Back in the Saddle
December 29, 2005
"Little Gidding" and its crew have something in common: after a prolonged period of inactivity, it takes a while for us to get back into cruising mode. Both the boat and ourselves were parked on land for part of the summer and fall; making the transition to life on water hasn't been without a few snags. In our last entry, "The Brighter Side", we recounted our engine's untimely bout with electrolysis, which resulted in the costly replacement of our exhaust manifold and an extended sojourn on a mooring in Stuart, FL. We're happy to report the engine got fixed and we left Stuart before being declared permanent residents. We were still not quite in the clear, however.
David thought it would be prudent to check a few things before we cast off the mooring line; little things like our propeller, which we tend to use every once in a while. "We've been sitting here for a month, god only knows what's been growing down there in this brackish soup," he said. Eileen looked over the side at the opaque water. "Maybe that's one of those mysteries better left unknown," she said.
David put on his wetsuit and jumped into the surprisingly chilly St. Lucie River. We had applied new bottom paint last month when we were on the hard in the Indiantown marina. David immediately regretted our choice of colour: black, the same colour as the water. He dove under the stern of the boat and resurfaced after a few seconds. "How does it look?" asked Eileen. "I don't know," David answered. "I couldn't see it. I did feel something, however, so I think we still have a prop; let's hope it will move the boat."
Next David checked all of our lights: navigation lights, anchor light, foredeck light, compass light -- lights that were all working fine when we left the boatyard. The bicolour bow light was now dead. A postmortem autopsy revealed that its guts had been reduced to a lump of green metallic powder. It was three or four years old; its predecessor had also corroded away. One would think that an expensive marine light might be watertight. Over the years, David has learned to lower his expectations of the boating industry. With barely a whimper, he walked the 40 minutes to the nearest marine store and bought a replacement.
We decided we would start the cruising season with a short trip -- a mere 10 mile jaunt to Peck Lake on the Intracoastal Waterway -- to work out any lingering kinks in the boat and ourselves. Long before we got to the anchorage we detected a distinct diesel odor coming from the bowels of the boat. "Not good," David said as he opened up the engine room. The source of the smell was obvious: a fountain of fuel bubbling up from the injectors. The hose clamp attaching one of the return lines was loose, an easy thing to fix. As it turned out, we were hemorrhaging more than just diesel. After we anchored at Peck Lake and David descended to clean the spilled fuel, he discovered a litre or two of water mixed with the diesel. The stuffing box on the propeller shaft was happily spouting seawater into the boat. David tightened the packing gland and depleted our supply of absorbent pads cleaning up the mess in the bilge.
The next day we motored 22-odd miles to Lake Worth with no more geysers appearing in the engine room. Shortly after we dropped the hook in the popular anchorage at the north end of the lake most of the boats in our immediate vicinity left. "They've heard about us," Eileen said. David thought it was more likely that they were all crossing over to the Bahamas together, having decided a weather window had opened up. It's not unusual for boats to move en masse across the Gulf Stream at this time of the year. With the winter cold fronts starting to march off the continent one after another, boats get bunched up waiting for a break that's long enough to get them over to the other side. And then there's the phenomenon of "buddy boating".
Buddy boaters are sociable folks who like travelling together. They typically will agree upon a common route, choose a specific time to depart, and attempt to keep in contact during the trip. This all sounds great and we have no difficulty with other boats synchronizing their movements, but it's not for us. The problem is, we have enough trouble just the two of us reaching consensus without throwing a few other people into the decision-making process. We've also noted that a certain mob psychology tends to set in among buddy boaters; the pressure to conform with the majority opinion may result in individuals compromising what they think is best for themselves and their vessel.
Some will argue that there's security in numbers; if something goes wrong during a passage, a buddy boat can come to the rescue. That's a responsibility we're not willing to assume; moreover, it may give some boaters a false sense of security. We figure anyone out there should be capable of handling an emergency on their own. An e-mail we received a few days ago from our friends Brigitte and John on the Niagara 35 "Mystic" sums it up pretty well. They were waiting in Miami to cross over to the Bahamas. Brigitte wrote:
"A single handed guy has attached himself to us and while he is very nice and we enjoy his company, he wants to 'follow' us. I don't think he has the fuel capacity to make it to Nassau. He doesn't listen to the weather, just leaves when other boats go; he doesn't often use his main sail and has no dodger or any form of protection from the elements ... I said that while he might want to follow us, that didn't mean we were leading ..."
Watching the exodus from Lake Worth inspired us to recheck our weather information. Had we missed something? The three or four sources we consulted were pretty much in agreement: conditions in the Gulf Stream would moderate on Christmas eve in advance of a cold front blowing through on Christmas day. For us, that window wasn't wide enough; we'd have enough time to cross the Gulf Stream safely, but on the route we were intending to take across the Little Bahama Bank, we'd be stuck out in the open when the front caught up to us. Call us wimps, but we decided to pass on the prospect of roasting our Christmas turkey in 30 knot winds and eight foot seas.
We weren't the only ones putting a premium on personal comfort. The boats that left the anchorage were soon replaced by newcomers who were hunkering down for the holidays. When we took the dinghy ashore on Christmas eve, the small landing area at the northernmost corner of the lake was crowded with beached tenders. Walking through the nearby shopping mall, it wasn't difficult to identify fellow cruisers in the throng of frantic last-minute shoppers: anyone not driving a car and sporting sandals, a backpack, and a questionable haircut was probably off a transient boat. One young man on a folding bicycle (a dead giveaway) approached us and asked where the nearest marine store and laundromat were located. We directed him to the marine store, about a five minute bike ride away, and explained that in posh North Palm Beach, there's not much demand for laundromats.
Christmas day dawned with clear skies, cool temperatures, and a brisk southwest wind. The wind steadily increased and a couple of the boats close to us started dragging their anchors. Eileen said, "I just remembered the main drawback of anchoring out -- boats tend to move around when you don't want them to. Are you sure our anchor is well set?"
Suspecting that feelings of peace and goodwill toward our fellow man might become strained if our boat collided with his, David put down his half-eaten mince tart and took a second anchor out in the dinghy. "Probably unnecessary," he said, "But it's been a while since we've done this anchoring thing and I'd prefer not to be doing it in the dark with everyone yelling at us."
By Tuesday, two days after Christmas, the winds had lightened and the marine weather report promised that the seas were settling down in the Gulf Stream. We weighed anchor at dawn, motored down the lake, and entered the open ocean at Lake Worth inlet. Yesterday morning, twenty-seven hours after leaving frenzied Florida, we dropped the anchor at Green Turtle Cay in the northern Bahamas. David dove to make sure the anchor was set and, for the first time since we launched the boat in November, recognized the bottom of our hull. "We definitely have a propeller," he announced as he climbed aboard.
Later in the day, after clearing in with the friendly lady at Bahamian Customs, we walked the ocean side beach. We had the place pretty well all to ourselves. The warm sun sparkled on the turquoise water. The fine sand felt good between our toes. "We're finally cruising again," Eileen said. "Can't think of a better way to end the year."
Happy New Year,