Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Florida Keys : Newfound Harbor Key to Elliott Key.

29th January – 3rd February 2015



With the wind a steady 15 knots from the NE we left Key West and made our way our into Hawk Channel, motoring the 30 miles to Newfound Harbor Key in rather lumpy conditions. Arriving just before sunset we tucked up into a shallow spot just out of the main channel leading into Big Pine Key. We did have plans to go ashore but the wind had picked up and our 15hp Mercury on the dinghy was not performing as it should, and we didn’t want to risk being stuck ashore if it failed to start for the return trip.  So there was no shore leave for us that night.


Next morning we tugged our anchor out of  the superglue-like muddy bottom and headed off  to Bahia Honda Key. The Key got a good wrap in our guide and we thought it would make an interesting stop. A section of Flagler's’ now defunked railway line  bridge had been removed allowing for masted vessels to enter the protected small harbour. 

Once through the entrance a small beach and part of the Heritage walking trail beckoned us for a little exercise. After making several attempts to get our anchor to hold we decided to call it quits and move on. As a rule we don’t have problems anchoring but no matter what we did it our trusty Bugle just wouldn’t dig in. We figured that the bottom was  just foul ground with no sand or mud to bite into. Luckily Boot Key and the town of Marathon was only 7 miles further on and  we paralleled the bridge of the same name for the entire trip.  Along the way we ‘d heard several boats calling up on the VHF radio asking for a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor for the night. The response was always the same, no advance reservation could be made by radio or telephone, a personal appearance to the office staff was the only way to put your name on the list. That in itself required a 3 mile dinghy ride from the anchorage! For us there was a 65ft bridge standing between us and those balls so the open roadstead anchorage was about to become home.

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The anchorage wasn’t the best but as the wind was still coming from the NE we had some protection from Key itself. We spent three days here and checked out what was on offer. A dinner here, couple of sundowners there, a zip into Publix supermarket to top up the larder and that kind of summed up our time here.Oh, on the way to Publix we had to dinghy through the mooring field, and seeing how many boats, I’m talking 200 plus, were in the field and in such close proximity to each other we were really glad that option wasn’t on the table for us.


During our stay in the anchorage our ageing 15 hp  dinghy outboard was retired from service after 11 years of faithful work. It had come to the end of it’s life and was replaced by our backup 3 hp Yamaha until we can purchase a new 15, probably in the Bahamas or Panama. The little 3 doesn’t have much grunt but it sure beats rowing. We  had a nice evening out at the Lazy Days waterfront restaurant to watch New England Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks on Superbowl Sunday, which was a bit of fun.


The following day we had earmarked for moving on as the wind was predicted to blow from the south. We awoke to very blustery conditions and the anchorage quickly became untenable with two foot short, steep waves. Without any hesitation the engines were fired up and Liam headed up to the bow to pull up the anchor and get the flock out of there, but one never knows what lies beneath!  Although we can both multitask pretty well we tend to stick to our usual roles when anchoring or as in this case ,pulling it up to leave. I steer and Liam does bow duty. Gusty conditions often make it hard to keep the boat in position as Liam raises the anchor and today was not much different, but I soon realised that all was not going to plan.The helm was not responding, and the starboard engine sounded very off-key. It didn’t take rocket science to realise something was seriously amiss as I shut the struggling  yanmar down, and we cleared the anchorage using the port engine only.

After a mini conference we knew there was a big problem with the starboard propeller and possibly the rudder as well we’d obviously hooked some unknown object while raising the anchor and it had wrapped itself around the prop shaft. So slow progress was the order of the moment. And slow it was. The visibility in the murky, turbulent waters was pretty  much zero, we couldn’t see anything under the boat though we knew for certain something was following us! So we chugged along at a snail pace for a couple of hours in the not so perfect conditions which were way to rough for Liam to venture in to and check out the problem. Eventually the visibility improved and, sure enough, we were towing a dirty big fish trap hanging below the stern, the line securely wrapped around the prop. Stopping the boat l Liam jumped  overboard to cut the fish trap loose. It took only twenty seconds or so and it sank quickly away…job done! Well not quite. GWTW was drifting in the stiff breeze and strong currents and Liam quickly disappeared from view towards the bow as GWTW drifted backwards. A loud call for help and I quickly threw our mainsheet line over the side, Liam scrambled to grip it and then haul himself to the transom, and safety. Its amazing how fast a  bad situation can develop, neither of us really saw this coming though experience clearly came to the fore.


Anyway, we were now good to speed up, albeit still without the starboard engine, and proceeded to make up some lost time to the next anchorage. A mile or so before we dropped anchor Liam again splashed  into the chilly waters and cut loose the firmly entrenched line, still wrapped around the prop and shaft. After settling into the anchorage we discovered the engine had been pulled back by the wrap and  the engine mounts were damaged, very similar to a previous issue with the port engine some months earlier while in Cuba. We could still use the engine,but the- not –so- little job of replacing the mounts would have to be tackled sooner rather than later.


Two days later on route to Elliott Key we called up an Island Packet  yacht named “Holiday” which was sailing behind us. During the conservation Patrick mentioned that his daughter now lived in Australia and was contemplating settling down with her Aussie fella. Within minutes Deb, Patricks’ wife, raised a huge Australian flag up their mast. We were nearly speechless. It was such a nice gesture. We followed them through the narrow Anglefish cut waving goodbye as we veered off toward Elliott Key our last anchorage in the Keys before Miami. One last call on the radio  to our new friends and we promised we’d catch up with them for dinner while we were in Miami.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Florida Keys :Key West

22nd –27th January  2015.

A snippet of info. The Florida Keys stretch in a gentle  south westerly curve from Florida City just south of Miami to Key West. Nestled between the Atlantic ocean and the Gulf of Mexico this island chain has become know as America’s Caribbean.


The laidback lifestyle, warm waters and remoteness from the stresses of city life has people flocking in droves no matter what the time of year. From the largest Island, Key Largo, the keys are scattered across 126 miles and are joined by 42 bridges, the most famous of which is the seven mile bridge which featured in the Arnie Schwarzenegger movie, True Lies.


In by-gone days the Keys were only accessible by boat but that all changed when Henry Flagler decided to extend his railway empire south from Miami to the Keys. With Cuba a mere 90 miles from Key west and travel between the two countries unrestricted back then he saw the Key West station as a logical progression for his empire. Trains carried passengers from New york in sleeper cars called the Havana Special  to Key West station where they met up with passenger steamers bound for Cuba. In his late 80’s by the time the project was finished, it had long been his dream to enable the rich to travel by train to the holiday hotspot of Key West. Known as the Overseas Rail Line  it was completed in 1912. Henry Flagler passed away in 1913, 18 months after the completion of the rail line.

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Twenty three years after it’s opening his dream was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935 when 40 miles of the middle section of the line  crossing the keys was washed away. It has never been rebuilt.  As many of the concrete viaducts and steel tressels remained intact the state built the Overseas Highway (US1) over them in 1938. In the 1980’s most of US1 was rebuilt and the viaducts and bridges from Flagler's era  now form parts of the pedestrian pathways of the Overseas Heritage Trail.



We found the keys a mixed bag  when it came to sailing  and anchorages and really weren’t what we expected. We had heard so many times from so many people “you gotta go to the Keys, it’s great down there”. Well yes, that is probably the case if you like marinas, own a power boat or a yacht that has a mast shorter than 65ft and can take your time sauntering down the ICW.

For us it was a whole different story. Because of our mast height of 73ft off the water, we had to travel along the outside route in the Hawk Channel. Now there is nothing wrong with taking this route, not that we had a choice, however most of the good anchorages which allow you shore access  to shops and restaurants are on the ICW side of the Keys. Hawk channel does have it’s pluses though,  it‘s wide and deep with lovely blue water and  you are not trapped in a channel marker to channel marker situation. It’s also where all the good diving and snorkeling on the offshore reefs are.

“Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude”


As most of you will know from reading our previous posting our first stop was Key West, the funky little key where the road comes to an abrupt end. If you come by car it’s not on the way to anywhere and it’s a one road in and a one road out town. It boasts that it is the southernmost point in the USA , but when you look on a chart it actually isn’t. But hey, if that’s what the people want to believe who are we to say otherwise.



We spent five wild and woolly days in Key West. The wind blew hard and the currents were so swirly in the Fleming Key anchorage that we moved over to the city’s mooring field for a few days. It was a good move. Secure on a ball we could go ashore with piece of mind that no one would play bumper cars with us at the turn of the tide. When the weather permitted, that is wind less than 20 knots, we’d jump in our dinghy for the seriously salty 1.5 ml each way trip to town for a stroll around.


Town was a happening place to say the least. All roads led to Mallory Square which was the centre of the universe for the sunset watching as well as for jugglers, mimics and tee-shirt vendors, while Duval Street was the home of bars, restaurants, cafes,  live music and holiday makers to boot. In fact there are more bartenders in Key West than any other city in the US. You can ask Mr Google if you want to cross check that little piece of trivia. Cruise ships came in nearly every day and  thousands piled off in search of sun, fun, beaches and booze cruises.


People watching was a popular cafĂ© pastime for us and there was no shortage of strange looking bodies around.  The quiet back streets, where the cruise ship patrons don’t go, were lined with beautifully restored homes, many of which were now B&B’s and lush gardens and parks. We even found a really cute coffee shop that had the best lattes and pie that we’d had for what seems like forever. It also had lightning fast Wi-fi.

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Back where the masses hung out half price happy hour deals were abundant. We ate and drank at a couple of lovely waterfront watering holes and a few disappointing ones, like Jimmy Buffett’s’ Margaritaville and Kelly’s, reportedly owned by Kelly McGillis of Top Gun fame, but no matter where, we always struck up conversations with an interesting mixture of people. Some were escaping the winter woes from their snow ridden northern states while others had a holiday in Key West on their bucket list and they wanted to give that box a tick.


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Bicycles and walking were the main mode of transport to get around town, and it didn’t matter which one you took sooner or later you had to dodge all the local roosters, yes the feathered ones, who strut their stuff all over town

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The roosters were originally brought in by  the pioneers and Cuban cockfighters  and have now multiplied to a population of around 3000.That’s a lot of crowers on an island of 2 x 4 miles. Not everyone who lives in Key West are happy about that fact and there are  moves afoot to rid the Key of this quirky attraction. So far the roosters are winning.

Once the weather window came up we took it and headed out to explore more of what was on offer in the keys further north. More of that in the next post.


Cruising info: City Marina Mooring Field  Ph 305 809 3981/ VHF 16. Location 24.34. 60 N / 081.47.22W. 149 balls available. Cost $ 18.36 per day. Free Pumpout via mobile pumpout boat. There are 2 Free dinghy docks at City Marina.  Showers,laundry room and wi-fi, trash skip. are at the right hand side dock before the causeway bridge

Other: Key West Bight Marina dingy dock: $6 per day/ $26.50 per week, best dock for visiting town. Trash skip is also available here. West marina and Ace hardware are 5 mins walk from this dock.

Supermakets Publix. Home Depot, CVS pharmacy, Kmart, Officemax are a easy twenty minute flat walk from Mooring field dinghy dock near marina office.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cruising time at last:Northbound to the USA

1st – 23rd January 2015


 As we had stopped at many anchorages in Belize and Mexico when we were southbound in May 2014 we saw no need to dawdle this time. New years Eve had us anchored in Placencia Belize. The rain poured down and the wind howled and although there were about a dozen cruising boats in the anchorage, no one left their boats that night. It was a pretty dull start to 2015 to say the least.

Strong winds and big seas stopped us going any further for about a week. Still if you have to get stuck somewhere for a while Placencia  was a nice place to be. There are some good restaurants a free dinghy dock and plenty of  wi-fi and grocery stores. It also gave us the chance to catch up with Mat and Renee from Outlandish and Mat and Karen from Where 11, both boats that we had known down in the Rio. The winds brought a bit of havoc when a charter cat dragged anchor down onto a cruising boat. The charters had no clue as to what to do,so Liam jumped in the dinghy to help them out and give them a few tips.They proceeded to the dock for the night and the rest of us got a peaceful night’s sleep!

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Eventually we were able to move on, stopping for a couple of nights along the Belize and  Mexican coast arriving in Isla Murjeras just before the next big front came through.

The new Vesper AIS system that we installed back in the Rio was worth it’s wait in gold as we headed up the Mexican coast.We have it overlaid on both our nav computer running Open CPN and our Raymarine chart plotter and it connects via bluetooth to our Ipad as well.

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After four days of sitting out some heavy winds the gate opened and we headed out into the Yucatan channel bound for Key west Florida. An hour out we abandoned the idea due to the rough seas and returned to the anchorage for the night. We figured that in another 12 hours the seas would have calmed down even more. It was a good decision to turn back. At first light we tried again. We had lost one day of our 3 day window but if we didn’t go now well who knows when we’d get another chance as the northerly fronts were coming off the Florida coast thick and fast. And one thing was for sure ,we didn’t want to be out there bashing into strong winds and seas kicked up by the gulf stream as that is a sure fire recipe for disaster.

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The passage to Key West was 350 miles and we knew that the strong gulf stream current which flows north would be our friend along the way and it was giving us a boost of 3-4 knots in boat speed a lot of the time. That said we still needed to be tucked up on the anchor by midday in 2 days time to avoid being smacked by the next scheduled northerly front . Motor sailing most of the way in flat calm seas it was a good thing that we had topped up our fuel tanks and jerry cans in Isla Murjerus before leaving.


After the first night at sea we calculated that we would  be arriving into Key West in the dark, something we didn’t want to do in a port that we hadn’t entered before. So as much as it is against our grain we slowed our speed down to snails pace so that we would arrive with the early morning light. It was a plan that worked well ,entering the Key West channel just before sunrise. Right on cue just after midday the next freight train from the north arrived and we very glad we were snug as a bug in a rug on the anchor.


From Guatemala to Key West we covered a distance of just over 800 miles. Realistically it should have only taken us one week including a couple of stops along the way but due to the terrible weather conditions it took us a few days shy of one month. We were finally  back in the USA and glad to be here.


Cruising Info

Formalities Checking In. Customs and Boarder Protection(CBP) are located at Key West International Airport in a pink building on the right hand side as you enter from the main road. If you are a foreign flagged vessel and do not already have a valid US cruising permit issued from another mainland port or US territory call the Central Florida CPB  phone number 1800 432 1216 or 1800 451 0393 once you are anchored to report your arrival from a foreign country.


They will  then give you a permit number and advise you that you have 24hrs to report to the Key West office face to face. Bring  with you your clearance papers from your previous port, passports  and your boat registration papers. Agriculture will want your trash ie meat products that are not frozen and fruit and veg so take them with you as they will make you come back in if you don’t!!!!. It will cost $18 one way in a cab from town to the airport or you can take the local bus (sorry no info on the bus).  You will be issued a cruising permit valid for 1 year and that will cost you $19.


You CANNOT enter the USA on an ESTA visa via a private vessel. You can ONLY enter with this type of visa via a commercial carrier ie airplane or ferry. If you are in the BVI’s and have a ESTA visa take the ferry to St John or St Thomas in the USVI’s check in with CPB, take the ferry back to the BVI’s and THEN sail your vessel into US waters. This also applies to guests visiting you if you plan to take them to the USVI’s Porto Rico or mainland USA. If you have already activated your Esta and they have not then they must take the ferry , you sail your vessel over and pick them up in the USVI’s once they have checked in.

You CAN however enter via private vessel if you have a B1/B2 visa which you obtain from a US embassy outside of the USA. We got our B1/B2 visa at the embassy in Barbados and bought the 1 year +5 year extension. All B1/B2 visas are valid for a 6 month continual stay in the US. Once you leave the US to go cruising to a non contiguous country the clock on your visa starts again from the date you re-enter the USA .


Guatemala : And the work goes on

November / December 2014

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Ok, so we are back in the water and have done a smidge of land travel. It must be time to get out of Dodge. We had intended to leave and head north to Florida late November but the weather Gods had other ideas. The Christmas winds had kicked in to the tune of 35-40 knots along with big seas and nobody was going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

As Guatemala is a very affordable place to have work done on your boat, we decided that as we looked like being stuck here for a a bit longer that we’d have both our bathrooms re gel coated. Ten years on they were starting to show signs of old age. So we gave up our berth at Nana Juana Marina and moved over to Ram Marina. We’d seen some of the work done by the contractors over there and it looked really good. Liam pulled out the fittings in each bathroom and the workers taped up with plastic. Then Alboro the ace worker started the job.

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Boats are just like houses, eventually they need a little facelift here and there. And while we were at it we had part of the cockpit re done as well. The whole messy process took an extra two weeks with the final work being finished on Christmas eve. We were very happy with the outcome and  Liam rated it as 90 out of 100.

Annie’s birthday came and went during early December, celebrating it with good friends and a chicken bbq under the palapa.

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Then before we knew it Christmas was upon us and again we celebrated with friends, many of whom were Aussies. Rather than do the usual and invite friends to GWTW to share Xmas lunch, we opted to let someone else do the cooking and  a group of us made reservations at a local restaurant further up the river. Starting at noon we all gathered outside the marina store for a glass of bubbly and to share the “Secret Santa” gift exchange. It was a hoot seeing what $10 could buy in the town. Chocolates and rum were high on the list with the kids getting Barbie dolls and kites. Once the restaurants’ launch arrived from Kangaroo los Mexicana's and we all piled in. It was a fun day and as the owner was an Aussie  there was a twist to the usual Christmas fare with meat pies joining the turkey on the menu, and those pies were delicious.

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With Christmas done and dusted and a tiny weather window opening up for the coming week we had a few last minute lunches to say goodbye to friends, provisioned up and made our way down the Rio Dulce river, checking out of Guatemala on December 30th. After spending nearly six months in the Rio Dulce at last we were heading north.

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We’d had a fun time in the Rio with a great bunch of like minded people. Would we recommend the Rio Dulce as a place to spend the hurricane season? Yes we would. It’s a fun sort of place and the town of Fronteras is both bustling and laid back at the same time. The people are happy and friendly and we always felt safe. For more info drop us a line, we’ll be happy to share our experiences with you.


Formalities: Checking In : Most cruisers use Raul the agent in Livingston. You can hail him on VHF 16 /69. He will come to your boat with all the officials. It makes your life easier but you can also do it all yourself. We used him for  our check-in as we knew no better at the time. Total cost was  for using Raul was  around Q1300 for a 3 month entry.When we arrived we had not planned to stay beyond the initial 3 month time frame.  An extension can be paid for at the time or at a later date or you can do like us and take the boat back down to Livingston and do the extension yourself by visiting the customs office. Checking out. There is no reason to use an agent as the process is very easy. Anchor your boat at Livingston and take the dinghy to the town dock. Walk up the hill of the main street and customs and Immigration are across the road from each other.The port Captain is a little further up the street and to the right, just ask and someone will direct you to his office. First stop is the Port Captain.Hours are 8am –4pm 7 days. He charged us Q125 total. Then on to Immigration, Hours are 8am –4pm 7 days, Q80 per passport. If you overstay your visa the cost is Q10 extra per day. Customs closed 1pm –2pm for lunch and all day on Sunday, zero cost.

Marinas : Nana Juana Marina, Mar Marina, Bruno’s, Catamaran Marina, Tortuga, Ram Marina and Tijax are the most popular.The first five all have swimming pools. Advance reservations are recommended though not essential. All bar Catamaran Marina at the time of writing have free wi-fi.

Haulouts: Nana Juana Marina can haul large catamarans and smaller ones depending on their width. They also haul monohulls and powerboats. At the time of writing all haulouts at Nana Juana were via a travel trailer and is the main haulout yard for cats visiting the Rio Dulce.  Ram Marina haul smaller cats and all size monohulls and power boats via a travelift. At the time of writing they were investigating the purchase of a trailer to haul larger cats as well. Abels boatyard is further up Lake Izabel and can pull out masts via a crane. Haulout facilities are unknown.

Boat bits: Many parts, eg fan belts, filters, electrical, can be found in Fronteras. West Marine have a shop at Ram Marina $$$, but if you need something right now well just pay the price. Captain John’s shipping service will ship items from Miami or airfreight small parcels. His office is run by Rita over at Bruno’s Marina. His prices are very reasonable. Tip bring your bottom paint and particular other spares including computer parts that you might need with you from the USA or elsewhere.

Shopping : Fronteras is good for most things, but remember you are in Central America and not the USA or Europe so you have to look hard for specialty items. Fruit, veg & herbs are wonderfully fresh on the street. Despensa Familiar is the only big supermarket and it has a dinghy dock. Guatemala City, 5 hours away by bus, has many shopping malls, a US embassy and supermarkets including Wal-mart. Propane fills are available in Fronteras.

Safety: General commonsense when in a foreign country. Lock and lift your dinghy at night. Especially be dinghy vigilant the week before Christmas!! Dinghy thieves do their Xmas shopping around 4am at this time.