Sunday, June 26, 2016

Demopolitan Mayfly Mayhem

We are anchored on an oxbow of the Tombigbee River known as Rattlesnake Bend, just a bit north of Demopolis, Alabama (map). I had hoped to post here yesterday, while we spent nearly a full 24 hours docked at the Kingfisher Marina in Demopolis (map) with good Internet, but we spent most of our time there getting errands done, including making productive use of that Internet connection to make flight reservations and other travel plans two weeks hence, which I will discuss shortly.

Coffeeville Dam, our first lift of the trip, with water barely cresting.

And so I find myself once again behind on the blog, with nearly a week's worth of updates in one post. In that time we've covered some 220 statute miles of the Black Warrior Tombigbee Waterway and transited two locks; we're now about 74' above sea level.

We had a very long travel day after leaving Big Bayou Canot on Tuesday, covering 69 statute miles. There are not a lot of anchorages north of Mobile (and no marinas until Demopolis), and fewer still are open to Vector at low water levels. When we left the bayou the tailwater at Coffeeville Dam was 4.5', and by the following morning that had dropped to just over three feet.

The W K Wilson I-65 bridge.

Shortly after leaving the bayou we crossed the rail line at the 14-mile bridge; here close to sea level the bridge had to open for our passage. Next up were the twin spans of the General W. K. Wilson Bridge, which carries I-65 over the Mobile River. This bridge is colloquially known as the Dolly Parton bridge for reasons that... umm, I'll just post a picture.

Sometimes referred to as the Dolly Parton Bridge...

At mile marker 45 we left the Mobile River behind; this is where the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers join to form the Mobile. The Alabama is navigable all the way to Montgomery, and it would be a lovely side trip, but we simply do not have the time to do them all in one season, so we continued on to the Tombigbee. A few miles later we came to our first planned stop, the Alabama River Cutoff, which connects the two rivers again further upstream, but without the barge traffic.

We had gotten an early start, so it was still early afternoon when we arrived. Rather than drop the hook this early in the day, only to have to run the generator most of the afternoon to keep cool in the brutal heat and humidity, we opted to continue on to the next anchorage at Old Sunflower Bend (map), letting the big alternator run Mr. Roboto in the pilothouse all afternoon instead. That had us stopping much closer to dinner time and kept a few hours off the genny, a theme that would repeat itself over the next few days.

In the Coffeeville Lock just before the fill. The miter sill is clearly visible.

While the downside of low water levels is the scarcity of deeper anchorages, the upside is lower current. I had planned for over a knot against us on the river, and we've had less than half that in the freshwater and even less in the tidal portion of the river. That's a good tradeoff for us.

Vector is tied off with just a single line to a bollard on a float, which rises with the water level.

Wednesday's cruise put us at Coffeeville Lock and Dam mid-afternoon. With water in the lake just over the crest of the dam, we had a lift of about 34'. We then cruised right past our originally planned stop for the day, a rickety dock at a place called Bobby's Fish Camp. Vector has been here before, and we might have enjoyed checking the place out under different circumstances. But as their restaurant is not open Wednesday it was definitely not worth 80 bucks just to tie up for the night and save perhaps five hours of generator time.

Lake level, 34 feet up, and the gates are opening.

The rough concrete wall is unforgiving. The ladder to the left is recessed in the track for the floating bollard.

We're using our, um, big balls to keep us off the walls, and they are taking a beating. That's mud from the concrete on the bottom.

We ended up dropping the hook a bit further upstream at a wide spot in the river known as Turkey Point (map). There's a sandbar here that let us anchor without risk of swinging into the barge channel, and as a bonus, that put us close enough to shore for me to swim over to the beach. It was an unexpectedly pleasant stop. Also unexpected was the weird eddy current here that had us pointed downstream for most of our stay.

Vector anchored just off the beach, to which I swam to get this shot.

Anchorages on this stretch of the river are even scarcer than on the tidal portion. Many of the anchorages listed in our guide seemed not to exist at all, with some appearing to be in the marsh. That started to make more sense during Thursday's cruise when the several bridges we passed under all had a good 20' of clearance above what was shown on our chart. The banks are littered with down timber and other evidence of raging spring floodwaters, now well behind us.

Demopolis Dam.

Things were so skinny that we barely squeaked in to the sandbar anchorage at Edna Bend (map), where the tows passed us just a hundred or so feet away as they slid around the big turn. We left plenty of lights on and set the AIS to squawk as each one approached, until we were certain we were well clear of the path.

Demopolis is a taller lock; note the higher sill.

Now at 73' above sea level...

Friday brought us to our second lock, at Demopolis, which lifted us some 40'. Shortly after exiting the lock we passed the Corps of Engineers campground at Foscue Creek, where we stayed in Odyssey on our first visit here. Naturally I had to take the complementary picture looking right back at our campsite.

Foscue Creek Campground now...

...and then.

We were looking forward to being tied up at the Demopolis Yacht Basin, which we had scoped out on that visit. Since then they've built a whole new basin next door and the bulk of the marina operation has moved there; the newer facilities are much nicer. We had good Internet, power to run all the air conditioners, and use of a courtesy car to get to dinner in town at The Red Barn and do a massive Walmart run the next morning -- the same Walmart where we stayed on our second visit here. I even used the very nice pool, which, ironically, is salt water.

This guy seemed content to ride the bollard up in the shade...

In addition to the two-hour shopping spree, which included ten gallons of motor oil, a case of beer, and other heavy items that are hard to move without a car, we spent most of the day yesterday working on travel plans. We've had it on our calendar for some time to set up a trip mid-July to California, where we both have many long-time friends from our two decades living there, plus a rental property to check in on. We also need to meet with our financial planners there, and Louise has family in the area. She's been back once since we last left there in Odyssey in 2012, but this will be my first return visit in over three years.

Water cascading over Demopolis Dam.

Nailing down exactly when we'd do this and where we'd be when we started has been something of a moving target, since we were not entirely sure when we'd start up the Tombigbee or what kind of daily progress we would make. This week has been the first time we've had enough information and confidence to put a stake in the ground.

Looking at a map of the navigable river system in this part of the country, it becomes readily apparent just how few real cities there are along the way. And by real city, I mean one that has an airport served by commercial flights. In point of fact, after leaving Mobile, the very next city along the main part of the route is Paducah, Kentucky, a distance of 670 miles, or a little over two weeks at our normal pace.

If we went straight to Paducah we'd already be on the downhill side of our trip, missing some interesting side trips. While we've already opted not to take the Alabama to Montgomery or the Black Warrior, which split off back in Demopolis, to Tuscaloosa, we definitely want to make the 500-mile round trip to Chattanooga from where we join the Tennessee at Pickwick Lake. Chattanooga, of course, has an airport, as does Huntsville, Alabama just a couple of days downstream.

And so it is that we've booked a round-trip flight out of Huntsville on July 13th for a one-week trip to San Francisco. We're still finalizing marina arrangements for Vector in nearby Decatur or maybe Scottsboro, as well as a kennel for Angel. Managing all the variables from ground transportation to marina fees to flight times means it's never a slam-dunk to make flight plans in a nomadic lifestyle, particularly when we are both traveling and neither of us remains behind to watch the boat and the cat.

The outbound flights now dictate our pace; it's a comfortable schedule, even if we have a bit more current against us in the Tennessee. We'll be in quarters a couple of days ahead of time to get the boat and the cat squared away, and when we return we will continue upriver to Chattanooga before turning around.

Vector at Kingfisher Marina in Demopolis.

Now with a clear but relaxed schedule, and enjoying both air conditioning and good WiFi, we decided to make it a short day yesterday and ask the marina for a late checkout. In addition to making more progress on travel plans, we filled the water tank, pumped out the holding tank, and I took the aforementioned dip in the pool. We finally dropped lines at 2:30pm, 23 hours after our arrival, to come here, just eight miles upriver.

It's so hot now that we had to keep the boat closed up and the air conditioners running all evening and right to bed time. It was all I could do to stand on the deck to grill a couple of pork chops. The cat, who loves the heat, asked to go out on deck sometime after sunset, and I let her out.

When I went to let her in some time later, all hell broke loose. Somehow we stumbled into a mayfly hatch (or perhaps our lights had something to do with precipitating it). They were attracted to our lights and there were thousands of them on the aft deck; a couple dozen made it inside in the brief moment the door was open. The cat seemed shell-shocked.

Just some of the mayflys on deck this morning.

This morning the aft deck was covered in mostly dead mayflys. The dinghy was worse; the permanent solar-powered running/anchor light we keep on it also attracted thousands, and there was a mat of dead mayflys three inches deep across the back of the dinghy. I spent an hour this morning blowing as many of them as I could off the deck with a compressed air hose and a shop-vac running in reverse. We'll be cleaning mayfly carcasses off the boat for weeks.

A small percentage of the mayflys in the dinghy.

Today's cruise will take us all the way to the tailwater of the next lock, the Howell Heflin Lock and Dam, where we'll anchor in a nearby oxbow for a lock-through in the morning. I don't have enough cell signal here to load the photos, so I'll post this just as soon as we pass through a spot with enough 3g or 4g coverage to get the job done. I have no clue whether we'll have any signal tonight or not.

Monday, June 20, 2016

From Outlaw to On the Bayou

We are anchored in Big Bayou Canot, just off the Mobile River, due east of Saraland, Alabama (map). We might as well be a hundred miles from Saraland, where we've spent more than one night in the bus -- the river betrays no trace of civilization here save for the CSX railroad bridge.

CSX rail bridge over Big Bayou Canot.

That bridge has a storied past. In September of 1993, a Warrior and Gulf towboat, the Mauvilla, pushing a six-barge tow, inadvertently turned up Big Bayou Canot in heavy fog instead of continuing in the Mobile River navigation channel. The towboat had no compass, no charts, and an inexperienced (some would say incompetent) pilot at the helm. The barges struck the bridge, knocking the poorly secured center span out of alignment. Eight minutes later, Amtrak's Sunset Limited struck the bridge at 72mph, killing 47 and injuring more than twice that many.

Louise and I took the Sunset Limited years later, and I remember staring down at the bayou as we crossed, thinking about that horrific accident. It's a bit strange to be seeing it now from the towboat's vantage. One CSX train has passed since we dropped the hook. The Sunset Limited no longer passes this way; the New Orleans to Orlando leg never having been reinstated since Hurricane Katrina closed the tracks.

Vector docked at the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center. Austal shipyards in the background with some of the new Littoral Combat Ships.

We spent a lovely two nights in Mobile, docked at the Outlaw Convention Center, right downtown (map). We had the entire dock to ourselves, and we've set a new record for the largest cleats we've ever had to use to tie up Vector. There is no power on the dock, but it is just steps away from historic Dauphin Street with several great restaurants and a few shops. A free shuttle bus makes a 20-minute loop around the downtown area, and this morning we used it to get some provisions at the grocery store, the last we'll see for perhaps a week.

The biggest cleats we've used to date. Our 3/4" line looks like string on these.

I had really hoped to stop in at an old favorite of ours, the Bienville Club on the top of the RSA building, also only steps away, with a panoramic view of Mobile, the rivers, and the bay. We were sorry to learn the club went bankrupt a couple of years ago, and the space now houses Dauphin's restaurant. We had dinner there Saturday for old times' sake, on their more reasonably-priced happy hour menu. The food was good and the view is the best in Mobile, but the prices on the regular menu are steep.

Yesterday we walked Dauphin Street to breakfast at the excellent Serda's Coffee Company, and again to dinner at Delphine's pizzeria, also excellent. In the middle of the day we tackled a project, involving a roll of Textilene fabric that Louise had delivered to her in Pensacola. Specifically, we made and installed more exterior window coverings.

The boat came with Textilene covers for all the windows in the pilothouse. They make a huge difference in keeping the heat out on a sunny day, and now that we are traveling in the south in the summer, we've been putting those up at every stop. They are getting a bit shopworn, and I need to replace a couple of the snaps.

The large windows in the salon are not a problem for most of the day, because they are shaded by the boat deck, which overhangs them by two feet. But in late afternoon, as the sun angle gets lower, we are often hit with a blast of heat radiating from the blinds, which, while well-insulated double-cell construction, just can't keep up. A year or so ago, Louise made a square Textilene shade that we can secure to the boat deck and rail to provide a bit of shade, but it's been only partly effective and is unusable in more than a few knots of wind.

Louise showing off her handiwork. I drilled 14 new holes in the boat...

We decided to make one large cover that would span all three windows on one side of the boat, and then mount snaps on both sides so we could use the cover on whichever side was sunny. Louise sewed the enormous cover, and I installed the snaps into the reinforced corners and edges, and the mating parts onto the boat. It came out really nice, and so far it's been helping a lot.

Louise had some fabric left over as well as a surfeit of snaps, so she also sewed a cover for the port side galley window. This window does not benefit from the boat deck overhang, so a cover here is a real help. The fabric leftovers were such that she had to piece the cover from three sections, but it still looks great and it, too, is helping to keep the boat cool.

Both new covers in place on the port side.

After our grocery run this morning, we contemplated spending another night. The convention center is convenient to downtown and the security staff was friendly and accommodating. When we arrived we were able to connect to their WiFi as well, which was fast in comparison to most. That disappeared yesterday afternoon, though, as the center prepared to host the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, and they switched all the access points over to that use. Amusingly, we are missing right now the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which we attended several times in the bus, this year in Columbus, Ohio. We peered into the convention center and had General Assembly flashbacks.

With our fast free WiFi gone, and no power on the dock, we opted to use the last of the flood to get a few miles upriver instead, knocking a couple of hours off tomorrow's trip. From here we will not see another dock for the next hundred miles, and the next one a hundred miles beyond that. Access to provisions will be limited, and I expect to be out of Internet coverage for a good deal of the trip. It's possible you will not hear from us until Demopolis, Alabama, nearly a week away.

Tonight we're having leftovers, which happen to be jambalaya. I can't think of a more fitting dish to be having here on the bayou. In the morning we will weigh anchor, and by day's end we will be off the Mobile and somewhere along the Tombigbee River, where anchorages are few and far between.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Sweet Home Alabama

We are underway in Mobile Bay, angling toward the ship channel along the eastern shore, on our way to Mobile. Yesterday we crossed the Alabama state line, ending our longest stay ever in our home state of Florida, just over six months since crossing the Georgia line in December.

Vector, ready to depart Palafox Pier, Pensacola, flanked by a houseboat and a beautiful Alaskan pilothouse.

We had a nice cruise yesterday from Pensacola, after a quick visit to the fuel dock for a pumpout before heading out into the bay. There were lots of boats out on the water on a hot, sunny afternoon, an early start to the weekend surge in traffic. Throughout our cruise we passed several sandbars chock-a-block with boats, their swimsuited passengers waist deep in the clear water, cooling off.

Our route took us most of the way to Pensacola Inlet, where the water is clear and beautiful, and we considered just dropping the hook and enjoying the clear water for the afternoon. But it was really too early to stop, and there was quite a bit of chop out where we could anchor, along the edge of Naval Air Station Pensacola. We opted to continue on, with the option to divert to the next inlet at Perdido Pass.

Speaking of NAS Pensacola, it is the home base of the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, and often they can be seen practicing their maneuvers along this stretch. They were not out during our passage (although I did see a couple of them in the distance while we were at the marina), having just resumed practices after the tragic accident two weeks ago that killed Blue Angel 6, the Opposing Solo, Capt. Jeff Kruss, USMC. The Blue Angels are part and parcel of everyday life in Pensacola; I saw one of the pilots on the docks at the marina.

What better name for a fighter pilot's boat, and I love the "I".

The base is enormous and it took us over an hour to pass it. The Coast Guard station is on-base, and we had to do-si-do around a large buoy tender that was coming in to dock just as we passed. After leaving the air station behind, it has been virtually non-stop waterfront development on either side of us.

Arriving at the turnoff for Perdido Pass we again decided to keep moving rather than make a detour of a couple of miles to get to that azure water. We crossed into Alabama and continued to Wolf Bay, dropping the hook just off the Waterfront Park in Orange Beach, Alabama (map). The park has free WiFi, and there's even a restaurant we could have tendered to, but we opted to just eat aboard.

That proved a wise decision, as our weather radio squawked about every ten minutes once we settled in. A line of strong thunderstorms spanning the width of the state was racing toward us at 50mph; when we first looked at the storm it was in Montgomery, some 150 miles north, and it hit us just three hours later. And hit us it did.

It had been hot and muggy all day, but by the time we were ready to have dinner, the leading edge of the front had already dropped the temperature ten degrees, and we had a pleasant dinner on deck. We did have to take turns getting up from the table to walk inside and silence the weather alert, which, on our pilothouse radio, has an escalating-volume tone that will wake the dead. We kept looking over at the restaurant ashore, with dozens of people seated outside under patio umbrellas, wondering if they even knew what was coming.

After dinner we ran the storm checklist, securing everything on deck and double-dogging the windows, hatches, and portlights. At the appointed time, the sky to the north turned black, and I barely got out of my deck chair just as the initial winds hit; they were forecast at 60mph and I can say with some confidence this was accurate. We had put out 10:1 scope on the anchor chain and we did not budge, but papers flew everywhere in the cabin as I opened the door to come inside.

After the initial wind burst, it was just a really big thunderstorm, and we sat on the covered aft deck watching the lightning show, along with the small boats racing for cover who had been caught unawares. Somehow the restaurant got all their umbrellas stowed before the event, but I imagine it was a mad scramble as they saw it bearing down on them. Mid-storm we saw a lightning strike take out the power ashore, if only for a few seconds, and that was the end of our free Internet. I was able to grab a somewhat slower connection later from a nearby marina; the park's WiFi never came back on.

It was all over before bedtime and we had a beautiful, clear night. The storm had dropped temperatures 20 degrees or so, and we only turned the AC on once, to cool down the staterooms just before bedtime. Today's temperatures have been so pleasant that, for the first time since setting it up, we have not needed to operate the new free-standing AC unit under way.

Local Gulf Shores institution Lulu's.

Today being Saturday, it's a zoo out on the water, and we passed, conservatively, over a hundred boats this morning on the ICW. Things were already heating up at Lulu's, owned by Lucy Buffet (Jimmy's sister) in Gulf Shores when we passed by at 10:30am, and also at Tacky Jacks across the canal. I'd have loved to stop, just to see the place, but the marina next door wants $2/foot and there's no place to anchor. Nothing about a tourist joint makes me want to drop a C-note to see it.

The lesser-known Tacky Jacks, right across the canal.

Our route today ends at the free city docks in downtown Mobile. We'll see if anyone answers the phone at the security number there before arrival -- we don't want to go upriver if there is no room at the dock, and instead we'll turn off the channel just before the river and drop the hook in the bay. Considering the sheer number of boats we've seen today, we have reason to be conservative. In either case, tomorrow we will be on the Mobile River, and we'll leave the coastal waters behind for the next several months.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Whirlwind Virginia trip

I am typing in the terminal at Charlotte International Airport, in an attempt to be productive during a four hour layover here (story below). And I will be spending money here, notwithstanding exhortations from many friends, LGBT and allies alike, to do otherwise. Lest anyone forget, Charlotte passed the LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance that ultimately sent state legislators into a tizzy, leading to state law literally overruling Charlotte's city ordinance. I see no sense in making Charlotte pay the price for Raleigh's bigotry.

A pianist in the Charlotte airport atrium. He was pretty good.

We had a very nice cruise Sunday to Fort Walton Beach, where we tied up at the free city dock at Landing Park (map), a familiar spot for us. It being a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon, we passed what must have been a pack of over a hundred boats anchored or rafted off Crab Island just inside the Destin Inlet. Some believe this submerged sandbar is the inspiration for the song Redneck Yacht Club and it sure fits the bill. The water looked so inviting, and it was so early in the afternoon, that we angled over to see if we could even get close, but alas, our six foot draft kept us too far from the action to be worthwhile.

Shortly after passing the inlet we came upon our old haunt, the Fort Walton Elks Lodge. We could see one rig in the small RV parking area. The lodge does have a dock, and it reaches out to a water depth that can probably accommodate us (we'd check before attempting it), but there's not a lot within walking distance of the lodge; we rode almost everywhere on our scooters when we stayed there. With no power on the dock, it made little sense to ask to tie up there, but we will keep it in mind for cooler weather when walking to the beach or the Boardwalk complex would make sense. Even if the dock is too shallow for us, there is a nice anchorage right in front of it.

Fort Walton Elks Lodge. We had quite a few beers at the tiki bar.

We continued on to the free city dock, calling the police department after we tied up to get the requisite permission for an overnight stay (during working hours, you call the city manager's office instead). There's no power on this dock, either, so shortly after tying up, we shut down Mr. Roboto and started the generator to get all the AC units running. Later we walked just a block to an old standby, Ali's Bistro, for a nice dinner, and then hoofed it across the street to Publix to pick up a few provisions. This dock is a great ICW stop, with easy access to groceries, restaurants, and other services.

Monday we got a relatively early start for the six hour cruise to Pensacola. Our marina reservations were for Tuesday, but we decided it would be best all around to be in quarters a full day ahead of my departure. Cruising through Santa Rosa Sound gave us a good view of the sparse facilities on Eglin Air Foce Base's Santa Rosa Island station, including their whizzy new 300'-tall observation and test tower, which would not look out of place at a World's Fair or amusement park.

USAF observation tower on Santa Rosa Island.

We arrived at Pensacola with a bit of crosswind, which made it a bit of a challenge to back into the slip, but we made it after only a single realignment. We then had a bit of a scramble to track down our mail and packages we had sent here; three different businesses share this same street address, including the marina, a waterfront restaurant, and a medical imaging company. We found our mail at the latter of these; the other packages got trapped in the UPS system when the relief driver could not get past the coded gates to the marina or the office. I'm glad we came in a day ahead of time, as our mail contained a new credit card I needed for my trip. We had a casual dinner at the aforementioned waterfront restaurant, Jaco's.

We had everything teed up for Louise to run me over to the airport Tuesday afternoon on the scooter, which we landed in the morning. However, the heavens opened up just at the wrong time, and rather than arrive at the airport soaked, I took Uber for $13. Then commenced one of those travel experiences that make you wonder why anyone ever thought it was glamorous.

It all started innocently enough, with an early push-back from the gate and an uneventful flight. We landed in decreasing visibility and some rough air, and as soon as our wheels were on the ground in Charlotte, and enormous thunder cell rolled in. We stopped on the tarmac as the airport shut the whole ramp down for worker safety; in all, we spent a full hour and a half on the tarmac before pulling up to the gate. I stared at my watch as my plans for a nice sit-down dinner with a draft beer morphed first into fast food and then a grab-and-go snack before ending at having to to be that famous alleged murderer to even make it across two full terminal arms and the entire main concourse in time to make my departing flight to Richmond, the last of the day.

Of course, lots of things were delayed by the storm, but constant checks of departure status were telling me that my connecting flight had equipment that was already in place and serviced and would be leaving on time. I did, in fact, nearly sprint across the airport, narrowly avoiding collisions with other sprinters also trying to make impossibly tight connections, until learning that somewhere between putting my phone in my pocket to disembark and reaching the main concourse, they pushed departure back by a half hour. I had time for a grab-and-go sandwich after all, but not my cherished beer. I resolved to just buy one on the plane for seven bucks, but the Richmond flight was so short there was no beverage service. I made it to my hotel by 1am and crashed.

Yesterday morning the would-be buyer of the bus picked me up at the hotel in his rental car, and we drove right back to the airport terminal to add me on his contract as a driver, so I could return the car as he drove off into the sunset in Odyssey. Sadly, after spending all morning going through the bus, mulling it over through lunch, and then another hour or so in the afternoon, he decided against moving forward with the purchase, notwithstanding a bit of back-and-forth over the price.

I am, of course, disappointed. We spent a lot of time two weeks ago and then again this week getting everything squared away across two trips to meet up with him. But not only did he not dispute the nonrefundable deposit that he'd already paid, he also graciously paid part of my expenses for the return visit due to the death in his family. We're only out a few hundred bucks and a little time, and we'll put the bus back on the market shortly; we need to adjust the timing so that I can get back there for another sale.

After waving off the purchase, the buyer also had to wait while I suited up in my grubbies and disconnected all three battery banks. With a revisit within just a couple of weeks we were willing to leave them connected and the bus plugged in to power, but with a less definitive schedule we can't take the chance that the shore power might go out long enough to knock the charger off-line completely. It took me a half hour to disconnect everything, unplug, and button it all up. The water system is still filled, so we need to either sell the bus or winterize it by November.

I was back at my hotel in time to have a relaxing evening and even make it to the daily Manager's Reception which is code-speak for free dinner. Unfortunately, local ordinance forbids them to serve alcohol so the free beer and wine normally provided by this chain was not forthcoming. I walked to the 7/11 next door to get my fix.

I was up in time for a 5:30am shuttle to the airport this morning, and was midway through cramming down a cold breakfast (they don't put the hot food out until 6) at 5:25 when my phone rang with a robo-call from American Airlines. The crew for my 7am flight was five hours late coming in last night and the flight was delayed to 9am by mandatory crew rest rules; American's unreasonably chipper robot informed me that I would miss my connection in Charlotte and I was rebooked on the next flight, which is how I ended up with a four hour layover here.

We should be boarding shortly and I will be on my way back to Vector at the Palafox Pier (map). We'vd extended our stay there through tonight and will probably shove off in the morning for Alabama. I have not even looked at the route long enough yet to know where our next stop will be.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


We are under way, crossing Choctawhatchee Bay on our way to Fort Walton Beach. This morning found us anchored at the east end of the bay (map), just after we entered from the ICW cut. So many blackwater rivers empty here, including the eponymous Choctawhatchee, that the water is the color of chocolate. That did not stop me from jumping in for a cooling swim; at 88° the water is finally warm enough to be comfortable yet still refreshing.

While we are still in Florida (and some would say, the real Florida), we are, and have been since about Apalachicola or so, in Lower Alabama, which Alabama natives refer to simply as LA. Not the one that proved too much for the man. Whereas south Florida, including up to the Tampa Bay area, is culturally in the North, we are now firmly in the South. The Choctawhatchee has its headwaters deep in southeast Alabama.

Mr. Roboto kept us comfortable enough yesterday that we did not run the generator under way. We did, however, deploy for the first time the curtain we made to separate the pilothouse from the galley. We made this to keep the pilothouse dark on overnight passages if anyone needed to work in the galley or watch TV in the salon, but we've yet to use it for that purpose. It's doing a great job of keeping the cool air corralled in the pilothouse.

Our "darkness" curtain. It does block the pilothouse camera, unfortunately.

I expected to run the generator shortly after anchoring, but a storm cell blew in and dropped the outside temperature ten degrees while providing plenty of overcast. The rain itself missed us completely, but we had pleasant conditions to grill a steak and eat on the aft deck for the first time in a great while. We ran the generator in the evening after the storm had passed and temperatures went back up, just in time to also keep the bugs at bay.

Today's cruise, a relatively short four hours, will take us to Fort Walton Beach, something of an old stomping grounds for us. We stopped there several times in the bus, for varying lengths of time, including a full month once while waiting on Red Cross deployment orders. We're pretty familiar with the town, including the free city dock which is walking distance from several restaurants and a grocery store. It's a six-hour cruise from there to our final destination in Pensacola.

I forgot to mention here in my last post an interesting encounter we had en route to Panama City. As we transited the East Bay, we were buzzed fairly close aboard by an otherwise nondescript patio boat -- the sort with two aluminum pontoons and an outboard motor -- going wicked fast and piloted by a lone individual wearing a racing helmet. That boat was followed close behind by a small, older center console, also going wicked fast and helmed by a helmeted helmsman.

We scratched our heads awhile, as these two boats did circles around us, and a short distance later came across several racing-type boats painted identically in yellow paint with blue numbers, and more racing helmets. Louise did some Googling and we learned that Mercury Marine has their test and development center nearby on one of the bayous; every day, rain or shine, helmeted test drivers take boats out for engine testing. They always travel in pairs, because blown engines are not uncommon, which explains the center console following the patio boat. We've seen a lot of weird things on the water, but a patio boat driver wearing a helmet is a new one on us. I'm sorry I did not get a picture.

Louise loves our new crewman.

We should arrive in Fort Walton Beach early this afternoon. I expect we'll be running the generator from the moment we arrive. For now, Mr. Roboto is doing a fine job of keeping us comfortable. When we arrive in Pensacola and plug in, I will remove my kludge, which is decidedly not weatherproof, from the window.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Extra crewman

I am typing under way across St. Andrew Bay, having spent last night docked at the very nice Panama City Marina (map), right downtown. We arrived mid-afternoon after a long, winding cruise along the ICW. A combination of having the air conditioners running before arrival and a bit of seabreeze at the dock made for a much more tolerable docking experience.

Vector tied up to the transient dock at Panama City Marina.

Around 5pm we had a visit from retired naval skipper, fellow trawler owner, and on-line acquaintance Rich, who, after a brief tour of Vector, was kind enough to run us over to Home Depot to pick up a portable air conditioner. We rounded out the evening with a casual meal at local institution The Place downtown.

The 9/11 memorial, adjacent to our pier.

After we returned to Vector with our new purchase, we set to work unboxing it and getting it set up. The exhaust hose turns out to be quite short, and although we had expected to place the unit on the floor, we ended up removing one of the cushions and putting it on the pilothouse settee in order for the hose to reach the window.

Mr. Roboto, our extra crewmember.

Sitting there, as it is, it feels like we have an extra crewman in the pilothouse with us. We have dubbed him Mr. Roboto. In the store we vacillated between the 12,000 BTU/hr unit and the 10,000 BTU/hr model; we decided on the smaller one since it was an experiment anyway and it was ten pounds lighter and a bit smaller all around. Now that it's in position we are glad we went with the physically smaller unit.

Once we had tested its ability to start on the inverter alone, we then spent about an hour last night jury-rigging a window insert for the exhaust duct using heavy cardboard from the packing box. The plastic window inserts that came with the unit are all but useless with out curved slider windows on a very thin sash. The result, held together with duct tape, is something of a mess but will at least let us get up and running. If this works out I will make an insert from plastic.

Nothin' but class here aboard our yacht.

So far we've been under way today for a little over an hour in 90° heat and it is making a huge difference. While it is by no means cold in here -- the pilothouse is something of a greenhouse with all these windows -- it is mostly comfortable, and we have not had to run the generator. We may have to run the generator a time or two under way to cool down the rest of the boat, but probably not the four hours we ran it yesterday.

We'll give this experiment another couple of days, and if it seems to be working I might order a mini-split for permanent installation. I will definitely go with the larger 12,000 BTU/hr unit, the largest available in 120-volt. I don't think our inverter will have any trouble starting it.

This morning we walked into town for breakfast at The Bagel Maker before shoving off. Today's cruise will take us through St. Andrew Bay and then another 20 miles of "ditch" before depositing us in Choctawhatchee Bay, where we will anchor for the night. Tomorrow we should be in Fort Walton Beach, one of our old haunts, and we should make Pensacola on Monday, in plenty of time for my Tuesday flight.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Central Daylight Time

We are anchored in the Jackson River (map), just a few hundred yards from its confluence with the Apalachicola, and north of the community of that name. We're out of the channel here courtesy of a large towhead just upriver. This morning found us docked at the C-Quarters Marina in Carabelle, Florida (map), where we arrived mid-afternoon yesterday.

Sunset this evening over the towhead; main channel is to the right.

Traveling in the heat is something of a learning process for us; it took us a while to get good at it on the bus, and we're on the front end of the curve with the boat. After leaving the dock at St. Marks we no longer had power for air conditioning, at least not without running the generator, and it was fairly warm in the boat when we arrived at Carabelle, even though we had been travling in mostly open water with at least a bit of seabreeze. We had hoped to drop anchor in the river, but we could not find a spot with enough room and depth for us.

We ended up docking instead, looking forward to having power to run the air conditioning for the rest of the day. But a half hour on deck in full sunlight at another tricky cross-current slip did Louise in, and she ended up crashing in bed with a migraine before dinner time. I went out for a sandwich and saw a small bit of the town in the evening, and crashed early myself.

Carabelle's most famous tourist attraction, the World's Smallest Police Station (Google it).

This morning we had something of a post-mortem on two hot afternoon dockings in a row. Clearly this is not going to work as a daily routine, and we need to find a better system. Today's answer was to run the generator as needed under way to run the air conditioning. That made for a more pleasant cruise and, we hoped, a more refreshed crew when it came time to dock, along with an immediately cool place to retreat. We ended up passing right through Apalachicola without docking, as it happens, because we have a long day to Panama City tomorrow and we wanted to get a bit further along -- it was barely 2:30pm when we arrived in Apalachicola.

We already had one docking today, anyway, but that was in the relative cool of the morning, and it was an easy face dock parallel to the current -- the fuel dock at C-Quarters. We took on 450 gallons, all we could fit, at $2.05 per gallon, the best we'll see until at least Tennessee. With the generator running for air conditioning a lot more of the time, we'll be using an extra ten gallons or so per day.

We had a nice cruise from the Carabelle to the Apalachicola through Saint George Sound and Apalachicola Bay, protected from the Gulf by Saint George Island. The channel was wide and straight enough that I could set the autopilot and get a few other things done, but that's behind us now and I will have constant attention to the helm tomorrow.

Our only neighbor here, a fishboat that sunk circa 2012.

The Apalachicola is a fast river with heavy flow, and I fought about a knot of current from the mouth until we passed the confluence of the Jackson, whereupon it dropped considerably. A couple of decades ago, we would have been able to take Vector all the way to Columbus, Georgia by traveling some 100 miles up the Apalachicola to Seminole Lake, locking through and continuing up the Chattahoochee. That was back when the Corps of Engineers maintained a nine foot navigation channel to Columbus. Declining commercial traffic, the cost of dredging, and environmental concerns have conspired against maintaining the channel, and the route is passable now only to shoal draft vessels -- I can't even get a chart.

The community of Apalachicola is on Eastern Time. Where we are now, the time zone boundary runs down the middle of the Jackson River; we are anchored in Eastern Time and the ship's clocks are still set that way. It is Central Time across the river, though, and we will be firmly in Central Daylight Time sometime tomorrow morning, after crossing back and forth a number of times as we make our way upriver. In the bus we crossed time zone boundaries so often, and without thinking, that we were occasionally an hour late or early for an appointment or a dinner reservation. This is the first such change for us in the boat in the three years we've been aboard -- I'm actually looking forward to it.

Tomorrow we will continue up the Jackson to Lake Wimico, whereupon we will be in essentially man-made channels all the way to East Bay. Tomorrow afternoon we will dock in Panama City, and we'll see how the strategy of having the A/C running all the way to and through the docking process pans out. We're on schedule to be in Pensacola in time for my flight, and when I get back we'll pick up a portable air conditioner, to see if we can at least keep the pilothouse cool under way without running the generator. If that works out, I may very well install a mini-split system for that purpose.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Belle of St. Marks

We are underway in the Gulf of Mexico, threading our way between Ochlockonee Shoal and South Shoal on our way out of Apalachee Bay. We dropped lines at high slack this morning in St. Marks, and had a very nice push downriver and past the historic St. Marks lighthouse. Ebb current this morning was supposed to be negligible, but we had about a knot, due to ongoing runoff from the storm.

St. Marks light, from the river.

Tropical Storm Colin was a non-event for us. While the eye very nearly hit us, passing just a few miles to the south, this was a weird cyclone, with all the energy in the southeast quadrant. As a result, the peninsula got slammed, with boats breaking loose in Bradenton and Tampa Bay, high winds, and heavy flooding. Meanwhile, we had no winds to speak of at all. Our decision to depart Clearwater for St. Marks proved correct.

Our finger pier underwater. It came up over the step, too, but not the main dock.

What we got in the panhandle was a storm surge of two to three feet. At high spring tide, around 4pm or so, that brought flooding well into the town. Water was over our finger pier but not quite overtopping the quay where the power pedestals are located. The boat ramp was underwater, as were the quay and finger piers on the other side of it.

The boat ramp. That's the marina owner's daughter taking a photo of the iron ranger. Water came up another several inches after this.

I managed to make it to the post office first thing in the morning to mail some packages, but by early afternoon the road was impassable. The restaurant where we ate Sunday was flooded, as was the one across the street. Some youths were literally swimming in the intersection, in between beers on the flooded restaurant patio.

Most of the town centers around this flooded intersection.

Those beers came with them, or perhaps they bought them across the street at the small market in town, whose foundation kept it just about the floodwaters. I myself stopped in earlier in the day and ended up buying a spiffy new pair of galoshes, which let me get some of these photos without traipsing through dirty water or worrying about electrical currents.

By dinner time the waters were already receding, and we settled back in to await the windstorm that never arrived. Landfall was around midnight or so, and I finally went to bed at 12:30 when it became clear nothing would happen.

The fuel dock. Ramp is under water. Fuel pumps are high and dry on a pedestal to the right.

Yesterday was a beautiful day, and you could hardly tell anything had happened at all. We might easily have shoved off, except the forecast out here on the Gulf was four to six feet, and we opted to wait a day for two to three. At this writing we've only seen one to two, which is perfect. We spent most of yesterday restoring things to their normal condition from their storm preparations.

The other thing I did yesterday was make some travel reservations. The buyer of the bus has contacted me and asked to finish closing the deal, now that things are a bit calmer on the family front. It turns out that the best airfares we'll see in the coming weeks are out of Pensacola (both Mobile and Tallahassee were 50% higher), and I've booked a flight to Richmond on Tuesday evening.

Now we have that most dangerous of all things on a boat: a schedule. Pensacola is a comfortable six days from here, and since my flight is not until 6pm, we have most of the day Tuesday as a buffer. If anything goes awry between now and then, we'll put the boat wherever we have to and I will find ground transportation to Pensacola.

I'll be flying solo, so Louise can mind the boat and the cat, who is still somewhat traumatized from her week "in jail." It's a surgical strike: I arrive in Richmond close to midnight, spend the night at an airport hotel, then drive out to the bus Wednesday morning. With any luck I'll be back at the hotel by cocktail hour. I have an oh-dark-thirty flight back on Thursday morning, and we should be back on our way to Mobile by Friday.

Today's cruise is the last open water we'll see until Mobile Bay. Dog Island is the first barrier island west of here, and once we are behind it we will be in protected waters all the way to Mobile. Tonight we will either anchor just north of Dog Island, or proceed upriver to Carabelle, which has the cheapest diesel we will see from here to Tennessee.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hunkering down for Colin

We are docked at Shields Marina in St. Marks, Florida (map), on the St. Marks river about 20 miles south of Tallahassee. We are the largest vessel here by a fair margin, and possibly the largest vessel that has ever docked here. Our 16' beam is shoehorned in between a pair of 17'-apart pilings, which are galvanized steel. Backing in to the slip, which is crossways to the current, just a tad before slack water was a challenge, taking me four attempts, and still we screeched our stainless rub rails along the galvanized steel, leaving scratches on both.

We were going to get into that space, the lone one available to us, come hell or high water, because we will see perhaps both in the next 48 hours. What was not yet even an investigation area when we left Clearwater Friday afternoon is now Tropical Storm Colin. When we made the decision to head here, track models favored the coast from St. Petersburg to Cedar Key for landfall, but as the system progressed to Investigation Area 93L and thence Tropical Depression Three, the models began to coalesce and the middle of the cone of probability is now right where we sit today, along the Big Bend. Still, we made the right decision with imperfect information -- anyplace we could have tied up or anchored in Tampa Bay or Clearwater would have been much more exposed to storm conditions. Here, at least, we are five miles upriver and tied up to heavy moorings.

This evening's official forecast track -- headed right for us.

Long-time readers will know we've been through this before, riding out Hurricane Arthur at a public dock in Portsmouth, Virginia. We're most of the way through our windstorm checklist now, having deployed our fender boards, removed all loose items and covers from the decks, and doubled up all lines. With the extra-skinny slip and heavy steel pilings, we needed a couple of smaller fenders for the starboard fender board; fortunately the marina has a well-stocked chandlery and we just bought a pair today, albeit at something of a premium price. Still the marina is a bargain at just 60 cents per foot, with an extra dime per foot for power, of which we are using plenty in the Gulf heat and humidity.

Vector tied up at Shields Marina. Fender boards are out and the covers are off the dinghy and scooters.

Other than the quick welfare update as we left Clearwater behind, I have not had a chance to post here since we were in Virginia trying to sell the bus. In the calm before the storm here, let me spend a few paragraphs catching up.

For starters, no, the bus is not yet sold. As we updated Tuesday morning, the buyer's father passed away Monday night, as the buyer was already en route to meet us. I got a text from him sometime after midnight, which we did not even see until we awoke in the morning. We had set an early alarm, to give us time to roll the bus out of the shed and wash it with the pressure washer we had brought along with us before the buyer's arrival.

With the news that he would not be able to close the deal, we ended up spending the first couple of hours of the day regrouping, trying to find alternate buyers who had asked to be contacted "if the deal falls through," and figuring out what our next move would be. The 8am opening of the marina and the kennel came and went with no real decisions made. But as the morning wore on, it became clear that nothing else really could happen while we were still in Virginia, and we made the decision to head back to St. Petersburg as soon as possible, to arrive Wednesday evening. I extended the kennel, marina, and rental car to Thursday.

We still had work to do -- the pressure washer was coming back with us, and since my next trip to Virginia to close any deal will likely be solo and may well be by airplane, we still wanted to wash the bus on this visit. Also there were three bays we could not fully access to clean and pack until we pulled the bus out of the shed, and now, with the possibility of flying in at a later date, I'd have to unpack some of the tools we'd already offloaded and leave them behind, just in case anything else needs attention when I return.

Just getting the bus out of the shed proved to be something of a challenge. Despite moving the bus forward and back a couple of feet over the course of several previous visits, 48,000 pounds is a lot for the soft earth of the Northern Neck, and I had to resort to some digging with our shovel (included with bus sale!) and a good bit of old-fashioned rocking to get it rolling out of the shed. The trenches we left behind were deep enough that we went down to the office to request a different spot so we could start the inevitable sinking at least from level ground, rather than 5" ruts.

Washing and bay cleaning took another three hours or so, and by the time we drove it around to its new spot, then powered our way in without getting stuck in the mud, and buttoned it all back up, it was past 3pm. Rather than take time to disconnect all the batteries again, we opted just to pay the upcharge for electric power, on the hope that we'll have it sold within a month or so. We have our fingers crossed that the power does not go out long enough for the batteries to go offline between now and then... if the battery voltage drops low enough the charger will never come back on.

Our minuscule rental car was packed to the gills as we rolled back out onto the road; it's amazing how much stuff we had left behind on the bus, and, of course, we'd brought half a car-load with us including tools, a shop-vac, and the aforementioned pressure washer. Even so, the buyer will get a full set of very nice dishware (Mimbreno China, originally made for the Super Chief), silverware, and cookware, plus an assortment of tools and plenty of spare parts.

We spent the night in Lumberton, NC, and opted to add an extra half hour Wednesday to go through Orlando for a stop at the VF Outlet there, where I have the best luck finding clothes, and a very nice dinner at the Citrus Club in town. We rolled up to the marina parking around 10pm Thursday, fired the air conditioning back up on the boat, and fell into bed exhausted.

Thursday morning we unloaded the car, taking three dock-cart loads to our slip at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina (map), just a few slips down from where we docked last year.. Lots of that stuff is still sitting right in front of me now in the salon, awaiting disposition; some items will be sold, but many will need to find homes on the boat. (An equal amount of stuff went either to the "free" pile at the storage facility, most of which disappeared within a day if not an hour, or right to the dumpster.) Then we picked up Angel, who took a full day to settle back in to the boat. In the afternoon I returned the car to Hertz, having put a whopping 2,235 miles on it, and hoofed it back to Vector. We had a final dinner in St. Pete at Gratzi, a nice Italian place just a short walk from the dock, all we had the energy for.

By dinner time Thursday we already knew that a system was brewing in the Gulf. Years of disaster response for the Red Cross, which often found us driving toward tropical storms, have given us a keen sense of storm development and a toolkit of resources to track them before the National Hurricane Center is even permitted to discuss them. We had a long discussion that evening about hunkering down in St. Pete, looking for something even further inland on Tampa Bay, or continuing on our planned route to Clearwater and beyond.

The 8am Friday investigation map that confirmed for us that trouble was brewing.

In hindsight, knowing where we ended up coming, we could have saved quite a few miles by going out at Tampa Bay or maybe even Pass-a-Grille, and we discussed a Pass-a-Grille egress as we drove by the inlet. But at that hour of the day it was looking like we'd have plenty of time to make a decision and we could have a pleasant night in Clearwater before either taking refuge locally or making the Gulf crossing.

Leaving St. Pete behind Friday morning, headed, we thought, for Clearwater.

As you now know, the ensuing hours, wherein yet another model run was made for the storm system and a deteriorating forecast for the Gulf was released, made us think twice about delaying a departure until Saturday morning. We waved wistfully as we passed by Clearwater Beach and headed directly to the Gulf without stopping. We even spent some time looking at our guides to see if there was at least a dock-and-dine option so we could make a dinner stop before departing, without success.

Clearwater Beach in our wake, shortly after leaving the inlet.

If there was any question whether we made the right decision, the crossing put it to rest. It was calm the whole way, like a lake, and overnight it was glassy enough to see stars reflected in the water. We had not planned for dinner aboard, so I ended up grilling burgers that we took out of the freezer. Our overnight passage routine is now well-developed, and even last minute we simply ran through our checklists and fell into our normal watchstanding schedule, with me standing the midnight watch and Louise taking over in the wee hours.

Sunset over a placid Gulf of Mexico, from two dozen miles offshore.

We had a favorable current the entire passage, and ended up arriving at the St. Marks river in time to have a great push upriver as well, arriving here before 3pm. We had talked about anchoring either nearby in the river, or perhaps as far out as the St. Marks Lighthouse for our first night, but the combination of a calm Gulf and a pleasant summer weekend had the whole river full of small boats, making anchoring a challenge. It was also hot and humid, and $37 per day for all the A/C we can handle was just the ticket after a long, hot passage, so we came straight here.

Other than the tiny slips and fixed docks, the marina is fine, with a nice new office/store well stocked with marine items as well as snacks and beverages. Next door are a pair of restaurants, and we had dinner tonight at the open-air Riverside Grille. The place was a zoo last night, and we just ate at home. Despite the early arrival, we were too beat to get much of anything done yesterday after checking in.

Today was spent preparing for the storm. Oddly, we seem to be the only ones doing so. Of the perhaps dozen folks we talked to about it since arriving, many were completely unaware of the impending storm, but even more surprising is the lack of any sense of urgency even after the NHC declared it a Tropical Storm and issued warnings for the entire coast. The marina office is closed Mondays, and we asked today if they will have anyone here or at least on call tomorrow when the storm hits; they just shrugged and said no.

We're as ready as we can be, and with any luck it will just be a non-event. We expect the bulk of it to be past by Tuesday morning, and we'll have a look then to see if we can continue on to Carabelle on Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday. Tomorrow should be an interesting day.