Monday, April 2, 2018

Hurricane Irma


Preface - That's Unusual for a Blog Post!

This will be a long post. It is long for the simple fact that we’ve been quite distracted, and because we have been distracted, there have been no real updates here in a long while.

The post prior to my recent and quick update was in April, last year. Know that, up until Hurricane Irma, our summer was passing uneventfully. We planned a cruise to the Dry Tortugas, an island group about 80 miles west of Key West but didn’t go due to an engine exhaust problem. The repair took most of the summer, largely because the Keys are the Keys. Other than that, and our bitter disappointment with the end of Stone Crab season when our supply of delicious claws was cut off, there wasn’t much to be updated.

Then came Irma.

If you don’t want to know, or aren’t interested in, the details of our Hurricane Irma experience, here’s the short version:

Hurricane Irma made landfall in the lower middle portion of the Florida Keys on Sunday, September 10, 2017, as a strong Category 4 Hurricane. JO BETH was secured on a mooring in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, FL, and was blown into the mangroves which ring the northern shore of Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, FL when the pennant of the mooring she was secured to failed. She was the outermost boat in a pile of five. She is now being repaired at Hinckley Yacht Services, Savannah, GA.

That’s the gist of things. However, if you would like to know of our experiences of this storm, my eighth and Lisa's fifth, then please read on. Perhaps what we share will be helpful for other sailors and anyone who may find themselves in the path of one of these storms, to plan and prepare.

Hurricane Irma has caused us tremendous inconvenience, but little more. It has been much worse for so many others. Many of our friends, fellow live aboard sailors and cruisers, lost their boats in the storm. For many their boat was their home, just as JO BETH is ours. Others have been left nearly destitute and stranded. Our home was significantly damaged. It was not lost.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew roared across the extreme southern portion of the Florida peninsula. Lisa and I lived ashore at the time, in the far southern reaches of Miami. In the area of Dade County where our modest ranch home was located, sustained winds reached nearly 180mph. Gusts were recorded in excess of 210mph. The friend’s home to which we had evacuated, a significant distance inland from ours, was literally torn apart around us. We wound up huddled in the central hallway, the doors to all the rooms nailed shut, while the storm screamed in our ears. There were 10 adults and two kids; three dogs, two cats and one parrot. We sat in ankle deep water, in stifling heat, waiting for it to stop.

It was awful.

In that storm, we lost our home and almost everything else. Entire trees were missing from our yard. Pieces of our house lay in the street. We were fed by the Red Cross. We were fed by the Army. We sheltered for a few days at a friend’s home in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Soon after, I went to work for one of my clients and was put up in a hotel in downtown Miami. Lisa chose to return to the house to try and save what could be saved. She told me later she would lay awake at night, while staying with neighbors in their semi-wrecked house, listening to gunfire in the distance.

We know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that we are fortunate. We also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we will recover.

As bad as Irma was for us and for JO BETH, it was infinitely worse for others; this wreck was once someone's dream of sailing into the sunset
  
Just as You Start to Relax...

On the evening of August 31, 2017, with JO BETH secured in her slip at Bonefish Marina, Marathon, Florida, Lisa and I lay down in our berth, retiring for the night. I was asleep before her, as she often reads late. She may have had the Atlanta Braves game on the satellite radio. I’m not sure. What I was sure of, was that Category 5 Hurricane Irma, a monstrous giant of a storm, was going to miss us. The last forecast I read before turning in, the hum of the air conditioner filling the cabin with a soft, white noise, was that Irma was forecast to make a sharp turn to the north, missing the north coast of the Dominican Republic and Bahamas. The predictions were she would pass just east of the eastern most Bahamas, perhaps making a side swipe against Bermuda with her eastern fringes. Eventually, the cyclone was expected to curve into the cold North Atlantic waters where she would likely be absorbed by another weather system sweeping from Canada towards Iceland and Scandinavia.

That was a relief to read. Hurricanes make me nervous.

We had just watched Harvey inundate the Texas coast. Our friends Ken and Carrie Philbrick, from Port Aransas, TX - also Pacific Seacraft sailors - were anchored in the harbor of Luperon, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. We would later learn they had ridden out Irma aboard their Pacific Seacraft 37 named GRIFFIN while anchored and tied into the mangroves surrounding the harbor. In a FaceBook post, Carrie had said they experienced strong Category 2 hurricane conditions for several hours, and tropical storm conditions for several hours more, but were fine. (Ken and Carrie would later ride out Maria in the same location, with few issues. They’re now sailing in the British Virgin Islands.) There was no damage to GRIFFIN or any of the boats they knew. For the first time in several days, I fell into sleep thinking of something other than an impending storm.

As I was asleep before Lisa, I was also awake before her. Summer mornings in the Keys are gloriously beautiful, cool though humid. When skies are clear, the stars are still visible in the pre-dawn light. In the distance, puffy clouds hovering over the warm Gulf-Stream waters dot the horizon. I had the morning habit of walking a circuit of the marina. Bonefish Marina was shaped like the letter U, only inverted. At one corner of the U was the ‘clubhouse’ which housed the marina office and the laundry and shower facilities upstairs. On the ground level were a workshop, and the ‘Man-Cave;’ an area furnished with a long table and chairs, a small kitchen and bar area, and a large flat screen television. As I made the turn at the top of the U, I saw the television flicker off and go to black. The long, tall figure of George Ipock stood from one of the chairs. George and his wife Nancy live on a big green steel hulled ketch-rigged sailboat in the marina basin. He turned and took a step towards me, the coffee steaming from the mug he held.

“Morning, George,” I said.
“Yeah, mornin’” he answered. “You seen the weather?”
I looked up at the sky. Venus shone brightly, low on the west horizon. I could see Jupiter and still make out Saturn.
“No, I just got up. We don’t have a TV. I checked last night. Irma’s still supposed to make that turn,” I said.
George snorted and took a long draw from his mug. “Oh, she’s still gonna turn awright. Go watch,” he said, brushing past me and nodding towards the man-cave.
“There’s coffee.”
Hurricane Irma's landfall in the Florida Keys

Once in the man cave, I looked at the remote for the big screen television; it was also the remote for the DVD player and some other connected device. I tossed it back on the table. Upstairs, with the bathrooms and washing machines, was a simple TV I could operate. I passed on George’s coffee and climbed the stairs to the upper floor. I eventually located the remote under the pile of mail and magazines on the small round table and turned on the television. I found the cable channel guide and tuned it to a Miami station - and my heart stopped.

George was right, Irma was still forecast to make the turn north. However, the turn north, which last night had been forecast to be approximately 400 miles to our east, had shifted approximately 400 miles to the west. Irma was now forecast to skirt the northern coast of Cuba, then turn and pass directly over the middle Florida Keys as a Category 5 Hurricane. The lovely television meteorologist said all of this with an unbroken smile, even while warning “all who can hear my voice need to begin preparations now."


I switched to another Miami station. More of the same. Even the cable network news stations were talking about Irma. I turned the TV off. Outside the picture window, I could see the eastern sky glowing softly in purples and reds. I went back downstairs to the dock and walked to the southeastern corner of the marina, past friend’s boats, their air conditioning discharges flowing into the marina basin. I stopped on a small point of land which protruded into the Key Colony Harbor channel.


To the south, the Atlantic spread out before me. On the horizon, a brightly lit ship was slowly moving west; probably a cruise ship out of Miami, bound for Key West and then Cancun. I sat on one of the chairs under the small tiki hut and gazed across the marina basin at JO BETH, snug in her slip, Lisa snug in the V-Berth below decks. A small group of Pelicans wheeled overhead, headed out from their mangrove roosts to fish. A silhouetted lobster boat rounded the bend in the channel, heading out to tend their pots, her red and green navigation lamps dim against her bright deck lights, the voices of the crew, a murmur over the grumble of the diesel engine. Soon, the charter fishing boats and the snorkel-dive boats with loads of tourists would follow. In the light breeze that had begun to blow, the coconut palms whispered. I stood and I realized I was sweating.

We didn’t have television on the boat, but we have our laptops and, in the marina, there was excellent Wi-Fi. I went back to JO BETH and began to read the forecasts and forecast discussions and watch the latest graphical forecast model runs. The forecast was essentially the same as it had been the days prior with regard to intensity and the predicted northern turn. What had changed was where that northern turn would happen. And in that, there was still some degree of uncertainty. Irma was a large and impressive storm. It was clear that even if the Keys didn’t get the brunt of a landfall, there would be some significant effects felt throughout the island chain. There was also a chance Irma would decrease in intensity as well. Monster hurricanes, the Category 4 or 5 beasts, are actually quite fragile. The slightest degradation in environmental conditions can weaken them, sometimes rapidly.

Lisa’s not a morning person. I sat for a moment in the saloon, listening to her steady breathing. I decided not to wake her and went back out to walk some more. Walking for me is a meditative experience. I can walk all day, with no destination. As I rounded the corner of the U on our side of the marina, I saw the man cave TV was back on. George had returned. I pulled up a chair and sat.
“There’s coffee,” he said.
I looked at the TV. “What’s your plan?” I asked.
“Shark River,” he answered.
I steadied my gaze on the TV and thought for a moment. Shark River is a long, narrow, and moderately deep tidal river that penetrates some 40 or more miles into the Florida Everglades from the Gulf of Mexico. The river entrance was approximately 50 miles north and slightly west of Marathon. Shark River had been one of our alternatives to go to in a storm; in fact, Shark River seemed to be every sailor’s ‘hurricane hole.’ It can be well protected and a safe haven in hurricanes, provided the hurricane tracks far enough east or west of the region. Ancient, old growth mangrove forests line the river banks.

On the other hand, it is extremely remote. Cell phones don’t work there, and the only persons who might hear any calls for assistance on VHF transceivers would be those other sailors anchored close by – provided their radios were turned on or still operational - and they may or may not be able to help.

More dire warnings came from the TV meteorologist. “Prepare now. Don’t wait. This is the real deal, folks.” Video from past hurricanes, including Andrew, Katrina and Wilma flashed across the screen to drive home the point.
George turned in his chair to look at me.
“What about y’all,” he asked. “What’s your plan.”
To be honest, our plan was to not be in a hurricane. I sighed.
“We haven’t decided anything yet. We’ve talked about Shark River, but that’s about it.”
George turned back to the TV.
“Either way, it’s lookin’ like it’s gonna be bad. Don’t seem it’ll matter much where we go,” he said.
I slid my chair back from the table and stood.
“Pretty much George,” I agreed. “Pretty much.”
 George lifted his mug in the direction of the kitchen.
“There’s coffee.”
I looked at the TV. The forecast storm track was menacing.
“I know. Thanks.”
I turned and walked back into the dawn.

Lisa and I had discussed Shark River as a safe haven, and as noon approached, we were discussing it again. The fly in Shark River’s ointment for me is the fact that hurricanes ‘wobble.’ As they move along, steered by upper level winds and air currents, they frequently lean one direction or another, a kind of drift. The intense part of a hurricane is around the eye wall, particularly the northern and eastern portions of the eyewall. As distance from the eye, or the center of the storm’s circulation, increases the severity lessens, often exponentially. Very strong hurricanes tend to have very small eyes, and very thin eye walls. The frightening and screaming winds, those emphasized in forecasts, rarely extend more than a few miles from the eye. At the time, Irma’s eye was roughly 25 miles across.

A small wobble would make a big difference; it could put us, wherever we were, in the less intense western and southern quadrants of the storm. Or, a wobble might put us in the more intense northern and eastern quadrants of the storm. Lisa felt Shark River was still a good option to be considered but at the same time, agreed on the ‘worry of the wobble.’

Another factor in our thinking was the size of the storm. The storm was so big, that by the time it was close enough to be confident the wobble effect may have been minimized, we would already be feeling the effects. JO BETH moves at 7mph in the most ideal conditions. The trip to the entrance of Shark River would take us at least eight hours. Then, we had another four or five hours to run up river and get secured. If we were going to go, we would have to leave in two days, three at the very latest. Once there, we were there, regardless of what Irma decided to do. Accordingly, we decided the Shark River option was not a good one for us. We had no idea how accurate that decision would turn out to be.

Lisa was more concerned about the time it could take us to move. We began to look at the charts of the east and Gulf coasts of Florida, and for a brief moment, discussed going to Cuba. However, my passport had expired long ago. We turned our attention back to Florida. After poring over the charts and cruising guides, we decided to table the issue for that day. We would begin getting JO BETH ready and give Irma one more day to maybe change her mind. It’s happened before.

Prepare for the Worst; Hope for the Best...

We spent much of that Friday afternoon chatting with our dock neighbors. Everyone wanted to know everyone else’s ‘plan.’ On Saturday morning, little had changed. Irma was still following the same forecast track, with no indication she would shift away. I had the gnawing feeling that one more day in which we could have moved was slipping by. I also began to understand that if we did decide to move, we would not escape the storm. All of Florida would feel it, some places more than others, but very few in the Sunshine State would escape Irma. Of that, I was certain. As the pretty lady with her pretty smile had said, “all who can hear my voice need to begin preparations now.”

I spent many more hours on the computer, watching forecast model runs and reading forecast discussions and updates as they were released. Lisa and I were still discussing a run north towards Naples or Marco Island, possibly as far as Sanibel or Sarasota. Miami and Ft. Lauderdale seemed to be less viable options. They were already overcrowded, and the dozens and dozens of bridges there would be a significant problem.

We did not want to stay in our marina slip for the storm. We have weathered multiple tropical storms with JO BETH while in a slip. A strong hurricane is something altogether different. The marina basin at Bonefish is open only on one end, which meant any storm surge would likely magnify itself within the basin as it flooded in, with no easy escape. Some of the boats stayed; George and Nancy decided against going to Shark River and stayed on their steel hulled sailboat and our friends Paul and Deb Silverstein stayed on MOMMA GOOSE, their 45’ trawler yacht. Both boats were damaged, though not severely. JO BETH’s slip was damaged. David Bell and Brenda Collins, who lived on WIND SPIRIT were in a slip next to JO BETH. Their slip was more heavily damaged. Our other dock neighbors, Ron and Fran Olson on QUESTERIA were touring the western states in their RV and visiting family. They and a couple of other owners in the marina had pre-paid one of two local boat yards offering hurricane haul outs and hired local captains to move their boats in their absence.

While it is possible our damages might have been less had we stayed, we had no way of knowing one way or another. Indeed, they may have been worse. During the hurricane, a large Hatteras motor yacht docked in Bonefish Marina broke her lines. She drifted about the marina basin, colliding with multiple other boats. One boat sank and two others were badly damaged, including the Viking Sportfisherman GOLDEN EAGLE, which belonged to our dock neighbors and friends Mark and Angela Mundy. The drifting Hatteras was also damaged. She was eventually blown out of the marina basin and grounded in the Key Colony Harbor entrance channel. Given the location of our slip relative to the location of the Hatteras’s slip, chances are good she would have struck JO BETH.

I am convinced the safest place for a boat in a hurricane is hauled out of the water and blocked ashore in a boat yard. The higher the ground of that boat yard is above sea level, the better. This has been borne out time and again in all of the hurricanes I’ve been through and those with which I’ve been involved in my work. JO BETH rode out Hurricane Matthew in 2016 in the Hinckley Yacht Services yard where she was already hauled for the completion of work below the waterline. No boats which had been hauled and blocked in the Hinckley yard were damaged during Matthew.

Of course, boats which are hauled can be damaged. Anything which can catch the wind should be removed, including sails, canvas, etc. A sail coming loose in the wind can prove disastrous to a boat hauled ashore, and to those near her. Floating debris can dislodge the stands beneath a boat, causing it to fall. Still, the vast majority of boats hauled for a storm tend to do much better than the majority of boats left in a marina slip or alongside a seawall or bulkhead.

Lisa and I arrived in Marathon in February, 2017. One of the first things I did was to check with the local boat yards about hauling for hurricanes. Unfortunately, the boat yards in Marathon, as well as the rest of the Keys which have enough water depth for us to access were either fully reserved for storm related haulouts, or they were refusing to haul boats for hurricanes. The refusal to haul boats for a storm is understandable, and not uncommon. The hurricane haulout can have unintended consequences for the boat yard and boat owner. In many instances after Irma, boats which were hauled could not be relaunched because boat yard equipment or service docks had sustained damages. In other situations, the boats fortunate enough to haul for the storm had no dock or marina to which they could return. It can be a Catch-22 situation.

Soon, it became clear our best option would be to move JO BETH to the Marathon City Marina mooring field and secure her on a mooring. On the Sunday before Labor Day, we began to remove loose gear from her decks and around the docks, stowing it away in marina dock boxes. On Labor Day, we unbent the mainsail from the boom and lowered the jib along with a few other jobs. Early Tuesday morning, in the company of Tim Meuting and Christine Petit aboard SERENITY, and John Waterloo and Susan Seifert aboard JEZEBEL, we powered away from Bonefish Marina into the calm Atlantic and turned southwest-west for the entrance to Boot Key Harbor. Our friends and dock neighbors, David Bell and Brenda Collins aboard WIND SPIRIT, returned from an upstate camping trip to make their preparations. They powered over to Boot Key Harbor later that afternoon.

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, FL; JEZEBEL is in the foreground
While we were underway to the harbor, I noticed our batteries weren’t being charged. Just as the alternator in a car charges the car’s battery when the engine is running, the alternator on a boat engine does the same. The battery charge state was good and I didn’t much worry about it. I had been doing work on the engine exhaust system. I concluded I must have knocked something loose. I would take a look once we were on the mooring.

The trip proceeded without event until we were in the harbor channel. I called the City Marina on the VHF radio to request a mooring ball assignment. There was no reply. I tried again; again, no reply. I called JEZEBEL and SERENITY; no reply. I switched to the handheld radio, which is powered by an internal set of batteries and hailed the marina office once again. They answered promptly and we were told to go to mooring ball C-10. Jezebel was assigned mooring ball C-9 and SERENITY, D-3. The battery charging issue was puzzling and with the VHF radio not operating, I presumed I had disturbed a ground wire.

We were soon secured on our mooring. Things only got more bizarre from there. When I pressed the electric stop for the engine, nothing happened. I tried again, with more pressure; again, nothing. Clearly, we had an electrical gremlin in the system. I turned the fuel supply valve off to starve the engine of fuel. The fuel line is tiny, approximately ¼”, and fuel consumption of the engine at idle is so low, that after thirty minutes the engine was still purring along. Finally, I opened the engine compartment hatch and smothered the engine air intake with my flip-flop sole. The engine sputtered and stopped.

We had to shuttle ourselves back to Bonefish Marina to get cars. We also needed to stop and take a look at the place where we intended to shelter on island. I decided to investigate the battery issue when we returned to the boat in the afternoon. After our last trip to Bonefish to secure what we could at the slip there, we returned to JO BETH. I confidentially announced to Lisa I was going to sort out the electrical issues, and I did. The moment I turned the battery switches to the 'OFF' position, the plastic switches crumbled to dusty fragments in my hands, their insides falling into the abyss of the bilges with little tinkling and clacking sounds.

We were now, officially, screwed.

We launched the dinghy and made a panicked run to the local West Marine. The store was a mob scene with people buying last minute items for their own preparations. Our battery switches weren’t in stock. However, one of the associates gave us the phone number of an electrician who lived on his boat in the mooring field. I called Alex with Sea Tek Marine, and two hours later, Alex had jury rigged our system so that we could function and charge the batteries.

Had we gone to Shark River, we would have really been screwed.

I mentioned earlier that Lisa and I were planning to shelter during the storm on the island. Lisa attended St. Columba Episcopal Church in Marathon. The church had recently bought a building with an upper floor, which was rated for Category 5 hurricane conditions. It consisted of a large common room, with bathrooms and a kitchen. Windows were few and small, and there were a couple of small utility rooms. Knowing we lived aboard JO BETH, the church offered the building to us and anyone we knew who was planning to stay in Marathon. After getting our boats secured in the mooring field all of us – Tim and Christine, John and Susan, Lisa and I – went to check the place out. Lisa and I took our mainsail into one of the storage rooms and stuffed it away. We stashed our extra fresh water jugs in the bathrooms. All agreed it would be good for a few days, until we could go home.

Later that day, we changed our mind. The storm surge forecasts had been released, predicting a surge of at least 10 feet throughout the middle and lower Keys, with as much as 15 feet possible in the Marathon area. The forecast also predicted wave heights on the barrier reef, just five or so miles south of the island shores, to be 20'-30'. The island on which Marathon sits, Vaca Key, is roughly four feet above sea level. We feared that if we stayed we would be cut off. Road washouts were a certainty.

(Road washouts did occur: two sections of the Overseas Highway were removed by Irma’s storm surge near Long Key and on one of the smaller, lower middle Keys.)

With the setting of the sun, our little group from Bonefish Marina met in SERENITY’s cockpit to discuss the situation. The decision didn’t take long. In the span of 15 minutes, all of us decided to evacuate. Lisa and I knew from our experiences in Hurricane Andrew, also a Category 5 storm, that we needed to be as far from the sea as we could be. Lisa reached out to friends in Gainesville, FL, to ask for their accommodation. We are forever grateful they said yes. Hurricanes have taught us one thing: wind is scary, water is scarier. The old axiom, “run from the water, hide from wind,” had proven true to us time and again. Tim and Christine went to a friend’s place near Tampa; John and Susan went to stay with family in the Daytona Beach area.

The decision to evacuate meant we added tasks to our list. Since we wouldn’t be aboard the boat until the last possible minute, the refrigerator-freezer would have to be emptied. We would also have to pack more clothes. And, since we wanted to avoid the crush of a mass departure from the Keys, as formal evacuations were to start at 6pm the following day, Wednesday, we were under the gun to get things done.

We completed our preparations for JO BETH on Wednesday morning. All of her canvas was removed, her tiller lashed amidships, and her vents and hawse pipes sealed. The engine was run one last time to top off the charge on the batteries, then a wooden plug was hammered into the engine exhaust discharge outlet and secured with duct tape. This was done to keep water from being pushed into the engine exhaust system and possibly, into the engine itself. Our storm mooring bridle and chafe gear was double checked. The wind powered battery charger was secured and the internal brake set. We closed all of the below waterline seacocks, valves which allow seawater to enter the boat for cooling, toilet use, etc. JO BETH’s electric bilge and sump pumps were set to ‘automatic.’ We walked the boat a dozen times. The cabin was so full of gear, that we were walking on top of things. We notified our insurance company of our preparations.

Our last view of JO BETH for several days
We launched the dinghy and, after taking a few more pictures of JO BETH, motored to the marina dinghy area. We pulled the outboard motor off and deflated the dinghy, placing it inside the storage and workshop area of the main building. We affixed the ownership tags provided by the marina office as directed. Tim and Christine, Susan and John had left already. Apparently, ours was the last dinghy and motor to go in. The marina staff began locking down before we were in the parking lot. I cast one more look over the harbor. We had done all we could do for JO BETH; she would have to tend to herself from here on out. We got into our cars, Lisa in hers and me in mine, and left the Keys.


I'm Sorry, but we Really Must be Going...

We decided to drive to Miami and spend the night with our former neighbor, Maurice Poirier. Visiting with Maurice was a silver lining in the cloud of Irma. The next morning, we would leave for Gainesville. On the way to Miami, it became apparent people weren’t waiting for the order to leave, they were leaving. Fuel shortages were already happening. In fact, we were unable to find fuel anywhere in Miami. We left Maurice’s early the next morning and began our drive across the Everglades to Naples, where we would take I-75 north to Gainesville. The formal evacuation order for the Florida Keys had been given to start at 6pm that same day and the evacuation order for mainland areas of Florida was set to begin at 6pm the following day.

Lisa’s car is much more fuel efficient than mine. Halfway across the Everglades, I began to worry. Then, at Everglades City, we happened upon a Marathon Gas station. There were no cars there, but it was open. We stopped and checked the pumps. They seemed operational. The clerk in the store said they were open for business. We filled up both cars and got on our way. By the time we left, cars were lined up at each pump.

The drive to Gainesville went smoothly until we were about 50 miles from David and Mandy’s house, where we hit the ‘wall of evacuees.’ Evacuation orders were now expanding to include the entire southern half of the state of Florida, for both Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Normally the drive between Miami and Gainesville takes around five hours total. Ours took 12. At roughly 7pm, we arrived. It had been a long day.

That evening, we spoke with Brenda and David on WIND SPIRIT. They were nearly finished securing their boat and were planning to leave the Keys with their two cats, Tiller and Rudder at some point the next day. We later learned that they were delayed in leaving and wound up riding out the storm in a friend’s house right on the southern shore of Boot Key Harbor.

The next few days were spent helping our hosts prepare for Irma. In Gainesville, storm surge or flooding was not necessarily the prime concern, though river flooding later proved to be the larger issue for the city from the storm. Most were concerned about tornadoes and prolonged power outages. We donated our share of groceries and batteries. Lisa and I tried to distract ourselves with work, but still paid close attention to the forecasts. Even in Gainesville, it was hard to find fuel. I finally found an open gas station and waited in long lines before being able to top off the tanks in both cars. Lisa and I made one last grocery run and returned to our friend’s house. It was now Saturday evening. Irma was expected to make landfall somewhere in the middle to lower Florida Keys Sunday morning.

We were glued to the Weather Channel and to various websites, including Mike’s Weather Page and FaceBook. Soon, our worst fears were realized. The center of Irma was clearly going to track to the west of Marathon. This would place the landfall of Irma’s eye near Big Pine Key or Summerland Key – and that placed Marathon squarely in the northern and eastern storm quadrants. In the northern hemisphere, the northern and eastern sides of a cyclonic storm are typically the most intense sectors of the storm, and the sector in which the storm surge is the most severe. We were texting back and forth with our friends David and Brenda, still in Marathon, and with Tim and Christine and John and Susan, all of whom made it to their safe spots. We later connected with Mark and Angela Mundy. They had originally decided to stay with friends on Ramrod Key, west of Marathon, but at the last minute, evacuated to Stuart, FL.

Around 7pm, Brenda reported via text that conditions in the harbor were very rough, and a couple of boats had already broken loose from their moorings in the western section. Brenda and David have cruised aboard WIND SPIRIT extensively along the east coast of the US and throughout the Bahamas, Caribbean, and South America. She said she had never seen conditions such as they were experiencing. We didn’t hear from her again until three days after the storm had passed.

On Sunday, September 10, 2018, at 9:10am, Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key, a small island with a shallow horseshoe shaped bay, 31 miles west of Marathon. The news reports we were seeing on television and the reports being posted on FaceBook from those who had stayed were not good.

The rumor mill was at full grind on FaceBook and Twitter. The common thread we were hearing was Boot Key Harbor was very bad. There were 226 moorings in the harbor, all full, prior to Irma. After Irma passed, less than 40 boats were said to be afloat and secured in the harbor, the majority of those in the eastern side of the mooring field. The western side of the mooring field, where David and Brenda’s WIND SPIRIT had been secured, was said to have been destroyed.

For nearly three days, we had no idea of how JO BETH or our friends had fared. The TV news aerial footage, being shot from military and law enforcement aircraft was maddening as they all stopped short of the harbor area – again and again and again. We finally stopped watching. We put our phones down and logged out of FaceBook. JO BETH is a heavy built and well-designed boat, made for crossing oceans. We felt she would survive, but also knew she could be damaged. Of course, we held onto the hope that she was one of the few still on her mooring. Our concern for our friends was palpable.

Finally, on Wednesday, September 13, 2017, we received a text from Brenda. They were all fine. The home they had stayed in was fine. They had no power and there were no services on the island. Cell service worked intermittently and they were well stocked with food and water. Unfortunately, WIND SPIRIT had been badly damaged. She lost both of her masts and all of her rigging and railings. Her bowsprit was gone. She was still afloat but would require major repair. Their insurance company eventually declared her a total loss.

Our first view of JO BETH following Irma - thanks to David Bell and Brenda Collins
Texting with Brenda in those few moments was a roller coaster ride. We were happy they were safe but saddened for the loss of WIND SPIRIT, their home for 28 years. However, our mood was lifted immensely when Brenda said they had spotted JO BETH in the mangroves. She was soon able to text us a few pictures. The following day, NOAA released aerial photographs of Marathon and Boot Key Harbor. Based on Brenda’s description of where they had seen JO BETH along with the photographs they sent, we were able to pinpoint her exact location on the NOAA images. Though she may have been damaged, she had not sunk.

NOAA aerial photograph; the red arrow indicates JO BETH
On Thursday morning, September 14, 2018, Lisa and I filed our insurance claim with JO BETH’s underwriters. We packed and left Mandy and David’s home in Gainesville, FL and began the long drive back to Miami where we would stay in hotels until we would be permitted to return to the Keys. It would be nearly 10 days before we would actually see JO BETH for ourselves.

(Thank you again, David, Mandy, and family, for your hospitality; and, also, thanks to your kind neighbors who took us in as friends and plied us with food and drink!)

Getting Back to Where We Started...

One of the hazards of evacuating for a hurricane is being held back from returning to your home. As frustrating as this can be, we understand the reasons; damaged or destroyed infrastructure, including hospitals and medical facilities; no functional utilities; washed out or otherwise compromised roads, bridges, buildings; and so on. Lisa and I didn’t evacuate for Hurricane Andrew. We do now for any serious storm. Living in a disaster zone is not a good thing. It is toxic, emotionally and physically, and it is dangerous. It is very easy to get hurt. In the wasted and trashed environment, even a minor injury can become serious in no time. This was something we had to force ourselves to remember in that evening discussion in SERENITY’s cockpit when the decision to leave was made.

Brenda and David kept an eye on JO BETH until we could get to her. Another friend of ours, Jimmy LaValley had stayed for Irma. Jimmy kayaked out to JO BETH and JEZEBEL a couple of times. He also sent photographs and kept an eye our boats until we were permitted reentry.

On a sunny and warm Sunday afternoon, roughly 15 days after the storm, David and Brenda took us in their dinghy through the destroyed harbor. Winding through the shallow and still murky water, we made our way towards the spot where JO BETH had nested in amongst the mangrove trees. We passed over all manner of storm debris: lost anchors, rope and lines, fragments and pieces of various structures. We were finally able to get close enough so I could scramble through the broken and twisted mangrove branches and climb on to her bow.

JO BETH had landed on the outer edge of a pile of five other sailboats, most of which were badly damaged. She lay at an angle of 15° to starboard and was bow down by the same amount. Her deck drains were choked with mangrove leaves and limbs. Stagnant water stood on her starboard side deck. There were items of clothing scattered about, apparently from one of the other boats in the pile; shorts, t-shirts, a single tennis shoe. A bra was entwined through the limbs pressed into JO BETH’s hull. The mangrove leaves had left red, ruddy stains on her foredeck and cabin.
In the pile of boats
She lay against two other sailboats, one of which was a 33’ Morgan Out Island. The wire lifelines and deck railings were bent and broken. The starboard side stays and shrouds, wires which support the mast, were deflected inward in excess of a foot. The starboard side chainplates, to which the wire stays attach, were visibly bent and twisted. The forces exerted on the mast and rigging had also distorted the chainplates and stays on the forward, aft, and port sides. The mast and boom, aside from a lot of scratches and scrapes in the paint, seem to have fared well.

JO BETH's hull was covered in deep scratches and gouges, and there were multiple places on the forward starboard bows which were very badly gouged. One of the worst areas was on the starboard side, at the hull to deck joint just forward of amidships. We were very concerned the critical joint may have been compromised. The teak caprails, which cover the hull to deck joint and surround the decked areas, were badly damaged on both sides.

The radar mast which had been stepped on JO BETH’s stern and held the radar and wind powered electrical generator was gone. The cabling for the instruments trailed over the battered stern and into the muck beneath the hull. The aluminum mast and its stainless-steel support struts did significant damage to the stern area as they departed the boat.

JO BETH’s cockpit area was filled with storm debris and mangrove branches. Remarkably, the drains were still clear, so little standing water had accumulated. Equally as remarkable, the plastic compass cover and chartplotter covers were still in place!

The cabin lock was in place and did not look to have been bothered. I turned the combination to the correct sequence of numbers and pushed the hatch open. Inside, the cabin was an absolute mess, but dry. No water had gotten in below decks, save a bit of spray from the tiny joints and gaps in the companionway doors and the overhead sliding hatch. All of the gear we had stowed below, as well as our things which were always kept below, had been tossed everywhere. Some lockers had opened and spilled their contents all over.

Her cockpit lockers and their contents were dry, as was the engine compartment. Her batteries were nearly fully discharged, but indicated the electrical system was serviceable. We could only see a small area of the rear port side of the bottom, as well as the rudder and propeller, and saw no serious damages there.

I took a few more pictures, locked the cabin, and climbed back through the tangle of mangrove branches into the dinghy. No one said anything; I had been giving a running report of conditions as I moved around JO BETH. Lisa took my hand in hers. David started the dinghy outboard motor and we made our way through the shallows back into the harbor. Brenda gave Lisa a quick hug. As we glided out of the shallow mud flats and into the deeper water of the harbor, I watched the ghostly outline of a sailboat, sunk and on its side, pass beneath us. A few yards west of where JO BETH sat, the mast of another lost sailboat was visible just above the water. We were one of the fortunate ones.

JEZEBEL, the Pearson 424 sailboat belonging to our friends Susan and John, had been pushed far into the mangroves about a half-mile east of JO BETH. She had more damage than JO BETH and was declared a total loss by her insurers. SERENITY was extremely lucky. During Irma, she had drifted down onto the wreck of a sailboat which had sunk on its mooring behind her, her keel entangling in the mast and rigging of the wreck. She was held fast throughout Irma’s fury. Remarkably, no other boats struck her. She escaped with some minor damage to her keel and rigging.

What? Me Worry?

Salvage is dangerous. Salvage is an indelicate process, even when all goes according to plan. There have been many instances where an otherwise lightly damaged vessel has been destroyed in the process of its recovery from some difficult situation. In my work I’ve planned, arranged, and supervised the salvage of hundreds of vessels. Salvage still makes me nervous.

JO BETH’s position on the outside edge of the boat pile was to her advantage, as was the fact she remained dry inside. As the salvors and I saw it, there were two primary options for her recovery. The first was to position a barge with a crane as close as was possible to her; strap her, lift her, and swing her so that she could be placed in deep water and taken under tow. The second was to build a sling around the hull and lay down ‘skidding materials’ – usually sheets of plywood or old mattresses - to create a makeshift path. Then, she would be pulled by winch onto her port side, with her bows turned towards the ‘path’ as much as possible, and drug to deeper water. As she entered deeper water, air bags would be placed under her to be sure she didn’t stay on her side and swamp. Regardless of the method, either would have to be done at high tide. Clearly, the former was the preferred route to take.

Preparing for salvage; note the diver under the boat
As a function of my job, I had been out with salvage crews early in the recovery process, not only to show them JO BETH, but several other vessels which were insured by my client. Salvage began in earnest and boats were moving out of the mangroves and from under bridges, etc. at a decent pace. When JO BETH’s turn came, one Thursday afternoon, I was caught completely off guard. I had not been given any indication the salvage was to proceed that day, or even that week. Tidal conditions were good, but on this day the high tide had just passed and the salvage crews were only beginning to set up.

I called Lisa to let her know things were moving. She, along with Brenda and David, drove over to the City Marina Parking lot; from there, JO BETH was partially visible through the tangle of mangrove branches. I hitched a ride on one of the local Tow BOAT/US boats with which I had been working the past few weeks. When we arrived, the salvage crews were just starting to position the heavy nylon lifting straps around her hull. A diver was in the water – mangrove muck, really -  positioning a strap at the bow. A deckhand was on her deck, waiting to take the strap and pull it around the hull. A strap was already fixed at her stern. Glancing down, I noticed mangrove leaves on the water’s surface floating towards the harbor. Winds were light. The tide was going out.

The crane rumbled to life. Two of the barge deckhands took hold of tag lines, one at JO BETH’s bow, the other at her stern, to minimize any spinning she may do as she was lifted. Then the lift began. Once the suction of the mangrove muck released its hold on JO BETH’s keel, she slowly rose. Then, with the loud pop and snap of a few stubborn branches, she was swung out of the mangroves and over the mud flat shallows. The physical lift had taken almost an hour, but after nearly 20 days in the mangroves, JO BETH was freed.
JO BETH is lifted free of the mangroves
JO BETH needs a minimum of five feet of water in which to float. More accurately, she needs a minimum of 5.01 feet of water to float; any less and she is aground. The tide had been running out for the time it had taken to lift JO BETH. Now, with her weight fully on the forward edge of the barge, the bows of the barge sank into the soft mud bottom. The barge’s boat crew throttled up their 700HP of reverse pull, but nothing was moving. Jared Frank, the Tow Boat/US tow boat captain, quickly swung the tow boat around and moved to an outboard corner of the barge. One of the tow boat crew passed a tow line to the barge crew, who secured it to a cleat on the barge deck.

The pull to deep water began in earnest. After about 30 minutes, the barge was floating. The tow boat disengaged and the barge, with JO BETH hanging from the crane boom, continued to deeper water. Once the water depth measured seven feet, JO BETH was lowered until she was floating. A check for incoming water by the salvage crew revealed a dry boat. The towing line was made fast to a bow cleat on her foredeck and before the sun set, JO BETH was made fast to the western seawall at Marathon Boat Yard.

We had thought the radar and wind powered generator, as well as the radar mast, was in the mangroves beneath the boat. Once the salvage was complete, we realized this was not the case. The cables were broken with nothing attached to their ends. The mast, with the radar and generator, lay somewhere in the muck of the harbor bottom.

Two days later, on a humid and cloudy Saturday morning, Lisa and I met with our insurance company surveyor, Steve Mason, from Annapolis, Maryland. Now that JO BETH was out of the mangroves, it was clear the damages were more extensive than we had initially realized. Steve completed his survey and damage assessment with the understanding that another survey and assessment would be made when she was hauled from the water and moved to a repair facility.

Git 'R Done...

It was unfortunate but unavoidable: JO BETH would have to leave the Florida Keys in order to be repaired. It’s not that Key's repair facilities there weren’t up to the task. Certainly, there are some which we would never set foot in; that can be the case most anywhere. There were more than a few capable of doing the work had they not been overwhelmed and damaged themselves. An important factor for us is that JO BETH is also our home. The repairs needed to be done properly of course, but they also need to be completed as quickly as possible.

After lengthy discussion, we felt our best choice was to return to the Hinckley Yacht Services facility in Savannah, GA where we had just finished our refit several months earlier. We contacted the facility and advised them of our decision; they were delighted and ready to receive JO BETH. Thumper Brooks, the operations manager at Pacific Seacraft, recommended the marine trucking company Deep Water Transport out of Washington, NC, which specialized in the hauling of sailboats. I spoke with Judith at the Deep Water office on the same day and made arrangements for JO BETH to be taken to Hinckley. On the Tuesday afternoon following her extraction from the mangroves, we watched as she was loaded onto the truck trailer and left Marathon Boat Yard, the truck and trailer turning east onto the Overseas Highway. Lisa and I found it amusing and almost ironic that the preparation instructions from Deep Water Transport warned us repeatedly to "prepare your vessel for hurricane force winds."

JO BETH being loaded for transport to Savannah
Our small inflatable dinghy fared well enough in the storage building at the City Marina. Apparently, it floated around as the building flooded, even though it was deflated. The outboard motor was not as fortunate as it was fully submerged. By the time we were able to get to it, it was damaged beyond reasonable repair. We gave it to another sailor who lived aboard his boat in the mooring field to use for parts. His name was Michael; I don’t recall ever knowing his last name. Michael looked like Captain Jack Sparrow in the flesh, beads in the beard and all. He even walked like the movie character. He’s one of the many individuals that make Boot Key Harbor the special and unique place that it is.

Lisa left Marathon the day after JO BETH for Savannah. Our friends Justin and Christa Taylor live in Savannah and were about to leave on a week-long vacation. They needed cat sitters; Lisa needed a place to stay. Since we like cats, the deal was struck. JO BETH arrived at Hinckley on schedule and was blocked in the repair yard. I stayed in Marathon to continue working for another 12 days and then departed for Savannah. Shortly after I arrived, Lisa and I moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment on Wilmington Island, one of the barrier islands east of Savannah proper.

Over the next week, we moved ourselves off of JO BETH. Once she was emptied, we gave her interior a thorough wipe down with a dilution of water and vinegar to stave off any mold and mildew growth and placed Damp Rid around the cabin and berthing areas. We stacked our mattresses, cushions, and all manner of boat gear in every nook and cranny of our new apartment. We then did at least 20 loads of laundry, perhaps more. We were surprised to only have to discard a couple of t-shirts and one set of sheets due to mildew.

After multiple additional assessments by the Hinckley service manager and trade foremen, we believe we have a good handle on the damages. Boat yards often move slowly, as can the processes of insurance claims, but repairs are now well underway. The major fiberglass repairs have been completed and JO BETH is being readied for painting. Thankfully, in spite of the damage to the hull, the hull to deck joint was not compromised. However, additional damages were found once she was at the Hinckley yard; all of her deck railings were bent and some had broken and fractured; the standing rigging for the mast is to be replaced, and we found significant, but non-structural, damages to the keel and bottom. The total repair charges will be just under $80,000.00.

The down and dirty business begins
We’re also taking this time to complete a few personal projects while in the boat yard; things such as the installation of a Monitor Windvane self-steering system, which is essentially an autopilot which uses the wind instead of electricity to steer the boat. We’re modifying the stern propane locker to accommodate a stern anchor cable system and adding an additional battery to the electrical system. And of course, there are a few maintenance related jobs to complete.

We’re anticipating – and hoping – for repairs to be completed by mid-summer. At that time, we’ll move back on board, then spend the next few months in a safe harbor until hurricane season is finished. Our cruising plans are to return to the Keys for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and in the spring, spend some time in the Bahamas. After that, we’re considering sailing to New England for the summer.

There are So Many Others...

Many of the Caribbean Islands are still in recovery and will be for years to come, as will the Florida Keys. Puerto Rico is getting a lot of attention, but it's still not enough. Smaller island nations, Barbuda and Dominica specifically, were literally smashed. And many people in the Keys, and Boot Key Harbor in particular, who chose to stay on their boats and in their homes during Irma, did so at the expense of their lives. 

Whenever we think things become difficult and frustrating for us, we remember them.

From Us to You...
 
Thanks for sticking with us. Thanks for checking on us and asking how we’re doing. We appreciate it much. I’m back into my posting routine and have plans to expand things with the blog once we’re sailing again. In the meantime, I’ll continue to update our progress with JO BETH’s repairs.

Please stay in touch.

Links to those companies and businesses referenced in this post:

www.spaghettimodels.com - Mike's Weather Page - tons of weather information and data
www.boatus.com - Tow Boat/US on the water towing service
www.deepwatertransport.com - Boat transport/hauling
www.marathonboatyard.com - Marathon Marine Center & Boat Yard
www.hinckleyyachts.com/location/savannah-georgia/ - Hinckley Yacht Services, Savannah, GA

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Long Overdue...

Hello everyone,

Just a quick update to let all of you know what's happening. For those who follow us and don't know, Jo Beth was damaged in Hurricane Irma last September while in Marathon, Florida. She's now back in Savannah, GA at the Hinckley Yacht Services repair facility undergoing repairs from damages caused by the hurricane.

I'm sure you all can understand the lack of updates. We are doing well, living in a tiny and expensive one bedroom apartment. (Lisa calls it our 'compartment.') We hope to be back aboard our floating home by midsummer.

I'll have a more comprehensive update soon. In the interim, here are a few pictures. Thanks for sticking with us!

JO BETH in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, FL. This was one of our last looks at her as we prepared to evacuate the Florida Keys and head to Ganiesville, FL...thanks again Mandy and family
Thanks to Brenda Collins and David Bell for sending this picture; this was our first indication of how she had fared, and came four days after the storm
Repairs are underway at the Hinckley Yacht Services facility, Savannah, GA


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Boat Life, Dock Life


Yet again, I’ve been slow and slack in my posts here. The truth is, there’s simply not too many things going on that might make for interesting updates. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, that nothing particularly exciting is going on for us. Lisa and I are adjusted to life in the Keys, quite well, I should add. We are enjoying ourselves immensely and we look forward to the next year or so we have remaining here.

Conch Ceviche and stone crab claws - it's what's for dinner

We have been getting out to new restaurants on occasion, but often find ourselves gravitating back to certain ones. As those who follow us on FaceBook know, one of our favorite meals is stone crab claws and conch ceviche. Stone crab season ends on May 15, so I expect we’ll be spending lots of time at Keys Fisheries in the coming days. Grouper and dolphin season come on the heels of stone crab season. For the seafood lover in us, there’s always something to look forward to. And for the uninitiated, ‘dolphin’ in this case refers to the fish called dorado in the Caribbean and is most likely known to most of you as mahi-mahi, it’s Pacific region name.

We’ve also found a few little Cuban treasures too, roadside hole in the wall sort of places where the pork roast is marinated in delicious potions of citrus and garlic then slow roasted for hours until it is melt in your mouth tender. Then, of course, there are the black beans and rice and if that wasn't enough, there are the sweet and sticky fried plantains. Yum!

Unfortunately, JO BETH has not left the slip since we arrived in February. We’ve had lovely sunny and warm weather, accompanied by weeks and weeks of howling winds. Remember our deck awning, which I wrote about in the last post? We took it down in advance of some squally weather a week or so after we put it up, and it’s been stowed away since. 

Spring squall over Hawk Channel
  
Lisa and I are both working as well which occupies most of our weekdays. We have had friends pass through Marathon on their way to the Bahamas and islands south who’ve been stuck here for days. Our friends Ken and Carrie aboard GRIFFIN, also a Pacific Seacraft, arrived in Marathon after a rough ten day crossing of the Gulf of Mexico from Port Aransas, TX. They were here for nearly a month, making minor repairs to sails, etc., but primarily waiting for a weather window to continue on. That window finally came for them last Tuesday and they left on a favorable wind for South Bimini in the Bahamas. They arrived Wednesday afternoon and are now very likely pinned down once again by the same winds which are keeping us in place. Things will ease as summer approaches, and Lisa and I are planning some early summer cruises around the Keys.

S/V GRIFFIN, now sailing in the central Bahamas

Part of the sailing life is meeting and saying goodbye to friends. Bruce and Rhonda, aboard their catamaran LILA JANE left Marathon yesterday and are working their way north for the summer. We went to dinner and spent a few hours in their cockpit Thursday evening, discussing how the departure of friends is one part of this life many people can’t relate to, and how it not only affects the people staying put, but the people leaving. Most of us don’t live in a situation where our home moves with us, wherever we may be. And after you’ve been in one place for months or longer, leaving that place can be a bit odd. For me, the odd bit is experiencing the realization we won’t be coming back this way again, or at least not for a while. I remember that when we left Brunswick, GA bound for the Keys, the reality that we were indeed leaving didn’t sink in until the next morning when we left our first anchorage behind Cumberland Island and didn’t turn back north, but continued heading south.

The cruising population of Marathon is dwindling, as boats move north for the coming summer and hurricane season. It’s easy to forget that Marathon is a small town when the snowbirds are here. There’s one McDonald’s, a Burger King and a couple of other fast food places. Shopping is limited to Beall’s and the strangest K-Mart we’ve ever been inside of. There are two grocery stores, a Winn-Dixie and Publix, both miniature versions of their cousins in Miami. The nearest Starbucks are 35 miles east in Islamorada and 45 miles west in Key West. Marathon does have a great little coffee loft, situated on the upper floors over a potter’s and glass arts studio. Amazon has become a major resource for our shopping, even for groceries.

Tiller, cat left and Rudder, cat right live aboard S/V WIND SPIRIT but spend time aboard JO BETH on occasion - particularly if that occasion involves food

Boat life is boat life. Lisa and I are quite content aboard our little home. We’ve been pseudo adopted by our neighbor’s cats, Tiller and Rudder. And even dockside, boat things still break. We’ve spent time replacing cracked or broken fittings on tanks and repairing various hinges, cleaning strainers, etc. We’re continually resolving stowage issues and still removing little-used gear from the boat. In the evenings, we're entertained by tarpon hunting mullet in the marina basin, and on a few early mornings, have awakened to find a manatee scratching it's back on our hull.

Sunset over the Atlantic

All in all, boat life is dock life, and together they make up our water life – and that’s a good life!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Getting Settled...

This will be a short update. Not too much has been happening; as with most arrival stories, we’ve arrived and are slowly settling into a routine, getting back to work, and wrapping up the more urgent post voyage boat projects and repairs.

Key Colony Harbor entrance, looking out to Hawk Channel and the Atlantic Ocean; though we say we're in Marathon, we are technically in Key Colony Beach

One of the bigger projects we were saving to do until we were here in the Keys was the fitting of our sun awning. The awning keeps the sun off of the boat and on warm and sunny days while at anchor, it can keep the cabin a good bit cooler than it otherwise might be. We can roll up or lower flaps to adjust for the angle of the sun, and in a light shower, we can leave hatches open to keep ventilation flowing. The benefits of it at the dock are somewhat reduced, as the breezes typical in an anchorage are reduced by the protection of a sheltered marina. Still it was an essential task.

This particular awning has something of a history. When we began our refit, we had specified a full sun awning to be built. During the bid process, we came across an opportunity to purchase this particular awning. The catch however, was that it was not built for our boat, but for the 37’ model also built by Pacific Seacraft. The awning had been built for the owners of a brand new 37, but because of the awning’s size and weight, they decided not to accept it. Instead, they left it with Pacific Seacraft and instructions to sell it to someone who’d give it a good home.

That someone turned out to be us, and the owners of the awning made us an offer which we couldn’t pass up. Still, it was a puzzle of sorts, especially since it had not been made for JO BETH. Though the 37’ and 34’ models of our boat are quite similar, there are enough differences to make things a little confusing.

JO BETH, sporting her 'new' sun awning
 
Within a few hours, we had the awning up and secured. We also had help from a couple of passing fisherman vacationing here from Michigan. They seemed quite taken with the novelty of our lifestyle, and joined us under the shelter of the awning in the cockpit for a beer and conversation.

The awning from astern - please forgive the 'cell phone zoom effect'

We’re also exploring the islands and getting reacquainted with the Keys. When we lived in Miami, we kept our first little sailboat in Marathon for a few months, behind a friend’s canal house at their private dock. After a year or so there, we moved it to another private slip in Islamorada, in the upper Keys. That was 20+ years ago, and the changes which have swept through the Keys in our absence are quite astounding.

More to follow!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Marathon!


It was when Lisa and I were dating that I introduced her to the idea of sailing the world aboard a small sailing yacht. At the time, Lisa’s primary sailing experience had been aboard tall ships – specifically, the R/V WESTWARD, a part of the Sea Education Association. The WESTWARD was a topsail-schooner – at 100’ in length, she was a far cry from JO BETH. Nonetheless, I persisted, peddling off books for her to read written by the legends of world cruising of the time; Eric and Susan Hiscock and their multiple trips around the world in their wooden yacht WANDERER and their subsequent wood and steel boats of the ‘Wanderer’ name; Hal and Margret Roth aboard their 36’ yacht WHISPER, and Larry and Lin Pardey, aboard their wooden and engineless 24’ cutter, SERAFFYN

Leaving Ft. Pierce, Florida

On one of our weekend trips to the Georgia coast to sail in our first little sailboat, SEA SCHELL, Lisa said as we began the drive from Atlanta, “all these people do is struggle to get somewhere, then fix everything that broke when they get there.” I looked at her for a long moment. “Yeah,” I finally said, “that’s true. But it’s better than life in a cubicle, right?”

It is an unfortunate fact that on our first full day in Marathon, my time was spent replacing the shower sump pump, repairing a cracked fitting in the waste holding tank vent line, and trying to puzzle out why the aft water tank refuses to fill to capacity. By the end of the day, I was tired, hot, stiff, and very tired of banging my head and scraping my knuckles.

We left Ft. Pierce on a brilliant and warm Wednesday afternoon, motoring out the inlet channel, and pointing the bow south into the blue Atlantic, we set the sails. The winds were light and no sooner than not, we were motor-sailing so as to hold our course and direction. As the sun dropped below the western horizon, we changed into warmer clothes, and once past the St. Lucie Inlet, we settled into the night routine of an offshore coastal passage. Shortly before 9pm, we rolled in the headsail as the winds had shifted a bit more to the east and south, making it difficult to keep the sail filled. A persistent two knot current against us also made things a tad frustrating. 

Atlantic Blue Water!

The night passed quietly with both of us keeping watch until midnight. Then Lisa went below for a two-hour sleep as we continued south. At 2am, I woke her and we changed the watch. She cheated a little and didn’t wake me at 4am, but I awoke at about 4:45. I went on deck as we were approaching Ft. Lauderdale and a traffic jam. There was a container ship about 8 miles east of us going south; our AIS system identified her as the WASHINGTON EXPRESS, and reported she was going to the Port of Houston, Texas. Three cruise ships were in-bound to Ft. Lauderdale, and our courses were going to cross. However, the big wrench in all of this was the U. S. Navy. They were conducting ‘surface operations’ in the channel entrance to Ft. Lauderdale. We’re not 100% sure as to what was going on, but essentially, there was a Navy submarine, on the surface, running a prescribed course. It was interesting to hear the Navy and cruise ship captains discuss right of way issues over the radio. We drew little attention and only had to talk to one cruise ship to clarify our intentions as to where we were going in relation to where they were going.

Sunrise off of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

By 11am the following morning, we passed through the Port of Miami and soon we turned south into the broad and shallow waters of Biscayne Bay. After refueling at a local marina on the mainland side of the bay, we headed east across the bay to anchor for the night in a protected cove behind Key Biscayne. In many ways, this was something of a homecoming for us.  Lisa and I lived in Miami for many years.

Our plans had been to take the Biscayne Channel out of the bay and into Hawk Channel and then continue south to the area of Plantation Key in the upper portion of the Keys island chain. We couldn’t make the run from Miami to Marathon in one day in Hawk Channel; the distance is too great and with the proliferation of coral reefs surrounding the channel, running at night is ill advised. Going on the offshore side of the reef wasn’t an option either, as the western edge of the powerful Gulf Stream current, which flows northward at close to 4mph or more, was very close to the reef. (The exact location of the Gulf Stream changes frequently. It's like a river flowing within the ocean.)

Anchored in Key Biscayne Bight with a few other vessels

A listen to the weather forecast was discouraging. Winds were forecast to fill in from the north, then become northeast then east, and approach 20 knots. Anchorages in Hawk Channel are few and far between, and this weather forecast essentially made each and every one of them dangerous. If we had trouble getting our anchor to set and hold, we would risk being driven onto the rocks and hard packed sand flats of the upper Keys.

We re-evaluated our plans and decided to take the inside route to near Islamorada in the upper-middle Keys, then cross over to the ocean side and Hawk Channel via Channel #5, a deep and well marked channel. The first day went well enough, passing through many shallow areas, but with no problems, aside from discourteous fisherman passing us far too fast and too close at times in the shallow waters of Florida Bay. By sunset, we settled into Cowpens Anchorage behind Plantation Key as the forecast filled in and the wind blew hard from the northeast and east. After a dinner of black bean and quinoa salad, it was lights out for us.

We woke early the next morning to discover a crack had formed in the vent line fitting of the waste holding tank. This was a repair that had to wait until we were at our new slip, but it did mandate some changes in the use of the head aboard. Soon we were underway in a strong easterly breeze of about 18 knots. Getting in to Cowpens was easier than getting out, as we bumped bottom several times. Once out of the anchorage and back into the channel, things got worse.

Sunset in Cowpens Anchorage, Plantation Key, Florida

The water in this part of Florida Bay is extremely shallow. We grounded hard in mid-channel, twice, and it was here that the strong breeze became our benefactor. The force of the wind on JO BETH pushed us over far enough so that the keel slid off of the bottom. Going aground is a helpless feeling, but soon enough we were underway, and within an hour we were back in Florida Bay’s ‘deep’ waters of seven and eight feet. I was very happy to pass through Channel #5 and back into Hawk Channel’s relatively deeper waters of 20 and 25 feet.

By this time the breeze had lightened and shifted north. We rolled out the headsail as we pushed west through the blue-green Atlantic waters toward Marathon. Shortly before 2pm we made our approach to the Coco Plum Harbor entrance channel and into Bonefish Marina, our new home. By 2:30pm, we were secured in our slip with help from our new neighbors Ron and Fran aboard the 37’ yacht QUESTERIA. The marina here is lovely. It’s very quiet and laid-back, with showers and laundry facilities, an outdoor bar/lounge area, a small workshop and facilities to dispose of oil and other pollutants. The water in the basin is tested regularly to make sure that no boats illegally discharge sewage overboard and the marina requires all boats to have their waste holding tanks pumped twice per week. There’s a small beach within a mile’s walk and we can take our dinghy to two or three waterfront bars and grills. The town of Marathon is a short bike ride away.

JO BETH secured in her new home base, Bonefish Marina, Marathon, Florida

We showered and went into town with a very expensive Uber ride for a dinner of fried conch fritters. It turns out that our Uber driver also drives for a local cab company and that calling him through the cab service is much cheaper.

Welcome to the Keys!

Marathon sunrise