26:27.000N 81:57.000W Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Fort Myers Beach, W Florida
Mexico to W Florida
Saturday 12 March 2016
The weather looked good to go. I decided against going to Havana on my own, the short hop to Key West is lost if I would then have to go all the way to Cape Canaveral to find a friendly US check in.
Key West was still and then up the E Florida coast, or direct to Fort Myers on the W Florida coast; which was still my favourite option.
It took some doing, but I got a letter of ‘no debt’ from the marina for the Port Captain – this is a new requirement. Then I went with the 3 guys from Willow to town to check out. It is more expensive on the weekend, but Buku’s crew had not flown in until last night. They are a small boat going to Fort Myers. The crew went to the beach and Buku and I went to the Port Captain’s office.
The Port Captain cannot take cash or a credit card and we could not pay in at the bank because it was closed. We had to find a agent to take the money, and we only had until 1pm.
We went to El Milagro, where I hoped to find Julio, and we did. Double $ for the Port Captain and Julio’s fee, but needs must. Julio went off to get the Zarpe for Fort Myers and came back with them saying Fort Lauderdale. This was the only ‘Fort’ in Florida that the Port Captain could find in his computer! Luckily nobody in the US even looks at the Zarpe.
Then we had to wait for immigration, which was going to be 30 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes, make that 2 hours and 30 minutes. There were 5 boats checking out of the posh marina so the officials had gone there. How long does it take to stamp passports? A matter of seconds. I opened the passport at the page where I had been checked in, but she used a completely new page and stamped right in the middle. This is very annoying as my previous passport had 3 years to run, but was full due to this – because they can!
Sunday 13 March
I left the marina about 1000 am. Willow needed to wait for high tide at lunchtime to get out, the lagoon is very shallow. I motored across the lagoon, through the anchorage, round the top of the island and out through the gap in the reef. It was a bit windier with higher waves than I expected, but it would settle down soon.
When I checked the chart plotter it wasn’t working. It had power because I had the front screen, but the on /off button did nothing, it just flashed on and off.
I went to the backup GPS, but this was still in Aruba, could not find a satellite. I tried to unscrew the dome, but managed to break the antennae cable. I pulled the cable to see if there was enough slack, but it broke where it came through the deck, it had been chafing away for 13 years and decided now was a good time to give up. I might have been able to fix it, but I couldn’t unscrew the dome.
I had also lost the radar on the chart plotter, but I have spare radar - and that didn’t work either. Anything original is up to 13 years old now, most things 10. I have new sails and rigging, but the electronics are biting back now.
I do have MaxSea with the charts on the backup computer and on Open CPN on the main computer. I also had the official US charts on Open CPN. My GPS dongle works on both computers. So I set the main computer up with the GPS and US charts, this gave me everything I really needed. I was all prepared to just go with the compass, because a heading of 35 degrees or less would get me to the USA, hopefully Florida, but with the strong Gulf Steam currents I was going to encounter I really needed the Course Over Ground data.
The sailing was good, but it did put me back a bit and take a lot of time and energy that I had not bargained for.
I was able to send and receive messages on the sat phone. Buku had an Iridium messager, so we knew where each other were.
Monday 14 March
I survived the first night for many years without AIS and without incident with any big ships.
The wind was not strong, but I sailed along slowly but happily with the wind behind using the windvane steering. At noon I tried the engine to motor sail, but the electronic autopilot would not work. This was a new wheel pilot that I had fitted in October, so age was not causing this problem. I tried testing fuses and connections, but gave up. That evening I had to put the main out on a preventer and leave it fully up for the night, which is very rare for me, but it was the only way to keep sailing.
Tuesday 15 March
I tried to motor, but the current was so strong I had two options, steer or fix the autopilot. I found the cable in the cockpit locker where I had made the join on the power cable. It was really well taped up, but it had pulled out inside. This may have happened when I was trying to fix the GPS antennae.
I reconnected the cables and the autopilot worked. The light wind and strong current meant that I could now motor sail and stay on course – with the autopilot doing the hard work instead of me.
I was able to read the first 200 pages of a good book.
Wednesday 16 March
I have a leak on the freshwater supply from the tank. When I turn the switch the pump keeps going, even when there are no taps open. I was just pleased the liquid in the bilges was not diesel.
I finished the book, finishing just before it was too dark to read. This was a mistake, 400 pages was too much, it was a bit tiring as I have the night to stay up through.
I was planning at some point to drill a hole in the autopilot clutch for a piece of string to tie it off, which I had to do with the previous one. I turned the autopilot on and it would not hold. I had to manually drill a hole in the dark and fix that.
Thursday 17 March
By Noon I had to motor sail. The wind dropped to nothing and I had to motor against the strong current again. Florida coastal water is shallow, 200 feet and dropping, which leads to pots and fishing boats. I had 100 miles to go diagonally, but it was not that far out from the coastline.
Willow got to Fort Myers in the dark that evening. I was going to arrive in daylight, but I still had to stay awake all night, no naps, this is tough.
Friday 18 March
The water depth had reduced 200>150>100>50>35. I was sailing into the bay as light was dawning and then I could see the pot markers all around that I had been motoring through. The depth dropped to 15 feet when I got to the channel and was trying to find the marina that Willow had gone into. I got the name and tried them on the radio. They checked they had a space and I needed directions. There is a huge amount of data on the charts, lots of channels, and I needed a clue. The chart plotter has a bigger screen than the computer - either I could not see the detail without a magnifying glass or could read the words but could not see the surrounding information.
I asked the marina for their lat/long and they didn’t know. The information they gave me only helped if I knew what they were referring to. One of the dock guys had been listening and looked the marina up on the internet, it only gave a waypoint in the channel, but it was the starter for ten I needed. The channels are very narrow and if you go outside you will go aground.
I arrived and docked, happy to finally be in USA.
I phoned Customs and got a check in number. Then I had 24 hours to get to the airport, the other guys were just going, so I went with them. It was $60 each way in the taxi and a notice said there was no service at weekends, so it was lucky did go immediately.
The other boat being US flag had no problem. I had a less easy time. I was sent up to Foreign Exchange to get a money order for $37 which just covered me from W Florida through the waterway to E Florida. I got the money order and reported back. A different officer said why would I do that when I could pay $19 entry fee and get a free 1 year US cruising permit. So I went back to Foreign Exchange and got a money order for $19. I will have to cash the $37 order somewhere. The officer came out with my cruising permit and explained a few things. I said that was ok I had a permit previously and he said he had looked that up. (I was in the US Virgins, not the mainland).
There is no boat inspection, or detail required, so different to the Caribbean where they can make an epic of checking in.
I was tired and just waiting for the evening when I could crash and sleep.
Tomorrow it will be soon enough to tidy the boat and get it ready for the next leg of the journey.