Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Sailing Recap I: passage to the Keys, electrical mysteries, sailing into a gale, homeward bound ...

Where did all the time go?  Anyone following Alizee no doubt thinks we sailed off the edge of the earth.  The weeks and months have simply zipped by us, and while we've kept up with our written log, nothing has been sufficiently distilled for these on-line pages.

Cruising to the Keys

Back on 23 April, after Alizee came out of Sailor's Wharf Yacht Yard and the rat problem appeared solved, Captain and crew (sister Patricia was joining us) provisioned her at Harborage Marina in St. Pete for a trip south to the Keys, supped cocktails as the sun slipped over the yardarm, seared some scallops for dinner and collapsed into our bunks.  The next morning, we did a final dash to the grocery for things forgotten, Penelope talked to Chris Parker about weather on the telephone and we slipped away from the dock at 11:00 hours and sailed (mostly) southward through the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to one of our favorite anchorages on the Manatee River.  The Captain cooked a lamb stir-fry dinner, we consumed a little wine - all in all a lovely first evening out.

On 25 April, we prepared the boat for our off-shore passage the next day, stringing jack lines, getting our preventer lines ready, plotting our route on the chart plotter and doing other small chores.  We calculated 198 nautical miles to Key West, which, at an average of five knots, we would cover in 40 hours (44 hours at 4 1/2 knots; 33 hours at 6 knots).  Departing at 22:00 hours (ten that evening for any land lubbers reading this), would put our estimated arrival times based on average speed at 08:00, 14:00 or 18:00 on the 27th, but we shortened all those possible arrival times by sailing out that afternoon to Egmont Key on the southwest edge of Tampa Bay.

                                               Night passage south to the Keys

 The crossing was fine, despite shifting winds and having to motor for 18.8 hours of our trip, and at 10:45 on the 27th, we anchored amid a plethora of boats behind Wisteria Island in Key West.  Before we were able to get into a marina the next day, the coasties came along side for a safety inspection, which we passed with flying colors!  On the 28th, we got a slip for two nights at the Key West Bight Marina and for two days we explored Key West: oysters at the Raw Bar, a breakfast at Pepe's, the tourist trolley around the key, a Margarita at the most southern spot of the U.S. (90 miles from Cuba) and, for the best treat of all, an hour or more in the bird and butterfly conservatory on Duvall Street (we still have three "butterflies" on our mast, the wings of which open and close with the humidity).

From 30 April 2 May, we sailed out toward the Dry Tortugas, and, after catching a couple of nice Blue Runners and a Mutton Snapper, which, alas, we were too tired to turn into sushi, we anchored for a night at the Marquesas Keys.  (Too tired, for sushi???)  The next day we watched the weather: an enormous low pressure area 150 miles west was moving ENE, precluded our sailing to the Dry Tortugas.  It rained and blew form most of the day, and we stowed portable electronics in the oven in the event of a lightning strike.  After the rain passed, we dried out the cockpit, made sushi rice and prepared Blue Runner sushi and sashimi and considered that we might be able to make the 40 miles to the Dry Tortugas the next day.

Electrical mysteries

At about this time in our cruise, I decided to really document what appeared to be a consistent battery problem.  On our crossing south, we'd had to turn on the engine an motor sail because the auto pilot showed a low battery warning.  At the Key West marina we got a full charge on shore power before we headed out for the Marquesas Key.  Although we motored for 2.2 hours and the wind generator operated steadily for 12 hours, after 30 hours the 2 house batteries (bank #1) showed a -5.2 amp hours, but the 1 start battery (bank #2) showed it was down -49.8 amp hours.  Something was clearly amiss.

Over the next few days I logged the batteries, keeping track of how long the engine ran (which charged both batteries) and the wind generator operated (which, I discovered, seemed only to charge the house bank).  On our final two days of sailing north from Egmont Key to Fantasy Island in north Tampa Bay, thence to our home port at St. Pete, we motored an hour and had 14 knot winds turning the wind generator for 5 hours, but the auto pilot was flashing "low battery" and, when we finally arrived at our marina berth, bank #1 (the house batteries) was charging and showing 109.3 amp hours, while bank #2 was showing -91.7 amp hours and not charging.  The boat yard had said the batteries were good (I'd asked them to load test them all), but when we got Alizee back into the yard to finish installing new primary winches and to repair yet some other rat-chewed lines and wires, a new load test showed one of the batteries was completely gone.  So, all three were replaced.

(A footnote to this story is that there still seemed to be a problem, with bank #1 not seeming to work as hard as bank #2 (the start battery).  I couldn't figure it out and kept thinking that the battery connections had been changed when the new batteries were put in.  Finally, in November, when I brought in an electrician to replace a couple failing panel circuits, did I discover that the yard had never recalibrated the Link-20 battery monitor after replacing the batteries; thus, it had been bank #2 reading incorrectly.)

Sailing into a gale

Prepared for foul weather
On 2 May we awakened to find that a low pressure ridge, which Chris Parker had warned us about the day we left St. Pete, was moving across the Gulf from the NW to the SE, expected to arrive by Friday night, 36 hours away.  We calculated that we could make the 112 nautical miles to San Carlos Bay at Ft Myers in about 22 hours, arriving early Friday morning, getting us in ahead of the front.  Thus, Penelope made up some food for the coming hours and straightened up the refrigerator to make reaching nourishment handy, while Patricia and I got life vests, tethers and other gear out and ready for us.  We put a reef in the main, weighed anchor at 0930 and sailed NNE in a 20 knot SE wind at 6 knots.  Meanwhile, the stormy weather to the W of us, which had kept us pinned at the Marquesas instead of proceeding on to Fort Jefferson and the Dry Torgugas, was moving NE much faster than the Captain had anticipated.  By 11:00 the wind began shifting to ESE, speed dropped to 5 knots and by noon it was raining.  Penelope and Patricia wisely went below to stay dry and probably more comfortable.

At 13:00 hours, we were in a squall.  Wind speed built to gale-force, and I hove to and joined the crew below to let the storm pass.  After 45 minutes or so, I decided to get back to the helm to steer away from the storm to smooth our ride, tethering myself into the cockpit as I climbed up the companion-way steps. As soon as I was up, I saw that the dinghy was swinging widely on the stern davits, on which we carry the dinghy with its engine.  The line securing the engine had broken, and now six-foot plus seas were causing the engine to whip left-then-right-then-left-then right from its mount on the dinghy.  This was putting enormous strain on the lines and harness securing the dinghy to the davits.  I had to get a new line on the engine!  Tethered to the back of the cockpit, I got a line from the stern locker and clambered up on to the deck.  The dinghy was swinging wildly as I crawled back to the dinghy and tried to reach the engine.  Waves were sweeping across the deck with such force that one swept me off my knees, throwing me against the port lifelines -- I was never so glad to be tethered.

But, I couldn't get the line to the engine without someone helping to support me, so Penelope came topside.   We struggled together to secure the engine, but the dinghy was still swinging widely on the davits.  We needed to get another line on it to stop the starboard-port-starboard swinging.  As we tried to figure a solution, wouldn't you know, I was almost collapsing from exhaustion, and, so soaked through and through, I slipped below to dry off a bit and put on heavier foul-weather gear.  Probably not the smartest thing to do, for the exhaustion, the heavy seas and the wet all combined to turn my stomach.  When I climbed back into the cockpit, it was just in time to feed the fish over the lee rail.  Meanwhile, between 15:30 and 15:50, Penelope had figured a way to put another line around the dinghy's pontoon (hanging to the port side), which she could secure to the starboard side of the stern pulpit, thus greatly lessening the dinghy's swinging on the davits.  Although still a bit queasy, I helped her secure the line just as the squall passed over us and the sun came out.

Penelope was exemplary during the storm and all through our trip.  Patricia put it very well in an entry to the log later when we were finally at anchor:  "I've been so impressed with Penelope's sailing -- she handles the boat like a seasoned sailor -- definitely could aim for being Captain."  

During the course of the storm, while hove to, Alizee had drifted about four nautical miles off course, and now we put her back on course.  We fired up the engine and continued our passage to San Carlos Bay, aided nicely by the wind's shifting so it came out of the SE.  We celebrated our survival with drinks in the cockpit under a slowly setting sun, Penelope prepared dinner under calm seas and salsa by Patricia was a big hit.  Fifteen hours later, each of us tired from our watches, we anchored in San Carlos Bay, and spent the day reading, napping and going for a swim, the day capped off by a pan-fried steak dinner with Napa Cabbage slaw.

Homeward on the ICW

4 May found us still at anchor in San Carlos Bay.  Still all pretty tired, for the next two days we decided to stay put.  The wind blew a steady fifteen knots all night and day, and our batteries were fully charged, allowing us to recharge our computers, Kindles and cell phones and that night watch a Netflix movie (oh, what the modern world has wrought).  We read, ate fresh fish, turkey burgers, Empress Chili, and a Cuban rice dinner; we drank Bloody Mary's in the afternoon, found out that George Jones had died and celebrated his life by playing most of his music, also toasted the memory of Penelope's Billy, who had passed on seven years before, and planned our next week's itinerary, homeward up the ICW (with maybe a bit of coastal sailing).

Our next anchorage, on 6 May at St. James City on the southern end of Pine Island, was barely a two hour motor.  There we went ashore to the Waterfront Restaurant and Marina for an A+ meal of sake/oyster shooters, clam chowder, Snow crab claws, Calamari, Grouper and Greek salad.  Waddling back to the dinghy, we went up the Monroe Canal to a little bait shop next to Woodie's Restaurant (we would have a visit there later, in November), where we got a bag of ice and raced back to Alizee before it melted away.

We spent three days around Charlotte Harbor, catching some fish, seeing the sights from the water and spending a roily night at anchor near Cayo Costa.  On 9 May, we raised sails and went out the Boca Grande inlet, passing a tarpon fishing tournament on the way out the channel as well as catching the first of  a couple of nice Spanish Mackerels, which Penelope fileted beautifully.  We'd called ahead to the Crows Nest Marina at Venice for a berth, and slipped in at 15:10.  I fixed some sushi rolls with some of the Mackerel, after which we had dinner at the Crow's Nest.  I mention this only because, unlike previous meals there, this was not particularly the best, and, worse, I got food poisoning from the mussel appetizer I had ordered and was miserably ill from 23:00 to 01:00.

Fantasy Island
Despite my previous night's discomfort, we sailed northward to Egmont Key the next day.  Our penultimate day of the cruise was spent with a wonderful sail from Egmont to Fantasy Island in north Tampa Bay (very near the Port of Tampa), where we spent a nice night at anchor feasting on a pork marsala dinner by Penelope.   By noon on our last day, we were home in our slip at the Harborage Marina in St. Pete, where Patricia and Penelope got ready to jump ship early the next day and leave me to clean up Alizee and prepare her to go back into Sailor's Wharf to finish installing the primary electric winches, water line repairs and fix the battery problem.  On 14 May, my friend Jeff Grant helped me get Alizee into the yard, and I drove home.  End of an interesting, challenging and often fun cruise.


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