Key West to Lighthouse Point – Our First Overnight Run

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.)

Bye, Lucy’s – and Roslyn, Kyle, Scott, Mark, Ashley, Lacy, Cody, Jamie, and anyone else I missed!

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.

Our track from Key West

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.

Just before sunset. Smartini’s bell is just behind my noggin in this picture.

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.)

One of the four pads that the dinghy attaches to on the upper deck. Notice how it slide into place and is held there by the “T” handled pin. The pin came loose, and this whole thing came free – on two of the four!

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.

This is a nice, sharp FLIR image. Fortunately, we never saw anything like this on our screen!

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.

A most welcome sight!

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.

May (and Fran), totally recovered from the Overnightmare.



Visit Report: Katie Stanhouse to Key West and Dry Tortugas

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!

First beverage of the visit at Southernmost Cafe

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!

KW anchorage full of boats. Sadly, many of these boats sank or were washed onto land during Irma, less than two weeks later.

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.

Fort Jefferson, as we approached our anchorage

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.

Our dinghy, SmarTeeny, aka “Teeny”

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.)

Dolphins nearby at Boca Grande

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.

Come back soon, Katie!

Sometimes It’s The Little Things

In an effort to post shorter tidbits, and more often – here you go!

Fiddles on tackle center

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.

Florida Keys, Post-Irma

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.

Small debris pile on US 1

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.

Keys Strong – the slogan of the Keys since Irma

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



Smartini vs. Irma: The Last Word

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.

Broken VHF antenna. This is about 1″ diameter, made of fiberglass, and it had zip ties about 6″ away from the breaking point, and more about 18″ away, and they’re intact! No idea how it broke. The one on the other side of the boat, secured the same way, is perfect.
The lower light is known as the steaming light. It’s white, and visible only from the front of the boat, and used only when underway. The two screws that fastened it to the pole either broke or came loose. Fortunately the wire didn’t break, so the worst part about repairing it will be me standing up on the highest point of the boat. It’s going to be hard to splice wire when both arms are wrapped around the radar unit in a death grip!

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!

May enjoying a well earned nap, on the pile of cushions that were stored in the guest cabin during Irma.

Smartini vs. Irma: Penultimate Update

(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.)

Fran helping load small planes bound for Summerland Key
A Cessna Caravan being loaded for one of its many, many trips to Summerland Key with relief supplies.

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!

Smartini vs. Irma Update – new video!

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!

Smartini vs. Irma Update – Smartini Lives!

We just saw a satellite picture of Smartini, floating in her slip in Key West Bight Marina. Looks like one solar panel is very much out of place, but the dinghy is where it should be. That’s about all we can tell from the image, but at least we know she didn’t break loose, and that the docks stayed in place. 

If you want to look at the imagery yourself, click here, then zoom in on Key West. On the north side of the west end of the island is the Key West Bight Marina, which is labeled in the image. Zoom in on the silver-roofed building in the middle of the marina, and Smartini is in the first row of boats to the east. She’s the one that’s even with the north end of the building.

We still need a first hand report from someone in Key West, so if anyone reading this knows anyone who’s still in Key West, and has any way to communicate with them, please send me an email at with their contact info.

Smartini and Turtle E. Awesome vs. Irma

Smartini was left in Key West Bight Marina, secured as well as we could, and we drove north to Satellite Beach, our old stomping grounds. As you may have seen on the news, Key West got hit pretty hard, but our initial “insider” reports are that it wasn’t as bad – at least, not as much damage – as everyone was expecting. We’re still trying to get an update from someone who’s in Key West – someone who can actually go take some pictures of the boat. 

Steve Powers, whose family now owns Turtle E. Awesome (we were half owners with them originally), drove to Melbourne last Thursday, and all three of us (Fran, Steve, and me) spent all day Friday getting him into a better-protected slip, and all tied up. Initial word is the marina’s in great shape, so we have no reason to believe the Turtle isn’t, too. We’re heading that way in a few minutes to see for ourselves. 

We’ve all spent the last several nights at dear friends’ places – first at Robin’s in Indian Harbour Beach, and the last couple nights in Melbourne, at the currently vacant condo of the father of our friend Q. Can’t thank you guys enough for letting us hang out here – it’s been great to have comfortable digs during this whole thing.

And in case you’re wondering – May seems to be fine. 

More news later, when we have pictures of the Turtle and Smartini.


Key West Intermezzo

An intermezzo is, according to Webster’s, “a short part of a musical work that connects major sections of the work.” Key West has been an intermezzo of sorts in my life.

It marked the change from the first 22 years of my life (mostly living at home, no college degree, not married) to the next major section (married, college degree, real jobs, eventually kids), as Terri and I honeymooned there in 1981, just weeks after we graduated from Indiana University, and just before moving to South Bend, Indiana where I would start my first real job.

Many years later, it marked one of the biggest and best changes in my life – life before Fran, and life with Fran. We became a couple – although we didn’t know it at that moment – on the Rhapsody of the Seas (a cruise ship we were both on for work – really!), as it pulled away from the dock in Key West, after we had both spent the day there. Fran was with the rest of the staff of her office, and I was with a client and friend, John Blake. That night, when we were back on the boat, we sat down for a drink, which turned into the four hour conversation that kicked off our relationship.

In January 2011, it marked the change from not being married to a pilot, to being married to one – Key West was Fran’s very first flight after getting her private pilot’s license. As many of you know, it was followed by 6 years of lots and lots of fun flying adventure in Pooh, our Cessna 182. Some of you even got to fly to Key West with us in Pooh!

A few years ago, it marked the final change of being the father of two kids to being the father of two pretty much grown-ups, when I accidentally took them (and Fran) to Fantasy Fest. Watching Bennett watch Fantasy Fest was priceless! (And yes, I really did accidentally take the family to Fantasy Fest.)

In January of this year, it marked both the first and the last time I got to go on a vacation with Maddie as an adult, when she and Brenna and Fran and me spent five days there. We lost Maddie just two days later.

And now, it has the potential to mark another major change in my life, as Smartini sits in the Key West Bight Marina with Hurricane Irma bearing down. If it’s a direct hit as a Category 5 storm, I fear it will be the end of Smartini (just the boat, not Fran and me!). If that happens, our lives will surely change in a big way – but I have no idea how.

I sure hope that doesn’t happen – it could practically wipe Key West off the map for a long time. I really like this little island town, and hope to be able to come back to it, and enjoy it as I remember it, many, many more times. I could even see us living here some day.

Irma vs. Smartini

A brief update on Fran, Brian, May, and Smartini, in light of the #$%&@ hurricane that’s heading our way.

Just to let everyone know, Smartini is in Key West, pretty much dead center of the predicted path for Hurricane Irma, 4 – 5 days from now. We’ve considered all of our options, and “running” doesn’t seem like a good one. Where would we run that wouldn’t have at least a decent chance of being the actual location of Irma’s landfall? The Florida Keys aren’t an ideal cruising ground for Smartini – with our 6′ draft (how deep under the water we are), there aren’t many places that we can get into. Marathon and Key West are about it, and although we could make it back to Marathon before the storm hits, then we’d be on a mooring ball, surrounded by an awful lot of boats that aren’t in such good shape, and whose owners are either completely absent, or at the very least not too concerned about their vessels. In other words, we’d be very likely to get slammed by one or more loose boats. Here in Key West, we’re in a nice marina, protected on three sides, with what seem to be solid pilings to tie up to.

It’s now Tuesday night. Tomorrow morning, we’ll finish the boat preparations (bringing everything inside that we can, and putting every line and every fender we own between the boat and the dock), and tomorrow evening, we’ll drive north to our old stomping grounds – Satellite Beach / Indian Harbour Beach / Melbourne. There, we’ll visit friends, get some wings at Long Doggers, drink lots of great beer at Intracoastal Brewing, and watch Irma from a safe distance. When it’s safe, and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office says we can, we’ll drive back to Key West and hopefully find a fully intact Smartini, ready to continue the Big Adventure. And if not… well, that’s why we have insurance.


Wesmar Stabilizer Cylinder Removal and Replacement

Step-by-step instructions for removal and reinstallation of hydraulic cylinders on a Wesmar stabilizer system.

(To the regular readers of Smartini Life – skip this one! I’m starting to build a library of straight-up “how to” articles for other boaters, and this is the first one. I can’t imagine you’ll find it interesting!)

This is a step-by-step article on how to remove and replace the hydraulic cylinders on a Wesmar stabilizer system (one on each side). In my case, I did this because the seal on one cylinder started to leak. Hopefully, in your case, you’re doing it as preventive maintenance.

I needed some technical support a couple times during my project, which I got by calling Wesmar directly, and speaking to a wonderful man named Jason Smith. He seems to know these systems intimately, because he had the answers I needed in his head – he didn’t even have to pause to look them up. 425-481-2296.

I couldn’t find any definitive information on how often to service the cylinders and the fin shaft seals, so here’s what I’m going to do. You need to do your own research, and do your service when it make sense for you. My schedule may seem aggressive, but since we plan on being in a lot of places that are a long way from being able to haul out, I’d rather be safe than sorry.
– Replace fin shaft seals every three years (for me, that’ll be at alternating haul-outs).
– Rebuild the cylinders at the same time.
– Replace the hydraulic lines every ten years.

My system was installed when the boat was built in 2002. The various Wesmar manuals that came with the boat when we bought it are dated 1995, 1999, and 2005, and they’re all consistent. The only differences I see mentioned are the size of the fins – presumably bigger boats used bigger fins. But all the rest of the documentation I have found seems to indicate that everything else about the system – at least about this part of the system – was the same for many years.

If you have all the tools you need, and easy access to everything, you should be able to remove each side in 30 minutes or less by following these instructions. Reassembly may take a little longer, depending on how good your grease gun is. (Seriously – getting grease where I wanted it was the hardest part of my reassembly!)

Things You Will Need
Aside from normal hand tools, you’ll want some things you may not have in your toolbox.
– First and foremost, you’ll need plugs for the four hydraulic hoses you’re going to disconnect (two on each side). If you don’t plug them, you have a very good chance of losing a lot of fluid out of them during the time it takes you to get your cylinders rebuilt and ready to reinstall. Masking tape won’t cut it! The fact that the bi-directional valves are supposed to center in the closed position doesn’t seem to matter. GET PLUGS! (Don’t ask me how I know.)

– LOTS of rags and diapers or other oil-soaking cloth. This is the messiest job I have performed on the boat to date, and I sure hope I never have a messier one. Hydraulic fluid will leak, and get on your hands, and your tools, and all the parts of the system. When you’re greasing all the fittings during reassembly, grease will spooge out of various places, and get on your hands, tools, and everything. So have more rags than you think you’ll need, and use them often. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

– 90 degree Phillips head screwdriver, for one or both of the screws that hold the potentiometer cover in place.

– A hex head bolt socket, for the six large bolts that hold the upper housing in place. On mine, the size is 5/16″.

– A grease gun with waterproof (or water-resistant) grease. The Wesmar manual calls for Lubriplate Marine A, but I couldn’t find that, so I went with Lubriplate Marine Grease. It’s thinner than the grease that was in there, but I don’t know if the grease that was in there was what it should have been.

– If all four of yours aren’t in great shape, you may need to replace one or more of the “E” clips that hold the large clevis pin in place (one on the top and bottom of each pin, one pin on each side of the boat). (See Step 15.) Neither Home Depot nor NAPA had ones that were big enough – I found mine at Fastenal.

Image 1: Top view

1. Locate the stabilizer actuators. There’s one on each side of the boat (one for each fin). On our boat, one is under the bed in the Master Cabin, the other is under the floor of the hanging locker in the Master Cabin. Yours could be anywhere. Here’s what the whole thing looks like:

Image 2: Side view

It consists of a large “arm” that’s connected to the shaft on which the fin is mounted, so moving the arm rotates the fin. The arm is moved by a hydraulic cylinder (that’s what we’re going to remove), which is held in place (and rotates on) two heavy “pins”, which go into holes in the lower housing (mounted to the hull) and upper housing (which you’ll remove). The cylinder is controlled by a bi-directional hydraulic valve (the blue thing). The valve is controlled by the “brain box” (mine is mounted in the engine room), which gets input from an electronic gyro (mine is located under the lower helm) for detecting the boat’s roll, and from a potentiometer at the end of each fin shaft, which gives an electrical signal to the brain box about the current position of the fin. Basically, when the boat rolls, the gyro sends that info (speed and degree of roll) to the brain box. The brain box then determines how much correction to give (how much to move the fins), and uses the bi-directional valves to send hydraulic fluid in the right direction for the right amount of time, which it determines in part by monitoring the fin position via the potentiometer. Clear as mud?

Image 3: Pot cover, showing one of the attachment screws. The other one is on the opposite side.

2. First, prepare you work area by removing anything that might be in the way of you being able to swing wrenches, and by putting a cloth of some sort under the entire assembly, to catch the fasteners that you will inevitably drop at some point. I put a towel under the unit, as I have a real “black hole” into which anything dropped would be gone forever. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

3. Remove the “pot” (potentiometer) cover by loosening the two Phillips head screws at the base of the cover. You don’t have to remove them – just loosen them. In my case, I had to use a 90-degree angled head screwdriver to access one of them. When you have the screws loose, gently lift the cover, feeding wire into the inside of the cover as you lift it so you don’t pull on the wires inside. Feed enough wire into the cover so that you can set it aside, well out of your way.

Image 4: Potentiometer (pot) on top, then the bracket, then the flexible coupling to the fin shaft. All this comes off as one unit.

This is what you’ll find under the cover.  In this Image 4, you can barely see the pot on top  of the mounting bracket (with the wires going to it), and underneath, you see the flexible coupling between the bottom of the pot and the top of the fin shaft. As the fin is moved by the hydraulics, the shaft rotates, which rotates the flexible coupling, which turns the knob on the bottom of the pot, which changes the electrical output from the pot, which is sent to the brain box. This is how the system always knows the position of each fin.

4. With a permanent marker, put a mark on top of the big fin shaft, and on the side of the flexible coupling, so that when you reassemble, you can line those marks up. You don’t have to be exact, as you’ll do a final adjustment at the end of the reassembly process, but make it close. Also, mark the orientation of the bracket that holds the pot, before you remove it. It will fit both ways, but if you get it back on wrong (180 degrees off), the final adjustment will be harder. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

Image 5: Hex head screw in the side of the shaft that secures the flexible coupling of the pot to the shaft. Loosen it just enough that you can easily turn the flexible coupling, but don’t remove it!

5. To remove the pot, mounting bracket, and flexible coupling, you have to first loosen a hex head screw that screws into the side of the shaft, above the castle nut. (Image 5.) On one of my units, it was easy to find. On the other, I had to use a mirror to locate it, as it was between the shaft and the base of my hanging locker, with only a few inches in between. Use an Allen wrench to loosen it (DO NOT REMOVE IT!), so that you can freely spin the flexible coupling.

6. Remove the screw at each base of the pot mounting bracket and lift the bracket (with the pot and flexible coupling attached) straight up until it’s free from the shaft. Set it aside, well out of your way – you don’t want to smash a wrench into it later! And be careful with the wires – they’re small and delicate.

7. Now you have wide open access to the castle nut and cotter pin on top of the shaft. Remove the cotter pin and the nut. Don’t worry, the shaft won’t fall out of the hull – probably. 🙂 It’s secured by a clamping mechanism lower on the shaft, and also, the fin SHOULD be buoyant, so that it will try to float up into the hole, not fall down out of the hole. (But if your fin is damaged, it could be full of water, and could try to fall out.)

Image 6: Bronze thrust washer around fin shaft. Leave in place for now.

DISCLAIMER: I’ve done this job only once, and one of my shafts did drop down about half an inch before the lower clamping mechanism kept it from going any farther – which freaked me out! But not a drop of water came in, and I secured the shaft back into place once I got the cylinder removed (Step 18), and I suggest you do the same. Also, pay very close attention at this point, in case your shaft seals aren’t in great shape, as you could get some water coming in after the castle nut is removed.

8. In Image 6, you can see a large bronze thrust washer around the shaft. You shouldn’t need to remove that at this point – it will come off when you lift the upper housing. (Then you can easily remove it to expose the roller bearings underneath, which you’ll want to clean and regrease prior to reassembly.)

9. Remove the six large hex head bolts around the upper housing. (You can see three of them in Image 6.)

Image 7: Insert a flat blade screwdriver under the upper housing to loosen it, then lift it straight up.

10. At this point, the upper housing is no longer fastened to anything, but it’s likely to be pretty snug. Use a large flat blade screwdriver (or two – one on each side) to pry it loose. Once you’ve pried it up even a little bit, you should be able to lift it straight up and off of the shaft. See Image 7 to know where to insert the screwdriver for prying.


11. Remove the upper housing and set it aside. This exposes the clevis and clevis pin that attaches the moving part of the cylinder (the ram) to the lever arm. You should also now have good access to the small hydraulic hoses that connect to the cylinder.

11a. Lift the bronze thrust washer out of the upper housing, and inspect the roller bearings underneath. If the grease is clean and the bearings look to be in good shape, they should be fine to go back together. If the bearings are pitted, you’ll need to replace them. Mine were fine, but I’m guessing if you had to replace them, you’d have to contact Wesmar to get the right ones.

Image 8: Hoses removed from cylinder, draining oil into a diaper. My system has an extra valve in each hose that was installed years ago to smooth out the operation of the system. Yours may or may not have these, but it shouldn’t make any difference.

12. Put a diaper or other oil-absorbent cloth under the fittings on the cylinder to catch the hydraulic oil that will ooze out. I use actual baby diapers for this kind of job, with the stretchy sides ripped off unless I want a “bucket” shape, then I leave them on.

13. Using tape and/or a Sharpie, mark each hose so you know which one goes on which fitting. You think you’ll remember… but don’t take the chance – mark them!

14. Loosen the fittings and remove them, catching all of the oil in the diaper. NOTE: once the hoses are removed, the oil still in the cylinder will squirt out with some authority if you move the ram in or out – so don’t do that, until you’re ready to catch that oil. (Don’t ask me how I know.) Better yet, if you have caps, put them on as soon as you disconnect the hoses.

The bi-directional valve that controls the flow of fluid to these hoses is closed at rest, so no fluid should come out of the system other than that which is in the small hoses to the cylinder, and the cylinder itself. But plug those hoses, as fluid can leak out! If you don’t plug them properly, and you accidentally start the stabilizer system, you’re going to have hydraulic fluid EVERYWHERE! (No, I didn’t do that. In fact, I disconnected the wire at the stabilizer manifold, specifically to prevent this from happening.)

Image 9: Top view of clevis, clevis pin and “E” clip, all visible after removing the upper housing.
Image 10: I used this to pull the “E” clip off the clevis pin. Worked great!

15. Remove the “E” clip on top of the clevis pin. I used a little scraping tool that had a hook on the end to simply pull the clip away from the pin. Be careful – the clip may want to go flying!


16. Push the clevis pin down into the hole, giving you better access to the “E” clip on the bottom of the clevis pin, and remove that clip, too, Then you can pull the pin up out of the hole.

Image 11: With the clevis pin pushed down, you can barely see the “E” clip on the bottom, which you have to remove, too. In the picture, it’s under the blob of green grease, and a little to the left – the little brown thing.


17. Now, simply lift the cylinder straight up. Be ready to catch the hydraulic oil that will inevitably ooze out of the fittings. I suggest you put the whole thing in a bucket.

18. Unless you have a replacement cylinder ready to install right now, I suggest you now replace the upper housing (which you removed in Step 11), and loosely reinstall the six long hex head bolts, the bronze thrust washer, and the castle nut. This will keep the shaft from being able to drop at all, giving you the peace of mind you need, knowing that you’re not going to sink the boat while the cylinder is being rebuilt. Also, put the locking pin (you do have your locking pins, right?) in place to keep the fin from rotating. (Basically, do a loose reassembly of the system, without the cylinder, until you’re ready to reassemble it with the new or rebuilt cylinder.)

Rebuild or Replace the Cylinders?
After getting input from several sources, I decided to have mine rebuilt. They were in excellent condition (the ram must be, or it will always leak), and I found a marine hydraulics company (Ramsay Marine, in Riviera Beach, FL) that does fantastic work. They pressure tested them before they took them apart, and found not just one, but both of them, to be leaking (one much worse than the other). They rebuilt them (which they said doesn’t require any special tools or even seals that aren’t commonly used by hydraulics repair shops), pressure tested them to 1000 psi, and shipped them to me in about a week. The total cost was significantly less than the cost of two brand new cylinders.

But if yours aren’t in great shape – if the ram is pitted – replacement may be your only option.

It’s pretty much the reverse of the disassembly process, with a few twists.

1. Reverse Step 18 above, to remove the upper housing.

2. Grease the fitting on the lower housing, now, before you cover it up with the cylinder. On mine, I never had grease come out anywhere I could see, so I just greased it until the pressure started to increase on the handle of the grease gun. My guess is the oozing out was taking place on the bottom of the housing (around the fin, under the hull), so I eventually stopped.

3. Put the cylinder in place. Be sure to orient it correctly, with the arm pointing in the general direction of the fin shaft, and the fittings on the same side as the hoses you have to reconnect. Once it’s in place, grease the fitting until grease oozes out of somewhere, or the pressure on the handle of the grease gun gets really hard (because it can’t put any more grease in).

4. Put an “E” clip on one end of the clevis pin and have it ready to put in place. Rotate the lever arm (the arm that’s clamped to the shaft, that has a hole in the end) so that it lines up with the holes in the clevis on the end of the cylinder ram, and insert the clevis pin through all three holes. Put the “E” clip on the bottom of the clevis pin. This may be difficult – you may want a helper for this step! If you’re in completely calm water, moving the arm / shaft / fin is tough. If the water under the boat is moving, it’s very difficult, even with a helper.

At this point, you can see how the whole hydraulic system works: the blue bi-directional valve sends fluid into one end of the cylinder or the other, which moves the ram, which moves the lever arm, which rotates the fin shaft, which moves the fin.

5. Attach the hydraulic hoses and tighten the fittings. Tight, but not too tight. Depending on the angle of the hoses and fittings, you may have to do them in a certain order. On mine, I had to do the short one first, because if I had done the long one first, it would have been in the way of doing the short one. Pay attention.

6. If you didn’t do this during disassembly, remove the bronze thrust washer from the upper housing and inspect the grease and the roller bearings. Hopefully the bearings are in good shape, because if they aren’t, you’re going to have to pause the project at this point until you can get replacements.

7. With the thrust washer removed, gently lower the upper housing onto the shaft, so that the hole in the “arm” part of the housing fits over the “pin” on the cylinder. (Not the clevis pin, but the short round “shaft” that’s part of the cylinder housing.) Now, the cylinder is held in place by the lower housing and the upper housing, so all it can do is rotate a little, as the ram moves in and out.

8. Put the thrust washer in place. If there is a hole in it, position that hole on the opposite side of the shaft from the grease fitting in the upper housing, and keep the hole in that position when you later tighten the castle nut.

9. Start, but don’t tighten, all six of the large hex head bolts that hold the upper housing in place.

10. Put the castle nut on and tighten it. Not as tight as you can get it – just a little less than that, so that the cotter pin will go through the hole in the shaft. Put the cotter pin in and bend one or both of the ends.

11. Grease the fitting on the upper housing that puts grease all around the shaft and under the thrust washer. In my case, I greased it until grease oozed out of the hole in the thrust washer. (That’s why I positioned the hole opposite the grease fitting – so that grease wouldn’t come out of the hole until it had filled the area underneath.)

12. Tighten all six hex head bolts to secure the upper housing.

13. Replace the pot bracket, making sure it’s oriented properly. (It will go on either way – and it’s not the end of the world if you get it wrong. But if you put it back on the way it came off, it makes the final adjustment a little easier. Don’t ask me how I know.)

14. Line up the marks  on the flexible coupling and the top of the fin shaft (the marks you made in Step 4 of the disassembly process), and “snug” the hex head set screw that keeps the flexible coupling from turning. (See Step 5 of the disassembly process.) You want it tight enough that the flexible coupling can’t spin freely, but loose enough that you can twist it with your fingers.

If you didn’t make marks – no worries – the final adjustment will just take a little longer.

15. Now you’re ready to test. Move all your tools out of the way. Move the pot cover and the wire out of the way of the cylinder and lever arm. (These are the only moving parts.) Make sure you tightened the fittings on the cylinder – tight, but not TOO tight. Start the engine to get hydraulic fluid pumping. Turn on the stabilizer system and leave it in “Standby” mode. Inspect your hydraulic lines at the cylinders for leaks.

You shouldn’t need to bleed air out of the system – it should be self-bleeding. New fluid is constantly pumped into each side of the cylinder as it’s moved, and the old fluid (in the other side) is returned to the tank.

16. On each side, one at a time
– If the locking pin can slide into place, through both holes, the fin is centered properly, and you can tighten the hex head set screw. But it’s probably not, because it’s unlikely you got the flexible coupling perfectly aligned when you re-installed it. So…
– Twist the flexible coupling a tiny bit, in either direction, and see what happens to the alignment of the locking pin holes. Keep twisting the coupling, a little at a time, one way or the other, until the holes stay lined up. When they are lined up, that’s centered. Now you can tighten the hex head set screw, nice and tight.
– IF YOU DIDN’T MAKE MARKS, or if you installed the pot bracket 180 degrees off (like I did), it may seem like no matter what you do, you can’t get the fin to center, indicating that you’re WAY off. So twist it all the way one direction, or all the way the other (still just a little at a time, though). Eventually, you’ll get it in the ballpark, and then you can fine tune, until the holes line up. (If you suspect you put the bracket on “backwards”, you could remove and replace it the other way, but it’s probably just as easy to do what I did – just keep twisting until it all lines up.)

17. Replace the pot cover, gently feeding most but not all of the wire out of the cover as you put it in place.

18. Get clean rags and clean up all of your tools. Wipe up all the hydraulic fluid that leaked out, and all the grease that spooged out, and make everything nice and clean, especially around the hydraulic fittings. (That’s how you’ll know later that you have a leak – if an area you made completely clean and dry is no longer clean and dry, you probably have a leak.)

Post Op Instructions
It’s probably a good idea to visually inspect the whole actuator mechanism very shortly after you use the stabilizers the next time. I don’t mean after an 8 hour run with stabilizers on – no, I mean after using them for maybe 5 minutes (in conditions that require the stabilizers to activate). If you have a hydraulic leak that happens only under serious load, you want to find that out before you dump a gallon or five of hydraulic fluid into the bilge. (No, I didn’t do that!)

First Official Visitors – Dee and Heather

Two days after Smartini finally made it to Marathon in the Florida Keys, our first real guests showed up for four days. (Sorry UCB, Curt, Sondra, Robin, Cathy, and anyone else who’s spent the night on Smartini – until we made it to the Keys, it hasn’t felt “official”. Very much enjoyed, but not official.)

DedeAnn is Fran’s best friend since middle school in Southern California. Heather is one of my absolute favorite humans on the planet for reasons too numerous to list. They live in Fort Collins, CO, coincidentally where Fran’s sister Ingrid lives, so we get to see them whenever we visit there, but it’s not often – once or twice a year at most. We’ve been eagerly looking forward to their visit, especially since neither of them had ever been to the Keys before.

They came during the hottest, most humid time of year, and we’re still having intermittent generator issues (translation: not as much air conditioning as we all would have liked), so they got the full Keys experience. But they pretended not to notice, and we all just sweated together!

We took Teeny (short for Smarteeny, our new dinghy) out to the Sombrero Reef Lighthouse for some snorkeling. Fran took them under the Seven Mile Bridge to the bayside of the Keys for some snorkeling and a tour of the area. We drove to Key West for a whole day, and on their last morning, we visited the Sea Turtle Hospital. Not nearly as long a visit as we would have liked with these two, but we’re happy to have any time we can get with them!

(Click on any image below to open a slideshow of all images.)

Unexpected Fort Pierce

Our six month stay in Fort Pierce is over. A lot of unexpected things happened while we were there!

A week ago, Fran, May, and I steered Smartini out the Fort Pierce Inlet, turned south, and if things go according to plans (which they almost never do!), we won’t see Fort Pierce from the deck of Smartini ever again. Not that we didn’t like Fort Pierce – we actually liked it quite a lot. We just hope to spend the rest of our time on Smartini farther south.

A lot of unexpected things happened while we were in Fort Pierce, starting with the main reason we were there in the first place – the need to completely re-do the “down to bare metal” paint job on the bottom of Smartini. As I’m sure I’ve written before, we had a total bottom job done right after we took possession of the boat in January 2016. With routine cleanings, and a new coat of anti-fouling paint every year or so, it should have lasted 8 – 10 years. Instead, it didn’t last 8 months. In short, it was done badly, and by the time we hauled the boat out of the water for another reason in mid-December 2016, there were already good sized patches of bare metal showing, and hundreds (thousands?) of little water-filled paint bubbles all over the bottom. Unexpected Thing #1 – we’d have to haul out again and completely re-do the bottom job – and this time, we’d do it ourselves, to make sure it was done right.

Maddie (left) and her girlfriend, Brenna

We had been in Fort Pierce less than a month when Unexpected Thing #2 happened – the passing of our daughter, Maddie. I can’t write about that yet, other than what I already wrote, but needless to say, our whole world changed that day. Among those changes were our plans to head for the Bahamas ASAP (we’d be holding off on that indefinitely), and our motivation to throw ourselves into Smartini projects with much enthusiasm – we had none.

Once we realized we’d be in Fort Pierce for much longer than expected, we started exploring the town (translation: looking for places to eat and drink). Unexpected Thing #3 was that we really liked it! Here’s this town, only an hour’s drive from Satellite Beach (where we lived for the past 12 years), that we knew nothing about. Its little downtown area is home to a great brewery (Sailfish Brewing), a nice “tiki pub” at the marina (Cobb’s Landing), a tiki bar (also in the marina – The Original Tiki Bar), a tasty, funky little taco dive (called, conveniently – The Taco Dive), and at least four other restaurants at which we had good sushi or breakfast. Leave downtown, and drive just a mile or so to the hard-to-find but do-not-be-missed restaurant called 12 A Buoy (home of the best fried oysters I’ve ever had, and the best appetizer menu I’ve ever seen), Lenzi’s Diner (crunchy fish for breakfast? yep!), or Captain’s Galley (excellent straight-up American breakfast). Drive across the South Bridge to beachside for cheap beer, decent food, live music and a funky beachside vibe at Archie’s Seaside. Or breakfast at Dave’s Diner (open 24 / 7!). Or a great brunch buffet at Manatee Island (at least, it was there on Mother’s Day – as good as it was, I hope they do it every weekend.) Suffice it to say, we did not go hungry or thirsty in Fort Pierce.

Me, Fran, Christina and Chris

Unexpected Thing #4 was the friends we made. Keep in mind, we expected to be there two weeks, so we weren’t looking to make any real friends. As with all boating activities, you can’t help but meet people you like to spend time with, but usually it’s like two ships passing in the night – brief encounters, probably never to be repeated. But we were there 6 months, and we made some real friends. Chris and Christina Bryan started out as the people who would guide us through the new bottom paint job (them advising , Fran and me painting – and painting – and painting). By the time we left, we had been to their house for dinner three times (once to celebrate Christina’s brand new US Citizenship!), had met their two great kids (Elizabeth and Mathias), had them onboard Smartini for fish tacos, been out to dinner with them twice – and they now have an open invitation to come spend time with us on Smartini, wherever we may be! I’m sure we haven’t laughed harder in the last six months than listening to Chris and Christina tell almost any funny story from their past – especially if it involved Christina’s sister, Valentina.

And then there’s Ben Baker. A quiet, unassuming man (so quiet and unassuming, I never got a picture of him) who knows more about boats than anyone I’ve ever met, and who freely shares that knowledge. Yes, his business is fixing boats (or as he prefers to describe it, making people fall in love with their boat again), but he gives away more expertise than he charges for, and as we found when he was helping troubleshoot a problem with our generator, he’s thinking about your problem instead of sleeping sometimes! In the 6 months we were in Fort Pierce, I honestly don’t recall asking Ben a single question about an issue with Smartini that he didn’t either know exactly how to address, or he knew who we needed to talk to who did. His shop is a wonderland of tools, parts, and supplies that is also his happy place. And after hours, when he finally relaxes enough to enjoy a Scotch and water with you, he’s got an endless supply of boat stories, starting with the story of how we was born in a rowboat, right up to the boat that limped into the marina that morning. He, too, has an open invitation to visit us on Smartini anywhere, any time, but I doubt he’ll take us up on it – I think he’d be afraid of leaving someone stranded in Fort Pierce if he weren’t there to help them out.

Leanne visiting us in Riviera Beach

We met Leanne Grant through Ben. Leanne came from Australia to Connecticut to buy her dreamboat – a big, beautiful sailboat named Caprice. On her way back to Australia with it, she ended up in Fort Pierce for some repairs, and like us, she ended up staying a lot longer than expected. Also like us, she met Ben Baker, who has helped get Caprice ready to resume the long journey Down Under – and the two of them have been enjoying each others company. Leanne’s wonderful – but her trip must continue – she’s in a 6-week countdown to launching from Fort Pierce, through the Panama Canal, and home to Australia. Leanne, we hope to join you somewhere on your journey! (We’ll be flying, though.)

Major rust around porthole
Fran in full prep-and-paint gear

Unexpected Things #5 through ??? include all the things we learned about Smartini during our time in Fort Pierce, many of which, unfortunately, were issues that needed to be addressed, and which added to our extended stay. I’ll list the big ones: significant rust around one of the portholes in the Master Stateroom and less significant rust around several others; significant rust around the anchor windlass; a pinhole leak in the main engine exhaust elbow (requiring removal and repair); rust around 4 of the 8 hawse holes (through which dock lines pass); a completely clogged heat exchanger on the generator that (through a series of events I won’t bother to explain) lead to me letting 8 gallons of hydraulic fluid leak into the bilge (hey, it was past time to replace that fluid anyway!); a “galvanic survey” of the boat, indicating that somewhere onboard, a major appliance may be wired improperly. (I know, I know… you’re thinking we bought a real piece of crap boat, what with all the work we’ve had to do on it, right? But we actually bought an awesome boat, which had been allowed to sit unused for almost two years – and ask any boat owner – boats need a lot of attention, and if they sit for long periods without being used, they need a lot more. We’re about to the end of all those things – we hope!)

No story about our time in Fort Pierce would be complete without mentioning the amazing crew at Cracker Boy Boat Works, the Do It Yourself yard where Smartini was hauled out for 5 months. Cindy, Woody, Rick, Fred, Teak (or “Ted”, as I called him for months), Tip Tip, and Sean. The amazing ship’s carpenter shop (The Ship Shop) of Philip and Dave, who repaired the cherrywood panels in our master stateroom with hand-made replacement tongue and groove that you can NOT tell from the original. The ever-present Hazel Lopez, who’s smiling face and “Alright, alright!” were there to brighten your day, almost EVERY day, as he made tired old boats all shiny and new again.

Unexpected Fort Pierce – maybe it should be their tourism promotion slogan. Certainly, if you ever find yourself in the area around lunch time, or if you just want to go try someplace different for a Saturday or a whole weekend, head for the Fort Pierce City Marina, park the car nearby, and prepare to be surprised. We certainly were!

Back in the Water Again!

What started as a planned two-week haulout to re-do a poorly done bottom job finally ended last Saturday, after 5 months, 1 week, and 3 days, when we got Smartini in the water again!

What started as a planned two-week haulout to re-do a poorly done bottom job finally ended last Saturday, after 5 months, 1 week, and 3 days, when we got Smartini in the water again!

I’ll do a more thorough article on a lot of the things that were done, but here’s a partial list (in case you think we’ve just been goofing off!). Also, we were away from the boat for various reasons (some good, some not so good) for a total of 56 nights during that stretch – almost two months!

Bottom job re-do (sandblast entire hull below the waterline*, apply 5 coats of epoxy “barrier coat” and 3 coats of anti-fouling “bottom paint”.)

Remove rudder; drain oil from it (it’s hollow, so has to have some liquid in it to prevent it from rusting inside); paint it with 4 coats of epoxy; re-mount it with all new hardware, half of which required having parts ground down to fit into the tight confines; re-fill it with propylene glycol (an environmentally friendly anti-corrosive).

Pumping antifreeze back into the main engine.

Drain keel cooler of 15 gallons of antifreeze; repair small leaks; prime and paint; refill with new antifreeze.

Disassemble “get home” propeller; research and learn that it was assembled totally improperly when the bottom job was last done; clean and reassemble; prime and paint. (This was all Fran – her next trick will be to do this all UNDERWATER.)

Disassemble prop shaft line cutter; clean and reassemble.

Remove all hull zincs for bottom paint; re-install after painting.

Remove side boarding door for rust repair; repair, fair*, prime and paint*; re-install.

Chris Bryan applying the second or third coat of fairing to the bow area, to make it all flat and pretty again, after new steel was welded in place.

Remove rusted metal around one porthole and around the anchor windlass*; weld in new metal*; apply fairing to repaired areas to make them flat and smooth*; prime and paint those areas.*

Remove the anchor windlass (the hydraulic winch that raises and lowers it) and all associated hardware; remove fresh water spigot from same area (all in preparation for the aforementioned rust repair).

Remove every porthole on the boat (eight of them); inspect for rust (one was bad, the rest were minor); repair minor rust; wait for major repair (welding), fairing, and painting*; clean all the old 5200 (sealant) off the portholes (which took Fran two entire days!); reinstall.

Clean, reorganize, and paint the inside of the “chain locker” – the area below the windlass where the anchor chain is stored when the anchor is not in use. (I easily spent 30 – 40 hours in this space, which I began to call the Pit of Despair. Sweaty and dirty beyond description – and incredibly cramped!)

Remove main engine exhaust elbow insulation; remove exhaust elbow and take it to welder to repair leak; have new insulation made; re-install elbow and test; remove it again to take it back to the welder for him to fix it right this time; re-install.

Transmission cooler. Now it’s all shiny and white.

Remove transmission cooler and take to be cleaned; reinstall it.

Old main engine temperature sending unit, on right.

Remove main engine temperature sender; replace with new one (after 3 trips to the auto parts store to get the right adapter, then having to drill out and tap the inlet hole another 1/4″).

Reinstall the windlass and all associated hardware; relocate the fresh water spigot.

Minor repair of over 40 small rusty spots all over the boat, mostly on the deck. Most of these involved some fairing, and all needed primer and paint.*

Fran putting Teak Sealer on some small sections of the cap rail, prior to re-installing them.

Remove stainless handrail all around the boat to give access to mahogany “cap rail”; remove 15 years of varnish from cap rail with heat guns and scrapers; apply 3 coats of sealer to cap rail (to hell with varnish – that would have required 12 coats!); fill and redrill all screw holes in cap rail for attaching the handrails; reattach handrails. (This project took us the better part of 8 days of both of us working all day. In the future, we should only ever have to reapply the sealer, which at this point is easy.)

A rusty hawse hole, with the stainless steel liner / cleat removed.

Remove four “hawse holes”, repair minor rust under them, wait for fairing and painting*, reinstall them. (A hawse hole is a hole in the side of a boat though which dock lines are passed, to fasten to a cleat on the inside of the hole. You don’t actually remove the hole, of course – you remove the stainless steel liner.)

Captain Fran in her new captain’s chair.

Remove old bench seat at upper helm and install fancy new captain’s chair.

Replace installed fan beside each bed (much harder than it sounds!).

Cleaning, buffing, and waxing of all the blue part of the boat.*

I may come back later and add some more pictures, but so many people have been asking “When will you be back in the water?” for so long, I just can’t wait to post this!

* Asterisk indicates things we paid other people to do, as they were beyond our skill level.