Saturday, June 21, 2008

Searching for Satellites

Home in Pt. Charlotte

75 degrees, showers, occasional thunderstorms

Southwest Florida is in the midst of the summer rain season and last night was a rare break in the action. The seas were forecast to be 1-2 foot, with the bay water smooth to lightly choppy. In coastal terms, this means perfect conditions for pleasure boating.

We had discussed the possibility of a boys night out for Billy and I, since their arrival, and this was to be the best opportunity for it. We launched (hour meter 340) at about 7:45 PM with plans to get far enough out to Charlotte Harbor to enjoy a Florida sunset on the water. Unfortunately as soon as we got to the open water I noticed we had lost satellite reception on the GPS unit. I had Billy take the helm, cruising at a light 5 knots, while I tried to manipulate the antenna cable.

The unit had power but was searching for satellites. I'd had GPS connections when we were leaving our canal system, so I knew it wasn't a critical failure. Nonetheless, this was going to put a serious distruption to our plans. I use the GPS unit, coupled with the South Florida Garmin chart chip, to navigate the shallow depths of Charlotte Harbor. The GPS shows our position, reflected as a triangle, overlayed on a map of the harbor with known depths (soundings). This allows me to see where we are and what the best course to travel is. We also have a fishfinder/depthfinder on board, but it only shows the depths directly below you not the floors around you.

The backup system for GPS navigation is paper charts and a compass. We had both on board but it was quickly getting dark so that option wasn't recommended. Regular readers of this blog know the challenges we face with the tidal waters. Going back home wasn't an option because the tide had risen too much to get back under the bridge near our home. We needed to find a safe place to anchor down and spend the night. By the time the tide came back down, it would be too dangerous to navigate the night without GPS.

Near the Charlotte County beach complex, there is a 50' catamaran sailor which moors and lives there. We dropped anchor not far from him and Billy readied the cabin for the night. I have to give him credit because he recognized a puzzle of our cushions and increased the size of the bed three fold. I had no idea it did that.

A few hours later the tide was going out and I noticed our depth had dropped to 3'. Low tide was still two hours away and we would surely be beached if we didn't move. Low tide was forecast at -0.2. I wasn't sure what the catamaran did, because it stays here permanently, but I wasn't going to stick around to find out. I called my friend Jeff, on his boat on Lake Pleasant, AZ. Jeff has decades of experience living near and navigating the Pacific. Truth be told, this was going to be my first overnight experience "on the hook" in any waters.

Jeff, as usual, had the answers. He told us we would need to find a way to get to about 10' of water. I pulled out my paper charts and plotted a course to the center of the Peace River, where it lets out into Charlotte Harbor. Once I set out, I would be able to divert my attention back to the charts, so I tried to memorize a course, using the lights of Punta Gorda to the south and the Highway 41 bridge to the east as points of reference. Using only my compass and eyes, we set out at about 3 knots. I have a hand held, 3 million candlepower, spotlight I used on occasion to check for obstructions or unlit vessels. About 1 hour later, we found our spot. I let out about 30' of anchor line to allow for current and tidal changes. Jeff had reminded me that the tide will rise again while I sleep and failure to have allow for that could result in my anchor being pulled off the floor and the boat drifting toward a possible disaster.

We relaxed in the ocean breeze and I noticed my sweat soaked tee shirt almost chilled me. I guess the pressure had made me perspire more than I realized. The evening's conversation will forever remain our secret, but a night like this doesn't come along very often. A boy of 12 is standing at life's door, ready to walk in. As a dad, it is a priceless honor to have the rare opportunity to guide him on his journey.

At 12:30 AM, Billy bed down for the night. There wasn't a lot of rocking in the boat, but the waves sloshing against the hull was very loud and distracting to me. It didn't bother Billy a bit, he was out in minutes. Maybe it was the waves knocking, maybe it was just the watchman's nerves but I couldn't sleep. I went topside and wet a line for a while, to no avail. Everytime I fail to catch fish, I think our friend from Pleasant, Ernie, is hiding somewhere nearby, laughing at me. He always busted my chops about not catching fish on the docks at Pleasant Harbor, AZ.

I gave up the lure for moon watching at about 2 AM. There had been a recent full moon and tonight's lunar visitor was still nearly full. The reflection on the water was soothing. Of course, I had forgotten the camera. The harbor was absent any boat traffic throughout the night and it felt like we were the only beings on the sea.

After continuing to mess about, at 4 AM, I managed to get the GPS antenna to see the satellites. Better late than never. I took about a 30 minute nap downstairs but the water noise was still highly distracting. It was like trying to nap in your garage, with someone banging on the garage door.

I was back up at 5:30 and the GPS was still fine. I readied a couple of rods for trolling and woke Billy up at 6. Sunrise was set for 6:35 and I wanted to share it with him. We were joined by a lone dolphin but only briefly. The only thing our fishing lines caught was each other. Oh well, they say you should change your line ever 6 months anyway. I was able to salvage my lures but lost over 600 feet of line. I pulled it all on board for disposal, like a responsible mariner.

The sunrise was all we hoped for, as we motored toward our house. Kathy met us at our dock and helped put Messing About back on the lift. After a quick cup of coffee, I spent an hour cleaning and flushing the boat and motor. After a relaxing shower I felt like I had worked the graveyard shift. I slept from 9 to 2.

Although simple and uneventful, this trip will forever be remembered by Billy and I.

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