Saturday, May 21, 2016

May 16th-20th : Key West to Dry Tortugas (and Back)

We departed Key West on Monday the 16th around 0830 and pointed Ghost Rider’s bow due west toward the Dry Tortugas.  The weather was very good – a bit humid (70%) and temps starting in the low 80’s (later up to 90) with a light breeze out of the east and a following sea of that varied between 1 and 3 feet, with perhaps an occasional 4 foot roller…it was comfy. 
Approaching Fort Jefferson

We cruised out of cellular range about 2 hours after departure and tuned the SSB radio to 2182.0 (short range distress frequency.)  And we were definitely going downhill – our SOG was 8K+ knots most of the way at just under 1700 RPM, and when we did our daily WOT run we hit 9.7K, which is flying low for Ghost Rider.

It’s a pretty lonely stretch of ocean between the Marquesas and DT – didn’t see another soul for several hours during the middle of the leg except for the occasional dolphin in the bow wave and a couple of large sea turtles.  But when we reached Fort Jefferson (just before 1700) it looked more like a marina than a remote island with no services.  There were 9 fishing boats anchored on the shoal just south of the fort, and 11 bigger boats in the main anchorage next to the fort…and those were way too close together with too-short scopes on their anchor rodes for our taste, so we did a 180 and motored over to the Bird Key Harbor anchorage.  There we were the only boat, so in 28 feet of water we dropped the hook, let out 200’ of chain, and then set it hard backing down at 1300 RPM.  Once we had the snubber deployed, we had more than enough scope and plenty of swing room.

Sunset Over Loggerhead Key
We also began testing a new method for monitoring the anchor set – which is to fire up the Nobeltec nav software on Rick’s laptop PC with an attached GPS antenna puck, and use the software’s built-in anchor alarm circle function.  The same can be accomplished with the boat’s built-in electronics, but this approach is more portable and allows us to shut down energy consumers. 
Ghost Rider In Bird Key Anchorage

Sunset was a bit obscured by high clouds but still stunning over Loggerhead Key.  The wind picked up to around 15K with gusts to 20K, and while we bobbed a bit as we weathervaned into the stiff breeze, we held secure and had a comfy although occasionally rolly night.

More boat stuff today: 
·         We’ve developed a solid theory on why those 2 house batts are trending so much warmer than any of the others in the bank:  the large engine room (intake) cooling fans we had installed when we first acquired the boat are hard-wired directly to those two batteries; that’s looking more and more like a bad design.  The likely solution is to reroute that wiring over to the battery bus bar, and spread the load over all 6 house batts; not sure I have enough wire of the correct gauge on board, but it looks like that can wait until we make Palm Beach later in the month.

·         We ran without the genset (and no air conditioner) for the first 6 hours today, but when the mercury hit 90 we cranked it up & turned on the A/C.  The pilot house air handler, however, wasn’t cooling; that turned out to be a stuck valve (which I cured with a hammer).

The Fort's Moat and Snorkeling Beach
On Tuesday (5/17) we tended to a few chores in the morning, then launched the dinghy and made our way over to Fort Jefferson first for the obligatory check-in with the National Park Ranger Office, and then of course to tour the big fort.  It’s a very large and interesting place….the only way to get here is via boat or seaplane (there are frequent hops you can catch from Key West.)  And according to one of the park rangers, they have a salt water crocodile occupying the grounds making the most of the food supply in the protected sanctuary.  Supposedly Carlos the croc (and they’ve named him) doesn’t hassle the humans.

Casper Beached at the Fort
Originally intended to be part of the country’s coastal and sea lane defense strategy, construction of the massive structure began in 1846, but was never fully completed – the U.S. Army abandoned its efforts there in 1878.  In reality it served more as a prison during the civil war than as a fort – it’s where the infamous Dr. Samuel Mudd was incarcerated before being pardoned.  Architecturally speaking it’s butt ugly, but the engineering for its time is quite impressive.  Today this entire area of outlying islands is primarily a wildlife sanctuary, with thousands of previously threatened sea birds and nesting sea turtles calling it home, and it features numerous large areas where anchoring, fishing and sometimes even boating or walking the shore line are completely off limits.

Inside the Fort
Inside the Fort
Bird Sanctuary on NE Side of the Fort
Later in the afternoon when we returned to Ghost Rider Michelle gave Casper a bath, and then we went for a swim…the water quality here is startling – visibility is outstanding.  That made it good conditions for Rick to dive under the boat and check the bottom and running gear – the latter looked good, and mostly so did the bottom except for a stretch around the boot stripe that has some peeling and bubbling going on.  We’ll have that checked out by Yacht Tech when we reach Palm Beach.
Diving on the Running Gear
As for boat stuff today: 
·         Casper-the-friendly-ghost-dinghy’s 40 HP Yamaha still isn’t quite right, even after a full service completed on it back in Fort Myers a week ago; idle is a tad rough, but it also bogs down seriously between 2500 & 3300 RPM.  I may go looking for a fuel-injected engine vs. messing around with this ancient carbureted stuff.

The next day (Wednesday 5/18) began a bit early when a hefty line of thunderstorms blew through the area from 0100 to 0200 – we swung 180 degrees on the anchor but held fast; I was glad we weren’t in the more crowded anchorage, but it rained hard and was a bit lumpy out there.

Flopper Stopper Deployed
So one of the things we did today – should have earlier – was to deploy the “flopper stopper” – which is basically a big slab of aluminum that hangs off several tethers at the end of a horizontal swing-out boom on the port side of the boat.  It’s basically a fixed stabilizer, similar to, but smaller than, a paravane. I personally want to thank Jeff Merrill (once again) for making us label those lines and attachment points during our initial training, otherwise it would have taken us a lot longer to figure out how to deploy the thing.

After that we took the dinghy over to Loggerhead Key, about 2 NM west of our anchorage, beached Casper on the northeast end of the island and went swimming and snorkeling.  Michelle also picked up a conch shell and an interesting chunk of coral rock while beachcombing.  After a couple hours we returned to Ghost Rider for a late lunch, cleaned up Casper and secured her back on the boat deck in preparation for the sortie back to Key West.  We had another fine evening on the fly bridge looking at miles of azure water, listening to Jimmy Buffet and enjoying yet another happy hour in paradise.

On Thursday 5/18 we awoke to some light showers and a quick weather check via the radar set and XM satellite revealed a broad area of showers and thunderstorms to our southeast and stretching to Key West and beyond.  We had an extra “weather day” built into our planned itinerary, but decided we didn’t need it – we pulled the anchor just before 0900 and tucked Ghost Rider in behind the line of weather, confident the storms were moving east faster than we could.
Departure Weather

We took the lower route back to Key West, passing on the south side of the Marquesas.   Seas were forecast at 2 to 4 feet, and initially they were; but at about the 3 hour mark winds cranked up to 20K out of the southeast, with higher gusts, and seas increased steadily and we found ourselves punching into 5 to 7 footers, from beam to quartering on the starboard bow, and with very short intervals. So it was definitely a lumpy ride up until around the 7 hour mark, and then the wind died down to around 10K and seas tapered off to 1-2 feet.  But between the head seas and currents, our pace wasn’t good – it took us 2 hours longer on the flip-flop.
Shrimp Road Grill at Stock Island Marina

We wanted to try a different port in Key West this time, so we put into Stock Island Marina (about 5 miles west of downtown Key West on the Atlantic side) shortly after 1900.  Ghost Rider just hummed all the way with no issues, and got a much needed bath after arrival….we and the boat were a salty mess.  Stock Island is a nice marina, but lacks cable TV at the slips, which is a bummer as Rick needs his news and sports fix.

Chelle Shopped for Coffee
We’re spending Friday & Saturday here catching up on sleep, email, snail mail and some administrative stuff, and of course Chelle's shopping fix, before heading up the island chain towards the east coast of the U.S.
A "Blue Moon" Over Stock Island

More to come in the near future.