Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Trip North

I'm leaving tomorrow to fly up to Albany for John Undrill's retirement party. I'll get to visit my son and his family in Rome, NY and on Saturday Jennifer is coming down from Vermont to see me. We'll also visit my sister Marilyn.

Sorry, dear blog readers, I'm not going to take my computer with me. Probably no new blogs until next week.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Anchor Track

The other night we had a little excitement. A cold front passed through arount 2100. Libby and I were on the forward deck watching a movie on the laptop when thunder and lightning started suddenly. We scrambled to go below as a very fast moving wall cloud approached.

In the next half hour or so we got blown around pretty good. You can see on the picture from our GPS. The purple line on the GPS is the locus (track, bread crumb trail) of our motions during the storm. The locus is a circle with a radius of 100 feet. The center is where our main anchor sits. We have 80 feet of chain out. Why is the radius 100 feet rather than 80 feet? That's an exercise for the reader.

The little anchor symbol is the reference point for our anchor dragging alarm. In theory, it should be at the center of the circle and the alarm should go off if we move more than 100 feet or so from the center. In practice it's hard to get the alarm centered correctly and I allow 300 feet before alarming. Another exercise for the reader. Why 300 feet rather than 100 or 150?

We also have a second anchor out. Since we went around in circles, the two anchor rodes are now twisted around each other.

Another boat reported seeing two waterspouts over the harbor as the wall cloud passes. Wow! That's scary.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


So the sea is salty. So what? Everyone knows that. I knew that too but until living on a small boat at sea I never appreciated the pervasiveness of the salt and how it affects one's life.

Upon return from Yucatan, Tarwathie's topsides were encrusted with salt. There must be nearly a kilo of salt crystals clinging to the fiberglass.

The canvas is encrusted with salt.

The portholes and hatch covers are barely transparent, being covered by a white film of salt.

Moving parts with tight tolerances jamb with salt. The button that controls engagement of the transmission is stuck. The burner knobs on the propane stove are stuck. Those knobs turn shafts that pass through bushings. The salt must crystalize in the small space between the shaft and the bushing. Imagine our West Charlton fire trucks if we tried to use them with salt water. In a short time every valve, every control lever would be firmly stuck. The design would have to be much different. I wonder how the design of fire boat equipment and controls differs from fresh water equipment.

Our clothes are saturated with salt. Some of them got soaked in salt water, but even the clothes still in the closets and the drawers somehow pick up salt from the air. Since salt is hydrophilic, wearing salt saturated clothes makes one feel damp all the time. The sale absorbs moisture from the air. The cruising books warned us about that but it is still hard to comprehend. One book suggests washing clothes in salt water then hanging them up high like a flag to dry in a stiff wind. The flapping in the wind is supposed to shake out the salt crystals from the fabric.

I better appreciate the fate of seamen, especially those from the 19th century and earlier. With their rough canvas clothes and all that salt it must have been truly uncomfortable.

All the above applied until last night. Last night we had the first rain we've seen since mid December. It was a good soaking and it washed away all the exterior salt. Fresh water is very welcome. Today however, Libby wiped her finger on the interior wood paneling and came away with, you guessed it, salt crystals.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Net

Here is a story that the West Charlton firemen would like to tell about me at the firemen's annual banquet.

We approached the northern shore of Yucatan about 0700 after a very hard 36 hours at sea battling the wind and the currents. We came in at the nearest place on the coast that it appeared that we could approach the shore without fear of hitting offshore reefs or shoals. That turned out to be 60 miles past the northeast corner of Yucatan.

According to my maps there is nothing there. The north shore of Yucatan is essentially unpopulated for 500 miles. I wasn't expecting to encounter anything or anybody.

I decided to anchor in 15 feet of water. That would leave us about three miles out. As we approached 20 feet of depth I breathed a sigh of relief. Soon I would be able to sleep. I was slouched low in my seat to leward on the port side. That made the whole starboard side a blind spot.

I saw a styrofoam buoy in the water to port. It had a flag waving from the top. "Duh, what could that be?" I thought. My course took me close to the buoy and soon I was worried about underwater obstacles. I stood up to see more clearly. To my amazement when I stood I could see a fisherman in a small boat scrambling to pull up a fishing net and to not be run over by Tarwathie. I missed him by only 6 feet. As I looked back I could see the net draped over his boat and over the propeller of his raised outboard motor. He was yelling at me and shaking his fist.

A few minutes later we were in 15 feet of water and anchored. I could see the fisherman speeding directly toward me. Uh Oh, I thought. He'll be mad.

Sure enough he was mad. The man had a very weathered but kind face. He was angry but he didn't raise his voice. My tongue lashing was blunted by the fact that I couldn't understand what he said. I had only a little Spanish from high school. I only know a few dozen words. "Dos cervezas por favor," is an easy phrase for Americans but it wasn't very helpful in this situation. One word I did know was dinero so I said dinero? and he shook his head yes.

Now here is the part where I must admit to being totally inept at haggling. I gave him a $100 bill. The fishermen set off on another tirade. I didn't understand his words, but I eventually understood his meaning. "Only $100 for all of this net? Not enough." I tried to negotiate with him by my Spanish was too poor. I went below and fetch a paper and pencil, hoping to get him to write down what he wanted. He refused, but he did slow down enough for me to catch two key words - dos cien. Ouch! He wanted $200. I thought that was too much but I was too tired and feeling too disadvantaged to argue. Libby managed to scrape up another $100 in small bills. I paid the man and he was satisfied.

Before casting off, the fisherman looked me in the eye and gestured. He pointed to his left eye and then to his right eye. The meaning was plain as day -- "Next time keep a sharp eye out for where you're going." Si, I answered, si.

Did I get taken? I don't know for a fact how much damage I caused, if any at all. I don't know how much of his time it would take to repair the net. I wonder if I had offered $20 initially if I could have gotten away with paying less. All I know is that I was in the wrong, and that the fisherman eventually left satisfied and that with no more ado I was able to go below and get some sleep. Was I a fool? I don't know. What would you have done?

Our Life at Sea

Many famous authors can give you wonderful accounts of life at sea. One of my favorite is the classic, "Two Years Before the Mast." This blog however tells about how Libby and I experienced it.

Several times before, I wrote about exhaustion from lack of sleep. This time we were out long enough to adapt our sleep to what seemed to be a sustainable schedule. The secret was that Libby is less tolerant than Dick of not having an uninterrupted block of sleep at night. Here's our watch schedule.



After a few days at sea I felt lonely. I realized that our two person schedule didn't allow for much togetherness. Each of us was either on watch or eating or trying to sleep. Libby and I barely got to say hello to each other as part of the situation briefing when changing watch. In retrospect I also understand that the watch schedule didn't allow me time to think through command decisions. There were two or three things I might have done differently en route that would have gotten us to Isla Mujeres or to Belize despite the weather. The point is that to make good decisions requires some time to focus on the problem and to investigate alternatives. The two person schedule doesn't leave time for that.

What can one do about the two person problem? What do single handed sailors do? One solution is to not keep watch. The boat can steer itself and the crew can stay below decks. I reject that as irresponsible in any part of the world where we may meet ship traffic. Twice on this voyage we had to alter course or speed to avoid coming dangerously close to a ship. The ships will gladly run us over. It is up to us to keep out of their way.

The other solution is to have more than two people. Libby and I talked before about getting a third crew member for long passages. Our recent experience confirms the wisdom of that. On the other hand we're reluctant to take the risk with a stranger. If we don't get along with the third person it could be a terrible experience. We're also reluctant to commit ourselves to dates and places far enough in advance to arrange for crew. We'll have to overcome our reluctance in the future; that third person is needed.

To understand our life at sea it is essential to know that things are totally different when the wind is abeam or astern than when it is forward. With a following wind and following seas boat motion is gentle and quiet. The crew can relax, and take time to cook meals or to read a book. That is why 90% of long ocean passages are planned to take routes with following winds 90% of the time.

Sailing into the wind and into the waves makes everything different. The boat is heeled over 20 to 30 degrees all the time. Boat motion is violent. One needs to hold on tightly and brace oneself every moment, especially down below. At the end of a watch, it felt that every muscle in my body was sore and aching from overuse. Only when lying in a leeward bunk can one relax the muscles. Once, poor Libby didn't hang on and she was thrown across the cabin and landed on the stove. The blow to her kidneys hurt her badly. Luckily there were no major injury.

We often hear other cruisers talking lovingly about their boats. One of the prized qualities of a cruising boat is a dry cockpit. Alas, Tarwathie has many wonderful qualities but not that one. As we sailed into the wind in the Yucatan Channel against 28 knots winds and 7-11 foot waves we were heeled 30 degrees. At that angle of heel, our rail is under the water most of the time. Worse, about every 5th wave comes over the rail and carries a flood of water all the way back to the cockpit where you're sitting. Every 30th wave slaps hard on the windward flank sending a huge shower of spray 20 feet into the air to rain down on anyone above deck. Several times per day the winds change enough so that I had to change headsails. That means going up to the bowsprit to raise, lower or to secure a sail. On the bowsprit I get dunked water up to my waist about once every 30 seconds.

As a result of all that, we were wet most of the time when sailing to windward. I developed a bad salt rash on my backside as a result of sitting too long in saltwater soaked underwear. When sitting on a rocking boat that rubbed the sore part and irritated it even more. Poor Libby changed clothes so often that she ran out of clothes after only 48 hours of windward sailing. Part of the solution is to wear foul weather jackets, pants and boots more often. That protects your clothes from salt water. However, since we don't have the expensive Gore Tex type of gear, our suits don't breath and we get soaked in sweat instead. Don't think cold and wet, we were warm and wet.

We also experienced some leaks, although not so bad as when we sailed near Cape Fear. The leaking water ruined all of our supply of pasta. Horrors, not the pasta! This week in Marathon, I'm recaulking all the stanchion bolts. I believe that's where water comes in when the rail is held underwater.

A small disaster was caused by storing oatmeal on the shelf in a cardboard container. In the rough weather the glass bottles and jars on the shelf were shaken together with the cardboard one and they battered the cardboard container out of shape until the cover came off. When I opened the shelf door I saw everything inside covered in wet oatmeal. We postponed cleaning up the mess several days until things got more gentle, but by that time the oatmeal had mildewed, making the clean-up even tougher. Food on the boat needs to be stored in rugged waterproof containers, and food accidents need to be cleaned up immediately no matter what the weather.

From now on I will appreciate it better when I hear others talking about dry cockpits.

Of course we've yet to experience a true storm while at sea; something with winds of 50 knots or more. In that case, we heave-to the boat and both of us go below decks. The person on watch maintains the lookout for ships using the radar. World cruisers report that they experience storm conditions less than 2% of their time at sea which is 0.4% of their time onboard the boat.

Horrified? Don't be. Just remember that 90% of the words go to describe the heavy weather conditions that we experience only 10% of the time at sea and only 2% of the time living onboard the boat.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Creatures

Libby and I greatly enjoyed the creatures that we saw on our recent voyage. Unfortunately, we don't have pictures or proper names for most of them. I'll try to draw pictures with words.

First was the baggie things. The first time I saw one I thought it was a piece of trash, a transparent plastic bag blown up by a balloon. Soon we came to understand that these things weren't trash, they were creatures.

The biggest and most mature ones had definite structure. They had a spine-like seam along the top, and the bag had pleat-like folds terminating at the spine. The bag was very transparent and very rigid. Air pressure inside must have held it rigid. The spine was translucent blue in color. The creatures' shape was more boat-like than round, and their length was about 12 cm.. At the waterline there was a flat floating surface of what looked like aluminum foil, or a silvered mirror. Clearly this was a solar energy reflector. I bet that the heat reflected by the mirror is what maintained the pressure in the air bag. Younger baggie things were small, perhaps 3 cm in diameter and mostly featureless. They seemed to float on the ocean in little colonies. How they managed to stick together, we have no idea. We tried to catch a baggie creature with our bucket but we never succeeded.

The flying fish were fun to see. They would appear suddenly in groups. They could fly from one wave to the next, or sometimes fly for much longer distances, perhaps 30 to 50 meters. They always seemed to emerge from the water heading into the wind. That suggests that they have some way to tell which way the wind is blowing when still submerged. I think that they appeared in groups because flight was a means of escape from predators. When a real or imagined predador spooked a group of flying fish, they would all fly. On the morning of our second day at sea, we found two flying fish dead on the deck. It appeared that they must have brained themselves by a direct hit on our dinghy. Aside from the size and the quantity of the flying fish, it was just as they were described in Kon Tiki.

There were almost always sea birds around. At first I wondered how they could fly so far from land without being able to land and rest. Then I realized that they could just land on the water and rest whenever they wanted to. Once I saw a gaggle of three ducks sitting on the water together watching me go by. Another time Libby said that a bird of prey briefly landed on our mast but it soon left.

Once I saw a big orange thing floating. When we got close I could see that is was a turtle. I could see his head and feet. He was about 3 feet in diameter. "Hey Lib!," I yelled, "Come see this." But alas, my shout spooked the turtle and he disappeared immediately. A second time, on the way home I saw another orange turtle. I wondered how long it took him to swim from Mexico to Florida.

Clumps of orange seaweed float everywhere. I didn't pay much attention to them, but once, when becalmed, Libby took a close look at one. She saw a tiny crab swim away from the seaweed, grab a morsel to eat, then quickly swim back to the seaweed. Aha! Crabs typically don't flow or swim very much. They live on the bottom. But out here the bottom was 11,000 feet below us, so the crab couldn't survive that way. A crab living as a symbiont on a clump of seaweek seemed like a perfectly good survival strategy. I would guess that 90% of them must die when they swim away one time too many and fail to make it back to the seaweed. Life is tough.

Groupers. I wrote before in the blog that three big groupers liked lounged in the shadow of our boat when we sat at anchor in Dry Tortugas. The biggest of those must have weighed 400 pounds. I just saw in the market today that grouper meat was selling for $11.99 per pound. Wow. that is food for thought.

On the day we were becalmed, and we were motoring ahead. We saw a region ahead about 25 meters in diameter where the surface was roiled white. There was a flock of several hundred birds circling and diving on the disturbed area. See the picture. Curious, we steered for the center of the disturbance. When we got close most of the birds and fish were scared away from us but we could see the fish. They were big, about 50 cm long. They were jumping and flailing on he surface. Clearly, they were panicked.

Then I looked behind us and I saw a very big black body. At first I thought it was a whale because it was so big. Then I saw the fin and realized that it was a shark. I swear that he was at least 7 meters long. My theory is that one or more sharks were feeding on the school of fish and caused them to panic. The birds weren't big enough to grab one of these big fish but they could pick up scraps of flesh and blood floating in the water. Libby and I were glad that we weren't swimming.

Finally, one night while at anchor at Lois Key I went up on deck. I was treated to the sight of a school of fluorescent jellyfish floating by in the tidal current. There were maybe 40 of them. Each was about one foot in diameter. The cluster of 40 surrounded Tarwathie as it drifted past. There was no moon and it was very dark. The neat thing was that these jellyfish could turn on and turn off their light emissions, so that they seemed to wink. When lit, we could see the network of veins or perhaps the network of nerves in their central bodies. The color of the light was bluish green. It made for quite a show.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Voyage to Nowhere and Back

There. Now I bought an inexpensive keyboard to use with my laptop so I can type. I can imagine that all our blog fans are dying for the explanation of our about face voyage. Actually I have a whole backlog of blog articles to write about that trip. However I won't keep you in suspense longer than needed, here's the story.

After the first day of our voyage to Belize, we got a new, entirely changed, weather forecast. Winds in the Yucatan Channel would be strong and southerly. We decided to head for Mexico's Isla Mujeres, near Cancun as an intermediate stop. Well, on the last night of the trip the winds and the waves ganged up with a very strong current flowing from the south. We kept getting blown more and more northward of our course. Eventually it became plain that we couldn't reach Isla Mujeres at all.

The choices were (1) to heave-to and wait for better conditions, (2) to head for an alternate anchorage to wait for conditions to change. Since the forecast was for five days of the same weather, heaving-to was not a good choice.

We could have headed for Cabo San Antonio, an island owned by Cuba. However we didn't have permission to enter Cuba and I didn't have any charts of the island.

I chose instead to press westward. Eventually we came to land on the north shore of Yucatan rather than the east shore. We anchored about three miles off the coast. That was as close as we could approach because of water depth. I ran over a fisherman's net approaching the anchorage.

After some sleep, there we sat wondering what to do next. The forecast was for 4 more days of strong southerly winds, followed by 4 days of strong northerly winds. When strong winds blow in the opposite direction of strong currents, it causes mountainous waves and dangerous conditions. I spend time reading more about the weather and the conditions in the Yucatan Channel. It sounded bad. I also recalled a story from Al Hatch, former owner of Tarwathie, who said that he waited 5 weeks in one of these Mexican ports waiting for a break in the weather.

But the breakthrough came in our mental attitude. We had such a marvelous time in the past year cruising, why where we taking such ambitious plans and pushing our sailing experience so quickly? Why were we so independent? Other cruisers use the buddy boat system, where groups of boats sail together for the same destination, sharing experience and keeping an eye out for each other. There was a buddy group in Marathon planning to sail to Rio Dulce in April. Why April and not March? Did they know more than we did? Shouldn't we have waited to go with them?

The solution became clear. It would be more sensible to cruise the US East Coast one more time, then the Bahamas, then the Caribbean, before more distant ports. Those are all easier and very nice destinations. After a few more years of cruising experience we can escalate our ambitions. Having changed our minds in that way, the immediate action plan was obvious. The only places we had paper charts onboard for were Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and the Florida Keys. So we raised the anchor and set sail back to the Florida Keys where we started.

The 400 mile return trip was interesting. We covered 145 miles the first 24 hours. At one point we entered a current going our way and Libby saw Tarwathie making 10 knots. After that the winds kept dropping. We spent one whole day becalmed. It seemed that we didn't move more than 10 feet the whole day.

All in all, our round trip was 800 miles and took 8 days.

So, what is our souvenir of our trip to Mexico? For now, what is our souvenir of our trip to Mexico? The only thing we have is this fuzzy picture of the unpopulated northern coast of Yucatan. If you look very carefully, you can see a strip of white sand. We never went ashore, and I'm not sure that we even entered the three miles territorial limit.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Safely back in Marathon

N 24 42 W 81 05
It's nice to be back. Tomorrow I'll look for a keyboard.


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Click here for an aerial view of Marathon.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Second day of rest

Key Lois N 24 37 W 81 23
We were going to sail to Marathon today but Libby fell and hurt herself (nothing major). Didn't take much arm twisting to convince us to goof off another day.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Key Lois

N 24 37 W 81 23
We're putting in early for a well earned night's sleep.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006


At Sea N24 23 W83 12
It's frustrating. We got within 35 miles of Dry Tortuga when the wind died to zero. Tonight comes a strong NW front. Can't anchor at D Tortuga but must press for Key West or Marathon. Maybe another 24-48 hours. Been at sea a week now, with only one day rest.

Hard to type with no keyboard.

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Monday, March 13, 2006


Head winds all the way. Slow and uncomfortable. 2 more days till port. We're sort of adapting sleep schedules and muscle aches. That's good.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006


There are sea turtles out here. We sail slightly faster than they swim:)

We found flying fish on deck in the morning. Just like Kon Tiki.

We are returning to Marathon. All tired but OK.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Enroute back

We're returning to Florida. Explanation later. Click on TRACK... to see our daily position and bread crumb trail.

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Friday, March 10, 2006


N21 31 W87 33

We are holed up here several days because of wether.

Got water on the keyboard, so can only type a little with the mouse. Don't expect much blog.


Click here for a satellite view of Tarwathie's current position.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Can we get there from here?

The weather change came as expected last night. Winds increased to 23 knots from the south.
By morning we had come 220 miles since the start and had only 70 miles to go.

About 0330 I heard a bang and suddenly the tiller was loose. A control line for the monitor
self steering chafed through and broke. I just changed that line for a new one two months ago.
It looks like it chafed at the same spot as the old line did. Darn. I should have investigated
why it was chaffing. I also should have checked the new line before leaving shore. Shame on me.

Anyhow, holding the tiller by hand would be extremely tiring so I had to invent. I jury rigged a line
from the tiller around a cleat back to the tiller and took four turns around the tiller. That gives me a
mechanical advantage of 2:1 and the four turns give enough friction to hold it in place. Libby had
the temerity to say she likes my jury rig better than the monitor.

Today the winds increased to 29 knots and we were driven more and more North of our desired course line.
Now we're in the middle of the Yucatan Current and it must be flowing 3.5 knots north. Between the wind and the current we can't make much way any way southward. Isla Mujeres, our destination lies southwest.

It will be a hard fight to beat upwind and upcurrent to get there from here. It might take us another 24 to 48 hours to get the last 50 miles into the harbor. If we tire and give up I'll duck around the corner to the north shore of the Yucatan and hide from the south wind and current there. Our destination is almost at the northeast tip of Yucatan. It's near Cancun. You can find that on a map.

Click here for a birds eye view of Tarwathie's alternate destination at the northern tip of the Yucatan Pininsula.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tropic of Cancer

Last night we crossed the Tropic of Cancer. We were told that down this far one can see the Southern Cross. At 0200 I could see four bright stars, due south near the horizon, in a form that sure looks like a cross. But neither Libby nor I have ever seen the Southern Cross before so we can't be sure.

This Pactor modem is amazing. It usually pokes along at about 300 bytes per minute. That is about 50 bauds. It does numerous retries to get error free packets. Once in a while though it must get a very clean communication and then it automatically zooms up to 7,500 bytes per minute. I'm not sure what the top speed is.

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One Day Out

The good news is that crossing the dreaded Gulf Stream was a non event. We crossed it between 0300 and 0600 this morning. Thanks to light winds, there were no big waves. We noticed only that we had to fight a 2 knot current against us.

The bad news is that the winds were so light that progress was slower than expected. We only did 110 miles the first 24 hours. Worse, we got a new weather forecast last night and it's going to turn against us. Starting tonight and continuing Thursday and Friday we'll have 20-30 knots head winds and 7-11 foot seas. In the Yucatan Channel with a two knot current against us too, our progress would be almost zero and sailing would be very uncomfortable.

Therefore, we decided to make a stop and wait for the bad weather to go by. We're heading for Isla Mujeres in Mexico. It looks like a nice harbor to anchor and wait out bad weather. We can also play tourist while we're there.

This morning I saw a plastic bag floating. It was clear and blown up with air like a balloon. Hmmm, I thought, the first trash I've seen out here. A few minutes later I saw an identical bag. That was strange. The third time, I got close enough to see properly. It's wasn't a bag it was a creature of some sort. Nature is very inventive.

We haven't seen any other vessels out here since dawn. We have the whole place to ourselves.


Click here for a birds eye view of Isla Mujeres.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

in The Gulf

At Sea, N 24 07 W 83 32

What a splendid day. We arose to a nice little breeze and a beautiful day. We got underway at 0700 Libby and I have trouble getting ourselves out of bed for earlier departures. By 0800 we were clear of the Dry Tortugas and heading for sea.

Only 15 miles south of Dry Tortugas we crosses a shipping lane. There were so many ships it looked like a Conga line. We navigated to stay as far away them as possible.

The winds have been moderate. We're sailing a broad reach and averaging 4.7 knots. At this speed it will take us 62 hours to reach the Mexican coast and 110 hours to reach Belize. However the forecast is for more wind than this so we'll improve on those numbers.

Our course points at the northeast corner of Yucatan and takes us within 50 miles of Cuba. I hope that's a safe margin.

No worry about running aground out here. We have a kilometer of water under the keel. The depth sounder gave up at 400 feet so I turned it off.

We tried to check in with the Cruisehimer Net on the SSB radio this morning. I tuned the frequency and I could hear them but I couldn't transmit. I could tell because the DC ammeter did not move when I called. Odd. It transmits when using email. I had to re-read the owner's manual. When one selects a frequency with the keypad, the default is receive only. To transmit on the same frequency one has to select that frequency also with the keypad. By the time I figured all that out it was too late. I'll try again tomorrow.

There are flying fish out here. Not like the Pacific ones I read about in Kon Tiki but little guys about 8 cm long who fly about 1 meter out of the water. There are lots of birds out here too.

We still haven't come to the Gulf Stream itself although we have a 1.1 knot current pushing eastward. I guess we'll enter it after sunset. You'll have to wait for tomorrow's blog to find out how it was.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Tortugas Day

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

What a nice day in paradise. The winds were light or totally absent, the sun was bright, but it wasn't too hot. We don't have a thermometer onboard so I can't give the precise temperature.

First job this morning was to find the fuel leak. I saw drips coming from the starboard fuel tank sight glass so I took it apart. I shut off the isolation valves on both sides of the glass and removed it. Sure enough, it had a broken end. That explains the on again off again symptoms. It only leaked when the tank was full enough to produce a few feet of head.

Now I have to find a replacement glass. Meanwhile, we'll have to do without. I can estimate fuel remaining from the engine log. I know engine hours and consumption approximately 0.5 gallons per hour average, 0.4 when idling and 0.6 when flat out.

Next job was to dive down and clean the speedometer impeller. The knotmeter was not knotting when we came down here. More marine critters fouling it no doubt. I put on my snorkel fins and mask and prepared to dive under the boat when I noticed a huge black body under the rudder. I looked on the other side and there were two more down there. I surmised that they must be nurse sharks. Not dangerous. Anyhow, I asked Libby for the underwater camera I bought in Marathon last week and slipped quietly into the water with the creatures.

Surprise! They weren't sharks they were groupers who were escaping the sun and relaxing in the shadow of the boat. One of them must have been 6 feet long, and the other two about 4 feet long. They weren't afraid of me. I took pictures with the underwater camera.

Darn. When I came back to the surface, the underwater camera was full of salt water. It was defective. I can't return it for a refund, so we're stuck.

Anyhow, I soon cleaned the speedometer impeller and Libby and I rowed into shore to go to the beach and snorkel. That was lots of fun. Along the foundations of the fort there was lots of live coral and fish. It wasn't quite as nice as the BVIs in the 1970s but it was the first live coral we've seen since. The water was warm enough to say in for an hour, and so clean that we could easily see 50 feet or so. Libby enjoyed it too which is saying a lot. It's very hard to get her to go into the water these days.

After some tanning back on the beach I tried to ignore the tourist's bikinis and we went into the fort in search of some shade. I'm chicken about the sun. I got burned bad once in the Virgin Islands and ever since I'm very cautious about tropical sunshine.

There is another small island 500 meters away called Bush Key. There are 100,000 sooty terns (birds) circling the island and making lots of noise. I could see the flock of birds from four miles out and I can hear their noise for half a mile. They are all mating, and based on the amount of noise they must be enjoying it thoroughly. Look up the Sooty Terns of Bush Key on the Internet.

Tomorrow, we should have 10 knots of wind, increasing to 15 by afternoon and 20 overnight. Waves will be "4-6 feet, higher in the Gulf Stream." It sounds like a good time to try to cross the Gulf Stream. If the wind is too light, we'll drift backwards in the current. If the wind is too strong and in a direction against the stream, the waves will be uncomfortable, or even dangerous. I'll ask Libby to take seasick pills before leaving.


Click here for a birds eye view of the Dry Tortugas.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Dry Tortugas

Well, it took us about 24 hours to get the 101 miles from Marathon to The Dry Tortugas. The going was slow most of the way because of light winds. Nevertheless, 100 miles per day in light wind isn't bad.

The trip was pleasant and without perils until the last minute. This morning at dawn I spotted a pod of four dolphins escorting us up by the bow. As I looked down on them I realized that the sea here is a deep shade of blue that we haven't seen before. The color matches the canvas on our bimini. In here by the island, the sand is white and the water is light green, just like in the BVIs.

As we approached the Garden Key Channel I misread the markers. We wound up in very shallow water, 6.1 feet deep, but fortunately we were able to do an about face and get out of there without grounding.

The anchorage here is very small and tricky. A nice lady on a powerboat advised us where it is shallow and where the strong currents are and she directed us to a good spot. There are about 8 other boats here.

After a nap to catch up on lost sleep we went ashore and toured Fort Jefferson and the island. It's very nice and very interesting. Look it up yourself on the Internet. There were quite a few people around from two tour boats that come here from Key West. There is a beach and nice snorkeling and a tent campground. That appears to be a bigger attraction than the fort. There is no place on the mainland or in the keys as nice as this. This may be the nearest, least expensive, tropical paradise island to get to .

Tomorrow the forecast is for light and variable winds. We need to cross the Gulf Stream and that's not practical in such light winds, so we'll have to stay here Monday also. I don't think we'll suffer. In fact I think we'll go snorkeling from the beach tomorrow.

The darn fuel/oil leak in the engine started again yesterday. I'll have another go at trying to locate it tomorrow. Boy that's persistent.

Sorry I can't post our pictures over the SSB radio. Eventually we'll get to a place where I can send them, but for a while it's text only.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Let's Rock

Marathon Harbor

We looked at the weather report this morning and decided that tomorrow, Saturday, is the right day to go. We’ll encounter a weak front on Saturday but there’s another front coming next Tuesday and we want to get out of the Gulf Stream before it catches us.

Our plan is first a 24 hour sail to the Dry Tortugas. We’ll spend a day there, and then shoot straight for Belize City. It should take 3 to 4 days.

Now the excitement builds, as we hustle to do the last minute chores before departure. Libby is out washing and waxing the hull. She had it on her list for a month, but the motivation wasn’t strong enough until today. I know the feeling. In the harbor here the days and weeks just seem to slip by without noticing.

I checked, and our cell phone will work in Central America but it will cost as much as $3 per minute to use it there. So please, don’t call and don’t leave voice mails unless it’s important. Jenny will check our email at dmills@acmenet.net and forward anything she thinks we need to see.


Last night we invited the crew of Albion over for dinner. The four of us had a great time.

Chris is a Brit (Limey, Englishman) and June is American. The couple has lived in many countries and speak many languages. They mentioned England, Portugal, Singapore, Thailand, Panama, and several others that I can’t remember.


Chris is a bowyer. I never met a bowyer before. I never even heard that word before. Chris makes bows and arrows including traditional English longbows. Chris’ web site is www.castanley.com. June has degrees in teaching English and in literature. Both Chris and June have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in many countries. June has been a HAM for many years, and Chris is studying Morse code just like me. June also speaks many languages and she sounds like a very talented woman. I suspect that talent in languages carries over to learning Morse code.

We had a lot in common and we enjoyed swapping stories about being expatriates and about sailing. Too bad we’re leaving away in a few days. Perhaps we’ll meet again with Albion and our new friends in some other port. Actually, we met Albion first in Elizabeth City North Carolina, then a second time in Fernandina Beach Florida, and now for the third time in Marathon, so the chances of more meetings may be good. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Bicycle Rack

Marathon Harbor

Another aspect of the cruising life is the bicycle rack. See the picture. Here is Marathon it's a terrible mess as you can see.

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Some people come here to stay several months so they buy a used bicycle to get around town while they are here. When they leave, they either sell the bike or just abandon it. The bicycle rack is filled with very old rusty bicycles that are locked to the rack. Nobody knows who owns them so they don't dare take them away. After a long time, the tires go flat, the handlebars and the seats fall off yet the bike remains locked to the rack.

The result is that abandoned bikes far outnumber the used bikes in the racks and that it is very hard to find a place for our bike.

When we leave, our bike folds up so that we can take it with us on hhe boat. I expect that wherever we go, we'll find dinghy docks and bicycle racks for the cruising sailors.


We were planning to leave on Saturday March 4. However the weather forecast shows that we might want to wait until Monday.

The experts say that we should avoid the Gulf Stream when winds blow from the north; especially when winds are 20 knots or more. The best time to go is immediately after one of the "Norther" fronts that pass through the gulf.

The forecast in the picture shows a Norther passing through on Sunday, so I tentatively plan to delay departure until the front passes. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Drew and Kia

Marathon Harbor

We had Drew and Kia over for dinner tonight. You remember them. We wrote about them in our blog early in January. They were the couple who own a Westsail 28 and who sailed a Clipper 26 from Ketchikan Alaska down to Seattle. Now they bought a Westsail 28 named ‘aleluia and they’re living onboard with their dog Creosote.

Also last January, I took Kia for a ride around the harbor with the sail up on our dinghy, and we got dunked in the water. (See the blogs from January 6 and 7)

We had Drew and Kia over for dinner tonight. You remember them. We wrote about them in our blog early in January. They were the couple who own a Westsail 28 and who sailed a Clipper 26 from Ketchikan Alaska down to Seattle. Now they bought a Westsail 28 named ‘aleluia and they’re living onboard with their dog Creosote.

A lot happened to Drew and Kia since January. Their engine died. They only had the boat less than a month and they only sailed as far as from Homestead Florida to Marathon. Still, the motor got water in the oil and it was ruined. Now they are both working jobs here in Marathon partially to make enough money to get a new engine and get out of here.

Drew and Kia also got married here in Marathon a few weeks ago. It’s nice to see young people who still care about thinks like that.

After leaving Marathon, Drew and Kia plan to sail up to Maine for the summer. They like that idea better than working the cannery in Ketchikan. From what I understand about canneries, I think they’re right.

Kia is checking out the pictures of our Clipper 26 sailboat on my laptop. They also owned a Clipper 26. Quite a conincidence. Posted by Picasa

The Dinghy Dock

Marathon Harbor
N 24 42W 81 05

If you’ve never lived the cruising life, then you missed the social phenomenon of the dinghy dock. You see most big boats, like Tarwathie, can't sail up to shore. The water is too shallow there. We have to anchor off shore our out in the harbor somewhere. When we visited my brother Ed in Palm Bay, we coudn't get Tarwathie any closer than a half mile to shore. That's too far to swim.

The way we and other cruisers get to shore is with our dinghy. A dinghy is a small boat that we carry with us wherever we go. Tarwathie carries our dinghy up high on the deck when we sail. When we want to use it we have to lower it into the water. With the dinghy, we can row to shore.

The picture shows the dinghy dock at the Marathon City Marina. It looks crowded but on some days there are three times as many dinghies there. This marina, and other places charge money for permits to park your dinghy at the dock. Sometimes they get more money from that than for any other service for the boaters. In Marathon we had to pay $65 per month to use the dinghy dock.

When it is very crowded you have to double park or triple park your dinghy. When you do that you have to crawl over all the boats between you and the shore. Since many of them tend to be tippy and many have water on the floor, that’s an adventurous process. You risk dropping what you’re carrying or soiling your clothes, or worst case, of falling in the water.

When your boat is on the inside with other boats double or triple parked behind you, it’s a challenge to get out. You have to untie the painters on those other boats and move them out of your way. Then you need to reposition them and retie them. Boaters often do a bad job of retying and they drift away.

It would also be bad to have a brand new shiny dingy (or dink as sailors like to call them) because they get all banged up at the dinghy dock. It’s almost impossible to bring your boat in without smashing into others.

When people go away, like we went away for David’s graduation, they leave their dinghies at the dock. If there is a big rainstorm while they are gone their dinghy fills with water and sinks. Then one finds out just how nice or nasty the fellow boaters are. If they’re nice they will bail your dinghy so it doesn’t sink. If they’re nasty they just run over your sunken boat.

As you can see, dinks come in two varieties, soft (inflatable) and hard. Most have outboard motors but some (like ours) just have oars. A soft dinghy is almost impossible to row properly but they are very stable and almost immune to tipping. They also don’t scratch your sailboat if they run into the side. However, a lot of the soft dinks leak air, and you see the owners blowing them up to keep them from sinking.

Sometimes the police boats stop the dinghies and check them for required equipment: life jackets, horns, flares, lights (at night) and registration if they have a motor. Since many cruisers don’t have those things they get expensive tickets to pay.

The most amazing variety in dinks is the size. The cruisers in the harbor are more-or-less the same size, mostly 30-45 feet long, but the dinghies they bring to shore vary from 4 feet long to 20 feet long. I even saw one that was eight feet wide. I think some of these dinks are much too big to bring onboard your sailboat or to tow behind you. I suspect that people buy it locally then sell it to someone else when they leave.

The part I like best is to see the owner’s dogs riding to shore in the dinghy. Many of these poor dogs only get to go ashore and visit a fire hydrant once per day. When they do come they are very eager. You see them with their front feet up on the boat anticipating arrival. I can almost hear the thoughts in their heads, “I’m going ashore. I’m going ashore. Oh boy. Oh boy. I’m going ashore.” Once I even saw a cat doing the same thing. He was sitting precariously on the rail, seemingly fearless of falling in the water. That looked very un-cat-like, but otherwise, he was a perfect picture of dignity. Someday I’d like to make a video collection of these animals riding the dinks and submit it for the America’s Favorite Home Videos TV program. Posted by Picasa