Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Making Tracks...

We are on the road! Sunday we left Vero and traveled to Titusville. Monday we motor sailed to Daytona. Tuesday was more of the same and we arrived in St Augustine. All in all we’ve progressed 173 miles towards our Charleston destination. I know that doesn’t sound like much – but by boat it is very good progress.

But about St. Augustine. For those of you who have never been to the city it is a great historic town. I’m sure I spoke of the fort during our stay for our southbound passage. The real enjoyment, for me however, is walking around the old town, enjoying the shops and restaurants along the way. We continue to be on our food binge. Tonight it was 2 for one drinks and pizza at PizzaAlley. Delicious.

The Admiral
4/19/09 – 4/22/09

Monday, April 20, 2009

Vero Beach...

After two days offshore being attached to a mooring ball in Vero Beach felt like a treat. After 5 days of not having set foot on shore we were ready for shore leave. And after a couple nights of TV commercials featuring great looking sandwiches, pizza and more we were ready for a dinner out.

It is amazing. While we have eaten very well on board and not deprived ourselves of anything, a dinner of cheese filled pasta with a rich cream sauce tasted sinful. I felt like I hadn’t eaten anything quite so decadent in ages.

In Vero, we shared a mooring with Gromit. His family, Michael, Cornelia, Zoe, Maia and Liam hailed from Canada. Of those we’ve met, the family on Gromit has one of the more ambitious ventures planned – a sail to Panama. Best of luck all and happy sailing.

The Admiral
4/15/09 – 4/19/09

Homeward Bound...

We left the gracious friendship and hospitality of the Boot Key Harbor the morning of Friday April, 10. As our friend Christopher on Tiffany Rose would say – we officially began Part 3 of our journey – the trip home. While disappointing to be leaving our winter haven of the Florida Keys, the trip is far from over. Even in the last week Mother Nature has made sure that our cruising is far from uneventful. Read on for the details….

If you recall, our journey down the ocean side of the Keys was done in darkness. We went offshore in central Florida and about 28 hours later arrived in Marathon. So our journey back up the Keys was entirely new to us – we sailed in both daylight and also chose the Gulf side of the Keys from which to cruise. We were surprised at how much territory we were able to cover our first day out of Marathon. We dropped the hook that day in Key Largo (the northern most part of the Keys) after a wonderful Easterly reach propelled us ahead while the Keys shoreline protected us from the waves.

By Saturday evening we reached Key Biscayne. It was very evident we were not in the Keys anymore. The weekend warriors were out in force in power boats, jet skis, you name it. While we would have enjoyed popping into one of the many state and national park anchorages for the evening, scanning the shoreline through binoculars found much of the area covered with wall to wall boats. Learning – avoid Key Biscayne on the weekends. Plan B was to pop into Dinner Key and drop the hook in the anchorage. As we entered the Dinner Key channel a menacing cloud hovered above. Suddenly it began to mutate and take on a larger much darker form. It seemed like only seconds later the winds and rain ensued. So imagine yourself in a fairly restricted channel with winds of 30-35 knots being pelted by droplets of rain which stung as it hit your skin and cringing as the lightening strikes lit the sky overhead and thunder so loud it rattled the boat. There was not much we could do except try to keep ourselves in the channel and avoid hitting other boats who struggled under the changed weather. Once in the channel there was little place to maneuver given the conditions and instead exited the way we came in, waiting out the storm in the open bay. Fortuntately, as quickly as the storm emerged it was gone and within an hour we were back to the pleasantness of the southern Florida sun.

Easter Sunday was an R&R day for us. We anticipated going offshore early Monday morning so elected to be idle on Sunday. Dave was disappointed that the Easter bunny couldn’t find Tropical Breeze and bring him chocolates. He, however, forgot the oversight when Sunday afternoon I realized that we could probably get TV reception being so close to Miami. What a treat – our first bit of TV reception in almost 3 months. After an hour of channel surfing we realized we hadn’t missed much in programming. Instead it was the restaurant commercials that tempted us with their delicious menu offerings.

As planned, we left Key Biscayne Monday morning and headed offshore for Fort Worth (Monday) and then Ft. Pierce (Tuesday) inlets. Both days were uneventful until Tuesday afternoon another one of those menacing clouds lingered over the Ft. Pierce inlet. When we were about a mile and a half offshore, Mother Nature decided to test us. The winds started gusting over 40 knots. The southerly swells almost immediately took on a northerly chop and the rain and lightning dropped out of the sky. Dave and I gave each other that look – you know the look – the one where spouses just stare at each other searching for an answer to the question what next? For us it was Dave who responded suggesting we either take it head on or turn tail and head back south. We elected to take it head on and an hour later we had finally traveled the last one and a half miles and were safely inside the inlet. Thank heavens!

The Admiral

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Looe Key...

Anticipating the next northerly to blow through we left Key West and headed back to the protective mooring field at the City Marina in Marathon. Along the way we stopped at Looe Key for another great snorkeling adventure.

Looe Key is known as one of the premier snorkeling spots in the Florida Keys. It did not disappoint. Fish were plentiful and the colors excellent. We snorkeled along the reef when all of a sudden out of my peripheral vision I saw somethng large. Looking further, I saw that it was a nurse shark. How exciting!!! I immediately grabbed Dave's arm and started pointing in the general direction of the shark. He got excited too and grabbed the underwater camera and took off to try to get a photo. The photo is a bit murky but hopefully you can make out the 5-6 foot nurse shark in the second photograph.
The excitement just keeps coming!!
The Admiral

Back to Key West...

Well it was time to leave the Dry Tortugas and return to Key West. The weather continued to be favorable and we didn’t want to push our luck by staying offshore from the mainland too long.

The sail back started a bit choppy with 5-7 foot seas but laid down nicely as the morning wore on. About mid-day we had a visit from a small pod of porpoises – and we actually got some photos of them. Finally!! We’d seen porpoises on many occasions but have never had the camera nearby to get photos. We also saw a big Loggerhead turtle but he dove beneath the water before we were able to get a picture. Camera shy I guess!


The Admiral

Landfall USA...

At this point, we are feeling great. Fabulous weather. Great snorkeling. Great sites. We really didn’t think the trip to the Dry Tortugas could be topped and then it happened.

As we sat eating breakfast out in the cockpit, we saw a boat from the national park service tow a raft into shore. This wasn’t just any raft, however. This was a homemade raft made by 11 refugees who had fled Cuba and landed in the Dry Tortugas. Who’d have thunk??

The Coast Guard then arrived. Unfortunately, they didn’t bring their cutter into the key but they did bring their launch in to pick up the refugees and take them to Key West. Apparently, as long as refugees land on shore under their own power they have the option of staying in the US. Any refugees intercepted while still at sea are returned to their home port. So a first rate day for 11 men from Cuba.

Oddly enough, over the last several days the Coast Guard has been announcing frequently on the radio that boats who see rafts are to report them immediately. Additionally, we’ve heard chatter of at least one boat who came across what was thought to be a refugee raft. Lots of activity as of late it seems. Why? I am not certain.

The Admiral

Look Out Below...

I hope with my entries so far you are beginning to understand what an incredibly unique place the Dry Tortugas are. The uniqueness is not specific to just Fort Jefferson, or the snorkeling areas or even the Loggerhead lighthouse. Instead everything – absolutely everywhere – you look is special. And that includes the 9-10 foot of water which was beneath Tropical Breeze.

On at least 3 occasions during our stay we looked down along the sidedecks of the boat and saw a nurse shark below. Now before you panic, please understand that nurse sharks are the nice sharks of the sea. They are docile bottom feeding sharks not aggressive sharks. Seeing the nurse sharks was not a complete surprise. We’ve seen them before. But what was surprising was that each sighting was a 5-6 foot shark. Sharks we’ve seen previously had always been smaller.

But this entry isn’t really a shark story. Instead it is a goliath grouper story. I mentioned this fish in the previous entry but didn’t give you much background. You see the goliath grouper grows to be 600-700 pounds. They are BIG! Because of there size, they were widely fished up through the mid-1900’s. The fish were not caught to eat, however, as they are not a tasty fish. The fish were caught for the pleasure and the photograph of a BIG catch. The goliath grouper is now a protected species in the Florida Keys and while once so few in numbers they were almost never seen in the Florida reefs they are now making more frequent appearances.

For us the goliath grouper’s first appearance was one morning while Dave was scrubbing the propellers on the boat. I hopped in with my snorkeling gear and the underwater camera to try to get some photos. While the photos are not great you can definitely tell there is a fish in the water. And the fish was a good 5 foot long and 250+ pounds!! It was amazing to watch him. If I got a bit too close he just lumbered away a few feet. He was not really in a hurry or feeling intimidated by me – but then why should he feel intimated – he was considerably bigger than me!

Our new grouper friend made a second appearance early in the evening. This time Dave and I were both on the deck of Tropical Breeze and we tried to get some photos of him – though it seemed as if he wanted to play hide and seek!!!

The Admiral

Loggerhead Key, Dry Tortugas

We took the dinghy out to Loggerhead Key to explore the Windjammer Wreck and a snorkeling spot off Loggerhead known as Little Africa. The coral and fish were great.

The Windjammer wreck is actually the Norwegian sailing ship Avanti. The 260 foot long ship with a 17 foot draft struck a shoal in 1907 and sank to the bottom of the sea. Now for those of you thinking Titanic-like depths, think again. The wreck sits in 18-21 foot of water. This depth is great for surface snorkelers like Dave and I who want to enjoy the sites without needing to put on scuba gear. Sections of the wreck even protrude out of the water. The fish and coral surrounding the wreck are well preserved – one of the advantages of snorkeling in a very remote national park. I even thought I saw a goliath grouper swimming in the bow of the ship but by the time I popped my head out of the water to get Dave’s attention and then popped my head back in, the giant fish was gone. How’d he get away so fast? Anyway, a great snorkel spot.

From there, we dinked over to Loggerhead and the Little Africa coral reef. Just phenomenal coral heads. I wish I had gotten a photo of the brain coral, it had to be 3 foot tall and 4 foot in diameter – just huge! The fish there were smaller, but it was delightful to see the wide array of colors of the species.

Our final stop for the day was Loggerhead itself. The island was deserted while we were there, but we did get to walk its sandy white beaches and view the lighthouse from the ground.

The Admiral

Bush Key, Dry Tortugas...

While the island is closed, it is not without activity. Bush Key is the migratory location of many bird species. In many cases, Bush Key represents the only continental US breeding ground for many species.

We anchored close enough to get a good view of the birds in action. And they were always in action – morning, noon and night they would be flying around the island. Do they ever sleep?

One day we were fortunate enough to have a brown noddy land on the bow of the boat and pose for a photo for us. The brown noddy pictured is one of about 4500 who nest on Bush Key each year.

The Admiral

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas...

With the weather window looking favorable for the next week we decided to sail overnight to the Dry Tortugas. The Tortugas are 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico and home to the Dry Tortuga National Park. Please note, there is nothing else there – except the national park. While the park's remoteness may sound intimidating, it is a perfect escape from the congestion of the harbors of the Florida Keys.

The park consists of 7 islands. It was once 22 islands but over time hurricanes have washed away the sands so only 7 islands remain. Fort Jefferson is on the main island of Garden Key. The fort's construction was started in the 1850's with the expectation that it would provide defenses for the US states within in the Gulf of Mexico. After 20ish years, 16 million bricks and $3 million ($500 million in today's dollars), the never completed fort was abandoned as a naval defense largely due to technological and strategic changes in warfare. It was then repurposed as a remote prison outpost. The most infamous of the prisoners was Dr. Mudd - you know - your name is Mudd. He was imprisoned for being a "conspirator" in the Lincoln assasination. What was his crime? He set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. He was later pardoned, but only after spending several years in captivity in the Tortugas.

The fort (and the Tortugas as a whole) is nothing short of amazing! It's scale is beyond expectation. It is the largest brick structure in the western hemishphere. Once you overcome the grand scale of the fortress you are then awestruck by the sheer amount of labor - with 19th century tools - required to build such a place. It is truly an architectural feat given its scale, remoteness and the period for which it was constructed.

I have well over hundred photos of this amazing place. I initially scaled them back to 40 photos that I wanted to post and then scaled the number, again, back to 5. As you can see I am really struggling to do this amazing location justice through this blog entry. I will try to create a blog photo archive elsewhere on the site to post the remaining photos. We have much more amazing things to share regarding the Dry Tortugas - so stay tuned for more.

The Admiral
3/29/09 - 3/30/09

Monday, April 6, 2009

Farewell to Nancy and Tim...

Well after several days of enjoying Duval Street, the historic seaport and, of course, the pool and hot tub at the hotel/marina, it was time to say goodbye to Nancy and Tim.

Well we couldn’t let them go without a sendoff. So we all dressed in something new we had picked up for ourselves while in Key West - David was in his new red shorts he received from Jacquelyn - and headed down the the historic seaport for a great dinner.

After several days poolside, we’ve all picked up some added color and I think you’d agree that Nancy and Tim have a new healthy glow to take back with them to Michigan.

The Admiral

Mallory Square...

You know, we’ve been told by many of our cruising friends that you must do sunset at Mallory Square. We always thought – big deal, we get great sunsets at a lot of places – but Key West’s Mallory Square is definitely unique. By day, the square is just a big open boardwalk area with pedestrian traffic but by night it becomes the local entertainment hot spot. In the evenings, performers and vendors come out to display their amazing feats or sell their goods. The performers range from the Hoodini like magician who escapes from the chains and straightjacket to the fire jugglers to the crazy Catman who I truly believe had been in the catnip himself. All in all it was great fun we would enjoy again and again during our stay in Key West.

The Admiral

Being Pampered...

We had intended to stay at the city mooring field while at Key West. We went there and were told by the dockmaster (via radio) to pick up any mooring ball which was available and not flagged with a red flag. The wind, meanwhile, has picked up again – blowing 20-30 knots. The first mooring ball we approached was flagged with a little red flag that you can’t see until you are on top of the mooring ball. The second was the same. At this point I am getting pretty frustrated motoring around the mooring field near other boats in 20-30 knot winds trying to locate a viable mooring ball. The third ball was a no go. Finally, the fourth mooring ball appeared to be available.
Step 2 – pick up the mooring ball. Sounds easy right? Well since the city was not nice enough to leave lines on their mooring balls, you literally have to grab the ball, thread your line through the eye on the top of the ball and tie the line off to the boat. Sound easy? Try adding the complexity of 20-30 knot winds and the fact that we are a catamaran and tall enough at the bow so we couldn’t reach the mooring ball and instead needed to pick it up at the stern. Fourty five minutes and 4 attempts later we were secured to the mooring ball. I won’t even begin to mention the number of profanities that could be heard from most members of the boat during this 45 minute interval.

When we finally took a break to recover from the ordeal, I was pretty upset with the whole concept of the mooring field. We all were. The boats in the mooring field were pretty derelict. The field far from town. I don’t think anyone was happy with the accommodations.

So we left and instead decided to take a slip at the Westin Resort and Marina. It is located right by the cruise ship dock, right in town, right next to Mallory Square. And if the location wasn’t enough to make you drool, it also came with use of the pool, jacuzzi and fitness center. Oh my!!

The Admiral

On to Key West...

Finally! The wind settled a bit and we decided to leave Marathon and sail to Key West. Not to suggest that the breezes have completely fallen off. The winds are still a good 20 knots. The seas still a bit choppy but the sail to Key West was comfortable enough.

After visiting Key West many times by land, it was nice to finally see the city by sea. The boardwalk, Mallory Square and many of the attractions are visible from the shoreline.

The Admiral
3/25/09 – 3/26/09

Being Lazy...

Being on vacation is such rough work! As you can tell from the photos, Nancy and Tim were really toughing it out while on board Tropical Breeze. We spent the first few days of their arrival just being lazy, enjoying the sun and the sunsets while hoping for the winds to settle down for a run to Key West.

The Admiral
3/22/09 – 3/24/09