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Course Advanced Coastal Cruising; Bahamas to Punta Gorda, FL
Date November 14-21, 2007
Students:  Skip Conway, Carol Hallman, Bob Hallman, Charles Shipley
Captain: Jochen Hoffmann

Monday, Nov 12: Our new Island Packet IP-440, CELESTIAL is berthed at Marsh Harbour, Abaco Island, Bahamas after completing her first ocean voyage from Norfolk. We just completed a washdown to get the sea salt off, and her gleaming hull and chrome reflect palm trees and colorful island homes. She is almost ready for her next student crew when at 1500 Charley Shipley arrives and joins the captain in cleaning below decks. An early sunset - spied from a shore-side restaurant overlooking the Sea of Abaco - is the reward for the day’s hard work. 

Tuesday, Nov 13: More help arrives when Carol and Bob Hallman board at 1300. By 2000 hours, after dinner on shore, Skip Conway’s arrival completes our crew and we are getting acquainted.  

Wednesday, Nov 14; Preparations:
The day begins with training topside. First comes a thorough check of standing and running rigging, sails, MOB lift tackle plus harness, and the heavy- weather, safety, and emergency equipment. Then we continue below decks with systems checks, provisioning, and route planning. Finally, we check out at the Marina and home office to conclude our stay dockside. A second check of the weather report (winds NE 10-15 kts.) suggests that we can reach planned anchorage west of Man-o’-War Cay before sunset.

At 1530 we motor east 4 miles to nearby Man-o’-War Cay. This anchoring approach allows students to gain familiarity with two important skills for cruising in these islands: being able to “read” the varying colors of the Bahamas’ shallow sea floor with the sun’s glare behind us and locating anchorages in the lee of islands.  Here, seeing shades of green on the bottom (grass or sand) is, as the natives tell it, generally good. Seeing black or white (coral or reefs) is bad. With our all-chain delta anchor solidly set with an ample 8:1 scope in freshening winds, we mark the drop point with a GPS position. We also take compass bearings on lighted objects, mark them in the log, and start our rotating anchor watch at 30-minute, and later 60-minute, intervals throughout the night. 

Thurs, Nov 15; Underway:
The prospect of a long passage to Florida has us up at day brake. The night log shows that we have not moved from our anchored position, and all are pleased with this. After breakfast of coffee and cereal, we are underway to a cut in the reefs marked on the chart at the head of North Man-o’-War Channel. While still in protected waters, we practice daytime MOB maneuvers. To make it count, we deploy the offshore rescue buoy system for students to gain familiarity with its multiple features. At 0815 hours, just short of the mouth of the Channel, we hold station and tune in to the Abaco Whether Net on VHF channel 68 for a detailed weather and Gulf Stream crossing forecast. We motor sail for most of the day in light S winds. As the wind builds to ENE 18 to 25 knors by evening, we proceed under reefed genoa and reefed mainsail.

The night before, students had carefully drawn a series of rhumb lines on a NIMA Plotting Sheet that we will use for our DR plotting. Carol, and later Skip, applies care and precision in plotting several landfall options en route. Carol and Bob enter waypoints in the GPS. We begin navigation by picking our way carefully and safely through the reefs. Bob, Skip, and Charley are taking and plotting bearings as we proceed east, then SSW until land and charted objects are out of sight. As the Atlantic opens before us, CELESTIAL is swaying gracefully to the full fetch of the seas. The watch on deck sees the swells coming and can readily adjust to the ship’s motion. Crew below, who are yet learning to move on a rolling vessel, are surprised when they find themselves suddenly down slope from where they intended to go. 

All day, CELESTIAL is making good progress in fair conditions. But with an adverse current and the sun setting at 1710 hours, it is clear that we will not have desirable visibility at Russel Island, our intended anchorage, The forecast wind direction and speed, veering from south to north from 8 to 25 knots, makes night time anchoring in the Berry Islands inadvisable. The prudent option is to proceed W to the Florida Straits under reefed main and genoa in the deep waters of the NW Providence Channel. The watches are set at 4 hours on and 4 hours off for two crewmembers each. The captain remains on call and rotates himself into the watches to give one member each of the outgoing and incoming watches extra rest. 

Friday, Nov 16; NW Providence Channel:
The beautiful, starry night gave us two bright planets: Jupiter at 20 degrees altitude slightly S of the setting sun and then Venus rising three hours before sun-up. As the wind decreases, we motor sail. Throughout the night, watch standers remain alert to cruise ships and cargo vessels plying the waters to or from Miami. Whenever visual sightings or our radar/plotter indicate that traffic is coming within our 3 mile safety radius, the captain makes VHF contact with nearby vessels and arranges safe passage. Here our own state of  the art Automatic Identification System (AIS) is of great help since it gives us name, course, speed, and CPA of other AIS equipped ships within range.

After breakfast and cleanup, training includes storm trisail tactics, rules of the road, current navigation and landfall preparation. At 1520 we pass the nearby Bimini Islands with their unmarked shoals and lay a course straight for Key West, Florida. Once there, we’ll be able to clear U.S. Customs in minutes – rather than spending the better part of a day clearing in at Miami. But first comes the Gulf Stream crossing. We adjust for current set and drift and sail a course of 224 degrees True for Angelfish Cut south of Miami, a distance is 53 miles. With the wind on our starboard quarter at 20 knots, we arrive just north of Angelfish Cut at 2145 hours. Well done, crew!! Now, on to Key West.

Saturday, Nov 17; Key West, Florida:
During the night, navigational challenges and questions abound. Bob and sharp-eyed Skip are fully focused. What light is that? Does it mark the Keys reef chain or Hawks Channel beyond it? The answers matter! All available means are consulted and checked; first, the coastal and detailed charts, then the radar and plotter before our position is plotted. This experience is passed on to the next watch – Charley and Carol. All become adept at keeping CELESTIAL at a safe distance outside of the line of shoals and reefs that parallel the Florida Keys.

After daybreak, visual sightings make navigation a bit easier. Now it’s time to catch up on sleep. And then, landfall preparation as Key West beckons. The captain decides on tying up to a floating dock at Galleon Marina for our weekend stopover and calls ahead to make arrangements with the dock master. Next, with the breeze freshening to NNW at 22 knots, we decide on a sheltered spot to drop our reefed sails. Finally we become extra cautious in our approach to the marina as a host of schooners, catamarans, and noisy tour boats swarm into the channel for their daily sunset sails. Docking, calling in at U.S. Customs, and taking showers are accomplished expeditiously with but one goal in mind: a satisfying crew dinner at the Conch Republic Restaurant and a stroll along the Key’s attractions. 

Sunday, Nov 18; Key West:
The U.S. Customs building, is only a short walk from our Marina, and by 0930 CELESTIAL and her crew are officially checked into the U.S. Now, it’s on to breakfast at a nearby restaurant and a review of the ASA106 advanced coastal cruising standards. Then all disband to do some sightseeing and shopping.

Monday, Nov 19; Gulf of Mexico:
It’s time for Charley to break out local charts plus a new plotting sheet and come up with a rhumb line to Charlotte Harbor, a distance of 122 NM. Entering the Gulf of Mexico from Key West via the North Channel with its shoal waters will require our full attention. Skip will be channel markers to pilot CELESTIAL when the time comes. Carol and Charley enter waypoints into the GPS while Bob plots our final landfall. The weather report is for clear skies and winds steady at NE 10-15, later 15-20, with light chop and indicates that we should be able to sail close-hauled on a straight course due north magnetic and make our first waypoint off Charlotte Harbor. ETA is about noon the next day.

We take on fuel, check in with the office, and cast off at 0930. It’s time for Skip to spot and call out navigational aids that mark this treacherous channel. Once safely in the open Gulf, the shallow waters of Florida’s West Coast give us only choppy seas at best - unlike the sometimes steep waves we encountered during our Gulf Stream crossing. In short, a stable ride. Steady winds, no traffic, and no swells combine to make for a leisurely run N on the 82 degree West meridian. It’s time to relax, review, and prepare meals in comfort. After sunset, we practice a night time MOB maneuver to hone our skills. 

Tuesday, Nov 20; Punta Gorda: 
The night under clear starry skies was peaceful. The wind stayed fresh at NE 18-20 knots on our starboard bow and lifting us at an average 7.5 knots over ground. Good progress. But we want to leave ample time for a slow-speed approach: first, through the Boca Grande Channel at the mouth of the bay of Charlotte Harbor and then, 20 NM beyond, through the shallows outside of Punta Gorda. We call the dock master of our destination, Burnt Store Marina, to signal our arrival and obtain local knowledge about our final approach. At 1245 hours we are in the Punta Gorda channel. What a beautiful spot with lots of sailboats lining the bank. The helpful marina crew assists us with topping off fuel and our final docking. We arrive at our slip early enough for Skip to catch a late plane and for the rest of us to enjoy a leisurely dinner at a waterside restaurant.

Wednesday, Nov 21; Punta Gorda, Florida. 
A huge breakfast on board gets everyone ready for plans at hand. Carol and Bob help with cleanup and then proceed to take the ASA test now - rather than at a later time. Both pass and proceed to link up with friends. Charley and the captain attend to a myriad of details before leaving the boat for part of the winter.

Thursday, Nov 22: After taking care of final boat checks, Charley and the captain depart to catch their respective planes in time to be home for Thanksgiving dinner and to reflect on a great adventure. 

Total distance: 470 nautical miles 

Captain H. Jochen Hoffmann
Punta Gorda, FL
November 22, 2007

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