Monthly Archives: March 2013

Bahamas Again

We came with very few goals except to hang out in the Exumas and have some fun.  I had a long-standing promise to the kids I needed to make good on, and two of Tanya’s Top 10 favorite places on Earth are here.

So far it’s been a bit of a reunion tour since we’re unintentionally retreading old ground.  Weather avoidance is de rigueur in the northern Exumas and we’ve been calling on prior experience to find effective shelter.  Things are a little different this time since we have a full-blown SSB transceiver to get weather forecasts, which allows us to plan ahead instead of being entirely reactive.

We checked in at Chubb Cay, which was new for us.  I think a lot of people eschew Chubb because of their $100 landing fee.  They offered to let us put it against fuel, but I declined.  I understand they’ll also put it against dockage, but we wanted to keep moving.  So with the $100 landing fee, the $10 bus ride to the airstrip, and $380 at customs, we were legal.  It was a convenient place to stop and we’d do it again, but otherwise I didn’t see anything to write home about.

We have more avid and capable snorkelers this time.  During our weather-bound stay at Highborne Cay, we did another family snorkel at the Octopus’ Garden.  It’s much less stressful not having to worry about little kids, and it’s really convenient having four spotters wanting to show me all the best parts, but anybody who has taken a nature walk with a bunch of kids knows they’re not going to sneak up on anything.

Some local lobster pros were at work on the bar between Highborne and Leaf Cays while we were there.  Lobster season here ends 3/31, so we figured we’d try our hand.  Eli and Aaron haven’t developed much taste for lobster yet, but they love the thrill of the hunt.  Based on our results so far, if we want lobster we’ll have to buy it.  They’re just too deep.  The pros are using air, which we’re not allowed to do.

I find myself looking for conch.  Not to take it, mind you, because foreign vessels are not allowed to do that either, and frankly because I don’t care for conch that much, but really just to assure myself that they’re still there.  Ten out of ten conch shells we see have already been harvested.  The live ones we do find are all juvenile.  Sam brought me a big conch shell today that he said was alive.  It sure was, but it wasn’t a conch inside.  Poor kid doesn’t know what the real animal looks like.  Living in that shell was the biggest hermit crab any of us had ever seen.

Mondo Hermit Crab

Now we’re at Warderick Wells in the Land and Sea Park.  So whatever might be underwater is off limits.  Internet access is via satellite and costs $10 a day with a 100MB limit for boats that are on their moorings.  We have no use for a mooring but hunger to check email.

Our plan is to be fully back online the second week of April, but our plans are always subject to change.  It looks like we may have let the magic smoke out of our main generator, so we’re trying to adjust to a leaner power budget, and balance our fuel supply with our other means of power generation.

Otherwise we’ve had few failures.  A v-belt broke on one of the engines, but we had a spare.  Plenty of food and beer left, though we’ve shut down one of the refrigerators to save power.

So far we have failed to try out the new 4G network.  If we make it as far south as Staniel Cay, which I think is the closest BTC office where we can get SIM cards, we’ll try to get that remedied.  A decent Internet connection could make a world of difference.

Octopus’s Garden in the Shade

We must be back in the Bahamas. The water is such a bright turquoise blue that it hurts our eyes to look at it. We had to pinch ourselves a few times before we could believe that we had actually made it here. After a calm Gulf Stream crossing on the 19th and a glassy day across the banks, we had a good sail to Chubb Cay on the 21st, where we checked in with customs and immigration, and then to New Providence across the Tongue of the Ocean. We motored all night across the Exuma Bank and anchored just before dawn on the 22nd to the west of Highborne Cay.

Today we returned to a favorite spot from our trip two years ago, the “Octopus’s Garden” near the north end of Highborne. It is a great place to start: a coral reef in shallow water (6-8 ft) filled with interesting coral shapes and colorful reef fish, a short dinghy ride from where we are anchored in the protected cove. All the kids are experienced snorkelers now, so that makes it much more fun and relaxing for Jay and me, too. Rachel has a float and a tiny wetsuit, and I simply tow her behind me and hum through my snorkel to keep her happy. “I’d like to be…under the sea…in an octopus’s garden…in the shade…”

I’m always amazed by the water here, and I’m not just talking about the color. It’s so clear that you can count pebbles at 15 feet—depth itself is hard to judge because the bottom always looks close enough to touch. The banks are like a giant swimming pool, clean, clear, and empty. It’s actually a huge underwater desert, with a few oases of coral reef. The most you’ll see coming across the banks are starfish, jellyfish, sponges and the occasional sea cucumber. If you’re lucky, the Dolphins of Happiness will come to greet you, but more likely than not, you’ll see nothing but blue for miles and miles and miles.


But once you find a reef, there is more life than you can take in at one glance. In and amongst the heads of brain coral, star coral, finger coral, purple sea fans and tubular sponges swim nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays, damselfish, angelfish, parrotfish, squirrelfish, barracuda, snapper, fairy basslet, blue chromis, seargent majors, goatfish, butterflyfish, tang and triggerfish—you just have to hear their names to know that something amazing is swimming your way. We’re planning on spending as much time as possible over the coming weeks under, on and around these beautiful waters.

Clearing Obstructions

Lately, every time we formulate a plan for a fun family getaway, something happens at the last minute to throw a wrench in the works. Whether it’s weather or inopportune illness, we just can’t seem to break free. Sometimes it feels like we’re simply stuck. So it was comical this past weekend, as we were preparing to leave for the Bahamas (weather permitting), one of our children accidently swallowed the pull tab from a Sprite at the local tiki hut/burger joint. At first I thought he was joking (this kid is real practical joker). The good news was that he didn’t choke. The bad news was that we couldn’t go offshore with a piece of metal lodged somewhere in our son’s digestive tract. What to do?

It seemed premature to get an x-ray or plan abdominal surgery, so we decided to wait. We looked it up online and figured at least a 36-48 hour wait, assuming the thing wasn’t wedged in there somewhere. Then there was the blue-glove task at hand (lucky kid!)—we jokingly called him the gong-farmer (look that one up). We had him swallow some pieces of crayon as a marker that would help us gauge how long things were taking to pass. He has a champion system, that kid. He dug for buried treasure today and came up lucky. A friend suggested he wear the tab on a necklace. Whether he keeps it or not, the memory and the jests at his expense are his forever. Barring any other mishaps, we should be moving smoothly again soon.

Mmm, Tasty

Mom’s Night In

One great thing about the Keys for our family is the social scene. We are used to being the only people in the marina with kids, and our kids are used to entertaining themselves and each other. And traveling isn’t much better, as very few people out there cruising are in our stage of life. So we meet up with other boat families whenever possible, and cherish those times as rarities. While Jay is sort of a lone wolf, I am more of a social butterfly. I struggle with feelings of isolation when my only girlfriend also happens to be my husband (this doesn’t work so well), and if he is traveling for work, it can be pretty lonely. Sometimes I feel like our boat is a little desert island, but if that’s true, then coming to the Keys is a social oasis.

When we arrived in Marathon, we came “home” to an established group of friends among the homeschool and boatschool families here. That means playmates for the kids and “colleagues” for me. Even Jay enjoys having someone to have a beer with from time to time. Take Two has become the party boat. We’ve hosted friends for the Christmas boat parade, dinner parties that required using both indoor and outdoor tables, Lego playdates, kayaking expeditions, and a Thursday night tradition which has come to be known as “Mom’s Night In.” While Jay was working in Fort Lauderdale, I would invite the other homeschool moms over after all the kids were in bed for a night of drinking, snacking, and lots of talking and laughing. For me it was a life-saver, and I like to think it was refreshing for the others who came to sit in the warm glow of our cockpit lights. When we move on this spring, it will be sorely missed. Although I’m sure I could replicate it somewhere else with other women, it just won’t be the same.

I have great admiration for this brave group of fellow moms who have chosen to educate their children at home here in the Keys. People often feel isolated on the islands away from the mainland, and staying at home with one’s children would seem to exacerbate that feeling, but the community here is so supportive that it definitely eases the burden. The teaching philosophies vary widely, as do the number of children and parenting styles, but the conversations are not contentious. I have learned that there really is more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. I relish not only the common goals we share, but also the different ways we’ve contrived of reaching them.

At Mom’s Night In, we get to talk about these and other things without the constant interruption of little ones. We actually get to finish conversations that we start, learn things about each other that otherwise we would never know, and get a chance to be something other than so-and-so’s wife or so-and-so’s mother—to let our hair down a little and just be ourselves. For a few magical hours, we come together to share our journeys, let off a little steam, and re-charge our mom-batteries. My thanks goes out to all the wonderful women who have hopped in my dinghy to join me on my little island this year: you have all taught me something, not the least of which is that friendship comes in lots of exciting flavors. You are funny, kind, thoughtful, creative, intelligent, and loyal—I can’t wait until next time!

Marathon Homeschool Mamas

B&G SailSteer

I just read an article on Panbo that grabbed my interest.  It’s about how Navico is aligning its three(!) chartplotter brands (Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G) around small boat fishing, big boat fishing/cruising, and sailing respectively.  The B&G stuff looked very promising last year, but was very high-end and therefore mucho dinero.  Instead I bought a fishing-oriented Lowrance HDS-7m Gen2 because it was a brand new model, had satellite weather, and was cheaper.  The article goes on to wonder how Navico will adjust their B&G brand lineup to address the lower-end of the sailing market.

I was losing interest and beginning to skim, but then I got to the bottom and saw this screenshot.

Wow!  Now that got my attention.  The layline stuff on the left is old, I’ve seen that before.  But the graphic on the right is entirely new to me.  Although now that I look, I see the press releases for it are almost 5 months, so I'm a little bit behind.  Anyway, it looks strikingly similar to a prototype I made in August 2011 and wrote about here.  The key aspect being the compass dial with indicators around it.

They call it SailSteer and its available on their Zeus Touch plotters.  From what I can tell, they’ve done everything I wanted and more.  I see the waypoint, true wind, laylines for the current and opposite tack, rudder angle indicator, and even direction and velocity of the calculated tidal current all in one place.  I’m feeling quite compelled to buy it.

I like Navico for their innovation, and am very excited about what they’re doing with B&G.  My Lowrance plotter is okay, but not great.  It isn’t any worse than I expected.  They made it for fishing boats after all.  But it can interface with their 4G radars, which are spectacular and on my wish list.  If I get a B&G for the helm, the Lowrance will come inside.  It will continue to be our source for satellite weather and radio, as well as an inside plotter and eventual radar display.

From my perspective, the big downside to Navico (and Raymarine) plotters is their use of Navionics charts and Navionics’ sub-par data in the Bahamas.  Navionics is great in the US because they (like everyone else) get the data from NOAA.  Where do they get their Bahamas data?  I don’t know, but it isn’t from Explorer Charts, which is the gold standard for the Bahamas.  Garmin licenses the Explorer data for its products.  So when we’re in the Bahamas next I may be using fancy B&G instrumentation for sailing, but I’ll be using our little handheld Garmin to reduce the chances of running into stuff.

Just last month a relatively new Lagoon 450 was wrecked on a reef in the Exumas when the skipper put too much faith in his Navionics charts.  The chart in question even has a nice magenta dotted line that looks an awful lot like a recommended route.  One look at an Explorer chart and he would have steered clear.  All the gory details including an account from the skipper and a response from the owner of Navionics can be found here.

Update 4/21/13:

I’ve learned a few things that warrant an update to this post:

First, we’ve been cruising the Bahamas with Garmin’s data (licensed from Explorer) and Navionics’ side-by-side and I’ve seen firsthand how stark the difference is.

Second, a friend pointed out that users of MaxSea/Furuno/Nobeltec products can get data through MapMedia that is from “Datacore by Navionics”.  This data for the Bahamas looks very similar to Explorer data.  Perhaps it is Explorer data, or perhaps there is a common lineage.  I’m sure Explorer must have originated from another source.

Third, Jeppesen has a new product line in its “C-Map by Jeppesen” family called C-Map MAX-N.  The “-N” is for Navico and will be available for current chartplotters from Navico brands Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G.  C-Map uses Explorer data exclusively in the Bahamas.

Explorer's own explanation of where their data is available can be found here

Gators in the Glades

We had a chance this week to do an outing we’ve always wanted to do with the kids: explore Everglades National Park. Yeah, right. Have you ever seen a map of the place? We explored maybe 1% of the park. It’s so big that you have to drive from one area of interest to another. Even with the driving, we only spent time on four trails along 20 miles of the 40-mile main road that runs between Homestead and Flamingo. And that was enough for one day, giving us a great overview of what the park has to offer in the way of natural beauty and wildlife.

We started at the Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center, then drove through Cypress swamp and breathtaking amounts of grassy wilderness. We hiked on a boardwalk through a Mahogany hammock (an island of hardwood trees in the grass), then on to the scenic Pay-hay-okee overlook where you could see why the natives who lived there called it the “River of Grass,” over to the Pinelands Trail through forests of Slash Pine and Palmetto, and finally, through the Royal Palm wetlands area. On the Anhinga Trail, we were not surprised to see…Anhingas (a large bird resembling a cormorant with black-and-white wings). It was, apparently, mating season, and there were a few nests of not-so-cute-and-little baby Anhingas. We thought we might also see a few gators, but we didn’t. We saw a lot of gators, a slough-ful of gators—more than I ever wanted to see, and a lot closer, too.

Gator Fence

I had opted to put Rachel on my back in the Ergo early on, not because of alligators, but because it was the last hike of the day and her legs are astonishingly short. But after seeing a few big, leathery hides lounging in the grass near the path, I was glad that I had. In fact, I went up to a park ranger to ask what, if anything, kept one of those bad boys from taking a bite out of my toddler. His answer was unsettling: because she was on my back. He admitted that they were all pretty fat and happy due to a plentitude of fish, but that we must always exercise caution around wild animals. As I was talking to the ranger, a large black fellow decided to cross the road, made it half-way and stopped on the warm pavement. Jay asked a follow-up question, “Do they often lie in the path like that?” The ranger said “no” and went to get a closer look at the situation, and maybe nudge the gator on. We went the other direction and had a good chuckle.

Then we saw the mud hole. Full of gators. I’ve never seen so many large, wild reptiles in one place. Even at the zoo in Tampa, where they have plenty of alligators, there’s at least a fence between you and them. But here were a lot of gators in one place, piles of gators, in their natural environment, only a few steps away. Even for hardened Floridians who have seen a gator in every neighborhood pond, this was thrilling. Rachel’s comment, from my back, summed up my thoughts perfectly: “Teeth.” 

Lots of Gators