Wind and waves are the essentials in which a sailor’s existence revolves around, one my family and I have come to realize methodically. With elements that aren’t always favorable it’s nice to have the safety of a sea worthy vessel and a loving family to duck below with. Even though the nine of us might not always get along, we’ve yet to become familiar with mutiny- so that’s an admirable start.
The amount of practice, pleasure, and knowledge gained in this past month, alone, is immeasurable. After leaving the safety of the Intra Coastal Waterway we delved into the Gulf of Mexico head on, and came out quite victorious, if I do say so myself. We went from Naples, Florida; where we spent time with relatives, onto Marco Island, merely a pit stop before attaining the goal, the Florida Keys. After several days exploring the islands of the Dry Tortugas we headed straight into the flurry of civilization, Key West. It is difficult to share in one article the things we’ve seen this past month, especially when considering account all that life has presented to us. I shall attempt, with mere words and memories, to paint for you the image of our highlights, hence this month’s story.
“If you’re not good I’ll toss you to the crocodiles!” We giggled at the threat mom jokingly had implied as we walked over the draw bridge surrounding Fort Jefferson, the largest offshore fortification in the U.S. built in the middle of the 19th century. We definitely felt as if we’d traveled back in time during our stay in the secluded beauty of the Dry Tortugas and it wasn’t just because there was no cell or internet service. ‘Peace’ may have also been an adjective to describe the island ere our landing, but once our boat load of children arrived it was hard to find serenity anywhere on the small land mass.
The enormity of marine life that greeted our eyes, and nostrils, amazed us from the moment we stepped upon the sandy white beach of crushed coral. Conchs, both living and decomposing, were numerous along the water’s edge, along with other small creatures whose names, and existence up to that moment, were unknown to us. Our little marine biologists in the making had collections of shells and broken coral that fluctuated as much as the tide. Alas Invincible, our 41 foot Morgan Out Islander, has only so much storage of the frivolous sort, so most everything was left for the next explorer to discover and marvel at.
The fort was enormous, “built with over 4,000,000 bricks,” Kathryn, age 12, informed us by quoting from the visitors guide. Meandering through the arches we admired the architecture and learned a great deal, even the littlest of our minions learned a thing or two during the inauguration process of becoming Junior Rangers. In fact with our family, and two other children, we doubled the amount of badges given out since the first of the year; at least that’s what the Ranger said. Zachary while flaunting his adulthood, being on the verge of turning 15, chose not to subordinate himself with the frivolities of adolescence by becoming a Junior Ranger. Though when the young scouts were all offered ice cream as a reward for their effort, both Zach and I quickly concealed our nonexistent badges and ducked into line to take pleasure in the frozen sweet reward. Talk about a first-class example from the oldest two!
Snorkeling along the moat and amongst the sea grass was voted, unanimously, the most enchanting experience we’ve had on our escapade, up to this point. The mysterious world that can be witnessed from the surface is no longer obscured from our gaze and Hannah, 10 years old, used all the research guides located aboard to connect the colorful fish with their scientific names. Everyone is looking forward to much more undersea explorations! Sara and I got a fleeting glimpse of a small Barracuda, about 2 feet in length, who seemed to have no interest in our suspended bodies as he continued swimming along, fading amongst the weeds, and leaving us very giddy with our succinct encounter. A nurse shark made his presence known too! Being out of harm’s way, on the stern of the boat, many a joke was passed around amongst us kids of whom we would throw in for his afternoon feeding. Bella, the youngest of the crew at six years old, was chosen as our adverse sacrifice. But no shark, big or small, feasted upon her adorably spoiled rotten little body that day. We manage to achieve the crude hilarity, and stern disapproval of the parents, upon hearing her yelp in terror.
With two beady eyes, sharp teeth, and nine feet of scaly reptilian flesh, we came to realize the innocent jest mom had articulated at the beginning of our stay, the implication of a crocodile in the moat, wasn’t far from reality. Turns out the “No Swimming in Moat” sign we had examined wasn’t just there to ruin our fun, the presence of an underwater guard was very real. We inspected under the drawbridge, and roamed around the entire fort on the lookout for the scaly stow away. Finally he was detected, floating on the sides’ edge, but as the camera materialized to capture our little victory he quickly disappeared into a pipe, only allowing for a few snapshots. Our cruising neighbors, missing the entertainment, hunted for him too, but he continued to elude all of us for the rest of our stay.
Kids in the cruising lifestyle, particularly in the younger age range, are a rarity upon the water. We were thrilled to discover our neighbors; Paul and Stacey, whom were likewise not daunted by the prospect of two young kids. Nicholas, age 4, and their 6 year old daughter, Samantha, quickly bonded with our little rascals and became inseparable while studying and exploring the island, and local wildlife. As the parents spoke of future plans, and past experiences we found similarities in not only boat size and model, kids aboard, but also in the rushed time frame allotted between purchasing the boat and setting sail. Turns out we aren’t the only people crazy enough to sell all we own and in a few short months set out for adventure, this family did the same, bought their Morgan 41 in October and were off and running in a month! We were sad to leave our new friends so quickly, and wished them “fair winds and following seas till we meet again,” and I expect somewhere along our journey we will get together again!
A short sail and one day later the world had transformed! Scooters honking, drag queens singing hoarsely from open bars, and college kids in raucous groups drinking their spring break away, made it obvious, we weren’t in the Dry Tortugas anymore. We entered the very rushed civilization of Key West, Florida. Though the night life may have been amusing, sporting around 6 young children we decided not to put their sanity at risk by staying out past sunset. We ventured down to the Atlantic Ocean, wetting our toes in its’ frothy waves, and made a special point to visit the “Southern most point in the U.S.A.” We also ventured into tourist shops, and repeated incessantly to the kids “no touching sculptures in art galleries”. While playing the tourist we enjoyed our time on populated land and devoured everything scrumptious presented before us.
Being back in the presence of a large population, we only thought it convivial to groom our appearances to be more socially acceptable. With that thought, on Connor’s 8th anniversary with life, his birthday, March 7th, we transformed our cockpit into a high class hair salon. Mom emerged as a master stylist after waging war against the boy’s heads full of hair, and a few of the girls. When she passed the baton and permitted me to wield the scissors and battle her split ends I was a bit daunted. Seeing as in all 18 years of life I’d only cut hair once, my own at the age of four, and ‘twas not a very flattering look, or so I am told. There was nothing to fear, though, for when she emerged from beneath my gaze she was as beautiful as ever, even with a few stray hairs. With everyone appearing more presentable, we journeyed off on our little dinghy to explore the streets trying not appearing as gypsies on the run.
There are two distinct types of tourists that Duval Street seems to attract; those who buy the cheap, touristy Key West memorabilia to ignite jealousy in those who could not experience the fun, and those who wander into every single art gallery, absorbing the quiet and beauty absent on the bar filled streets. Of course there are those, like us, who do both. The only problem, however, is the kids’ want all the stuff that can’t possibly fit onto the boat, so buying the multitudes of trinkets and stuff is a no go. We do delight in the art galleries and learn much about famous artists and their techniques. The somewhat amusing aspect is the weary eye of the gallery host who keeps a careful watch on our crew as the children roam between original acrylic masterpieces and frail glass blown statues. Not all the galleries were anal about our presence, the great ones, such as LIK, Wyld, and DeRubeis took us on an impromptu tour, teaching, informing and monitoring us continually while sharing the love of the work they represent. On several occasions we were invited in with many questions about our family story. Mrs. Gail, whom worked in Alan Maltz’s gallery, was so touched and inspired by our politeness and what my mom was endeavoring to do with us children; she presented to us a beautiful poster, a composite of over 100 of the best photos in his collection. We intend to display our new amalgamation of art with great pride in the main cabin.
The artistic vibe wasn’t restricted to four walls; there were painters set up on the side walk, and musicians on the street corners. Our favorite art display was held each sunset at Mallory Square, in the shape of Street Performances. We found ourselves returning to see the magician, who had a melon fall from his hat, the sword swallower, who never chocked, a couple of guys who did the “world’s longest hat toss- that they know of,” and so many other talented gymnasts, jugglers, and fire performers. We made a special trip to witness the ‘Crazy French Cat Man’ whom the dog man told us was located “over the bridge.” Realizing it wasn’t a pun on their animal differences, we found the fearless felines jumping through hoops of fire and unlocking cages, an impressive display. While talking with the French man after the show, we learned what my potential future, and sanity, could hold in store, him being the eldest of seven children too. Hearing a rumor that he wasn’t actually loco, and that it was all an act, we felt like we really had seen it all during our stay in Key West, and we were ready to head out.
One more front was scheduled to arise from the North. With no pressing time schedule, we bustled down in our fully enclosed cockpit on Thursday morning with our breakfast of oatmeal made with coconut milk, a true delicacy prepared to us by our lovely little galley wench, Sara, 13 years old. We had been confined in Invincible the previous day too, due to the wind and waves, and had kept a wary eye upon our anchored neighbors and their relative proximity to us. Before the oatmeal had settled in our tummies dad looked up and saw the boat in front “careening toward us” and quickly the parents snapped to action. First we defended our home from colliding with the 47 foot fiberglass sailboat, whose chain seemed to have broken away from its anchor. Zach and mom fended it off with their tremendous upper body strength and then we surmised that the best way to rescue the boat that got away was to radio the Coast Guard. Mom let out a string of words any old salt would have been proud of as she cringed at the near smashing of a family’s home/sailboat against a concrete wall, but the Coast Guard reacted just quick enough, and though we don’t know how much damage was caused before the rescue, no other harm seemed to have befallen the vessel.
By three that afternoon the winds had calmed dramatically and the waves had laid down. Looking around at the blue sky and sun reflecting off the gorgeous water it was hard to believe we were still in the same anchorage we had been earlier. With concerns receding, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief, and plan our trip into town for some provisioning and last minute sightseeing, before departing on our next course.
Timing is no longer a confinement, and we are enjoying moving at our own pace, with nothing but the weather to limit us. However, realizing the weather is what we are most weary of and hurricane season is quickly approaching, we came to a cross road in our plans. The Bahamas’ has always been our chosen route for paradise, and then hightailing it down south when the season for hurricanes arose, as our insurance agreement states we do. However, viewing our charts, while on the Dry Tortugas, and comparing distances between lands, my mom discovered that the mileage to the Yucatan Peninsula wasn’t as vast as previously presumed. Crossing the gulfstream is a bit daunting, but we’ll have to cross it no matter which way we sail, so we’ll just “put our big girl panties on” as Tracey, a boater and friend always says. Since we will bypass Cuba, due to the U.S. embargo, this will be the longest passage we’ve ever sailed.
The captain of our factious democracy, my Mom, allowed us all to voice our questions and concerns in regards to our change of plans. With much encouragement, and the help of Google images, we all came to the harmonious conclusion that heading to the West Caribbean would be more beneficial to both our upcoming deadline, and our pocket book. Not to mention I still have those two years of High school Spanish I’ve never had the opportunity to try out.
As we peer over charts, and calculate distances it’s hard not to imagine what great adventures there are to come in this journey we’ve set out to experience. Already we’ve stumbled upon unknown organisms, beautiful sunsets, some of the most interesting people the streets have to offer, and still there’s so much more to see. At times it’s difficult to maintain a sense of yin and yang on our little 41 foot sloop, especially when our emotions and offences get the best of us. But with the help of the winds and the waves I pray for a safe passage, where ever we decide to go.