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Return to the Sea

Travelogue - December 11, 2006

Ceiling fan I surface from a restless dream. Bizarre visions coalesce and solidify, become the whirling blades of a slowly revolving fan...

"Saigon... I'm still only in Saigon..."

But wait. I'm pretty sure this isn't Saigon. It's Punta Gorda. And that heavy weight on my feet is merely a drowsing cat.

Yes, Goldie, Rick and I made it safely, if wearily, to Florida!

We had left the Bondo house at a civilized 8:00 a.m. and a shocking -28 degrees F. Only minor problems starting the rental car at that temp (I recommend Alamo's Nissan Sentra), and our connection in Salt Lake City went smoothly. We had time in Atlanta for dinner; Rick lost his fleece jacket somewhere along the way and by now a mystified southerner is wondering what to do with such a thing. We arrived at Fort Myers (Southwest Florida Regional Airport) at 10:30 pm EST, claimed our tons of baggage and staggered out to our rental car. It was still in the 70's, and I hadn't lost MY coat so it felt pretty warm.

We arrived at Rick's parents' house at midnight. Don and Lu had stayed up to greet us, and I immediately established Goldie's litter box and food stations. Goldie immediately proved to us that she remembered everything about the place; including the locations of said litter box and food, and that she is allowed on the bed here which is strictly forbidden at home. Even after six months away, she didn't bat an eye but hopped right up there and made herself at home. Which brings us to waking in confusion, etc. ("Punta Gorda? I'm still only in Punta Gorda...") but now we're rested and fine.

Sea Gator, a Boat on Land

Slime on the boat

Of course, Rick and I zipped out to visit Sea Gator in her dry-land berth the next morning. The most obvious change over the summer was that her entire port side, which was in the shade, was now GREEN with algae! Eewww! All the way up the side, and every shaded surface in the sundeck and under Bump Head's platform, was a glowing green (see dried algae sample, left). Yikes!

Then, I found a FROG that had made its way up under the roof of the sundeck and wedged himself into the head of the boat brush! Eeeeep! (I shouldn't complain: Gillian found a SNAKE on top of their sundeck after hurricane Wilma).

So we entered the boat with some trepidation, but were relieved to discover that all was dry and clean and mold-free inside. Yay! Fortunately, we had followed the advice of those more experienced than ourselves and had left two "Air-Dryr" heaters operating. The theory is that the small electric heaters generate just enough heat to keep the air moving and prohibit mold spores from germinating. I had also dispersed half a dozen large trays of charcoal on the theory that the charcoal would absorb moisture, which apparently it did. We were very happy that the interior was in such good shape when we returned.

With no pressing emergencies inside, I set myself to cleaning the hull. Passersby recommended spraying everything with bleach, but I demurred, since washing the boat would be a bath for me as well and I didn't want to bathe in bleach. Plus I had to scrub the dust off anyway, so why not use soap and a brush? Once the frog was removed from his perch, the boat brush worked well on everything - except the rust stains which had seeped from previously damaged portions of the rub rail, and continued to seep.

Don at work Here, Don fine-tunes beneath the swim platform. FYI: Under his arm you'll see a propeller, and you'll say, "Golly, that prop is perpendicular to the direction of travel!" You are correct. It's not the main prop for forward propulsion, but a "thruster", useful for maneuvering the stern in tight quarters. Many boats have bow thrusters, but Sea Gator is different like that.

Meanwhile, Rick met Al of Al's Mobile Marine Service, and the two of them spent over an hour in the sweltering engine room repacking the stuffing box. Another FYI: The "stuffing box" seals the hole where the main propeller shaft pierces the hull; its "stuffing" must be loose enough to allow the shaft to turn and to allow seawater to lubricate the spinning shaft, but tight enough to keep the bulk of the ocean out of the engine room.

Rick polishing Rick could not stop saying nice things about Al. For example (he raved), Al returned phone calls promptly! He did what he said he was going to do! He charged what he said he would charge! And he was a nice enough fellow with whom to be crammed into an engine room, if one must! Now Rick has a trusted, likable, knowledgeable marine mechanic upon whom he can call when the need arises.

After two days I had swabbed the decks and hull to facilitate the waxing to come. Don powered through the worst rust stains, and he and Rick polished and waxed the entire hull.

Then I set to cleaning, polishing and buffing the interior, and since we all know what cleaning, polishing and buffing entail, I'll skip the details. We accomplished a lot in a few days, and we were fortunate to meet some nice neighbors:

The beautiful sailboat Highlander was nearby and we met her owners, John and Mary Ann; we heard how they dragged their keel through the entire canal last spring, waved them on a bon voyage toward Burnt Store Marina, and were glad to help them with their car shuttle.

Then the enormous Amapola came to berth next to us. Her captain explained that among other repairs he now had to replace his skeg (i.e. big hunk of steel). Apparently, while doing its job of protecting the propeller during a grounding, it had met its match in the South Gulf Cove lock channel. It was now absent from its place at the stern. Amapola's captain said, calmly, "I'm pretty sure I know where it is; I'll dive down and get it in awhile."

Return to the Sea

Tom painting On December 5, All American Boat and RV Storage's Tom and Pete arrived in the boat lift.

Tom driving the lift

Once Sea Gator was safely in the lift and the blocks removed, Tom, who had painted Sea Gator's bottom, touched up those areas which had been inaccessible. Hi, Tom!

That paint resists infestation by critters, and peels away in layers when barnacles do attach. Therefore the pros choose a different color each time they repaint, so that an emerging thin spot will be revealed by the different color beneath. Who knew?!

Pete on the dock A moment here in praise of All American and its crew: they did a great job. While they made no promises about preventing hurricanes, that which they could control - security - they did very well. Sea Gator was safe and secure all summer, and we had no worries in that regard.

After the touch-up we were good to go. What followed was the reverse of last spring's process: They motored the lift through the yard then lowered Sea Gator into the "well". Wisely, they left the lift straps on until we had made a thorough check below decks. We heard no ominous "glug glug glug"ing sounds, nor saw any gushing water in the bilge, so Rick started the engine. It took a few moments to fire, and then it purred. They released the straps and Rick drove us to All American's long dock where, with Tom and Pete's assistance, we tied up fast to await the next days' voyage. Yay!

Jazz in the Bayou To celebrate, we hopped in our rental car and took ourselves to the Loose Caboose, our favorite Boca Grande lunch spot. Afterward we checked out the adjacent anchorage, called the "Bayou," to see if there was enough space for us to anchor in. If so we'd make Boca Grande our first stop. Lo and behold, when we came to the dock we saw our friends' Jazz! Several phone-tag messages later, Don and Gillian knew we were on our way.

First Grounding!

On the cruise Wednesday dawned bright and lovely. Don's friend, "Flood", drove the four of us to All American, and we piled aboard. It took us awhile to get ready to cast off, being sure to carefully follow our pre-launch check list, and then to negotiate our procedures for clearing the dock against a pretty stiff wind. Thankfully, we got away without a hitch or a ding, and proceeded through the many many miles of the South Gulf Cove canal on our way to Charlotte Harbor. Here are Rick, Don and Lu enjoying the ride.

South Gulf Cove Lock Between the South Gulf Cove Canal and the Mayakka River is a lock. You may remember the self-evident fact that we went through this lock on the way IN last spring. On this day, County personnel were working there and they were remarkably cheerful. One guy operated the lock for us, saving me some leaping and dashing. There he is on the right, watching us depart. He had entertained us with the tale of his trip through the Panama Canal on a cargo ship! Very cool story.

Outside the lock and now several feet lower in elevation, we followed the marked channel toward open water. The chart claims this section is 5' deep at mean low tide. I beg to differ. We draw 3.5' and we were soon aground. We debated our options, and decided to attempt to power through (the risk is churning up too much muck, which can be sucked up into one's raw water intake; if one's cooling water system is clogged the engine can overheat). But with one careful eye on the depth sounder and another on the engine temperature gauge, we got loose and thought we'd made it...

Well, we made it another several thousand feet, experiencing the unnerving catch and drag of soft mud against the keel. Then, with only one final set of channel markers to clear, we slid to a stop again. This time, we were stuck for sure.

Another lively debate ensued. We all kept our heads. I came below and opened all of the water spigots to dump our stored water overboard (150 gallons is a lot of weight, you do the math); Don and Lu kept their eyes on the channel markers (the tide was coming in, and the breeze came from directly abeam; if we came loose we could quickly blow out of the channel and be in worse shape); and I radioed Tow Boat U.S. for assistance.

Now a word about Tow Boat U.S. In all the contact I've had with them (asking for a radio check each time we head out), they have invariably been friendly folks. Now that I was actually calling for a tow, they were still nice. They didn't laugh or berate us, only asked for our location and our towing insurance policy number, and then gave us their e.t.a. of 45 minutes.

Although reassured, we continued our own efforts.

Meanwhile, Don and Lu noticed that our stern was drifting UPwind. On that day, the bow of Sea Gator was the mass most affected by the wind. We held our breath, the water ran out, the tide came in, and soon our stern was pointing toward mid-channel. Now we also crossed our fingers, and Rick fired up the engine and carefully eased, then roared, in reverse and we were free! Quick forward gear, and we plowed our way through the next several hundred yards of skinny water and into the deeper Harbor.

I couldn't take my eyes of the depth sounder; even in the open harbor the sensation of the boat going over and through swells was hauntingly similar to the feel of a soft muddy bottom rubbing new paint off the keel. I called Tow Boat US to cancel our rescue with many thanks, and Rick dryly observed, "Now, we, too, know where Amapola's skeg is."

Omens of Good Fortune

Dolphins The rest of that cruise was so cool! As we were regaining our equilibrium from the grounding and its trials, we heard a splash. We all rushed to the starboard rail, and there were two dolphins swimming alongside!

Often, dolphins will toy with our bow wave until they realize that we are too slow to be any fun. But this couple stuck with us for a long time, swirling and weaving and twisting in the foam, rising above to blow and breath. Lu loved it when they coasted on their sides as if they were looking up at us. We waved like a bunch of crazy fools! They swam with us until our spirits were buoyed, then left as abruptly as they had come.

Out and Away

Hardpan Safely tied to the family's dock we finished our preparations: we did more cleaning, purchased and hung new blinds, and replaced the old icky microwave with new in a better location. We "provisioned" (a.k.a. power shopped). Rick replaced fuel filters, cleaned their housings and fixed the windlass (the thingy that brings up the anchor). Rick and Don set an "anchor" in the ground near the dock so we can chain Sea Gator's bow to land. That last was a major project - the team learned that impenetrable hardpan lurks beneath the innocuous sand of the average Punta Gorda Isles home.

Finally, on a rising tide on December 11, we brought an alarmed Goldie aboard, bid adieu to Lu, and eased safely away from their dock. Our trip through the Punta Gorda Isles canals was uneventful; I spent most of it stowing lines and talking on the phone.

Lu In a little over an hour, Lu met us at the mouth of the canal system to wave farewell. Bye, Lu, see you in a few weeks! Then we motored into the Harbor to begin our adventures of this year!

There was a moderate chop in Charlotte Harbor, and I took advantage of the wide open spaces to practice my maneuvers on Sea Gator. Spinning in place is useful when backing into a tight slip, and I hope I never have to do it for real. But I'll be ready - head for the hills everyone!

Four hours later we idled in to Boca Grande Bayou under calm conditions. Rick brought us in parallel to Jazz. We set the anchor, and I drove Sea Gator while he hopped in Bump Head (Sea Gator's dingy, if you recall) with our stern lines and secured them strategically. Then, recalling our earlier experience here when our bow swung in a beam wind, we set a second anchor out at an angle to the first. All to keep the bow in place in case a blow comes along in the next two weeks.

Don and Gillian had been visiting the shops of Boca Grande, and they returned to Jazz in their dinghy just after any potentially embarrassing maneuvers had been completed on our part. Since we didn't ram their boat or foul their lines, what they don't know won't hurt them.

I'm kidding; it all went as smoothly as it possibly could.

Feline update

Goldie eating Once over her alarm at the noise of the engine, Goldie endured it all with her usual calm acceptance. She must have decided that sleeping on our bed snuggled against my ribs is a fair trade for any inconvenience or disruption she may have to bear. She is the world's finest cat.

Here she demonstrates her clever ability to locate her own food. Such a creature of the wild, she is the primeval huntress in her element!

So here we are, safe and sound in Boca Grande until further notice.

Thank you for listening!

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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