Exit… Stage Left

February 15-17, 2018

    The decision of whether or not to depart from Port Canaveral on the morning of February 15 was an uncertain one.  The forecast called for SE winds ranging from five to ten knots, three to five foot seas, and clear skies.  

     It was all good, except for the clear skies, which seemed to be obscured by a noticeable fog.

     The last few nights had been rather foggy as well; but it seemed to burn off by mid-morning.  So we remained optimistic and delayed casting off our dock lines for a few hours.  An early start would have been preferred, based upon the expected time we calculated for the overall passage; but we knew we would end up compensating for other variables along the way as well.

     By 11:00am, the fog had cleared to the point we could see the opposite side of the bay again, and clear areas of bright blue sky began to appear in patches above us.  It was definitely improving.

     Within thirty minutes, Exit was motoring towards the inlet.  A small turtle just off our starboard bow, swimming momentarily at the surface, was interpreted as a good omen.

     However, as we passed through the inlet and out into the channel, the fog, which had been steadily dissipating, now seemed to close in tighter and tighter around us.  This was interpreted as a much less good omen.  

     As visibility deteriorated to less than a quarter mile, we considered turning around.  But we also recognized that the entrance to the harbor was where we had encountered the heaviest traffic; and traffic was what we wanted to avoid in this fog.  There were still patches of clear blue sky above and around us.  

     After considering the options, we felt comfortable continuing on.  

     Our AIS (Automatic Identification Signal) transceiver broadcasts our own position (and limited information including name, size, course, speed) to all vessels equipped with an AIS receiver that were watching.  But even more importantly, we received the same information about any boat transmitting their own AIS.  While a lot of smaller power boats and fishing boats don’t have this, most sailing cruisers and especially bigger ships were transmitting for us to watch.  

     We were also quickly learning how to interpret the information displayed on our radar screen; which, when dialed in correctly, allowed us to see even small boats, or boats that didn’t show up on our AIS.  Thankfully, Tom had spotted a loose ground wire on our radar drum while doing the solar work; now, consequently, the radar images we saw on the screen made a hell of a lot more sense.

     It was incredibly disorienting, not to mention disconcerting, having no more than a thousand feet or so of actual visibility in all directions, before the water simply melted into a blanket of white.

     A ship’s fog horn could be intermittently heard in the distance. Slowly, it began to grow more noticeable.  Both the radar and AIS confirmed we had a three hundred foot cargo ship just off our starboard bow.  Fortunately, it was not moving.  

     We made a substantial course change so we could give them plenty of room as we passed behind the massive ship, hoping to indicate to them as well that we had seen them.  It was actually reassuring when they hailed us on VHF, confirming that they had seen our course adjustment to take us astern of them. 

     Underway in the fog… definitely not for the faint of heart.

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Less than a quarter mile visibility in fog… have radar, will travel

     By mid-afternoon around 2:30pm, the fog had completely burned off, leaving a beautiful day with clear, blue skies, eight knots of a SE wind and gentle two to three foot swells spaced well apart.  Moving along at nearly five knots, under power of only the mainsail and genoa, it had turned into a near perfect day for sailing.  

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Ninety minutes later… very different conditions

     Looking back, we were now glad we hadn’t made the decision to turn around when the fog closed in.  A brief visit by a family of dolphins a couple of hours later further reenforced that thought.

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Night prepares to settle in

     The cold night watches further north had proven much more challenging to endure.  Here, though it was still a bit damp, it couldn’t even be called chilly.  

     A clear night sky revealed thousands of stars overhead.  But there was also a light show to be seen in the water.  Our spinning propellor was kicking out a steady stream of bioluminescent fireworks behind us – small flickers, like fireflies, interspersed with occasional larger and brighter bursts, more like a strobe flash.

      The mesmerizing show came not only from our prop wash, but also from the breaking waves against the side of the hull.  Every slosh of white foam was accompanied by a dramatic flair of lights.  At times, the brighter bursts could also be seen thirty or forty feet off our beam.

     Six hours went by that evening without seeing a single boat on the horizon… now that’s space to breathe (though Kris had said to me, when my watch started at 10pm, to watch out for shrimp boats that try to run you over).

     The morning light brought about quite a change of scenery.  

     The water color, muddy browns and murky greens we had become accustomed to seeing for months, had been making a dramatic shift to brilliant shades of turquoise.  However, that had now changed to an even more intense deep, rich indigo blue.  That coincided with our depth meter display, which had plunged from 85 feet down to 385 feet.

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An amazing shift in the color of the water

     The look above water had changed significantly, as well.  Instead of only water in every direction, now there were boats in every direction.  At one point that morning, we counted upwards of twenty boats scattered across the horizon in front of our bow.  With the exception of one commercial fishing boat in the group, these were all private recreational or chartered fishing boats.

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One charter boat with nearly twenty people fishing from the deck

     As the Gulf Stream approached closer and closer towards the coast, we were limited in how far offshore we could venture without feeling the opposing current, forcing us to stay closer to all the other coastal boat traffic.  Now only eight miles offshore, we threaded our way through the throng of charter fishermen, all looking to land a fish big enough they could feed their family for the next two years.  

     Fortunately, the boats eventually began to thin out.

     Unfortunately, so did our point of sail.  At one point, attempting to tack back and forth to maintain our sailing angle to the wind, I maneuvered through what turned out to be a large two and a half mile “figure eight” that, with the three knots of opposing current we found ourselves in, actually put us in a position farther north than we had been.  Going backwards bad… I acquiesced and started the engine.

     Our depth was now 650+ feet.  The color of the water was amazing.

     At 6:00pm, the shit hit the fan… again.

     While doing a quick once-over inspection of the engine and fuel system (just to be sure), I was mortified to find diesel at the bottom of the bilge, just under the Racor fuel filters.  It was all contained inside oil absorption pads that had been placed there for just such an occasion; nevertheless, that was small consolation – it was still there.  

     I cursed myself for… well, I wasn’t sure what I was cursing myself for, but I had obviously missed something.  My first suspicion was that I hadn’t adequately tightened a fuel hose fitting or component on one of the filters.  But further investigation revealed that none of these were the source of the diesel in the bilge.  I continued looking, and wiping, and feeling, trying to trace where it was coming from.

     Eventually, as I grew more and more vexed by not being able to see where the leak was originating from, a dark possibility began to materialize in the back of my mind.  Could it be coming from the fuel tank hatch covers or sending unit that Universal Fuel Systems had accessed to clean the tank?  No… it couldn’t be.  They had the special equipment, and credentials, and impressive name… and charged us $750!

     Reluctantly, I unscrewed the floor above the fuel tank, lifted it out of the way (not the easiest task with a eight by three foot sheet of plywood in close quarters on a pitching boat), and peered down.  Son of a bitch… there was diesel everywhere!

     The rubber gasket on the sending unit had obviously been put back in wrong and was not making a good seal.  There also appeared to be diesel leaking from around both hatch covers, which were each secured with about twenty bolts.  There was very little that could be done while we were underway, aside from cleaning it up and covering everything with more absorption pads, hoping to prevent the diesel from getting everywhere as best possible.  

     On the plus side, we hadn’t had any problems with the engine cutting out.  So, though we were furious about the situation, at least we were still on the move.

     When I came up into the cockpit at 10:00pm to start my watch, Kris informed me that we had been visited by the Coast Guard while I was asleep.  She said they had come alongside us in a thirty-or-so foot RIB, trained a large spotlight on her, and politely asked a number of questions before eventually telling her to enjoy the evening.  They never boarded us; however, she did point out that two drones were still tracking just above us.  After a period of time, they too went on their way to patrol other areas.

     By midnight, we were about twenty miles north of Ft. Lauderdale, still about three nautical miles offshore but able to differentiate individual windows that were lit along the shore.  Now it was just about watching for boat traffic (a 600 foot barge moving north along the same three mile offshore line on the charts we were following south is something to definitely get out of the way of) and try to time our arrival at Ft. Lauderdale for after sunrise.

     At 3:00am, we were only ten miles out; it felt fitting to be able to make the final push under power of sail only.

     At 4:00am, when Kris took over the watch, I went below and was grateful to be able to actually go to sleep and not have to sort out engine problems.

     We arrived just off the Ft. Lauderdale channel entrance around 5:00am.  Kris let me sleep a few hours more while we awaited the sunrise.  We had traveled 166 nautical miles I just over 42 hours, averaging about 4 knots; not bad, though we certainly weren’t on the brink of breaking any speed records.

     By the time I climbed up into the cockpit, Kris had already been doing a lot of weather research; she had some very interesting news.

     Over the next 24 hours, we had a brief weather window available to cross the Gulf Stream into the Bahamas.  After that, things would get messy with significant easterly winds, making crossing impossible for at least a week to ten days.  

     So we either turn right into Ft. Lauderdale where we can sort out some final provisions, figure out the fuel tank leak, potentially get our non-functioning water maker looked at, and possibly score some scuba tanks… or we turn left and head for the Bahamas before our window of opportunity closes for at least a week, probably even longer…

     The jury was already back with a verdict.  Screw this spending more money crap; open opportunity’s door.  Exit… stage left!

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