IMG_1392Having abandoned the Florida sun to face freezing weather in Maryland, I’m keeping warm by the fire, catching up on the blog, and gathering with girl friends I’ve known since grammar school.  It was a perfect New Year’s celebration after Christmas with John’s clan.

It’s time to take stock of where we’ve been this past year and where we are going in this new year, sans the depressing and chaotic political environment we’ve had to swim through and couldn’t escape.

Traveling  over 1100 miles south this fall warped my psyche. The physical and mental challenges were much more than expected and it took some time to adjust.  Imagine a two and a half month stress test.  If you’d been following my missives, you know that instead of our days being a “piece of cake”, many days were a “bellyache” like the day, after 10 hours plowing through a rain spattered sea, we faced 18 knot cross winds as I pushed Dolce Vento against a 4 knot ebbing current into Charleston Harbor,  racing the coming night to get safely into a slip.

Ever-changing sand and mud shoals combined with slowly sinking 30-year-old fixed bridges and persistent high water made us a boat load of harried sailors. My conclusion is that this ancient (like since the 1920s & 30’s) inland waterway, the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), is  not a ribboned bouquet of interconnecting waters as so often advertised, but rather a broken zipper looping around the U.S. eastern and southern coasts.  The pieces just don’t mesh together correctly anymore whether the cause be climate change or aging infrastructure.  We traveled safely, preserving our mast, only by moving with the tides, seeking aid from Boat U.S. pilots on occasion, and staying put for “another” day, if we weren’t sure.

On the positive, bright side, the trip was also exhilarating and life confirming.  Successfully pulling and in out of  20 different marinas, anchoring or catching moorings in differing conditions, and navigating virtual way points off shore taught me that my skills are solid and that, with teamwork, we can meet any challenge.  This trip was all about listening to the crew and making smart decisions at the right time to keep safe, instead of letting my sometimes stubborn ego get in the way.  Finally, opening our sails on the ocean as we made our way from Fort Pierce to Riviera Beach gave us a taste of what is to come – the heavenly experience of sails moving us quietly through the water, beckoning porpoises to play with the boat. The next months will be hip-hop coastal cruising down the Florida Keys and settling into Key West (via Stock Island) –  all of this predicted to be “fun in the sun”.

Speaking of marinas, we’ve learned more than you, dear reader, may ever want to know.  But play along with me for a few minutes, it’s the new year for fun and games.  What makes a good marina?  Aren’t they all the same basically? What do you need besides a slip for the boat?  Clearly, until you’ve traveled the waterway through five states, you are, most likely, clueless.  Here’s our short list of  criteria we use when choosing a marina.

  • Do the docks float?  Floating docks allow the dock and boat to remain at the same level as the tide rises and falls, relieving you from having to adjust your lines (ropes) that attach the boat to the dock as the water level changes.  In Belhaven, NC we didn’t have floating docks. A storm blew us  three feet off the dock and the water out from under the dock by four feet.  That left us stranded on the boat, unable to get off the boat until the wind and water settled out the next day.  We did three-hour line checks that night, adjusting them to ensure Dolce Vento was safe.
  • Is there someone friendly to “catch” you?  Whether the slip you’re assigned is tucked in a corner or you’re required to parallel park on a face dock between two boats monstrously bigger than your own, you need someone with a friendly face to catch that first bow line to guide you in and tie down the lines.  I had never considered the need for parallel parking skills before this trip.  Amazingly, I learned how to do it by following directions of more than one friendly face.  Grumpy guys can catch you as well, but they make you feel stupid in the process.
  • Does the electrical power work? Luckily we have a generator, if we need power at anchor or in a marina that doesn’t have any.  If you find the electrical hook-up had fried, the marina is usually able to have it fixed by the morning or sooner.
  • Are the laundry, shower and toilet facilities usable?  If they don’t work or have that moldy, dank feel that makes you want to go pee in the parking lot, life in a marina can be miserable.  But, you can’t tell a book by its cover.  One time we had no choice but to tie up at a broken down dock in a small marina that had no fuel, no water and no electrical power.  It was risky to walk the dock, not sure if you were going to make it to the office door, but the toilets and showers were clean, functional and smelled surprisingly daisy fresh.  It was like Duck Dynasty with daisies hidden beneath the ol’ boys tangled beards. As always, the women’s rooms were in better shape than the men’s.   The bottom line, the lowest standard possible is clear, the toilets have to flush and the showers can’t have Pyscho movie peep holes.
  • Can you get mechanical help on short notice? Only in larger towns and cities could we get access to mechanical services.  That means, even when we were able to diagnose a problem and knew how to fix it, access to parts and support had to wait.  Luckily, Cindy has skills we don’t have and was able to see us through until parts could arrive.
  • Can  you get your boat’s holding tanks pumped out?  Federal regulations stipulate you can’t dump waste (even treated waste water) into any waters (including the ICW) within three miles of the U.S. Coast.  That means you must have your toilet holding tanks pumped out at marinas.  But what if you come to a marina that doesn’t have functioning pump out facilities?  If I tell you, we could get arrested so I won’t.
  • Is the marina close to or accessible to stores and restaurants? Being without a car is a bit like being “up a creek without paddle” at times.  Some marinas provide a “courtesy car” you can use on a first come, first serve or reserve basis.  A few marinas are walking distance close to stores, but most just point you to taxis or Uber.  In Vero Beach, the city runs a great free bus line to ferry everyone about.  That’s a big attraction for those provisioning before crossing over to the Bahamas.
  • Is there decent wi-fi and snail mail delivery? Thirty years ago when I did this  trip the first time, wi-fi didn’t exist; you had to go to the post office to pick up general delivery packages; and you had to use public telephones to contact home.  Now, in the 21st century, John can do work research online  while we travel, so wi-fi access is important. However, most marina’s wifi is poor, no matter what they say.  Only two of the 20 marinas had good wifi that you could reliably hook into so we upped our hot spot coverage to “unlimited” (don’t ask me how much THAT costs).  Those few marinas with “Onspot” are the best for usable coverage.  For deliveries, now days, marinas accept and hold packages for us “transients”.

Can you guess our top three criteria for choosing a marina?