We awoke on March 2nd, fully intending to clear customs, return to the boat, and depart by midday. Of course, that was not precisely how it played out. Clearing customs in Florida was a process that required rather more of us than it had in either Michigan or New York. Upon docking, you are free to wander on land, but you must head off for the Miami Dade Seaport within a day of your arrival in order to clear legally. Now, this would not be as much of a burden if the Miami Dade Seaport possessed, you know, a dock near their offices for private boats to utilize. Unfortunately, they possess no such convenience, and so we were forced to rent a car and drive from our marina in Homestead Florida, roughly 40 miles south of the seaport, in what might lovingly be described as “traffic from Hell”.
Upon arrival at the Seaport, I was prepared for a prolonged wait. Surely after making us drive the better part of a morning to reach them, the security-conscious customs officers would at least interrogate us and have dogs sniff through our clothing before letting us proceed on our merry way. I was once again thoroughly disappointed, however. 14 minutes after walking into the place, we were walking out with our passports in hand, having not even submitted to a perfunctory frisk. After an unsurprisingly delicious Cuban lunch and another couple hours in positively glacial traffic, I was forced to concede that leaving that night would be irretrievably stupid, and that we should simply leave the following morning (I would like to report that I did so gracefully, but that would be positively fallacious of me). Nevertheless, I intended to make the most of the following two days to get back to Vero Beach, which is how we found ourselves motoring slowly out the marina channel, navigating once again by flashlight, at 4am.
The next two days were both exceedingly uninteresting and highly stressful. Because I wanted to make it back to Vero in as short a time as possible, we were pushing up the canal as quickly as we could possibly go, frustrated at every turn by the design of the ICW. Whereas the ICW further north was crossed mainly by bridges that were either tall enough to accommodate sailboats, or opened on command, navigating the Southern end of the ICW requires repeated passing through bridges that opened every half hour. Now, this is not a great concern for most boats, as the schedules are designed to make transit convenient, opening some bridges on the hour and half hour, and others on the quarter hours, so that one never has to wait around long before the bridge opens.
Unfortunately, as you are undoubtedly sick of hearing by this point, we travel markedly slower than your average powerboat, and so the schedules that work so efficiently for almost every other boat on the ICW, seemed almost designed to close just seconds before our arrival, forcing us to motor in awkward circles for a half hour until we were allowed through. To be honest, it is a wonder we didn’t get stuck more often. We soon devised a system, by which we would begin talking with the bridge operators maybe 10 minutes before they would open, telling them that we were a mile or two out, but were making all possible speed to make their next opening (this was hardly an exaggeration, as I routinely went so far as to surf the wakes of adjacent boats, just to pick up an extra quarter knot of speed for a few seconds). Most of our calls met fairly firm, though polite insistence that they must open at their designated time, but we found that most of the time, the operators would hold their opening for just one or two crucial minutes that would allow us to sneak through. Obviously over the course of the 30 or so bridges that we had to transit, we missed a few, but we unpredictably made most of them, cutting literally days off of the potential transit time for a boat of our speed.
The only other noteworthy thing about this particular transit was our experience on the VHF radio. We have used the VHF extensively throughout the trip, both for talking with other boats in transit, and for calling in to marinas and yacht clubs to arrange slips. Nowhere was this chatter more enjoyable, however, than on that stretch of the ICW. Have you ever noticed that repetitive contact with faceless people can cause you to care significantly less about what those people think of you? (Think of all the times you didn’t mind cursing a telemarketer’s offspring/antecedents because he/she called you during dinner) Well, it turns out, this works on the radio too, and the result was nothing short of pure fun. What words seem like ideal radio-speak to you? Affirmative? Roger? Stand by? Or my personal favorite: 10-4? Well we used all of them, repeatedly, in every single conversation with a bridge operator. You might consider this immature sport, but the best part was that they took us completely seriously. There is nothing more gratifying than responding “10-4” into a handheld radio, and hearing the operator on the other end not only accept it, but sound positively relieved, as if he has received incontrovertible evidence that he is dealing with a professional.
Finally, after two long days and one very short night on the ICW, we pulled into the slip at Vero Beach, exhausted, stinky, and almost totally oblivious to the fact that we had finally reached the end of our voyage.