We have often said our cruising plans were written in the sand at low tide. I can’t recall when we last left on a “planned” cruise and it actually ended as planned. This time has turned out to be no exception. To help understand why, you need to know that we are not cruising on a retirement income nor did we make big bucks in the stock market. Each of the extended cruises means years of planning, saving and working toward that goal. We settle in for as long as it takes, find the best employment we can in our fields and work on the boat while we are stashing everything we can save in the bank. We try to determine what the trip will cost and how long we will be able to stay out there before the bank account hits the magic number, telling us it is time to go back to work to begin the cycle all over again. That means each cruise must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Our average timeframe for each is 18 to 24 months. This strategy has allowed us to have some wonderful experiences for many years without fear that our plans might never come to fruition because of health or family issues. Unfortunately, we have seen many of our friends whose dreams were quashed for these same reasons, just when their goals were in sight.
Waylaid along the way
Sea Trek and her crew left Marathon, Fla., on April 9, 2005, for a long planned extended cruise through the western Caribbean to include Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, a Panama Canal transit and a trip up the Pacific Coast to Southern California.
A two-week stop in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala turned into a five-month visit — not only because it turned out to be a wonderful cruising ground, but because once we entered the river the hurricane season began with a vengeance. During that time we soaked up all that Guatemala had to offer. Inland trips to see the volcanoes at Lake Atitlan, several trips to visit Guatemala City, walks on the black sand beaches on the Pacific side and visits to the Mayan ruins in Copan Honduras. On two occasions we volunteered with other cruisers to do medical clinics in some of the remote Indian villages with “Jungle Medic” Bryan Buchanan and his wife Riechelle (www.junglemedicmissions.org). We watched as the months progressed and the storms marched across the Caribbean and took aim on the coastline of the United States. We actually left the river in October and only traveled 50 miles north into Belize when another storm chased us back.
The brute force of nature
The Gulf Coast seemed to become the primary target area for these ferocious storms. As we watched from the safety of the Rio Dulce, we also realized that time was going to run out on us and we would have to backtrack to the United States instead of pressing on south through the Panama Canal. As we watched the destruction along the U.S. coast on CNN through the local satellites, we began to wonder what we could expect once we returned. Our first glimpse came as we arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to make the final jump back to the United States. As we approached the island we noticed that something was different, but we could not immediately put our finger on it. As we sailed closer it became apparent that it was the strange, almost reddish color coming from the shorelines. Finally we came to realize that this was the color of the mangrove trees that cover most of the western shore. They had been stripped of all green vegetation. Sunken boats and wreckage were everywhere and some facilities were still not operating as they had when we passed through eight months earlier.
Our stay in Isla during the Christmas holidays was still a pleasant one, albeit a little shorter than when we passed through the previous April. An excellent weather window opened for us to cross the Gulf Stream the next three days, so off we went on an extremely calm motor back to the Florida Keys.
An altered landscape
On New Year’s Eve 2006, we crossed the reef off Marathon and dropped anchor just outside Boot Key Harbor Channel at about 9 p.m. As we approached in the dark using known GPS coordinates and our radar, we noted what at first appeared to be an island showing up on the radar screen. We knew that was not possible so we approached carefully and realized as we got closer that it was a large group of boats anchored outside of the main harbor. This was the first indication that things had changed since we left — and not for the better. Hurricane Cindy crossed the Gulf and made landfall near Grande Isle, La., around July 6. Hurricane Dennis had passed just west of Key West around July 9 and made landfall near Gulf Breeze, Fla., on July 10. The now infamous Katrina made landfall Aug. 25 in the Miami/Dade area and passed just a few miles north of the Keys. Katrina re-entered the Gulf and we have all seen the devastation in the New Orleans area. On Sept. 20 Hurricane Rita intensified about 100 nautical miles east southeast of Key West and then increased in strength and passed within 40 miles of Key West. Rita marched across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall Sept. 24 at Johnson’s Bayou, La., just east of Sabine Pass. And it still wasn’t over. On Oct. 24 Wilma made landfall near Cape Romano, Fla., just north of the Keys. These were all areas we were about to cover since we had decided to relocate our base of operations to Kemah, Texas, on Clear Lake, just south of Houston rather than the Keys — our base for 10 years.
Closed for business
We decided to make our transit via the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway instead of a direct crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. These decisions were made after a great deal of research regarding the condition of the waterways and what facilities would or would not be available along our route.
The most damage to the boating infrastructure in the Keys appeared to be on the gulf or “bay” side. The downtown waterfront of Key West also took quite a beating. The reason we found so many boats anchored outside Boot Key Harbor was the harbor had become extremely crowded, even more than normal for this time of year. Many marinas in the middle Keys on the bayside had been destroyed. To add insult to injury, one of the more popular marinas in Boot Key Harbor had survived but had been converted into private condo slips, selling for $225,000 and not available to transients. Two other marinas in the harbor have been taken over by a large corporation and have doubled their transient slip fees. Many boats had been damaged in the storms and repair facilities were stretched to the limit. The three marinas in Marathon with haulout capabilities were fully operational. An added problem for these facilities is that many of their former employees left to avoid the storms and did not return, leaving them shorthanded. We found this problem was not confined to Florida, but is a problem all along the Gulf Coast. Some marinas will only take transients for a day or two and another large marina with slips in Boot Key Harbor and on bayside closed completely this past June. Plans to renovate and reopen are up in the air, but we’re told this facility will be closed for quite some time.
Settle in and regroup
Our stay in Boot Key Harbor stretched on to six weeks. During that time we had strong fronts coming down from the mainland, bringing heavy rain and winds of 30 to 40 knots, sometimes for days. We took an unscientific count and estimated there were well over 400 boats in the harbor, anchored on top of one another. Each front brought boats swinging and dragging into each other and some interesting conversations on the VHF. Sea Trek was fortunate enough to find a small corner of the harbor that avoided the potential for disaster that seemed to arrive about every three days like clockwork. Having multiple anchors out and well- set was a matter of survival. We did use this time to relax as best we could, visit friends and take care of business that we could only do in the States. Things like renewing our communications source (a cell phone), restocking on good old American groceries and making a few minor repairs on the boat, since the marine supply store was a short dinghy ride from where we were anchored. It began to feel like we would be trapped in this harbor for months. Twice we had received weather reports of a break in the fronts, only to have those reports change significantly the day before we planned to leave. Anyone who has been following our adventure is well aware of our feelings about the ability of the NWS to accurately predict the weather anywhere near a watery portion of the planet. If sailing has taught us nothing else, it is patience and after what seemed like a long time, the front began to get lighter and soon began to dissipate north of our position. It was a good sign, and eventually our opportunity to escape arrived and we jumped on it. Once again we would be sailing into new territory and with all of the destruction we had seen from the media we were a bit apprehensive. But then that is the case any time we strike out for parts unknown. The entire Gulf Coast lay ahead of us with well over a thousand miles to go.