Trouble in Paradise

Panther Key, FL – April, 2018 Ever since we got our boat Jim and I have been saying we wanted to camp out on it or on a deserted beach. We are in our last full month in Florida for this winter and we figured we better get on with it before it got too hot or the rainy season kicked into gear. We chose a weekday just after Easter and made it happen.

We just wanted to sleep under the stars as far away from light pollution as we could, so we planned to go out one afternoon and come back the next morning. We took a tent and an air mattress to sleep on the beach but agreed we could sleep on the boat instead. We left it till we got there to decide. If there had been any other campers on the beach we might have slept on the boat. There weren’t. There was quite a surge where the boat was parked so it probably wouldn’t have been too comfortable.

We kept the meal plan simple. We only had one dinner and one breakfast to worry about so we picked up fried chicken from the grocery store to eat cold and made a pasta salad to accompany it. When dinner time came we were roasting. It was almost 90 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That cold dinner tasted better than any hot meal we could have dreamed up. We planned to have cereal for breakfast.

We reached Panther Key, which is about 8 miles from Goodland as the crow flies, around 3. It took us about an hour to get everything we wanted off the boat and the tent set up. It wouldn’t have taken that long but we’d get a little done, stop to drink a cold beverage, and then work a little more. Did I mention it was hot?!

Once we were set up we wandered the beach as far as we could in both directions. Here is Google’s satellite view of Panther Key and the orange arrow shows about where we camped. The beach stretched less than a half mile on either side of our camp.

We walked all the way to the north end of the beach. But we only went a short distance to the south before having to walk out into the surf to get around trees. We hoped to walk all the way to the south end of the key in the morning when the tide was lower.

There were few other visitors to the beach while we were there. We probably saw a half dozen people all afternoon. After 6 we had it completely to ourselves. There were 3 boats we could see anchored offshore for the night.

Around 5:30 we couldn’t wait any longer to dig into that fried chicken. Soon after that, we caved to the enticing shade offered by our tent and the falling sun. We pulled our chairs, and the cooler of course, into its shadow and reveled in the relief from the blazing heat.

We hid in the shade for the better part of an hour. When the sun got lower, the temperature dropped precipitously, and we pulled our chairs back to the water’s edge for the big show.

We had the perfect location for a brilliant sunset. It was spectacular and the colors were incredibly intense. With so few clouds in the sky, however, it was far from our most photogenic sunset.

It was also remarkably swift, seeming to have only just started sinking before disappearing altogether. Some of the best colors were reflected in the sky to the north where two of the three boats within sight were anchored.

The third boat, a sailboat, was on the Western horizon, seemingly in the thick of the setting sun.

Right before last light you could see a few puffy clouds in the sunset and Venus rising to the right of it.

Next came the part of the evening we were really there for. In a very short time the stars started appearing and within the hour the sky was covered. The moon wasn’t scheduled to rise until after midnight so we had plenty of stargazing time.

It wasn’t in the same league as some of the most memorable nightscapes we’ve encountered, like our Colorado River float or boondock at Flaming Gorge, but considering how little effort it took to get here it was a pretty spectacular view. We could see the glow of both Marco Island and of Naples in the distance so if we go even further away from civilization next time the view will get even better. Sadly I wasn’t successful at getting any pictures.

We stared and ooohhhed and aaahhed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore and then we retired to our tent. We both thought that after all that sun, water, and wind we would have no choice but to sleep like the dead. Wrong! Even compared to other nights we’ve spent in a tent and on an air mattress, this had to be one of the most uncomfortable.

Our biggest concern had been being hot while we slept so I didn’t bring enough covers. The sea breeze was constant and pretty chilly. We weren’t too cold, just uncomfortable. When the moon did rise it was unbelievably bright in there. And of course the air mattress deflated throughout the night.

Around 5 am Jim had had enough and he crawled out of the tent and started collecting firewood. I joined him as soon as he got the fire started and it kept us toasty until the sun came up.

It was about then that Jim realized that the boat had drifted in the night and we had a problem.

We had a rear anchor on her and a line from her bow tied to a tree on the island. Her anchor hadn’t held and so she had drifted south and closer to shore. She was only just stuck. If we had paid attention and caught it as soon as we awoke we probably could have corrected the problem. But we mistakenly thought the tide was still coming in so if she looked a little high in the water the tide would soon lift her. When Jim realized the tide had turned and was going out, he became alarmed.

We jumped in and tried everything we knew to get her into deeper water: rocking her, using a limb for leverage, adding the power of the motor. It was a no go. We were good and stuck and the next high tide wouldn’t be until 4 that afternoon.

We could stay all day. We had enough snacks and water. But 8 more hours in the blazing sun did not sound like a very good time.

Our boat insurance with Progressive includes a towing endorsement called Sign and Glide. We decided to give it a try. We called their 800 number and they dispatched a Seatow boat which reached us in about 45 minutes. In that time though the water dropped another foot and there was no way he could get our Bella off the sand bar.

We had spent that time packing everything up. We asked the captain, Eric, if he’d give us a ride back to civilization and then bring us back with him at high tide to pick her up. It turned out he was our neighbor and docks his boat at the other end of our canal. He agreed, so we locked Bella up, made sure her rear anchor was really, really secure, and abandoned ship.

He dropped us off on our dock and we drug our tails into the house. I made a big breakfast and then we took a much needed nap. We spent the afternoon puttering around the house trying not to worry about our girl out there all alone.

A little before he was supposed to pick us up at 3 the captain text that he was on a call in Everglades City and might be a little late picking us up. Everglades City is about the same distance as Goodland from Panther Key but in the opposite direction. So he would be going right past Bella to come back and get us in Goodland. We suggested that if he wasn’t towing a boat on his way back, maybe he could just get Bella and tow her home. He said he would.

So we waited, and waited, AND waited. About 7 Bella finally made it safely home. A different Seatow captain brought her and put her right in her slip. We spoke to him briefly and the gist was Eric was tied up on calls, he asked this guy (who turned out to be his father) to go get her and said he could pick us up if he wanted. He said the water had turned rough and if we had gone we would have been miserable and very wet so he did it alone.

We were ecstatic to have her back. She was a big salty mess, but she was home with no damage. We were extremely grateful to Progressive’s Sign and Glide team who checked in with us throughout the day and to both Seatow captains.

So what’s the take away from this experience? 1st: We need a better anchor or anchoring system before we take Bella out for another overnight. Jim has had his eye on something for a while and this will probably seal the deal. 2nd: We really didn’t know if a free towing endorsement on our boat policy would offer very reliable service when we needed it. So it’s reassuring to know they have our back.

Entertaining Guests

Goodland, FL – February to Mid-March, 2018 We took our last guest to the airport and said goodbye on Tuesday. We had houseguests for 5 of the last 6 weeks. We spent our days planning the next meal, provisioning (keeping gas in the boat, groceries in the house, and beer in the cooler), and boating.

We took a boat trip just about every day we had company. Our neighbor took this picture of us leaving one day.

We usually headed to one of several beaches that are reachable only by boat. But we often fished a bit along the way. I caught my first fish in many years. The catfish aren’t supposed to be good to eat but they sure were fun to catch.

We all caught catfish that day.

Another day the mackerel were hitting. Our buddy, Terry, caught a couple spanish mackerel.

Jim got one too. We didn’t keep them either but we could have.

The dolphins were a real crowd pleaser. Until last week this is the best shot of one I had managed to get.

I finally had my camera at the ready when this pair started playing in our wake. Do you see the second one at the very bottom of the photo?

When the tides cooperated we enjoyed taking our guests on a sunset cruise.

Every sunset here is uniquely stunning.

When we weren’t boating most of our guests were content just hanging out on the dock, enjoying the Florida sunshine.

We cooked copious amounts of food and I think I consumed at least a million calories. A seafood boil (sometimes known as a low country boil or frogmore stew) is one of our favorites and was on each week’s menu. I finally remembered to snap this shot before it was all gone.

We loved every single day of it and all of our guests were dear friends or family whose company we enjoyed immensely. But we are looking forward to the next several weeks of quiet, to eating more reasonably, and getting back into our fitness routines.

Bringing Bella Home

Goodland, FL – December, 2017 We now owned a boat and the perfect place to anchor her. Unfortunately for the first month they were an hour apart. This didn’t matter because Bella Vita spent that month on the service rack at the boat house in Bonita Springs.

As I mentioned in my first post about Bella, we considered the Garmin’s depth gauge the most important piece of equipment on her, and it didn’t seem to be working. We had taken her out a few times since we got her but without knowing our depth we were only comfortable retracing our route out of the inland waterway and heading straight out from shore a few miles. These trips were awesome but to explore more of the coast we had to know our depth.

We decided she needed a new GPS. Installing it entailed installing a new transponder under the boat and THAT required getting her out of the water. We figured we might as well have a mechanic look her over and give her a tune-up while she was dry.

Luckily the guys that ran the boat house were super helpful and offered to haul her out and put her on their service rack.

They also recommended a great mechanic who was willing to look at her the next week. We had them pull her out the day before and finally got a good look at her hull for the first time.

We were actually quite pleased with what we saw. It appeared to be in good shape.

The mechanic came the next day and the tune-up went well. He had only positive things to say about her inboard Mercury MerCruiser engine. He did voice some concerns about the outboard portion of her motor. This gunk was covering the whole back end.

Apparently that is not what that is supposed to look like. This little fellow was actually living in the outboard.

He recommended cleaning her back end so that we could get a good look at what we had to work with. Since we had closed on the house and were busy working on it AND we had no idea how to get all that muck off her, we hired a professional with the right tools and experience to do the job.

Then we met the mechanic there to look it over. Long story short, we ended up replacing the entire outdrive. And yes, that did cost a little more than what we had paid for her to start with.

We knew we were taking a gamble when we bought her. She’s still worth at least what we have invested so no worries. And now we have a boat in good working order and Jim knows what she needs to keep her that way.

The initial tune-up, cleaning, and inspection took about 2 weeks. Then ordering the parts and doing the major repair took another 2 weeks. So after a month on the rack they finally put her back in the water and called to tell us she was ready. We couldn’t wait to bring her home!

The trip was about 50 miles and we couldn’t leave the dock at low tide so we had to wait until almost 2 in the afternoon. No problem, that still left us 4 hours of daylight to make what should be a leisurely 2 hour journey. We ordered a Lyft to drive us to the boat and were pleasantly surprised it was just $50 for the one hour drive.

We got to the boat yard, settled up with their office, fired our girl up, and put some gas in her tanks. It was only 1:30 and the tide wasn’t quite as high as we liked but we were raring to go. Jim pushed the trim button to lift the prop a bit and we cautiously headed for the pass.

We could almost see the pass when it happened. We heard a loud kuh-klunk! Then felt an awful vibration.

We pulled over and stopped to consider our options. We could limp back to the boathouse. But neither of us wanted to go back there. We finally proceeded to the inland side of Delnor-Wiggins Pass. There is a pretty nice beach there with large sandy shallow area and relatively good visibility.

We dropped anchor in 3 feet of water and jumped off to assess our damage. As we suspected we had lost a chunk of our propeller. One of her three fins was about an inch short. We also realized during this stop that the trim button wasn’t working.

I phoned our mechanic to ask for advice. Could we drive her home that way or would it do further damage to the outboard? Or could they meet us somewhere nearby or on our way south to make the repair?

They said their guy could meet us at a public boat park in Naples and assess if there was any more damage besides what we had found and repair the trim button if possible. We headed out to open ocean and south about 15 miles. The good news is the vibration from the prop stopped when we reached about 18 miles per hour.

We met the mechanic and he insisted the trim button was working when he tested it a few days before. He checked it out and found some erosion on a cable that appeared to be the issue. He cleaned it and got it working then raised it to have a look. Everything looked fine except the prop.

We headed out of Naples’ Gordon Pass about 4 pm with around 30 miles of water between us and home. Everything pointed to us being able to make it home before dark but we were extremely anxious. We hadn’t even tested the boat’s lights yet as we had no intention of being out after dark.

Jim took us a couple miles from shore and gunned it to 25 miles per hour. This was fine until we passed Marco Island. Then our options were to take one of the passes north or south of Marco Island or go well past Marco and around Cape Romano.

We weren’t keen on trying the passes before and our time crunch didn’t make them any more appealing. When we thought we had all afternoon we had planned to give Cape Romano a wide birth. Now I found a route on the charts that just skirted the cape and looked doable.

It was strange passing the tip of Marco Island and continuing away from civilization and toward the open ocean as the sun sank lower and lower.

Once we reached the cape the water looked like silk and was unbelievably beautiful as it reflected the now purple sky.

We had to slow way down and watch our depth gauge closely as we passed between the shoals. This route took us through one section the charts said was only 2 feet deep. That’s about the minimum we can scrape through but it was now high tide so, as we hoped, it never got below 3 feet. The depth increased from there and averaged around 5 feet for the remainder of the trip.

There was not a single other boat out which didn’t exactly make us feel any safer. We weren’t totally alone though as we were joined by several dolphin. One dolphin hopped in and out of the water a half dozen times. It was like he was a rock being skipped across the water’s surface. Amazing!

Of course we tried to appreciate the beauty around us but were distracted by our concern over the setting of our only source of light and our complete unpreparedness for being out after dark. Jim was concentrating on the water in front of us and his depth gauge. I was studying the chart and comparing it to our location on the GPS.

Our weather app said the sun would set around 5:40 and last light would be about 30 minutes later. We weren’t sure just how much light we would have in between. Jim was really getting concerned until he realized the only glasses he had brought were his sunglasses and once he took them off about 5:45 things were a whole lot brighter although a little blurrier!

We were elated to finally see Goodland in front of us as the sun sank behind us.

We breathed a huge sigh of relief as we pulled into the canal that led to our back door. There was still plenty of light when we arrived home just after 6. We did the bare minimum to secure the boat and headed to the house for a much needed cocktail. By the time they were mixed and we stepped back outside to check on our baby it was completely dark outside.