When last we left you, we were aboard Gratitude in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Our anchorage in Windley Key had good holding, nice shore access, and the water was clear and beautiful. My friend, Dan, and I got some spectacular fishing on a patch reef while we were there. (Karen: You can hook-n-cook at several restaurants in Islamorada, and OH WOW was this fish delicious!)
The water was so nice here that we took this occasion to run our water maker after having had some repairs made on it back in December. It had not been run in months (super-not-good), so I was very edgy about this experiment; however, it worked beautifully, and the fresh water it output tasted every bit as good as bottled water (no exaggeration), and the testing results gave us great numbers (72 PPM, if you are keeping score). It’s a technological marvel to watch it work. The water maker gave us fits for a lot of 2020, so it feels fantastic to have it fully operational.
From this anchorage, we could take our dinghy, Patience, over to the Ocean View Lounge where we would sit outside at a comfortably separated distance around the fire pit. We met new friends, Greg, Karen, Jon, and Laura. They were RV’ers who were parked nearby. It’s fun, because sailors and RV’ers are sort of like first cousins with an awful lot in common and no shortage of tales to swap.
Greg and Karen – he also rides a Harley Jon and Laura – Chiefs fans to the core
We also decided it was high time we got back into diving. (Karen again: But the water is cold in January, even in the Keys! So we made a trip to Key Largo first in search of thicker wetsuits.) I put on my gear and dove off the side of the boat to inspect the hull below the waterline and to test out my warmer exposure suit. It felt good to get back underwater (it had been since April 2020!). So the next day, we loaded Patience with all of our dive gear and took off a couple of miles offshore to a reef we had seen coming in named Hen and Chickens.
This was somewhat of a big deal for us, because it was our very first dive all on our own. Every other time we had been in the water, we had a professional guide (“dive master”), not to mention someone to help locate the dive spot, manage the boat, set up gear, etc. This time it was just us, so we took our time and carefully cross-checked each other’s gear and settings before taking the plunge. (Karen: We really were careful – even in our choice of where to go. Hen and Chickens is a shallow reef, maybe 20 feet max, and it is only 1.8 miles offshore. So we would have had plenty of help nearby if we’d run into any trouble. Perfect for our first “solo” dive.)
It turned out to be a great experience. We even saw a nurse shark, which kept me looking over my shoulder for a few minutes even though they are generally not aggressive toward people at all.
We also did a couple of touristy things while we were there. First, we went to check out the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada. They have an impressive collection of dive equipment and exhibits covering everything diving-related that you could imagine.
The other touristy visit was to go to an outdoor nature center called Theater of the Sea. They rescue turtles, parrots, crocodiles, and have sea lions and a resident pod of dolphins. The bond that the handlers and trainers form with the animals is really amazing.
However, life was about to pivot hard in a different direction. Back in Georgia, my father contracted Covid and was hospitalized a short time later. We had to make arrangements to quickly return home to help coordinate his care. (Note – as I write this Dad is back in his home and recovering nicely. We are beyond relieved).
The first order of business for getting home was to find a place to park the boat, and this turned out to be no small feat. A lot of the yachts that would usually be in the Bahamas or the Caribbean this time of year are staying put in South Florida due to Covid restrictions, so the marinas here are full up. We called everyone we could think of, and there was simply no room for us.
On Friday, we decided to make our way down to Key West with the hope of improving our odds. We transited the Intracoastal Waterway and stopped in Bahia Honda Key (near Marathon) to anchor for the night before heading on to Key West. At this point, we were racing the clock, trying to find a place to leave the boat so we could come home. Fortunately, we had calm seas and beam winds, so we made great speed. We even had a visitor come alongside to check us out.
The one hitch about the Intracoastal Waterway (at least around here) is that there are fish traps everywhere (and I do mean everywhere), and about 10:00 a.m., we snagged one with our port propellor. Dragging that along for the duration of our journey was not an appealing option, so we had to stop the boat and cast the anchor, and I jumped in to have a better look at the situation. This one was seriously wound up around the propellor and the sail drive shaft, and it was going to take some hard work (along with a very sharp knife), so I had to come back up and don all of my dive gear to go below for a longer operation. After Gratitude was free, we set out again into a maze of fish traps that felt like maneuvering a slalom course, and less than an hour later we caught another one, exactly the same way as the first. Back in the water. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I was growing salty in more ways than one.
(Karen: WHY DO FISHERMEN THINK IT IS OKAY TO PLANT THEIR FISH TRAPS RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FREAKING CHANNEL? Seriously. We were already stressed about Andy’s dad and the urgency we felt to get home. Our stress was exponentially compounded to have to keep a hawk-eye ahead of us at all times and to suddenly swerve around a trap every 5 minutes. By the time we got to Key West we were both emotionally spent. How hard would it be to keep your traps along the outside of the channel?)
When we made it to Key West, we arrived shortly before dark, at a very large mooring field called Garrison Bight. This is basically a free-for-all where you snag any open mooring ball and it’s yours, but after we ran up and down every lane, there were none free. We ended up anchoring for the night just to the north, and the next morning I got up before sunrise with binoculars and a pot of coffee and sat on the aft cockpit watching for any activity. Sure enough, we saw a boat departing around 8:30 a.m., so we mobilized quickly, weighed the anchor, and made a beeline over to investigate. We were lucky enough to snag the one free mooring ball in the whole field. That brought us one step closer to making our way home.
(Karen: A big shout-out to our fellow sailors Jim and Deb for helping us get to shore for our flight home, and for keeping an eye on Gratitude while we’re away from her. Cruisers are the BEST.)
Now, dear reader, I want to switch gears and offer you completely guilt-free permission to stop here unless you are interested in the tale of repairing a Northern Lights diesel generator. I’m proud of this one, but I’m super-aware that it won’t interest most people.
The genset is an important piece of equipment on the boat, although it’s not something we use every day. We have a lot of solar panels that work in conjunction with our “house batteries” to supply most of our electricity. But there are a few times you have to crank up the generator. For instance, suppose you want to run the washer/dryer, or you aren’t getting much sunlight. In the later case, after about three days, the batteries can run low, and you’ll need the generator to charge them back up. The point is, when you need it, you need it.
And I like to run it occasionally just because diesel engines like to be run. This time, however, when I tried to start the generator, nothing happened. In fact, there were absolutely no signs of life. I grabbed my voltmeter and accessed the starter battery to begin tracing the problem. Turns out this almost-brand-new starter battery now had less than a volt (it should have had 12+ volts).
I was able to jump-start the genset from another engine battery, but a little more investigation showed that the generator’s alternator was not helping to recharge the battery at all. I assumed I may have a bad alternator or perhaps a broken belt that drives it, but when I pulled the panels off to assess, I got a pretty good clue what the problem was.
A wire had shorted out. This kind of thing happens with surprising frequency on a salt-water boat. This was a pretty thick wire that had gotten exposed (grounded) to the generator casing, and had burnt completely in two, draining our new battery in the process. It was bad, but I was pretty sure it could have been much worse.
I’ll spare you all of the trial and error, but I ultimately figured out that the wire which had burnt up was supposed to deliver positive current from the starter to the alternator (and ultimately back to the battery). Since I didn’t have any wire on the boat that would conduct that many amps, I improvised and used one of the jumper cables, connecting it from the battery to the genset’s alternator. Voila! The generator started and ran like it was supposed to until I could procure a proper piece of wire.
I was happy to have figured this one out without the help of an electrician! That leaves one less repair hanging over my head, and it’s great to be able to rely on the genset once again. (Karen: And his wife was extremely proud of him!)