My maiden voyage on Beuller together with Lars gave me many desired firsts and a unfiltered look at boat life, which is exactly what I wanted. I have long dreamed about spending a few years of my life upon a boat, working remotely, exploring the Caribbean, surfing pristine breaks, and kitesurfing off beautiful beaches. My father was a sailor and windsurfer, so I began sailing and windsurfing as a young kid, then did some laser racing, day sailed with friends and family, and finally got swept up by kiteboarding. My only experience on cruisers was limited to day sailing, yet I somehow felt certain that I would eventually live the sailboat lifestyle. But there are so many unanswered questions… Is it the lifestyle that I imagined it could be? Would I be comfortable living in such small quarters? Would I get seasick? Would I get bored? Surely I wouldn’t... but the first step is to try it out first hand. This was that voyage for me.
I first met Lars after moving to Austin. We both enjoy the outdoors, sailing, the ocean, and adventure. Lars would often speak of his year long sailing vision and in the meantime returned with great stories from his shorter trips on his old boat and charters. Unfortunately, a meager 2 weeks of vacation per year limited my participation in these trips. As time passed, Lars began slowly preparing to make his dream a reality. In the initial crew seeking stages, Lars asked if I wanted to join him on his year long adventure. Man, I really wanted to… In the end, it wasn’t the right time for me. I was taking the plunge down a different path. As 2014 went by, I got to hear first hand about the preparation and boat buying process. And before I knew it, Lars was selling his toys and packing up his life to begin the journey. As it happened to play out, Bueller was docked in Hollywood, FL, Lars was planning a maiden voyage with his parents, and I was visiting my family for Christmas in Naples, FL. Having taken a sabbatical from NI, I was free to extend my stay in Florida and decided to join Lars on a sail trip to usher in the new year.
The plan was to sail off from Hollywood on new years eve and celebrate a successful crossing and new years in the Bahamas, then return 7 days later, depending on the weather. My family dropped me off on Tuesday and we enjoyed a final lunch together with the Lindstrom’s before parting ways. The boat was ready to sail and recently inspected, as it was just purchased from a Canadian family that lived aboard for the past year. All we had to do was provision, get our belongings settled, pick up a some fishing gear, beanbags and other supplies, and knock out some optional upgrades (such as replacing the hatches, and adding two more batteries). Pretty ambitious, but doable.
We gave ourselves an extra day to prepare and decided to spend New Years Eve on land, postponing departure to New Years Day. It looked like everything was in order. Provisioning… check, food and gear stored… check, hatches upgraded… check, fishing gear… check, super comfortable sailing bean bag chairs… check, water and fuel tanks full… check, fair crossing weather… check, propane system functional… check, electrical systems functional.. check, engine start… some clicking, engine start… nope. It had started when the boat was inspected and test sailed, what could have happened?
Let the troubleshooting begin; something that I soon realized is a very critical skill for any sailor, especially if you don’t have deep pockets to pay for help. A self sufficient sailor needs to be equipped with a set of redundant tools (multimeters, thermocouples, flashlights, soldering stations, etc), a printed copy of each systems manuals, troubleshooting skills, a basic understanding of mechanical and electrical systems, plenty of patience, and spare parts for critical systems that are known to wear out.
We began... The starter was not cranking, it was an electrical issue. We cracked open the engine’s electrical diagram and started learning. We followed cables, measured voltage, got confused by some diode that the original owner wired in… but something else was preventing power to the starter. During the troubleshooting process, we also popped a mysterious 20A breaker that we could not locate. One thing to note about troubleshooting on a boat is that everything is highly inaccessible and dark. Finding how to access different areas and locating critical components for the first time is like solving a puzzle while crouching in a dark cramped closet without an instruction manual. After about 12 hours, Lars pulled up a diagram of the starter motor online, found how it’s connections should look and discovered that once you pulled up some hard to access tubes, you could see that the positive signal lead of the starter motor had jiggled loose. Now all we needed to do was find that 20A breaker. After following the wiring harness throughout the boat, checking all the fuses and breaker box, we still couldn't find it. We called a electrician. With his experience, he knew where to look. As it happened, the breaker was bolted on the engine, painted over red, and covered by some exhaust tubes... a area that I looked at multiple times before. A simple reset and the engine purred. What a relief. I had started thinking that we wouldn’t make the trip.
This wasn’t the end of our troubleshooting for the trip though. We had an issue with the propane system from a loose electrical connection after the crossing. The engine started overheating. The heads were having a valve issue. It seemed discouraging. These were clear signs that the boat probably wasn’t sailed too much by the previous owners, nor did the inspector do a fine job. In the end, these were all valuable lessons on boat ownership and I later learned that all sailors undergo a “shakedown” cruise with new or unused boats. Oddly enough, things break when they are not used. But once you dial things in, all should go much more smoothly. An analogy to owning a cruiser, is like owning both a car, mobil home, and sailboat all in one, that is constantly subject to earthquakes and high levels of salt. So as you’d expect, you can plan, but in the end you play by the rules of the weather and the state of your vessel.
But, before you you knew it, we were on-route, motoring out of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway), sailing down the Florida coast. I was standing on the bow, bobbing with the waves, as I watched the countless beachfront skyscrapers reach into the sky and pass us. Then straight ahead, I saw a fin move in the water, that shortly after became the tail of a whale or shark… it was huge. I was surprised when we didn’t hear the thump of the keel on the massive animals back as we passed over it. After this pleasant experience, we passed Miami, jumped into the gulf stream and watched civilization disappear. We were fully immersed by the ocean, with no land in sight (not bad, eh). Such a beautiful moment. We cast a trolling line, set the autopilot, and watched the sun arch across the sky and set. The weather wasn’t much in our favor for the crossing though. With 20+ knot winds coming straight from our destination, the strong gulf stream, and up to 6 ft seas, we had quite a shaky voyage before us. Luckily I avoid seasickness. The crossing lasts 18 hours after a combination of sailing, motor sailing, and motoring. By midnight, we anchor and quickly pass out in the gentle sway of the waves.
The following few days in the Bahamas were wonderful. We checked into a slip at Brown’s Marina, where I got to partake in the wonderfully stressful act of mooring large boats among other expensive large boats in high winds and tidal currents. After we settled in and checked into customs, we socialized with the other sailors. Such amazing people with such wonderful stories. It is really refreshing to see people doing what life is all about.
One soft spoken French Canadian looked like a pirate and couldn’t have been more than 50 years old. He has been retired for 10 years, practices karate each morning, and told us a story about a 20 ft shark that swam in this very bay. All he wanted to do with his life was to“stay warm.” Another French Canadian was a semi-retired, gin drinking man, that was solo sailing his 43 footer and occasionally hosting friends and family as he explored the Bahamas.
But most interesting of all was a big young family from Dallas on a refurbished 50 foot catamaran. The owner, John, was a very humble super-engineer. He was in the Navy working on nuclear submarines. He showed us the catamaran that he completely refurbished himself. He had rebuilt both engines multiple times, gutted and re-did the electrical systems, interior layout, and furnishings. He built his own reverse osmosis water treatment system that could generate hundreds of gallons per day. And he also gifted Lars with an extra sexton he had laying about, along with the 2015 star navigation charts and another cool gadget for remote weather reporting. Such an inspiring person.
The following days we checked out some spots in Bimini, did some exploring in the dinghy, tried to get lucky with some wind for kitesurfing, and then set off to visit the S.S. Sapona concrete steamer to later anchor at Gun Cay. We had the shipwreck all to ourselves for most of the day, and enjoyed some snorkelling, exploring and “cliff” jumping. There were plenty of tropical fish, coral, a stingray and even a shark. That night we anchored, after navigating through some 6 ft waters (having a 5 ft keel) with the trusty GPS. As the night approached, the kiteboarding wind we expected during the day arrived and was lighting up the sea under the full moon. We opted to hoist up the anchor and reposition ourselves in a more protected bay, since our GPS anchor alarm had went off due to some drifting.
The following day, we set sail West, back to Florida with about 20 knots of wind in our backs. We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise as we watched the Bahamas disappear this time. The crossing took us only 9 hours. We sailed over half the distance, before the wind forced us to start motoring. As it happened, the firsts didn’t end… in the middle of the gulf, our trolling line started buzzing. We reeled in at least a 3 ft Mahi Mahi, my favorite type of fish. After killing, gutting and cleaning it in fairly large seas, we managed to get it cooling in the fridge. Once back in Florida, we filleted the fish and celebrated a successful shakedown cruise with sashimi and grilled Mahi Mahi.
What a way to start 2015. It was back to Austin for me, and in came Lar’s partner in crime, Travis. They had plenty of things to figure out for their next trip, as I returned to Austin to figure out what I needed to do to achieve that kind of lifestyle. Until next time!