Archive for April, 2007

The “Guys’ Trip” to Key West

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

William, Kevin, Jamie and I, after a few pints at Paddy O’Quiggley’s one night, hatched a plan to take a trip to the Florida Keys. On Tuesday, April 3, I picked up William at the Gulfport, Mississippi airport. On Wednesday, we waited out a line of thunderstorms and departed for a Gulf crossing in the mid-afternoon. The wind was very light that afternoon and early evening after we cleared the barrier islands and entered the Gulf proper, but that wasn’t to last. The wind began building late that evening and continued building into the night. My wind speed indicator is not working, but I guestimate the winds hit the 25-30 knot range, with seas building to 10-15 feet. It was quite the ride that first night. We were headed almost due Southeast and the wind and waves were from pretty much the North, so the quartering seas made for a very rolling ride. Luckily for William, I had just bought some Scopolamine patches for Nancy and had them aboard, as he got seasick pretty soon in this sloppy weather. After the first night, the wind and seas moderated a little, but stayed in the 15 knot and 5-10 foot range for almost the entire trip. Nothing really bad, but not the pleasant passage I was hoping for since this was William’s first offshore passage. We only got brief glimpses of the sun or stars during the trip.

Even with the less-than-perfect weather, it would have been a nice passage except that on the third day out the autopilot failed. I had bought a brand new, fancy hydraulic autopilot for the boat but didn’t get it installed before we left, so we were using the old CPT wheel pilot that was on the boat when I bought it. It worked like a champ for the first couple of days, but on the third day it decided it only wanted to steer in one direction, which would have been OK if we wanted to go in a circle, but we wanted to go to Key West and the autopilot was not going to take us there. This meant we had to hand-steer the boat for the last two days of the passage. Because we had moderately strong wind and quartering seas (waves hitting us from not quite directly aft) the steering was challenging, and having to do it 24 hours a day was exhausting. William had not been sleeping well because of how rough the ride was, so we cut our watch schedule from 4 hours on and 4 hours off to 1 hour on and 1 hour off. The boat was rocking, rolling, shaking and shimmying like a Las Vegas stripper and required a very high level of concentration to keep it on course, especially since, with a uniformly overcast sky you had to steer by the compass continuously, instead of using sun, stars or other distant objects to steer by.

The good thing was that with all the wind we were making good time without really trying to. We went for a 12-hour stretch with the boat speed never falling below 7 knots, and staying mostly around 8 knots. I even saw it hit 9.2 knots briefly (I am referencing speed over the ground as reported by the GPS, not speed through the water). We left the dock in Moss Point at 13:11 on Wednesday, 4/4 and tied up in Key West at 18:40 on Sunday, 4/8, which is a total passage time of 101.5 hours. The route I planned out was 554.2 nautical miles long and our actual track as recorded by the GPS was 568 nautical miles. This means we made an average speed for the entire trip of 5.6 knots. This includes the time spent going down the Pascagoula River and through the Pascagoula and Key West channels. I was being pretty conservative and putting a reef in the main at night just to be safe.

Another good thing about the trip down was William. He very quickly picked up all the basics of sailing and sail trim and became quite proficient at hand-steering. I could tell he was not a happy camper after the second day, but he never quit and met every challenge head-on. In my experience, the ability to keep forging ahead even when you are dead tired and emotionally discouraged is very rare and William is a rare individual.

Another interesting note on the trip down was that we picked up an avian hitch-hiker. A rather large white bird with orange on its back and chest landed on my dinghy davits and rode with us for most of a day. You can check out a video clip of the bird on the Picture Gallery page. I have since tried to figure out what kind of bird it was and I believe it was a cattle egret. It was fascinating to watch him. It was moderately rough and he had a time keeping his perch.

The original plan was to anchor at Key West, but we were so tired and the boat was so covered in salt by the time we arrived, I radioed ahead and got us a slip at Conch Harbor Marina, in Key West Bight. We were going to spend a couple of nights at the dock before anchoring so we could get the boat cleaned up. After tying up to the dock we had quick showers aboard and went in search of the nearest hot meal and a few cold beers. We found both at a place called PT’s. They had Guinness on tap, so I was quite happy. After dinner we both crashed with the intention of finding a hardware store the next day so we could wash all the salt off the boat. About 9:00 the next morning, though, the dock master rousted us out and told us we had to leave as we could only have the transient slip for the one night. The only available slip he could let us have was incredibly tight, with multi-million-dollar yachts all around for me to run into, so we decided to just go ahead and anchor out. This decision was helped when I paid the bill for one night at the dock ($158). As it turned out, a major storm came through Monday night and washed all the salt off for us.

After leaving the marina Monday morning, we motored out to an anchorage on the West side of Fleming Key, about 1/2 nautical mile from the harbor at Key West where we could tie up the dinghy. We set the anchor without much problem and turned on the GPS anchor alarm. Kevin and Jamie were due to arrive this evening. They were flying into Ft. Lauderdale and driving a rental car down to Key West, so we had to get the dinghy ready to go ashore. Just before we left Moss Point we tested the dinghy and outboard and found that the outboard motor had a fuel leak, but figured we would deal with it once we got to Key West. I was hoping it was just a fuel line that had come loose or was cracked from drying out, nothing duct tape couldn’t fix. Unfortunately, it was pouring gas out the top of the carburetor housing and I didn’t have the tools, parts or inclination to take the carburetor apart. We went ahead and took the dinghy ashore and began looking for someone to repair the outboard. Everywhere I called they said it would be the end of the week before they could look at it. I finally got the guy at Garrison Bight Marina to agree to spe
nd a little time between other jobs working on it if I could get it, and a case of beer, to him early the next morning. We called Kevin and Jamie and told them not to turn the rental car in so we could carry the outboard to get it fixed. William and I strolled around Key West, stopping for a beer every so often, waiting for Kevin and Jamie to arrive. We finally found the perfect little pub to hole up in. It had Guinness on tap, there were only 3 customers there, and you didn’t need earplugs to enter (most of the bars in Key West are crowded with tourists and playing bad music at 120 decibels). Even better, there was a very friendly local named Steven who was quite a character and kept us entertained with stories of Key West while we waited, not to mention buying us rounds the rest of the night. Like I said, a perfect pub. Kevin and Jamie finally arrived and after a few more rounds we headed for the dinghy and back to the boat.

We made it to the boat and I had just gotten to sleep good when a pretty good storm blew in and the anchor alarm started sounding. The anchorage offered good protection only on the East side and the storm was coming from the North. After determining the anchor was indeed dragging, we fired up the engine in case we had to maneuver and I dropped the second anchor, which stuck and held. I still stayed up the rest of the night on anchor watch and saw another boat drag into a 50′ catamaran. After the storm blew past and the sun came up, I raised the primary anchor and found that it had impaled a Busch beer can when I had set it, which no doubt caused it to drag. I kept the can as my Key West souvenir. We then pulled up the secondary anchor and re-anchored in our original spot with just the primary. By now it was time to get the outboard over to Garrison Bight Marina, so off we went. After dropping off the outboard, we visited the Hemingway house, strolled around town, had lunch, and spent some time at the beach. Mid-afternoon we headed back to Garrison Bight Marina and picked up the outboard, then headed back to the boat.

Our original plan had us in Key West for a couple of days, then heading to Dry Tortugas for a couple of days, and then sailing around to Ft. Lauderdale to drop off Kevin and William. All of that was on hold while I installed a new autopilot. I had the brand new hydraulic autopilot onboard, still in the shipping boxes, but didn’t have the tiller arm I needed to connect the hydraulic ram to the rudder post, nor did I have the tools I would need to fabricate a sufficiently strong mount for the ram. The old CPT wheel pilot went out of production so long ago I didn’t think I could get parts or find anyone competent to troubleshoot and fix it. My only alternative was to buy and install another wheel pilot and keep it around for an emergency backup after I eventually install the hydraulic autopilot. So Wednesday, 4/11, we went to West Marine and they happened to have one Raymarine wheel pilot in stock. It was a display unit, so I got a decent little discount on it. I spent the next 3 days installing it. It has a rudder position indicator I had to fabricate a mount for, and I had to drill and tap 4 holes in the binnacle, which is about 3/16″ thick 316 stainless steel and proved to be quite a bit of work. After 3 days and several trips to the local hardware store it was installed and ready to calibrate and sea trial, which we did late Friday afternoon. Jamie became the de facto expert on the autopilot operation. Give that guy an LCD screen and buttons to push and he’s in heaven.

Thursday was William’s birthday and I wanted to have a little surprise party for him, so I asked him to help me work on the autopilot while Jamie and Kevin took the dinghy ashore for some hardware I needed. While they were ashore, they got a bottle of wine, some cake and a couple of commemorative wine glasses with the date on them. That evening we had a little birthday party for him.

We now didn’t have enough time left for a trip to Dry Tortugas, much less Ft. Lauderdale, so Saturday we went for a day sail in the Straits of Florida. I pretty much sat on the transom seat and let William, who I appointed Chief Bo’sun, call the shots, with Jamie and Kevin manning the helm and handling the lines. It was a nice day for sailing, good wind and seas, but not too boisterous to be able to relax and enjoy it. We had another major storm blow through Saturday night and the anchor alarm went off, but we determined we were not dragging, I just had the alarm set too sensitive. A couple of other boats did drag, though, and one of them dragged aground.

Sunday Jamie took Kevin and William ashore to get a rental car back to Ft. Lauderdale to catch their flight. Because of the trouble William and I had on the trip down, I decided to try to get an additional person aboard for the trip back. Having three people aboard to share watch-standing would be much less gruelling even if we had another autopilot or other equipment failure. I called up Trevor Davies, who helped me get the boat from Titusville, Florida where I bought the boat, to its home port of Moss Point, Mississippi. Trevor was already committed to a boat delivery from the Caribbean, but he sent another qualified captain, Brendan Hildebrant. As much as I would have liked to see Trevor again, I am very glad I got to meet and sail with Brendan. He’s very low-key and competent, likes Guinness, plays guitar, and makes one hell of a pasta dinner. We met him Monday evening at Turtle Kraals, a touristy bar/restaurant overlooking the dinghy dock.

Tuesday morning, 4/17, we hauled up the anchor at 9:00 and headed to the fuel dock to top off the fuel and water tanks. We left the fuel dock at 9:50 and made our way up the Northwest channel and out into the Gulf. The first day we had very light winds and only made about 93 nautical miles, but it was a gorgeous day and a beautiful night. I made pancakes for breakfast Wednesday morning and even had chocolate chips aboard to put in Jamie’s pancakes. Brendan said it was the first time he’d ever had pancakes on a sailboat. Wednesday afternoon I got out my guitar for Brendan and he played for us for a couple of hours. Wow, can he play guitar. I wish Kevin had been there as he is an aspiring guitar player. Wednesday night we ran into a line of squalls, but it gave us more wind and the wind direction began clocking around a little more Nor
th, which let us sail more directly on our course line than we had been. By Thursday morning we were finally getting some consistently good speed, with the 11:00 log entry showing 7.4 knots. Our second day distance made good toward our next waypoint was 107 nautical miles.

I’m not sure if it was on the 18th or the 19th, but the avian hitch-hiker from the trip down rejoined us. It may not have been the same bird, but it was the same kind of bird. We named it Waldo because he moved from a perch on the dinghy davit, into the dinghy (which he crapped all over), to the bow pulpit, back to the davit, etc. Whenever someone would come up from below the first thing they would say was “where’s Waldo?” We even made bets on how long he would stay aboard. He left once and I was on watch when he tried to land on the davits again. We were making 5-6 knots and he wasn’t having much luck, so I eased the main and jib to spill some wind and slow the boat, and he finally made an awkward landing. We also had a second hitch-hiker, which I later determined to be a blue grosbeak.

By 7:00 in the morning on Friday, 4/20, we were sailing close hauled with our port toe-rail in the water. I furled the stay’sl and eased the jib and main a little to see if I could gain a few tenths of a knot by reducing the angle of heel a little. Our third day underway we made 131 nautical miles; that’s more like it. By early evening on the 20th the wind had veered a little more Northeast and we were on a beam reach making 7.5 to 8.2 knots consistently for several hours. Our speed rarely dropped below 6 knots for the whole 24-hour period and our 4th day’s distance made good was a very nice 160 nautical miles. We were now sure we would arrive at Moss Point Saturday afternoon, so I made pancakes for breakfast again Saturday morning. We were tied up to the home dock at 2:00 in the afternoon Saturday.

After getting the boat tied up and hooking up shore power, we had a couple of celebratory beers and then headed for the showers at the marina office. Our timing was perfect because they were having the grand opening of the marina bar. Brendan had been asking just earlier that day when crawfish would be in season, and guess what you could get for $2.00 besides cold beer? A huge plate of boiled crawfish. Needless to say, after our showers, we sat in the bar eating crawfish and drinking Red Stripes. It was Jamie’s very first time to eat crawfish, so this trip turned out to be full of firsts for him.

Check out all the pictures on the Picture Galleries page.