Cindy and I are feeling especially grateful right now. We’ve just accomplished our biggest achievement yet on board Beatitude: A 20 hour 34 minute, 99.25 nautical mile open water passage with just the two of us. It is the first time we’ve been forty miles away from terra firma, the first time we’ve been so far offshore that we’ve lost sight of land. It was a trip not without challenges, as I will describe below. But, sitting in our slip in the Keys, we have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
As I mentioned in my last post, we were not sure if we would be able to make the passage at this time with the tropical weather system threatening off the east coast of Florida. But, with forecasts calling for little chance of organization, and passageweather.com forecasting light and variable winds with seas of less than 1.5 ft, We decided to go for it. We figured the worst that would happen would be some rain.
At 3:09 pm, we cast off our lines, and headed to the fuel dock to top off our tanks. With thunderstorms threatening, we weaved our way through the Marco Island pass and into the open gulf. We immediately raised and unfurled our sails, but had to motorsail due to light winds. After a while, with the storm clouds chasing us from behind, we lowered and furled the sails since they were adding but little speed to our passage. Fortunately, except for a brief, light shower, we avoided the rain until morning.
Let me pause for a moment to say how much I appreciated having our DeLorme inReach SE satellite tracker for this trip. We lost cell service (and therefore contact with the world; of course, we still had our vhf and ssb, but that’s different) a few miles offshore and didn’t regain it until about nine or ten this morning. This device allows me to update folks on our position (both on Facebook and with personal texts) as well as send text messages to individuals. I was able to text message Tracy Ionta, who is as a daughter to us, throughout the evening and again upon her awakening the next morning. Having that means of communication to fall back on if things went bad went far to alleviate any undue apprehension. She was also able to give me weather updates on what we might soon face on the water. Cool!
No passage is complete without a few challenges along the way, right? Well, we didn’t have to wait too long for our first problem. About one hour after leaving the marina, our port engine warning light came on. It was overheating. This is not the engine which had the fuel uptake problem, but the one which also overheated a year or so ago. We had a mechanic look at it then. He found no definite cause, but just went through everything and it then worked fine. Immediately, I checked to make sure water was exiting through the raw water exhaust. It was; that wasn’t the problem. The non-raw water reservoir had fluid in it, so that didn’t seem like the source of the problem, either. What to do?! We decided to shut down the engine and make the trip with just our starboard engine. If it failed, we would find ourselves in difficult circumstances, but, then… what are the odds?
The next difficulty reared its ugly head about an hour and a half later as dusk was approaching when I thought I should turn on our navigation lights. My white stern light worked, my forward steaming light worked, but my red and green bow lights would not work. I checked for a loose bulb or loose connections in the wiring, but could not locate the source of the difficulty. What to do? After contemplating making the journey with just the stern light and steaming light, Cindy suddenly realized we have portable navigation lights for our dinghy. So, I climbed over into our dinghy (kids, don’t try this at home), retrieved our portable lights, and wire-tied them to the bow pulpit. Voila! We now had navigation lights.
The rest of the night was wonderful. Cindy stood watch from 8pm-10pm. I stood watch from 10pm-1:15am. She then stood watch from 1:15am-5:15am. And, I finished off the night from 5:15 onward. As we plowed through the gulf waters, bioluminescence was visible in our wake, courtesy of the dinoflagellates which glowed a bright blue as we passed over them. The seas were calm and the waves were small. Thankfully, neither Cindy nor I had any seasickness on this trip. I was very proud of Cindy’s watch duty. She did an excellent job. We each slept on a mattress on the salon floor while the other was on watch. She called me out once to look at some lights in the distance about which she was unsure. Otherwise, I slept well. Cindy’s thoughts about her night watches: “It was so dark! An occasional streak of lightning lit up the sky which encouraged me to stand up and check out our surroundings by the light of it’s flash. Otherwise, it was so dark, I could not see anything.”
The waning full-moon tried it’s best to nudge away the clouds and provide some moonlight for our passage, but after a few feeble attempts it succumbed to the darkness of the cloud cover. With blackness encompassing us, se proceeded southward under calm and overcast conditions. As if right on cue, with the last shift change at 5:15 am, the rain began. Lightning intensified and moved in closer. As I watched lightning flash all around me, I felt like the bullseye on some cosmic dart board, watching as brilliant streaks of light danced in the air. Fortunately, the cosmic dart players’ aim was not true this night. We escaped unscathed. Once the rain started, it continued for almost six hours straight, most of the time, lightly. When the time came for the darkness to wane, Apollo’s chariot made no grand entrance heralding the dawn of a new day. Instead our environment imperceptibly transitioned through many shades of gray until finally it was day.
Things got a little exciting just before nine. We were just nearing the Northwest Channel, the Gulf entrance into Key West. Suddenly, a strong squall hit with sustained winds of 25-30 knots blowing over our starboard side. Rain slashed through the air, drenching my clothes, stinging my face, and wreaking whatever havoc it could otherwise. Our next challenge was holding Beatitude’s course with only the starboard engine operating and a strong wind from that same side. There was no way I could get Beatitude to hold her course into the channel. Rebelliously, it repeatedly veered to port. I actually made 4 or 5 complete circles (the only way I could turn was to port) hoping the winds would subside. As they didn’t, at least for a while, I decided this was the time to try out the port engine again. So, I tenuously pushed the starter button, and moved the throttle to 2200 rpms… and prayed. I give thanks to God that it started and did not overheat, even though we used it for the rest of the passage. Once I had an operable port engine, we had no more problems. Beatitude held her course until the winds finally subsided, about 15 minutes later. The rain mercifully stopped just after we rounded Key West and made our way out into the Atlantic side of the island. We pulled into Stock Island Marina at 12:15 pm, checked in, and pulled into our slip shortly thereafter.
We are so grateful for a safe and successful passage. As my sailing mentor and friend, Captain Roy Rogers commented the morning of our arrival, “Isn’t it a good feeling, when after an open water passage, you arrive at protected water and a safe harbor?” Yes, it is! Last night was a giant step forward for us. We’re thankful for the experience and look forward to the next leg of the sailing journey.