Something Had To Give

By Bernadette Bernon
January 5, 2001
Key West, Florida
24 34.389N 81 48.162W

All season, weather has been the opponent of cruisers trying to claw their way down the American coast and achieve a safe passage over to the islands. Everyone we've met grumbles of being woefully behind hoped-for schedules and late for promised rendezvous points. Sure, there's a temptation to admonish us that we should slow down and smell the roses, and to a certain degree that's true, but here's the rub. Hurricane season begins July 1, and boats with insurance are required to be out of the Caribbean hurricane belt between that date and November 1. This means that we're all getting pinched for prime cruising time before we have to end up down in South America or back up to the States for the summer. It's not lost on me that Douglas and I are lucky to have such problems, but there you are. For this stage of all our journeys, we're pushing forward, all the while sniffing for a good weather window to head across the Gulf Stream, that powerful river running from south to north up through the Atlantic Ocean and packing potential for serious trouble.

Waiting for a westerly or southerly wind that would run more parallel with the stream, and therefore calm it down and aid our crossing for a landfall in Cat Cay in the Bahamas, we hoped to jump out of the ICW from Lake Worth. But there was no window, only fierce northerlies. Day after day there were fierce north-easterlies, then north-westerlies, then north-easterlies again. We watched the Stream, only a mile to two miles off this part of the Florida coast, churning up mountains of white water in the opposing winds. We hoped to cross from Hillsboro Inlet, but again there was no relief from the north winds and it was a no go, but we jumped out there, watching the Stream hissing and kicking, sailed parallel to it in the opposite direction, past Fort Lauderdale and into the mammoth port of Miami. We were disappointed not to be in the Bahamas yet, but at least we got to sail instead of motor. We overheard one guy on the VHF lamenting to a buddy that he'd been waiting in Lake Worth for a window for five weeks. Douglas and I looked at each other, speechless at the thought of such a prospect.

Motoring up the main channel into Miami, a bright orange tug-boat pulling a behemoth called to us: "Welcome to Miami, Merry Christmas." We anchored off the shore of Key Biscayne, just behind the sea-aquarium, and began to face the music. Not only would there be no tropical Christmas in the Bahamas for Ithaka, there would be no cozy Christmas dinner in Newport surrounded by our families and friends either. According to NOAA weather radio, and according to the weather god Herb Hilgenburg, broadcasting his daily weather analysis on the single-sideband radio, the Stream looked like it was going to have 18- to 20-foot, close-together, miserable waves and choppy seas for at least another week. "You're all going to be staying right there through the holidays," said Herb. "Sorry about this, but you're also getting a gale." On top of it all, our brand-new battery monitor, which we'd just had professionally installed, wasn't working, and neither were the lights in the V-berth forward (our cabin, naturally), or our navigation lights. We'd discovered these problems during our two-day offshore passage through the Charleston shipping lanes, and now Douglas was despairing having to deal with it.

Photo of No Name Harbor No Name Harbor, a protected little cleft of Key Biscayne, Florida, became our home for several days at the end of December as we ducked some foul weather.

We began to look for a more secure anchorage to ride out the building winds. On the chart was No Name Harbor at the foot of Key Biscayne, landlocked on all sides except for the narrow entrance, and we headed there, somewhat relieved to have found a safe place to anchor, hoping it wouldn't be too crowded for us to squeeze in, and at the same time bummed that the weather and technical problems drained our energy and put the skids under us.

Misery loves company, so for some moral support, I called our friends Tom and Mel Neale on Chez Nous. Like us, they were plugging south in the ICW and waiting in Fort Lauderdale for the same weather window to cross to the Bahamas for Christmas with their daughters, who were aboard on their college breaks. When we told Tom about our electrical tribulations, he said, "Aw, that's nothing. We just hauled Chez Nous five times in the past three weeks because she kept taking on water. Cost me a fortune that I don't have. And on top of that, if I don't get these girls over to the islands, I lose their non-refundable return airline tickets from Georgetown."

"See, Douglas," I whispered, "everybody's got boat problems." This conversation with Tom succeeded in cheering Douglas up momentarily, but before long he went back to his modus operandi for the past week or so: feeling blue and overwhelmed at the prospect of having to figure out from manuals how to fix stuff with which he was barely familiar and did not really understand, after which there was the not-altogether-pleasant prospect of tearing through the Bahamas and Caribbean instead of lollygagging in a more relaxed mode. At least Tom and Mel Neale, whose stream-crossing experience is unsurpassed, agreed with everyone else, there was no foreseeable weather window and we weren't just being wimps; we were all truly stuck here for the foreseeable future.

"Hey, I got a great Christmas recipe for baked Florida manatee," Tom said before he and Douglas hung up. "And if this weather doesn't let up, I'm gonna use it."

We arrived at No Name on December 23rd, in the afternoon, and found a few other boats already anchored, but it wasn't crowded at all. We motored around in a circle a few times, like a dog trying to find a comfortable angle to lie down. We waved to a friendly-looking couple going by in their dinghy, found a clear spot and dropped the hook. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we set it successfully on the first try. Dragging that anchor would be all the hell Douglas, who handles the foredeck when anchoring, would need at this point. We didn't know it then, as we tidied up the boat and looked around us, that this little gouge on the Key Biscayne coast named No Name Harbor was about to profoundly lift our spirits and change our plans.

Photo of Diane and Harold aboard Sea Camp Diane and Harold aboard their Whitby 42, Sea Camp, in Hawk's Channel, on their way from Marathon to Key West.

Our days in this harbor proved yet again that in so many ways cruising has much less to do with actual sailing than it does with connecting with people. Surrounding Ithaka were cruising boats named Sea Note, Change Of Pace, Sea Isle, and Sea Camp, all containing people we would come to call our friends. Surrounding us on shore was a national park with walking trails, and a great little Peruvian restaurant and $1 hot-water showers in which to luxuriate for long periods. Key Biscayne, once home to Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo, was only a mile-or-so hike to a laundry, a grocery store, a deli, a great Cuban coffee shop, and a bus stop.

We never ended up taking the bus into Miami and Coconut Grove, however, because the day we were going to attempt it, as we were standing at the bus stop, two women — a mother and daughter — walked by. We asked them if they knew the bus schedule. They didn't, but we all struck up a conversation The daughter, who introduced herself as Melissa Fox, turned out to be an infectious diseases physician in Baltimore, and not only did she offer us a ride in her car, she actually chauffeured us all over creation — to West Marine, to Border's Books, and to a Mailboxes Etc., where we'd had packages sent. Her warmth and kind help were a huge shot in the arm for us, and Douglas and I remain grateful for her generosity and good company. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On our first day in No Name, the friendly guy in the dinghy came by again and asked us if we wanted some ribs. "Family recipe. I made too much," he said. "Could you use some?"

"Well, sure!" we said. "Thanks!"

"Great," he said, as he revved up the dinghy. "I'll go get them."

"Hey, wait," I said. "Why don't you just bring them over later, and have dinner with us. We'll make the rest."

He beamed. "All right! Fantastic! How about 6?"

"Perfect. See you then!" said Douglas, who at that point was as eager as I was for some company. Finally feeling a little of the Christmas spirit, I went below and started cooking, and dug out the little Christmas decorations I'd squirreled away from home.

Bob and Gloria turned out to be two of the most fun people we've ever met. Like us, within the last year they had quit their jobs and set off cruising aboard their Columbia 38, which Bob had completely rebuilt. For them, too, it turned out, cruising is sometimes overwhelming, exhilarating, petrifying, wonderful and awful all at the same time. The four of us talked and laughed, compared notes and told stories late into that cold night, as familiar with each other by the time we parted company as if we were four people who'd known each other for years.

Photo of Bob, a professional musician and Gloris Bob, a professional musician whose great uncle was the famous pianist Dimitri Shostakovich, and Gloria, who'd left her job managing a bank, had just embarked on the cruising life aboard their Columbia 38 Sea Note. We could relate.

The next afternoon, which was Christmas Eve, the couple from Sea Camp came over to Ithaka in their dinghy, introduced themselves as Harold and Diane Clapp from Nova Scotia, and invited us to their boat for some holiday cheer, and some music. Things, I thought to myself, are definitely taking a turn for the better. Excited to have been included, and thrilled to find out that Bob and Gloria were invited too, and that Bob and Harold were going to play their guitars, we made an appetizer of baba ghanouj loaded with garlic, packed a bottle of wine, and headed over to Sea Camp through the 25-30 knot northerly winds. Also onboard were Ken Kotkowski, a singlehander, from Sea Isle, a pristine Allied Seawind (his home for the past 20 years) that was anchored just ahead of us, and Kay and Per Hansen from Change of Pace, a Lord Nelson 35 from British Columbia.

That night, we ate and sang songs, and drank wine and got to know one another. At one point in the evening, I laughed when I realized that Kay, Diane, Gloria and I had gravitated to one another in the main saloon, talking about personal space and feelings and family, while all the boys had ended up out in the cockpit talking engines and amps and volts. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and realized that I'd been craving girl talk more than I'd known. Diane and Kay had much more live-aboard time than Gloria and I had, so they regaled us with "been there done that" stories about their own first years aboard, about what they learned about provisioning, health aboard, and "24-7," that delicate balance of living with another person in close quarters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Diane told us that she and Harold had never even anchored a boat before they set out cruising, and in the eight years since then they've been all over Central America, Cuba, the islands of the Caribbean, and the coast of South America. "We've learned not to be slaves to the boat," she said. "When we find a country we really like, we get off it for long periods of time and explore inland. That works really well for us."

Photo of Change of Pace Aboard Change of Pace on the day after Christmas, Kay, Diane, Harold, and Per — along with Kay's pup Zack — enjoy some rare sunshine and light winds before heading south.

Then Kay told us about her experiences aboard Change of Pace, and how she and Per had been hit by a tanker at night off the coast of San Francisco. They'd come through it intact, however, repaired the boat and continued cruising. Gloria and I looked at one another, wide-eyed, and I just prayed Per wasn't out there in the cockpit telling my husband the same gruesome story, because I knew that if he was, it would set Douglas back something fierce. "Don't worry," Diane said. "Harold always says that cruising for him means that when he's not totally bored, he's terrified. It all just goes with the territory." This was a wise woman, with whom I was feeling a strong kinship.

Before the night was over, we'd all sung every oldie we knew, we'd decided to join forces and have a potluck Christmas dinner party on Sea Camp the next day at 4, and Douglas and I began talking about a new cruising plan.

Photo of Ken aboard Sea Isle Ken has lived on Sea Isle for 20 of the boat's 26 years. On Christmas eve, he surprised everyone in the harbor by turning on Christmas lights all over his boat, and distributing Christmas candy to all the cruisers.

What if, we said later that night as we dinghied back to Ithaka, we skipped the Bahamas altogether for now, and headed on to the Central American destinations we longed to visit? What if we took our sweet time in Guatemala's Rio Dulce instead of doing the whistle-stop tour we were now facing? What if we looked at wintering over in Panama instead of beating our brains out to get all the way over to Venezuela for hurricane season? What if we released some of the oppressive pressure we'd been feeling? We'd miss the Bahamas altogether for now. But, as it was, we were looking at tearing through the Exumas anyway, and neither one of us was too happy about that. By the time Douglas and I went to bed that night, we'd completely changed our plans. We were going to press south.

There were two up-sides to this change: One, instead of remaining in No Name for an indefinite period waiting for a Bahamas weather window, we'd take off right after Christmas and carry on down the Florida Keys, propelled by the north winds that up till this minute we'd been cursing. And two, Sea Note, Change of Pace, and Sea Camp were going the same way.

Photo of cockpit full of grocey bags A cockpit full of grocery bags became the daily occurrence on Ithaka when we realized that for the next few months we'd be in countries where provisioning would be more of a challenge than it would in the Bahamas.

The next few days saw us loading up in Marathon and Key West with new jerry cans for additional diesel, additional water, and additional gasoline — all precious and rare commodities in the countries we'd be visiting. Ithaka began to look like a pack mule with red, yellow and blue jerries strapped to her deck. We seriously provisioned until every single locker and floor compartment was chock full. Then we provisioned some more. When we were done, ("done" being an overstatement) Ithaka's guest cabin was filled with bags and laundry baskets each brimming with larder from the easy and plentiful American markets.

Diane said to be sure to bring things to share with locals we'd meet, and gave us a list of short-supply items that she and Harold had found useful as thank-you gifts to officials and their families. I bought plenty of pads of paper, colored pens, ball-point pens, crayons, markers, tape, chocolates, buckets, clothes, little staplers, carbon paper, soap, powdered milk, toothpaste and anything else I could think of that might be useful and appreciated.

Meanwhile, Christmas day was bittersweet: wonderful yet melancholy. It was the first time I'd ever had Christmas away from my family, and I missed them so much. I was pleased to tell my Dad and Suzanne when I called them that we had wonderful plans for the day, and that we were happy, that we'd made neat new friends who were teaching us a lot, and that things were going very well (I didn't add "finally"). Then I told them of our change of plans. My dad was philosophical about it, and encouraging, which felt great.

We'd been very excited to go to the Bahamas. Deciding to postpone our visit there is a loss of sorts, and I feel a pang or two about forgoing that for now. Are we doing the right thing? Are we ready enough? I don't know, really. I do know that the feeling aboard Ithaka, now that we're picking up the pace and heading for Central America via Cuban waters, is very different than it was when our destination was the Bahamas. There's a giddy new exhilaration now that we're heading into this version of the unknown. We're about to see what we're really made of. That's a daunting thought, let me tell you. But Douglas got the nav lights going and a replacement battery monitor put in. We've stocked up with extra food, water and fuels, we've been inspired by the encouragement of those around us. On the first good easterly wind we're ready to go for it. And we were reminded again, in the words of the Beatles song Bob sang on Christmas eve, "We get by with a little help from our friends."