Christmas Shakedown in the Dry Tortugas

Having left what we thought would be the coldest temperatures La Vie Dansante has ever been exposed to in our wake when we departed Charleston, we now find ourselves on the hook in even chillier temps at St. Augustine, Florida during a cold front. In fact, we awoke this morning with condensation on the interior bulkheads as the temps neared freezing last night! Brrrrr!

Our arrival here was pretty “old school”. After suffering a complete failure of our Raymarine electronics, Barbara and I hand-steered our floating home for 8 hours, aided only by engines and a rudder, finally making safe harbor in America’s Oldest City.

After resting up, I spent a couple of days troubleshooting the system, tracing the issue to a faulty connector which we ordered and received within a few days. We’re now up and running, just waiting on the right weather for the two-day passage to Fort Lauderdale on “the outside”. In the meantime we’re taking care of family gifts, arranging for the required COVID-19 tests and health visas to get into the Bahamas and planning the rest of our journey back to the islands – governments willing.

The routine nature of the last few days leaves me with not much new to report, but gives me the opportunity to tell a tale I’ve been holding onto for almost 2 years – the harrowing story of our first Christmas aboard La Vie Dansante – one that scared the Dickens out of us! In fact, like Dickens’ protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, we learned a lot the hard way.
So pour yourself some hot chocolate, put on some appropriately island-style holiday music (click below) and let’s travel back with the Ghost of Christmas Past to 2018 …

Angels We Have Heard On High – Robert Greenidge on the Steelpan from “A Coral Reefer Christmas”

“I almost asked you not to go …

– cathy dreaper

We had just recently met Cathy Dreaper, the woman who was catching our dock lines as we returned broken, shaken and exhausted to NAS Key West’s Boca Chica Marina. Cathy, who we now refer to as our “sailing godmother”, was lamenting how she hadn’t stopped us from sailing to the Dry Tortugas when she learned of our plans.

As inexperienced sailors with a new-to-us boat, she also knew we didn’t yet have the right stuff to attempt the trip. Even for experienced sailors, the leg from Key West to the Dry Tortugas is one that requires careful preparation and just the right weather. The waters separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida Straits. It’s such an unpredictable patch of ocean that common practice for sailors making the trip is to provision for days, or even weeks, in case wind and waves prevent them from an immediate return.

Our planned three day festive holiday cruise had turned into four days of seasickness, equipment failure, uncertainty and fear all mixed up in a tumultuous ocean mercilessly berating us for being so cavalier.

Of course, it all started out hopefully.

After successfully navigating our new home down the coast of Florida across four uneventful days (“Becoming Crew” – November, 2018), we figured we were competent enough sailors to make a short cruise for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Why not invite some family and do Christmas in the nearby Dry Tortugas – just 72 nautical miles from the tip of Key West? We asked my Mom and my daughter Lindsay to accompany us on this – our first sail beyond the sight of land.

Picking up our crew at Key West Airport

The visit started out great! I met our guests at the Key West airport with rum drinks and we enjoyed a day on the town. “Linz” had seen the Key West Pottery Company, so we headed downtown and grabbed a memento of the visit for her to take home. That night, the night before we set sail, we all hit the marina’s Christmas Pajama Party in matching attire, then Mom and Linz found plenty of boat parties on the Boca Chica docks to keep them festive ’til pretty late.

Perfect attire for the Christmas PJ Party, right?

“But you just got the boat!” you’re no doubt thinking. “Were you guys ready to sail beyond sight of land at this point?” … Great question!

As we over-estimated our own capability, the journey from Key West to the Dry Tortugas didn’t seem particularly daunting at just over 70 miles – a good day of sailing at 6 or 7 knots. In fact, there was even a place to stop on the way if we needed it – a small group of uninhabited islands called the Marquesas. Cake walk! The half tank of diesel fuel we had should be more than enough to get us out there and back, even if we had to motor both ways, so we were basically ready … we thought.

Excited, and with hopeful expectations, we arose early, leaving our guests to complete their recovery from the previous evening and got underway.

Seas were maybe a little (* me holding my fingertips close together) higher than expected, but they were “following seas”, meaning they were coming up from behind us and not smashing into our bow, so we merrily rode them up and down maraveling in our good fortune.

Of course, if things remained the same we’d be plowing directly into these waves on the way home, but that didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time.

Thus began a series of unfortunate events …

Unfortunate Event 1 – Hooked a Lobster Trap

Frothy, transparent aqua waves were lofting us toward our destination when Barbara, looking back at our wake, asked something surprising.

“What’s that following us”?

I offered up “maybe it’s a manatee or something”, after which Barbara astutely pointed out “but it’s square!” Knowing manatees not to be square, I squinted into the sea for a better look.

Well, damn it.

Without realizing it, we’d hooked one of the thousands of lobster traps we had been avoiding since Boca Chica and it was wrapped around our propeller spinning wildly in our wake.

A very quick look at the lobster trap we hooked

In hindsight, I should have just dragged it onto the boat to see if any dizzy (and tasty) lobsters were inside. Instead, we stopped the boat and drifted with the current while I went underneath to cut it loose – something I would eventually have to do anyway were we to regain normal use of our prop. As the heavier-than-I- would-have-liked seas lifted the starboard hull up on down on my head, I struggled to stay conscious long enough to cut the trap loose. Barbara was sure she was going to lose me at sea, but I prevailed this day and we were back on our way west.

As the sun was brilliantly setting in a horizon-to-horizon swath of colors, we pulled into beautiful Garden Key – manmade players in a gorgeous island scene. The harbor only had a few boats in it, so we dropped the hook in a spot that seemed secluded enough, but one of only a few people ashore kept yelling that we were “in the channel”. I checked the chart and the visual area again and assured them we weren’t, but they kept insisting and I kept ignoring them.

It was the approach of a seaplane … directly toward us … that showed me who was right. It wasn’t me.

We had, in fact, anchored in the lane seaplanes use to ferry visitors to/from Fort Jefferson; which made for spectacular views of the arriving and departing seaplanes, but we’re probably not on any of the pilots’ Christmas lists.

After the first wave of flights, we weighed anchor and relocated further from shore so we would no longer be a hazard to aviation.

After a nice dinner and a few drinks at anchor, we called it a night. Tomorrow’s plan was a Christmas Day in Fort Jefferson.

Unfortunate Event 2 – Drug Anchor

I was awaked in the middle of the night by my wife peering out of our stateroom window.
“I don’t remember that being there” she said, staring directly out our stateroom window at a channel marker about 10 or 12 feet off our starboard side.
“That’s because it $%&#*!@ wasn’t!” I managed to bellow as I somehow donned a pair of pants while stumbling hurredly to the helm.

Vision across water is always deceiving, but after the sun goes down it’s no less than a dark art. After a few moments of analyzing anchor lights and shore, I realized we had drifted a quarter of a mile out of the anchorage but were now stationary. Our anchor had miraculously reset, stopping us just short of charted rocks at the edge of the entrance channel. In fact, my chart showed that we should have been IN the rocks! It’s probably the only time I’ll ever be appreciative of a chart inaccuracy!

Although not in immediate danger, we were now right in the middle of the entrance channel, so we needed to move. The problem was the engines.

Just as we had finished setting the anchor outside the seaplane landing zone, our port engine (which we’ve nicknamed “Patsy”) had sputtered out. I intended to get up early in the morning to troubleshoot it, but now we needed it. Theoretically, we could’ve repositioned using only our starboard engine (nicknamed “Sammy”) but Barbara, who is the anchoring captain and handles the helm when dropping the hook while I’m forward on the windlass (the spool that lowers and raised the anchor), wasn’t keen on learning single-engine ops in a real-world scenario.

I remembered a similar situation we’d encountered just prior to our survey. The port engine didn’t start immediately, but turned over after priming the engine with the bulb on the fuel pump. We tried that and it worked! With both engines now online, we were able to get La Vie Dansante back into the anchorage, avoiding collisions with the other boats by dodging their anchor lights.

When we finally got back to bed, sleep eluded us, as had our faith in the anchor’s holding.

Anchored at the red dot, our boat drug in the wee hours to the purple dot! By this chart, we should’ve been in the rocks!

Christmas morning dawned beautiful, and we found ourselves grateful for the nerve to take this trip on, even if we had encountered some challenges along the way.

After breakfast and our family gift exchange, we were packing up the dinghy to take it ashore and explore the island. Doubtful that Fort Jefferson would be open to visitors on Christmas Day, we were packing snorkel gear and figured we’d have a pretty laid back island day.

As were loading up, we were approached by some of our neighboring boaters on their dinghy.

“Hey, we saw you guys drifting out last night! The same thing happened to us! We were flashing lights at you and yelling, but we didn’t see anyone stirring!”

Our conversation with these early holiday visitors revealed they were new cruisers as well, and that the bottom of the bay at Garden Key apparently provided only fair holding. A more seasoned boater had told them to “dump all their rode”, meaning lay out as much chain as possible to avoid dragging anchor. We took this counsel (which we’ve found to be solid advice), put out more rode and ventured to shore only slightly more confident that we’d return later that day to find La Vie Dansante where we’d left her.

Christmas Day at Fort Jefferson was awesome! The National Park was open after all, and unexpectedly, so was the gift shop, so we picked up a few goodies and toured the place.

Afterward, we strung up Lindsay’s hammock on the beach and did some snorkeling, followed by a return to the boat for Christmas dinner. It was a very nice “alternative” Christmas Day indeed! … Even if Barbara and I were a little sleep deprived after our nightime adventure!

Before departing the island, I spoke with the Park Ranger about the weather for our planned return. His forecast was several hours old, but I looked it over quickly and was left with the impression we’d have decent wind to use for most of the way home, but might have to motor a little. To nobody’s surprise, this isn’t what we encountered.

To this day, I wish I’d looked it over more thoroughly; but we were on a tight schedule, as Lindsay had to get back for a flight out on the 27th so she could return to work. Whatever we were going to deal with, we’d just have to deal with it and get back to Key West.

Unfortunate Event 3 – Engine failure

Looking back, it should have been more obvious to me that the problem with the engine was more serious than just needing to be primed. After all, the engine sputtered out while it was in use as we were anchoring. Still, the engines started right up that morning, which I took to mean they’d stay that way, and we began the full day’s journey back to Key West.

As soon as we left the bay and ventured into the open ocean, it was clear this would be a rough ride. Winds were right off the nose and gusting to 30 knots, so the only way to make it back in daylight was to motor the whole way, since “tacking”, or sailing back and forth in the direction of the wind, would add another day onto the trip – a day we didn’t have. The wave direction was also against us, meaning we’d be heading directly into the face of tall waves set close together. With each surge forward, every wave hit us like a salty liquid hammer, shaking the hull and knocking loose objects to the floor.

This was going to be uncomfortable.

Still, we had to make good time, so I set Patsy and Sammy to 2000 RPM each and we plunged forward. With both wind and current against us (even without sails up, our high “freeboard” – the amount of boat above water – makes a barn-door type surface for the wind to push around), we were making just 5 knots – only a little faster than a brisk walking pace. It wasn’t much, but it should be enough to get us to Key West by nightfall.

Then, we lost half of our power.

The port engine – the same one that had given us trouble in the anchorage – stopped running. The loss of power from one side of the boat meant we had to adjust the rudder to to starboard to continue on the same course. It also meant we’d lost considerable speed … which translated into time. With just the single engine we were barely able to scrape out 4 knots – not enough to make Key West. We needed to get that engine back online.

The root of our problem was contaminated diesel fuel. The water and gunk that had developed in the tank over time was getting into the fuel lines and caught in our filters. What was starving Patsy to the point of shutdown. Of course, we weren’t that knowledgeable about diesel fuel flow at the time; but we did remember how pumping the priming bulb would push fuel through the system and establish enough flow to keep it running.

It was Barbara’s job to sit with her legs dangling in the engine compartment, pumping the bulb continuously with the ball of her foot, switching feet when she got tired. It was working! Fuel was getting to the engine and we continued to battle the elements with both engines, heading due east.

As Barbara pumped, however, she noticed she was getting sleepy … sleepy …

The carbon monoxide coming off the engines was slowly taking her down. Realizing what was happening to her, Barbara kept her head above the hatch and continued pumping that primer button … she wore a blister on her foot, but switched to the other foot and continued pumping that primer button … until, finally, the engine quit and all the pumping she could muster was no longer working.

“I need that engine, baby!” I hollered from the helm and Barbara, exhausted, dizzy and sore from working that thing for hours replied “I’m trying baby, but it just isn’t working”. I knew then we were going to have to accept the slower speed.

We wouldn’t make the Keys that day, so I started in on Plan B – anchoring in the Marquesas, that small group of uninhabited islands between the Dry Tortugas and Key West. We could drop anchor there for the night and I could dig deeper into our engine problem in the morning. Providing I could get it running reliably, we could still make Key West the day before Lindsay’s flight.

A few hours later, we were inbound to our small island refuge. In fact, I got a second wind when I caught sight of the island we intended to anchor near!

Then disaster struck again.

Unfortunate Event 4 – Steering failure

As if things weren’t bad enough with Barbara breathing toxic fumes in order to keep us moving, followed by the loss of our port engine, we had just lost the other necessary item for getting home – our rudder.

For those of you unfamiliar with how boats get from point A to point B, two things are required – propulsion and steering. On La Vie Dansante, propulsion is provided by the sails or, when the wind is not usable because of it’s velocity or direction, by the engines. Our boat is a catamaran, meaning it has two hulls, and each hull has an engine in it. To keep going straight, the power supplied by both engines needs to be equal; otherwise you spin around in a circle instead of moving evenly forward. With a working rudder, however, you can move straight with only one engine by compensating back the other direction with steering.

With only one engine working, we had relied on rudder steering to keep the boat heading straight. Now, with only about a mile between me and a reasonably safe anchorage, we had lost that. I had been leaning into the helm with all of my weight in an attempt to get the rudder to take hold, but was getting no response. Barbara pointed to the chart plotter, which showed me looping and looping in big circles. I had lost the ability to control the boat. I was trying to figure out how to set up to drifting while I made use of the remaining light to crawl into the tumultuous engine compartment and work a miracle when Barbara pointed out that we were only in seventeen feet of water. Although it was not settled like the water adjacent to the small island we were heading for, it was shallow enough to anchor in. It would be a rocky night, but we could drop the hook out here and ride it out till morning.

We spent that night on the hook, in clear view of what might’ve been a very peaceful and enjoyable island stay; but unable to get there.

And we were still nine hours from Key West.

The next morning I was up early, crouched inside the port engine compartment cleaning out Patsy’s fuel filters. I was lucky enough (clearly, I can take no credit for being prepared at this point) to have a spare pre-filter aboard, so I pulled out the manual, read up on how to install it and got the job done.

It seems a little funny as I reflect back on it now, but I was pretty proud of myself when I’d finished the job, asked Barbara to fire up the engine, and heard Patsy – now with a clean, even flow of fuel moving through her injectors – roar back to life!

Now, even without steering, I’d be able to navigate back. A boat can be steered with just power. If you’re drifting left (port), just apply a little more to the port engine to bring you back straight again … then a little for starboard to stop the turn. It’s like pushing a shopping cart – apply force the direction you need to turn on the right or left side of the cart’s handle.

Sure, I had no wheel, but I now had two engines. With this workable new reality, we started on the long final leg back to Boca Chica.

Unfortunate Event 5 – Ran out of fuel

We’d dodged hundreds, maybe thousands, of lobster traps on our return leg. Luckily, we didn’t hook a second one!

After several hours, it was with a great deal of excitement that we saw Key West loom ahead as we alternately applied power to one engine, then reduced it, then powered the other, keeping us centered on our course as best we could. Within a few hours, we were alongside the beach on the southern end of the island.

I was pointing out the concrete “Southernmost Point” buoy to Barbara when I heard the starboard engine sputter.

I knew our gauge was low but, with only seven miles to go to be back in our home port I thought we had enough to make it.

The sputtering subsided. Maybe it was a fluke – air in the system or something.

It sputtered again.

I looked at the chart to see what was between us and Boca Chica. On the surface it was open ocean, but the chart showed the area to be webbed with submerged cables. In fact, if I went another mile, the entire return leg had cables strung across the seabed. We needed to get some fuel in the tanks but there were no fuel stations close, so this meant anchoring and calling in for some fuel to be delivered. If we were going to drop the hook without risk of getting hooked on one of these cables, however, we’d have to do it right there.

So we did. We dropped the anchor there, among the jet skis, tour barges and parasailing boats that make their trade on the shores of Key West. I’m sure we looked like part of the shore scenery from the beach and we, no doubt, are featured in several hundred vacation photos. After what we’d put ourselves through, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Boat US would wind up bringing us some fuel (a comedy of errors that would make for a good story if this tale wasn’t already getting too long) just as it was getting dark, so we decided to ride the night out there and finish our shakedown cruise with one last, short leg into Boca Chica.

… but I was pretty sure you’d go anyway”

– Cathy dreaper

Exhausted and humiliated, we finally pulled into the dock at Boca Chica the next morning, after an hour and a half of motoring. Our friends Cathy and Ed greeted us, fully empathetic to our plight, since they had been newbies once too. “I almost asked you not to go”, Cathy said, “but I was pretty sure you’d go anyway”. She was right. We WAY overestimated our readiness to make this trip, and we’d have plenty of time to reflect back on the events and learn from our mistakes. Right then, though, we just wanted to rest.

Now, if you know anything at all about sailing, or even if you don’t but you still picked up on how preventable much of our nightmare was, then you know we made a LOT of mistakes in conceiving, planning, preparing and executing this first trip. Those mistakes cost us weeks of time and hundreds of dollars repairing damage and running down problems. I located and learned how to use my emergency tiller; I had our fuel “polished” and the system cleaned out; I replaced the cable and helm I’d broken by leaning on them with my full weight; etc. The list of lessons we learned is long, but some of the key realities of this lifestyle came screaming out to us:

  • Never, never travel on a schedule. Let the weather determine when you sail. We now tell people “you can choose when to sail with us or where to sail with us, but not both”.
  • Modern sailboats are designed as not to require brute strength to sail them, so don’t wrestle with the lines or control surfaces!
  • ALWAYS fuel up when you have the opportunity to do so and never depart for a remote location with less than a full tank.
  • Wave height and direction, as well as predicted wind and weather, are crucial safety and comfort factors to consider when sail planning. Pay close attention to everything in the weather forecast.
  • Diesel engines don’t heal themselves. If you have to bypass something to trick the engine into starting, you’ll see that problem again … only worse, and at a less convenient time. Use workarounds only temporarily and permanently fix problems ASAP.
The shirts Barbara made to commemorate our shakedown cruise. Yes, there’s a men’s version.

Barbara and I did walk away with a few gifts we hadn’t been dreaming of that Aqua Christmas. The Shakedown cruise showed us we work well together under stress – something crucially important for any couple choosing this lifestyle. We also gained confidence in La Vie Dansante. She showed herself to have “good bones” and the ability to handle tough conditions. Finally, we gained confidence in our ability to handle La Vie Dansante, even in the face of challenges and uncertainly; after all, we did get our ship back on her own power!

We don’t know everything, of course. We never will. But we now plan around, prepare for and anticipate the unknown rather than fear it.

This Christmas, we’re thankful to have logged two years and over 6000 nautical miles of international and coastal cruising since our Dry Tortugas shakedown. Although it’ll take some convincing for Mom and Lindsay to sail with us again, we now know our boat much better, understand and maintain her systems well, make thoughtful decisions and have much greater control over our afloat destiny.

From our home afloat to yours, wherever it may be, here is a little Christmas gift. Let this funny nautical holiday song bring a smile to you and yours! Merry Christmas!

Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rhum – Jimmy Buffett, from “Christmas Island”

14 Thoughts

  1. You two are unbelievable! It’s easy to tell you are having the time of your life in a way only a few would ever dream of trying. Live life to the fullest and stay safe! Merry Christmas–I didn’t have anywhere to send you a card 🙂

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  2. I barely knew you, but I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about you. You prevailed and survived. It is an honor to be called your sailing godmother. You have both made us proud.

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  3. Good lessons learned, TD. I smirk any time people tell me that they have a ferry to catch when they come sailing with me. That said, I give them fair warning. “Time and tide wait for no man”.
    I will say that any well designed sailboat of any vintage shouldn’t fight you. If your boat is unbalanced and you’re wrestling with it, then it’s probably time to fix something.
    Your fueling lesson is on my pre-castoff checklist along with water and propane (or whatever powers your range). I also have an MSR butane camp stove just for boiling water (and hiking).
    Completely agree on the engine. My first major expenditure was five new sails and my second was to pull and recondition my diesel….money well spent.
    Weather. Yeah. Don’t rush to failure. And there are so many resources and so much to learn. One of the great things about being subjected to nature and forces we can’t control is how it gets our attention, one way or another.
    Great blog. Well written and entertaining. Looking forward to you next entry.
    Btw, I put out a minimum anchor rode of four times the depth under my keel. And I sleep better since discovering and setting an anchor (proximity) alarm on the iNAVX software on my iPad.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments Matt!
      We have a lot of the same thoughts, forged in good and bad experiences like the ones in my recent post.
      As for the steering issue, it was me fighting the boat rather than the other way around. I had been trying to make rudder changes without enough speed to generate steerage and I wasn’t used to the time lag between commands from the helm and heading changes. My steering is manual, through a cable. I broke both the cable and the helm box by attempting to force the cable beyond it’s limits. Today, everything works just fine … but I carry a spare! 🙂
      Polishing the fuel took care of my diesel flow problem, but I check the Raycor on every engine start. In fact, I’ve become a pretty good amateur diesel mechanic over the last couple of years.
      We’ve found PredictWind to be a great resource for anticipated sailing conditions and choosing a weather window. It’s grown to include several new models, and we compare them all. It’s taken us a while to learn how to use it well, but we now trust it as our primary (but not only) weather planning resource.
      Finally, our scope standard is 5X depth, but I drop a little more if we’re expecting wind in excess of 25 kts. We have a 73 lbs Rocna, with a Kong swivel and 5 links of leader, on the end of a 200′ 7/16 chain rode. We back down on it at 2200 RPM to set us, and we always spend the first night (a couple of tide changes) on the boat. All that said, I use a similar anchor alarm on Aqua Map and completely agree on the peace of mind it gives us.
      I appreciate the feedback, man, and hope you’ll continue to follow our adventures!

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  4. Love your story telling. When you are here in FLL you know you can stay at our house. Maybe sleep a little better than on the boat. I know when we were in the Bahamas on the hook didn’t sleep so well. Anchor dragging fears and the like.

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  5. Loved your adventure, we have been there, learning all lessons the hard way and felling more confident as we learn. We sailed from Florida West coast to Dry Tortugas, very early in my ocean sailing, and rode out a storm tied to the back of a shrimp boat on the only mooring. We became good friends as we traded beer for shrimp. The other memorial highlight of that trip was seeing my first green & blue glowing plankton. I had no idea what it was at the time and spent so much time trying to figure it out that I almost when aground. In Hawks Channel we were chased by 7 water spouts. I saw fish going up, and got one picture of 4 of them, and it rained salt water for an hour afterwards. Again – really enjoying your Sea Stories. “this is no lie,…….” Kit & Susan.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  6. WOW! That’s LOVE! Love for sailing. Love for boats. Love for adventure, and ESPECIALLY LOVE FOR EACH OTHER! Merry Christmas and may we ALL HAVE A HAPPIER NEW YEAR!🙏🏽🌲🥂

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  7. TD, Sorry I missed your stay in Saint Aug. (only about 30 minutes south of me here in Ponte Vedra Beach). Next time you’re planing on being in the area let me know. Lots of room (and hot water).

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