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Our stay in Panama City was too long. There wasn’t much to do there and the marina was marginal at best. As Chuck had to go back to Texas on business for a few days, upon his return we planned to leave at the first weather break. And it was about time, way overdue.

The date of the start of our passage from Panama City to the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida area was determined to be Saturday, February 27, 2016…pushing away from the dock at very first light. Considering we had hoped to be in Tampa around November 16, 2015 we were roughly three months behind our initial dates to land in Tampa Bay…and were ready to go.

The debate, as always, centered on whether we wanted to acquire volunteer crew to assist us. Make no mistake, we are quite capable of sailing our boat on our on and, crew or not, we were headed to Tampa on that date, just as we did from Biloxi to Panama City (roughly the same distance). But, crew makes it so much easier on overnight passages, particularly one nighters where just one night makes it a bit more difficult to establish a watch schedule where everyone gets a plenty of rest. We have this debate before every passage.

On the Thursday night before our Saturday departure, after putting many feelers out for local crew, and turning down one prospective candidate, we decided to just make the passage with the two of us. And, then in a last ditch effort, I put out a request for volunteer crew to the wonderful Facebook Group I belong to, Women Who Sail. Almost immediately, I got a reply from one of the members expressing interest.

After talking on the phone a bit, Deanna, our contact, inquired if it would be OK if a friend of hers (Susan) came along as well. We welcomed that idea and it was set that the two of them would arrive at the marina in Panama City the following Friday afternoon, the day before we were to leave. With much anticipation we spent Friday morning cleaning up the boat and last minute provisioning.

That afternoon, both Chuck and I were anxious to meet our crew. Though we are both way, way easy to get along with, inviting two people into your life whom you’ve never met is always a crap shoot. One never knows if from the very beginning there might be a personality clash. So, it was with a slight bit of trepidation that we awaited their arrival…one just never knows.

Deanna and Susan arrived right on time and from the very start we all felt comfortable. We sat in the cockpit enjoying a cocktail together and getting to know each other, before going below for dinner. Departure, as mentioned was to push away from the dock just before good daylight. We all turned in.

At 0430 the alarm went off. All of us were up by 0445 and, as planned, slipped the last line just before dawn at 0520. With me at the helm, within a minute or two, however, I noticed the chartplotter was not acquiring the satellites. This prohibited us from following our chartplotter tracks back out to the St. Andrews inlet and into the gulf. This was not alarming as often chartplotters might take a few minutes to acquire the sats…we made one decent circle in St. Andrews Bay and waited. Sure enough, within another few minutes the chartplotter acquired the satellites and  by0620 we had started our exit of the inlet into the gulf. The weather was crystal clear, very slight following breeze, chilly at 38-40 degrees, and flat seas. We made coffee and had a pastry, settling into the anticipated 30 hour passage.

The wind was a mere wisp of a breeze as we motored south through the missile range I wrote about in a previous post. During the morning we noticed the engine was not running well, having a fuel issue of some kind. We considered but quickly rejected returning to Panama City due to the anticipated favorable winds all the way to Tampa. We are a sailboat after all. Then, sometime in early afternoon, roughly 20 miles off of Apalachicola, Florida on a sea as smooth as a mirror the engine quit stone dead…it would not start. Chuck went below and within a few minutes diagnosed the issue as a failed fuel lift pump. Hoping against hope (we generally carry multiple spares of critical parts on board), I asked him if we had a spare on board…not really wanting to know the answer. He said we did. We were essentially dead in the water with no wind and many, many hours from help…we draw 6.5 feet of water, should we not be able to replace the fuel pump we would have had a miserable night getting to a port that could handle us.

While Chuck worked replacing our fuel pump, I decided to raise our genoa in an effort to take advantage of what little wind there was. It takes 6 knots of wind to move our boat…we had 4 knots, at times, so we were making a very small bit of way…that’s better than none.

Susan, Deanna, and I talked while Chuck worked. Susan asked me if I thought Chuck could get the engine started. I told her, If the engine can be repaired, Chuck can fix it.” That’s just the kind of faith I have in him…the smartest man I’ve ever met.

Barely forty-five minutes later, after the fuel pump replacement, Chuck asked me to try to start the engine…it cranked right up. We were off again. The motor continued to perform as we motor sailed through the afternoon. Considering the spare fuel pump was not a one-for-one replacement but a fuel pump off of our old genset, we were all thankful.

As the sun began to set we established the watch schedule. Deanna and I took the first watch from 1800 to 2200…Chuck and Susan from 2200 to 0200…and, Deanna and I finishing up the morning, turning the boat back over to Chuck and Susan at 0600. When Deanna and I went off watch at 2200 the wind was just off the nose at less than six knots. When we came back on at 0200, Chuck indicated the wind had filled in to 10-15 knots and, consistently, until dawn, the boat clocked around hull speed, seldom going below eight knots, mostly in the high eights, with the occasional nine to nine point one of GPS SOW, speed over water. We were roaring down the coast of Florida. The chartplotter gave us an ETA at the mouth of Tampa Bay around noon or so.

Overnight we entered the gorgeous crystal blue water of south Florida.

Fifty to sixty nautical miles from Tampa around 0800, the engine began to miss in the same manner as it did prior to the primary fuel pump failing the day before and the wind died as we slowly motored south. Our ETA slipped to 1500 hrs. I took the helm and watched the miles painfully and slowly tick off, one by one…hoping with each minute the engine would hold out until we got within at least cell phone range from the mouth of Tampa Bay and a tow, if worst came to worse. Thankfully, it did, and at 0318 hrs, we eased by Egmont Key and entered the bay proper, with Anna Maria Island on our starboard side, Egmont Key on the port.

Tampa Bay is very large, and sailing or motoring on to St. Petersburg would have put us arriving sometime before midnight, entailing motoring across the unfamiliar bay at night with a limp engine. We chose to get a slip at Galati Yacht Sales Marina but though we could get to the marina, they couldn’t support our draft once there. Galati recommended we use a small anchorage located in Bimini Bay, right at the end of the entrance channel at Anna Maria Island. The entire area is a manatee zone.

bimini bay 3

The entrance channel to Bimini Bay looking out from Bimini Bay with the Tampa’s Skyway Bridge in the background.

The entrance channel into Bimini Bay is extremely shallow. I had taken our yacht into it back in June of 2013 when we first brought the boat from Fernandina Beach, Florida on our way back to Kemah. I was familiar with the entrance…particularly its depth…very shallow…very shallow! I was not familiar with the “bay.”

At idle, I brought our boat in and up the channel. We were told to look for a power boat that was also anchored in the bay. As we got to the end of the channel we ran slightly aground…and then floated off. And, then…the engine quit.

A small fishing boat offered to tow us to the anchorage, barely fifty yards away; we took him up on it. It took him every bit of forty five minutes to accomplish this…we have a very heavy displacement yacht.

Once, anchored, we enjoyed the view, thankful we’d had a great and safe passage. Only the engine loomed over the evening.

bimini bay

Bimini Bay

bimini bay 2

Also Bimini Bay, this lady was out for her morning rowing exercise and believe me, she could row…see her wake?

As many marinas will only allow boats into their slips if they are able to get there under their own power, the next morning required us to not only find a marina that would allow us to be towed to it, but arranging for a tow to get to one that would. By noon, we’d arranged to go to Snead Island Boat Works and be towed there by Sea Tow. Snead Island Boat Works is located in Palmetto, Florida up the Manatee River a bit. We would have avoided this area if left to our own because of their shoals and our draft but the Sea Tow captain assured us we could get in…and we did. By early afternoon we were tied to their docks.

snead island boat works

Snead Island Boat Works is the building with the lettering on top of the roof.  It’s located right across the Manatee River from Bradenton, Florida where my old childhood friend Debbie Wiggins and family live.

After a brief consult with the yard manager, Chuck agreed to allow their mechanic to look at the fuel system rather than him taking it on himself. It was the best decision he ever made.

The mechanic that came was named Rob and we liked him immediately. Rob was from Maine and came south to work each year to escape the brutal Downeast  winters. Rob was perhaps fifty and had been working on old lobster boat engines since he was a teenager…we’d actually passed through his hometown when we visited Maine back in 2012. He was the nicest guy you’d ever meet. Though both of us know a bit about diesel engines, Chuck way, way more than I, both of us are experts at reading bullshit. Rob was the kind of mechanic that one could instantly recognize knew what he was doing…he knew. And, we knew he knew. We let him do his thing.

Since we’ve had Freedom we’ve always known that the fuel system was screwed. We have three fuel tanks that give us just shy of 200 gallons of diesel. Two of these tanks are connected to each other with common plumbing and fuel filters that allow us to isolate each. The third tank is essentially an auxiliary fuel holding tank. The original owner told us it was plumbed so that the third tank could be used to supply either of the other two working ones. When we got the boat, however, upon opening the bilges to access the fuel plumbing it was sort of obvious the second owner had allowed jack leg mechanics to service this system…few lines were labeled and some had either been abandoned or cut. Chuck, to his credit, attempted to sort out the holy mess that was our fuel system but, as he said, though he is a pretty good shade tree mechanic, that is exactly what he was, a shade tree mechanic. Rob wasn’t.

As he went to work, all Chuck and I could do was watch in awe. Snead Island Boat Works was way more of a boat yard and boat works than a marina. They had a new fuel pump in stock, as well as every single hose, fitting, valve, or clamp that was required for the job. Rob worked quickly and methodically replacing or re-plumbing the mess that was our old fuel system. He pointed out things to us we’d have never have picked up on. When he finally bled the lines and we cranked her up the engine ran like a clock. Out of jest, we asked Rob if the engine quit would the boat yard come tow us in and stand behind the work. He just looked up at us directly in the eye and said “it won’t quit”, totally confident that the repair was finally what it was supposed to be. We believed him. The engine runs like a top now.

deanna and susan

Our crew, Deanna and Susan…good people.

I really can’t say enough good about our crew, Deanna and Susan. Both were polite, attentive, and respectful not to mention good sailors. They volunteered to crew for us and were not paid, the motive being to gain experience on a larger vessel. Both were boat owners, though their vessels were much smaller than Freedom. On our second watch from 0200 to 0600 hrs I turned the helm completely over to Deanna as I relaxed in the cockpit. She handled the boat and watch expertly and I had complete confidence not only in her ability but in her waking me when, or if, we passed the errant ship or tow. Chuck said the same thing when he and Susan had their watch. On Tuesday morning early they slipped into their rental car and headed back north to Tallahassee and home.

Deanna and Susan, we thank you very much. It was our pleasure and you are both always welcome aboard our yacht.

skyline bridge 2

Skyway Bridge as we approach from the west.

skyline bridge 1

It’s a big bridge.

On Wednesday, Chuck and I motored on into the bay, under the Skyway Bridge and on to St. Petersburg and Harborage Marina. We lie there now before sometimes in April when we will head south for Key West.

always one

There’s always one…
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