Florida Keys Trip, Part 2 of 4- Biscayne Bay -> Marathon

Fri, 12/18/20-Our stop in Biscayne National Park was short, just an overnight at Sands Key. As we headed south the next morning, the cold wind didn’t want to help us too much because it was basically right behind us from the northeast and we were heading south so we decided to gybe quite a bit in order to keep the wind in our sails. A gybe is a change of course by swinging the sail across a following wind, or essentially having the boom swing across the stern of the boat with the wind at your back. Doing this got us all the way across Biscayne Bay with no engine use, which is great because the bay (or actually a lagoon) is about 35 miles long and up to 8 miles wide. It also makes up most of the Biscayne National Park which is 95% water!

The bay narrowed and we found channel markers to help us navigate our way to the ICW channel. We fired up the engines and passed under the Card Sound bridge to anchor on the west side of the channel. Finally, we were in the Keys! We were told by our boat mentor, Stan, that on that side of the channel, you can dinghy in to an amazing restaurant called “Alabama Jacks”. Boy was he right! For only $30 we got a 2 person seafood sampler that not only fed all three of us, but we had tons of leftovers! One night there and we were off again.

Sat, 12/19- The next bridge crossing (US 1) brought us to the heart of Key Largo where Gilbert’s Resort and Marina is. You can eat & drink there plus fill up your gas or diesel tanks. This is where the ICW started to get a bit tricky for us. It was a Saturday so the waterway was busy, making the already narrow channel even smaller. Not to mention all of the crab pots everywhere! Sheesh! Tonight’s anchorage was little place in Buttonwood Sound just west of “downtown” Key Largo. We were expecting heavier winds out of the Northeast so we anchored near some mangroves to wait it out. After we anchored, we dinghied in for a snack at Snook’s and to run to Diver’s Direct to look for snorkel gear for Randi. It was a decent anchorage for a night but we wanted to keep moving. Our next stop was Islamorada where we get to meet up with our friends Bill & Linda! 

Sun, 12/20-Pulled anchor after breakfast and set our sights on a marina where we could get diesel. We also noticed our mainsheet traveler end cap was broken so we needed to find a place to buy parts. Since we had to pass Gilbert’s back in Key Largo because it was so busy, we were kind of desperate for diesel. We called the Mangrove Marina which assured us we could get into their fuel dock with our draft (3.5ft) so we started our approach to the marina. Depths looked good at 6’ total but we still headed into the channel very cautiously and slow. All of a sudden, the channel got very narrow and shallow as well. Before we knew it, we started pivoting off of the starboard keel. We had run aground. The depth below our keel had decreased to about a foot or less so we knew we wouldn’t be able to fuel up there. Slowly, Steve pivoted all the way out of that area and we were able to escape without any damage or getting stuck. Now what? I frantically looked online for other options and we spotted Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina in Plantation Key. I called ahead of time and they confirmed we could get in there. What a wonderful place this was (read my review here). It had everything we needed and the dockmaster was very kind and helped us pull into the fuel dock. We were able to not only get diesel but also gasoline for the dinghy, a pump-out, ice for the cooler, and dump our trash. OH! I forgot to mention they offered some running around time for Bella. She was very thankful to pee on land again! A quick and easy stop and we were off again to anchor just around the corner in Barley Basin, Islamorada. 

Mon, 12/21- Calm night and morning in Barley Basin. After coffee, breakfast and a nice paddle board session with Bella, we headed to Bass Pro/World Wide Sportsman to do some last minute Christmas shopping. They have a long dock so we locked the dinghy there and shopped around for a bit. (We did make sure to ask if it was ok to dock there first). Very beautiful building, grounds, and the surrounding restaurant/marina has a place where you can see huge tarpon, manatees, and even nurse sharks. We got our Christmas shopping (mostly) done and headed back to our next stop, Lorelei’s Restaurant & Cabana Bar. After lunch, we went to West Marine to look for the parts we needed. No luck so back to the boat we went. Luckily, Bill & Linda had arrived so we went to say hello and hung out with them for awhile! That night we enjoyed watching and photographing the Saturn-Jupiter Conjunction. Another bonus of living on a boat? The night sky viewing!

Tue, 12/22- Wow! The winter winds picked up again and were around 22kts overnight with more on the way. We didn’t have a very comfortable night, and the morning wasn’t much better so we hauled anchor and moved closer to land, hoping the fetch would die down with the Northeasterly winds coming in. It was much calmer being close to the lee side of the island, so I was actually able to cook breakfast finally. Steve dove on the anchor to make sure it was solid and we enjoyed a much calmer day away from the rolling waves. Later that morning, he explored the nearby mangroves and got to see a turtle, baby hammerhead, and nurse sharks as well as lots of rays. That afternoon we grabbed the free Islamorada “Freebee” van and went to Publix to provision. Provisioning away from land is a whole new experience for us since we were in a marina for a few months and could just walk to the store. As a new liveaboard family, it takes us a lot of planning and coordination to make sure we have a successful trip. We made sure to grab our reusable grocery bags, wallet, masks, cooler bag, hard sided egg carton, dry bag, VHF, life jackets, and dinghy key (which we ALWAYS forget back on the boat and remember once we’re in the dinghy…) and made the trek into town. The Freebee is very easy to use, there is an app you can download and then send a request for them to pick you up from a certain location. You can also confirm on the app where you would like to be dropped off. The drivers are very friendly and helpful. Once we grabbed what we needed (or at least what would fit in our dry bags), we headed outside to condense the items. In an effort to fit everything in our bags, plus have less waste on the boat, we took all of the cardboard boxes off (pro tip: to help keep cockroaches off your boat…do NOT have ANY cardboard aboard!) and took what food we could out of containers they came in. This included the eggs, cereal, crackers, beer and more. We recycled the trash on-site at Publix and called the Freebee back.

Wed, 12/23- The morning of the 23rd, we got our final Christmas shopping in and then moved the boat again in preparation for a strong westerly wind that was headed our way. Our friends Bill & Linda moved with us and another catamaran joined the anchorage as well. We shifted from north Barley Basin to a little place called “Cotton Key.” On the charts, it seems like a logical place to drop the hook for westerly protection. Being so new to anchoring (this was literally our 2nd week of it…) we weren’t really sure what to expect even through we did our best research on the area. Being a day early to the anchorage before the wind hit gave us ample time to get prepared.

Thur, 12/24 and Fri, 12/25-Christmas Eve was a very fun and eventful day! We wrapped presents, Steve and our buddy Bill went lobster and crab hunting, Bella and I paddled, we enjoyed a nice rain and boat wash, then we had a fun FaceTime session with our families. The forecast was predicting up to 40kt winds so Steve and Bill prepared the boats by adding a 2nd anchor on each. They set the anchors in a Double Bow” or V Configuration. After setting the anchors, and diving to check on them, we cooked our delicious catch of sea food for dinner, set the anchor alarm, and went to bed prepared (or so we thought) for the wrath Mother Nature was about to bestow on us. Again, being set early gave us confidence in the new-to-us system, however…we were not ready for a 180° shift in the wind overnight. At 3am (for some reason…all boat issues start at this time…) we woke up to some distant yelling, and then, our anchor drag alarm went off. We immediately grabbed our glasses, spotlights, and rain coats, and fired the engines up. This would be our first dragging experience. To say it was a challenge is an vast understatement. At first we had to assess where we were, in the pitch black, pouring rain, and 40kt gusting wind. We figured out that we had dragged about 100’ which might not sound like a lot but unfortunately there were some very shallow places near us and sure enough, we noticed that there was less than a foot of space left under our keel. If our anchors kept dragging, we’d run aground for sure. Our buddy’s boat also dragged and they were about a quarter of a mile away, run aground. The yelling we heard? Yep, that was the other catamaran who was ALSO dragging. Steve put me at the helm as he went to try to bring the anchors in. I was tasked with fighting the wind and keeping the boat facing west while we motored towards the anchors all the while trying NOT to drag any farther. For me, fighting the wind while trying to motor forward and stay straight feels like walking the opposite way on a moving walkway at the airport…you have to keep fighting it in order to just stay in one place! While Steve was bringing in the main anchor on the windlass, he noticed something really wrong. The second anchor rode had tangled around the main anchor chain. Because of the 180° shift in wind, it fouled the anchors and they not only crossed each other, but created a huge knot and mess when bringing them in. He had no choice but to cut the backup anchor free. We marked the coordinates where we cut it since we did not put a buoy on it (we learned that lesson too late) but we hope to recover it, one day. All boats were ok, Bill did need to call TowBoat US which thankfully…they work on Christmas morning! Needless to say, it was NOT the Christmas present any of us wanted, but we made the best of it with present opening, LOTS of coffee and a long nap…anchored securely in the same area, but a new anchor drop spot.

Sat, 12/26- Spent all day searching for our anchor! Steve is a scuba diver plus he has an underwater metal detector so we through we’d be good and could find it. No luck though. Again, we’ll be back to find it one day! After our search, we decided to head south since the wind would be a bit calmer. Since we only had a few hours before sunset, we decided to drop the hook in Long Key Bight.

Sun, 12/27- We didn’t really know where our final destination in the Keys would be, but more nasty winter winds were headed our way so we set our sights on Marathon and Boot Key Harbor. Along with Bill & Linda, we made our way there and first tried “Sister’s Creek” for a place to hide from the wind. However, on the last turn down the creek…our instruments started acting up. The GPS all but turned off, our anemometer (wind speed/direction display) was spinning out of control, and then, the depth sounder read “0.” We had just passed 4 radio towers and underestimated their power even after we had read some reviews about the creek, and to stay away from the area. Next time, we’ll listen! Luckily after a little recalibration, everything went back to normal. After we anchored and tied the stern off, we heard Bill & Linda found a sweet spot, so we skipped Sister’s Creek and opted for a slip at Yacht Haven Marina instead. After dealing with the horrible dragging night over Christmas…we just wanted a break from the wind, and a safe and quiet place to rest. Plus…there are resident manatees there as well! More on Marathon and Boot Key Harbor later in part 3 of 4!

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