Bombs Over Baghdad!

May 5, 2014:

Shrimpers.  That’s what they were.  Those strange looking UFO ships out on the water.

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They were huge shrimping vessels with massive football stadium-like lights flooding the deck.  No red or green for port or starboard, so you couldn’t tell which way they were going (or coming!), only that they were getting closer and closer and closer.  Super annoying when you’re cruising at night and not sure if the shrimp boat is going to come across your bow or cut behind your stern.  And, what was worse, when they finally passed us about 100 yards off of our port stern, it looked like there was no one on deck or at the helm.  They were probably all below playing poker and smoking cigars or something, just trudging blind across the Gulf, blissfully unaware of any other potential vessels in their path!  Stinking shrimpers!  We were cursing them all night.  We probably “encountered” four or five of their “kind” that night and had to stay on constant watch.

Sadly, too, there wasn’t much wind that night.  We had to motor until about 1:00 a.m. when the winds finally picked up to about 3 knots.  It wasn’t much, but it was the most we’d seen in 12 hours, so it was enough for us to throw out the sails.  I will say the Hinterhoeller is an exceptional lightwind boat.  Favorable seas and any breeze 3 knots or greater and we can usually achieve hull speed about 2 knots less than the wind, if not more.  So, if it’s blowing 5 knots and we’re not beating into big waves, we can usually make around 3 knots, which is great.  A typical wind of 7-8 knots, and we’re often making 5, easy.  Like I said, an incredible vessel that still never ceases to amaze us.  Thankfully, with a light 3 knots of wind that night, we were able to finally kill the engine for a bit and sail!  Until about 4:30 a.m., when the wind died out again and we had to crank back up.  Dag nabbit!  But, we did cruise right on into a beautiful sunrise over the Gulf.

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May 6, 2014:

And, have you ever had one of those perfect Saturday mornings where you wake up, lounge around in your PJs, make a big weekend-morning breakfast like french toast, or pancakes, and then fall back asleep till like 10:00 a.m.?  Ahhh …  Isn’t that the best?  Well, this morning was kind of like that.  We watched the sun rise, made some piping hot coffee, sipped it, devoured two heaping bowls of steaming oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar and then …

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took a nap!  The morning chill was still in the air and we were both a little tired from the two-hour shifts the night before, so we eased into the day nice and slow like, taking turns napping in the cockpit.  But, the sun finally started to ease up and so did we.  It was a gorgeous day out in the Gulf.

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Unlike the crystal green waters we had encountered around Clearwater and Tampa Bay, the waters here were a deep, rich royal blue,

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and just as stunning in their own way.  We even had a sea turtle come and visit us!

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I know, looks kind of like a grainy alien photo, but I promise, it’s a turtle.  I finished a fun, quick suspense read that morning – Lee Child’s 61 Hours – and the joke was we had been motoring about that long, too.  61 hours, huh?  Not quite that long, but it felt like it.  About 12 hours the day and night before, and add another 6 or so since we’d cranked around 4:30 that morning.  So, 18 hours so far, which is a long time to keep that engine going.  We decided to turn her off and bob for a bit so we could let her cool and check the oil.

You know what they say — “Diesels love oil like a sailor loves rum.”  (And, by “they” I mean Captain Ronnaturally)

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There you go girl …  Drink up!

The wind was still mocking us, gracing by our boat at a light 0.5 to 1.3 knots.  1.3??  Look out!  It’s getting gusty up here!!  It was amazing to see the waters of the Gulf, which we have seen many times brimming with 3 foot, 4 foot, even 6 foot waves, look like solid … glass.

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There would be no sailing for this vessel anytime soon.  So, we cranked back up and decided to heat up some of our broccoli-less broccoli crappola (also known as sweet potato chili),

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and throw together a great cucumber, tomato and feta salad for lunch.

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This salad is great because it’s super easy.  It’s literally cucumber, tomato, a little bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and feta.  A great way to throw together some random vegetables you may have on the boat or some feta that needs to be eaten.  With water like glass, a nice lunch spread laid out before us, and nothing but easy motoring to do, we thought we were in for an tranquil day.  But, that’s when it struck …

You might recall me asking you all, in jest — What’s the Worst Thing You Can Have On a Boat?  And, no, it was not the “busted mate”

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(although that was close).  For us, it was the LEAK!

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Our stupid dripping dripless.  That was the worst thing we’d had on the boat … up unto that point at least.  But recall we ran through some possibilities then – fire, lightning, etc.  Now, it seemed we were about to have something new.  Phillip and I had just curled up in the cockpit with our chili and salad and were ready to kick back for a relaxing lunch when

>> BOOM <<

Out of nowhere, with nothing out of ordinary in sight.  We both jolted upright and starting looking around.  And then again

>> BOOM <<

It sounded like bombs were exploding over head.  I’ll never forget how quickly Phillip put his bowl down and jumped behind the helm, scanning the horizon.  In military mode.  Of all the things that we could expect to happen on the boat.  A bomb?!?  You have got to be kidding me.  When another BOOM came with no sign of an explosion or threat near our boat, we started to run through the possibilities.  Phillip said he knew they often used the northern part of the Gulf as a testing zone for bombs and other detonation devices.  They would fly out of Tyndall or Eglin Air Force Base and drop in the designated zones.  Tyndall AFB is just south of Panama City.

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Assuming they had a drop zone about … yay … big (give or take)

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and assuming our projected path of about … here’ish (I know, real technical stuff),

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it was wholly probable that we were either in their testing zone or at least close enough to hear it.  While Phillip knew they often did testing in this area of the Gulf, he said they usually issued some notice or warning to mariners over the radio to advise of the bombings.  If they were bombing anywhere near us, he would have expected to have heard an advisory go out over the radio or to have seen marine vessels or air support checking to make sure the testing zone was clear.  He clicked on the radio and listened for any advisories, but we didn’t hear anything.  Either the testing was occurring much too far away to constitute any potential threat to us (although I can assure you it did not sound like it), or the ole’ Rest had gone rogue and done slipped through their barriers!  Flanking them on the inside!  We didn’t see any action on the horizon or hear any advisories on the radio, so we figured we were at a safe enough distance, but that didn’t stop us from standing up and doing a 360 every time another bomb went off!  BOOM!

It was the wildest thing.  As cruisers, you prepare for a lot of contingencies when you start doing overnight passages and Gulf crossings – you pack spares for every single piece of equipment, and then spares for those spares, you have a ditch bag handy and rehearse man-overboard drills, you keep a knife, a flashlight and a gaff near the cockpit in case someone or some thing goes overboard – all kinds of safety precautions.  But, a bomb plan??  I can tell you we certainly did NOT have that.  But, like I said, they seemed to be no real threat, so we let the bombs drop all around us all afternoon while we continued to motor toward Carrabelle.  As the sun started the drop, the wind laid down even more (it was blowing — if you can even qualify it as “blowing” — between 0.3 and 0.5 knots) and the water began to look like a smooth satin sheet laid out before us.

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Eventually the two became one and there was no discernible horizon.

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It was incredibly beautiful and humbling, to know that a body of water so dangerous and deadly at times could lay down and  spread out like a smooth silk path for our passage.  Even more awe-inspiring was the friend who joined us for dinner.  A tiny, lone sparrow flitted around our boat twice before finally coming to a shaky halt on a lifeline and heaving little pants of exhaustion from his overwhelming flight.

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Where did he come from?  Where was he going?  How did he make it all the way to our boat, more than a hundred miles offshore, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico?  We didn’t know, but we didn’t need to.  He was welcome regardless.  He closed his beady little eyes and stayed right with us until the sun set and we could no longer make him out.

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It was Phillip, the bird and I, motoring into another night on the Gulf, with Carrabelle awaiting us, on the other side of the sunrise.

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Close Encounters of the Gulf Kind

May 4-5, 2014:

With 4-6 foot seas, a steady 17-20 knots of wind pushing us in, and our bow doing a nice ‘figure eight‘ motion in and around the Venice inlet, we made our way in.  The Captain did a phenomenal job holding a steady line and making his way between the two rocky jetties on either side.  No small feat considering the boat that had traversed before us, ended up like this.

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Shaken and stirred, and most definitely ON THE ROCKS!  That is such a terrible sight to see.  I kept imagining the keel digging in between rocks with each passing swell, with paint and flecks of fiberglass grinding off.  Uhhhh …  Still makes me cringe just thinking about it.  Thankfully, we passed through the inlet unscathed and got our boat safely docked back in the slip at Venice.  While we had been excited to head out that day and we would have loved to have made the passage to Clearwater that night instead of coming back to Venice, the rough sea state and boat beating on the rocks of the inlet made us incredibly thankful to have our boat safe and secure.  One more day wasn’t really too much to give up, particularly when it meant the difference between a rough and potentially treacherous passage across the Gulf as opposed to a predicted smooth one.  Schedules are a sailor’s worst enemy.  So, having docked our boat once more and resigned to staying another night, we did what any good mariners would do, and went to see what the status was with the boat on the rocks!  And, I have to tell you … it was not pretty.

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While I’m sure the keel was stuck, the hull on the side was also in contact with the rocks, beating against them with each mild wake and letting out a gut-wrenching, nails-on-the-chalkboard kind of metallic groan when it did.

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There was a pretty good group gathered on the shore watching this poor sailor, but there was little that could be done.  Nobody seemed to know much and the guess was that he lost his steering or engine power somehow as he was coming in.  Of all the luck …   But, it seemed the worst of it wasn’t over for this poor bloke, because soon Sheriff Willingham showed up!

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Or, at least that’s what I assume his name was.  He looked like a Willingham.  He seemed to keep asking the pitiful Captain for his “papers” – for towing I assume, but perhaps registration, insurance, who knows?  And, everyone was just gathered around staring at his guy.  I felt so bad, I stood there and not only stared, but filmed the whole thing too!

See, once again, I almost could have gotten myself arrested trying to capture this tale!  Such a dangerous sport, this blogging!

It was a beautiful afternoon in Venice, though, with lots of entertainment at the jetty.

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We even got to see one of those weird pre-evolution snail-like things I’ve been going on and on about up close and personal!  A nice, young bloke (a.k.a, your average pre-teen American redneck boy) fished one out of the water in his baseball cap and showed it to the crowd.

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It was a little shy at first (all closed up),

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until another nice young dame (a.k.a. your average pre-teen American redneck gal) fished it right out of his hat and started rolling it around in her hands telling the crowd — “It’s a conch.  I’ve seen ’em before.”

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Mmmhhh-Hmmmm … a conch without its shell.  That little snail thought so highly of her characterization that he peed purple all over hands.

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Nice.  Then she proceeded to shriek and scream and sling it all over the crowd, including Phillip and his perfectly white shirt.  Even nicer.

In all, it was a great “show” at the Venice jetty that afternoon.  After taking in the show, Phillip and I finally sauntered back to our boat and were sipping cocktails in the cockpit when we saw the tow boat coming to get the struggling sailboat off of the rocks.

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I’m sure it was a bad day for that fella, but, Phillip and I both acknowledged as we watched him pass by, that it’s happened to others before him and it will happen to others after.  While we certainly hope it never happens to us, seeing it in person was a good reminder that it is entirely possible.  Something can always go wrong with the boat, and it’s just as likely to happen when you’re coming in to a rocky inlet as when you’re in the middle of the Gulf, a safe distance from any rocks, docks or other detrimental obstacles for the boat.  It is totally possible that could have been us out there on the rocks.  Thankfully it wasn’t, and hopefully it never will be (knock on wood), but it was nice to see he was still afloat, being safely towed to a dock and that, aside from a costly bottom job repair, he and the boat were both going to survive it.  At the very least, he could be thankful for that and admire the gorgeous sunset that was falling over the inlet.

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Phillip and I enjoyed another dinner at the Crow’s Nest Tavern that night and talked of the next day’s passage.  Because of our failed start that day and our extra night in Venice, we were technically one day behind schedule (if we even wanted to admit we had such a thing on this trip).  So, I decided to pitch another idea …

Instead of making the passage tomorrow to Clearwater to stay the night and then make the big jump across the Gulf to Carrabelle,

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what if we left out of Venice tomorrow and headed straight for Carrabelle?

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“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Phillip said.

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It was certainly worth a thought.  The weather prediction was great.  The seas were supposed to lay down.  We were expecting a nice 10 knot breeze out of the North or Northwest.  So, rather than the approximate 16-18 hour trip we were planning to Clearwater, why not try to make the approximate 40-hour trip all the way to Carrabelle.  Go ahead and make the big leap?  Why not?  We had made about a 44-hour trip from Pensacola to Port St. Joe our first passage out of the gate on this trip and, while that was tiring, it was certainly doable.  So … we decided to go for it.  It was Carrabelle or bust!

May 5, 2014:

The next morning, we readied the boat (again), checked the fluids and headed out around 10:00 a.m.

See ya!

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The seas were in much better shape this time.  Whew!  Unfortunately, the wind was right on our nose, so we had to motor quite a bit throughout the day, but we spent a beautiful day out in the Gulf.  Man, what a difference a day makes.

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We even had a whole fleet of fun little mammals come and visit us at the bow!!!  They swam with us for about 10 minutes, flipping and flicking and rolling around up there.  It’s true!  That’s no …

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I snapped a whole roll of them!  (And, by roll, I mean approximately 34 iPhone pics – give or take).  Notice the occasional thumbs and fingers in the shot.  Very artistic …

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But, it was rocking and rolling and if there’s one thing I do NOT want to drop while up at the bow … it’s my phone.  So, grip it or lose it.  I did manage to get some fun footage though:

And, lookie there!  A real … 

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With the wind on our nose, we had to motor most of the morning.  Around mid-afternoon, we decided to try and do some sailing, if at the very least, to give the engine a break.  The tacks we had to make were so wide, though, that we were sure we were losing ground.  We did some research and calculations of our velocity made good (VMG) to try and determine what speed we were actually making along our rhumb line.  A little sailing knowledge for you:

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So, let’s say (just to make it easy), your heading is 90 degrees, dead east, but the wind is coming directly on your nose, so to make way along your heading, you have to tack back and forth into the wind.  Let’s assume, when you tack, the highest point at which you can hold the wind is 50 degrees off your course, either 40 degrees ENE or 140 degrees SSE.

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VMG is the speed you’re actually traveling along your rhumb line (90 degrees) by tacking back and forth at 40 degrees and 150 degrees.  You can use a VMG chart to determine what speed you are actually making along the 90 degree axis by using the speed you are making along the tack lines (the 40 and 140).

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If you find that the speed you’re making along your rhumb line (using the VMG table) by tacking back and forth is less than the speed you are making just motoring directly into the wind, then it may be best just to continue motoring.  We found this to be true in our case.  We were doing about 4 knots motoring into the wind and on tack (about 50 degrees off), we were only achieving about 3.5 knots, where according to the table we would have to reach 6.2 knots on tack to achieve VMG.  So, we decided to continue motoring, but we did enjoy learning the VMG tables and working the calculations.  I mean – don’t you feel just a little bit smarter now?

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You can thank me later.  It never hurts to learn something new, and one of the great things about sailing is that you always seem to learn something new – every passage, every docking, every trip.  We cranked back up and continued pumping on into the evening.

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We made coffee right around dusk and curled up in the cockpit to enjoy the sunset.

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There she goes!

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There’s something so freeing about watching that bright pink ball sink beneath the horizon.  Sometimes it can give you a little chill because you know you’re about to be faced with darkness, unable to see the horizon and barreling forward into the unknown for hours on end.  But, a big part of that is also exhilarating.  You’re about to forge into the darkness, with no horizon in sight, trudging for hours on end into the great unknown.  It’s equally exciting and spine-tingling.  And, this night was no different.  While we have experienced quite a bit in the middle of the Gulf, we faced something that night that we had not yet seen before.

An eerie glow in the Gulf …

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Was it another ship?  A wayward, bobbing booey?  Some mysterious glowing trajectory from a passing UFO …  ??

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Who knows.  But, it kept inching toward us seemingly oblivious to anything in its path …

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Provisioning for Passage with “Broccoli Crappola”

May 2-4, 2014:

While they were certainly barreling into the slip, it turned out the “Coming in Hot!” boys didn’t really need our help.  About half-way into the slip, the skipper threw it in reverse full throttle and nudged right up to a piling on the starboard side with just the slightest ‘squeak’ and they were in.  It was incredibly impressive.  He handled that 30′ sailboat like it was a Sea Doo.  They offered their thanks and waved us off, and Phillip and I set back to our main mission – DINNER.  It was our second night in Venice, and after hob-knobbing and indulging ourselves the night before in the fine-dining atmosphere on the second floor of the Crow’s Nest Marina restaurant …

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we decided to get back to our roots this time and slum it with the rest of the salty sailors on the bottom floor of the restaurant – the Tavern.  And, what an experience …

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They had this guy there playing live music.  He appeared to have a little Middle-Eastern influence and just the slightest hint of a lisp.  Strange combination, I know, but it gave his vocals this raspy, soulful quality.  And, the guitar he was playing had like six strings on each side – a total of 12 – and he seemed to use every single finger on both hands to pluck each one of them.  He was captivating.  Here – see for yourself:

Good stuff, right?  He was awesome.  And, in between sets, he liked to play trivia with the audience – real old school music history stuff.  Like, who wrote the first version of that song?  What band did he originally play with?  Way beyond my time, but several folks would call out answers and he would rip them a new one if they were wrong – all in good fun.  He was quite entertaining.  But, he didn’t turn out to be the actual entertainment.  I hope you noticed in the video, the guy that was sitting with his back right next to us.  The one the nice waitress had to ask “Sir, could you please scoot your chair forward so we can get by with the food?”  If not – watch it again.  Because, THIS guy was truly entertaining.

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You’ll notice his clapping off-beat at the beginning of the video (when it’s not really a “clapping” kind of song if you know what I mean).  We’d been watching him since we sat down.  A real, attention-seeking fellow, that man, on the verge of belligerence.  First, he tried to hit on a gal sitting next to him (who was with a male companion might I add) and that didn’t pan out.  He then tried to guess one of the trivia questions, which also didn’t pan out.  And, just when he had finally quieted for a moment, the waitress came by and kindly asked him to scoot his chair forward, stirring the nest all over again.  He was offended … to the core.  After she walked by, he threw his hands up in disgust and loudly protested.  “What am I supposed to do, Gary?  Sit like this??” he practically shouted to the guy sitting two feet from him as he scooched his beanpole chest all the way up to the table and hunkered over his food in a dramatic over-exaggeration.  “I mean, what does she expect?”  Wow.  He repeated his scooch and hunker-down show every time the waitress came by and loudly pushed his chair back out in rebellion after she’d passed back by, his arms folded over his chest in a snooty pout.  It was the adult equivalent of a tantrum, and … to our pleasant surprise – wildly entertaining.  Don’t you just love people??

In any event, we thoroughly enjoyed the soulful music, rustic atmosphere and “live entertainment” at the Crow’s Nest Tavern that night.  We ordered up a raw dozen, some rich escargot, a delicious bahn mi sandwich and an insanely-huge piece of Oreo cheesecake.

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De-lish!  Needless to say, we didn’t last long after that meal …

May 3, 2014:

We woke the next morning to another Lion King quality sunrise.  NaaaaaaaasuhWHENya … Okay, I won’t go through it again.  But, it was gorgeous coming up over Bird Island.

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This time it was Phillip’s turn to take the sunrise session and get his African chant on while he paddled the coves and inlets around the marina.

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Paddle

We had been watching the storm in the Gulf, and it appeared the sea state was going to lay down enough to let us head out tomorrow for Clearwater.  So, with a passage on the horizon, we set our sights on provisioning the boat.  We had a good bit of hearty root vegetables on the boat (sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, etc.) that needed eating, so we decided to make a big pot of sweet potato chili.  (It also rained most of the morning, so what better way to pass the time than cook up a big pot of soup!)  We tried this recipe initially before we even got our boat, when we were just cooking out of galley cookbooks for fun – only dreaming of what we would actually make when we were on an actual passage, in our actual BOAT!  And, we first made it on passage when we were sailing the boat back from Punta Gorda, FL where we purchased it in April, 2013.  There we go!

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While the chili was a hit amongst the crew initially, we did receive some complaints later from one disgruntled crew member — the infamous Mitch.  (Let me just say I spared you some of the more disgusting details about our initial crossing) and suffice it to say that the man thoroughly enjoyed the chili going in — not so much coming out.  And, when I was faced with the remnants he had left for me in the head, he boldly blamed the “Broccoli Crappola” we had fed him for dinner …

It was sweet potato chili.

Not a single stalk, leaf or floret of broccoli in it.

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But, to this day, the Captain and I still lovingly call our sweet potato chili “Broccoli Crappola” in memoriam.  Ahhh … Mitch.  You gotta love that man.  Since we had all the necessary ingredients already,

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we went ahead and made a big batch of it for easy re-heat during passage.

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This chili is great because the ingredients for it (basically carrots, sweet potato, onions, black beans, chopped tomatoes) are incredibly hearty and will hold until you’re ready to make it.  It’s easy, cheap, delicious and filling.  What more do you need on a boat?  Recipe here.  And, since we’d made a huge batch, there was plenty for us to have a bowl that day for lunch.

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Did I mention the cheap part?  Venice was certainly burning a hole in our budget …

In the afternoon, we headed over to the marina to do some laundry and clean up and – of all the people – guess who we ran into?  Yep!  The “Coming in Hot!” boys.  As you recall, they were occupying the slip right next to us, so we, of course, as a result of natural marina curiosity, had watched them emerge from their boat around 10:30 that morning, stretch and moan and scratch some things, and head to shore.  We recognized them when we came into the laundry area and struck up a conversation.  And – it’s always fascinating the kind of people you meet when you travel.  So the Captain was in his mid to late thirties, a tech guy, who was on a two-year sabbatical, traveling the world.  He had been to the UK, India, Thailand, you name it.  He met his soon-to-become First Mate, Will, while riding a train in India.  They became fast friends and decided to travel the world together.  Their first plan was to buy a bus and convert it into a hostel but they claimed they “got drunk one night and bought a sailboat instead.”  And, here they were.  In Venice, FL.  Not an ounce of sailing knowledge between them and they were just figuring it out as they went.  Sure explains the “Coming in Hot!” bit and the dilapidated boat.  But, they had an infectious sense of adventure and infinite charisma.  Great, great guys.  We chatted with them for a while and decided to have a drink or three at the tavern while our clothes were spinning.  A quick clean-up and an inspection of the arm confirmed what I already knew – it was still attached and still looked … awesome.  It had graduated from elephantitis to jaundice with a nice yellow hue and still maintained a distinct “squishy” feel throughout.  … Nice.

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They were airing the Kentucky Derby at the Tavern and offering themed drinks (mint juleps and Pim’s cups), Derby swag giveaway and a big prize for the lucky customer who guessed the winning horse.

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It was a fun atmosphere and we had no problem plopping down for some cocktails, calamari, a sensational burger and quesadillas.  Yum!

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With the laundry taken care of, and a big pot of chili ready for passage the next day, we curled up for a quiet movie night on the boat and made a list of the non-perishables (milk, OJ, eggs, creamer and the like) that we would need to pick up in the morning before heading out to Clearwater.  We figured it would be about an 15-18-hour passage (approximately 70 nautical miles assuming an average 4-or-so knot speed), so we planned to leave early in the afternoon in hopes of making it to Clearwater the following morning.  Like I said, we always try to plan to come into pass in the daylight – even if we’ve been through that pass before.  Even familiar passages are more treacherous at night.

May 4, 2014:

Another beautiful sunrise in Venice.  No surprise there.  (No Lion King chants this time – lucky you).

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A brisk morning walk around the docks revealed plenty more of those weird snail-like evolutionary creatures that we had come across in Ft. Myers.

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 I captured some more fascinating footage for you of their signature flap-swim stroke:

You’re welcome.  And, you’ll be glad to know I spared you the Australian-accented nature documentary commentary that Phillip had to endure during the first three filmings: “The snail flaps furiously through the treacherous waters as the sun rises over head … ”  

We decided to get another advantageous use out of the free bike rentals at the marina to make our run to the store.  Venice was a very clean, friendly, accommodating marina, but a little on the pricey side, so we were trying to limit our last Venice adventures to free bike rides and chili bowls.  Another picturesque cruise through downtown Venice, though.  The tree-lined streets are perfect for biking of a leisurely stroll.

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And, there was a Publix right in the heart of downtown – just a quick bike ride from the boat.

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Good thing we had baskets on the front for the groceries!

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Tis me!!

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And, I didn’t crash!!  (this time).  Funny thing was, when we came back to the boat, it seemed we had somehow missed the invite for the party!

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There were boats, dinghies, floaties, redneck yachts and coolers all around our boat!

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Apparently, Saturdays at Snake Island can get pretty wild!  While we would have loved to have hung around with the redneck crew, we had a Gulf passage calling us.  It was around 1:00 pm, and we were hoping to get underway before 2:00pm to ensure a morning entry into Clearwater.

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We packed the boat, checked the weather one more time, and headed out!

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We were expecting 10-15 mph winds out of the NNE, and a 2-4 ft sea state, which would have been a little rough but bearable.  When we made our way out of the inlet, however,

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we were faced with NW winds (the exact direction we were going) of 17-20 mph and swells of 4-5 ft.  It was a very rough sea state.

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Some swells appeared to be about six feet.  The boat would heel back and climb over them and the wave would swallow the horizon behind the boat as we barreled down it.

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We were averaging 0.5 to 1.7 kts – the epitome of beating to windward.  After about three hours of this we had collectively decided we were miserable.  We were barely making way beating into the wind in a sea state that was working against us too.  The forecast was off.  It could improve, but it was anybody’s guess as to when.  If we continued to ride it out, we could end up stuck in miserable conditions for 24 more hours just to make it to Clearwater tomorrow.  We had learned that patience in timing passages makes all the difference.  There was no need for us to rush to Clearwater, particularly not in this horrendous fashion.  We decided to wait 30 minutes or so and if nothing changed to turn back and wait for better conditions.  And, as you can likely guess … nothing changed.  Just thirty more minutes of making 0.7 knots into the wind.  Having covered approximately 6 miles of our estimated 70-mile trip over the course of four hours, we decided to call it.  We hadn’t even made it far enough away from shore to lose sight of it, so turning back wasn’t too much of a stretch.  And, the minute we turned around, it seemed the entire weather system changed.  It’s amazing how forceful and threatening the wind can feel when it’s coming on your nose only to have it turn into a light breeze when it’s coming on your stern.  We now had big, beautiful following seas and were averaging 5.5 knots easy back to shore.  While the six miles out took us four hours to cover, coming back only took an hour and a half.  But, the seas were still kicked up, 4-5 foot swells had the boat rocking and rolling toward the inlet.  And, you remember what I said about the inlet at Venice — very narrow:

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And, very rocky:

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The bow of the boat was swaying and rolling in an elegant motion, but only briefing passing at times the mark for the entry of the inlet.  Imagine finding a sight for your target in the scope of your rifle, then trying to hit it while making a figure 8 with the barrel of your gun. Phillip and I both tensed when we realized how tricky it was going to be to steer the boat in between those two severely rocky shoals.  The only good news was the closer we got, the wider the inlet seemed, but that also meant we were closer.  Closer to the rocks and the jetty and the waves crashing on shore.  And, just as we were nearing the entry, we saw another sailboat pitching and bouncing on the rocky shore.  We weren’t sure at first if it was on the rocky shoal or just extremely close, but as we neared the inlet, we could tell.  The boat had run hard aground on the rocks, the hull smashing into them again with every incoming wave.

“As if I need a visual reminder of what could happen if we don’t get this right,” Phillip said in solace, shaking his head and staring ahead, trying to keep the “figure 8” motion of our bow within the realms of the rocky inlet.

The Dry Tortugas!

April 26, 2014:

That’s right, the westernmost point of the Florida Keys, the furthest island out, the Dry Tortugas!  This was the day!  When we set off some three weeks prior from Pensacola on this maiden voyage to the Keys, we had originally planned to sail to the Dry Tortugas.  We really wanted to make it all the way there via the s/v Plaintiff’s Rest, but we knew when we set off that it might not happen.  The Dry Tortugas are another 70 miles west of Key West, so about another 15-20 hour passage there, depending on the sea-state and weather, and then another 15-20 hours back.  So, to spend a few days anchored out at the Dry Tortugas would add another 5-6 days to our already-extended trip.  All evidence to the contrary (and until we hit it big with the Powerball), we do still have day jobs we had to get back to.  But, we weren’t going to let that stop us from seeing one of the most pristine islands in the states.  We booked a ferry and set off:

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And, you may laugh at this, but I have to say, riding on that ferry kind of blew my mind.  We had just traveled some 550 miles at the average speed of 4.5 knots.  If we “broke six” on the sailboat, we were making some real time.  And, now, here we were on this big ass ferry doing 29 knots.  We were flying!

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I looked like a goofy dog hanging his head out the back window as we ripped across the Gulf.

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“Jeepers, Captain!  Look at us go!”

I couldn’t stop staring over the side of the boat!

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It really was a strange sensation, though, to be moving SO fast across the water when we had been harnessing the power of the wind for most of our voyage, slowly cruising across the Gulf, picking our way along the coast to avoid the shoals and crab pods.  Oh, and the crab pods!  I had been so trained while we were sailing to keep a squinted eye out along the horizon for them, that the first one I saw as we were rushing through the water on the ferry, I nudged Phillip and pointed it out.  But, before I could get out the words, “Look, Phillip a crab … “   zwhoop!  There it went.  Sucked right up under the ferry.  Dodge crab pods?  Please.  These people had places to go!  It was crazy to see the ferry just mow a path right through them when we had taken such care all through the Gulf to gingerly pick our way around them.  Big.  Fast.  Motorboats.  That certainly was new to us.

But, cruising on the ferry was pretty nice.  We left around 8:00 a.m., and they had a little breakfast buffet spread out for us.  The typical kind of hotel continental breakfast food (bagels, cream cheese, toast, bright yellow fluff eggs) but it was air-conditioned inside the galley and there were plenty of places to curl up with a book and just relax.  I finished The Paris Wife, which we had picked up at the book swap in Port St. Joe.  It was somewhat of a tragic, but touching read.  Incredibly creative historical fiction viewpoint through the eyes of Hemingway’s first wife.  Highly recommend it.  And, Phillip dug into In Our Time – the bikini sprint birthday book.  We enjoyed sipping our coffee and reading while we cruised along.  Around mid-morning, we started to spot some islands on the horizon.

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And, then she started to come into view.

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Fort Jefferson.

I couldn’t believe the color of the water around her–so bright it was almost electric.  This piercing, neon green.  These photos can’t even begin to capture it.  It’s hard to take your eyes off of it, it’s so striking.

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Just as we were pulling in, a sea plane landed.

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And, then I saw the sign:

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Ha!  What a laugh.  It should just say:    <—  Poor Folk       Millionaires —>

When the ferry docked, we were free to explore.  Both Phillip and I were a little hesitant when we first booked the ferry because we really would have liked to have come to this beautiful island on our own sailboat and explored at our leisure.  Having to follow the rest of the fanny-pack clad tourists along, brochure in hand, being lead every step of the way by a verbose tour guide, is not how we wanted to experience this pristine landscape.  But, I will say, the folks running this ferry tour did a great job of allowing us the freedom and flexibility to experience the island on our own terms.  The ferry docked around 11:00 a.m. and a lunch spread was laid out.  You were then given the choice to either follow the formal tour guide, brochure in hand, and get a detailed history of the fort or you could explore on your own.  And, you didn’t have to eat lunch on the boat.  (You could if you wanted to, and many did because it was air-conditioned.)  But, you were also free to pack your own sandwiches and snacks up and set up your own picnic style lunch wherever you wanted on the island.  Snorkel gear was available in all sizes.  You could just check it out and bring it back at your leisure.  It was really a great “hands-off” approach to a tour.

Once the ferry docked, we set off for the Fort.

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It reminded me a lot of Fort Pickens back in Pensacola.  Lots of underground artillery bunkers, windows set up with a swivel gun for firing, twisted corridors and barracks for storage.

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We came across some neat finds while we were down there:

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One of the makeshift boats they used to cross from Cuba.

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An old Fort tower, lighthouse-slash-lookout.

We also learned some really interesting history about the Fort while we were poking around.  While I had a sinking suspicion that the name of the island had something to do with turtles (and I envisioned a Sir Francis Drake-like character stumbling upon a sea turtle-infested spit of land), I also know I have a tendency to make these type of silly connections on my own initiative that have nothing to do with reality, so I never spoke of it, but alas it was confirmed!  We learned that Ponce de Leon discovered the islands in 1513 and named them the Tortugas (which does mean turtle in Spanish) because of the hundreds of sea turtles he and his men found along the islands and shoals.  The Dry was added to let other explorers know there were no springs here.  It was a pretty rough environment for voyagers.  After 30 years on Garden Key, and due to an excruciating lack of sufficient supplies and provisions, the U.S. decided to forego the completion of Fort Jefferson, and it remained abandoned until the late 1800’s when it was used as a prison for a brief stint.  I could totally see that.

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The place was pretty barren.  And, there’s not really anywhere you could go assuming you did escape.  It is kind of out there on its own in the middle of the Gulf.

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We made it up to the top wall and found a great view of the entire island.

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We could see out to the anchorage, too, where we would someday be dropping our hook.

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The Captain looked out across the boats, a sigh and a dreamy glaze in his eye.

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“We’re going to be right there,” he’d tell me.  “Right there … ”  And, we will.  I can assure you.  Next time we come to the Dry Tortugas, the Plaintiff’s Rest will be resting her tired hull right there!

But, we were thrilled also to be there by ferry.  No matter how we got there, it was too beautiful not to enjoy.

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The water, again, is what continued to captivate me.  A glowing turquoise.

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Being the rogue travel rebels we are, we decided to pack up a lunch and eat on the wall that forms the moat around the Fort.

“Moat seating for two, please?”

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With a view like that, I don’t think I’ve ever had a ham sandwich that tasted that good.  We were fine dining al fresco!  You could lean over the wall and look down at the water and see all kind of fish and marine activity.

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We saw so much wildlife that day.  Even whales!

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So tame they would just float right by!

We had a great time picnicking on the moat.  We could have sat there all day …  But, you know us.  Not much for sitting.  We like to go, see and do!  So, it was time to see what this crystal green water was all about!

“Lose those clothes, Mate!  It’s time to get in!”

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“Roger that, Cap’n!”

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We snapped up some snorkel gear and set to it.

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I have only snorkeled a handful of times in my life, so I’m positively spoiled now.  Sorry Captain – you created this monster.  Because, the snorkeling there, at the Dry Tortugas, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  Not six inches below the waterline and you could see a whole spectrum of colors and coral and wildlife.

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There were tons of coral heads just teeming with life.  Many of them had these little (I’m struggling to describe it) swirly poof things, kind of like a flower blossom, that stuck out of them and when you swished your hand by them, they would suck back in to the coral.  You wouldn’t even have known they were alive, until you awakened them with a swish of water.  It was the coolest thing.

We snorkeled around the moat wall and then headed out about 100 yards off the western side of the island to the coral heads.  Phillip had a real eye for the wildlife and he pointed out a huge grouper, even a nurse shark.  I know what they say about sharks – don’t bother them and they won’t bother you – but I’ll say I kicked away slowly and steadily, keeping my eye on that guy.  This is one Mate who had no desire to be shark bait that day.  We snorkeled around for an hour or so and then kicked back on the beach to bask in the sun.

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After a short rest, we decided to walk along the moat wall around to the south side of the island to snorkel around the pilings.  The walk alone was beautiful enough,

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but, I got really excited when I saw the pilings.

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Can you imagine the marine life we’re going to find in there?  Let me tell you, you can’t.  You just have to see it.  We dove in, and it felt like we were swimming in a dream.  Clouds of fish would swirl around you until you poked your finger out and swished them apart like a puff of air.  There were hundreds, thousands of them, swimming together and swirling around like some chained piece of jewelry.  It was mesmerizing.

So much so I forgot I was even human.  Legs?  What legs?  I don’t have appendages, I’m a fish!  The sting of it surprised me when it struck and I snorkeled around for a bit in denial.  Throbbing leg?  What throbbing leg?  There are fish to be seen and poked!  But Phillip rightly pulled me out when a light, murky cloud started to form around me.  I did mention the shark, right?

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Break out the old first aid kit …   First Mate done got into something again!

You’za Fine Sailing Vessel, Won’t You BACK That Thing Up!

April 23, 2014:

Well, now you are familiar with our night shifts, and my goggle-wearing, Cookie Monster, dance party antics up in the cockpit in the middle of the night.  (But, really, does such behavior from me in any way surprise you?)

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She’s just a tad cray … 

But, thankfully, our night passage from Ft. Myers Beach with Johnny to the Keys was our calmest yet.  No beating our way across the Gulf, no fighting for every inch of ground, no pulling out and making a risky night entrance into a difficult pass.  Thankfully, none of that!  It was a perfect night.  The wind held all evening and we were on an easy broad reach, averaging six knots, until daybreak.  The stars that night were mesmerizing.  There really was no need for dancing or snacking.  You could just sit and look out on the twinkling sky and think all night long – in complete contentment.  It was such a rewarding, peaceful passage, it almost felt unfair to have it followed by a breathtaking sunrise.

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We were definitely in our element that morning, watching the sun creep up over every inch of the boat.

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Johnny was behind us – bringing up the rear!

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We sailed until around 7:00 a.m. when the wind finally died out and we had to crank up.  But she cranked just fine and was running like Rocky Balboa that morning.

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We were so proud of that engine!

That boat was cruising right along.  And, so were the dolphins!  We had a pack of them racing each other up at the bow as we were making our way in.

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I did attempt to take some fun footage, but I believe there was a bit of operator error.  It’s just a little blurry, and just a little upside down.  No big deal.  For your viewing pleasure – the dolphins are definitely worth it:

Johnny lead the way as we motored into the channel.

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It was about an hour and a half through the channel in to Key West Bight.

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There she is!  The Bight!

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We were going to be staying at the A&B Marina.

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The only problem with the A&B Marina was that you had to back in.

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See?  All of the boats are backed in.  It was a “stern-to” configuration.  There are no finger docks between the boats, nothing to space them apart other than the tie-up poles.  The boats are literally about two feet apart.  It was definitely going to be tight!

While the stern-to docking definitely has its perks (easy boarding and loading of supplies via the cockpit, easy access to power, easy leaving), it was definitely not going to be so easy coming.  We were going to have to make a backwards entry!  Yipes!

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The A&B Marina even had a whole section on their website devoted to the stern-to approach and docking, complete with a diagram:

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and video:

This was serious business.  Phillip dropped this little nugget on me somewhere between Ft. Myers and Key West and, I have to say, I was a little uneasy about it.  With my history of docking debacles, I get a little apprehensive when we’re about to attempt a bit of a hairy one (okay, attempt one at all).  But, I mean, I feel like I try really hard.  I jump around a lot and move real fast and squeal.  Like a …

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But somehow it doesn’t qualify as very helpful for the whole docking process.  

In all seriousness, though, I am getting better.  But, it doesn’t mean my heart’s not racing the entire time (or that I’m not jumping a little and squealing – I still do that).  This time, though, I was determined.  I was going to nail it!  I was going to lasso those poles while Phillip backed her in.  No problem.  I grew up country remember?

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I can lasso anything!

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Yee-haw!

Unfortunately, despite the similarity in the name, I certainly wasn’t clad in fringe and leather, and didn’t look quite so badass in my lasso attempts.  Let’s just say I did try.  Very hard.  But those poles are like 50 feet out!  I’m not kidding.  Every slip at A&B is set up for an 80-foot yacht, if not bigger.  We seriously had to tie two dock lines together to make a springer that would reach those poles!  But, the Captain did an incredible job of backing her in.  It was his first time to do that, and I was able to hold on to the guide ropes and catch a pole later so that we could get her nice and secure.

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There she is!  The ole’ Rest, resting her tired lines at Key West!  What a treat!  We had made it all the way down there.  And she was easily the smallest boat in the marina, but she had, by far, the biggest heart!  She wasn’t shy at all.  It seemed she kicked back and inched her mast up just a little higher to fit in with the Big Dogs.  We were so proud of her!  We couldn’t wait to get out and explore — well, shower first, we HAD been at sea sailing, fishing, and what-not for a day and a half — but after that … we were going to take the Key by storm!

Back at Sea! Me, Phillip and the Mackerel Makes Three!

Yep, a mackerel!  Which we originally thought was a wahoo, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Back it up.  Rewind.  Bzzzwwwhooop.

April 22, 2014:

We woke to a beautiful sunrise on our last morning in Ft. Myers Beach.  While we love being on anchor (or on the ball, or at a marina, or however we find ourselves stopped and secure for the time being), what we really love is sailing.  Getting that boat going!  She loves it too.  It’s what she was built for.  We brewed our coffee, filled our mugs and tossed our line off of the ball.  We were going to do some sailing today kids!

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See how we smile?  Like Donna Summers at a disco!  Just doing what we love!

We expected about a 30-hour passage to Key West.  We left Ft. Myers Beach around 8:00 a.m., and we expected to arrive in Key West around mid- to late-morning the following day.  While there is a mooring field near Key West, the Captain had booked us a few nights at the A&B Marina in Key West Bight.  He figured since it was our first time there by boat, and the expected highlight of the trip, might as well splurge a little, huh?  Go big or go home!  Isn’t he great?  He called the marina that morning to confirm our reservation and learned then that we were going to have to back in to our boat slip.  *Gulp*  I’ll save that nugget of a story for another day!

For the time being, we were thrilled to find that the motor cranked that morning on the first turn, using the engine battery.  After the issues we’d had the night before with the dead starting battery and the engine overheating, we were incredibly pleased to see everything charged and running so well.  After we got to thinking about the overheating a bit, we figured it might have been one of those freaky amoeba-like snails we’d seen swimming around in Ft. Myers Beach.  Have you guys ever seen these?

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They’re hard to capture on film but I kept trying.  They look like some strange slimy Darwinian organism that hasn’t quite evolved yet.  I imagine it’s what a conch looks like once it’s spilled out of its shell, and they swim by flapping their wing-like … things.

Some riveting “flapping footage” for you:

Some were tan and spotted, others black and splotchy.   They were just so weird.  Phillip first spotted them when he spent a solid three hours changing the oil of outboard on the dinghy.  You remember the day the car wouldn’t start

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Yeah – he got up close and personal with the water that morning and said he saw like fifteen of them swim, or flap, by – whatever it is they do.  With so many of them in the water, we started to think perhaps one of them weird snail things got sucked up against our raw water intake through-hole the night before, causing it to clog and the engine to overheat.  It was totally possible, likely probable.  I have to say I derived a small bit of pleasure imagining the little snail turd, panic-stricken, stuck up against our hull, unable to flap away.  Serves him right trying to screw with our boat!

But, we watched the engine temp closely that morning and found she was holding just fine, so whatever had happened, we figured it was a fluke and counted our lucky stars.  We made our way out of the mooring field and headed out to sea!  (Or the Gulf … same thing … to me, anyway.  Whenever we head out to go sailing, anywhere, we go to the SEA!!)

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It was nice this time to have a boat buddy along for the passage – our friend Johnny Walker and his son, Jeremy, on Johnny’s 38′ Morgan, s/v Windwalker.  They were making the passage as well from Ft. Myers Beach to Key West.

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There’s the Walker – coming under the Matanza’s Bridge!

It was a gorgeous morning.  Blue waters, a bright sky and big billowing sails.

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Yeah … billowing.  Unfortunately, the wind was a little lackluster that morning, so we had to motor for a few hours, but we were thankful to see the engine purring right along, running just fine.  It was right around noon, though, that the wind kicked in, and we found ourselves on a perfect beam reach for the afternoon.

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There’s Johnny up ahead!

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All you could see was beautiful blue water to the edge of every horizon.

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It felt incredible to be back out in the Gulf!  Otto (our auto-pilot) was holding great, we were making good time and the sea state was perfect.  We tossed out our fishing line a little after noon and kicked back to enjoy the sail.  Around 2:00 p.m. Phillip decided to cook up our “big meal” for the day – broccoli and beef stir-fry – as we figured if you’re going to eat a big meal and get sleepy, better to do it during daylight hours so we would be refreshed and ready to hold our respective shifts that night.

But, of course, right when we decide to cook something we brought, we find food from the sea!  (See, again with SEA!).  We had a fish on the line!!  Who knows how long he’d been on there.  The stretchy band we used as our “indicator” had broke clean off and the line had been taut for, likely, quite some time.  Phillip was occupied with lunch below so I started to reel him in.

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Yes, it took that long …

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But we finally got him up to the boat, and MAN, what a beast!

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It took a team effort to get him hauled in to the cockpit, but we got him in there.  We bagged him up mafia style, but I swear he kept trying to eat his way out and nab Phillip’s toes!  Chomp, chomp!

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He had some wicked teeth!

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That’s actually what helped us identify him.  We looked through the fisherman’s guide to try and find some identifying characteristics to determine what he was.

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The spotting on his back and body looked kind of like a wahoo, but his teeth and upper dorsal fin gave him away.

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We had caught ourselves a king mackerel!

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A thirty-seven incher, too!

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How’s that for royalty!?  But, then the fun began … Guess whose job it is to clean the fish we catch on the boat.  Go on.  Guess!  That’s right … it’s the First Mate’s.  I busted out my fileting tools and set to it.

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While the Captain …

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Well, he was hungry.  And, to be fair, he had cooked us up an awesome lunch.

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One of our go-tos on the boat.  Broccoli and beef stir-fry.  Recipe HERE.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure how he could find the scene in the cockpit very appetizing …

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It was a bloody mess.  (No British accent intended).

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But, it seemed I was getting better at it.  I carved off some pretty sweet looking filets.

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Trying hard to get every last morsel of meat off.

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If I had to guess, I’d say we carved off about 9 one-pound filets total.  Quite a bit of fish.

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Yum!

But, also quite a bit of work.  From the time of the catch-and-bag, then the gut-and-clean to the dreaded wash-and-scrub of the cockpit, the whole fish debacle turned into about a three-hour chore.  But, I mean … what else are we doing, right?  It seemed our buddies on the Windwalker smelled the blood, sweat and toil and they ventured over to have a look at our spoils.

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That Morgan sure looked great glistening in the afternoon sun.

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And I sure wish we could share the pictures they took of us while we were underway, but let’s just say I don’t have them yet … (Jeremy – you know who you are, and what you have not yet done!).

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In all honesty, though, it was a great day sail.  A lot of fun with the big fish catch and nice to have boat buddies sailing along beside us.  After the big meal and the boat chores were done, we settled in for a nice evening of leisurely reading as the sun dropped down in the sky.

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We were still on a perfect heading easing into the night.  Our bellies were full.  Our hands were finally clean (albeit still tainted just a bit with that distinct fishy smell).  But our hearts were content.  We were really out there.  Sailing across the Gulf.

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When the sun rose again, we would finally be there — the Florida Keys!

Of Biblical Proportions …

April 17, 2014 – Keys Log, Day 15:

It was around 4:30 in the morning.  Phillip had been holding the helm hour upon hour as we beat our way through the Gulf.  It was shocking to see the wind hold so steady.  We glared at the instruments like you would your mom telling your prom date how cute it was when you used to run around the neighborhood naked.  Please say something different.  Please!  But, no.  The wind instrument registered 25+ for hours, upon hours, upon hours.  Sometimes, it would fall down to the low twenties, or even 19 (oooh!), and we would start to get excited.  We’ll take 19.  But then it would crank right back up to the upper 20’s again and hold steady for hours, upon hours, upon hours.  It was a very rough night.  I think I might have fallen asleep for two minutes – twice – out of sheer exhaustion, but then a loud crack on a wave and my head would bang against the companionway and I was up again.  Phillip never shut his eyes.  Not once.  All night long he held that wheel.

After battling these conditions for 4-5 hours, we had decided a little after midnight to pull out of the Gulf and take cover in Charlotte Harbor.  It was clear the wind was not going to let up.  We had wanted to make it from Tampa Bay to Ft. Myers in roughly 24 hours to beat the “numerous thunderstorms” that were set to come in later that afternoon, but with the horrendous night we were having, it just wasn’t looking feasible.  And, we had both been up for about 20 hours straight at that point.  We were beat.

But, just when you think things are going to get a little easier, in sailing it seems that’s just about the time they get a little harder – always pushing you to your limits.  Here we were, 4:30 a.m., and we were coming into a new harbor at night, in 3-4 waves and 25+ mph winds.  We had made our way out of Charlotte Harbor one time before, during the Gulf Crossing when we brought the boat back from Punta Gorda.

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Man, look at us.  There’s Mitch.  “Hey Mitch!”  And, my God, we still have the dinghy!  That seems like forever ago … 

But, when we made our way through Charlotte Harbor that time, it was in broad daylight and much calmer conditions.  We certainly wouldn’t call this a pass we were truly “familiar with,” and we were coming in at night.

Phillip gave me the wheel (for the first time since 9:00 p.m.) so he could check the charts to make sure there weren’t any shoals or other hazards.

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It seems there are always hazards.  I guess we just prefer to call them “adventures.”  There were a couple of areas where we had to go outside of the markers to avoid the shoals, but I’m thrilled to say we made our way safely into Charlotte Harbor, at night, and left the tumultuous waters of the Gulf behind us.  We pulled into the Pass just as the sun was coming up.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so thankful to see warm rays of sun on Phillip’s face.  The Captain really stepped up that night and brought us in safe. We were both so grateful.  The sun was out, the horizon was visible and we were intact – me, Phillip, the boat and everything on it.  We had made it through that harrowing night.

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And, we could see land on the horizon.  Yippeee!

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