Concerning Iguanas

We are making our way south through the Exumas at a leisurely pace. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, and the weather has been ideal.

Yesterday, we dropped anchor at Bitter Guana Cay en route to our overnight anchorage so we could spend some time mingling with the wild iguanas that inhabit the island.

When you arrive, several of the prehistoric-looking creatures take careful notice of your landing. Some amble up to you, and a few fake an outright bum’s rush. Some of these lizards are over four feet long, so it commands your attention.

Some of the locals on Bitter Guana Cay

But these reptiles are content with eating vegetation, saving hisses and aggressive snaps for each other when one gets too close to another’s “street corner.” We took Romaine lettuce and some bits of apple for them, and they were not at all shy about getting it.

Here, kitty kitty kitty…

There are also some very scenic cliffs that might not match the White Cliffs of Dover, but they don’t seem like such a bad substitute when you’re this side of the Atlantic.

Bitter Guana Cay

Staniel Cay, Bahamas

On Monday, we made our way down to Staniel Cay and dropped anchor. The natural bay is large with impossibly beautiful water and a sandy bottom that provides excellent holding. Every now and then a nurse shark or a stingray glides under the boat.

We took the dinghy over toward the airport and waited for Anne’s tiny plane to arrive from Nassau. The airport concourse at Staniel Cay (TYM) consists of an open wooden pavilion with benches, and security is a chain link fence.

Since we’ve been here, there have been no shortage of sights and attractions. Our first outing was to see the famous “Swimming Pigs of the Exumas.” This is a group of wild pigs that live on…. wait for it… “Pig Beach” on nearby Big Majors Cay. The cool thing about these pigs is that they will swim out in the ocean to meet you on the good faith assumption that you are bringing them food. We came with bread and chopped-up apples, and that did not disappoint. It’s safe, but these are large, wild animals, so there’s always a concern in your mind. Some stories say these pigs are descendants of ones left behind by Christopher Columbus, while others trace a less noble and more recent lineage. After that, we dined at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

This little piggy was not overly thrilled at being picked up.
He could swim better than I could

Our next outing was to Thunderball Grotto, literally around the corner from Pig Beach. It’s a cave you swim into that was made famous by the James Bond movie, Thunderball, where Sean Connery romances Claudia Auger underwater before dispatching several bad guys.

Thunderball Grotto is a natural wonder. At low tide, you swim in and out through a small gap, but at certain high tides the entrance can submerge completely, so timing matters. Once inside, you enter a natural cavern with amazing light and an organic kaleidoscope of fish and coral. Our underwater camera could not adequately capture the hues and grandeur of this place.

Anne in the Thunderball Grotto. That’s one entrance behind her.
Sergeant major damselfish in Thunderball Grotto
Brain coral.

Finally, we motored over to Staniel Cay to eat and shop, and I decided to wade in and experience the nurse sharks for myself. A couple of them made lazy approaches and then veered away once they got within a foot or so. It was certainly an adrenaline rush. 

Easy does it…

Tomorrow’s forecast calls for favorable winds to sail back north for a few hours and explore Cambridge Cay some more. We want to introduce Anne to the art and beauty of sailing. For me, it only took once to fall in love.

Another Gremlin?

Today, Karen flew home to go to a concert, so I have no real adventures to share. I am, however, at Palm Cay Marina in the Bahamas. It’s wonderful. It has an infinity pool, a lap pool, a hot tub, a bar, a private beach, a coffeeshop, a gym, and a restaurant, so I’m good for a few days… really, really good, as a matter of fact. 

As there is nothing particularly exciting to share, I am afraid you’ll have to suffer through another repair blog. This boat is simply too large for me to take it anywhere by myself. (I am aware that I just lost a majority of readers right there. It’s OK – you’re all super-excused).

Here goes… About a month ago, Gratitude’s galley lights suddenly stopped coming on when we flicked the switch. This was unexpected and unwelcome, since the galley is an important shared living space as well as the place we cook. Karen got out the electrical schematics book, and we traced it down to a particular 8-amp fuse (fuse #15). After taking various detachable panels off of walls, we found the fuse box in the starboard cabin. I pulled #15 and tested continuity with my multimeter and confirmed that the fuse had, indeed, blown clean through. Then the search began for a replacement fuse of this size and amperage, and believe me – we went everywhere. Four stores later, we were empty-handed. No one in Nassau had it. When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, we tried West Marine and McDonald’s Hardware, and neither of them had one either (to our great surprise). 

Amazon to the rescue. This entire box of assorted fuses, delivered to the marina in one day, cost less than $7.00 It’s hard for me to wrap my head around those economics.

Fuses galore

Then, there was the nagging problem that even if I replaced the fuse, I would not have determined what caused it to blow in the first place, so I arose sometime around 2:30 a.m. and grabbed my trusty multimeter to go investigate.

An electrical short is often as simple as two wires touching that should not be connecting. This can happen for a number of reasons – particularly in a moving environment like a ship. If there is no fuse to burn up, this could heat up the wires and start an electrical fire, so it can potentially be a big deal.

In this case, I traced the problem down to the blue, 12-volt LED accent lights on the port side stern steps. These lights were on the same circuit as the galley lights but operated off of a different switch. There was a short somewhere in the system, and the worst part was going to be wriggling into the very tight space to change out the wiring and lights once I had new lights to use as replacements. 

A day later, when I was back in Fort Lauderdale, someone working on the boat who was about half my size volunteered that he could fit in there “like… no problem”, and I decided that was pretty much an offer I could not refuse. Soon thereafter, the short was resolved, and everything worked. 

Well, that was the port side of the boat, but yesterday, back in The Bahamas, the starboard (opposite side) lights started doing the same thing and blowing the same fuse all over again. #DejaVu. There always seems to be some maintenance needed on the boat, and in this case it reminded me of the classic Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner was on a flight and saw a gremlin on the wing destroying things, but he was the only one who could see it. Technically I never saw a gremlin, but it could explain a lot.

Don’t be afraid to look, William

Anyway, I got the joy of repeating most of the aforementioned steps to track this down. And the culprit is…

A (charred) 12-volt Lumitec Andros Accent Light

These 12 volt Lumitec Andros LED Accent LED lights seem to fail closed and short out the entire circuit when they go bad, rather than just quit working like a good old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb. Go figure? The net result is that the surrounding wiring heats up very quickly, and the fuse is (mercifully) the first thing to sacrifice itself for the greater good.

I cut out the bad bulb, replaced the fuse, and seven of the eight accent lights now work perfectly, so that is a partial victory. Karen is bringing a few replacement/spare lights back with her on Thursday, and I have the wires all stripped and ready to attach so that I will be able to check this one off the list and resolve my symmetry issues for the time being.

Gratitude safely docked with galley lights and ⅞ step lights working perfectly

As a last word here, I have one tool that has become indispensable aboard Gratitude. It is a Vise Grip wire stripping tool. If you or someone you love enjoys working on electrical things, buy them this for a birthday gift or stocking stuffer. It’s very well-designed and super-functional. I’ve probably owned a half-dozen or more wire-stripping tools in my life, and this one is the best, by a long shot.

Vice Grip wire strippers: an indispensable addition to my tool bag

Replacing an Impeller

(Andy’s note: Most of this entry may be of interest only to boat nerds and people troubleshooting engines.)

Early Saturday morning, we struck out from Bimini to explore Gun Cay and North Cat Cay. All of that was lovely until our starboard engine (a Yanmar 57) signaled an overheat alarm about 10 minutes into our trip. It had been chugging along at a very modest 1600 RPMs, which should be fine, but I still had the port engine, and that had plenty of power to take us the 10 nautical miles or so to where we were going.

No big deal, right?

Wrong! I was trained as a private pilot, and losing an engine made me highly nervous, and it made Karen even more nervous. When an engine overheats, this is serious business.

We made it to a beautiful, calm anchorage outside of Cat Cay and took the dinghy over to Bu’s Bar at the Cat Cay Yacht Club to have some lunch and to take stock of our situation.

Taking a moment…

After talking it through, Karen and I came to the conclusion that we were probably in a tight spot due to the following facts:

  1. Really bad weather was bearing down on us (less than 72 hours out), and we had been planning every leg of our trip around finding good shelter.
  2. Our preferred shelter spot (Chub Cay Marina) was about 12 hours away via Gratitude.
  3. We were suddenly and unexpectedly down to one engine.
  4. In order to get our starboard engine working, we (thought we) needed a part we could not locally source. More on this further down.
  5. The marine store where we could source the part was 18 hours away (on one engine) in Nassau (we could return to Florida in less time, but that would be sailing into the bad weather).
  6. If we went to get the part, we would likely end up with two good engines but no good place to take shelter from days of heavy rain and very high winds.
  7. If we made the trip to our originally preferred shelter spot, we would have to limp there on one engine. If the port engine failed, we could end up in a more serious situation.
  8. If we reached our preferred shelter, I might not be able to safely dock this boat using only one engine, as I use the port and starboard (left and right) engines to maneuver into a slip. Only having the port engine functioning would not allow me to do what I was trained to do. I may get to the point where I could dock the boat in a slip with one engine, but I’m not there yet. We would have to source help from someone who could do this (assuming it’s even doable).

So while we sat and discussed our dilemma, we decided the most likely culprit for the engine overheating was the water impeller.

Now, if you are still awake (or maybe you found this in a web search, and this is why you started reading), one of the ways many marine diesel engines keep cool is this:

  1. Raw seawater is drawn in through an intake pipe
  2. The raw water is strained through a plastic, raw water intake filter to keep out seaweed and ocean critters
  3. The filtered seawater is drawn through the system by a rotating impeller (similar to a propeller, except that it sits in front of the hose to move the water along)
  4. The water is circulated back and forth around engine components, so that the water heats up while the engines maintains an optimal temperature
  5. The now-heated sea water is expelled through the exhaust back into the ocean, and fresh, cool seawater is drawn in to continue the cycle

Once I disassembled the impeller housing, I confirmed that we guessed correctly. We definitely had a bad impeller.

Now, I will not inflict upon you the entire story of how we located the spare impeller. Suffice it to say that this took the entire day. After trips ashore and an excursion to another island, we located a spare on our own boat late in the day. Spare impellers are like spare tires. You should always have one, and we did, thanks to the previous owner.

The impeller is a moving part that is subject to wear

Once we located a spare, this turned out to be a straightforward repair. Here were the steps involved:

  1. Folding myself into the engine compartment
  2. Closing the thru-hull seacock to seal off the raw water intake system
  3. Removing the four bolts and cover that house the impeller
  4. Gently prying out the old impeller (I used two sets of pliers to extract the old one)
  5. Lubricating the new impeller with grease and installing it
  6. Replacing the cover and the four bolts that house the impeller
  7. Priming (filling) the raw water strainer with water (an essential step that I missed the first time)
  8. Starting the engine
  9. Immediately opening the thru-hull seacock to allow the system to function
  10. Rejoicing as water spilled out of the side of the boat, indicating that the engine was circulating and cooling

More on step 7 above (priming the raw water intake). When I first fired up the engine, no water circulated. This was a very unwelcome development, as I wondered if the whole problem might be more serious, but once I primed the system and tried again, everything worked as designed.

Voila! Now we are back up and running with two engines and plenty of time to get to shelter ahead of the approaching storm.

Family Time

My dad, and our son, Kyle, joined us for eight days aboard Gratitude. We had to remain at the marina for the first few days while modifications and repairs were being made, but we were able to get in several solid days of sailing too. It gave them a taste for boat life. We made some provisioning runs, sailed, motored, and took the dinghy around. Dad and I made some of our own repairs, and the two of them experienced some basics about how boats operate. Kyle keenly observed, “If sailing were a TV show, it would have pacing issues.”

He is right. Cruising life contrasts being immersed in tranquility, beauty, and fun, punctuated by periods of intense action and stress. The stress may be situational (e.g. something intense is happening, and you have to deal with it immediately) or it may be self-induced. Most often, the locus of my stress involves safely stopping the boat. Hovering in place on a river in front of a drawbridge, maneuvering into a dock slip, or trying to get the anchor to grab and hold can get my heart racing. The reason is that there are usually currents, winds, and other boats or structures to contend with.

As an example, on Wednesday night we were asleep at anchor with the hatches open when it started to sprinkle, around 2:30 a.m. Karen secured the hatches, and I decided that while I was awake, I would check to see how our anchor was holding. When I stepped outside, I noticed the winds and tides had shifted considerably, and the monohull sailboat closest to us was now swinging frenetically on his anchor. After about ten minutes of watching him dart and undulate wildly, his stern came all the way over toward ours. His was a lighter boat than Gratitude, so I was, with some effort, able to physically shove him away when he was close enough to hit us, but he swung back again and again. So, I woke Karen, and we spent hours watching him make Spirograph-like patterns before unpredictably careening right back into us. We used our fenders (basically giant, inflated rubber balls) to keep his boat from crunching ours.

Karen took this whole event quite calmly, but I was full of adrenaline. It felt like being in a fight where your opponent kept getting up and coming back, over and over. (Terminator 2 would be too dramatic a comparison, but you get the idea). We debated trying to wake the owner of the other yacht, but ultimately we just accepted our fate and kept watch to prevent any damage. The next morning, we left that anchorage, bright and early, with his yacht still channeling Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

In order to get back out to sea, we needed to pass under the Las Olas drawbridge. Gratitude is too tall to do that without having the bridge up, so you get the pleasure of being “that guy” and stopping all traffic on Las Olas Boulevard and making everyone wait while the bridge raises for you to pass through. This time, however, the bridge only opened one of its two spans. I radioed him to ask if there was a malfunction, and he informed me that he was only opening halfway for me, and I would need to squeeze through. Again – you transition abruptly from a leisurely journey to a quick jolt of stress. And all of this happened pre-coffee!

The Las Olas Bridge when the operator isn’t trying to play chicken with me

But yesterday, we sailed south to Key Biscayne, and we have never coaxed such great performance out of the boat. We regularly made over 9 kts on that trip with only our sails in about 18 kts of wind. The boat was happy, and so was I. We had a great sail and an easy time anchoring. We dinghied over to a restaurant a mile or so away and enjoyed a wonderful, relaxing meal and some sangria.

Gratitude making great time sailing southward

Today, as I write this, we have made it back to the Bahamas. We spent the day “beating” (traveling into the wind), and crossing the rolling Gulf Stream. Once we were at tonight’s destination, we deployed our anchor and went through all the right steps, but when I dove off the boat to have a look, it was laying sideways on the ocean floor instead of digging in. We had to start over to get it to set, but all’s well now.

Not the way an anchor should look.

Tomorrow looks calm for us. We’re sailing south to explore Gun Cay and North Cat Cay. Then we will start making our way to shelter to ride out some approaching bad weather predicted for next week.

Overnight to Bimini

We had the notion to make the 95-mile trip from Chub Cay to Bimini on Wednesday, but we knew we would need every minute of daylight and then some. We tried to tried to weigh (raise) anchor well before sunrise so that we could arrive at our destination and make a docking or anchoring decision during daylight, but the winds were very strong, and we ended up scrubbing the entire idea and going back to bed. We decided it was easier to weigh the anchor around 5:00 pm and travel Wednesday night. We made good time, taking shifts at the helm, and arrived at Bimini as dawn was breaking Thursday morning. We dropped our anchor in Honeymoon Harbor, which is a beautiful and uncrowded anchorage, and we immediately had a visitor come swim to greet us!

A sea turtle – just like the one in our logo

The wind has been quite strong, and because we are close to numerous rocks, I swam our anchor (once at high tide and then again at low tide). Our Rocna anchor had dug in to the sea bed perfectly and had not budged an inch. I will sleep better tonight knowing that.

We are headed back to Fort Lauderdale to have one of the ship’s antennas relocated, which is a definite kink in our plans. About that… the one significant modification we made to Gratitude was installing more solar panels. A. Lot. More. Solar. That just fit the vibe we were going for. We have a water maker which desalinates sea water and makes fresh water, and having a lot of solar capacity seemed like we were closer to being off the grid and self-sufficient.

The trouble is, we were not in Florida when they did the work, and the contractor relocated the large KVH TracPhone satellite antenna directly into the path of the sheets (ropes) that adjust the main sail. These sheets come under a jaw-dropping load at times, and if they get accidentally wrapped around that antenna, it will happily deposit the whole system into the ocean in about a quarter-second, and that would be a very costly mistake.

The Antenna Problem

After a short time of sailing on our own, Karen and I decided that disaster was only a matter of time, and we scheduled an appointment to return and have the antenna moved. Right now, we are about ¾ of the way back to Florida from where we started, with only the notorious Gulf Stream left to cross tomorrow morning, and forecast conditions appear favorable for that.

One more note – I caught my first (edible) fish!

First mahi-mahi caught aboard Gratitude. I didn’t have time to get properly dressed.

Just before we set sail, my friend, Dan, gave me three beautiful salt water fishing rods and reels as a bon voyage gift (and an epic one at that), and he and I went shopping to stock up on the necessary tackle and lures. I rigged everything the best I could (I’m not going to be nominated for any knot-tying awards just yet), and after having my confidence shaken by pulling up three consecutive barracuda (non-edible monsters with ridiculously long, sharp teeth), I caught a beautiful mahi-mahi. It was a thrill! I cleaned it on the back of the boat, and Karen marinaded it in salt, mirin, and sherry (we didn’t have sake), and we grilled it for dinner that night. We enjoyed four large, delicious servings.

Same mahi-mahi. The best tasting fish is the one you catch. Right?

One fisherman commenting about trolling a lure through the Gulf Stream in the days and nights surrounding a full moon wrote “the fun is, you never know what you might bring up.” That’s the conditions we are headed for tomorrow morning when we sail to Fort Lauderdale. I’ll have my lines out. I’m hooked!

Sails Up!

We had our first successful sail on Saturday (we sailed on Friday, but I would not describe that as a particularly stellar success – more on that another time).

Saturday, we climbed back on the horse (or the Leopard in this case), motored out to sea, and unfurled the jib. The jib is a smaller, but by no means “small”, foresail at the bow of the boat. We trimmed (adjusted) it, and the boat seemed so happy. You can feel when the sails are right, because the boat rides and performs just the way you want her to. Once the jib was fully out, we shut the engines off. That is when things truly felt amazing. She was making 7+ knots (about 8mph) on 13 knots of wind. The solar cells were generating over a kilowatt of electricity, charging the batteries. Everything was quiet, controlled, efficient, and… just perfect. We sailed around the ocean for hours, tacking into the wind to adjust our course.

We also spent our sail time desalinating about 80 gallons of water, doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning the boat inside and out (or as cruisers put it, “keeping things yachty”). It was a fantastic day.

That night, we dropped anchor in a cove on the quiet side of the island where we would be sheltered from the wind, but I didn’t like the way the anchor addressed the seabed. I ended up “diving the anchor” to have a look at it, and I was still not comfortable with it. We tried three times to get it to dig in and set properly, but it simply was not having it with this floor. Consequently, I was up most of the night, checking to ensure we weren’t dragging. The one consolation was that the stars were brilliant. My worries turned out to be unfounded; by morning, we had not budged an inch. I think a lot of new boat owners have similar experiences.

Very limited internet has requiring a bit more adjustment than I expected. That said, I think it’s a good thing that I don’t have it 24/7.