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Thursday, January 12, 2006
By the time the sun was rising over the Venice skyline Wednesday we were motoring south through a flat Gulf of Mexico, dodging crab-pots as we went. Wrap one of those lines around your prop and at best you're going swimming to clear it; at worst you're doing things like pulling propeller bent shafts and broken engine mounts. There were consolations, however. We'd been seeing more and more dolphins in general, but one jumped out of the water near the cockpit as if to say, "Here I am!" and then went up to the bow. I scrambled up there and got a very good look at him in the clear water. Every once in a while he would roll over as he swam at look at me with one eye. Suddenly he made an abrupt turn in front of the bow and rocketed away.

Around 1:00 PM we reached the Boca inlet to Charlotte Harbor and were soon attempting to nudge ourselves through Pelican Pass into the anchorage beyond, where we could see several boats already. It was no good, no good. I reversed just as we ran aground. Our next choice was the Punta Blanca anchorage on the other side of Pelican Bay. At least one guidebook warned that we wouldn't make it, but as the legends had said, there was a narrow channel of six to eight feet of water all the way around the point, just 50 feet or less from the mangrove beach. It was a very isolated, protected anchorage. We dropped bow and stern anchors to hold us in the deep water and launched the Nemo for a trip to Cayo Costa Island. Florida owns and protects 2,400 acres of this island, which has access only by boat. We caught a ride with on a tram--actually just a pickup pulling a trailer--over the sand road to the beach, which was very different from the white sand beaches we'd seem in the Panhandle. The sand here was coarse and full of shells (if there is anything else in it). We walked north about a half mile and then started back on one of the interior trails, enjoying the variety of flowers and plants and keeping our eyes open for wild pigs. Perhaps I should have kept my eyes open for the correct trail, because just as we were expecting to arrive back at the dock, we popped out on the shore of the wrong side of the island, a mile from the dock. Steve Brown (a former Sale Creek sailor) called just then on the cell phone and I'm afraid I probably sounded as disoriented as I felt. Walking quickly now in a race with darkness, I was staring at the map but Laura spotted a wild pig crossing the trail. We knew then that whether we made it out alive or not, the expedition had been a success. (For the record, we did eventually reach the docks, regain the Nemo, and return to the mother ship just as the sun set.)

Photo: (1) No matter how many dolphins you see, you never forget your first one. (2) At anchor off Punta Blanca Island. (3) On the beach at Cayo Costa, blissfully unaware that we will be hopelessly lost soon. (4) Laura stands next to an artist's recreation of the pig she saw on Cayo Coasta (okay, this pig was actually in Venice, but I couldn't resist showing it here).

Today we embarked on the next leg of the trip, down the ICW to Fort Myers Beach. It was another calm day in the Gulf, but the ICW route looked shorter and has just one bridge (Sanibel Island at Fort Myers). The 25 mile trip was easy but required some attention due to a constant parade of boats of all sizes. I have never seen so many boats in one day in my life. The narrow channel looked like an Interstate, except that occasionally you'd meet a driver coming in your lane. Again, there were lots of dolphins--I think I saw two dozen today.

Tonight we're in the opposite of our Punta Blanca anchorage, the Matanza (Ft. Myers Beach) mooring field, which is $13/night, payable to Salty Sam's Marina. They wanted to see our Coast Guard documentation and the declarations page of our insurance policy, which of course I didn't have with me when I dingied in, but they took my Tennessee registration and a phoned request to IMS (our insurers) to fax the documents. This is a large mooring field with room for around 100 boats, with maybe 40 here now. We dinghied over to the underside of the fixed bridge and tied the dingy off to the short barnacled wall there, using an anchor to hold it off while we were gone. Someday, they promise, Fort Myers will put a dingy dock under the bridge, but for now our solution was fine. I locked the dingy, advisable according to one of the guidebooks. In my book, any place that publishes a handout for cruisers is by definition a cruiser-friendly place. We walked the beach around the pier for a while, watched the sunset, played on a nice playground--all our usual activities.

Saturday, January 14, 2006
As was foretold, a strong cold front came through last night and we are now seeing 15-25 knots out of the northwest. I had called the Naples City Dock yesterday to make certain they had a mooring available, only to be told that Naples has no moorings, so we stayed here in Ft. Myers where the wind and waves could bounce us around but we didn't have to worry about dragging an anchor in the wind. Yesterday we took the boat over to Moss Marine for fuel (18.5 gallons at $2.45/gallon, 238 engine hours) and water so we're ready to move south through the Gulf when conditions improve.

Ft. Myers Beach seems to be a deeply divided community. There are apparently a growing number of residents are trying to encourage the tourists to go elsewhere. They've even tried to halt the trolley buses that carry people down the main tourist strip along the beach, arguing that the tourists should drive their own cars and have to sit in traffic like the residents! You don't see that kind of brilliant logic often, at least outside of the voting booth. Fortunately, the town is still boater-friendly (so long as you don't speed through the no wake zones).

Photo: Ft. Myers Beach mooring field at sunset.

Monday, January 16, 2006
We wanted to leave for Naples yesterday but the seas were still up, so we stayed another night on Mooring 61. We took a dingy expedition up a canal towards the Beach and found the rustic spot where cruisers dock behind a grocery store. There is a bar called Casey's Alley on that back corner where they have added washers and dryers for people living on the mooring field. We could hear voices in the woods near the boats and suspected that homeless people may be living there, so it's an interesting neighborhood by any measure.

Around 8:00 AM today we attempted to leave the mooring field at low tide and ran aground, but eventually found a way out. I had a route on the chartplotter to take us all the way to Everglades City, but we would have had to start before the sun came up to get there before dark. After about 20 easy miles in the Gulf we came in Gordon Pass and cruised two or three miles into Naples. The mooring field was still there so far as we could see, but empty (later I saw on that the dingy dock and mooring field had been closed, but no reasons were given). Still, this part of Naples was interesting. There isn't a home on the Naples canals that would sell for less than two or three million dollars. Obviously, this part of town doesn't depend on tourists or cruisers. There are no high-rise condos, either. Clearly, those who are so unhappy in Ft. Myers should move down here.

We're anchored in a canal near the pass, surrounded by homes that would be beautiful if they weren't so needlessly gigantic. It's a long day tomorrow to Everglades City, 45 miles in the Gulf and six more into town. I wish we could have made it today because the seas will be higher tomorrow. The other rub is that we may not be able to get out of this canal tomorrow morning because it will be low tide unless we leave very, very early.

Photo: Laura with her favorite cat Sporks playing an underwater computer game. Although she (Laura, that is) loves the beach, she's not much for being up in the cockpit.

Wednesday, January 18
I had the anchor up by 4:05 AM Tuesday morning. By 4:10 we were aground in the canal. Coming in, Annie had been sure there was more water over on the east side of the canal, and she was right. When I backed off and tried over there, I found plenty of water and was soon lining up between the blinking reds and greens of the Gordon Channel out into the open Gulf. Already the seas were three feet with the promise of more to come.

As the sun came up were off Marco Island where a solid wall of high rise condos stand like a fort, with almost nothing but mangroves and the open Gulf to the south. There are just a few settlements and a lot of wilderness remaining on the west coast from here down to the Keys. The wind was around 20 knots not quite on the nose, and with each big wave our speed dropped until we couldn't maintain five knots. I put up the mainsail and that did the trick, adding another knot of boat speed while smoothing the ride. When Annie came up in the cockpit a while later we were a few miles off the treacherous Romano Shoals, where hapless mariners can find just a foot of water despite being miles offshore. I had courses plotted both on paper and the chartplotter to take us well around this obstacle, and found myself wanting to go even further. Around 10:00 AM we were safely past Romano and turned sharply back to the east north-east and the Ten Thousand Islands. Our course led us directly to Indian Key, and we were officially in the Everglades.

We threaded our way down the narrow channel six miles to Everglades City, passing fishing boats and kayak and boat tours full of people who had paid to see the same sights we were enjoying for free (if you don't count the expense of buying and cruising a boat, that is). We'd called ahead to Steve Stanforth of Living Well and he was there to guide us in and help us raft up to his boat. A few minutes later we'd met Richard, the ever-gracious owner of the facility and had been talked into taking his golf cart for a tour of town. What a great, friendly place! Although the real estate is no cheaper, the houses here are charming in their normal sizes and old-fashioned styles. In most parts of town you can imagine that Everglades City has looked about the same for the past 40 or 50 years.

Today we slept in, had lunch right here at the cafe just down the dock, and worked on some boat projects. Annie did laundry and sewed up a cover for the outboard motor on the Nemo while I finally got around to taking apart the port chainplate. This item had been on the "to-do" list for a long time since the chainplate dripped occasionally during heavy downpours, but we discovered that the open Gulf, where water is often sloshing back and forth on deck, produces far more dramatic results. We'll remove any wet core, dry it all out, and epoxy the whole area so that any future leaks won't be a real threat. We figure we'll be here at least a couple more days before heading south another 40 miles to anchor at Little Shark River, then jump down another 40 miles or so to the Keys.

Photo:Motorsailing ten miles offshore in a lumpy Gulf.

Sunday, January 22

Down here, as Steve's friend Lee Marteeny says, things are a little different. We've enjoyed the convenience of being rafted up here at City Seafood, and of course the company of Steve and Gloria and the residents of Everglades City. How long have we been here? I've lost track. The crab boats crank up and head out around 3:30 AM each morning, returning 14 hours later. Airboats are constantly idling past us--there are at least five outfits to that will take you for a ride for around $30 a person, making airboats the biggest industry in town. Tour boats come by and sometimes mention the two sailboats tied up at the dock, although they always focus on Living Well (Annie and I have schemed about ways to make our boat more interesting). Although you don't see a lot of activity, real estate is a hot topic down here. A forty-year old remodeled two bedroom house will list for around $700,000. You can own a little strip of pavement to park your big RV for a mere $300,000, and you're really only getting half a year for that, since almost everyone leaves during the hot, bug-infested summer.

Yesterday we launched the Nemo and circumnavigated Everglades City. I'd ridden Steve's bicycle down to the Ranger Station and gotten some advice of where we might explore. The two recommended options were to cross the bay over to Sandfly Island (Sandflies are another name for "no-see-ums," those most dreaded of insects), and Turner River. It looks like Turner River is an excellent canoe trip from U.S. 41 down to Chokoloskee Island, and I wanted to see if we could explore some of this in Nemo. While we never actually made it to Turner River--idle speed zones, shallow water, and a dingy that can't easily get up on plane with all three of us on board slowed us down--we did reach Chokoloskee where we ate some ice cream. We also explored one tiny creek where we were attacked by fiddler crabs. Of course I wanted to make a loop so we tested my theory that a certain canal would lead us back around to our starting point up the Barrons River. There was great celebration when in fact we did complete the grand circle and found ourselves back at City Seafood.

Steve and Gloria borrowed a car and we made a Walmart run up to Naples, about a 30 minute drive. The boat is in good shape, the forecast is good for travel, and we'll probably move on sometime in the next day or so. Down here, it's hard to be exact about these kinds of things.

Photo: (1) Shades of Appalachicola, Everglades City style. (2) Mr. Krab strikes a pose in the aft cabin. (3) I imagine this is what the Turner River might have looked like, had we made it there. (4) The Great Blue Herons around here are actually called Great Egrets.

Tuesday, January 24
A week we've been here rafted up with Living Well, and indeed we have been doing just that. The crab boats and airboats come and go, the sun rises and sets, days go by. The biggest event today was when we swapped to our second 10 pound bottle of propane, having gotten over three months out of the first one. Defying our Crowhurstian past, all of the boat chores we were unable to complete before leaving in November--including installing the oil pressure and temperature gauge (a stressful task since it involved cutting holes in the boat and minor disassembly of the engine cooling system) are complete. The weather forecast is good. The waypoints are in the chartplotter. Why are we still here? That's not a question that needs to be answered, least of all not here in Everglades City.

Annie says: This past week has been great. We've done some good visiting with our friends Steve and Gloria, a little sightseeing, a lot of boat chores and even more relaxing. We have even hung our hammock, much to Laura's delight. I sit on the deck in the mornings watching the pelicans and terns and then in the evening listening to the fish splash in the water. Of course, the weather is great. Warm and sunny with a slight breeze almost all the time. However, the blue water is calling and I think we will soon be departing (and Laura hasn't collected a sea shell in over a week).

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