Saturday, July 23, 2016

The view from 30,000'

We are back home in Alabama after our whirlwind trip to California. I barely had time to keep up with email, let alone blog; now that we're home and rested I can catch up. We're not in any hurry now, as we paid for a full month here at the Riverwalk Marina in Decatur (map). I had expected to take just a couple of weeks, but the monthly rate was less than even seven days at the daily rate -- a no-brainer.

We arrived here mid-afternoon Thursday (the 7th), shortly after I posted here. We're on the north side of a face dock, and we arrived in ten knots of wind out of the south, making for quite the challenge docking. The marina has no staff, and it was a good ten minutes of back-and-forth maneuvering before I could get the midships close enough to the dock for Louise to lasso a cleat. All's well that ends well, and we tied up without incident.


Sunset over the Tennessee, from the Hard Dock Cafe at the marina.

The marina is actually on an island in the middle of the river, which in turn is really part of Wheeler Lake. A causeway connects the island to Tanner, Madison, and Huntsville on the north shore of the lake, and the "Steamboat Bill" bridge connects it to Decatur proper on the south shore. Consequently, nothing at all is in walking distance here except the restaurant on the property, the Hard Dock Cafe. It's extremely popular, with live music most nights and a good crowd. On the weekends, some patrons arrive by boat.


A unique view of Vector, from 30,000' (click to enlarge). It's the white blob just below the green roofs.

With temperatures in the high 90s and heat indices some ten degrees higher, we opted to just walk the hundred yards to the Hard Dock for dinner when we arrived. The food was decent and the beer was cold, although the joint is open-air. Still, it was better than lowering the scooters in the heat, or cooking. We landed the scooters Friday morning, when it was a bit cooler.


Approaching Decatur. The rail bridge had to open for us; the marina is beyond it.

Also on Friday, a semi-truck from R&L Carriers arrived with our mini-split air conditioner on a pallet. We unloaded it all from the skid as soon as it came off the truck, and were able to wheel the components down to the boat on our collapsible luggage cart individually. This marina does not even have a dock cart. I had not figured to dive right into the installation before our trip, but after uncrating it all and looking it over I decided I could just get started, rather than have it cluttering up the boat.

It took me the better part of three full days to install it, which included a trip to Lowes for mounting bolts, PVC fittings to sleeve the holes in the boat, and a power cord. I've already written up the full installation in its own post, so I won't repeat it here. I'm happy to report that we tested it again when we returned from our week in California and it's working fine, so it looks like my refrigerant connections are leak-free.

Tuesday we cleaned up the boat, got it set up for a week without us, and took Angel to the vet for boarding. The vet turns out to have a patio boat which he keeps in this marina, and he allowed that he had noticed our boat here. We are the biggest thing here. Louise took the cat over in a taxi, and I followed on the scooter to pick her up. We reversed that process yesterday to retrieve Angel, who is still settling back in to her routine aboard.

Executive Connection picked us up Wednesday morning at 0530 for our 8am flight. We had asked for a 6am pickup, but they had a conflict. It turned out to be fortuitous; our 8am flight led to a very tight 45-minute connection at ATL, where connections often involve taking a train to a different terminal. The 5:30 limo got us to the airport in time to make a much earlier flight on standby. This plane was nearly empty; we had a row to ourselves, and we had plenty of time in Atlanta for a leisurely ride to the next terminal and a sit-down breakfast to boot.


A sign that makes sense only to denizens of Stanford University and its environs.

I won't bore you with all the mundane details of our visit to the bay area. Suffice it to say that in six days (seven nights) we had 13 different visits, most involving a meal, seeing some 36 different friends and family members. It was completely exhausting. Beyond that, we normally eat only one full meal a day, at dinner, and have more like a light snack at breakfast and lunch time. On this trip, we ate three full restaurant meals a day, and our bodies were complaining vociferously by the end of the trip.

I made a pilgrimage to our condo building, the first in several years. Our unit is rented out, so even though I have keys I could not enter; in hindsight I should have asked our management company to give the the tenant notice so I could just go in and have a look. I did check out the rest of the building, though, including our storage locker on the garage level. We used to rent this out, too, but it became too difficult to find a tenant among the existing building residents. Long-time readers may remember we stored some items here when we first moved onto the bus, and then had a challenge purging them several years later.


Our storage unit in the garage area. Hard to believe it was once crammed full.

Our last visit to the bay area together was in the bus, at the end of 2012. The economic recovery is in full swing in the bay area, and many new buildings have sprung up in just those few years. I drove around to several of our "secret" on-street boondocking spots, and many are no longer usable due to development or repurposing of nearby real estate. The Sunnyvale Elks lodge, where we'd stayed a few times, which used to have perhaps ten usable RV spots, is now hosting at least twice that many rigs, and there are on-street RVs all over Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and even Palo Alto, a testament to the current housing crunch in Silicon Valley.

The tragic shooting of police officers in Baton Rouge happened while we were in California, and we spent what little time we could spare watching coverage and reading the follow-up. Long-time readers may know that we spent considerable time in Baton Rouge as volunteers for the American Red Cross, and the shooting was not all that far from the area where we worked, also off Airline Highway. The event prompted me to spend some time looking at the area on Google Earth.

The building where our disaster headquarters was housed was a vacant Walmart store, a common occurrence on disasters, as Walmart is a significant donor and we work with their real estate department. Heretofore I could not disclose the location of this facility on the blog, because we continued to use the building as a disaster relief "hot site" for several years; Louise and I, in fact, worked three different disaster relief operations there over several years. We spent more time in Baton Rouge, LA, than any other single place while we were on the bus.

Walmart has since reopened the building, after significant upgrades, as a Sam's Club, so I can share it now. While I was on Google Earth looking at how the area had changed, I decided to go back through some of the image history, and I discovered a satellite photo from our very first week on the job (and boy, were we green), responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Odyssey is clearly visible in the parking lot of the Cortana Mall, across the street from HQ, right next to the Spirit Of America mobile feeding kitchen. You can see the ground-level photo in this post from, quite literally, the day before the satellite pass.


Our bus, Odyssey, during the Katrina relief operation (click to enlarge). A few support vehicles are with us in the mall parking lot. The western half of the Lowes parking lot is full of Budget rental trucks for distributing food and supplies (we spent time in this lot, too). The old Walmart lot is full of rental cars -- volunteer transportation. We spent a few weeks in the Baptist Church lot as well.

We spent our final night in the bay area at a hotel just north of the airport, ironically surrounded by marinas. It was actually a much nicer room than where we spent the other six nights, but all we go to do was crash for a few hours after checking in at nearly 10pm. Wednesday morning we had to leave first thing to return the rental car to its off-airport location and make our flight.


SF bay from the air (click to enlarge). The GG bridge is shrouded in fog, but SF is about center frame. To the right is the old airfield of Alameda Naval Air Station; long time readers may remember we've spent a bit of time there having Odyssey serviced at a bus shop in one of the old paint hangars.

We had clear skies and great weather for the flight from SFO to Atlanta, and I was able to snap a few photos out the plane window. The bay area is always fascinating from the air, but I also managed to look out the window at just the right time to see our anchorage at Joe Wheeler State Park, most of Wheeler Lake, and even Vector sitting in the marina from 30,000 feet. We had a dinner layover in Atlanta and it was four hours between our flyover and when we'd be back at the boat in person.


Wheeler lake. At far left is Wheeler State Park, where we anchored.


Decatur, AL, with Riverwalk Marina just right of center frame.

Our final flight from Atlanta to Huntsville was, in fact, delayed, and we counted ourselves lucky that we did not miss our limo appointment when we landed. We found the boat in good condition, if intolerably hot, and after cranking up the air conditioning we collapsed. I think I spent most of Thursday in a stupor, after a completely exhausting week, compounded by jet lag.

Yesterday I managed to get back into the swing of things, even starting the project list back up. We had to get the cat in the morning; we intended to pick her up on Thursday but did not realize the vet closes early that day, at 11am, and we moved the boat to the pumpout and back first thing Thursday instead, wanting to do that in the relative cool of the morning. My first project was to try to clear up the last remnants of the mini-split project.

The big one of those, of course, was the shelf I had to remove over the pilothouse settee. This is a really, really nice shelf, with nicely rounded corners and seamless joints; I can only imagine what our friend and former master of this vessel paid for it, but knowing yard rates for millwork, I'm guessing well in excess of a "boat unit." Thus we really did not want to consign it to the scrap heap (which, really, would have been a "free to good home" pile at a marina someplace), but rather to keep it for ourselves. We ultimately settled on a spot for it over the master berth.


Shelf from the pilothouse, now in place over the master berth.

It looks great there, and will give Louise some more storage for quilts. We can't really use it for books, because it's four feet above our heads when we are sleeping and the risk of books falling in rough seas is a real issue. I'm glad we were able to find a use for it on board.

I also moved Mr. Roboto downstairs to the master stateroom, getting a head start on making him operational there. We made a stop at Home Depot to get some parts for the project, to plumb the condensate drain to a hose, by way of a ball valve, so the unit can be drained without moving it from its new perch on the forward dresser top. I'll post some photos as the project progresses.

We had initially thought we'd be shoving off about now for Chattanooga. But as long was we are paid up all the way to August 7th, instead we'll spend a bit more time right here in Decatur. That will let us get past the current heat wave with full air conditioning, and I can also knock down some of the project backlog. The generator needs its oil changed, and both engines are overdue on valve adjustment, plus I need to finish up the portable air conditioner project in the master stateroom.

At this writing, I'm not sure when we'll leave here. We're already ahead of the game on dock fees, so there is no need to stay any longer than we feel like, but, by the same token, we are not in a hurry. If we get a later start upriver to Chattanooga, then it's possible the next upstream lock will be reopened by the time we are done there, and we could continue on all the way to Knoxville if we feel like it.

I'll probably post one more time while we are here in Decatur, and by then I should have a better idea of the plan moving forward. In the meantime, we'll be making some slow progress as we continue to recover from our packed week of travel.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Keeping our cool under way

We just finished installing a mini-split, high-SEER air conditioner in our pilothouse, now that we've stopped in one place long enough to get it delivered. This post will be exclusively about the installation of this air conditioner and how it came about, so if you are not interested in such things you can just skip past it. I'll return to our normal travelogue in my next post.


The new air conditioner in operation, during testing. "62" is the current setpoint, the lowest available. When powered down, the louver door on the bottom closes completely; it can oscillate, if desired, when operating.

One of the great things about a nomadic existence is that we can choose to follow temperate weather, staying comfortable year-round without breaking the bank on the energy budget. But if you have followed us for any length of time, you'll know that we've sometimes chosen a different path, for one reason or another. In the bus, that was often due to our volunteer work with the American Red Cross, which had us driving into tropical storms, and heading into the sweltering heat of summer in the south during hurricane season.

The reasons are more mundane on the boat. At seven miles an hour, it's not possible to just zip away to cooler climes on a whim. And without being able to do the river system of the central US by starting in the Great Lakes and slowly working south, due to Vector's height, if we wanted to do them at all we had to start north from Mobile in June. That inevitably put us in heat and humidity unlike any we've heretofore experienced on the boat.

When we designed the bus, more or less from scratch, we had the luxury of designing in some highly efficient and flexible climate control systems. We deliberately set things up so that we could run an air conditioner directly from the batteries if needed, for example to keep the bedroom cool overnight without running the generator. On the road, with the massive 7.5kW alternator spinning, we could run two air conditioners and still have juice left over for charging the batteries. It was a great system, and, frankly, we were spoiled by it.

The boat came to us as a completed work. While I personally would have made some different design choices during construction, we deemed most of the existing systems to be livable "as is" (and had we not, we would have passed on this boat). What we've done instead is to make incremental improvements over time, mostly DIY, that have made life easier. One such project, a fairly major one, was to upgrade the electrical system fairly early on, increasing alternator capacity from 1,560 watts to 2,640 watts (still a far cry from the bus, with three times that amount), and inverter capacity from 3,000 watts to 4,000 watts.

One of the hopes we had for that upgrade was that it might allow us to run at least one of our four air conditioners on the inverter, if not from batteries alone, then at least when the alternator was spinning. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. The inverter simply could not start both the massive seawater pump, which supplies all four units simultaneously, plus one air conditioner, admittedly an older and less efficient type than are available today.

There are lots of ways to solve this problem. One would be to simply run the generator whenever we need air conditioning, even under way. Fuel and maintenance included, that costs anywhere from $2 to $4 per hour, depending on fuel and lube prices. This summer alone we will be under way some 500-600 hours, and having an air conditioning solution that can also run on batteries will reduce generator hours at anchor as well. So, while running the generator is the simplest solution, and even the cheapest in the short term, it's not the best answer in the long haul.

We might also have replaced the large seawater pump with smaller individual pumps, one of which the inverter might be able to start along with a single AC unit, and/or replaced one or more air conditioning units with more efficient models. These solutions would also require changes to the seawater plumbing, the unit mounting, and possibly the refrigerant piping, and when we added up the potential costs it was prohibitively expensive. Also in the cost-prohibitive category was an electrical upgrade, adding an extra inverter so that the pump and the AC unit could be separated across two different inverters.

We opted instead to do some creative engineering, adapting technology that has been cooling apartments in the far east for decades and has recently reached US shores as a more efficient alternative to whole-house air conditioning: the mini-split heat pump. These have been available here for a decade or so in 230-volt models, as those are more or less the same units used in Asia. More recently, 120-volt models have also become widely available. An additional advantage of installing such a system is that it can be used when the boat is out of the water, unlike the built-in system we already have.

Regular readers may remember that we bought a "portable" 120-volt air conditioner in Panama City a few weeks ago, as a "proof of concept." Before making permanent changes to the boat, including drilling some very large holes through walls and weather decks, we wanted to have some confidence that a relatively small unit in the pilothouse would keep us comfortable enough under way to minimize the need for the generator, and also that the inverter and alternator would be able to start and sustain such a system indefinitely under way.


Mr. Roboto, sitting on the pilothouse settee and blowing hot air out the window.

The portable unit, which we nicknamed "Mr Roboto," has been doing a fine job of that, and we consider the experiment a success. Thus it was time to take the next step, installing a permanent solution that would not take up a full seat on the pilothouse settee, have a Rube-Goldberg hose hanging out the window attached to a piece of cardboard, or require us to empty a condensate tank every other day.

Mr. Roboto is a 10,000 BTU/hr unit, which was adequate if not stellar. For the permanent solution, we opted to go up to 12,000 BTU/hr, which we felt was still within the capability of the inverter to start. This is also the largest size mini-split system available in 120 volts, and had components small enough for us to mount in the limited space we had available. We picked a slightly older heat pump model from HighSeer, aka Parker Davis HVAC Systems, who sells under the Pioneer brand name. It was just $699 complete, freight included, on Amazon.

One key feature of this model (and many like it) is that it is a "DC inverter" system. The incoming line voltage is rectified to DC, which then feeds a high-frequency inverter circuit that in turn drives the compressor. This allows motor speed to be efficiently varied and allows for a "soft start" under software control. Without this feature, our house inverter would have more difficulty starting the unit up. We were not looking for a heat pump type -- air conditioning was the primary goal -- but most units on the market seem to fall into this category, so it was just a bonus for us.

As the name implies, the system is split into two parts, connected by refrigerant lines. The smaller part goes inside the living space, mounted on the wall, near the ceiling. The larger part goes outside, and while an optional wall-mount bracket is available, it is generally intended to be bolted to a pad on the ground. Finding a suitable spot for this outside unit was one of the biggest challenges of the project.

We knew right away that the inside unit would need to go on the forward-facing pilothouse wall, above the settee. That meant removing a nice bookshelf that was installed there by the previous owner, and relocating the books thereon, many of which were also purchased by the previous owner. About half what was up there was obsolete, and we found other homes for the rest. I was able to remove the shelf without destroying anything other than the bungs that covered the mounting screws. It's a very nice shelf, and we're going to see if it will fit above the master berth instead.


I forgot to photograph the shelf before removal. This old photo was the best I could find.

With that decision made, we next needed to determine how to get the refrigerant lines from there to the flybridge deck, where the outside unit would be installed. The two choices here were to route the lines on the surface of the wall, then up through the ceiling onto the deck, or else drill a 2.5" hole in the wall behind the unit for them to come out the back. We wanted a cleaner finished look, so we opted for the big hole in the wall, making the installation a firm commitment (although we've covered similar holes elsewhere by hanging art over them).


The inside unit mounted. Again, I neglected to first photograph the hole I had to make in the wall, just above and to the left of the small light fixture.

The wall has an interstitial space nearly 2" across, large enough to run the pipes. But bending the copper pipes to run them up through the wall is risky, connecting them to the rest of the line set would be a challenge, and insulating the connection nearly impossible. Plus, I'd have to drill a 2" hole through the deck, from above, dead-center on the wall. That hole would be on a part of the deck exposed to weather, so I'd need to use a gooseneck, or seal the hole some other way.


Inside the galley cabinet, with freshly drilled hole in the top. You can see light coming from the hole in the deck above. The silver stuff is the insulation around the existing flexible AC duct.

We chose instead to drill all the way through the wall into a galley cabinet. That would give me plenty of room to bend the pipes gently, make the connection, and insulate it. It would also let me come up through the deck inside the flybridge settee, a bit more sheltered from the elements and also out of sight, with a convenient place to hide the excess refrigerant lines and cables. If we centered the unit on the wall, my hole would come out in the wrong cabinet and we'd have to go through two cabinets, taking up precious space in both. We elected to offset the unit to port so that the lines would come out in the correct cabinet. I was, however, able to run the condensate drain line down through the wall, and connect it to an existing condensate drain under the pilothouse settee.


Hole in the 3/8" aluminum deck plate, inside the settee. Also shown is the PVC fitting I used to protect the hole from water entry and the pipes from chafe.

Fortunately, that cabinet already has a large AC duct in it, so it was already partly unusable and unsightly inside. The upper galley cabinets are wall-mounted, with a gap between their tops and the ceiling, so I had to drill a hole in the top of the cabinet to match the one I drilled in the deck under the flybridge settee. I also had to carefully notch the vinyl-covered ceiling panel to fit once the pipes were in place.


This view shows both holes lined up. You can see the underside of the aluminum deck; I had to remove the yellow fiberglass batt insulation that you can see in other sections of the ceiling, which I notched and replaced later.

We found a spot for the outdoor unit just forward and inboard of the flybridge settee. In this spot all the air intakes for the unit are unobstructed, the settee is still fully usable, and the port helm chair can still swivel 360°. The small aisle between the helm chairs is still accessible. While large and perhaps unsightly, the unit is at a convenient height to use as a cocktail table when using the settee, and Louise is going to make a canvas cover for it for when it is not in use, which will be the vast majority of time. I did have to drill four holes through the weather deck for the mounting bolts.


Outdoor unit bolted in place. To the left is the settee, sans cushion at the moment. The thing to the right with the Home Depot bag flapping over it is the pedestal for the helm chair, removed so I could work behind the unit. The bag is to keep the greased pedestal from soiling my clothes.

I finished off the hole from the galley to the inside of the pilothouse settee with a 2.5" PVC fitting (spigot to FIPT) which I bedded into the deck with butyl tape. It only needs to deflect occasional rainwater that finds its way inside that locker. I also drilled a hole through the forward end of the settee to get the pipes and cables out to the outside unit, and this I finished with a 2.5" PVC 45° elbow, secured from the inside by cementing it to another spigot fitting.


PVC flange in place before running the line set.

With these two holes perpendicular to each other and only about a foot apart, the trick now was to get the pre-terminated 16' copper line set through both holes without kinking it. The line came coiled, and I uncoiled only enough from both ends to reach the respective terminations, then carefully worked both ends into their holes without disturbing the rest of the coil. It was a slow process but I got the lines in without kinking them or even damaging any of the pre-installed insulation.


Excess line set coiled under settee. Pipes exit to the right to the outdoor unit. At rear can be seen the pipes heading down below deck. The Styrofoam block seen underneath the coil is to minimize stress from vibration, rather than having the stiff coil supported only by the ends.

The copper lines are pre-flared and have the flare nuts already installed, ready to mate to the flare fittings on the outdoor and indoor units. HighSeer even provides some flare sealant to put on the connections. I torqued them to just a hair above spec with a torque wrench -- it's really easy to damage copper flare connections if not careful.


Insulated line set coming down from the deck has been connected to the bare copper lines from the indoor unit. The single gray insulation tube shown at right, also pre-installed on the indoor unit, proved inadequate to cover both pipes and connections, so I had to add foam pipe insulation to the exposed portions later.

The refrigerant for the entire system comes pre-installed inside the outdoor unit, which contains the compressor. After making the connections, I pressure-tested them with a can of R-134a I happened to have lying around. This let me use a soap solution to check for leaks before I even evacuated the lines. I bought a cheap venturi-type vacuum pump at Harbor Freight to do the evacuation. While this pump is only capable of about 28"Hg of vacuum rather than the 29+" called for in most HVAC guides, I judged it good enough, especially after blowing the lines out with R-134a. The mini-split actually uses R-410, a more modern, higher-pressure refrigerant.


Behind the outdoor unit, showing the pipe/cable egress from the settee.

My manifold gauges, which I've owned since the days before R-134a and other modern refrigerants supplanted R-12 and R-22, fit easily on the vacuum pump. The newer R-410 systems use a different size fitting, however, and I needed an adapter, also from Amazon. That was the last item to arrive, just in time to evacuate and charge the system for testing before we left for California. Our air compressor, which is sized for "hookah" diving, could not deliver enough air continuously to evacuate the system; I had to make a dozen passes, closing the manifold valve each time the compressor kicked in.


Notched ceiling panel back in place. This 1" section is all that "shows" of the line set indoors, but you have to get your eyeball up above the cabinets to even see it.

I'm pleased to report the system works perfectly, in both cool and heat modes. Our inverter easily starts it, even on batteries. And, surprisingly, it's quiet. So quiet we, at first, did not think it was running. We had to shut down the AC in the rest of the boat to hear it. It was also quite a bit more effective than Mr. Roboto, and even beats the built-in seawater-chilled air conditioner in that room. We're very pleased, and looking forward to testing it under way. We've even already given it a nickname. Meet Meriwether, the Pioneer.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Last cruise for a couple of weeks

This morning found us in familiar surroundings, anchored across the embayment from the lodge at Joe Wheeler State Park (map), in Rogersville, Alabama. Our most die-hard readers may remember we stayed at this park almost exactly four years ago in Odyssey, and we ate at the lodge restaurant before strolling the docks of their enormous marina.


The lodge at Joe Wheeler park, across from our anchorage. That's only a small part of the marina to the left.

Yesterday's cruise had us transiting two locks, and we are now at 555' above sea level. We opted for a late start from Florence, so we could take advantage of power and air conditioning, and we used some of that time to stroll around McFarland Park. I called the first lock, just three miles upriver, before we dropped lines, just in case they were locking someone else and would not be ready for us.


Tied to the wall at Wilson Lock, waiting for the massive 12-story gates to open.

The Wilson Dam is the tallest on the river, with the highest-lift lock east of the Rockies, at 94'. The chamber was still emptying when we arrived a half hour later, and the lockmaster directed us to tie to the wall outside the lock. Although there is a much smaller auxiliary lock adjacent to the main lock, he had us come in to the main lock. The auxiliary lock does the lift in two stages, so the first set of doors are only half the height of the main lock.


Auxiliary lock on the left, past the construction crane.

I only make one log entry for lockage, so I don't have the total time recorded, but I would say it took us 45 minutes to make it through the Wilson lock. When we emerged, we were navigating in 92' of water. The lake is deceptive; there are submerged islands that reach within a few feet of the surface, but they are well charted. Wilson Lake inundated the Muscle Shoals (the shoals, not the town), which had been the historic impediment to navigation above Florence.


Massive doors closing behind us. The wind pattern changes in the chamber as the doors close.


Drop-gate (unlike the miter gates we've seen thus far) well above us, leaking copiously.

Emerging above the top of the lock we had a wonderful view of the Florence/Muscle Shoals area. We could also see the "360" revolving restaurant towering above the Marriott Hotel; perhaps we'll stop there for dinner on our way back downriver. The octogenarian lock itself is showing its age, and clearly maintenance is ongoing but overdue.


360 Restaurant in the background. Director, manager, and supervisor in foreground (clearly not actual workers).


The gages are mosaic tile, probably original to the depression-era construction of the lock.


Drop gate submerging in front of us. The walkway rails must drop at least 9' below the water level before we can move.

It was barely more than two hours before we reached the next lock, at the General Joe Wheeler Lock and Dam, with a lift of 49'. When we arrived, however, the lock was in the process of down-locking a full tow. Even slowing down a half hour ahead of time, we had a wait of well over an hour, and we simply dropped the hook just off the main channel, in the approach to the auxiliary lock, which again was not in use.

Unlike the Tenn-Tom and Tombigbee locks, where tows are limited to what will fit in the chamber, here on the Tennessee, tows are twice that large. The lock fits nine barges, three across and three long. The tows are 15 barges -- three across and five long, plus the towboat. So they "cut" the tow in the lock; the towboat pushes the first nine barges into the chamber, then cuts them loose and backs out with the remaining six barges past the gates. Deckhands remain on the now powerless barges.


Anchored at Joe Wheeler lock. You can see the first nine barges of a tow, with the miter gates closed behind them.

The nine-barge lashup is then locked through, and is pulled out of the chamber with a hawser and a small winch located atop the lock wall. Forward way is arrested by deckhands taking wraps on the bollards with hawsers; they then pull the lashup as close to the wall as they can and tie it off. Brute strength is a job qualification for riverboat deckhands. We got to watch this whole process from our anchored spot, including the deckhands ascending the five-story spiral staircase to re-board the towboat before it, too, was locked down.

Once the whole tow is again on the same level, the rear six barges are pushed gently forward to meet up with the front nine, and the deckhands again make them fast. Only then can the entire tow move forward out of the lock. The entire process took an hour and a half or so. We weighed anchor as the tow began moving forward, to get into position to enter the lock and/or to clear out of the tow's way if need be. Premature, as the whole tow promptly got stuck, pinned against the lock wall and the shore by the wind.


Towboat and last six barges are emerging from the chamber and making up to the front nine.

Several minutes and large volumes of smoke later he was under way again, overcoming adversity with sheer horsepower. He called us on the radio to apologize and we joked briefly about whether we could have pulled him off the wall, but really it was very entertaining and informative to watch the whole process from start to finish. My hat is off to the towboat pilots; the geometry of maneuvering such a long, heavy lashup with just a couple of propellers in the very back is mind-boggling, and gives me perspective on how relatively easy it is to maneuver Vector.

By the time we cleared out of Wheeler Lock, a full two hours after arriving, we were pretty much done for the day, and the anchorage at the park was close at hand. As a bonus we were able to get the park's WiFi signal. On our way back downriver we may stop here again; Friday is prime rib night at the lodge.


Leaving Wheeler Lock and Dam astern.

We are now under way in Wheeler Lake, just passing the Brown's Ferry nuclear plant, and should be arriving at our marina in Deactur before 2pm. We're very early, considering our flights are next Wednesday, but the freight company is scheduled to deliver our new mini-split air conditioner tomorrow morning, and I'd like to be there to receive it. This will also give me a few days to wrap up the coolant pump project, change the generator oil, and maybe start on the air conditioner installation before we have to leave for California.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Happy pump dependence day

We are docked at the Florence Harbor Marina in Florence, Alabama (map). I know I said we'd be continuing upriver yesterday toward Huntsville, but circumstances conspired against that. Last night was our third and final night here, after a mostly pleasant couple of days and a spectacular fireworks display over the river.


Part of the finale, as seen from Vector.

Not long after posting my last blog entry, and, in fact, even as I was wrapping up the typing, we entered into the full-scale chaos of the holiday weekend on the water. The canal connecting Bay Springs and Pickwick lakes got busier and busier as we neared Pickwick -- there's even a boat ramp right on the canal at that end -- and I had to dodge several ski boats bobbing around on the sailing line. We had to stop nearly dead in our tracks at one point as a skier lost control right in front of us. I can only imagine what the towboat drivers must go through pushing a full lash-up through here on the weekends.

We emerged into Pickwick Lake with literally hundreds of boats scattered in front of us, and this was just one arm of a very large lake. Things got more and more chaotic as we approached Grand Harbor Marina, where they reached a crescendo of sorts, after which we encountered decreasing traffic for the rest of the day. Which was good, since the first several "quiet coves" we passed were chock-a-block with revelers and I was starting to fret about finding an anchorage for the evening.


Just a small sampling of holiday weekend boat chaos.

Given the circumstance, we opted to continue on right up to 5pm or so, and a very large cove that I hoped would be mostly empty, known as the Rock Piles.  I'm sure it would have been lovely, and quite possibly empty, but our cell signal went rapidly from 4G to 3G to 1X to nonexistent all in the second-to-last mile before the cove. Internet addicts that we are, we saw no reason to live with that when we just had 4G a mile ago, and so we made a U-turn a mile short of the cove, backtracked a mile and a half, and dropped the hook in the river, more or less right on top of the now inundated town of Riverton (map).

It turned out to be a pleasant spot and we had a nice evening on the river. The tows on the Tennessee are twice as large as those on the Tenn-Tom, and a couple passed us at anchor. By the time we sat down to dinner, the river was quiet and most of the small pleasure boats had long since returned to their marinas or ramps.


A full tow steams by at sunset. The tow is so long I could not fit it all in frame.

Sunday morning we weighed anchor for Florence after a leisurely morning. We had only a short four-hour cruise ahead of us and we figured to make port by 2pm. That was the plan, right up until the first hourly engine room check. Louise does the ER checks, and she came upstairs from this one reporting that one of the engine pulleys was "wobbling."

I handed over the helm to go have a look myself, and what I found was horrifying. It was not a shimmy or wobble so much as the whole pulley "jumping" about an eighth of an inch or so every few dozen revolutions. It looked like it was going to fly off the engine at any moment; I came back to the helm and immediately steered for a spot outside the channel where we could drop the hook.

The wobbling pulley was the one on the coolant pump; the only one of the three pulleys on the belt that can be seen with the belt guard in place, owing to a cutout for it in the guard. With the engine stopped I removed the guard to have a better look at the whole pulley system; all looked good except for the coolant pump. Here I could grab the pulley in my hand and deflect it that same eighth of an inch; I've never seen this much end play in a running system. The bearings were clearly shot, and, in fact, so far gone that they were in jeopardy of falling apart, seizing, or allowing the impeller to hit the housing at any moment. Any of which would have us dead in the water. Not good.

With our already planned destination of Florence being the closest services of any kind, we opted to continue on and hope for the best -- oddly reminiscent of our very first visit to Florence. Our only other choice would have been to call for a tow. I shut off the alternator, to reduce the load on the belt, and we proceeded at reduced RPM. We set the video monitor to the engine room camera full time (it normally cycles through all the cameras) and aimed a light at the pulley. And Louise increased her ER check schedule to four times an hour. I put the belt guard back on, just in case the worst happened, to contain the shrapnel.

The pump held together all the way to Florence Harbor and through our docking maneuvers. We tied up at the fuel dock, near the restaurant, as the main transient dock was already full. The we settled in for the holiday weekend, with a new plan in mind for how our time in Florence would be spent. And we were looking forward to a couple of cold drafts at the restaurant, since, in what can only be considered a confluence of calamities, our on-board beer supply had run out the previous evening, and could not be replenished on Sunday, at least not in this county.


Vector tied up adjacent to the River Bottom Grille.

Sadly, the power to the boat kept shutting off, which turned out to be a main breaker which served not only the four marine receptacles on the dock, but also the fuel pumps, two walk-in coolers, and part of the restaurant itself. After the fourth time it tripped the marina asked us to just run our generator until the restaurant closed at 9pm, which we agreed to do for a discount on the bill equal to our running costs.

Monday morning, while much of the country was watching sports and gearing up for big holiday grill-intensive food fests, we descended to the engine room to begin replacing the coolant pump. Fortunately, I already had a spare pump on hand, which I had ordered when the original one started leaking nearly two years ago. I won't know for sure until I get the pump apart, but I'm guessing that leakage is responsible for the untimely demise of the bearings. All because some overconfident mechanic someplace decided he knew better than the engineers at both Komat'su, who designed the engine, and Lugger, who marinized it.


Expansion tank removed. That's the bad pump, center-frame.

I had been led to believe, back then, that I'd need to disassemble most of the cooling system, including the thermostat housing and the main pipes leading to the heat exchanger, in order to replace the pump. When we started getting it apart, though, it turned out that I was able to remove the pump without disturbing the thermostat housing. That cut the job to less than half what I was anticipating; I had purchased seals and O-rings for the entire project along with the pump, and now most of those will remain stowed until the inevitable day when I need to replace the thermostats.


Pump off. We had to make a gasket to go here.

I spent the whole day huddled in front the the engine, with my legs dangling in the bilge. Louise managed the myriad parts that had to come off in sequence, and finding the new gaskets and O-rings from an obscure exploded diagram. We had everything on hand except one gasket, which did not appear on any diagrams we had. Fortunately it was a fiber gasket, and Louise was able to cut a new one out of sheet material by tracing the pattern from the old one.


A view inside the water jacket. That's cavitation damage up against the cylinder wall.

The new pump is now in place, and we put the old coolant back in the system for testing. Well, most of it -- I managed to get a coolant shower when the pump finally came off. Two pipe plugs that were too stubborn to come out of the old pump had to be replaced before we could refill the system, and that had to wait until the hardware stores opened yesterday morning. Once we had the engine running again we moved the boat over to the now empty transient dock, to avoid a repeat of Sunday's breaker-tripping fiasco (the restaurant was closed Monday). By this time it was well past mid-day and we opted to just spend another night.


Shiny new pump installed. I think the Komat'su Yellow makes a nice accent against Lugger White.

That gave us the opportunity to sample yet another restaurant in town, Rosie's Mexican Cantina, which was very good. Monday we ended up at Ricatoni's, which did not live up to the hype, and we just ate at the dockside joint, the River Bottom Grille, after we arrived Sunday. The dinner run last night gave us a chance to pick up several gallons of fresh coolant and distilled water; once the system has proven itself under a full day's load we'll replace the coolant.


Fireworks over the river, after the storm.

Even with the major project, we've enjoyed our time in Florence. We got to see a bit of the town while running errands or going to dinner in the marina's courtesy car, and we enjoyed the music and fireworks display Monday evening. We got a bit of extra entertainment, as a huge thunderstorm hit just before the scheduled fireworks, clearing many spectators out of the park and many small craft off the river; we got to watch from the comfort of our covered flybridge.


Florence, the O'Neal Bridge, and Vector in the harbor from the cliffs of Muscle Shoals across the river.

Shortly we will drop lines, bound for Decatur. We have two locks ahead of us today, which will put us in Wheeler Lake. We'll either anchor tonight or perhaps tie up at the General Joe Wheeler State Park, where, ironically, we spent our final Independence day in Odyssey. It's only 47 miles to Decatur, but we're not in any rush now.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

414' MSL

We are underway between Bay Springs Lake, on the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and Pickwick Lake, on the Tennessee River. We are very near the end of the Tenn-Tom, and soon it will be behind us. We've risen some 224' since I last posted two days ago, more than our entire first week on the Tombigbee.


The massive sill in front of us at the Whitten lock, with an 84' lift.

Thursday we transited three locks after leaving our quiet anchorage at the old river cutoff. From that anchorage northward, the Tenn-Tom runs in a series of man-made canals that roughly parallel the old Tombigbee River, which was allowed to run in its natural channel, separated from the canals by a dike. We got off to a very late start, owing to a small crisis that developed overnight.

Wednesday night was the first night cool enough to just open the whole boat up and sleep comfortably without a bunch of fans running. And through no small measure of luck, that's the night the refrigerator decided to quit working. Louise heard a humming sound that presented for several seconds every couple of minutes. She woke me at 4am to help figure it out, and we eventually tracked it to the refrigerator.

I could hear the fan running, and it was still plenty cold, so we guessed it to be an early sign of some impending failure and went back to bed. In the morning, after our first cup of coffee and finally without the fog of sleep, it dawned on us that, while the fan was running, the compressor was not, and the sound we were hearing was the compressor trying, unsuccessfully, to start, endlessly cycling as the thermal overload cut in and out.

We quickly started up the icemaker, which we seldom use except as an overflow freezer on extended voyages -- it was packed with meat when we went to the Bahamas. That would let us keep our frozen goods frozen, and make ice to try to salvage as much fresh food as we could. At 8am, things were still pretty cold in both the fridge and freezer compartments. Louise started researching what we'd need to do to get a replacement fridge in the middle of nowhere, while I started working on getting the unit out of its hidey-hole so I could get to the compressor.


Our last floating bollard on the Tenn-Tom.

It turns out there is a Lowes in Tupelo, and we were just a half day's cruise from the Midway Marina, in Fulton, where the Lowes said they could deliver one the very next day. I'm guessing the delivery charge would have been nearly as much as the $360 the fridge itself costs. Fortunately, it proved unnecessary.

Long-time readers may recall that this fridge was causing momentary voltage sags on our inverter, and I added a "hard start kit" to it a couple of years ago. Removing the hard start unit and restoring the factory relay and capacitor got the unit going again, albeit with the same issue we had originaly eliminated with the kit. I autopsied the "sealed" hard start and found the capacitor burned out. I need to find a better electrical engineer than myself to help me size some more appropriate start components now, to eliminate the sag without risking burning up the compressor.


It's quite a maelstrom as the lock fills from the pressure of an 84' water column.

After about an hour or so the fridge was back down to temp, and I put it all back together and buttoned everything up to get under way. In the meantime, Louise went to open one of the blinds in the saloon, and one of the operating cords came right off in her hand -- I spent this morning re-stringing them. Some days you just can't win.

It was past 11am by the time we weighed anchor for Amory lock, about an hour away. As luck would have it, there was some problem with the lock, and we had a half hour wait for them to get it open. We dropped the hook right in the approach channel and shut down while we waited. As we were finally entering the lock, the lockmaster called to say he was going to wait for another pleasure boat about fifteen minutes downriver (it turned out to be more like 20), and so we ended up idling in the lock chamber for a half hour anyway.


Ocean's Outlaw, a sharp-looking Jefferson Pilothouse, locked through with us at two locks. We saw this boat on the hard at Snead Island.

After the morning's trifecta of misadventure, the remainder of the cruise was uneventful, and we passed the next two locks, Glover Wilkins and Fulton, at two hour intervals. We did, once again, have to drop the hook on the approach, to Fulton lock, as we came up to the lock just behind an eight-barge tow, and we had to wait for him to uplock and the lock to cycle back down. All of that was enough for one day, and we dropped the hook just past the Fulton Lock (map), near the city of that name, just after 5pm, and enjoyed a well-earned beer.


Waiting for this tow to uplock ahead of us. He's 105'x595'; the lock is 110'x600'

Yesterday was blissfully incident-free, and we transited the final three locks on the Tenn-Tom, including the Jamie Whitten Lock, the uppermost on the waterway, with an enormous lift of 84'. Bay Springs Lake is impounded by Whitten Dam, with a pool at 414' above sea level, matching the pool at Pickwick Lake and allowing the two bodies of water to be connected with a canal cut through the hills of northeastern Mississippi, the one we are on right now.


Approaching the enormous Whitten Lock, fourth tallest in the US.


120' tall doors closing behind us; the bottom 20' are under water.

With no good place to anchor along the canal until it reaches Pickwick Lake, we made it an early day and dropped the hook in the northern reaches of Bay Springs Lake (map), across from a popular boat ramp near Tishomingo, Mississippi. The lake is ringed by boat ramps and campgrounds, and is a popular recreation area. We noted all the campsites we could see from the water were occupied, and we know from experience they will all be at 100% for this holiday weekend. Nevertheless, it was dark and quiet at our anchorage, except for a lone airboat that blew in after dark to do some net fishing. Once they left we were blissfully undisturbed.


Passing under the Natchez Trace Parkway, a favorite of ours, with the Whitten Lock ahead in the distance.

We are now "over the hump," having pushed upriver far enough to complete our loop trip. From here it is all downhill to the Ohio River and then thence the Mississippi. That said, we've opted to continue on to Chattanooga up the Tennessee River, which will involve uplocking past more dams, these operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority rather than the Corps of Engineers, who operate every lock we have used thus far.


Even the approach to the Whitten dam is blasted from bedrock.

Speaking of which, we had been contemplating whether or not to continue upriver past Chattanooga, perhaps as far as Knoxville, but at least to Lake Chickamauga, where can be found the cheapest diesel we will see until we return to the gulf coast. Sadly, the Chickamauga Lock is closing on July 11 for maintenance, and will not reopen until August 11, closing the river to traffic. That's a full three weeks after we return from California, and we'll probably opt not to remain in Chattanooga that long.

Today commences the busiest boating weekend of the year. Before we had the anchor up, the lake had already come alive with speedboats, and we've been passed by them left and right as we transit the canal. I've already had to dodge two that were just floating in the water right on the sailing line. I expect things to only get busier as we enter Pickwick Lake, reaching a crescendo on the fourth as boats scramble for views of the fireworks.

The timing is such that we will be going right by Florence, Alabama this weekend, so we booked a couple of nights in the harbor there. That will get us off the water and away from the mayhem for the busiest part of the weekend, and we can take in the local festivities for the holiday. Tonight we'll be anchored somewhere between here and there, and I expect we'll be tied up by midafternoon tomorrow. We'll resume our journey to Decatur/Huntsville on Tuesday.