Disclaimer: This blog post is about three weeks behind where we actually are. For that, we are sorry.
An adventure without hair dye:
Finally! It was time to leave Marco Island and make our way down south to the Florida Keys. We’d refilled our water and diesel and the wind was supposed to be in our favor. We’d prepared as much as we could and we felt ready, but there was still a bit of nervousness since the passage from Marco Island to Marathon in Boot Key would be our first overnight passage. At 90 nautical miles, it would also be our longest to-date as well. The route would take us south-southeast through the Gulf of Mexico and we predicted it to take approximately 20 hours. We gave ourselves quite the cushion just in case a situation presented itself. We’ve discovered a lot of ‘anything and everything can and will go wrong’ for no darn good reason except to add some gray to Leah’s hair. (Inaudible whisper: she doesn’t dye it anymore.) Not only was this our first overnight passage, but it would also take us far enough from land where we’d be surrounded by nothing but water. This would be the first passage where we were really alone out there.
An adventure with a disappointing app:
As we departed the wind wasn’t cooperating as planned. Despite our Predict Wind app which “predicted” perfect wind direction and speed for us, we needed an easterly and got a southwesterly. The weak breeze was blowing too close to our line and even though we kept looking at the app and saying, “see, it says the wind is supposed to be going this way!” it was somehow still a southwesterly. So we started to tack our way toward Marathon in a huge zig-zag pattern that took us off course by miles at a time. Thank goodness we gave ourselves plenty of time. If there was a lesson to be learned (I doubt we learned anything), it would be that there is no assurance that technology will work as planned. The less you have, the less there is to go wrong.
An adventure with a lot of nightlights:
Being an overnight passage, we needed a shift plan. I was to get us out of Marco Island and Leah would pilot into Marathon. We left later in the afternoon expecting to arrive at our destination the following morning.
It went as follows: 03/08, depart: [Josh] 13:00 – 17:00 [Leah] 17:00 – 21:00 [Josh] 21:00 – 01:00 [Leah] 01:00 – 05:00 [Josh] 05:00 – 07:00 [Leah] 07:00 – 09:00 Arrive 03/09
Around 9:00pm the wind god eventually forgave us and Peacemaker had her sails up and motor off, making 5.5 – 7.0 kts (it doesn’t sound fast, but on a sailboat it feels like you’re flying). She was doing her job well and we were in high spirits. Up until now, we’ve only sailed in the daytime and it never ceases to amaze. Multiply a night passage by 10 because the first time you do it, it’s kind of intense. As far as a mind-blowing-holy-moly,-brain-explosion-first-time-“whoa!” experiences go, this was definitely up there.
Other mind-blowing experiences I’ve had:
– Seeing Flavor Flav getting off a plane.
– This one time I found a rock only to find out later that it wasn’t a rock at all.
– The one year I didn’t get audited by the IRS.
– Driving my Plymouth Horizon from St. Louis to Rolla without a transmission.
– When Jurassic Park came out.
(What are some of yours?)
Back to sailing stuff:
When the sun sets and disappears under the horizon, it’s replaced by an intimidating darkness that sneakily pops its eerie little head out and a vast new world opens up looming over you as a black void of nothing. A man can really get a sense of his place in the world when he’s all alone in the dark. It has a tendency to make you go a bit philisophical and put life and death in perspective. The dark can be just scary enough to miss a comfortable bed in St. Louis, but exciting enough to see how far you can venture. It can also be a great time to ponder deep thoughts like, should Ross and Rachel really have ended up together in the end? or, how do birds whistle without lips? (Don’t ponder too long) – The waves became blackness rolling in on a plane of visible nothing. The wind existed only because it howled. The hull climbed and then descended toward the sea, effortlessly cutting through the water. It was a magical night filled without a cloud in the sky. The moon and stars graciously shone as a billion happy nightlights that lit the deck of Peacemaker and eased our trepidation. It was a very humbling feeling to be on our own, exposed in that expanse of nature. Brewster refused to leave the captain alone whenever at the helm and more than once I found myself talking to her to pass the time and to let her know that it was okay, even though she was really reassuring me.
Our safety precautions when at the helm at night:
– Always where a PFD (Personal Flotation Device).
– Emergency whistle/flare/flashlight attached to PFD.
– Always be attached to something solid with a lifeline.
An adventure with a lobster pot:
There’s nothing more exciting than a wake up call at 4:30 in the morning in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Peacemaker suddenly had slowed from her swift 5-6 kts down to a 2-kt crawl. We knew something was amiss – but what? At first we guessed the wind suddenly died or the current was against us or some sort of sea monster like the Kraken or Nessie had attacked us, but as we turned the engine on and tried to get back on course, we found we could barely turn the wheel to move the rudder. Basically she was dead in the water. Luckily we just met another boater, Genethewanderer, in Marco Island and he mentioned the probability of snagging lobster pots on a keel is pretty high. Leah thought it might be that. I double checked it wasn’t the Kraken. I stretched the boat hook as long as it could and felt behind the rudder. Something was there.
Solution? Dive in, investigate, evaluate.
Fun? Kind of.
We waited for sunrise – which wasn’t too far away – to dive in. In the meantime, we dropped the sails in case whatever was on us threatened to rip off the prop or rudder. With the sails down, we began drifting aimlessly around the Gulf heading farther and farther off course. As the morning sun began to speckle the rolling waves with light, I reluctantly donned my 5mm full wetsuit, my kitesurfing harness, a knife, and a dive light and knowing what was ahead, I laughed a little at what my life had become. We lashed a line from my kitesurfing harness to the backstay of the boat and in case I floated away, we threw some life vests out there too. (Don’t worry, Mom, Leah had her eyes on me at all times!) The waves were only about 2-4’ high, but when you’re diving underneath a rocking boat in the middle of nowhere, they’re mountains! A few deep breaths and I pulled myself under holding tightly to the swim ladder. Luckily the water was clear enough and I could see the problem. An old frayed rope was jammed far up in the rudder and a float ball was stuck in the prop. There it was, the answer to our problem – Lobster pot #25! Slice, slice, slice, with the knife and I watched the ball drift off and cut the rope free. It would’ve made a great souvenir, but it floated just out of reach. (That’s a Trash Project rant right there.) Then, with an exhausted high-five, Peacemaker was underway and back on course.
An adventure with acronyms:
As Seven Mile Bridge came into view in the distance, we felt the exhilaration that we’d actually done it! We’d sailing across the Gulf to the Keys and its crystal clear blue water! We made it to Marathon after a full 24 hours on the water. It was around 1:00pm when we dropped anchor in Boot Key Bay – and TFAB! Time For A Beer! Oh, what a happy dance that was! The voyage was a success, and now we could relax.
An adventure with a brief overview of a week and a half in Marathon:
When we arrived, my Dad was passing through in his RV from Key West up to Jupiter for Cardinals spring training. They stayed for two days and we got to hang out the whole time. Unfortunately this was the last time we’ll see them for a while since they’re on their way north and we’re headed south. It was sad to send them off, but it was a great time and they were a huge help to us.
We also made repairs on Peacemaker:
– New rail for SCUBA tanks.
– New screens for hatches.
– ST. LOUIS, MO (our hailing port) added to stern.
– In process of re-purposing saltwater sink pump.
– In process of building rain collection system.
We enjoyed Sombrero beach, picked up a bunch of stuff from the post office (thanks to General Delivery), and made friends along the way. A few days in, we had to move anchorages from Boot Key Bay to Sister’s Creek because of a strong NE wind that was rocking us in 3 – 5’ waves and would only get worse.
Marathon has its good, bad, and blasé and depending on what you’re looking for, you might arrive and never leave. If you’re searching for the answer to all Jimmy Buffet songs, Marathon is for you. We found a week and a half was a good amount of time, and once the wind calmed, we were ready to hit it.
I’ve also realized that before we began sailing, our “usual” vacations consisted of going out to eat, drinking at the “local” places, and seeing the historical sites, usually throwing in some activities like skiing or diving in for good measure. Now, in an attempt to save money and since we’re technically classified as “the poors”, we try not to eat out or go to bars nearly as much as we would have a year ago. We did enjoy a little local fare though… food is a big part of experiencing somewhere new, after all!
What I’ve also realized is that a lot of the people that visit and stay in places like Marathon aren’t really in search of anything. A good happy hour and a bartender with a sympathetic ear is all some want. They’ll give us a nod and happily tell us their story, but they see us and know we’re not here to stay. As much as we enjoy the local scene, we’re in search of something more. It’s not in Marathon, but somewhere out there. Somewhere out there the answer lies – in the nature, the sun, the white sand, and the sea. To experience the world not as tourists, but as travelers.
– Not easy to get around without a car, but walkable if needed.
– $5 cab ride anywhere on the island.
– Everything is on Highway 1 and in strip mall fashion.
– There are a good amount of “famous” bars that are typical dive-y Florida Keys style that the locals and tourists frequent according to the deals each place has on a given day of the week.
– Home Depot, Publix, Kmart, Winn Dixie, Post Office, etc… are all located in town within less than a mile of each other.
– Only one free city dock, on the north side of island, not too easy to get to from anchorage areas
– Sombrero Beach is rated as a top Florida keys beach – and does not disappoint. On the south side of the island, it’s clean, dog-friendly with white sand and good facilities, dinghy-able (for free) from both Boot Key or Sister’s Creek.
– Sombrero Reef is 3 miles south – excellent diving/snorkeling.
Our two anchorages:
Boot Key Bay Anchorage: [24° 41.64 N, 081°007.05 W]
– Good anchorage, 8’ depth, good protection from E winds, but no coverage against winds from N/W/S, mud and grassy bottom, good holding.
– Absolutely beautiful, with completely unobstructed views of spectacular sunsets.
– Easy to get to Burdine’s Marina by dinghy.
– 40-min dinghy ride to the FREE city dinghy dock on north side of Marathon.
– 25-min dinghy ride to Sombrero beach through Boot Key Harbor.
Sister’s Creek Anchorage: [24° 41.661 N, 081° 5.309 W]
– Great anchorage, 8’ depth, well protected from all winds, buggy if wind is light, calm water (a no wake zone), tie stern to mangroves.
– Beautiful, although no view of ‘big finale’ sunsets due to mangroves.
– Good fishing – not that I know ‘cause I can’t catch a cold. I watched others pull in plenty of fish.
– 2-min dinghy ride to Sombrero Beach – then a 2.5-mile walk to Publix/Home Depot/etc…
Sombrero Beach:[24° 41.520’ N, 081° 5.230’ W]
– Free dinghy access (next to pier).
– 2.5-mile walk into town.
– Small, beautiful sand beach.
– Nice facilities (Sand volleyball courts, covered picnic areas, small park, recycling bins, clean bathrooms)
– The local Turtle Hospital releases baby sea turtles into the water there occasionally. (That made the morning a bit too crowded though.)
Burdine’s Marina: [24° 42.091’ N, 081° 6.469 W] (There are others, but this one seemed to be the cheapest. Friendly staff too.)
– Diesel – $$??
– Ethanol – $3.76/gal
– Water – 15¢/gal,
– Poo suck out before 11am only (due to upstairs restaurant)
– Dinghy dockage – $7.50/day
– Food, beer (and a good local craft beer selection), wine, fishing stuff
An adventure with Jimmy Buffet:
In Marathon, Leah discovered through a Women Who Sail Facebook page that there was another couple, Zach and Lindy who were sailing on “Holiday”, a Tartan 37 similar to “Peacemaker”. In fact, I believe their hull production number is 272 and ours is 276. Despite the grand magnitude of the sea, it really is a small world.
We got in contact with them and they told us to dinghy up to their mooring ball to say hi. The one thing we’ve learned along the way is that boaters are very friendly and don’t mind a chat. We hung out and became quick friends, finding our paths and stories very similar. We met up with them again on St. Patrick’s Day and we went to “Overseas” bar for some cheap happy hour beers and live music. After happy hour was over, we realized we were all “the poors” so they dinghied over to Peacemaker since Brewster had been alone for a while (her 3rd time alone on the boat – she’s getting better).
*How the night went: Drinks, rum, barnacle stories, regular rum, moonshine rum, beer.
We even had a jam session and sing-along — Zach plays the ukulele and I know how hold a guitar and pretend to play. Oooh, Jimmy Buffet was a roarin’! A night to remember – if only I could remember. We hung out a few times after that too and will miss them dearly, but as we continue on to our to our next destination, they continue to theirs. We’ve come to understand that friends we meet along the way will come and go, and hopefully we’ll keep in touch and even have the opportunity to see some again in the future.
As the waves break, the wind blows, and so are the days of our lives.
In a few weeks, we plan to meet back up with them in the Bahamas. Check out their story at: funonholiday.com
An adventure with a 30-second breath hold:
Sombrero Reef: [24° 37.671’ N, 081° 6.710’ W]
A snorkeling and free diving we go! It was the day before we left Marathon and the ocean was calling our name. Sombrero Key Reef is approximately 3 miles south of Marathon, a protected sanctuary, and an easy sail with mooring balls to tie up to. So we left our anchorage for the day and headed out to get a bit salty. Big ol’ Barracuda, fast-talking Parrot fish, and goobery looking Grouper of all sizes filled the absolutely breathtaking reef. Depths ranged from 6’ to 25’ and schools of neon, pastel, monochrome, rainbow, and other color scales curiously swam within feet of us. Even as we arrived, they swarmed Peacemaker’s and began using her keel as an oasis. Fan, brain, and some tube coral dominated the formation and from the small area we explored, we were happy to see that the reef itself is in excellent condition despite the thousands of people that visit it regularly.
Looe Key Reef: [24° 32.853’ N, 081° 24.366’ W] (on our way to Big Pine Key, our next anchorage)
After we left Marathon, we opted in for another snorkel along the way. I didn’t think a second snorkel in as many days would impress me much more than the first, but I can say, as we continuously find ourselves in clearer and clearer waters and the dark blues become a brilliant aqua, I’m remembering why we began this whole little venture in the first place. We luckily arrived before the tour boats dump-trucked hundreds of snorkelers out into the water and tied up to one of the free mooring balls available. I’d spit in my mask and donned my fins, and as I stepped down the swim ladder, I stuck my face in to get a quick overview… Bam! Shark! 5’ to 6’ long and directly below me! I guessed it was a Reef or Lemon shark but I was too excited to check the book. Now most people’s first reactions to seeing a shark only 15’ from their toes would be to scurry back up the swim ladder and be finished for the day. Sadly, we can all thank “Jaws” or “Sharknado” or any other predatory movie for that. I instantly screamed, but not out of fear. I screamed to Leah to hurry up and get in before it swam off. I silently slid into the water and had my first wild shark experience.
Besides the sun and sea, one of the many reasons we’re out here doing what we’re doing is to help educate in our own little way that the world is quite impressive. I’ve always believed that if you stop and take a gander at it, we, us, humanity may begin to understand that there is a collective beauty of balance in nature that we need to appreciate and understand rather than fear and destroy. In fact, as I took a deep breath, kicked my fins back and dove down to get a look at this babe, I realized this innocent creature who’s just doing his shark ‘thang’ is on the threatened species list. It needed to be more fearful of me than I did of it. It could have been the need for oxygen to my brain, but as he lazily swam off, I’m pretty sure he gave me a wink and a smile. I also think he might have had a crush on me. I don’t know shark logic, but what I do know is that this shark, despite its feelings for me, did not eat me, nor any of the thousands of others that have been to the reefs. It simply wanted to be left alone.
Sharks do shark things, fish do fish things, brain coral disappointingly don’t come up with evil plans to take over the world like their name implies, but instead, do brain coral things like provide food, nutrients, and a haven for fish, and they all somehow live peacefully in a symbiotic ecosystem. It’s us, the humans, that have created either the mystique or danger surrounding these fascinating creatures. In turn, we need them mounted as a trophy or to use their fins in a male enhancement potion or to destroy them all because we need a place to safely swim at the all-inclusive resorts. The point is if you see a shark – not in an aquarium, not on a dinner plate or in a movie, not hanging upside down by its tail getting a picture with a proud fisherman, but in the water and in the wild – consider yourself lucky because they’re becoming rarer and rarer, making them harder and harder to see.
Next Blog: Key West – or, was Jacques Cousteau just a regular guy in an aqua-man suit?