The forecast here in Tampa was a dismal one for last week, and Marco Island had some predictions that were running about ten degrees warmer than us. We didn't have time for a trip all the way down to the Keys, and the budget didn't warrant a trip all the way there either, so we thought that the 160 mile run to Marco Island would fit the bill.
I like to think we keep Swing Set ready to go on a long trip at any time, so outside of a usual trip to the grocery store on a Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago, it was just a matter of topping off our water tank and taking the covers off of the boat and the dinghy and we were ready to head out.
Naturally I checked the wind forecast, I do that any time we plan on leaving protected waters, and if we're in the dinghy we check the wind forecast every time. We had to be home in no more than 14 days, so I checked Windfinder for a window to return north and there was a small one in 12 days, so I decided it was good enough to head out. Really, staying in the Intracoastal wouldn't be an issue, but there is about a 45 mile run from
Ft. Myers to Marco Island that in a head sea can be nasty, but our current forecast showed northern winds for the trip down, and a turn for southern winds for a short period for the trip back. What we didn't concern ourselves with was the fog.
We had nothing but time, so we wanted a nice relaxing cruise down on the inside, and initially it was, but I kept noting the fog out on the Gulf as we made our way down to Pass A Grille at Shell Key, where we normally venture out to cross Tampa Bay. When we passed
St. Johns Pass, I could see the fog was thick out there and it was coming inland.
Now, of course we've had fog before, but not really since we've been near the ocean, so there was some things I wasn't aware of. One of those things was that I have been under the assumption that fog will dissipate once the sun warms the air temperature up by mid-day, but the one thing to consider is that the ocean stays cold this time of year no matter what the sun is doing. The other thing is that the weather people don't have a real handle on where there is going to be fog. They just say it's going to be "spotty", and it may or may not be where you are. No kidding.
The fog settled in around us like a blanket as we started making way out Pass A Grille, and I started considering anchoring somewhere and waiting it out, but I thought maybe once we got out passed the warmer land mass the fog would lighten up so we went ahead.
Now, I gotta say here that we weren't totally prepared for fog, as I discovered earlier last fall that our radar was not working. I don't use radar. The last time I used it was when we were returning from The Bahamas in 2013, and that was to see a rain storm so we could avoid it. I also rarely run at night, so the radar didn't seem so necessary.
There was a boat following us, thinking we knew what we were doing, but he turned off and started calling marinas on his radio. I probably should have turned around too, but I trusted my instruments and I considered crossing the ship channel into Tampa Bay as our only dangerous point, and the ship channel is actually very narrow where we were going to cross. As it turned out, by the time we got to the crossing, the fog there wasn't too bad, we could see the Sunshine Skyway off to our east, and although it was worse out to the west, I was sure I could see a ship if it was coming our way. They go pretty slow through there anyway.
I was feeling pretty good about our situation once we crossed the ship channel, but once we got behind Egmont Key and on to the east of Passage Key, the fog shrouded us again as I made way back into the Intracoastal for an intended anchorage on the inside of Longboat Key, between it and Jewfish Key, where we stayed for a few days when we first came through there in 2012.
We inched along through Bradenton, twice coming across local fishermen running along at plane, one without running lights on. We had ours on and they saw us first and we didn't have a collision, but I was wondering about the intelligence of them not having their lights on, and us being out there in the first place.
Once we reached the southern tip of Jewfish Key, a check of our chart showed some deep water out to the east of Jewfish Key, so I decided to check it out, remembering how tight it was in the anchorage we had been in before. We did't get too far when our depth gauge didn't agree with what I saw on the chart, but that's no surprise because the info on most charts are years old. I scrapped that plan and backed out to what I at least was vaguely familiar with. I did the best I could do with the visibility I had and dropped anchor as we lost the last of our light.
I don't mind learning lessons, and when you're not as smart as you think you are, you're always learning lessons or paying to have your mistakes fixed. Right then I learned that I should have updated my anchoring application for our iPhone before we left port. Oops.
Neither of my two "go to" anchoring apps would work, and I couldn't update them, but I was able to purchase a new app, and I had a choice between a 99 cent one and a $5.00 one, and since I've been programmed to think that more expensive means better, I chose the more expensive one. It's called, appropriately enough, Anchor Alarm.
It works differently than the other apps I've used, and I think it's simpler. Simple is good for me. Once you acknowledge the disclaimer, your GPS is fixed, you check five boxes that apply to your situation, and you draw a line around the dot that is your position where you want to alarm to sound if you drift into the area where the line is. On an iPad, your position is in the shape of a boat. For five bucks, I want our boat to look like more than a dot, but I was using the phone, so I drew a shape that was similar to the deep water that we were setting in, only allowing about a hundred feet to drift in the longest direction.
Last month I installed a Shakespeare T.V. antenna on Swing Set, so I turned on the T.V. and searched for channels and found a ton of them, but mainly we're only interested in CBS or NBC and both came in with phenomenal pictures. Rosie had been cooking a chuck roast in the crock pot on the way down, so we had a great dinner while watching the news and monitoring our anchor alarm. The alarm sounded once in the middle of the night when the boats swung around with the tide. I got up to check our position and reset the alarm. Nighty night.
The next morning we were still socked in with fog and the wind had really picked up. By mid day, the fog was still thick, and I didn't want a replay of the previous day, and we had Sarasota Bay to negotiate with it's twist and turns, so as time was on our side and it was cold, we snuggled in and read our Kindles.
Between reading one of the countless Robert Crais books, and thinking of other things, the sun peeked out late in the afternoon and I decided to address an issue with the dinghy davit that had been troubling me. In the last blog, I mentioned my satisfaction with the rig I had come up with for the new dinghy, but the little bit that our dinghy was swinging as we crossed some boat wakes on our way down had me rethinking my tie down method.
Before we took delivery of the dinghy back in November, I had purchased some stainless steel ratcheting tie down straps, but I didn't come up with a good way to use them without causing stress on my davit arms and winch system. While reading "L.A. Detective", I thought that maybe I could still use the tie downs to keep the dinghy from swinging from side to side in rough water. When the sun popped out, I got out my drill and installed two stainless eye bolts on each davit, each into a bracket that was located just below where the bottom of the dinghy tubes rested against the davit arms. I ran one strap from the back lifting ring on the outside of the dinghy transom, under the starboard tube without it touching, and up to the davit support opposite it. Then I ran another strap under the dinghy from the bow eye back toward the stern to the rear davit support. They wouldn't be pulling the dinghy down, causing stress on the davit arms, but if I just snugged them up, they'd just be pulling against each other, keeping the dinghy from swinging side to side on the stern of Swing Set. I felt pretty confident that it would work, and it was simple. Later we got a chance to test the system in earnest.
On Saturday morning the fog was lifted and we pulled up anchor at first light. It was cold and blustery and we dressed for it, but even though we had a full day of running down to Sanibel, it was less than pleasant. When we crossed Charlotte Harbor the wind had really picked up, but as predicted, it was on our stern, and it was a good thing. We had a three foot chop in the Bay and we ran Swing Set at cruise to smooth out our ride. Not many other boaters were out even though it was a Saturday. We pulled into Sanibel Marina and got fuel with the intention of putting out a hook on the southern end of Sanibel Island for a run down to Marco the next day, or at least to Naples, but conditions out in San Carlos Bay just west of Ft. Myers beach were not suitable for anchoring and it was getting late.
We had spent about three weeks in the area back in 2012 visiting friends, so we knew the area some. I had ideas about where we could put a hook, but the winds were blowing in gusts over 25 miles per hour from the north. The lee side of most of those land masses were nothing but shallow water. Even though some folks we knew in the area were out of town at the time, we decided to head up the Caloosahatchee River to Bimini Basin where we spent most of our time in Cape Coral over five years ago.
The channel into Bimini Basin is narrow, and we were at low tide, and even thought we had no issue using that channel five years ago, we were having an unusually extreme tide and we bumped going in just from the river. Had I remembered my local knowledge from those many years ago, I could have used another channel just to the east that would have gotten me to the same place, but alas, my memory just doesn't serve me as well as I would like.
We eventually pulled into a crowded Bimini Basin, but found a spot with plenty of room and again dropped our hook just as the sun was going down. Once again we monitored our anchor app and located channels on our T.V. while noshing on a pork roast that had been cooking in the crock pot. Another full day.
I was anxious to get going on Sunday morning and I knew the tide was low, but I've always thought that if you can get in, you can get out, so we pulled anchor and made way back out to the river to see if it was too rough for a run down to Marco Island. We never found out.
In the channel out to the river proper I was trying to avoid the spot where I had bumped the bottom on the night before when a hellacious noise emanated from the bottom of the boat. It sounded like we had run up on some rocks, but even though I would have liked to see a bit more depth on the depth gauge, it wasn't shallow enough to be on rocks. But before figuring all that out, I had pulled the throttle back and put both transmissions in neutral.
We had drifted into deeper water, but I didn't want to drift out of what was anyway a narrow channel anyway, so I put the starboard engine in gear, but only for a second as a noise somewhat like what you'd hear if you dragged a chain across a fence pipe caused me to quickly shut down that engine. A test of the port engine was good, so I began to make way out to the river and deeper what with one engine.
Here is where I interject about something that has crossed my mind for several years about people wanting two engines in case one craps out. It doesn't always work.
For our boat anyway, it was nearly impossible to steer, especially with the wind and current working against me. I kept spinning the wheel and feathering the transmission to get us out to the river. Once I somehow got us out there I couldn't turn the boat into the wind which was upriver and toward a marina that I knew had a travel lift. Before I could decide to drop a hook before we blew out of the channel and into a shoal, the same noise that caused me to shut down the starboard engine started coming from the running gear on the port side. I calmly shut down the port engine and was able to deploy a hook in a narrow channel of the Caloosahatchie.
I can't say I didn't have a great sense of foreboding at that point, because I did. In fact the feeling I had was similar to the one I had a few months after we bought Swing Set. It was in late October on a nasty and blustery day in a slough off the channel of the Mississippi River when we ran aground. I don't think I knew about Towboat U.S. back then, but even so, I hate to ask for help from anyone, and I made two dips into the frigid Mississippi in my birthday suit to get us shoved off into deeper water. Two, because when I first got us off the sand, the wind blew us into another sandbar before I could get underway, and in my birthday suit because I didn't have a wetsuit onboard, or any dry clothes to put on if I got them wet. But I digress.
The hook was out on the Caloosahatchie and I called Towboat U.S. There was a guy there in about twenty minutes since no one in their right mind was out on the water in the cold and wind. After considering taking us to the Marine Max up the river where I was thinking about going, the captain of the towboat suggested he tow our boat to Tarpon Point marina just downriver where we could get along a dock and he could dive on our running gear and take a look. Sounded good to us and Marine Max wasn't open on a Sunday as far as using the travel lift, and Monday was a holiday too.
It just so happens that we had let our Gold Membership expire on Towboat U.S. and we only had basic coverage amounting to $300 when you add our boat insurance coverage with our basic $50 coverage on our Boat U.S. membership. We had intentions of increasing our coverage to the Gold Membership when our policy became due again at the end of the month. Two weeks away.
Here we are along a nice transient dock at Tarpon Point. Yes, there are two Towboat U.S. vessels in the picture. Next, I'll tell you why.
Ed, the first towboat operator, made a quick look under our boat without an air supply just to see what we had. He came up and told us we had a crab trap wrapped around the starboard shaft and prop, and the line for it had become tangled around the port shaft. I knew we hadn't seen a buoy for the trap, so we apparently drug it off the bottom in the shallow water. That's what you call "lucky".
We have never used Towboat U.S. before even though, as I've mentioned, we've run aground and even picked up our share of crab pots, but this is January in Cape Coral, not the warm waters of Key West, so I had it in my mind to let Ed fix our problem if he could, but I also didn't know that Towboat U.S. operates on an hourly basis and Ed was the king of dragging his feet. I am also smart enough to not try to rush anyone who is doing you a favor even if you are paying for it.
Ed took his good 'ole time getting tools and his air supply hooked up. When we got serious about untangling the crab pot from our running gear, he kept coming up to remind me of just how hard the job was going to be. He got the line untangled from the port side shaft, but came aboard to rest and tell me that the rebar from the crab pot on the starboard side was "wrapped tight" around the starboard shaft. He didn't know if he could get it off.
At this point, mustering up as much tact as I am capable of mustering up, I told Ed that whatever he wanted to do was up to him, but if he left us there without a complete resolution of our problem, I was going to don my wetsuit and fire up our Hookamax and take that crab pot off of our prop and shaft if I had to, cold water or not. I think he believed me, so he came up with a plan.
He said he would need a hand, and that there was liability issues if I got under the boat with him, so he would call a buddy that worked with him to help bend that pesky rebar wrapped around the shaft. I decided that "in for a penny, in for a pound", and told him to call his buddy. Billy arrived in the second boat in fairly short order.
Of course we had to wait for Billy to don his gear (I didn't know Towboat U.S. was even prepared to dive under a boat needing assistance) and take his time acclimating himself to the water before getting down to business with Ed under our boat. In very short order they pulled up the crab pot that was twisted into a ball, and then the rebar that I thought was curled up like an elevator spring, but only slightly out of whack. But we were good to go with no collateral damage to the shaft or props. Ed did report a gouge in the tunnel where the rebar had tried to poke a hole in our bottom, but didn't. The only water coming into our bilge was from the port side dripless seal. I suspected a torqued seal and I knew I could deal with that on my own.
The bill wasn't so bad after all. We let Ed swipe our VISA card for the $157 over what our insurance was going to cover, and we gave both Ed and Billy $50 each, not knowing what the protocol was. They seemed happy to get it as it was a slow day for them.
It was too late to head to Marco, and too windy anyway, so we decided to treat ourselves after a disappointing day, so we called the harbormaster and booked our slip for the night and went up to one of the several restaurants there at Tarpon Point and had a nice dinner.
The next morning the wind was forecasted to be on our stern if we headed for Marco Island, but we were both apprehensive about going on with our trip. We had had to spend some money we didn't plan on spending, but ultimately we figured we came this far and there was still a window to return on the following weekend if we did make it to Marco. We both agreed that if the Gulf was too rough once we got out past Ft. Myers, we'd turn around and head home on the Intracoastal. As it turned out we ran down to Marco on plane at least until we got to Naples, there we had to slow down for a multitude of crab pot buoys.
Hurricane Irma tore up Marco Island, not as bad as the Keys, but we could see damage as we came slowly into the pass. I had never used this pass before and even though the chart looked OK, I didn't know what the hurricane had done to it. There was no other boats going in to follow. After a tense transit into the channel of the Marco River, I called the harbormaster at the Esplanade Marina to get a line of the channel into Collier Bay. I asked if the big boats in his marina were still going in and out and he said they were, but only at high tide. We just happened to be at high tide so in we went, through Collier Bay and then into Esplanade Bay.
Our weather window to leave was holding up, but there was a fly in the ointment. We had to leave at high tide and high tide on the day we wanted to leave wasn't in the morning, which was our preference, but not until late in the afternoon. We would plan on leaving our anchorage on Sunday, get fuel and water, get a hook in Factory Bay and then leave to go north on Monday.
We did have some warmer temperatures on our first day in Marco Island. We ran the dinghy up to Naples for lunch, and then came back to Keewaydin Island, where we spent about a week on the hook back in 2012.
We touched base with some friends who snowbird in Marco, and met up with a chum from up on the Mississippi River. We spent some time at the Esplanade Marina and also was able to spend another day at the beach even though it was too cold to enjoy it.
On Sunday we waited for high tide, but left on a rising tide when I saw a 59 footer leave the marina and head out to the river. We followed him with his five foot draft and neither one of us had a problem. Once we got out to the river, he headed to sea and we headed to Rose Marina for fuel. I was filling our port side tank when a familiar voice called out to Rosie.
A friend from Fenton was having a beer at Jacks Lookout when someone mentioned that there was a woman in a thong on some Sea Ray at the fuel dock. He looked out and recognized Rosie and the boat and came out to say hello. It was a nice surprise to see him and we were sorry we didn't remember his family had a place down there. We had a quick chat and then we went out to Factory Bay to get an anchoring spot and relax with a beer or two and watch the sunset.
I was up at five A.M. the next morning thinking it was six. Rosie got up too since if I ain't sleeping, she isn't either. We had a nice breakfast, checked weather again, and pulled anchor before sunrise at 6:45. There was enough light to see our way to the pass and we exited into the Gulf of Mexico at 7 A.M. As soon as we got into deep water I put Swing Set on plane with intentions of running straight to Clearwater with the boat. That almost happened.
As we approached Sanibel Island I could see fog in the distance. The weather people were forecasting it to burn off by 9 A.M. but it was past that. It was calm enough to stop at anchor if we had to, but we could see the crab pot buoys good enough to press on, but once we got up around Captiva, we were so socked in I had to slow down to idle speed.
It was soup. I was nervous as we passed the entrance to Charlotte Harbor, as that would be the last point where any bigger ships would be going, but we got passed that point and visibility improved to where I put Swing Set up to just on plane, about 20 miles per hour.
We ran along with our running lights on, nervous as cats, but we were able to spot the crab pot buoys in time to avoid them. At one point we came upon a small fishing boat sitting there in the fog with no lights on. I'm pretty sure we scared the crappie out of them.
By the time we got up to about Englewood, the sky cleared and we ran at our cruising speed of 25 MPH. I never ran our boat for so many miles at that speed and wasn't sure if we had enough fuel. At the midpoint we had more than twice our fuel left over so I relaxed a little. A back up plan would have been to pop in somewhere and fuel up but we didn't have to. It was a smooth ride all the way albeit a cold one. The winds picked up by the time we got to St. Petersburg, but they were on our stern quarter and weren't unpleasant. At a little less than seven hours after we left Marco Island we were entering Clearwater Pass.
We fueled up at the Clearwater Beach Marina and learned that we had gotten .8 miles per gallon. I thought we could get a mile per gallon, but at least I know our range at cruising speed.
After we pulled into the dock we rinsed the salt off of Swing Set and the dinghy and turned in early. The next morning I flushed all of the engines and fixed the leaking port side shaft seal. We headed home with a mini adventure behind us, not a big trip but considering not many boats even leave our harbor, we could be proud of ourselves for attempting it.