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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From that point forward, we all started to be very mindful of our toilet usage, especially with all the holiday feasting ahead of us.
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…
…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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The protocol for passing under a drawbridge is to radio the bridgemaster in advance and request clearance.
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.
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.
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.