Thursday, March 11, 2010


(Blogger’s note:  This adventure occurred last month.  We are now safe and sound, our engines have been repaired and we are exploring the Gulf Coast.)

The entire month of January, our 36-foot catamaran, Sunshine, was happily attached to a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor in the middle Keys, among 250 other boats.  Life was easy there, except for a week of record-setting low temperatures in January that chilled us to the bone. 

Early in February, we decided to head up the Gulf Coast seeking  new adventures.  We left Marathon early one morning, accompanied by good friends and buddy-boaters, Mickey and Lillian, on their boat Carpe Diem.

About an hour into our trip, our port engine alarm began to squeal as black smoke poured from the engine.  We switched off that engine and continued on using only the starboard engine, not losing much speed.

Forty-five minutes later, the starboard engine began to vibrate.  We shut it off and dropped the anchor, glad that we were in fairly shallow water.  We hailed Carpe Diem on the VHF radio to let them know we were dead in the water.

Carpe Diem offered to tow us the 25 miles to Little Shark River, a safe haven in the Everglades wilderness of Southwest Florida where we had planned to anchor that night.  We hooked on tow lines and took off, traveling at 4.5 knots.

By 4:00 p.m. we were still south of the Florida mainland and still 20 miles from Little Shark River.  At that rate, we wouldn’t reach our protected anchorage until well after dark.  A front was moving in from the Northwest later that evening,  bringing strong, gusty winds.  It was not a good time to be out on the ocean.

About that time, a large trawler named Samantha motored by and offered to take over the towing and get us to the lee of Cape Sable, about six miles away, where we would have some protection from the coming storm.  Samantha was headed that way and she had bigger engines that could tow us faster.    We quickly accepted the offer and were soon traveling at seven knots.

Our three boats arrived at Cape Sable after dark.  The winds were beginning to blow.  Samantha pulled us to a good spot and we dropped the tow lines and our anchor.  The wind set the anchor for us.  We were exhausted and fell into bed.

Even with the protection of Cape Sable, the wind and waves tossed us about all night long.  The next morning was clear and sunny, but the winds remained strong. 

Late in the morning, Samantha radioed that it appeared we were drifting.   Our GPS confirmed that our anchor was dragging.  The starboard engine would not start at all, so we fired up the port engine, but it was too weak to overcome the current and wind which were pushing us into shallow water.

Samantha came to our aid again, risking going aground in the shallow water to tow us back closer to the shore.   A close look at our anchor revealed that the shaft had bent during the night.  Phil quickly swapped our back-up anchor for the damaged one and we were secure again.

High winds marooned us at Cape Sable a second night. Mickey and Phil spent the next day working on our engines.  The starboard engine refused to start, but Phil was able to hot-wire it with a screwdriver.  It needed a new water pump, so he swapped out a water pump from the disabled port engine, but then the screwdriver trick failed to work again.

We finally contacted TowBoat US (AAA for cruisers), who sent a towboat from Islamarada to take us up to the Little Shark River.  That was the limit of their towing area.   We arrived there late Thursday afternoon along with Carpe Diem and anchored up the river in a protected area.

The tow boat captain warned us that we would have no communication.  That meant no cell phone coverage, no internet and no VHF.  He promised that he would contact the TowBoat US folks in Marco Island to come and get us as soon as the weather allowed.

Another storm was predicted for the next day and this one was the worst we have ever encountered.  Even though we were about a quarter mile up the river, with wind protection from all directions, a squall came through that tossed both our boats around like toys.   Fortunately, our anchor held this time.  We later learned that the winds in that storm had exceeded 60 mph. 

On the third day, the weather calmed.  Finally, that afternoon, a second tow boat arrived and took us the eight hours to a Marco Island marina.

Things we learned from this experience: 

1)  Don't believe that the words "unlimited towing" on your TowBoat US card really mean "unlimited towing."

2) The Little Shark River is beautiful and remote, but it's not a good place to get stranded.

3)  Cruisers are the best people in the world.  Especially the folks on Carpe Diem and Samantha.

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