Sunday, September 10, 2017

Port Condition Yankee

At 1300 today the Captain of the Port set Port Condition Yankee. No vessels are allowed in, and any commercial vessels already here are ordered to leave by 8pm. We've been duly warned that drawbridges may lock down at winds of 25kt and that rescue aircraft will be grounded.

Vector, as ready as she gets.

We expect Port Condition Zulu to be set sometime tomorrow morning. At that point the port will be locked down and everyone will have to live with whatever position they're already in. The marina is closed today, but just ten minutes ago an 85' yacht came in and tied up to the outside of the Megadock. They are the only vessel tied to the outside of the dock.

Megayacht Macramé.

I spent the morning taping up locker doors, window seams, and the aft door. We brought the outside chairs into the salon, which involves taking the screen door out of its track. We're now as ready as we can be. After lunch it was high tide, and we walked ashore to have a look around.

Aft doors with all the leakage points taped. I'll tape around the right-side jamb tonight.

Windows get the same treatment.

We're just a day past full moon and so we have spring tides. Even today, without the effect of the storm, the lower parts of the parking lot are flooded. I'm able to touch the top of the pilings while standing on the dock, so we have perhaps six feet and change of headroom for surge. The surge forecast, thankfully, has dropped to 1-3 feet. Still, the parking lot will be fully flooded, and water may come in to the Rice Mill Building and the Sea Store. Rice Mill has about 8" of sandbags.

Parking lot flooded at high tide.

Not a lot of headroom on the dock pilings.

So far we've seen gusts to about 20kt, and it's probably blowing a steady 15kt. We're being pushed away from the dock, so getting off and on the boat is a challenge. Overnight winds will build into the 30s, and we expect a full dozen hours of storm-force winds tomorrow.

These lumps are the high ground in the parking lot. Not high enough.

Our biggest concern at this point is other boats who may be less well-prepared. Just downriver of us is a collection of rag-tag sailboats anchored in front of the Coast Guard station. We heard tell of one cutting loose last year and ping-ponging it's way down the marina fairway, gouging a half dozen expensive yachts in the process. We have two large fenders staged on deck in case we need to fend off.

Anchorage just downriver of us.

Right now we are digesting coverage of the situation in south Florida. The Keys have been without power since last night and all the local web cams are off-line, along with most of the cellular network. It may be a full day before we know what the damage looks like. And while the surge forecast has actually been dropping, most of SW Florida seems destined for catastrophic flooding.

Salon is packed. Here are the deck chairs, the outside rugs, and Angel's escape pod.

We've received many well-wishes in the comments and on social media and I am hard-pressed to answer each one. Thank you for your thoughts. We will be fine here, and our thoughts are now very much with our many friends in Florida. While many of them have already evacuated, their property, boats, and belongings are still in harm's way.

No beer until Tuesday. Maybe longer, since they did not sandbag the doors.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


If you are following along, I probably do not need to tell you that our situation here improved significantly overnight. We were up early this morning expecting to shove off, but the 0500 track forecast moved the cone of probability completely out of South Carolina and even out of Savannah. Surge forecast is now below five feet, and wind speed forecast for Charleston harbor is below 55mph.

Nine lines on 18 different cleats.

After downing our first cup of coffee, we made the decision that we were better off remaining tied to the dock. Louise-the-boatswain added several more lines; we now have nine lines on nine different dock cleats and nine different boat cleats. (The possibility of one or more cleats letting go is very real, so tying two lines to the same cleat does not provide as much redundancy.) Now that it's past mid-day, we are committed to our decision.

Taping the covers on the instruments. Water getting into the instruments is worse than losing a cover.

Today's goal is to reduce windage and secure everything. I took down the flybridge windscreens, lowered the SSB antennas and removed their top sections, removed the plotters from the tender and the flybridge, and taped up the flybridge instruments. We took the bicycles off the deck and stowed them with the marina's golf carts on the floating dock.

Tender and scooters strapped down with extra lines. If you zoom in you can see the plotter has been removed from the dinghy.

By the end of the day all the outside furniture will be inside, and all outside lockers will be taped closed. I put extra lines over the tender and scooters to secure them to the deck. The big question for us was whether or not to remove the canvas over the flybridge.

Windscreens removed. The naked supports make it look like we just have invisible ones.

You may recall me saying, after having the repaired canvas re-installed, that it would not likely survive another removal and re-installation. If Vector was going to see hurricane-force winds, we'd remove it regardless, because of the stress it would place on the frame and the additional windage for the boat as a whole. That's not a concern with the current forecast. We decided to take our chances leaving it in place; I threw a line over the top and cinched it down to minimize the flapping and the stress on the center seam.

Hoping these extra lines holding the top down will do more good than harm.

Today we were able to turn off the air conditioners for the first time since arriving in Charleston two months ago, and we have all the windows open. Sometime tomorrow we will close the windows, and tape over the seams in the sliders.

Plotter removed and cables covered and secured. The canvas is back over the instruments, edges taped down.

Last night we went into town for a final evening ashore. With the scooters stowed and the car in a garage, we availed ourselves of the marina's courtesy shuttle. Due to the early closure, the last ride out was at 5pm, and so we had them drop us at Fleet Landing for a beer.

Fleet Landing is right next to the cruise pier, and we were both surprised to see passengers disembarking from Carnival Ecstasy after 5pm. Anyone who's seen a cruise operation knows that the passengers are hustled off the ship in the morning so that cabins can be serviced and the next round of passengers can board in the afternoon. It finally occurred to us that Carnival had canceled the following cruise, scheduled to depart for the Bahamas, and thus were highly incented to let the last batch of passengers stay aboard all day and keep buying $5 cocktails in souvenir glasses.

Odd to see passengers disembarking, suitcases in tow, so late in the day.

We walked over to Pearlz Oyster Bar for dinner, then walked across town to King Street. For a Friday evening, the city was empty. About one business in fifteen had already boarded and sandbagged for the storm; I suspect today more will do the same.

This building, under renovation, got ahead of the game with sandbags.

We are more or less confined to the boat now until the storm is past, sometime Tuesday morning. We'll walk over to Salty Mikes bar right here on the property for a beer later before coming back home for dinner. I expect most businesses to close tomorrow sometime. It's unclear whether or not the marina will lose power; we'll be switching to internal supplies tomorrow night.

Using the men's room last night was a challenge.

In anticipation of being upriver today, yesterday I activated our pre-paid Verizon hotspot so we could keep the cameras on-line. We'll be using that when the marina's Internet inevitably quits working. I expect to be able to post regular updates throughout the storm on our Twitter feed.

Now we wait. And grieve for Florida.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Moving target

Things finally got real here at the Charleston City Marina. By Wednesday night the models were predicting a direct strike on Charleston, and Thursday morning preparations at the marina started in earnest. Staff started taking down awnings, bundling up the fuel hoses, and removing all loose items from the docks, including the ubiquitous liferings and throw lines.

These laminated signs are everywhere.

Also Thursday, several boats that had expected to ride the storm out here at the docks had already left or were in the process of leaving, including some whose photos I posted here in my last entry. Longer and heavier than Vector, they opted to bash through heavy seas in the Atlantic and make port well north of the predicted danger zone.

In the meantime, we went back over our options Wednesday night, looking closely again at heading north either in the Atlantic or on the ICW. We dismissed both options, with waves approaching eight feet offshore, and the timing of the shoals on the ICW meaning we could not possibly get far enough north in time (some stretches of the ICW are less than four feet deep at low tide). There are no rivers that head far enough inland north of us for well over a hundred miles.

The canvas was removed from this structure and now there is a generator strapped down beneath it.

We decided our best bet would be to stick with our plan to head up the Cooper River, which meant we would not need to leave the dock until Saturday. Thus I decided to go ahead with my doctor's appointment yesterday morning, an outpatient procedure involving general anesthesia. That meant no driving the boat or operating any other equipment for the rest of the day.

After examining the storm surge models closely, we determined that it would be too dangerous to leave Vector here at the docks if we had to bug out. Almost certainly the docks would come off their pilings, with 12-16' of surge projected, and, by our measurements, only 7-8' of leeway on the pilings.

All the fire and dewatering pumps have been moved to "higher ground."

That same surge model projected as much as six feet of surge all the way to the dam on the Cooper. Given that 100mph winds meant we'd have to leave the boat to her own devices once the winds ramped past 25kt or so, our new concern here was that the boat could swing out of the channel while the surge was in, then end up high and dry as the surge went out, and she'd be lost.

We decided instead to go all the way into Lake Moultrie. Winds will be higher there without the protection of the dam and the bluffs, and with the lake 14 miles wide, the fetch could make for very large waves. But we could tuck in to the expected lee side of the lake, put all 400' of chain out, and be relatively confident the boat would ride it out without hitting anything. There would be, of course, no storm surge in the lake.

Pinopolis Lock only operates until 6pm, and the lock operator could not reliably tell me when they might shut down the lock due to wind. And so we decided we'd shove off a day early, this morning, so we could get all the way into the lake, scope things out, anchor for a night, and still have time tomorrow to come back out of the lake if need be, before they shut the lock down. That would also give us time to get ashore, get an Uber back to Charleston, and retrieve the rental car.

Lots of lightweight sheds have been strapped down.

Two things conspired to derail that plan. First was that I came down with a serious fever and chills in the middle of the night last night, and given some chance it might have been a complication from my procedure we needed to consult with the doctor this morning. By morning the fever was gone and I was feeling fine, and by 10am the doctor had pronounced me good to go, and we could have still made the lake by then.

The other matter, though, was that the track forecast was shifted considerably westward overnight. Florida will pay the price for the Carolinas to be spared, but as of this writing, Charleston is no longer even in the cone of probability for landfall. While that sounds like great news, the cone does still include Savannah, and we can still see hurricane-force winds here an a surge that will destroy the docks. Still, with a much lower forecast, we decided we could afford to spend an additional day here.

If the forecast track continues to move westward, there is even a chance we can remain right here at the dock for the entire storm. That's a long shot, but in case it comes to pass, I moved the rental car from the marina lot, which is certain to flood, over to the third floor of a city parking garage downtown. All of our important papers, passports, etc. and anything else we don't want to lose if the boat goes down are already in the car, along with bug-out provisions and a cat litter box.

Squared away against a windowless wall in a secure corner on an upper floor.

As the forecast stands now, we expect to see 70-80mph winds here at the docks, and surge is predicted right at the limit of the dock pilings. That's too much risk, and so unless that changes, we will leave here first thing in the morning tomorrow (Saturday) and head up the Cooper River. With only 2' of projected surge there and 55mph winds, we can ride it out aboard just downstream of the dam. We'll get a lift back here tomorrow night to get the car, so we still have a bug-out option if things go sideways.

NHC track forecasts are issued four times a day, at 5 and 11 EDT. So our final go/no-go for the Cooper River run will be tomorrow morning at 5am. If wind and surge forecasts for Charleston Harbor show high probability of safe limits we will batten down and stay here. Otherwise we'll be under way by 0700.

We have hotel rooms booked along the I-95 corridor for Sunday and Monday nights. The Sunday 11am forecast will be the determination point for whether we will remain on board, or evacuate by car and let the boat take its chances. If we evacuate we will secure the tender ashore as best we can, but there is a good chance it will be lost. Our two-person inflatable kayak is in the trunk of the car so that we can get back to Vector if the tender is lost.

Everyone with trailers for their small boats has been scrambling to pull them out. This ramp only works at high tide.

Many thanks to all our readers who have inquired about our welfare or offered assistance. This morning a nice couple from Summerville showed up to check on us and offer assistance, dispatched by a long-time reader. And we have a place to stay, with family, near Greenville should it come to that. Our fingers are crossed that it won't be necessary.

Florida will not be so lucky. We've already seen the pictures of the total devastation from Tortola and Saint Martin, and we expect much of Florida to suffer a similar fate. Sadly, many will not heed the warnings, and lives will be lost. But many, many more will be homeless. Even as we prepare here, the Red Cross and other relief organizations are already mobilizing resources and staging in safe areas for the response; friends of ours are just a short ways inland right here in South Carolina, and many more are ready to head to Florida when the all-clear is given.

I will try to get updates out here as the situation develops, and if I can't post I will try to update Vector's Twitter stream. Once storm-force winds hit, cell service may go down. I have the satellite phone in the bug-out bag and I will update the Twitter feed from there if that should happen.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Irma update

I know many are concerned about us, and in the interests of keeping everyone informed, here is the latest update.

Vector midway through prep. Turned around, with scoots and tender loaded.

Forecast models have alternately targeted and un-targeted Charleston for a direct strike. As of the 5pm EDT forecast today, the best-guess track has Irma making a first landfall in SE Florida, bringing it inland for a while and thus robbing it of some energy, before going back to sea around Cape Canaveral and then coming back ashore somewhere along the Georgia coast.

Even if the eye comes ashore as far south as Brunswick, we will still see Tropical Storm force winds here, and Category-1 winds if it lands as far north as Savannah. We are expediting our storm preparations.

The 153' "Focus" is planning to ride it out at the dock. Note the anchor deployed.

Yesterday we decked the tender and then turned the boat around. This morning we took a Lyft over to the Enterprise car rental in West Ashley and rented a car for a week. At just $145, this was a no-brainer. When we got back to the marina, we topped off he scooters and hoisted them on deck. All loose items are out of the tender and it is lashed down, and the stuffed bears from the scoots have found homes in the salon.

With our new rental car we drove out to Moncks Corner, scene of the infamous paintball incident, to look at the tailrace canal off the Cooper River, and Lake Moultrie. This morning the bridge tender called me to say both railroad bridges were now operational, and in the course of driving out to the canal we actually ran into him and had a nice chat about conditions there.

Where we would anchor. Pinopolis Lock and Dam in the background. Bluffs, trees, and the dam provide some wind break.

I spoke to some folks with local knowledge and learned the Savannah River is not really an option. And Thunderbolt Marine, where we first saw Vector, informed me that they did not have space or equipment to put us on the hard for the storm.

So we now have two options. Secure the boat to the dock as best we can, or else go 30 miles up the Cooper River and anchor. It will come down to the wind speed forecast. Up to the limit of Tropical Storm force, (63kt or less), we will likely remain tied to the dock, and remain on board. Through Category 1 hurricane conditions (64-82kt) we will head upriver and ride it out on the boat. We'll try to do that early enough to get a Lyft back to town to retrieve the rental car.

These pedestals on a 115' yacht sported bar stools with covers until today. This crew will also ride it out here at the dock.

For Category 2 conditions or above, we will say our goodbyes to Vector and evacuate inland with whatever we can carry. If that's well forecast before we leave the dock, that's where Vector will make her last stand without us. It is unlikely she will survive a Category 3 or beyond if the surge lifts the docks off the pilings (about a dozen feet above the high tide line).

The important thing here is that we have a car and an evacuation plan for ourselves and Angel the cat. We have a place to go. And we'll have the important things (passports, hard drives) with us. In the time that remains before arrival we will do what we can to prepare, up to and including removing the canvas we just paid good money to repair (the canvas will likely not survive the removal, but the frame may not survive if we don't).

This 112' steel research vessel, the Nikola, came in to ride out the storm here.

Monday, September 4, 2017


Notwithstanding that I said I would post my next update here "once we have more firm plans," current events dictate I post again now, even though, if anything, our plans have become even less firm. And by current events, I mean Hurricane Irma.

I resisted the temptation to post here a day or two ago, when many models, including ensemble runs of the GFS and Euro, showed a high likelihood of a direct strike on Charleston, at Category 4 or more. Those projections induced some nervousness here, even though we have been doing this a long, long time and really should know better.

Yet another Ashley River sunset from the dock.

A word or two about that is in order. There is a very good reason that National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast tracks only go out five days, and, honestly, we remember when it was three and the NHC was debating whether or not it would be in the public interest to release the following two days, which they had been running experimentally. And that reason is simply that forecasting is just no good beyond that. The probability circle -- that thing which makes the track forecast a cone instead of a line -- is just too large beyond five days to be of any practical use.

The NHC, of course, uses sophisticated computer models to help it forecast, and those computer models do, in fact, go out beyond three or five days, depending on the specific model. Professional forecasters use the models as tools to inform their own judgment; they don't view them as any kind of accurate representation of what will actually happen.

A decade ago, few outside of meteorology had ever heard of these models, and fewer had access to them. The Internet has changed that, and now there are a dozen or more sites publishing model runs, and any number of forecasters making prognostications, some more well-informed than others. And anything beyond a few days is guesswork, and possibly a disservice.

The NHC is the relevant brain trust on this subject. These are not folks who studied meteorology as undergraduates and then got jobs at Channel 4 spouting the weather. Every Senior Hurricane Specialist has a PhD in relevant science, and every one of them has been doing tropical storm forecasting for years. No one is better at it than the NHC, period. So it's a bit distracting to hear people making unequivocated statements about what will or will not happen a week or more out. If only the weather cooperated like that.

All of that said, even a full week is not enough time to avoid a hurricane in a boat that goes seven knots. And so we have no choice but to project that probability circle, even as large as it is, out beyond what the NHC publishes, and use that to decide what level of preparation we should be making and what evacuation options are possible.

To that end, I've been buttoning up projects and getting the boat ready for sea. We splashed the tender and ran it around for the first time in three months, which necessitated taking apart the steering system and cleaning it out. We ran the generator for the first time since arriving here. We've loaded up on two full weeks of provisions. We pumped out the waste tank. And in the next day or so we will top up the scooter fuel tanks and turn the boat back around in case we need to load them in a hurry.

As of this writing, all of the guidance has been shifted farther south. A Charleston landfall as a major hurricane is now less likely. But still not entirely out of the question, and we need to remain vigilant. And plans... we have a few.

Complicating all of this is the fact that I'd previously scheduled a medical procedure for this Thursday, and Louise is planning to be in California for a few days starting on the 13th. She's deferred making any nonrefundable travel plans until at least tomorrow, and I can probably take until the end of the day tomorrow to wave off my Thursday appointment if need be.

The plans are too numerous and diverse to go into all of them here. But the three main options at this writing are

  • Stay right where we are. Secure everything on deck, execute a storm tie-up, and move the scooters to high ground. Prepare go-bags and the cat carrier for a last-minute bug-out by land to a safer place. That would preferably be a hotel, but it could end up being a shelter depending on conditions.
  • Shove off and cruise about 40 miles up the Cooper River to Lake Moultrie. Not a lot of wind protection, but further inland, and out of the reach of storm surge. At the moment this option is not available because the CSX railroad bridge is stuck in the closed position, but at least the lock is operating, so if they fix the bridge this is an option.
  • Cruise two days south to Savannah. The Savannah river is navigable for 150 miles and we could conceivably go as far upriver as needed to be safe.

We're hoping to have enough information to make decisions before either I go to the doctor or Louise gets on a plane. Even if we do not take a direct hit, the storm is likely to have some kind of impact here in Charleston, and if that impact has me moving the boat while Louise is away, I'll need to find some help. Most of the folks I already know will likely be busy with problems of their own, so bringing in help from inland might be necessary; fortunately we made some connections when we spent three months in Chattanooga this time last year.

In the meantime I am plugging along on what projects I can still do, and we're obsessively checking the weather pages. We're also staying in touch with friends who are in other areas that are possible targets, and continuing to monitor the relief efforts in Texas and Louisiana.

If we do end up executing any of our plans, I will likely be too busy to post here on the blog, but I will try to keep everyone apprised over on our Twitter page.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Captain's Mast

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the better part of three weeks working on the great flybridge project. I am happy to report that it's done now, and I have moved on to other things. The rest of this post concerns that project and nothing else, so if you're not interested in project details and photos you can safely ignore it, and I will be back to regular blog updates in my next post.

Vector's sporty new look, with repaired canvas and all hardware relocated to the mast.

To recap, Vector has a very, very nice canvas top over the flybridge, stretched over a custom-made, permanently mounted aluminum frame. This is not original to the boat, having instead been added by her last owner and our good friend John, who wrote about it in his blog at the time (the photo, apparently, is no longer available). That blog post, incidentally, also details the incredible list of upgrades John made to the boat to get her ready for cruising, all of which made her very attractive to us when we were shopping.

Vector, then called Acadian, before the top was added.

On that list you will find a satellite TV system, a new chart plotter, and an AIS receiver. Not mentioned on the list is the cellular booster antenna also added. These items were added at the same time as the top and frame, and the electronics firm designed the implementation to take advantage of the frame for mounting the sat dome (and an empty twin for visual symmetry), the AIS antenna, the cell antenna, the new GPS receiver for the plotter, and to relocate of the broadcast TV antenna in order to fit the GPS receiver for the AIS to its previous spot on the mast. They opted to use the enormous hollow mast as a cable chase for all of the above, and while they were at it, the cables for the six lights installed in the frame to light the flybridge deck. The frame maker added reinforcement to support all this.

Another view of the mast and flybridge before the addition of the top.

The consequence of using the mast as a cable chase meant that the mast was now married to the top, whereas previously it was hinged and could be lowered to reduce the air draft for low bridges. Reflecting this, the installers drilled a pair of holes in the mating flange of the mast section and bolted it in place "permanently." The mast and the aluminum top frame were not mechanically connected in any way; only the signal and power cables exiting the mast and entering the frame's built-in cable chase connected the two. The installers dressed up the cables crossing the gap with sections of white vinyl sanitation hose (really).

I'm not sure what the air draft was with the mast lowered, but I know that when John brought the boat down the rivers from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, he lowered the mast in Chicago and had no trouble passing under the low bridges on the canal system, and specifically the 19'-3" (nominal) fixed bridge on the Illinois River at Lemont, IL, which is the lowest fixed clearance on the "Great Loop" route. The weight of the lowered mast posed a problem, inasmuch as he could then not raise the mast himself until getting help from a yard several weeks and hundreds of miles later, in Fulton, Mississippi.

With the mast locked upright, our minimum air draft is 24'-8", which is the top of the anchor light. That was only achievable if I climbed up the back end of the flybridge far enough to drop the four antennas affixed to the mast and the flybridge top first. We did that once, to clear a 25' bridge that was having trouble opening for us, and it was a real pain. The highest point on the aluminum flybridge frame is at 19'-8", and short of removing the whole frame at a boatyard, this is really Vector's absolute minimum air draft.

It has been a goal of mine, ever since getting the boat, to relocate antennas and reroute wires until the mast could once again be lowered. This would give us a high-water clearance of 19'-8" and let us clear a number of 20' bridges in the northeast US (including the one that stopped us at Troy, NY), go all the way around the Great Loop (timing the BNSF bridge in Lemont for something other than high pool), and eventually cruise rivers and canals further afield that have fixed clearances of six meters.

While that conceptually seemed quite simple, as I delved further and further into the wiring while we were at our first yard stay in Deltaville, Virginia back in 2013, it became increasingly clear that it would be a major undertaking. Already overwhelmed with a growing scope of yard work, we shelved the idea until some undetermined future date, when we'd either need to do it in order to get someplace, or one of the major systems involved needed to be replaced anyway.

In the meantime, anytime I needed to add something aloft, I made certain to avoid the temptation to run more wires between the mast and the top. For example, when the GPS "mushroom" mounted to the top quit working back in 2015, rather than simply install the replacement on the same mount, I instead added a new mount to the mast itself for the purpose.

Fast forward to Tropical Storm Cindy, which we rode out in Biloxi, Mississippi just two months ago. As I wrote on our way out, the storm was the last straw for the seam down the center of the canvas, which at that point had been on the top, unchanged, for a full ten years. In that post I explained why simply undoing the laces and removing the canvas was never really an option for us, due to all of the aforementioned antennas being essentially bolted right through the canvas into the aluminum frame. Now, we had no choice: to repair (or replace) the canvas, every one of those antennas would need to come down, and wiring would need to be cut, threaded back out of the chases, and repaired and replaced afterward.

The removal of all this gear alone is probably 20% of the whole job, and if I simply replaced it all as-is that might have been perhaps 50% of the effort, still leaving me with 100% for some future date to do the work as intended. Plenty of incentive to just bite the bullet and do it now. I detailed most of the work in removing all the gear in my first post from Charleston a few weeks ago, so I will not repeat it here.

Only one canvas shop quoted on actually repairing the material we already had, a quote of just $500. Considering a replacement top is five times that amount, and would take three months to schedule and complete, we felt repair was the right way to go if we could get even another 18 months out of the material we already had. Eight to ten years is the expected life of one of these tops. The canvas shop opted not to come remove the top until they were ready to actually do the repair, and so much of my work thus had to be done with the canvas in place, adding a bit to the time.

The splice in the galley ceiling for the KVH gyroscopically stabilized satellite dish power and control wiring.

After removing the active satellite dome and all remaining antennas, I traced all the cables back to their respective splices in the galley ceiling. The VHF antenna and cellular antennas needed their connectors cut off to fish the wires back out undamaged. I was disturbed to find that vibration had worn through the jacket of the VHF cable down to the braid in one spot, but it was salvageable with application of some heat shrink.

Abrasion in VHF cable. With no connector on the end I was able to slide a tight-fitting heat shrink over this and repair it.

With the top in place I was able to remove the six flybridge lights, but not the custom HDPE ("Starboard") trim rings for them. I wrote about these lights and rings back in 2016, when I was trying to replace two which had failed. I never succeeded, and we opted just to live without the two forward red lights working, since all four white ones still worked. The mast project meant all six would need to be rewired, so now was the time to replace them all with something newer.

This technology has changed a great deal in a decade, and I was able to find compact LED recessed lights that would fit the existing holes in the aluminum and eliminate the trim rings entirely, giving a lower-profile look. I worried one of the trim rings off and jury-rigged a new light in place to see how it would look with the top still on, as these newer lights "leak" a great deal of light out the back as well (they have transparent housings). We actually liked the glow reflecting back from the canvas, and I set the lights aside until the top could be removed.

One of the new lights, flush mounted in the aluminum with a "back glow" reflecting off the Weblon.

Having, by this time, already removed all the antenna wiring, the six power wires for these lights were the last holdouts keeping me from lowering the mast. With the lights out but the top still on I was able to fish out the four aftermost cables entirely, pulling new, smaller wires through in their place, and removed them intact back to the junction box at the base of the mast. The two forwardmost lights, the red ones which have been inoperative for a long time, would not yield their cables until the top was removed and I could access a pair of tiny holes in the top of the frame, so I just cut those two cables between the frame and the mast.

That let us remove the bolts and the pin-and-cotter arrangement that held the mast in place before the bolts were added, set up our new portable winch, and begin a test-lowering of the mast. The same beefy "arch" structure that the frame fabricators had included to support the loads of the satellite domes and other antennas would be our strongback for winching the mast up and down, using an inexpensive one-ton winch meant for ATVs ($70 on Amazon).

New winch, mounted to a heavy-duty mending plate, with U-bolt to affix it to the frame. 50-amp Anderson connector is at upper left.

I rigged our digital crane scale between the mast and the winch to see how quickly the force would escalate as the mast approached its nearly-horizontal "down" position. John had estimated the force at 600-800 pounds, so I was a bit surprised to see the scale top out at right around 200. Well within the rating of the one-ton winch and also not too much horizontal stress on the very beefy aluminum frame. I knew I would be adding another 30 to 40 pounds of antennas to the mast, but still within reason.

Test-lowering of mast. Crane scale is black box just to right and winch is behind starboard flag halyard.

With the mast lowered for the first time in a decade, I was able to get a good look inside, straighten out some of the cabling, and clean out a whole lot of mud-dauber nests. Sealing the new cable entries to keep the mud daubers out went on the priority list. Inexplicably, the installers chose to use carriage bolts when they bolted the mast in place, but did not square out the holes, so the square shoulders did considerable damage to the paint. I replaced the bolts with hex-head ones with washers to cover up the damage.

Base of mast showing cable entry and plenty of mud dauber detritus.

Next up was figuring out how to re-install the satellite antenna. All the other antennas could easily and appropriately be installed on the mast with a little bit of work. The sat dome, however, was more problematic. It's heavy, and it really wants a clear view of the sky from 15° above horizontal in all 360° of the compass. I really wanted to install it above the boat deck rail near the aft hatch, where it would be closer to the DirecTV receiver, closer to the boat's center of roll, and have a mostly unobstructed sky view, with the mast subtending only a small bit of arc and probably not obstructing the signal much.

That was great in theory, and we even jury-rigged a mounting platform across the rail, set the empty dome up, and had a good long look at the boat from the dock to be sure it didn't look too much like a wart back there, or an amateur afterthought. I was all set to start fabricating mounting hardware when a problem presented itself. In spite of being much closer to the receiver (by at least 50' or so, as the cables run), there was just no way to get the cables from the boat deck down to the receiver cabinet. The only vertical "chases" in the walls are obstructed by horizontal framing members and/or tightly packed hard-batt insulation. The wires that already run up that way, such as the power cables for the davit, were installed long before the walls went on, and there's just no way to fish anything through.

Reluctantly, I decided to install the sat dome on the mast. The only way to get a 360° clear view would be to put it right on top, where the anchor light is, and move the anchor light to a strut which is made for that purpose. I had all the hardware for this (except the anchor light strut, maybe $200), but it presents a few problems:

  • It increases our mast-up air draft by almost two feet. Yes, we can now lower the mast, but this addition would mandate doing just that in far more places, and would make us wait for bridge openings we currently can clear closed.
  • It moves 30 pounds or so of weight almost four feet higher from the center of roll than where it had been, increasing the moment of inertia.
  • It adds a lot of movement to the antenna itself under way as the boat rolls.
  • It looks a bit topheavy visually.

Instead I opted to mount the dome on a platform attached to the back of the mast, with the top of the dome just below the sweep of the radar array. That would mean the mast itself would partially obstruct the signal any time the TV satellite is directly ahead of the boat. We decided that was an acceptable trade-off.

If this was being done as part of the original build of the boat, the platform would have been constructed as a fixed part of the mast, in the same way that the platform for the radar set is integrated. Without wanting to weld and paint on the existing mast, an expensive task which would also require removing most of the existing equipment and wiring, I turned instead to aftermarket mounts made for the purpose.

These mounts are intended for sailboat masts and other masts with circular or oval cross-sections, and the "ears" that attach to the mast are curved. The manufacturers assured me the curved ears could be affixed to our mast's flat surface, but recommended a compressible gasket to take up the void. They have a plethora of holes because they are intended to be attached with numerous pop rivets; most masts are made of relatively thin material.

Seaview SM-18 sat dome mount with my home-made brackets attached.

I ended up finding a used take-off on eBay for $130 (the full kit, new, is $330) that had no ears at all. Instead I fabricated a flat-surface mounting bracket using a section of aluminum square tubing and some stainless bolts and washers. The square tubing is attached to the mast with 1/4" bolts into drilled-and-tapped threads in the 1/4" aluminum plate of the mast itself. There is no way to get a nut onto a bolt inside the mast. If I find over time that these threaded holes are not adequate. I will have to cut an access hole in the front of the mast and cover it with a Beckson Plate, and I'd rather avoid that f I can.

New mount attached to mast. Black Ethernet cable from Ubiquiti Bullet will get rerouted and shrouded in white slit loom.

Only after getting the mounting plate fully installed and heaving the dish assembly on top of it did I discover that the nice, factory-finished, powder-coated hole in the plate intended for the cables is too small for my dish. The dish calls for a 3" hole and the plate provides a 2" hole. With the dish mounted to the (perfectly aligned) factory holes for the mounting screws, the plate partly obstructs two of the four cable connectors.

Down came the dish (which I had already carefully mounted with all four bolts) and the mounting plate so I could enlarge the hole. Fortunately, I have a 3" hole saw capable of cutting aluminum. If you've used a hole saw, you'll know it depends for centering on a "pilot" bit in the middle of the material to be cut. When you want to enlarge an existing hole, you need to first cover it with material for the pilot to drill into. My first two attempts at this were inadequate and I ended up with a messy hole that needed some white paint later to hide the gaffe. It all worked out in the end, though.

Hole enlarged and dish mounted.

Once I had the dish back in place and all the cables hooked up at both ends, it fired right up and locked onto the bird. It all looks almost "factory installed" up there and I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out. I mounted the platform even with the mast "wings" for best appearance, which has the beam of the radar just grazing the top of the dome. That has it missing the actual dish in all but the northernmost latitudes, and we should have no trouble even using the dish under way.

I would normally have drilled a hole in the mast just below the bracket to run all the cables. But there are already two large (1.5" diameter) holes just on the opposite side of the mast, where the cables used to come out and head toward the chase in the top. Rather than cut yet more holes, I wrapped the cable bundle in some white slit-loom and fed them around the mast and through one of the existing holes, by way of a 90° sanitary elbow (seems we can't get away from sewer fittings here) to dress it and keep the water out of the mast.

Cable entry via a sanitary ell. Stainless cover to the left is made for unused holes in sinks; it barely fit.

I added yet another vertical mount to the mast wings, on the port side this time to match the one I added a year or so ago to starboard. I centered it between the port VHF antenna and an existing GPS antenna so I could mount the Shakespeare broadcast TV antenna there. It looks a bit crowded but it all works.

Completed mast installation with new sat dome mount and relocated broadcast TV antenna.

Of the two antennas that were removed from the top, one was the cell antenna which we're simply getting rid of, as it no longer supports all the bands now in use. The other, fortuitously, turned out to be connected to the flybridge VHF radio. I bought a bracket to mount this to the outside rail of the top frame, then drilled a hole in the frame and fished the lead wire through the frame and down into the coaming where it was short reach to the VHF radio. Fishing the cable was the hardest part, since there's a right-angle turn and the weld seams inside the aluminum frame are rough and inhospitable to pulling wires.

Ultimately I used a combination of fish tapes, magnets (just like those old children's toys where you moved a race car around a game board with a magnet under the board) and coat hangers to get a string through, and then used that to pull the wire. Soldering a new PL-259 connector on the cable completed the job. All told, it took me nearly four hours to run this one single cable. If I fold the antenna down, the bracket is still below the uppermost part of the frame, and unlike the previous antenna mounts, there are no holes in the canvas and no need to remove anything to remove or replace the canvas.

Cable enters the frame through grommeted hole at right. At left is bottom of mount bracket.

Eventually the canvas shop sent a strapping young man to remove the top and bring it back to the shop. The two of us had it down in about fifteen minutes. It mostly came down and folded up without drama, although we had been warned that the ten-year-old Weblon had a good chance of cracking when we did this.

Topless Vector. The mast work is mostly done in this photo.

Vector looked oddly naked with her top off. The canvas shop had figured less than a week, and so I moved quickly to finish the work that could only be done while the top was off. That included removing the other five HDPE trim rings for the old flybridge lights, removing and replacing the last two lighting power wires, and fishing the new supply wires from the flybridge coaming and up through the aluminum top frame.

Once again all the wire fishing took many more hours than it should have. I am grateful that the frame installers actually cut holes in the coaming to get wires into the frame from there, but they did little to make fishing easy. I did end up drilling a couple of small holes to run my fish tape through for part of the process, which I later covered with metal tape made for repairing ducts.

Fishing wires for lights. You can see the tails of new cables hanging down in the light mounts.

At one point my fish tape got caught on a weld seam and Louise and I spent over an hour trying to free it; eventually I had to use my endoscope to find the snag and a coat hangar to free it. All told I think I spent more than six hours fishing wires for six puck lights. When I was done, though, I was able to wire up all six new lights to one of the two existing flybridge switches. The old "red" light switch got retasked for some blue LED strip lighting down the center top support; this will be used to supplement our anchor light for additional visibility in dark anchorages.

Six new white lights and the blue light special. Much more impressive at night.

Making a safety stand for the mast from five feet of 1-1/2" PVC pipe and some fittings completed the overall project; this will support the mast in its lowered position, with the winch cable remaining safely attached until the mast is again raised.

Lowering the completed mast with the winch.

With all of my "must do's" for the canvas and mast project thus done, I turned my attention to yet another project that has been languishing on my to-do list. At some level it is unrelated to the top project, but it involves the mast, and as long as I was up there on the ladder it made sense to do it now. That would be relocation of our remote-control spotlight.

The spotlight is another expensive item that John had added to the boat when getting it ready to cruise. It's an ACR, generally considered the gold standard of the industry, and it works really, really well. Control stations at both the pilothouse and flybridge helms allow it to be switched on or off and aimed from either station. It rotates 360° and adjusts up and down by 15°. It's heretofore been mounted on a very nice, very beefy, very expensive custom mounting stanchion attached to the forward end of the flybridge coaming.

Our fancy ACR spotlight on its custom perch at the front of the flybridge coaming.

That puts it at a great height for lighting anything up, but there is one big problem. Mounted here, it also illuminates the inside of the foredeck and its gunwales, a massive expanse of white paint which reflects thousands of candlepower right back into the pilothouse windows, and to a lesser extent onto the flybridge.  It's all but useless when driving from the pilothouse in darkness, as it immediately kills the helmsman's night vision and obscures the view ahead; it can be used with care from the flybridge so long as you remember to step back a bit before turning it on, so you can't see the foredeck.

After a couple of nighttime runs we gave up on using it at all, buying instead a cordless handheld model which we could use by stepping outside and holding it over the gunwales, where it could not reflect back to us from any part of the boat. Effective, but a pain, and requiring two of us if someone needs to actually be at the helm.

The ideal place for the spotlight would be on a bracket above the anchor and forward of the bow, but it would take too much salt water there, and there's really no easy way to run the massive seven-wire cable to it in that location. A good second choice would be bolted to the flybridge top, just far enough back that the forward portion of the top puts the foredeck in full shadow. But remember, we're trying to get things off the flybridge top, not put more things on. And thus we have our third choice, atop the mast, just below the anchor light. From here it can illuminate in almost 360°, is completely shaded from the foredeck, and still illuminates most objects within two or three boatlengths of the bow.

I spent a good deal of time noodling on how to make a bracket for it to attach it to the mast, until I realized there was already a very beefy welded-aluminum bracket up there, which was holding an LED steaming light weighing just a few ounces. A sketch, some geometry, and a bit of math revealed I could use that bracket for both the spotlight and the steaming light together if I just made a fairly light-duty, flat extension plate for it.

New bracket extension, and the rest of the cutting board from whence it came.

Aluminum would be the best choice, but sourcing and fabricating aluminum is something of a challenge on board. I chose instead to use HDPE, which is sold for marine use under the trade name StarBoard®. One of our dirty little secrets is that we know food-service-grade cutting boards are made of basically exactly the same material (the level of UV-resistance being one distinguishing factor), and I ordered a large, 1/2" thick cutting board on Amazon Prime for $15.

Extension in place with steaming and spotlights mounted. The spotlight is rotated to its closest-to-mast position, to make sure it was going to clear.

HDPE is easy to work using conventional tools, and cutting the extension to shape and adding appropriate mounting and cable holes took just a few minutes. The extension moves the steaming light forward by ten inches, leaving room behind it for the spotlight, which is tall enough that it shoots right over the steaming light. Leaving room for the spotlight to rotate through 360° meant only the aftmost two mounting screws go all the way through the original welded aluminum bracket, but the HDPE is plenty strong enough to support the remaining cantilevered part of the light.

New hole for the control cable (gray, at right). Installing the cable gland and its backing nut was a challenge. Yellow cable is for the steaming light.

The aforementioned seven-wire control cable from the spotlight runs just a few feet to a fancy electronic control box. The remote control stations for the spotlight connect to this box with regular 75-ohm cable TV coax. In its original location, the control box was mounted in the pilothouse overhead, between two of the windshield wipers. I had to move it to somewhere in the mast for the cable from the spotlight to reach.

Control box mounted to HDPE attached to existing radar mounting bolt.

Fortunately there is a convenient cavity below the radar array, with a nice big access plate, easy access to the inside of the mast, and a good mounting location in the form of the lower part of the radar mounting bolts. With some ingenuity I could mount the control box without drilling any more holes. I used another piece of cutting board, this one much smaller and thinner, as a mounting substrate for the controller, and mounted this to one of the radar bolts with an appropriate nut and a pair of stainless washers. 30' or so of CATV coax, a couple of F-connectors, and another 30' of power cable completed the installation.

Broader view of the under-radar access plate, with new control box at right. Cable in center is from radar. You can see my pull strings zip-tied to it.

The spotlight is working great in its new location, but the proof in the pudding will be when we can try it out at sea, in full darkness. I've left the old, beefy bracket in place in front of the flybridge. It looks a bit odd there with nothing on it, but it will give us a good mounting location for an additonal radar array or other equipment in the future. I'll probably mount a work light of some sort to it in the interim, for those times when we really do want to light up the foredeck (one of the things we used the spotlight for), and so it doesn't look so out of place.

It is somewhat ironic that we did all of this work right after completing our big loop of the western rivers, a trip we undertook because we could not go the full way around on the Great Loop trip. With these modifications and a bit of fortuitous timing in Chicago we can now, in fact, complete the loop, and we'll plan to do that at some point, picking up where we left off in Troy, going through the lakes to Chicago, and down the Illinois and Upper Mississippi to cross our wake at the confluence of the Ohio.