Puerto Rico to Tampa Bay Passage

Still playing catch up around here! The events of this blog post took place in May.

Having cruised the south coast of Puerto Rico and staged on the west coast at Puerto Real (catch up here), we were ready to catch the next bit of good weather to Florida with our friend Rollo on board. We were heading to Tampa Bay where we would spend hurricane season catching up with friends and family. The longest part of this journey was the passage from Puerto Real to Key West, which would be about 925 nautical miles and take about 6 days. Our longest passage so far was about a quarter of that length! But because it was all downwind and we had an extra set of hands, we expected a fairly easy passage.

Burrito assembly line!

We prepped the boat by getting all of our safety gear ready and in easy to access places. We also prepped food. Misha made a variety of dishes and snacks, Frank rolled a dozen burritos for the freezer, and Rollo prepped two casseroles. We barely had to cook the entire trip thanks to our full day of cooking in advance.

Some casserole while underway

Everything was going smoothly and we were preparing to depart the next morning until… well… it was almost unbe(e)lievable. Frank was out back checking the engines while Misha and Rollo were on land getting the last of the groceries when all of a sudden a swarm of at least a hundred bees flew up to the boat. Frank ran inside and closed all the hatches and hid in fear as he watched the bees fly around the cockpit and clearly look to establish residency. We weren’t prepared to take stowaways. Frank found a “bee deterrent” sound on YouTube and played it at full blast on the cockpit speakers which after a while actually seemed to work. Unfortunately they just flew above the cockpit and made their home in the back of the mainsail stack pack. Womp, womp…

An early casualty

Misha and Rollo returned and thought Frank was being a bit dramatic but then realized the severity of the situation and we began hatching plans to get the bees to leave, all while fearing being stung on the eve of our passage. Rollo bravely went to where they were nesting and clipped on a bluetooth speaker and we played the bee deterrent sound, but it didn’t work. After researching and failing to find a beekeeper in the area able to safely relocate the bees, Misha went up and threw a towel over the exit of the stack pack to maybe at least keep them from flying out when we set sail in the morning. Late that evening Frank gave the stack pack a slap to see if they were still in there… YEP! Instead of spending our last night worrying about the weather or the sailing conditions we were worried about a freaking hive of bees. This was like the sequel to Snakes on a Plane, and to paraphrase, I have had it with these MFing bees on this MFing boat!

The next morning we got up and left at first light. The bees were still there, but they hadn’t woken up yet. We all developed varying theories about what would happen with the bees, but our main priority was not to get stung and so we hoped we would be able to sail most of the way with just our headsails and leave the mainsail pack where they were living closed. Because we would be sailing deep angles in strong winds, this plan just might work. 

In the lee of Puerto Rico in the morning there is very little wind, so we motored away from the coast in a NNW direction across the Mona Passage to get out from behind the island and catch a breeze. We started to pick up some wind around Isla Desecho and motorsailed the rest of the day and overnight as we coasted along the Dominican Republic decently far off. When we passed Isla Desecho we also crossed the “trash line” and saw huge tree stumps floating and tons of cut bamboo – who knows where this all came from? Possibly the Amazon River and that’s no joke. We didn’t hit anything but we dodged several tree stumps and trunks. By now, several bees had jumped ship in search of more appropriate land lodgings, but our stack pack was still buzzing.

Passing Isla Desecho

The view from Frank’s nap spot at sunset

The wind began to fill in strongly over DR as anticipated which was delightful. We sailed with just a full genoa for two days in 25 knots of wind and averaged 7 knots boat speed in comfort and ease with little adjustment ever needed to the sails. The good speed meant even though the waves were decently sized (or as Rollo called them, “chonky!”), they’d pick us up and set us down pretty gently (see video), so it was really quite comfortable. The second night we turned away from DR towards Great Inagua. The wind was shifting with us too which was nice as we ran at a very deep angle, usually around 150° apparent.

On the third day on approach to Great Inagua we had a decision to make: do we stop and wait for more wind or carry on? We needed to get a good update on the weather forecast which we did as soon as we were close enough to get cell reception. We never actually saw Great Inagua, a small, flat island, but we pinched their cell service for several hours. As far as energy levels, we were doing great. With three people rotating three hours on, six hours off, we were all well rested. When we checked the weather what we surmised was we could carry on and sail another day, maybe two, then become becalmed and have to motor the final way in to Key West. Or, we could stop in Great Inagua, but we’d have to wait quite a while, maybe a whole week, to get enough wind to sail the entire way, and we wouldn’t be able to get off the boat that entire time. So, it was a pretty easy decision to keep on going.

Rollo and Frank hanging at the helm
Mish taking a nap

This was the only stretch of the passage that we were a little frustrated. As the great 25 knots of wind faded to 15-20 knots, and we became exposed to seas to the south from the gap between Haiti and Cuba, as well as to the north from the other side of Great Inagua, the sea state got a little sloppy with waves coming from three directions while we also lost speed to power through them. It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, and we’ve certainly had much worse, but it was a bit of an issue to keep the sail full given that the wind was dying off as when the boat rolled heavily from side to side the sail would collapse. For that to be the worst part of the passage was a treat in itself.

By the next morning (Day 4) the seas had gotten organized again behind us, supporting our mission as we approached the Old Bahama Channel, a 12nm wide channel between Cuba and the Bahama Bank that is used heavily for shipping. We set the spinnaker, a headsail nearly three times the size of our genoa, for the day as we had 15-20kts of wind and Galatea came back to life. Less bothered by the waves, you would think she was gliding as we were sailing around 8kts, sometimes hitting into 9kts with good gusts, and 10kts with good surfing down waves. She clearly loved it and steered a dream too. Later in the afternoon though, a fitting on the bowsprit, a pole on the front of the boat to which the spinnaker is attached, broke off with a bang. It wasn’t a catastrophic failure; in fact, the boat kept sailing right along happily as the spinnaker was still attached to the bow via another block. Nonetheless we were putting more stress on that block than intended now, so we snuffed the spinnaker and began motorsailing with the genoa. We would later have our friend Stephen at The Yacht Rigger fix this bowsprit by adding a backing plate inside to give it more strength.

Rollo spent a good bit of the passage working on his tan 🙂

The next day (Day 5) the wind really started to give up on us. The seas became remarkably calm. Everyone was happy nonetheless as it was much easier to sleep, giving us more energy in the day to hang out, play games, and read books. We also started to do some math about our arrival time. This became part ritual, part game for Frank and Rollo. We wanted to arrive during daylight. Our conclusion was we either needed to make a really good pace of 7 knots and arrive the next evening or slow her down to 6 knots and arrive the morning after that. Galatea motors really well, and even on one engine can often do 7 knots at cruising RPMs if the seas aren’t against her. So that’s what we did, we kept the speed up, eventually having to throw on both engines when the current became against us near Cay Sal Bank, and then again when crossing the Gulf Stream.

The seaweed had also cleared up dramatically so we took the opportunity to do a little fishing. Frank put out our four line setup and a little later we caught a bonito which was big enough for dinner and ceviche.

Just enough for a fresh meal
Prepping the lures
The power of the Gulf Stream: the black line shows the direction our bow is pointing and the blue line shows the direction we are actually moving - quite a difference!

Crossing the Gulf Stream is always interesting. The sheer power is amazing. It runs often with 2-3 knots of current, in this case across our beam pushing us to the east. Our bows were pointing 15-25° west of our heading trying to fight the current. The goal here is to go as fast as possible and get through it. With no wind, we motored with both engines doing 7-8 knots. We hadn’t seen much bee activity the last few days so we decided it was now or never to rid ourselves of any remaining ones or this problem could continue. Frank unzipped the stack pack and there were no bees left, save a few dead ones. As best we can figure, when we would see one occasionally flying about the last week, they were leaving the boat in the last attempt to find land. But, we didn’t see land at all the last four days… We’ve since learned a lot about bees, and Misha (our resident want-to-be zoologist, always concerned with our critter friends’ welfare) has a Deep Dive blog post about bees coming up soon.

We weren’t going to make it to Key West by sun down, so we instead anchored at Loggerhead Key, right next to Looe Key, a popular snorkeling destination. We set the hook, took a swim, fired up the grill and music and celebrated our smooth and safe passage back to Florida. We averaged right about 7 knots for the 925nm passage and completed it in 6 days. Only one thing broke the entire way (the bowsprit fitting), and we were all happy and well rested on arrival. What a success!

Misha at the Key West Martello Tower which has been converted into a garden

The next day we rested at the Loggerhead Key anchorage, swam some, made water, did laundry, and cleaned up the boat a bit. We also started making plans to get a COVID vaccine which by this time (early May) was extremely easy to do in Florida. The day after that we sailed to Key West and grabbed a mooring ball in Garrison Bight. We spent five days in Key West hitting up our favorites places and exploring a few new ones as well. We all went and got our COVID vaccines and had planned to spend the next day laid up in case we felt bad, but no one really did. Rollo took a side trip to Miami to catch up with some friends and Frank and Misha started the final passage of the season to Tampa Bay.

Misha and Rollo at the "Southernmost Point in the Continental US"
Misha in front of the USCG Ingham, which is a maritime museum we visited

We left Key West at first light and headed due north. We intended to overnight to Tampa Bay, but we were going to take a long route and hug the coastline of Florida a bit as Misha had some work deadlines and needed cell service to send documents back and forth. We got service back around 5pm near Marco Island, and were closing on Ft Myers Beach at sunset. Right around that time we began dramatically losing speed and the seas became quite rough. We could not figure out what we had missed in the forecast because we expected the wind to be coming from land the entire way, not out of the north. We were making 3 knots and it was rough. We were pretty tired by 3am. We decided to pull into Boca Grande Pass and anchor at Cabbage Key to rest and wait for better wind. What we later learned about from our weather router (Chris Parker, a boat savvy meteorologist on shore who we occasionally get routing advice from) was the diurnal wind pattern of west Florida which is not always captured in the forecast. With the wind ENE all day, at night it switches to N, or even NNW, right in our face. Oh well, hard to complain about a beautiful detour!

The sunset view from our anchorage at Cabbage Key
A celebratory bubbly at Cabbage Key Restaurant

We had a lovely three days stay at Cabbage Key, visiting the Cabbage Key Restaurant and their resident gopher tortoises, visiting Cayo Costa State Park, and also checking out the cool mangroves by Bokeelia. A cold front passed through during this time with strong winds out of the north, but as soon as they were gone, so were we. It was also during this stay that we learned Misha won her case which she had argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court back in Puerto Rico. Cause for celebration!

Two of the gopher tortoises at Cabbage Key
At the top of the water tower on Cabbage Key

We left Cabbage Key at first light and headed up the coast, past Venice and Sarasota, and finally turning back into Tampa Bay just past Anna Maria Island. We headed for St. Petersburg and passed under the Skyway Bridge, the first bridge we’ve ever passed under, believe it or not. We arrived at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina a bit before sunset. We would stay at this marina through hurricane season, where we would spend the summer catching up with friends and family, enjoying some land time, and, you know, probably doing a lot of boat projects too!

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay
Our friend Gailor the Sailor at the helm
Our home for the summer in St. Pete

Our next blog post will be a special deep dive into bees, in honor of our fallen stow aways. After that, we’ll fill you in on how we spent hurricane season in Tampa Bay. Stay tuned!

1 thought on “Puerto Rico to Tampa Bay Passage”

  1. You both have done things that most of us only dream of. Sounds like you all have become quite the sailers.

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