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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Big Push

With US Thanksgiving Day upon us we awaited the arrival of Judith, my US cousin, along with her husband Shon, and daughter Lucy. They were also bringing their Golden Lab dog Brody. Yes 6 people, and 3 large dogs, living it up on a 39' sailboat. It's the kind of Thanksgiving that makes you thankful... for a REAL house! However, Judith and her family put on a brave face, and climbed aboard.

After a welcome drink we headed over to Lady's Island Marina. The local cruising association had made the gracious offer to supply and cook the turkeys and potatoes for all the cruisers passing through. All we had to do was bring an accompanying dish.

I worried that our version of US Thanksgiving would not be the traditional event that Judith, Shon, and Lucy had come to expect. When we walked into the event, and set eyes on a bounty of food fit for a king, and a room full of cruisers as joyful as old Saint Nick himself, I relaxed a little. A while into the celebrations, Shon remarked to me "I never would have imagined we would be having thanksgiving with such a big family, with so much food". I took comfort that we had found out what US Thanksgiving was all about. We drank and celebrated until cruisers midnight was within sight, then headed back to our dock... round about 7:30. After a wee bit more wine, rum, and catching up, sharing what we were thankful for, we tucked in to rest for the big day ahead, Black Friday!

For us, this Black Friday wouldn't be about long line ups at the mall, or the life and death struggle of getting one of 10 Xbox, 700th edition. Our struggle was to be one of getting off the dock clean, and instilling confidence in our guests that we knew what we were doing. In Black Friday terms, we were shooting for all 10 Xboxes!!! None the less, we did get off the dock clean, and put in a long day's sail. We sailed down to Isle of Hope Georgia, where we settled at the lovely Isle of Hope Marina. On this night we had no dinner plans and had to rustle up what we could discover in the fridge. We invited Chuck and Linda over, and enjoyed dinner, party of 8, plus 3 large dogs, in the cabin of Ryajen. Who said cruising is luxurious?

Next morning we moved on to Killkenny Marina, a remote fish camp in mid Georgia. While the twisting creeks were monotonous, the most painful part of the journey was yet to come, the next morning. Not only were my cousins leaving early... my son had decided he wanted to head back to Canada to work his snow clearing job. He was getting a ride to the airport from our guests. To this point in the trip, it was work. Early mornings, sailing in near freezing temps with many layers of clothing. While it was an adventure, the fun was few and far between. I felt like my son was missing a golden chance to truly experience what life was really about! I also had finally started to develop more than just the father son bond. I was coming to know him as a man, and as my best friend. Saying goodbye left a hole in my heart. It was one of those "let him spread his wings" moments!

We set off from Killkenny Creek, with tears in my eyes, headed for Fort Frederika, Little Cumberland Island, and arrived into Ferdandina Beach  a few days later, on December 1. Finally in the sunshine state! We met up with most of the rally group here, and ventured into town for some local pub grub. It was one of those quaint little towns that time seemed to have forgot. Small gift shops and old time pubs. While I believe there were some, the box stores were no where to be seen, close to the waterfront. There is a seafood store that sells the most amazing scallops... A must stop. The shrimp and salmon were definitely worth stopping as well!

Early the next morning we woke early for a quick start, only to have fog firmly nestled over head. 30 days of cruising, and our first day of fog comes our first day in "the sunshine state"! By late morning the fog had lifted and we carried on, only to encounter another hurdle... Florida water cops. Nary an hour in, we got pulled over by a sheriff's boat with a coastie on board. This gave them the authority to board without cause. The coast guard official was a Dominican ex-pat, and when he discovered Dominican Republic stamps on our passport, the conversation quickly switched to his homeland, and our wedding in his country. We asked him about our documents, and whether we had all we needed to to be sailing in US waters. He assured us we were all good, and sent us on our way, to catch up with our buddy boats. Thirty seconds later they pulled us over again... to remind us we had 60 days days to switch the registration on our boat over. Time which had mostly slipped away. We continued on.

Our hoped for destination was St. Augustine, but we realistically planned for Jacksonville Beach. Within an hour of our destination, as we passed St. John's Inlet, we encountered a huge fog bank drifting in from the Atlantic. A race against time began, to get to Beach Marina, before the fog did. I can't say we beat the fog. We beat enough of it to find our way in. By the time we finished our first beer, it was hard to find the fridge, for a second. This time it wasn't a self induced fog.

Next morning we moved down to the wonderful town of St. Augustine, where we settled in the south mooring field for a few days, while we waited for the group to gather for another cruisers welcome. We also managed to catch our first Santa Clause parade, in warm weather. Santa Clause and palm trees was truly unique to us. We also enjoyed the history of downtown St. Augistine. I could wander those old cobblestone streets for days without growing bored. The patio bars, pizza and ice cream shops were definite added benefits. For dog owners, St Augustine was by far the most dog friendly town thus far on our journey! Our stay here had gotten extended due to some nasty weather. Thankfully, we had moved to a dock slip before the worst of it hit. Some were stuck out in the North mooring field. This is a place you don't want to be if a Nor Easter comes blowing in!

As we continued down through Florida, we continued to require less and less layers each day. By the time we left Daytona Beach, we began with only 3 layers! By the end of the day, we were down to t-shirts!! On this day, we also had a most interesting date with Karma.

As we sailed along behind four other rally boats, a Carver with the name Stardust cruised along beside us. Stardust cruised well outside of the narrow channel, on this wide river. He was in quite a hurry, as evidenced by the wake he was throwing. I watched his wake, as it advanced toward us, hopeful it would settle, before broad siding us. We weren't so lucky, as items flew from side to side, down below. I radioed Stardust with some choice advice on proper protocol, passing vessels, only to get 'noise' back. I then radioed the vessels ahead to warn of certain disturbance from this inconsiderate/careless operator. After he offered some more ill advised responses, I radioed the coasties to advise of his passing a federal bridge, marked with a "No Wake" sign, while he was throwing a 4' wake. The coasties took the info and thanked us. That was the last we heard of Stardust... until we met up with some fellow cruisers at the dockside pub in Titusville. First was an email from a fellow rallier. It showed a vessel named Stardust lodged aground outside the channel. As I showed the picture to fellow cruisers, they asked if I saw what Stardust's 'captain' was wearing... a captain's hat... JUST a captain's hat. "A large, elderly man, wearing JUST a captain's hat, with a much younger female mate. You decide what was happening" was the comment of one fellow rallier. A similar sentiment was confirmed from another boat. As the final rally captain came in, he asked if I heard the WHOLE story. While I thought I had heard it all, this captain advised me that Stardust was aground because the coasties pulled him over for an inspection. Seems that while he drifted, the tide went out and he settled aground, where he would sit for the next 11 hours, until the next high tide. As the coasties left him, with a $135 ticket, As the coasties pulled away, he claimed to them "you've got to help me off", to which they replied "no we don't". We saw Stardust pass us a day later. We waved to the very slow moving vessel, with a 'captain' fully dressed and mate, both in white uniforms.

A few days later we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, where we spent a couple days in Lake Sylvia. Our approach to Fort Lauderdale included 13 lift bridges, 9 of which were scheduled openings. This meant we needed to time our speed to arrive according to their schedules, to avoid long waits for the next opening. While we missed the first one, by misunderstanding their schedule, we herded four boats through the next 11, with little to no wait. On the last bridge, just before our destination, I got distracted by the excitement of south Florida, only to arrive as the bridge was closing. I radioed to enquire if there was a way to hold it. The reply was no. He went on to mention he would have if I called ahead. This was exactly what my distraction caused me to forget to do. None the less, the beer was still cold when we arrived.

For a couple days, we wandered the canals of Fort Lauderdale in the dinghy, and regretted that my son wasn't there for the fun times. We also got pulled over in the dinghy, by a local Sherrif, not up on the laws on Canadians, in Canadian vessels. We chose not to argue... too much. We decided to continue along the ICW and through the 54' Julia Tuttle Bridge in Miami, to be one of only two rally boats transiting the ICW only, from top to bottom, Chuck and Linda on Silent Dream were the others,

Upon arrival in Miami, we anchored in Miami Marine Stadium, and headed off to a small island at the top of the harbour, that was back dropped by the Miami Skyline. For the first time, we donned beach gear, filled the cooler, and enjoyed some actual beach time! Whoo Hoo! Our Alaskan Malamutes explored the island, and Miki even found a 'boot'. This happened as Leanne and I left the 'mutes with fellow cruisers, to head back for supplies. One cruiser suggested Miki had found a 'rat' and used the term "fresh kill". We're sticking with the boot story. It was majestic that evening when a cruiser named Wally got the dogs going from far down the harbour, by letting out a large howl. Dogs howling like wolves, with the Miami Skyline lit up, as a distant background... had to be there.

After Miami, we headed to Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, and the end of the Sail Magazine ICW Snowbird Rally. We said our goodbyes to fellow ralliers, gathered contact info, wished happy holidays to all, and high tailed it to Key Largo. This was our first experience on the open ocean. At first it was rolly and we were uncertain. Our buddy boat, Silent Dream radioed back asking if we were ok. I knew if we bailed that day, we would be hard pressed to soldier on. The sea settled down to a gentle roll, and we deployed full sail. We had a great sail down to Rodriguez Key, just off Key Largo. We anchored there for the night, nervous of the lack of protection from a possible strong wind. We set our anchor alarm and had a remarkably restful sleep. When morning arrived, we bid farewell to Chuck & Linda on Silent Dream, and headed into Marina Del Mar. By noon we had picked up a rental car, and begun the drive back home to surprise family for Christmas.

After we arrived back at the boat on new years eve we stayed in Key Largo for about a month, where we had the canvas replaced over the cockpit, and re-named Ryajen, Suenos. We also discovered that we had a cracked mast, and began a long process of getting that replaced. Thankfully our insurance company covered the replacement cost, about $30 000. Shrtly before we headed down to Marathon to have Keys Rigging handle the install of the new mast, my son arrived back at the boat, weary of winter, and ready for the rest of the journey.

Marathon has a harbour, Boot Key Harbor, with about 400 mooring balls for cruisers to hide out during the coldest months, or stage for the jump across to Bahamas. When we arrived, the marina was full, so we anchored in Sister's Creek. For $200/month, we had access to water, showers, a dinghy dock, wifi, and a mailing address. The pump out boat also visited us once a week. It was a cheep, warm place to hideout a nasty Canadian Winter! Once our mast was replaced, March had arrived and it was time to start heading north. Since we had missed our window to go across to the Bahamas, we decided to head up Florida's west coast and across the Okeechobee Waterway. Knowing we would be stopped by the low 49' bridge just east of Lake Okeechobee, we contacted 'Billy The Tipper' to help us through. After a battery of phone calls to Billy, we managed to schedule him for 9;00 am the morning following our arrival. Sandwiched between the bridge, and the lock, tied to Dolphins, in Alligator infested waters, with no services nearby, we prayed Billy would show up. By 9;30 am Billy and his associate were in site with their beat up aluminium beauty, with their rain barrels. They loaded up the port side, as we started toward the bridge. Although the high speed pump refused to engage, I swallowed, knowing we were dealing with professionals. None the less, we asked if we should slow down and give time for Billy to make the magic happen. We slowed, the pump started, and the boat began to list... slowly. Just as the shade of the bridge touched our decks, Billy grabbed the stays, and pulled aboard to lend extra weight. His partner leaned far over, and I yelled to crew to do the same. Billy winked as I controlled the wheel from far over on the port side. He screeched "You just did the Okeechobee Limbo!" and we breathed a huge sigh of relief! He untied, and we said goodbye.

We continued to Stuart. As we turned the corner, back onto the ICW, a huge cloud dropped on us like a bomb, delivering a pelting rain, and rendering a near 0 visibility. This was our first encounter with a real weather situation and we panicked. Being such a nice day, we paid no attention to our location, or our surroundings. We made a true rookie mistake. Being rookies, I guess it was to be expected. We yelled, threw books and tried to find a place to duck in. Then it donned on us that we were a slow moving vessel, in a marked channel. We also realised the rain would clear, visibility would improve, and we had some visibility in the form of the chartplotter. The vessel was operating properly, and as long as we stayed on course, our only real danger was if Stardust was out there somewhere. We took our chances, and rode it out. We made it to our destination, and visited with old friends that night.

We continued to make our way back up the ICW, venturing out to the Atlantic to avoid the twisting creeks of Georgia. We learned many new lessons along our route home. In particular, we learned that the Chesapeake is always unpredictable. We learned that the Delaware shouldn't be tackled when wind opposes tide. In one 24 hour stretch we learned how to navigate in fog, and at night, while sailing from Cape May, to Sandy Hook. In New York City, we anchored behind Lady Liberty one night. The following day, we took the Malamutes to Times Square. Both memories of a lifetime.

We arrived back in Canada in mid June, after an overnight from Oshwego to Cobourg. We spent the summer in Port Credit after sailing there from Cobourg in Pea Soup fog. In December of 2015 we bought an RV, and continued our journey, setting out for Central America. But we'll save that story for the next chapter! We are committed to catching you all up in more timely fashion. Stay with us!