Setting Sail for the Cruising Life

Buy a Boat and Travel

That’s the dream of the cruising life.

In reality, there is one more step. No boat, no matter how new, or how well equipped, is ready for sea on the day you buy her. So it’s more like buy a boat, make her yours, and travel. We worked on Domino for months to get her set up the way we wanted.

Once upon a time, I would have written a story about each project we tackled. Because they are just as big a part of the cruising life as the Islands of paradise. But I’m in a hurry to get to the pretty travel part, so here’s a quick round up of the grittier stuff.

  • Domino’s electrical system worked okay for coastal day hops. But we wanted to upgrade it for longer trips. Tom tore out the old batteries, battery charger, inverter, electrical panel, water heater, water pump, and almost all the wiring.
  • He installed a new Victron inverter/charger, electric panel, lithium batteries, solar panels, solar charger, water heater, water pump, and wiring.
Tangled mess of old wiring.

It’s really fun to figure out the purpose of each wire in the bundle of spaghetti you find at the back of an old boat’s electrical panel.

Beautifully organized and labeled wiring of marine electrical panel.

This was not a plug and play situation. Each element of that list required crimping, and heat shrinking connectors onto the ends of at least four wires, usually many more, and then heat shrinking them. And each wire had to be labeled as well. It took a while, but Tom got the mess cleaned up and into a condition that, in the industry, is called cable porn. Because pictures of sleek wiring systems get electricians excited.

  • Domino’s engine was relatively new and in good shape overall. But Tom decided to replace the motor mounts. He’d learned about some that would stand up better to oil. He also rebuilt the steering pedestal, gear shift/throttle, and attendant cabling, steering linkage, and helm instrument wiring. We discovered some water intrusion in the cockpit floor under the pedestal, so he had to repair that too.
  • He installed our new electronics. A chartplotter, AIS system, VHF radio, radar, and autopilot. Each of those has multiple components, and they all have to talk to each other. I was in charge of designing the NMEA 2000 backbone that connects all these systems, cabling them together, programming them, and securing the licenses required to use them on national, and global communications, and safety systems.
  • I made new sail covers, replaced the name stickers, repaired gel coat damage in the cockpit, and in the nonskid near the bow, serviced the windlass, marked the new anchor chain, spliced anchor line to the chain, and installed it all in the chain locker.
  • Tom rebuilt a rotted bulkhead, modified the compartment under the port settee to fit big lithium batteries, built new shelves under the galley sink. He built new doors for the galley, and to cover the electric system components under the chart table.

Yeah, it was a lot.

The endless repair list didn’t need my help to get longer

One area we were not going to touch was the head. Nothing in there was really nice, but everything worked well enough we could live with it for a while.

Except, I was just going to recaulk the sink. The cabinet underneath sometimes got damp. A fresh bead of caulk would keep the water out. No big deal.

Fortune - Avoid compulsively making things worse.

I’d saved this useful fortune a month before. Wish I’d referred to it before proceeding.

I took out the drain, lifted the sink free, and carried it to the dock to scrub off the old caulk. Stepping off the side of the boat, I caught my toe on the spring line, fell to my knees, and trying to catch myself, let go of the sink. It went “donnnngggg,” rolled across the dock, and plopped into the water. I scrambled after, trying to grab it, but it was gone in the murk.

So, now we had no bath sink. Should I hire a diver, or just buy a new one? I hadn’t liked that sink anyway. A new one cost less than the $100.00 a diver would charge to search for the ugly one. So I decided to make lemonade out of this lemon fest.

I ordered a sink to fit the space, and when it arrived, the fun began. The old sink and drain configuration was not duplicatable with current plumbing fixtures. Laws about overflows had changed to eliminate the niggling little problem of children drowning in full sinks. It took some time to figure out that what we wanted was not available, and to go ahead and settle for a vessel style drain. This required a whole new drain hose arrangement.

Next, I found that, not only did the new sink not fit in the hole. There was was no sink on the planet that would fit. We had to cut a new hole. But that too was impossible. The former sink had been a weird shape, and weirdly placed to accommodate the faucet. For every sink we could find that fit the hole, the faucet was in the wrong place. This actually meant we had to install a whole new counter top.

I’d made a huge new project for Tom, distracting him from the really important job of building our power management system. He had to remove, reshape, and re-varnish the fiddle trim, and install the new counter top. Then he cut the hole, and we fit all the components together. But now we found out that this sink had to have clips to hold it down. But the clips sold to go with the sink would not work with our counter top configuration. Off I went on another week-long search, this time to find clips that would adjust down to the correct thickness. My simple little, ten minute clean-the-gross-old-caulk-off-the-sink-and-glue-it-back-down job, became the worst, most time consuming puzzle in the whole Domino refit project.

This is actually how most boat projects go.

But now, the cabinet was beautiful, the things stored in it were dry, and the faucet worked great. Lemonade.

Bath sink in white counter with wood trim.
Bath sink in black counter trimmed in wood.

Tying up all the loose ends

With all the systems functioning smoothly, it was time to push through the finishing touches. Tom installed shelves in a few lockers, turning them from caverns, to usable storage. Last, he built shelves in the cockpit locker to hold all his tools. They would be needed for small jobs along the way. 

Little did we know how soon.

Then one day all the jobs were done. The navigation lights worked. The shop was empty. Our stuff was stored. We were ready to fill all the shelves with provisions, and get gone.

Shock! We Left the Dock

Marina friends waving as sailboat Domino leaves the dock. Many boats and buildings in the background.

On a sunny April day, we hugged our marina friends good-bye, and headed out to Edding’s Creek, a favorite nearby anchorage to hang out for a couple of days, before starting south to The Bahamas.

Dolphin spouting in calm water. Forested bank in background.

After being at the marina for so long, not everyone believed we’d actually go. A few days later a friend called Tom looking for help with a project.

“Where are you?” said Adam.

“Northern Florida,” said Tom.

A beat of silence.

“You actually left?”

“I told you we were going.”

“I didn’t think you really would”

Re-building Cruising Hacks and Habits

Now that Domino was ready for action, we had to shake off the habits of marina life, and re-establish our cruising, and sailing skills. On the first morning of the trip south, I almost killed our cruise when it was only three hours old.

We weighed anchor that lovely April morning, excited to finally be underway. The drive down river was calm and uneventful, until we came to the bridge.

Turquoise canvas top of sail boat with bridge in the background.

The tide was going out. I mis-judged the current, and got too close to the bridge before the span was quite open. Planning my next maneuver, I noted that the dinghy, Wonderbaby, was sitting at Domino’s starboard side. I could back up without running over her. But just as I turned around to look where I was going, and shoved the motor into reverse, Tom helpfully moved her back into towing position behind us. I ran over the painter and cut one strand.

Shocked, I yelled “hold onto that line,” threw Domino into forward, and circled back upriver. I got us in quite shallow over the sand bar, but was able to make the turn, and get through the bridge. We were both furious with each other. We hadn’t communicated. Being at the helm, I was the one who was supposed to tell him what I was planning, and ask him to help me. Totally my bad.

We pulled over at the Beaufort anchorage, and Tom dove on the prop to see if I’d done any damage. All was well, but it felt like an inauspicious beginning to this new cruising life.

The wind blew hard all day. Though everything else went smoothly, we were tired, and rattled from my near miss. We hunkered down in the lee of Dafuskie island, and celebrated our first day of cruising. We’d shaken out a little of the rust of dockside life. Nothing too terrible had happened. Surely, we’d get our chops back soon.

Sunset over dark water.

Island Hopping the Georgia Coast

We planned to stay on the Intra-coastal Waterway, the ICW, for our first real trip in Domino. We could have gone out to sea and sailed down the coast a bit faster, but we enjoy the meandering creeks of Georgia. Plus we’d never done the whole thing, all the way to Miami.

Our first stop in Georgia was Bradley River, where we could walk out to the ocean beach side of Ossabaw Island. But that wind. It had been strong all winter, and early spring. Lots of boaters mentioned it. Friends in the Bahamas talked about it.

Spanish moss dangling from limb of live oak. Spiky leaves of Palmetto below.

So instead of the beach, we went upriver to a beautiful, Spanish moss draped forest where we could relax. We launched the kayaks, paddled to the island, and hiked through the palmettos.

Back at the kayaks, we set off exploring in different directions. Then I went back to Domino, to spend a few minutes scraping the hull along the waterline. I heard a hiss, right behind me, in my kayak.

I shrieked, and paddled for the swim platform, anxious to get out before I got bit by whatever snake had crawled into the boat while it was sitting on the beach.

When the snake hissed again, I saw that it was my can of bug spray. It was wedged between my back, and the seat. I’d leaned on it when I reached over the side to scrape barnacles, and set it squirting. I started laughing, and just then, Tom gave a shout and, came paddling back fast. He’d explored down the bank along the marsh grass to a little inlet, where he spooked a big gator, who charged off the bank at him, dove under his kayak, and disappeared. By the time he reached the boat he was laughing, a little hysterically.

Warily, we continued south the next morning, wondering what adventure would hit next.

Three lit solar lights hanging from stainless steel cable, dark water and marsh int he background.
Flock of white pelicans on beach.

On day five, our course put the wind in our favor, and we made serious tracks. We thought we’d make Jeckyl Island, but blew by it and headed for Cumberland. Reaching Cumberland earlier than expected, we just kept going, and made it all the way to Fernandina Beach, Florida.

Withdrawal, or Something

Though we were leaving our rusty habits behind, one by one, we still hadn’t settled into the life. Tom was keeping an eye on all the parts of the boat he’d upgraded. I was working to get more confident in my skills. Tom constantly told me, “Slow is fast, and fast is slow,” when I got panicky or did something without thinking. We forgot to do key tasks. So I made a check list to make sure we did everything required each day before we set out.

At St. Augustine, we took a mooring for a couple of days to relax. The mooring field is exposed to east wind, but the well-anchored ball was secure. We could leave the boat for several hours, do laundry, stretch our legs, and photograph some spectacular architecture. Gin and tonics at Meehan’s Irish Pub took the edge off, followed by a hearty meal of shepherd’s pie, and fish and chips while watching boats do interesting things out in the harbor. And clean clothes always help.

Flagler College ornate Italianate front entrance.
Harbor and sea wall, St Augustine Florida, with sailboats.

The Schedule

There’s an old saying that the most dangerous thing you can have on a boat is a calendar. We avoid the paper type. But now we had a virtual one.

We wanted to watch two SpaceX launches from Mosquito Lagoon.

For two days we rushed, our goal to get to a secure anchorage before the launch. Listening to the SpaceX news feed that morning, we learned that the launch would be delayed a couple of hours. That gave us more time to get situated.

In Mosquito Lagoon we passed friends who were heading back north after Winter in the Bahamas. On the radio, I’d heard someone asking to pass Waypoint, and Edgar’s distinctive voice responding. We shouted back and forth for a moment as we passed port to port.

White sailboat with jib sail flying, gray sky

Just north of Haulover Canal, we pulled over to the east of the channel and crept through the shallows into a hole where there was seven feet of water. We would anchor there for a few days to watch the launches. We sat at anchor, facing into 30 knots of wind, pitching but not rolling. That wind was steady, unimpeded for two miles over shallow water, so we had a good bounce going. I made a video for my friend Wendy, to demonstrate the concept of fetch. I became quite comfortable with that steady motion.

SpaceX Xcitement

We watched the first launch while also watching the video feed. It was very cool to be there. That rocket burned so bright, and so fast! My automatic blurted response was, “That’s a lot of fire!” We heard it landed on the recovery ship moments later. The whole experience was mind blowing.

Unfortunately, but not surprising, the next day we learned that the second launch had been scrubbed due to weather. We decided not to hang around in the wind. But when we were ready to leave, a barge and tug were coming. We’d been stuck behind enough of those, so decided to wait, and let it get well ahead of us.

The Tools Make an Appearance

Sail boat cockpit with tools and equipment.

Tom used the extra time to check the oil, and found a stray nut in the motor well. This was not good news. Searching for where it came from, he found that the nuts on the new motor mounts, which held the motor in alignment, had all loosened. Which meant he had to re-align the engine before tightening the nuts again. It took hours, and this photo captured the one smile of the day. But he got it done, and we got under way.

The Teeth of the Wind

The ICW was filled with big boats taking the inside route due to worsening offshore conditions. The congestion and wakes slowed us down a bit, so at Titusville, we called the marina for fuel, and a slip where we could hide from the wind for the night.

I still break into a sweat thinking about that marina. The wind was whipping across the flats of Cape Canaveral and miles of open water. When Tom tried to turn into the slip, the wind caught the bow and pushed us right past, and down the fairway toward the concrete seawall.

I ran from bow, to stern, to port, to starboard, ready to fend off from pilings, walls, and boats, as Tom fought to turn Domino around. The dock hands ran to the seawall to prepare for impact. I thought again that our cruising career was about to come to a shattering end. Somehow, at the last moment, Tom got her nose into the wind. He went from one of those captains, to totally impressive, just like that.

Once he had the bow headed into the slip, we still had to get her tied up without doing damage. At the time, I couldn’t lasso a piling in a dead calm. I threw the lines to the dock hands and they did all the work, pulling against that wind.

Once our hearts were back in our chests, we met the neighbors. They had enjoyed the show. Now they were headed out to dinner, and asked us if we’d like to go along. Michelle and Charley were a wealth of information about the Bahamas, Michelle’s clearing in document got me most of the way through the paperwork, and process.

Relaxing in Velcro Beach and Peck Lake

Dramatically lit structure under Vero Beach Bridge.
Woman walking in surf holding a coconut on her head.
Man drinking coconut water out of coconut with a straw.

In the morning, Michelle and Charley headed for their summer pursuits of rock climbing in Scotland, and kite boarding in Morocco, and we headed out into the wind again. At Vero Beach we took a mooring in complete shelter for the first time in a week. We stocked up on groceries, fuel, oil, and filters. We also stumbled upon a dive shop which got us all excited for diving in The Bahamas. We also found that the gates to Valhalla, or someplace equally impressive, are located at Vero Beach.

Next, we took a side trip to Stuart, a fun, arty town, known as a great place to wait for weather to cross to the Bahamas. But we’d ordered a water maker, and needed to pick it up in Fort Lauderdale. So we were not going to cross until Miami.

From Stuart, it was just a short hop to one of my favorite anchorages, Peck Lake, where we could get out to the beach at last. We’d been there an hour or so, when I looked at the boat beside us. “Motay? Isn’t that Allen’s boat?” We hailed Motay and they came over for drinks and snacks, then we went for a walk on the beach, and heard about their winter in the Bahamas.

Peck Lake was a turning point. It wasn’t that we stopped making stupid mistakes, but the wind was warmer, we got our toes back in the sand again. The coconuts Tom found signaled that we were not in Kansas (or South Carolina) anymore. It felt like the cruising had really begun.

Things Get Very Florida

Mobile Tiki Bar, with thatched roof under way on the ICW.
Many boats coming toward camera on the ICW./
What Fresh Hell Is This?

The crowds on the ICW were insane – or otherwise impaired. Floating Tiki bars batted back and forth between the beaches. Wakes flew at us from all directions. In Lake Worth, the worst offenders were law enforcement boats bombing around, seemingly with no destination. We heard them on the VHF arguing with anyone who complained.

And this time it was Tom who almost killed our cruise.

He was using the autopilot, and watching the action on the decks of mega yachts. I came up from below with lunch, turned forward, and saw a red marker about six feet from our bow. I yelled, started punching buttons, and was able to disengage the pilot, and swing the boat left about two seconds before impact.

We had a discussion. My point of view: autopilots have their place. Crowded harbors are not that place.

The insanity raged for several miles, until we went through the bridge to Palm Beach. Suddenly the waters were calm, the yahoos were gone. There was a music festival at the anchorage where we’d planned to stay for the night. We anchored across the channel, and settled down in the cockpit for dinner and a show.

After dinner we paddled across to take a walk. The public boat dock was cordoned off, so we tied the kayaks at the end of the fishing pier, and climbed up. Besides the fact that we were gate crashing a bash that had a $50 ticket price, we were also risking Covid, still rampant in maskless Florida at the time. We kept our distance.

Sunday brought an air show. Plus 1,000,000 Florida men bashing through a 100 yard wide canal. Crossing the Gulf Stream would be a picnic after this.

Close Encounters of the Tesla Kind

We enjoyed several days in Fort Lauderdale, anchored in Lake Sylvia, which is completely calm and ringed with spectacular houses. While waiting for the call to come pick up our water maker, we played in the sun, and putted along the canals, gawking at the enormous mega yachts. On the big day, we walked to Sea Water Pro and toured their factory. I called an Uber to take us and our new toy back to the dock. When a Tesla pulled up, Tom was ecstatic. It was our first time to ride in one. We bundled the boxes into the back, and grilled the driver about how he liked the car. Number one take away – electric is far cheaper to run than an ICE vehicle.

Boats on calm lake at sunset with lit houses in the background.
White Tesla with open trunk.
Sail boat cockpit with boxes and equipment.

Back at the Raw Bar, we hefted the boxes across the parking lot, down the dock, and then carefully lowered them into the dinghy. That was one very full dinghy. The box that held the desalination membranes was almost as big as me. In the cockpit, we unboxed everything, studied the parts, and organized them for storage. Now what to do with all the packaging? We cut it very small, then headed back to the Raw Bar for drinks, and pirated some space in their dumpster.

Bridge Drama – On Purpose

Water maker aboard, we were ready for the last leg of the ICW. I asked my friend Kasey where we should anchor in Miami, and she said. “You have to go outside, you can’t get under the Julia Tuttle.” Sound of screeching brakes.

Turquoise water with boats, bridge, and buildings in the distance.

Legend has it the engineer of the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge was dyslexic. While every fixed bridge on the ICW is supposed to be 65 feet, the JT is 56. Strange that no one caught his error. Hmm emoji.

Anyway, this news gave us a whole new project. We attached a tape measure to the main halyard and ran it as high as it would go, and down to the water. With that length as a starting point, we calculated our options, adding three inches to account for the distance from the sheave to the top of the mast head. I looked up a mast light that resembled ours and added four inches for that. This brought us to 55’6”. The VHF whip antenna we knew to be three feet, but it was thin and flexible, and would bend at least half its length.

We consulted the tide table for the coming week. At high tide, yes indeed, our mast was too tall. But there’s a two foot tide at the Julia Tuttle Bridge. Everything I read said at lowest low tide there is 57 feet of space. At just the right time of night, on just the right day of the year, the low tide should allow us to make it under. Unusually for our typical luck, we would be there at just the right time.

I fretted over those calculations as we headed south, but finally decided it was no big deal. If we got there and the height reader boards on the bridge showed we couldn’t make it, we would just head back north to Fort Lauderdale, and go out to the ocean.

Tom wanted the tide to be at its lowest ebb, but then turn and start back in as we reached the bridge. That way, we’d have a little current pushing us backward, rather than sucking us under the bridge, in case we had to back out. I wanted calm water. Everyone bombs around South Florida. Sunset seemed like the time when there would be the fewest boats.

I spent the morning setting up online accounts for our Bahamas immigration, getting an insurance rider for the islands, and trying to figure out where we could get Covid tests in the time-frame we’d need for entry. Dealing with tech, insurance, and a pandemic is not the best way to manage anxiety. As we pulled the anchor, and headed for the JT, I was feeling it again.

Things lined up pretty well as we crept toward the bridge, watching the clock. Low tide was 7:20. Boat traffic was thinning out. The breeze calmed at dusk. Everything was coming together. When we were in binocular range, I searched the uprights for those vital clearance reader boards.

They were illegible. We got right up to the bridge and the only number we could see was 54. There was some space between that line and the surface of the water. But we were right back to estimation.

For the record, every bridge always looks too low to me.

Tom ghosted up to the bridge while I tried, with binocs, and with bare eyeballs, to estimate how much space there was between the top of our mast and the bottom of the girder. There was no way to be sure. Slowly, slowly he proceeded under.

“Scritch, Tingg,” went the VHF antenna, and then again, “Scritch, Tingg.” We held our breath as it did that about 12 times. We were making it! As we passed the half way point, I saw them. Boats. One coming from the north, one from the south, headed for the span we were under, oblivious to what we were doing, and making wake.

I waved frantically and jumped around on the bow, trying to warn off the first one, as the “Scritch, Tingg,” continued. Then I ran to the stern and waved frantically at the one coming from the north. “Scritch, Tingg.” I managed to get both boats to slow down and wait for us. They stared. “Scritch, Tingg, Tingg, Tingg, Tingg.” And then we were through.

After all the calculations, and anxiety, and my frenzy, we were probably under that bridge scratching our name in the girders for about 30 seconds. On the far side, we whooped, and high-fived and our audience honked, and gave us thumbs up, before they sped off to make up for lost time.

Adrenaline depleted, we toasted our audacity. The maneuver was a real confidence boost. Then we tried to sleep in the lights of Miami. Every home seems to have a spotlight trained on the water way.

Next morning we headed across Biscayne Bay for No Name Harbor, where we would wait for our perfect weather conditions to cross the Gulf Stream. And I finally found out what color Domino’s canvas is. The color of Biscayne Bay.

The Last US Harbor

At Bill Baggs State Park, we waited for the perfect weather to take the. next leap into our cruising life. While we waited, we hiked the trails of Cape Florida, visited the light house, and played on the beach. We took the bus into Miami, and explored Little Havana where we discovered dominoes are a really big thing, and had amazing Cuban sandwiches at Sanguich. But mostly, we watched the constant party that is No Name Harbor.

Archway entrance with sign, Domino Park, Miami, Florida.
Carpenter cutting a board in the deck of a sailboat in lake.
Dinghy stowed upside down on deck of sailboat.

We waited through a couple of storms, and several really nice days when the wind blew from the north. (A north wind makes the stream rough, and the crossing can be hard on boats and crews.) I got Covid tests from eMed sent to a local mail service. And when we saw a weather window coming, we took those tests, and passed.

There was no water available at the park, so I made a deal with the restaurant at the end of the harbor to fill our five gallon jugs several times. I shuttled them back, and forth in the dinghy to fill our tank.

That night, while doing yoga on the floor of the salon, I noticed the trim on the starboard settee was coming loose. After poking at it a bit, I found that the water tank was bulging forward, pushing the cabinet front away from the trim. I hate to bear bad news. Tom investigated. The support at the front of the cabinet had broken. Oh shit. Would this finally derail our cruising plans for real?

I had to empty the tank I’d just spent all day filling. We took showers, I gave the bilge a good cleaning, rinsed the decks, and washed clothes. I also filled the kettle, water bottles, and every empty juice jug we had aboard. That got the level down far enough that we were able to push the tank back into place. Tom bought a chunk of lumber, and built a new support.

I vowed never again to complain about all the tools Tom brought on board. Those tools (and his mad skills) had saved us twice. And we hadn’t even left yet.

Then we loaded the dinghy on deck, went to sleep at cruiser’s midnight (9:00) and dreamed of the Gulf Stream.

2 thoughts on “Setting Sail for the Cruising Life”

  1. Diane and Gary Stoneking

    So great to catch up with you guys, vicariously experiencing your departure from Lady’s Island Marina!
    As always, great writing, Nancy.

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