Our Voyage Draws to a Close

happy couple

Mike and I are happy to arrive safely.

We did it! Happy Times docked this afternoon at Sunset Bay Marina, our new home in Stuart, Florida. Our arrival marks the end of our circumnavigation of the Caribbean— two-and-a-half years and 8,247 nautical miles after we began.

Mike and I left Rio Dulce, Guatemala, in late May. The three-week trip back to the USA seemed odd without Mikayla, our winsome daughter and valued crew member. She came up with the idea of making the circle through the islands of the eastern Caribbean, south to South America, across the isthmus of Panama and the countries of the western Caribbean. Unfortunately, cruising teens were as rare as whale sightings on our voyage and social media could not diminish the distance between Happy Times’s various ports of call and Atlanta, our hometown. Living 24/7 with the parental units also became wearisome for Mikayla, so she decided to stay with her friend Gina until we returned.

Happy Times returns

Happy Times is all dressed up for her return to Florida.

Spending time together alone is a new concept for Mike and me. Not since Mikayla was born 16 years ago have we had this much time. Together. Alone. It’s something we must become accustomed to, because in only two years Mikayla will take off for college and a new life miles away. Perhaps during our time as CLODs — Cruisers Living on a Dock — we can figure out what’s next.

Today, though, we celebrate! We thank God for our safe return and we’re grateful for the people who covered us in prayers, especially my sister Sharon’s prayer circle. We acknowledge Rev. John Strickland of Atlanta Unity Church who often uses Happy Times and our voyage as an example of people who live their dreams.

Couple plus one aboard catamaran

Our friend Ken joined us on the last leg.

We especially appreciate all the cruisers we met on our travels. There is no other community like the cruising community. Whether one needs a boat part, advice on anchoring, the location of the best wifi, or any kind of support in a tight spot, a cruiser — or more likely half a dozen — will help. There simply is nothing that one cruiser won’t do for another.

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Captain Hook

The cutting edge in boat tools.

The cutting edge in boat tools.

Despite getting the fuel cleaned in Isla Mujeres, the starboard engine on Happy Times continued to run at less than peak performance. We relied on the port engine as usual as we motored overnight from Key West to Key Largo. Mike promised he would jump into the water at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to look at the starboard’s propeller.

As he suspected, Mike found a short line, the working end of a dinghy painter, wrapped around it. Captain Hook pulled out our hooknife, an indispensable tool that we invested in after catching a much bigger net on the same propeller on our passage from Turks and Caicos to Puerto Rico. Mike didn’t even have to go under the water’s surface to cut away the painter because we had purchased the extension rod for the hooknife. In three minutes or less Captain Hook was back aboard Happy Times and the painter was in the trash, safely out of another boater’s way.

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America’s First Undersea Park

Cars lined up outside the vehicular entrance to the park.

Cars lined up outside the vehicular entrance to the park.

The last time I visited John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, I was a freshly certified scuba diver exploring Molasses Reef and French Reef, blowing bubbles with my sister, brother-in-law and a couple of friends. We were on a 10-day road trip through the Florida Keys in a mini-Winnie barely big enough to hold our scuba gear and beer. I was flying solo, passionately committed to a career as a freelance copywriter.

Twenty-eight years later I’m back at Pennekamp aboard a 40’ Manta catamaran with Mike, my husband of 22 years. Time has been kind to Pennekamp and me. The state’s favorite park looks great and offers many amenities: hot showers, picnic tables, nature trails, laundry, a sandwich joint, dinghy dock, kayak and boat rentals, and a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. America’s first undersea park offers 70 square nautical miles of reefs, clear water and a variety of marine life including lobsters, conchs, sharks, turtles and grunts, parrotfishes, snappers, angelfishes and more. The coral ranges from barrel to brain and pillar shapes.

Boaters sped past us in the channel.

Boaters sped past us in the channel.

The park is named after John Pennekamp, a Miami Herald newspaper editor and journalist for 51 years, who advocated the establishment of Everglades National Park. His volunteers efforts provided him with the credentials and contacts necessary for the preservation of America’s only living coral reef and led in 1963 to the state park’s opening.

Mike and I entered the channel to Largo Sound around 8 a.m. Its narrow opening squeezed Happy Times between shallows on one side and high-speed fishing boats on the other. Everybody and his brother it seemed was heading out to spend Father’s Day on the water. About half the boaters ignored the slow speed zone established between the mangroves until they reached a treacherous 90-degree turn fondly called Crash Corner by the locals. There they slowed down.

I picked up a mooring in the wide-open sound where only a trawler took up space. Mike and I quickly settled down for a lazy day because we, too, wanted to celebrate Father’s Day on the water.

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I Can’t Go 55

Carlos smiles despite the sludge in our fuel.

Carlos smiles despite the sludge.

Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Go 55” runs through my brain as Happy Times struggles first with one engine and then the other. Clearly there’s a problem with their operation and it’s the fuel. Before our family left to travel by plane, bus and car through Europe for six months, we had become complacent about boat maintenance on our 40’ Manta catamaran. We’d even ignored common wisdom and failed to top off the diesel in our 100-gallon tank. We paid for it yesterday.

In our absence, condensation had formed on top of the diesel and had sunk to the bottom of the tank where it festered and brewed a concoction of water, sludge and crud that peeled off black chunks of gunk. When the chunks reached the pre-filters they choked off the fuel and the engines refused to start.

The Racors chugged through 70 liters of bad diesel.

The Racors filtered 70 liters of bad diesel.

Carlos came aboard to clean the fuel and the tank as we docked at El Milagro Marina in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Some cruisers refer to this process as polishing. That truly was foreign to him. He knew what cleaning meant and arrived with a double, portable Racor filtering system. He ran the diesel through the filtering system three times, a process that took up four hours. When finished none of the 70 liters was salvageable and the sludge was reduced to a minimum. Next he cleaned the tank, a challenge since our diesel tank lacks a critical component, an inspection hole or port. He could see inside the tank from the top and used gasoline to clear out the crud.

At the same time Carlos discovered that the fuel gauge was broken and replaced it. It was a blessing in disguise. Had we left Isla Mujeres with what we thought was a full tank, we would have been rudely surprised off the western tip of Cuba.

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Tight Squeeze

Easy does it into the slip.

Easy does it into the slip.

Backing a 40’ catamaran with a 21.5’ beam into a slip is always a gut-wrenching task. Doing it on only one engine adds another element of tension. Shrink the space allowed for maneuvering to an area of about 1000 square feet and you’ve got a picture of what it was like for Mike and me to pull Happy Times into El Milagro Marina in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Our first attempt didn’t work. Mike steered us into the channel a second time and put the starboard engine in reverse. Happy Times barely moved. She kept trying to push against a current running in the opposite direction. For a few minutes it looked as though we’d have to go headfirst into the dock instead of stern-to as we wanted. Happy Times really struggled going in reverse and in the direction we needed. Finally she made the turn. That wasn’t the end of the exercise however.

It took another five minutes or so of Mike going back and forth, back and forth, in order to avoid the motorcat in front of us and position our boat in between four posts marking the slip. Remember what it was like learning how to parallel park? Moving a catamaran is only somewhat similar. When one engine is in reverse, typically the other engine is in forward. There’s a balance of sorts between the two that under ordinary circumstances spins the boat beautifully in one place.

We lacked maneuverability with only one engine. That’s why it took so many rounds of back and forthing to coax Happy Times into a good position. Finally we were close enough that I threw a stern line to the dock guy who secured it on a cleat.

Mike stayed calm throughout the process.

Mike stayed calm throughout the process.

The next challenge was to prevent the port bow from running into the post beside it. We needed to be close enough to slip a line around it and then ease off to wedge a fender into place so the post wouldn’t mar Happy Times. Once that was completed, I had to play cowgirl and lasso the post on the opposite side. I made several near-misses. With his height Mike was able to do a double-loop over the top of the post to secure Happy Times.

Pulling into El Milagro wasn’t the highlight of Mike’s 57th birthday, but there was a lot of satisfaction in getting the job done right.

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