We are sharing our journal from our time in Key West as the Covid-19 pandemic began to unfold. When it became clear back in early March that this was something that looked like it could have a real impact on our lives, we started keeping a daily journal of how life began to shift and of the evolution of our decisions as well as notes on some of the news as it happened.
We do not take for granted how fortunate we are to have the options we have. We know our decisions pale in comparison to those many have been forced to make and still are suffering through. This is simply our experience. We’ve added language to our original entries to give context where necessary. If you haven’t read Parts 1 through 4, we encourage you to put this entry on hold until you do. You’ll find all previous entries in this series here: Key West Journal – The Long Farewell
Monday, March 23rd – Our Bags are Packed and We’re Ready To Go
Tim: Once again it’s a beautiful, warm Key West morning. As predicted, the winds calmed quite a bit overnight. We have decided to leave the Rock tomorrow. There is now a sense of urgency that we struggle to keep in perspective. We have made all arrangements to run OLOH to the storage facility where she will be laid-up for the summer, we’ve arranged for a rental vehicle to drive from there back to New York, and if all works out we should be in the Hudson Valley in a week, if not a bit sooner. We figure three travel days from Key West, a full day to pack up the boat and one to two days to drive home. Now we are fully engaged in prepping for travel and storage which is a lot of work and requires a lot of mental energy. We do our best to be mindful and make smart decisions. Dockmates and good friends John and Carolyn from The 3 B’s (who are also planning their exodus) stop by while we’re having our coffee and we all agree that moving north not only feels right, it feels good.
A.J.: I’m a big believer in lists. Some of my lists are lists of lists. But they are essential on a boat with so many tasks, big and small, to remember and manage, certainly on a daily basis, and especially when you’re planning to shove-off. And even though we only have three travel days ahead of us, there’s no getting complacent any time you’re running the boat, particularly when one of your legs will take you forty plus miles offshore as will our run tomorrow in the Gulf Of Mexico from Key West to Naples. While there’s been a lot to get done, I’m comfortable with the pace with which the lists are getting smaller and how smoothly everything’s been going. With virtually all of our system and safety checks done, the remaining big items are getting the boat fueled and then hauling and securing the Whaler on the top deck.
When we brought The 3 B’s over to the fuel dock yesterday I mentioned to the dock staff that we would be waiting until today to fuel OLOH. I just wanted to be sure they didn’t anticipate any issues as there was now only one spot to tie up as large transient yachts were occupying the bulk of the fuel dock. With the assurance it wouldn’t be an issue, we stuck with our plan. The wind was blowing pretty hard yesterday and as long as we didn’t have to, there was no reason to leave the dock before it calmed down. So in the late morning when we were ready to move to the fuel dock I walked over to let the staff know that when the sportfish boat that was currently there was done, we wanted to fuel OLOH. I did not expect the response I got. There was a 130′ megayacht that has been circling in the ocean just outside of the basin, waiting for the sportfish to leave so they could come in and take on fuel. OK, not a problem, I thought – we’d just wait until the yacht is done, realizing that could be quite some time. No – that won’t work, I was told… the yacht is going to be staying at least one night in that spot and we told them they could start heading into the marina in a few minutes. Uh… that’s bad. We’re planning to shove off at first light, hours before the fuel dock will be open. We’ve got a ten-hour day ahead of us and no other reasonable fuel options.
Sparing you all of the details of the panicked conversation that ensued with the marina manager (who we love), I told him that I would run back to the boat and get her on the fuel dock the moment the sportfish leaves to get fueled up as quickly as is humanly possible. Sympathetic to our predicament he radioed the captain of the yacht who agreed to wait another half hour before coming in. I phoned Tim to start the departure process and made a mad dash back to OLOH. Knowing how easy it is to get sloppy when you’re rushed, I was very careful to stay focused. And while it was the quickest un-docking we’ve ever had on OLOH, the process went smoothly and working like a pit-crew, we pumped 370 gallons of diesel and were back in our slip within thirty-five minutes. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful but it was a relief to have it done.
Not having experienced the new world order outside of Key West we’re not sure what to expect and how people will be on “the outside.” Our goal on this trip is to minimize human contact as much as possible, which we assume others will want to do as well. Thankfully we have our first night’s reservation secured at the beautiful Naples Sailing and Yacht Club where we stayed on our way down. The dockmaster there has been terrific and very accommodating. I let her know that we would be arriving after hours and, knowing our slip assignment in advance, we would take care of getting the boat tied up on our own. We’ll manage payment over the phone and we don’t plan to leave the boat other than to walk Jasper.
In theory, we should be able to get to our final destination on the Okeechobee Waterway on our second day but only if everything times out perfectly. We’ll have two locks and a couple of bridges to open and if you miss a lock just after the doors close it can easily cost you an hour. And you never know how long a wait is going to be at a bridge, even when they open on demand. So rather than adding to our stress by trying to make it, we agreed that it would be best to stop again and have a shorter last day. I found a small marina along the Okeechobee waterway that could take us for night number two and it felt good having that reservation secure as we are hearing that marinas are starting to turn away transient boaters.
One lingering concern had been the locks themselves. Is it possible that they could close? Most people we spoke with didn’t seem to think so but again, unprecedented times. Fortunately, on our last passage through the waterway last month we became friendly with Jaci, the Lockmaster at the Franklin lock, the first we’d be encountering. She had sent us a message on Facebook after meeting us so we had an easy way to reach her. We shot her a message asking for her assessment of the possibility of closures and she told us that she didn’t anticipate a problem in the next couple of days. Whew! Another major relief.
Tim: As the evening approaches we note bittersweetly, that it will be our last Key West sunset. Friends and dock mates Jeff and Karen from Red Head wander over for our last heart-to-heart. They have been terrific in offering us guidance and support and like older siblings, they both sternly but gently insist we avoid contact with others so we can maintain the healthy condition we are leaving Key West in. Karen and I promise to continue to share Seitan (vegan “meat”) recipes and she makes me promise I’ll perfect my vegan Key Lime pie. They have been a wonderful support team and we’ll miss them and their three sweet dogs, Deedee, Dylan, and Dora (Dora has a crush on Jasper!). And even though we plan to leave by 7 am, they let us know that they’ll be on the docks in the morning to see us off.
We have our last social distancing cocktail with John and Carolyn and then check the weather and all of our lists once again to make sure we are good to go. After one last nighttime walk with Jasper through an eerily quiet Stock Island Marina Village, we head to bed early to hopefully get some good rest before our first light departure.
March 24th – We’ll Meet You on the Other Side
We rose before the sun, having slept little but mentally ready. It’s always a magical time, to wake before the night does from slumber. It’s a beautiful morning and the wind is light. I take Jasper for a quick walk, telling him we are going on a big boat trip. He does his business quickly, maybe feeling my urgency to get back to the boat and get underway. He usually won’t eat or drink on travel days because he knows there won’t be any potty breaks until we arrive at our destination. He’s such a smart little moose.
As the sun’s first light promises to fill another day and hints she’ll join us for our long ride on the Gulf, we fire up the generator, stow the power cord and light up the engines. From out of the shadows both the crew from Red Head and from The 3B’s gather dockside to give us our last farewell. In so many ways we learned a great deal about each other through this unfolding ordeal. We reassured each other, educated each other, and supported each other through laughter and listening. We’ve created strong and lasting relationships and are forever grateful for them.
A.J.: We pull off the dock at 6:56 am and after their goodbye waves, John and Carolyn quickly return to their boat to prep for departure right behind us. We’re pulling out of Key West three or four weeks before our originally planned departure. And while there is heaviness and melancholy as we leave under circumstances we never could have imagined, there’s also a sense of peace in that, while we can’t know for certain what lies ahead in the coming days, weeks and perhaps months, we were very thoughtful in our decision and planning for this current moment in time. We hope that will pay off.
The weather is as predicted, warm and relatively calm, and we’re on the water, which also brings us solace. Once out of the basin, OLOH heads west, and The 3 B’s heads east, ultimately bound for Connecticut. We check in with each other a few times while still in radio range. The Atlantic is a bit lumpy as the sun begins to make its appearance but we know we’ll only be in it for a few miles before rounding Key West and heading into the Gulf where calm seas are expected. We’re definitely both feeling a sense of relief as the sun starts to light the sky.
In OLOH’s ship’s log under the comments section for the day, I simply wrote: “Coronavirus departure. Fantastic, easy ride.” And that sums it up. We had 10-knot winds out of the southeast gently pushing us along and easy one to two-foot seas in what turned into a mostly sunny, hot day with one rain cell that passed by a few miles ahead of us around midday. We half expected to see a lot of boats on the water with similar plans, bugging out of the Keys or elsewhere. But we saw only a few which were mostly off in the distance, miles away. When we did see a boat similar to ours we imagined what their crew must be feeling as certainly, no one was out this far for a pleasure cruise. We figured that if a boat was out it was on a mission.
Despite being far offshore, this is a route typically spent at heightened attention due to the significant number of crab pots you encounter along the way. We’re not sure if it was perhaps because the pandemic has kept the crabbing boats at port, but there seemed to be far fewer traps set than usual which allowed us to stay on autopilot much more than we’re used to on this long run – a very nice thing.
We listened to the news on satellite radio for a few hours before we started to burn out on the rolling Covid coverage. Dialing around we stumbled upon the audio from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and an episode from 1978 featuring Johnny interviewing a young actress named Susan Sarandon. It was a nice break.
The seas were calm on our arrival at Gordon Pass into Naples at 4:05 pm. Last time we pulled in here it was at around the same time of day and there were dozens of boats coming from every direction, which was a bit unnerving as it was our first time in what was then an unfamiliar area. But not this time. While there were a few boats out and about, it was very quiet as we made our way through the channel for the next half hour on our way to the yacht club. Our arrival went smoothly and other than one person we saw just finishing up work on a boat, there wasn’t a soul around. And you can bet that arrival OLOH-Rita tasted really good! So did the second one.
We were relieved and Jasper was relieved, figuratively, and literally, after having successfully put this first day behind us. A nice surprise and treat came just as we had finished settling the boat in when Jasper alerted us to a center console Boston Whaler hovering about thirty feet off our stern. It was our dear friends Pam and Peter who live nearby and who connected us with their yacht club of which they are longtime members. It was strange not to be able to hug them and have them over for a drink or dinner but we were thrilled to see them, get the warm welcome, and know that they were able to enjoy some time on the water to de-stress from everything that was going on.
Leaving the boat and walking out into the street felt strange. Having barely left our Key West marina since things started to get really intense, we felt a bit alien-like being back in “civilization.” But we saw no one on our short walks with Jasper and there was most certainly an eerie quiet in the marina’s neighborhood which had much more life to it when we were here just last month.
For Day One we covered 121 statute miles over 9 hours, 39 minutes and burned 175 gallons of fuel.
Wednesday, March 25th – A Bittersweet Season’s End
We awoke to another beautiful morning with light winds and 72 degrees. I went through my pre-departure routine as Tim took Jasper for his morning walk. We didn’t rush out too early as we wanted a bit of pre-dawn light as we shoved off and backed out of the marina’s narrow entrance which went smoothly at 7:08am. It takes around thirty minutes for us to travel from the marina back to the Gulf where we had about two hours of cruising before arriving at the Fort Myers area and the inland waterway. By our calculations, we could do the trip to our final destination in around 9 1/2 to 10 hours but, as mentioned earlier, there was the possibility of getting hung up at a lock or bridge that we had to take into account with our planning. So we had made a reservation at Sweetwater Landing Marina just west of the first lock we’d encounter and expected to get there by around 12:30 pm. The south/southwest wind was blowing a bit harder than we expected at around 11 knots and we had a 1 to 2-foot quartering sea off of our port stern as we headed north in the Gulf.
While we saw few boats in the Gulf, it seemed much more like a normal day on the water when we went through Matanzas Pass and into the Caloosahatchee River with a fair amount of boat traffic around. It was around noon as we passed through Fort Myers proper and we started re-evaluating our math. We figured that if we could make the first (Franklin) lock by around 1:00 and are able to lock through without waiting, we could very likely make the second (Ortona) lock before it closed for the day at 4:30. When we were still several miles from the lock we started to hear the radio traffic between the lockmaster and a couple of other boats. It sounded like they had just started locking through eastbound traffic (we are also eastbound). That meant if we sped up, it should time out almost perfectly for us to arrive at the lock just about when it will have completed the cycle and be ready for us. Hmmm. Let’s give this a try.
First I called the storage facility where we were leaving the boat. If they couldn’t take us today, there was no point in continuing. They said it wouldn’t be a problem. So at around 12:30, just before we were approaching Sweetwater Marina, I gave them a buzz to let them know that we were going to try to make the lock and if we did, we’d have to cancel our reservation. They were totally cool and wished us luck. Once past them we cranked up our speed where possible and arrived at the waiting area outside of Franklin Lock just before 1:00. We radioed the Lockmaster who told us she was just opening the gates and we should head on in once the westbound traffic cleared. Score!
When we pulled up, Lockmaster Jaci realized it was us and greeted us with her infectious (wrong word to use in these times?) smile. We had really been hoping to see her and it brightened our day more than she could know. Something about the comfort of a familiar face with all of the uncertainty we felt surrounded by. It was great to have a moment to catch up and to hear her assurance that we should have no problem making the Ortona Lock based on the current time. This completely changed our demeanor from stressed to relaxed as we realized our three travel days have now turned into two and we’d have more time than anticipated to settle the boat in. We also realized that this would be our last day of boating for the season.
Once clear of Franklin Lock you’re in the non-tidal Okeechobee Waterway. It’s relatively narrow and typically very calm. By now the temps had climbed into the 80’s with barely a breeze. We saw several day boats out enjoying the beautiful weather including more than one with groups of young adults, partying and seemingly without the slightest awareness of social distancing. There was such a disconnect between our level of concern and what we were seeing. No wonder this thing has taken off the way it has. We again cranked up our speed where possible and arrived at the Ortona Lock just over two hours later with plenty of time to spare. After an easy seven-minute wait we were once again locking through.
River Forest Yachting Center is just a half a mile east of the lock so as soon as we were through we radioed to let them know we were on our way. They gave us docking instructions and we exited the waterway into the very narrow canal that leads back to the marina’s basin. Thank goodness the breeze wasn’t too bad as there wasn’t a whole lot of room for error on either side of the boat as we went through. Dockhands and John, the marina manager were there to greet us and assist with our lines. This was our first close encounter with any people since leaving Stock Island and it was a bit awkward as we kept our distance and had to refuse a handshake. But they understood.
Arrival cocktails ensued along with a long walk with Jasper who was a champ for our unanticipated 9 1/2 hour day on the water. We were very aware that we had an intense 24 hours ahead of us, packing up and closing up the boat, picking up the rental car and going through our service punch-list with John. But we allowed ourselves to relax a little given the extra time we now had thanks to eliminating a travel day. We were instantly struck with how beautiful the property is. It feels like an oasis in the middle of nowhere with impeccable grounds and spotless facilities. We knew we were in the right place to feel good about leaving OLOH behind for a spell.
Thursday, March 26th – Pack It Up
This was one of those exhausting days but at least the myriad tasks at hand distracted us from what was going on in the outside world. Prepping, packing, cleaning, cleaning and cleaning were the order of the day. This is the first time OLOH is being “put away” since we’ve owned her so, while the process was a disliked but familiar ritual on our previous boats which we would store every winter, this was a day full of, “oh right, we’ve got to do this and make sure we take care of that” along with everything we already knew we had to do. Thank goodness we had this unexpected full day to get it all done as we used every minute of it.
When we arrived yesterday and were out walking Jasper we were pleasantly surprised to see the Jefferson Yachts Olivia tied up at a nearby slip. We met Olivia’s owners, Bob and Olivia, when we tied up next to them back in January in Stuart. We’ve kept in touch since then and while we knew they would also be storing at River Forest, we didn’t think they’d be here yet. They told us that they had been basically self-isolating on their boat since things began to unfold and decided to move to the yard in this secluded part of the state and stay for a few weeks before hauling for the summer. It proved serendipitous, not just because it was great to see them, but they helped us with a stressful dilemma. I was scheduled to pick up our rental vehicle in LaBelle, about twenty minutes away, around midday. While I wasn’t fully comfortable with the idea of getting in a cab with who-knows-what kind of sanitization, I didn’t have a choice and had just planned to take all the precautions I could. When Bob and Olivia heard this they were quick to offer me a ride and even some extra wipes. This brought my stress levels way down and all went well with the rental pickup. I had the rental car person throw the keys in the car and then proceeded with gloves on to disinfect every spot on the interior of this massive Yukon XL as best as I could.
Tim: We packed up the boat like we were ready to sell it (figure of speech), unsure of what kind of paper products, food and grog we’d have access to once back in New York, where we’re hearing that everything seems to be shut down. In the course of around a dozen round trips from the boat to the car with fully-loaded dock carts, I utilized my keen packing skills, whispering “serenity now” to myself, to load up the covered wagon, filling every square inch.
Friday, March 27th – Final Farewell & The Long Ride Home
A.J.: We wanted to be there for OLOH’s haul-out and scheduled it for 8:30 am. At 8:25, Manager John and his team were at the boat and ready for us to bring her over. It made more sense for Tim to stay with Jasper off the boat and meet me at the travel-lift pit so, for the first time ever, I took a ride without the two of them on board. Of course, it was only around fifty yards so, with the help of a dockhand, I managed. I guess this was really the last boat ride of the season.
A note about River Forest: This is an exceptional facility created by a passionate boater with a fascinating story. Manager John is a kind professional who understands his customers. For most boat owners, storing your boat can be an incredibly stressful experience. John and his team do everything possible to make it go as smoothly as possible and left us confident that OLOH was in excellent hands.
Tim: And just like that, Key West felt like a distant memory. Forward motion is a powerful distractor. We were hitting the trail today, in the new world, and we had no idea what to expect. We’d be so much closer to family and the emotional weight of that can never be underestimated. And, we knew we were heading home to crisp, mountain air, to the embrace of swaying oak trees, and to buds waiting to burst the promise of spring. The promise that things would get better.
We drove straight through. Along with our eagerness to be home, after all of our precautions, we just couldn’t wrap our heads around the idea of staying in a hotel. I packed enough road-trip food and coffee (thanks Abbey for the extra Yetis!) so we’d only have to stop for fuel and Jasper duty on our 19-hour drive. I also had a stash of Goji berries and I’m here to say they provided steady, jitter-free energy that kept me alert (that’s not a recommendation folks, just my experience!). To say the journey was surreal would be accurate. As the miles passed, we could count on one hand the cars around us. Signs normally lit with traffic information instead seemed out of some dystopian sci-fi film displaying messages like, “STAY ALIVE – STAY HOME.” As we ticked off the states, the seriousness of this pandemic continued to be evident in the near desolate roadways. As we crossed the Potomac, Washington D.C. felt uninhabited. For the first time ever, we saw the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and a glimpse of the White House, free from the distraction of cars screaming past us on a crowded highway. We literally slowed down to a crawl to see the skyline, glowing and seemingly abandoned. The heart of our nation had come to a halt, and it was sobering.
Our last, truly bizarre sight as we drove through the night was passing through New Jersey. Often, during normal times, these highways can be absolutely chaotic at any time of day and truly abysmal to transit. As you get closer to the throbbing traffic patterns that feed life to and from New York City, it can make you never want to drive again! But not this time. It was quiet and eerie. This time we felt the world had truly stopped. It didn’t take Godzilla, or King Kong, or Lex Luther to shut down the great metropolis…it took one, tiny, crowned monster, wreaking havoc all across the nation and the world.
As we crossed into the Great State of New York, we reflected on a conversation we had with our “Fantastic Four” prior to leaving Key West. Unlike any other catastrophe/crisis that has happened in our consciousness where it was local or geographic, this was global. This pandemic was on the minds and lips of the entire planet because it could infect and affect them profoundly. Every single person will have a personal story of their experience during this time. Never before have we lived through a time when moving in unison by moving apart had such a powerful purpose…survival. Real heroes, the people on the frontlines saving lives, will be made. Villians, who couldn’t be bothered, or pretended everything would be fine, will be made. There will be a tragic loss of lives and unimaginable sorrow. There will be fear and anger and there will be denial. This event, this crisis will be an epoch in the lives of millions across the globe, and that in and of itself is epic. We are always living in history, the past assures us of that, but not all of it is historic. We are living in an historic time…
A.J.: As the miles disappeared between our winter home and our port of call, we marveled at how fortunate we truly are and have been in this unanticipated journey. As George Peppard’s character, Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith used to say in every episode of “The A-Team,” “I love it when a plan comes together.” We remarked to each other more than once in the course of our long drive that we could not have asked for things to have gone more smoothly. That’s something that rarely happens on any long boat trip let alone one mired in the challenges and unprecedented circumstances that defined these times. From the weather to the marinas to the locks and bridges and the kindness of good people, it all worked out. Good planning certainly played a part but sometimes the stars just line up and for that, we were very grateful.
Tim: At 5:47 am we had come to the end of the trail. As we pulled into our driveway, still under the darkness of night, we both smiled, the gravel beneath us grumbling a welcome home. We stopped for a moment, staring into the towering oaks, the light from the headlamps reaching just high enough. “I see them, I see the buds.”
To watch the OLOH TV episode on our Exodus From Key West, please click here.
Footnote 1 from A.J.: For Day Three (our road trip) we covered 1,421 statute miles and burned 70 gallons of fuel.
Footnote 2 from Tim: I’ll leave you with a note A.J. forwarded to me on our first day back home because humor truly is the best medicine.
“Heard some advice on the radio last night, it said to have inner peace, that we should always finish things we start, and we all could use more calm in our lives. I looked through my house to find things that I’d started and hadn’t finished, so I finished off a bottle of Merlot, a bottle of Whiskey, a bodle of Baileys, a butle of wum, tha mainder of Valiumun srciptuns, an a box a chocletz. Yu haf no idr how feckin fablus I feel rite now. Sned this to all who need inner piss. An telum u luvum. And two al bee hapee wilst in de installation.”
Please let us know how you’re doing and tell us about your experience in this unprecedented time in the comments section below – we’d love to hear from you. And you can always find real-time updates with the very latest on how we’re doing on Facebook and Instagram.
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