Brunswick to Ft. Lauderdale (Part 3)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Podcasts occupied my time during my midnight and 6am shifts. They helped considerably in distracting my mind from my desire to sleep for the first hour, but as the second hour ticked away I kept looking at my watch more frequently as I fantasized about getting back in bed.

At 6am, when I took the helm, I saw Dan had moved us very close to land – within a mile and half or so. Hugging the coast not only gave us calmer seas, but we were able to travel faster. The Gulf Stream (a steady swift current that runs south to north along the eastern side of Florida) was stronger as we moved away from land and had less effect on us in the shallower waters. Navigation was a bit more involved because we had more possibility of coming across too shallow of water or other shallow hazards. Mostly thought, we had to keep an eye out for other boats.

Along the coast of Florida there are barrier islands that separate the mainland from the open ocean. Most people dock their boats back in between those islands and the mainland, all exiting and returning through the same large channels. Motoring south, we would occasionally come across these busy intersections. Crossing them was like playing Frogger as we go sideways across a busy street of cars. Some channels are busier than others.

When we passed Peanut Island’s channel, Dan decided he wanted to check the oil. The motor had been running for 48 hours straight, it’s still blowing white smoke for some unknown reason, and we’re still learning how she functions in various conditions. So, Brandy killed the engine and Dan and I went below to take a look.

We put more than 48 hours worth of time on that motor between St. Augustine, Brunswick, Cumberland, and Brunswick again, but the oil level barely fluctuated at all. So you can imagine Dan’s surprise when we found the oil level didn’t even register on the dip stick! We added a quart and checked again. Nope. Still nothing. Added more. Still nothing. At this point Brandy starts calmly telling us from the cockpit that we’re drifting north back into the channel we just passed. This is despite the mainsail being up. The light winds were coming from a less than ideal direction and the current was too strong to fight. Dan keeps messing with the oil and asks me to go take a look to get a better idea of the potential hazard. I walk up and ask Brandy how much we’ve been drifting only to look over and see a large red buoy much closer than it was when I went down. Luckily, there wasn’t much boat traffic in the moment so we weren’t going to be blocking the inlet for anyone trying to get in our out. Not at far as we could tell anyway.

I went down and told Dan. The tension was raised a bit but we weren’t overly concerned. We weren’t in danger of hitting anything and it was deep enough we weren’t going to run aground. Or so we thought. Three days later, Brandy was telling the story to someone else and mentioned that while drifting backward she had to steer the boat away from that large red buoy and she thought we were going to hit it. That was the first Dan or I had heard of it!

Nevertheless, we were in a rush so we added a bit more oil. I started cleaning up and Dan went to start the motor so we could get away from shore and out of anyone’s way as we were now blocking the channel. Click. Nothing. Click. Nothing. The engine didn’t start.

Dan checked the voltage on the starter batteries and they were fine. He tried again to no avail. He started the generator to give us some extra charge and let it run for a few minutes and then tried again. Nope. Finally, he took a screwdriver over to the starter on the motor and bypassed the starter switch (we learned from our electrician in St. Augustine how to hot wire boats). It fired up and we got moving. We still didn’t know why it didn’t start or why the oil was reading so low, but were confident we’d added enough to get us to Ft. Lauderdale so we kept going. Crisis avoided.

Checking the fuel gauge a bit later, Dan was calculating our diesel usage and determined that we were a going to be cutting it entirely too close trying to get to our final destination. Always planning ahead, Dan had an extra 5 gallons of diesel on hand so we decided to add that to the tank. The waves threw the boat around a bit but nothing too much, so we were able to add the extra 5 gallons while on the move. Dan took another reading on the tank and decided we were in good shape but would keep an eye on it. I don’t remember the time, but I think it was about 5pm and we were supposed to arrive at the channel into Ft. Lauderdale around midnight.

Along the more populated beaches as we neared Ft. Lauderdale (West Palm, Pompano, Boca Raton) scores of people could be seen playing on the beach. As the sun set, the coastline lit up with all of the condos, hotels, and mansions along the shore in the more populated areas near Ft. Lauderdale. It was a welcome sight that broke up the scenery of barren beaches with sand dunes and small scattered houses we had seen most of the time up until then. I’d also been dreaming of seeing blue water since moving on the boat rather than the dirtier brown water in St. Augustine or Brunswick. Finally, we were in it!

We arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale channel around midnight and just needed to lower our sails so we could finish motoring to our marina for the last hour or so. The fuel level was fine, the seas were calm, and there wasn’t a lot of boat traffic in or out of the channel. Easy! Nope. We dropped the sails and Dan jumped into the cockpit to turn us inland. The second he put his hand on the wheel…sputter, thbbtt, silence, and the engine immediately died!? So there we are drifting backward into a channel FOR THE SECOND TIME IN ONE DAY!

Dan immediately ordered we put the mainsail back up to get some wind power and not just drift and that Brandy call a tow boat. We popped the sail back up and Brandy was on the phone with someone in a minute giving them our boat information and location. We were in the channel so all they had to do was pop out and get us. Easy! Nope. They said it as a busy night and they’d be there in an hour. Great.

Dan was behind the wheel and luckily the light winds came in a direction that allowed us to fight the current enough to move south out of the channel. All we had to do was keep going slowly south and wait for the boat to come out and get us. Easy! Nope. We were heading toward shallow waters and were going to run aground.

We were making our way at 1 to 1.5 knots. It’s super slow, but we couldn’t do it for an hour before getting to the shallow waters. Dan decided to tack (turn 180 degrees upwind to ultimately swing the boat in the opposite direction) which would point us toward deeper waters. He steered the boat upwind and tried to get the wind to catch the other side of the sails, but we didn’t have enough speed. By the time the boat was pointed upwind we would lose momentum and the wind would start to blow us back in the direction we were originally headed. Twice we tried. Twice we failed.

At this point I was already on the front of the boat ready to drop the anchor so we could just stop. I think we were in 15 feet of water or so and we have a draft of 5.5 feet (the boat’s depth under water). I suggested we try jibing downwind instead of turning upwind. It was worth a shot but more risky because it meant we had to turn toward shallow waters. Dan gave it a shot but could tell rather quickly it wasn’t going to work. It was time to drop the anchor.

We dropped the anchor and let it settle. Since we had done it once before in Cumberland the week before I knew the drill and the potential failure points in the process. Easy? Yep. Finally, something was.

At about that time the tow boat came in and we latched onto him. 30 minutes or so he had dragged us under two bridges, through the canals, and nestled us right up to our dock. I jumped up to tie the lines and immediately felt awkward at the feeling of solid ground under my feet for the first time in 3.5 days. With each step my brain was trying to figure out if my body was leaning in any one direction in a purposeful effort to walk or if it was caused by the waves it had been fighting with for so long. It couldn’t figure out how to compensate and my first 5 minutes or so I felt like a stumbling drunk.

It was 2am, the boat was tied down, and we were finally there. Dan and I had a couple of beers to unwind and celebrate a safe arrival. Brandy celebrated by going to sleep.

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