November 30, 2018
Don’t let the post title fool you – we are NOT calling it quits on this boat. Not by a long shot. Read on.
Last week, I told you all about the shenanigans with anchoring at New Smyrna Beach. It was, shall I say, “uncomfortable” being at anchor there. At Rockhouse, we were mostly unprotected from the wind and it was a-gusting there. It was time to leave!
Checking Windy, Buoycast, NOAA, and other sites, we decided we couldn’t make a full sail down to Fort Lauderdale, which is of course, a critical destination for two reasons. First, this is where our solar panels are and we need to get them installed or I won’t be able to work unless we have our fun little house generator running. Second, this is our stepping off point for us to get to Bimini.
The weather forecasts all agreed that winds would be 10-15kts with 3-5’ seas, but that a nasty low front would arrive by Tuesday afternoon. No problem – in fact, that makes for good sailing (except the low front). NOAA indicated that there would be a “slight” chance of showers Monday night. Again, no biggie – that is what foulies are for. Besides, it’s just rain.
Since we had such a short window, we decided to get out of the anchorage and head down to Fort Pierce instead, which is just a little over half way between New Smryna and Fort Lauderdale. This is a 21-hour sail and we would arrive mid-morning Tuesday. Perfect.
On Monday morning, the winds picked up quite a bit – with sustained knots upwards of 22. That should have been our first sign that the forecasters did NOT get the predictions right. It was almost high tide at this point, and our boat had been swinging 180 degrees back and forth for about 3 hours. The monohulls in the anchorage were swinging as well, but not like our catamaran. Erik did his best to assure me this was normal, but my pain in the butt amygdala wouldn’t budge. I was starting to panic about pulling up anchor and heading back out the Ponce Inlet.
Every five minutes, I’d go up on the bow and confirm where our anchor and bridle were, convinced that we were in trouble. In fact, we were pulling so far and so hard on the bridle that our bow spit broke. That is to say, the rivets holding the bow spit completely gave way – and again, Erik did his best to help me understand that this wasn’t a big deal – and his madcap MacGyver skills would fix it with some duct tape and a toothpick.
As low tide began and the current shifted in our favor, and despite the high winds, we pulled up anchor. Now before I go further, let me tell you about our anchor chain. Or rather, the windlass that automates the deployment and retrieval of chain. There is a fairly narrow entrance into the locker for this chain – and we found that our chain would get stuck during retrieval and Erik would have to manually (and with some serious strength) untangle it. As a result, his dad Larry, had fabricated a rounded L-shaped plate to better guide the anchor in and out of the locker. While we were at New Smyrna, Erik installed it. So – Monday morning was the first time trying it out.
For the most part, the new part seemed to work great, until the chain got caught and wound itself around the windlass’ wheel. Talk about getting wrapped around an axel – it wasn’t just me apparently.
After manhandling the chain, Erik got it free, we finished putting the chain away, avoided grounding ourselves in an unmarked shoal (hey, it’s Ponce – you never know), and set off. Getting out of the inlet was much easier than getting in and once offshore, we put up the sails and made great speed (7.9-8.3 kts).
After reflecting on my earlier fears, Erik and I talked about what was happening inside my head. I told him I just had a bad feeling about the sail plan. Since it was after 3p, we re-checked Windy and NOAA and nothing had changed, so I just did my best to enjoy the good sailing weather.
As sunset approached, I waited for my fears of night watches to hit me, considering how freaked out I was earlier about the swinging of our boat at anchor. But guess what? I didn’t have any. So, I reheated the dinner I had prepared for us earlier and we had an early meal, I fed and cuddled Sparky, and then I was going to try to get some sleep before my midnight to 3am watch.
Once again, Sparky couldn’t get comfortable which meant I wouldn’t sleep, so I didn’t even bother. Instead, I joined Erik at the helm and rested against him. For all of 15 minutes. Around 6:45p, the drive generator, once again, stalled out. We put the drives in neutral, started the house generator, and then slowly increased speed to keep us on track. Meanwhile, Erik went down to get yet another expensive fuel filter. After replacing it, we tried restarting the generator, but it wouldn’t catch. Recall that our house generator does not charge the batteries the same way the drive generator does, if we push the power too much, it will actually drain the batteries, and well, it’s the batteries that run the drive. Therefore, we had to continually reduce the power in order to have reserve.
But wait, there’s more. Out of nowhere, big purple splotches showed up on the radar behind us on both the port and starboard side, about 20 miles (or less) from our location. Winds started picking up – at first 15-18 kts with 22 kt gusts, then sustaining over 20 with gusts to 30. THIS WAS NOT IN ANYONE’S FORECAST.
As the rain hit us, and westerly winds pushing us at around 5.9kts, we knew we couldn’t outrun this. After another 30 minutes or so, the house generator finally cooperated and we started to do the math. If we kept the current speed, we’d approach Fort Pierce around 3p – which would be dangerous with the storm that was predicted for the next day. The lack of power meant we had lost about 6 hours of time. At this point, we were north of Cape Canaveral and discussing options when the drive generator went kaput again. Erik knew this was not likely related to a dirty filter – so he checked the alternator.
Bingo – his earlier repair, where he noticed corrosion on the alternator connection and cleaned it up, was not the root cause of the problem. The alternator would need to be replaced (or so we thought – that’ll be addressed in the next post). With 5’ seas, high winds, and pitch dark skies, not much more to do on that – especially because we don’t have a spare alternator on board.
Our decision of continuing on to Fort Pierce, versus tucking in to Cape Canaveral was made for us. Turning east around the Cape, we began the very SLOW and PAINFUL journey to get into the port. We were now sailing directly into the wind, taking water across the bow. Under genoa alone, we began a slow tack north and south.
We still had the house gen, giving us a slight boost, but we knew with the rough seas it was a matter of time before it too stalled out and would need to replace the filter there as well. Pre-empting the inevitable, and with a quick command to me to “keep to the wind”, Erik tethered himself to the back rail and climbed into the other lazarette.
It’s now around 11p, and I’m both mentally and physically exhausted. When Erik said to “keep to the wind”, I didn’t question or echo back for confirmation that I understood what he meant. I’d never heard that term. I thought it meant to sail INTO THE WIND – kind of like what we do when we raise or lower the mainsail. So as we continued to tack south, I turned the boat to head us into the wind. First off, I didn’t even think about turning into the wind and the likelihood of an accidental jibe. No… that wasn’t even part of my goal. I was laser focused on getting us turned into the wind. Period. End Stop.
But the boat wouldn’t cooperate. I turned another 10 degrees. Nothing. Then another 10 degrees. I don’t even recall what heading Erik had us set to – I just wanted to follow my Captain’s order.
After a few more minutes, guess what happened? The boat turned. And kept turning. Abruptly. We were now about to jibe and I was about to pee my freaking pants. We were wearing our headsets, so I called out to Erik that I fucked up (yes, strong language required.) He came up to the bridge immediately and rapidly worked to get the boat under control. We let the jib slack and he forced her manually to get on the right course since she was intent on turning completely around, like a dog who pooped inside and was tucking tail and heading out of the room.
At this point, we were so far off track – the track that would have taken us about 7 hours to tack into the channel – and with very little remaining battery life on our drives, and a sudden wind shift to the southwest (which meant tacking would no longer be a real option), we did the inevitable. We called for a tow.
Tow Boat US didn’t answer us on VHF channel 16, so Erik grabbed his phone and called them. It was now midnight.
They took our coordinates and boat specs and said they could be there within an hour. We decided to tack donuts in the water as best we could to keep our relative bearing in tact. If there’s one upside to all of this, I’m now very skilled at tacking. An hour came and went and we got a call from the cavalry – they couldn’t find us. We gave new coordinates and waited.
While we were waiting, I noticed our running lights were off. The masthead light and stern lights were on, but the running lights (these are on the bow and help other boats determine which direction a boat is heading – red light on port and green light on starboard) were off. Sigh.
Erik/MacGyver grabbed the new dinghy portable running lights and headed to the bow and clipped these portable lights to the safety lines at the bow. Clever, simple, easy. In addition, because our masthead light is not a bright white, Erik grabbed the powerful flashlight we have that has a strobe function. Again, clever, simple, easy.
As we saw the flashing lights of the tow boat approach, Erik flashed the strobe and the tow boat captain flashed his brights back in recognition.
THE CAVALRY IS COMING!
If you’ve never been towed at sea, in 5’ waves, trust me – it’s easier than you may imagine. Our captain was single handed but sidled up to us easily and expertly. Within moment, Erik had the tow line at the bow and connected it to the bridle.
It’s now 2:30am and we made slow progress getting into the channel – going about 6 kts, we would not reach the dock until 6am. But once we were docked, we exhaled. Erik joked that he didn’t care what time we got to the dock, he was going to have a Jack on the rocks. He didn’t of course – we were exhausted.
You may be asking how Sparky did through all of this. Unlike the last trip, Sparky relaxed on this one more than I thought he would. He didn’t stress out, pee or poop in our cabin. He was a champ!
We brushed our teeth, undressed, climbed into bed and slept like the dead for all of 1.5 hours. Now the hard work would begin. Getting the boat fixed and figuring out how I would get to Fort Lauderdale for my Tuesday flight to California.
It’s not always bikini’s and martini’s – but when it’s good, when the winds are right, the seas are calm, and the sun is shining, it’s pure magic. And that is what I took away from this adventure: the bad times may be rough, but it makes the good times sparkle brighter than a cloudless star-filled sky at sea.
P.S. My apologies for not photo-or-video-documenting this trip. I thought about grabbing the Go Pro when the shit first hit the fan, but as any sailor will tell you, the very last thing on your mind when things go south is filming and snapping pics.
Next up: Expensive repairs in less-than-exotic locations