Sunday, April 19, 2020

April 2020: Cruising Back to Fort Myers

Foreword:  Ghost Rider became our very own containment vessel for the few days it took us to cruise back to Fort Myers, staying offshore and stopping only at a couple of anchorages along the way.  There are worse ways to practice social distancing, and not many safer.  We would like to salute the front line medical workers and first responders who continue to put themselves in harm’s way. To once again quote Mr. Churchill: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  Of course he also reportedly said something like “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”  That one is looking dubious.

First Leg: Palm Beach to Rodriguez Key (Near Key Largo)
With Yacht Tech mostly shut down we had definitely reached a point of diminishing returns on the east coast of Florida, so on Tuesday, 14-April we departed Loggerhead Marina in Palm Beach Gardens and pointed Ghost Rider south.  Joe and Carole (from N40 Barefoot Girl) helped us with dock lines, which was much appreciated as our assigned boat slip wasn’t an easy one for Chelle to dismount and remount the boat, especially with a very stiff breeze from the southeast pushing us off the tall fixed dock.  Our planned itinerary included an overnight run south to the Rodriguez Key anchorage near Key Largo, then a shorter day trip to the Marathon anchorage, and finally another overnighter from there to home port in Fort Myers.  The planning logic was simple: there weren’t any marinas taking transients, so anchorages were our only option; and we wanted to get past the mainland and down to the Keys quickly enough to avoid a worsening weather forecast for areas north of there.

We departed just after 1500….timed such that we would reach our first anchorage shortly after sunrise the next day.  It was mostly sunny, humid and hot with the temp hovering at 90F, but the stiff breeze coming off the slightly cooler waters helped keep it comfortable on the fly bridge.  By the time we reached Lake Worth winds were at a steady 20 knots but we had timed the two ICW bridge openings perfectly and made good time.  And somewhat surprisingly, when we punched through the inlet and into open ocean, the ride wasn’t too bad – two to three foot square waves with plenty of wind chop on top, but Ghost Rider seemed quite happy to be moving again.  However that hefty wind (with higher gusts) regularly kicked salt spray clear over the fly bridge and up to the satellite antenna dome.
Pilot House View at Dusk Near the East Florida Shoreline
We had planned our initial legs down towards Miami to be about three miles offshore, the thought being we would avoid most of the near-shore fishing grounds, along with the busy inlets and anchorage areas at Fort Lauderdale and Miami.  Unfortunately, while NOAA was reporting the western edge of the Gulf Stream ten miles out, that did not appear to be the case.  After the turn south we found ourselves bucking a current of at least three knots.  Following an hour of crawling along, sometimes under five knots of SOG, we hung a hard right, detouring two and half miles to the west.  We began hugging the shoreline about a thousand meters off the beach and that gained us two more knots of forward speed for a while.  But come night fall we once again swerved back out to the three mile limit line, mainly for the traffic avoidance and safety factors near the busy ports….and back into that nasty current.

Chelle took the helm for the early night shift (1900 to 2130), then Rick took over for the graveyard shift through 0430, followed by Chelle again for the final four hours.  It was after 0200 on Wednesday, 15-April before we got around Lauderdale and Miami – and their offshore anchorage fields looked like parking lots. There was a lot of stranded tonnage there, collectively with enough lights blazing to totally destroy everyone’s night vision.  
Radar Screen Capture as We Skirted the
Lauderdale Offshore Anchorage Area

Overall the night running was mostly without stress, but approaching the Miami area Rick had to hail one cruise ship on the VHF to clarify safe passing logistics.  The big vessel was lingering about a mile to the east of the offshore anchorage, but unlike all the others its AIS readout did not reflect an “anchored” status and it showed a few knots of movement; we did not want to get run over….a distinct possibility at our reduced ground speed.  It turned out he was “drifting in place” and we agreed on a passing protocol satisfactory to both vessels.

Once south of Miami’s Government Cut shipping channel we again cut back west and closer to the mainland to join Hawk Channel and run inside the Keys’ reef tract.  Even there we were still bashing into a current, although one not nearly as strong as the Gulf Stream’s fire hose.

Throughout the sortie the winds never let up, and the atmosphere remained warm and muggy all night – temps never dipped below 82F.  So when we reached Rodriguez Key and tucked in behind it just before 0900 and dropped the hook, the generator and A/C came online fairly quickly.  That anchorage is one of our favorites in the Keys – good protection, fairly isolated, plenty of swing room, just enough depth with mild tidal changes, and always clean, clear water.  But we had never seen it so empty.  We tended to some minor chores, napped, read and caught up on the news (blech) via satellite TV, then slept like stones that night.
A Shot of the Rodriguez Key Anchorage Near Sunset.....It Was Pretty Empty
We were not in a big hurry the following morning, Thursday, 16-April, since we only had a short six hour sortie down to Marathon in the mid-Keys.  It was still warm and muggy outside even at 0830 – temp and humidity both in the mid-80’s – but we had kept the genset and A/C running all night, so had slept well.  After our coffee, email and news checks we cranked up Ghost Rider’s systems, hoisted the anchor and were back underway by 0930. 
Our Track from Rodriguez Key to the Marathon Area

Hawk Channel waters were docile, generally about a foot, and since the wind had diminished considerably overnight to around 10 knots, featured just a light wind chop on top.  We had to dodge occasional strings of crab pots, but otherwise traffic was light apart from the occasional pod of dolphins that would glide in the boat’s bow wave.

Water quality was as good as we’d ever seen it inside the reef.  No debris, and bottom features readily visible in varying shades of blue, green and turquoise.  We had read reports the same was true all along the coasts of Florida following beach and facility closures that had reduced human activity to nearly nothing.  Perhaps a silver lining in the Covid cloud.

The Anchorage Near Marathon & Seven Mile Bridge
But around 1400 the calm of our peaceful cruise down the spine of the Keys got interrupted by a bright red warning light on the stabilizer control panel – for “High Temp.”  Nuts.  Rick went to the engine room and used the infrared temperature gun to verify the oil tank temp was high (it was, well above redline), then centered and pinned the stabilizer fins, and shut the system down.  A quick check of the manual revealed it had absolutely nothing to say about troubleshooting this error, so Rick pinged James Knight via SMS text for his input. James called back within minutes, and had Rick check the relative temps for the cooling input and output lines at the stabilizer’s oil reservoir (both normal), and also verify that the output line’s thru-hull seacock was open (it was.)  Seas were still quite gentle and forecast to remain that way for the final leg home, so the absence of stabilization wasn’t a big deal.  Conferring with a few other N50 owners gave us a pretty good idea as to cause (clogging debris in the cooling circuit, likely from zinc anode shedding); that will require considerable disassembly and flushing, so we decided to leave the system disabled, and wait to address once back in port.

We turned the corner at Boot Key and pulled into a mostly empty anchorage near Marathon around 1530, and had the hook firmly planted shortly thereafter.  Initially we left the generator off and the boat open for a few hours to let the engine room cool down a bit, then ran genset and A/C for a spell and recharged the batts.  By late evening the predicted cold front shifted the winds to a northerly flow bring slightly drier air, making it comfy enough to shut down and sleep with natural ventilation.
Chelle Cooking up a Spicy Taco Dish at the Marathon Anchorage
By 0800 on the morning of Friday, 17-April the winds had clocked around to the southeast once again and the breeze helped as it was already quite humid with a bright tropical sun gradually amping up the heat.  We started the generator around 1030 and let it charge the house batteries and enjoyed some cooling A/C.  Our goal was to be underway by 1530 – enough daylight remaining to pass through some of the more dense crab pot fields visually, but not so soon as to arrive at the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers before daylight the following morning.  And that’s what we did, weighing anchor at 1515.
Our Overnight Track from Marathon to Fort Myers

Once Chelle had steered Ghost Rider under the Seven Mile Bridge and into Florida Bay we found smooth water, mainly just a light wind chop, and we were grateful for that with the stabilizer system shut down.  We weaved our way around Red Bay Bank and then aimed the pointy end north, settling down for the long run up to Fort Myers.  As expected we were dodging the crab pots in the southern part of Florida Bay, and we managed to pick out most visually and on radar, although the wind-chopped surface made the latter erratic at times.

We manned the helm with the same shift schedule as the previous overnight run, with Chelle driving at the sunset and sunrise portions, and Rick in between. (His stay-alert technique: two mugs of coffee and a whole box of Girl Scout cookies.  Thank you Grace and Alice.)  It was a black, moonless night, the proverbial “boating in an ink bottle” run; looking straight ahead you could see absolutely nothing….not even the Nordhavn pennant fluttering a short distance away on the bow.

Chelle Steers Ghost Rider Towards the Seven Mile Bridge
Looking up, however, it was a different story.  With zero light pollution that far out in open water, the night sky was a star-studded palette of brilliant pinpoint lights.  To our west Venus was initially bright enough to leave a narrow wake of reflective light on the bay, and nearby Sirius was almost as bright.  To the east Ursa Major stood out, pointing dutifully to Polaris. Rick’s “Star Map” app could be distracting, and it took some discipline not to continually scan the sky and stare at that thing.  Way off to the northeast distant flashes of lightning would occasionally strobe out far enough for us to see, but our XM weather display told us the cluster of storms that spawned them were at least 75 miles away and moving further east.

Duel Radar....Totally Void of Any Traffic
In the blackness Ghost Rider’s Furuno DRS X-Class radar served as our eyes.  As is our habit we ran one radar display at close-in range and the other looking out a few miles further, with a two mile Guard Zone set up.  This night we also ran with the autopilot in “Track” mode, also known as “Nav” or “Auto-follow” mode on some pilots.  In open water on long, nearly straight stretches it’s a no-brainer to let the computers drive the vessel on its intended course.

We did not see another boat on the water from Marathon all the way up to Naples, either visually or on radar.  Throughout the night our conditions stayed comfortable, with following seas at about a foot, temps in the low 80’s, and humidity close to that.  The breeze turned from southeast and around to the northeast just before midnight, which also helped with better airflow in the pilot house. 

XM Weather Display Showing the Cluster of TRWs
Between Lake O and the East Coast of Florida
On Saturday, 18-April, we arrived at the Sanibel Causeway around 0730, and at that point we finally witnessed a normal level of boating activity on up to Fort Myers...plenty of small leisure craft getting early starts toward the fishing grounds.  We coasted upriver on an incoming tide and pulled into Legacy Harbour Marina at 0915, docking without any drama in mostly calm conditions. Then we spent two hours hosing off several layers of salt from Ghost Rider, unloaded gear and food, drove to our condo, and called the journey complete.
Sunrise Over Fort Myers Beach as We Approached the Sanibel Causeway
Overall Ghost Rider had performed very well.  Apart from the stabilizer oil temp / cooling issue, the only other thing to break the entire way was the starboard side (green) navigation light; we carry spare bulbs so that was an easy fix (although Rick did cut himself when the old bulb shattered in his hand; nothing new there.)  And our dipstick leak repair was so far holding up very well.  While it was disappointing to have to skip the planned Bahamas cruising, the maintenance depot stop at Yacht Tech was satisfying, as was the safe journey back home.
The Repair on the Dipstick Housing Oil Leak Seemed to be Holding Up
Our Complete Return Track -- From Palm Beach to Fort Myers -- as Seen on Google Earth


  1. Think I enjoyed this one the most; kind of an OMEGA MAN, post-apocalyptic search for other survivors. Wish I could have stowed away just to have seen the dark skies you described. You and Michelle stay safe.

  2. Brother Brutus,

    Thoughts of Omega Man – or On The Beach, or a number of other similar apocalyptic stories – are inevitable when new disasters strike, especially on such a large scale. When so-called ‘leadership’ fails miserably in responding, focusing instead on their own egos, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a total collapse and an unrecoverable situation.

    Am happy to report that everywhere we go we see resilience, determination and objectivity….the horrible ignorance and incompetence seems to exist mainly in the White House…and those stupid enough to enable the “OOO”. History will judge them harshly, and with luck / time, evolutionary trends will render them extinct.

    You & Cindy are welcome to crew with us any time.


  3. This was one of my fav's as well. Well-written as always and entertaining. Glad your back safe.

    What brand of Girl Scout cookies?

  4. Bill…you name the cookie brand & we’ve got it on the boat…but I favor the Toffee-Tastics or Samoas for overnight runs.

  5. Happy to have you back,
    Jim & Susan

  6. Definitely feels good to be back. Not sure how long that will last :-)