Saturday, May 26, 2012

And now for something completely different...

I'll tell you right up front that this is NOT our usual type of blog post.  For five years now we've been posting photos of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  And not much else.  That's all about to change, Big Time. We hope it's for the better, but lets face it, we were getting into a rut.  How many photos of the dog's rear end on a sailing kayak can one guy post?

We just  bought another boat.  Yeah, I know.  You would be perfectly in line to ask why on earth we would need another boat.  But wait until you see this one.   It's a big one.   We just spent the first half of May in Jacksonville, Florida getting this boat ready to go.  It needed a lot of work.  We thought we'd never leave the dock.  Finally the day came when we ran out of excuses, just had to bite the bullet, start the engines, untie the lines, and leave the dock for the first time.  I was on the boat alone and had never run it before. La Gringa had to return a rental car to the airport and she took a taxi to meet me at our first stop.  I only had to make it from the Naval Air Station to downtown Jacksonville Landing, but let me tell you that little trip took a very long time in my mind.  I think I aged ten years in ten miles.  A strange boat with two diesels, a strange river with turns and channels and currents, a strange city with bridges and pilings and busy boat traffic, and approaching a dock I had never seen before.  I also had to negotiate a railroad draw bridge, and did I mention I was on the boat alone?  I think I might have started talking to myself at some point.  When I got to Jacksonville Landing, I was beyond happy to see La Gringa waiting at the dock to catch my lines.   All I had to do was stop 41 ft. of catamaran just exactly at the right spot in a moving river, and throw some lines ashore for her to catch and tie. Was I nervous?  Yeah.  I was. (You couldn't have driven a twelve penny nail up my butt with a three pound framing hammer).   It sure felt good to shut the engines down and relax, and realize that yeah, we can do this!

The S/V Twisted Sheets is an old cruising catamaran. Maybe the original cruising catamaran design. It's called a Catalac 12m, and it was built in England in 1985. There were only 27 of these built, and they're fairly rare. We'd been aware of them for some years, but never saw any come onto the boat market, until this year.  They're known as safe, solid boats.  They're roomy.  And slow. And at the more inexpensive end of the 40 ft. catamaran scale.  Suddenly, there were three of them available at the same time. We grabbed  one. If you want more information on the boat and it's history along with some interior photos there's an excellent website run by a friend of ours at Catalac 12M.

I'm not going to ramble on about the boat itself right now.  That'll all come in bits and pieces as we go.  What I can tell you is that this is a dream we've had for a long, long time. Even living down in Providenciales, doing all the exploring that we've been able to do, we felt limited. We always had to plan our trips to be home before dark. There are many places just in the TCI alone that we want to visit, and explore, that require us to be able to camp out for days to adequately look at and write about. Twisted Sheets is set up to be what's known as a "liveaboard" boat.  This means she has all the basic systems we need for extended travel.  We could take this boat around the world, if we wanted to.We have 1000 watts of solar panels, two wind generators, and can make our own fresh water.  There's no more having to be home before dark.  Or even before next year.  We think we just might be able to expand the scope of this blog substantially.  It's still going to be about 2 Gringos in the Caribbean, but our footprint of the Caribbean just got a whole lot bigger.  I don't think we're in Providenciales any more, Toto.

Here's Twisted Sheets  tied up at the downtown Jacksonville Landing docks. By the time I got my nerve up enough to cast off the lines and head down river for the first time it was late afternoon. Ain't it funny how many reasons one can find NOT to do something that makes one nervous?  We decided to spend the first night here.   It took me that long to stop shaking after the initial trip.  I think it was kind of like your first solo, if you're a pilot.  Taking off is easy...but now what?  You're committed.  Nobody but you is going to land this thing.   After one good landing, we decided to stay put and celebrate. The dock was free, anyhow.  (And there are some interesting people in downtown Jacksonville after dark.  I think we've led a somewhat sheltered life in Providenciales for the past seven years.)

That bridge in the background is the Main Street trestle bride.  Obviously it's too low for our mast to fit under it.  We stick up 52 ft. above the water.   We have to radio the bridge operators and ask them to raise the bridges to let us pass.   It's a funny feeling to see the barricades go down, and all the automobiles stop, and traffic being forced to wait for us to travel through.  Some people smile and wave.  Most of them use all their fingers to wave.  Some take photos.  This is all very new to us.

I had to show you what this city looks like at night.  Pretty cool, isn't it?

Looking at that photo later, I realize I left the navigation lights on.  Duh.  Newbie mistake.  This wouldn't be the last one.
So we left Jacksonville behind after weeks of getting to know the place.  We decided to take the Intracoastal Waterway down to south Florida, and then to cross over the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.   We'll island hop down the Bahamas and eventually, several weeks from now, we should be back in Providenciales at South Side Marina telling Bob about our new adventures.

 This is early in the trip, getting ready to pass under one of the first of what would turn out to be many, many bridges.  Jacksonville behind us, and about 300 miles to get to the ocean, and a thousand miles from home.  We were still in the St. John's river at this point.

The Intracoastal Waterway (or ICW for short) is a long series of linked rivers, bays, and canals that let boats travel around a significant portion of the east coast of the USA without having to be exposed to the weather in the North Atlantic.   We had a lot of issues with equipment on the boat, and thought that taking a week or so to cruise under power would be prudent.  Heck, we knew the sails would work.  It would give us time to go over all the systems  and learn them and how to operate and repair them.  This turned out to be a good idea.  I've spent a big part of each day down in one of the engine rooms, working on a diesel engine.  No chance of escaping the DIY part of this life on a boat.  No way.  But we have two diesel engines.  And several sails. This boat is built to cruise. I'll show you a few of the images we did take on the trip so far.

And yeah, I did say 'so far'.  I am writing this post from the galley table aboard Twisted Sheets. We've been living aboard for almost two weeks now.

This is a narrow portion of the ICW between the St. John's River and St. Augustine.  We've been chugging along at about six knots for hour after hour, day after day.  Watching the channel markers, and our depth readings, and the weather.  Studying charts of far away islands, and making plans.

We've seen a lot of variety in the types of homes and camps along the ICW.  This is one of the smaller setups.  We've seen plenty of mega mansions, too, but this one caught my eye.  A boat, a shack on the river..... it could be enough for a lot of people.

The weather has been good for the most part.  We've watched two tropical cyclones develop just north of us so far.  We're hoping to get all the way back to the Turks and Caicos without having to deal with a hurricane.  That would just  make us really nervous.   I'm trying to avoid nervous whenever I can .  We've had a few days of rain, many days of sunshine, and one morning of  fog.  That's a jaw tightening experience in a canal, too. There are other boats coming the other direction.  In fact, MOST of the boats we've seen are headed north, getting away from the tropics for hurricane season.   Some of them are big. Some of them are moving a whole lot faster than we are. We're headed south.  We must be nuts.

The boat does have radar, although we haven't needed to use it yet.   We'll use it at night, or in the fog on the open ocean.  Or when I'm trying to find an island and don't want anyone to know I'm lost. Here's La Gringa at the outside helm, pressing onward though the fog.  She looks really miserable, doesn't she?   We've been grinning a lot lately.

Our first major stop after leaving Jacksonville was St. Augustine, the oldest city in the USA.  I'd read about this place all my life but never thought I'd get the opportunity to actually see it.  We ended up spending three days there, buying parts for the boat and getting things 'squared away' as they say.   That means buying groceries for the trip, and fixing everything that we can find to fix.  Some days, we even gain some ground.  But not always.

This is the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine.  It's a drawbridge we had to pass under the previous day before docking here at the Municipal Marina.   Those are school buses stopped for the raised drawbridge as another boat passes through on it's way north.

When we took possession of the boat it had all this netting lashed to the stanchions and lifelines.  We had originally thought that we would leave it on the boat to help protect Dooley the Deranged.  But after a few days of looking at the stuff we decided that the boat would look better with it removed.  That took most of a day to do.  It wouldn't have stopped Dooley, anyhow.  Might have even been an entanglement issue.  Getting tangled in nets is a pet peeve of mine.     In later photos you'll be able to see that it's now all gone.

St. Augustine is a really cool old town.  We were docked right in the middle of the historic section, and were eating in restaurants and bars that have been here since the 1700's.

We wanted to look around town a lot more but all of the work and heavy activity involved with getting the boat going wreaked havoc on my remaining biological knee.  It swelled up the size of a large soft melon and stopped bending.  I had to have the fluids changed in it.  Thanks to the St. Augustine Orthopedic Center I was walking again by the time we left.

Here's what Twisted Sheets looked like docked just south of the Bridge of Lions.  Better without the netting, isn't it?

We did get the chance to see the close by parts of St. Augustine, and saw some of the fantastic old architecture.   After years of living in the Turks and Caicos Islands where we mostly see palm trees and Casuarinas, it was nice to see old oaks covered with Spanish Moss again.   (These trees reminded me of the Texas blues band ZZ Top, for some reason.)

This is a cool old boat called the Black Raven that takes people on excursions up and down the river and historic section of St. Augustine.  Do Ravens come in colors other than black?   I'm just asking.

I don't want to dwell at length on all the places we've stopped so far.   Daytona, Titusville, Juno Beach, This post would drag on forever.  I'll try to pick up the pace a little here.

This is the welcome view of  a drawbridge raising at our request.  Six knots doesn't sound very fast when you first think about it.  A brisk bicycle ride.  But when you're moving the equivalent of a three bedroom, two bathroom condo weighing 18,000 lbs at six knots, a solid bridge in front of you seems to be coming at you very fast indeed.   And when the current and wind is behind you it starts getting complicated to hold the boat until the bridge is open. Alternatively, the current is in your face and ripping through the bridge abutments.  You have to add power and pay attention.  This all gets even more interesting when your port engine decides to quit, again. 

  We were white knuckled the first half dozen bridges we had to travel under.  Even the high ones.  You know your mast will clear, but still you hold your breath until it does.   And those drooping power line crossings.  Oh my.   And lightning.  Did I mention the lightning yet?  No?  Okay, I'll shut up about it.  Dooley might be reading this.  He hasn't seen the boat yet. I'm planning to tell him it's thunder proof.

Portions of the ICW are littered with these  abandoned boats that are never going to float again.  I couldn't help but think about the stories and adventures these old hulls could relate if they could talk.   These old boats were once somebody's dreams.   But those days are gone, as all days eventually are. And now  they spend their remaining time above the water in silent witness,  watching young boats like ours, full of fresh dreams, heading out on their own adventures.

We've made almost all of the trip so far by engine power.  In fact most of the first few days we were traveling with only one engine working, as I worked my way through the Yanmar Diesel manual the previous owner left on board.  I've been chasing down fuel and air leaks, loose belts, leaking stuffing boxes, tripped circuit breakers. The wrong size fuel line.  Burnt out this, disconnected that.  We are the fourth owners of this boat, and everyone seems to have had different ideas about how to do things. I can't even remember all of it now to complain about.   But we do want to remind ourselves that the engines on this boat are auxiliary power.  They're made for moving the boat when it's not sailing, because primarily it is a sail boat.  And we did get the chance to put the sails up, finally, for the first time when we stopped to visit Rick in Melbourne FL.  We had five people on board, and were sailing 5 and a half knots in about 9 knots of wind.  That's not too bad for a boat this size and weight.   We expect to do better once we get out on the ocean with her, and learn how she likes to be trimmed and sailed.   We have a huge genoa and a big spinnaker, and are just waiting for the chance to set them and go. 

We can thank Rick of the Catamaran Site for browbeating us into trying out the sails.  I had been totally engrossed in chasing diesel engine gremlins, and knew the sails would be a simple thing.  Sails ARE a simple thing, when it's all said and done.  But the fine tuning of sails, well, that's when it starts to get interesting.  For now we were happy just to get them up and to spend a few hours driven by the wind. Thanks, Rick.  We needed that.

We tied up for two nights at the skinniest dock we've seen on the trip yet.   I brought the boat into this slip on one engine the first time.  I'm still nervous about that one, and that was four days ago.

La Gringa called this dock the "Sobriety Test".   Somewhere between walking a straight line and walking the plank.

And yes, she could do it using only one hand and  with her eyes closed. Sort of.

I noticed she wasn't so anxious to try it out later in the evening, when the daylight and rum were both running toward dark. I think we had our first unofficial cocktail party on the boat while we were here.  This cockpit would seat ten people, at least.  We do need some cushions for it, though.  All in good time.

We made several new friends here in Melbourne.  The owner of this sloop, Irish Wake, is planning a trip down to the Turks and Caicos to visit us after he retires next month and after hurricane season is over .

Come on down, Brad.   And bring Rick with you.  

The pilings I had to negotiate on one engine don't seem so scary at dawn, in the still air, with the boat safely tied to the dock.   Come to think of it, we docked it three times at this same spot without a mishap.  It would almost look like we knew what we were doing, to the untrained eye.

It's all different when it's windy, and wavy, and one motor doesn't work and you don't know where you're going.  Trust me.    

Good thing I got a great crew.

We left at dawn, headed south.   We've stopped in several places, and have met dozens of new people,  but  we're homesick for clear blue water and uncrowded islands.

I didn't plan for this post to ramble on forever, but did feel like I owed you an explanation for where we've disappeared to lately.  We've spent twelve days on the boat to get from Jacksonville Naval Air Station to Juno Beach. Yesterday we passed by the St. Lucie inlet and saw the ocean again!   We were pretty excited to see the brown water of the ICW turn turquoise and then momentarily blue as we went by the inlet.   We realized that living in the TCI has totally spoiled us for clear blue water.   We are anxiously anticipating our next big step here...

...and that's going to be tomorrow, maybe .  We plan to move the boat from the marina where we're presently tied up and anchor just inside the inlet at the north end of Lake Worth.  Then, if the Tropical Storm presently to our north behaves itself, sometime before dawn on a morning very soon, we plan to head out into the Atlantic and do our first crossing of the Gulf Stream. With some luck, we should be in the Bahamas just in time to kick off the start of hurricane season.   Then we should have some more tropical photos to post for you.  We have fishing gear on board.  And spears.

Thanks for your patience over the past few weeks with no new posts.   This should start getting a whole lot better very shortly.  And once we're back south of 22 degrees N, we'll be back in our home waters.  But to be truthful, after experiencing life aboard Twisted Sheets I don't know if I'll ever define 'home' exactly the same way again.   Homes don't have to be nailed down to one piece of the planet, and life's too short not to try some new things out.

So soon, We'll be showing you  the Gulf Stream and  the Bahamas.

Catch you on the other side.