when at anchor. Future guests – you’re welcome!
25. Replace all three main engine fuel filters, and both generator fuel filters. Add a vacuum gauge to each of the primary filter housings to indicate when it’s time to change the filter cartridge.
26. Paint the bottom of the new dinghy with two coats of primer and one coat of bottom paint.
27. Speaking of bottom paint: apply two more coats of bottom paint to Smartini. Yes, after applying five coats of primer and three coats of bottom paint at the last haul out, we had to put more bottom paint on this time! It turns out that the bottom paint we chose, once it goes in the water, can’t be OUT of the water for more than 72 hours before it needs to be scuffed and re-coated. We were obviously out a lot longer than 72 hours, so we paid our painters to scuff the entire hull, then Fran and I put the bottom paint on. And since we tend to overdo things, we did two coats.
28. Install a pull-out trash can in the galley. Seems like a small thing, but it’s so much nicer than having to drag the trash can out of the cupboard and stuff it back in every time.
29. Disassemble, service, and reassemble the crane that lifts the dinghy on and off the upper deck. This was not a job for amateurs – we farmed it out. And after watching them do it, I’m sure glad we did! Definitely above my pay grade.
30. There’s a stainless steel safety rail running all around the back half of the upper deck. Some of it is fixed, but the aft-most portions are removable so that the dinghy can go on and off. For some reason, they made the section where the crane goes when hoisting or lowering the dinghy a fixed section. Sure enough, the very first time we put the dinghy in the water after we bought Smartini, we lowered the boom of the crane too low, and bent that section of the railing. So we had that section converted from fixed to removable. (That involved cutting and welding stainless, so we didn’t do that job.) Now we can lower the boom as low as it goes and not hurt anything.
31. Another bit of Irma damage was to one of our downspouts that drains water from the upper deck. (We added these at the last haul out.) It rubbed (and rubbed, and rubbed, and rubbed!) against the dock piling in Key West, and while it mostly chewed up the piling, it also got pretty bent out of shape in the process. So we had it cut out, and a new one welded in. And because we weren’t thrilled with the ones that were put in originally (not long enough, not enough downward slope), we had the other side done, too.
32. One of our three side boarding gates banged against a piling during Irma, and bent the heck out of the hinges. So we bought some new, heavier duty hinges, had them drilled to match the old ones (the new ones came with no holes), and re-hung the gate. If you look closely at the picture, you’ll see that we couldn’t get all of the bolts started in the bottom hinge – a project for another day.
33. Another of our boarding gates has always rubbed the deck in one bottom corner, and it takes the paint off, then it rusts. We couldn’t mount the gate any higher, so we decided to have ¾” cut off the bottom. We removed the gate, had someone cut the bottom off and weld a new bottom on, then the painters faired and painted, and we re-installed.
Wow! I’m exhausted just writing about all of that work! Vendors did a lot of it, but still – whew! However, this wasn’t all we had to accomplish during our almost-three months in the yard. In addition, we also had to:
Get the car to the body shop to fix the scratch that they didn’t fix the first time.
Sell the old dinghy.
Register the new dinghy.
Get rid of the trailer that came with the new dinghy.
Buy about 100 things that we’d need for spares, or for future projects, or whatever. Maybe it was 200 things.
Provision for the Bahamas. Fran spent about two days on this alone.
Investigate, choose, then switch us to a service that can handle all of our physical mail, no matter where we are in the world. It’s called St. Brendan’s Isle – a weird name for a very cool service!
Investigate, choose, purchase and set up a satellite phone. Then deal with the police report, and buy another one, when that one was stolen from our galley!
Sell our old underwater camera setup.
Investigate, choose, and purchase a new underwater camera setup.
Somewhere in the middle, we flew to Indianapolis, then drove to Brooklyn, NY to deliver Bennett to Pratt Institute, his new venue of higher education.
Can we please, pretty please, pretty please with sugar on top, not have to haul Smartini out of the water for at least two years? Please??????
Fran and I have known Robin since 2009 or 2010. Like most of our Florida friends, we met her through Crossfit. She’s been a dear friend almost since the beginning. She’s been to Indianapolis for Winterfest, so she’s met a bunch of our Indy friends, too. She met Cathy a year ago (they celebrated that anniversary while onboard, in fact), and Fran and I have been able to spend some time with Cathy during that time, so we figured she would probably make a good guest.
They arrived early on Friday the 23rd for a four night stay. We spent the first night in Nassau Harbour Club (our new marina-of-choice in Nassau), because Robin needed to get to a local Crossfit gym to complete the last of the five Open workouts, which had been announced just the night before. (Thrusters! Robin’s favorite!) We found Happy Hour Crossfit (is that a great name, or what?) and its most gracious owner, Mario Jordan, less than a mile from the marina. He met us there 30 minutes before his first afternoon class, so he could devote his total attention to judging Robin. What a great guy, and a great gym! Not huge, but bigger than I expected, and well equipped. (The gym, not Mario. Well, Mario, too, I guess!) A perfect place for Robin to complete her last Open workout, as it was less than a three minute walk to the Green Parrot Bar, where we had some appropriate post-workout beverages (Tito’s Recovery Drink for Robin), and some quite tasty dinner.
The next morning (after much sleeping in by the guests), we headed out to Rose Island, where we had spent a couple nights with Bennett, to spend the next two days and nights. There’s really nothing to do there other than relax and snorkel, so that’s what we did. Cathy had never snorkeled before and was a bit anxious about it, but within five minutes of getting in the water, she was as comfortable as she could be. We were on a shallow, healthy reef, so there was plenty to see, and after another five minutes, she was hooked! We stayed in the water until all four of us were starting to shiver, and when we got out, she couldn’t stop talking about how cool it was. Yep – hooked for sure!
Over the next 48 hours we were in a rythm: sleep late, leisurely breakfast with Bloody Marys, snorkel until we got cold, cocktails, lobster for dinner, more cocktails, and sleep. Wash, rinse, repeat. We snorkeled on the north and south sides of Rose Island, and both were equally nice. It’s surprising how healthy the reefs are in this area, since they’re visited by literally hundreds of tourists from Nassau every day. Fran and I were able to demonstrate some of our hunting skills, getting a lobster or two on each dive, and I shot a snapper with my new Hawaiian sling (I need a LOT of practice!) Robin and Cathy think Fran is some kind of lobster ninja, after watching her sprint to the bottom and skewer a big bug that I had chased out of its hole. Ask one of them to tell you the story – it gets better every time!
Our last snorkel before heading back into the marina yesterday afternoon was one for the books. Fran, Robin, and Cathy practically ran into a loggerhead turtle who couldn’t have cared less about them being there, and saw two other smaller turtles. I surprised Robin and Cathy with a nurse shark that I poked out from under a ledge. Fran found some giant sea hares, and we learned that they squirt purple ink if they feel threatened (i.e., if you poke them with a spear tip). The women found a total of five lobsters (I have apparently lost my ability to find them, as I saw only the ones they found), but we caught only two – another nice spiny, and yet another big slipper. One was too small, and we simply couldn’t get the other two. There was a big Atlantic stingray. And of course, countless little tropicals that cover the spectrum of colors, shapes, and sizes.
One afternoon, we had cocktail hour with our new Canadian friends on Dances with Dolphins, Janice and Wes, along with Wes’s sister Karen and her girlfriend Karen. We spent a good bit of time each day on the flybridge, enjoying the nearly perfect weather, and being entertained by Cathy’s non-stop exclamations of how beautiful the water was, or how delicious the lobster was, or how fantastically she slept every night, or how much she LOVED snorkeling. (Robin, you were a wonderful guest, too, but I keep mentioning Cathy because she never stopped acting like a kid on Christmas morning!)
Our last evening, back in the marina, we took a cab across the bridge to Paradise Island and Atlantis, just to see it. If you like Las Vegas and Disney, you’d probably like Atlantis – it feels like a marriage of those two. Pirate Republic Brewing (the only craft brewery in the Bahamas) has a tasting room there, and we enjoyed their IPA and stout. (Nothing to write home about, but for beer lovers like Fran and me, it was heads and shoulders above all other Bahamian beer.) We really enjoyed the huge aquarium in Atlantis – the manta rays, spotted eagle rays, Atlantic stingrays, and literally thousands of fish, were quite impressive, and the tank itself is ginourmous. But Fran noted that anyone coming to the Bahamas and experiencing only Atlantis is, sadly, totally missing what the Bahamas are really like.
Traveler’s Tip: In Nassau, if you take a cab, be prepared to feel like you’re getting screwed almost every time. Some of them have meters, but we never saw one turned on. One driver said they use them for the locals, but they have “fixed prices” for tourists. Translation: they make up the price every time you get in the cab, probably based on everything they can ascertain about you during the ride. When Bennett arrived, we took a cab to the airport to get him, and then brought him back to the marina in the same cab. The fare was NINETY DOLLARS!!!! (It was maybe 20 minutes each way.) The last evening Bennett was here, we took a cab back from a restaurant one night. (We walked there, but didn’t walk home because the street was very busy, with no sidewalk and no lighting, and after dinner it was very dark out.) The fare was TWELVE DOLLARS for THREE MINUTES! Just last night, we paid $20 for the maybe six minute ride to Atlantis, but when we came home – a shorter trip, because it had all the one way streets in the right direction – it was $23. The driver took a full ten seconds to come up with that amount when I asked her what it was going to be, and then defended it like a mother defends her offspring when I told her we paid only $20 to get there. If there’s a way to make it seem like less of a rip-off, I haven’t figured it out yet.
OK, enough bellyaching!
At 7:00 this morning, they hopped into a cab for the airport. We crammed a lot of fun into four days and nights with Robin and Cathy, and they’re already scheming to get back onboard. They’re certainly welcome any time!
Visit report and photo gallery from Bennett’s 5 day visit
I always wait way too long to get Visit Reports out, so I’m going to make this one short and sweet, and TIMELY! We sent Bennett back to NY yesterday afternoon. All the pictures from his visit are in a gallery at the end of this short post.
He arrived on Saturday the 10th, flying into Nassau. Fran and I pulled into the Nassau Yacht Haven (one of the many marinas in the eastern end of Nassau Harbour) Saturday afternoon and were hoping to leave for the Berry Islands on Sunday, but weather dictated otherwise. We ended up staying in the marina Sunday and Monday nights, before finally getting out to Rose Island, a few miles East of Nassau, on Tuesday. We anchored there for two nights, and FINALLY had the kind of days we’ve been hoping for – light winds and mostly sunny, and it even warmed up to the high 70’s.
Our first day in Nassau, we took a taxi from the marina to “Fish Fry” – a small area west of the cruise ship shopping area that has about a dozen (maybe 20?) little restaurants and food and drink shacks / stands. Bennett had his first Sky Juice (gin, coconut water with the pulp, and sweetened condensed milk – a Nassau favorite!), and his first crack conch. And he saw enough cruise shippers / spring breakers to realize how lucky he was to be seeing Nassau the Smartini way.
Then we walked all the way back to the marina, stopping at the National Museum of the Bahamas along the way to see some of the most important art of this island nation.
We went on a one-tank scuba dive with Bahama Divers on Monday (Bennett hadn’t been underwater since we went to Australia in 2016). An OK dive, because it was mostly overcast, and the water was only about 72 degrees. But it was good to see that he was able to jump right back into it with no issues whatsoever, and we did see lots of pretty fish, a small spotted eel, and a stingray or two. And the coral was in great shape, which makes Fran and me very happy.
Anchored at Rose Island, we did some snorkeling the first afternoon, up near the island, and although the coral was pretty, we didn’t see much life – certainly nothing dinner-worthy. Also, it was still overcast most of the time. But the next day, we took Killer (our Boston Whaler Sport dinghy) out to the other side of a small unnamed island just south of Rose and found a really big patch of coral that was in gorgeous shape, and about 10 – 12 feet deep. The sun was out, so it seemed a little warmer in the water. And we caught dinner! A big lobster (7 1/2 lbs – the only one we saw), and a big lionfish (also the only one we saw). The meat from just the legs and antenna was almost enough to fill us up, and there was more than enough for lobster scrambled eggs the next morning.
The rest of the time at Rose Island, we just hung out and enjoyed the beautiful water and sunshine, while getting caught up on Bennett’s new life as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In short – it seems to agree with him!
Click on an image to open a slideshow of all images.
Most significant changes in life happen over time. As we grow up, we get bigger, smarter, more knowledgeable, more emotionally mature (with the obvious exception of Donald Trump), but those changes happen over our lifetimes. If we start doing Crossfit, we get stronger, leaner, and our endurance increases, but that doesn’t happen overnight. Our most special relationships with people – dear friends and life partners – typically grow over time, and sometimes, sadly, they decline, but also, it usually happens over time.
But some of the biggest changes in our lives happen in a single day, sometimes even a single moment. The day you become a parent for the first time, or even the day you find out you’re going to – those are life changing days. Some geographic moves, especially if they involve long distances and job changes, have the potential to bring on monumental change in the span of time it takes the moving van to get your stuff from your old home to your new one. In an instant, the sudden loss of a loved one changes your life forever. Often, you’ll realize these changes when they happen, but sometimes, it’s only later that you can look back on them and realize what a huge impact they had.
I’ve had several life changing moments and days in my 59 years. I’m going to bore you with some of them now, in fact!
The day we moved from Indianapolis (where I lived from age 7 to 17) to Mt. Carmel, IL, my life changed forever, and I knew it when it happened. A junior in high school, everything that mattered in my life changed as we drove that U-Haul truck over the Wabash River bridge and up Walnut Street. I was no longer around any of my friends, of course my school changed (at 17, those two things are pretty much your WHOLE life), and I would never again feel like I was from the same place as the rest of my family (all of whom stayed in Mt. Carmel until they died, or they’re still there).
The day I left Mt. Carmel for Indiana University was one, but I was so excited about it, I’m sure it didn’t hit me at the time. It was the first time I had ever lived away from home, and had almost total control over what I did and when I did it. It also put me back with some very good friends, which was especially important to me at that time. And it introduced me to the wonderful world of Accounting, as that was to be my major, and would become a driving force in my life. (Ha! Just kidding about that one!)
The day Maddie was born was one, especially since Terri and I had decided early on not to have kids. When we changed our minds, and Maddie popped into our lives, we were in our mid-thirties, so that was a huge life change. Suddenly there was a tiny, noisy, sometimes cute, sometimes stinky human living with us, who didn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time, and who seemed to need something from one of us almost constantly! (No offense, Bennett, but the second child, while special in its own way, is never as big a change as the first one. Been there, done that, got the puke stains on the tie to prove it.) Of course, twenty two years later, when I learned that she had died, it was the single most significant change of my life, and it happened in literally a few seconds, hearing a few words over the phone.
The day I met Joel Kozikowski was one of those days, but there’s no way I could have anticipated the enormity of it when we met. Joel and I would end up being business partners for about 20 years (Allen Jorgensen joined us about 8 years into that), and it was by far the most significant business relationship of my life. It has also been, and remains, one of the most rewarding friendships of my life. He paved the way for me to get scuba certified and become a pilot, and we’ve shared the big boat dream ever since we started making some money together.
Spending time with Fran, one on one, for the first time, ended up being four of the most important hours of my life, but I’m sure I didn’t know it at the time. I was too busy being amazed at how much I liked her, and how much we had in common, and how much I wanted to see her again the next day.
I’m pretty sure I had a life changing day on Thursday, a mere two days ago. (Fran, too, but she can write her own story.) Lemme tell you about it.
Unless you met me very recently, you know that Fran and I have been dreaming and scheming about living on a boat in the Caribbean for at least the past five years. And you know that, although we moved onto the boat well over a year ago, the “in the Caribbean” part of the dream has been elusive, to say the least. A two-week haul out for a bottom job last January turned into five of the worst months of my life (seriously). Then, just as we felt like we were about ready to go, Hurricane Irma (you remember Irma – big woman with a nasty disposition and a penchant for chewing up boats?) came to visit us in Key West. Nothing really bad happened to Smartini, but it was enough that we needed to haul out again for repairs, and yet another short term haul out (planned for about four weeks) went awry, and stretched to almost three months. But then (was that angels singing I heard in the background?), suddenly, on Tuesday, the last job being done by the last vendor* was finished! All we needed to do was a little shakedown cruise to try out all the systems, then get the boat ready for an early morning departure.
(* Vendor: from the Latin scumbaggus, meaning lying, thieving snake who never, ever, EVER gets anything done on time, or within budget, and whose primary talent appears to be making excuses.)
The shakedown cruise went well. We motored about 3 miles north up the ICW to a familiar anchorage where we could operate the anchor windlass (the only hydraulic component we couldn’t fully exercise dockside), and on the way, test out everything else that had been modified or hadn’t been used since we motored up from Key West at the end of November. Everything worked great, but while we were sitting there at anchor, we got an alarm: “Rudder indicator lost”. Hmmm…. never seen that before. Maybe just an anomaly. Let’s hope so, because without rudder position, the autopilot wouldn’t be able to steer the boat. And trust me, you don’t really want to manually steer a boat for 78 nautical miles (unless your name is Steve Powers – and mine is not). Sure enough, when we started back to the dock, I engaged the autopilot, and there was the rudder indicator, right where it should be on the display. Whew!
We got back to the marina, but rather than go back into the slip we had occupied for the last 5 nights, we tied up at the fuel dock, on the outside of the marina. For one thing, we had told them we were leaving that day, and they had another boat coming into that slip in the afternoon. For another, if we positioned at the fuel dock, it would be easy to leave – we wouldn’t have to do any tricky maneuvering out of the slip with currents and wind and such. (If this were a movie, there would be some element of foreshadowing right here – maybe a slow fade to the giant ripples going under the fuel dock as the incoming tide smashes against it.)
While we were prepping the boat, I noticed that one of the two MFD’s (multi-function displays) at the lower helm was looking weird. It was displaying all the right words and images, but it was all white on green, like a failed attempt at coming up with the easiest-to-read computer screen way back in the monochrome monitor days, before most of you were born. The MFD’s display our charts, radar, night vision camera, sonar, etc., etc., depending on what you select. We have four of them – two at the upper helm, from where we operate the boat 99% of the time, and two at the lower helm, which is used only in the nastiest weather. Since this was at the lower helm, and we weren’t expecting any bad weather at all, we decided to ignore it, and try to find a replacement on ebay later. (No foreshadowing needed here, folks – while this was annoying at the time – almost unbelievable, actually, as we were within hours of departure – it didn’t end up causing us any trouble at all.)
We planned to leave at about 2:00 a.m. because of weather. It’s about 78 nautical miles (90 “normal” miles for the landlubbers among you), and at our speed (about 7 knots, or 7 nautical miles per hour), that’s about 11 hours. We don’t want to make that trip if the weather, and more important the sea conditions caused by the weather, aren’t favorable. After a pretty rough several days, the wind was forecast to shift around from the north to the south, and to calm significantly, resulting in a nice smooth ride across the Gulfstream. But the change was going to happen overnight, and last only into the next afternoon. We didn’t want to miss that window, so we got the boat all prepped and ready to go, went to the West Palm Brewery for one last good beer and some of their excellent pizza, then went back to the boat and to bed, with the alarm set for 1:30.
We both slept surprisingly well, given how excited we were. But we were both also pretty exhausted, both physically and emotionally, from the previous few weeks of trying to get vendors to live up to their promises. At any rate, we conked out, slept hard, and got up at 1:30. Made some coffee, re-ran every checklist, added one more tie-down to the dinghy (didn’t want a repeat of our last overnight adventure!), and at 2:37 a.m., I fired up the big Isuzu diesel and engaged the bow and stern thrusters to push us off the dock. And nothing happened.
That’s not true – I wrote it that way to make it more dramatic than it really was. But it SEEMED like nothing happened. What actually happened was that both thrusters engaged just like they’re supposed to, and they moved us about eight inches away from the dock. Not even close to enough to be able to pull the fenders out from between us and the dock. It was as if we still had a line cleated to the dock. The tide had started to come in, and the current pushing onto the dock was too strong for the thrusters to overcome. “Inconceivable!” I thought, in my best Wallace Shawn-as-Vizini accent. Our thrusters are BAD ASS! One of the modifications that had been made at this haul out – in fact, the one that had dragged out for well over a month longer than it should have taken – was to modify the hydraulic system to convert the stern thruster from electric to hydraulic, and to make the hydraulic system use all of the hydraulic power generated by both the main engine and the generator, for whatever hydraulic component you used. Our earlier dockside tests showed that both thrusters were now more powerful than before, even with both of them operating at the same time. And yet, after a solid 15 or 20 seconds of pushing that joystick to the left, we never got away from the dock.
OK, forget “walking” the boat away from the dock with both thrusters at once. We’ll just put all of the power into the bow thruster, and get the bow away from the dock, enough to then drive the boat forward. Nope – even with all that hydraulic power, the bow didn’t move more than a foot or so. But wait! The stern thruster is stronger than the bow, as it has two propellers as opposed to just one. Let’s see what that does! Not much, actually – maybe a foot and a half off the dock, but no more.
How had this happened? When we left the boat for dinner, it was about 7:30 p.m., and I noticed that there was almost no current pushing the boat either towards or away from the dock. “That’s good”, I thought, knowing that six hours later, we should have the same situation, since tides change about every six hours. Well, 2:37 was more like SEVEN hours later, and by then, the incoming tide was strong enough to push us against the dock, and to hold us there like a redneck holds onto his AR-15.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that even a small amount of current could hold us against the dock and overpower the thrusters. The boat weighs between 85,000 and 90,000 pounds, depending on fuel load, water load, etc. We were fully loaded, so around 90,000 pounds. In order to float, a boat has to displace its weight in water. At 8.556 pounds per gallon of saltwater, Smartini displaces a little over 10,500 gallons. 10,500 gallons of water moving at only 1.2 feet per second generates around 4.65 hydro-juells of power every second, which is equivalent to the driving force of the front lines of the Indianapolis Colts, the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots, and several other crappy NFL teams combined. (OK, I made almost all of that up, but the lesson we learned is that our thrusters are not going to overcome a full broadside tidal current, and we need to plan accordingly in the future. This is a rarity – to learn a very valuable boating lesson first hand, without having to write a check for several thousand dollars to have something repaired or replaced.)
There was no point in continuing to try the thrusters at this point, so we shut down the engine and generator and started looking at tide and current info. It seems that we truly had missed our opportunity by about an hour – ugh! But tides and currents are tricky – tide tables are for a very specific location, and often, not very far away, the currents are quite different from the tides, due to the shape of the land that the water is moving around, including the depth of the bottom. So we decided to wait 30 minutes and see if it was any better. It wasn’t. So we tried again 45 minutes later, and 45 minutes after that, and so on, until about 5:30 when we said “Fuck it! Let’s make breakfast and wait for high tide”. (Which was going to be about 7:00.) So we had breakfast (fried Spam on English muffins, a Smartini favorite), watched the current, and when it finally seemed like it was down to almost nothing, we gave it a try. Yay! We could move the boat off the dock! It was finally time to go!
Except, it wasn’t. Because as I walked onto the flybridge to leave, we hear this on the VHF radio: “Securite, securite, securite. Cruise ship Grand Celebration is entering the Port of Palm Beach. No outgoing traffic for the next 15 minutes.” WHAT?!!?!?!? SERIOUSLY!?!?!?!?!??! Is there some force in the Universe that’s telling us not to go on this adventure? Screw that – neither of us believes in that crap – we’re going! What’s another 15 f***ing minutes, anyway?
(15 minutes later, during which we’re both thinking how nice it would have been to have slept until 5:30): Fran says “It’s been 15 minutes, let’s go.” So we did. And at 7:07 a.m. on Thursday, March 1, 2018, our lives changed, as we left a dock in the United States, bound for the Bahamas and beyond over the next several years.
Almost. Because that damned cruise ship hadn’t decided not to come into port, they just did it 15 minutes after they said they were going to. So as we rounded the end of Peanut Island, we could see the Grand Celebration finally coming in the inlet, and every other boat was getting out of the way. There was nowhere for us to go, so we TURNED AROUND, and went back into the port to get out of its way. !@#$%^&*()+#$&$%^&&^%%$ (big breath in) #$%&^%##%$^&*%$!!!!! (See the picture of our track, lest you think I’m making this shit up.)
But finally – FINALLY – the ship passed us, and we pointed for the open ocean. And I’m exceedingly pleased to report that, after 10 ½ uneventful hours of cruising across very comfortable seas, we pulled into Bell Channel (which is, coincidentally, right at Smith Point) on the south side of Grand Bahama Island, and a few minutes later, docked at the Grand Bahama Yacht Club.
And an hour or so afterwards, when the fenders were down and the lines were secure, and we had beers in hand, it occurred to us that, yes, now, for sure, it had happened. The Big Adventure had truly begun, and our lives were going to be very different from this day forward, for the foreseeable future.
I promise to write about it. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about it, and some of you will become part of it!
P.S. In case you’re wondering, May the Cat did fine on this trip. She holed up in the VIP cabin for the entire voyage, but was out walking around within minutes after arriving at the dock, none the worse for wear. Just don’t tell anyone she’s here – we didn’t want to go through the hassle of legally clearing her into the Bahamas, so we didn’t tell them we had a cat onboard. But hey – they didn’t ask!
After an almost-perfect visit to Indianapolis for Thanksiving, we returned to Key West late on November 27. We were scheduled to be hauled out for some Irma repairs and some other modifications to Smartini (we just can’t leave well enough alone!) one week later, on December 4, in Riviera Beach, on Florida’s East Coast. When we came from Riviera Beach to Key West in August, it was done over three days: Riviera Beach to Miami (12 hours exactly), then Miami to Marathon (another 12 hours), and after staying in Marathon for a few weeks, Marathon to Key West (10 hours). We would have liked to be as leisurely on the way back north, but the weatherman said “Nope!”.
The forecast was for wind – and more important, waves – that would far exceed our comfort level for the entire week, except for about a 24 hour period starting Wednesday morning. We’d been watching the forecast for several days, so this came as no surprise, and we had already started to ready ourselves mentally for doing the whole trip in one shot, which would obviously include going all night Wednesday night.
People do overnight ocean passages all the time. Most sailboaters can’t make it from Florida to the Bahamas – even the shortest hops – in the light of a single day, so they often go overnight to arrive at their destination during daylight. We’ve been out well after dark fishing with our good friend Charlie, and it’s not been scary or weird. We’ve left for the Bahamas in the pre-dawn hours every one of our four trips to the Abacos. In short, there was no reason for us to worry about an all-night passage on Smartini – except for the fact that IT’S DARK AND SCARY ON THE OCEAN AT NIGHT AND WE’D NEVER DONE IT BEFORE AND WHAT IF SOMETHING HORRIBLE HAPPENED AND WE DIED?!?! (Spoiler alert – we didn’t die.)
We spent the day Tuesday prepping for the trip and saying goodbye to our new friends in Key West, and planned for a Wednesday morning departure. There was no reason to start especially early, as we would be on the boat all night, regardless of when we started, and the weather wasn’t forecast to change until mid-morning on Thursday, so we got up about 6:00, ran all of our pre-departure checklists, and pulled out of the Key West Bight Marina, our home for the previous three months, about 8:15. The updated forecast was for no more than 18 knots (20.7 mph), and no more than 3.5 foot waves, with a period of 5 seconds, mostly from the north.
As you can see from the picture, our route started off mostly east, then curved gently to the north, as we followed the Keys. Had we been traveling during daylight hours, we would have stayed in close to shore – in the Hawk Channel, which is inside the large reef that runs offshore the length of the Keys. It’s almost always calmer in there than outside the reef. But since we’d be in the dark for much of the Keys portion of the trip, we decided we had to go “outside”, because of the lobster pots that litter the Hawk Channel. We sure as hell didn’t want to get the line of a lobster pot wrapped up in our propeller in the middle of the night, and you simply can’t see them in the dark.
Do you know about the Gulf Stream? It’s a warm and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches to the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It moves at 1 knot to as much as 4 knots, and is many miles wide. It accelerates as it rounds the Keys and the tip of the Florida peninsula. It’s typically a couple of degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the water immediately west of it. Surprisingly, it has a fairly sharp edge – you can be in it one minute, and a minute later, be totally out of it, when traveling perpendicular to it. If you’re crossing between Florida and the Bahamas, there’s one hard and fast rule: don’t make that crossing if there’s an “N” in the wind forecast, meaning if the wind is from the northwest, north, or northeast. The effect of the wind from the north on the current from the south is shocking. It’s hard to capture in a photograph, but I’ve seen this effect firsthand, being in 2 – 3′, short period, constantly whitecapping waves for miles and miles, and then, in the span of 30 seconds, having it flatten out to a 1′ gentle swell, as we crossed over the western edge of the stream.
But what does this have to do with our trip? We’d be only about five to seven miles offshore all day and night, following the 200 foot line (where the depth is charted at 200 feet), to make sure we were off the reef, and away from the lobster pots. Well, as it turns out, that’s far enough out to be in the stream, as we realized Wednesday afternoon, when we found ourselves in pretty blue water that was more than 2 degrees warmer than the water we had been in just an hour before.
It wasn’t bad all afternoon, with the wind in the 15 – 20 knot range and the seas about 2 – 2.5 feet. A little more than we expected at that time, but not uncomfortable, with only the occasional “bell ringer”. (Smartini has a big, pretty bell up on the upper deck that will ring when we pitch a lot. Pitch is the up-and-down motion of the bow of a boat, which, of course, makes the whole boat move in a tomahawk chop motion. The only time we’ve ever experienced this was last Christmas, when we went to the Bahamas with the crew of the Turtle E. Awesome, as we were leaving the Lake Worth Inlet. It rang about a half dozen times as we powered through the almost-always-rough water just outside the inlet. Not comfortable, but it lasted only about 10 minutes before it smoothed out for the rest of the trip.)
About three hours into the trip, in full daylight and comfortable conditions, we noticed that our dinghy, which rides up on the back of the upper deck, was waggling from side to side with the waves. It’s supposed to be immobile, and always has been, so I investigated and found that one of the four mounting pads that the dinghy sits on had detached from the deck. They slide onto a plate that’s welded to the deck, and are held in place with a spring-loaded pin, and the pin had come out of its hole, allowing the pad to slide off the plate. No big deal – we’d just lift that back corner of the dinghy and put the pad back in place, right? (Aside: my Indian name at Indian River Crossfit was “Can’t Do Deadlifts.”) Wrong. Try as I might, I couldn’t left the dinghy high enough for Fran to slide the pad back onto its plate. So I made sure that the ratchet straps that hold the dinghy fast to the deck were super snug, and that ought to hold it. (By the way, in case you’re wondering “Check dinghy tie-downs” is on our pre-departure checklist, and it had been done that morning. We have never had one of those pads come loose before!)
Other than the dinghy, the trip went by without incident, and Fran and I both remarked about how fast the day seemed to be going by. We perform an engine room check once each hour, and it seemed like these were happening one right after another. This was a good sign – if it kept up, the 13-hour overnight part wouldn’t seem nearly so bad if it felt like it, too, was flying by.
And then, right on cue at 5:34 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, BOB (the Big Orange Ball) disappeared behind us over the watery horizon, and with mostly cloudy skies and a not-too-bright moon, it got really dark really fast. But it was OK – we were mentally prepared, and Smartini has FLIR – Forward-looking Infrared Imaging – so we can kinda-sorta see what’s in front of us, even when it’s pitch black. It’s a narrow field of view, and you can’t see more than a few hundred yards in front of you, but if there was something out there – an unlighted buoy, or boat, or a container that fell off a ship (it happens all the time!) – you can see it. At first, we kept our eyes glued to it, but that was exhausting, so we settled into a “look at it every 30 seconds or so” rythm, and that was easier.
As it turned out, the darkness wasn’t an issue. Neither of us was having any freakiness about it being dark, especially with the FLIR, and our radar, to help ensure we wouldn’t run into anything. What WAS an issue was the wind, which had begun to build late in the afternoon to a steady 20 – 23 knots, and after dark, built to 27 – 32 knots, almost twice what had been forecast. And yes, it had a huge “N” in the direction, coming mostly from the northeast. Combine that with the fact that were in the Gulf Stream, and – well, let’s just say that we very soon got tired of hearing our big, shiny bell ring!
Fran and I both went through the same set of emotions, as we would learn from talking about it the next morning. First, anger at the weather forecaster for getting it so wrong, then increasing fatigue from having to constantly hold onto something and keep a tight core to keep from flopping around like a rag doll. And then, for a brief time, fear. It was rough, and we were tossing around like we’ve not experienced before, and it was unnerving. Fortunately, we both realized that Smartini is an incredibly strong vessel, built to withstand sea conditions way, way worse than we were experiencing, and that although we weren’t going to like it, we didn’t have anything to fear.
Until about 1:30 a.m., when I came back up to the flybridge after an engine room check, and noticed the dinghy sliding forward and backward about a foot with every pitch forward and backward. Another one of the pads had come loose, and the forward ratchet strap with it! Suddenly, we had a potential nightmare scenario on our hands. If we couldn’t secure the dinghy, it would continue to work its way loose from the deck, and we’d have 700 lbs. of boat, motor, and two folding bikes sliding around 10 feet off the water, and eventually, surely, finding their way off the back of the upper deck, dropping onto the swim platform below. A really active imagination might even picture the propeller on the motor puncturing the swim platform, which is part of the hull on Smartini, allowing the ocean to intrude into our normally dry bilge. Clearly, we needed to secure that dinghy!
We have plenty of strong dock lines in storage on the upper deck, but what to tie them to that would be strong enough? Fortunately, I was able to get the forward pad back onto its plate. Sliding around the upper deck on my butt so I didn’t risk becoming a Man Overboard, and always holding on with at least one hand, I got one of the lines fastened to one forward pad, ran it back around the shaft of the outboard motor on the dinghy, and back up to the other forward pad. I tied it off as tightly as I could possibly manage with one hand. Then I put another one around the boom of our crane (the crane that puts the dinghy in and out of the water) and around the dinghy, and made that as tight as possible. Finally, I got both ratchet straps in place, and tightened them as tight as I could. The dinghy now moved less than an inch with each violent pitch of the boat, so as long as it stayed that way, we’d be OK.
While the above episode wasn’t exactly fun for me, I think it was worse for Fran. She was at the helm, with her head swiveling back and forth between the FLIR screen and me, wondering just what the hell she’d do if I lost my grip and went overboard. I had my life vest on, but in the dark, in seas like that, how would she ever find me? The vest has a whistle on it, but with 30 knot winds, I could blow until I was blue in the face and it wouldn’t help her locate me. The vest doesn’t have a strobe on it, nor a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon, a small GPS-equipped transmitter to help locate someone in the water). She decided right then and there that we’d never do another overnight trip without both of those things on our life vests, nor without checking to make sure my life insurance policy was paid up!
(Editor’s note: sorry for the lack of pictures to help illustrate this portion of the story. Cameras were about the last thing on our minds!)
By 2:00 a.m., the faint glow of Miami was visible in the distance. We had finally settled into our reality, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I did break our normal routine by not doing any more engine room checks. With that much motion, crawling around next to a giant diesel engine with spinning belts and parts in excess of 700 degrees seemed way more dangerous than simply trusting that everything was OK down there. (It was OK down there – Smartini was mechanically perfect this whole trip, never missing a beat, engine speed never wavering more than a few RPMs, and all temperatures solidly in the green range the whole time.)
At 2:54 a.m., due east of the north end of Key Largo, we made our final turn toward Miami, and within 20 minutes, we must have left the Gulf Stream, because it got noticeably calmer, which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that the wind started dying down, too, and by the time we were a few miles off the coast of Miami, was right where it had been forecast – about 17 knots. Was it a function of being closer to shore? Was the forecast right all along, and we were simply east of the zone for which the forecast was made? We’re going to have to learn more about these things, clearly.
At 3:24 a.m., we entered Government Cut, the huge ship channel leading into Port Everglades. As much as I despise driving in downtown Miami, I never thought I would be happy to see it, but at that moment, it was an absolutely beautiful sight. This photo is a stock photo, but that’s how calm the water was that night. We even had an incoming tide which created a nice following current, and saw 10.6 knots on the display, which is FLYING for Smartini. We had made it!
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Before 7:00 a.m., several of the drawbridges on the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) in Miami will open on request, so we didn’t even have to slow down for them. We had thought about anchoring somewhere for several hours, but our good friend and longtime business partner Joel’s boat was not tied up at the dock behind his house, and we figured we could get there in time for breakfast, so we puttered along on the nice, smooth water of the ICW until pulling up to his dock a little after 9:00 a.m. He had fresh crepes waiting for us!
We spent the day relaxing with Joel and Jill, then leisurely motored the rest of the way up the ICW to Riviera Beach the next morning, well ahead of our scheduled haul out three days later.
What did we learn from this trip? Several things.
1. You can’t trust the weather forecast, so unless the forecast is for NO WIND and FLAT CALM SEAS, we won’t be doing an overnight. Life’s too short for that kind of stress.
2. We need strobe lights and PLBs on both of our life vests.
3. We need a better way to secure the dinghy. (We just bought a different one yesterday – a 13′ Boston Whaler – and have already planned a much better mounting system for it!)
4. Smartini can handle conditions way worse than we’ll ever want to be out in. We kinda felt that, but now we know it for sure.
5. We need to learn a lot more about how wind and waves are different just short distances offshore.
6. May is officially a boat kitty! Soon after the sun came up on Thursday, she came up on the flybridge with us and acted like the night was no big deal.
Katie is my almost-kinda-sorta niece. Actually, she’s the second child of my best friend since high school, Ron Stanhouse and his wife Liz, but I’ve known her since the day she was born (literally), and we’ve spent so many holidays together in the last 23 years, she and her older sister Abigail seem like nieces. Katie started her first post-college job last December, and in August, finally got some vacation time. Fran and I were thrilled that she chose to spend it with us on Smartini!
We were still moored in Boot Key Harbor (Marathon) when she flew into Key West, so we drove down to pick her up, stopped for lunch at the Southernmost Cafe, then a beer at The Hog Snapper on Stock Island, before driving back to Boot Key. We spent a day in Marathon getting ready for some offshore travel, then off we went towards Key West and the Dry Tortugas.
We stopped at Looe Key a few hours after leaving Boot Key for some snorkeling. Katie had finished her scuba certification with us in the Bahamas a couple years ago, aboard the Turtle E. Awesome, but hadn’t been underwater since then, so she was eager for a refresher. Looe Key was the perfect opportunity to get used to breathing with her face underwater, with no pressure: a nice, long snorkel tour of the reef. We would have liked to stay longer, but we wanted to get to Key West well before dark, so after about an hour, we headed southwest. But we learned that we can use the mooring balls on Looe Key, so we hope to go back for some scuba diving!
We arrived in Key West with at least an hour of sunlight left and anchored a little north of the Key West Bight on the west side of Fleming Key. We would be returning to Key West a few days later, so we didn’t even leave the boat that evening – just enjoyed the sunset and got ready to depart in the morning for the Dry Tortugas. Katie had fully adapted to the “island time” pace on Smartini – it was such a change from her last eight months spending most days behind the counter at Enterprise Car Rental.
The next morning we pulled anchor and headed west for the 60 nm run to the Dry Tortugas. Weather, wind, and waves were all favorable, and we had dolphins with us several times during the day, including a threesome that rode the bow wave for at least five minutes. Katie was thrilled to no end, and took lots of pictures and some video. (Fran and I were, too, but we tried to act nonchalant about it – you know, being the cool boat people that we are.)
The only challenge about that run is the lobster pots – they are the bane of most boaters in the Keys, even as far away from the populated areas as the Dry Tortugas. A lobster “pot” is a lobster trap, that sits on the bottom, and is marked by a small styrofoam buoy at the surface. We don’t ever want to run over one, because the rope between the trap and the buoy can snag on our stabilizer fins and get pulled into the propeller, possibly with damage to the prop, shaft, rudder, or hull. But they’re EVERYWHERE!!! At times, it’s like playing Whack-a-Mole – you dodge one buoy, and seconds later, you’re changing course to dodge another, then another, then another. It’s honestly a little stressful, especially when the sun is low in front of you, and the glare makes the buoys hard to see even when you’re almost on top of them.
Eight and a half hours after leaving Key West, with all the lobster pots safely behind us, we pulled into the northside anchorage at Garden Key, the island in the Dry Tortugas on which Fort Jefferson stands. The fort is a huge six-sided brick structure that covers almost the entire island. Begun in 1846, it was worked on for decades, but never really finished. The history of it is fascinating, especially given its remote location, but I won’t delve into it here. Wikipedia is a decent place to start, if you’re interested.
We wanted to be back in Key West for Katie’s birthday, so we’d have only one full day in the Dry Tortugas. (By the way, they’re “Dry” because none of them has any source of fresh water, and they’re “Tortugas” – Spanish for “turtles” – because the earliest explorers of the area saw and caught lots and lots of turtles there.) We wanted to get some more snorkeling in, as well as a couple of scuba dives to get Katie refamiliarized, so that would be our plan for our one day there. Unfortunately, there are very strict rules about where you can take a boat, where you can beach a boat, and where you can anchor, which didn’t leave us with many options. Smartini draws 6 feet (i.e., she needs at least 6 feet of water depth to stay off the bottom), and our dinghy isn’t very fast, especially with three people and dive gear, so there weren’t many places we could go. (We finally named the dinghy – SmarTeeny, or “Teeny” for short.) We managed to get in an hour-long scuba dive, and Katie did great (in spite of her feeling a little anxious about it, as we learned later). Then we took Teeny to the northwest side of Loggerhead Key, looking for the wreck of an old boat that’s supposed to be fun to snorkel on. We didn’t find the wreck, but Fran and Katie had some really nice snorkeling in 6 – 10 feet. (I had to stay on Teeny, as anchoring in the area is prohibited.)
When we returned to Smartini, Katie was ready for some relaxation and Fran and I wanted to finish cleaning the bottom of the boat, so that’s what happened. Man – we need to be a lot more aware of when the barnacles start growing on Smartini. What should have been a 30 minute job for one of us turned into an hour for both of us. Lesson learned!
This was our first opportunity to use the scuba tank filler (air compressor) we had installed over a year ago. We fired it up and started filling tanks, used two of them to clean the bottom, and then kept filling them so all four would be full. On about the third one, the compressor started making a funny noise, and within seconds turned into a not-at-all-funny noise – the belt that turns the compressor was screaming, as the compressor itself seized up. WTH?!?! Well, that’s what happens when you let a piece of machinery operate without the correct amount of oil. DOH! (We got lucky – a $400 rebuild of the compressor head and we’re back in business.) Lesson learned!
After another relaxing evening, we went to bed for a not-so-relaxing night. Our generator was still not fixed, so although I could run it, I could do so only with all the safeties disarmed. That meant that if we happened to suck up a plastic bag into the cooling water intake, for example, the engine would quickly overheat and quite possibly be seriously damaged, because the overheat shutdown was disabled. But it was hot – the weather, I mean – and going to sleep without some air conditioning was going to be damned near impossible. So we ran the generator and a/c, cooled things off to a nice sleeping temp, and I set an alarm for three hours later so I could shut off the generator, limiting the exposure to an overheat. Not my most restful night onboard, for sure. (FYI, right after we returned to Key West, I finally was able to fix the generator myself, for what should be a permanent fix.)
In the morning, we started the 8 1/2 hour run back to Key West, but planned to stop short at one of the islands that’s about an hour west of Key West – the Marquesas, or Boca Grande. We wanted to snorkel a bit and enjoy another afternoon of total boat laziness. We ended up just off the southern tip of Boca Grande, put Teeny in the water, and headed for shallow water for some snorkeling. The water was warm, and almost flat calm, great for snorkeling. We didn’t find any amazing reef to snorkel on, but it was just nice being in the water. And dolphins swam near Smartini while we were anchored!
That night, there was a really nice breeze and the temperature dropped just a few degrees, so we all slept outside; Fran and I on an air mattress on the flybridge (plenty of room with Teeny still in the water), Katie on one of our super comfy deck chairs on the foredeck. The sky was mostly clear, we were 10 miles from the lights of Key West, and the stars were beautiful! Sleeping was excellent, until the wind increased to the point of making us chilly, so we all went back inside.
The next morning was Katie’s 23rd Birthday, and she wanted to spend it in Key West – a fine idea, especially since she’d never been there before. We motored into the Key West Bight Marina, tied up about 11:00, and while Fran and I tidied up Smartini, Katie walked three minutes to the Waterfront Brewery for lunch, and to meet an old friend from middle school who just started working there recently. Fran and I joined her shortly, and we spent the rest of the day showing Katie the parts of Key West that we were familiar with. Weather was sunny and hot, so of course there were lots of stops for drinks – to cool off, you know? We walked by the Southernmost Buoy, and the Hemingway House. Fran and Katie went up the lighthouse. We walked down Duvall, found Mile Marker 0, made it to Mallory Square before sunset, and crammed as much Key West into a day as we could. It was Katie’s last day of vacation – her flight left the next day about noon.
She was with us for a whole week, but it went by so quickly, we couldn’t believe when it was over. We didn’t get to dive as much as we all wanted, but Katie didn’t seem to mind. I think a week full of days that were mostly doing nothing was pretty much what she had in mind for her vacation.
In an effort to post shorter tidbits, and more often – here you go!
Ever since we had the built-in benches and fishing tackle storage center done, we’ve wanted to put “fiddles” on a couple of them. (Fiddle: noun – a small ledge or barrier raised in heavy weather to keep dishes, pots, utensils, etc., from sliding off tables and stoves.) These also double as handrails, when going onto and off of the flybridge helm area and the swim platform.
When we’re underway, especially if it’s a many-hours trip, we have a lot of stuff up on the flybridge – a little table for lunch, life preservers, a basket full of odds and ends that we need throughout the day, etc. If it’s at all rough, that stuff tends to slide around, which is never good. Not anymore! I attached seven stainless steel loops around the perimeter of the area, then made custom length bungees for each span.
Yep – that’s all. Just a few minor improvements that we can cross off the To Do List, and that will make life on Smartini just a little bit better.
The Florida Keys, post-Irma, are still a mess, and could use your help.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it – the Florida Keys are suffering badly from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma on September 10, and will be for months and months, maybe even years in some places. By now, I’m guessing the rest of the world isn’t hearing about it too much – there are so many other horrible things happening, after all. But if you’re a fan of the Keys – if you’ve loved visiting here, or maybe you’ve even lived here – don’t forget about the places and the people here. They need your help.
Driving on US Highway 1 – the only road going through the Keys – is encouraging at some points, and a stark reminder of just how much work there still is to be done at most other points. Fran and I have been up and down US 1 between Key West and Marathon several times since we returned to Smartini on September 21. We’ve been doing various post-hurricane aid stuff several times each week, all along that stretch. Initially it was helping distribute much needed supplies (ice, water, food, diapers, etc., etc.), and recently it’s been cleaning up yards and homes for individuals. And every time we go somewhere, and get even 1/2 block away from US 1, we see it – the endless piles of debris, piled along every single street, representing the pre-Irma lives of thousands of people. In some neighborhoods, looking at the washers, dryers, water heaters, stoves and microwaves at the curb, you wonder if there’s a single home there that wasn’t destroyed. In Marathon, there is a mountain of debris at least twenty feet tall that looks like it’s the size of a football field. We heard that 160,000 cubic yards of debris has already been taken away – but you’d never know it.
But the Keys are inhabited by a bunch of hardy folk, people not unaccustomed to hardship. The ones who’ve been here the longest seem to be the ones who are the least affected by it – they just put their heads down and do whatever is necessary to clean up and start moving back toward normal. And as soon as their own immediate needs are met, they start helping others do the same.
It’s not all bad news – Key West got lucky, and ended up on the good side of Irma. By being west of the eye (by about 15 – 20 miles), it was spared the strongest winds, which are usually on the northeast side of a hurricane’s eye. Although there are many, many destroyed homes here, and many more that are severely damaged, all in all, it’s much better than in the rest of the Lower Keys. Most businesses are open again – in fact, we were on Duvall Street last evening, and almost every storefront was open. Cruise ships – an important part of the economy here – started arriving early last week, and every one brings a much needed cash infusion to the businesses, and just as important, to the employees of those businesses.
Speaking of employees – if you come to the Keys, for whatever reason – bring plenty of cash, and be prepared to spend it. There are so many people here whose normal life is paycheck-to-paycheck, and many of them have not had a paycheck since early September. Those who are back to work are, for the most part, back at less than normal hours, making less then normal wages and tips. The absolute best way for you to help with recovery in the Keys is to donate money to an appropriate organization. The second best way is to come for a visit and spend lots of money. Buy things you wouldn’t normally buy, go on an excursion you wouldn’t normally pay for, and by all means, tip the heck out of everyone you would normally tip. They all need it, and you’ll feel great doing it.
Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar and Grill - last place we ate before we evacuated, first place we ate when we came back
Fran, May, and I made it back to Smartini, in the Key West Bight Marina, two days ago (Thursday, September 21), for our first look at her after Irma’s visit. Now that we’ve had a chance to look at the whole boat, the only things we found wrong that we didn’t already know about (from the pictures sent by a friend of a new acquaintance, shown in the previous Smartini vs. Irma update) were a broken radio antenna and a navigation light that came loose from its mount.
We’ll spend a few hours each day getting the boat put back together (i.e., getting everything back to its normal spot on the boat – seems like we moved everything to a safer place when we were preparing), and the rest of each day trying to be useful in the community.
Yesterday, eager to get started on that, we first walked around the neighborhood nearest the marina, part of what’s called Old Town. Lots of small homes, very close together, very old, with yards full of tropical trees and other vegetation. To our surprise, every downed tree and limb we could find had already been chainsawed and stacked in the street. So I just started driving around, while Fran stayed on the boat and searched the web for opportunities to help.
I ended up at one of the many disaster relief supplies distribution centers, a totally makeshift operation at Baby’s Coffee, at about Mile Marker 15 (about 10 miles north of Key West). I helped organize the literally tons of supplies that had been brought in (and that kept coming), and helped hand it out to the folks who just kept showing up. This was completely the effort of Gary, the owner of Baby’s – he got the word out, and people and stuff just started showing up. They had hot meals, cold drinks, and just about every kind of supply people needed. (By the way – for future reference – after about Day 3 of a disaster relief effort, they probably don’t need much more water! All three places we’ve helped with supplies in the past week have had way more water than they needed.) Today, someone (I think it’s Denny’s, the restaurant chain) is bringing in a 54′ mobile kitchen to Baby’s giant parking lot to feed people for the next two or three days. Then it will likely return to a distribution center for awhile, while Gary tries to get his coffee roasters back in gear. If you’re driving to or from Key West, stop at Baby’s at about MM15, and buy something!
Then Fran called with a delivery mission. A group called Healthy Start, whose mission is to help women with babies (sorry, can’t be any more specific than that – that’s all we gathered), had collected a storage unit full of diapers, wipes, and other baby supplies and needed a bunch of it taken to the Kirk of the Keys Presbyterian Church in Marathon. Most of the supplies had been collected in Aventure, near Fort Lauderdale, and delivered to Key West by the Aventura Police Department. How cool is that? So we did that delivery, and by the time we finished, it was almost 6:00, so we called it a day.
Well, we did one more thing to help the community: we went to the Waterfront Brewery for dinner. Since so much of the local economy is tourism, all the locals who depend on that are hurting right now. We’ll be doing our part every day for the foreseeable future, eating and drinking in the local establishments, and overtipping like mad.
It’s Saturday morning. After we finish our couple hours of Smartini “restoration”, we’ll probably go find another distribution center and see what they need, hoping to find someone whose yard still needs some trees and limbs cut. I still haven’t had a chance to fire up the new chainsaw I bought, and I’m itchin’!!!
Oh, by the way, May is incredibly happy to be home. If she never has to go for another car ride in her life, it’ll still be too soon!
(This should be almost the last update – the last one will come after we have a chance to get on Smartini ourselves, hopefully later this week.)
A couple days ago, Fran and I drove over to Lakeland, Florida to the airport there, to help load relief supplies onto small planes bound for Summerland Key. We did it because we wanted to start doing something useful, but also for a selfish reason: we hoped one of us might hop a ride down there to somehow get onto Smartini. But the planes we were loading were not getting close enough to Key West for us to get there. However, most of the other volunteers loading the planes were actually from Key West – displaced to Lakeland during the evacuation. Within minutes of meeting some of them, one of them was on the phone with a friend still in Key West, directing him to Smartini for an inspection. Thank you Janet (the fellow volunteer) and Wade (the inspector)!
Although we did our best to keep Smartini from hitting the dock, we fell short. Partly because our giant fenders didn’t stay in place – they’re inflatable, so it makes sense that they would have been blown around by the wind. But even that shouldn’t have mattered, as we thought we were tied sufficiently in the middle of the slip that we couldn’t even reach the dock. So we don’t know if some lines didn’t stay in place, or if the pilings on the other side of the boat that we tied to may have given way – only an on-site inspection will give us the answer.
In spite of rubbing the dock, the pictures Wade sent reveal only superficial damage – mostly to the wooden caprail that we spent four days refinishing earlier this year. Also to the paint in those same areas, but that’s trivial to repair, right Chris and Christina? (Click on any image to open all of them in a slideshow viewer.)
I hope it’s obvious that we consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have such minor damage. Hurricane Irma was, after all, the biggest, baddest hurricane ever documented in the Atlantic, and she passed right over Smartini. For the first time, we have a reason to be happy that we have a steel boat!
There’s a guy on a sailboat in the Key West Bight who’s been sharing pictures and video on his Facebook account: S/V Andromeda. (I can’t seem to share the video outside of Facebook, but I’ve shared it on my FB page, so if you have FB, just go to my page, and you can watch the video.) With about 25 seconds left in the video, he points to a boat and says “Guy over there lost his mast” – at that point, Smartini is just to the right of his hand. As you can see, it’s perfectly upright, and although his lens isn’t as clear as I’d like, there doesn’t appear to be a solar panel out of place, which we thought might be the case from the satellite image we saw yesterday. Fingers crossed.
The Mayor of Key West released a statement within the last few hours saying it’s likely to be 7 – 10 days before people will be allowed to return to their homes, so unless we can find another way in, we’ve got some time to kill. We’re going to try to find some volunteering to do in the Northern and Middle Keys, as they open those areas up, so that we can be close, and to try to help out. Wish I had a chainsaw!