Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Southern Charm

We are docked at the Charleston City Marina, just west of downtown Charleston, South Carolina (map). Having just come north, we are now firmly in the south. (Any Floridian can tell you that north Florida is in the south, but south Florida is in the north.) Friday will mark two full weeks since our arrival.

Vector docked at the Charleston City Marina.

Shortly after I last posted here, we lost our Internet signal for the remainder of the trip, until we were just about an hour out of the harbor entrance here. Thursday was an amazing day, with gently rolling seas of just a foot or two, and perfect weather. For part of the day we were making well over ten knots, with nearly a four-knot push from the Gulf Stream.

Still in the crystal blue waters and warmth of the Stream, in calm seas, and ahead of schedule, we once again stopped the boat for a swim, this time in over 1,000' of water. Louise opted out, still smarting from jellyfish stings from our last skinny-dip, but I indulged for about ten minutes. All told we were "stopped" fifteen minutes, and in that time the boat moved over a full nautical mile on its own, on a course parallel to the stream and perhaps 25° east of our course to Charleston, nearly due north.

That little jog in our track line is actually a mile long, clearly showing the direction and speed of the Gulf Stream.

The excellent conditions and much of the speed boost persisted well into my 8pm-3am watch. But as we exited the prime influence of the Stream, seas built to around 4' on the port quarter, and our speed slowed down rapidly; in the span of just a couple of hours we went from over nine knots to just over six. The five foot seas would have been tolerable, but the period was just four seconds, making for a very uncomfortable night.

I spent the second half of my watch dogging everything down around the boat, and I caught most of it before anything big launched itself off a counter or out of a locker. By midnight I had to park myself in the helm chair and stay put, save for occasional peeks outside -- it was just too hard to move around the boat.

Sunrise over the Atlantic. This photo belies the actual sea state -- those are five-footers.

We had gained so much time throughout the trip that we agreed on an accelerated watch schedule, with Louise relieving me at 0230 instead of the usual 0300 so I could be back on watch to navigate the inlet. Things only got worse on her watch, with seas building another couple of feet on the same period, and the boat rolling perhaps 20° or so. I came upstairs around 0630, well before the scheduled 0800 watch change, just to check on things, and I just stayed because it was clear she needed to be relieved.

Approaching Fort Sumter, left, with The Battery in the distance, right.

The protection of the Charleston jetties was welcome, indeed, with a good bit of the roll persisting right up until we cleared several hundred feet of the south jetty. We followed our well-worn tracks to a favorite anchorage, dropped the hook by 9:45, and fell into bed exhausted.

When I plotted our stop at this anchorage I had figured we'd be here for the night, but we were back out of bed by mid-day, somewhat refreshed, and after making a few phone calls, we opted to get under way to make Charleston City Marina by slack water around 2pm. I had never figured we'd stay at this marina, but it turns out that their monthly rate is competitive, and they are very convenient to downtown. Our preferred stop, even closer to downtown, across town at the Maritime Center, is closed for renovation due to damage from Hurricane Matthew last season.

The long dock leading ashore. At low tide, as here, much of it is aground and there's a "hump" in the middle.

The defining feature of this marina is a face dock over a quarter mile long. The marina calls it the "Megadock", with over a half mile of dockage (both sides can be used) parallel to the current. Most transients are berthed here, but on a monthly rate they assigned us to the next dock over, parallel to the Megadock but much shorter. Getting to our slip involved passing all quarter mile of docked boats, spinning Vector around in a space just slightly wider than Vector is long, and backing in the rest of the way, about 200'.

We planned our arrival at slack to make this process as painless as possible; spinning the boat around and then backing up with, say, a knot of current trying to move you down the fairway is not for the faint of heart. When we arrived at the Megadock, however, we were told to stand off while a hundred-footer on the inside of the Megadock got repositioned. Sadly, the skipper did not have a hundred feet of skill, and he ricocheted off the adjacent dock and spent a lot of energy trying to get back to the inside face.

Sunset over the Ashley River.

We stood off for literally a full twenty minutes. In which time my slack water turned into a half knot of current. Beyond that, what had been moderate winds suddenly picked up as a fast-moving storm front came in. I got Vector down to the turn-around point, spun around, and started backing into the fairway when it became abundantly clear we were not going to make it before 30+ knot winds grabbed us and smashed us into some expensive fiberglass halfway down the dock.

I radioed the marina and told them they'd missed the window and we'd need a spot on the Megadock for the night. Ironically they put us right behind the guy who had delayed us in the first place. He struggled for twenty minutes in ten knots of crosswind with twins and dual thrusters.  We also struggled -- in twenty knots (more than our bow thruster can overcome) with a single screw -- but were tied up within three minutes of arriving. Just in time, too -- the heavens opened completely as soon as we had the power cord connected. I called the office, which was now a quarter-mile walk, and told them I'd be over after the storm passed.

One of the numerous calls I made after arriving -- arranging for warranty replacement of this failing fender. New one is on the way.

We later learned we had arrived in the middle of a giant billfish tournament, and after the storm passed and the boats started to come back in, we found ourselves surrounded by expensive sportfishers. Little did we know we'd have a close encounter with one the very next day. It was all we could do at the end of the day to walk to the little restaurant on the property, the only thing in walking distance. I can't recommend the place.

Saturday morning we took advantage of the 8am slack water to move over to our assigned berth. The sportfishers had mostly already gone out for the day, and, with the spot across from us vacant, I was able to drive bow-first all the way to our spot and spin the boat around in place, with about eight feet to spare on either end of the boat. By 8:30 we were tied up and ready to offload scooters.

This is a great spot. We're just three boatlengths away from the main dock leading ashore, the rest rooms, and the office -- closer than any spot on the Megadock. We don't have nearly as much foot traffic, yet we have a great view of all the comings and goings on the very busy Megadock.

El Tejano, calmly docked after bouncing off Vector.

That weekend involved many comings and goings indeed, with the fishing tournament underway. About mid-afternoon Saturday, the enormous and expensive sportfisher El Tejano was backing down the fairway to take his slip just across from us, when the wind caught him and slid him all the way across the fairway and broadside into Vector.

We had heard him coming, and, as is our custom, had stepped out on deck to watch. So we were both right there to fend off, and one of his deckhands scurried across the foredeck as well. We had left three of our enormous but ugly ball fenders out on that side "just in case," and with a little help from us raising them to the necessary height, they did their jobs. El Tejano squeezed all three of them until they were nearly flat, then bounced off harmlessly. The skipper was very apologetic and kept asking if we had any damage and that he would take care of it. After that, we dug around in the tiller flat and pulled out a fourth ugly ball fender.

Fenders arranged just before the incident. I actually took this picture with WhatsApp as I was walking down the dock to take the photo that appears at the top of this post. I sent it to Louise to say we needed to remove the fenders for the photos. I'm very glad she put them right back when we finished.

The current just rips through here in both directions, with a tide swing of a full six feet. Most of the docks are parallel to the current for just this reason, but getting in and out of some of the fairways requires deft handling, cross-current. Most skippers are best off waiting for slack. And thus it was that the very next day we heard a radio call to the Coast Guard from a sailboat that hit the bridge just upriver of us.

They had just brought the boat up from Fort Lauderdale, following in our footsteps, and most likely trying to maneuver into one of the slips down near the bridge. When the current pushed their mast into the bridge they had the misfortune of hitting in such a way that the top plate jammed into an expansion joint, and they were stuck. A good Samaritan in a center console pulled them out without too much further damage.

The sailboat wedged under the bridge. Zoom in to see the top of the mast stuck in an expansion joint.

I spent much of last week making phone calls to line up various services during our planned two-month stay here. Many of those were to canvas shops, to repair the flybridge cover that started coming apart in Biloxi. Two of those vendors got right back to me, met us at the boat, and worked up quotes. We're on the schedule for a repair in another week or so.

In the meantime, I needed to get absolutely everything down off the flybridge top, a huge project which has occupied much of my time. First off was the broadcast TV antenna, which looks a lot like a flying saucer and was mounted nearly dead-center in the middle of the flybridge top. That looked like an easy place to start, until I discovered that the F-connector for the coax is several inches inside the tube-shaped mount.

The installation manual I downloaded from Shakespeare said the unit was supplied with the tool for installing and removing the cable, basically an 8"-long hex socket with a cable-sized slot down the side. This tool was not among the numerous tools and spare parts left us by the previous owner, so we assume it disappeared after the initial installation or after the antenna was moved to the soft top when it was installed.

A view of the soft top, with tape at the bad seam, a line over the top to keep it from lifting further, and a dirty spot where the TV antenna used to be mounted.

Lack of the tool proved to be a temporary problem, as the cable itself came right out of the connector as I was attempting to fake it using long pliers and other means. I still needed the tool to remove the old connector and to re-install the antenna later, so I had to order one from Amazon. The magic words to search for such a thing are obscure -- it's called a "cable TV trap wrench."

After getting the flying saucer down I turned my attention in succession to an abandoned GPS "mushroom" antenna (which used to be our main position source until it became unreliable and I replaced it with a Garmin mounted on the mast) and the two satellite domes. Only one of these has any actual equipment inside (the port dome is just there for visual symmetry -- really) and I started with the empty one.

Somewhere in the course of all this, Louise, who was assisting me by holding a wrench from the underside, looked up and noticed that I, my tools, the board I was kneeling on, and the gear I was working with were all perfectly silhouetted against the soft top, which we have learned is made of a material called Weblon®.

My silhouette through the Weblon top. You can make out individual driver bits in my bit case. That's the outline of the TV antenna on its side to the right. At bottom you can see the supports for all the antennas with some wires still running through them.

Long-time readers may recall that it has been a goal of mine for some time to make the mast, which heretofore has been married to the flybridge top by virtue of 14 different cables running between them, independent of the top so that it can be lowered. Now that we have to repair the canvas, another goal is to have nothing penetrating, it so that it can be removed more easily in the event of a hurricane.

The broadcast TV antenna will be relocated to the mast. That's where it was originally, and it got moved to the flybridge top to make way for another GPS antenna. Just as when I installed the new Garmin GPS "mushroom," I will simply add another mount to the last clear spot on the spreaders for this antenna.

Working on the port "empty" sat dome. Starboard dome and two stick antennas are still in place.

The empty sat dome is a slam-dunk -- it will be sold. That goes as well for the fancy mount adapters and angle adjusters that allowed both domes to be mounted level on the slightly curved flybridge top. Instead, the antenna will be mounted on the mast, aft of the spreaders, using a commercial mount made for the purpose. It means we'll have signal problems if the bird happens to be directly forward of the dome, but that's a small price to pay.

That leaves the two fiberglass "stick" antennas that were also attached to the top. One of these turns out to be a cellular antenna for the 800 and 1900-MHz bands, which we've been using with an amplifier for those bands. Modern cellular data is only carried on those bands a small percentage of the time, so we simply retired the antenna and the amp. The other stick is the VHF antenna for the flybridge radio. That we'll mount to the top frame using a rail mount, and route the lead wire down through the frame directly into the flybridge coaming.

Aftermath of removing the active sat dome (right), VHF (bottom) and GPS mushroom (just above shadow of the radar array).

Six of the cables mentioned above are individual electrical connections for the six puck lights on the flybridge. Those will all be rewired instead to a junction box in the old wire chase for the top, and fed with a new cable, run up through the frame from the flybridge coaming. Once those wires are out we can lower the mast. I ordered a small 1-ton electric winch to lower and raise the mast; this will be set up in a portable configuration so we can use it elsewhere and it doesn't have to live out in the weather.

Soft top cleared off, and awaiting parts to mount things to the mast.

Charleston is now a veritable Mecca of dining out, and we did just that for our whole first week. There are so many restaurants here that we can probably go the whole two months without ever having to eat anyplace with fewer than four stars. This week is supposed to be mostly stormy and we'll be eating in most nights; tonight a giant storm moved in right at dinner time.

It was sunny and in the 90's all day, and then suddenly, this. That's the Nordhavn 120 "Aurora" behind us.

When it's been either too wet or too hot to work outside, I've been catching up on some computer projects. My keyboard was starting to act up and I bought a hangar queen to replace it; now I have not only a better keyboard, but also twice as much memory and a touch screen I did not have before. The touch screen is taking some getting used to.

At the end of the big dock here lives a tour boat called the Carolina Queen. It's got a paddlewheel so fake that it doesn't even turn, and, in fact, the part that would be underwater doesn't even exist. It takes tourists on sunset cruises most weekend nights, and they often return smashed. We've had to weave around them on the dock when returning from dinner more than once. So a couple of days ago I was in the marina office and overheard this conversation:

Marina tenant: Someone stole my bicycle from the dock, rack and all.
Office clerk: Uhh... someone on our staff saw one of the passengers from the Carolina Queen push it into the water.
Marina tenant: What?
Office clerk: Yeah, I don't know if they just stumbled and landed on it, or if they actually pushed it, or what, but you need to talk to the Carolina Queen and let them know they need to take care of it. We can fish it out but it's been down there in the mud for a whole day.

We remember seeing the bicycle and its rack as we walked up and down the dock. Now we give the CQ passengers an even wider berth when crossing paths with them on the dock. And we're listening for splashes when they've tied up at the end of their cruise.

We've been to this cute casual joint in a former gas station, appropriately named "Fuel," twice. The light fixtures are made from old dispenser nozzles, and they have a great dog-friendly patio out back.

Charleston at this time of year must be a hotbed of wedding activity. This weekend, across the span of two evenings out, we encountered no fewer than eight bachlorette parties. (No word on the corresponding bachelor parties; either the men keep lower profiles, or, more likely, we were not at the right "venues" for the gender.) Four of those parties were at a single restaurant simultaneously, Prohibition, which styles itself as a 20's-era speakeasy, complete with bartenders in Gatsby-esque attire. (The food, BTW, was excellent, but we found the place too noisy.)

Today's drama occurred as we were spinning Vector around at slack tide around 11 this morning. The 20-something center-console tender for a big sportfish across the Megadock from us backed down the fairway to tie up across from us. In the process he managed to clip the brand-spanking-new $3M Nordhavn 63 kitty-corner from us. No serious damage done, except to the career of the crewman at the helm. I chatted with the young hired skipper of the 63, since I had witnessed the whole event while at Vector's upper helm.

The next couple of weeks promise to be busy ones, as I continue the project to permanently relocate all the antennas from the flybridge soft top, and lower the mast for the first time in a full decade. The last time the mast was down was when the previous owner brought the boat down the rivers from Chicago in 2007. We'll be rigging the crane scale for the test lowering so we know the lifting force is within the limits of the winch as well as the lateral force on the soft top frame.

The marina has a pumpout boat with a catchy name.

We're also going to try to squeeze in a plethora of annual doctor visits and a bunch of other boat maintenance while we are here. The main engine just turned over the 4,000-hour mark on our passage here, and it likely needs the injectors rebuilt and some other TLC. And my list of little projects is always there to fill in any spare time.

We're starting to look forward to the total solar eclipse next month, the reason why we chose Charleston over other east coast ports for this extended stay. Louise bought some fancy eclipse-watching glasses for the occasion. And we're also looking forward, just before that, to a quick trip to New York and New Jersey, via Amtrak, to visit family and friends. The logistics of that trip are still being planned, including who will watch over Angel the cat in our absence.

Posts here will be sporadic, but I will try to post an update every couple of weeks until we are ready to leave sometime in early September. We don't really have a plan beyond our stay here; it's possible we will continue north to the Chesapeake before weather turns us back around toward warmer climes.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Carolina Bound

We are under way in the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Lauderdale and Port Everglades receding behind us, and nearly 400 miles of ocean ahead of us on our journey to Charleston Harbor. At this moment we have nearly a two knot push, and we expect to have more than that for part of the trip, giving us an arrival sometime mid-day Friday.

Shortly after my last post, we dropped lines and motored the two miles upriver to the downtown city docks. The river was busy for the holiday weekend, and we made passing arrangements with several large tour boats, including the enormous Jungle Queen. It's challenging driving, all by hand, but we're old hands at this river now and it's now just an interesting cruise. We even know all the local landmarks to make our radio announcements, such as the obscure "girls school."

Vector at the New River downtown docks, with some city art in the foreground.

We arrived at the fueling berth at 11:30 and were glad to find it vacant; the scheduled 11am fueling must have already finished. We tied alongside at low water to find ourselves sitting in the mud. I ran down to the dockmaster's office to do paperwork and get a parking pass, returning just in time to meet good friends Gill and Curtis, get them parked, and all aboard for lunch. It was nice of them to pick up sandwiches at Publix for us so we could stay on the boat and await the fuel truck.

Good thing, because he showed up at 12:20 for our 1:00 appointment. I asked him to wait while we finished eating, and twenty minutes later we got started fueling. The fuel guy watched the nozzle on deck while I went back in to continue enjoying our visit. A short while later our guests needed to get back home where they had contractors working; we wrapped up fueling a bit after that at about 1:45. We ended up taking on just over a thousand gallons at $1.88, the best price we'll see on the east coast.

When I had signed in at the office I learned they had had a cancellation and were able to accommodate us for the Fourth or even beyond if need be. We paid for two nights and had a slip assignment just a little upriver on the other side of the Third Avenue Bridge. Before dropping lines at the fueling berth, however, we waited another 20 minutes for Lauderdale Battery to show up.

This Muscovy duck was our neighbor the whole time we were berthed.

Regular readers may recall that one of our six enormous house batteries went bad back in April, and we removed it (and, for balance, one other) from our battery bank at the time. We've been running on just 2/3 of our battery capacity since then. My efforts to source an identical replacement battery in Houston, Corpus, and New Orleans all came up dry. Lauderdale Battery sold us these six batteries three years ago, and they keep them in stock, so we arranged last week to have one delivered Monday.

Delivery (and pick-up of the take-out) is done dockside -- they will not come onto the boat. And so Sunday evening I had pulled the old one from the rack, dragged it to the engine room hatch, and lifted it on deck with our davit. (The batteries, at 175 pounds apiece, outweigh me by 30 pounds.) After the fuel truck left we again used the davit to get it onto the dock, and after the battery guy showed up we reversed the process, getting the new one all the way down to the engine room floor before closing the hatch and dropping lines for our assigned slip.

We were tied up there (map) a little before 4pm, in time to relax on deck with a well-earned beer and enjoy watching the holiday boat traffic go by on the river. Listening to the radio it was clear the professional skippers were just resigning themselves to dealing with the unending procession of center consoles paying little attention to the traffic rules.

The tiki-bar boat. A popular attraction on the New River.

Yesterday was Independence Day, and we might easily have taken the special $5 (round trip) water taxi ride out to the beach for the city's big festival, culminating in fireworks. Instead we opted to spend it with long-time online but first-time in-person friends Chad and Amanda, and their two young children, who drove out from Coral Springs to meet us. We mostly relaxed in the air conditioning in the salon (it's been very hot and humid in Fort Lauderdale), but we did take the free Water Trolley across the river to the Downtowner Saloon for an early dinner.

Amanda was kind enough to run Louise to Publix for some last-minute provisions while Chad and I rode the Water Trolley back with the kids. We said our goodbyes, agreed to perhaps meet up again in South Carolina in August, and then turned our attention to making preparations for our offshore passage.

All afternoon we had watched hundreds of little boats head downriver, presumably to jockey for position to watch the fireworks. We've witnessed that process first-hand before, it's always entertaining. When the fireworks ended, every single one of those boats tried to come back upriver at once, much to the annoyance of the tour boat and taxi skippers, and we sat on deck and watched the non-stop procession for perhaps a half hour, with great amusement.

This morning we dropped lines after the morning bridge curfew ended, cruised back down a now-empty New River, and headed out the Port Everglades inlet. Seas are a bit rougher than we like, 3'-4' on maybe a five-second period, but that will get progressively better as we get further along. We're into the Gulf Stream now, doing over nine knots. I'm about to lose my Internet signal for the next two days, so I will get this posted, and update our position occasionally on Vector's Twitter stream.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Marathon Passage

We are docked at Las Olas marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (map), a familiar stop. We had planned to anchor on our arrival here yesterday morning, but since Florida outlawed anchoring in the Middle River last July, the very limited number of other anchorages here are full to the limit. While docking after a long passage is never our first choice, we were not heartbroken, considering this is a city marina with a decent rate, and we're happy to have all the air conditioning we can handle in the South Florida summer heat.

Passage Sunset.

The remainder of our overnight passage from Clearwater Thursday night was uneventful and quiet. The Internet connection lasted until just south of Sanibel Island, well into my watch. It was gone by the time Louise took the conn, not to return until we were two hours out of Marathon.

Approaching Seven Mile Bridge. The new bridge is behind "Flagler's Folly."

Unlike most of our open-water crossings, this section of the gulf is quite shallow. Our sounder never registered over 47' or so for the entire trip. But the last ten miles leading up to the Seven Mile Bridge is particularly shallow, with the sounder reading in the single digits for much of that distance. At one point we saw 7.3', meaning we had just 16" under the keel. It would have been much more nerve-wracking had we not already done this section in the other direction a little over a year ago; I followed our old track through the skinny parts.

Vector at anchor in Marathon, framed by a pair of tiki torches at the Sunset Grille. Enormous Adirondack chair is a popular photo spot.

We had some favorable current on Louise's watch, and we arrived at our favorite anchoring spot off Knights Key (map) and had the hook set by 4:30. I had already prepped the tender when we were still 20 miles offshore, and we splashed it and zipped over to the Sunset Grille for dinner. Sunset, on the other hand, we enjoyed from the comfort of our own aft deck.

Sunset over Seven Mile Bridge, after dinner at the fitting Sunset Grille.

We really like this place. It has a Keys beach-bar vibe, open-air seating under a thatched Tiki roof (or out on the poolside patio), low-key live dinner music, and great food, including sushi. It has its own dinghy dock, and, of course, the pool. And now, apparently, breakfast all week.

Seven Mile Bridge from the Tiki at Sunset Grille.

We slept in on Saturday morning and then went right back for breakfast and, for me, a swim in the pool. When we got back to Vector, I took my last opportunity in relatively clear water to don my mask and swim under the boat to check the running gear. All was in order, and there was not much growth on the recently painted bottom, either.

Finally spent some time in the pool, uncrowded in the morning.

We'd been ruminating on whether to proceed to Fort Lauderdale up the somewhat protected Hawk Channel, a two and a half day trip with two stops that would dictate leaving early Saturday, or instead take the outside route in the Strait Of Florida, where the Gulf Stream could give us a push and where we could comfortably run overnight, making it a one-day affair and affording the choice of departing Saturday or Sunday.

Dinner selfie at the Tiki at Sunset Grille.

We opted for the outside run, and we decided to leave Saturday and have some extra time at this end, instead of having to arrive after a long passage and navigate up the New River to the fueling area at the city docks that same morning. We might have been better waiting the extra night in Marathon, as we had quiet steep five-footers for several hours in the Strait on Saturday night.

Another shot of (a diminutive) Vector from the Tiki Bar -- she's between the two uprights, center frame.

We weighed anchor right at 5pm for what could be anywhere from an 18 to a 22 hour passage, depending on current. We made our way through the Great Florida Reef, the only coral reef in the continental US, and out into open water, angling toward the shoreward edge of the Gulf Stream. That's quite far away (some 22 nautical miles) at Marathon but quite close, perhaps a half dozen miles, off Fort Lauderdale.

We steered to intercept the Stream abreast of Alligator Reef, where it's about a dozen miles off the reef. That made the chord some 35 miles long, nearly six hours, where we did just about our typical speed of around 6.3 knots. On the way, as we were abreast Tennessee Reef, we passed a couple of familiar ships going the other way. The motor tanker Galveston we had seen in the Gulf in Mississippi, and the Delta Mariner, the rocket transporter that ferries rocket sections from Decatur, Alabama to Cape Canaveral, Florida, we saw in Florence, Alabama.

In honor of Independence Day, this cloud on our passage formed itself into an eagle.

The transition into the stream was noticeable and abrupt. Within the span of just a couple of miles we picked up a knot. By change of watch it was closer to two. And Louise reported that during her watch at one point we were doing almost ten knots, making revolutions for just 6.2, for a boost of well over three knots.

While we were grateful for the push, seas for the first half of the passage started rough and got progressively worse. We dogged everything down but I could still hear cans rattling around in lockers and it was all I could do to get out on deck periodically to scan the horizon. I estimate five foot seas on a three-second period at the worst of it. I reduced RPM to 1400 from our usual 1500 to minimize the slamming. By the morning it had all calmed back down to a more tolerable level.

Another passage sunset. These never get old.

We arrived here in Fort Lauderdale just a little after 10am. We motored up to one of our familiar anchorages, hoping to drop the hook. Even though it is the off season for cruisers here, and many marinas have space, the anchorage was completely full. Not really a surprise, since one of the major anchorages in the area was closed off last year, and all those boats have moved to the remaining three anchorages in town. We didn't bother checking our second choice, because it would require a bridge opening to even look and another opening to return when we found it inevitably overcrowded.

Arriving in Port Everglades. We had to dance around Palmetto State with her two tugs in the channel. To the left is the largest cruise ship in the world, which we like to call the "Monstrosity of the Seas."

Instead we hovered in our old spot, now forbidden, while I called the city marina and made arrangements for a slip. I hate having to pay for an otherwise unneeded parking spot, but at least we made good use of the power to keep all of our air conditioners running. I also had to recondition a battery, in anticipation of replacing the bad battery in our bank sometime this week. We thus walked to dinner at our old favorite, Coconuts, rather than tendering over as we had planned.


Today we will motor the short distance up the New River to the other city docks, and tie up at their designated fueling area at noon. The truck arrives from Anchor Petroleum at 1pm and we'll take on 1,000 gallons at the best price on the entire east coast. I also have Lauderdale Battery lined up to bring us a replacement for the bad house battery and pick up the take-out; yesterday afternoon I sweltered in the hot engine room getting it out of the rack and over to the hatch where we plucked it out with our davit.

Tomorrow is, of course, the July 4th holiday. I expect we'll end up right back here, as the New River docks were sold out when last I asked. Yet another tropical system is brewing in the Atlantic, and wave heights north of Florida are not conducive to a passage just yet, so tomorrow we'll be looking at where to wait on good passage weather.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Back in the Gulf, bound for the Keys

We are once again under way in the Gulf of Mexico, now southbound for the Florida Keys. This will be our final leg in the gulf this season. Right here, off the coast of about Sarasota or so, the water temperature is a balmy 88.5 degrees.

Vector on the face dock at Clearwater Harbor Marina, right downtown.

We dropped lines this morning at 05:20, well before sunrise, at the Clearwater Harbor Marina in downtown Clearwater, Florida (map). While a little pricey by our standards, at $2 per foot, we really needed air conditioning and an easy way to get off the boat. As a bonus, they had recycling, and we cleared out a two-week accumulation.

Passing Anclote Keys Light.

We ended up remaining anchored right where we were, behind Anclote Key, Tuesday night. We had a nice dinner at anchor and a quiet night, and awoke Wednesday much more rested. That let us weigh anchor early and run the two hours or so to Clearwater before lunch time. It's a nice cruise, but the ICW is very narrow and very shallow here; we registered just over seven feet at a tide of plus one.

This abandoned motor yacht is hard aground at one of the spoil islands lining the ICW.

Our friends and fellow boaters Steph and Martin drove up from their new home in St. Pete to have lunch with us. While we would have loved to see their new digs, we'll save that for a less rushed visit when we can run into St. Pete and stay a few days. We'll most likely see them again this season on the Chesapeake, where they are keeping the boat for the season and alternating their time between the two each month while they renovate the house. It was great catching up; it's been far too long.

In the evening our friend Karen picked us up for dinner. She had a much shorter drive, and we ended up in funky Dunedin for dinner. Dunedin itself has a lovely waterfront and a nice marina -- we cruised right past it in Vector earlier in the day -- but it's all too shallow for us, even the closest anchorages.

Karen is a professional photographer... even her selfies come out great! We're sorry we missed hubby Ben, who is off getting the finishing touches on their Flxible bus conversion in Oregon.

We ruminated about spending another night right there. It's a nice marina, and an easy walk to downtown Clearwater with a number of interesting restaurants and buildings, not that any walk is pleasant in this heat and humidity. We also have more friends in the area, and we would have loved to have a chance to see everyone (apologies to those we missed). But we'd planned to already be on the east coast by now, and well on our way north by the first of the month, and the next few days are perfect weather windows to keep moving. On top of that, this weekend is a holiday, and finding a slip anywhere is a challenge.

It was only after we came back from dinner and had a chance to regroup that we decided to forego the extra night and keep moving. The timing of this long leg to the keys is such that it's either an early morning start, for a single overnight and late arrival, or else a late evening start, for two overnights and a morning arrival. A single overnight watch is always better than two, and we opted to start our day at 5am.

We slipped out the Clearwater Inlet just before 6am, mostly alone on the water, retracing our steps of a year ago when we squirted out this inlet for points north, just ahead of a storm. It was good to have a track already on the plotter while driving the boat in the darkness. Without that, we would likely have waited for first light, pushing our arrival time uncomfortably into the evening.

Sunset over Clearwater Beach (causeway to left) as seen from our marina.

Our route south to the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon has us skirting the west coast just five miles or so offshore, at least until we pass Sanibel Island sometime after 10pm tonight. That means we're blessed with Internet coverage for the whole day, with just minor interruptions. I've used that productively to line up arrangements in Fort Lauderdale for a marina night, a 1,000-gallon fuel delivery by truck, and an exchange of our bad house battery, all at the same dock on the afternoon of July 3rd. The marina is sold out on the 4th and we'll need to shove off by 10am that morning.

We'll spend tomorrow night anchored off the Sunset Grille in Marathon, a familiar stop. Good eats, a great view, and they even have a pool. Most likely we'll spend most of Saturday there as well, recovering from our overnight passage and resting up for the next one. That will involve an offshore overnight hop, picking up the Gulf Stream off the middle Keys and riding it all the way to Port Everglades and our rendezvous with the fuel truck.

We have friends in Fort Lauderdale with whom we will try to connect while we're in town. Timing is such that we'll be there over the Fourth, so maybe we'll see some fireworks. And then, if this weather pattern holds, we'll head offshore and again ride the Gulf Stream north, all the way to South Carolina.

Update: Since starting this post, we've moved considerably further south. We're now abreast Charlotte Harbor and Cayo Costa. We've hit a small front, which has us listing several degrees to starboard. Inland from here our friends Chris and Cherie are snug in the Fort Myers Marina, which is on the way to Lake Okeechobee. We briefly considered trying to cross the lake, which would have made an opportunity to get together, but the controlling depth is still just over six feet. We remember touching bottom in places when the depth was published at over seven. Saving a half day and 160 miles was not worth running aground, or the concentration required to navigate that route.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Florida bound

We are under way in the Gulf of Mexico, about halfway through our passage from Mobile Bay, Alabama to Anclote Key, Florida, near Tarpon Springs. So far this is proving to be a perfect window for our crossing, with seas around two feet and a period of five seconds or so. We've been offline since yesterday afternoon, and I am typing in a text file to upload later, when we pick up cell signal off Tarpon Springs.

Last night's sunset over the gulf in our wake.

We ended up spending two extra nights at Point Cadet in Biloxi, bringing our total stay there to five nights. Thursday night our friends Jeff and Cindy drove out from Madisonville (across the lake from New Orleans) and we had a very nice dinner at Patio 44 in downtown Biloxi. It was nice to see them and also nice to get away from the casino and marina.

That being said, the proximity of the casino made Point Cadet a great place to ride out Tropical Storm Cindy (no relation). We were able to walk in for draft beers, dinner, and even breakfast, and the 24-hour sundry shop in the lobby also had the milk we needed for our coffee here on passage.

The storm was not quite finished with us when last I posted here, and Wednesday night we were disturbed to hear a loud flapping sound coming from the flybridge. Winds were still in about the 20-knot range at the time. Upon inspection, we discovered that the longitudinal center seam down the middle of the flybridge soft top had started ripping out. I suspect this seam has been slowly yielding for a long time, as I've been noticing more and more water coming through around the center superstructure beam for the last few months.

We did the best we could to tape the downwind side down so that the winds would not keep lifting and ripping it, and that seems to have kept more damage at bay for the remainder of the storm. The tape is still there, and yesterday when a thunderstorm came up on passage we threw a rope over the top to keep the motion, and thus further damage, down to a minimum. This seam is under a lot of tension, as the cover is laced taught on all sides; now that there's a gap everything is a bit loose and subject to more damage.

A note here is probably in order before I get a lot of comments from armchair skippers who will tell me that all canvas should be removed in preparation for tropical storm force conditions. I would agree with this in general, however, on Vector, this is a non-trivial proposition, and ideally requires a visit to a yard. That's because of the extensive list of items that must first be removed before the canvas can come off, some of which are hard-wired:

  • Two satellite domes, one empty and one containing the gyro-stabilized DirecTV antenna
  • Two hard-mounted VHF antennas
  • A "Flying saucer" amplified TV antenna
  • A GPS "mushroom" receiver/antenna

The non-empty sat dome is fairly heavy and really should be lifted off with a crane, skyhook, or manlift, which is why a yard is preferable. But ultimately everything could be removed carefully with about two days' work. That makes removing and reinstalling canvas about a five-day proposition, not including the storm itself, or the time before and after when the weather is unsuitable for that type of work. Thus far, in the four years we've had it, the canvas has been unfazed by steady winds in the 35-knot range and gusts of 50. So, for us, the risk calculus has been to leave it in place unless the boat has to weather an actual hurricane.

A stormy sunset across the gulf, over our wake Sunday evening.

That soft top is ten years old now and it was probably past due. We'll have a professional marine canvas shop tell us whether the seam can be repaired, likely with a reinforcing strip, or if it's time to replace the entire top. In the time it's off the boat, I'm going to try to make progress on relocating most or all of the aforementioned items so that the canvas is more easily removed in the future. But also, more importantly, so we can possibly be able to lower the mast in the future, reducing our hard bridge clearance from 25' down to 19'8". We opted to live with duct tape and tie-downs until we can get the boat to Florida or beyond before we find a shop to do the work.

We had hoped to take two days to get from Biloxi to Dauphin Island and the Mobile Ship Channel inlet, but conditions on Mississippi Sound Friday were still too unsettled for comfort, with four foot seas on a four second period. We certainly can travel in those conditions, but with calm seas forecast for Saturday we opted to just spend the extra night and make it a longer day on Saturday.

My planned route to our departure point on the SE side of Dauphin Island was 57 nautical miles, about a nine-hour day. But we had a high tide of over a foot and a half when we weighed anchor Saturday morning, and that let us cut quite a few corners that would have been dicey at low tide. We ended up running just 51 nautical miles. We also had a favorable current part of the way, and we spent just seven hours under way.

Our route brought us along the north shore of Dauphin Island, under the Dauphin Island Bridge, and right up to the Mobile Ship Channel. While we did not actually "cross our wake," from here we could see the spot where we entered Mobile Bay just a little more than one year ago and turned north for the Mobile River. Together with the few miles from Anclote Key to Clearwater that we will transit in the next couple of days, this will complete the entirety of the Intracoastal Waterway for us, from its start in Norfolk, Virginia to its end in Port Isabel, Texas.

Dauphin Island to Fort Morgan Ferries in our path.

We circled around the east end of the island, along the ship channel, crossing paths with both the east and westbound Fort Morgan-Dauphin Island ferries. Long-time readers may remember this ferry was one we simply could not embark in Odyssey, at the Fort Morgan end. We then turned back west, up the Sand Island Channel, to anchor in protected water between Dauphin Island and Pelican Island (map). This latter is something of a misnomer, as the shallow pass that once separated the two islands filled in several years ago, and Pelican Island is now a peninsula jutting out southeastward from the middle of Dauphin Island.

Apparently, we did not pull in to the crook between the islands far enough. It was a bit rolly during the afternoon, and for whatever reason it got progressively worse throughout the evening. We were relatively comfortable for dinner on the aft deck, but at midnight Louise woke me up to say we needed to move the boat to a less rolly spot. We seldom weigh, maneuver, or anchor in the dark, but with no other vessels nearby, good charts, and gently sloping bottom we managed OK, with me in the pilothouse looking at the chartplotter while Louise stood on the foredeck with the portable spotlight. We were re-anchored by 12:45 and had no further problems, but I think we amused the fishermen standing on the spit of land just a hundred yards or so away.

Beaches and spendy houses along Dauphin Island from our anchorage.

This little embayment must have been good feeding grounds, because we saw quite a few dolphins swimming around the boat. Also the bait boat came through the area in the afternoon and again the next day trolling a large net. Once we had moved further in, it was a comfortable spot and a great jumping-off point for our gulf crossing. The white sand beach along this protected stretch of Dauphin Island is popular with beach-goers, and seemed to us a nicer place to swim than the less protected beach near the fort at the far eastern end.

In the course of moving the boat at midnight I had to rig the pilothouse for night running. Among other things, that means taping over the always-on power indicator LEDs on the bilge pump controls, which are otherwise too bright and shining right in my eyes. That's when we noticed one of the indicators was out, because the fuse was blown. Thus, Sunday morning involved an excursion into the tiller flat, to find the pump seized.

Sand Island Lighthouse, adjacent the Mobile ship channel, on our way out of Sand Island Channel.

The bilge in there always has some water in it because the deck hatch leaks a small amount in heavy rains, and there is seepage around the rudder post. I carry a spare for this pump, in the form of a used take-out, and an hour on my knees in there had the pump replaced and working and all the water (and rust) out. I'll order a new pump in Florida.

Our voyage time at Vector's average speed is right around 49 hours. However, gulf currents can add to or subtract from that time considerably. Not wanting to arrive in the middle of the night, or have to slow down to an unworkably slow speed, we delayed our departure to 11am CDT. With an ETA of 1pm EDT, that gives us roughly seven hours of daylight on either side.

Seldom do we pass an offshore platform with a helicopter sitting on the pad like this. We were past all the platforms by mid-afternoon Sunday.

As it turns out, we've had a bit of a push for much of the voyage. While I started this post around mid-day, it's now almost 9pm EDT, a half hour into my watch, and the display is anticipating arrival at 9:30am. With some 84 nautical miles yet to go, there's still plenty of opportunity for that to change; we're now running much closer to our typical speed, and an adverse current can still push our arrival well into the afternoon. On the other hand, when we change the watch at 3:30am, if we are still ahead of schedule we will probably slow down a bit, so I can be back on watch well before arrival in the morning.

Things have gotten progressively calmer out here, and by mid-afternoon seas were so calm that I was picking up dolphins on the radar a mile out. Solid targets would materialize, then disappear, then reappear in another position. It took us a while to finally spot one and figure out what was causing this odd radar behavior. That was our cue to stop the boat and go for a swim.

Skinny dipping mid-gulf. The water is so clear I had to strategically place that pool noodle for the photo.

This part of the gulf consists of crystal clear blue water, and right now surface temperature is over 85 degrees. We stopped the boat, shut down the engine, and threw our floating safety line off the back. Then we peeled off our clothes, grabbed a couple of pool noodles, and jumped in. Long-time readers may recall this is not our first time.

The water right at this spot (map) is just 115' deep, not thousands like in the straight of Florida or further out in the gulf. Still, it is amazingly beautiful. While we swam, some of the aforementioned dolphins came within a hundred feet or so of us to check us out. Sadly, within just a few minutes, Louise, who is very sensitive to such things, was being stung by some sort of microscopic organism, probably a jellyfish, and she bailed out. I, too, felt a couple of slight stings and remained in the water only a few minutes longer. Perhaps ten minutes altogether. But after six months on the gulf coast, I finally got to swim in the gulf.

These three fellas swam with us for a long time.

Later in the afternoon we were again visited by dolphins, with three young males making a beeline for Vector and then playing in our bow wave for a good fifteen minutes. These were the lighter gray Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, in contrast to the much darker variety we saw in abundance in the more western reaches of the gulf.

50 seconds of some playful dolphins.

At 17:00 we set the ship's clocks forward to 18:00 in recognition of moving into the Eastern Time Zone. While it seems like a year ago when we left the Eastern Time Zone right here in Florida, in fact were also in that zone during our three months in Tennessee, and we last changed time zones on the ship's clocks when we left Tennessee for Alabama back in October.

In other news, just before we left Biloxi I got an email from good friend and fellow seafarer Captain Chris, containing a couple of very interesting photos. It seems he was in Jacksonville coincident with the start of The Great Race and spotted our old digs, Odyssey, there. Other than sporting an official race sponsor graphic and a pair of large Wandering Troubadours of Finland (WTF) graphics, it looks more or less the same as when we sold it a year ago.

A familiar sight, save for the graphics. Photo: Chris Caldwell

One of the ways we knew we had exactly the right buyer for Odyssey was when he told us he was a long-time Great Race participant, and we are very happy to see the bus in its role as official support vehicle for his race team. We'd also previously seen photographs of it, minus the race graphics, taking his family camping, complete with a miniature "Jeep" in the bay we used for our scooters.

Wandering Troubadours of Finland. WTF. Photo: Chris Caldwell

Update: We are safely anchored off Tarpon Springs, behind Anclote Key (map). We only picked up Internet a half hour offshore, not enough time to upload photos and get this blog posted. We had the hook down here before 10am, and it's not yet noon. We may spend the night, or we might rest up a bit and move the boat closer to Clearwater when the tide comes up a bit. We arrived at a low tide of +1' and found just seven feet of water in places. After we rounded the corner from the gulf,  we were greeted with a rainbow to our west, a fitting end to a wonderful passage.

Rainbow over the gulf, from behind Anclote Keys.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Biloxi Blues

We are docked at the Point Cadet marina in Biloxi, Mississippi (map), one of several run by the city. Notwithstanding my prediction in the last post that we'd be docked within the hour, a last-minute snafu had us circling the harbor and even anchoring for a brief time before we could get in to the marina.

Vector docked at the Point Cadet marina.

Shortly after I posted here we were passed by a USCG 45-footer. They had passed us in the other direction as well, and we were also passed in both directions by CBP. It was a beautiful day on the gulf so we just figured them to be out breezing out the boats. But as we approached the western entrance channel to Biloxi, we spotted the 45 with his blue light flashing, preparing to board a small express cruiser.

We'll never know the reasons, but the express cruiser turned around and returned to harbor with the Coast Guard escorting them. We had to slow down briefly to give way to them in the channel. Earlier we had just been remarking, as two law enforcement boats passed us twice apiece, that we've never been boarded in the four-plus years we've been on the water, defying the odds.

The western channel is skinny in sections; we had less than eight feet in several spots at low tide. But we made it behind the breakwater with no problems and the depths in the harbor increase to 12-14'. We steamed past the Beau Rivage, the Hard Rock, and another instance of The Blind Tiger on our way to Point Cadet, whom we had called in the morning to make a reservation.

Approaching Biloxi. That's the Beau Rivage and the Hard Rock on the left, with Margaritaville, the Golden Nugget, and Point Cadet ahead in the distance.

As requested when I made the reservation, we called the marina when we were 20 minutes out, in the approach channel, just after the Coasties passed us. There was no answer, and we continued to call on both the phone and the VHF for the entire remainder of the cruise. My phone log shows we tried nine separate times.

When we were finally abreast of the marina, which has three different entrances, with no guidance on where to enter, what slip to use, or depths in the basin, we ultimately turned around and steamed back toward the small craft harbor. A call to them revealed what I already knew -- 50' was their absolute limit on length. A call to another marina across the river in Ocean Springs, where our friends on Adagio Gul happen to be staying, resulted in an answer of no space available.

At one point we even contemplated returning to Gulfport, with a storm bearing down on us and needing to be securely tied up by the end of the day. In order to sort things out, we finally dropped the hook off-channel near Schooner Wharf, between the Hard Rock and Margaritaville. I called the main number for the ports office, in charge of all of the city marinas, even though I had gotten no answer there 20 minutes earlier. I finally reached a live person who told me the dockmaster at Point Cadet had his hands full with a sinking boat.

We were eventually able to get a slip assignment and directions into the marina, and the lone dockmaster even met us to take lines as we backed in. All told we probably spent an extra 45 minutes between trying to get hold of someone and anchoring, and just in that time the winds had picked up another five knots and it was a bit of a challenge getting backed into the slip.

We did our storm tie-up straight away. This involved a spider-web of lines keeping Vector centered in the slip and well away from the finger pier and the pilings. We put some fenders out on the leeward side, where the pier was, in the event we couldn't get the lines tight enough in the storm. This tie-up has made for some acrobatics getting on and off the boat, but has proven advantageous in the wind and waves we've had throughout the storm.

Vector snug between two sets of pilings and held off the dock. This photo was taken at high water -- it's a looong step to the dock.

We realized we might well be confined, if not to the boat itself, then at least to the closer Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, whose covered parking is just 500' or so from the boat, for the duration of the storm. So we opted Monday night to walk instead next door to the Margaritaville Resort for dinner. We chose the Landshark Grill, which had better reviews than either the Margaritaville Restaurnt or Does Eat Place, the other two dining venues at the resort.

I was rather surprised to find that Margaritaville has no casino. Biloxi is a casino town, and almost every resort here, even family-friendly, is centered on casino gaming. Ol' Jimmy had other ideas, and the centerpiece of his resort is a massive pool complex complete with water slides. Second fiddle to that is a huge game arcade. Unsurprisingly, the whole joint was overrun by kids. The pool looks like fun and I am sorry they don't offer day passes.

Tuesday night's winds started ripping the awning from this unattended RV in the parking lot.

As predicted, the first salvo of the storm, the leading edge of Tropical Storm Cindy, began having it's effect on us Monday night. Winds picked up considerably and we had rain on and off. But the main event was yet to come. Tuesday morning it was still pleasant enough to get off the boat and stroll, and we wandered in to the casino for breakfast.

After breakfast we finished our tropical storm preparations, securing all loose items on deck, removing Textilene covers, and assembling Angel's cat carrier should we need to evacuate ashore. We scoped out the evacuation route at breakfast, settling on a secure elevator tower in the east parking garage as our shelter and assembly area.

By Tuesday evening we were being pelted with rain, and winds had increased into the 20s. Still, there were periods when the rain let up considerably or even stopped briefly, and we made the 500' trek, dodging puddles, back to the casino for dinner, where we regrettably overate at the buffet.

Docks to the east of us fully awash.

The brunt of the storm started hitting Tuesday night. Winds increased into the 30s and the rain came down in buckets. Between the storm surge and the rain, the water level was rapidly approaching the tops of the docks, and I was prepared to get the heavy rubber boots in the event I needed to wade into possibly electrified water.

That fear proved unfounded, because the power to the docks went out at half past midnight, before the docks were awash. High tide was not until 9:30am, at which point several docks were underwater or awash. Our section of the dock was above water by mere millimeters, and I was able to snap some photos. The power remained off and the Internet was inoperative until late afternoon, when the receding tide again brought the level well below the dock pedestals.

Our dock, nearly awash.

By a mere accident of storm timing we again got a window last night to get off the boat and go to the casino for dinner, albeit involving something of a leap from the boat to the dock. I used the bow thruster to get Louise a bit closer before taking the leap myself. We had the happy hour apps at Morton's for dinner -- a very reasonable way to eat at the otherwise spendy steakhouse. The Golden Nugget, like its cousins we've visited in Atlantic City and Lake Charles, is a Landry's property and features Landry's restaurants like Morton's and Bubba Gump's.

Last night the power managed to stay on most of the night, finally tripping off before 5am this morning. It remained off most of the day. The docks were again awash or underwater by mid-morning, and with the increased winds and waves we had water splashing over our dock for a couple of hours. Today has seen the highest winds of the storm; we just recorded a gust of 39mph (34kts) a few minutes ago, and earlier today we saw 44mph (38kts). The awning ripped off a trailer in the parking lot like a paper towel off a roll.

Our anemometer display. These speeds are in mph, showing a peak of 44.

While this location is a little more exposed than some of our other choices might have been, it's been a fine place to ride out Cindy. The all-around pilings and heavy dock cleats allowed for the spider-web tie up, and having the casino just 500' away gave us a lot of peace of mind for any possible tornadoes. The weather alert has gone off myriad times at all hours of the day and night to warn us of tornadic storms, but none threatened us and we have remained aboard. One tornado was reported, north of Gulfport.

In addition to the evacuation opportunity, it's been nice having a full-service resort right here. Long-time readers may remember we parked here in Odyssey, but back then it was the Isle of Capri, and Landry's has made many improvements since taking over. Tuesday afternoon we went to the spa and enjoyed massages before dinner, and a new pool complex has been added in front of the resort with a swim-up bar. Day passes are available for $20, and I would love to take advantage, but the storm has closed it down for the duration of our visit.

Wednesday night finished it off.

Our friends Jeff and Cindy from Madisonville, across the lake from New Orleans, reached out to us to ask if we would like to get together for dinner tonight. It's a three-hour round trip for them, but we are looking forward to seeing them. We hoped to connect while we were in the yard in New Orleans, but Cindy was out of town until after we shoved off. It's very nice of them to offer to make the drive, in stormy weather.

With any luck this will mostly have blown over by tomorrow morning, and we will drop lines and continue east. It's a two-day cruise to Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island, where we hope to make the jump across the gulf to Tampa Bay. It looks at this writing like we will have a window for that from mid-day Sunday to late Monday afternoon, so that will be perfect timing.

It's a wet walk for this boater on another dock.