South, South, and North Again

The following Monday, we left Allans Cay and headed to Normans Cay. At just under ten miles and two hours, this would be a quick hop south. Even though the trip was speedy, I was still able to count over 50 colorful starfish along the way (Yes, I kept count)!
We chose to anchor on the western shore of Normans Cay, just south of Skipjack Point. We had good depths here, compared to the shallow depth we anchored in at our last stop. We dropped the anchor in about 15 feet. The water was incredibly calm that day. Although we were open and exposed to nearly everything except the east, the water was flat, we could see straight to the bottom. When we set the anchor, we could see it biting into the sand, as if it were just inches underneath us. After lunch, we hopped in the dinghy and rode to the other side of the island (where many cruising boats chose to anchor). On our trip over, we slowed every so often to observe the stingrays, giant needle fish, and coral heads.

Once inside, around the southern tip, we idled through the anchored cruising boats, over to the sunken airplane (said to be from drug-running days). We hadn’t brought our snorkel gear with us, so we were unable to dive the site, but with the water as clear as it was, we managed to get a good look from inside the dinghy. We headed to the island’s “hurricane hole” next. Norman’s Pond is accessible from the eastern side of the island and is for shallow draft boats only. We considered anchoring inside as we planned this leg, but knowing how shallow the entry was, we weren’t going to chance running aground. We were free to explore by dinghy, however. We entered the “pond” between two large rocks and it became shallow almost immediately. At the current tide, the depth could have been no more than a few feet. Once clearing the shoal just inside, the depths increased as we followed a deeper contour into the pond where depths are reported to be well over ten feet. The pond was more than what we considered a “pond”, it was quite large actually. The water was just as blue as the outside, but opaque and two neat caves rose above the water along one side. We drove around in the dinghy…only one sailboat was inside. We decided that it might be a good spot to escape bad weather, if we could enter at a high tide; but for now, we were happy with our anchorage on the west side of the island.
The next day we headed south to Shroud Cay, the first cay in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. This hop was even shorter at only six miles and under 90 minutes. We arrived fairly early in the day and opted to anchor rather than pick up one of the mooring balls. Since we arrived before midday, many boats had not left from the previous night; we anchored as close to shore as we could, without crowding other boats. We hiked a few trails around Shroud Cay and explored some of the mangrove creeks.

Later that day, we hopped in the dinghy, loaded up the dogs and then tossed the anchor in knee-deep water with drinks in hand so the dogs could play. After Ginnie got her fair share of running around, we headed back for sunset on board. That night was rolly. We didn’t sleep much since the boat didn’t really stop moving. We had protection from only the east and winds had shifted to the southwest, so waves rolled in from that direction.

shroud 2

shroud

We headed back up to Allans Cay that morning to wait for the winds to subside. We learned what it means for Allans Cay to be a “fair weather anchorage”: it was quite different this time than when we were last here. Strong current and swell from the bank rolled through, not always matching the wind. This lead to some interesting moments in the anchorage. Usually, boats point into the wind, so typically all boats point in the same direction. This was not the case now. Because the current moved differently depending on which side of the anchorage one was anchored, boats danced around their anchor, often pointing in different directions. At one point our anchor (which thankfully held secure) was behind us rather than at the bow. The combination of current and swell was uncomfortable. One night, I had to remain holding onto a pot of boiling water so it wouldn’t topple.

Obviously, we took anchor watch shifts. During my shift, I watched Pitch Perfect (singing along quietly so Troy wouldn’t hear me), drank too much coffee, and made mini homemade cherry pies…because, why not? We tried to make the best of the several nights we were there. We hiked around Leaf Cay to a beach on the east side (which was remarkably calm) and climbed rocky hills of Allans Cay to check out the Exuma Bank which was incredibly rough from days of western winds. We decided to stay put until the Bank settled.


Thankfully, it finally did…we were itching to move on!

Exumas, Here We Come!

Exumas Day, Exumas Day! Today was finally the day! We woke up early that morning…mostly from excitement, but Troy would say it was to get out at high tide. We would be crossing the Yellow Bank, a shallow expanse of water between New Providence and the Exumas that is littered with coral heads. Crossing the bank at high tide meant that we would have the most water beneath our keel to avoid the coral. So, with that in mind, we took the dogs out to do their business just as the sun rose and began preparing to depart our slip at Palm Cay Marina. We untied the lines, said good-bye to wi-fi (and the friendly staff, of course), and we were on our way.
We were scheduled to arrive at Allans Cay in under five hours; the trip was just shy of 30 miles. For our first time crossing an area with known large coral heads, we weren’t taking any chances. More than likely, we’d be fine since our boat has a shallow draft and we were crossing at high tide. In any case, as we approached the bank, Troy made his way to the bow and I took the helm. The plan was for Troy to keep a lookout for coral heads and guide me as I steer through any potential hazards. Before we left for our trip, we picked up a set of two-way radios, and I’m glad we did. Over the wind noise, we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other, unless we wanted to shout like lunatics. We backed down to about 1500 rpms, just enough to give us time to dodge a coral head, if needed. Just like crossing the Gulf Stream, the Yellow Bank was not nearly as scary as I had made it out to be in my head. Troy easily guided me a little to the left or a little to the right to pass coral heads safely. They were not too difficult to spot. Every so often, a dark mass appeared in the jewel-toned blue water. Soon, we were passed any potential hazards and the first cays of the Exumas came into view.

We picked Allans Cay as our first stopping point in the Exumas. This wasn’t the first of the Exuma Cays, but it was one of the first places that many cruisers stop on their journey south…plus there are iguanas! What is known collectively as “Allans Cay” is actually made up of three small, separate cays: Allans Cay, Leaf Cay (aka Iguana Beach), and Southwest Allans Cay. These three cays are arranged closely together in somewhat of a triangle shape, with a channel in between.

As we entered the cays, we did two things, almost simultaneously. First, marveled at the absolutely stunning scenery (endless shades of crystal clear blue water, white sand beaches, palm trees, boats anchored and swinging lazily in the breeze). Second, we had to decide where we were going to drop anchor. Most boats anchor in between Allans Cay and Leaf Cay. Southwest Allans Cay has a little shallow bay, where only two to three shallow draft boats can fit. There were about six to seven boats in the main anchorage, but the little bay was empty. That was our spot! Slowly, very slowly, we inched our way in as shallow as we could manage. The further in we crept, the shallower it became, but that also meant more protection from wind and sea swell. We dropped the hook in about six feet of water, at about mid-tide. Once we shut off the diesel, Troy and I just looked at each with big dopey grins…we were finally here!

Our anchorage was picture perfect: Salty Tails sat in the middle of the shallow crystal-clear bay surrounded by land on three sides. Two sides, opposite to one another were rocky with shrubs and low trees growing on top, the third side was a white sand beach…one that we had all to ourselves! However, we did notice a few iguanas poking around; surely waiting on handouts of fruits and veggies.

We dropped the dinghy soon after we recovered from our Exumas arrival shock. Ginnie, Bella, Troy, and I were off to explore the cays. The water was calm that day, so we were able to go wherever we pleased. Ginnie took her typical spot on the bow of the dinghy, paws stretch over the side and her face as close to the water as she could manage to reach. Bella instead, opted to lay on the floor, her eyes barely open, enjoying the warm sunshine. Troy and I poked around each of the cays, taking note of where we’d like to go ashore in the next few days.

Through the weekend, we spent time soaking up every minute…enjoying our typical taco night, swimming, sunbathing, and exploring by dinghy.

On Saturday, we ventured over to iguana beach (Leaf Cay). We went empty handed, just to observe, not to feed. Part of me hoped that if the iguanas saw our hands were empty, they’d keep their distance. Thankfully, they were pretty slow moving and didn’t seem too interested in us. They did however, let us snap a few close-ups.

The iguanas on Leaf Cay were enormous! And, they were everywhere. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said we saw at least 50 iguanas: either lounging on the sand, sleeping on rocks, or scurrying around the shrubbery. We noticed that what got their attention most were the loads of tour boats that came in. Many giant center console boats packed with tourists would arrive throughout the day, offering handouts to the iguanas. That is probably why they weren’t too concerned with us: we didn’t have the goods! In the next few days, I did hold on to a few apple cores…and tossed them from a distance.

The weather remained calm and placid over the weekend, we enjoyed every moment! This could not have been a better first stop in the Exumas!
Next stop…Normans Cay.

Berry Scary

We were a little groggy the next day, but ready to head to Little Harbor. We would be taking the outside route on the Northwest Providence Channel to reach our destination. This leg would take approximately four hours and the winds we were dodging had finally subsided. Once we began rounding Little Stirrup Cay we noticed the sea swell had not. In the Northwest Channel, waves were still significant…we estimated around 8-10 feet. We had originally planned to start under motor since there was very little wind. But, sailboats are made to sail, and in these conditions, the boat teeter-tottered, making the ride very uncomfortable, not to mention, cans of peas and carrots were rolling around down below. The direction of the waves in comparison to the direction of our track had the waves hitting us right on our beam, throwing us side to side. Troy decided to let out some of our headsail. WOW! What a difference! This balanced out the boat nicely, no more heaving. Just in time…no one lost their breakfast! What wind there was filled the sail nicely as we rode up and down the swells, catching glimpses of only the masts of other sailboats as they too rose and fell with the sea.
The Berry Islands are a chain of over 100 cays and islands that separate the Great Bahama Bank and the Northwest Providence Channel. We traveled the outside (Northwest Channel) route over deeper water. Anchorages along the Berry Islands are generally located on the bank side. This means that sailboats must pass through cuts, a pass between islands to travel from one body of water to another. We would need to pass through a cut to reach our anchorage on the protected and shallow bank side. We knew this was going to pose a challenge. The water that moves between cuts can be agreeable or your worst enemy. Since the angry sea swell from the deeper water would be funneling through the cut, we were going to experience the latter. Since we were unable to capture the events on camera, below is an accurate representation of the moment.

With the binoculars, I surprisingly spotted Delphinus far in the distance. We hadn’t planned on traveling with them, but here they were…small world. They were nearing the cut well before us, so I watched as intently as I could manage, hopefully getting some sense of what we would be up against. Keeping binoculars steady while underway in dicey conditions is harder than you might expect! But, I was able to see their mast pass though the cut. It soon would be our turn.
I was white-knuckled; Troy was focused as we approached. Because of the funnel effect and the depths decreasing rapidly, the ocean became even more churned up. We got closer and closer, finally at the point of no return…we couldn’t turn around even if we wanted to with the waves building around us. The waves picked us up and surfed us in. I finally started breathing again, we made it through the cut. Soon enough though, the depths on our depth finder decreased suddenly as we approached a reef, much shallower than our charts indicated. Although we were through the cut at this point, the force of the water would not allow us to retreat. The bottom became visible, too visible. We could see the rocky bottom and coral heads below as if we had just inches of water beneath us. If we grounded, we were going to be in serious trouble. Thankfully, what felt like an eternity, really only lasted seconds. No grounding, we cleared by just 18 inches; depths rose quickly as we entered the calm anchorage.

As if we had entered another world, the water in front of us was calm and flat, glassy even, while over our shoulders the angry sea raged on. The calm waters also brought quiet, no more crashing waves buffeting our ears. It was truly an idyllic place…just like a postcard. Delphinus was anchored just inside along the first beach. We stopped for a moment and they began to tell us that they had grounded badly while crossing the reef. This I could obviously not see through my binoculars earlier. Their 5.7 foot draft was just too much in comparison to our 4 foot draft. Paul was getting ready to dive and inspect the damage. Later, they let us know that the damage was only superficial, and no real harm was done. To this point in our journey, I don’t think I have been more thankful to drop anchor. We were exhausted, hungry, and in need of stillness.

We stayed a total of nine nights at Little Harbor. Our anchorage perfectly suited us to ride out two spells of high winds. We were protected from eastern and southern winds by the island and from northern and western winds by shallow waters. The strongest winds, around 35 knots, came out of the west. The shallow waters kept large waves or swell from building, so conditions were tolerable. During the days of poor weather, I made homemade bread and we watched the Back to the Future trilogy! And of course, Troy got a few boat projects done.

We kept busy the entire time we stayed. We were able to explore several places by dinghy, including the blue hole at Hoffman’s Cay, multiple pristine beaches at Devil’s and Comfort Cays, and the shallow waters that formed a hurricane hole near Flo’s restaurant (a popular cruiser destination). Stingrays, starfish, and sea turtles were everywhere. Our dinghy rides were always spent admiring the sea life.

Delphinus was finally able to leave after depth sounding several exit options by hand. They too, were weary of the charted depths that proved to be inaccurate. We said goodbye to our friends as they headed to Nassau.

A few days later, we left Little Harbor for our next stop, Chub Cay, one of the most southern islands in the Berry Island chain. The Northwest Providence Channel was a totally different ball game. The waters were calm, and we made it out of the cut with no problem. Five minutes in, we decided to stretch our trip and head straight for Nassau, skipping Chub Cay altogether. This would eliminate an entire stop for us, making us one step closer to reaching the Exumas.
The weather was sunny and warm that day, with very light winds. We motored and eventually could see the towers of the Atlantis Resort. Rather than entering the busy Nassau Harbor, we decided to make our way to the southwest side of New Providence Island and dock at Palm Cay Marina. Another cut lie ahead of us. The swell rose as the deep waters of the Northwest Providence Channel funneled down between Nassau and Rose Island. Unsure if the swell was too great (it felt like it was), we changed directions and entered through a wider cut. This took more time, but was a much safer option.

Troy guided us through the narrow channel into Palm Cay Marina. Upon our entry, we filled up on diesel at the fuel dock before heading to our slip. Without wasting any time, we took advantage of the marina’s Wi-Fi, hot showers, and laundry facility. I hadn’t used a washer and dryer in nearly two months…I savored the smell of freshly done laundry. We spent two days in Nassau, taking time to provision, fill our water tanks, and pick up a few marine supplies, including a spare Fortress anchor. Our cab driver made our errands more fun. She happily told us about growing up in the Bahamas and all the places we needed to visit.

On our second night, we made homemade pizza and discussed our next stop, the Exumas. We were so excited for our next leg of the trip. The Exumas are the reason we decided to travel to the Bahamas and couldn’t wait to start exploring!

Overnight, Dragging, and Rum

We said goodbye to the friendly faces at Brown’s Marina and began the first leg of our trip to the Berry Islands. We left ahead of Delphinus en route to Mackie Shoal. It was a beautiful day; the winds were light, the sun was bright overhead, and the water was crystal clear. The depths, which averaged 20 feet, appeared much shallower since we could see straight to the bottom. We moved along at 4 knots: definitely not racing speed, but we enjoyed the calm, smooth sail. We arrived at Mackie Shoal just before sunset. Expecting to drop anchor in depths less than 10 feet, we actually found much deeper water and turned out not to be quite the shallow safe spot we anticipated. Since Delphinus had hailed us on the VHF a few hours before to let us know that they would be continuing on through the night to Great Harbor, we decided to do the same. We knew the weather was going to remain calm and winds light; and since our buddy boat was somewhere nearby, we wouldn’t be alone. At our current speed, we’d arrive at Great Harbor just after sunrise. I was nervous, Troy was excited…for our first overnight, the weather was in our favor, so it gave us a good first opportunity. As the sun faded, the moon seemed to take it’s place. We were close to a full moon and the clear skies kept our path well lit.

We ate a quintessential “sailor dinner” that night: rice and beans. And later on, when I was trying to stay up and awake, I made homemade chocolate chip cookies…we “accidently” ate most of those throughout the night. Oh well. Neither of us slept in the cabin, instead we took shifts. One of us took the helm while the other catnapped on one of the lazarettes in the cockpit. The dogs slept just fine, but for us, sleep was difficult to come by, not because the waters were rough or uncomfortable, but because this was our first overnight! We were feeling constant excitement and anticipation. Darius Rucker’s new song, “For the First Time” has really spoken to me lately. In it he asks, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Ummm…now! Everyday, actually! We reached our anchorage in Great Harbor and dropped anchor around 7:00 in the morning. After sorting a few things, sweeping up cookie crumbs, and waving to Delphinus upon their arrival, we crawled into the v-berth to get some sleep.

We planned to stay in Great Harbor for a few days to allow strong north winds to pass; we had good protection in an anchorage with about six other sailboats. The winds began to howl on day 2. We sat in the cockpit that afternoon and began to notice that very slowly, we were falling back in the group of boats. That could only mean one thing: the anchor was dragging. We hopped in the dinghy (Ginnie pitched a little fit that she wasn’t able to go for a ride) and rode out to check. Troy dove down on the anchor and since the bottom was grassy, it had not dug into the seabed. He picked up (all 55 pounds) and manually set the anchor, digging it passed the grass and into the seabed. After that, we had absolutely no issues, although we still slept with one eye open.

Our last night in Great Harbor was spent aboard Delphinus. Paul and John invited everyone in the anchorage over for drinks. We brought along some snacks and rum to share. The stern of Delphinus was a dinghy parking lot! Thank goodness dinghies are rubber inflatables, otherwise the bumping would have caused some traded paint! Everyone found a place to tie off and climb aboard. As we all trickled in, everyone gathered in the salon. We spent hours eating, drinking, and sharing plans, experiences, and stories. The cabin was such a melting pot: Canadians, Brits, and Americans. French was spoken and we even learned some British slang. As the night wore on, the rum was passed around…we ended up writing a song…but I’ll spare you the details.

To Bimini We Go

Bahamas here we come! No sleeping in today: up at 5:00 (but does it really count as “early” when you couldn’t sleep from anticipation anyway?) So many thoughts and questions raced through our minds, but today they’d be answered. Salty Tails was rounding the Key Biscayne lighthouse by 6:00 am; we were underway before the sun rose. Miami was still asleep behind us except for the handful of commercial fishing boats who passed us on our way out of the channel, a typical day for fishermen.

On our course, heading East, we were able to see a beautiful, unobstructed sunrise. Clear visibility, pink and orange skies, and the open Atlantic met us just outside of Miami’s protected waters. We chose this day because we knew the sea state would be in our favor. Very light winds were forecasted along with a calm sea…perfect for our first time Gulf Stream crossing. Our crossing couldn’t have been going any smoother, literally…the seas were almost flat, glassy even. Yes, we motored; no sailing would be happening with 2 knots of apparent winds. For today, that’d be okay with us. Since the Gulf Stream typically moves northward at an average speed of 2.5 knots, we had planned accordingly, setting our course to compensate for the push. Once we entered the Gulf Stream, the water depth plunged on our charts. At the deepest point, our charts indicated we were traveling in over 2,700 feet of water. Wow! The sun shone so brightly that it seemed as if we could see to the bottom. The sun’s rays penetrated the royal blue water. It was breathtaking.

Several hours had passed, we were nearing Bimini. We couldn’t have asked for a better passage. The Gulf Stream wasn’t as big and bad as I had made it out to be in my head. We were finally approaching land: although the ground is low lying, we could see the BTC towers high above. Around 2:00 pm, we were less than an hour away, just three nautical miles. I was almost ready to do a happy dance. The most difficult part was behind us, right? Then, the engine shut off. OFF. We were dead in the water. Now the excited feeling I had did a complete turnaround. I was scared. Luckily Troy, kept cool and calm. He decided to hoist the sails. Even with just 3 knots of wind, we could at least keep forward momentum, buying us some time so that we could, very slowly, continue to make headway toward Bimini while diagnosing what had just gone wrong. With me at the helm, Troy went down below to remove the engine cover and dig in. He assessed and figured it to be some sort of electrical issue. But what was it? He dug through and traced the wiring harness. Finally, he found a simple wire connection that had worked it’s way loose. Thankfully from that previous trip to Napa, he had the correct wire connector he needed to get us going again. He needed 15 minutes, plenty of time since we were only moving at 3 knots. But…a storm cloud was approaching, and in the blink of an eye, winds began to pick up, soon the soft 3 knots of wind turned into 15 knots and we were moving towards Bimini at a much faster pace. Thankfully, Troy finished rewiring and the engine fired right back up. Phew!!
Even though the engine was back up and running as if nothing had ever happened, the storm cloud was still looming. It began to rain as we entered the channel to Bimini, which is busy with boat traffic, inaccurately marked (we noticed one particular channel marker to be washed up on the beach), and rough from the combination of boat wakes, increasing winds, and colliding sea swell and current. Once we safely entered the channel, another curve ball was thrown at us. YES, ANOTHER! As if the engine and rain storm weren’t enough, the anchorage we planned to use so that we could dinghy over to Big Game Club to clear customs and immigration, was inhabited by a storm damaged catamaran, that didn’t appear to be secured properly. Not wanting to take any chances, we headed for South Bimini to anchor in Nixon Harbor instead. With rain still coming down, we dropped the anchor…not once, not twice, but three times to no avail. The ground was so hard that we could not get our oversized, 55lb Rocna anchor to bite. At this point, we were tense, tired, nervous, anxious…and the list goes on, probably with a few choice words mixed in. Quickly, I called Brown’s Marina, which we had heard of through our research and reading about Bimini, to reserve a slip. Thank goodness, they had room for us…we’d finally be able to land in Bimini. Within 20 minutes, we were pulling into our slip, with Cecil assisting with lines. We appreciated his kindness and assistance more than he could know. The fear and worry quickly faded as we enjoyed the setting sun, clear water, and breeze in Bimini…with cocktails in hand. WE MADE IT. And, we even got to finish up the night with hot showers!

The next morning, well rested and with the previous day’s “excitement” behind us, Troy left for Big Game Club to check in and was back within the hour…easy, breezy. We ended up staying two nights in Bimini. This allowed us to rest up and plan our next stop, and even meet some new friends. Paul and John, brothers from the UK, were aboard Delphinus: a Bavaria 44. Paul has spent the last five years cruising across the Atlantic and exploring the Eastern and Western Caribbean with his wife and daughter. They too had arrived in Bimini and made plans to head to the Berry Islands next. We all decided that we’d head in that direction together, stopping overnight at Mackie Shoal (half way across the Great Bahama Bank). We took care of a few final chores; since we were so close to a marina with fuel, we went ahead a topped of both our diesel and gas supply, along with our water tanks. Tomorrow, we would sail to the Berry Islands.

To the Keys and Beyond

Troy and I headed south towards the Keys after leaving Little Shark River. We were ready for the clear waters the Keys are known for. We got that…we also got crab traps. EVERYWHERE! Brightly colored traps, striped traps, black traps, faded traps: you name it, we saw it. The closer we were to arriving in the Keys, the more crab traps we encountered. Up until we dropped the hook in Matecumbe Bight (Islamorada), we were dodging and weaving around an endless expanse of them. Luckily with careful spotting, we didn’t snag any in our prop. We spent three nights in Islamorada, in Florida Bay. There was no place to land the dinghy and go ashore, but we did get the opportunity to explore the nearby canals. Much of our time was spent planning our next stop, which meant heading out into the Atlantic!

 

 

It felt like a victory when we passed by the old Flagler Bridge and underneath A1A. We were officially in the Atlantic Ocean! On our way along the outside of the Keys, the color of the ocean changed. There was a distinct difference between the water “back under the bridge” and what we now sailed in. The water changed from sea green to a deep blue turquoise. We also noticed that rather than cutting through chop, the waves were much more like swells that we glided up and over easily.

5a in the atlantic

We headed North towards Key Largo and anchored alongside Rodriguez Key with a few other boats. As the sun was closer to setting, more and more boats arrived. By the time we headed to bed, over a dozen boats filled the anchorage. Everyone except us left the following morning…maybe they had had enough of the rocking from the Atlantic waves. We had a mission: fill water, diesel, and gas cans. Unfortunately, there was nothing incredibly close; so we dinghied over to Pilot House Marina. Thirty-five minutes later and soaked from the rough ride in, we entered the canal to the marina. It was quite something to see: damage from Hurricane Irma. Caved in sea walls, warped metal boat lifts, and debris lined the canal. A bright spot though, at the entrance, rebuilding. Several men working to rebuild what appeared to be an island resort. The harbormaster at Pilot House Marina and Restaurant told us about their experience. Water, knee-deep, filled the restaurant during and after the storm. You couldn’t tell however, they were open for business, seating guests at their glass-bottomed bar and gassing up boats. Since we had a place to land the dinghy (for free!), Troy decided to stock up on a few engine and maintenance items from Napa. I also stocked up at a Farmer’s Market…lettuce, apples, onions, peppers, limes, squash…you name it, we bought it!

6 grocery

The next day, we were on our way North again, heading to Biscayne Bay near Miami. We were seeking out protection from a week of strong eastern winds in the forecast. Elliot Key would give us that protection, while also getting us a step closer to our jumping off point to Bimini. This turned into our longest stop: 8 nights. The east winds came…days and days of 20+ knot winds. We made the best of it! We found a beach that we had to ourselves (until the weekend arrived when the mega yachts and powerboats crowded the key like a parking lot). The dogs loved running up and down the beach, playing in the water. Ginnie wore her sandy-self out: endless games of fetch (ball or stick) and dunking her head in the water. Bella preferred to sit in the sand mostly…until she decided once to trot off towards the mangroves…and didn’t stop…until Troy caught up with her, eventually. She stayed on the leash after that episode!

Monday morning, after several days of conferring with our weather sources, including PassageWeather, we were off to No Name Harbor. There we would prepare for our Gulf Stream crossing to Bimini on Wednesday or Thursday. We are learning that weather is the sole dictator of any move we make: go or stay, inside route or outside route, sail or motor, etc. etc. Within a couple of hours, the weather had also changed a bit for Tuesday…that would now be our day to cross. But wait…by then, we only had approximately eight hours to make vet appointments for all three animals, shop for provisions, visit the bank, and ready the boat. My head was spinning just reading my to-do list! And let’s not forget that we’re in a city we’ve never been to…without a car! As soon as we anchored outside of No Name Harbor, Troy and I split up. I’d head off to shop for provisions and run errands, while he’d ready the boat. Thank goodness for Uber! After a few hours, Troy met me to load the groceries into the dinghy and head back to Salty Tails. It was after 3:00 and we had an appointment with the vet at 5:00. So, back on the dinghy we went…now with two people, two dogs, and a cat (who surprisingly wasn’t putting up too much of a fight). Thankfully, the Uber driver didn’t mind pets (thanks to a generous tip)…and Ginnie didn’t mind the car ride! All went well at the vet: we now had the 48-hour health certificates required by Bahamas Customs and Immigration. In trying to save a few bucks, we opted to walk back to No Name Harbor, two miles away. You can probably imagine some of the expressions we got walking two dogs and carrying Chase in his cat carrier…we surely looked out of place!

We finally returned, tying the dinghy off to the stern of the boat as the sun was setting over Biscayne Bay. We were totally exhausted. We were ready to cross. We had read, planned, and dreamed of this day for so long. Tomorrow we were crossing over to Bimini! Our Bahamas adventure was about to start!

Away from it all

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All systems were a go after a few boat projects; with the weekend approaching and the potential for an even more crowded anchorage, we left Marco Island on Friday morning with our sights set on the Florida Everglades. This would surely bring us a change in scenery. Because the Everglades encompasses much of Southwest Florida, we decided to head first to Indian Key Pass, near Everglades City. Dogs napped for much of our trip as we came to Ten Thousand Islands. For more protection, we dropped the hook in Russell Pass just inside Indian Key Pass. Other than the occasional flats boat passing by, we had the anchorage to ourselves. The winds were calm enough for Troy to get the drone up. After taking a few shots of the boat, he flew over the mangroves where we spotted a few other cruising boats anchored up river. So, even though we had very spotty cell service, we weren’t completely alone. Thanks to the abundant sunshine that day, our sun shower warmed up nicely…we suited up and showered on deck before devouring tacos and a few strawberry margaritas.

 

Before picking up anchor the next morning, we fueled up on pancakes with syrup and strawberry jam, and of course, hot coffee. If you haven’t noticed by now, food is pretty high-up on our list of important daily activities! We knew ahead of time winds wouldn’t necessarily be in our favor and that we would need to motor most of the day, yet we pushed on to our next stop in the Everglades. About 35 nautical miles south of Indian Key Pass was the entrance to Little Shark River. Thankful to see the mangrove opening come into view, we had just finished the most uncomfortable passage yet. Rocking, rolling, and being blasted by endless sea spray was the summary of our trip. Thankfully, Salty Tails and her beefy ten-ton body kept us slicing through the rough chop.

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As we entered the river, we knew we were in a special place. A 60-foot-tall mangrove forest lined the river as we dropped the anchor about a mile upstream. It was like a step back in time, the same scenery could have greeted sailors a hundred years ago. Other than mangroves and the expanse of the river, there was nothing in sight…no docks, stores, or any sort of infrastructure. Other than the half dozen cruising boats lining the sides of the river, this place is completely uninhabited. The lone bar of a cell signal we got at Russell Pass had completely vanished here. We were completely isolated. It felt…exhilarating, calming, and maybe even a little unnerving. Before our trip, we purchased a Garmin InReach, a GPS communication device that can send text messages or emails from anywhere in the world. This allowed us to send our nightly “we’re alive” text to Mom. With a half hour to spare before sunset, we explored a nearby creek in the dinghy as dozens of groups of birds made what appeared to be their nightly return to roost.

 

Just before the mosquitoes and no-see-ums swarmed us, we rolled down the cockpit enclosure. The only thing getting inside tonight would be the breeze! Maybe they were enticed by the smell of our grilling. Soon, with our bellies happy from bacon cheeseburgers, we crawled in the v-berth for some much-needed sleep.

On Sunday we discovered the dolphins…it was hard not to, they were everywhere. Up and down the banks of the river countless dolphins searched for food. At times an individual dolphin passed, but more often than not, groups of two or three would slowly meander up and down the bank, I’m guessing, poking their noses through the mangroves for hiding fish. Even at night with the front hatch open, we could hear the blow of air from the passing dolphin. During the day, my workouts were frequently interrupted, and I found myself staring, hoping to spot where they might surface next. I really lost count of my reps the day I spotted the passing manatee. There weren’t nearly as many manatees as dolphins, but they still brought us lots of excitement.

We weren’t necessarily in a hurry to leave Little Shark River, so on Day 3 we headed off in the dinghy to explore the inner waterways of the Everglades. There are miles upon miles of interconnecting waterways to explore. We made it as far as Oyster Bay. We read in our Waterway Guide that it could be easy to lose your way and that was obvious with the little exploring that we had done so far, so we brought along our iPad with Navionics charts. We made it back in time for dinner!

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Our first week on the high seas…or the Gulf Coast of Florida

leaving PGIFebruary 1st was the day…we were finally leaving our calm, cozy canal in Punta Gorda and heading to our first anchorage, Cayo Costa, at the entrance of Charlotte Harbor. We were cutting it close with the outgoing tide that morning: Salty Tails’ keel would be resting on the bottom of the canal by 9:00. Troy returned the rental car and was back aboard by 8:15. The depth sounder read 4 feet 3 inches…we literally had inches to spare considering she has a four-foot draft. If we were making it out today, now was the time. The dogs and cat were settled down below so we shoved off and headed out to Charlotte Harbor.

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Our sail was brief, but we enjoyed the light winds and arrived at the Cayo Costa anchorage by early afternoon. Anchoring went smoothly…despite the fact that we had never anchored our floating home before! Our nerves began to calm as our first evening aboard got underway. Thanks to our friends for a bottle of champagne, we celebrated the beginning of our adventure.champagne

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We dropped the dinghy off the davits and headed to explore the park the next morning. From everyone we had spoken to, Cayo Costa was a favorite place to visit; we were excited to check out what it had to offer. We walked a few sandy trails over to the Gulf side with Ginnie leading the way.

After a day of exploring, that night was Taco Night…our at-home taco tradition would continue aboard, even with sustained winds over 20 knots howling outside. Those howling winds, waves splashing against the hull, and the continuous rock of the boat was something we weren’t yet used to (sleep was difficult to come by our second night on the hook). The next night however was incredibly relaxing. We sat topside, drinks in our hand, and marveled at the intensity of the stars. It’s amazing what you can see, away from city lights, without light pollution obstructing the view.

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By Monday it was time to move on; we were heading to Sanibel as a mini stop-over in between Cayo Costa and Marco Island. We anchored on the intercoastal side, so we didn’t get to go shelling like I had originally hoped. Instead we explored the mangroves by dinghy (and didn’t get attacked by mosquitoes!), I got a quick work-out in on the bow and after one night, we moved on to Marco Island.

The morning we left Sanibel en route to Marco, we went through a channel known as the “Miserable Mile” before getting out in the Gulf. I suppose because it was a weekday, and not the weekend full of boat traffic, it wasn’t so miserable. In fact, it was AMAZING. Dolphins escorted us most of the way…I think I’ll rename this channel “Dolphin Alley”. Two, then three, and then five at once played in the wake of the boat, darting back and forth between the port and starboard sides. I’m sure any onlooker wondered why I was bouncing back and forth like a pinball between the sides of the boat! Maybe what drew them to us was the hum of the diesel, maybe it was the splashing of the water…whatever it was, I was in heaven!

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Once out in the Gulf, we sailed briefly and then met headwinds coming straight for the bow. After having some electrical issues, we coaxed the engine to start and motored the rest of the way. We dropped the hook in Marco, in an anchorage that was a bit more crowded than we were used to. The upside however was convenience: we were a short dinghy ride to a marina and within walking distance of a West Marine, Napa, and Publix. Rose Marina was a great find. For only $5, we were able to land the dinghy, fill up our water cans, and throw out our trash. The dockhands were super friendly and even gave Ginnie treats, which she chowed down immediately.

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Speaking of Ginnie, the dinghy is now her version of the car. Whenever she sees the dinghy being lowered off the davits…her tail whips back and forth and she dances around the cockpit. Since beginning our trip, our debit card had been taking a nice long snooze. But, with a Napa and West Marine so close, we were able to fix up the electrical issues…and the Publix allowed me to stock up on fresh veggies.

Our first seven days living aboard were eye opening. We learned so much about our sailboat, what she was capable of, and what we were capable of. Sailing and living aboard is not a walk in the park. Even the simplest tasks can be tricky and time consuming. But the reward is…huge. We are so excited to have our first week as cruisers under our belts. We’ll take what we’ve learned so far from our experiences and continue on…the Everglades and Keys are calling!

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