This page last updated on 12/31/2017.
Copyright © 2001-2018 by Russ Meyer
I liked the idea of taking someone along, but there were issues involved in doing that:
The candidates basically boiled down to family members or a sailing buddy. I ruled out sailing buddies because I figured we'd likely be at one another's throat by the end of the trip. My son and my eldest daughter expressed an interest in coming along. However, I eventually ruled them out because I was not really sure what I would run into out there. It could be a rough passage...maybe with some dangerous moments. Worrying about their safety and comfort would add another layer of distraction and stress to the whole endeavor. No, better to go see what I'm up against first before taking a family member along. I'd never forgive myself if I got in over my head, lost the boat, and then lost a child. Some of the risks were unknown and therefore not worth gambling with my kids life. It would have to be a solo passage.
Gearing Up the Boat
A solo passage poses its own problems that mainly boil down to your own personal endurance and stamina. I knew I couldn't stay at the tiller for the entire passage; I would eventually need to rest. The options were to heave to and go below for a break or use an autopilot to keep the boat on course. The autopilot clearly had an advantage in that I wouldn't have to stop whenever I couldn't man the tiller. The boat could continue on route while I rested, grabbed a bite to eat, worked on repairs, navigated, or kept watch. I evaluated all kinds of self-steering arrangements but eventually settled on an electronic tiller pilot. One cool thing about an electronic autopilot is that it can be connected to a GPS chart plotter. You can then program a course on the plotter and the autopilot will navigate that course. It relieved me of a lot of navigation worries.
Keeping watch was another problem. One of the primary purposes of keeping watch is to avoid collision with other vessels. When I was not on deck, I might not notice the approach of another vessel. In a collision with a 18 knot freighter, my little boat would be annihilated. The first, most obvious solution was to install a RADAR reflector high up the mast. This would make my little sailboat much more visible on the freighters RADAR. They could see me and avoid hitting me. However, there is something disturbingly passive about that; just waiting and hoping they see me.
I needed something more to help with collision avoidance, something that would notify me of a collision hazard so I could take some action. A small RADAR seemed like a good solution. Small RADARs with limited range are actually not all that expensive. They can be programmed to automatically alarm when a vessel approaches. The down side is that even small conventional RADARs are power hogs, and the boat has limited on-board power. I'd have to run the engine to charge batteries about every 4-6 hours to keep the RADAR running. Not really a good fit for my boat. However, a new generation of RADAR called a broadband RADAR are coming on the market. The Lowrance 4G draws as little as 1.4 amps when in operation. I might be able to swing that.
Another option was using an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver. By law, large vessels are required to operate AIS beacons. An AIS receiver on my boat could receive those signals and display the position, speed, and course of the on coming vessel. Sort of like a poor-man's RADAR. What's more, I could program the chart plotter to sound an alarm, if the plotted course of the vessel indicated it would pass close to my boat. That would allow me to get up, assess the situation, and take evasive action. The only down side is that I might not see small boats because they are not required to transmit an AIS beacon. So, there was still a collision hazard, but at least it would be a fair fight between my small boat and the other small boat.
Heavy weather posed a problem due to the small size of my boat. For me, heavy weather basically boiled down to seas over 4 feet. There was a good chance I would encounter that somewhere along the route. I could heave-to in those conditions, but I wasn't really certain how safe that would be, if seas grew beyond 6 feet. I felt it would be better to get a sea anchor. I shopped around and eventually picked a 6 foot Fiorentino offshore anchor. I also considered getting a drogue, but at the time, couldn't really see a situation where I'd use it and I was coming up against budget limits. I could just drag warps, if conditions became difficult. Well, after my voyage, I've changed my mind. A drogue would have been very valuable.
It seems inadvisable to go offshore without a proper EPIRB. I installed an ACR model 2844, Category II EPIRB.
I updated my emergency signaling kit, replacing expired flares, and adding a few special flares like this one.
I intended to put hasps on the cockpit lazarette lids, but ran out of time. I still think that is advisable, especially after the Tortugas voyage. If the cockpit was pooped by a large wave, the lazarette lids could open allowing the boat to be flooded. Dogging them down in high seas would prevent this.
I realized I was heavily dependant on the GPS chart plotter for navigation and hazard avoidance. It occurred to me that a lightning strike could easily disable the chart plotter, severely degrading my ability to navigate. I thought it advisable to bring along a back-up GPS, just in case. I had a hand-held aviation GPS, but eventually decided to buy a whole back-up chart plotter. I put the chart plotter in a conductive electronics bag to protect it from damaging induced electric current from nearby lightning strikes.
Below is a list of equipment I acquired and installed:
The Dingy Conundrum
I puzzled over what to do about a dingy for a long time. The obvious solution was an inflatable dingy. I'd had an inflatable dingy in the past, but it was bulky and hard to store on the boat. It was also difficult to wrestle out onto deck because it was heavy. Just an awkward pig. Inflating it was an ordeal, especially if it was done manually. I had no where to store one, inflated on deck and towing it behind in heavy weather seemed impractical. If I had to abandon the boat quickly, I wasn't sure I could get the inflatable dingy ready to go in time. I started casting about for alternatives.
I looked at life rafts, but they were very expensive and could only be used in life threatening situations. I needed some kind of auxiliary transport once in the Tortugas, so if I got a life raft, I would then need to get something else for day to day use. Lots of bulk and expense.
I have a Sunfish sailboat that I believe would make a great abandon ship dingy. It's unsinkable and I am pretty sure I could sail myself back to civilization with it should I lose the big boat. In the Tortugas, it would provide fast transportation over a much longer range than muscle powered alternatives. However, it is big and heavy. That makes it nigh impossible to carry it on deck; it would have to be towed. In rough weather, I wasn't sure how stable it would be on tow. Also, it could easily ram the stern of the big boat. Still, this could be remedied by towing it on a long line, adding a bumper pad to the bow, and towing a small drogue behind it for stability. Transporting it is a hassle. I couldn't use the trailer I had for it, so I'd have to build some roof racks for the Suburban. The Sunfish hull weighs 120 pounds, so I wouldn't be able to load it on roof racks without some special apparatus. I still think the Sunfish is an intriguing option, but all these factors made it less attractive.
I considered many other options. Here's a table of options, scored by a handful of fitness criteria (3 = Good, 2 = Fair, 1 = Poor).
I eventually settled on buying a kayak. Finding one that was small enough to fit on deck but buoyant enough to support my weight took some doing. I finally found a Malibu Mini-X that was a perfect fit. The only down side of the kayak solution was that it wasn't clear how well it could be ridden in high seas. It probably would be difficult, but at least it was unsinkable. I also would probably not be able to self-rescue in the kayak, although I might be able to rig a small sail and head down wind a long distance. The kayak did solve the short range transport problem in the Tortugas. I would just have to pull anchor and use the big boat to explore more distant points of interest.
Figuring out a meal plan turned out to be one of the more difficult aspects of trip planning for me. I think was too concerned about balancing a lot of factors such as minimizing water usage, minimizing bulk, minimizing weight, dealing with the lack of refrigeration, minimizing packaging waste (you have to pack out all your trash in the Tortugas), etc. In the end, 9 days on the water is just not that long...it's not like I'm sailing to Hawaii or something. Just bringing along the stuff I regularly eat would have been fine. Another over-complication I made was to pack lots of food. I was worried I would get out in the Tortugas and get stranded there for 2-3 weeks waiting for a weather window. I wanted to have enough food to wait it out, if it came to that. Turns out, that is just not a probable scenario. Besides, the daily ferries sell hot meals. In a pinch, you just stroll over to the ferry and eat up. You don't HAVE to bring absolutely everything with you. Just for reference, below is the meal plan and my shopping list:
Below are a list of various items brought on the trip:
I asked my wife if she was concerned about hearing from me while I was out at sea. She thought that maybe she might like that. So, I went about trying to identify a good solution for remote communications. I considered many options, but finally settled on an Iridium phone. It ended up not working very well, because of frequent dropped connections. However, had I employed an external antenna, it might have been OK. I'll give it one more try with a decent external antenna, but it's definitely suspect now. Here's a table of options I assembled to help me select a solution:
When to Go
I had one main criteria...to avoid bad weather. This boiled down to avoiding thunderstorms (spring and summer), hurricanes (summers), and northerly gales (winter). It turns out March through early June is a sweet spot. The prevailing SE summer winds are building in and the northern gales are subsiding. The Gulf hasn't had time to heat up very much so the thunderstorm season hasn't started. Also, a full moon would occur on May 3rd, 2015. So the overnight passages would have the benefit of good moonlight to help navigation.
Checking the Atlantic Pilot Chart for April and May indicated the main wind direction was east and southeast:
All this fed into the decision to perform the sailing portion of the trip between 4/28/2015 and 5/6/2015. The departure point would be Fort Myers to take maximum advantage of the prevailing winds.
Here's the to-do list for the last few months leading up to departure: