Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fort Myers to Punta Gorda

As mentioned in my last blog I had to move my boat from Fort Myers Beach to the slip I'm renting in Punta Gorda. There wasn't anyone handy to go with me on this trip so I did it by myself. A little challenging since I knew I'd have to dock a couple times (once at a fuel station and then again when I pulled into my slip). However, armed with some tunes, bottled water, my cell phone, and my charts, I didn't expect any serious issues.

Did I say charts? Oops. After the 5:00 AM rise and an hour long drive down to Fort Myers I discovered that I had forgot my charts. I had placed them the previous night at the foot of my bed so I wouldn't forget them. Guess that wasn't such a good place after all.

The problem now is that to get the charts I'd have to spend two more hours driving my car, but I didn't have two hours to spare. High tide in Fort Myers was at 7:45 AM and, according to the people at the boat yard, it was important to leave their yard around high tide. Also, I knew the trip would take approximately 9 hours and I absolutely did not want to navigate an unfamiliar harbor, by myself, at night. Sunset was at 5:48 PM (if memory serves) and it would be dark by 6:20. I needed to be out of the yard by 8:30 at the latest.

For those unfamiliar with boating and nautical charts, they look like a map but they are far more critical than road maps. A body of water as big as the Gulf Mexico is easy to draw on a regular map. However, to a sailboat with a draft of 4' 3" deep it is incredibly important to know how deep the water is at a given location. There are many places along the coast that look nice and deep over a mile from the shore that are really only 2' deep at low tide. Nautical charts show how deep or shallow given areas in great detail, as well as where certain navigational aids are located. Sailing without them in an unfamiliar area is fool hardy at best.

I decided to forego the charts and leave the boat yard ASAP.

I *had* studied the charts quite a bit the previous night so I had a pretty good idea of what markers I needed to hit to avoid shallow areas. Also, as I got underway, I called my cousin at the house and asked him to take the charts with him to work. As I needed course corrections I'd call him with my current GPS location and he could advise me which bearing I should follow.

This worked out pretty well. As I was skirting Sanibel Island I needed to find out how close I was to the shore. On the water you can see approximately 7 miles to the horizon, but its very difficult to judge how far away an object on the shore is. I knew I was closer than 7 miles, but I needed to be further than 2 miles or I'd come close to some very shallow water. I called Jimi up, gave him my coordinates, and he said I was 2.5 miles from the shore, and if I followed bearing 220 for another 4 miles I could start heading NW at about bearing 290.

I kept him appraised of my location every couple of hours and he pointed me in a new direction when needed. It worked rather well.

In the end, everything worked out just perfectly. I glided into my slip at around 6:15 PM or so... it wasn't quite dark as I was tying up the boat.

While everything turned out pretty well I'd have to say in hindsight that it was a pretty dumb move. I'd have been in deep trouble if I lost cell service while offshore. I was only about 4 miles off the coast at any given time, and I figured I'd be able to retain a signal, but it wasn't guaranteed. In fact, there was one point were I had no bars for about 45 minutes or so. Could I have made it anyway? Perhaps. There would have been a really tricky area between Boca Grande (the entrance to Charlotte Harbor) and the turn north to Punta Gorda that I could have conceivably ran into significant trouble.

Anyway, that all being said, it was a great trip. The Gulf of Mexico is absolutely beautiful and I can't wait to sail on it more.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Stuffing Box

As with nearly all previously used vehicles my boat has a few issues. Some of them are pretty minor and can be ignored or inexpensively fixed. However, others are not so simple. My current issue is the stuffing box.

If you have never heard of a stuffing box it is a like a bolt and nut system that joins the propeller shaft to the engine. At one end of the bolt is a rubber hose that is clamped on to the hull close to the propeller and the other end is the nut, which is hollow, that attaches to the engine. The hollow part has some special waxed rope in it that keeps the water coming up the shaft from spilling into the hull. (Detailed pictures at this site.)

My stuffing box has a leak. In fact, it was leaking so bad that my bilge pump was firing off about every 5 minutes while the engine was off. It wasn't leaking when the mechanic and I inspected the boat after I bought it. The implication is that the previous owner lied to me when he said he took the boat out frequently... it probably had not gone out in at least 6 months.

The site I referenced above with the pictures explains how to re-pack the stuffing box so that I could stop the leaking. However, this is much harder than the site imples when the stuffing box is still on a prop shaft and the boat is in the water. First, getting to the stuffing box is a huge challenge for somebody of my girth. It can only be reached through a cockpit locker (which is under a seat). I was able to squeeze myself into this narrow compartment (for which I am thankful nobody was nearby with a camera) however I was unable to get both my arms into the area where the stuffing box sits. With only one arm I was unable to apply the wrenches needed to move the nut.

Since the stuffing is not supposed to leak at all while the boat is just sitting in the water (as opposed to when the prop shaft is turning, in that case its supposed to leak a few drops a minute to lubricate the shaft) and in my case it was literally leaking 10 drops a second (I counted) I felt I needed to get this fixed ASAP. I called a few boat yards and finally found one in Fort Myers Beach... about a 7 hour trip from Joshua's house. My Aunt Mary, Bo, and I made a day of it and motored down there.

The trip was nice and relaxing. Its technically still on the Okeechobee Waterway, and the first 3 hours were just like a continuation of my previous trip. We had a lock and a couple of bridges to pass. we briefly entered the Gulf of Mexico as we made our way into the Matanzas Pass. We found the boat yard pretty easily and I met with the repairmen.

I left my engine running as I re-explained the problem to them. One of the smaller fellas there jumped in the locker to take a look at the issue first hand. His "Holy Shit! There's water spraying everywhere!" exclamation made me happy we got there safe.

Anyhow, a couple days have passed by since I got the boat there and the costs keep going up. The stuffing box was salvageable but the guys are cleaning it up nicely and re-packing it. The rubber hose was completely shot. It had rotted through in a few places and thats where the water was coming from. To replace the hose they had to completely remove the propshaft. This caused an issue because the prophaft was severely scored and frozen into place with the stuffing box. They had to cut the propshaft off which means I had to buy a new one of those. Also, there was a minor crack in the hull where the propshaft exits and this needed repaired too.

Over the phone this was supposed to cost me $500-600. Now its up to $1,400.

This is a HUGE set-back to me. I'm spending $1,400 on something completely unexpected. It had to be done, of course. Its better to spend the money than to sink. However, now I cannot afford the furling genoa and solar panels which were my first planned purchases. Grrr.

Anyhow. I pick the boat up tomorrow and I'm told it will take about 8 hours to motor from Fort Myers Beach to Punta Gorda Isles, which is where my slip is going to be for a few months while I continue working on the boat. This trip will be the first one I've done by myself on this boat. I'm a little nervous about it in some respects because I'll be entering Charlotte Harbor for the first time and its really nice to have somebody else helping watch for markers and whatnot while entering an unfamiliar harbor. Guess I'd better bone up on my charts now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Okeechobee Waterway

I bought my boat in Lantana, FL. This town is on the east coast of Florida, just south of West Palm Beach. I needed to get the boat from there to where I am going to keep it in Punta Gorda, FL which is on the west coast (just north of Fort Myers if you are looking at a map).

The best way to get from the one spot to the other is the Okeechobee Waterway. This system of locks and rivers runs east-west through the middle of Florida. It starts near Stuart on the east coast (about 45 miles or so north of Lantana) and ends in Fort Myers. It runs through the middle of Lake Okeechobee which is a very large lake sitting in the south central part of the state.

I did some fancy talking and was able to get my cousin Jimi to agree to go with me on this trip (expected to take 3 days). We had some company driving over to Lantana: my Aunt Mary (Jimi's mom), her husband Bo, and Jimi's daughter Arrielle. Mary went with us to take a look at the boat and to drive my car back to the west coast.

This adventure started on Saturday morning, Oct 25. This trip didn't start off too well. After stopping for a restroom break in a small town on the way there I got into an auto accident. Some gal was I backed into each other at a gas station. Technically she was at fault since she was back out of a parking space while I was already in the roadway, but the damage was minor and nobody was hurt. Still... not exactly the way I wanted to start a three day journey.

Anyhow, we got to Lantana and started working on the boat. We had to provision it which meant a run to the nearby supermarket, and we had to throw a lot of items out of the boat that had been there a while (old food, trash, etc). I had my charts and some other guides to the waterway. Around 4pm Jimi and I finally cast off and we started motoring up the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW) towards Stuart.

10 minutes after casting we went under the first of many bridges. The bridge height was listed as 35'. Since my mast height is 31', and the previous had told me owner VHF antenna extended the mast to 34', we still had a foot clearance. Scary, but not a problem. The only snag is that the previous owner clearly didn't know what he was talking about. My antenna hit the bridge.

Argh! As we are passing under the bridge Jimi is looking up. "Hey. We hit the bridge." I wasn't sure if I heard him right so I looked myself. Sure enough, the antenna smacks a girder underneath the bridge. By this point its really too late to stop, so I try turning right where the bridge appears to have a tad bit more clearance. No help. On the last girder a 3 foot section of antenna splits off and falls into the water. Sigh. I feel sort of like Malcom Reynolds in the movie Serenity when a chunk of his ship falls off.

There's still a good 2-3 feet of antenna atop the mast and we can hear radio chatter. While this incident may have affected some range it appears to be minor and no reason to stop the trip.

We pass several more bridges without sinking or damaging the boat.

Because we got started so late, night came much earlier than I wanted. Darkness, combined with rain that came in intermittent bursts, was starting to make travel very difficult. After the sun went down Jimi had to take a flash light forward to see if he could hit the reflective channel markers so we could find our way up the ICW. We finally decided that it would be best to call it a night when we found a marina that had transient slips. It was almost 9pm when we finally arrived at one.

When we arrived at the marina entrance, it was hard to tell what to do. It was somewhat marked, but it was narrow and very hard to see. We decided to dock at a restaurant near the marina. We figured if we had something to eat at this restaurant, then they wouldn't mind if we parked the boat there while we walked to the marina and checked it out. This turned out to be a pretty good move. We were a little surprised they let us in as most of the patrons were really well dressed, and Jimi and I were wearing wet shorts and shirts. But they did. They had excellent fish chowder and a shrimp appetizer that Jimi and I split.

There are several minor injuries and funny stories to be told about here, but I think I'll just say that we finally were able to dock at a slip, get some sleep, shower the next morning, refuel the boat, and move on.

Sunday we made some good time as we sailed up the ICW. This part of the ICW is very picturesque, with million dollar mansions lining both sides of the waterway as we made our way to Stuart.

Stuart is the point where, if we continued north on the ICW, we could eventually go all the way to Chesapeake Bay, or we could hang a left and hit the Okeechobee Waterway. Hang a left we did. The bay we entered was absolutely nuts. Some parts of the waterway were so shallow that my depth finder was telling me we were water only 4'6" deep. Since my boat requires 4'3" before it goes aground my knuckles were white as a tried to follow Jimi's directions to the next channel marker.

We finally passed through that watery hell, stopped for some fuel, and then continued down the waterway to the first lock.

Locks, in my opinion, are insanely incredible human inventions. St. Lucie Lock raised us almost 8 feet. I think I have a couple pictures included of us entering or leaving a lock (we were both a little too busy for a camera while at the lock). For those that have never seen a lock, here is how it works in a nutshell. When the front doors are open we sail in and the lock employee directs us where to tie up. There are lines in the lock that we grab and loop around cleats on my boat. Then the front door closes and the back door opens and water comes flooding in (at a controlled, reasonable rate) until the water level inside the lock is the same as other side. The water is pumped out after we leave so he can open the front door for the next boat.

The locks are big enough for 3-4 boats and, of course, service traffic in both directions on the waterway, so its a tad more complicated than I describe above, but you get the picture.

From St. Lucie lock to the Fort Mayaca lock (which is the lock connected to the Okeechobee Lake) there really wasn't anything terribly interesting to write about (I am skipping the totally frustrating part were we got attacked by 20 million midges). The sun had set before we reached Fort Mayaca lock so we decided to tie up to some pilings for the night at the lock's entrance.

This turned out to be an incredibly great move.

The next morning (Monday) we were up early and through the lock by 7:15am or so. Okeechobee Lake is huge. There was lots of wind. With huge bodies of water and lots of wind comes really rough water conditions. We were getting 3-4' swells, coming very quickly, with so much wind that a lot of the swells were breaking. It would have been a nightmare trying to tie up to a piling in conditions like this, and we certainly would have gotten no sleep.

Crossing the lake was a very uncomfortable 4 hours.

The rest of the trip was more of the same. Bridges, a couple of locks, and lots of beautiful scenery. For the most part traveling this waterway is very peaceful and relaxing.

Unfortunately, due to various waits bridges and locks, and also the late start we got on Saturday, Jimi and I didn't get to our destination before nightfall and we didn't want to risk navigation errors in the dark. We stopped at a town called La Belle which had a public dock along the waterway. We tied up there and called for family members to come and pick us up. Jimi had to work the next morning and I felt a shower and a comfortable bed was in order.

The next day I drove back (its about a 45 minute drive from Jimi's house in Port Charlotte to La Belle) and finished the boat move to its temporary destination at my cousin Joshua's house which is located right on the Okeechobee waterway. It was only a two hour trip from La Belle to Josh's house and a couple of Josh's employees helped me with the move.

I've resisted the urge to tell a bunch of funny stories because a) I'm tired of typing, and b) you're probably tired of reading. Suffice to say, three days of travel with 2 people who haven't been down the traveled route on "new-to-me" boat creates tons more comical material than I've relayed here.

I have placed some pictures of this adventure on my Picasa site: