Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Florida Lake Country and beyond - January-February 2004

No matter how many trips you make to Florida there are always more places to visit. This year we headed south towing a new 2004 MacGregor 26m. Last year we explored the St. John's River but neglected "the most scenic creek" to quote the guide book, so we set out to rectify our error.

Oh, Black Water, Tuesday 1/20
Frost was on the deck again when we awoke but by afternoon it was mild: perfect for a quick buzz up the Black Water Creek just south of Jacksonville. You could believe Seminoles would step out onto the banks of this uniformly deep creek until low power wires and the occasional dock betrayed modern civilization. It is amazing how quickly we got underway: the mast stayed in trailering configuration due to the anticipated low clearance. We've left the mast on the trailer before for canal passages, and propped it up on a ladder on the Erie Canal, but using the Macgregor mast carrier for the mast while underway was a first, and worked quite well. The scenic creek is about 10 miles long, with secluded coves, overhanging vines, and mirror image calm. Our sojourn on Black Creek was a wonderful interlude from I-95.
Having been here a year ago we know the lay of the land. It's off to the movie, "Cold Mountain." We took a sunset stroll on the municipal floating docks at Green Cove Springs. Captain craved the feel of rolling decks beneath his feet, and the floating docks were a good approximation. When he is too old to put out of port we'll rig him a chair on a floating dock and mount a tiller beside it. That way he can enjoy "Tiller Time" while recounting his sea tales for passers by.

Armadillo Acres, Wednesday, 1/22
For decades I thought we owned property in Gopher Hole Estates, and as it turns out, it was Armadillos all along. We made our annual inspection pilgrimage to our property in Silver Spring Shores today. Bouyed by the truism that a rising tide floats all boats we had visions of rampant development engulfing our lone forlorn lot. Alas, all was as we found it last year. But with the resolve of visionary developers who could forsee the vibrant community to be when our son is a grandfather we gleaned two black trash bags of Icehouse Ale empties from our dream retirement site. We ferreted out Lake Griffin State Park between Ocala and Orlando and are now being serenaded by tree frogs on the trunks of blooming Red Bud trees. There is a launch ramp ( watch out for Alligators) and lake access, but we did not take advantage of it.

Lake Tohopekaglia (Sleeping Tiger) Thursday 1/23
With all that water in Central Florida's Lake Country a fella surely could launch his boat somewhere and take a sail. Off drove the Mariner in search of a ramp. Onward we drove only to encounter trickles where adequate water depth should have allowed a place to put in. What's that you say? The lake has been drained down 5' for maintenance. Shiver me timbers! That sort of thing isn't done on the oceans.

All of the West Lake Toho is slated for improvement to its shoreline. It seems that clearing the accumulated debris and muck in the exposed lake shore and replacing it with sand sends the Bass population soaring since this is where they breed. And Bass is what it is all about on Florida lakes. While thwarted in our quest for daysailing we did spend a bucolic night at Southport Park campground. Flocks of cranes gather here, and pairs are seen gleaning lawns. Their size makes them impressive: as big as a goose but with stork-like legs and a jaunty red crest.

Orlando Time Share Condo, Jan 25-31
It's Friday, the 24: too soon for our 1 week Orlando Condo reservation. We'll give East Lake Toho a try. Eureka! The municipal St. Cloud Marina has an excellent ramp with plenty of water. We were rewarded for our perseverance with a great spinnaker sail. The Sleeping Tiger remained sleeping: no squalls or rising winds to spice up lowering the spinnaker when day was done. The lake has a diameter of 4 miles and is about 16' deep in the center, gradually shoaling towards the shoreline. It would be a perfect place for a mid-winter Macgregor Regatta. It was close enough to return to from Orlando for a sunset sail topped by dinner at the Fishing Camp on the opposite shore. The Marina is the jewel in this park. It also has a biking path, picnic pavilion and beach. Locals fill the lot daily for its bucolic respite and the endless fascination of watching boat launches. We left the rigged boat at St. Cloud and headed off for our condo week and mandatory visit with Mickey Mouse. Unfortunately, we failed to check in with the off-site marina management, but luckily returned in time before they had the boat towed away.

Our week in the condo passed quickly. I am impressed in the strides "The Mouse" has made since our last visit with kids in tow. "Disneyline" as we dubbed it then has been tamed. The tedium, and more significantly to Disney, the lost spending time, of shuffling forward in a snake line has been supplanted at major attractions by a speed line alternative. Those who wish may insert their admission card into a machine like a metro fare card. It spits out the ticket and a stub with a ½ hour return window set about 45 minutes in the future. Return during your designated window and proceed by a special line to the front of the queue to be seated ahead of the "shufflers." We spent an enjoyable day at Epcot. We'll save Magic Kingdom for a time when the grandchild can come, too. Disney is building hotel rooms apace and is blending into the surrounding city with its "Downtown Disney" area where no admission applies. It has shops and attractions like Cirque du Soliel and a multi screen movie house.

Near downtown Kissimmee, Jim enjoyed "The Flying Tigers", a collection largely of WW II planes being lovingly restored by individuals who camp beside the airfield hosting the display to happily tinker on their individual project as their Florida family get away. One of Jim's friends passed on to Jim a book profiling WW I pilots: the Bloody Red Baron, French, English and American flyers. Compelled to join forces the French and English never lost sight of their underlying antagonism: "the reason the sun never sets on the British Empire is because God can not trust it in the dark."

The First of February saw us hitched up and heading west on I-4 near the town of Polk, home of the Fantasy of Flight attraction. The Smithsonian in Washington DC has a deluxe anniversary year display of the Wright Brother's Kitty Hawk flight that had us in the mood for more aviation history. Kermit, heir to oil income, has made it his life's work to restore vintage planes in a first class fashion. He has created Disney quality experiences of parachuting from an aircraft, a foxhole adjacent to a vintage airstrip, and simulated air dog fights while seated in a flight simulator. Guided tours of restoration, observing take-off and landing, bi-plane rental rides easily fill up a day at this most engaging airplane display.

Trip I or Trip II ?
In the week before our departure Jim took a call from the owner of a Gemini catamaran, "La Palapa" (The Beach House). A year and a half ago the owner took delivery in Miami and hired Jim as the delivery Captain bound for Costa Rica. The trip was aborted after a week, and the boat hauled out at Stock Island, just north of Key West. After the prolonged hiatus while he got his affairs in order he touched base to say he was ready to resume the delivery in February, '04 if Jim was available. We had in mind towing our MacGregor to Key Biscayne, launching and heading to the Bahamas. That would be Trip 1. But storing the MacGregor and moving "La Palapa" to Costa Rica would be an acceptable Trip II, partially duplicating our Ruta Maya trip aboard the MacGregor 65 (Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala in 2001).

February 2, Super Bowl Sunday
Sarasota, home of cousins Mark and Linda , who have graciously included us in their plans to watch the big game at a friend's country club. We were parked in front of their door by noon and were wisked off to see the game, where Jim lost $40 on the pool.

February 3, Punta Gorda
Punta Gorda can only mean Chip and Barb. As a bonus, mutual friend Dave was there, too. Three boat brokers together and the yarns they can spin. Jim is an animated speaker, but Dave surpasses him. It was a rollicking visit, and I am only sorry it wasn't filmed. I can't remember when I have laughed so hard for so long. Dave is here to install teak in one of the bathrooms. Barb's dream is to be selected for an HGTV episode of "Extreme Homes." A few years ago we sailed a Macgregor 26x from Marco Island right up to Chip and Barb's back door. Charlotte Harbor is a great sailing destination. We'll continue south to Cape Coral and let the workers get started.

Friends Greg and Monique picked up a rental house on a canal in Cape Coral. After trying yearly rentals, they have decided to go after the seasonal vacation market-and use it as a family compound, too. They spent Christmas there with Greg's extended family. Not only do you need furniture but a dock and pool to compete. We stopped by to check Greg's boat and verify the pool was ready. We were tempted to take the first plunge ourselves but lit out to see what else there was to see in Ft Meyers and Bonita Springs.

Evening on the 4th found us on the tip of Bonita Springs on a lot slated for 4 townhouses to be built. Boat slips were at the back of the lot. Across the street is the Gulf of Mexico. A local encouraged us to "stay put" for the night because there was nowhere else. In the morning we drove up and down the strand. He was right. Antique mobile homes in a 60 unit enclave sell for the cost of a townhouse at home. Islands are where it is at for Realty price jumps.

Thursday, February 5-8, Key West
If its warm weather you want, you keep heading south until you are at the tip of the Keys. We checked into Boyd's Marina and Campground on Stock Island, adjacent to Key West, launched the MacGregor, tied it in its slip, and headed for the pool. Our campsite sits alongside the waterfront about 20 yards from our boat slip. The pool water approximates a hot tub, and the high for the day is 81 degrees. I could get used to this style of Florida.
Maybe we'll head for the Dry Tortugas. On a previous trip I sailed a Macgregor 26x powersailor to the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West. Or maybe not. Damn it, they fixed the pool thermostat. Now the water is "refreshing." Before, the bathers had stayed in for hours at a stretch until we were teasing about it being the Fountain of Youth.
Island Ambition is overtaking Jim. Why go to the Tortugas? We can daysail to the City (Key West) and check out the bars. Boyd's is growing on us. Every morning we head out for a little sail. The first volunteer camper to accompany us was 53yr old "Huck" from Pa. He had been vacationing here every year since 1976, and had never been sailing. The blustery winds and 2'-3' waves gave him an exciting baptism. Unfortunately he slipped off the bow while assisting in docking and fell into the shallow water, injuring his ribs and arm. Next time we saw him he had a sling and body wrap for strained shoulder and cracked ribs. We felt awful about it, but Huck was cheerful and uncomplaining, great attributes in a shipmate. Lesson - avoid "help" from novices, just leave'em in the cabin while you dock. I could have backed up to the pier and stepped off the transom with a stern line and long bow line, easily managing the tie up by myself.
On another day we sailed to Key West, about 5 miles and a perfect beam reach under main and jib. After lunch and a walking tour of downtown bars, we decided to return the back way, sailing on the northern side of the Keys to the bridge that separates Stock Island from Big Pine Key ( I think). We just dropped the mast and motored under the bridge, raising the mast again on the other side. This is a pretty neat trick and only a few other boats can do it.
The ramp at Boyd's was a little tight , so I might recommend the ramp at Oceanside Marina, but they no longer provide storage for the tow vehicle and trailer, so you have to go to Peninsula Marine about 1 block away and make storage arrangements, $10/day. You can still launch at the Key West Bight marina, but parking space for the tow rig is limited. Due to boat delivery obligations the Macgregor trip was cut a little short this year. Still, we launched three times, raised the mast twice, and spent about 8 days sailing. The Bahamas will still be there next winter!

Trip II, "La Palapa" To Panama
Kevin and Ani (On-ee) are an engaged couple fresh out of college who sailed with us one perfect day on the Macgregor while we were at Boyd's campground. Now they're hooked. He is a California fire fighter who repels from helicopters into forest fires. In the wet season he has off to travel. Ani is a landscaper, also footloose when the ground is frozen at home. In addition, she is a ballroom dancer. Jim told his other crewmate Wally she was an exotic dancer to piqué his interest in helping sail to Panama if conditions are favorable. La Palapa's final destination is the Pacific side of Costa Rica at the little town of Quepos. Meanwhile, Boyds is right around the corner from the boat yard. Kevin and Ani came by to check out the Gemini and pitched right in wiping her down and bending on sails. Since they just 'happened" to have their passports, they agreed to crew until they were tired of it. They stayed to the bitter end, over 30 days. Bottom painting is set for the 13th . Wally flies in the 15th with "patches" for the young green crew to keep them from getting green around the gills. As exciting as sailing the Ruta Maya was for me on the 65' I'm going to stay behind this go round. It's hard to top the perfection of my first trip. Let the "La Palapa" Adventures begin!
The itinerary was Key West to Isla Muheres, Mexico via the coast of Cuba, about 335miles, then along the coast of Mexico south to Belize, about 250 miles, then inside the reef through the Belize islands maybe 50 miles, then to Roatan, Honduras, another 100 miles, then around the tip of Honduras to Isla Providencia, about 365 miles, 265 miles more to Panama, 35 miles through the canal, and finally 480 miles to Quepos, Costa Rica. About 1900 miles total. It took over 30 days, including a 5 day layover in Panama and deserves a write-up of its own. A Macgregor Powersailor could probably have done it faster, maybe we'll see one day! When I finally returned to Key West, all was as I had left it, except much dustier. A quick 1200 miles later, the Macgregor was once again safely back at her home port.

--Happy Sailing and great trailerable adventures from Capt Jim and first mate Joyce!