Monday, April 14, 2014

Counting down while down for the count

We are in our final week here in Stuart, counting down the days to our planned departure, currently slated for Wednesday morning.  I have another follow-up with the eye surgeon Tuesday morning, and I am hoping that my vision will have improved enough by then that I am fully functional.  That has decidedly not been the case thus far, so not much has gotten done around here over the last week.

My left, "LASIK" eye is great, with near-perfect vision, and I have been relying on it for nearly everything.  The right, "PRK" eye, while now focusing to better than 20/40, is still quite fuzzy due to the ongoing corneal healing.  One consequence of the two eyes being quite different is that I can't get a pair of reading glasses that works for both, and so I have been useless for close-up work.  Even reading and working on the computer is a challenge right now and I am limiting my time.  For the first few days after surgery, about all I could do was sit and converse, so we are happy to have the convenient company of friends here.

Re-certified raft in its cradle, before strapping it down.

It gets better every day, and I've been able to ride the scooter and get a few projects done that don't require close stereoscopic vision.  We got our life raft back and I mounted it to the boat deck, horizontally just behind the aft rail, and with the painter now attached in the proper place.  Louise sewed a spiffy cover for it out of Sunbrella fabric so we can keep it out of the sun, hoping to avoid the UV-related container damage it's been suffering exposed on the rail.

Raft weather cover, glistening in the morning dew. "Bump" at top right is the hydrostatic release, which is a couple of inches proud of the canister.  The cover is held on only by a shock-cord gather around the bottom, so it will come off with the raft should the boat sink.

The last of the new LED replacement bulbs for the tender arrived and I decided to install it, which prompted me to spend an afternoon up there working on things.  For example, I added an hour meter to the tender, so we have some clue as to when maintenance is due, and also so we can get a better handle on how much fuel is being used.

Tender fuel tank exposed.  Recalcitrant sender is right in the middle.

Speaking of fuel, the fuel gauge has been inoperative since we got it, which is a real liability with the built-in tank and no reserve supply.  When I first looked at this a few months ago, I found the gauge itself had never been properly connected, but correcting that problem revealed that the sender was also bad, reading a direct short to ground.  In for a penny, in for a pound, so as long as I was working on the tender I cut through the sealant and removed the floor over the fuel tank.  It turned out the sender shorted when the nut fixing the sender wire had been severely over-tightened, and I was able to repair it with some pliers and re-install it without having to hunt down a replacement.

In my last post I mentioned that our depth transducer had stopped working, and I ordered a replacement.  The first two places I tried were happy to take my order for items allegedly "in stock," only to email me a day later to say it was back-ordered.  I eventually found one and it arrived this week.  Imagine my surprise, though, when the old one was mysteriously working again when I powered the system back up, in preparation for testing the replacement.  We left it on and it has been working ever since.  The replacement has been set aside as a backup -- these kinds of intermittent failures trouble me perhaps more than anything else.

We've also had painters on the boat on and off for the last week, touching up rust spots as I mentioned in my last post.  They made a rookie mistake, though, grinding down to the steel on the edge of the transom without cleaning up the grinding dust.  When we washed the boat after they had finished, we noticed rust spots from the dust all over the swim step.  They came yesterday to remove the rust, and while the rust is gone, the paint is also irreparably damaged.  They are supposed to come back today to completely repaint the swim platform, but we are concerned that weather may intervene, in which case our planned departure date will be in jeopardy.

Grill cover in place.  There will be a zipper in the front when it's finished; Louise did not have one on hand.

As long as Louise had the sewing machine out for the life raft cover, she also made a cover for the BBQ grill, and fixed some clothing items to boot.  (We try not to fall into gender-normative roles around here, but the sewing machine baffles me.)  We've both been also busy getting everything aboard squared away for our departure, and we even made provisioning runs to Costco and the grocery store in our friends' rental car.  Things are definitely starting to feel cruise-ready.

George has been hanging in there, and many thanks to everyone who sent her well-wishes.  We've increased her sub-cue fluids to every other day, and she has her ups and downs.  We are thankful for every day we have with her.  Lately, she's been wanting to sleep on the same pillow with my head at night, which is a concern now that I am no longer wearing eye shields.  She manages to sneak in there without waking me, and I notice her when I roll over.

At this writing the weather is still looking good for an outside run on Wednesday, and it looks like Stephanie might join us for the run to Palm Beach, with Martin meeting us there for dinner.  That will still allow us a full week before our reservations in Fort Lauderdale, and we'd likely do two more hops with a pair of days between each.  Once we are on the move, I will be updating here more frequently, returning to my practice of one post from each stop.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Game changer

I was hoping to keep to no longer than two weeks between posts while we remain here in Stuart, but I seem to have gone over by a bit. I've been somewhat out of commission for the past couple of days, and even today typing is an effort. That's because I had refractive surgery Friday. Yesterday I merrily tossed two pairs of glasses and three pairs of contact lenses in the trash, and for the first time in 45 years I can see the walls when I wake up. Well, sort of -- I am still having to wear clear plastic shields taped over my eyes while I sleep.

I promise to get to an update on Vector momentarily, but for the curious among my family and friends, I will first share a few more details. Those who have known me a long time know that I was extremely nearsighted -- worse than 20/400, which is the maximum on the chart -- and I also had astigmatism. More casual acquaintances might never have known this, because I have worn hard contact lenses for the past 40 years, which corrected my vision completely.

One consequence of being blind without glasses or contacts is that I have been denied the simple pleasure of swimming, diving, and other water sports without worry.  Wearing the glasses there was always a worry they would come off, even with a sports strap (and they did just that, once, in the wave pool at Disney's Blizzard Beach), and many water parks even make you take them off before boarding some of the rides.  With my contacts in, I could not open my eyes under water or when being splashed.  As much as I like the water, though, it's been a small enough percentage of my life that I was willing to put up with all this rather than take on the risks (and pain) of refractive surgery.

Now that I live on a boat, surrounded by water almost every minute, and we are on the cusp of entering waters where I will be tempted to jump in virtually every day, I decided to take the plunge, if you will excuse the pun.  After a great deal of research I chose LASIK, with a well-experienced surgical team here in Stuart.  We knew we'd be here for at least two months, and one of the requirements for surgery is to stop wearing hard contact lenses at least that far in advance.

All well and good, but between my New Jersey nose and my pronounced brow reminiscent of neanderthals, they had a very hard time "docking" the flap-creating laser to my eyes.  I ended up having the LASIK procedure on the left eye, where they were ultimately able to dock the laser, and the PRK procedure on my right one, where they could not.  The PRK procedure has fewer risks and often results in better vision, but there is more post-operative discomfort and vision is distorted for days to weeks afterwards.  The good news is that I already see perfectly, well enough even to drive, with my uncorrected left eye.  I have some more follow-up appointments this week, but I should be seeing nearly perfectly with the right one, too, in another couple of weeks.

In the meantime, work has proceeded apace here aboard Vector.  I've finally gotten the dinghy chocks properly secured to the deck, and Louise managed to sew the dinghy cover back together after its longitudinal seam ripped open in a windstorm.  I also removed, refurbished, and reinstalled the dinghy's battery disconnect switch, which was so badly corroded that the whole electrical system was intermittent.  While I was at it, I upgraded the navigation lights to LEDs.

The electronics at the helm are finally 100% complete, and ASUS turned my laptop repair around in record time so we even have the nav computer back where it belongs.  Unfortunately, the depth transducer seems to have given up the ghost, a fact I learned when I put the nav computer back for testing.  I've ordered a replacement transducer, but the boat will need to be hauled out to replace it, turning a $300 part into a $1,000 project.  That needs to get done before we leave -- we can hardly navigate out of Stuart without it.

Also since last I posted here, we attended the Palm Beach boat show with Martin and Steph, where we ended up ordering our offshore medical kit (minus the AED, which we already have). That's mostly on board now, except we are still waiting on a pair of oxygen cylinders, which come via a different shipper.  Once we get our life raft back, scheduled for Tuesday, we will finally be fully equipped for an offshore passage.

A contractor here at the yard has been busy touching up all our rust spots, and we even sprang for a professional wash job.  I finally installed the test port for the watermaker, for when we get back out into open water, and I reconnected the aft deck shower and the watermaker flush port with some new PEX and fittings, tossing another three dozen feet of nasty-looking vinyl hose off the boat.

I made up a portable sediment filter for the fresh water fill hose, to keep gunk from getting in the tank in the first place, and I replaced the backlights on the rudder angle indicators with LED items, as the one on the flybridge had burned out recently.  I also removed one of the fixed shelves in the large locker in the master head, so Louise could reorganize in there with a nicer multi-drawer organizer.  Louise, meanwhile, also got the taxes done and off to the CPA.

So the boat has come along nicely, and once the depth sounder is replaced, we will be ready to cruise.  We've been enjoying the great weather and the company of friends here in Stuart.  We'd be happy as clams, but our happiness is tempered by the fact that our most loving cat, George, is deteriorating rapidly.  She slowed down so much, and started eating so little, that we brought her to the vet early last week, despite having her on subcutaneous fluids twice a week.  Her BUN and creatinine had skyrocketed since her episode in November, and even her phosphorous was elevated.  The vet kept her for two whole days to flush her out with IV fluids.

While the kidney values are much improved (at the expense of increased anemia), she is still moving very slowly and not eating much.  We honestly do not know how much longer she has left.  We are increasing her sub-cu to every other day, and trying to tempt her with whatever food she will eat, as the kidney diet is no longer appealing to her.  She does not seem uncomfortable, but it is very hard to watch the decline, and we are very sad.

At this writing, we are still on track for shoving off here mid-month.  By then my eyes should be nearly fully recovered and we should have been hauled out for the depth transducer, either here at Apex, or at nearby Hinckley if the Apex lift can't fit us.  Our first stop on the way south will be Palm Beach, and we'll take the outside route, weather permitting.  Steph might join us just for the ride, with Martin meeting us down there in the car, depending on where they are in their commissioning process.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Open Season

We are back at Apex Marine in Stuart, FL, albeit in a different spot than the one we left for Trawler Fest (map).  We arrived in high wind and mid-ebb, and it was all I could do to get the boat to the end tie on the south end of the dock, arriving as we did on the weekend, when there was no one around to tell us where to dock or help with lines.  We decided we like it here on the end, and the marina let us keep the spot, although I did turn the boat around at slack a day or so later, so we could off-load the scooters.

We've been here a full two weeks already, and the time has gotten away from me.  I keep thinking I will have a quiet hour or two in which to post to the blog, but the quiet time never comes.  I confess that I am looking forward to having most of the "heavy lifting" behind me so we can enjoy the boat without the Projects of Damocles hanging over me.

That's not to say that it has been all work and no play.  On the contrary, we've been enjoying the occasional evening out with Martin and Steph, or just the two of us, and we even made a jaunt to Fort Lauderdale, where the four of us enjoyed cocktails with our friends Dave and Carole, whom we met in Baltimore, aboard Buccaneer.  We even took some time this weekend for a late breakfast and a visit to the Arts Fest in Memorial Park, downtown, followed by a quick tour through the farmers' market.

The weather has been perfect over the last week or so, which is a mixed blessing.  It means boating season is entering full swing here, and on the weekends there are some number of inconsiderate skippers who blast by here in heavy boats on full plane, sending shock waves throughout the marina.  Sunday one particularly bad wake sent us crashing into the top of a piling, scuffing the paint on the edge of the boat deck.  By the time we got hit, the offender was too far away to get a name -- skippers are (in theory, anyway) responsible for any damage done by their wakes.

Mostly, though, I have been working on the boat since we returned.  The trip to Lake Park was something of a sea trial for some of the work I did during our first month here, including the new chart plotter setup as well as the new electrical system.  While we only anchored one night on that trip, I'm happy to report that the batteries, inverter, and new alternator all worked like a charm.  The chart plotter, though, had some issues.

The new chart plotting system had worked flawlessly on our way to Stuart back in January, when it was connected via a single serial port to our old SeaCas setup, which provided both GPS position and AIS target information in a single datastream.  That was a temporary arrangement, though, as we really need to have it connected to the new Furuno FA-100 class-A AIS transponder, along with a separate GPS position receiver as well as the autopilot system, so it can drive the boat.  Here in Stuart I upgraded the single-port serial interface to a four-port model, removed the SeaCas system (whose former antennas are now connected to the FA-100), and wired the FA-100, a GPS, and the AP20 autopilot to three of the four new ports.

At the dock, it all appeared to work as expected.  But when we got underway to Lake Park, the ship's position icon seemed to be jumping around, and our ground track looked like we had had a few beers before setting out.  Slowing down to anchoring speeds in Palm Beach, and while docking in Lake Park, the track was a bit more revealing: we appeared to be moving in short hops of straight lines, due east-west, due north-south, or, occasionally, at a 45 degree angle.

Our very squared-off track in Lake Park.  Click for full size to eliminate any moirĂ© effect.

That suggested that one of the position inputs was wonky.  The primary position source should have been the dedicated GPS, and this was the same unit that had been driving our old Northstar plotter quite successfully before the plotter itself gave up the ghost.  But I knew that the AIS was also providing a position input, embedded in the "own ship" information feed, that it was passing along from the Furuno radar/chartplotter system, and backed up by its own internal GPS.

Reasoning that either the two position sources, differing as they did by a few feet due to antenna locations, were causing the charted position to jump back and forth rapidly, or that one of the three GPS systems was providing bad data, I tried alternately disconnecting each of these two systems from the chartplotter on our way back to Stuart.  I also tried forcing the AIS onto its internal GPS by powering down the radar.  None of that changed the symptom, and we had a drunken trail most of the way back to Stuart as well.  Since we came back via the inside route, I did not have much opportunity to fiddle with it, as I needed to focus on driving the boat.  Ironically, the jumping around on the plotter was much more of a problem on the inside route than it would have been in the ocean.

We we very nearly all the way back to the marina when it finally occurred to me to disconnect the autopilot from the plotter.  This connection exists so that the plotter can send course information to the autopilot, to steer the boat.  But it is bi-directional, so that the autopilot can provide heading information (basically, the way the boat is pointed, as opposed to the direction in which it is traveling) to the plotter.  This lets you see at a glance that you are pointed one way, but moving another (for example, due to wind or current).  Et voila, the jumping around stopped immediately, our position was dead accurate, and our track was smooth.  We left the autopilot disconnected from the plotter for the remainder of the trip (we never let the plotter drive except in wide open water anyway).

Our much curvier smooth tracks from maneuvering into the slip here in Stuart.

It took me a while to track it down, but it turned out that, even though the documentation says the autopilot sends only heading sentences on output #2 (where the plotter is connected), it was actually sending a whole panoply of sentences, including GPS position sentences.  It was getting the GPS position from the Furuno radar/plotter, which is connected to input/ouput port #1 (so we can drive the boat from that system, too, if need be).  That alone probably would not have caused this problem, but apparently the autopilot was truncating the last two decimal places from the GPS position sentences.  Moreover, it was sending ten times as many position reports as either of the two actual GPS inputs. Having two fewer digits of position data yields the squared-off, stair-step plot that we were seeing.  The jumping would happen when a more accurate report arrived from one of the GPS units, immediately followed again by a less precise report from the autopilot.

I called Simrad to ask about this and they immediately knew the answer, as it is a known problem.  After having me check my software version they informed me that the problem had been fixed in a later (and final) release.  In the case of our now-antique unit, upgrading the software requires installing a new ROM, which any dealer will be happy to sell me for upwards of $200.  Instead I simply turned off the input from the autopilot on the plotter -- the pilot will still get commands from the plotter, but the plotter will not hear the pilot babbling away.  The plotter will get heading information from the AIS (which gets it from the autopilot in the first place) while we are under way, and we'll just forego having the heading display when we are at anchor unless we also keep the AIS powered up.

This is now my second interaction with Simrad (the first being when the Northstar quit working), and I would be hard-pressed to ever buy another piece of equipment from them.  By contrast, Furuno has been phenomenal in supporting their older gear on Vector, while they have yet to charge me a penny.  When I am in the market for a new radar or other dedicated marine electronics, they will be the first place I look.

Shortly after we returned here, the new VHF radio I ordered in Miami arrived.  We've been having some signal quality problems with the venerable Icom 602 in the pilothouse.  On top of the signal issues, the DSC is nearly impossible to use, and the loudhailer's fog repertoire lacks an anchor bell function.  It was a bit of an impulse buy, but I got a great deal on Standard Horizon's new top-of-the-line radio, which in addition to having user-friendly DSC operation and a fog bell, also has a built-in AIS receiver/display and its own built-in GPS.  The AIS is redundant aboard Vector, but having it built right into the radio means we can contact any AIS target via DSC with just a couple of button presses, rather than having to copy the MMSI off the AIS or plotter and enter it into the radio.

New radio installed, showing AIS "plotter" display and position.  I need to make a trim plate to cover the larger hole from the older radio.

The new radio looks and works great, but it is considerably smaller than the Icom and I will need to make a trim plate of some sort to cover the larger hole in the console.  I think I can get a fair amount of money for the old radio, but I first need to have Icom blank out our MMSI.  If that proves too troublesome or expensive, I'll just box it up and stow it as a spare.

While I was under the helm installing the new radio and wrapping up the plotter issues, I discovered some mis-wired grounds, and I am still in the process of cleaning those up.  I also took the opportunity to fish a CAT-5 up to the overhead and installed the proper exterior cable for the WiFi amplifier, which heretofore has been running on a jury-rigged cable hanging exposed from the pilothouse ceiling.  I hope to have all the under-helm work (for now) finished in the next couple of days, so I can replace all the safety gear that stows under there, which is currently strewn around the pilothouse.

Among the safety gear is a Zoll AED, which this month decided it needs new batteries.  That's straightforward enough, but in the process of looking up batteries I learned it also needs a software update.  As if I did not already have enough to do, that's one more project on the list.  As long as I am on the subject of safety gear, the life raft also needs to be re-certified, and I took it off its mounts in preparation for bringing it in for service.  In the process I discovered it had been installed upside down.  I'll be moving the bracket anyway before re-installing it, as the old position on the starboard rail of the boat deck made it the widest thing on the boat, and more than once I had to dodge a piling threatening to knock it off the boat.

Upside-down raft canister.  This cord, which serves as the painter and also activates the inflator, is supposed to be on top.

I actually typed all the foregoing paragraphs Sunday afternoon, with the best of intentions to finish up and get this posted on Monday, making an even two weeks since my last update.  But Monday morning I had my first consultation at the ophthalmologist for Lasik surgery, and they dilated my eyes, which kept me off the computer the rest of the day.  Instead, I put on very dark sunglasses and we hitched a ride with Steph, on her way to Fort Lauderdale to pick Martin up from the airport, so we could drop the life raft off at Viking in Miami for service.

In the back of the Viking warehouse I felt like a very insignificant drop in a very large ocean.  The huge facility was stacked to the rafters with enormous canisters of ship-sized rafts awaiting service.  One whole section was dedicated to Carnival Cruises, for example, and if you've ever been aboard a cruise ship you've seen dozens of these, looking a bit like oversized 55-gallon drums on their sides, racked on the decks to supplement the hard-sided lifeboats.  The young lady taking my service order assured me that I did not have the smallest raft -- they make one size smaller than ours.  At least I know we are in good company with our six-person, offshore rated raft with IMO-compliant emergency equipment pack.

So surely Tuesday I could have finished this diatribe and gotten it posted.  Ha.  While I was reading my morning news over my first cup of coffee, the screen on my fairly new Asus laptop went kaput.  As in not readable at all.  I cleared a spot on the chart table, heretofore piled high with project paraphernalia, so I could plug the laptop into the same monitor we use for the chartplotter.  Fortunately, the rest of the laptop was fully operational, but there went my whole day, as I then spent the rest of the day arranging for warranty repair, backing up all my data, and clearing off any confidential information in preparation for sending it in.  We dropped it at the post office yesterday evening; ironically, it is going to Milpitas, California, where I lived for several years.  I have my fingers crossed that we'll have it back here before we want to shove off, mid-April.

Hmm.  I can't read this at all...

I'm now back to using my old laptop, which you might recall was recently re-purposed as the new chart plotter at the helm.  It took a while for me to get all my email and other items synced back up to this computer, and it's a little clunky, but it will suffice until I get my new one back.  It still has all the charts on it, too, so it can quickly be put back at the helm should we need to get under way.

Speaking of laptops, when we are under way, Louise sets hers on the table at the pilothouse settee, where she is generally seated while I am driving.  She has the same chart software loaded, and this gives us two sets of eyes on the charts.  Moreover, I can ask her, for example, to scroll ahead, or to read the details of some chart object such as a marina or anchorage, without having to divert the screen of the main chart plotter for that function.  Up to now, we've been using one of those USB-connected GPS "pucks" to show our position on her computer.  Naturally, the puck does not get a great signal inside the aluminum pilothouse, and, having it positioned as near as practical to the port side window for this reason, her display always shows us a little to the left of where our main plotters show us.

Having removed the SeaCas AIS unit to make way for the Furuno FA-100 transponder, I saw an opportunity here to ditch the puck and its clumsy cable running across the settee, get her a more accurate updated position fix, and add AIS targets to her display all in one fell swoop, and so I ordered an inexpensive car-top GPS antenna and a "rubber ducky" VHF antenna made for handhelds and re-installed the SeaCas unit in the flybridge coaming, running the output down to her position on the settee.  I also installed a power outlet in the settee, so she no longer has to drape the cord around to the galley.

Amplified GPS antenna and flexible VHF antenna installed on the flybridge.  The receiver is under the coaming and wired to the pilothouse settee area.

So this might be taking redundancy to the point of absurdity, but we now have aboard Vector three separate AIS receivers, four working VHF transceivers, four fully separate chart plotters with their own position inputs, and six dedicated GPS receivers.  And that's not counting three Android phones and one iPad, all with their own GPS receivers, as well as the aforementioned puck, which can be added to a third laptop, if needed, for chart display.  The only way we can get lost is if the GPS constellation goes dark, and even then, we carry paper charts and know how to dead reckon.

All of the re-wiring of NMEA inputs and outputs to get all this working was the excuse I needed to finally clean up the mess under the helm that formerly passed for an NMEA "junction," and now it's all wired through a compression terminal block and properly labeled.  The depth transducer is also now connected to the radar/plotter as well as the numerical display, so we can get a graphic picture of the bottom, and the depth is also being passed to the PC plotter, so it can be correlated directly with the depths on the chart.

Not the prettiest, but a far cry from the way it was, and more flexible and functional.  I was a bit too limited on real estate to dress all the wires off squarely.

While I was under the helm I also installed a wireless remote for the anchor windlass.  One of the two foot switches crapped out a few months ago, and I've been having to work the windlass from the helm, with Louise giving me instructions over the headsets.  I'd like to fix the foot switch, too, but I'm worried removing it will damage the paint, and I want to wait until we are having paint work done on the foredeck.

I still have a lot left to do before we are ready to take the boat out of sight of land.  The life raft bracket needs to be bolted down in its new location, the new tender chocks need to be secured, the water maker needs to be serviced, and a host of smaller projects needed to be ticked off the list.  I have another three weeks or so of relative calm here in Stuart, and I am hoping to have the boat open-ocean-ready by the time we leave.

As it stands now, our plan is to shove off from here mid-April and head to Fort Lauderdale, where we will spend a week or so visiting folks.  After that, things are a bit fuzzier, but we'll either continue south to Miami and the keys, or else head east to the Bahamas.  We'll remain in these southerly latitudes until June or so, when we plan to head north along the US east coast for what is likely the last time in the foreseeable future.

With any luck, it will be something less than another two weeks before I post here again.  For one thing, I need to commit the 24-volt upgrade project to writing before it fades too much from memory, and for another, these gargantuan updates are a bear to type.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to try to sell a VHF radio, an inverter, and maybe a bus.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

That's a wrap

We are at the Lake Park municipal marina, along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in Lake Park, Florida (map).  We are on the floating docks on the south side of the basin; the Trawler Fest show completely consumed the fixed docks on the north side, and the marina was completely overwhelmed when we arrived.  We ended up station-keeping in the basin for several minutes while they figured out who we were and directed us to our spot.

While we are only a couple hundred feet from the show boats by water, it's a long walk around the basin by land.  Still, it was nice to just be able to walk to the show; apparently, most of the staff, vendors, and attendees are in hotels across the ICW, a 15 minute or so drive.  We were able to walk home for lunch, and stumble home with no worries after the nightly cocktail parties.

We had a great time.  We did not find anything here that we needed to purchase, and there were only a handful of boats that were new to us from which we could get some ideas, but we reconnected with a dozen or so old friends, and made some new ones, too.  The connections we make at these shows have been great sources of information for our cruising life.

We docked starboard-side-to and so were unable to offload the scooters, so we really have not gone further afield than a few blocks from the marina.  There is a grocery store a very short walk from the dock, which has come in handy with four of us aboard, and a nice white-tablecloth restaurant, the Pelican Cafe, a few blocks north, where we had dinner before the show started.

The show wrapped up last night, and many of the exhibitor boats have already left.  We've decided to move along as well, and with no other particular destination in mind, we've decided to head back to Stuart with Martin and Steph.  They need to be back this evening, so we'll shove off this morning near slack water and head north.  Conditions outside are not great, and we'd hit the St. Lucie Inlet at an unfavorable tide, so we'll instead take the inside route up the ICW.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Back under way

We are anchored just inside Lake Worth Inlet, near Palm Beach, Florida (map).  Aboard with us are our friends Steph and Martin, taking a brief break from the commissioning of their new boat to join us at Trawler Fest, which starts tomorrow in nearby Lake Park.

We shoved off yesterday morning at 7am from our slip at Apex Marine, from which we had not budged in six weeks.  Other than when we were on the hard at the boatyard, that's the longest we've stayed in any one spot without moving, and it feels good to finally have a change of scenery.  Also, we got a good chance to test out many of the changes we made to the boat while we were in Stuart.

We had fantastic weather for the outside run, and once we were well past the jetties at St. Lucie Inlet we had calm seas with gentle ~2' rollers.  With little breeze it actually got a bit warm in the pilothouse even with the doors open, with the massive expanse of glass facing south, and so we spent the middle portion of the day on the flybridge -- a perfect day on the Atlantic.  We might easily have come the whole way less than a mile off shore, but we angled out to the three mile limit and back in order to empty our tanks.

It has been over two weeks since my last post here, and once again I have a great deal to update.  I do also still plan to write up the whole electrical system upgrade as a separate post, but I literally just finished the project three days ago, and I need a few hours to gather it all together.  At least I can report that all worked well during yesterday's test run, and last night was our first at anchor on the new batteries and inverter and we finally can make it through a whole day without running the generator.

When last I posted here, we were just about to leave for the Miami boat shows.  Parking in Miami Beach turned out to be quite the challenge, and we missed an hour or so of show by the time we got parked and into the convention center.  We stayed all the way to closing time at 6pm, and I just barely made it to all the vendors on my list.  I think we made it up and down 85% or so of the aisles as well, and we picked up a handful of items for the boat.  I also ordered a new VHF radio for the pilothouse, thus adding to my already lengthy project list.

One of the reasons to attend on (and spring the upcharge for) "premier" day at the show is that the manufacturers send their technical reps for that day.  We got great information from Lugger, the manufacturer of our engine and generator, Wema, who made our tank monitors, Nautical Structures, who made our crane, Naiad, who made our stabilizers, and ACR, who made our searchlight and EPIRB.  I also spent a good deal of time with the head guy at Standard Horizon, which cleared up enough of my questions to enable me to order their newest radio.  All in all a great investment, and we'll probably come back to this show again some day for just that reason.

Even though we did not make it to absolutely every booth on Thursday, we decided it was not worth paying another full day's admission Friday, and we opted instead to go to the Boat and Brokerage show a little further north, which is free.  We went through the handful of booth vendors there, and walked through a few boats as well, before finishing up at "Cruiser Port," which is a miniature version of Trawler Fest that pops up within other major boat shows.  That left us just enough time to get back to Stuart and our lonely cats Friday evening, and the car back to Budget on Saturday morning.

Last week's great project was, of course, the installation of the granite in the galley.  I had to defer completion of the electrical project and other engine work until the granite was done, so that I could have my parts of the project done in time for the granite installers to do their thing.  That meant, for the most part, my least favorite activity: plumbing.  As long as we were getting new sinks which would require re-plumbing of the waste lines, I took the opportunity to remove the hokey ABS unvented traps and wastes all the way down to the metal stubs at the base of the cabinets, and start over.

Granite being shimmed during installation.  This is the cooktop cutout.

I also took the opportunity presented by all this to install an under-counter filtration system at the wet bar.  We've been using a faucet-mounted Brita filter at that sink to get our drinking water, and we wanted to get rid of the unsightly and somewhat less convenient faucet-mount, with its expensive proprietary cartridges, in favor of an industry-standard filter holder and a dedicated spigot on the countertop.  This would also allow us to plumb the ice-maker into a filtered source, whereas before it was connected directly to the supply from the tank.

New PEX water lines (left), filter (center) and waste plumbing (right).

Redoing the fresh water plumbing meant removing the supply valves and a handful of fittings upstream, and I decided that now was as good a time as any to replace all the crappy galvanized steel pipe in this part of the system.  That added more than a full day to the project, involving ripping out some 40' or so of 1/2" galvanized pipe in the engine room and replacing it with PEX.  This has been a long time coming, and we now finally have at least one place in the boat where we can get fresh water that has not been flowing through decade-old galvanized pipe.  I still need to do this for the rest of the boat, but at least there is no galvanized potable plumbing left aft of the engine room bulkhead.

Countertops removed.  The duct at left carries HVAC from the unit below the counter to the grille in the upper cabinets and is normally covered by trim.

In order to get the wet bar countertop out (and the new one in), I also needed to disassemble the lowest level of the built-in wet bar bottle rack.  I had to pick up a brad nailer to put it all back in -- fortunately, there is a Harbor Freight in town and I was able to grab one on sale for $22, as I really didn't want to spend $80 or more on a "lifetime" tool to shoot perhaps four dozen brads for this and some other trim projects around the boat.

New wet bar counter and sink with new faucet at left and drinking water tap to its right.  You can tell what's important on our boat -- the wine is wearing its own life vest...

Even though we paid the granite company for "demolition," a modest $75 fee that included hauling away the old counters and sinks, I removed the wet bar counter myself, and also removed all the fasteners from the galley counters and broke them loose.  That left only cutting them in two and carting them off the boat for the granite guys.  The new counters also came in two pieces, with a small seam in the center of the sink cutout.  They did need to take two of the counters back off the boat to make a few additional cuts with a diamond saw -- the stove cutout was too small, and the wet bar counter needed an adjustment.

Fixing dinner on the new counter.  The nice large sink is a bonus, and the seam between sections is barely visible.  We added soap dispensers for hand and dish soap on either side of the single-handle faucet.

The new counters are gorgeous, and really make a huge difference to the look and feel of the galley area.  In addition to the new drinking water tap in the wet bar, we also had to get a new single-handle faucet as well, as the two-handle one that was in there did not leave enough room for both.  The new spigot makes it easier to fill the coffee pot and our water pitchers, too.  Most of all, I'm glad to finally be rid of the hokey plywood square that's been filling in for the counter where I removed the electric range back in June.

The old solid-surface countertop, before removal.  What a difference.

After the granite was in it took me another full day to get all the plumbing back in.  As long as I was adding fully new drains, I brought the stacks all the way up to just below the counters and installed mechanical vents on each, which has reduced considerably the amount of "blurping" that we hear when the washing machine drains, as well as allowing the new sinks to drain a bit better.

New replacement O-ring on left, old, leaky one on right.  Definitely not the correct part.

By the time all this was done we had just a few days left before shoving off for Trawler Fest, and it was a mad scramble to get everything done.  With the old alternator off the engine I needed to yank the raw water pump to address a long-time oil leak.  I had already purchased a replacement O-ring, and I was certain that I would find the old one pinched, cracked, or dried out.  Instead I found an O-ring that was several sizes too small in thickness for the application.  Considering the reversed cover plate and the took marks I found on the raw water side of the pump I can only conclude that some technician somewhere pulled the whole pump off the engine to get a cantankerous impeller out, then used the O-ring intended for the cover plate to reinstall the flange to the engine.

"Inside" the water pump cover.  Stamped writing indicates this was originally the outside and it was flipped when the inside became worn.

The new alternator, being exactly the same frame as the old one, fit on without any trouble, and I was able to use my Gorilla Bar to tension the new pair of V-belts.  A quick stationary test of the new unit under load showed more than the rated 110 amps.  We detected a faint burning smell, which we are attributing to break-in as the belts seat and the manufacturing oils burn out from the new parts.

Getting everything cleaned up and secured after all the projects was itself a big undertaking, and I also had to finish wiring the new chartplotter system to the autopilot before getting under way.  We just barely got it all done, but almost everything worked perfectly on the way here.  The two separate GPS inputs to the new chart system appear to be causing some "jumping" of the position signal, and I need to learn the routing commands, but the oil leak is gone and we had plenty of juice from the new alternator under way.

The new hydrostatic release for the EPIRB arrived just before we left, and, along with having just recertified the unit with a brand new battery, updated that part of our safety regime before our ocean excursion, leaving only updating the life raft on our major safety-related list.  Good thing we are not signed up for any seminars at Trawler Fest, just cocktails -- as an arriving cruise ship suggested to me this morning, I need a vacation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Milestones, millstones, and Miami

Once again I must apologize for the lengthy delay in updating the blog.  We have been incredibly busy here aboard Vector, and every time I am in the frame of mind to post, something more immediate preempts it.  I had intended to post an update at the end of January, and here it is nearly half past February and I am just now getting to it.  I will touch upon many of the distractions here in this post.

The last part of January saw some important milestones.  Observant long-time readers will realize that we celebrated our first anniversary of boat ownership shortly after I last posted here.  About a week later, I celebrated another successful voyage around the sun.  Both occasions passed with little fanfare, although it was nice to have our friends and fellow cruisers Martin and Steph here to help us celebrate.

Speaking of Martin and Steph, their own long-range trawler arrived here in Stuart at the Nordhavn docks just south of us a couple of weeks ago, and we drove out with them to the inlet to watch her come in.  We had also driven down to Fort Lauderdale with them the preceding day to see her at the docks at Bahia Mar, where she overnighted after off-loading.  Bahia Mar is very familiar to us from three Trawler Fest events there, and we all had a nice lunch next door at Coconuts.

We've been spending lots of time with them since they arrived, having dinner together perhaps two nights out of three.  Part of that has been catching up, part of it has been boat talk, and part has been helping them through the passing of their cat, who made it all the way here only to be diagnosed with inoperable cancer.

When we are not with them, of course, I am working on the boat, and that has been essentially non-stop since my last post here.  I always have a long list of projects, and we even had a somewhat shorter list of "things to get done while we are in Stuart."  The lists are so long that it is hard to decide where to start.  No problem, though, because more often than not, the decision gets made for us.

Usually that happens because something I have on my list, that I know is a failure waiting to happen, actually fails, and then I can put it off no longer.  This happens often enough that we have an expression around here: "the boat chooses."  But the big one on this visit actually got scheduled as a direct result of my last post.

In that post I mentioned that I would be renting a truck and running down to Miami to pick up new batteries.  I'm not sure what market dynamic is at work here, but the Miami/Fort Lauderdale distributor consistently has lower prices than anyone else on the east coast.  My buddy Steve in Fort Lauderdale read that little tidbit, and contacted me just a day later to say he would be coming up this way to check on his boat on the Okeechobee waterway, and would I like him to just bring the batteries with him when he came up.

After a few messages back and forth we learned he could get a better price than could I from his usual distributor, and he did enough business with them that they would give him until the return trip to bring back the cores.  And so it was that, even though I was nowhere near ready to start the Great Battery Replacement Project, I was now committed to swapping the batteries themselves less than five days hence.

The batteries, at 165-170 lbs apiece, weigh 15% more than I do, and I spent a full day getting them out of the racks and dragging them over to the ladder leading to the aft deck, after first spending another full day rewiring the engine starting circuits and then jury-rigging the whole boat to run off what is now the lone engine/generator starting battery while the house batteries were out of commission.

Poor Martin, who is also outweighed by these batteries, got pressed into service to help me haul them up the ladderway with a block-and-tackle I borrowed from the boat next door. We then used the crane to haul them off the boat one at a time and load them into a dock cart for the trip to shore.

A pair of new batteries on the deck.

Steve arrived just in time for lunch along with his wife Harriet and friends Lou and Renea.  Steve and Lou both have ex-Pegasus Neoplan Spaceliner buses, and so having the three couples together at lunch was a sort of mini-gathering of the heretofore non-existent Neoplan Spaceliner Owners' Group.  They also both have large cruising boats and so we have a lot of common ground.

Hoisting a battery down the hatch.  Note the jury-rigged board to suspend the block and tackle over the hatchway.

Steve, Martin, and I unloaded the new batteries from Steve's truck after lunch, and Martin helped me get them down the dock and next to Vector after Steve and the gang left.  Louise and I were able to get them onto the boat and back down the ladderway into the engine room two days later, and then I was able to finally start on the big project, which long-time readers may recall involves switching the boat's electrical system from 12 volts to 24 volts.

Chaos in the engine room, with all six batteries on the floor.

That will be the subject of a post in itself.  For one thing, it's a long tale and this post is already heading for the far side of "too long."  For another, I expect some people who don't normally follow along here will be interested in that project and I want to have a stand-alone post to which I can link later on.

I need to remediate this rust before I can rack them.

The combined project of changing the batteries, rewiring the core electrical system, and replacing the inverter have consumed the lion's share of my time over these past two weeks, with some 50 hours or so in it so far.  We're now running on the new batteries and inverter, but I'm not done yet, as I still need to replace the engine alternator.  I'll write up the whole project, with photos, when it is fully completed.

Lest it sound like it has been nothing but work since we arrived, I will also say that we've had a good amount of pleasant weather and have enjoyed many beautiful sunsets from the deck.  I also watched the launch of Nasa's TDRS-L satellite from our upper deck, which was spectacular as it arced across the night sky even though we are a fair ways from Canaveral here.  And we made the time to walk across to Loggerhead Marina for Kadey-Krogen's open house, where we toured perhaps six of their top-of-the-line Krogen 58 models (including the aforementioned neighbor from whom I borrowed the block and tackle) along with a couple of smaller boats more akin to Vector.

I also do not want to leave the false impression that, aside from the surprise acceleration to the schedule, I have been working seamlessly on the electrical system when not socializing.  It is inevitable that in the midst of such a long project, the boat will intervene with some demands of her own.

For example, I mentioned that we used the crane to hoist the batteries off the boat, onto the dock, and into a dock cart.  To avoid damaging the boat, I kept the wire rope, "headache ball," and sky hook above the level of the boat deck, opting to connect the lifting sling to those harder bits with a nylon line.  When we were done for the day, I tied the line off to the rail to keep it all from swinging around, knowing we would need the same setup to get the new batteries back onto the boat.

It was a rainy evening -- my brand new batteries were sitting on the dock getting drenched -- and while we were sipping our final postprandial glass of wine we heard the horrible sound of an electric motor whirring, then straining, then stopping.  At first we thought it might be coming from the engine room, but then we realized it was the crane.  I turned off the breaker and the lights in the boat visibly brightened, and when I checked the line it was bar-tight.  The crane is rated at 800 pounds and can probably exert 2-3 times that amount of force, so I backed away without disturbing anything further.

It turned out that water had worked its way into the hand controller, shorting the switch and commanding the winch to retract.  I was able to dry it out enough to command it to extend, and we disconnected the controller and left the winch power off.  Lesson learned -- never leave the davit breaker energized except when actually engaged in hoisting operations, and don't leave the supposedly weatherproof hand controller out in the rain.

We made it all the way through the hoist-in operation the next day with only one uncommanded retraction, and the controller is now on my workbench to see if I can improve the weather resistance somewhat when I am done with the bigger projects.

A day or so later, after my morning shower and while I was shaving, I realized I was not hearing the gray water sump running periodically, as it should be while using the sink.  I opened the bilge to find most of my shower water in the bottom, having overflowed the sump.  The batteries sat unconnected another day while I wrestled with the sump, finding the pump clogged.  I ended up removing the pump altogether to try to resuscitate it on the bench, but there is no way to open one of these up and no amount of cleaning and lubrication would get it to spin more than a single revolution.  I ended up going to West Marine on a Sunday morning to buy a new pump, which took me the rest of the day to install due to cramped working quarters and the fact that the replacement was a different brand, with a different bracket, than the original.

The unscheduled sump project spanned two days, and as the sump is in the guest stateroom bilge, we simply closed off that room before we headed to dinner Saturday evening with our friends.  Forgetting there was a giant hole in that room where part of the floor used to be, Louise stepped into the darkened room after coming back from dinner and fell straight into the bilge.  She has bruises all over and lots of sore muscles, but we were very, very lucky -- she did not break any bones.  (It's been over a week now, and she is on the mend albeit still a little black-and-blue.) Another lesson learned -- either put the floor back, or leave a light on when taking a break from working in the bilge.

The electrical project is also massive enough that I am interrupting it periodically to wrap up other projects as I am able.  For example, the updated board for the AIS came back from Furuno, and the connectors, cables, and adapters I needed to connect it to the permanent antennas on the mast arrived, so I spent some time getting all of that working again, to include cramming the two antenna cables through our already overstuffed vertical chases in the pilothouse.  Also the repaired microphone came back from Icom just a couple of days after I had sent it out.

New cable to connect the AIS on the console to the antenna lead-in in the overhead.  I had to connectorize this after pulling it into the chase -- no way to pull the whole connector through.

Among the many projects on our "do in Stuart" list was replacing the carpet in the master stateroom with woven vinyl Bolon sheet goods that Louise bought when we were still in Deltaville.  She also bought tile squares of a similar material at the same time, which I installed in the salon while we were in Charleston.  We could not really use the squares in the stateroom, because there are hatches throughout the room which may need to be accessed periodically, and so we needed something that could be lifted as needed and then laid back down, and the squares really need to be adhered to the subfloor more or less permanently.

Using the old carpet as a template for the new flooring.

Unlike the squares, I needed to cut the sheet goods to shape off the boat, and here that meant in the parking lot.  That necessitated doing the bulk of the cutting on a weekend, and, reluctant as I was to interrupt the electrical project yet again, with another big project to boot, we were running out of weekends.  So Sunday we hauled the Bolon out to the parking lot along with the old carpet as a rough pattern, and by the end of the day I had the forward half of the stateroom finished.

The finished product.  Shadows in this photo make it look blotchy -- it's not.

It's not possible to do the whole room in one section, as the carpet had been.  Instead we had two different-sized remnant sections of the same material, and I have a small seam on each side of the berth.  This also lets us get to most of the hatches without having to lift the much larger forward section of flooring.  Double-sided carpet tape holds down the edges and keeps the seams even, and when it loses its grip from too many removals we will just replace the tape.

Another project on the "Stuart" list was to replace the galley counters with granite.  Anyone following along since Deltaville may remember that I replaced a three-burner electric range with a dishwasher and two-burner induction cooktop, and we've been living with a square of plywood filling in the missing section of countertop ever since.  We finally got a quote we could live with from a local countertop outfit, and they came this morning to make templates, for installation next week.  It should look nice when it is done, but of course I have more work ahead of me undoing the plumbing and the old counters.

A sample of the new granite, atop the Corian it will replace.  Hard to capture the true colors in a photo like this.

To punish me for taking so long to get around to posting here, Neptune had two more surprises for us in the past week.  One of the boarding gate latches popped off as Louise was boarding with an armful of groceries, trying desperately not to let the gate hit her in the bruised hip.  Of course, that latch went straight to the bottom of the marina, and, as luck would have it, they are no longer made.

Finally, two days ago, just before dawn, we were awakened by the unmistakable sound of the water pump running.  The vinyl hose supplying hot water to the sink in the guest head had popped off its barb, where it had been barely seated and poorly clamped during construction.  Hot water quickly filled the locker below, cascading out onto the teak-and-holly floor and raining down into the bilge that we had just finished cleaning and drying from the previous week's sump episode.  Fortunately, we got the water shut off after only perhaps a dozen gallons or so -- had this happened while we were away, all 500 gallons of our fresh tank could have done untold damage to woodwork and soft goods.  We don't have a dock water connection, but this is a key reason why we would never use one even if we had it -- you can't sink the boat by pumping from an on-board tank.

Tomorrow we pick up a rental car so that we can zip down to the Miami Boat Show on Thursday.  We're not going there to look at boats, but I have a long list of vendors and products to check out in the convention center.  The alternator and the plumbing will have to wait another couple of days.  With any luck, I should have it all done and the whole boat back together before we shove off for Trawler Fest at the end of the month.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Settled in

We are tied up at Apex Marine, on the north fork of the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Florida (map).  Apex is a boatyard and also manages the docks for Allied Marine, a brokerage here.  A majority of the boats here are for sale, listed by Allied, nearby Kadey Krogen, or other brokers including our very own Curtis Stokes.

We actually arrived here a full week ago, on Wednesday.  Upon checking the forecast after my last post, we learned that conditions would deteriorate rapidly starting late Wednesday, making docking here Thursday dicey at best, if even possible.  So Wednesday morning we got an early start and headed straight here, calling on the way to see if they could take us a day earlier than we had planned.

No problem, but by the time we arrived winds had already started to pick up considerably, and backing into the slip from a narrow fairway was challenging.  The boat "walks" to starboard in reverse, and the wind was also sending us that way, while as luck would have it the dock was to port.  It did not help to have a brand new $1.5M+ Krogen 58 on my starboard side, but with some help with the lines from the yard staff we got tied up without incident.

There are a lot of large, expensive boats here, and Vector looks almost diminutive in the lineup, a sharp contrast from some of our recent stays, where she was the largest boat in the marina.  Just driving down the fairway with all the expensive gelcoat on either side of us was a bit intimidating.  Fortunately, we're in for the long haul now -- no need to move even to pump out.  Martin County has a free pump-out boat that makes the rounds, and we had them stop by yesterday.  County ordinance requires us to have a pump-out receipt every ten days.

The trip down from Fort Pierce was otherwise uneventful, although it gets a bit exciting at "the crossroads," the intersection of the dredged channels that constitute the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which follows the Indian River, and the Okeechobee Waterway, which follows the St. Lucie River.  The ebb in the St. Lucie can be fierce, and I had to hand steer with vigor to keep within the channel as we approached the intersection.

To add to the excitement, the new AIS squawked twice just as we were in the thick of it with "messages."  Sheesh, we just installed this thing -- who can be trying to send us a message?  As it turns out, they were test messages from NAIS, I think in advance of MLK (at least, those initials were in the message), possibly some sort of DHS preparation.  The sending station turned out to be an enormous land-based mast antenna southeast of Orlando.

Speaking of the AIS, it's now "down for maintenance," as I've had to send the main board to Washington for a firmware update.  When it comes back we should be getting proper reporting of all in-range targets, including the Class-B ones that came into being after this unit was first released.  I've also returned the microphone from our pilothouse VHF radio to Icom, who promised to replace the cord, with its crumbling insulation, at no charge.  With any luck we will have both items back aboard and in service before we shove off for Trawler Fest at the end of February.

Now that we are settled in for a month, we've started dealing with a number of routine medical checkups as well as some administrative minutia that is all best handled while stationary for a while.  One of the administrative issues had to do with "registration" for the boat, an issue necessitated by Florida law, which allows visiting yachts a 90-day stay so long as they have registration in their home state.

We had no such registration, of course.  We chose Delaware as a home port, in part because they do not require any registration of federally documented boats, have no tax on boats, and have reasonably easy procedures for registering the tender and other administrative matters.  We knew, too, that they would be happy to issue us a registration sticker for Vector, with an administrative fee, should such a sticker be required by another state.

We were assuming that we'd have Delaware send us the sticker here once we got settled in, which would give us the 90-day grace, taking us to the end of March, at which time we'd have to have Vector out of the state.  We could then come back for up to another 90 days, up to 180 in a year.  When we shared this with local friends and professional skippers Chris and Alyse, they suggested we could just register the boat in Florida instead, which would eliminate the need to be counting days.

After doing a bit of research on our own, it appears that we can register the boat here without becoming Floridians ourselves, and since we've had the boat longer than six month and it has been out of Florida that whole time (closer to a year, actually), no Florida tax will be due.  Registering the boat here is just shy of $200 -- only a bit more than it would cost for a Delaware sticker, and that's a bargain compared to what it would cost us to move it out of the state for a few days at the end of 90 days.

So Florida gets some more of our money, we get to stay as long as we like, and everyone is happy.  We now have a shiny new Florida sticker on our window, which will deter the marine patrols from pestering us to prove we've not overstayed the grace period or to show them proof of registration in another state.  We did spend nearly an hour, though, showing receipts to prove the boat was out of Florida for the first six months we owned it.

In between doctor appointments and DMV visits I've been trying to whittle away at the project list; today I installed new blinds in the guest stateroom to match the ones we already installed in the rest of the boat.  My port multiplexer is here and other parts will arrive over the next few days to finish up the chartplotter project, and I will start on the battery rewiring in the next few days so I can run down to Miami for new batteries in the next couple of weeks.

Today our friends Martin and Steph arrive from California and will settle in to their temporary apartment here in town; their new boat should be arriving sometime around the end of the week.  If they are not too bushed after a full day of travel -- with a cat, no less -- we will meet them tonight for dinner.

As I have said here before, my goal, although not always met, is to blog once from each stop, in other words, every time we move the boat.  Now that we're stationary for a bit, I will not be posting as frequently, but I will try to put something up every now and then with an update on the projects.  Our next voyage will not be until the end of February, when we head south to Lake Park for Trawler Fest.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


We are anchored south of Causeway Island, in the Indian River near the city of Fort Pierce, Florida (map).  We arrived here yesterday afternoon, after a relatively short cruise from Vero Beach, where we had tied up Sunday afternoon at the city marina (map).

Sunday we had a nice cruise south from Eau Gallie.  En route I called the Vero Beach City Marina to arrange for a mooring ball, which would have been $15 for the night and afforded us all the amenities of the marina via use of the dinghy dock.  When I called, though, all the moorings in water deep enough for us were full, and they also had no slips.  They did offer to let us "raft up" to another boat already on a mooring.

We opted to continue on to a spot along the ICW where we could anchor for lunch, and take stock of our other options.  There's really no place for us to anchor in Vero, and even if we could, the same $15 fee applies to just using the dinghy dock.  Continuing on to Fort Pierce, the next anchorage, would be another two hours under way.

After dropping a lunch hook and getting ourselves fed, we looked at all the other options including nearby marinas, and I called the Vero Beach city marina back to see if things had changed.  There were still no balls available, but a slip had opened up, so long as we could fit into an 18' wide space.  With our other options limited, we agreed to the slip at $1.60 per foot.

Squeezing our 16'-wide boat between two piles just 18' apart was a bit of a challenge but we made it in without banging the pilings, and home free, or so I thought.  I did not discover it until the following day but there turned out to be some exposed nail heads on the dock rub strip, and we managed to get a good scratch in the paint bringing it alongside.  Municipal marinas are seldom in the best of repair.

Fortunately I was blissfully unaware of that whilst we enjoyed a wonderful evening with our friends Chris and Alyse, who picked us up at the marina and entertained us at their home.  We always enjoy spending time with them, and it is a bonus to get to see their dog, Bert.  We will see them again at the end of February, if not before, when we will all be at Trawler Fest together.

Yesterday morning we lingered all the way to checkout time, noon, getting as many power-intensive tasks done as we could manage before shoving off.  With our dockage in Stuart nominally unavailable until the weekend, we figured on a series of very short days and stopped here, less than two hours south, knowing it was a good anchorage, with access to amenities ashore should we need them.

Since setting the hook, I have been working on projects, including a quick repair to an anchor roller problem that had us both scrambling around on deck before we could drop the hook.  Among those projects has been emailing or calling to make arrangements in Stuart for various things.  One of the calls I made this morning was to the marina, to make sure they had the dockage agreement and to provide a credit card.  Now that the Stuart Boat Show is over, I thought I'd ask if they could get us in any earlier than the weekend.

To my surprise they said they could get us in tomorrow, and I was so unprepared to hear that answer that I declined, and agreed on Thursday instead.  I did not want to commit us to a 30+ mile run tomorrow without consulting weather and charts.  In hindsight it would have been fine, but I am happy to have the extra day to make it into the marina.  The early arrival meant I could make some early doctor appointments before our friends Martin and Stephanie arrive next week.

The other big project here has been the ongoing work on the new plotter and AIS system.  I now have everything properly bolted down, so we are ready for sea, and I got the AIS talking to the plotter, although finalizing that connection will have to wait until my new four-port serial adapter arrives in Stuart.  I have learned a great deal, though, in the process.

For one thing, on the cruise down to Fort Pierce from Vero Beach I realized that the SeaCAS AIS receiver we've been using all along receives Class-B signals just fine, and we've been able to see all the boats around us transmitting a signal.  I ended up calling a sailboat on the VHF just to confirm that they were using a Class-B transponder.  So our inability to see Class-B transponders heretofore has been a limitation of the old Northstar chartplotter rather than the AIS receiver itself.  That's a little surprising, given the structure of NMEA sentences (and the fact that this AIS receiver pre-dates the rollout of Class-B).

The other thing I discovered, which is much less surprising and I more or less expected it, is that the "new" Furuno FA-100 unit does not properly register Class-B targets.  I called my technical contact at Furuno today and he confirmed that the software was out of date, which is unsurprising considering Washington State Ferries decommissioned these perhaps three years ago.  Rather than send the whole transponder to them, 15 pounds worth,  I'm going to open it up and pull out the relevant circuit board and just send them that.  With any luck I will have it back with the software all up-to-date before we leave Stuart.

It has been incredibly pleasant since we arrived, other than the inevitable occasional Florida thunderstorm.  We've mostly had all the windows open and have spent lots of time on deck, where today we saw our first manatee of the trip (and perhaps the 200th dolphin).  I am finally wearing shorts again, for the first time since Baltimore.  It's supposed to be a bit cooler tomorrow, but will again be pleasant thereafter.  We should have fine weather for getting around the Stuart and Jensen Beach area by scooter.

Tomorrow we will weigh anchor in the morning and head south.  We'll either anchor along the ICW near Jensen Beach, or continue around into the St. Lucie River and anchor someplace in Stuart, giving us all day Thursday to get situated at our new digs for the next month or so.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Broadcasting our presence

We are anchored in the Indian River lagoon, at the mouth of the Banana River near the community of Eau Gallie  (map), a neighborhood of Melbourne, Florida.  We are just north of the Eau Gallie causeway, and from here I can see the masts of boats in the Banana River, separated from us by a thin strip of land.

We arrived here early Thursday afternoon, after a very short cruise from Cocoa.  With a full week before we can dock in Stuart we are in no hurry, and we spent a leisurely morning at the dock in Cocoa before shoving off around 11am.  It was quite blustery and there was a bit of chop with winds out of the east, so we elected to make it a short day and anchor here in the lee of the islands to the east and the causeway to the south.

After we set the hook and got settled in, we decided we'd spend two nights here, so I could get some projects done.  There is a small shopping center ashore with a Ross, Office Depot, Publix grocery, and a few other stores, and we figured we could dinghy in if we needed anything, although we have not splashed the tender since arriving.

Friday was a gorgeous day, with calm waters and lovely temperatures, and we had all our meals and cocktails on deck.  We had breakfast and dinner on deck yesterday, too, although there was a windy bit in the middle of the day.  Apparently Boston University trains their women's crew here, and we heard the coxswains and coaches shouting through bullhorns as they skulled by the past couple of days.  Yesterday the sailboats were out in full force, along with a handful  of jet-skis, and we've been treated to live music the past two nights emanating from Squid Lips bar and grill across the lagoon. It's all been very relaxing, other than the projects.

I intended to get cracking Friday morning on finishing up the bulk of the work on the new chartplotting system, and then start on the installation of the Furuno AIS transponder.  But I ended up spending all morning Friday filling out the 5-page application for dockage in Stuart.  It would have taken me perhaps twenty minutes to print it out, fill it out, scan it back in, and email it, but I really wanted to do the whole thing electronically, as we've done from the bus for the past nine years.

I had all the software to do this quite seamlessly on my Windows computer, no matter the format of the original.  (That computer is now the new chartplotter, so, again, I could have simply gone over and done it from there, but I am stubborn.)   My current machine is a Linux box, though, and while I lived and breathed Unix when I was at Bell Labs and Stanford a million years ago, I find myself at the bottom of the learning curve with respect to modern graphical tools for this platform.

I forced myself to hammer through it, and next time I need to fill out a form intended to first be printed it will take me just a few minutes, but there went the morning.  (For the curious, I used Gimp and added my text and graphics in separate layers.)  After lunch I emptied out the cabinets under the helm and settled in to my hidey-hole with a pair of dikes and a screwdriver.

After clearing cables back to the far reaches of the under-helm area, I sorted out where the new cables would have to run and then attacked the top surface of the cabinetry with a 2.5" hole saw.  The old Northstar plotter ran on three fairly thin cables which only had connectors on the plotter end -- the other ends were loose and spliced or connected under the console, and the installer had run all three of them through a half-inch hole.  Between the new chart system and the AIS I had a bundle of cables five or six times that size, and many were pre-connectorized.  I have a nice finish grommet and cap for the new cutout, so it looks cleanly finished.

While the installation of the new plotter did not strictly require it, as long as I had to do all this work under the helm with power, signals, and cable routing, it made sense to tackle the heavy lifting on the AIS project at the same time.  That necessitated a bunch of re-wiring of existing NMEA data paths, and there was a bit of trial-and-error, as the IMO-compliant Class-A transponder is very picky about input information.  I spent hours trying to get the autopilot to supply heading information to the AIS unit, with no success.

Our autopilot takes its heading information from a magnetic compass, heavily compensated for the steel boat.  Even though it is being supplied fix information from a GPS, and thus could calculate true heading based on deviation, it simply will not broadcast true heading if that's not what it is receiving as input.  The AIS will not listen to magnetic heading sentences, only true heading.

After having run a full set of wires from the autopilot to the AIS for the heading information, in addition to the full set of wires from the Furuno radar/charplotter to the AIS to supply position, course, and speed information, what finally fixed the lack of heading at the AIS was to tell the Furuno plotter to send the true heading information.  I think I would have tried that first were it not for the AIS documentation, which appeared to mandate that heading come in on a separate port dedicated to that purpose.

All's well that ends well, and even though I ran wires I didn't need and rewired the autopilot unnecessarily, I eventually got the AIS to stop screaming about missing inputs, and yesterday morning we came up on the air -- as the Washington State Ferry Walla Walla.  I quickly powered down and rebooted into initial settup mode, and we now have the correct vessel particulars for Vector programmed in.

The AIS uses a lot of power, and it requires both the radar display and the autopilot to also be powered up so that it has a source of position, speed, and heading information.  So now that testing is finished it is all powered back down, and will likely remain that way any time we are at anchor or moored.  While there is arguably some safety benefit to showing up on other ships' AIS displays at anchor, particularly in areas with towboat traffic (a large ship can't really hit us because we anchor in water too shallow for them -- not so with tugs and barges), we're also a pretty visible radar target, and we really can't spare the juice.

The additional work on the chartplotter system involved moving the notebook computer to a cabinet under the helm and running cables from there to the monitor, the mouse, the power supply, etc. -- basically cleaning up and dressing the installation.  Eventually the new AIS will also be connected to this computer, but I need some additional hardware, and I had to noodle through getting a new source of GPS information as well.

For the time being, the new plotter is still getting both GPS and AIS data from the old SeaCAS AIS unit mounted in the eyebrow above the pilothouse.  This was handy for testing, because it means we can see ourselves -- the SeaCAS unit sees the transmission from the new Furuno unit as a target. and I had to filter it out on the alarm screen.  It does mean that I had to rob the VHF antenna from the pilothouse radio to get the AIS working; once I remove the SeaCAS I can re purpose its VHF antenna for the Furuno. Getting the cable up to the eyebrow through our already over-stuffed cable chases will be a challenge, though.

I had been concerned about where the position information would come from for the new chartplotter once I remove the SeaCAS, which has its own GPS and broadcasts both AIS and GPS data on the same port.  A little digging today revealed that the GPS "antenna" for the now-defunct Northstar plotter is actually a full, stand-alone SirfStar GPS NMEA "talker."  It's already on the mast and the wires come in to a junction block under the helm.   All I need to do is connect power to it and make a serial cable to connect it to the computer and I should get GPS position, speed, and course data.

The extra bit of hardware I need is a USB adapter that will give me more serial ports.  The single-port unit I have now works fine with the SeaCAS, which sends GPS and AIS on the same cable.  With the new setup, I need separate ports for each, and if I had an extra couple of ports I also can bring in heading from the autopilot and depth from the depthsounder.  I'm sure the Office Depot here would have that item, but I ran out of day.

This morning we will weigh anchor, bound for Vero Beach.  We have friends there, and they will pick us up at the city marina for dinner.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


We are docked at the Cocoa Village Marina in Cocoa, Florida (map), not to be confused with Cocoa Beach which is a half dozen miles due east and across two rivers from here.  We have friends in Cocoa Beach who have generously provided us with RV parking on many occasions, but no practical way to visit them on this pass.

Today's temperatures soared back up into the 60s and we did not really need another marina tonight, but we had a certificate for a night's stay, and so our visit here is costing us just $12, for electricity.  It's one of the nicest marinas we've seen, with a nice lounge, laundry, and rest rooms.  We'd never have ventured in here without the incentive, as the channel is a mere seven feet deep, and we saw sounder readings as low as 6.3' on the way in, but we're glad we came.

We've been to Cocoa before -- there is an Elks lodge just a few blocks from here where we've stayed in Odyssey more than once.  It has a functional, if not vibrant, downtown with a handful of restaurants and a famous hardware store, and we wandered over to Ryan's for dinner.  It was a nice break in an evening filled by an unscheduled project.

That project would involve the complete failure of our primary chartplotter mid-cruise today.  Fortunately, I was steering with the autopilot on heading mode, with no route entered on the plotter, and the backup plotter was fully functional, if a bit slow.  We were tied up here by 2:30 in the afternoon, having shoved off around 11 this morning, so I had plenty of time to work on it.

This plotter, a Northstar M121, was added to the boat in 2007 by the last owner, along with an AIS receiver.  It was state of the art in its day, and has been a pretty good plotter for us, but it's had it issues.  For example, several times the GPS position has "jumped" back and forth between our actual position and some random position half a mile or so away -- once, it even had us jumping over to the Med and back.  Fortunately this has never happened under way, but rather only while we were docked or anchored.

A couple of weeks ago, some sort of GPS error cause our total mileage to jump from under 2,000 nautical miles to over 5,000.  We'd been using this information for our log entries; fortunately, the backup plotter also has a mileage total and we were able to simply switch over to it -- the figures differed by a mile or so and we noted that in the log book.

In addition to the actual errors, the unit had some limitations that has had me working toward replacing it anyway.  Chief among these is a lack of overzoom -- on some charts, you just can't zoom in far enough to see what you're doing.  The user interface is clunky, and certain alarms that ought to be configurable aren't, such as constant complaining that there are no AIS targets in range.

Today's failure was the CCFL backlight, which quit entirely.  At first I though the plotter had lost power or otherwise been switched off, but a reboot revealed that the screen was still there, just unreadable.  Unfortunately, this sort of LCD can not be read at all without backlight, and so the unit is basically defunct.  If I leave it on, at least the GPS position data will continue to flow to the VHF radio, but that's about it.

Ironically, the backup chartplotter, which is original to the boat and thus twice as old as the Northstar, is still running like a champ.  Being much older technology, it is much slower to update the screen, and lacks the ability to display AIS target data, but it is serviceable and is also passing information to the other VHF radio, the depth display, and a plotter screen on the flybridge.  It also runs the radar and can overlay that on the chart.

I can still get parts and service for this much older system, a Furuno unit.  Northstar, on the other hand, ceased to exist years ago, being subsumed into Simrad before, they, too, were swallowed up by Navico.  A call to Navico this afternoon revealed that they stopped servicing these units over a year ago and parts are no longer available.

With nothing to lose, I opened up the case, and I think I can get a generic replacement CCFL online and get this working again.  If so, it will end up on the flybridge, where I can use a second daylight-readable display, which had been my plan for this unit when I replaced it anyway.

Replacing the CCFL and getting this back together and functional is more of a long-term project -- it will take at least a week to get the tube once I have the old one out to measure it, a project which will likely take me another couple of hours at least.  That's too long to go without a working display in the pilothouse that updates faster than the old Furuno and can display AIS, and so I ended up tackling the critical two thirds of the PC-chartplotter project, which I had planned to get to later in a more leisurely manner, this afternoon.

Some time ago I had already spliced in a serial cable to the AIS receiver NMEA output for exactly this purpose, and so today I did not have to monkey around under the helm.  Also, I already had two critical components on hand and standing by -- the display, which is a $99 LCD TV we bought at HH Gregg back in March, and the PC, which is the Acer notebook that I recently replaced with an Asus Linux notebook for my daily use.

I ultimately need to mount the Acer under the helm someplace and run all the cables properly, but I was able to get all the pieces working together and the display properly positioned today.  The AIS unit happens to include a GPS receiver and so the single NMEA cable carries both position and AIS information to the PC where it is processed by either Polar View or OpenCPN chart software.  It's all working fine here at the dock, and tomorrow we'll find out if all is working properly under way as well.

Accelerating this project means I will have to work some more magic later to get our new AIS transponder working.  The idea had been to replace the current AIS receiver with the new transceiver, but that will now mean finding a new source of position information for the PC.  As it stands now, both the PC and the older Furuno plotter are fully separate and thus redundant systems -- they do not share any inputs.  The new AIS unit will be taking position from the Furuno.

Eventually I will find a way to make it all work.  We have no fewer than ten working GPS receivers on the boat, not counting embedded ones whose data we can't read directly (such as the ones in the EPIRB or the Spot tracker).  Half of those are connected in some way to functional chart plotting systems, so we always have a way to plot our position.