Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Settled in at Great Harbour

We are under way en route to the Berry Islands. Little Stirrup Cay is about five miles ahead, and the Batelco cell tower at Great Harbour Cay is perhaps eight or ten miles off our starboard bow, close enough to get online. (Update: We're anchored in Great Harbour, see below.)

Sunday night we anchored on the bank, just SE of an area known as the Gingerbread Ground (map). The chart showed a 12-foot hump, but we found the depth where we dropped to be consistent with the surrounding area at 30'. We put out 150' of chain and had a comfortable night. The nearest land to that spot is 35 miles away; Bimini to the west and Little Stirrup to the east. It's at once magic and unnerving to anchor with nothing but horizon in sight for 360°.

Bimini from our anchorage. The water really is that color.

We weighed anchor Sunday morning after a leisurely coffee and catching up online before leaving cell service behind. As I came into the pilothouse to get ready for departure, I spotted a nice Krogen 48 across the anchorage that had just come in. It looked oddly familiar, but I could not make out the name since it was stenciled across an open transom door.

As we were pulling out the skipper passed us in his dink, on his way to clear in, and we waved... it turned out to be Bill and Lisa on Changing Course, whom we had met years ago in Stuart. We also had pizza with them in Black Point on our last Bahamas cruise three years ago, and we passed them later that year on a mooring in Bath, Maine. They were planning to cross the bank later in the day, but by the more southerly route. I'm sorry we did not get a chance to connect in Bimini, but perhaps we'll cross paths later on in the Exumas. The cruising community is tight-knit and we tend to see the same boats in many places.

Our anchorage looking SW. That's Changing Course right in the middle.

We proceeded north up the west coast of North Bimini, passing the enormous Resorts World complex. We spent some time there on our last visit; since then they have completed a new Hilton hotel and expanded the complex. We also crossed paths with the new high-speed ferry that serves the resort from Miami, a much smaller but much faster vessel than the cruise-ship sized ferry the resort owned and operated back then.

North Rock is the northernmost obstruction in the Bimini Islands; from the west it resembles nothing so much as a crusty submarine complete with conning tower and periscope. It is here we made our turn to the east to cross the bank. We had cell service with Internet for another two hours and made good use of it to catch up on news and social media.

Submarine! Not really... just North Rock.

The bank is absolutely beautiful in calm conditions, a lush turquoise color. Even in 30' of water you can look down and see the bottom, like a giant swimming pool. In fact, I would have gone for a swim once we anchored, inviting as it was, except that the combination of sub-80° water and air temperatures do not make for a relaxing swim. We'll wait until we are a bit closer to the tropics.

We enjoyed cocktails and dinner on the aft deck, and Louise retired to her sewing lair while I fired up the DirecTV receiver and watched a couple of movies. The wind, which had been light all day, laid down even further in the evening and we had a calm night. After dark, the parade of brightly lit cruise ships heading out the Northwest Providence Channel appeared in the distance to the north.

Sunset through some haze, from the bank. Or maybe the Comfort Inn logo.

Yesterday morning we weighed anchor shortly after our first cup of coffee. It's remarkable how much of our morning ritual revolves around the Internet, especially in remote places. We usually sit with our laptops over two cups of coffee as we each check news, weather, and social media before starting our day. When the Internet is down, finishing that second cup of coffee under way is a more interesting choice.

We'd been ruminating all afternoon about where to stop that night. Heavy weather is moving in that will require protection from the south, then southwest, then west, then northwest, and finally, north. Our original plan was to head all the way around to a bay on the far side of Great Harbour Cay, just south of Petit Cay. But after consulting our guides, we settled instead on Great Habour itself, which initially looked to us like it lacked protection from the western quadrants. The guides say the shallow sand to the west is sufficient, and the harbor is otherwise better protected from south and north.

We approached Little Stirrup Cay, which is owned by Royal Caribbean as a private retreat for their cruise passengers. Royal Caribbean calls the island CoCo Cay; we couldn't see the cruise beach from our route because it is on the harbor side of the island. We could, however, see Norwegian Cruise Line's private beach  ahead of us on Great Stirrup Cay. We cut right through the cruise ship anchorages; no one was in port when we arrived and the beaches were empty and neatly arranged for the next arrival.

Private cruise ship paradise. Zoom in to see a thousand neatly-arranged beach chairs, empty. Tower at left is under construction. Zip line, maybe?

Update: We're now anchored in Great Harbour, just east of Goat Cay (map). After passing through the cruise ship anchorage we entered the shallower waters on the approach to the harbor, and I had to set the computer aside. I had figured to finish this post shortly after we set the hook, just a little after 3pm, but circumstances conspired against that and I am just now getting to it, a full 24 hours later.

Once we made the turn past Great Stirrup Cay the approach to the harbor was easy. This is a deep, natural harbor that was a refuge for large sailing ships over a century ago. Depth in the center of the harbor is perhaps 20' and it shallows gradually in all directions so you can "pick your depth" for comfortable anchoring. With winds already out of the west at 15 and heading for 20, we opted to proceed straight in and drop in the lee of Goat Cay in about ten feet. Louise stood on the bow and had me stop the boat when the anchor was above a nice sandy area.

We had the whole harbor to ourselves for most of the afternoon. With no cruise ships in port the Cays were quiet, and one sailboat which appears to be unoccupied is anchored close to Great Stirrup. While we were eating dinner a sailboat with a Montreal hailing port came in and dropped a couple hundred feet from us, also in the lee of Goat Cay, but he left first thing this morning.

After getting the hook set and securing the boat, I sat down to upload photos and finish the blog. Much to my dismay, the high-speed Intenet access we enjoyed in Bimini on my old cell phone, now on BTC service, had been replaced by molasses-slow 2.5g service. Louise's Verizon phone and my T-Mobile phone both registered high-speed LTE or HSPA service, so we knew it was available, but nothing I tried would get the old Galaxy S4 to connect at HSPA speed. It was stuck on Edge service and giving at most 220kbps speeds. Enough to maybe finish typing the blog, but not enough to upload even a single photo.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening working on this problem. The phone is an old Sprint model, and Sprint, in cahoots with Samsung, has locked everything down so tight that it's nearly impossible to get to all the settings that need to be changed to even attempt fixing this. Many of them would not be accessible at all had I not rooted the phone early on.

Sunset over Great Harbour. Goat Cay to the left and Little Stirrup to the right.

In the end, I never was able to resolve it, notwithstanding many Internet searches, all of which loaded painfully slowly. I was at least able to use my T-Mobile phone to get online while I worked on the problem. The phone was connected at high speed, but T-Mobile's unlimited International plan throttles the connections down to 256kbps. (Louise's Verizon phone, also connected at high speed, has no International data allotment at all; we dare not turn it on or we'll get a huge bill just for all the data Android uses in the background.)

After beating my head against this particular wall for hours, I decided to try the SIM card in some of the other devices on board to try to work around this. My own T-Mobile phone would not accept it because I have not had it on service long enough for T-Mobile to unlock it (really? I mean, I own it outright). Louise's Verizon phone rejected it because she's never asked for the phone to be unlocked. The JetPack MiFi I've had lying around accepted the card and told me it was connected to BTC, but no pages would load even after fiddling with the APN settings.

Ultimately what worked was putting the SIM in our Apple iPad Mini. That got us onto the high speed network with download speeds in the 6mbps range, which is plenty to load photos and anything else we need, even video should we be willing to use our metered data allotment for it. By the time I got it working, though, Louise was already in bed and I had no energy left to finish the blog.

I did interrupt this whole process for cocktail hour and to cook dinner. We had taken a nice skirt steak out early in the day for grilling, and Louise made quinoa pilaf to go with it. Around 6:15 I fired up the grill for a 6:30ish dinner. As usual I opened up he grill a couple of minutes after starting it to wire-brush the grates and make sure it was heating up.

When I came back to it ten minutes later to cook, it was barely warm. Uh oh. Opening it up and pulling the grate confirmed my fear: the electric heating element had broken in half. The last time this happened we were, ironically, also in the Berry Islands, at Chub Cay. Maybe the grill does not like the Bahamas. In any event, with no recourse, I ended up pan-frying the steak and we enjoyed dinner on the aft deck.

Broken element. No way to fix this. The detritus underneath are flakes of powder coating from the aging grates.

In hindsight I should have ordered a spare for this component before we left the US. Last time this happened, we were expecting to meet up with friends in Bimini who were coming over by ferry. I ordered a replacement element shipped expedited to their hotel in Miami and they brought it across in their suitcase. And, honestly, if we knew anyone at all who was flying in to the islands in the next few weeks, we'd do the same thing again.

Since we don't, however, I spent the entire morning and into the afternoon trying to figure out how to get a $40 grill part sent to the Bahamas. For a while it looked like we'd have to have it sent to our mail box in Green Cove Springs and then pay something north of $100 to FedEx it to Nassau, a place we would not even stop if not for that reason. Adding insult to injury, the Bahamians assess their 45% customs duty on the value of the item inclusive of shipping.

Making good use of the high-speed Internet I worked so hard to acquire yesterday, I eventually learned that I could have it shipped to Watermakers Air in Fort Lauderdale, and they would fly it to Staniel Cay for $35. The part is now on its way to Fort Lauderdale and it should be at Staniel in a little more than a week, about when we should arrive. We'll pay duty on $85, unless I convince Customs that it is, indeed, a replacement part and will leave the country with us.

Anthem of the Seas across Little Stirrup Cay.

This morning two cruise ships dropped anchor. Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas is at Little Stirrup, and Regent's Seven Seas Explorer is at Great Stirrup. Swarms of jet skis rented to the passengers have been buzzing by us all day. We can barely see the top of the Regent ship, over the crest of the island, but we have a good view of the more distant Royal Caribbean.

At some point during morning coffee Louise looked out the window and announced "the cruise ship has an erection!"  And so it did. A bit of Internet sleuthing revealed this is Royal Caribbean's new "North Star" observation/amusement ride, available on several of their ships, which lifts 14 passengers at a time some 300' above the water. Sign me up.

Anthem of the Seas with its, ahem, pod ride deployed.

A word might be in order here for anyone unfamiliar with cruise ship "private islands." Pretty much every line has one, now, with Norwegian being here, Royal Caribbean being here as well as having a private beach in Haiti, Princess having a slice of Eleuthera, Holland America "Half Moon Cay" just south of Eleuthera, and so on. We've been more than once, and so are familiar.

These islands (or, in some cases, sections of islands) are uninhabited save for a caretaker or two and maybe a security guard. There are no towns, stores, restaurants, or services of any kind. When a cruise ship arrives, it brings everything with it. Food, beverages, servers, and even cash registers are carted ashore on tenders after the ship drops anchor, and it all goes right back before the ship leaves. You buy your drinks with your cruise card just as you do on board, and the food is included.

Seven Seas Explorer at left with only the radome and smokestack visible. Lighthouse on right is nicely kept by the cruise line. The container on the beach is not visible to the passengers.

What does remain on the island are beach chairs in the thousands, and cabanas which can be rented for an extra charge just like at the pool at a resort hotel. Also a shack stocked with water toys, snorkel gear, scuba equipment, the list goes on, all available for rent at an extra charge. A fleet of jet skis is nearby, typically operated by a local charter company; they are chained up until the ship arrives and then a couple of Bahamians come out from a nearby populated island (in this case, Great Harbour Cay) to take care of rentals and maybe guided tours. There are sometimes stalls leased to locals for craft sales, who also arrive by boat.

So while it looks like we could just dinghy ashore and get some great BBQ and a cold draft beer, in fact, landing is not permitted, and without cruise cards we could buy nothing. The closest we come to partaking is watching the jet ski tours whizz by with a muscular Bahamian in front and a half dozen pasty white tourists looking either elated or seasick following behind.

High winds, and thus heavy seas, will be with us here to the weekend, pinning us here in the calm harbor. As soon as we can we will move a little further along, southward along the Berry Island chain before crossing the Tongue of the Ocean to New Providence. There we will anchor without going ashore before crossing the bank to the Exumas. And as I type my last sentence, the cruise ships are steaming away and we are again alone.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Islands in the stream

We are anchored in a familiar spot, right off the beach at Bimini Sands on South Bimini Island, Bahamas (map). We spent several days anchored here, across a couple of different weeks, on our last visit to the islands, and this is where we responded to a Mayday call for a sinking center console at the beach.

I am online this evening courtesy of my T-Mobile cell phone, which does have fairly good high speed coverage here. I am sure it works in Nassau, too, but I am not holding too much hope for the other islands. We'll be out of coverage entirely for the next two days, so I wanted to get a quick update in tonight.

I'll start by saying that the last update was written as we were underway in the Hawk Channel between Key West and Marathon. I was so focused on getting all the important details in the post that I never actually mentioned we were under way.

We arrived in Marathon just past cocktail hour, setting the hook in our usual spot just off the Sunset Grill (map). We opted to keep the tender on deck and eat aboard, enjoying the sunset from our own aft deck. Instead, we splashed the tender Friday morning and went ashore for brunch. It took quite some time to get the tender started, after sitting on deck and quite a bit of rain-induced bilge pump operation, so it was just as well that I didn't start that effort after a long day under way.

Vector in the distance, from Sunset Grill.

After brunch we rode into Boot Key Harbor just to see how things were coming along after the hurricane. There are still a few wrecks in the harbor, and many more boats afloat and back on their moorings but with substantial exterior damage in evidence. Most everything else appears back to normal and the marinas are full. We passed the slip at Burdines where our friends' boat rode out the storm and survived almost unscathed, and marveled again at how fortunate they were. Burdines itself looks unchanged, even though I know they had to rebuild a bunch of stuff.

After our impromptu tour we returned to Vector and moved a few hundred yards south (map) to get out of a nasty swell. I spent the rest of the afternoon sucking down as much Internet as I could while we were still in coverage, using the bandwidth to update all the charts and cruising guides and updating the software on a pair of old Android phones "just in case." I also made one last attempt to repair the auxiliary battery charger with some guidance from the manufacturer. Alas, it appears they will need to send me a new thermistor to finish the job, and that will have to wait now until we return to the US.

Blown thermistor; note crack. It kept melting the solder pads and coming out of the board.

Somewhere during all of this, a small boat apparently allided with the Old 7-Mile Bridge right in front of us and flipped over, sending its occupants into the water. We neither saw nor heard it, but we heard about it on the marine radio and we spent a bit of time in the pilothouse watching the rescue through binoculars. If we had simply stayed where we had been in the morning we would have had front-row seats. It would appear the occupants were not seriously injured, but the boat was a total loss and we watched SeaTow haul it off, still upside down, just before we left.

Our projected time to Bimini was 16-19 hours depending on Gulf Stream current, and so we held off weighing anchor until 6pm. That would give us an earliest arrival of 10am, which would give me enough time to get some shuteye and still be back at the helm well in time for the approach. We had dinner under way shortly after weighing anchor, and by the time we were done eating we were outside the 3nm limit and could take care of that bit of business as well.

I started the watermaker after we finished macerating, and ran it for seven hours. Disappointingly, production started out at just 10gph even though it did 13 in testing, and it steadily dropped throughout the run, finishing at about 7.7gph. Still, that put another 50 gallons in the tank, topping it off. Even at 8gph we should be able to keep up with our usage just by running it under way.

The ride was rougher than anticipated, with short-period swells on the nose that had the boat pitching most of the night; not overly uncomfortable but challenging to move around the boat. Still, I had a relaxed watch, passing two freighters in the other direction and being overtaken by three cruise ships making their way back to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Cruise ships are discernible by their glow even while still beyond the horizon; from just a couple miles away they are blindingly bright. By contrast, freighters are darker than the surroundings, silhouettes against the faint glow of distant cities.

On a moonless night it is imperative to go out on deck periodically to scan the horizon, and I was often circling the deck from one pilothouse door to the other. At one point I got up to check on the cruise ship just a mile off our starboard and latch the port door that was bouncing open from the last circle. The boat hit a wave and took a sharp roll to starboard before the stabilizers corrected it, and I watched from across the room as my laptop fell backwards off the chart table and dropped ten feet to the bottom of the companionway.

The power cord barely slowed it down, and it landed on the very bottom step and exploded into pieces, waking Louise in the process. After double-checking on the cruise ship I made my way down the ladder. To borrow a phrase, numerous fragments, some large, some small. It was still running, though, and I could read the display which had completely separated from its case. I was able to shut it down gracefully but there was nothing else to do for it under way, so I piled all the parts in a heap on my salon chair.

I had been catching up on social media when it went over, with the very last of the AT&T signal as we angled slowly away from the Florida coast. I was hoping to post a quick update here as well as get a couple of emails out, but I was unprepared to do either of those from the tiny screen of my phone in a moving boat. I was at least able to check the weather a final time and read the news before the Internet flickered out.

Louise came on watch early, at 2:30, and I fell right to sleep. It was short-lived, as Louise had to wake me several times. In the heaviest part of the stream, the current was moving us sideways so fast that the autopilot could not keep up. I think it has a maximum rate of turn that it will allow to get back on track, and if it can't, the cross-track error just continues to grow. I had to hand steer for a while and our track made us look like drunken sailors. With no fixed references we were unsure if the compass was working properly.

I ended up using the stars to verify the compass was, indeed, correct, and that we were headed due east, or a heading of about 90°, to make way on a course of 55°, which is mostly northeast. Crabbing sideways by 35° or so appears beyond the capability of our ancient autopilot, but we were able to get back on course using heading-only mode.

All that extra push had us here at the early end of our window, just after 10am. After getting the hook down and the boat secured, I splashed the tender and headed ashore to clear us in. Customs is located at the Bimini Big Game Club, and the dockmaster let me tie up while I cleared in. I first had to walk down the street to Immigration, where I squeaked in just before the officer had to leave to meet the ferry.

Customs rubber-stamped my five pages of paperwork, took my three C-notes, and handed me our cruising permit in the span of less than five minutes. Before heading back to the dinghy I asked the dockmaster if anyone sold SIM cards nearby and he sent me across the street to the store. I paid a $5 premium over what the phone company charges, but I got a card right away and loaded it with 15gb of data so we are good to go.

Well, sort of. Remember those old Android phones? One is my most recent Galaxy S5 which I asked Sprint to unlock for international use just before I turned off my service. I got an email saying it had been unlocked, but when I put the BaTelCo SIM in it, no dice. I spent probably two hours today fiddling with it, but it looks like I am going to have to call Sprint and/or possibly have it back on service in the US to get the unlock completed.

Anticipating that SIM unlocking might be a problem, I also brought along an even older phone, the Galaxy S4 that I used on Sprint up until two years ago. That phone is also unlocked, but, more importantly, I had used it here in the Bahamas on our last trip so I knew it would work. And work it does, but... The reason I upgraded from this phone two years ago is that the charging port had become intermittent and the phone itself would reboot randomly. So, we have Internet, but it will be a challenge to keep this old phone running for the entire trip.

Bimini is not nearly as full-up with tourists as I had anticipated, and the whole process ashore took less than an hour, between Immigration, Customs, and the phone card. When I got back to Vector I began to deal with my computer crash, in the literal sense of the phrase. Louise was cashed out below decks.

While both the upper and lower halves of the case were damaged beyond repair, all the innards were still working. I had an entire carcass in my spare parts bin, from the last time something broke, and I was able to swap my motherboard, disk, and keyboard into that case, which still had an intact screen. I lost my touch-screen display in the process, but I seldom used that feature anyway.

I am happy to report that my computer is back intact and running and enabling this post. I'm very glad, because you may recall I have just spent some dozens of hours getting licensed charts loaded and working on it, and getting the licenses transferred to a different machine is difficult if not impossible. Also, I had a number of routes entered but not yet transferred to the helm.

Big Game Club after the sport fishers return for the evening.

We returned to the Big Game Club together in the evening for a nice dinner on the deck. The deck affords a great view of the marina docks, filled as they are with a lot of self-important Miami skippers out for the weekend. We had a very brief stroll around Alicetown after dinner before heading home.

One day is plenty in Bimini, especially with all the time we've spent here before, and if we're not out of here by Tuesday there will be no place to hide from the incoming weather. Accordingly, we will weigh anchor in the morning for the two-day run across the Bank to the Berries. That will be new ground for us, and Monday evening we should be anchored somewhere near Petit Cay. I don't know if we will have cell signal there or not, but certainly we will have not until then.

If I can't get online, I will post our updates via sat phone on our Twitter feed, here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Escape from Key West

Notwithstanding my claim in my last post that a small window had opened for crossing to the Bahamas on Sunday, we nevertheless remained in Key West until this morning. What looked like an acceptable, though narrow, window Saturday evening had narrowed unacceptably by Sunday morning, with significant risk we'd be arriving in Bimini in six-foot seas.

That would mean, among other things, running around to the back side of the island to anchor, and then having to wait it out to even be able to tender ashore to check in. Not really worth the risk, especially since we still had three nights left for which we'd already paid. By noon Sunday we made the decision to wave off, and remain in Key West until a better window arrived.

Coming up on the Bahia Honda channel and its famous bridge.

At the same time that forecast was deteriorating, the forecast for this weekend was improving, and we reckoned we would not have to wait long. Reinforcing that we had, in fact, made the right choice, an enormous storm system moved in on Monday, pinning us to the dock and wreaking havoc in the anchorage. Monday evening was the first time since arrival that we did not hear Southern Cross, as virtually none of the sunset tours left the dock. Only the fully-enclosed Party Cat went out, and the skipper announced he was "reluctantly" outbound on his Sécurité call.

The extension allowed me to get one more Amazon package, a replacement for my failing dive computer, and get a few more errands and projects done. Importantly, it let me download a few more GB of charts and charting software while we still have free bandwidth available. Louise also finished a quilt to get it in the mail; it had a chicken theme and we found some of Key West's unending parade of chickens over by the post office when she sent it off.

Just some of the chickens hanging out at the post office.

Our two-week stay ended yesterday and our crossing window arrives tomorrow. We extended one additional day at the marina on a daily rate, and this morning we circled around to a different dock to deck the scooters. We also topped up the water tank for the last time and got all the recycling off the boat.

This evening we'll be anchored off Boot Key in Marathon, where we can get ashore for a final state-side meal if we wish. Tomorrow still looks good for a crossing. It's an overnight trip from here, some 18 hours or so, and we'll depart in the afternoon for a mid-day arrival in Bimini on Saturday. Customs and Immigration there are supposedly "on call" on the weekend, so with luck we can clear in, go ashore, and get a Bahamian SIM for the phone.

I might not get a chance to post again before we leave coverage. Our sat phone is back online, and I will post updates on our progress on Vector's twitter feed, here.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Cayo Hueso

We are docked at the municipal Key West Bight Marina, in the harbor of that name on the northwest corner of Key West (map). It's a familiar stop, and at this moment we are docked just three slips down from our "home address" that appeared on our very first Florida driver licenses. We're into our second week here.

We arrived here uneventfully, not long after my last post. We spent our first week on the face dock closest to the entrance to the bight, which was a great spot for watching the conga line of tour boats coming and going each day. We were amused to see that the live band on one of the boats is still playing Southern Cross every evening just as it leaves for the sunset cruise; I'm sure the entire band as well as the entire crew has changed over since then but the set list lives on.

Coming down here overnight was our first real shakedown of the new chart plotting program and charts. We're still climbing the learning curve, and while it has some capabilities beyond what was available to us before, it is not nearly as configurable as the old software and that is taking some getting used to. Still, we have no choice, as it is the only way we will have accurate charts for the Bahamas and Caribbean.

And so it is that I spent a good part of our first week here tweaking the new software as well as transferring all of our waypoints, tracks, and routes over from the old software. They don't really play well together, so it's been quite a chore. As part of that process I had to comb through four years and 16,000+ nautical miles of tracks, cleaning them up for import into the new software.

Vector's travels over the last four years in one chart.

Before I started deleting superfluous tracks, I decided to make another image of all of Vector's travels on a single chart. I did this once before, after we finished our Mississippi River transit, but since then we have extended the westward reaches of our travels all the way to the Mexico border. I think it nicely captures the overall scope of our cruising over the past four years.

If you look closely (click to enlarge), you can see some "tendrils" off the main route, which are the various river side trips we've taken over that time. Starting in the northeast you can see where we went up the Hudson to Albany and Troy, and up the Delaware to Philadelphia. A small stub represents the few trips we made up the Patuxent to Baltimore, and you can see our trip up the Potomac to the heart of Washington, DC.

A short extension in Virginia highlights our visit to Yorktown, and in the northeastern part of Florida you can see our cruise "up" the St. Johns, south into the heart of Florida.  Towards the southern end of the state you can see our several passes around the tip of the peninsula through the Keys, as well as three trips across the state on the Okechobee Waterway. East of that is our figure-eight route through the Bahamas, crossing itself at Nassau, with the upper loop in the Abacos and the lower loop through the Exumas and Eleuthera.

The excursion west of the Florida Keys was our visit to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, before heading north to Tampa Bay. Our big inland river cruise in 2016 dominates the middle of the chart, with the side trip up the Tennessee to Chattanooga and Knoxville. And our cruise west through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway through Louisiana and Texas, with return legs through the Gulf of Mexico, are some of the most recent tracks on the chart.

You've seen me write here that we have now done every single mile of the Intracoastal Waterway from its beginning at mile marker 0 near Norfolk, Virginia, all the way to where it ends at Port Isabel, Texas, near Brownsville and South Padre Island. Notably absent from this chart are the ICW legs from Morehead City (near Beaufort) NC, south to the Florida/Georgia state line. There is a simple reason for that.

Vector on the face dock at Key West Bight.

All the tracks captured on this chart were generated by the chart plotting software we installed in Cocoa, Florida in January of 2014. The log of our travels before then, an entire year from January 2013, were recorded by a dedicated chartplotter that failed on our way to Cocoa. I was eventually able to resuscitate that plotter and we used it on the flybridge for another year, but there was really no way to extract our track logs from it in any usable way. Those tracks comprised some 2,000+ nautical miles and included our first cruise, up the ICW from where we bought Vector in Savannah, Georgia to the boatyard in Deltaville, Virginia, and the subsequent return cruise that brought us all the way to Florida for the first time.

It is worth noting that in order to make this snapshot, I had to turn off the display of all chart objects other than land masses and the tracks themselves. State boundaries are not part of the base chart, and names of bodies of water do not display at this scale. But this is the actual chart display from our plotter showing real-time tracks, not something put together after-the-fact.

You may recall that on our way here I garnered two additional high-priority projects, to wit, repairing both the watermaker and the davit crane. While the watermaker is arguably more important, our on-island transportation depended on the davit crane, and as that was an easy fix, I tackled that one first, the very same day we arrived.

The only powered component of the entire crane is an electric winch, not unlike the one your cousin Bob has on the front of his jacked-up Land Cruiser to extricate himself when he gets wedged in a ditch. I completely rebuilt the winch while we were in Charleston (and I have pictures for a post about that one of these days), as it was already 15 years old, and it should be good for another 15 now.

These sorts of winches are operated by electrical solenoids that allow the high-current motor to be operated by a low-current up/down switch on a wired remote control. The solenoids have a limited lifespan and they don't fare well in the salt air. I've had to repair them before, and I know the previous owner did, as well.

Old solenoids with interconnecting bus bars. Corrosion is bad on both units.

The last time I fiddled around for over an hour disassembling the relay pack to replace the single bad solenoid, from spares I had on hand, I discovered that more modern winches use a newer, single-piece sealed solenoid unit that is much easier to replace. I bought one of them to have on hand for the inevitable future failure.

The mounting holes on the newer solenoids are closer together than the ones on the older units, but they are also smaller and lighter and I was able to secure it well enough with just one of the two former mounting screws. The new unit is working like a champ, and, as a bonus, the whole crane is performing better. I think the old solenoids were inducing quite a bit of voltage drop in their aging condition.

Modern monolithic replacement. Smaller and encased in plastic.

In a continuation of the same theme, the watermaker problem proved to be essentially the same issue. With the pump heads having been recently serviced, the watermaker guy suggested the problem was likely electrical in nature and had me start the diagnosis with the pump. When I went to remove the pump wiring, a pair of mid-run crimp connectors that I did not even know existed came right off in my hands, a poor splice from some previous service, from before we bought the boat. Removing those crimps from the picture immediately restored 90% of the expected performance.

Nevertheless, having removed the motor, I decided to go ahead and inspect the brushes, bearings, and windings. The brushes were in great shape, although I damaged one of the springs getting it all apart and I had to expedite a replacement. Cleaning the carbon dust out of the housing and tightening up the brush assemblies fixed it the rest of the way, and I think we are back to full production, although only a good multi-hour run out in ocean water will tell us for sure.

I also ordered some parts to go with the whizzy iPad mount that I virtually stole from West Marine at their clearance sale in Fort Lauderdale, so we now have a much more robust mount for using that as a backup chart source at the helm. And I made an expedition to the bowels of the helm console to add wiring for a foward-facing camera addition to our security video recorder (sort of a dash-cam setup) as well as to finish the antenna wiring for the TV in the guest stateroom and the hookup for the DVR to the new screen at the helm.

Spring Break at Dante's. Hoping they use lots of chlorine in the pool.

In and among all this, we've been catching a bit of Key West each evening. One of the principal reasons to add this stop en route to the Bahamas was to catch up with good friends Erin and Chris on Barefeet, and we had several nice meals with them as well as cocktails aboard and about. Their weather window arrived before ours, and they shoved off yesterday for points north.

Spring Break started last week and the town has been overrun with college students. Local watering hole Dante's, which sports a pool surrounded by bars, is right at the end of our dock, and the place has been absolutely packed in the afternoons with hormone-fueled revelers listening to music loud enough to be heard in Marathon.

Standing room only. If you dock at the marina next door, this pool is included in your slip fee.

When not up to my elbows in repairs or wandering around town dodging spring breakers looking down at their cell phones, I've been making phone calls or writing emails to wrap up some insurance business. I'm happy to report that we finally scored a non-owned auto insurance policy, after many months of trying (thanks to USAA, courtesy of my father-in-law's military service). And we also got a more acceptable quote for boat insurance in the Caribbean, which we are evaluating now.

The marina here has comprehensive recycling, including used motor oil and filters, and so I changed the generator oil so we could get the used oil off the boat before heading offshore. And today we made our final grocery run, stocking up on perishables at the local Publix.

We're paid up to Wednesday, since the weekly rate here is more attractive than the daily rate. However, a brief window has opened up for a departure tomorrow afternoon, to arrive in Bimini on Monday. The window is short, and the forecast has been fluctuating, so it's not yet a done deal, but if this forecast holds through tomorrow morning, we will very likely drop lines around noon and make a run for it. That should put us in Bimini sometime Monday morning, depending on how much of a push we get from the Gulf Stream.

If we do head offshore, I will try to post a brief update here before we leave cell coverage. Once we are are out of range, we will be offline until I can find my way to a Bahamas Telco office to buy a SIM card. My new T-Mobile phone should work for limited service like text messages and maybe some email, but it is low speed service in most of the islands other than Nassau.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Once more, with feeling

As I begin typing we are still on the hard at Lauderdale Marine Center (map), waiting for the Travelift to come pick us up for our afternoon splash. It's been a productive few days and Vector is once again ready for sea.

Scratch that. The above paragraph was the one and only thing I managed to type Monday before I was interrupted for the remainder of the day, dashing my hopes of getting the blog posted before we left. We're now in the Atlantic Ocean, east of the Florida Reef and about even with Key Largo. I am on watch and Louise is asleep below.

Sunset over Fowey Rocks Light.

We wrapped up the holiday weekend in Hollywood Lake, tendering ashore for a final meal on the waterfront before decking the tender in preparation for our return to Fort Lauderdale. Tuesday we weighed anchor uneventfully a little after 10am to give us a slack-water arrival at the New River, and we had an easy run upriver to the yard, despite rather high winds the entire day.

As we made our way upriver we heard a familiar voice and a familiar boat name on the radio. Our friends Steve and Barb aboard Maerin had come south down the ICW and made the turn upriver just ahead of us. They had just finished tying up at the downtown docks as we passed, and we waved and exchanged shouted greetings as we passed. The marine radio is far too busy on the New River for either of us to even have said hello.

We were tied alongside by 1pm and put the scooters back on the ground. Mindful that the thief who stole my scooter is still there and still has a key to Louise's scooter, we were diligent in locking them up every minute were were in the yard, I collected our waiting mail from the office, and we ran some errands before going to one of our old standbys for dinner.

Wednesday morning first thing, again in high winds, we moved into the liftways where Joe, the unflappable lift operator guided us in before deftly lifting Vector from the water. I think we were both holding our breath as she rose in the lift, not knowing whether we would find some horrible mangling of metal on her underbelly.

Our stumpy Nemo fin looking forlorn. But no damage to the hull nearby.

I could hardly believe my eyes as the keel came level with the ground. The fin had stripped off cleanly and there was not even a scratch on the hull. Something sharp dragged along the keel about two inches from the bottom, leaving a horizontal scratch in the paint that was perfectly level and ran half the length of the boat. Whatever it was also scraped against the skeg, but there was no evidence of a strike on the propeller or the rudder. The port fin also had a small amount of damage on its leading edge at the very bottom.

This long scratch 2" above the bottom of the keel was the extent of the other damage. Hard to make out unless you click to enlarge the photo.

Stabilized Marine arrived shortly after we were blocked and on the stands. They inspected both actuators and shafts and determined that they had not been displaced and needed no adjustments. They popped the remains of the starboard fin (the "shoe") off, replaced the shaft seals as a precaution, and headed off to Naiad to pick up the new fin. I had to call the insurance company's surveyor since this work was proceeding before he could arrive.

A close-up of the aft end of the scratch and the scrape on the skeg.

The guys had the new fin on before lunch and declared everything good to go. In the meantime, the bottom crew from the yard inspected the paint damage so they could give us a quote on sanding, primer, repainting, and the fiberglass touch-up on the port fin. The insurance surveyor arrived after lunch and spent barely fifteen minutes looking at the damage before declaring it a covered loss and the repair quotes to be reasonable.

New fin before installation. The old shoe is on the white cloth to the right.

Somewhere in all of this, I had to again jury-rig the gray waste sump to empty into the black tank, and the condensate from the mini-split to empty into a coffee can. That was all much quicker the second time around, since I had installed a fitting for the purpose on the black tank, and the hole was already drilled for the condensate hose. Of course, this time I first had to empty 200 beers from the bilge before I could run the waste hose.

I had to move all this beer to access the gray sump. The new fitting and valve for temporary connection to the black tank can be seen at upper left.

I had girded myself for having the stabilizer guys there until past dinner time, as had been the case when they serviced the system in January. Since they wrapped up before lunch, we called Steve and Barb and arranged to meet them downtown. We enjoyed cocktails in their saloon before walking to a nice dinner at the Royal Pig across the river. It was great catching up with them after some two years.

Thursday the yard sanded the scratches down to bare steel and applied the primer, and by the end of Friday the paint was done. As long as we had to buy an entire 5-gallon can of anti-fouling, they also touched up the areas where the lift belts had bit into the paint. They barely used a full gallon and I have most of the can aboard now for future touch-up.

Scratch sanded out to bare steel. New fin is visible to the right.

Shortly after the boat show and the resulting purchase of new navigation software for the helm, we had signed up for a two-hour class on how to use it, and Thursday afternoon we we left the yard to its own devices while we participated.  I think we were the only owners in a class of ten or so; the other participants were megayacht crews, including some from Never Enough and Usher, two yachts we've crossed paths with a time or two. As these things go, we got about fifteen minutes of useful information in those two hours, but that fifteen minutes has saved me hours of frustration in coming up to speed on the new software. Plus, they had cookies.

We spent the weekend dealing with paperwork and running errands while the paint cured. The cat, who is continuing her amazing recovery, needed more prescription food, and I had a couple of scripts of my own to fill. I also made a three-hour round trip scooter ride to Miami Beach, where we had cleverly forwarded our mail when we were quite certain we'd be anchored there after the boat show.

That mail included the warranty replacement through-hull valve that we replaced a couple of weeks ago; I took it back to West Marine with the receipt from the one I had to buy there on short notice. It also included the title to the new scooter, which we are happy to have before heading offshore.

Shiny new fin shortly after installation.  It had to be sanded before priming.

As long as we again had a good address, we had a 35-pound Manson Supreme anchor delivered for use as a stern anchor, kedge, or emergency lunch hook. And I rode back over to the chart store, where we had taken the class, with a thumb drive in my pocket, to buy the Bahamas and Caribbean chart package that had been the incentive to install new software in the first place.

Speaking of the Caribbean, we finally got a quote for insurance, and it is literally double our current annual premium just so we can spend less than three months cruising the closest group of islands. We've asked for more quotes. Irma and Maria have made Caribbean insurance an expensive proposition.

Dylan works on the seals.

Monday, as we were wrapping up and getting ready for our afternoon splash, I got a call from good friends Curtis and Gill who were driving back up from the Keys after attending the Looper gathering there. They had a last-minute reprieve on their busy schedule and were able to stop by for lunch; they brought sandwiches, which we ate on he aft deck as we did not want to leave the yard so close to splash time. It was great catching up with them.

We splashed with no issues and tied up for the night at the face dock closest to the river, right next to where we had been blocked, for a speedy escape. Our departure options Tuesday were to shove off at 6:30am to beat the bridge closures before high slack, or else right at the noon checkout time, just ahead of low slack. With a projected 26-hour trip to Key West, we opted for the latter, which had no risk of us getting stuck between bridges at the morning rush hour.

All better. Fresh paint center-frame is touch-up of the area where the lift straps rub.

First thing in the morning the yard hauled another boat and dropped it where we had been. It was a 42' Cigarette with five 350hp outboards; wicked fast. This million dollar boat (literally) was merely the tender to a much larger yacht, Checkmate. It had run aground somewhere in the Bahamas, puncturing the outer fiberglass of the hull. Apparently they left it there in the water for two weeks, leaving plenty of time for the balsa wood core of the hull to saturate thoroughly, probably a six-figure repair bill. Perspective.

This P&O cruise ship was in port as we departed. We sailed on her Princess sister ship.

We dropped lines right at noon and made our way downriver and out to sea at Port Everglades. Maerin had departed the river ahead of us, and they hailed us on the radio from their anchorage at University Cove as we passed Haulover Inlet. We're glad we squeezed in a second outing with them over the weekend, and hope to cross paths again in the Bahamas.

Update: I did not manage to get this post finished last night before the change of watch at 0300. We're now abreast of the abandoned American Shoal light, with just 20 miles to go to Key West. We should be in quarters by 2pm or so. Given that the weather for passage gets lousy in a couple of days, we've booked a week at the marina. That will give me time to fix the two things that broke on our way here.

American Shoal light.

The first of those was our davit crane. Fortunately we had already decked both scooters before the "up" function stopped working, as I was getting ready to stow it after using it to get the 50-lb can of paint aboard. It's a bad solenoid and I have spares on board, but we needed to get under way so I just lashed it down.

The other failure is more serious. Here in the clear blue waters just off the Gulf Stream we gave the watermaker a workout after servicing both pumps in Fort Lauderdale. Production dropped rapidly from rated capacity down to zero in short order and now it will not work at all. In Key West I need to take the pump motor apart and see if it has some kind of problem. We're not going to the Bahamas without a working watermaker, so this problem is tops on my list.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Finding Nemo: one step forward, two steps back

We are anchored again in South Lake, Hollywood Florida (map). Observant readers will note that this is north, not south, of where we were when last I posted here. And, yes, at the risk of continuing to recite a litany of setbacks, there is a story here.

Wednesday morning we tendered back ashore to the Intracoastal Mall for (we thought) the last time, got our rental car from the parking lot, and headed out to run a few last errands before returning the car to Enterprise. That included returning what had turned out to be completely unusable snorkeling sets to Walmart, hunting for replacements, and picking up 14 gallons of gasoline in four Jerry jugs while we refueled the rental car.

We ultimately found usable snorkel sets at the Winn-Dixie right next to the dock, and we dropped the gasoline back at the tender before heading to the rental agency. Louise also bought an Instant Pot while we were in Walmart, but with no good way to secure it in the tender we just carried it with us. Once again we had to get a Lyft back to the dock from Enterprise.

After returning to Vector we loaded everything aboard and decked the tender. I spent a few minutes adding fuel stabilizer to the Jerry cans; this gasoline should last three or four months depending on how far we need to tender to shore at each stop. We had filled the tender from our last jug just before heading ashore, so in total we have over 20 gallons.

We checked the schedule for the next bridge south that we'd need opened, at Broad Avenue, and weighed anchor a little before 2:30 pm. Or, I should say, we tried to weigh anchor. In what would prove to be a bad omen for the day, we brought up a two-foot long metal spike impaled on the anchor chain. It was wedged in there pretty tight, and my efforts to free it by hand and by using a four-pound engineer hammer were unsuccessful.

This picture does not do justice. That's a 2+' long wedge-shaped piece of steel impaled through a link in the anchor chain.

We actually put in a call to TowBoatUS for some help with the problem, reasoning that working on it on the deck of a towboat was going to be easier than by having my arms wedged through the hawsepipes. After getting a confirmation they'd be sending someone, we continued working on it ourselves, ultimately getting free by tying the debris off to a cleat using our emergency chain hook, and unweighting the chain using our regular hook. A great deal of shaking and tugging was involved but the spike eventually fell free.

We called TowBoat back to cancel the call and finished weighing anchor. As a side note here I will relate that towboats in SE Florida are cutthroat. We tried hailing the Miami TowBoatUS but were answered by Fort Lauderdale, and I wasted fifteen minutes with them before agreeing Miami had a closer boat and that's who we needed. In this part of Florida you need to be clear about whom you are speaking with and whether or not they are the closest or even covered by your towing insurance.

We motored out of the lake, turned south on the ICW, and cleared under the Sunny Isles Bridge without an opening. The ICW was busy on a pleasant day leading up to the boat show, and we stayed well toward "our side" of the channel (there's really no such thing, but common practice is to pass oncoming traffic port-to-port or "one whistle" on the ICW). It was an astronomical low tide but the ICW is deep here and we were cruising in 12' of water.

So imagine our surprise when we heard the most awful crashing and scraping sounds from the starboard side, characteristic of a hard-object strike, with the sounder still reading 12'. I immediately took the boat out of gear, but we had plenty of momentum, even at the low cruise we were maintaining in order not to be too early for the bridge. I used the bow thruster alone to try to move us to port, and Louise ran out on deck to see what we might have hit, just in time to see what was left of our starboard stabilizer fin pop up behind the boat.

At first we wondered if we had hit some submerged debris, perhaps leftover from Irma. We seemed visually in the channel, lined up for the next set of markers, and our chart said we were navigating in a minimum of ten feet of water. I update the charts regularly; this was the latest NOAA chart, updated in December and not scheduled to expire until November. But it sure sounded and felt like rock, and the shoreline here is rip-rap.

The chart showing our track. Leftmost dark line was our path when we hit; rightmost dark line was the return trip, with the waypoint set as we passed the fin. Lighter lines in between are a track from our previous pass through this area, two years ago. The light blue area is charted as 10'.

Once I was convinced it was safe to re-engage the propeller, I maneuvered slowly while Louise went below to check for leaks around the stabilizer actuator and elsewhere in the bilges. Fortunately, all was bone dry. With the closest safe anchorage being the one we had just left in Maule Lake, we turned the boat around and headed back whence we came. I marked a waypoint on the chart as we passed our forlorn stabilizer fin, bobbing close to the mangroves on the western shore.

Not knowing what other damage may have been done, we proceeded back slowly, with frequent engine room checks. We dropped the hook back in Maule Lake a short distance from where we had been (map), mindful that we did not want to foul on the same spike. As soon as we had the hook set, I picked up the phone and called our insurance company.

Normally with something like this, we debate considerably whether or not to file a claim. Our deductible being what it is, damage has to be significant before it even makes sense, and even then, having an allision or grounding in the file can cost more in the long run. But in this case, we had no choice, because of the fin. With no way to retrieve it ourselves, and being responsible for any damage it might cause, we needed our insurance to accept responsibility for it and take care of it.

I also placed calls to Naiad Marine, the manufacturer of the stabilizers, and Stabilized Marine, the company in Fort Lauderdale who has been servicing them for us, to find out if there was any reason we would need any part of what fell off the boat. Those calls were returned much later, confirming that the debris was not useful. I never heard what the insurance company did about the debris, but we gave them GPS coordinates and a full description. I'm only sorry we did not think to take a photo of it in the post-incident chaos.

What we did photograph, or attempted to, was the part of the fin that remained with the boat. In an unexpected christening I set up my as-yet unused underwater camera to take video, attached it to the mount I bought for it at deep discount at West Marine, attached that to our 12' boat pole, and went on something of a fishing expedition. The water here is too murky to see much, even in bright sunlight, and the camera does not view a wide-enough angle, but what came back at least showed the metal innards of the fin and its shaft still intact and probably not bent.

The metal backbone of the fiberglass stabilizer. White areas are probably bits of fiberglass still adhered. What remains is a fraction of the size of the original, sort of like Nemo's lucky fin.

The insurance company informed us that it was up to us where to go for repairs and to arrange the parts and labor. When we heard back from Stabilized Marine, though, we got some bad news: There were no fins in stock at Naiad, and a fin would have to be fabricated in Connecticut and shipped down. The fab lead time was two weeks and ground freight would make it a third. It looked like we were going to be here in southeast Florida for another month.

Our romantic Valentine's dinner ended up being leftovers, with rice cooked in the new Instant Pot. And we self-medicated with plenty of wine. But we were afloat, with all systems operational, if a bit impaired in the stabilization department, and we counted our blessings. It was not the Valentine's Day Massacre, and we had to remember that just that morning, less than an hour away, 17 people were in fact massacred, just a mile from where friends of ours live. Our problems are insignificant in comparison.

You may recall that our plan for Wednesday had been to head south to Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay so I could go to opening day at the Miami Boat Show. Ironically, one of the things I was hoping to get there was software which can display more kinds of charts, and it's possible that having access to those charts might have helped us avoid this grounding. Now that we were safely anchored and not going anywhere until I could get more information from the insurance company, I decided to continue with my plan to attend the show.

Thursday morning I tendered ashore at the docks next to the Blue Marlin Fish House in the Oleta River State Park. It turns out the restaurant is closed for renovations, along with that entrance to the park, neither of which is apparent when arriving at the dock. I ended up having to walk around the end of the vehicle gate to get out of the park; a North Miami Beach police cruiser was parked there but took no notice of me marching out of a closed park.

From the dock it's a ten-minute walk to the bus stop, and a single express bus brought me to American Airlines Arena in Miami. I bought my show ticket online while on the bus, thus was able to immediately board the "water taxi" to Virginia Key for the show. The water taxi is a series of boats chartered by the show to shuttle attendees back and forth, and the one I ended up on was a Skipperliner dinner boat of the sort that often passes us with a wedding reception in progress aboard. Complete with bar, which was doing a brisk business at 10:15am. The one right after mine was an open pontoon boat, and I was happy to be more comfortable for the half hour ride.

I spent the whole day at the show, and I won't bore you with the details of all the booths I visited and engineers with whom I spoke (Thursday is the day the vendors send tech personnel alongside the sales and marketing folks.) Suffice it so say I came away with a couple of free parts for broken things on the boat, the information I needed about chart software, discounts for the software, charts, and other items, and a key piece of information that was worth the price of admission and the three-hour round trip to the show.

My very first stop at the show was Naiad Marine, where I found the VP of Service, Vic, manning the booth, which was devoid of customers. We've dealt with Vic on a number of occasions, once even having him aboard to make an adjustment to our system. I laid out what had happened, hoping to get some reassurance that we'd only need a replacement fin and not much else, and lamented the fact that we'd have to wait two weeks for a fin to be made.

Vic, who seemingly knows everything there is to know about stabilizers, allowed that he was almost certain there were two fins in stock in south Florida. He picked up the phone, made a few calls, and by the time I left the booth there was a fin with our name on it and I was to expect a call back from Stabilized Marine. They called me shortly thereafter, and we agreed to have them pick up the fin and do the work, to include a prophylactic changing of the seals and inspection of the bearings, even though we literally just did that last month.

I left the show shortly after 4pm on, by happenstance, exactly the same boat. With the brutal Miami afternoon traffic, it was 6:15 by the time I was pulling back up to Vector. I offloaded my cache of brochures, parts, and miscellaneous items and we tendered back to the mall for dinner.

As much as I like that anchorage, by this time we were quite done with Maule Lake and the rather tedious 15+ minute dinghy ride to get ashore. But with no real repair schedule in place and lots of phone calls to be made on the Friday before the holiday weekend, we opted just to stay another day so I could line things up.

The insurance adjuster had called me during my water taxi ride Thursday to say they had assigned a surveyor and I would be hearing from them shortly. When that had not happened by late Friday morning, I made a few calls trying to track him down. It turns out that he had turned down the assignment, and we spent the rest of Friday, to no avail, trying to get a new surveyor. We were hoping to learn whether they would send a diver to inspect before haulout, or if they could just meet us at the boatyard. With no answer, we had to proceed with plans without that information.

After a day on the phone we now have scheduled a haul-out for first thing Wednesday morning right back at Laudedale Marine Center, where we'd already spent three weeks. They had availability, a decent rate for haul-block-and-launch, and their bottom crew would be the best choice to touch up whatever damage we did to the bottom paint they applied in January. We also arranged for Stabilized Marine to do the repair starting Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the surveyor.

With all thus arranged, we headed ashore one last time, to put some eBay sales in the mail, have a beer at Duffy's, and a nice dinner at the very upscale Sea Grill, where we counted ourselves lucky to get a table on a Friday evening. We decked the tender as soon as we got home.

Yesterday morning we weighed anchor before the weekend shenanigans got into full swing on the ICW. We made the hour-long trek back here to Hollywood, where it's easier to get ashore and there is a wider variety of options. We'll likely stay right here until we head up to Lauderdale Marine on Tuesday, where we hope to spend the night in the water before our early-morning haul-out.

This is by no means a slam-dunk. We have yet to inspect the hull and propeller to determine what, if any, other damage may have been done. If we're very lucky, we'll need only the fin and some paint touch-up. But there is a chance that the hull plating has been dented, or that the propeller struck either the same rock(s) or the debris from the fin itself (although we noted no unusual vibration en route here at any rpm). And there is still a possibility that the actuator shaft is bent or otherwise damaged. Our remaining good fin was more than adequate on the ride up.

Once we're back in Fort Lauderdale we'll put a scooter on the ground and I will have to make the trek down to Miami Beach, which is where we had our mail sent for pickup right after the show. And we've signed up for training Thursday afternoon on the new chart software, delivered by the same person I talked to at the show.

Angel looking much more alert in the comfort of her cube.

In other news, Angel is still with us, although she is not really drinking on her own, and the only thing she'll eat is the kind of store-bought cat food we like to call "crack." We're giving her subcutaneous fluids daily and she is gaining strength a little at a time. She's also acting more like herself, albeit a little unsteady, than she did while she was crashing. We remain hopeful that she will resume drinking on her own and start to eat the prescription kidney diet that she needs.

When all this is behind us we will make haste to Biscayne Bay and possibly further south to the keys so we can make our crossing to the Bahamas. The season is slipping away and it's not clear how much farther, if at all, we will get this year.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Crewmember down

We are anchored in a familiar and comfortable spot, on Maule Lake, about halfway to Miami (map). I wrote extensively about this hidden gem anchorage the last time we stayed here, so I won't repeat myself. A couple of the places in the nearby Intracoastal Mall have changed hands, but otherwise it is as we remembered it.

We've been here since Thursday evening, even though I had hoped to be south of Miami by now, and therein lies a tale. We're one crewmember short, with Second Mate and Chief of Security Angel in the hospital, where she has been since Saturday. When we dropped her off, we feared she was at the end, but yesterday's report from the vet has given us some hope, and we are awaiting this morning's call.

Angel in her "most interesting cat in the world" pose, in better times.

She's 17, the last pet standing of the three stalwarts that departed San Jose with us 14 years ago. She's been showing her age, reluctant to go up and down the stairs and a little unsteady on her pins. And lately, she's been eating a little less and showing less interest in the pureed pumpkin we put out for her each morning to help her digestion (hey, she's in her 80s in people years).

We had a lot of drama on the boat Thursday. We weighed anchor around 8:15 to retrace our steps back to Dania Beach, and cleared past the series of three drawbridges. We had just cleared the Dania Beach Boulevard Bridge and were not yet at the cutoff canal when the yard called to say we should come right in to the lift slip; we were in the slings and out of the water by 9:30.

Paul the surveyor was already at the yard waiting for us, and so as soon as we could get a ladder alongside, there were a gaggle of us back aboard, including both of us, Paul, and three yard guys who came to replace the valve. We pointed out the cat to each who came aboard, and, honestly, she seemed to be fine and her usual self at the time, keeping mostly out of everyone's way.

I immediately became too busy to notice what she was doing after that. I divided my time between trailing the surveyor and answering his questions, and keeping an eye on the crusty old yard guy who was honchoing the valve replacement. As it stood, I barely caught him before he would have used the wrong bedding compound to install the valve, a non-removable type prohibited by the manufacturer. "Why would you ever need to remove this?" Hmm, well, let's see -- maybe because it broke JUST LIKE THE ONE YOU JUST TOOK OUT. Also, his decades of experience make him more qualified than the engineers at the manufacturer. SMH.

Failed seacock, disassembled for analysis. Piece at lower left broke off the piece just above it. No obvious reason noted.

The valve replacement was done in less than an hour, and the yard needed us out so we booted the surveyor off the boat, splashed, and drove around the corner to a dock at the community center (map), where he met us to finish the survey. After we tied up I remember paying a bit more attention to Angel, making sure she did not go out on deck during the remainder of the survey. Again we noticed nothing unusual.

The surveyor finished by lunch time, and we had our lunch there at the dock before shoving off. I am very happy to report that we had an excellent survey, with no major items noted and a valuation set considerably higher than what it's been since the day we purchased the boat, reflective of the enormous amount of work we've done to upgrade it. After a quick bite I spent a half hour in the bilge reconnecting the plumbing, and we were back under way before 1pm.

I had figured to end up right back at the Hollywood Lakes on Thursday, but with such an early start, and wanting to feel like we were finally making more progress south, we opted to come here instead, just another five miles (and three drawbridges) along the ICW. We figured to spend maybe two nights, taking Friday to relax, before joining the fray hunting for anchorage in Miami the week before the big boat show.

Sunset reflected off Sunny Isles Beach skyscrapers, from our anchorage in Maule Lake.

I don't really remember whether Angel was showing any signs of stress that afternoon. I went about my business, which included drilling a three inch hole in the floor of the guest stateroom right above the new valve, so we can get an arm in there to exercise it regularly. Previously, a ton of quilting stuff had to come out so we could move the mattress, and then I needed to don work clothes to enter the graphite-dust-covered bilge just to reach the valve handle.

Somewhere during the afternoon we noticed that she had become a little lethargic, and that she had not really been eating or drinking. We were pretty beat from a full day of work on the heels of a couple of stressful days, so notwithstanding our proximity to a number of good restaurants here, we opted to just grill a steak aboard that evening. And that's when we really noticed she was in trouble. We often offer her a single nibble of fat or meat when we have it, and she refused to even touch it, which is very out of character for her.

Thursday night she began a rapid decline. Having been through it before, we recognized it as the sign of renal failure. Angel has but one good kidney, and she's been through a renal crisis in the past. It seemed to us like her system had finally had enough after 17 good years. We tried to keep her comfortable all night and do whatever we could to get fluids into her, which is not much without IV bags and sets. And we ruminated about what we were willing to do beyond end-of-life palliative care.

Friday she was still up and about and generally being herself, other than a bit weak and still not eating or drinking. But she seemed OK for us to leave the boat, which we needed to do. Thursday afternoon I got word from Lauderdale Propeller that the custom plate for our PropSmith tool had arrived and was available for pickup. Just in time, too, since I'm not sure what we would have done, other than ask them to hold it, had it arrived after we left the US.

New PropSmith plate, right, replaces the one on the left with incorrect threads.

Getting that tool was just going to become more and more difficult the further we got from Fort Lauderdale, and so I booked a cheap rental car for noon on Friday so we could go get it. The car was less than it would cost to ship the tool to another stop, and there is an Enterprise right across the ICW.  We left the tender at the dock at the mall, where they picked us up. They were having a problem that day getting any cars, and so my booking for an econobox landed us a full-size, four-door F150 pickup truck, and they even gave us a quarter tank grace on fuel when I mentioned the fuel mileage difference.

We headed directly to Fort Lauderdale to get the tool. As long as we had the truck, we ran some other errands as well, stopping at West Marine to return the extra parts I did not use for the valve project, the auto parts store for dinghy spark plugs, and Home Depot to return a few items there as well. We also dropped by Progressive to trade the title to the stolen scooter for a check for the balance of the claim.

In the course of the day we learned that semi-local friends and fellow Neoplan bus owners Steve and Harriet had just arrived in town, and we agreed to meet them for an early dinner along with Ken and Pam, their in-laws. They were kind enough to meet us down in Hollywood so we could get back to the cat a bit sooner in the evening. We had a nice dinner at Sal's and it was great catching up with old friends.

We left the rental car at the mall overnight, which is a very busy place on Friday night; every restaurant and lounge is doing a booming business there when the weather is nice, and a good deal of the parking lot is given over to valet use. We parked in an out of the way corner and made our way back to Vector, crashing over the wakes of a dozen luxury yachts on the ICW Friday evening rush hour. "No wake zone" has a different meaning to some of those skippers.

We arrived before 8pm to a very lethargic cat. She'd stopped eating altogether and, worse, was not drinking either. We tried to get some water in her with a syringe, but that's like trying to put out a fire with a soda straw. If we had an IV set and a bag of Ringers we would give her subcutaneous fluids, something we did on a regular basis towards the end of George's life as her kidney disease progressed.

Friday was a rough night. As lethargic as she was, she still managed to make it down the stairs to come up and sleep between us on the bed, which is very unusual behavior for this cat unless it is very cold. It's been in the 80s here. When we awoke Saturday morning we thought we might lose her.

The morning discussion was what you can imagine surrounding the end-of-life issues with an elderly pet. Our chief concerns were her quality of life and unnecessary suffering. As it was becoming clear she was not going to just slip away without a protracted period of discomfort -- she was by this time wandering around the house crying -- we made the decision to take her to the vet.

We still had the car available until 1:30 or so, and I scratched my plans to do some final shopping in the morning and, instead, we stuffed her paperwork in a backpack, assembled the carrier, and took the whole kit and caboodle of us back to the mall in the dinghy. The cat is very blase about the big boat, but she was not happy about the tender ride.

We picked a pet hospital that was fairly close to the lake, where we could get back on the town shuttle later if they needed to keep her for treatment. She complained mightily in the car, which actually gave us a great deal of hope: it seemed like she still had some fight left in her, and perhaps the discomfort was something more acute than end-of-life renal failure.

The hospital in Aventura looked at her and determined, unsurprisingly, that blood tests were required, but then they informed us that they could not keep her overnight for treatment. So we ended up declining the blood work, loading her back in the car, and going north to Hollywood, where the veterinary hospital is 24-hour. They got us right in and ran some blood tests.

She loves bags. Looking at me as if to say "were you planning on going somewhere without me?"

Her numbers were horrible. But between ourselves, the vet in Aventura, and the vet in Hollywood, we determined that it was worthwhile to try IV hydration before making a determination, and they presented us a treatment plan for 3-5 days of hospitalization and fluids. The estimate was well north of what it cost to replace my scooter; there is nothing quite so expensive as a free pet.

After leaving Angel in Hollywood we raced back to Sunny Isles Beach to return the car, which was overdue. The office was swamped, with a lone employee, and she graciously waived the fee for being a half hour late, and also credited us for a Lyft home since they had no one to drive us.

It's been lonely here the last couple of days without her. All we can keep thinking is that we hope she makes it back home. The last two calls from the vet have suggested a great deal of improvement, so perhaps it was something acute. She's been through this once before, when we surmised she got into something toxic outside the bus.

She loves to go out on deck and drink the rainwater that has pooled in various places on deck, and with all the yard work we can't rule out some chemical residue on one of the decks, in spite of vigorous washing. And the vet suggested that something on the x-ray might be a small kidney stone; when George had one of these a decade ago she went completely into crisis.

We've been here in Maule Lake now for five nights, and we'll be here at least one and maybe two more. Things were incredibly busy and stressful up until we returned from dropping the car off, and in the last two days of "down" time, I've been catching up on another project that must be complete before we head offshore, switching my Google Voice number away from Sprint and moving my cell service to T-Mobile.

T-Mobile works much better than Sprint internationally, with service in many countries including the Bahamas and much of the Caribbean included in the plan. It also works better domestically, and now that I qualify for the 55-and-over unlimited plan it's also a better deal than my grandfathered unlimited Sprint plan.

My Google Voice and Sprint phone numbers are one and the same. When we last went to the Bahamas, even though Sprint does not work there, I missed no calls or text messages because I got them through Google Voice. I can't do the same trick with my T-Mobile number so instead I am "porting" my number, which Sprint actually owns, to Google Voice, and my calls will be forwarded to T-Mobile.

Of course, you can't just move a phone between carriers, either, and so while in Fort Lauderdale I bought a spiffy new pre-owned T-Mobile phone and signed it up for service at a T-Mobile office. I've spent the past couple of days rooting it, loading apps, configuring them, and transferring data. A tedious process to be sure. It's all ready to go and last night I divorced Google Voice from Sprint and fired off an order to port the number. That should happen sometime in the next day or two. If you have my number, nothing should change, I'll just be making and receiving all my calls and texts through Google Voice.

Update: Angel is back home!

I was still typing here this morning when we made the decision to head ashore, even before the vet called, to get a bagel and be ready to pick up the rental car I had booked for this morning in a fit of optimism. We enjoyed our bagels and did some shopping while we waited for the vet to call. Our 10am car reservation came and went.

Finally around 11:30 we heard the good news that Angel was eating and drinking on her own and that it was our option to pick her up today or have them hold her one more night. We chose the former, and called a Lyft over to Enterprise where the same clerk was again alone, swamped, and without a driver for pickups. She took the Lyft fee off our rental price.

It was something of a slog back up to Hollywood. After dropping her off there, we had seriously considered moving the boat back up to the Hollywood Lakes anchorage, but it turns out that getting ashore and renting a car there is not really any easier, and we'd make a ten-mile round trip in the boat, a three-hour process, to save ourselves twenty minutes in a rental car.

We had a long wait at the vet's, but eventually we got Angel out of her personal hell. We left the office with a box full of supplies, including five liters of lactated Ringers, injectable anti-nausea meds with a dozen hypodermics, and appetite stimulants to be administered orally. She looked a bit shaky, still, but much better than when we dropped her off.

On the way home we stopped at Walmart, the stop I had to forego with the last rental car, to pick up some needed items including a pair of mask-and-snorkel sets to replace the ancient ones that are disintegrating, and some additional items for the scooter to replace the ones that were stolen. We arrived back at the tender at an extremely low tide, and it was quite the challenge loading everything for the ride home.

Angel spent the first half hour sniffing everything in the saloon to make sure she was really home, then spent an hour or so next to Louise absorbing love through osmosis (she has never been a lap cat) before finally retiring to her "cube" where she is currently cashed out. It's exhausting being in the hospital.

Tonight we have to give her her first bolus of sub-cu fluids, and we're hoping that in a week or so she will be back to drinking well on her own. She is by no means out of the woods yet, and recovery is not a slam-dunk, but we are hopeful and holding positive thoughts.

Tomorrow we will return the car we had to rent for today's excursion, then deck the tender and head back out of the lake for Miami. I'm hoping to catch the "tech day" at the Miami Boat Show on Thursday, if we can get anywhere near the place, to talk to PC chartplotting software vendors. Our current system simply can not get good charts for most of the Caribbean or even, really, the Bahamas, and it's time to switch to something with more chart options.

Our final sunset over Maule Lake, from the aft deck.

Reluctant to leave her alone for a while, tonight we're eating aboard. We had a nice sunset on the aft deck, accompanied by the clamor of a drum fish. The drum fish have been serenading us off and on since we arrived, and it took us a few minutes to rule out something mechanical going haywire on the boat when we first started hearing it. We've heard them before, but it's been a while, and everything making noise underwater gets amplified on a steel boat.

With any luck we'll be in Miami or Miami Beach when next you hear from me.