Venice Yacht Club East Coast Trip
April 19-28, 2004

By the First Mate

Click for pictures from the trip.

Our intent was to take this trip with the Yacht Club group as far as Palm City, then proceed on our own to Ft. Lauderdale to visit friends and help design a website for a couple of days and continue south around the tip of Florida and back up the west coast home. It didn’t happen that way.

Day 1

We departed at 8:30 am from Blackburn Point, but the tide was unusually low, and we tunneled our way out of the slip through the mud. We met the other four boats and fell in line. I watched the scenery for awhile, wondering how many more ways there were to describe sea and sky. Then I started on the Sunday paper feeling the luxury of no time limits, and the freedom to read all day if I chose. I liked the article about a man’s trip to Mali where he fulfilled his life dream of riding across the Sahara on a camel. I found myself wondering what I would be missing if I never saw Timbuktu. There was an allure—I have always been intrigued by foreign culture, but then I remembered our friend George relating stories of his visit to Mali and his tales of the camel spiders that anesthetize you as you sleep, and then eat out your check.

Just as we reached Gasparilla, Wren casually mentioned we had lost an engine. No other info, so after my initial panic, I decided to ignore it. I only learned later that the fuel pump filter had clogged, but not totally, and Wren had learned from past experience how to nurse it along till we stopped of our own volition. This was the same spot on our trip two years ago that the pump clogged, the engine died, and I was stuck trying to steer with one engine in the pouring rain while Wren hid down below.

Though the temperature was in the mid-eighties, we had a 15 mph east wind, and the higher the sun climbed, the colder and windier it became. I was freezing in a sweater and a sweatshirt, and by the time we reached Charlotte Harbor, there was a good chop, and I had to hold down the chart to keep it aboard. By the time we entered the Caloosahatchee River the Sunday parade of boaters was bumper to bumper, and at times three abreast, causing traffic jams equal to the interstate. In the distance I watched a dozen small iridescent blue sailboats move forward, like triangular pieces on a board game.

We were a little confused about our destination, and tried to radio our fleet captain several times unsuccessfully. I rummaged around below and found our two portable radios, and using all three, we made contact.

We docked at the Royal Palm Yacht Club in Ft. Myers at 2:15 with the ten others on our trip. Wren spent the afternoon changing the fuel filters. Everyone was very friendly, and we all ate dinner overlooking the river at Tucan Charlie’s.

Lying awake for many hours during the night listening to the constant sucking and cracking, I imagined a giant plunger out there working away.

Day 2

We departed at 9:30 in an east wind, but we are protected today. The river is wider than I remembered it, less desolate. We have three locks to raise us up and there is a small crisis at each. At the Franklin Lock, ten boats are squeezed in, and we lose a fender in the water. Wren practically swims around in the lock retrieving it. At the Ortona Lock, we are the last boat and are up against a convex curve which puts the bow too far from the side to reach the rope, and the bumpers in the wrong places for protection. I should have had a boat hook to catch the rope, but instead I dangle over the edge and didn’t quite fall overboard. Moore Haven Lock is not a problem except that we leave our motor running since we had difficulty starting it at the last lock. The lady in the boat behind us is furious and begins yelling at me, even after I explain. She claims it’s illegal, and I can see she’d like to tear me to bits.

Around noon the river banks changed from velvety green lawns and pastel Mediterranean houses to steep empty inclines dotted with palmettos. Occasionally jagged gray grasses grew in clumps like witches brooms. Darker muted greens gave way as we passed Lake Hicpochee, a marshland of chartreuse flora mingled with rivulets of blue

After the third lock, as we round the bend the river narrows to a canal. Pines growing out of the water were decoratively draped with Spanish moss like frosted tinsel. Behind them was a dense forest of silver gray leafless trees, long slim trunks with bouquets of empty branches fanning out at the top—the whole landscape mocking winter in New England.

We arrived at Clewiston at 3:30. The dockmaster shouted orders at all of us, and continued terrorizing us until departure in the am. Each boat had to spin in the narrow channel, dock, then move up to refuel. He was efficient but mean, and enjoyed finishing each knot with a snap and a flourish. I kept my distance.

Having cocktails on the patio, we watch four caged bunnies as their empty water bottles are filled and they scramble to quench their thirst. The black one manages to get one bottle all to himself while the other three frantically fight for a sip from the other bottle. The white bunny, squashed between two others, seldom gets close, and hangs there in defeat. Eventually everyone is sated and they collapse on the floor of the cage. We feel like doing the same. I am exhausted from the stress of three locks, and a long day of vibrations and engine noise. We eat ossobucco on the boat and go to bed. The rest of the group eats at the tiki bar until the mosquitoes chase them to their cabins.

Day 3

There is no wind as we depart at 8:30 am and move into the lake. The dockmaster is present to release us and is offering rabbit stew for breakfast. On Okeechobee there is no land port side, a ripple of green starboard. The early morning sun spreads a path of twinkling stars on the water, and we cross quickly and start up the St. Lucie River with her high white sandy banks studded with vegetation on one side, and at times a deserted palm lined road on the other. Occasionally we view a modest house or an orange grove, and one clump of pines with needles so soft and curly, they looked like an old fashioned lady’s tresses.

We had a long wait at the St. Lucie Lock while a crane went through, and I went inside to make lunch, not noticing when we finally moved, and had to fly around to tie on bumpers and grab ropes. We descended 14 feet.

We reached the Harbor Ridge Yacht and Country Club in Palm City, and docked at 2 pm at the north dock along with Just Divine. The rest of our party was sent to the south dock, a long way away. We failed to figure out the docking procedure, and had to redo all our ropes once we were settled, but we finally got squared away. We ate dinner at the Yacht Club and we are all good friends by now. I am the only one in a dress. Last year I was the only one in slacks.

Day 4

The Club was an enormous complex of unmarked roads and alleyways, but we had golf carts and vans and a free day to sightsee. We toured nearby Hutchinson Island whose beaches reminded us of Nantucket, and shopped and lunched in Stuart, where some of the group bought Mexican enamel animals painted in colorful designs, and we all shared a giant fried cheesecake sundae. Drinks were on Just Divine, and when we finally went off to the Sunrise Line, we were really sorry to be leaving all the really nice people we’d been traveling with.

Day 5

Today we were to set out on our own for Ft. Lauderdale. The inside route would take 9 hours with many no wake zones and low bridges, and the outside route, 4 . The forecast was for a brisk east wind, but Wren really wanted to go outside.

I am awake most of the night worrying about rough waters. We actually get off at 7 am (before the seas wake up, I am hoping), and the two guys from Just Divine are up to help us untie. The two women are sitting on the back of their boat to wave goodbye. The Elaine May radios us a farewell as we pass by the south dock. Such a nice group of people. There is no wind as we ask for a bridge opening and move down the St. Lucie. There is not a ripple in the water.

“Look at all those beautiful homes over there,” Wren begins. There is a loud crunch, a jolt, Wren cuts the engines, and we are hard aground. “I think we destroyed the props.”

I am speechless and begin to register the various implications of what’s happened. One is worse than the next, and I decide to put my imagination on hold and finish the Nanny Diaries which is quite gripping and allows me to stay sane. As we wait for Seatow, I hear today’s weather: “…perfect day on the Atlantic, no seas, one of the finest boating days of the year.”

Sea Tow takes a good hour to find us and after freeing us, tows the boat to Hinkley Marine in Stuart since the boat is vibrating like a washing machine off kilter on the spin cycle. The staff at Hinkley seem very efficient and friendly, and are anxious to pull the boat immediately. I hurriedly tried to stuff everything from the boat fridge in the travel fridge since there will be no power out of the water, and I knew it would be hard to get the travel fridge off later from a boat half way up to the heavens. We were ushered into the office and sipped mineral water while the boat was being diagnosed.

One prop was half missing, but we had a spare set aboard, and Hinkley thought they could get the spares on in an hour and we could continue on our way. I was impressed and stayed in the office while Wren watched their mechanic proceed, not realizing he was ruining the nuts as he tried to unscrew them. The nuts were made in Taiwan. Hinkley was unable to find replacements anywhere, and the Taiwanese website was in Chinese. New nuts would have to be manufactured to specifications, and that only happened in Ft. Lauderdale.

We ordered a rental car, hiked up a tall flimsy metal ladder that might have been made from an erector set, packed our clothes, stuffed the remainder of the food into a garbage bag, and descended, dangling our luggage to the waiting hands of staff below. Just as we were about to drive off, our fleet captain, his wife, and another of our new friends showed up to offer support. We were really glad to see them. Barb offered condolences, having once had a Jaguar that required a part manufactured specially at some exorbitant cost. I had never thought of our boat as being foreign before, but of course it is.

We drove to Ft. Lauderdale, dropped the old nuts off with a promise of new ones by Monday at the latest, and descended on our friends whom we had only met once (on a cruise seven years ago), and who were expecting us to stay for a couple of days, on our boat, out of their hair. Wren was there to work on a website, but I was an extra, and it was going to be four days before the boat was fixed. And we don’t travel light. By arrival, the nozzle of the whipped cream can had swirled clouds of cream all over the bananas, the lasagne, the cold cuts, and the bread. But I don’t give up food easily, and managed to organize our every edible bite into their freezer or my portable fridge.

Days 6-8

We spent three days in Ft. Lauderdale in a beautiful house, luxurious surroundings, and more than the comforts of home. Our host and hostess were gracious and welcoming. Wren worked with Loren on his Monocle Management website for fractional yachts, and Judy entertained me. I read and wrote, we shopped and ate lots of healthy food. I learned about scrambled egg whites with tuna and cinnamon cottage cheese toast, but we also ate baby beans and squash from Whole Foods and lemon dill salmon. I liked the city and enjoyed walking through the mall, noting a faster pace and a younger more diverse population than on the west coast.

The nuts were actually ready on Friday afternoon, and Wren drove them the hour and a half to Stuart so Hinkley could have our boat ready when we got there Monday morning. By this time he had figured out that Hinkley had ruined the nuts by unscrewing them the wrong way, destroying the threads. He pointed this out that afternoon to the employee who had watched with him as the mechanic worked. The clue was the position of the eight foot wrench and the employee couldn’t deny it. He agreed to take care of it.

Day 9

On Monday morning when we arrived back at our boat, it was still high in the air, and the new props weren’t on it. Hinkley’s previous efficiency had dissipated , and they now refused to take any responsibility for the nut problem. Wren spent the morning arguing with them while encouraging them to fix the boat, and this time I declined the air conditioned office and the fancy water, and sat outside on the luggage for two hours.

It’s one o’clock when we finally climb over the bow, drag our possessions into the salon, and Hinkley’s giant jaws release the boat into the water. Everything happens in seconds since the jaws are needed elsewhere and Wren must drive the boat, so I am left to deal inside which is topsy turvey from our hasty departure, and now has our luggage, camera bags, food, boxes on the floor. Water is running in little rivers around me since the fridge defrosted itself in our absence, and when I open it I find several items I missed in various stages of decay.

I don’t know what to do first. I am weak with hunger, and can’t move without tripping. The sink is full of beer and soda we’d removed from the traveling fridge when we left, the fridge pours more water on everything every time I open it and won’t restart, and Wren keeps beeping me every five seconds on the intercom because he can’t find the number for the marina in Clewiston.

“Hello, it’s me.” Who else would be beeping me, the pirate captain?

I decide to leave everything as is, make some sandwiches and serve them with warm Coke. I finally take my place in the first mate’s seat. We are about 40 minutes out. Wren phones our host to tell him we are finally off. Less than a second after he hangs up, I hear the now familiar crunch as we begin to go aground again. We are on the wrong side of the marker. Again. This time we recover on our own, but I don’t. My boating tolerance is very fragile and at that moment it sank, only to barely resurface as we are able to proceed.

When we reach the St. Lucie Lock, we are told it is closed for testing or maybe technical problems. A few minutes later we hear, “Captain, if you can fit through a 25 foot opening, come ahead. If you are at all uncomfortable, wait.”

“No problem, I’ll come ahead.”

“Okay, tie up on port.”

I am in a panic. I imagine us crashing into the lock as I head to the bow, totally forgetting about the bumpers. Wren reminds me and I come back and find only the wrong kind, but grab them anyway. I am frantically trying to tie them onto the side of the boat without losing them overboard using my original June knot, original every time I tie it. We rise 14 feet as I hold my rope and haul it in with all my strength while Wren can somehow control the stern rope and wander around the deck.

It’s 3:15 by the time we exit the lock. We have traveled 15 miles and have 50 to go. I try to keep my eyes closed for the next hour. I can’t take anymore stimuli. When I next open them, we seem trapped by a very low railroad bridge, as if the Wicked Witch had willed it there to prevent weary travelers from getting home.

“That bridge is supposed to be open,” Wren insists.

I’m sure it’s a magic spell, and I’m in no mood to outwit a witch.

We are unable to rouse anyone at the bridge by radio on the first three tries. Eventually we are told there will be a train in five minutes. As the first car appears, Wren asks for his camera, which I fling up the ladder just as the caboose flies by.

At 5 pm we enter Lake Okeechobee. It’s hot and calm, and haze obscures the horizon. I hope we know where we’re going as this is no dinky lake and I knew Wren didn’t put the coordinates in his GPS on the way over. The haze soon clears as the wind kicks up. The boat bounces suddenly up and down, and I am so paranoid at this point that I think the engines are blowing apart. It takes me a few minutes to realize that it’s only the waves. We docked in Clewiston at 6:15. The dockmaster was at least civil this time. I never stepped off the boat.

Day 10

We leave Clewiston Creek (my name) at 9:45. The dockmaster refuses to help us get off, but appears when we’re underway to yell goodbye, as if we’re best friends. I am still stowing the ropes he has made into long decorative chains, but which dissolve with a flick of the wrist. We do a 360 in the water lilies and head out.

Florida summer has arrived suddenly, and it is hot. The air conditioning in the bedroom quit in the middle of the night and there is also no power in the bathroom. The shower is dark as the water dribbles out, wetting an arm, a leg—it takes a long time to get wet. There is faint light from the porthole as I try to do my hair.

As we cruise along, I watch tiny egrets putter along the grassy bank and we are back to the dead tree forest where I see an osprey nest today. At least I feel like opening my eyes this morning. Moorehead Lock gives us plenty of notice, and I tie the bumpers securely to port. I note that I have tied them for life (about 20 knots in one) but I can untie them at my leisure later. At the last minute, we are told to tie up on starboard instead. I dig apart my knots and run to the other side, securing the bumpers and the bow, then run for the stern rope, bumping into Wren descending from the helm, and the boat crashes into the side of the lock. I have failed to get the rope and failed to protect the boat. Wren yells at me, and I retreat to the bow as he surveys the damage and pats the stern. We enter the Caloosahatchee. The jolt to the boat has returned power to the bathroom.

At the Ortona Lock, nothing goes wrong!

We barely pass under a low bridge, our antenna scraping along the underside, bumpity bump. We have forgotten to lower it. We have minor difficulties tying up in the wind at the Franklin Lock, the last.

We are surprised to see things we missed on the way over. In front of a large home, four jet black cows graze like lawn ornaments on an elegant front lawn. An enormous power plant seems to be made of mammoth steel radiators and black Arizona iced tea bottles magnified a thousand times. Port side--a one man sea plane is nuzzled by six goats while a water skier glides by.

We dock at 3:10 at the Royal Palm Yacht Club where we spent our first night. I am supposed to lasso the pole with my line, but all I do is throw the rope in the water. Wren has a challenging job backing into a tight slip in a brisk wind, with boats all around him. He succeeds.

Another Venice Yacht Club boat heading east has just docked, and they already know our story. In fact they seem to know it even better than we do, telling us we went aground around the Manatee Sleeve which they knew was confusing and poorly marked. We have never heard of any sleeve.

Day 11

A tricky departure at 9:05 on a cool and very windy day. We have no help, and Wren works on the stern lines and I hold us in place while he struggles with one piling. I am instructed to untie the other as we go by. I have the boat hook which I can’t control, so drop it on deck where it starts to slide into the water. As I rescue it I am able to free the rope and push us off. We maneuver around two dozen boats and safely exit the harbor. I am trying to gather up loose ropes dangling from all sides when Wren shouts he forgot to turn on the electrical. I run for the switches in the salon (we need the trim tabs badly) and hope no ropes are blowing off into the props. Wren heads straight for the red and green markers, but they are the wrong ones. Confused, we lose the channel, and I watch the depth gauge fall to half a foot. We creep back to deep water and finally get on course.

There is a lot of boat traffic on this end of the Caloosahatchee, and we slow down frequently. The intracoastal is equally busy, and we pass a sleek Sea Ray aground on a sandbar near Sanibel. Pine Island Sound feels like the ocean, and Charlotte Harbor is worse. The waves begin to splash me, coming up over the bow and in through the front window. Wren asks me to drive and disappears below. We rock precariously from side so I stand legs apart for balance, keep my eyes glued to the GPS, and my hands hard on the wheel. He returns before I crash into an oncoming sailboat, which isn’t really very close, but feels on top of me.

We reach the Boca Grande bridge just before the noon opening, and now the water levels out.

The next two hours were uneventful. We refueled at the Venice Yacht Club, and then I had half an hour to rehearse docking procedures. Every outing this winter has required three first mates for successful re-entry, and on all those occasions we had left ropes tied to pilings and dock. On this trip we had taken all but one rope with us, complicating life still further.

Wren wanted the two longer ropes tied to the stern—sounds easy, but I had eight black ropes that looked exactly alike, and by the time I got to rope three which I had now confused with rope two, I knew it was hopeless. Next I was to lasso the port piling, then run and grab the rope we had left on the starboard pole and tie it to the stern cleat. Success was close as Wren backed into the slip, but to our surprise, a fancy new boat was tied up beside us and our starboard rope was holding him nicely in place. Fortunately the wind was blowing in a direction favorable to docking (whatever way that was), and we weren’t in danger of crashing into anything, giving us time to re-strategize, re-arrange ropes and knots. A few minutes later, the captain of our new neighbor emerged and offered us our rope back.

We walked into the house just before five and unloaded the food and the laundry and the luggage. I even got my prize tomato plants home alive—I had been growing a special variety from seed that claims to like cool Maine weather, and I had taken the little pots on the boat to nurse along. I had forgotten to water them; left them at Hinkley with the boat where they sat in the sun, drying out a little more each day. The tomatoes seem to be more rugged than I am.

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