ESCAPE TO THE BAHAMAS
A STEP CLOSER - STUART, FLORIDA, TO LAKE WORTH VIA THE INTRACOASTAL WATERWAY
Friday 28 November 2014 SUNNY AND BRIGHT, CHILLY NORTH WIND 20-30KTS
I had two lines through the eye of the buoy, one extra just in case – don’t want to be adrift in a Force 5-6 through a crowded mooring field in the middle of the night, do we? So all I had to do was let go of one end of each; one gone, quick look round, bows swinging the way I want, let go the other.
Jams. Nice big bowline and loop wedged in the eye. I had let go the wrong end.
So now, the only way off to get off the buoy was to somehow grab that loop and pull it back through the other way. In a light wind, no probs. In today’s wind, very funny.
By the application of massive force you would hardly think me capable of, I managed, and for once without an audience to amuse. Released from his tether, Pinball’s nose was already blowing off the wind and time for a hasty –walk never run – retreat back to the wheel. The first lifting bridge, Dixie Highway, was due to lift in six minutes! Miss it, and it’s a half hour wait..
‘Dixie Highway Bridge this is Pinball Wizard approaching from Sunset Bay eastbound, ready for your next opening’. We had one minute to spare.
‘Ok Captain, keep it coming. Just gotta clear the traffic off and I’ll get you through’. A cheerful chap this one. The road gates came down, he made a broadcast warning those on the bridge, the bridge opened and I powered up to take us through this series of three bridges, with a lifting railway bridge immediately behind Dixie, and then the massive fixed span Roosevelt Bridge. The depth boards alongside gave a clearance today of 54’ – more than enough for Pinball’s 50’.
This is where the St Lucie River starts its big U-turn over the top of the town Stuart, but also widens massively giving it an estuary feel, and with no shelter the wind picks up, around 25kts today. Time to unroll the genoa. Heading east and following the occasional red or green channel buoys, much of the waterway is shallow so it pays to stay awake. A good reach across this piece of water. The nice bit is turning back south, downwind, and suddenly its peaceful again.
We reached ‘The Crossroads’ – the intersection of the St Lucie River with the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) - half expecting to run aground as happened here a year ago here in some very shallow water, but no problem, it had been dredged.
But out on the port beam coming down the ICW at 90 degrees to us on a line of constant bearing was a big 55’ Canadian yacht, motoring downwind with no sail up. North Americans motor everywhere. Clearly, if he held his present course we would meet nicely at the junction! As I was under sail, and on his right as well I had right of way and was the ‘stand on’ vessel ie maintain speed and heading. Under maritime law he must give way, either by turning behind me – not possible in this case – or slowing down. The one thing he should not do is attempt to cut across my bow so that’s exactly what he did after a small turn away. I love it. I don’t think many boaters here know any rules. Well, one rule: do what you want!
Turning in behind him was like turning the wind off…once again we were downwind. PEACE! I LOVE downwind sailing. Under just the genoa we were doing a good 5.5 kts, what more do you want?
Well it proved a most pleasant sail south down the ICW to the Lake Worth anchorage I knew so well, up until we ran aground. Under a full poled out genoa up front with 20-30kts behind we were scooting along, then suddenly we weren’t. A few moments inattention and Pinball had wandered off the course of the ICW into undredged areas, in fact just where they dump the spoil. We were well stuck and with the sail up getting more stuck. Using power I turned Pinball 90 degrees and started to edge back to deeper water, but then noticed that a large motor boat – called trawlers here – was heading my way, and another coming up behind, and both looking at a very sorry sight of Pinball
broadside on and right in their way. Sail flapping furiously, I then tried to turn back down the ICW but he would NOT turn, even at full power. No good, I’d have to roll the genoa away first. Now if I’m doing that, I’m not on the helm anymore, and good ole Pinball, having slid out of the shallows, was now picking up speed nicely and heading for the other back – and more shallows! Back to the throttle and full reverse now, so we’re heading, still broadside on, back to where all this started whilst I struggled on, cursing as only an Englishman can.
Yes, it was a mess. But I got the genoa reefed in, we didn’t run aground again (just) and I didn’t hit anyone. Other than that, not a good job. Lesson learned? Don’t run aground.
It was completely dark by the time Pinball arrived, and picking ones way around a load of boats at anchor at night is my idea of fun. On the second attempt I had the anchor down and kept it there, in a good place. Enough!
A SKIPPER IN CHAINS
The clock was ticking. In twelve days brother Stu would be arriving in Nassau, New Providence Island - Bahama’s capitol - and be rather expecting to find Pinball pliantly at anchor in Clifton Bay - Nassau’s quiet western anchorage. For weeks now the winds had been either strong northerlies – creating dangerous seas in the warm Gulf Stream running up Florida’s coastline - or strong Easterlies, dead on the nose for any Bahamas bound boat.
But then a break was forecast, NW’ly 5-10 knots for Thursday. Good enough. Miss this, and it could be another two or three weeks before another chance cropped up. I had met with a cruiser couple who had been here for a month already, waiting to cross. So Wednesday after a quick shop in Publix at the top end of Lake Worth, North Palm Beach, I began to up anchor. From experience I knew this to be time consuming hereabouts, as its thick black mud, highly reluctant to release anchors, and when it did, you had great dollops of this stuff all over the chain, Rocna anchor and bow, and so it proved to be.
But then quite suddenly, just as I was beginning to look forward to the end of this messy ritual, with most of the chain successfully recovered by the trusty electric windlass Pinball’s predecessor had kindly fitted, things were to go badly wrong. With one foot pressing the ‘UP’ deck switch the chain should have been grinding its way back into the chain locker, instead the winch was turning but far too easily whilst the chain had in a cacophony of noise become just a blur of fast moving links, heading OUT. It took a second or two to figure out what was going on, before the enormity of what was about to happen registered; ALL the chain was disappearing back over the bow at astonishing and ever increasing speed, and when it came to the bitter end the chances were it would just keep going, snap the tied end off and disappear forever in six feet of glutinous black mud. The fact that I’d only just replaced the 80 metres of expensive chain last year provoked desperate measures; barefoot, not going to step on it then, so jammed the deck brush down hard on top. It worked.
What had happened was, the chain had decided to jam going down the locker hole in the deck as it often did, and quickly built up a nice pile of links until they reached the gipsy on the windlass, tipping the chain right off and free fall began. Whoever was it that said ‘gravity is a weak force’.
Chugged off south down the ICW for four miles, past Peanut Island and the dreaded Customs, to a new anchorage I had not tried before. There were loads of boats either at anchor or mostly on moorings (buoys to us), most of it should have been deep enough for Pinball’s 6’, and after a mile slowed down and turned Pinball off the ICW and promptly ran aground.
This was a disappointment. I had carefully researched the best place to turn in to the area, but in truth it was a guess wasn’t it. Only the locals know! As usually happens when I’m stuck, there were plenty of witnesses to quietly jeer and snigger as two boats jammed full of them approached from either direction. Well versed in counter grounding procedures, I had been travelling very slowly with prop disengaged, so getting off was ok; this involves full rudder and lots of power, Pinball spins on his keel until facing the way we came in, and off we go. The more obvious option of full reverse has never worked. By now, the boatload of gloaters was well ahead, and I suddenly saw them veering off the ICW at considerable speed at the top end of the anchorage. This was clearly a demonstration of their skill and knowledge entirely for my benefit, and taking the snub in my stride, seized on the vital information: here was the entrance!
Mainly moorings, Pinball had just one other yacht, and a catamaran for company, in 5 metres – the deepest I had yet seen anywhere here. Being a ‘newbie’ in this area, one last vital clue was needed; where to land a dinghy tomorrow? Espionage gave the answer the following morning: The Palm Beach Yacht Club on the west side of the ICW a mile south of my next destination – US Customs & Border Protection. I set off in Perky, bike folded in the bow complete with a pair of my underpants over the oily crank – a hard sacrifice - and backpack with my documents. Tying Perky up I noticed that none of the other dinghies were locked – unusual here! The reason was the dock area had to be accessed through what proved to be a real yacht club boathouse full of sails and rowlocks and all things boaty – nice to see. Walking through and emerging on land I followed the path up to a building that proved to be the most delightful yacht club, unlike expectations. It had an old fashioned, almost colonial feel to it, with charming bar, views over palm trees to the glistening water, a library, and sitting areas. I tracked down the only occupant Eleanor, in the office, and asked permission to leave Perky there. Eleanor, with a week in the job, thought yes.
US CUSTOMS AND HOMELAND SECURITY
The West Palm Beach Customs building is huge, grey and right on the
‘How are you today?’ asked the large friendly Afro lady painting the wall next to the lift.
So surprising was the question, I failed to come up with a coherent answer. Hang on, a painter who has never seen me before wants to know how I am today? Its all part of the horribly false pleasantries and pseudo ‘caring society’ here. Just like the inevitable ‘you have a wonderful day now’ delivered regardless of how brief and inappropriate the forerunner was. Because in truth no one CARES. Yes I know its pretty harmless, I agree, but shouldn’t communication mean something? Yet just saying these things makes me feel a bit mean, grumpy old man stuff, but I’m not mean, its just that all this falsehood ends up turning you off and not listening anymore. And we’re starting to do it in UK now, together with importing Halloween. Are the Brits as bad?
And there, on the second floor, was the squalid little waiting room reserved for the hapless victims of US Customs and Homeland Security. To the left of the door was a glass screen with a speech hole behind which Customs Officers occasionally appeared. Opposite were four chairs, three of which were occupied. On the other side facing the door was the Officers entrance to their own office behind, making half the room a corridor. This room is the size of a moderate lift in a building you could happily launch a Shuttle from.
A note stuck on the glass barrier said ‘For attention ring the bell then sit down and a Customs Officer will come momentarily’. I assumed either the couple on my right or the Spanish girl with the young boy on my left had done that, so didn’t. Then a guy came in and rang it, waiting nervously. Was he jumping in? British phlegm in such matters won the day. Finally I deduced he had already been doing business here. Inspired by his success I too rang the bell.
‘Good morning. I’d like to clear out please’ and passed him my passport and Registration Doc for Pinball. ‘Cruising Licence?’ he demanded.
‘Ah. Cruising Licence expired in May I’m afraid..’ He fired a series of questions about dates, dates of arriving, leaving, coming back.
‘Why didn’t you come back here when your cruising license expired?’ he demanded. I told of my phone call to this same office before leaving, and the advice given, which had not included having to report back to them. It was getting nasty. ‘What was her name?’ he wanted to know. I didn’t know..
‘You have kept your boat illegally in the US’, he informed me , unimpressed with my arguments. ‘You may not get another Cruising licence now’.
I remonstrated, as I probably would be returning one day and would need one. He disappeared again.
But this was all fine entertainment for the couple on my right, and the Spanish mother had been replaced by an older man by the door. The couple, well she was half English herself, had once visited Bristol she informed me proudly, whilst I expounded on how wonderful Bristol was now with its waterside cafes, restaurants and bars.
After a wait of nearly an hour, the door burst open, more questions, shut, open again a bit later this time with my get out of jail card written out, and a demand for $19. But the good news, he informed me, was I was getting a warning this time. Yes I could still get another cruising licence next time I’m here.
So it was back on the bike, over the huge bridge, back to the Palm Beach Sailing Club, no one in, and off in Perky. By 1400 Pinball was up anchored – no problems this time – and heading back up the ICW the mile to Peanut Island, passed the monstrous Customs building, then a right turn and out of Lake Worth Inlet.
We were at sea!
CHANGE OF PLAN
The plan was to head south until dusk at least to counter the effects of the north flowing Gulf Stream when crossing over to the east. The target was Freetown. With a pretty brisk Westerly blowing whilst on the ICW, as soon as we cleared the Inlet it moderated to W 10-20kts – perfect for making some south-ing. But what a wonderful feeling to be free of land, and all that goes with it. I was happy..
Around 1800 I changed into Musto longjohns, and had a good meal of chowder and mash before dark. I was about 4 miles offshore with a 1knot countercurrent, so later I took us back in closer to shore to see if the current was less there. It was. In fact, I had found a very nice little counter current running with us of 1kt. This might not sound much, but this gave us effectively 2kt extra speed difference or 40% faster, and as the wind was dying to less than 10 kts, this proved important.
Started the engine around 2000, Nav lights went on, but I noticed the bow light looked dodgy, so went forw’d and it was intermittent. The bulb was fine – just fitted it, and couldn’t see anything else so abandoned that and switched the masthead tricolour on instead. This light is normally only used when pure sailing; but I had the bright steaming light on too.
With a light Westerly wind of less than 10 kts behind us, without the engine we were going nowhere, so it was an all night drive across. Thinking about it though, if I changed heading and made for the (nearer) Biminis it would give me a broad reach – much more efficient at propelling a yacht.
Bimini it would be then. The other advantage was that I knew N Bimini.
We ploughed on all night, until at 0430 the wind picked up to a force 3-4, so stopped engines set the windvane steering up. But this proved a bit unreliable because the wind was very up and down, and when down Pinball would drift off course as the windvane couldn’t cope. So change back to autopilot, which is very accurate but uses power. Oh well..
I had also switched on the AIS Transceiver I had fitted last year, which proved highly effective. There is a lot of heavy traffic going up and down the Florida Straits, but none came anywhere near me as they could see my transmissions and position. So I did sleep quite a lot in the early hours, perhaps more than I should, but never a problem.
By 0900 next day we were 8nm from Bimini and the thin streak of low-lying land could easily be seen on the skyline. I set mooring lines out both sides, and fenders both too, as I didn’t want a repeat of my arrival last April – coming in downtide and unable to stop in time. The tides here are fierce. Calling up Brown’s Marina on the VHF 16 I heard old Humprey’s rumbling voice. He would meet me on the dock.
It went like clockwork. Perfect arrival I’d say. I felt I’d partly expunged the harsh memory of last year – which had cost me $300 in repair bills to their trash container.