May 5 – May 11.
On a nautical chart or GPS display the most direct route between two points is shown as a magenta colored line. In early May there is a steady stream of cruisers motoring back home, and sports fishermen coming out to the Bahamas. Often there are so many boats following the imaginary magenta line you can see it covered by a real trail of bubbles that stretches to the next hazard; a cay, reef, or shallow sand bore, where the line makes another turn.
Most sailboats are motoring, determined to get to the next leg as quickly as possible. We sail, slowly zig-zagging across the line between cays and bores, being passed by those on the direct route. We are heading back to the States now. There are several reasons why.
We’ve had fickle, and apparently unpredictable weather since the week Jules, Jeff, and Neil were here in the Abacos. On May 7th we had a whole day of 15 mph wind in the opposite direction forecast by Chris Parker and windfinder.com. On the 8th Chris had no guess as to the wind speed or direction, could be zero to twenty from any point on the compass.
And surprise! We have an engine problem. I’ll put details at the end of the post for anyone who is interested. The impact is that whenever we run the engine I use a cup and bucket to bail out the bilge every fifteen minutes. When it is calm and cloudy, as it has often been, we run the engine to charge the battery bank. That’s a lotta bailing.
I’m reaping my rewards for living in a bathing suit. I have a rash from some microscopic jellyfish larvae. It’s spreading just like the rashes I get from poison ivy. Pretty soon the largest organ in my body, the skin, will just self destruct. I’m itching to get back to the States for a cortisone shot from the doc-in-a-box.
But mostly we just want to get back to see our friends and family. The bug started with a Facebook post about an Atlanta festival we love, Tunes From the Tombs. We talked about everyone who would be there, and everyone else they reminded us of. We decided it was time to get back and catch up on the news from the real world.
We take three days to sail from Green Turtle to Great Sale Cay, stopping at Cooperstown and Foxtown on the way. The wind is particularly light on the last leg. I measure the time until sundown by holding my palm out sideways at arm’s length. Put the thumb-side of the palm on the horizon and count an hour for each palm width between the horizon and the sun. We make it to Great Sale with two palms of daylight to spare.
In the morning we start the long run back, sailing west 20 miles to Mangrove Cay with the help of a southern breeze. Here we have lunch and try to nap for an hour. We will have a long night crossing back to Florida.
We get a bit of rain as we leave Mangrove. The shower has stolen our wind, so we motor for an hour to get back into the sun. Now we have a favorable southern breeze for our trip. There are thunderstorms all around us in the distance, though.
At sundown it’s time for my four hour shift. We are off the Bahama Bank and sailing southwest in the Atlantic. The Gulf Stream is flowing north, so if we have south-ish winds flowing in the same direction the waves should be low in height and frequency.
They are. This is sweet. We have been in anchorages worse than this. But we do still have some spectacular fireworks from thunderstorms in all directions. One is straight ahead. Like a NASCAR driver spotting a wreck we aim for it, hoping it will be gone before we get there.
By the time Duwan takes the helm at midnight we are definitely on the edge of the stream. We tighten sails for a close haul. We continue making westward progress, but start creeping northward. By 4am, when my shift starts, we have lost most of our southern progress. The wind gradually slows and shifts to the southwest.
By 5:30am it’s clear we have to crank the engine. We need to head almost straight into the wind to get to St. Lucie inlet. If we continue sailing on this tack we’ll end up in Jacksonville. Duwan takes a snooze while I motor us in.
At 9:00 Saturday morning we are close to the inlet under clear skies. The cruise guides don’t recommend using this inlet. Parts of the two mile stretch have to be dredged often because of shifting sands. But we had a new moon high tide half an hour ago, and we just came through here in December, so we should be OK. We strike sails and Duwan steers us through.
Now we are definitely on the magenta line. And we are not alone. Every boat owner in the Stuart/Jenson Beach area is headed out to the big water. And I don’t see anyone holding a palm to the horizon to check the time. They are all in a hurry.
I peer into the chocolate colored water of the St. Lucie river and see a lighter shade of chocolate to the right. I tell Duwan we should steer toward the center of the channel. She says we’ll get run over. I watch for channel markers, she steers. We both keep an eye on the depth gauge.
We get through the inlet to Rocky Point, where the ICW crosses the St. Lucie. At one point here we have less than a foot under the keel. Unbelievable. It’s the freaking Intercoastal Waterway!
Soon, traffic seems a little less concentrated, probably because there are magenta lines running in all directions now. We are in ‘Magentaville’. We motor the next six miles without incident, passing by the entrance to Manatee Pocket, through Hell Gate, under the A1A bridge, and around OK Woods point. I call Sunset Bay Marina on the cell phone and leave a message asking for a mooring ball.
Then, the end is in sight. There is a trio of bridges ahead: a tall fixed bridge, a railroad drawbridge that only closes when trains come, and the low Roosevelt bascule bride. On the other side is our marina. I can almost smell the slimy mooring ball we want to claim. I call the Roosevelt bridge operator on the VHF to find out when the next opening is.
The operator says if we hurry we can make the next opening in five minutes. Five Minutes! Duwan throttles up. The approach here is tricky. She asks if she is pointing toward the correct opening under the first bridge. She is. Then WHUMP! The stern lifts out of the water, halyards slap against the mast, and the depth meter shows we are aground.
We have strayed off the magenta line.
We missed seeing (newer) marker ’23A’, and passed on the wrong side. We’re stuck. Will we have to wait here for the next high tide? For the next full moon in two weeks?
As I peer into the water looking for a darker (deeper) shade of chocolate Duwan shifts back between reverse and forward, constantly turning left, rotating on the keel. Are we moving? I don’t think so. The depth meter says no. Yes. Yes, we’re moving.
With racing hearts we pull back into the channel and get to the bridge in time to wait for seven boats to come through from the windward side. We raise the marina on the VHF and secure our mooring ball. We are back.
Our 25 HP diesel engine has two cooling systems. There is a closed system with anti-freeze, just like you have in your car. There is also an open system which pulls in sea water through a filter, cools the engine with it, and mixes the water with exhaust fumes to send out the stern of the boat. The open system uses an impeller pump to circulate the water. Our impeller is leaking a steady stream of water which drains into the bilge.
After digging into the impeller and comparing what I see to the original engine diagram and a replacement kit, I’m pretty sure that a water seal at the base is shot. I don’t want to risk tearing the pump apart, though, until we get back to the land of plentiful parts.
I am also averse to letting letting the electric bilge pump drain our power. I would rather bail manually before it cuts on. But, when we finally started motoring toward St. Lucie inlet, it was ‘D@mn the bilge pump. Full speed ahead!’.