Sunday, August 31, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 8

August 31, 2008 Sunday

I slept until 9:00 A.M. Nancy went swimming, then we started up the engine and continued our voyage. We left the "plateau" we had anchored on and got into deeper water, 50 to 60 feet, and headed south. It was an uneventful day watching the Belize coast go by. At Placencia we did a "drive by". Bert slowed the boat as we passed Placencia very closely while I searched for an open WiFi signal, found one, and retrieved the phone numbers we wanted. I had never tried "war driving" from a boat before and thought it was hilarious that we succeeded.

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Early evening we pulled in behind Great Monkey Cay. Bert did some exploring, poking Vagabond's nose into this and that bay and inlet. We went aground three times. Then Bert chose a spot just off Great Monkey Cay where we dropped anchor for the night. Bert and Nancy went swimming while I took photos of the beautiful sunset and some night shots of Vagabond. The air here is wonderful and it's very peaceful. There was a light breeze and distant lightning. I made a satphone call to my daughter and also sent her an email via Winlink. We got to sleep around midnight.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 7

August 30, 2008 Saturday

I took the watch at 11:30 P.M. and continued steering the ship to the points Bert had plotted. Bert was back on at 2:30 A.M. to relieve me. I was dead tired and crashed at 3:00 A.M. I awoke at 8:30 A.M. to a beautiful morning. The boat did well during the night and the seas had calmed down a bit. We are almost to the Belize border. I took photos, added more oil to the engine, and shot various video segments inside the boat and engine room. I installed Coastal Explorer on my Eee PC and am learning to use it. At the start of the trip I set up my Eee on the bridge to the left of the nav computer. Bert loaned me a USB GPS module and I was running charts alongside the nav computer. I was running Sea Clear which I like very much. This enabled me to explore the charts without disturbing the dedicated navigation computer and the Eee could serve as a backup if the nav computer failed. The Eee worked great in this capacity. By the end of the trip I had installed and running Sea Clear, Coastal Explorer, and Capn Voyager. All ran fine.

By late morning we had passed the southern limit of Mexico and were heading south off the coast of Belize, passing Ambergris Caye on our way to Grennell's Channel. Our plan is to raise the Q flag and anchor in Grennell's Channel some time tonight. This day was fairly uneventful, just steady progress south. Bert made a huge dinner but I suspect he has a second dinner planned for later tonight.

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We entered the eastern end of Grennell's Channel in the dark and the process of piloting through there at night was very instructive, threading our way, turn by turn, from one marker light to the next. I dunno. I'm not sure I'd want to try it without GPS and charting software. This process was more complex than entering Isla Mujeres but it was less stressful. In Grennell's Channel, the lights pretty much matched what we expected to find. At Isla, this was not the case. There, we could hardly find the lights and when we did they did not agree with the chart. Finally, around 9:00 P.M., we reached the western end of Grennell's Channel where Bert took a left turn and after a bit of exploring with the depth sounder, we dropped anchor on an underwater plateau, in a spot with just 2 feet of water under the keel.

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Once we were secured, Bert produced a special 100 watt halogen lamp in a waterproof glass tube. This he lowered into the water and turned on. Bert was expecting fairly clear water but the water was murky. Soon the light began to attract sea creatures of all kinds including thousands of krill. I took photos and videos but the conditions were not very good for photography. Bert made some big hamburgers for dinner -- bleu cheese burgers. Nancy had gone to bed early and skipped dinner. After dinner, Bert and I had some rum and gin to celebrate another landfall, and then sat around talking until we got tired and went to bed.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 6

August 29, 2008 Friday

Bert came up at 3:00 A.M. and relieved me. We tried running closer and closer to shore to find less current and increase our speed over the ground but no luck. So Bert decided to try the opposite, turned and headed out to sea, I went to bed. I got up at 8:00 A.M. and discovered that Bert had found better conditions farther off shore. We had now been making 4.5 to 4.6 knots over the ground all morning. Bert cooked up some corn fritters for breakfast. I had been watching a squall on the radar chasing us on our port quarter and it looked to arrive momentarily. Perhaps we will get some rain. We have had no rain since leaving the Caloosahatchie. Nancy took the watch at 11:30 A.M. while Bert and I got some rest.

I awoke from my nap to hear Bert calling out "Dolphins!". A family of seven dolphins was playing in the pressure wave created by the bow of the boat. The bow wave creates conditions that allow the dolphins to "body surf". I grabbed my camera, laid down on the foredeck, and hung over the bow of the boat, taking lots of photos and video from just a few feet away. The dolphins played there for over an hour. Their strength and stamina is very impressive.

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It was very hot and humid today. I stayed inside in the air conditioning as much as possible. The temperature outside was 88F but the humidity was 78 percent. Wow. We ate lunch and then as we came out from the protection behind Cozumel the swells from the Caribbean began to beat us up. I took the watch while Bert got some rest. I asked Bert if I could try for more speed closer to shore and he said yes, so I began to experiment. One must be careful because close to shore the depth suddenly changes from over 1,400 feet to just 60 feet. Then in another sudden step it changes from 60 feet to just 6 feet. But I was careful and fairly successful, raising our speed over the ground from 4.2 to 5.5 knots.

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The seas got rougher and rougher and when I had to make a turn that brought the seas from quartering to beam seas, it got even worse, of course. Bert returned to the bridge and decided to try to find a better ride. He turned in towards the shore even closer. We got close enough to see the breakers at Bahia Espiritu Santo. We then turned to put the seas on our quarter but soon had to turn south again. There was just no avoiding getting knocked around if we wanted to hold our course south. There were some very good rolls and a couple of snaps that threw us around. One hit us when I was out on deck using binoculars to locate a light and it threw everything in the salon to the floor. It was a mess. So I gathered everything up and placed it into bins and then restrained things with line. Then I checked the workshop and found all the drawers to all the tool boxes flying completely in and out with each roll so I fixed that and locked them down. Haha. It was a funny sight and I should have taken a video of it but I had my hands full with keeping stuff where it belonged and keeping myself on my feet in the boat.

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During the evening Bert plotted some marks and waypoints for me to steer to during my watch. By late evening we had a pretty decent ride and a speed of 5.3 knots.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 5

August 28, 2008 Thursday

Just after midnight we are about 3 or 4 hours from Isla Mujeres. The night was pitch black but clear. The northern entrance to Isla is tricky so Bert will decide what we'll do when we get there. We made easy radar contact with Punta Norte. I'm on watch and exhausted from working all day and I'd love to sleep but there's no choice. Besides, first landfall is an important milestone. I ate a snack to wake myself up. Bert and I are both tired but we must press on. We arrived at Isla Mujeres around 2:00 A.M. and began negotiating the northern entrance by observing lights and checking against the charts and GPS position. Observing the lights was extremely difficult because the whole area is so built up and urbanized that the marker lights are lost in the clutter of other lights. Complicating it even more is the numerous airports and airstrips in the area whose beacons have colors and flash patterns nearly identical to the marine markers. What genius thought this up? I wondered to myself whether the intention is to cause accidents rather than prevent them. There are cases in history where folks have intentionally moved lights in order to cause ships to run aground and enable them to capture the cargo but I can't imagine this is the case at Isla Mujeres. Haha.

Once we were past a particular point that Bert was looking for we could relax a bit so we both went out on the Portuguese bridge and stood while the autopilot steered the boat. There was a warm breeze and we enjoyed the sense of the boat moving through the water, the sound of the bow wave, the darkness. It was a very pleasant moment to stand out there quietly for a while as the coastline slid by us on both sides. When we reached a certain point not far from the entrance to the bay behind Isla Mujeres we dropped anchor in the clear shallow water. Even though it was 3 AM, Bert cooked up a celebratory meal and we treated ourselves to a bit of rum. We talked for a while and I crashed at 4 AM.

Bert planned for us to get up at 7:30 AM but I awoke to the sound of the main engine starting up at 9:00 A.M. I was very glad for the additional sleep. We motored over to the fuel dock and tied up. Amazing crystal clear blue water and very shallow. We took on fuel to top up the wing tanks, mid tank, and filled the forward tank. There were many very interesting boats in the bay so I took photos during the run into and out of the bay. We even saw an old oil tanker that Bert recognized. It used to move fuels around up in Maine. We motored out to a spot with just 12 feet of crystal clear water and anchored for lunch.

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After lunch we decided to take a swim but first we decided to try lowering the "birds" (stabilizers). We had tried a new method for temporarily raising them and so we tried lowering them but discovered that we had a bad tangle that took 2 hours and brute strength to straighten out. The one bird we untangled down at deck level which required detaching the bird and its chain from the boom and then reattaching it. The second bird I decided to go up to the Texas deck and see if I could untangle it up there before lowering it. This worked quite well even though it required me to lift the bird by hand to work the tangles out. To my surprise I discovered that my strength had increased dramatically over the last month and I was strong enough to do it. (The birds are heavy). Once it was untangled it lowered nicely into position. Then, pushing the booms out from their unusual position (inboard, past center) was another trial of strength. My joints popped and cracked in a very satisfying manner but I again surprised myself at the amount of force I was able to come up with. Once the booms were out, and after adjusting the forward tensioners, we were ready to go.

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Finally, we took a cool-off swim. The 75 foot safety line was a must in this spot. The current was more than 2 knots. Even so I put on a dive mask and had a look around in the clear water. The bottom was pure white sand and not a living thing in sight. We washed off with fresh water, raised anchor, and got under way again. When we got out from the protected waters and things began to get rolly again, I lowered the birds. They worked flawlessly. We passed Cancun, miles and miles of hotels and beaches, and the seas gradually got rougher. Bert was trying to avoid the treacherous currents in this area and we hugged the coast. At times we were making 6.8 knots over the ground. But as we approached Punta Brava we were forced to fight the current. 2.5 to 2.8 knots is all we could manage and it took hours to fight our way around the "rock awash" (on the chart), and all the while we were getting knocked around by the confused swells. Most of the swells were on our stern and the Simrad autopilot had to fight hard to maintain course. It does a fine job. I have the watch while Bert gets some much-needed rest.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 4

August 27, 2008 Wednesday

There was a bit of unwanted excitement last night. At 2:30 AM Nancy woke me. She had a radar contact that was getting closer and was now down to under two miles. The radar trace looked like a rain shower but she was not sure. Through my bleary eyes the contact looked like a rain shower to me too so I opened the hatch and looked outside: no clouds, no moon, and bright stars. So I grabbed the starlight scope and looked in the direction of the contact and saw lights. By now I could see the lights with my naked eye: white lights fore and aft and green. Damn. He was crossing our bow from left to right at high speed. I called Bert from his sleep but he arrived just after the big ship crossed our path about 1/2 mile ahead, making a huge smear across the radar. There was no radio call, no nothing. The big ship simply raced off to the north. None of us are happy. Fortunately no harm was done and I got a very sobering experience.

Bert, now wide awake, took the wheel and to my surprise I fell asleep and slept until 7:30. I guess I was tired. I relieved Bert right after I awoke. All is well but I have five targets on the radar to keep an eye on. There's a lot of shipping in the Yucatan Channel. At one point I had a freighter on our starboard quarter making 9 knots on a collision course but before I hailed him he altered course slightly and passed 1/4 mile astern of us. I took photos. The Kodan radar is a terrific tool because it will track multiple targets and show their course and speed. An enormous freighter making 22 knots passed us eight miles off so I got photos of him also.

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The seas were getting bumpier so I stowed the second salon chair on top of my belongings and lashed it down. I was tired of it rolling around in the salon and nobody was using it anyway. The sun was hot by 8:30 AM so I turned on the pilothouse A/C. The seas were getting increasingly rolly with sets of swells coming from all directions. I had heard that the Yucatan Channel was kind of wild and it is. Swells and currents are funnelled into the constriction between Cuba and the Yucatan and the ride was no longer the nice flat sea we had before. The northbound current here is very apparent. We are running full speed but only making 3.4 knots over the ground.

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Bert came back on watch at 9:30 AM to check weather reports and his ham radio skeds so I got busy working on the windshield wipers. They have been broken / inoperable for quite a long time but one can't complain since they are 36 years old. I tried to save the original mechanisms but there was no way. One was shot completely. Two had been previously repaired or replaced and they were cemented in place with epoxy. Why they were installed that way is a mystery. The nuts and backing nuts work just fine without any glue. I spent pretty much all day working on them and ended up having to destroy them and drill out the thick three-inch long brass bushings with a 5/8-inch drill. The project was made all the more interesting with the boat pitching and rolling in the seas. It's good exercise. But now there are nice clean holes for new wiper motors assemblies to be installed.

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By early afternoon we got into the swifter current in the Yucatan Channel that is the birthplace of the Gulf Stream. At full speed we were making only 2.5 knots over the ground. By late afternoon Bert had had enough and he altered course to the west to get out of the worst of the current, then headed south again towards Isla Mujeres.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 3

August 26, 2008 Tuesday

I awoke at 6:30 AM. Nobody woke me for my watch because Bert rose during the night and relieved Nancy. I did not mind. I relieved Bert and enjoyed the quiet time on the bridge to get organized and do some writing.

The quarters A/C blew the replacement capacitor during the night. It was an old cap so I was not surprised. I dug into the ship's stores and found more caps and some "rescue kits" which are capacitors that have built-in electronic protection. Very handy that Bert had those in stock. In order to check all of the electrical components on the A/C compressor including the sensor switch on the side of the compressor housing I had to tear the electrical box apart because it was assembled with pop rivets that are not accessible to be drilled out. Oh well. Everything checked out fine so I installed the special self-protecting capacitor and the compressor worked fine (and continued working fine for the rest of the trip). Bert then cooked up a pancake breakfast and I spent most of the day taking photos and keeping an eye on the machinery.

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Early afternoon Bert stopped the boat for a swim. With the main engine shut down and before I went swimming I added two more liters of oil to the engine. Adding oil seemed to improve the overheating problem and now with the engine stopped I could get an accurate dipstick reading. The oil level was indeed low.

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The swim was fantastic. The water temperature was perfect and this time the water was not just tropical clear but absolutely crystal clear. The last time we stopped there were some little bits of sargasso seaweed in the water but this time it was so clear it was bizarre. The water at this spot was 11,000 feet deep and there was absolutely nothing in the water. Visibility was essentially unlimited. No matter how far I swam from the boat, with the mask on it looked like Bert and Nancy were right next to me. The bright sunlight allowed me to see a long way down and I spent quite a while just floating and staring down into the water. The sunlight reflecting and refracting up from below was a spectacular light show. I never saw anything in the water; no fish, not even a single particle of anything in the water. One odd thing I noticed was the saltiness of the water at this spot. It was extremely salty, saltier than any seawater I've ever tasted. It was so salty it made my eyes burn.

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We showered in fresh water and got underway again. It seems the slight overheating of the was caused by a combination of low oil, plus a partially clogged keel cooler, plus 93 degree water. With another two liters of oil the engine temperature dropped four degrees back to where it is supposed to be and I reset the alarm back down to the correct temperature. I made triple backups of my photos thus far and developed a scheme for running regular backups of the several gigabytes of photos I expected to take along the way. I sent a short email to my daughter via Winlink so she would not worry. We are sailing ahead of Hurricane Gustav, across its likely path, so we are making all possible speed for Isla Mujeres. The hurricane is still more than 700 miles away so I am not worried but better safe than sorry and we are watching it very carefully. At Isla Mujeres we only plan to make a technical stop, take on fuel, and keep going, getting to the Rio Dulce as quickly as possible.

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Bert cooked up a huge dinner of steak and mashed potatoes. After dinner I did some writing and then went to bed. Nancy has the first watch.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 2

August 25th, 2008 Monday

I got up at 7:20 AM. I was still a bit tired but felt far better than I did last night. Yesterday was a very long day. We ate breakfast and then I did more work on the boat, mainly rust patrol. I also checked the engine oil and found it a bit low so I added about two liters but an accurate oil level measurement was not possible with the engine running.

In the early afternoon we stopped in the middle of the ocean where it was fairly calm with long but gentle swells and went swimming in the clear tropical water. It was fantastic. I grew up swimming in Southern California (green) saltwater but I had never swam in tropical saltwater. The clarity was expected but was still stunning, plus I had not swam in saltwater at all for about 25 years. The water temperature was 84 degrees F. I grabbed a mask and marveled at the visibility underwater. I took the opportunity to inspect the bottom of the boat and discovered that the main engine's keel cooler was about one-third clogged with barnacles, which explained part of the overheating problem.

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After the swim we all showered so as not to track saltwater into the boat and we got underway again. I got the GPS hooked up to my little Eee PC and got my Sea Clear II navigation software running. The little Eee PC does the job just fine. I'm taking lots of photos and videos and hope to edit the videos together to make a little record of the trip.

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Flying fish are a constant presence in this part of the Gulf but they are a species I have never seen before. The flying fish in Southern California can only glide for short distances. These fish in the Gulf not only glide but actually fly for tremendous distances, hundreds of yards and I am trying to capture them on video but it is surprisingly difficult. Each morning we have to check the boat for fish that landed on the deck during the night and pitch them overboard.

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In the late afternoon we discovered that the quarters air-conditioning unit failed (there are four air-conditioning systems on the boat). The quarters A/C is the most powerful unit on the boat and fortunately its compressor is located in the engine room and easy to access and work on. I discovered that the starting capacitor had swelled and exploded so I replaced it with another.

Nancy took first watch and I fell asleep at 11:30 PM.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Caloosahatchie to Rio Dulce, Day 1

August 24, 2008 Sunday

Departure Day! Today was a heck of a day, as one might imagine. First I drove over from the Caribbean house with several huge trash bags containing the last of my stuff that had not yet been stowed on the boat. These I loaded onto the Texas deck (upper deck) along with the rest of my stuff that was already there. Then it was time to see if my tie-down scheme was going to work. Folding tables, storage bins, and big bags of stuff had to be waterproofed and tied down to withstand the motion of the ocean. Everything was quickly lashed down tight, then I tarped my stuff and Bert's cordage supply to protect it from sun and rain.

Next, Bert and I drove in separate cars over to the foreign car repair place in Cape Coral where I dropped off my car to be sold on consignment. I was sad to see the car go. It served me very well for the past two years, getting me to West Virginia, spending two winters there, and then the trip back to Florida. On the way back we stopped and did a bit of final shopping for foods. After eating lunch came the big job of loading groceries, dry goods, and other stores onto Vagabond. Bin after bin was filled and stowed, items selected from the cupboards, refrigerators and freezers stripped. It's quite a job and is something I've done before when Bert was departing but I always stayed behind and never left with the boat. This time would be different. Loading the stores is pretty much the last thing to happen before departure so I knew our departure was imminent, pending a last check of the weather and Bert making the final decision to go. Bert and Nancy stripped the last items from the house and came aboard. Bert went up to the wheelhouse to start the engine and I knew the moment had come. Stu dropped by to see us off. We backed away from the dock, into the canal, and with a blast from the air horn we turned to port and entered the Caloosahatchie River for the trip downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.

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The trip downriver was interesting. I was curious to learn how Bert handled the daytime pilotage problems of the Caloosahatchie River. The river is wide but shallow and only a narrow channel approximately down the center is dredged deep enough for boats. The channel is marked and in a couple of spots is so narrow that a traffic jam of small boats builds up and it can get pretty crazy. After cruising downriver for several hours, with the sun low in the sky, we reached the lighthouse at the tip of Sanibel Island and the open ocean of the Gulf gradually grew wider and wider before us. The imperceptible light chop on the river widened out to longer but very gentle swells. The sea was almost flat so the motion of the boat was near zero. There was no need to lower the birds (stabilizers) so we steamed at full speed on a direct course for the Dry Tortugas. Tropical Storm Fay had just finished spending several days in our area and we knew this would calm the seas. Hurricane Gustav was threatening but we chose to go anyway and enjoy the greater comfort and greater speed that we can achieve in the flat seas between storms.

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The engine is running a few degrees warmer than normal and high enough to set off the temperature alarm. Adding water to the overflow reservoir did not help so I set the alarm about 4 degrees higher to stop it from sounding while we thought about the possible cause.

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After dinner Nancy took first watch. We were all exhausted from the labors and stresses of the day. It 11:30 PM Nancy burned out and I took the watch. I was so tired it took constant effort to stay awake. After years of service the watch clock failed so staying awake took constant effort. Fortunately, Bert got up at 2:30 AM and relieved me. I was exhausted.

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