After a creative explosion in October and November (7 blog posts in about two weeks), I fizzled out. But I’m going to get 2019 off to a good start, with a recap of, and some reflections on, the Big Adventure so far. Also, one picture of each of our guests this year!
As you probably know, we left the US early in the morning on March 1, 2018 (not as early in the morning as we had planned) bound for the Bahamas, and made it all the way to Freeport before the sun set. We didn’t really want to be in Freeport (not much there that we wanted to see or do), but we ended up staying there for five nights, waiting for decent weather for the next leg of our journey.
When we left, we had one really smooth day of travel to the northern part of the Berry Islands, and then had to hole up there for another three nights before we finally made it to Nassau, a few days before our son Bennett arrived for his Spring Break visit. That began a succession of visits that would stretch out until just before we left the Bahamas in mid-October. During that time, we had a total of twenty guests with us on ten separate visits. Some of those have been documented with a Visit Report, and all have been the subject of Fran’s Facebook posting. (If you do Facebook and aren’t Friends with Fran, you should be – you’ll get far more timely information than from me!)
We did leave Smartini (and May the Cat) twice during the year. In May, we went to Italy for three weeks, and in November, we went to Indianapolis for a week at Thanksgivinng, followed by a week in Fort Collins. While we were in Italy, friends and fellow boaters Paul and Denise Magnus stayed on Smartini and took care of May, and Fran’s Tower Garden. During our Thanksgiving trip, Smartini was in a marina in Turks and Caicos, and May was kept company twice a day by a local petsitter. (He gave her treats every time he visited, so I doubt she even noticed that Fran and I were gone.)
After almost eight months in the Bahamas, we felt like we had seen what we wanted to see, so we left Nassau on October 20, bound for Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands. After 9 days of travel / exploring San Salvadore, we arrived in Provo on October 29 and have been here since, except for our two week Thanksgiving trip to the US.
T&C is a very different kind of cruising ground than almost everywhere we spent time in the Bahamas. Throughout most of the Bahamas, a protected anchorage on a beautiful beach is rarely more than a few miles from wherever you are, so you don’t have to plan your travel very much. You just pick up and move whenever you feel like it, or when the weather dictates it, and you usually have lots of choices for your next stop. T&C, on the other hand, doesn’t have very many protected anchorages with appropriate depth for most cruising boats. Consequently, not a lot of cruisers spend much time in T&C, and those who do tend to spend most or all of their time in a marina.
We like T&C a lot. The marina (Turtle Cove) is nice, with several bar/restaurants within walking distance, and is very, very protected from the weather from every direction. We can walk to Scooter Bob’s to rent a car for a day whenever we have a lot of errands to run. There are at least three nice grocery stores, and a big hardware store that’s like a small Lowe’s or Home Depot. Way more restaurants, of all kinds, than we found anywhere in the Bahamas. The people are outwardly very friendly (Bahamians are friendly, but more reserved). There’s a lot of diversity, with people here from all the islands of T&C, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Canada, and the US. The water is as almost as pretty as the water in the Bahamas, and there’s excellent scuba diving and fishing just outside the shallow bank that surrounds most of the islands. There’s even a Crossfit gym here, and we’ve been going three days a week! It wouldn’t be a bad place to live, actually. But we’re not even close to picking a place to live yet. Way too much more of the Caribbean to see first! So we’ll stay here until early February, when we’ll start making our move to the Virgin Islands, where we expect to spend most of the rest of 2019.
At the beginning of this post, I said I would have some reflections on the Big Adventure thus far, so here goes:
1. We knew that weather would be important, but we had no idea just how important. We were in the Bahamas for all of hurricane season (June 1 – Nov 30), so of course we were watching for storms all the time, always with an eye toward the nearest safe harbor we could run to if necessary. Thankfully, we didn’t have to do that even once all season. But even when we weren’t thinking about tropical storms, we were always paying attention to the weather. Where would be the best island to take our guests, considering the strength and direction of the winds? When would we have to make our run back to Nassau (or whatever island our next guests were flying into), so that we wouldn’t have to travel in sloppy weather? Would we need to leave a perfectly wonderful anchorage because the wind was going to shift 180 degrees in the next 24 hours? That’s been another nice thing about T&C – since we’re in a very protected marina, with no plans to move Smartini until the end of January at least, we don’t have to pay very much attention to weather. Especially since we’re out of hurricane season. But that will change once we get close to our departure date, because we have a lot of ocean to cross between here and the Virgin Islands, and weather is going to be a huge factor in the planning of that trip.
2. We didn’t anticipate how much work we would have to do on the boats (Smartini and Killer, our 13′ Boston Whaler dinghy) to keep them, and us, happy. I started keeping a maintenance log in Google Docs, and since March 1, I’ve written 23 pages of entries about work we’ve done. Fixing little things, like replacing the fuse holder for out infrared camera. Fixing big things, like having to have the main engine’s hydraulic pump rebuilt. Making upgrades, like adding an auxiliary bilge pump to both bilge areas, or rewiring one of the toilets (yes, they’re electric). Dealing with rust. Routine preventive maintenance, like the annual cleaning and waterproofing of all the outdoor seat cushions. For the first few months, I was getting a little bit testy about it, especially when something would break on the day before, or day of, the arrival of guests (which happened about four visits in a row). It was making me mental, to the point that it was spoiling the fun of the Big Adventure for me. One day, after a week-long guest visit during which several things needed to be repaired and my mood grew more and more sour, Fran had to sit me down and give me a good talking to. “It’s a boat – things are going to break. The guests don’t care. I don’t care. But it’s making you intolerably grumpy. Happy up, dammit!” (Something like that, anyway.) She was right, of course (bad habit of hers), and fortunately, that was all it took for me to snap out of it. I don’t think we’ve had any fewer issues since then, but my mood has been mostly cheerful, most of the time, when something breaks.
3. We really like living on the boat. It’s about the perfect size for two people and a cat, and occasional guests. We never feel cramped, because we’re able to be outside so much of the time. We don’t miss all of the “stuff” we got rid of when we sold the houses and moved aboard. We’ve met some really fun, interesting people, from all over the US and Canada (and occasionally other places) who are also living on, or at least spending a good bit of time on, their boats. Some of them have been friends for a day, some for a few weeks, and a few will hopefully remain friends for the long haul. Since everyone is in the same boat (pun very much intended), there is an immediate bond, with lots of shared experiences to chat about. For the most part, our fellow cruisers are pretty nice folks, and when we meet someone who isn’t, it’s simple to just avoid them until they go away (or we go away).
4. We miss being around all of the very dear friends we have in Indiana, Florida, and Colorado. We miss having favorite places to just go and hang out with our people. We miss Crossfit. (It’s great to have a gym here, but we don’t expect to find one many other places we go after T&C.) We miss good beer, and visiting new breweries. (Turks Head Brewery, here in Provo, is OK, but certainly not the quality we’re used to – Intracoastal and Deviate, you have spoiled us!) Although I don’t want to rush through this Big Adventure, I will be happy, one day, to find our new home, and start making new friends, and finding new favorite hangouts. But that is likely to be many years down the road.
5. We’re very happy living somewhere that it’s almost always warm. In fact, the last several evenings, after the sun has set, and it’s been 78 degrees and breezy, we’ve both been putting on long sleeves and thinking that T&C isn’t quite far enough south. Shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, 365 days a year, are just fine with me!
6. We didn’t snorkel nor scuba dive nearly as much as we thought we would in the Bahamas, and as a result, we didn’t eat nearly as much fresh fish, lobster, and conch as we would have liked. All of our previous visits to the Bahamas over the past 15 years have been to the Abacos, and we never had any trouble finding plenty of healthy coral to dive on, and fish, lobster, and conch to catch and eat. That was not the case in most of the rest of the Bahamas however, the only exception being the Berry Islands. We spent a lot of time cruising around in Killer looking for places to dive – we just didn’t find that many. Surprisingly, one of the best places to dive (snorkel and scuba) and catch dinner was Rose Island, which is within spitting distance of Nassau.
7. We didn’t expect everything to be so much more expensive in the Bahamas than the US. I guess a 45% duty on almost all imports will do that. Gas and diesel were about $5 / gallon. Boat repair parts were easily twice as expensive. But especially food. Good thing we have a farmer living on Smartini! I love that some “guru” in the Tower Garden Facebook Group said it would never work on a boat. Ha! He’s never met Fran!
8. After Siesta, then Kibbles, left this world, I was perfectly ready to be done with pets. When May was thrust into our lives two years ago, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. But now that she’s been with us, I kinda don’t mind having her around. But since we’ve been in the marina, she’s taken to jumping off the boat and exploring. Last evening, I spent ten minutes walking around the marina, shaking her bag of “Temptations”, trying to find her and get her back on board. (She finally came back.)
One last picture, of our most recent guests, who absolutely ran us ragged while they were here. Snorkeling, drinking, cave hiking, drinking, exploring nearby islands, drinking, horseback riding in the ocean, drinking, bike riding, drinking, Crossfitting, and I think there was even some drinking!
This is the story of a plain ol’ rubbber O-ring, about 2 1/2″ in diameter, that probably cost about 4 cents to make, and how it just changed the lives (at least in the short term) of six people and three boats. If I told you the WHOLE story, it would read like “War and Peace”, so I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version.
The story begins in the Riding Rock Marina on the Bahamian island of San Salvador. (It’s called that because Christopher Columbus made first landfall there on his quest to the New World, and he named it.) Fran, May, and I had been in the marina for a few days already, when a big sailcat (a sailing catamaran) named Au Soleil came in for fuel and an overnight stop. They were delivering the boat from major repairs in St. Augustine, FL back to its home in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. After fueling, they tied up behind Smartini and we exchanged names and pleasantries with Ryan and Leslie, and Adam and Emily (who would be running Au Soleil as a charter in the Virgin Islands), and they left the next morning, making a straight shot to St. Thomas with no stops. We didn’t expect to ever see or hear about them again.
We left San Salvador a day or two later, and after three days of travel, we pulled into our new home for the winter, the Turtle Cove Marina on Providenciales (aka Provo), Turks and Caicos. What boat do you think was there at the dock? No… not the Black Pearl, dummy… it was Au Soleil! A nagging fuel problem with one engine had gotten worse since San Sal, and they decided to pull in to try to resolve it. We made sure the crew knew we had lots of tools if they needed to borrow something, and the next day, Ryan came by with a peanut butter jar and a couple of brass fittings. He was trying to fashion a fuel filter to handle all the insect parts, fiberglass fibers, and other crap that had made it into one of the tanks during all the repair work in St. Augustine. (BTW, this is at least the fourth time we’ve heard of bad things happening at the big boat yard in St. Augustine – if you go there, beware of shoddy work!) He was going to simply run the fuel through the jar, hoping the crud would settle to the bottom and he could easily clean it out there, before it made it to the on-engine fuel filter and clog it up completely.
But no… that wouldn’t do! Within about 30 minutes, I had upgraded him to a bigger peanut butter jar (Peter Pan, of course!) with a hose running into a Racor 500 fuel filter that fit perfectly in the jar, and another hose to get the clean fuel out of the top of the jar. (I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of it.) MacGuyver would have been so proud! However… the suction from the fuel pump was too great for the screw-on plastic lid, and air was getting sucked into the makeshift filter, ultimately rendering it useless. Enter the 4 cent O-ring, right?!?!
No – that won’t enter the story until much later. Ryan and crew had decided it was time to skedaddle, and wouldn’t let me make a gasket for the Peter Pan filter. Dammit! I have at least four different ways to make gaskets! Gimme another 30 minutes! So close to saving the day. We bade them farewell, and I put my cape back in the closet.
A day or two later, a pretty 40′ Pearson sailboat named Dauntless motored into a slip near Smartini, and we (me and our new friend Kirk) walked over to help with lines. The captain of Dauntless, Robert, looked like he had been through the wringer, to put it mildly, so after he was finished with Customs and Immigration, Fran and I walked him to Sharkbite and got some food and Jack Daniels into him, and started to get his story out of him. It’s a looong story, starting in St. Thomas right after Hurricane Irma, detouring to Texas for about a year to buy and re-fit a boat (Dauntless) to replace the one that sank in St. Thomas during Hurricane Maria, and getting to Provo from Galveston via Key West (fuel problems), Nassau, Georgetown, and then a loooong run of mostly-sick-with-food-poisoning single-handed sailing to Turtle Cove Marina. With a two-day unplanned stop on the little island of Samana to get over the food poisoning. With a transmission, autopilot, and generator that were all in various stages of misbehavior. Yes… the man needed a drink! (But he didn’t have a problem with a 4 cent O-ring – keep your pants on!)
Over the next several days, we got a lot more of Robert’s story, and were able to help him get all of the things he needed to fix most of his issues, and get provisioned, and pretty much ready to go. We learned, for example, that he was supposed to meet Ryan, Leslie, Adam, and Emily on Au Soleil, here in Turtle Cove, but being sick along the way had delayed him past their departure date.
And we sat with him for about an hour a few days ago, looking at the weather forecast for the next several days, wondering just how the hell he was going to get the rest of the way to St. Thomas, by himself, with not much wind at all forecast for the direction he needed, any time soon. (He has a motor, but maybe not enough fuel capacity to motor all the way.) He had pretty much resigned himself to changing his Captain’s business card from “USVI” to “Provo, TCI”, and was walking to the marina office to tell them, when he noticed a boat that had recently arrived, tied up in the very spot that Au Soleil had vacated just days before. And they were flying a US Virgin Islands flag. And he didn’t know them directly, but they knew (you guessed it!) Ryan, Leslie, Adam, and Emily, and they had many other mutual acquaintances in St. Thomas.
They – the new kids on the block – are Steve, Caitie, and Kyle, who are delivering a big Fountaine Pajot sailcat from the big boat show in Annapolis, MD to St. Thomas, where Steve and Caitie will be running it for charters. They had left Marsh Harbour, in the Abacos (northermost group of islands in the Bahamas) several days ago, and were here in Provo to pick up a new raw water pump for one of their engines. Because somewhere along the way from Maryland, they started getting high coolant temps and had pretty much narrowed it down to an issue with the pump, and very prudently decided they better resolve the issue before taking off on a four day journey.
Shortly after their arrival, Steve came down the dock to Smartini and introduced himself, and told us that he heard we could whip up a pretty mean Peter Pan fuel filter – which he had heard from Ryan on Au Soleil, of course, after their safe arrival in St. Thomas. They all know each other from running boats in St. Thomas. Steve invited us to Kailani (their boat) for cocktails around 5:00, and after he twisted both our arms mercilessly for several nanoseconds, we accepted.
On Kailani, we met the rest of Steve’s crew: his girlfriend Caitie, and Kyle, the hired gun brought on for his ace sailoring skills, and to satisfy the insurance company’s requirement for a crew of three for the blue water portion of the trip. And we met another Kyle, and a Blaire and a Mac, the crew of a Falcon 7X jet that’s here in Provo for a few days. They gave Steve a ride somewhere in their rental car after taking pity on him, and he invited them to cocktail hour. Apparently, Steve and Caitie collect friends like Fran and I do!
Over cocktails, Caitie detailed their engine problems to me, and hearing nothing that seemed to be above my pay grade, I offered to come have a look in the morning. They had a $175-an-hour local mechanic lined up for the early afternoon, and I thought I might be able to solve their problem before he got there. They accepted (I think it was the legend of the Peter Pan fuel filter that won them over!), then they all sang “Happy Birthday” to me (it was my 60th birthday), and we said goodnight.
The next morning, Steve came by to see if I had a filter wrench so he could do an oil and filter change on both engines before taking off for St. Thomas. I gave him all three of mine, and grabbed a bunch of other tools I thought I might need, and headed down the dock.
Kailani is a catamaran-style sailboat, with an engine in the back of each hull. Caitie showed me what I needed to know to start troubleshooting, and I said “that looks like a pretty comfortable space to work in”. Wrong. Because everwhere I wanted to put a foot, something was in my way. Eventually, though, I figured out that if I simply laid myself on top of the engine, I could reach just about everything I needed. (When we went to bed that night, Fran asked why I had “RAMNAY” imprinted across my ribcage.)
I had Caitie and Kyle run through a detailed explanation of the symptoms they’d experienced, and the timing of everything, etc. It really didn’t make sense, but after ruling out a clog in the intake line, my next step was to look inside the offending pump. And there… inside the bronze cover of the pump… intended to seal the inside of the pump from the outside of the pump… smeared over with some gasket-making material… was the four cent O-ring, with about an inch of it missing. As long as the pump wasn’t trying to pump too hard, it was sucking only a little air in past the gap in the O-ring. But when they tried to throttle up, and the pump spun faster, it created more and more suction, and eventually, it sucked in enough air through the gap to make the pump lose its prime, and stop pumping water.
Their new pump arrived about that time, and of course it came with a new cover and O-ring, so I put it in place, and everything was fine. But there was nothing wrong with the old pump, other than that 4 cent O-ring. They’ll have it rebuilt in St. Thomas, because one of the inner seals had started to weep a little, but it’ll make a great spare for them.
That was yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, Fran and I stood on the dock and cast off the lines for Kailani and Dauntless, as they set sail together for St. Thomas. The weather forecast was good for them to motor East for the next few days, then sail all the way to St. Thomas. We can’t contact them during their trip, but they can keep in touch with each other, and they have enough fuel to motor almost all the way there if they have to, so we’re not really worried about them.
So how did this four cent O-ring change people’s lives? Well, Ryan, Leslie, Emily, and Adam don’t really have anything to do with the O-ring, so I guess it didn’t change their lives at all. I included them in this story mainly to talk about the Peter Pan fuel filter! But Robert now has a good chance of making it to St. Thomas alive, because Kailani needed to come into Provo because of the O-ring. I’m sure Steve, Caitie, and Kyle will be great friends with Robert once they all make it to St. Thomas – or they’ll never speak to each other again. You never know how those long road trips turn out. Steve’s psyche is forever scarred by the lecture I gave him about never leaving the dock without running through a detailed checklist.
And Fran, May, and me? When we arrived here in Provo 11 days ago, we really had no idea where we would go next. Down to the Domican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and keep going south? Or back through a little of the Bahamas, then to Cuba, and Mexico, and down to Central America? May had been pushing for Cuba, but based on all of the people we’ve met since San Salvador who live and work on St. Thomas, and the things they told us about the place in the time we spent with them due to the failure of a 4 cent O-ring – we’ve decided! St. Thomas, here we come! (In April or May – we still have to thoroughly explore Turks and Caicos.)
Faithful readers of Smartini Life know that the crew of Smartini went to Italy for three weeks in May/June. What they probably don’t know is that two wonderful people stayed onboard Smartini for that time, and more important, took care of May the Cat. They are Paul and Denise Magnus. We met them almost two years ago when we took Smartini to a marina in Titusville to have some work finished. They lived on their boat, Orion, in that marina, and we became friends. Sadly, Orion was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in that same marina, but thankfully, Paul and Denise were not onboard.
When we were making plans for Italy, we knew it would mean leaving Smartini and May somewhere, in someone’s hands. We posted on one of the online boating groups that we were looking for a cat sitter and a boat sitter. Denise saw the post and almost immediately volunteered her and Paul – wow! They would fly all the way to George Town in the Exumas and live on Smartini, and take care of May, and Fran’s new Tower Garden – and asked nothing in return.
They arrived a few days before our departure to Italy, in early May. Over the next few days, we showed them everything we could about Smartini, and then they shuttled us to the airport, and we were off. We don’t have a lot of details about the three weeks we were gone, but we know it rained a lot, and the wind blew a lot, and they didn’t get to really enjoy living on a boat in the Bahamas very much. (They told us that one day, they barely opened up the boat because it rained so much – they just sat inside and watched movies all day. Not the kind of days we would have hoped for them, to be sure!)
When we got back to George Town, we finally got to spend some time with them, and even had one really beautiful day. We left the anchorage and went “outside” (the ocean side of the island) and fished for an hour or so, then snorkeled a bit. It was Paul’s birthday! We went to one of the restaurants that cater to cruisers and played trivia. We did get to experience one of their rainy days with them, and watched a water spout, from formation to dissipation, just a few miles away – that was exciting! (See pictures.)
And then, just like that, they were gone! Back to Minnesota, where they’re from, to resume work on a house they had bought shortly before coming to George Town.
Below are some pictures from the few days we got to spend with them. Thanks, Paul and Denise! We can’t tell you how much we appreciate what you did for us!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
Most subscribers to Smartini Life know this, but from some of the contacts I’ve received lately, I know not everyone does, so here goes. My daughter, Maddie, died at the end of January. That’s why there haven’t been any new posts here on the blog – our lives have been rather upside down since then.
Most subscribers to Smartini Life know this, but from some of the contacts I’ve received lately, I know not everyone does, so here goes. My daughter, Maddie, died at the end of January. That’s why there haven’t been any new posts here on the blog – our lives have been rather upside down since then.
One of these days, when the feelings aren’t so raw, I may write more about Maddie, but for now, I’m going to post a modified version of what I read at the private service we held for her. That’s about all I can handle right now.
From February 1, 2017, in Indianapolis
Maddie was a very private person, and she would have hated to have me, or anyone, stand up in front of a room full of people – especially people she didn’t even know – and talk about her. That’s why we’re doing this – Maddie knew all of you, and you all knew her. She was, at one time or another, for various reasons, a part of your life, and vice versa. She probably wouldn’t even like all of us to be sitting around talking about her, but that’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to start, and when I’m done, I know a few of you have something you’d like to say, and then it will be open for any of you to say something, if you’d like. If you want to tell us something you remember about Maddie that helps describe the kind of person she was, or what she meant to you, no matter how small, that would be wonderful.
Maddie was born on the Northwest side of Indianapolis, at the Women’s Hospital on Township Line Road. At the time, we lived in the original Saddlebrook neighborhood, about a mile down the road. We lived there for only her first year and a few months, but even in that short time, we started calling her Danger Girl, after we found her halfway up the stairway to the second floor, shortly after she had mastered crawling. The rest of her life, that nickname would prove to be appropriate, as she never stopped doing things that were potentially dangerous to her, without giving it much thought. It was, in the end, a significant contributing factor in her death.
She was a tomboy almost from the beginning, refusing to wear dresses or anything pink or otherwise girly. Once that started, I’m pretty sure she didn’t wear a dress more than a dozen times the rest of her life. At Halloween, she didn’t want to be a princess or a ballerina, she wanted to be a superhero or a ninja or a professional athlete. She played on the Seventh and Eighth Grade girls basketball teams at New August Middle School – she had a smooth jump shot, and could dribble circles around me in the driveway. She loved to skateboard. For a while, she wanted to be a pitcher, so I’d do my best to “catch” her in the front yard. But she didn’t want to play girls softball – she wanted to play boys baseball – so that didn’t last too long. At Pike High School, she was in the Junior Naval ROTC program, at one point being the only girl on the Armed Exhibition Team – the team that does the amazing stuff spinning the rifles.
As she got older, she started to love hiking, or just walking in the woods, or even just being in the woods. She’s probably been to Eagle Creek Park hundreds of times. That’s where she and her girlfriend Brenna went on their first date – for a walk in the park. We hope to eventually have a bench somewhere in the park dedicated to her memory. She lived in Fort Collins, CO for about six months, to try out living away from home. She loved hiking in the many parks in the foothills and mountains there, and in fact, that’s where her ashes will be scattered at the end of May.
At an early age, she started noticing people who were less fortunate than her, and she developed a compassion for them that never ceased to impress me. In elementary school, there was an autistic girl named Allie who, unfortunately, was occasionally teased by other kids. Maddie went out of her way to make friends with Allie. When we would pick her up from after school care, it wasn’t unusual for Maddie to be doing something with Allie when we got there. In the car, if she saw someone walking on the side of the road, she didn’t see someone choosing to walk, she saw someone who might need help, wondering if something was wrong.
She loved animals, especially her little black kitty, Batman. And she loved little kids, especially Fran’s niece and nephew in Fort Collins, Penelope and Porter – but REALLY especially Porter. If you looked at the hundreds of pictures we have of Maddie, you see a ton of pictures of her with Porter when he was little. In fact, some of the best pictures we have are of her playing with Porter. She is as happy in those pictures as we ever saw her, doing anything, ever. She did NOT want Porter to ever get any bigger!
She had a gift, a true talent, for music. She started taking drum lessons in fourth grade, learning on snare drum. After a year or so, she started playing on a drum set and started to get some competency. But when it was time for Middle School Band, each kid drew a number, and when it was your turn, you picked from the instruments that hadn’t already been picked. Of course, all the Percussion spots were filled early. By the time Maddie’s number 73 came around, there were flutes and clarinets – she chose clarinet. I swear, she never practiced more than 5 minutes a week outside of Band Class, and yet she played that thing like she practiced an hour a day. And still she drummed, at home, for her own enjoyment. One day when she was in 8th or 9th grade, we were somewhere with a piano. As far as I know, she hadn’t ever touched a piano – but she sat down at it, and within minutes, had her left hand playing some chords while her right was picking out a pretty little melody. At some point, she started playing guitar, and of course, she took to it like a fish to water, too. She never took any lessons, and she never achieved any degree of mastery, but she could pick it up and make up stuff that never failed to put a smile on my face. And always, she played drums. A year ago, when she moved into her apartment, she was able to take her electronic drums with her – she could put her headset on and bang to her heart’s content, and her neighbors heard only the soft rat-a-tat-tat of her sticks tapping the electronic heads – if they heard anything at all. But in spite of her love for playing music, and listening to music, and sharing music with Bennett and Brenna and her friends – she never, ever wanted to play in front of people, and except for her drum recitals in 4th and 5th grade, she never did. One of the few big regrets I have about her life is that she never was able to share her music – especially her drumming – with others. She could have made a lot of people smile.
She was fiercely independent. As a little girl, she hated it when her mother or I would try to show her how to do something. “I can do it!”, she would holler. As she got older, that turned into a major resistance to accepting help from people, for almost anything, even from people she knew loved her unconditionally. And it was torture for her to ask for help, so unfortunately, she rarely did – even when she needed it most of all. I wish she had asked. Or maybe I wish that I had been able to see that she WAS asking, but I just couldn’t see it.
She was impatient – if she wanted something, she wanted it NOW. I don’t mean a toy or new clothes or something. I mean like learning something new on her drums, or a new skateboard trick. Or a solution to a problem, even a problem that was huge and complex and was not going to be solved quickly. She wanted it now.
Sometime during high school, she started to suffer from anxiety and depression. If you know almost anyone under the age of 25, even 30, you’re probably familiar with that expression: “anxiety and depression”. It’s rampant among young people, and for some, it’s severe. Maddie was one of those. By the time we really understood how bad it was for her, it had already had a big impact on her – it changed her. It became very hard for her to be happy for more than just short spurts. She started to withdraw from us. In spite of doing the things you do to try to help treat it, it never let her be free of suffering for very long. The pain was so bad that she began to seek other ways to dull the pain. Alcohol, marijuana, prescription pain killers, and eventually – I can hardly bring myself to believe this, or say it – eventually, heroin. We were naive – me, Fran, Terri, Bennett – we didn’t know what a horrible epidemic heroin has become. It’s easier to get than prescription drugs, it’s cheaper, and it’s a total crap shoot what you’re going to get from one time to the next. We all suspected that she was misusing some prescription meds, but we just had no idea what was really going on.
A week before she died, Maddie and Brenna flew to Key West to spend 5 days with Fran and me. It was the only thing Maddie wanted for Christmas – a real vacation for Brenna and her, something they hadn’t been able to do yet. We were supposed to be on Smartini, but that didn’t work out, so we rented a little place just off Duvall Street. On the first night, she finally got to see a drag show, which she loved, and she thought it was so funny that she was watching it with her dad. On the last day, the wind finally died down and we got to go fishing on the ocean – the one thing Brenna really wanted to do. Maddie didn’t like seafood, and didn’t like the idea of killing the fish, but she wanted Brenna to have a great vacation, so she didn’t fuss. The rest of the time we walked and biked and ate and drank, and went to the Sea Turtle Hospital in Marathon, and sunset at Mallory Square, and just enjoyed each other’s company.
One evening at dinner, Maddie told us that she had recently started introducing herself to new people as Madeline. She was OK with everyone who already knew her to keep calling her Maddie, but she was ready to be Madeline going forward.
On January 26, Fran and I dropped them off at the Key West airport. Maddie – Madeline – went to work on Friday. Friday evening, she texted Terri to confirm their normal Sunday afternoon dinner, and she said she was doing fine. Brenna talked to her about 9:00 – Maddie asked her if she had eaten the fish she caught and brought home, and after a short conversation, she said she was tired and was going to go to bed. And sometime later – this wonderful, sweet, loving, caring girl who hated to disappoint people, who couldn’t bring herself to ask for help, and who was obviously still in pain – this too-often careless “Danger Girl” who could never figure out how to love herself the way we all loved her, took some combination of drugs and alcohol that ended her way-too-short life.
We’re all almost certain it was accidental – too many of us had too many close encounters with her in her last days and even hours to believe otherwise. That doesn’t make the outcome any less horrible, but somehow, an accident – even a careless, stupid one – is easier to accept than if it were intentional. She was getting better, even though the progress was slow. She was looking ahead, and I’m sure, at times, had glimpses of what life could be like when she was finally able to put the anxiety and depression behind her. She had a job she loved, working at Posh Petals with an amazing group of women she absolutely adored. She had Brenna in her life, and I can tell you first hand that they made each other happy. She loved spending time with her mother, and with Bennett, and with her small group of close friends. She loved snuggling with her kitty, Batman. She loved so many people, and so many things in life. I think the worst thing about her death is that we won’t ever get to see the happy, healthy person she could have become, and none of the people she would have met and been touched by her will never get that chance.
The next post in Smartini Life will be about a more upbeat topic, I promise.
(If you just want to see all the pictures from the trip, click here.)
Like all ocean crossings (I know – it’s only 54 miles from FL to the Bahamas, but it’s still an ocean crossing!), we spent a good bit of time planning this one. Weather and sea condition forecasts, fuel planning, provisions, and the hundred other details that must be considered for an eleven day trip. But this one was actually in the planning stages for over five years! Because this trip was going to be the first time that all three of the original dreamers got to go somewhere on a big boat together. It was at least five years ago, in the warm comfort of our living room in Indianapolis, drinking good homebrew, that Fran, me, and our dear friend and neighbor Steve Powers started dreaming about traveling the sea on a trawler.
Steve actually introduced us to trawlers – we literally didn’t know what one was until he brought over a couple issues of Passagemaker Magazine. We immediately took to the idea of a big, slow, comfortable, “apartment on a barge” kind of boat on which we could explore the Bahamas and Caribbean for a good, long time. The three of us looked at boats, and destinations, and dreamed of the day we could be living those magazine articles. TrawlerFest became something to eagerly look forward to. Steve and his wife Challen went to one in Baltimore and returned with a bag o’ goodies that fueled our conversations and imaginations for weeks. Then Fran and I went to one in FL and brought back more dream fodder. Then we’d start looking at the calendar to find the next one that one of us could attend.
Then one day, it happened – somebody said “We should buy a boat together – an older, not-too-expensive one, that we can learn on, and try out the trawler life on, and if we don’t love it, we’ll just sell it and find something else to dream about.” Their middle son, Brady, was going to college near us in Florida, and was a certified boat nut who wanted to live on one, instead of in an apartment, so the whole idea was really practical – even financially responsible, don’t you think? Thus, the idea of “the Practice Boat” was born. Our dreaming immediately turned to scheming – what would we get? how big? one engine or two? how much would we have to pay? what brands should we look at? should we wear a captain’s hat or a pirate’s hat when we’re driving it? www.yachtworld.com experienced an increase in load that must have puzzled their sys admins: “What’s with all the search activity in Indianapolis all of a sudden? We’re going to need to bring another server online just to handle it!”
The short version of the ensuing 3+ years is that we threw our money together, bought the Practice Boat, named it Turtle E. Awesome, and it did, and still does, live up to its name. Fran and I took it to the Bahamas three times, decided we were going all-in on the trawler thing, bought Smartini, and sold our half of Turtle E. Awesome to Steve and Challen. But here it was, at least five years after the seeds were originally sown, and Steve and Challen had still not been able to be on a boat they owned, crossing an ocean to a tropical island. That was all about to change with this trip, and Fran and I were at least as excited for Steve and Challen – especially Steve – as we were about taking Smartini on an ocean voyage for the first time.
We had plenty of time for the trip: the Powers (Steve, Challen, Brady and their youngest, Bennett – yes, they have a son named Bennett, too – he and my son Bennett are best buddies) would leave Melbourne, FL on the Turtle on December 17 and didn’t have to be back in Melbourne until January 1 for their flight back to Indy. Factoring in the cruise south on the ICW to Lake Worth, both crossings, and the cruise back north to Melbourne, we’d have nine full days in the Bahamas. Assuming we could do the crossings on the days we wanted to, of course. But at any time of year, especially winter, you can’t rely on good weather (hence good sea conditions) for the crossings. We were fully prepared to wait two or three days on each end of the trip for a decent weather window. But I think Santa Claus, Mother Nature, and Poseidon must have gotten together and decided that Steve had been a good boy all year, and that he had waited long enough, so they told Boreas (Greek god of the North Wind) to take a few days off. We were able to cross over on the first day of our weather window (and later, to cross back on our last), giving us the maximum amount of island time for the adventure.
We staged in North Lake Worth, a nice, big, calm anchorage a few miles north of the Lake Worth Inlet, the night of December 18. Steve served us all jambalaya on the Turtle, we checked every weather source for the thirty-seventh time that day, and made plans to pull anchor before sunrise and be leaving the inlet as BOB (the Big Orange Ball) poked his nose over the Eastern horizon. Fran and I slept well on Smartini, but I’m guessing Steve’s sleep was like that of a six year old on Christmas Eve, every fiber of his being tingling with anticipation for what the morning would bring.
Day One: The Crossing
6:00 a.m. alarm, make coffee, check everything one last time, pull anchor, head for the inlet. Make the turn around Peanut Island, head for the middle of the inlet, and cross fingers and toes that all our preparations would be adequate, and that Boreas had, in fact, taken the day off. At the mouth of the inlet, the waves are way bigger and closer together, than had been forecast. Damn! But wait – it’s always worse at the inlet with wind from the East, as the waves and swell pile up in the relatively shallow water – don’t panic. There’s BOB, lighting our way – no, just piercing our retinas, making it almost impossible to see in front of us. “Turtle E. Awesome, Turtle E. Awesome, this is Smartini – how you guys doing back there?” “Turtle E. Awesome, doing fine!” It’s official – we’re heading to the Bahamas.
It was lumpy / bouncy / sporty / snotty / <fill in your favorite term for a little uncomfortable on the water> for thirty minutes or so, and then settled into about what the forecast had been: 2 foot waves on a 5-6 second period. (The period is how often the peaks of the waves come – the shorter the period, the bumpier it is. 2 foot waves every 3 seconds is way, way worse than 4 foot waves every 10 seconds.) We all concluded it was doable for the 7 hours we had in front of us, but we’d be glad when we were in the marina at Old Bahama Bay. Throughout the day, as the wind would change a little in direction and intensity, it would get slightly better or slightly worse, but it ended up being pretty consistent. Both Smartini and the Turtle are very happy cruising at 7 to 8 knots (a knot is 15% more than a land-based mile per hour), and fuel economy is always better when slower, so we settled in at about 7.5, and watched the miles and the minutes churn away under our hulls.
Good news: Smartini’s stabilizer system, which is supposed to significantly reduce rolling (the side to side motion of a boat), works! Although the waves were mostly on our nose all day, there was enough of a side component to set up some noticeable rolling – just ask the crew of the Turtle. But with the stabilizers on, we experienced almost none of it. Later in the trip, when we had bigger seas, from behind us at an angle – the real test of a stabilizer system – it performed as expected. Yay!!
There was one member of the crew who didn’t have such a great crossing – May the Boat Kitty. Seven hours of non-stop pitching (and a little rolling) left her green around the gills. She didn’t hurl, but we’re guessing she felt like it, from the look on her little black furry face. The good news is, that was the last time she seemed to have that happen, including on the crossing back to Florida, which was about the same in the seasickness-inducing department. She’s a real boat kitty now.
We pulled into Old Bahama Bay Marina, at West End, which is the settlement on the very west end of Grand Bahama Island, where Freeport is. There’s not much at Old Bahama Bay except the marina, but it was exactly what we wanted at the end of a long day of bumping across the Atlantic. It’s a great marina, protected on all sides from waves, tides, and even wind for the most part. That day (December 19) was literally their first day open since Hurricane Matthew. They had suffered a lot of damage, but fortunately, none of it major. The docks were all in perfect shape, but there was no power to them yet. The restaurant was open and served us a delicious dinner that evening, and their beach can be fun for a day or so – but there’s really not much to do from that spot. So we decided, since we still had nine days before we had to get back, that we’d keep heading East to the heart of the Abacos – Green Turtle, Great Guana, and Hopetown, planning to be in the Lighthouse Marina for Christmas.
Days Two and Three: Across the Little Bahama Bank
It’s seven or eight hours from Lake Worth to West End, but still another fourteen hours to Green Turtle Cay. (Throughout this story, when you see “cay”, say “key”. After only a dozen years or so, it may become habit.) There’s a really cool island, Great Sale, about halfway there, with excellent anchoring. After a good night’s sleep at Old Bahama Bay, we set our course for Great Sale, and motored across the Little Bahama Bank on almost flat calm water, with full sun and just enough breeze to keep us from sweating. We reached Great Sale, tried unsuccessfully to find the blue hole that’s supposed to be on the south end of the island, then moved into the huge anchorage on the west side for a good night’s rest. The next day, from Great Sale to Green Turtle, was the same, only calmer. We saw a turtle or two, a single dolphin, and a few sea birds. But this part of the trip – aside from the beautiful turquoise water stretching to the horizon in every direction for much of the day – is actually kind of boring. If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, it was like the days on the itinerary called “At sea” – but without the buffet.
The Little Bahama Bank is a huge area in the northwest Bahamas with very few islands, and a typical depth of less than ten feet, with lots of areas where it’s less than five feet. See the picture. (By the way, the dark blue surrounding the Bank is a few thousand fee deep!) So although it feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean because you can’t see land anywhere, you better stay on one of the charted courses across the Bank, or risk running aground. It’s virtually all sand – that’s what gives it that color, but it’s also what makes it kind of boring. A flat sandy bottom doesn’t typically attract much sea life, and that’s very much the case on the Bank. So you turn on the autopilot, pick an XM Radio station you like, and just enjoy being on the water. Surprisingly, it can kick up and be quite uncomfortable, as Fran, Brady and I found on our very first trip across the Bank in the Turtle, almost two years ago – but not this time. It was like being on a lake.
We pulled into the anchorage on the south side of Green Turtle Cay as the sun was getting low in the sky. We maneuvered Smartini into a spot among the half dozen boats already anchored, dropped the hook – and thus began our intense dislike of the anchor that came with the boat. It’s a 66 pound Bruce anchor (aka “claw”). It’s way undersized for a boat as heavy as Smartini (83,000 lbs), and with its three rounded flukes, it won’t set in a grassy bottom, no matter how much you swear at it. Brady dove on it (only about nine feet deep, thankfully), managed to get it into a small sandy area, and finally, we were hung. And not for the last time did we wish we had gotten our new anchor before leaving on this trip. Meanwhile, the Turtle dropped its properly sized CQR anchor, and they were hung like the stockings by the chimney with care.
We decided to go ashore, explore the little settlement of New Plymouth, and find somewhere for dinner. It was a bit odd seeing Christmas decorations in this tropical locale, especially the snowmen – but why not? We had a very fine dinner at The Wrecking Tree, took the dinghies back to our floating homes, and made plans for the next day’s adventure – Around the Whale!
Day Four: Around the Whale, and Sweet House
Look at the picture above of the Little Bahama Bank. On the right edge, just southeast of Green Turtle Cay, you’ll see a small spot of turquoise. That’s the spot where the entire width of the Sea of Abaco is no more than about three feet deep at low tide, about five feet at high tide, but only in a few spots. The Turtle has been across that area four times on two previous trips – always at mid to high tide, and usually with slightly tightened sphincters as we passed the shallowest point, near Don’t Rock. But the Turtle draws only 3 ½ feet. Smartini draws six, so there ain’t no way, no how, we’re getting across there. The only alternative is to go “around the Whale”, referring to the route around Whale Cay, which is plenty deep – and which can be plenty dangerous. Because on the outside of Whale Cay is the open ocean. With big waves coming from the Northeast, you can get what they call “rage seas”, as those big waves break over the barrier reef and start piling up in the much shallower water inside the reef. Not even very large yachts – 100 feet and more – will go around the Whale when that’s happening. We had told the crew of the Turtle that we might not be able to make it past Green Turtle, and they’d have to go on to Hopetown without us. But for the second time on this adventure, conditions were conducive to a safe, even comfortable, ocean journey (albeit one of only about three miles in total), and around the Whale we went!
At the end of the Whale Cay passage is the northwest tip of Great Guana Cay, a seven mile long island with a lot going on. Just off that tip is a gorgeous beach, some shallow coral reef, and a little farther out, the actual barrier reef. On that day, the barrier reef was almost totally flattening the four to five foot seas that were crashing into it, making the inner reef nice and calm. It’s a dive site we named Sweet House on a previous Abacos trip with my longtime business partner Joel Kozikowski and his boat, eSea Street. We had decided, with the Turtle crew, that if the conditions were good, we’d meet there, anchor, and see if we could shoot some dinner – with lobster, grouper, and hogfish all in season. We anchored in sand in about eighteen feet of water, radio’d the Turtle to come join us (they had taken the inside passage past the Whale), and got out the snorkel gear.
I’d love to tell you that we shot a Nassau grouper perfectly sized to make fish tacos for six, along with six lobsters. But I’d be lying. The truth is, we saw a lot of groupers, but didn’t have the skills to skewer any of them, and we saw no lobsters nor hogfish. But the snorkeling was excellent, Steve and Bennett got their first taste of real Bahamas coral reef, and we had plenty of dinner fare in the freezer, so no one was disappointed. We motored down to Fisher’s Bay, dropped the hook, and all piled in the Turtle’s dinghy to Grabber’s Sunset Grill for cocktails and a beautiful Bahamian (not Bohemian, Brady!) sunset.
Day Five: Great Guana Cay
Great Guana is about seven miles long and runs NW to SE. It’s the first island in the Sea of Abaco after Whale Cay, so represents one end of Smartini’s no-worries cruising area in the Abacos. (Little Harbor is the other end.) It’s home to world famous Nipper’s Bar, Grabber’s Sunset Bar, Dive Guana, Orchid Bay Marina, the very hoity-toity Baker’s Bay Resort (did you really need to build a freakin’ golf course?!?!), an assortment of other small businesses, and a lot of homes, most of which are apparently rentals. On its NW tip is the aforementioned Sweet House dive site, off its SE tip is a beautiful and protected (i.e., “no take zone”), dive area called the Fowl Cays (where our adopted niece Katie Stanhouse officially became a scuba diver in 2015!), and on the SW side, just off Grabber’s beach, is one of our favorite anchorages in the Abacos, Fisher’s Bay. It’s protected from the prevailing winds, it’s deep enough for Smartini to anchor at low tide, it’s a short dinghy ride to Grabber’s beach, and there are lobsters there! With all that going on, and Hopetown less than two hours away, we decided to anchor here for two nights, so we could spend an entire day exploring.
The Turtle crew dinghied in to explore the island and found some of the amazing Bahamian bread that is, all by itself, enough to get me to visit the Abacos again. After they returned, the menfolk on the Turtle started hunting for dinner among the small rocks and ledges near the anchorage. Fairly shortly, word came that they’d located some, but weren’t sure if they were of legal size, and not sure how to get them out of the rocks. It didn’t take me long to drop what I was doing and suit up, and in short order we had six of them in the bucket – fresh lobster for dinner! We were never more than a few hundred feet from where we were anchored, right there in Fisher’s Bay.
We spent the rest of the day just putzing around the island, and ended it with cocktails at Grabber’s, watching one of their gorgeous sunsets.
Day Six: Christmas Eve – Hopetown
We left Fisher’s Bay about 9:00 a.m. for the two hour run to Hopetown. We wanted to get to the Lighthouse Marina before 11:00, thinking they closed then (they didn’t), and hoping they had slips available (they did). In fact, the marina was empty when we arrived, and we were the only two boats in it the whole day and night. Paul, the very nice dockmaster there, welcomed us back (the Turtle had been there a few nights on each of our previous Abacos trips) and directed Smartini into the only slip they have that’s deep enough to accommodate our 6 foot draft. A few minutes later, Steve pulled the Turtle into the slip opposite us.
When we first got the Turtle, none of us had any big boat experience. (At 43′, and with twin diesel engines, the Turtle is definitely a “big boat” by our definition, since all previous boating had been on 20′ lake boats.) Fran, Brady, and I were able to get some experience pretty quickly, as we all lived where the boat was. But Steve’s time on it was extremely limited, so each time he came to Florida and took the helm, he was kinda back at Square One. Handling the boat in close quarters – in and out of the slip, with other boats only a few feet away – wasn’t something he had much opportunity to gain confidence at. But here he was, pulling the Turtle into the slip with wind from one direction, current from slightly another, and a very shallow spot just off his starboard stern to worry about, with total confidence and competence. For just a moment, I felt a great sense of pride for him, and then I realized that he was just doing what Fran, Brady, and I had done before him only because we’d had the opportunity. My feeling of pride gave way to a feeling of incredible happiness for him. He was, after all these years, finally seeing his dream come true: he had just captained his boat a hundred miles south on the ICW, then across the Atlantic Ocean to the Bahamas, then across the Little Bahama Bank and the Sea of Abaco, and was pulling it into a marina at the base of a hundred year old lighthouse, in a cozy little Bahamian settlement, with his family, on Christmas Eve. “You pretty happy, Steve?”, I asked from the dock. “Freakin’ ecstatic!” was his understated reply.
While Fran and I gave Smartini a top to bottom rinse, the Turtle crew dropped their dink in the water and headed across the harbor to town. (You can’t walk from the marina to town – you can only go by boat.) They returned a few hours later with some fresh bread from Vernon’s Bakery and keys to bikes they had rented. Meanwhile, Fran and I made new friends! I was on the upper deck, putting away the hose after rinsing Smartini, when a man stepped onto the dock looking for Paul to get fuel for his runabout. I noticed he was wearing a hat with the AOPA logo on it (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), so I said “What do you fly?”. He looked up at me, puzzled, but answered “A Baron, among other things.” We immediately started chatting about airplanes and flying, and were five minutes into the conversation when he said “The hat!”, realizing that’s how I knew he was a pilot. “You know, I’ve had this hat for probably ten years, and this is literally the first time I’ve ever worn it.” Not the first time that a seemingly insignificant decision sparked a conversation that led to a friendship (right, Richard and Beth?), and a reminder to me to continue to engage new people. Especially if they’re boaters, or pilots, and absolutely without fail if they’re both.
Mark and Diana are from Orlando, and have spent a week or two in Hopetown every year, often over Christmas, for the last dozen years. They fly the Baron into Marsh Harbour, rent a small boat and a house, and remind themselves what keeps bringing them back. We ended up spending a few hours with them, and with Steve and Challen, having cocktails at the Hopetown Inn’s poolside bar on Christmas afternoon. I could write several paragraphs about them just from that conversation, but I’ll summarize by saying these are people we want to hang out with some more! Having a Baron and not being afraid to use it will hopefully facilitate that.
After we gave Mark and Diana a tour of Smartini, Fran and I put our dink in the water and putted over to Hopetown. As we were walking away from the dinghy, I heard “You’re Brian, right? And you’re Fran?”. What? Someone in Hopetown knew us? It was Caleb McDaniel, a fishing buddy of our dear friend Charlie Tudor, there with his family for the holidays. The next day, elsewhere in Hopetown, the same thing happened when his dad, Chris, saw us. Small world!
We love Hopetown, and the whole island it’s on, Elbow Cay. It’s small, but has everything we’re looking for when vacationing. It’s got great history, which is apparent when walking around town. On one side is the ocean, and on the other side is the harbor, so it’s a water lover’s paradise. There are plenty of restaurants from bare bones to barbecue to elegant, and plenty of places to get a cocktail. And there’s Vernon’s Bakery and Grocery. Trust me, if you’re in Hopetown, you want to go to Vernon’s. He makes bread that’ll make the gluten-intolerant among you question your very existence.
That evening, on the dock at Lighthouse Marina, we watched the Christmas classic, “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Steve and Brady projected it onto one of Steve’s Christmas presents, a high tech stretchy screen strung between the two tall antennas of the Turtle. Over our left shoulders was the Hopetown Lighthouse, with strings of Christmas lights strung from the ground to the top, making the biggest Christmas tree in the Abacos. It was warm enough for shorts and t-shirts. You know – pretty much like any ol’ Christmas Eve in Indianapolis.
Day Seven: Christmas Day
On Christmas morning, there were no presents to open, but there was the next best thing – Vernon’s Cinnamon bread that Steve made into French
toast, on the dock, in brilliant sunshine and perfect temperatures. (I know I keep talking about Vernon’s bread, but if you’ve ever had it, you know why!) The only thing that would have made it a better Christmas morning for me would have been for Maddie and Bennett to be there with us. That’s one of the costs of this lifestyle Fran and I have chosen – being away from friends and family. I guess life is full of compromises, and always will be.
After breakfast, we all rode bikes to the southern tip of Elbow Cay, stopping along the way for pictures by the ocean, and a cocktail at Sea Spray, a very nice restaurant / bar / marina on White Sound. We stopped the bikes at the gate that said “Private Property”, and walked on the beach, picking up shells, chunks of cool coral, and beach glass for Steve to take home to their lake house in Indiana. Brady and Bennett stayed with us for a bit, and then decided to push on to the very tip of the island, which happens to be one of the most beautiful stretches of sand I’ve ever seen, Tahiti Beach.
After a grueling 18 minute bike ride back to Hopetown (hey – they have a hill!), we returned to the boats to find Mark and Diana looking for us, wanting to go have cocktails at the Hopetown Inn. We don’t normally drink so early in the day, but it was Christmas, so what the heck! Over the next few hours, we learned that Mark was a fighter pilot, a flight instructor specializing in professional athletes and celebrities, and is now a top secret scientist for the NSA. Diana is the head of the animation studio at Disney. They have a talking pterodactyl named Sammy. At least, that’s how I remember the conversation. As I said earlier, we wanna hang out with those two some more!
Christmas dinner was a buffet at Sea Spray, but rather than risk bikes in the dark, they sent their limo for us – a 6 seat golf cart. The driver was a nice man named Robert (I think). When we were going through the buffet line later, Robert was refreshing the pan of fried grouper and I said, “Robert, you’re a man of many talents – what exactly is your role here?” “Umm… I sign the checks”, he replied. We all thought it was pretty cool that the owner drove the golf cart, kept the buffet line full, and was also probably the chief cook and bottle washer. Dinner was excellent, although just a bit windy (we were outside under the coconut palm trees), and the ride back to Hopetown was uneventful. We had a different driver – I’m pretty sure he was just a regular customer of Robert’s who was happy to help out. You meet some nice people in the Bahamas.
The only negative about Hopetown that I can think of is that, at Smartini speed, it’s three full days from Florida. Given that Steve, Challen and Bennett had to be on a flight back to Indy on New Year’s Day, we couldn’t linger in Hopetown. By 10:00 a.m. on Boxing Day (they really call it that there), we were saying goodbye to Paul at the Lighthouse Marina and heading west. The forecast for the crossing was excellent for the 29th and horrible for the 30th, so as much as we wanted to, we just couldn’t stay. The rest of the trip was, with a few exceptions, unremarkable, so I won’t bore you with the details (more beautiful water, bright sun, great food, blah, blah, blah), but here’s a summary:
Day Eight Our third lucky weather and sea state let us go back around the Whale, giving us a better test of the stabilizers. We ended the day in a perfectly protected little cove on Munjack Cay, a favorite of our friends Beth and Richard, so we were a little sad we didn’t have to time to explore it.
Day Nine Up before BOB, motor all the way to Mangrove Cay, anchor just before sunset. We did that long day so that our last day crossing the Bank would be short, and we’d have all afternoon at Old Bahama Bay.
Day Ten Three hours to Old Bahama Bay, with a quick stop along the way on a textbook Bahamian coral head, where we were able to decimate the lionfish population. (But still no grouper.) All afternoon exploring the coastline and tide pools around Old Bahama Bay, and the absolute best octopus experience any of us may ever have. (That’ll be a separate post, with great pictures and video!) Smoked brisket dinner on Smartini that night – that Fran smoked while we were underway!
Day Eleven: Going Home
Fran and I needed to get to Lake Worth to be hauled out for a new bottom job (that’s a whole other story that we’re in the middle of as I write this). The Turtle crew wanted to get as close to Melbourne as they could that day, so they were heading for the Fort Pierce Inlet. This meant we wouldn’t be crossing back together, but after this long, everyone was confident in their abilities on the water, and in their boat’s reliability. For the fourth and final time on this trip, we needed good weather and seas to get somewhere, and we got it – the forecast had only gotten better over the past three days. At 6:00 a.m on the 29th, the Turtle pulled out of Old Bahama Bay, followed an hour later by Smartini. We were able to maintain radio contact until about 10:30, and both boats were within sight of land a few hours after that. Smartini pulled into the Riviera Beach City Marina by mid-afternoon, and Turtle E. Awesome, apparently eager for some night time navigation practice, motored into the ICW at Fort Pierce, then all the way home, pulling into their slip at Anchorage Yacht Basin about 10:00 p.m.
When you want something for a very long time, and you finally get it, it may let you down a little – may not live up to your expectations. Let’s see if that’s the case here: “Steve, was it everything you hoped for?”
Who’s this “Butch” guy that keeps popping up on Smartini Life?
If you read our Meet Smartini page, you might have noticed that I introduced myself as Brian “Butch” Smith. Very few of you know why, so I’m gonna tell you. It’s simple: I always wanted a nickname, and one of my favorite movies of all time is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Newman and Redford in certainly one of the best buddy movies of all time, with some really funny dialogue. Continue reading “Who’s “Butch”?”