May 9th to May 17th – Charleston to Annapolis

A series of cold fronts have exited the U.S. east coast during our stay in Charleston, making northbound coastal passages impossible.  Perhaps the single most important skillset of safe and comfortable cruising involves learning to wait for favorable weather.  Oftentimes, several days of unfavorable wind and waves will be followed by a prolonged period of settled weather.  Such is the case in the mid-Atlantic area of the east coast during the week of May 9th.  With long periods of daylight and conducive weather, the stage is set for rapid progress north to Norfolk.

Having added several pounds during yet another delightful stay in Charleston, the time has come to depart this lovely city.  The last vestiges of the flood tide remain as Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher are underway from Charleston Maritime Center at 9:30 AM on Monday, May 9th.  By 10:30 AM, we have cleared the jetty alongside the ship’s channel and are headed to sea.

Shrimper

Our immediate itinerary involves an overnight coastal passage to Beaufort, NC.  The weather forecast calls for calm and settled weather for the entire 34-hour duration of our journey.  The trip to Beaufort involves two legs.  Leg 1 takes us 140 nautical miles offshore in a northeasterly direction towards the easternmost point of Frying Pan Shoal.  We are watching intently for ocean-going ships that traverse these waters en route to the deep water port of Wilmington, NC via the Cape Fear River.  Once past Frying Pan Shoal, a course change to the north-northeast takes us the final eighty nautical miles to the inlet at Beaufort, NC.

Other than one fishing vessel whose meanderings coincide with the course of Cutter Loose, there is very little traffic on the radar on Monday evening.  It is a relaxing evening of motor sailing under the stars while listening to music and keeping Cutter Loose on course to our destination.

AIRCRAFT CARRIER

Just after daybreak, a hazy visual image of a naval warship appears at a range of 8 miles on the bow.  She must be huge in order to make out her outline at this distance. This ship is not transmitting an AIS signal because it does not wish to be identified.  Nor can it be tracked easily by radar inasmuch as its image on the screen is weak and distorted.  Most vessels, including Cutter Loose, use AIS signals and radar reflectors in order to be seen at night, which aids in the prevention of collision.  This vessel, however, is designed to evade detection.  Soon, the VHF crackles with an admonishment from the bridge of the mysterious behemoth.  She identifies herself as a naval carrier conducting exercises in Long Bay.  She instructs all vessels in the immediate vicinity to remain clear of the warship by at least one mile. We cheerfully comply with this directive.

On Tuesday at 1500, Cutter Loose is inbound in the Beaufort, NC ship’s channel.   Unfortunately, the timing of our arrival is not the best inasmuch as an adverse tidal current is impeding our progress.  To make matters even worse, this afternoon’s outflowing current is opposed by an onshore wind, creating short, choppy waves in the channel.   Under these conditions, it takes the better part of an hour to reach the Morehead City Bridge where we join the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway for the remainder of our journey to Annapolis, MD.

Our destination today is an anchorage in Cedar Creek, a tributary of Adams Creek northwest of downtown Beaufort.  Fighting an adverse tidal current for the entire distance, the anchor is finally down in Cedar Creek at 7:45 PM, just in time to witness a burnt orange/crimson sunset with dramatic cloud formations.  After 35 hours at sea and having covered 266 nautical miles since departing Charleston, we devour a quick meal and call it a night.

Sunset and First Snow

On Wednesday at 0645, the anchor is up in Cedar Creek.  Our interim destination today is Whitaker Creek in Oriental, NC where we have made an appointment with master mechanic Gary at Deaton Yacht Service to perform an on-the-water turbocharger wash.  Gary is one of the few Yanmar mechanics that we have met along the way who has received factory training for this annual maintenance task.  We are very impressed with the efficiency of the Deaton yard.  At 8 AM, Cutter Loose arrives at Deaton’s dock.  By 11:20 AM, the service is completed, the bill is paid and we are underway on the ICW in an effort to catch up with Dream Catcher who is well ahead of us by this hour of the morning.

Hobucken bridge

Our course today takes us north in the Neuse River to the Bay River where the ICW passes beneath the Hobucken Bridge before entering the marshland along Goose Creek.  From here, it is a three-mile hop across the Pamlico River into the frothy Guinness Stout-colored waters of the Pungo River.  Having accomplished 71 nautical miles for the day, the anchor is down at 6:30 PM in the calm headwaters of the Pungo River, just south of the Alligator-Pungo Canal.

On Thursday at 7:30 AM, the anchor is up in the Pungo River amidst pea soup fog.  Visibility this morning is less than a quarter mile.  We proceed at idle speed using radar to avoid collisions with anchored vessels while carefully navigating our return to the ICW.

Fog and bridge

Once under the Wilkerson Bridge, Cutter Loose enters the 25-mile, narrow, dredged cut known as the Alligator – Pungo Canal.  Navigating the Canal in fog is not difficult.  It is simply a matter of keeping Cutter Loose positioned midway between the banks of the Canal while being attentive to any approaching traffic.

DC in fog

By 11 AM, the fog has dissipated upon exiting the Canal and entering the Alligator River.  At 2 PM, Cutter Loose passes through the Alligator River bascule bridge with several other vessels, including Dream Catcher.  From here, the ICW traverses Albemarle Sound and enters the North River in the general vicinity of Kitty Hawk and the Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills.  This section of the ICW is known as the Virginia Cut.  At 5:40 PM, the anchor is down on the south side of Buck Island with another 73 nautical miles under the keel of Cutter Loose for the day.

barge traffic

On Friday, the anchor is up at Buck Island at 0700.  Once under the Coinjock Bridge, the ICW traverses Coinjock Bay and the marshy lowlands of the North Landing River before entering the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.  There are three restricted bridges along this section of the ICW.  Go-fast power vessels are anxious to pass the slower-moving sailboats and trawlers in an effort to arrive at the next bridge in time for the opening which is generally on the hour and half-hour.

CL in ICW daymark

Approaching each bridge, the voice of the bridge tender can be heard on the ship’s VHF radio, herding all of the boats into a concentrated clump in order to minimize the amount of time the bridge needs to remain in the open position.  Skippers inherently resist the herding instinct of the bridge tenders, as this requires tricky maneuvering under power in wind and current to avoid collisions with other nearby boats.  Eventually, a queue is formed, the bridge is raised and all of the boats pass under the bridge in an orderly fashion.  Once the procession is complete, a race ensues to the next bridge where vessels stack and jockey for position to be first in line for the next bridge opening.

This activity reaches a crescendo at Great Bridge where boats pass under the drawbridge and enter the Great Bridge lock.  When the door of the lock finally opens, there is yet another race through the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River to arrive at the Gilmerton Lift Bridge in the City of Chesapeake  in time to make the opening before the bridge closes for several hours to facilitate rush-hour traffic.

Anxiety dissipates after the Gilmerton Bridge opening as pleasure boats move freely through the maze of container ship docks and shipbuilding facilities in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News.  The primary challenge here is to remain out of the paths of the big ocean-going ships, tugs, tows and barges by remaining positioned at the extreme edges of the shipping channel.

cargo ship

Just listening in on VHF channel 13 to the conversations between the numerous vessels in the shipping channel is fascinating.  There is a definite hierarchy in the harbor wherein smaller vessels yield to larger vessels.  Invariably, however, commercial captains and pilots are very business-like, polite and empathetic in their conversations with one another.  The sights and sounds of a vibrant international port with numerous military shipyards makes this passage a most interesting experience.

Our destination today is Hampton, VA.  After yet another 70-mile day (the third in as many days), the anchor is down at 5:50 PM in the Phoebus basin near Fort Monroe.  Here, the I-64 tunnel emerges from its watery depths on the Hampton side of the shipping channel.  This anchorage serves primarily as a tactical staging area for rapid access to the Chesapeake Bay in the morning.

On Saturday, the anchor is up in Hampton at 0730 for today’s 69-mile journey north in the Chesapeake Bay to Mill Creek on the Great Wicomico River.  We have been blessed with favorable weather for northbound travel since leaving Charleston.  However, our good fortune appears to be coming to an abrupt end.  A strong cold front exiting the U.S. east coast later today is expected to bring strong northerly winds to the Chesapeake Bay for several days.  This weather feature will undoubtedly delay our northerly progress to Annapolis.

This morning, there is no evidence whatsoever of an approaching cold front.  There is not a cloud in the sky nor is there a ripple on the water.  From Hampton, our course takes us past Fort Monroe and into our home waters of the Chesapeake Bay.   At 11 AM, a slight breeze from the south helps to push us towards today’s destination.  A thin layer of high clouds begins to appear on the northwest horizon as the iconic shape of Wolf Trap Light passes astern at noon.

The NOAA weather forecast broadcast on the ship’s VHF radio now predicts that the front will pass sometime on Saturday evening.  This forecast instills confidence that we will be able to make our destination before the front arrives.  With this thought in mind, Cutter Loose continues to sail north beyond Deltaville, VA on the Piankatank River.  By 2 PM, southerly winds have increased to 10 knots as an initial accumulation of cumulus clouds begin to appear to the northwest.

Under increasing cloud cover at 3 PM, southwesterly winds increase to 15 knots as we travel north past the entrance to the Rappahannock River.  This is clear and convincing evidence that the front is making rapid progress towards the Bay.  Sooner or later, every sailor learns an important lesson which is never to underestimate the timing and power of an approaching cold front.   It is infinitely preferable to be tucked in at a protected anchorage well before a cold front is forecasted to arrive.

In 20-knot southwesterly winds, Cutter Loose enters Ingram Bay on the Great Wicomico River at 4 PM in tandem with the ferry from Tangier Island as it delivers its payload of passengers to nearby Reedville.  Winding our way through the circuitous and increasingly narrow channel of Mill Creek, we become sheltered from the wind by the dense tree-lined banks of this attractive tributary.  This is an excellent place to be anchored in a blow.

Under heavy black cloud cover at 4:30 PM, the anchor is down in a small cove on the northern side of the Creek that affords excellent protection from westerly, northwesterly and northerly winds.  Along the shore are several attractive homes with small private docks.

Greg and Sharon aboard IP 40 Dream Catcher are anchored nearby in a 90-degree bend in the Creek.  In a short time, we will learn what this storm has in store for us.  But for now, we are feeling good about the protection afforded by Mill Creek.

At 5:30 PM on Saturday, a pre-frontal squall line passes through our anchorage, delivering 25-knot wind gusts and pelting rain.  Within an hour, the rain subsides but gusty northwest winds persist throughout the evening hours.

On Saturday evening, the National Weather Service issues a gale warning for the Chesapeake Bay that will remain in effect through Monday morning.  Sunday’s forecast calls for 20 to 25-knot winds from the northwest with gusts to 35 knots.   This will undoubtedly create some tempestuous seas on the Bay.  Even after the wind abates, it will take some time for the seas to calm.

Throughout the duration of this weather system, the sea state in our little corner of Mill Creek remains a scant ripple.  Occasionally, a 15 knot wind gust will send Cutter Loose tugging on her anchor rode as the tidal current battles the wind for superiority.  We will remain at anchor here on Sunday or until weather conditions improve for northbound travel.  Besides, it is comforting to rest and relax for a day in this attractive setting having logged 480 nautical miles in six consecutive days since leaving Charleston on Monday, May 9th.

With sunny skies but a chilly 40 degrees on the thermometer on Monday morning, May 16th, there is barely a hint of wind in the anchorage.  Cutter Loose is covered in lethargic mosquitos which have become paralyzed by the cooler temperatures.

Thankfully, cell phone coverage affords an opportunity to check the buoy reports on the Chesapeake Bay to reach an informed go/no go decision.  Overnight, there has been a dramatic reduction in wind and waves on the Bay.  Today’s NOAA marine weather forecast calls for moderate westerly winds.  It appears to be an excellent sailing day for travel north on the Chesapeake Bay.

The anchor is up at 8:45 AM.  Our destination today is Solomons, MD some 50 miles to the north. The wind is benign and the water is calm as Cutter Loose enters the Bay from the Great Wicomico River.  Our hopes for a comfortable sailing day are thwarted at Smith Point near the mouth of the Potomac where the wind is not west as forecasted but rather north-northwest at 15 knots.  Cutter Loose is now motoring directly into 4-5 foot seas with her deck covered in salt water.  For a brief period of time the wind backs to the west before diminishing to 5 knots at the mouth of the Patuxent River.  After motoring almost the entire distance today, the anchor is down at 4 PM in peaceful Mill Creek at Solomons, MD.

sunset Solomons

With a warm front approaching from the south, drizzle and overcast skies prevail on Tuesday for the final push to Annapolis.  This calls for yet another day of motoring into wind and waves, except that conditions on the water today are damp and chilly but more benign in terms of wind and waves.

Rainy dodger

At 3 PM, Cutter Loose is docked at Port Annapolis Marina.

Rainy return

Our 2015/2016 winter cruise has covered some 3,662 nautical miles.  Cutter Loose now rests in the very spot where we began this amazing journey 218 days ago.

After a thorough stem to stern cleaning and an intensive regimen of routine maintenance, Cutter Loose will rest at her slip in Annapolis for the summer while we resume our landside lifestyle.  We will visit frequently to lavish her with the attention she so richly deserves after keeping us safe and comfortable during our passages to so many fascinating places.

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April 29th to May 8th – Miami to Charleston

Fisher Island

On Friday at 3 PM, the anchor is up at Fisher Island in Miami.  Within 30 minutes of our departure, Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher have transited Government Cut and are headed northeast from the sea buoy towards 80 degrees west longitude, our point of intersection with the north-flowing power of the Gulf Stream.  By 6 PM, we are already experiencing a boost from the Gulf Stream current.

For the next 28 hours, Cutter Loose remains nicely centered in the Gulf Stream, running north along 79 degrees – 50 minutes west longitude.  Our northerly progress along the east coast of Florida exceeds our expectations.  Cutter Loose is maintaining a speed over ground well in excess of 10 knots. By 8 PM on Saturday, she is positioned 60 nautical miles directly east of the Florida/Georgia border.

Dream C at night

At 10 PM on Saturday near 31 degrees north latitude, our course continues north to Charleston as the Gulf Stream veers sharply to the northeast.  Now on the fringe of the Stream, our speed over ground gradually decreases.  At this juncture, the seas become confused and lumpy.  Wind speed increases to 20 knots in occasional squalls.  Suddenly, Cutter Loose is sailing directly downwind in six to eight foot seas with a nasty swell that seems to come from multiple directions at once.   Our cruising friends aboard Dream Catcher disappear astern in the confusion.

On final approach to the Charleston sea buoy at 1 PM on Sunday, the seas subside as the flood tide whisks Cutter Loose past Fort Sumpter and into Charleston Harbor.  At 2:30 PM, the anchor is down on the Ashley River near Patriot Point and the carrier USS Yorktown.  We will rest here for the night until our slip becomes available at Charleston Maritime Center in the morning.

Aircraft carrier

During the past 48 hours since departing Miami, 429 nautical miles have passed beneath the keel of Cutter Loose for an average speed over ground of 9 knots.

boat at marina

Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher remain docked at the Charleston Maritime Center for an entire week, allowing ample time to enjoy the sweet aroma of jasmine in bloom while sampling the springtime visual and culinary delights of the Holy City.

Jasmine arch

Sweetgrass baskets

Window box

Ordinary restaurant

street musicians

Bike with books

Tree in blossom

Doorway Entrance

On Monday, 5/9, we will depart Charleston Harbor on the ebb, bound for Beaufort, NC.

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April 22nd to April 28th – Marathon to Miami

A week has suddenly disappeared at Harbour Cay Club since our arrival from Cuba.  Today, we begin the long haul north to Annapolis, MD.

HCC

On Friday morning at 9 AM, Cutter Loose receives the traditional friendly bon voyage from the dock at HCC.  Our course today takes us into the shallow waters of Florida Bay.  By noon, Cutter Loose passes under the Channel Five Bridge and into Hawk Channel.  Fifteen knot winds from the southeast send us sailing smartly towards Rodriquez Key where the anchor is down at 4:30 PM with 55 nautical miles under the keel for the day.

After a calm overnight anchorage at Rodriquez Key, the anchor is up at 8:20 AM on Saturday for the 54- mile run to Coconut Grove in Miami.  Good sailing conditions prevail for today’s journey.  Our course today takes us northeast in Hawk Channel to Biscayne Channel.  Entering the protected waters of Biscayne Bay, we pass the remains of several vacant residential structures known as Stiltsville.  On a warm, sunny day, this is a popular hangout for pleasure boaters.

Stiltsville

The anchor is down near Dinner Key Marina at 4:40 PM. Cutter Loose will remain at anchor here in Coconut Grove until a three-day weather window materializes for the next leg of our journey north to Charleston, SC.

Having developed a curiosity for all things Cuban, we are anxious to learn about the Cuban way of life in Miami.  One of the best ways to satisfy one’s curiosity is to sign on for a walking tour of Little Havana.

Two roosters

Little Havana is located about 12 blocks west of downtown Miami.  The historic district encompasses a five-block area along Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street) stretching from SW 12th Avenue to SW 17th Avenue.  This is where most of the commercial activity in Little Havana takes place.

Little Havana Sign

Little Havana is a bustling business district with loud salsa music spilling out into the street from colorful storefronts.  Like bees on flowers, Latinos and tourists alike are sipping Cuban cafecitos at the numerous coffee bars along Calle Ocho.

Little Havana Cigar Company

Aisle of cigars

The street is lined with cigar stores, art galleries, bars, restaurants, barber shops and payday loan establishments.

Street scene

The restored art deco Tower Theater is a local landmark that features foreign language films.

Tower Theater

According to our tour guide, the appearance of Calle Ocho has not changed much in fifty years.  Many of the buildings are in need of renovation and paint.  Compared to the buildings in downtown Havana, however, the structures on Calle Ocho are in outstanding condition.

street scene1

The symbol of Little Havana is the rooster.  Cubans by nature are very protective of their roosters.

Cuban Rooster

The Brigade 2506 memorial pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the debacle known as the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Bay of Pigs memorial

Miami in general and Little Havana in particular is not just a Cuban enclave, but rather a broader Latino melting pot.  Little Havana has the distinction of having the highest concentration of Hispanics in Miami (98%).

Cuban clothing ad

In addition to Cuban food, there are Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Honduran and Venezuelan shops and restaurants as well.  The Cuban population of Little Havana is actually decreasing as many Cubans have prospered here and moved on.

men exchanging money

Despite this demographic trend, Little Havana remains the cultural and political capital of Cuban-Americans.  Whenever politicians feel the need to pander to Cuban-Americans, they invariably stage a visit to a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana.

Painted wall mural about America

At the very center of the Little Havana business district is Domino Park, a covered, open-air structure where each day, the facility is filled to overflowing with residents who gather to play dominoes and share the news of the day.

Dominios Players

Our tour guide explains that Cubans face a difficult adjustment when they arrive in Miami.  Prior to emigrating to the U.S., Cubans enjoy close relationships and daily interaction with family and friends.  Homes in Cuba are considered communal property and neighbors interact with one another frequently.  Whatever is cooking on the stove in one dwelling is considered fair game for anyone in the neighborhood.  Friends and neighbors are welcome to visit unannounced at any time of day and help themselves to the plate of the day. Given the relative absence of crime in Cuba, there is no need to consider personal safety or securing one’s belongings.

Cartoon

Painting cigar womanImmigrants face a different way of life in Little Havana.  They long for the communal living arrangement that they treasured in Cuba.  Also, they must learn to be more defensive in matters pertaining to personal safety.  Gang activity is not unheard of in the residential streets adjacent to Calle Ocho.  In adapting to their new surroundings, it is not unusual for recent immigrants to feel homesick for the congeniality and slower pace of life in Cuba.

After a final check on the marine weather forecast, Cutter Loose is underway from Dinner Key at midday on Friday afternoon to an anchorage near Fishers Island.  This is a temporary positioning measure that will provide rapid access to the Government Cut ship’s channel.  At 1500, Cutter Loose will be outbound in Government Cut and into the Atlantic Ocean for a three day, non-stop coastal passage to Charleston, SC.

 

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April 1st to April 14th – Marathon to Cuba

 

Our time at Harbour Cay Club in Marathon, FL is spent staging for our forthcoming voyage to Cuba, an event that will undoubtedly become the highlight of our winter cruise.  We first learned about this opportunity in January when we attended an organizational meeting for this event at the Sarasota Yacht Club.  The time has finally arrived for our departure.

Cutter Loose is one of fifteen yachts that will participate in a regatta to Marina Hemingway near Havana.  We have obtained a license from the U.S. Coast Guard to enter Cuban territorial waters on the basis of a “people to people” cultural exchange.  This requirement will be accomplished through a series of tours with Cuban guides that have been organized by the Sarasota Yacht Club in conjunction with TGC Travel of Boca Raton, FL.

Cruising friends Greg and Sharon of s/v Dream Catcher share our enthusiasm for a visit to Cuba.  Originally, the plan was to sail both Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher to Cuba.  When we learned of Sarasota Yacht Club’s crew requirements, we decided jointly to sail Cutter Loose to Cuba with Greg and Sharon on board as crew.

Sharon Greg together

Our time in Marathon is spent making final preparations for this voyage.  Securing yacht insurance, in particular, has been more difficult than anticipated.  Through our broker, Falvey Insurance issued a quote which we promptly accepted.  In the end, however, Falvey was unable to deliver a binder in time for our departure.  As a result, our only option for sailing to Cuba is to self-insure.

On Friday, April 1st, Greg and Sharon move their belongings aboard Cutter Loose.  At 9:45 AM, our spirits are soaring.  After months of planning, we are officially underway from Harbour Cay Club in Marathon on our two-week adventure to the land of Fidel.

The first leg of this journey takes us to Key West, our port of embarkation to Cuba.  Motor sailing under sunny skies and in light winds, Cutter Loose   covers the 51-mile run to Key West in record time.  By 3:45 PM, she is docked at Conch Harbor Marina.  The afternoon heat and humidity sends us scurrying to the pool, sipping on refreshing Painkillers while being entertained by the antics and attire of the younger crowd.

Key West pool

After dinner, a Friday evening stroll through the streets of Key West leads to Better Than Sex, an establishment that specializes in house-made gourmet desserts.

Dessert1

The weather forecast for the Straits of Florida predicts that winds will increase and shift north on Monday morning, retaining a northerly component for several days thereafter.  The narrow entrance to Marina Hemingway is exposed to the north.  In strong northerly winds, waves break in the entrance channel creating dangerous conditions.  The decision is reached to depart Conch Harbor Marina in Key West on Saturday afternoon in order to arrive at Marina Hemingway on Sunday morning in benign conditions before the wind shifts to the north.  Our early departure will place us in Cuba several days before other regatta participants arrive from Sarasota.  This will permit extra time for exploration on our own before the official Sarasota Yacht Club tours commence on Thursday.

At 5:30 PM on Saturday, Cutter Loose is underway from Conch Harbor Marina for the 120-mile, overnight run to Marina Hemingway near Havana.  With wind speeds of less than 10 knots for the entire passage, calm conditions prevail as we motor sail across the northeast set of the Florida Current which peaks at 4.5 knots.   Four seasoned sailors to share the watch schedule makes light work of tonight’s 16-hour voyage to Cuba.

Watch schedule

Cutter Loose is not alone in these waters.  The Straits of Florida are a popular route for commercial shipping from Europe and the east coast of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico and Central America.  Tonight, the 570’ cargo ship Tiberborg crosses our bow bound for Galveston, TX.  Next, the 653’ cargo ship Sarika Naree passes on a reciprocal course headed to New Orleans.  The 820’ tanker DHT Cathy overtakes Cutter Loose, bound for Delaware.

Ships passing in the night often stimulate one’s curiosity.  I frequently try to picture the scene on the bridge of those ships.  Who amongst the officers of the ship are standing watch?  Is the watch alert and engaged?  Are they listening to music in an effort to remain awake?  Do they see our AIS imprint and radar echo?  Do they even care about the presence of pleasure boats in this vast body of water?

Sea buoy 2

In the wee, small hours of the morning, a dim glow on the southern horizon confirms that Cutter Loose is approaching Havana.  At sunrise, the skyline of Havana is clearly visible.  Finally, the sea buoy marking the buoyed entrance to Marina Hemingway becomes visible at 9 AM. Our early departure strategy is paying dividends as the well-marked channel into the marina is perfectly flat upon our arrival.  An enthusiastic voice on the VHF radio welcomes us to Cuba and authorizes Cutter Loose to enter the marina basin.

Customs official near boat

The obligatory first stop this morning is at the Customs dock for clearance procedures.  Within seconds of our arrival, Cutter Loose is boarded by all manner of uniformed officials, each one smiling and welcoming us to Cuba.  Conducted mostly in Spanglish, the clearance procedure is straightforward, thorough and friendly.

Customs and Eric

Customs and Immigration personnel collect our passports and ship’s papers.  After a look around the cabin, they invite us into the Customs office for official photographs.  They ask if we wish to have our passports stamped.  We respond with an enthusiastic “por supuesto!” (of course!).

With Customs official

With tourist visas in hand, we are interviewed individually by a female doctor who records our body temperature with a digital thermometer.  She asks if we are experiencing any influenza symptoms. Meanwhile, representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture give a cursory glance into the ship’s freezer and refrigerator.  They inform us that it is forbidden to bring fresh fruits, vegetables or eggs into Cuba.

quarantine flag down

This flurry of activity culminates in the issuance of the coveted Certificado de Despacho by Harbormaster Miguel.  The Despacho authorizes Cutter Loose and her crew to depart Customs and proceed to Canal #1.  Once docked securely alongside a crumbling concrete dock wall, Miguel explains the marina’s rate structure and offers to exchange our U.S. dollars for Cuban CUCs, the local tourist currency.

CUC money

Marina Hemingway will serve as our base of exploration during the next eleven days.  Located nine miles west of Havana, construction of the marina began in the 1950s as part of a planned resort, including casinos.  Marina Hemingway is the closest marina to Havana.  As such, it is a very popular cruising destination as evidenced by yachts from around the world.

Eric and Pat Cuba flag

Development of the Marina Hemingway project was interrupted in 1958 by the Cuban Revolution, at which time casinos became outlawed.  Ultimately, the land and buildings at Marina Hemingway became the property of the new Cuban government led by Fidel Castro.  Since that time, the marina has remained almost completely devoid of repair and reinvestment.

Walking in ruins

There are two hotels and a few shops, snack bars and restaurants within the marina complex.  One hotel is vacant and partially demolished.

Canal Two

At the one remaining operational hotel, guests gather near the pool to avail themselves to Internet access which can be purchased for an hourly rate of $2.  This is one of the few WiFi hotspots that we encountered in Cuba.

Hotel pool

The marina grounds are cluttered with the remains of derelict boats.

boat through porthole

Personal possessions of several semi-permanent, live-aboard sailors have spilled over into the marina’s public areas with an assortment of grills, tables, outboard motors, used boat parts, motor scooters and lounge chairs.  Some of these salty sailors have lived at Marina Hemingway for over 20 years.

Campsite dockside

The centerpiece of our cultural experience in Cuba involves daily updates on rest room conditions. This is a popular topic of conversation amongst visitors from the U.S.  The collapse of Soviet financial support for Cuba in the 1990s resulted in significant hardships for the Cuban people. As a result, Cubans place little importance on rest room facilities and cleanliness.  Toilet seats and rest room paper products are rare in Cuba.  Furthermore, pressure in the public water distribution system has been reduced to a trickle.  Several hours are required between flushes to fill the toilet tank with water.  Some restrooms are equipped with plastic buckets to transport water from the sink to the toilet.

Armed in advance with information about the deplorable condition of Cuba’s restrooms, we arrive with a pre-assembled travel kit that includes the necessary accoutrements of the trade.

Cutter Loose potty pack

Our method of rest room analysis takes into account the relative presence of the following public restroom amenities:

  • toilet seat
  • TP
  • hand soap or sanitizer
  • paper towels
  • plastic bucket for  transporting water from external source to bowl

For the purpose of comparison, our rating system is as follows:

1 star – none of the above amenities

2 stars – one of the above amenities

3 stars – two of the above amenities

4 stars – three of the above amenities

5 stars – four or more of the above amenities

Sadly, most restroom experiences in Cuba fall into the 1 star or 2 star rating categories.  Only the more modern hotels and restaurants in Havana offer 3 and 4 star facilities.

Initially, our exploration is limited to the marina grounds.  Once we are familiar with our immediate surroundings, we branch out through the marina entrance gate to the tiny village of Jaimanitas which is located within a 15-minute walk from the marina.

Jaimanitas Sign

Jaimanitas is the home town of internationally acclaimed artist Jose Fuster.  Mr. Fuster has decorated public squares and private homes with ornate murals and colorful ceramic art.  This community art project is known locally as Fusterland. It is a popular tourist destination in Cuba.

Fuster man

Fusterville

As other Sarasota vessels begin to arrive on Wednesday, we hail a taxi for a self-guided walking tour of the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.  We begin at the Plaza de la Revolucion that features an enormous tower with a prominent sculpture of Jose Marti.

Jose Marti monument

From here, our self-directed walking tour passes through the hospital district where we pause for lunch.  A Cuban sandwich seems an appropriate menu selection for our first day in Havana.

Cuban sandwich

From here, it is on to the university district and the recently re-opened American Embassy.

US Embassy

A stroll along the waterfront walkway (Malecón) leads to a series of public plazas along the entrance channel to the industrial harbor of Havana.  Pleased with our progress for the day, a taxi whisks us back to Marina Hemingway for the reasonable fee of $20.

Bus Melacon

On Thursday morning, all of the participants in the regatta gather at the Marina Hemingway Hotel to board our tour bus.  Today’s narrated tour takes us to several plazas in Old Havana including Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Catedral.

Old square 3

Cathedral

Cigar woman

After a tour of a cigar factory, our bus heads back towards Marina Hemingway for a mid-afternoon lunch stop at paladar (privately owned restaurant) called El Laurel.

Lunch at El Laurel

This evening’s entertainment involves a high-energy stage show at the Tropicana night club in the Vedado section of Havana.  The talented singers and dancers here gyrate tirelessly for two hours.  Anxious for rest after an evening of jiggling, we return to Marina Hemingway by taxi well after midnight.

Tropicana4

Earnest and Fidel

Friday is dubbed “Hemingway Day” by our tour guides.  The day begins with a visit to La Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s private villa a few miles south of Havana.  This setting inspired many of his novels, including The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s 38 foot fishing boat, Pilar, is on display here.  It was purchased in 1934 from the Wheeler Shipbuilding Company for $7500.

 

PILAR BOAT

Hemingway house outside

Next it is on to the nearby fishing village of Cojimar where Hemingway imbibed with local fisherman at the waterfront bar, La Terraza.

La Terrazza bar

Following lunch at the paladar La Fontana, we pause to visit a local arts and crafts warehouse and brewpub before stopping for daiquiris at another of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts, La Floridita.

La Floridita

At the request of the Commodore of the Club Nautico Internacional Hemingway de Cuba, all participants in the Sarasota Yacht Club regatta compete against local boats in a fun race from Marina Hemingway to Old Havana on Saturday.

Saturday Regatta

In the evening, we are invited to a reception at the Club at which time the Commodore makes an impassioned plea for expanded international yachting events between the United States and Cuba for the purpose of overcoming the cultural and political divide that exists between the two nations.

With Commodore

Sunday’s bus tour takes us to the landmark El Morro fortress which guards the entrance to Havana Harbor.

El Morro

Inside El Morro lies the remains of a wing section from a U-2 surveillance aircraft from the U.S. that was shot down by Cuban anti-aircraft batteries during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This dramatic moment in history is recounted through the use of photographs, including a copy of President Kennedy’s written ultimatum to the Soviet Union.

USAF wing

El Morro provides an outstanding vantage point from which to view the impressive skyline of downtown Havana.  The City’s population of 2.2 million represents about 20 percent of Cuba’s total population of 11.3 million.

Havana Skyline

From here, we visit the original Sloppy Joe’s bar in Old Havana followed by lunch at paladar El Biky.

4 of us Sloppy Joes

In the afternoon, we are bused to the famous Hotel Nacionale where many U.S. entertainers performed at the casinos during the reign of Cuban President-turned dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Hotel national full shot

The Hotel Nacionale is a fascinating museum of Cuban history.  Numerous heads-of-state have visited the hotel, as evidenced by an extensive photographic display in the hotel’s former gambling parlors.

Batista’s increasingly corrupt and repressive government negotiated lucrative relationships with the American mafia which controlled the drug, gambling and prostitution businesses in Havana during the 1940s and 50s.  To quell public discontent, Batista resorted to wide-scale violence, torture and public executions.  During this period, the Batista government received financial, military and logistical support from the United States.  This set the stage for a guerrilla uprising against the Batista government led by Fidel Castro.   The Batista government was defeated militarily by Che Guevara at the Battle of Santa Clara on New Year’s Day, 1959.  Batista was granted asylum in the Dominican Republic, then moved on to Portugal where he died of a heart attack in 1973.  Che remains a popular hero of the Cuban people.

Che Images from Market

We elect to remain in Old Havana on Sunday evening to explore the four major plazas of Vieja Habana and to take a leisurely stroll along the Malecón for some late evening entertainment.  Since dwellings are very small in Cuba, street musicians and people of all ages use the Malecón as an evening meeting place to chat and chill.

Young men on Melacon

On Monday morning, our tour bus is west-bound on the Carretera Central expressway for a day-long tour of the lush Vi­ñales Valley.  Vi­ñales is a rural town located in the Pinar del Río Province of Cuba, about 2 hours to the west of Marina Hemingway by bus.

Vinales town square

In sharp contrast to Havana, the countryside here is quite rural.

simple home

Some of the best tobacco in the world is grown in the fertile, red soil of this valley.

tobacco field

Here’s a view of the Vi­ñales Valley from the Hotel Los Jazmines overlook.

Vinales hills

Much of the region’s limestone has eroded away, leaving large outcroppings known as mogotes (haystacks) that point skyward with steep sides and rounded, jungly tops.

Vinales magotes

Several mogotes feature caves that invite exploration.

Cave Opening

Following lunch at paladar La Cabana, our final stop of the day is the prehistoric mural located a few miles west on the town of Vi­ñales.  In 1961, Fidel Castro visited the area and commissioned a painting on a steep cliff.  The painting depicts snails, dinosaurs and cave dwellers, all in garish colors.  The painted cliff is not particularly artistic, but it is unusual enough to attract the attention of tourists.

Prehistoric Mural

Alex tour guide

An important element of our “people to people” cultural exchange involves gaining insights into the Cuban way of life through conversations with our Cuban tour guides.  Our guides are young men in their thirties.  Their yellow shirts and microphones indicate that they are employees of the Cuban government.

In private conversation, our guides do not hesitate to express their hopes and aspirations for the future, even when their thoughts run contrary to the official party line of Cuban leaders.  Since their income is dependent on tourism, they are very welcoming to visitors, especially those from the U.S.  They feel strongly that the quality of life will improve dramatically for all Cubans as tourism grows, communication expands and as Cubans enjoy more face-to-face contact with U.S. citizens.

man sitting outside building

Our tour guides are proud to be Cuban.  They explain that their younger Cuban counterparts are less entrenched in socialistic dogma and are anxious for change.  They view the U.S. as an obvious mechanism for positive change in their homeland.  They acknowledge that the pace of change in Cuba is likely to be slower than they would prefer.   They are encouraged, however, by recent change that would have been unimaginable a decade earlier as Cuba moves continually in the direction of encouraging foreign investment and private enterprise.

Raul Obama sign

Cubans may apply to the Cuban government for travel visas.  Visas can easily be obtained for travel to Russia.  However, few visas are granted for travel to the United States. Obviously, the Cuban government views the potential for defection as a threat.

transporting pipes on bike

All employed and unemployed Cubans earn about $30 per month regardless of their educational background, skills or job responsibilities.  Doctors, lawyers and teachers earn the exact same salary as an unskilled worker.  Every household receives a rations book which entitles them to a monthly allotment of staples including rice, beans, sugar and flour.

street guitarist

By U.S. standards, meals at restaurants are quite reasonable in Cuba.  Most restaurants are owned and operated by the Cuban government.  However, the number of private restaurants (paladars) are increasing.  Here’s a shot of paradar La Cabana.

Lunch in Vinales

During our visit, the price for two complete meals including cocktails was in the $15 range.  Meals at restaurants are very expensive for Cubans earning $30 per month.

Street vendor

Many Cuban households depend on remittances from Cubans living abroad, mainly in the U.S.  It is estimated that Cuban-Americans send more than $1 billion in remittances to family members in Cuba every year.  On the surface, remittances appear to be a sensible humanitarian gesture.  However, our tour guides view remittances as inherently unfair.  For example, a Cuban doctor struggles to get by on $30 per month while teenagers whose family receives remittances from the U.S. spend money freely on gold jewelry, hip-hop clothing and nightlife.  There seems to be a considerable amount of resentment on the part of Cubans who do not receive remittances.

Couple hand in hand

Cubans pay no taxes and only a minimal amount for household utilities.  Rental housing provided by the government is quite spartan by U.S. standards but free of cost.  Many of the apartment buildings in Havana were constructed by the Russian government.   These featureless structures consist of individual concrete cubicles stacked ten or more stories high.  Our Cuban tour guides refer to them as “the absence of architecture”.

Apartment Building

Private dwellings are usually inherited from family members. With minor exceptions for farmers, all land is owned by the Cuban government. Public buses made in China are widely available…all filled to capacity with passengers.

street scene

Only about 30% of Cubans own an automobile.  Cars are economically out of reach for most residents.  Being on the streets in Havana is like stepping back in time to the 1940s and 1950s.

Wedding couple in car

Taxi drivers zip around town in their vintage Chevrolets and Buicks which were imported here prior to the Revolution.  An hour ride in one of these classic vehicles through the historic sites of Old Havana costs about $15.  Given the absence of parts for these older vehicles, it is a tribute to Cuban ingenuity that these classics are still on the road and looking quite spiffy.

Gold car

Antique cars on Melacon

Schooling through high school is compulsory and free in Cuba.  As a result, the literacy rate here is 97%…amongst the highest in the world.  Higher education is also free for those who pass entrance exams for a professional career.  Males are required to serve in the military for two years before entering university.  A trade school education is available at no cost for those who wish to become masons, electricians or plumbers.  Without question, there is a need for more plumbers in Cuba if for no other reason than to improve the functionality of the country’s rest rooms.

Chess children

Everyone is given a job upon graduation.  Certain professionals, such as medical doctors, are required to practice in rural areas for two years following graduation.

horseman closeup

The owners of paladars (private restaurants), particulares (private guest houses), taxi drivers and other Cubans working in the tourist industry have an opportunity to supplement their income with fares, fees and tips.

La Fontana tables

In order to increase revenues, the Cuban government now actively encourages private business development.

Buick red and white

There is no advertising in Cuba, nor is there much in the way of signage to denote business establishments. As a result, most buildings appear to be abandoned.

Street scene Eric

Political signs and billboards in Havana pay tribute to 58 continuous years of Revolution and other socialistic themes.  Images of Fidel, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos appear almost everywhere in Havana.

Vas bein Fidel

An interesting political billboard in Havana displays the message “Embargo (aka blockade)…the largest genocide in history.”  This slogan refers to the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States since 1960.  This embargo prohibits the sale of all products to Cuba with the exception of non-subsidized food and medicine.  Furthermore, foreign companies that do business in Cuba are prevented from doing business in the U.S.

Bloque Billboard

The embargo was triggered by Cuba’s nationalization of American-owned oil refineries without compensation. Cuba nationalized the oil refineries following President Eisenhower’s decision to cancel sugar imports to the United States.  The American embargo is the longest trade embargo in modern history. Critics of the embargo claim that free trade would be good for both the United States and Cuba.

Cuba USA flags

Privately, our tour guides acknowledge that the Cuban government habitually blames the U.S. for all of its economic difficulties.  They expressed hope that Cuban and American leaders will find a way to resolve some of their differences so that the embargo can be eliminated and so that the Cuban people and Cuban businesses will have full access to U.S. goods and services.  Our guides tell us that access to U.S. medication and food products will significantly improve the quality of life for all Cubans.  Clearly, there is a desperate need for basic infrastructure improvements and decent food in Cuba.  American companies and farmers could conceivably profit by selling their products and services to Cuban consumers.

Fidel quote

It appears that the Cuban people have adjusted reasonably well to their circumstance.  They seem content (perhaps resigned?) and positively engaged.  Panhandlers and street vendors are common in tourist areas, but there are very few beggars and no evidence of homelessness.  Crime is almost non-existent in Cuba.  The public infrastructure and quality of life here is much lower than that of the U.S. but at least equal to or perhaps somewhat better than that of many Caribbean islands.

After Monday’s tour of the Vi­ñales valley, Cutter Loose remains at Marina Hemingway on Tuesday and Wednesday awaiting favorable weather for the return to Key West.  Thursday’s forecast calls for lighter winds from the southeast.  This is just what the doctor ordered.  On Wednesday afternoon, we settle our account at Marina Hemingway and prepare for a Thursday morning departure.

On Thursday at 0630, we are underway from our dock on Canal #1.  There is barely enough daylight at this hour to maneuver Cutter Loose alongside the Customs dock for outbound clearance.  Customs officials perform a thorough inspection below decks to insure that there are no Cubans aboard.   At 0730, we bid a fond farewell to Cuba and enter the Straits of Florida bound for Key West.

Hasta luego Cuba

Our patience in waiting for favorable weather is rewarded with a moderate 15 knots of southeast winds on the beam with 3 to 5 foot seas.  Cutter Loose romps along at 8 knots for 80 miles before the wind begins to dissipate.  We had anticipated a boost from the northeast set in the Florida Current that worked against us during our trip from Key West to Havana.  To our dismay, the current is adverse again today, setting Cutter Loose to the southeast thus eliminating the possibility of a landfall at Key West before dark. There is always a price to be paid for re-entry.

At 9:45 PM, the sea buoy at Key West passes astern.  Carefully navigating the light patterns of the Key West ship’s channel in darkness, the anchor is down near Tank Island at 11 PM.  Today, 112 nautical miles have passed beneath the keel of Cutter Loose.  After 15 hours of travel today, we have re-entered the 21st century…worlds apart from our point of embarkation this morning at Marina Hemingway.

Today has been a contemplative kind of day, re-playing, absorbing and processing that which we have seen and heard during the past two weeks.  Factor in to the mix the powerful mental image of a makeshift Cuban chug that washed ashore during our visit to the Dry Tortugas a few weeks ago.  Nineteen desperate Cubans risked their lives to reach the United States in that decrepit vessel.

refugee boat inside

A visit to Cuba sticks in one’s gut…difficult to grasp and digest but a delight to the senses nonetheless.   Without a doubt, this has been a most enlightening and fascinating experience…one that we shall not soon forget.

One thing is certain.  Travel makes us ever mindful that we live in a country with extraordinary abundance, opportunity and freedom.  The freedom to come and go as we please, in particular, is a precious right that Americans should never take for granted.

Tomorrow, we will exercise our freedom of movement by sailing east to Marathon for a few days of rest and relaxation at Harbour Cay Club before commencing the long trip north to Annapolis.

 

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow minded-ness”

                                                            Mark Twain

 

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March 7th to March 18th – St. Petersburg to Marathon

On Monday, March 7th, Cutter Loose slips away from her mooring at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina at 7:30 AM for today’s 38-mile run to Sarasota.  We arrive at the Marina Jack mooring field in plenty of time to enjoy the sunset over the Ringling Causeway Bridge.

Longboat Key Sarasota sunset

The primary goal of our stay in Sarasota is to position ourselves for Wednesday’s pre-season baseball game at McKecknie Field in nearby Bradenton, winter home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

McKechnie Outside

Public transit whisks us from the transit center in downtown Sarasota to Bradenton in less than an hour for an unbeatable, one-way geezer fare of 60 cents per person.  Better yet, the bus stop in Bradenton is located within a 5-minute walk to the stadium.

Pirates game field

Today’s game against the Red Sox is a sellout.  There are so many unrecognizable minor league players and frequent substitutions in today’s game that it is difficult to judge the relative strength of the team.  Our fervent hope is that Clint Hurdle and his staff can guide the team to post-season play for the third year in a row.

On Thursday and Friday, a total of 126 nautical miles pass beneath the keel of Cutter Loose en route from Sarasota to Marco Island, including an overnight stop at Cayo Costa.  These are long, challenging days, motoring into 15 to 20 knot winds with 4 to 6 foot waves on our bow.  This is the price one pays for travelling north.  Eventually, one must return south into the prevailing southeasterlies.

Beach Marco Island

On Friday at 6 PM, the anchor is down in Factory Bay at Marco Island.  We have arranged to meet cruising friends John and Nancy of IP 420 Adventuress for lunch on Saturday. After a quick tour of the beach, Chef John prepares a delicious lunch in their freshly-remodeled Marco Island condo.  Afterwards, John provides us with transportation to the grocery store for final provisioning prior to our departure from Marco Island.  This is yet another example of cruisers helping fellow cruisers.

John Knight lunch

On Saturday at 4 PM, the anchor is up in Factory Bay.  Our destination is the Dry Tortugas, a tiny archipelago located 125 miles to the southwest.  With 15 knots of wind on her beam, Cutter Loose romps along on a beam reach, happy to be at sea again after languishing in marinas for several months.

Daybreak Dry Tortugas

A slight sliver of a moon disappears below the horizon before midnight, lowering the ambient light and magnifying the vast network of directional signage in the heavens.  Go Sky Watch announces Saturn and Jupiter as the most brilliant stars of tonight’s sky show.  The smaller star Psi Velorum (61 Light Years) is our virtual steering point on the southwest horizon.  Vega (25 Light Years) lies directly astern.  For the first 8 hours, tonight’s journey remains quiet with little boat traffic. Cutter Loose is alone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The feeling of being under sail at night and alone in our small corner of the world is simply sublime.

Midway to the Tortugas, boat traffic increases significantly.  Dozens of shrimpers dot the radar screen in the early morning hours, trawling for the delicious pink shrimp that populate the waters of the Florida Keys.  Since shrimpers move slowly and change direction frequently, our course meanders like a drunken sailor through the maze of fishing boats.

Still 5 miles from our destination at first light, the 170 foot lighthouse on Loggerhead Key appears on the southwest horizon.

Loggerhead light

Soon, a faint outline of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key begins to take shape as we cross the boundary into the Dry Tortugas National Park.  By 9 AM, Cutter Loose is comfortably riding on her anchor in the park’s central boat basin while her crew catches up on lost sleep.

Fort Jeff entire exterior shot on approach

The first thing that is noticeable here is the vibrant aquamarine color and clarity of the water.  As such, the Dry Tortugas are a touch of the Bahamas and the Caribbean right here in the U.S.

Dry Tortugas beach

One might ask why such a massive brick fort is located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by water.  What is it designed to protect?  For the next several days, we explore the answers to these and other intriguing questions.

During our stay, we are joined by cruising friends Sharon and Greg aboard IP 40 s/v Dream Catcher who sailed here from Marathon.  We are amongst a total of a half dozen pleasure boats anchored in the harbor.

Anchorage Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas archipelago was discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513.  The islands were named for its abundance of turtles.  However, the absence of a source of potable water negated the possibility of a permanent settlement.  The U.S. acquired the Dry Tortugas from Spain in 1821 as part of the Florida territory.  These tiny islands were recognized by the U.S. for their strategic importance in keeping our shipping lanes open and guarding our nation against invaders from the south.

Ft Jeff Map

Construction of the fort began in 1846 and continued for 30 years until 1876.  Shifting sands caused the foundation to sink which, in turn, caused the fort’s 8- foot thick walls to buckle and crumble. By this time, naval warfare had changed dramatically.

Curved arches inside Fort Jeff

Masonry fortress walls once thought to be impenetrable by cannon balls of the 1840s are being reduced to rubble by improved naval artillery in the 1870s.  The project was abandoned in 1878 without a single shot fired in defense of the fort.

Fort Jeff inner wall

Fort Jefferson served as a Federal (Union) prison during the Civil War.  Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted as an accomplice in the escape of assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Four of us at Ft Jeff sign

Each day at 10:30 AM, the fast ferry from Key West arrives with its payload of tourists.  In addition, a single engine seaplane makes several trips to and from Key West each day.  By mid-afternoon, the tourists have departed, leaving only the sights and sounds of waves breaking on surrounding reefs and squawking birds performing aerial maneuvers above their nests.

Fort inside area

Here in the Dry Tortugas, there is no cell phone service, no television, no Internet service, no roads, cars or restaurants.  The only way to arrive here is by boat or seaplane.

Sea Plane

As such, it is an excellent escape from the outrageous behavior and media frenzy that dominates the civilized world. Rather than staring aimlessly into electronic devices, people here seem happier, genuinely interested in exploring the outdoors and more engaged with their fellow human beings.

Fort Jeff ruins

Springtime visitors here in the Dry Tortugas also include over 300 species of migratory birds.  Some 80,000 Sooty Terns are currently nesting on nearby Bush Key, the most important breeding colony in the continental U.S.  Nearby Long Key is home to 100 nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds, the only current nesting colony of this species in the continental U.S.  These islands are designated sanctuaries.  As such, they are off limits to humans, other than the NPS researchers who band and keep tabs on the migrants.

Eric dinghy Loggerhead

Two miles from Fort Jefferson on Garden Key is Loggerhead Key, the largest island in the Dry Tortugas.  Named for its abundance of loggerhead sea turtles, Loggerhead Key is a haven for wildlife, including turtles, migrating birds and coral fish on its outlying reef.

beach shot Loggerhead

Snorkeling on the reef on the west side of Loggerhead Key is made easier by strategically placed dinghy moorings.  Our snorkeling expedition with cruising friends Greg and Sharon of s/v Dream Catcher provides a glimpse into the underwater world of coral, colorful reef fish and crustaceans.

E and P on sand spit

A picnic lunch and a stroll on the picturesque west beach makes for a memorable visit.  Other than the two NPS volunteers that live on Loggerhead Key, we are the only humans visiting this pristine natural setting today.

Large beach shot with lighthouse

Because they are so remote and isolated, the Dry Tortugas in general and Loggerhead Key in particular are popular destinations for Cuban migrants.  Under current U.S. policy, Cuban migrants seeking to escape Cuba must have one “dry foot” on American soil in order to remain in the country.

Two days prior to our arrival, a makeshift boat known as a “chug” landed on the beach at Loggerhead Key with 19 Cuban passengers on board.  This particular chug is about 22 feet in length with an open cockpit and a rudimentary marine engine.

refugee boat outside

In order to fit 19 people into 22 feet of space, the passengers were packed into this chug like sardines.

refugee boat inside

NPS staff housed the migrants until the U.S. Coast Guard arrived on the scene.  The Coast Guard transported the migrants to Key West, then on to Miami for processing.

refugee motor

NPS staff is responsible for cleaning up the remains of Cuban chugs that wash ashore on the beaches within the National Park.  According to one Ranger, Cuban migrants face a 50/50 chance of making landfall when setting off on a passage to the U.S.

refugee prop

On Wednesday, the anchor is up at the Garden Key boat basin at 8 AM, marking the beginning of our journey east to Marathon.  The objective is to arrive in Marathon well before the forecasted cold front that is expected to pass through the Keys this weekend.

By 3 PM, the anchor is down in the Marquesas atoll, located about 20 miles west of Key West.  The Marquesas are uninhabited and out of cellular range.  The atoll is a shallow inner lagoon surrounded by a circle of small, low-lying cays.  Here we enjoy a calm overnight anchorage while shrimpers work the surrounding waters.

Marquesas water

Wishing to extend our visit to some of the more remote areas of the Florida Keys, our overnight anchorage on Thursday is at Sawyer Cay in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

Sawyer Key

Sawyer Key is located on the northern side of the chain about midway between Key West and Marathon.  This is yet another remote anchorage far away from the heavily trafficked Overseas Highway.  During our travels this week, we have come to better appreciate the hidden beauty of the Florida Keys.

CL Sharon Shot

On Friday, the anchor is up at 9 AM for the final leg to Marathon. By 2 PM, Cutter Loose is docked at the Harbour Cay Club.  This closes the circle on our 84-day exploration of the Gulf Coast of Florida that began here at HCC on December 26, 2015.  We will remain in Marathon until our departure for Cuba in early April.

Greg Sharon CL cockpit

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February 20th to March 5th – Sarasota to St. Petersburg

At 9 AM on Saturday, Cutter Loose is underway from her slip at Marina Jack.  Our destination today is St. Petersburg, some 37 nautical miles to the north via the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.  Our course today takes us under the Ringling Causeway Bridge and into the broad waters of Sarasota Bay.  At the northern extremity of the Bay, the ICW channel narrows and becomes shallower in the vicinity of Sisters Key and Longboat Pass.

Sisters Cay

Cutter Loose is one of a half dozen vessels waiting for scheduled openings at the Cortez Bridge and the Anna Maria Bridge this morning.  Once under these bridges, Anna Maria Sound disappears astern as we enter the waters of Tampa Bay.   On the horizon, the distinctive Sunshine Skyway Bridge serves as an iconic gateway to the Port of St. Petersburg.

Bridge span

At 2 PM, Cutter Loose is docked at St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.  This is a massive, well-maintained facility with some 630 slips as well as a mooring field.  Since the marina is centrally located on Bayshore Drive, it is a short 10-minute walk to downtown shops and restaurants. With its ample network of waterfront parks, promenades and broad streets, the “Sunshine City” promises to offer plenty of exploration options during our two-week stay.

Municipal Marina

St. Pete is the fourth largest city in Florida with a population of 250,000.  It is part of a broader metropolitan area which includes the cities of Tampa and Clearwater.  Taken together, the Tampa Bay metro area has a population of 4.3 million and growing. As such, St. Pete is significantly more urban and diverse than both Naples (20,000 population) and Sarasota (52,000 population).

Downtown Street

The Bayfront is characterized by trendy retail establishments and restaurants that cater to more refined tastes.

Sundial

In contrast, Central Avenue is home to funky shops and bars in older, repurposed buildings. With a half dozen or more condo and hotel projects underway, the downtown economy in St. Pete is booming.

Center Avenue

Cutter Loose feels comfortably at home here in St. Pete as well.  After all, she is within a few miles of her original place of origin at the Island Packet Yacht factory in nearby Largo, FL.  The newest boat to be manufactured by Island Packet is the L24 family launch.  Here she is on display at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.

IP Electric Cruiser

Ever so gradually, the weather improves during our stay in St. Petersburg.  Since our arrival, cold fronts have become less frequent and less severe.  Rain slickers with a layer of fleece insulation finally give way to shorts and tee shirts as the uniform du jour. Sunshine, blue skies and milder temperatures urge us to get outdoors and explore.

Bike trail

The City’s founders wisely reserved ample open space for waterfront parks and recreational trails.  The North Bay Trail stretches for miles along Tampa Bay.

Pat on Skyline Trial

Bicycling is popular here, due largely to the City’s extensive network of paved trails and dedicated bike lanes on existing streets.  The paved Pinellas Rail Trail extends 37 miles from the downtown waterfront district to Tarpon Springs.

Heron1

The paved Skyway Trail connects Pinellas Trail with St. Pete Beach, Fort DeSoto and a popular fishing pier on the north side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.  Hands down, St. Pete offers the best bicycling we have experienced thus far this season.  Bicycling quickly becomes our daily ritual with several rides in excess of 30 miles.

Dali Museum

St. Petersburg is blessed with a vibrant, cultural arts scene.  A docent-led tour of the Salvador Dali Museum reveals the artist’s interesting use of illusions and repetitive themes.

Dali inside

Dali photo

 

Included in the permanent exhibit are seven of Dali’s eighteen “masterwork” paintings, including the iconic Lincoln in Dalivision.  At close range, this painting appears to be an abstract arrangement of small, blurred squares.  However, backing off to a distance of 20 meters reveals a detailed portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Dali Lincoln

The Mahaffey Center is home to the Florida Symphony.  Our visit to St. Pete coincides with a thrilling performance of Brahms’s First Symphony.

FSO Symphony

The next stop on our cultural tour of St. Pete is the annual Choral Festival at First Presbyterian.  This year, the guest composer/arranger/conductor is Mack Wilberg, Music Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  The Festival Chorus assembled for this concert features 100 vocalists from local churches and universities.  Another 21 musicians from the Florida Symphony comprise the Festival Orchestra.

Presby concert

St. Pete is also a vibrant university town.  The campuses of St. Petersburg College, Eckert College and Southern Florida University lend a youthful vibe to the local entertainment scene.

Farmers Market bread

On Saturday mornings, the expansive farmer’s market is well-attended.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, prepared foods and live music contribute to a carnival atmosphere in the downtown.

Farmers Market Guacamole

Strawberries

When one needs a break from the hustle and bustle of the downtown scene, day sailing on Tampa Bay offers a relaxing alternative.  The St. Petersburg Yacht Club sponsors instruction, class racing and sailing regattas on Tampa Bay nearly every day of the week.

Sailing race

Each day, crews erect crash barriers and fencing of spectator viewing areas in preparation for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete, a winter stop on the Verizon Indy Car race series.  The race is scheduled for March 11 -13th.

Cycling race course

This road-race course twists around a narrow, 1.8 mile-circuit that follows downtown streets and a section of runway at nearby Albert Whitted Airport.  Thousands of motorsports enthusiasts are expected to descend on St. Petersburg next weekend to take part in this event.  ABC Sports will be on hand to televise the race.

Vinoy

While in St. Petersburg, our anxiously awaited permit for travel to Cuba is finally issued by the U.S. Coast Guard.  Having cleared this hurdle, we are now on-track to participate in Sarasota Yacht Club’s regatta to Cuba. On Monday, we will depart St. Petersburg, gradually returning south towards Key West to position Cutter Loose for an April 4th departure for Marina Hemingway near Havana.

Cuba here we come

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February 1st to February 19th – Naples to Sarasota

Following a month’s stay in Naples, it feels good to be underway again.  Today’s journey takes us through Gordon Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico for the 34-mile run north to Fort Myers Beach.  The weather is sunny and warm today with light winds from the south.  North of Naples Pier, our course affords an excellent view of the high-rise condo buildings on Gulfshore Boulevard that served as our primary bicycle route during our visit to Naples.

Ft Myers Beach Anchorage

By 2:30 PM, the Fort Myers Beach Bridge comes into view as Cutter Loose rounds Bodwich Point and into Matanzas Pass.  Fort Myers Beach is a popular destination for cruising sailors and the mooring field is packed with boats today.  To our good fortune, the mooring manager at Matanzas Inn assures us that two moorings remain available in the east mooring field. After circling and re-circling the field, it eventually became clear to us that the mooring manager was mistaken.  All 70 moorings are occupied today.

Necessity being the mother of invention, we opt instead for an anchorage along the green side of the channel near the Coast Guard Station.  This proved to be an excellent, calm-weather anchorage with manageable tidal current.  From here, it is a short dinghy ride to the City dock under the bridge.

The long walk to Publix along Estero Boulevard is made longer by a massive sidewalk reconstruction project.  Laden with groceries, the 75-cent fare on the air-conditioned trolley proved to be an excellent investment for the return trip to the dinghy dock.  The following day, we enjoy lunch with cruising friends Alan and Kathy of s/v Flatlander with whom we cruised the Bahamas in 2012.

Bridge at Sanibel

On Wednesday, the anchor is up in Fort Myers Beach at 9 AM.  Our course today takes us north into San Carlos Bay, under the landmark Sanibel Island Causeway Bridge, past the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and into Pine Island Sound.  This route is part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway where a series of dredged channels make it possible to meander through low-lying islands between Sanibel and Captiva Islands to the west and Pine Island to the east.  Once past Cabbage Key and Useppa Island, it is a short run to Cayo Costa State Park.

Beach Cayo Costa

After negotiating the interesting entrance channel that passes just a few yards from a white sand beach, the anchor is down in Pelican Bay.  The prime attractions here are the protected anchorage and a deserted beach on the Gulf side of Cayo Costa.   A hike along the beach reveals green can “5” from Boca Grande inlet which relocated to Cayo Costa as a victim of a winter storm.

Green Buoy

On Thursday, the anchor is up in Pelican Bay at 7 AM.  Cutter Loose battles an opposing flood tide as she powers her way into the Gulf of Mexico through Boca Grande Pass.  Our objective today is to reach Sarasota before the arrival of a strong cold front which is forecasted to arrive by early evening.  During the morning, the pre-frontal wind has been building and clocking from SE to S to SW under increasing cloud cover.   While the increase in wind contributes to boat speed, these subtle changes are a constant reminder that the cold front is approaching rapidly.

At 1 PM, Cutter Loose arrives at Big Pass, the entrance channel to Sarasota Bay.  Here, vessels must cross a shallow sand bar in order to gain access to the deeper water inside.  Since the bar is constantly shifting, the entrance channel is not charted.  Instead, boaters rely on guidance published on the Sarasota Yacht Club website which defines a route comprised of four GPS waypoints.

The entrance to Sarasota Bay through New Pass turns out to be one of the most frightening experiences we’ve had on Cutter Loose.  Turning northeast from the Gulf of Mexico into New Pass and following the Sarasota Yacht Club’s suggested waypoints for crossing the shallow bar, waves are breaking to the north and to the south of the narrow entrance.

Sarasota channel

Now beyond the point of no return, waves lift the stern of Cutter Loose, sending her surfing and pitching fore and aft towards Sarasota Bay.  Simultaneously, a 20-knot southeasterly wind on her beam is causing her to roll from side to side.  The resulting corkscrew motion makes it extremely difficult to steer a course to the prescribed waypoints under these conditions.  At the shallowest section of the bar, there was less than a foot of water under our keel.  This is way too close for comfort.

Once over the bar and after breathing a collective sigh of relief, a marked channel of deeper water leads to Marina Jack at the head of the Bay.  All in all, Cutter Loose performs admirably today, covering 50 NM and arriving at our mooring in downtown Sarasota by 1:45 PM.

CL on mooring ball Sarasota

A dramatic wind shift to the northwest at 5 PM signals the arrival of the cold front, bringing showers, much cooler temperatures and wind gusts to 30 knots.  Bouncy conditions in the mooring field abate overnight when the wind shifts to the north, causing Cutter Loose to fall into the lee of the ubiquitous high-rise condo and office towers lining Sarasota’s waterfront.  Gusty 20 to 25 knot winds continue well into the day on Friday, keeping us boat-bound in the mooring field.  By late afternoon, the wind gradually diminishes to 15 knots.

Marina Jacks

Under sunny skies on Saturday morning, Cutter Loose moves to her slip at Marina Jack where we have signed on for a two-week stay.  With over 300 floating slips and three popular restaurants, Marina Jack is a very well-maintained and secure marina with floating docks, clean restrooms and a polite staff.  Our slip is within a ten-minute walk of a long list of downtown amenities.  For more remote destinations, Marina Jack offers a free shuttle service for its guests.

Every morning just before sunrise, hundreds of noisy black crows blacken the sky above the marina.  These are the southern variety of crows, chanting “uh-uh, uh-uh” at the top of their lungs.  Each morning, the crow cacophony awakens us immediately upon their arrival.  For dramatic effect, they prefer perching themselves high in the rigging of sailboats, although power boats are not exempt from their invasion.  The sole purpose of their visit is to work up a healthy bowel movement, dropping their bombs on the decks of Cutter Loose.   They seem to take great delight in achieving their intended objective, chattering and “crowing” noisily about their accomplishment.

Crows in Rigging

Discouraging the varmints from lighting in the rigging of Cutter Loose is a real crapshoot.  Every morning at the first sound of their arrival, we jump out of the sack and assume our defensive positions, shaking the shrouds and stays vigorously in an effort to interrupt their mission, and in doing so, sending them squawking to other vessels in the marina.  After 20 minutes on poop patrol, we begin to relax as the bombardiers gradually depart the marina in search of ammunition for tomorrow’s poopfest.

While marina-hopping may lack the allure of island-hopping, it is not without its benefits.  Our morning routine includes a brisk walk through city streets with obligatory stops at Whole Foods, Starbucks, a delightful little French restaurant, C’est La Vie, for croissants and baguettes and, of course, a sampling of the colossal espresso muffins at Art of Pastry.

Espresso muffin

To shed calories added during morning strolls, our afternoons are frequently devoted to bicycling, including jaunts to Lido Key, Longboat Key, Siesta Key, and a delightful, 38-mile round trip from Marina Jack to downtown Venice, FL via the impeccably paved Legacy Rail Trail.

Pat on Legacy Trail

Legacy Trail

The downtown luxury condo market is thriving in Sarasota with demand apparently exceeding supply.  Downtown housing in Sarasota is not quite as pricey as Naples, but the market here does not lag far behind. A new, 18-story condo tower currently under construction on the waterfront is completely sold.  Sales prices range from $900,000 to $2.5 million for two and three bedroom units ranging in size from 1700 to 2400 square feet.  Many of these dwellings will be occupied only a few months of the year by snowbirds.

New condos

Downtown residents enjoy being able to walk to restaurants, galleries, high- end retail, decorating and design establishments, Whole Foods, the $6 multiplex-cinema and other cultural events, including the symphony, opera and theatrical performances.

Theater

 

Opera House

Sidewalk cafes are filled with residents and tourists from mid-morning until late in the evening.  Downtown Sarasota serves as the dining and entertainment epicenter of the region extending from Bradenton in the north to Venice in the south, including the outlying barrier islands.

Cest la Vie

Apparently, the homeless also have a strong preference for wintering in Sarasota.  During daylight hours, they congregate near the library, the public transit center and at intersections on Main Street.

Homeless bus stop

While loitering is prohibited by statute in Florida, it appears to be tolerated by City officials sympathetic to the plight of the homeless.  Uniformed peace officers have established a noticeable presence on Main Street to deal with occasional acts of aggressive, threatening or erratic behavior.

Loitering sign

Pittsburgh friend and sailing mentor Chuck Berrington graces Cutter Loose with a brief visit during our stay in Sarasota.  Together, we take in a showing of the movie Concussion starring Will Smith.  A considerable part of this interesting film is set in the City of Pittsburgh.  Later, we revisit the Ringling Circus Museum located just three miles north of the marina.

Eric Chuck Ringling

Barnum and Bailey Poster

Cruising friends Alan and Kathy aboard IP 420 Flatlander also pay a weekend visit to Marina Jack.  Together, we tour the orchids and lush tropical vegetation at Shelby Botanical Gardens.

Flatlander at Garden sign

flowers at Shelby

Except for the crows, our fortnight in the delightful town of Sarasota has been a very pleasant and enjoyable experience.  It has been entertaining exploring the nooks and crannies of this attractive, walkable community.

bike fridays

The time has come to pack up the Bike Fridays and prepare for departure.  On Saturday morning, we will pull up stakes at Marina Jack and move further north to St. Petersburg.

Unconditional Surrender statue

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January in Naples

On New Year’s Day, the anchor is up at 1 PM in Factory Bay at Marco Island for the short 15-mile journey north to Naples.  The weather today is nearly perfect as we enter Gordon Pass from the Gulf of Mexico and thread our way through the holiday boat traffic in the Gordon River.  In the process, Cutter Loose is about to enter floating condo mode…not nearly as exciting or fulfilling as island-hopping mode, but fun and relatively warm nonetheless.

Marlene

From the moment that Cutter Loose arrives alongside the fuel dock at Naples City Dock, Harbormaster Marlene makes us feel welcome.  She is a dedicated employee of a City that, as a matter of policy, does not place a high value on encouraging visits from live-aboard cruisers.  Nevertheless, she takes it upon herself to operate this City-owned marina efficiently, while serving as an ambassador of goodwill, to all who enter this dated but vibrant facility.

Pelican closeup

Naples City Dock is a curious phenomenon…vastly different from most marinas that we’ve visited. Every day, hundreds of tourists and residents alike flock to this facility like geese to a cornfield.   So, what’s the attraction?

At 5:30 AM, charter boat skippers arrive to prepare their vessel for a day on the water.  Anxious anglers begin arriving at the marina around 6:30 AM, forking over $85 per person to board one of a dozen or more fishing vessels in the local charter fleet.

Morning Dock gatherers

From 7 AM to 5 PM, local seniors congregate at the marina’s observation deck to peruse the morning newspaper, socialize and nap.

Naples City Dock also serves as home base to several sightseeing boats as well as the Blue Pelican water taxi.   These attractions attract successive waves of tourists to the marina, especially when the weather is pleasant.

Trip Advisor ranks Naples City Dock as #41 of 100 things to do in Naples.  This helps to explain the constant stream of tourists.  They stroll the docks at a slow pace, gawking at the boats and commenting on the names and hail ports.  The marina functions largely as a public boardwalk.  For marina guests, it is akin to living in a fish bowl.

Fish fillet station

The activity level reaches a crescendo late in the afternoon as the fishing charters return to the dock with the catch of the day.  Proud fishermen and curious bystanders encircle the filleting tables to admire the knife skills of the mates and the comical antics of the brown pelicans as they squawk and flap their wings in an effort to compete for handouts.

Pelican

Whatever the marina lacks in terms of modern amenities, it more than compensates for in terms of accessibility to the considerable amenities of Old Naples.  Among other things, it is the compact, walkable nature of Old Naples that makes this town such a desirable destination.

Weather permitting; our daily morning ritual involves a bicycle ride to Oakes Farm Market to acquire fruit, vegetables, a loaf of freshly baked bread and an entrée for the evening meal.  There is something particularly satisfying about accomplishing one’s daily chores without the use of a motorized vehicle.

Oakes Farm Market

Naples is a bicycle-friendly community.  Cycling along designated bike lanes and multi-use sidewalks is an efficient way of touring the magnificent but pricey neighborhoods of Port Royal, Gulf Shore Boulevard, the Moorings and Pelican Bay.  There is no shortage of work for contractors and developers in these neighborhoods, demolishing medium to large dwellings and assembling the acquired land into sites for new construction of ever-larger mega-mansions.

house

Becoming calibrated to the Old Naples real estate market is not a pursuit for the faint of heart.  During a Sunday afternoon walk, we visited a Realtor’s open house on a whim.  This particular condo unit is located on the second floor of a 1960s vintage two-story walk-up building with exterior staircases.  It is a two bedroom, 1,500 square foot condo with no storage other than one small closet in each bedroom.  Off-street parking is provided in a nearby surface lot.  The listing price of this unit is $899,900.  This is the bottom rung of the residential real estate market in Old Naples.  Many of the dwellings in Old Naples are occupied only a few months of the year.

Astin Martin

The culture of competitive wealth is unmistakable in Old Naples.  Each day, there is a steady stream of corporate jet aircraft buzzing the masthead of Cutter Loose.  They are on final approach to nearby Naples Airport, delivering their payload of executives and their families from the frigid north.  The streets and parking lots of Old Naples are filled with late model Ferraris, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis.  Most of the retail shops cater to expensive tastes.

Night shot 5th Ave

Conversations in a variety of languages are common on the sidewalks and in the restaurants of Naples.  Next to English, Italian is the second most popular language.  It is spoken by visitors, residents and workers alike.  On Monday evenings, Italian films with English subtitles are featured at the Norris Community Center.

tree lined street

shuffle board

Another favorite daily pastime for the crew of Cutter Loose involves aimlessly walking the  picturesque, palm tree-lined sidewalks of Old Naples.  A ten- minute stroll north places us at the Fifth Avenue retail/entertainment district which also serves as the venue for the Naples Arts Festival and a pavement chalk art show on successive weekends in January.

5th Ave Day1

chalk art2

 

chalk art 3

chalk art1

Sidewalk cafes and restaurants provide excellent people-watching opportunities along this attractive corridor.

5th Ave Day

A ten-minute walk to the west from the marina takes us to Third Street South, another retail/entertainment district where a lively farmer’s market attracts hundreds of customers every Saturday morning.

Farmers Market

paella

The City of Naples does an outstanding job of maintaining the highly manicured landscaped public walkways in the retail districts.  Rarely does one see litter anywhere in Old Naples.

Birds of Paradise

The City has also made a major commitment to community parks and the performing arts.  Cambier Park occupies four city blocks adjacent to City Hall.  This is an extraordinary facility which includes a stage and amphitheater.  Every Sunday afternoon, free concerts in the park are well-attended.

Park concert crowd

Park concert band

The City’s Tennis Center at Cambier Park features 12 clay courts with high intensity lighting for night play.  The courts are almost always full.

tennis

The Gulfshore Playhouse is housed at nearby Norris Center.  During our stay, our Pittsburgh neighbor Gwynn joined us in attending a top-notch theatrical performance of Informed Consent, a play about the mores of genetic research.

Pat at Norris

MLK day band

A series of cold fronts brings periods of windy, chilly, rainy weather to Naples in January.    This month, 8.3 inches of rain fell in Naples.  Average monthly rainfall in Naples is just 1.6 inches.  During the passage of one particular storm, an 82 MPH wind gust was recorded at nearby Naples Airport.  Thankfully, Cutter Loose sustained no damage because the marina is well-protected from the west through northeast.

Street flooding

During their stay aboard Cutter Loose, my sister Dianne and her husband Terry treated us to a day trip to Sanibel and Captiva where we spent the afternoon exploring Ding Darling National Wildlife Center.

Dianne Naples Pier

Spoonbill

white pelicans

Two spoonbills

Sanibel shells

During another day trip to the Shark Valley Visitors Center in the Everglades National Park, we cycled the 15 mile loop trail where sunbathing ‘gators were a dime a dozen.

gator with young

Eric and gator

Alligator close up

Anhinga

meandering road

Caribbean 1500 friends Shaun, Neil and Sadie of s/v Escapade pay a visit to Naples during our stay.

Shaun Neil

Yet another day trip to Sarasota brought us together with Pittsburgh friends Jerry and Ginger to tour the Ringling Barnum & Bailey Museum.

miniature circus2

Miniature circus1

Miniature circus closeup

Ringling Mansion

We also attended a meeting at the Sarasota Yacht Club to learn more about its forthcoming regatta to Havana, Cuba in early April.  As a result of the meeting, the decision has been reached aboard Cutter Loose to participate in this event.

Visiting Naples has been a delight.  Our time here has passed quickly.  On February 1st, we will continue our journey north to Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island Sound and Sarasota.  Cutter Loose will remain on the west coast of Florida, biding her time as a floating condo in anticipation of her April voyage to Cuba.

golf course

Ibis

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December 17th to January 1st – Marathon to Naples

Lobster traps

The pace slows considerably once Cutter Loose is securely docked at Harbour Cay Club in Marathon.  Here, we will pause to enjoy Christmas in the Keys.

HCC

Harbour Cay Club is somewhat unusual in the sense that each slip is owned by a live-aboard boater.  Collectively, the slip owners share in the cost of operating the marina.  Certain slips are available for rent to the public when an owner’s boat is not in residence.  Since slips in Marathon are difficult to secure during the winter months, we are delighted to learn that HCC can accommodate Cutter Loose for a relaxing eleven-day visit.

HCC is a small, friendly marina.  Every day at 5 PM, a small group of owners and renters gather at the waterfront Tiki Hut for libations and conversation.  Within a few days, we are on a first-name basis with most of the owners and renters.

Tiki Hut

A strong cold front is expected to arrive on Friday night, bringing with it 25+ knot northerly winds.  Since HCC is exposed to winds from the northwest through northeast, it is likely that 2-to-3 foot waves will pound the marina.  Friday is a day devoted to adding fenders and doubling dock lines in anticipation of the front’s arrival later in the day.

windy palm tree

Fortunately, slip #13 proves to be one of the better protected spaces in the marina.  Equally advantageous is the fact that the bow of Cutter Loose is pointed north into the strongest winds.  The weekend brings windy, bouncy conditions, as expected.  The motion, however, is quite tolerable and does not interrupt our sleep. By Sunday evening, the wind clocks to the northeast and subsides to 20 knots, ushering in a prolonged period of settled weather.

On Monday morning, we board the public bus for a day trip to Key West.  The one-way geezer fare is a mere $1.50 per person for the 50-mile journey through the Lower Keys to the nation’s southernmost city.  Unlike Marathon, which is a never-ending series of shopping plazas along a busy, four-lane highway, Old Key West is a traditional walkable village that is pedestrian friendly.

Old Town Bakery

One of the best ways to enjoy Key West is to stop first at the Old Town Bakery on Eaton Street, then stroll the residential neighborhoods, avoiding the bizarre t-shirt shops, rowdy saloons and the unusual spectacles on Duval Street.

Strand Key West

Rusty junk car

Key West House

Key West lighthouse

Key West Dog

rooster

Back in Marathon, a visit to The Turtle Hospital provides interesting insights into the capture, rehabilitation and release of injured leatherback, loggerhead, and green turtles.

turtle hospital

Injured turtles discovered by fishermen and recreational boaters are nursed into good health by hospital personnel.  Typically, turtles are injured by boat propellers or by ingesting man-made objects (e.g., fishing hooks, monofilament line, plastic bags, etc.) that cannot be digested.  Most often, turtles in distress are found floating on the surface of the water, unable to dive for food or to safety.

turtle operating room

At the hospital, injured turtles are x rayed and diagnosed.  Sometimes, surgery is necessary to remediate injuries.  The turtles are then placed into salt-water pools and nursed back to good health under the careful observation of veterinarians and support staff.  After a suitable recovery period, healthy turtles are released near their initial point of rescue.

Sea Turtle1

During the days leading up to Christmas, we enjoy the abundant warmth and sunshine of the Florida Keys.  One of the attributes of Marathon is its paved bike path alongside Route 1 which extends about ten miles from the Seven Mile Bridge to Grassy Key.

7 mile bridge

In addition to sightseeing and exercise, bicycles serve as an efficient means of transportation to grocery stores, outdoor concerts, church services and restaurants.

Bike Fridays

Chef Sandy has organized a Christmas Eve group dinner at Harbour Cay Club, to be prepared on the premises by 14 attendees who have signed up in advance to participate in this event.  Her delicious entrée is a hearty Cioppino tomato base “seven fishes” stew with a generous side of angel hair pasta and conch.

CEve dinner

Other attendees prepare assorted appetizers, salads, side dishes and desserts.  While it may not seem like Christmas here in the Keys, it is comforting to be in the company of congenial people, especially at this special time of year.

send off group

On Sunday, December 27th, it is time to depart the comfort and conveniences of Harbour Cay Club.  Although it may seem counterintuitive to travel north in early winter, our plan is to travel to the west coast of Florida for the month of January.  Today, Cutter Loose is underway in the shallow, crab pot-infested waters of Florida Bay, bound towards Cape Sable in the swampy, southernmost segment of the Florida Peninsula.

Although we enjoyed our Christmas respite at Harbour Cay Club, it feels good to be underway again this morning.  Under sunny skies and with 20 knots of wind just aft of the beam, Cutter Loose makes short work of today’s 47-mile journey to an overnight anchorage in the Little Shark River.  This is Everglades National Park territory, where mosquitoes and other airborne critters rule.  The wind keeps bugs at bay while we enjoy some late afternoon relaxation in the cockpit.  At sunset, we beat a hasty retreat into the protection of the cabin.

Little Shark River

The anchor is up at 7 AM on Monday, at which time our bodies become breakfast for the ravenous stinging and biting insects that have been waiting patiently all night for our departure.  Our course today takes us into the Gulf of Mexico, skirting the western edge of Cape Romano Shoals before transiting Capri Pass, the entrance channel to Marco Island.  With 70 miles under the keel for the day, the anchor is down in Factory Bay at 3:45 PM.

Pelican

 

Ashore, Marco Island offers many convenient amenities for the cruising sailor.  A Publix grocery store, Starbucks, West Marine and several restaurants are located within a ten-minute walk from the dinghy dock at Rose Marina.  Each day during our stay is spent walking along the palm-lined streets of the island.  A brief overnight visit from friends Carey and Julie helps to while away the hours in Marco.

 

 

After a quiet New Year’s Eve at anchor in Factory Bay, the anchor is up on Friday, January 1st for the short 12-mile journey from Marco Island, through Gordon Pass and into Naples harbor.  At this juncture, our winter cruise will transition to slow motion as Cutter Loose will remain in her slip at Naples City Marina for the entire month of January.

HNY

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Christmas masthead

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