Reading the Conditions to Go Free Diving in the Keys

 

Upon arriving in the Florida Keys in late February Jeannette and I were anxious to get in the water and do some serious freediving.  The entire sail down from NC was filled with strong winds, oddly enough from the southwest,  and once secured to a mooring in Boot Key Harbor the winds continued. Front upon front that marched across the states would find us down here and blow as they passed through then increase in strength as the high pressure filled in behind.  Well all this wind is obviously not good for diving.  A few days when the wind settled down to around 15kts I would charge out for a beating in the dingy.  The first two times I went out the water was clear one day and cloudy the next.  My first thought was a change in wind direction had caused a change in water clarity.  In NC an onshore wind will bring warmer cloudy conditions, while an offshore breeze will bring cooler, clearer water in. As I experimented with the winds with each passing front my theories were being blown out of the water, nothing was being consistent relating to wind direction and water clarity.  As a result I began to question other variables that could effect visibility on the reef.  It was on a bus ride back from Key West that it became apparent what had the most effect on the visibility.  Riding over the seven mile bridge I could see the green cloudy water of the bayside in contrast to the blue clear water on the oceanside.  The tide was coming in and the clear water was rushing by the pilings of the old bridge. It was like a light bulb went off in my head.  So over the next few weeks whenever the wind slacked to 15kts or less I would review the tide charts and go out on an incoming tide, and voila,  more consistent clear water. Thinking about it it all makes sense.  The high nutrient rich waters surrounding the shallow mangroves has that green cloudy characteristic, while the deep cool ocean water has the clear visibility that is needed for more enjoyable diving.  Watch the tides and you have your own calendar for the best times to make the run out to the reef without getting burned.  Now it’s mid April and the fronts have finally settled down. The wind and sea has calmed and the water is becoming clearer each trip out.  There are truly some amazing reefs to dive, and if you venture to the greater depths there can be some rewarding spearfishing as well.  

How Much Does It Cost To Go Cruising

How much does it cost to go cruising?  We all know the answer to that… exactly as much as you have.  But that is not very helpful, now is it?  I’m going to simplify this question and tell you how much it costs myself and my husband to go cruising.  We have been cruising for seven years, far and wide, so I feel I can give you an accurate report.  Then, you can take my information and plug in your own numbers, because it is different for everyone.  For example, the boat might cost $30,000 or $300,000.   Cost of Cruising aboard Puff…Boat:  $50,000Equipment and Gear (self-steering, new sails, fishing and diving gear, inflatable dingy, etc.):  $30,000  (spread out over several years as we acquired new stuff)Yearly Maintenance  (including annual haul out and bottom painting):  Average $4000 (how I got this average: some years this is around $2000 if we have no major repairs and some years it can be higher, like $12000, if you have major replacements or repairs like the engine.)Dockage, slip fees, marinas:  $1500/year (Explanation:  We live out at anchor while we are cruising or island hopping through paradise, but 5-6 months out of the year we live in a marina in the USA while we work, we have paid anywhere from $200 – $750/month for marina rent)Mail Forwarding Service:  $10 – $14/monthCharts and Guidebooks:  $30 – $50 for a guidebook or cruising guide; $100 – $300 for paper and/or digital charts of each area.  (We attended a Seven Seas Cruising Association Marine Flea Market and bought paper charts for the world from a guy who had just completed a circumnavigation for just under $3000)Provisioning:  $1500+ for a 6 month cruise  (This is all dry goods, rice, flour, canned food, nuts, seeds dried fruit, spices, etc.  We do it cheap, of course.  You can buy gourmet or organic everything or lots of sodas, liquor and beer and spend 5x as much.)  Grocery and Eating Out Allowance:  Ours is quite small, $30/week.  We don’t eat out except maybe once a month, very cheap burgers or something, and we work hard to catch our own food almost every day, fish or lobster.  We buy fresh local produce every week from local farms.Water:  $30 – $60/month (Usually, when you are cruising, you pay for freshwater to fill you boats tanks, .10/gal to .50/gal.)  Diesel/Gasoline:  $200/month (And that is being generous.  We sail all we can and try to use the engine sparingly.  We do use gas for our dingy a lot to go fishing and diving, and of course it is our only vehicle while cruising.)Medical Supplies:  $300/year  (We stock  up on basics like antibiotics, suture kits, emergency medical supplies about once a year so we are prepared while cruising.  We had our doctor show us proper procedure for everything.)Licensing and Documentation:  $150 one time fee usually (Make sure you get proper documentation for your boat in your country of origin or you could be facing fines and legal penalties)Customs and Entry Fees:  $0 – $300/per country (This depends on what country, your best source for current entry fees is Jimmy Cornell’s site, www.noonsite.com) I’ve probably forgotten some things, so I may have to do a part two of this article, but all the basics are here.     

Boat Maintenence

One thing you should know before buying a boat and going cruising is that is going to be a lot of work.  But it is kind of cool work, even though it is often difficult and you invent new curse words as you go.  Since we have owned a sailboat I have acquired many new skills such as:  sewing, sail repair, fiberglass repair, applying nonskid to decks, rigging tuning, stainless care, applying epoxy and epoxy paints, varnishing wood, plumbing, electrical and engine repair.  I must say I feel much more capable and independent than before being a cruiser, however necessity being the mother of invention, if I did not have a cruising sailboat, I don’t think I would have just gone out and perfected these skills.  Now, if you have enough money, you might say, why not just pay someone else to do it all for me?  Right.  That might work if you are in civilization at a dock or marina.  But the point of cruising is exploring remote places on your own.  Sometime, somewhere you are bound to have to take care of something or things on that boat simply because there will be no one around to do it for you.  And I think that is one of the best parts about cruising.  Although it is a lot of work, it can be very satisfying when you complete a project and you know you’ve done well.  If you are actively cruising, the boat will get a lot of wear and tear, so be prepared to work on something, almost daily, definitely weekly if you want to beproud of your vessel and the shape that it is in.  Too many people let their boats fall into disrepair and that gives sailors a bad name.  Harbors worldwide have too many fine boats in them that have become derelict messes.  Be proud of your boat, it is your home, and your magic carpet, too!

Living in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

bkhaer1.jpgWe have been living in Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, FL for about a month now.  It’s pretty nice.  We pay under $300 per month for a mooring ball, bicycle storage, showers, mail drop, and close proximity to West Marine, grocery stores, library, bank, cafes, movie theater, home depot, drugstore, K-Mart, everywhere…  We work at a restaurant and ride our bike there every day.  You can get anywhere on your bike and there is a bus you can take down to Key West for just $2.  There are hundreds of cruisers here, which is good and bad.  The wildlife is prolific, birds, turtles, fish, manatees, dolphin…  We hear there is fabulous fishing and diving, we’ve  just been working too much to check the fun stuff out so far, but we will!  It is very peaceful on the mooring ball, no loud partying keeping you up at night, nice respectful neighbors.  It’d a neat place to drop the hook, or grab a mooring for awhile, especially if you have to be in the States to work, which is our case.  

Preparing To Cast Off the Docklines

All those last minute things to do before leaving the dock for an extended cruise.  It is such an exciting time.  Filling the fuel and water tanks to capacity.  Lashing extra fuel and water to the deck in jerry jugs.  Securing all items on deck, bicycles, surfboards, kayaks, jerry jugs, anchors, etc.  Stocking up on stores: food, toiletries, clean linens, rum! Checking the route, the weather, the charts…  Paying up all debts, arranging mail forwarding or holding, getting up to date on prescriptions and immunizations, saying goodbyes…Stowing all items properly to prevent chaos and injury in a rolling sea.  Items must be lashed down or behind locked cabinet doors.  Having most meals prepared in advance for offshore passages, so whoever is on watch has only to unwrap and eat.  This takes pressure off the crew to prepare meals while underway.  Make sure the Dramamine is on hand for the crew and a bit a rum for the captain.  Run jacklines on the deck and get the harnesses and life vests ready for offshore passages.  File a floatplan with family and authorities.  Have good books and good music ready.  Stash a little, but not too much, cash.  Get the foul weather gear out and ready to don quickly.  Make sure all lines are able to run free and sails will be unobstructed when you are ready to unfurl or raise them.  If it’s cold, have appropriate clothing to keep warm.  If it’s warm, keep the sunscreen and shade handy. Get a good night’s sleep the night before.  This is easier said than done. Discuss with captain and crew what sort of watch schedule you’ll be keeping.  Use a watch with an alarm to let you know when it’s time to take over, and wake up. Make sure your radio, VHF, Epirb, ditch bag, life raft are functional and ready to use in an emergency. Check the weather, check the weather, check the weather.  The weather decides your schedule, not you!      

Route Planning

imgp1439.jpgOne of my favorite aspects of planning for an extended cruise, or even just a simple day sail to a new anchorage is reviewing the charts and visualizing the possibilities.  Being the captain of Puff, these options must be reviewed in order to take into account each and every possibility.  Of course these options must be reviewed with the crew, but in the end the safest and most reasonable route is left to my discretion.  There are so many variables to take into account when planning a passage and as long as a timeline is not trying to be met you can find yourself in some wonderful places simply by being blown in that direction.  As all sailors know, sailboats (at least most cruising boats) don’t point nearly as well as we plan.  Therefore along with the inevitable windshifts, one cannot be too headstrong to reach a certain destination.  Of course there are those glorious downwind sails where the apparent wind feels light and the sun warms your skin, but for those days when the wind is not aft of the beam one needs to have options in order to retain sanity.  Pouring over the charts the night before and seeing all the possibilities is one of by favorite aspects of living on a sailboat.  A good rum drink and all the possible charts spread out before me just gets my mind running.  Thinking about the possible wind shifts, tides upon departure and arrival, what the surrounding land will really look like, how the ocean swell might refract into the anchorage, the possibility of arriving in the dark, so many variables to think about and options to have just in case.  So many times I’ve planned a route only to find the wind is just a little to much on the nose. Option 1: Tack into the wind and calculate the new time to reach the destination (always a disappointment), Option 2: Choose a new destination and fall off on a more comfortable heading (usually the best option, just take into account for the wind shift for your next day of sailing).  Whatever it ends up being it’s always easier to face the facts if you’ve reviewed the options the night before.  Reviewing the charts and planning the passage gives you a better sense of time required to reach the destination, but it also helps you visualize what to expect once you arrive.  The more you sail to new anchorages the more you can picture what the new harbor will look like in comparison to the charts.  Sometimes the land you had been planning on seeking shelter behind during a blow is nothing but marsh leaving you totally exposed to the brunt of the wind. Other times the ideal looking anchorage has a swell wrapping in and upon anchoring the surge rolling under the boat makes for an uncomfortable rocky-rolly night. With more and more experience these unforseen possibilities can be realized and avoided, which make life on board much better for both captain and crew.  I mean who wouldn’t want to pull into an ideal anchorage in the lee of the wind, with no swell rolling you around, and before it gets dark-  even if it wasn’t your first choice?! There’s always tomorrow. 

Steps To Take To Prepare To Go Cruising

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So, you want to go cruising, you’re determined, your mind is made up, you’re doing it. Okay, so you can begin by shopping around for boats. Determine your price range and go look at as many boats as you can. Increase you knowledge on what to look for in a cruising boat by reading books and talking to people who know boats. One of the biggest roadblocks to going cruising and enjoying it, is debt. Try not to go into debt when you buy your boat, or if you must, draw up a plan where you’re able to pay it off in five years and then take off. You can do this by putting in extra time working or buying a boat that is older, used, or in need of repair. It’s a balancing act, just make sure the time spent working on the boat doesn’t outweigh the time that could be spent making the money to afford a better boat or paying someone else to do the job while you work even more to sock away money to cruise on. Incidentally, this cruising savings is also known as the cruising kitty. Back to the topic of debt, it is best not to have bills to pay while you are cruising. Chances are, you won’t be able to make money while you’re out there so you either pay off all your debt before you leave OR you pay it for a predetermined amount of time, say 6 months. Then you cruise for 6 months, and return to work and do it all over again… work twice as hard to pay off debt, maintain the boat, and feed the cruising kitty. That is what my husband and I have always done. It’s a lifestyle we enjoy. Working twice as hard is easy to do when you think that it will only last for 6 months and then you’re sailing away to a place where there is no work for 6 months. We’ve done this in varying time frames, from working 1 year and cruising 8 months to working 3 months and cruising 6 months. You find your own rhythm. Some people rent their home while they are away, some people sell their home. You usually get a friend or family member to handle your mail, or you can pay a service to that for you. They have them just for cruisers. This takes care of your financial obligations and other business. So, you get your boat, you familiarize yourself with all the systems, you sail it as often as possible, learn to navigate, you pay off debt, you build your cruising kitty, what else? This part is really fun. You plan your cruise, which is actually a big no-no. You can’t actually schedule anything, and that’s the beauty of it. But you can come up where you want to go, then produce a flexible timeline of how to get there. Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes is an indispensable resource in this stage of the game. You will also need charts and guidebooks for the areas you are planning to cruise. A great place to get these cheap is either used off Amazon.com, or if there is a boating consignment store near you, you can find great deals on anything you need, including charts and guidebooks. We have been to large warehouse type stores in Annapolis, MD and on the Florida East Coast that have been treasure troves of savings that are even worth traveling a distance to check out. Check your local marinas and boating associations for info on local marine flea markets or for sale by individual flyers. You can find great deals on gear and equipment this way and meet your local boating community while you’re at it. Once you have all your new toys, your debt squared away, you feel comfortable on your boat, and you know where you’re going and how to get there, you can start checking off your final lists and countdown to D-Day, departure day!