Cruising is not vacationing – Lessons learned in a month, by Kara

“How long are you on vacation for?”  The woman at the bus stop in Ft Meyers beach, 12 days post untying our lines, asked us at our shared bus stop.  “Well we aren’t on vacation … we live on a boat” is all we could muster in response.

After stumbling upon the 2013 world premiere of “Maiden trip” at our local Austin SxSW film festival and falling in love with the notion of traveling the world via boat, Erin and I began preparing for life as a cruiser.  Part of our prep was minor things like learning to sail and buying a first, then the second sailboat and refitting, but the other part was learning what it means to cruise.  We would read every piece of cruising and sailing material we could get our hands on, diving into blogs and listening to podcasts on every commute.   However, similar to landing your first job out of college, it doesn’t matter how many classes or aced tests one has on a subject, some things can only be learned through experience.  Finding out that we love cruising, even though it is not a constant vacation, is one of these.

Our sailing prior to cruising was either point to point or in a protected bay.  The sheer amount of logistics when cruising is overwhelming at first.  Not only did we need to figure out what the weather was doing to see if we could travel, but also what destinations we wanted to go, which route: ICW or outside hop, how will the weather effect either route and how much time either route would take so we could leave at the correct time to have daylight when getting in or anchoring.  Where to anchor, how deep the water really is (charts are often wrong) and at what tide level, how will the current verses wind affect our anchoring, will Florida laws actually allow anchoring in this area or do we need to grab a mooring ball?  How does the process work for mooring or calling bridges for openings or docking at a random fuel dock?  The logistics were intimidating to say the least and I felt the nerd inside of me daydreaming about creating a “Google Maps” type app that would just figure out all of these variables and calculations for you.

Sail Flow showing the wind forecast for our Dry Tortuga passage

Cruising boats are physical and hard work.  However common sense this might be, it wasn’t until we were cruising did I accurately understand the concept.  Mind you, prior to cruising, we did some pretty intense work on the boat redoing many of the systems, so we were all too familiar with “boat yoga” and associated boat bites.   Before we untied our marine lines, we had cars – our flip flops were several years old before the soles were worn unlike the month of walking it takes us to wear down flops now.  With cars, you don’t travel daily in the dingy, hauling it and the motor up every night.  We had water right on our dock so hauling Jerry cans full of water, gas and diesel was never really a thought.   When it rained, we slept soundly in our air conditioning not waking up with water splashing in from open hatches scrambling up to in a dream state to check on the anchor in high winds.

With the added inconveniences and less creature comforts comes a more rewarding existence, one that is more in tune with nature.  Dolphins would feed at every anchorage we had on the west coast of Florida, day or night.  They would play in our bow wave and catch a ride down the ICW in our stern wave.   Watching Baby Osprey, Pink Ibis, 7 foot wing span Frigates, acrobatic pelicans, and a slew of other avian animals I cannot name became one of our favorite pass times.  Lastly, I can’t forget the manatee we hung out with at Cabbage key and the two we saw quickly in Key West.  Gentle and sadly beat up, but beautiful creatures, such a pleasure to see.

Baby Osprey on ICW marker, Florida
Ibises eating fish in Costa Cayo
Manatee at Cabbage Key

There is something special about stars away from land and under full sail.   A cool summer night with a gentle breeze propelling your house to its next destination, stars crowding the clear night sky so that you can’t distinguish even the most familiar constellation. Luminescent waves lighting up the stern of the boat and traveling off into the distance.   In the morning a fiery sun would paint the sky’s clouds purple, orange and red.

Sunrise, Gulf of Mexico – Houston to Tampa passage

Coming from the western muddy waters of the Gulf of Mexico, any color water besides brown would have us thrilled, but I didn’t realize how many different hues of blue and green the water could be.  More colors than in a giant box of Crayola crayons; we needed to make up names for the different colors because there really seemed to be something missing in-between midnight blue and Navy and dark blue just wasn’t descriptive enough.

 

Calm waters in the gulf – Houston to Tampa passage
Dolphin riding the stern wave – West coast Florida

Cruising is not all about beaches and umbrella drinks, but in my month long experienced opinion it’s not exclusively boat work in exotic places either.  There is a healthy amount of work and even stress, but we have finally found the correct amount of work life balance to lead a fulfilling life.

Dry Tortugas to the Marquesas (keys)

Ft Jefferson – Garden Key Dry Tortugas

 

Howdy Folks,

As I write this, I’m sitting in the cockpit as we head East from Ft Jefferson.  We’re motor-sailing East towards the Marquesas Keys in about 4.5-5knots of SE wind and about a gentle 2 foot swell.  We spent 3 incredible nights anchored at Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park. To say it’s an absolutely amazing place, just doesn’t really do it justice.  This is one truly remote and beautiful place.  If we didn’t need to keep moving and head north for H-season, we’d probably still be anchored there.

Really the only way you can get to the Dry Tortugas is by boat or float plane.  There is a ferry that comes in once a day around 10:30 with a load of tourists.  The ferry stays until around 2:45 to allow them some time to check out the fort and do a little snorkeling.  Then they load up and the place is really peaceful.  There’s also a pair of float planes that make 3-4 trips a day each for folks that don’t want to deal with the ferry.

Once you’re in the Tortugas, the only options for overnight are to either camp on Garden Key near the fort, which looks pretty cool.  Or of course to be on your own boat.  Want to guess which option we took?  Either way, you must be self-sufficient once there, no water is available and you’re required to pack in and out all food and trash.  There are some very basic toilet facilities available and you can pick up things like shirts, books and sunscreen/bug spray at the store in the fort, but not much else. That’s what makes this place so great it’s only about 60 miles from Key West, but feels much further removed from the hustle of daily life in the “real world”.  The place is quiet and beautiful and an amazing monument to government waste.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all preachy here, but the fort is absolutely huge.  imposing old red brick walls enclose 16 acres of land in the middle of nowhere and since it was never completed it never  really served it’s intended purpose for the US.

Defending the harbor
Never completed but truly massive
Not a bad view from the top of the walls

But man, is it a cool place to visit now.  A massive crumbling brick fortress, surrounded by a salt water moat.  It covers Garden Key almost completely and is surrounded by the bright blue waters of a naturally protected deep water harbor.  The harbor is the reason the fort was built, to protect ships that patrolled the gulf and straits of Florida. The harbor made for a perfect supply base and safe harbor during storms and allowed the ships to maintain a vital trade route along the Gulf coast.  Anchoring in the Dry Tortugas was a new experience for us.  It was so cool, to be in calm water surrounded by reefs that break the waves from the Gulf but almost nothing visible on the surface.  This leaves you with the feeling of anchoring in the middle of nowhere.  There’s no real wind protection, so most nights we had a great breeze blowing through the boat and keeping our SilentWind wind generator singing as it kept the batteries topped up. Even when the wind really piped up, the water was calm thanks to the surrounding reefs and shallows.

Bush Key is off limits this time of year due to the nesting terns…1000s and 1000s of them

Again, we’re very glad to have added the wind gen option. Many of the days have been overcast, since getting to Florida which of course impacts our solar production.  Without the SilentWind, we’d likely have had to run the motor to charge a few days.  With the combo of wind and solar, we’ve been able to return the batteries to 100% state of charge pretty much every day but 1-2 and have never been forced to run the motor simply to charge up the house bank.

 

So, as Kara and I kick back in the cockpit to enjoy a fairly lazy passage the Marquesas (not THE MARQUESAS I keep dreaming about…but the Marquesas Keys) we’ve been chatting and just realized we’ve now been cruising for 3 weeks as of yesterday.  We haven’t been in a Marina since our initial landfall in St Pete.  So, for about 2 ½ weeks we’ve been anchored out, or on a mooring ball.  Many places in Florida don’t really want you to be able to anchor for free (Sarasotta and Ft Myers Beach are the ones we’ve been through so far).  It’s their solution to the derelict boat problem they have to deal with in most of the more convenient anchorages.  We’ve seen the problem first hand in many anchorages, with old unmaintained boats that just sit in one place and dump their head waste directly overboard.  It’s easy to recognize the problem, but prohibiting anchoring altogether, just seems heavy handed.

 

For the last 2 ½ weeks, we’ve been sans Air Conditioning and have relied almost entirely on wind and solar for our power and have cooked most every meal aboard Vela.  It feels like we’re finding our groove and that’s been awesome.  Don’t get me wrong, we still do things like drop the anchor 3 times at Ft Jefferson before we find a place we’re happy with.  Or forget to secure the dinghy well, resulting in one of our neighbors saving it for us…talk about embarrassed but SUPER thankful.  But then we also get to pay it back to the cruising community when one of the other boats got their rigid dinghy swamped in the surf at Loggerhead Key yesterday.  Kara and I were able to land our dinghy in the surf, slide it up on the beach and then jump in to the water and, with the help of several other cruisers, wrestle the dinghy up onto the beach…over the course of about 90 minutes.  Result dinghy and 20hp outboard where saved.  Eminding us of something heard early on in our sailing live …  “Somedays you watch the show…somedays you are the show.”  The important thing is to learn from those experiences, not let them get you too down and embrace the constant state of change that is cruising.  Sometimes it’s crazy squalls at 2 am, that have you rushing around the boat securing all the hatches in a sleep induced haze.  Other times it’s kicking back on top of an old fort, near a massive old cannon in the middle of nowhere, with frigate birds soaring past at eye level, as the sun descends into the bright blue water…with an ice cold beer and your chicky beside you.

Frigate bird riding the thermals above the fort
Sunset above the fort with Loggerhead Key in the background.
Not a bad way to end a day

 

All in all…yeah I’d say I’m enjoying this new experience.

 

Now, bring on the Marquesas…(keys) and tomorrow hopefully Key W

We finally untied the lines

Heading out!  Thanks to our friend Jenn from Forever living Irie for this pic of us finally leaving. We really miss y’all!

 

Howdy Folks, below are a couple posts I wrote during or recent passage from Kemah TX. to St Petersburg Florida.  But before I share them, I wanted to say that Kara and I finally did it.  We actually quit two excellent jobs, moved aboard and untied the lines and headed out into the wide blue world.  We took a total of 5 days to cross the gulf of Mexico to Tampa Bay.

Since leaving Kemah, the day after my 44th Birthday (May 23rd 2017).  We’ve been slowly working our way down Florida’s gulf coast and are now sitting at anchor at Ding Darling – National Wildlife Refuge.  We’re hoping to spend a day or two here SUP’ing, biking and exploring before heading down to Naples and prepping for an offshore hop to the Dry Tortugas, if the weather cooperates.  We really want to go, but also need to be moving to the Atlantic side so we can start working our way North.  So, if we can get a weather window in the next week or so, we’ll make our run to the Tortugas.  If not, we may just have to settle for the keys and continue around.

But more on that, a little later.  If you’re interested, see below for my ramblings on the passage.

 

Escape from Kemah – Day 3/4 Friday

Howdy Folks, as I write this I’m relaxing in the cockpit under full sail and a crystal clear blue sky.  A cool 7-9 knot breeze is blowing out of the South East and we’re  making somewhere between 4-5 knots towards Florida.  Our intended landfall is St. Pete but currently our course has us heading north of Tampa Bay due to the wind direction.  Fortunately the wind is expected to shift to a more southerly SSE tonight and tomorrow.  We have the autopilot set on windvane steering which allows us to trim our sails for a close hauled course and then as the wind shifts South, our course will follow it, since this option allows us maintain our course relative to the wind angle.  This was something we had intended to do with the Hydrovane self steering system we bought and paid for, but Will and the folks at Hydrovane don’t actually stand behind their “guarantee that it will work for our boat”.  So, we had to make other arrangements.  There will definitely be more details to follow on the Hydrovane debacle, but until then suffice it to say that after spending many MANY days working on mounting and addressing the various clearance issues we ran into.. I believe it to be a fantastic product with absolutely abysmal customer focus.  They have no willingness to stand behind what they tell you at a boat show.  Once they have the cash, it’s your problem…but I digress.

This isn’t about that, this is about us finally untying the dock lines and making our way to Florida to begin our cruising lives.  Kara and I planned, prepped and saved for years. It was about a month behind our intended departure date, due to project poop tank.  But sitting here now enjoying this cool breeze and deep blue water (Irie – you guys would love it) it all seems worth it.  We left a day after our revised departure date due to some challenges getting our top down spinnaker furler installed, but we did in-fact finally leave.  And you know what…that feels pretty great.

Sure our first night out, right in-front of a low pressure front was a bit..sporty with plenty of wind and lots and lots of rain and lighting.  That all amounted to us motoring pretty much all that first night, but we were on our way.  The next morning, as expected the winds clocked around to NW and then to W, which is a great thing if your leaving Texas for Florida.  So with a reefed main and full Genoa, we headed due East.  Over the next couple days we played a little Frogger with the rigs and shipping traffic .  I must admit, AIS and Radar make life much simpler than when we did the reverse of this trip a couple years ago and had neither.  If you can swing it, I highly recommend both.

 

One of the roughly 40 Billion rigs we had to dodge.
“There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich.”

Last night the wind was too light to sail and right in our face, so we motor sailed with the main and Staysail.  Which reminds me, I’m super glad to have that dinghy off the deck and secured in the arch…thanks JZ customrails.  Now the winds are out of the SE, but there’s enough of it to sail.  Which makes for a nice relaxing afternoon, even if it is a bit slow at 4.5 knots in an 8 knot breeze (currently).  The beauty here is the engine is off, solar and wind are EASILY keeping up with the AP, instruments, fridge/freezer and various other charging requirements.

 

If this keeps up we should be in St. Pete sometime late Sunday, which would be great.  That would mean 5 days of actual travel to make Florida.  This is the reason Kara and I opted to start our cruise off with a delivery skipper.  Since we’re still building our skills from a cruising and managing the boat 24 hours a day while underway perspective.  Having someone aboard to share their experience and make the watch schedule a bit more manageable seemed like a good move.  So, we called our friend Blaine Parks who helped get the boat from Maryland to the Bahamas and then down to Texas a few years ago.  Now that we’re out here, I know we’ve been more efficient from a routing perspective, with Blaine’s help.  The trick is to always be dealing not only with the weather you have, but be looking at what’s expected tomorrow and the next day, to plan the moves you make today and set up for tomorrow’s weather.  So yes, having him here has been great, but now that we’re here, I’m also confident that we could have done this on our own, and sometimes I think we SHOULD have.  Not because Blaine’s not great at what he does, he certainly is. More because asking for help, even paid help…always feels weird and leaves me thinking, you could have figure this out yourself.

 

On the other hand, having him along has reduced the stress level significantly aboard Vela.  I don’t know about everyone else, but for us…selling our house and cars, trying to rent the condo, and dumping all your stuff, and quitting your jobs, and saying goodbye to all your friends and family, and let’s not forget last second boat projects and blown deadlines…all kinda adds up.  We knew that due to the later than intended departure date we really had two options.  We could either keep stress down and go the ICW route.  This would have been less stressful in that your inshore and able to anchor every night, but it takes a long time and  would have forced us to rush through Florida to get north for H-season.  Or, go the direct across the Gulf route and have the stress of 5-6 day crossing in what can be a challenging body of water as a short handed crew on a 24 hour a day schedule. So, we opted for the direct route, but with help.  Thanks Blaine!  For the record, if we were in the ICW we wouldn’t even be to NOLA yet.  In fact if this weather holds. we should be to Florida in under the week it would have taken to motor up the ditch to NOLA.

Oh and did I mention we’re sailing, there’s absolutely nothing on the horizon but blue sky and even bluer water..and it’s freaking B-E-A-U-tiful out here?

 

 

 

….We might need a new grill cover though…

 

Pretty sweet, no?

 

Day 4

Howdy folks,

Despite the fact that we’ve had almost no wind (2-3 knots most of the day) today’s been another great one.  Who’d have thought we’d have such great weather for this passage?  I mean the forecast looked great for everything after the first night, but I just assumed it was too good to be true.  Of course, with the complete lack of wind, we’ve been motoring all day which obviously isn’t ideal but fortunately Vela carries a lot if diesel, so we have the range to do it.

Obviously motoring all day isn’t the great part, yesterday afternoon and evening was great with 10-15 knots from the SE, so we where able to sail through the night until this morning when it just stopped.  But of course with no wind comes nice flat, and I mean flat calm seas, almost glassy.  So we showered in the forward head to reduce the salt and grime level aboard.

Pretty calm for 150 miles offshore

 

To reward us for our excellent hygiene Neptune sent us not just one, but two pods of playful proposes today.  We got one about mid day that stayed and played for 20+ minutes in the bow wave.  Then, just after a dinner of chicken fajitas, we noticed a pod feeding on something near the surface.  When they noticed us, the race was on to see who could be first to ride Vela’s bow wave.  It’s so cool to watch these guys play, it honestly looks and sounds (you can hear them calling to each other) like they’re just having a blast.  In fact they seem to really like the attention and increase their acrobatics for us any time we cheer…and cheer we did.

Our new friends
Not bad for the gulf of Mexico

Love the bubble

These guys where super playful
And Fast

 

 

 

 

So now Kara and I are in the cockpit relaxing for her 6-8pm watch.  She’s reviewing video content so we can finally get off our asses and but together a video or two and I’m going through photos from the days visitors as the sun sinks behind us into the now crystal clear blue water.  It looks like we’re about 120 miles from Tampa, which should put us into the bay tomorrow.  In fact I think we’ve decided we’ll head to St. Petersburg for 1-2 nights in a marina while we clean up the boat and restock. Then we’ll start working our way south towards the Dry Tortugas and into the Keys.

 

OK, time to kick back relax and enjoy the view.