Riding the Stream Back to the USA

August 2020, Bradenton FL
by Ken

Finally—the wrap-up post about our escape from Roatan, Honduras.

After all the angst, dithering, and option-weighing of the previous weeks, on May 14 we said goodbye to Roatan. Two days before, we processed our clearing out paperwork with customs and immigration in Coxen Hole (aka Roatan Town) and topped up the water tanks. The weather forecast remained favorable, so at 6:30 AM, we cast off the lines and motored out of Brooksy Point Yacht Club.

Friends John and Jen, on their catamaran, Lady J, over at the Fantasy Island marina, were making the same trip. The Port Captain had told us that we had to call him as we were heading out so he could inform any citizens patrolling the coastal waters not to be alarmed. They were diligently guarding against incoming vessels who might be in defiance of the closed harbors order. John asked that we refer to Lady J as Lily when calling on the radio. Later, when we asked why, he said it was a precaution intended to throw off any pirates who may be watching them on AIS (automatic identification system). As one who works on the Caribbean Safety and Security Net website, I was unaware of any pirate activity along our route. Actually, Belize and Mexico have had very few recent reports of any crime against sailors. Still, this gave me yet another thing to add to my list of stuff to worry about.

Then John warned us that Chris Parker, a weather routing guru for boaters, had told John via radio, to be sure to arrive in Key West before Monday night as a big storm was brewing and “you don’t want to be caught in the Florida Straights when it hits.” And we’d thought we were going to have a leisurely sail, because the good weather looked like it would last forever.

Artist’s rendering of our course

The first few hours out were windless, so we motored, poured a rum toast to Poseidon to guarantee us a safe voyage, and did quite a bit of WhatsApping and emailing while we still had Internet access. I had told various friends and family that they could track us via Google’s “Trusted Contacts” app. Although the info regarding this feature claimed it would work even if we were offline, Google apparently didn’t think of its use out at sea. No—it doesn’t work when outside of cell tower range. Thus, some of my contacts were wondering if we’d gone missing just hours into our voyage.

The wind kicked in around noon and didn’t let up for the next three days. We eventually reefed the mainsail so as not to be overpowered, and held on for a lively ride north. Having been at a dock for so long both of us suffered brief bouts of mild seasickness. Half a dose of Dramamine was the cure. Although we planned to go to Key West, we had asked the Roatan Port Captain for a zarpe for Mexico. A zarpe is a document issued by the country you are leaving that tells the next port authority that you were authorized to legally depart. Thus, if we felt the need to stop in Isla Mujeres we could go ashore legally. Mexico had not closed its borders and fortunately, Isla Mujeres at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, was not out of the way if we needed to bail for any reason. Our calculations put Isla at roughly two days away.

The daily routine was that one of us stood watch at the helm for three hours while the other could sleep, read, or do whatever. After three hours, we switched places. This would continue until we arrived. “At the helm” means watching out for other boats (or floating obstacles), checking the chart, looking at the radar screen, scanning the engine dials if motoring or adjusting the sails while sailing. Our autopilot did the actual steering. All the while we would just hold on as Mary T raced along. One hand for yourself and one for the ship.

We could see Lady J in front of us for most of the first day but as evening came, they got too far ahead for visual contact. We could still call them on the radio and see their AIS signal. At a point during the night, Amy had a scare when she believed that what she saw on the radar were two large boats closing in on Lady J. This story is best told by Amy as I was barely awake. She is working on her sailing memoirs, so stay tuned.

The next day, as we got closer to the island of Cozumel, we started seeing the effect of the Gulf Stream (technically, it’s called the Yucatan Current at this point). Hours later, we were approaching the point of either committing to Key West or pulling over for a stop at Isla Mujeres. As our speed continued to increase we re-calculated our chances of reaching Key West before Monday evening. If we could maintain a speed of six knots, we should be able to get there by mid-day. We decided to go for it.

At some point during our second night while I was on watch, our speed picked up rapidly. Aided by the current, we were doing 9 knots. We had both gotten our sea legs back and were enjoying a particularly smooth sea. Amy was getting some much needed sleep when all of sudden, we started bouncing around as if hit by storm tossed waves. Amy quickly woke up and asked if I had zoomed in on the chart plotter to see that shallow patch east of Isla Mujeres. I replied in the negative. As I zoomed in, I could see that instead of being in 1000+ feet of water, we were in about 80 feet and heading for 30 feet. This abrupt change in the underwater landscape caused the lumpy seas. We turned on the motor and made a hard right turn to get back to the deep water. After a half hour or so we were back on track.

After two days of lurching and banging around Mary T, I began to wish we had a big old 43’ Westsail or other heavy, full-keeled sailboat. I hit my right elbow so many times in the same place that it became extremely tender to the touch. But all things considered, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Strong, steady wind out of the east with reasonable seas.

During my night time rest period I noticed that the bunk was damp. It was hot so I chalked it up to sweat. After Amy’s turn off watch, she discovered that it was damp under the cushion as well which indicated we had a leak on deck. Having been on the same tack since the first day and with so much spray collecting and pooling up on the side deck, sea water worked its way into the boat, down the inside of the hull and was sponged up by our port side bunk. Great. Necessity mothered the invention of using our exercise mat on top of the bunk for the rest of the trip.

During the third night we started making the big curve towards Florida. This was the portion of the trip that we did not want strong winds out of the east as that would conflict with the easterly flow of the Gulf Stream. Thankfully, the prediction for light winds was accurate. We worked with the wind we had until it became clear that we had to pick up our speed in order to avoid that Monday evening storm. Motoring for hours on end is one of the most tedious aspects of cruising but it’s far better than bashing into wind and waves.

The boring time sitting at the helm allows the mind to wander wherever it wants to go. I began to review our lives during the past few months and thought how some very ordinary events seemed so precious now in this time of pandemic. Sailing out of Rio Dulce and on to Belize—discovering new anchorages and making new friends—quickly came to mind. Our first stop in Belize was Punta Gorda in the southern most region of the country. Other cruisers had highly recommended it for clearing in as all the various authorities’ offices were together right on the waterfront. We finished the entire process in about an hour. In other ports in Belize it is more likely to take half a day moving from one far-flung office to another. With clearing in completed, we went for lunch at Jocelyn’s, a funky seaside restaurant a short walk down the street. During our conversation with the friendly proprietor, we learned that a very fascinating couple who we had met on their wooden schooner in Placencia the year before, lived nearby. Kirby and Tina Salisbury have written three books, two that are about their lives in Belize having liberated themselves from southern California in the early 1970s. (Our favorite is Treehouse Perspectives) Naturally, Amy was gung-ho to try and find them.

Kirby and Tina Salisbury

So from Jocelyn’s, we dinghyed back to the Mary T and headed a mile or so south, towards Orange Point. We anchored for the night in the cove south of the point and resolved to scout for the Salisburys the next day. Late the following morning we got back in our dinghy and rode along the shoreline looking for breaks in the thick vegetation that might lead to a house. Finally, seeing a roof through the brush and trees, we worked our way in to a minuscule beach where we could get out. Amy scrambled up the small embankment but believed that the house she saw was unoccupied. As we started up the outboard and began pulling away, a white-haired man began waving us to return. It was Kirby.

We weren’t sure if he really remembered us from the year before but that didn’t stop Kirby from inviting us up to their house for a visit. Tina, insisted we join them as they sat down for their lunch. We ended up chatting away for hours like old friends. When we learned that they would be going to the sidewalk arts and music festival in Placencia the following weekend, we invited them to spend the night on Mary T. They said that sounded good to them.

We had a grand time that weekend. Not only was the festival a fun-filled event but hosting Kirby and Tina was the highlight of our time in Belize. Other fond memories include meeting up with friends Pam and Don on “Rainbow’s End,” snorkeling at Tobacco and South Water Cayes and re-visiting with Dustin, Kim and Ama on Hideaway Caye. Amy and Ama made another short film together that has since been used in various elementary schools to raise awareness of plastic trash affecting the oceans and its shoreline communities.

Fast forward to the Straits of Florida: during our fourth day out, the wind completely died. Fortunately, the seas were calm enough to transfer diesel into our fuel tank from the jugs lashed to our lifelines. Our pace to reach Key West by Monday afternoon was holding up. We had furled the sails and the old Perkins engine was working perfectly. All we had to do was keep watch.

As evening gave way to night, we noticed lightening far off over Cuba. It was a dazzling display that we figured would stay there. After all, there was no stormy weather forecast for that night. So we just enjoyed the light show. However, as the hours passed, the lightening kept getting closer. We could now see the rain clouds on our radar. It looked like it would pass by behind us but no such luck. Minutes later the wind started gusting followed quickly by heavy rain. Then a few cracks of thunder sent us into hunker-down-below mode. Thankfully the sails were already down and there was no boat traffic in sight. We stowed laptops and some other essential electronic devices in our Faraday cage which occasionally serves as an oven. We sat as far from the mast as possible and trusted that there were no other boats in our path. As Mary T surged forward, we could look at our VHF radio that had an AIS display, just to make sure no big ships were out there. The wind blew strongly enough to heel us hard over even without sails up—quite impressive.

After the worst of it passed, I went out to finish my watch at the helm. Amy went to sleep. About 30 minutes later a big ship popped up on the AIS right in front of us. We’d have a too close encounter in about 20 minutes if we stayed on our course. I slowed Mary T down so we’d increase the distance of our closest point of approach. The change in engine noise woke Amy. Concerned, she came up to see what was going on. I casually mentioned that there was a large ship in front of us and if we didn’t slow down we’d come within 700 feet of it. Amy freaked out and tried to call the ship on the VHF. In her sleepy state she didn’t realize she was holding the mic backwards and was pressing the wrong button to talk. I reassured her a collision wasn’t imminent—we had 20 minutes to adjust our course. I guess I should have mentioned the time frame earlier. It all made for a good laugh about 21 minutes later.

Monday morning, May 19, was clear but still windless. Mary T and crew continued on target to be in Garrison Bight, Key West, by midday. Around 7AM, we could see the mangrove islands known as the Marquesas Keys. Our elated spirit made the remaining hours of motoring go much faster. As we motored through the channels past the Key West waterfront, we noticed the paltry number of citizens out and about. The number of anchored boats looked normal but there was little movement anywhere on the water. We were well aware that we were coming back to a shut down economy with multiple restrictions due to the pandemic but this was definitely not the Key West we left five years back.

After a bit of a struggle, we tied up to a mooring ball and were in full celebration mode, which for us is to play our traditional Waltz for Koop album and sip on rum while exaggeratedly sighing, “Ahhhhhhh.” It was 1:30 PM local time. Our total time underway was 101.3 hours or four days, five hours and 15 minutes. Distance traveled: 700 nautical miles. Average speed: 6.9 knots. Best of all, we beat the big storm by about five hours. And what an impressive storm it was.

Prior to our departure from Roatan, I had filled out the US Customs and Border Protection’s online forms in hopes of making our re-entry to the states less onerous. A few hours after we tied up to the mooring ball, we logged in to the CBP app and reported our arrival. There were a few questions about whether we had brought anything illegal into the country but nothing related to Covid-19. No demand that we quarantine or any such restriction. We were free to move about the country. As it was, we didn’t really want to go ashore anyway. Didn’t want to risk it. Didn’t feel like blowing up the inflatable dinghy either. So, we just sat on board and checked in with friends and family.

The next day we began figuring out our next move. We had another overnight sail ahead of us in order to get to Boca Grande inlet up the coast. But the forecast for the next few days wasn’t good. By chance, our next door neighbors in the mooring field were folks who came up from Roatan just one day ahead of us. Trish and John aboard Mariah were headed into town and recognized our boat name as having been in Roatan, so they stopped by (socially distanced, of course) and greeted us. Seeing our deflated dinghy on the fore-deck, they offered to pick up any groceries we needed. Another perfect example of the wonderful camaraderie of the cruising community. While in town, they learned that Lady J had to divert to Isla Mujeres due to auto pilot problems.

Key West was closed to car and air travelers while we were there but boaters had no such restrictions. Not much was open nor did we feel like taking the risk. We spent a good deal of time getting the boat in order and just chillin’. While I was doing a routine check of the engine oil I noticed the alternator belt was loose. In the process of tightening it, I thoroughly strained my banged up elbow. It was now so painful that I could not use my right arm for many days. Now, we couldn’t get the inflatable off the fore-deck if we wanted to as it takes two people with all hands and arms in working order. So we were self quarantining by default. A few days later we did manage to motor over to a fuel dock on the other side of the harbor to fill water and diesel tanks. We were now ready to continue northward when our chance came.

Sunset over Garrison Bight in Key West

The Gulf Coast of Florida was unfamiliar to us other than what we knew from land travel around the Bradenton/Sarasota region. We had not planned to go up this side of Florida—before the pandemic we thought we were going to sail back to the Chesapeake. We had no cruising guides or other planning materials. We did however, have a friend whom we met in Marathon years back who spent a lot of time in the area, so we gave him a call. Peter Jackson always has great stories. One or our favorites was how he and his girlfriend at the time, now wife, were sailing from Isla Mujeres to Key West—normally a 3-4 day trip. But due to very uncooperative weather and currents, they were en-route for over 10 days. They ran out of drinking water so they started opening cans of corn, peas, etc. and drinking the water found in those containers. Eventually they reached the western most keys called the Dry Tortugas where there’s a national park. After anchoring, Peter went into the ranger’s headquarters with a couple of empty water jugs. When the ranger saw him approaching he said, “Sorry pal, but there’s a reason they call these the Dry Tortugas!” Peter said, “We’ve been drinking the water from canned tuna for the past two days. You are going to give me some water!” The ranger obliged. Besides catching us up on his present life, Peter also gave us some good tips on where to go up the coast.

Our weather window to head north up the gulf coast, opened up on Wednesday, May 27. We had to motor most the 26 hours to get to Port Charlotte, but no storms threatened. We anchored off of Useppa Island in Pine Island Sound. The area had a sort of Chesapeake Bay feel to it and we hope to explore it more in the future, once the pandemic eases up.

Onward the next day—out Boca Grande inlet and back in at Venice where we motored up the Gulf ICW. We found the GICW to be similar to the Atlantic side but less shallow. When it came time to anchor just south of Sarasota Bay the chain would not come out of the anchor locker. Amy went down to investigate and found that it had tangled itself up in a huge ball. It took her a long, uncomfortable half hour to pull it apart. Fortunately, there was no wind nor current so we were stationary.

On the morning of the 30th, we headed up Sarasota Bay and arrived at our final destination—Spring Cove Moorings in the village of Cortez—about three miles from our condo. Other than me stepping on the fuel dock in Key West, we had not been on land since departing Roatan on May 14.

Epilogue: We spent the month of June repairing, cleaning and generally decommissioning Mary T. Even when we plugged up the scuppers (drains) and used a hose, we could not locate that pesky leak on the port side deck that soaked our bunk. A month later we hauled Mary T out for the hurricane season.

Ready for the storm

All future sailing plans are on hold pending the length and outcome of the pandemic and the health of Amy’s mother, Nancy, who is struggling to recover from a bad fall at Amy’s sister house near Boston. After three weeks in Mass General Hospital, where she underwent brain surgery to remove a subdural hematoma, a pacemaker insertion and a feeding tube placement, Nancy, aka MumZ, is finally back at Molly’s recuperating with the help of Amy, her sisters Mary and Molly and Lina, a caregiver, and old friend of Nancy’s from Chicago.

From Amy in Littleton, MA:

Please pray for my mother’s peace of mind and good health. A prayer doesn’t have to be “religious,” just a powerful sustained wish. If you’ve never met my mother, check out this music video we made together six years ago, when she was a mere 87 years old.

May everyone stay well and may we soon see an end to the pandemic.

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