The Seven Mile Bridge over Moser Channel in the Florida Keys slips away off our stern, and we are northbound from John Sawyer Bank, headed across Florida Bay en route to Everglades City, 24 days into our cruising odyssey. For some reason, I glance at my feet. Those once lily-white toes now look like they are wrapped drum tight in brown leather, weathered and happy. This cruising life we've been enjoying will do that.
It's been a cosmos of contrasts: The beauty of gliding out of a quiet port or anchorage at sunrise. The sheer terror of a massive thunderstorm, with its darkness, lightning, blinding rain, and high seas, overtaking us at midday in Hawk Channel. In a month aboard our chartered 42-foot Grand Banks Classic, my wife, Cade, and I will have traveled from Sarasota, Florida, down the state's west coast to Marathon, up Hawk Channel to Miami, and back again, via Marathon, to Sarasota.
Lifelong sailors, for years we'd told ourselves we wanted to live aboard and cruise. Only recently did we consider doing so on a trawler. Like many of our generation, the creature comforts of the trawler have beckoned, and the only way to find out if our dream might synchronize with reality was to try it.
We boarded Pyewacket at Jung Charters and Yacht Sales in Sarasota, stowed our gear, provisioned, and settled in for the night. The next day, our journey would begin. Questions ran through our minds. Would we be able to successfully pilot and maneuver this vessel, which seemed so incredibly large? Would we be speaking to one another after 30 days in close quarters, with virtually no "time-out" space? Would our navigational and seamanship skills be up to the task ahead? What would life aboard really be like for this extended period? In the end, would we yearn for more, or yearn for land beneath our feet?
Our second day on the boat was the beginning of our reality check. Capt. Jeff came aboard to explain Pyewacket's systems and operational requirements. Then it was time for our road test.
"Do everything slowly," he advised. "When maneuvering in an anchorage, stop the vessel at each turn. Let her settle, and then make your next move. Leave the throttles alone and use only the shifters. Keep it slow. And listen to Cade. You can't see it all. She's your eyes and ears."
Rudders amidships; kingpin at 12 o'clock. Cast off. Both engines forward. Out of our stern-to mooring. Stop. Port engine in reverse; starboard in forward. Now all neutral. Notice the pivot point. Watch the bow turn. Ninety degrees and stop. Forward with both engines to the end of the pier. Stop. Ninety degrees to port. Stop the turn. Dead ahead and out to Sarasota Bay.
Once past the marker at the entrance to the channel into Jung Charters, Jeff instructed me to advance the throttles to 1800 rpm, which he explained would be our cruising speed. Pyewacket picked up speed to 8.5 knots. Now it was time to see how she responded to the wheel. Unlike a sailboat, she didn't respond immediately. There was a moment's delay before she began to turn, and likewise a bit of delay before she would come out of a turn to settle on a new course. While this would take some getting used to, Pyewacket was a pleasure to drive. She felt solid and surefooted, which translated into confidence at the wheel, something both Cade and I would appreciate later in our trip when sea conditions were less than ideal.
Almost too soon, it seemed, we were headed back to the marina. Looming ahead was my first landing attempt, a stern-to one at that. A tightness in my gut that would be with me for the duration of our charter took hold as we approached our slip.
I set up the boat for backing in. With coaching from Jeff and observations from Cade, we made our landing, and with it came the realization that Cade and I were, and would have to remain, an inseparable team on our upcoming voyage.
Maneuvering the boat at a marina was only part of the job. Cade was my eyes and ears both leaving and returning to a dock or slip, and she orchestrated our takeoffs and landings. Only she could see the swim platform hanging off our transom, and only she would tell me when to turn, or back down, to keep us from peeling off that platform on a dock or piling.
She also was responsible for setting up our lines for each landing, and each time it would be different: Stern-to? Port or starboard side-to? Bow in? Would we be tying to pilings? Were we at floating docks, or at the mercy of the tides? How would we deploy our spring lines? How much slack would we need in our lines? Would we need a spring line to land at or depart from the dock? Each of these questions had to be asked and answered, and a strategy developed, to successfully and safely cast off or land Pyewacket. Obviously, the person at the wheel was only one member of the team required to make it all happen.
GETTING TO KNOW CRUISING
Our voyage, our adventure, our test had begun. Pyewacket, our new 42-by-14-foot universe, was now our reality, our responsibility, and our home.
Starting the engines and slipping our lines the next morning, we moved out of the channel and into Sarasota Bay, with 30 days of "unknown" ahead of us. We had begun the transition from cruising under sail to cruising under power.
The familiar step of rounding into the wind to raise sails to begin the day's journey was replaced by settling behind the wheel, checking oil pressure and water temperature gauges, and synchronizing our engines at their cruising rpm. Setting our course also was a new experience. It was a luxury to be able to "drive" in any direction we wanted, oblivious to the vagaries of the wind. With our onboard chart plotter, and backup provided by a trusty handheld GPS unit I've used for years, maintaining our course and knowing our position was easy and comforting. Our paper charts, which we had studied in detail prior to our charter, were always nearby, providing overall perspective and positioning as well.
Within the confines of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, cruising under power quickly became, in our estimation, preferable to sailing. Indeed, most sailboats traveling the GICW in our vicinity were more likely to be under power themselves than under sail. Unless wind direction is perfect, tacking within the GICW's relatively narrow channel is challenging, if not virtually impossible.
Taking it all in from our vantage point atop the flybridge was akin to watching a 360-degree IMAX movie, with surround sound provided by Mother Nature herself. We became accustomed to and appreciated the feeling almost immediately. Life at 8.5 knots was good indeed.
Cade's father, Jack, a longtime sailor and trawler owner himself, joined us on Pyewacket for our first five days. Stowing his gear, he climbed up to the flybridge to watch as we cast off. His knowledge of Florida's west coast and the GICW, which he has cruised for the past 30 years, would prove invaluable to us, and his calm demeanor was a great security blanket as well.
Five days later, we were berthed at the Naples Sailing and Yacht Club, where we had been weathered in for three days by a cold front with 30mph winds and temperatures in the 60s. It was during that stay that Pyewacket truly became "home."
The beauty of a trawler, we were convinced, lies in its design, which puts everyday living space above decks and "level" with the world outside. On the boat we chartered, the spacious interior, complemented by large, surrounding windows, was bright and comfortable. Spending extended hours in port never seemed confining to us. Quite the opposite, Pyewacket was a floating apartment that could take us anywhere we wanted to go.
Her flybridge, which in sailing terms would be our cockpit at sea, became our front porch while we were at anchor or in port, a perfect place to relax and watch the world go by. Likewise, the two belowdecks staterooms were perfect for a catnap during the day or a hideaway with a good book and were comfortable bedrooms at night.
ANGELS TO THE RESCUE
It was during our NSYC stay that we met a couple en route from Key West to Pensacola aboard their 44-foot Ocean Alexander. They arrived after the dock staff had gone home for the evening and offered us our first opportunity to help someone else with lines and landing. They would be our neighbors on the dock and would become a great resource to both Cade and me. Their advice would serve us well for the remainder of our journey.
Jack bid us adieu and returned home to Sarasota. Inspecting the bilge and our engines, Cade noticed water and oil that had accumulated in the pan beneath our port engine. We weren't sure whether it had appeared during our travels or had been there from the beginning, but we decided to remove it nonetheless.
In chatting with our neighbors, we were advised to first determine whether we were dealing with fresh or salt water. "And you know the best way to do that?" asked our new friend Bob.
"Well," we said, "actually, no."
"Put your finger in it, and then taste it. You'll know for sure." Put a finger in dirty, oily water and then taste it? Yes, we had heard him correctly. "A little bit of that stuff won't hurt you anyway," he said.
Down to the Holy Place we went and, gritting our teeth, probed and tasted. "Fresh water," we confirmed. So we weren't dealing with any kind of seawater leak. Perhaps the water had been there all along; maybe it was overflow from filling the cooling system. At any rate, we bailed it all out, and for the remainder of our voyage, the drip pan remained virtually dry.
As the days of bad weather continued, we were faced with adapting our itinerary to the conditions. We had considered heading south to Shark River in the Everglades, where we would anchor for a night and then proceed on to the Keys. But seas were still less than ideal, and we didn't relish the thought of a long, rough ride.
Once again, our neighbors-or, as Cade called them, "our angels"-came through. They invited us over to their boat and showed us one of their favorite cruising tools, weatherunderground.com and its animated wave height chart, which indicated current sea conditions and predicted conditions four days ahead. On the website we found color-coded wave heights for Florida Bay, across which we would be headed.
"Pink is your color," Bob and Vicki told us. "If it isn't pink, we don't like to go," Vicki added. Pink meant wave heights of 2 feet or less. If we would wait yet one more day, conditions were predicted to be pink along the entire coast south, and a smooth trip was likely ahead. Pink quickly became our favorite color.
More advice: skip Shark River and its notorious mosquitoes, and travel from Naples to Marathon. "You're going to get up at oh-dark-thirty, leave here by 4 a.m., make your way out of Naples harbor, hang a left at the sea buoy at Gordon Pass, and take a straight shot across Florida Bay to Marathon," Bob said. "The harbor's well marked, you have nearly a full moon, and you'll be at Boot Key in time for a shower, cocktails, and dinner. Very civilized."
The alarm went off at 0315 the next morning. We quietly made ready to leave and slipped our lines by 0330. We crept away from NSYC and headed south in the Gulf in the pitch dark, leaving the lights of Marco Island's high-rises astern. Ahead was only blackness. We wouldn't see land again for almost eight hours. But seas were calm, the temperature was on the rise after the cold front, and the sense of adventure was overwhelming. Pyewacket, our home, took us steadily, comfortably, and reliably on our way. We dined on a breakfast of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, brought up to the flybridge by Cade. They tasted better than omelets in a Paris café.
Sunrise, which seemed so far away at 0330, came upon us before we knew it, revealing a beautiful surrounding of ocean that morphed from black to crimson to a brilliant blue as the sun climbed in the sky. We kept close watch on our course, comforted by the fact that our two GPSs agreed with each other. As we charted our position hourly, we began to see the progress we were making. We were on course for our mark: John Sawyer Bank light, north of Marathon. Additionally, with our ability under power to travel in a straight line, we knew fairly precisely when we would make our destination, a not-so-easy trick under sail.
The hours ticked by. We took turns at the wheel, grabbed a little sleep here and there. Life at 8.5 knots continued to be good. We saw only a few other boats on the horizon, some headed north, and some south. Before we knew it, we had 65 miles behind us and we were more than halfway to our destination.
Once again, we were in learning mode, undertaking something neither of us had done before. But unlike our first days aboard Pyewacket, we now were familiar with her feel, her systems, her sounds, and her motion. Our confidence in each other had grown as well.
The advantage of having a 30-day time frame was becoming very apparent, and it's something we recommend to anyone who can make it happen. We believe that deciding whether extended cruising and/or living aboard is a good fit requires a longer exposure to "the lifestyle" than a week or so. With a month-long outing, one can see beyond the sheer excitement and pleasure of a short charter and begin to imagine how life on the water begins to look over the long term. Is it expensive? Yes, but less so than equal time at a resort, and a lot more fun.
If it turns out the cruising lifestyle isn't for you, it's best to learn that during a charter. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the experience, you'll have gained valuable insight into how to begin living your dream, perhaps identifying where you want to begin cruising and what you desire in choosing and outfitting your vessel.
Looking back, we decided that a better option might have been cruising fewer miles and thus getting to know more intimately the cruising grounds, anchorages, marinas, and cities we visited and the people we met. While not unpleasant, moving a trawler every day, or even every other day, is considerable work.
We also asked ourselves if we would want to be truly transient, with no "home base" other than our vessel. Or would we prefer, as liveaboards, to have a home berth with familiar faces, services, and landmarks from which we could take voyages of varying duration and itinerary?
We found ourselves leaning toward the "home base" scenario. We realized that while our confidence was growing, we still faced an extended learning curve. Better, we thought, to take smaller sips than to try to drink from the proverbial fire hose.
After about 10 hours (with much of that time spent dodging ever-present crab traps), the sea, the horizon- indeed our Florida Bay "landscape"-began to change, almost imperceptibly. Nearly in unison we said, "Land ho," as if we were wrapping up an Atlantic crossing. Sure enough, the low profile of the Keys took shape ahead. We still had a ways to go, of course, but the excitement of sighting land was real.
Eyeing our two GPSs, which showed us approaching John Sawyer Bank, I began to strain to see that mark. If we hit it, as planned, it would mean we had successfully navigated our first passage out of sight of land. And then, suddenly, there it was. Dead ahead and visible to the naked eye. Cade stared at me in amazement. "I just can't believe we did that," she said. "It's fantastic."
Life in the Keys moved at a slower pace. As we made our way past Islamorada and Plantation Key several days later, however, things started to change. Fast. The humidity rose perceptibly. The wind disappeared. Blue skies gave way to a ceiling of gray cloud cover that closed in rapidly. As we neared Angelfish Creek, a severe storm warning was broadcast on Channel 16. A massive thunderstorm was making its way across the southern Florida peninsula and would be on us in 30 minutes.
We considered our options, which we saw as only two. We could try to anchor in the lee of Angelfish Creek, perhaps getting some protection from the key. Or we could remain at sea and let Pyewacket take care of herself and us, away from the dangers presented by being close to land in a storm.
We chose the latter, cleared all our gear off the flybridge, and headed to Pyewacket's lower helm. The storm was upon us in a flash. Torrential rain cut visibility to 30 yards. Seas, luckily on our nose, picked up to 6 feet, with foam whipped by sustained winds. The sky turned nearly as dark as night, and we were pounded by thunder and lightning.
In the next instant, a 45-foot sportsfisherman traveling southbound at full speed appeared out of the fog, rain, and clouds not 25 yards away, and just as quickly disappeared. Whether he had us on radar and knew exactly where we were, or if he was just a complete idiot, we will never know. I suspect the latter.
We continued on. Although the close encounter had given us quite a fright, we began to appreciate Pyewacket's seaworthiness. Her 35,000 lb. and semidisplacement hull cut cleanly through the storm and seas. Her twin Lehmans never missed a beat. Within 45 minutes, the storm had passed, the winds had begun to subside, and the seas had eased. The only thing that continued was a steady but now gentle rain. Visibility began to return as well. As we passed off Bowles Bank, we were again on the flybridge and were relatively comfortable.
In retrospect, it was right that we had trusted our vessel and motored through the storm. Under similar circumstances, we would do the same again.
As we continued on to Miami, we learned via VHF and the Coast Guard that a vessel with two men aboard had rammed the reef at Bowles Bank during the storm and overturned. One man had been rescued, and the second was missing. To our knowledge, he was never found. We heard no more of it. The severity of the just-passed storm was brought home once again.
By the time we had the sea buoy at Government Cut in sight, the rain had stopped and the skies had cleared, and we cruised comfortably into Miami Beach Marina. Entering the channel and a port the size of Miami was an experience for the senses. The 42-foot Pyewacket, which had seemed so massive only two weeks ago, seemed small in comparison to the many vessels, commercial and private, that populated the busy port.
At the marina, we met our friends Jane and Paul from Denver, who moved aboard with us for a week. Our plans were to cruise back down to the Keys with them, leaving them off at Marathon to drive to Miami and fly home to Denver.
The days passed in what seemed like an instant. Jane and Paul soon were on a plane home, and Cade and I found ourselves again in Hawk Channel, in stiff breezes and rolling in 4- to 6-foot seas on the beam.
It was good to be cruising again, just the two of us, but we also realized that over the past three weeks "just the two of us" had changed. We were enjoying each other's company more than ever. We had slowly become accustomed to the boat and much more comfortable with the cruising life. While we knew we were still novices, we were proud of what we had accomplished.
We had covered a great deal of ground (or should we say water?). We had experienced a broad range of weather. We had piloted Pyewacket safely. Our navigation skills had been up to the task. We had completed a major out-ofsight- of-land voyage across Florida Bay and were looking forward to the return trip.
Our turns at Pyewacket's wheel and the hours spent at sea weren't chores; they had become our reality and now remain as indelible memories that we share over and over with one another. Pyewacket had become our home, as comfortable and welcoming as any doorstep on earth.
We don't that believe we, or anyone contemplating the cruising/liveaboard lifestyle, could experience this "evolution" on the more traditional one-week or 10-day charter. A month at 8.5 knots, with life seen over the bow of a trawler steadily cutting through blue waters, is a gift.
In all, we covered 798 miles, with 90 hours at the wheel, and moved 15 out of 30 days. We had taken the first step toward a cruising life. We'd gone out and done it, at least to the extent that's possible as charterers, with the help of a charter company that bet on our ability to handle its boat and bring her back safely, a captain who gave us some of the tools to complete the journey, dockmasters, new friends, and "angels" who counseled us along the way. To all of these people, we say thank you.
And to those who, like us, have had "the dream," we can heartily say, "Do it." You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Our adventure drew us closer together, even after 33 years of marriage. And it made us eager to share more of this wonderful cruising life with anyone who's willing to listen.