Return to USA

In early November, 2008, LA and I brought the boat back from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to the United States.  I had an opportunity to return to work for a few months about the same time we were realizing that we had some improvements we wanted to make on the boat.  In Mexico, there is little access to goods and services if you want to make some serious changes to your boat.  Not to mention the prices... prices are high, and import duty is tacked on to that.  The main improvement I, as galley queen, wanted to make on the boat was a different kind of refrigeration system.  The current system on our boat is an engine-driven, 30-year-old Seafrost system.  In its' day, it was a top of the line system.  This system requires the boat's engine to be run at least one hour daily to keep the cold plates cold.  Not too convenient if you like getting off the boat and seeing the country.  I wanted a state of the art system that would run on the boat's batteries.  Which also included solar panels to top off the batteries.  Also included re-insulating the icebox.  In a nutshell.... $5000 minimum. So, it's off to work I go............... LA to stay with the boat and supervise the boat work in a boatyard and work on projects along the way.

So, on Wednesday, November 5, 2008, we departed Isla Mujeres with our friends Thomas, Elizabeth, Patrick, Nancy, Jim, and Nancy waving goodbye at the dock.  We checked out with the Port Captain the day before with no problem and we were excited to be on our way.

Before we left, some friends of ours returned to the States shortly before us.  One of the guys reported that his autopilot had gone out and that he had to hand-steer the whole way.... AND, he was single-handing for sixty-something hours.   He said that it wasn't too bad because he was able to follow the boat he was traveling with. I thought to myself, "that was a bad situation and bad luck on a passage".  I didn't really think too much about it other than, well, that's just one more thing that can go wrong out there.   I wondered what the seas had in store for us.  Wasn't too worried.... it would be a fairly short trip back to Key West... just three days or so.

Well, we only had to wait a couple of hours to find out.  As we left Isla Mujeres and got a few miles offshore, OUR autopilot malfunctioned.  Now, we've had this (expensive) autopilot for 10 years.... it's only failed us once.  Now, twice.  As Captain Ron says "if it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen out here".   Oh, so true.

Now, it's important to note for our little story that we had broken a cardinal rule of sailing... don't ever try to be at a certain place at a certain time.... I was trying to get back to Key West to catch a flight back to Jackson so that I could return to work.  We weren't too worried, because we thought (operative word here... THOUGHT) that we had allowed plenty of time to make the passage. But we couldn't dilly-dally either.  The wind was not our friend on the passage.  We had winds right on our nose.  We needed to stay on course to make good time.  So, sailing and tacking back and forth, using our Monitor wind vane and taking our sweet time to return was not an option.  We had to motor-sail.  

At first, not having the autopilot was not a big deal.  LA stayed at the helm for a couple of hours, then me for a couple, then LA again. We were fresh, excited about being on a passage again, not at all tired.  

Well, this little routine started to wear thin quickly as the current kicked in (and out, and side-to-side, and everywhere else!).  Yep... wind on the nose, and current pushing us.  The boat was so hard to control.  It was like one of those old cars from the fifties with no power steering and a giant steering wheel.  The force on the wheel was unbelievable.  Trying to stay on course was quite a feat.  

We took the watches down to 1.5 hours.  I made a small pallet in the cockpit for the off-watch person to rest.  The person on watch wore a stopwatch and at the end of the watch, you were counting the seconds until you could hand that stopwatch over and flop down on the pallet and try to get some sleep.  We watched the compass and the GPS to stay on course.  It was much easier to use the compass.  A lot of the time, our speed slowed down so much due to the current that we couldn't trust the GPS reading.  When I was off-watch, I read some, and mainly slept.  When LA was off-watch, he checked our course periodically and tried to get some sleep.

Oh, yeah, I haven't mentioned our course.  Or, should I say, there was my course....... and......LA's course.  When I was at the wheel, I turned on my I-Pod, and listened to rock music for the entire time.  I grabbed onto the wheel with a vengeance and danced my way back and forth across the stern of the boat and somewhat kept us on course.  The key word here is somewhat.... LA, on the other hand, was like a Nazi at the wheel on his watch.  No music, no nothing.  Just watching that compass like a hawk, and hand-steering that boat right on course.  He was like a machine.  When he would get off-watch, he would check our course, tell me the latest heading, then try to get some sleep.  He would raise up every now and then and take a look at the GPS reading.  I saw him doing this, of course, and would try my hardest to stay on course while he was looking.  Once he laid back down, the rock music and dancing around resumed.  The waves were about 10-12 feet at this point, so the boat was surfing the waves like crazy.   We were traveling just offshore of Cuba.  Just far enough to stay in international waters.

 This routine lasted many hours, for many watches.  After the first 36 hours, exhaustion and frustration began to set in.  Food?  Ritz crackers and peanut butter.  Drink?  Diet Cokes and Water.  Laughter?  None.  Photos?  Forget it.  The watch-Nazi was on to me.  He began to chastise me for getting off course so much.  Dancing?  Not so much now.  We were getting tired, so tired.  Started worrying about fuel consumption.  Normally, we burn about 0.75 gallon of diesel an hour.  We were burning about 1.25 gal/hour due to the current.  When we left Isla Mujeres, we had 60 gallons in the tank, and 20 on deck.  Plenty for a 72 hour trip if we had to motor.... but didn't account for the current...

Finally, after 56 hours at sea, we began to approach US waters.  It was 9:00 at night, Friday night, November 7.  We knew from the chart plotter that we were near Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas.  We kept looking for the lighthouse.  It was barely a dot of light in the distance.  We had visited Fort Jefferson ten years ago.  We knew the fort was surrounded by shallow waters and it was a hat-trick to get in, even in the daylight hours.  We crept closer, closer, and closer.  We finally saw the fort, but it was barely illuminated.  By this time, it was 10:30 p.m. and we were exhausted.  As soon as we got in shallow water, about 10 feet, we were in sight of the fort.  We decided to drop the hook and make our way over to the fort the following morning.  We crashed, and slept our first good night's sleep in over 2 days.

Bright and early the next morning, we were awaked by several knocks on our hull by someone trying to get our attention.  Bleary-eyed, I emerged from our berth and made my way to the cockpit.  Two clean-cut, young, professional-looking park rangers wearing side-arms were alongside our boat in a huge US Park Service dingy.  They informed us that we had anchored in the middle of a coral preserve, and we were going to have to move immediately.  I informed them that we would be happy to move, but we were out of fuel and weren't going anywhere until we got some diesel.  Now, Dry Tortugas is truly dry.  No fresh water there.  No refueling diesel pumps for the public.  The operative word here is the public...... I asked these young lads how we could solve this dilemma.  Would be glad to move said boat from said coral preserve if had diesel.  They said they needed to make a phone call and see what could be done.  They returned to the boat and said that while they could not sell us any diesel, they could give us some since we were a vessel in distress.  Being the good citizens we were, we informed them that we would like to make a donation to the US Park Service, not coincidentally, in the exact amount of the value of the fuel they had given us, by US check, of course.  They were happy, we were happy.  So, fuel was brought over and exchanged, and they gave us a guided trip all the way around the fort to the entrance.  This was Saturday... we dropped the hook (again!), this time in legal waters, and promptly went to sleep again.  We laid around all day and relaxed, read, slept, and ate.  On Sunday, after we were no longer sleep-deprived, we were ready to head out to Key West the following morning.  We listened to the weather radio and a little storm called "Hurricane Paloma" was on the move and heading right for us.  The ranger boys came out in their dingy late in the day to ask us our plans and to "highly recommend" that we not leave anytime soon for Key West. 

By this time, I realized I was not going to make my flight back home to make it to work on time.  At Dry Tortugas, there was no cell phone service, but the fort did have computer access.  I was able to send an e-mail back home and let Mary Helen, my boss, know that I would not be back for the rest of the week and to please notify my family what was going on.  Thankfully, she received the e-mail and everything was handled back home (with a lot of help from my friends!!).

So, there was nothing we could do but wait.... The weather at Fort Jefferson was beautiful.  The seas outside the fort and the winds were kicking up like crazy.  Not a good time to make a passage back to Key West.  So, meantime, we toured Fort Jefferson and we were able to leave on Wednesday, November 12. 

Click here for a Tour of Fort Jefferson

We headed to the Marquesas Islands and anchored out in the Gulf.  During the night, the tide turned and we got sideways to the waves, so it was rock and roll all night.  We had no trouble sleeping, though.

On Thursday, November 13, we departed the Marquesas and arrived at Key West Bight Marina five hours later.  Here we are on our approach to Key West.  It was a beautiful day and we pulled in to the harbor amid sailboats and cruise ships.

We cleared in through Customs.  We spent a week in Key West seeing the sights and getting a few supplies for the boat.  A cold front blew through when we got ready to depart, bringing with it 25 knot winds and 7 ft. seas, so we stayed a few extra days.  We had an opportunity to get our autopilot fixed (motor had burned out), and tour Key West.  Temperatures dropped into the low 60's, which was very disappointing to all of the bikini-clad young ladies who had been prancing around the docks just the day before.  Out came the jackets and the tourists were all cold!  But we could always rely on our trusty Key West Weather Bouy........

We rented a car for a few days and traveled all the way up Highway 1 through the Keys.  Click here for our Visit to the Keys story.

Our boat is now in Marathon, Florida, at Keys Boat Works boatyard.  This is our new home base while our improvements are done.  After the work is done, LA will move the boat to a mooring out in the harbor, and I will return from "the Mainland" and we will resume our cruising lifestyle.  What will we do?  Where will we go?  We have no idea.  The plan is... there is no plan.  Stay tuned.....  

Did you miss any of my stories scattered throughout??  Click on one of the stories below.

Fort Jefferson     Visit to the Keys   History of the Keys  Ernest Hemingway  Butterfly Museum

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