Back in the USA

Wednesday, March 27 2019
St. Augustine, Florida

As I write this blog post we are getting smacked around pretty hard in St. Augustine.

Today marks our 181st day on board and in the past half year we have grown very accustomed to life aboard Mavis.  We have largely figured out where things go and how to live comfortably but we are always refining things.  We’ve gone from spending a few nights on board here and there to living aboard this tiny ship and it’s remarkable how comfortable we are.  We know how to make life work out here and that’s a great feeling.

Mavis is moored at the Castillo de San Marcos in St Augustine

Right now we are moored in St. Augustine just off the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States.  We have been here since Monday and we’re presently trapped on board riding out the passage of a series of cold fronts that are converging to make things a bit uncomfortable for us.  The winds have been howling at around 30 knots for the last 15 hours or so and Cindy says being aboard Mavis right now is like being in a washing machine.  The waves are throwing the boat around and SLAMMING into our hulls.  Every few seconds the entire boat shudders and the sound of the wind and the water against the boat is getting old.  We expect this to continue for at least another 15 hours or so before calming down a little bit.  Unfortunately, it’s not safe for us to attempt going to shore in the dinghy in these conditions…  While getting ashore to the dinghy dock might be doable the return trip upwind and into the large, steep waves would not be good.  So we’re stuck aboard our floating home.  Willow was ashore last night.  We took her for a long walk around the city and stopped to have a few drinks and some appetizers before returning to the boat for dinner.

Heading to shore.

About 10 days ago we left our beloved Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas and sailed across the Sea of Abaco to Great Sale Cay.  The sailing was incredible with 3 foot seas and about 20 to 25 knots of wind off the starboard stern.  We zoomed along all day under full sail and by the time we arrived at Great Sale Cay the sun was almost ready to set.  We quickly dropped our anchor and dinghied ashore to let Willow do her business.  We hunted around the beach for a few conch shells to take as souvenirs and took a good look around at our last Bahamian beach.  I knew we would leave before sunrise the next day and didn’t want to chance landing the dinghy in the dark.  Great Sale Cay has lots of very sharp limestone and coral heads around it so safely arriving to shore in an inflatable boat is something I wouldn’t chance without good visibility.  We love our new dinghy and don’t want to be buying another anytime soon!  Unfortunately, this meant that this would be Willow’s last chance to use the bathroom for a solid 36 hours until we arrived back in Florida.  Despite seeing some enormous pig footprints, we let her run around the beach for a bit before boarding the dinghy and motoring back to Mavis as the sun began to set on the Little Bahama Bank.

Wing on wing in the Sea of Abaco

I think I wrote about some of our anchoring challenges in an earlier post.  Basically, I don’t sleep well on the anchor because of the constant fear of dragging.  In some places, this isn’t a big deal.  In others though, dragging just 100 feet could be disastrous.   Before we left Florida for the Bahamas I added an additional 75 feet of chain to our anchor rode.  Now, in most circumstances we anchor on all chain and once the anchor grabs, we seem to stay put.   I still set an anchor drag alarm on the ship’s plotter as well as my cellphone.

That night at Great Sale I slept like a baby.  Right after dinner I turned in and fell fast asleep and didn’t wake up until it was time to sail on at 4am.  While anchored in the dark I raised the mainsail and we sailed westward in following seas and 15 knots of breeze.  As the sun rose we found ourselves in the middle of the bank in crystal clear waters.   Approaching the end of the Bahama bank we watched as the sea bottom sharply dropped away from about 30 feet to over a thousand feet deep in the space of half a mile.

Even in 30 feet of water, we could very clearly see the bottom… And as we watched the bottom drop away the water color turned from that incredible green and turquoise to a deep blue.  Some dolphin swam in our bow wake escorting us out of the Bahamas.

The ridiculously clear waters of the Little Bahama Bank.

As we left the territorial waters of the Bahamas I begrudgingly took down the Bahamas courtesy flag we had flown for our month in the Abacos.  I felt sad to be leaving this beautiful place but grateful for the opportunity to have sailed her waters and stayed for so long.  As I stowed that flag away I couldn’t help but wonder when Mavis would fly it again.

Some hours later we found ourselves in over 2500 feet of water crossing the gulf stream.  We had some moderately steep 4′ seas hitting us on the port stern but nothing terribly uncomfortable.  Occasionally a steep wave would wash up on the lower aft steps and I wondered how Mavis would handle considerably larger seas.   As I develop more confidence in the boat’s offshore capabilities and gain more experience at sea, I find myself wanting to (carefully) try out larger seas.   I think it’s important to know our limits and that of the boat.  But from what I understand from other Gemini owners, Mavis can probably handle more than we can.  I’d rather intentionally go out in large seas that are expected to diminish than get caught in large and developing seas by accident.  And when (not if) we DO get caught out, I think it would be good to have had a small voluntary taste.  Mavis is a light coastal cruising boat and not a “blue water” boat.  Although they have safely crossed the Atlantic, I personally would never attempt that in this boat.

But I’ve wandered off topic again…  After some time the winds calmed down and shifted and began to blow from directly behind us.  At 8 to 10 knots there really wasn’t enough wind to sail directly downwind in 4 foot seas.   So we fired up the engine and motored for about 12 hours until the wind clocked around to the south and intensified.  By now it was nighttime again and I started thinking it would be a good time to turn in and get a few hours sleep.  I left Cindy at the helm and had been asleep for about 20 minutes when Cindy woke me.

A half hour into her watch, she was seeing ships on the plotter and was having trouble avoiding them.  Looking at the ships on the screen I saw three very large targets, all converging on our position fast.  The closest was the Disney Fantasy.  She was about 4 miles away but approaching very rapidly.  The second was a tanker and the third was another cruise ship who’s name I’m forgetting.  I hailed Disney Fantasy who altered course for us and still passed less than a mile off our bow — a littler closer than I would have liked, particularly at night.  We were able make out people dancing in one of the on board clubs.  It was like watching a small city coast by.   And as I adjusted course slightly to pass behind this giant cruise ship, I spotted another sailboat’s lights about 1/8 of a mile away.  I altered course to avoid a collision.  The tanker also altered course and passed many miles from us but the second cruise ship passed as closely as the Disney Fantasy did.  Those were pretty much the only vessels we saw between the Bahamas and Fort Pierce, Fl.  I think it’s interesting that we all converged in the middle of the gulf stream in the Straights of Florida.

The Disney Fantasy at night (Wikimedia Commons image)

After avoiding all of the traffic that suddenly popped up there was no way I was going to be able to sleep.  Cindy turned in and for once Willow wasn’t on deck with me, choosing instead to catch some Z’s with mom.  It was nice being on night watch alone.  I began to see the lights of West Palm Beach off the port bow and had to reef the jib to slow us up so that we could make landfall at the Fort Pierce inlet at dawn.

I hadn’t considered the fact that we would be arriving on a Saturday.  But this soon became apparent as I lined Mavis up at the sea buoy to begin our approach into the inlet.   It was still dark but suddenly I found myself blinded by a bright light in the inlet pointed directly at us.  And soon, another…  The “weekend warriors” were out.  Before the sun was up I identified about 25 private fishing boats of all sizes…  All heading out of the inlet.  Many of these captains demonstrated no knowledge of the “rules of the road” or any common maritime courtesy.  Many of them insisted on blinding us as we made our way into the inlet.  Once safely between the jetties, more boats approached from seemingly everywhere.  A small boat obstructed the very center of the channel and was selling bait. Around this boat about 4 or 5 other small customer boats had congregated.  The result was a large chunk of the middle of the inlet being blocked while on either side of this mess, large sport-fishing boats throwing off huge wakes passed on either side of Mavis…  One of them directing a searchlight right into my eyes.  It was early dawn and the sky had just begun to show some light but the sun was 20 minutes away from rising and many of the boats I was trying to avoid were showing no navigation lights.  I tried reaching one vessel in order to coordinate our passing each other safely but these guys apparently don’t monitor the radio either.  It’s one thing dealing with weekend warriors inside the protected waters of the ICW — they’re just a nuisance.  I really didn’t appreciate them at all when approaching from seaward after a  long open sea voyage.

My experience dealing with this insane and apparently common lack of professionalism entering the Fort Pierce inlet made me really appreciate the fellow cruisers we share the waters with.  Most of the long distance cruising captains and their crews are extremely professional, courteous and safe.  I wish I could say the same about the local sport fishing captains.

After entering the Fort Pierce inlet we had to pass through a drawbridge that operates on a schedule.  While waiting about 20 minutes for an opening, we used the ROAM application from the Customs and Border Patrol to clear customs back into the United States.  You launch the app on your smartphone, answer a few questions… last country visited, anything to declare, etc… Then a CBP agent initiates a video call with the boat.  After a very brief chat and having him look at our faces we were cleared back into the USA!  It couldn’t have been easier.

Vero Beach was still a few hours away and Willow really needed to use the bathroom, having held it again for about 36 hours so as we passed a small spoil island off the ICW we dropped the anchor and took the dinghy ashore for a few minutes before getting back underway to Vero.

We arrived in Vero Beach and booked a slip for the week.  I had left my car with my sister before we left Stuart and she delivered it back to me.  We got to visit with her and her husband for a bit and a few days later I was in my car heading home.  We needed to get the car home and I had a flight voucher I needed to use so I drove home to drop the car off and stayed there for 2 nights.  It was very strange to sleep on land for the first time in almost half a year.  I slept very well in our comfy bed and flew back to rejoin Mavis, Cindy and Willow…  We soon got underway.

We motored inside the ICW for two days to get here in St. Augustine.  We anchored in Titusville and then in Daytona before fueling up and grabbing a mooring at the St. Augustine Municipal Marina.  I had hoped that after this front passes we could jump offshore and sail up perhaps to Charleston but it looks like the seas will barely have a chance to settle down before another strong front makes its way into our area.  I’m about to start planning the next few days of travel for Friday, Saturday and Sunday but think we’ll need to be somewhere safe by Sunday afternoon.  We should be able to easily make it as far as St. Simon’s, GA by then but I have to take a closer look at the weather and the route.

Motoring along the ICW in New Smyrna Beach


Before the weather got nasty we had a day and a half of nice weather to get out and enjoy being here.  St. Augustine is such a beautiful, clean and lively city with tons of fantastic restaurants, an art scene, and lots and lots of history.  We hope to be able to get to shore tomorrow to do a provisioning run before taking off again.  We all also need to get off this boat.  Especially Willow.  But for now, we are safe but getting tossed around pretty hard here in St. Augustine.

Capt Frank