Finally, after six weeks of preparation it was time for the first leg of the journey. I don’t know if you are ever fully ready, there are still jobs on the list, things I would like to have done, things to figure out, nerves to calm, but at some point you have to just make the decision to go. After checking the weather forecast and monitoring it over the course of the week I figured I had a window to make the passage down after the passing of one cold front, and before the arrival of another. I nearly got it right.
Unfortunately Phil and Mary would not be there to throw off my lines as planned as they had to go to Virginia to have a look at another boat up there they were considering buying. On the day itself we had a few people from the marina come to see us off, we had also been hosted to dinner a few nights before, and everyone come round to wish me a good trip, the community at Passadena marina was really something great. We started engines and cast off lines at 1300 on the 16th of April and headed out to the Gulf of Mexico.
There wasn’t much wind during the first course of the afternoon but it soon filled in and we put the sails up and cut the engine. The feeling of Kuhela as she headed forth with nothing more than the sound of water flowing past her hull is something I'd been dreaming and longing for. It felt as though I had just exhaled for the first time in six weeks, the mixture of joy, nerves, contentment and anticipation was something amazing. I made it this far; I had taken another step in my journey.
The wind filled in more and more as the night went on and after having dinner of an amazing stew, provided by Gordon and Lori (friends from the marina) we settled into the two-hour watch routine. We were closed hauled on the wind and making good speed south, sailing roughly ten nautical miles off the coast, trying to stay out of the mine fields of crab pots that litter the coast the entire way south. All went well and we managed to get some rest on our off watch while we got used to the feel of Kuhela and found our sea legs. Then, at the standard time of three in the morning, the gremlins came out to play and the autopilot decided it had had enough and was quitting. So we spent the next few hours trying to deal with that. We had two different spares on board, thanks to Phil, but for all my trying I couldn’t get them to work, so we hand steered till the sun came up. With the new day and a second look I realized that a pretty big part of electrical things working is to turn the switch on at the main panel. Wounded pride, but at least the problem was solved. We also took the opportunity to play with the monitor wind vane, a tireless worker who lives on the stern and uses no power, makes no noise and will steer across oceans. Kuhela was alive, the wind was up, and we were sailing.
The next day passed quickly and with a steady breeze we covered good ground, averaging around 6 knots. During the day we took turns snoozing and catching up on missed sleep from the previous night, marking our position off on the chart as we headed south and enjoying the feeling of being out on the water. When the wind dropped off again in the afternoon we couldn’t pass up the chance to pull up and go for a swim. What an awesome feeling, floating in the ocean, looking up at this beautiful yacht that I am sailing and feeling cleansed and refreshed by Mother Ocean. I am very blessed at the moment and grateful for it. We got back on board and soon realized we had been boarded, a little yellow finch had decided to come along on the trip south and hopped around on deck inspecting her new ride and after finding everything to her liking continued exploring down below in the cabin. John and I were obviously not much more than oddities to her as she hopped around and explored, even using my head and johns arm as a perch before settling on a spot just above the chart table as being the best place for a snooze. I took it as a good sign. Though I didn’t see her leave I hope she had a safe flight to wherever she was off to. She’s welcome on board anytime.
It was during the afternoon on one of my engine room checks when I noticed that there was no water dripping from the stuffing box (the stuffing box is where the prop shaft exits the vessel and normally has a slow drip of water indicating that the shaft is being cooled and lubricated) so I decided to adjust it a bit. Looking back this was not exactly the most brilliant idea I have ever had. I adjusted it all right, and the shaft was certainly cool and more saturated than lubricated when I next checked a few minutes later. As a result of adjusting it, the backing nut had worked its way loose and the main nut had spun most of the way off and there was now water literally gushing into the boat. I popped my head up and told john that we had an issue, as there was no sense in me freaking out alone, and dived back into working on the engine. I managed to get the nut back on and tighten up and headed off the get a clean pair of shorts.
The pattern of wind for the trip was pretty much either no wind, mostly during the afternoon and then twenty knots and even a few gusts up around the thirty mark at night and into the next morning. It would start off south and work its way around to the east, making it very hard for us to make our way south east towards marathon. We did what we could and would just have to deal with that when the time came. It was then around the usual time that things went a bit pear shaped. We were monitoring another yacht approaching us and watching to see what his plans were, if we had both adjusted course a bit we would have had no problems but he held his ground causing us to tack to get out of the way. Not a problem in itself, but I forgot that we had the preventer on (the preventer is a rope attached to the boom to stop it swinging across the deck should we accidentally turn) this meant that the sail back winded and I would have to turn the engine on to bring us back around into the wind. Thankfully John spotted that one of the sheets (ropes) from the sail was trailing in the water and warned me so I didn’t start the engine, possibly getting it wrapped around the prop. This left the lines flogging and flapping across the deck and I had to go forward to get it to pull it out of the water. With the wind blowing pretty hard the line was something like a rather pissed off snake and repeatedly hit me in my head and back while I tried to control it and just as I thought I had it, it swung around and hit me directly in the right eye and laid me out on deck. It was a pretty bad scene, my first thought was that I had just lost my eye, I couldn’t see, it felt out of shape and I just lay there for what felt like a few minutes holding my face. Once the initial shock passed, we got things under control, started the engine and got us back on the right side to the wind, after which I went below to inspect the damage. Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The eye was still there, red and swollen but I could now see a bit and lay down for a bit to rest it. It is ok now and surprisingly not swollen or that red. Not something that id like to experience again.
The night wasn’t finished for us yet though as we realized a bit later that with the rope flogging as it had been, it had come out of its guide and wrapped itself around the sail itself, this meant we couldn’t let the sail out or bring it in, not good. We sat and discussed our options and decided that we should wait till sunrise after which we would turn down wind and use the main to shade the Yankee (forward sail) and I would go forward to manually turn the roller furler to put the sail away. It was a tricky move, but we had run though the plan of action and knew what we had to do and thankfully plan A worked perfectly and we got things squared away pretty quickly. Another thing worked through and back under way.
At this point we knew we were pretty far west and would not be able to make it upwind to Marathon with the wind we had and had to make a decision, either we put the sails away and motor to marathon or we turn and head to key west and wait till the weather changed and we could make our way back up. I decided that even though it would be a long hard slog upwind to marathon, looking at the forecast for the next few days, going to key west would only be delaying the inevitable and so we dropped the sail and headed south till we got into the lee of the key and were shield from the swell and made our course for marathon. It took ten hours of steaming straight into the wind but we made pretty good time and found ourselves at the entrance to the channel with just enough light to make it down the channel and to a protected spot we could anchor for the night. We were blessed with the most amazing sunset welcoming us in and added the sense of satisfaction I felt that we had done it. The first leg of the journey was complete. We had a few things to work out but the boat and crew were in one piece and I had learned a lot, and felt a bit better about the trip, about Kuhela and about myself.
We spent the night at anchor and both crashed out pretty hard soon after dinner. We awoke to a beautiful day and had breakfast and slowly got sorted to move over into the marina. Pulled anchor at around ten and made our way around to pass under the seven mile bridge. Even though you know there is enough room under the bridge, the angle of looking up leaves you holding your breath and praying you don’t hit it, its something that always makes me just slightly nervous. Soon enough we were through and heading up the channel into the marina and into the next stop on my journey. We had done it, Kuhela, John, myself (and even the little finch).
I learned a lot on the trip here. I am getting to know Kuhela better, to know how she feels, how she works best, her likes, dislikes and oddities and I can honestly say that I am enjoying every moment of it. I continue to learn about myself as well, there are so many lessons that are being taught and things that I am realizing along the way. I enjoyed having John along for the ride a lot. For quite a while I thought that maybe I wanted to do this alone, that what I wanted in life was to be the lone traveller, making his way around the globe not really belonging to any place or any one. I don’t know if I feel that way now though, I am realizing that we are never really alone; our stories are interconnected in so many ways with so many along the way, people we meet, share time with, that come and go, family, friends, strangers. They all are part of our journey, part of ourselves and our story, to deny this or not be grateful for it can only lead to feeling lost and imagining ourselves to be isolated. I will continue to travel, to enjoy the time I spend alone, to explore, but I am not alone.
I think I am going to find someone to crew for the Cuba trip and on to Mexico, any takers?....