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Boat Life on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway

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Gregor and I were super excited when we found out that our dear friends from Calgary had purchased the sailboat of their dreams. James and Christine had been talking about sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for several years, so when they bought their first bluewater boat it felt like we were witnessing their dream coming true. Their sailing vessel is a beautifully appointed 42-foot Whitby named ‘My Destiny’.

James and Christine invited us and our good friends, Cheryl and Ted, to be crewmates on My Destiny’s maiden voyage to the Bahamas over Christmas holidays. There was no way we were going to pass up the opportunity to be there for James and Christine’s first big trip with their new boat, especially since they were so supportive and helpful during those challenging months before our Pan-American trip. We also didn’t want to miss out on spending time with Cheryl and Ted, who were coming all the way from St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Gregor and I parked Lucky in a mechanic shop in Bogota, Colombia, and flew to Florida to meet up with James and Christine at their marina in Fort Pierce.

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Fort Pierce, Florida, USA

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Harbortown Marina in Fort Pierce

When we arrived, James and Christine shared some bad news: a recent rigging inspection revealed that the spreaders on My Destiny’s mast were cracked, making it unsafe to unfurl the sails. This meant that we could only move under motor power, which wasn’t adequate for crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. Rather than risk our lives sailing in the Caribbean, James and Christine suggested a Plan B: cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway to the Florida Keys.

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The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is a 3,000-mile (4,800 km) inland waterway that runs along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of the United States. The waterway connects natural inlets, rivers, and bays with artificial canals and channels to create a protected inland route for mariners. None of us had cruised the ICW before, so taking the waterway to the Keys seemed like a great Plan B.

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Prepping the Boat

Gregor and I lived with James and Christine in the marina for several days while we waited for Cheryl and Ted to arrive from St. John’s. We shared some awesome local food, went sightseeing together, and prepared My Destiny to carry six people on board for two weeks.

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My Destiny’s cozy salon

The cozy kitchen
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The cozy kitchen

Awesome seafood at Gettin’ Crabby in the town of Stuart
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Awesome seafood at Gettin’ Crabby in the town of Stuart

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Definitely a fish and seafood theme in Florida
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Definitely a fish and seafood theme on this trip

A windy walk through Jetty Park
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A windy walk through Jetty Park

One of the highlights in Fort Pierce was the Downtown Farmer’s Market. We stocked up on some gourmet food for the boat and got a little glimpse of central Florida culture.

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Selecting locally roasted coffee beans

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Getting some organic spice mixes

Stone crab was in season
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Stone crab was in season

Scored some smoked fish dip!
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Scored some smoked fish dip!

There were plenty of tacky fish-themed crafts
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There were plenty of tacky fish-themed crafts

So nice to see that right-wing gun-toting Floridians support the local farmers and artisans
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So nice to see that right-wing gun-toting Floridians support the local farmers and artisans

Gregor and I started to get our sea legs after four days of living on the boat at the marina. On the fifth day, Ted and Cheryl joined our wolfpack.

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In 2013, the six of us sailed together in a chartered boat in British Colombia’s Gulf Islands and had a blast. It had been two years since we saw Ted and Cheryl and one year since we saw Christine and James. It was so great to be with good friends again.

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The Shakedown

With the boat provisioned and systems checked, it was time to leave the comfort of the marina and cruise southward. My Destiny was about to get a proper shakedown with six crew members putting all her systems to the test.

The first challenge was to maneuver My Destiny through the tight turns of the marina without being blown into other boats by the gusting Atlantic wind. James was super nervous about damaging his baby on her first big voyage, but of course he steered us out of the marina like a pro. Once we entered the wide channel of the Intracoastal Waterway, James was a very happy man.

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It was a smooth cruise to our first anchorage near Jupiter.
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It was a smooth cruise to our first anchorage near the town of Jupiter.

During the second day on the boat, we noticed that the new toilet that James had installed less than a week before stopped flushing. After inspecting the septic system, our captain concluded that the six of us had filled the 36-gallon waste tank in just a few days (yikes!). Since it’s prohibited to release waste directly into the waterway, we had to pump out.

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Draining the septic tank at Delray Beach
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Draining the septic tank at Delray Beach

From that point forward, we all started to be very mindful of our toilet usage, especially with all the holiday feasting ahead of us.

Christmas Eve dinner at Lake Sylvia
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Christmas Eve at Lake Sylvia

Grinding the coffee on Christmas morning
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Grinding the coffee on Christmas morning

Frittata for breakfast!
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Frittata for breakfast!

Piña coladas for happy hour. Christine is the ultimate mixmaster.
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Piña coladas for happy hour. Christine is the ultimate mixologist!

Gregor made red cabbage for Christmas dinner.
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Gregor made red cabbage for Christmas Day dinner.

Roast beef and mashed potatoes with veggies! Yum!
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Roast beef and mashed potatoes with veggies! Yum!

Good times below deck
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Good times below deck

By Boxing Day we had completely stress-tested My Destiny’s kitchen and septic system, thanks to all our Christmas cooking and holiday libations. Now it was time for the ultimate test: cruising the open ocean.

To get to the Florida Keys we had to exit the calm, protected Waterway at Port Everglades and enter the exposed and choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Once we left the ICW, we followed a channel that led straight into four-foot high ocean waves. The boat bounced around so much that everything in and on the boat got tossed like salad (including us). We heard pots and pans leaping out of cupboards below deck and wine bottles rolling across the salon floor. Anything that wasn’t tied down on deck went sliding from side to side as we rode the bumpy waves. It was an exciting ride for about 30 minutes…

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…and then the motor started to choke.

It’s easy to recognize when a motor isn’t working right. Even though My Destiny kept moving forward, it really sounded like she was suffering. James turned the ignition key in hopes to boost her, but it didn’t help – the choking sound started degrading into a sputtering cough.

James turned the ignition again. This time, the coughing turned into a desperate gasp.

One more turn of the key and My Destiny fell completely silent.

“Oh shit,” James said.

And there we were, bobbing around in the ocean with no motor and no sails to bring us back to shore. Big waves were curling under the boat, sloshing us around in a nauseating side-to-side and back-and-forth motion.

“Wow, this is really happening!” I thought to myself, “Good thing I took a double dose of Gravol.”

Within seconds Captain James went into full troubleshooting mode, telling Gregor to go below deck and check if the fuel filters were plugged. Gregor came back to the cockpit to report that the filters were fine, but he wasn’t – he felt like he was going to throw up. While Gregor was desperately trying to suppress his vomit, Cheryl started to puke in the cockpit.

Then we all kicked into action. Ted was busy calming his wife and helping to contain the puke. I was trying to distract Gregor from looking at Cheryl so that he wouldn’t do a sympathy puke. Christine was helping James to find their TowBoat US membership so that My Destiny could get pulled back to shore. Before we knew it, James was on the radio calmly requesting a tow.

Captain taking charge
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Captain taking charge

Towboat came in about 10 minutes
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Towboat came in about 10 minutes

The TowBoat US guy threw James a line with expert precision.
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The guy in the towboat threw James a line with expert precision.

We were towed into Harbourtowne Marina near Fort Lauderdale.
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Getting towed into Harbourtowne Marina near Fort Lauderdale.

Safe and sound at the marina
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We arrived safely at Harbourtowne Marina and stayed there for four days waiting for a motor repair. The friendly bearded repair guy (who, incidentally, was a gator-hunter by night) concluded that the motor problem was caused by a bad load of fuel at the last fill-up. We just needed to flush out the bad fuel and we were good to go. Crisis averted!

By then, there wasn’t enough time left to get to the Florida Keys so we went to Plan C: continue on the Intracoastal Waterway as far as we could go, to North Miami.

There’s a saying that sums up life on a sailboat:

“You can pick the time, you can pick the place, but you can’t pick both.”

So true.

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Cruising the Intracoastal Waterway

Touring the Intracoastal Waterway by boat is a really unique experience. As we headed southward, the mangrove forests that lined the channel eventually gave way to modest homes with cottage-like docks and little motorboats. Closer to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, the modest homes morphed into posh condominiums with poolside lounges and multi-million dollar mansions hosting catered backyard parties.

As the houses got bigger, so did the boats. We saw huge, obnoxious sport fishing boats (carrying up to four 350-HP outboard motors!) and massive yachts operated by full crews wearing identically monogramed shirts. The opulence was both fascinating and disturbing, especially after living in a van in Latin America for the past year. It felt like we were in a different world.

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Boaters name their vessels, just like VW owners name their vans. Many sailboats have elegant nautical-themed names, like “Wind Dancer” or “Stargazer”. The fishing boats tend to have more whimsical angler-related names, like “Reel Estate”, “Beeracuda”, and “Marlin Munroe”. And then there are the party boats with college-drinking-type names such as “Pleasurizer”, “That’s What She Said”, and “Gas Passer”. That’s right, someone actually named their boat after the art of farting.
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Bridges of the Intracoastal Waterway

Dozens of bridges span the southern Florida portion of the ICW. My Destiny cleared a total of 36 bridges (32 drawbridges and 4 fixed bridges) over the 185-km stretch between Fort Pierce and Miami.

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Hobie Sound Bridge

The protocol for passing under a drawbridge is to radio the bridgemaster in advance and request clearance.

Christine was a pro with the VHF radio
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Christine was a pro with the VHF radio

The boats must wait until the drawbridges are fully open before proceeding. With an average wait time of 10 minutes per drawbridge, we spent about 5 hours waiting to clear bridges on the ICW (one way). That’s 10 hours of waiting over the course of our two-week trip. Since we only motored at a maximum speed of 7 knots/hr (12 km/hr), there was absolutely no hurrying on the ICW.

My Destiny took four travel days to cover 185 km (115 miles). Whoever designed the VW camper van must have owned a sailboat in a past life.

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The Boat Life

Our wolfpack lived together on the boat for two weeks without getting into the family drama that typically occurs in close quarters. When we weren’t motoring along the ICW, we anchored in quiet coves and took the dingy to shore to sightsee and get groceries. Occasionally, we stopped at a marina to fuel up, get water, and drain the septic tank. In between sightseeing and boat chores, we did a lot of eating and drinking.

Captain and First Mate keeping us on course
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Captain and First Mate keeping us on course

Taking the dingy to shore
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Taking the dingy to shore

Off to our favourite grocery store!
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Off to our favourite grocery store!

Beach babes in Fort Lauderdale
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Beach babes in Fort Lauderdale

We saw the new Star Wars movie. So awesome!
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We saw the new Star Wars movie. So awesome!

Our anchorage at Oleta State Park, North Miami
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Our anchorage at Oleta State Park, North Miami

Exploring the mangroves at Oleta State Park
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Exploring the mangroves at Oleta State Park

We rented SUPs
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We rented SUPs

James and Christine brought inflatable kayaks
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James and Christine brought inflatable kayaks

New Year’s Brunch
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New Year’s Brunch

Morning mimosas
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Morning mimosas

Florida makes some excellent craft beer…
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Florida makes some excellent craft beer…

…but our official boat drink was piña coladas
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…but our official boat drink was piña colada

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Heading back north from Miami
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Heading back norh

The wolfpack in Delray Beach
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The wolfpack in Delray Beach

The crew coming in after dropping anchor at Jensen Beach
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The crew coming in after dropping anchor at Jensen Beach

Two hunky coast guard officers boarded My Destiny just outside Jensen Beach for a random inspection. When one of them asked if we were carrying firearms, James chuckled and said, “No, we’re Canadian”.
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Two hunky coast guard officers boarded My Destiny for a random inspection. When one of them asked if we were carrying firearms, James chuckled and said, “No, we’re Canadian”.

The happy captain
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The happy captain

It was awesome spending the holidays with good friends. We may not have made it to the Bahamas but we got to experience new places with people we love. Whether we were cruising on the boat or sucking out sewage or getting groceries, it didn’t matter – we had a good time because it was quality time.

Hugs to James, Christine, Ted, and Cheryl for reminding us of the great friends we have. Extra hugs to the Captain and First Mate for making such a special effort to keep us all safe and comfortable on the boat.

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16 thoughts on “Boat Life on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway

    1. Janice Post author

      Yes, friends can really make light of otherwise crazy circumstances. Glad you liked the post!

  1. Cheryl

    Aww, I miss our wolfpack! It was such a memorable trip. Loved sharing food and drink, stories and laughs with you all each day. Here’s to future adventures! xoxo

    1. Janice Post author

      Your chilled-out vibe was contagious, Cheryl 🙂 So great to share that energy with you.

      1. Cheryl

        You’re very sweet Janice. Funny, there were a number of moments where I thought I could have gone with the flow a little more. There’s simply no other way to do it on a boat.

  2. Christine

    You guys are the best crew and travel mates ever! Amazing job documenting our trip – I love all your pictures, the descriptions, the story telling… Safe travels, until our next adventure!

    1. Janice Post author

      I realize now that I neglected to mention how I plugged up your septic system with my tampons. :-p Still feel bad about that. Thanks for being such awesome and patient hosts!

  3. James

    Thanks guys. It was wonderful spending that time with such amazing friends. You guys were such good sports with all the new boat hick-ups and stuff. It great how we can pick up where we left off a year ago almost as though it was yesterday. I look forward to our next adventure together. Stay safe down there, we love you guys.

  4. Karen

    Nice story. It’s always the people that you’re with that help make the memories so magical! You both look so relaxed and chill. Best,
    Karen.

    1. Janice Post author

      So true, Karen. We’re finding that our best memories and favourite countries on this Pan-Am journey revolve around the quality of the people more so than the beauty of the places. Great to hear from you!

  5. Ted Baker

    Janice, it was so heartwarming to read your account of the trip we took together. if it weren’t for the fact that I was there I would be totally jealous of all you guys! Happy Trails wherever you two are!

    1. Janice Post author

      Glad you liked the post 🙂 Our wolfpack certainly knows how to have a good time, eh? Hope to have more adventures with you guys in the future.