Sunday, May 31, 2020

Vector's DC electrical system

I mentioned here recently that I am making some changes to our DC powerplant. These have been on the plate for a long time, but they've moved up the list, in part, because of recent capacity problems with the house batteries. Also, I have a lot of project time on my hands. The rest of this post will concern nothing else, so if you have no interest in such things, feel free to skip it; I will return to our regular travelogue in the next post.

As background, when we purchased Vector back in 2013, she had a pretty conventional 12-volt DC marine electrical system. I say "conventional," but Vector is at the very large end of the scale for 12 volt yachts; most boats her size and larger use a 24-volt electrical system, and for good reason. Above a certain size, perhaps 85' or so, batteries are not used at all, except for emergency backup, with house power being provided by a set of various size generators, one of which is always running unless connected to shore power.

In any event, Vector's builders chose to supply a 12-volt system for primary house power. A smaller, completely separate 24-volt system was installed in the bow of the boat to run only the bow thruster and the windlass, which are 24-volt items. This system is not interconnected to anything else at all, and its pair of size 8D gel batteries are charged by a small charger located with the batteries and connected to a 120-volt receptacle fed by the house inverter.

Only one other item on the boat mandated 24-volt input power, and that was the Naiad stabilizer control system, located under the helm and installed by the last owner. Rather than run a pair of wires up from the 24-volt system deep in the bow, which admittedly would have been a lot of work, the installer chose to mount a small 12-to-24 volt converter under the helm for this application, and added a breaker to supply it with power from the 12-volt house system already feeding the helm area.

The main house bank consisted of five size 8D AGM batteries in parallel, mounted in racks along the sides of the engine room. Two more 8D batteries served as dedicated starting batteries for the main engine and generator, respectively. So all told, there were nine enormous batteries on board when we purchased the boat, in four different systems.

Vector's battery system at purchase time.

The system worked well enough for typical part-time cruising, but its limitations for full-time life aboard, with significant time away from dockside power, soon became apparent. For one, the Heart Freedom 30 inverter/charger at the center of the system was barely adequate in either mode, with just 3,000 watts of output power when inverting -- not enough to run major appliances -- and a 140-amp max charge rate, or a little less than 2,000 watts.

Under way, house DC power and battery charging was supplied by the stock main engine alternator, a 130-amp model with an internal regulator, again less than 2,000 watts in total. And the two enormous starting batteries were underutilized -- overkill for the application, and with the main engine start battery being charged only by a small "echo charge" circuit on the Heart inverter.

Upgrading this electrical system to something more appropriate to a full-time, off-grid live-aboard vessel was an early project on my list, and although I could not manage to crank it out during our first yard visit in 2013, I was able to get it done while we spent three months in Stuart at the beginning of 2014, while our friends were having their new Nordhavn commissioned there. I did not write it up at the time, because I did not have a good way to make the necessary drawings.

Now that I can do the drawings is a good time to fill in the story. Not shown on any drawings is the separate 24-volt thruster/windlass system, because really it's completely separate and not connected on the DC side to the other systems. I will note this has worked flawlessly since we bought the boat and is still on the same gel batteries that came with it. The only things I've done in there were to clean up the wiring, and add a 24-volt anchor washdown pump, which is located in the same bilge.

On the drawing of the original system you can see the five house batteries in parallel, the alternator and inverter/charger, the two separate start batteries, the interconnections among the three systems, and the main fuse. The loads are not shown, but include a handful of stand-alone breakers and fuses in the engine room powering local high-current items such as the water pump, water maker, and davit, and a large 4/0 cable running up to the helm console, where the main DC breaker panel and subpanels are located.

The 24-volt upgrade as originally installed in 2014, mostly unchanged until last week.

You can't make a 24-volt system with five 12-volt batteries, so the first order of business was to re-purpose one of the two starting batteries for house use. (I actually replaced all the batteries as part of the project as well.) The main engine starting battery, located in a compartment under the engine room sole near the engine, was physically closest to the other five batteries, so it was incorporated into the house bank.

The main engine starting and electrical system was instead connected to the same battery that starts the generator. There is really no need for two systems here; the engines are never started simultaneously, and a single battery is plenty for both. The enormous 8D was replaced by a pair of commonly available group 65 automotive batteries, which fit together in the same compartment.

The 1-2-Both battery selector for the main engine was discarded and the one for the generator was left in place, now serving the combined engine/generator battery. This selector allows the main engine or generator to be started by using the 12-volt side of the house bank in the event the start batteries have failed. It also allows the start battery to be charged by the house charger or main engine alternator if needed, and, lastly, by bridging the batteries with the "both" setting, the house 12-volt system can use power from the start batteries in an emergency.

New 24-volt distribution at left, showing disconnect switch. main fuse, and equalizer fuse. I chose orange tape to indicate 24 volts. The two breakers just right of the switch are for the heads and the new feed to the helm. Far right is the smart regulator for the 24v alternator, and in between is an extra charger to get more current from the generator.

In this arrangement, the start batteries are charged only by the 60-amp automotive alternator on the generator engine. In practice, this has been sufficient to keep the start batteries charged even through multiple main-engine starts and multi-day offshore passages, where the engine instruments run on batteries alone. But if needed the selector can be operated to the bridged position to provide charge to the engine batteries.

Using a combination of existing cables and new cables, the six house batteries were connected in a series-parallel arrangement as shown in the second drawing. The main engine alternator was swapped out for a 24-volt model using the same frame, and the inverter/charger was replaced with a 4,000-watt 24-volt model. Both the alternator and the charger are rated at 110 amps, upgrading charge capacity from under 2,000 watts to over 3,000 watts, and the 4kW inverter is enough to run our appliances.

Other than the inverter, which admittedly is the largest single consumer of power, the rest of the house loads remained at 12 volts. To operate them with the new system, they were connected to the center-tap of the 24 volt series-parallel bank. To keep the bank from being loaded unevenly, a device known as a battery equalizer was connected to both the 24 volt and 12 volt battery terminals. In simple terms, this device consumes power on the 24 volt side and supplies power on the 12 volt side to keep the batteries in balance.

The battery equalizer, upper right, shoehorned into an unused corner of the inverter shelf. At left is the inverter, and to the right is a small transfer switch to allow use of a smaller shore cable to power the inverter directly.

Equalizers are sized for the highest average sustained load, not for the maximum load. The idea being that a large load might, for a short time, draw more power than the equalizer can supply, and this excess power will come from the 12-volt side of the battery bank. Once the load drops below the equalizer's capacity, the equalizer will continue to draw charge from the 24 volt side and replace the depleted capacity on the 12 volt side until the bank is again in balance. Our equalizer is a 60-amp model, whereas our 12-volt davit can draw more than that under load, as can some combinations of other loads.

This has all worked fairly well for the past six years. The six house batteries I installed new in 2014 served until 2018, with two individual batteries giving out and being replaced over that time. Equalizers are not perfect, and the lower half of the bank inevitably gets more abuse; both failures happened in the lower half. Probably I should have sucked it up and swapped halves periodically, but that involves moving, quite literally, over a half ton of batteries.

A more annoying problem has been that our state-of-charge (SOC) meter, also known as a coulomb counter, is seldom correct. The way these meters work is by constantly measuring current flow into and out of the batteries, by means of a shunt, shown on the drawings, located between the negative terminal of the bank and the ground bus where all the loads and charge sources are connected. The meter also sees the battery voltage, and uses the product of current, voltage, and time to add to or subtract from a running total of watt-hours stored in the batteries.

Our State-of-Charge meter, left, showing percent of battery capacity remaining. At right is the control for the inverter/charger.

A problem arises because the shunt only detects current, and can not distinguish between current returned by the 24 volt system, and current returned by the 12 volt system. It assumes all current is at the system voltage as measured on the 24 volt terminal. The activity of the equalizer corrects for some of the resulting error, but not all, and as time goes on, the meter gets further and further from the correct total.

Long-time readers may remember we had this same type of system on the bus, where it worked flawlessly. But we designed the bus from the beginning to have mostly 24-volt loads. When we could not find a 24-volt lighting fixture, for example, we installed 12-volt ones in series pairs. When all was said and done, only a small handful of items were 12 volt, such as the vent fans and the satellite dish. On the boat, it's just the opposite, with the exception of the inverter. When we replaced the heads a few years ago, we got 24-volt models, and that's been the only exception, until now.

My approach to eliminating the center-tap for good was two-pronged. I wrote about the first part a few posts ago: lots of helm equipment is dual-voltage, some of it even preferring 24 volts, and there's that silly converter just to run the stabilizers. I ran a new feed from the helm down to the 24-volt main fuse in the engine room, moved some breakers around, and created a 24-volt distribution in the pilothouse. Some of this equipment is powered up 24/7, so it was an important step.

System as it now stands, with battery equalizer re-purposed to a straight voltage converter, and center tap eliminated altogether.

The second part involved changing the function of the battery equalizer into that of a voltage converter. Instead of the 12-volt output of this device being connected to the center-tap of the batteries (along with the loads), it is now connected only to the loads. A small automotive starting battery has been added in parallel to the converter output to absorb any surge loads such as the davit. As before, the converter will continue to charge that battery after use by drawing power from the 24-volt house system.

With the center tap gone, the SOC meter should now have a more accurate picture of the battery status at all times. Effective capacity of the system, and thus discharge and charge times, will be very slightly higher due to the small added capacity of the 12-volt "buffer" battery, but this should not affect accuracy. And the lower batteries should no longer be seeing any extra abuse over what the uppers see.

Rack I cobbled together for the inexpensive buffer battery. I need more parts to secure this properly. This type of battery also needs to be in a box; I'll either add the box or replace it with a type that does not require one, once I'm certain this setup is working as expected.

Since the three upper batteries are in slightly better condition than the lower ones, I will likely swap the worst lower with the best upper when next we have shore power, in the hopes that this will even out the discharge profile slightly. And I need to do some more aggressive charging, to try to recover more of the lost capacity.

This will most likely involve "cutting out" four batteries at a time from the bank, leaving a single upper and single lower battery as a pair. I can then supply all 110 amps of charge at this single pair, instead of having the charge rate max out at just 1/3 the capacity of the charger. Heavier charge rate, in this case around .43C, can "shake loose" some of the sulfation on the plates. Two or three full discharge / full charge / equalization cycles in succession might bring back as much as half of what we have lost; I'll have to do the whole sequence three times, for three pairs of batteries.

I added this cheap energy counter from Amazon to the new "buffer" battery after I finished, only to learn it only measures current (and thus energy) in one direction. Oh well; it was only $17.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bertha busting

Just a quick update today, as I know some of our readers may have concerns about Tropical Storm Bertha. As I type, we are under way upriver on the Waccamaw, battling 2+ knots of current, a combination of outgoing tide and plenty of rainwater -- flash flood warnings have been issued. Winds are currently 24 knots gusting to 34, and all is well aboard.

The worst of the storm is yet to come, but we will likely remain under way throughout. We certainly don't want to dock in these conditions, and we're better served in open water with maneuvering room than in the fairly tight anchorages along this stretch. The worst will have passed by the time we stop for the day. This will be our fourth or fifth named storm on the boat; we are keeping careful track of it but are not at all worried.

We passed this former ship's lifeboat at a dock on the ICW Monday. Not my idea of a fun cruiser.

Yesterday morning we left Awendaw creek early, just as the tide hit two feet and rising. That gave us enough water under the keel for a full day to Winyah Bay, where the incoming tide helped us up the Waccamaw all the way to a lovely anchorage in Thoroughfare Creek (map). We had the hook down early afternoon as the tide changed. Other than a pack of four rental patio boats jammed with revelers that looked for all the world like spring breakers, who whizzed by us in both directions, we had a quiet afternoon. There was no traffic after dark, and it was dark and quiet, surrounded by the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

This morning we did not really have the option of waiting for the incoming tide. For one thing, there's enough rainwater coming down the rivers that the current shift would be delayed. More importantly, having more daylight hours ahead of us gives us more options for places to stop. At least the rain is keeping the go-fast crowd off the water, and we have the river mostly to ourselves, with just some other cruising boats making their way north.

Internet coverage can be spotty here, but I will try to post an update on Vector's twitter account when we are anchored.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Holiday weekend self-isolation

We are anchored on Awendaw Creek, in a marshy area of the "low country" of the South Carolina coast, just off the ICW northeast of Charleston (map). I had been expecting to type this post earlier today while under way offshore, but the weather conspired against me.

Friday evening, as we turned into the Savannah River Entrance at Tybee Roads, we could see lots of people on the beach at Tybee Island. Other than remarking that it was a lot of people for the Covid era, even though spacing was pretty good, and that it was pretty early for so many people on a Friday, I did not think much more about it. It was, after all, the beginning of a warm weekend on the coast.

But as we steamed up Calibogue Sound past the southern tip of Hilton Head Island, comprising the tony vacation enclave of the Sea Pines Resort plantation, we could again see a great deal of beach activity. It was only then that we realized we were coming into Memorial Day weekend. In my last post I shared that we have a "day of the week" clock on board; this is because we seldom know what day it is around here, and we got tired of showing up at, for example, fuel docks and wondering why they were so busy, not realizing it was the weekend. Well, that goes double for holidays; other than New Years' and the Fourth of July, we are blissfully unaware of holidays until we run right smack into some holiday hoo-ha.

Memorial Day perspective. It's not about picnics and boat parades. Photo: US Army.

We dropped the hook in a familiar and normally remote spot, in the May River not far from where it meets the Calibogue Sound (map). This is a great spot, wide and deep, because it takes great advantage of tides in making headway, and affords tender access to the free town docks in Bluffton, the South Carolina Yacht Club across the sound at Windmill Harbor, and Great Marsh Island. On our way in, we had a good view of the Route 278 bridge onto the island, which was so packed with inbound traffic on a holiday Friday afternoon that it was stopped dead.

Louise did a little Internet sleuthing on our way up the sound, and learned that SC was basically re-opening everything in time for the holiday weekend. That list included zoos, museums, aquariums. planetariums, water parks, amusement parks, and miniature golf, among other things. The beaches were already open, as well as restaurants. And the result: Hilton Head was doing a land-office business.

We had already figured to spend a couple of nights, get ashore at some point for at least a walk, and maybe find some take-out for dinner one night. And so Saturday morning we let our fair tide window for departure come and go. But by mid-day it was clear, in part from the sheer amount of marina VHF traffic: there would be no going ashore except maybe for a walk on the mainland. Even that got scrubbed by mid-afternoon as the wakes from myriad go-fast day boats had stirred the harbor up to the point where even splashing the dinghy was a bad idea.

Friday evening I grilled a nice pork tenderloin, and we enjoyed the evening after the wakes died down. And Louise had made a nice stew while we were still under way Friday that we were able to enjoy Saturday evening. I spent most of the day Saturday working on the helm electrical panels.

The "new" 24v panel. I need to order proper labels.

Part of the electrical project had to do with the master stateroom AC, which has been tripping its breaker now every time it starts. A bit of testing revealed the breaker itself was weak, and with the AC power mostly off except for the few hours the generator was running, it was a great time to tear the panels apart and move breakers around. I got the AC working and also re-balanced the panels a bit.

The bigger project was moving around the last few breakers so that one of the two six-position DC subpanels could be repurposed to 24-volt service. I have a separate blog post in the works about the electrical system revamp, but suffice it to say here that we have a whole bunch of equipment that will work on 24 volts, and some that even prefers it, including the radar and its displays, the AIS, the navigation lights, and the stabilizer control. This last item actually demands it, and there was a small 12 volt to 24 volt converter under the helm to power it.

I had to move circuits around until all the 24-volt capable items were on the same six-position panel, which also involved swapping some breakers due to ampacity issues. I then ran a #8 wire from the engine room to the helm, and installed a new 24-volt main breaker in the ER. After ditching the aforementioned converter, I was able to switch the panel to 24 volts and get everything tested. All told, maybe four hours crouched under the helm hot-swapping wires.

Yesterday morning we weighed anchor on the ebb, now an hour later than if we had had the presence of mind to leave on Saturday. Timing was important, as we rode the flood to the "top of the hill" near Skull Creek, and then had the ebb behind us all the way out Port Royal Sound. As we passed the northeast tip of Hilton Head we noticed the beach was packed. We had figured, with the late start, a 9pm arrival in Charleston Harbor, one of a handful of places I am completely comfortable arriving at night.

This morning's view. Ravenel Bridge at right, The Battery at left.

As it turns out, between the favorable current out the inlet, and a favorable current northbound in the ocean, we arrived at Charleston inlet early, with the plotter projecting anchor down by 8:10. We had dinner under way before making the turn into the jetties. We dropped the hook just east of the limit of Commercial Anchorage B, and immediately north of the marked cable area (map), just a short distance west of historic Fort Sumter. We've anchored on one side of Anchorage B or the other several times.

We don't anchor inside the marked anchorage for a simple reason: the anchorage is under control of the Captain of the Port and has restrictions that are difficult for us, including maintaining a bridge watch. And yet, when we arrived, there was a sailboat anchored right in the middle of the anchorage, which is frequently used by commercial traffic. He never turned on his anchor light, and when I tried to hail him to tell him he was hard to see, I got no response, so he was not maintaining the required radio or bridge watch, either. He's lucky the 300' barge that anchored sometime after I turned in, at 0200, did not hit him.

Lest readers think I am being picky here, even anchored where we were, I was hailed well after midnight by a passing pilot boat, who was wondering what we were up to. We maintain a radio watch at all times that we are aboard for exactly this reason (among others), and I am always amazed at how few anchored boats are doing likewise. (With the many restrictions of Anchorage B, leaving the boat unattended would not be an option.)

Speaking of the radio, marina radio traffic as we arrived in Charleston and for many hours thereafter was very busy. Memorial Day weekend on the water is in nearly full swing, although subjectively I will say it's not as busy as other holiday weekends have been.  At some point I noticed a lot of emergency vehicles rolling east across the Ravenel Bridge; what I failed to notice was the boat explosion that preceded it, even though it should easily have been visible across the harbor. Thankfully all survived; there are stories like this one every Memorial Day weekend.

Anchorage B this morning. Enormous barge at right arrived in the middle of the night. Sailboat is off-frame to the left.

Before we turned in last night, it was a pretty sure bet that the outside weather, which in the morning had looked like it would hold for another day, was not going to be good today. But we checked again this morning when we awoke. Had it been OK outside, we would have had a leisurely morning in Charleston harbor, leaving around 11 on the ebb. Instead it was a scramble to get under way first thing, while we still had a rising tide to help us through the shallow parts of the ICW north of Charleston.

Frankly, this is one of the worst sections of the entire ICW from Norfolk to Brownsville, and we normally avoid it like the plague (pardon the reference). But we wanted to keep moving; Charleston Harbor is not a comfortable place to anchor, worthwhile only to get the benefit of enjoying Charleston itself. But we could think of no places here that made sense for us to visit in the current circumstance, and, in fact, the mad rush to reopen everything gives us great pause. So rather than spend perhaps a week waiting on weather, we opted for the inside slog.

This section has gotten a lot more tolerable sine we've been able to get the latest Corps of Engineers depth surveys overlaid on a chart, which we can do on our tablet. An early start and those surveys were enough to get us all the way here without incident. This in spite of winds blowing 20-30kt the entire day, part of the reason the outside conditions were untenable. We had the anchor down by 1:15pm, just before the tide dropped below our safety threshold.

In the morning we will weigh anchor early to again have a favorable tide, and we will again be anchored someplace by early afternoon. We have not been off the boat since Jacksonville, and we're looking forward to making Wrightsville Beach in a few days to get ashore and stretch our legs. I have deliveries headed to an Amazon locker there on Wednesday.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Out of the box

We are under way northbound in the Atlantic Ocean, just passing the St. Catherine's Sound, Georgia sea buoy as I begin typing. We left Internet coverage a short while ago and I am typing into a text file, but I am sure we will be back in coverage before I even finish typing.

Post-prandial sunset from our anchorage in the Amelia River.

We had a lovely dinner and a very pleasant evening aboard on our last night in Florida, other than the ever-present smell of the nearby pulp plant. At some point in the evening I noticed a phalanx of flashing blue lights over by the main ship channel; comings and goings of nuclear submarines are a regular occurrence here. I could not quite make out the sub, but at some point the blue lights started convoying over to the Kings Island sub base.

Yesterday morning we left the inlet on the ebb, zipping back out into the Atlantic, where we had mostly calm seas for the entire trip. We had good Internet coverage the whole day, too, but posting every day here seems overkill. Instead I caught up on a backlog of email and news articles, and then I spent an hour on my "day job."

Regent Seven Seas Explorer, docked at the pulp mill, as we made our way out.

That job, of course, is Chief Engineer. The little store at the merchant mariner school where I did my license will sell me some four-stripe shoulder boards if I want them, and I am entitled to wear the ones with an anchor on top -- deck officer. But the ones I really need have a little propeller on top instead -- engineering department.

Yesterday's project was to repair the day-of-the-week clock. This is one of those cheap battery-operated wall clocks that happens to have an extra hand for the day of the week. It stopped working a couple of weeks ago and I could only get it going for a few days at a stretch by fiddling with the battery. With time on my hands but unable to leave the helm, it was a perfect project.

Cheesy day-of-week clock, post-repair. I would say it's a boat-life thing, but apparently it's also a pandemic thing. I'm sorry I did not get a pic of all the little gears everywhere.

Fresh from my victory over the expensive bells-of-the-watch clock in the pilothouse, which has a similar cheesy battery movement, and with nothing to lose, I completely disassembled the movement, which is a bunch of cheap plastic gears and a minuscule circuit board driving a tiny magnetic oscillator. What I found was alkaline corrosion on the pressure-fit contacts between the circuit board and the battery holder.

Some scrubbing and a touch of vinegar cleaned it up. The hardest part was getting all the fiddly gears back into place before closing up the snap-fit case -- they won't even waste a nickle on fasteners on these things. It seems to be working fine now, and we can infer my worth as an engineer from a full hour spent fixing a ten-dollar clock.

I could not get a pic of Golden Ray. But on our AIS we could see USCG target marks for her bow and stern, as well as the phalanx of work boats around her.

When we left St.Marys inlet, our destination was an anchorage in Doboy Sound, with a fall-back of St. Simons Sound. We were making good time, though, between a good push out the St. Marys and favorable current and conditions in the ocean, and so we opted instead to make it a long day and head all the way to Sapelo Sound. It's a much easier and shorter entrance than Doboy, with a deeper bar and closer anchorages.

The route to Sapelo had us over seven nautical miles offshore as we passed St. Simons entrance, which is where the capsized hulk of the RoRo car carrier Golden Ray rests.  We could see it clearly, along with the flurry of activity around it, through our binoculars, but it was too far to get a photo. The ship appears to be still mostly intact.

Radar image of a thunderstorm catching us, just astern.

Our first glimpse of Golden Ray, while we were just off the coast of Jekyll Island, came as we crossed the magic line of 31° north latitude, which is the northern edge of our "hurricane box" and thus the southern limit of navigation on our insurance policy, starting in just a few days. We made it out with over a week to spare.

Throughout the afternoon, weather alerts kept sounding on our radio. A line of thunderstorms was rapidly moving east, and we were right in their path. Squalls are a fact of life on the ocean, and in a 6.5-knot boat, there's not a lot you can do to avoid them. The best you can do is batten everything down and be ready. As the afternoon progressed, however, I grew concerned that they would be hitting just as we were trying to navigate the inlet.

View of that same storm astern of us.

As it turned out, they caught up to us while we were still at sea, but closer to the inlet than I would have liked. Another few minutes and we would have had to pass it up and circle back after they passed. As it was, winds on the port beam increased to 40 knots, with seas choppy and confused, and we were leaning so far to starboard, even with the stabilizers, that I made a 90° right turn, putting the wind and seas directly behind us, until the worst had passed.

We broke out into sunlight just as we approached the tricky unmarked southeast entrance to Sapelo Sound, glad to have the storm behind us. We were rewarded with a lovely double rainbow as we made our way into the sound, through a squeaky channel that proved shallower than charted. Once in the deep water of the throat, seas calmed to near flat, and we made our way to a familiar spot off High Point, where we dropped the hook (map). I was careful to maintain 1,000' of separation from the nearby fish haven, marked with pilings, as per the new onerous Georgia anchoring law.

Leftmost red line is yesterday's track. Hard turn to starboard, followed by slowly turning back to our original planned turn, made an outline of my nose.

The anchorage was flat calm, and we had the entirety of Sapelo Sound to ourselves all night. It is remote: peaceful, dark, and quiet. We could hear the dolphins surfacing for air all around the boat.  The current rips through here, making the boat sound as if it is under way. We had another spectacular sunset. The storm had also cooled things off nicely, making for a comfortable night; we'd been running the AC in the pilothouse all day.

This morning we left on the ebb, and I had over a knot behind me as we raced out to sea. That was great right up until the depth sounder started screaming; I was following one of our previous tracks in charted 20'+ of water, and suddenly found myself with just a foot under the keel. The channel has moved in the five years since our last track, and NOAA has not kept up. Fortunately, user-sourced soundings on our tablet showed the clear path, and after backtracking briefly we found our way out in plenty of water.

Coming from the left in charted 20', following the sailing line (gray) and not far from a previous track (thinner red line) when we nearly ran aground. Deeper water was further south.

Today's cruise so far has been even calmer than yesterday's. So far, no storm warnings. The plotter is projecting a 5:30 arrival at a familiar anchorage in Calibogue (rhymes with bogey) Sound, off Hilton Head, South Carolina. This is where it really all started for us back when we bought the boat, so they are familiar waters.

Post-storm sunset, over a very calm and beautiful anchorage. Bugs trapped us inside, though.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


We are underway in the Atlantic Ocean, having escaped the greater Jacksonville area after exactly one full month in town. We still have ten full days to make our way out of Florida and north of Jekyll Island, Georgia to comply with the conditions of our insurance policy, but today's weather looked near-perfect, and, even though weather remains good for a few days, the ebb tide will be getting later and later.

Vector, looking quite suspicious anchored in front of the hospital. Photo: Eric Udell

As it was, we dropped lines after noon, as the tide changed, which means we'll only get as far as the St. Marys River inlet today. We could get all the way to the Carolinas if we wanted to run overnight, but with no compelling weather or schedule reason to do so, we'd just as soon not mess with our circadian rhythms. Running overnight is efficient, but there is a price to be paid. We'd have to follow the curve of the coast in any case, since the conditions deteriorate further from shore.

Shortly after my last post, as we were all settled in to our snug anchorage, the rail bridge lockdown ended, and, as expected, our neighbor weighed anchor, along with three other boats that had anchored upriver of the I-95 bridge, and they all headed for the bridge. Of course, by this time, the tide had changed, and they were now all pushing downriver against the current. I'm wondering how many of them had carefully timed their departures to have a fair tide the whole way, but failed to check the bridge closures in the LNMs.

We had a pleasant week at anchor, and we tendered ashore almost daily to get a little bit of a walk. We also did a little "dining out," which for us now consists of counter service or takeout restaurants with outdoor patios having well-spaced seating. Here in Florida, restaurants have re-opened, seating up to 50% of their indoor capacity, and having table service. Neither indoor dining nor table service feels safe to us.

On one of my tender excursions I passed Kismet with her "patio" extended. Looks like it was set for waterfront dining, a sign owners or guests are aboard.

So now we find ourselves patronizing an entire genre of restaurants we have heretofore forsaken: "fast casual." For example, we ate for the first time at a Burger Fi, where I was able to order our meals at a counter wearing my mask, and then be seated at an outdoor table. Here they bring your order to you, but that is the extent of interaction with servers. It felt relatively safe, so long as service staff were also masked.

By the same token, we've done an about-face at some establishments that seem to have the right service model, but where staff were not wearing appropriate gear. We made a return trip, for example, to the Burrito Gallery, where we previously had ordered take-out, and had a beer and chips on the patio. When it became clear to us that the staff were not taking protective measures seriously, we opted to go elsewhere for dinner. That turned out to be Venezuelan restaurant Arepa Please, who set up a table for us on the sidewalk even though they had been stowed for the day.

My Amazon order arrived at the locker Wednesday. While I first attempted to get within walking distance by tendering up a nearby creek, my progress was blocked by a small local dredging operation and I had to retreat, returning instead by e-bike from a further dock. One of the items I ordered was a cover plate for the 6" hole I had cut for the cats to access their potty; seeing the hole every time I came up the stairs was making me sad. The cover plate makes me less (but still) sad, and will allow us to use the cabinet for something else.

Shot from the bridge I was trying to reach. The creek is completely blocked.

One of our shore excursions was a trip all the way back to the Metropolitan Park dock, where some friends of Cherie and Chris had docked on their way upriver to Sanford. We agreed to meet up for a beer on the roof patio at Intuition Ale house a short walk from the dock. We again did the opposite-ends-of-a-table social distance approach, and we again had the patio to ourselves. We actually got a bite to eat before the meet-up, even though, honestly, the food there is not really worth it, unlike their beer, which is great.

It was great meeting Jeanette and Eric, as awkward as it was to do so at a distance. A day or so later they passed us in the anchorage on their way upriver, and captured a couple of nice pictures of Vector. I did the best I could to return the favor with cell-phone shots of Terrapin.

Our last few afternoons and evenings in the anchorage were filled with dolphins. Dozens of them were swimming the anchorage and, umm, cavorting. I'm sure some of our marine-biologist friends and family can straighten us out on this, but we're guessing it was mating activity, although perhaps it was just play. It did not seem like feeding. The St. Johns might as well be filled with chocolate milk -- that's pretty much what the visibility is like -- so you really only get to see the dolphins on the surface.

We were treated to dozens of dolphins frolicking in the anchorage daily. This one is mid-breach.

While we were perfectly happy to be in that anchorage, a number of things conspired to drive us back to the dock at Metropolitan Park. For one, the watermaker pump that I had sent out to Minnesota to be rebuilt was en route to our mailbox in Green Cove Springs, so even though we were just there, I wanted to get a scooter on the ground and make another pilgrimage.

Beyond that, we needed to pump out, with our waste tanks nearly full, and I wanted to get another soak and conditioning charge on the batteries, which are still giving us problems. And we had two more packages sent to the Amazon locker, which would be an easy stop with the scooter on the ground.

One of those packages was a new spare impeller for the generator; I keep a minimum of two on hand. The impeller seems to go out like clockwork at about 310 hours, and if I'm lucky, it shreds on the morning run and not the evening one. I was lucky this time, and I had even already finished my coffee before I had to strip down and spend a sweaty half hour in the engine room next to an overheated engine. As I have written before, changing the impeller takes two minutes, but draining the coolant, opening up the heat exchanger, and fishing out the bits of shredded impeller is a much longer process.

One of my Amazon locker deliveries was this removable deck plate, for the hole in the flybridge ladder. I had to lop some off to make it fit.

So Monday morning at the tide change, we weighed anchor (uneventfully this time) and cruised downriver to the dock, stopping to pump out before tying up on the inside face dock (map). Since we last used it, the dockmaster had zip-tied the cam-locks for the rubber nozzle onto the hose, which made it unusable for us, since I need to insert our own right-angle adapter to make the hose reach, and reduce the suction head. I had to cut them, and then use some of our own zip-ties to make it right when I was done.

We spent two nights at the dock, so that after running an eight-hour conditioning cycle on the batteries, I could bypass them for a day, disconnect them all, and let them sit for 12 full hours, per guidance from Lifeline. I had called them for help in trying to recover them, so that I don't overdo it. They were very skeptical of our battery equalizer, and wanted to be sure we did not have a big delta between halves of the bank.

After sitting all day yesterday, we read open-cell voltages from 12.47 to 12.55. The good news is that the equalizer is mostly doing the right thing and keeping up (although I am still working on a plan to take it out of the system). The bad news is that the indication is that we have lost 20% of our battery capacity to sulfation. The Lifeline guys think some of this can be recovered with some very aggressive discharge/charge/equalize cycles. We'll need to be at another dock with power to make that happen, so that's a project for another time. In the meantime, we'll be using pandemic-cheap diesel to run the generator longer.

Terrapin passing us on her way upriver.

While the batteries were disconnected all day and we had to keep most of the DC gear powered down, I ran down to Green Cove Springs on the scooter. I picked up the mail, including my pump, and then stopped at Walmart to stock up on provisions. Louise was able to sew by bringing a table lamp down to the studio.

Fully provisioned and watered, and with our various package deliveries loaded aboard, we decided we'd grab this weather window while we still had favorable tide. And so, after some last-minute errands this morning, we loaded the scooter back on deck, and got under way with the start of the ebb. We again passed three idled cruise ships at various berths on our way out, all Norwegians. The Norwegian Gem untied her lines shortly after we passed and followed us out.

We shot out of the river with two knots behind us, and turned northward in slow-rolling two footers. And not long afterward, we were both overcome with sadness and grief. This is our first time in the ocean without Angel, who was our bellwether for sea state. Today's seas would have evinced only a mild complaint, sort of "I liked it better back in the anchorage," followed by spending the whole passage curled up on the settee next to Louise. Her absence was palpable; we are still getting used to it. Another reason, I suppose, to avoid an overnight this soon -- it will be even more noticeable alone on watch.

Vector in her spot near the hospital, as seen from the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Update: We are anchored in the Amelia River, part of the ICW, near Fernandina Beach, Florida (map). We've stopped here before, and tendered in to the town docks. They just reopened after a three year hiatus due to Hurricane Mathew, but without the incentive of going ashore for dinner, we find no need to tender in this evening. This, I'm afraid, has been and will be a theme for some time.

We were very surprised, coming around the corner from the St. Marys, to see a cruise ship docked in Fernandina. It's a smaller ship, Regent's Seven Seas Explorer, but still, this has never been a cruise port, and so it is a bit incongruous. She's tied up at a commercial wharf that likely services or serviced the local paper mill. Just a bit further south is our old friend Bella Vita, tied up near Fernandina Harbor. We can just see her mast and sat domes, but we know it's her from the AIS.

We had a good cruise, whizzing into the St. Marys just as we had whizzed out of the St. Johns. I did my engine run-up in the channel, and we raced past Fort Clinch at 11 knots. Having a following current at both inlets offsets the extra distance going via the outside route. It's nice to be out of Duval County (we're in Nassau county now), even if we are still in Florida. We'll have a nice dinner aboard, and leave in the morning on the ebb for points north, via the Atlantic.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Home-town meetup

We are once again under way, on our return trip back downriver to Jacksonville. While it's only been three days since I last posted here, I have time on my hands sitting at the helm in easy water. Also, I surprised myself with how many photos I took in Green Cove Springs, so they warrant a post.

These tracks go nowhere now, but the old depot and a nearby caboose comprise the Clay County Historical Museum.

We had a nice dinner on board and a quiet evening Sunday after getting settled in at the anchorage. In the course of the afternoon, we also made arrangements for a Monday afternoon meetup with good friends Cherie and Chris, who would drive up from Sanford. The anchorage was incredibly quiet, especially as compared to the relative bustle of Jacksonville, where we were never far enough from a bridge and the associated traffic noise.

Monday morning we splashed the tender, and we headed ashore at lunch time, arriving at the city courtesy dock just as Chris and Cherie were pulling into the parking lot, in their unmistakable Winnebago Travato, Coopernicus. It was somewhat painful to only be able to wave from a distance, instead of our customary big-hugs-all-around greeting.

Socially distanced meetup, our first since this started. Photo: Chris Dunphy

We all strolled the two blocks over to La Casita Mexcian restaurant, where we found the dining room open and fairly busy, with few masks. If you read the article I linked in my last post, you'll understand why none of us was interested in dining in; we selected one partner from each couple to go inside and pick up food. We strolled back to the park and found a nice, shady picnic table available. I must say I was surprised how busy the park was at lunch time, and many tables were in use.

This spring-fed pool was empty at lunchtime Monday, and full yesterday. The spring flows 3,000gpm.

We had to unmask to eat, of course, and we positioned ourselves with one couple at each end of the ~8' table, with partners seated across from each other. That gave us almost six feet between couples, which, outdoors, felt safe enough, and yet was close enough to carry on a conversation at a comfortable volume. It all worked out quite well and we enjoyed catching up with each other; it's been only eight months since we saw them in St. Louis, but that now seems like another lifetime.

It was very generous of them to make a four-hour road trip just to spend time with us. We enjoyed catching up, and sharing a meal, and we even got to take a peek inside Coopernicus. In the Covid era, where air (or train) travel seems positively dangerous, their chosen mode of land transport is a perfect solution.

The actual spring, visibly only 28' deep, but actually far deeper. It has a distinct sulfur smell.

After bidding them a fond farewell, I dropped Louise back at the boat, loaded up the e-bike and about seven gallons of used motor oil, and headed off to the courtesy docks at the Governors Creek boat ramp, about a mile and a half from our anchorage. I schlepped the oil over to an auto parts store just a few doors from the ramp for disposal, then rode the e-bike up to our mail service another mile and change away.

More museum, with the back of the 1890 courthouse behind it.

After picking up my Unobtainium stainless J-tubes for the watermaker and just one other mail item, I made a provisioning stop at the Winn-Dixie next door. I was able to replenish the all-important Box Wine Reserve, which had just been completely depleted, and pick up a few fresh produce items. Once again I saw very little social distancing and few masks, although, to be fair, most of the store employees wore them.

We opted to spend one more night in town, so that we could get a fresh pizza from the joint a couple of blocks from the city dock. So yesterday, after knocking out a couple of projects that included getting our long-silent Bells of the Watch clock chiming again, I headed back ashore with the e-bike. This time, I landed the tender at the Elks Lodge, which has its own shallow-water dock.

1896 jailhouse. With escapee hanging from the window ledge.

I've been a member of this Elks lodge for some five years, since we officially "moved" our domicile to Green Cove Springs from Madison, South Dakota. Yet despite spending a couple of weeks here some years ago, I'd somehow never made it inside the lodge. I knew the lodge would be closed in the morning, but I figured that, as a member, I could tie up for a while at the dock.

Best I could do inside. The cells and their drop-down steel bunks were too back-lit for a shot.

It was a short bike ride back into town, where I discovered the spring-fed swimming pool -- which just the day before had been closed, empty, and undergoing maintenance -- full and back in operation. The pool looks very inviting, but with the year-round spring temperature being just 78°, too brisk for me except perhaps on a very hot day. I spoke with the attendant; they are limiting entry to ten persons at a time and thus scheduling reservations in two-hour blocks. On opening day I could have walked right in.

Another thing I had managed to miss on our previous visits was the old historic district, a short ride up Walnut Street, past where we officially "live" at an address that no longer physically exists. Here I found the historic jail, the second oldest in Florida, complete with a dummy making his escape, as well as the historic courthouse and a small railroad exhibit. It was a pleasant discovery, and I had the whole compound to myself.

Sunset from our anchorage. Someone is living on the small sailboat with its mast unstepped.

I made a brief stop at the Dollar Tree for some essentials and the mini-mart for some more beer before returning to the Elks. Even though the lodge was still closed, on my way to the dock I ran into one of the officers, who was bringing supplies to the bar for tomorrow's "Burger Night," who questioned my presence. Satisfied I was a member, he also let me into the lodge to pick up my new membership card, as this is the time of year they are issued.

Louise and I returned ashore together, landing at the town dock, for dinner. We walked the three blocks to D'Fontana and got a pizza and a salad, which we ate at a different picnic table in Spring Park, overlooking the pool. The park is well used, but it was not as busy as it had been at lunch time the previous day. The pizza was just so-so -- a bit short on sauce.

This squirrel waited on the next table, looking for all the world like he was going to ask for a slice.

We decked the tender after returning to Vector, in preparation for weighing anchor this morning to come downriver with the ebb. We have no real schedule or agenda for the next week, but my Amazon order has arrived at the locker, and I have only a couple of days in which to pick it up. We'll be anchored someplace tonight, and will likely move around town a couple more times before continuing north when the weather is cooperative.

Update: We are safely anchored in our preferred spot upriver of the railroad bridge (map). Uncharacteristically, we are not alone. There is a pilothouse motor yacht with a Looper burgee anchored a couple hundred feet away; he was here when we arrived. Our guess is that they were headed downriver and the railroad bridge closure caught them by surprise; it's amazing how few skippers read the LNMs.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mothers' Day Cruise

We are under way southbound on the St. Johns River, headed for "home" in Green Cove Springs. While we've had the scooter on the ground for the past three days, and I could easily have made another two-hour round trip to our mail drop, we really just needed a change of venue. Also, we have the potential to meet up (outdoors, masked, and at a distance) with good friends there.

Blue Angels over Jacksonville.

Three hours under way in easy water is a good opportunity to update the blog, even though I opined in my last travelogue that I would not be writing again until we left the area. Aside from the passing of the cat, which has far and away been the focus of everything here, there has actually been enough other activity for a report.

Our anniversary sunset.

I've mentioned here that our anchorage was adjacent to the Baptist Health hospital complex, and, in fact, the closest building was the heart center, which, among other things, hosted the rooftop helipad. For nearly a week there was zero activity on the pad, a testament to how the shutdown due to the pandemic has significantly lowered trauma numbers. And then, on Wednesday, we had three choppers in a single day. It was interesting to see the skilled pilots bring them in precisely, notwithstanding winds in excess of 15 knots.

The view toward where The Landings used to be. Odd to see it empty like this.

As in many major cities, the VFR helicopter flyway also follows the river, and Wednesday happened to be a banner day for other choppers, too, as we saw several Navy Seahawks, some civilian law enforcement, and a couple of USCG copters all running the river. Usually we see only one or two per day.

Superyacht "Aspen Alternative" docked downtown. We seldom have seen megayachts in downtown Jax (other than Kismet, which lives here), so two in the span of a couple of weeks is odd, especially now.

In the course of our time anchored at the hospital, we managed to get ashore at every dock. We enjoyed take-out from a nice Thai place in Southbank and a sandwich joint in the Ameris Bank building, and strolled several neighborhoods, including Five Points. The restaurants there have already re-opened and the street was too busy for our comfort. We zigzagged down the block in our masks, keeping well away from everyone. We had actually come ashore here to drop the old watermaker pump in the mail; I found someone to rebuild it for $75.

The marquee of the cinema in Five Points gave us a somewhat macabre chuckle.

I had run an equalization cycle on the batteries at the dock at Metropolitan Park, but after several days at anchor, it became clear we were still down on capacity. Worse, there is quite a cliff at the lower end, and equipment was shutting down on low battery before we could get the generator started. At some point I figured out that the battery manufacturer calls for an eight hour equalization cycle, but the charger only supplied four, so we wanted to get back to the dock and try again.

Thursday we weighed anchor at slack for the short trip downriver. Well, sort of. Earlier in the week, after a tide shift, we had heard a clunk, and the anchor started dragging very slowly upriver. We had figured it was just having trouble re-setting after the tide change, and we put out some more chain. After that, our swing circle became very small, usually a sign the chain has caught on a snag or similar underwater object. I was ready to have to give a mighty tug to get unstuck.

William Zorach's "Spirit of the Dance," outside the Cummer Art Museum. As adapted for the times.

What in fact had happened was that, in the course of several tide changes, we had wrapped the chain around the anchor flukes and tied it in a knot. The anchor came out of the water sideways, with a 50' loop of chain hanging down from it. It was a thing to behold, and, in hindsight, I wish I had taken time out to snap a picture. It is a testament to how thick and sticky is the mud in this river that the anchor was able to hold us at all in this orientation to the chain.

It took a full 35 minutes to untie the knot, making use of all three boat poles on board. Trying to haul up 100+ pounds of chain with flimsy recreational boat poles can be an exercise in frustration, and, in the end, we broke the expensive three-section expandable pole, and completely lost an expensive Shurhold pole over the side. This latter item floated just long enough to cause us to scramble around the deck trying to retrieve it, before sinking to the bottom. Of course, the railroad bridge closed while we were messing around, and we ended up station-keeping for another ten minutes before we could proceed.

The Acosta Bridge with it's fancy lighting turned on, as seen from Metropolitan Park. Not sure why the lights, which have mostly been off, are on. They do change colors.

Even though our plan to arrive at slack had been thwarted by the fouled anchor, we had no trouble tying up on the inside of the A-dock T-head at Metropolitan Park. I immediately got started on battery charging, and Louise did some more laundry as long as we had power and water. We had originally figured only to spend a single night, mindful of how busy things get on the weekends.

I put the scooter on the ground so that I could run across the bridge to the Amazon locker, where I had four shipments of watermaker filters sent. I also wanted to get to West Marine to see if I could replace one or both boat poles. Having the scoot on the ground let me run down to Indochine again for takeout on Thursday, which was delicious. They've opened their dining room since my last visit, but only a single table had patrons. It almost felt safe enough to eat inside.

Amazon Locker "Garnet." Safely outdoors, and fairly easy to reach.

The marine forecast had turned lousy when we arrived, with wind and rain forecast all weekend. We reasoned that this would keep the normal mayhem at bay, and with the railroad bridge closed until 2pm daily for maintenance, we decided to just stay at the dock until today. That let us FreeCycle all our remaining cat items, including the fancy automatic litter box, her carrier, and some unopened food and litter. It was all making us cry every time we ran into it, and we're glad it all went to a good home.

Vector by herself, left, at the end of the dock, with sunset over the city. Jax fireboat dock in the foreground.

On my couple of trips out of the marina, I noticed that Intuition Ale House, a short walk away, had re-opened. I've been craving a burger for a while, the last one having been at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club nearly two months ago. With order-at-the-counter service and a big open-air patio on the roof, we reasoned that if the place was not busy, we could safely eat there, notwithstanding our intent to stay out of restaurants for the foreseeable future.

Even though it was Friday night, normally busy, we had the entire patio nearly to ourselves. Only one other table, perhaps 20' away, had patrons, a video crew wearing UFC passes. I learned later that, of all the places in the US, Jacksonville hosted yesterday the first spectator sporting event of the Covid era, just two blocks from us at the Veterans Memorial Arena. There were no spectators, just crew, press, and participants. I passed two staff buses making their way through the empty city streets on my way to West Marine.

This Faux-Deco mural of the downtown waterfront adorns the patio wall at Intuition Ale.

Also on my way to West Marine, I passed through the trendy Avondale neighborhood, where we have enjoyed dining many times in the past. All of the restaurants were open and serving on their patios. While the outdoor venue is safer than indoors, it looked to me like too many unmasked people far closer together than made sense. But it made me a bit wistful.

West Marine is near our old digs at Ortega Landing Marina, and I looped through the parking lot. The marina is packed, nearly every slip full, and although I'd heard the clubhouse is closed, the pool and hot tub are open and were in use. Unlike our last visit, the parking lot was completely full and cars were parked in the overflow lot.

Fuzzy, distant shot of Jax Fire on the Acosta Bridge and on the water.

Friday I noticed the city's big fireboat, normally quartered downriver, heading upriver and then hanging out downtown and spraying its water cannons into the air. As I peered through my binoculars I also saw several firetrucks parked on the Acosta Bridge, with an enormous US flag suspended between two ladder trucks. A quick search revealed it was for a Blue Angels flyover, in honor of first responders. We made it up onto the flybridge in time to catch them make their big pass over the city; no maneuvers, but smoke on, and with the usually idle plane #7 flying alongside.

Blue Angels over Jacksonville.

We are going to continue isolating at home, walking in uncrowded places, and eating on board or in open-air venues away from other people. While this has been our plan for some time, I have since come across an article that explains well the underlying science behind that decision, penned by Erin Bromage, who is an Associate Professor of Infection and Immunology at UMass Dartmouth. The article is available on his personal site, here, but the site-builder he's used is so bad that we had trouble loading it completely. My good friend Charles has made a PDF of the article, here.

Other things we are doing: Quarantining our purchases for three days or wiping them down with 70% isopropanol, measuring our O2 saturation twice (or more) daily, and wearing masks at all times when inside of buildings, and outdoors when in proximity to others. We're also being religious about hand washing.

At dinner one night, this appeared on our aft door. It took us a while to figure it out -- a small, rectangular aperture in the pilothouse had turned Vector into a Camera Obscura. This is an image of the sun, near sunset.

Today as we approached the Main Street lift bridge, I could see through my binoculars that the Chart House was doing a land-office business for Mothers' Day brunch. Many of the patrons appeared to be getting on in years. A few minutes later, as we waited for the railroad bridge to open, I could see that River City Brewing Company was also open and serving indoors. If these two examples are any indication, I think we are going to see a post-Mothers'-day wave of cases in the next two weeks.

We should be anchored in Green Cove Springs well before cocktail hour. We'll be remaining aboard this evening, but tomorrow I will take the e-Bike ashore and make another run to the mail drop, where more watermaker parts await me. GCS is an uncrowded town, and I expect we'll be able to safely stroll for exercise, and perhaps eat takeout, from any of several places, in the lovely park.

The supermoon rises above the Isaiah Hart Bridge.

Update: We are anchored off the city dock in Green Cove Springs, Florida (map). We'll be here for a few days before heading back to Jacksonville, where I have more items en route to the Amazon Locker. After that, we will be looking for a weather window to head north on the outside, before the hurricane season exclusion of our insurance policy takes effect.