Monday, June 29, 2009

The Contour

I'd mentioned in a previous post about Jerome and Clayton, the two friends from Quebec who were here in Lauderdale preparing to set sail for th Bahamas and beyond. Jerome is a free spirit and bought his bought (a 38' Bruce Roberts offshore sloop) about 10 months ago. Since then he has been repairing, retrofiting, and reclaiming her from the elements of time and neglect. The boat is awesome and has sail round the world before. Clayton came down for a week or two to help make preparations and do some sailing as Jerome is new at it. So; as luck would have it (and sailing luck is nothing to trifle with) there were delays in getting the mechanical stuff up and running and before you knew it two weeks had stretched into five. This is not news for experienced sailors, but for me it was an eye-opener of sorts. I guess when you ask a repair shop, or mechanic, or supplier for soemthing for a sailboat they figure you must have all the time in the world on your hands so, like the boat, it goes very slowly.
At any rate, it came time for Clayton to return home to Canada and Jerome still had no experience with
We decided we'd make it to Key Largo over the weekend and along the way we would practice hoisting sails, getting points-of-sail figured out and learn about navigation. I called and invited my close froind Erle from Pensacola to come down and crew with us and possibly crew with Jerome for as long as he could extend his visit. It all came together and worked out great schedule-wise ... except for the mechanic part.
The whole show stopper was a small outboard engine used on the dinghy which had seized up and was being repaired by a local shop. First it was misdiagnosed, then there were no parts so they'd have to be ordered in, then some other parts were damaged during disassembly, then those parts were being shipped in, then they didn't order the right gaskets ... whew ... all in all it was a full 5 weeks getting a 2 cylinder outboard engine repaired and the delays put us deeper into the weather season.
Most people don't sail south from Florida in the summer and the delays put Jerome and Contour into the beginning of summer thunderstorms.
We decided we'd go ahead and move the boat to Key Largo, dinghy motor or not, and make further plans from there. So we started to plan the trip.
I spent a few hours plotting routes and studying maps and loading my handheld GPS with some alternative tracks to follow. Jerome began to provision us out and make the boat ready for an overnight stay at anchor on our way down. The whole trip was to be about 85 nautical miles and we aimed to split it in half and stay at anchor in a place called "No Name Harbor". Surprisingly, we worried that it might be very crowded there as it is a popular weekend hangout so we planned an alternative spot a couple of miles further out as well. As it turned out, we didn't see either place.
Erle arrived a couple of days ahead of departure and we spent some time getting caught up and acquainting ourselves witht he boat and Jerome. I was going to be the 'skipper' meaning that I was the one with the most sailing experience. We planned an early morning departure on Saturday and an evening arrival on Sunday where Robin would meet us and drive me back to Fort Lauderdale to get to work on Monday. The motor was still not ready so we planned to drive it back down to Key Largo and drop Erle's car off to keep down there while they made preparations for the next leg to Nassau.
You know what they say about best laid plans...
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, winds out of the south at 10 knots and light seas. The Gulf Stream was forecast to be six miles offshore and would work against us if we got in it so we planned sailing two to three miles offshore to keep us away from the shallow water that is the coastline of Florida. We'd planned to get off early, but as it goes there were inevitable delays such as the dinghy being full of water from all the rain. Erle and I hoisted it out as best we could and got most of the water emptied out. Getting GPS's to work was another challenge and finally we pushed off mid-morning while a few clouds were already building up.
We motored out the New River and into the Port Everglades inlet. Now I'm going to digress ...
There is something that happens when you round a corner of a river and look down the channel and see open ocean ahead of you. I've seen this corner and this inlet a few times now and it is the same each time. It seems as though the opening of water represents some kind of newfound freedom from the confines of streets, houses, yards or any other sort of confinements; kind of like a kid who steps onto a vast expanse of a mowed grass field and t's all theirs. It beckons "go where you will, there are no boundaries here". It's a very strong escapist feeling and it's probably what's called people to the sea for ages. I, for one, like it.
OK, we cleared the last marker to the inlet and hoisted sails to let Jerome and Erle practice at the helm. The winds were not in our favor at all and by the time we'd made a few figure '8's fooling around we were actually north of the inlet due to our drifting around. So we doused the sails and fired up the motor and pointed due south toward our first destination some 40 miles away. We still had time to make it before dark if we could manage about 4.5 knots, an average motoring speed for the boat.
It didn't take too long to figure out that we weren't going 4.5 knots ... it did take a while to figure out why. We were pushing dead into the wind and we were pushing dead into a surprisingly strong Gulf Stream current. Our speed through the water was surely 4+knots, but out progress was working out to somewhere between 2 and 2.5 knots which means we had a 2 knot current working against us and we were only a couple of miles offshore. We had to snuggle into the shoreline to make better progress and would have to keep a close eye on charts and GPS to make sure we stayed out of the shallow water.
Of the 3 GPS receivers aboard only one would receive satellite signals. We fooled with the antenna but it seemed to be a sealed unit so we had no success. I did have my handheld with extra batteries so we would not get lost and we kept plugging along slowly southward (and when I say slowly I mean it.) It became apparent that we would not make our destnation before dark so we considered stopping short and started researching the next couple of inlets and suitable anchorages. The thing that made it tough to consider is that there were thunderstorms all over the place with heavy rain and lightning. We'd gotten wet a time or two already, and lightning had come close, but it was much more concentrated over land and I wasn't too sure I wanted to head toward the storms and try to negotiate a channel in heavy rain or winds.
So ... we agreed that we'd sail straight through the night and end up in Key Largo much ahead of schedule and seriously sleep deprived. That actaully took some pressure off us as we knew we'd might not make to Key Largo by the following evening if we stopped for the night.
We set up to press on ... and the engine quit.

Now and engine only needs three things in order to run; fuel, air, and an ignition source. In a diesel it is even simpler as there is no spark-plug system to worry about. They are totally reliable and pretty bullet proof and that's why they're used in long-haul scenarios (trucks, trains, boats). When one just up and quits however, you do have to start out with 'what in the world could've happened' and troubleshoot the your way back to 'ah, there we go'.
Now, as far as 'luck' would go, we did happen to stop within a few hundred yards of a Coast Guard cutter anchored toward shore from us. In case it got desparate, help was not far away. And, it was getting closer ... our drift was actually moving right toward the other boat and we considered dropping the anchor ourselves if we got too close. I wonder what they would've thought about that.
In this instance it took about 30 minutes to get going again. The primary fuel filter had clogged and the boat was equipped with a switchover to go to a secondary one, but of course it was hidden around a corner where you had to crouch and squeeze and lay on top of the hot engine to get to it. After switching it over and re-priming the engine we were underway again heading into the darkening evening sky and big clouds ahead.
We motored past the Miami inlet (Government Cut) well after dark and watching an absolutely awesome lightning show. The engine died again and we knew what to do this time. It seems there are two separate fuel tanks aboard Contour, and only one had been filled with fresh fuel. The other tank still had old fuel and it was going to cause problems until we could run through it and get some new, clean diesel in there.
By now we had gradually started to turn southeasward along the keys, and when the engine stopped I hoisted the jib (forward) sail and found wind that would move us along our intended path. The engine started and I rolled in the sail just in time, as a gust from a thunderstorm came rolling in along with heavy rains only a few minutes after we resumed motoring.
We crossed past "Fowee rocks" and enter the Hawk Channel, an area of slightly deeper water between the shallows of the Keys and the outlying reef. By deeper, I mean 12 feet. The boat only draws 5 feet, so we were ok, but to get out of the channel would mean being on the coral in short order. Now, the channel markes were not lit so search as we might we couldn't get a sighting and depended totally on the handheld GPS to keep us on our course.
The engine shut down once more while in the channel, but after the sail went up we were able to maintain our course and Jerome got us running again in 15 or 20 minutes having to drain the filters and re-prime again.
Just before sunrise, as we were heading East-south-easterly we hoisted both sails and made better than 5 knots with a favorable breeze and no oppsing current. The plan had worked and we arrived in Key Largo about 26 hours afterr we left Ft. Lauderdale. Robin drove down to meet us and we finished out the day with a well deserved nap.

Let's see 85 miles, 26 hours ... that averages out to a smidge over 3 knots. Please refer to the title of this blog :)