Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gulf passage

I am typing into a text file under way in the Gulf of Mexico. We are having a decent cruise, if not the most comfortable ride, in very pleasant weather. Things got off to a somewhat rocky start, but seas have settled quite a bit. We are a bit more than 2/3 through our planned route, and the display says another 11-12 hours.

Last night's sunset into the clouds over the gulf.

As I wrote in my last post, this is our first time in open water since leaving the Gulf back in June of last year, for the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, between St. Marks and Carabelle, Florida. It's also our first overnight passage since the scramble to St. Marks from St. Pete in anticipation of Tropical Storm Colin. I hadn't really thought about it, but in the interceding year we've made four significant changes that had an impact on passage.

  • We upgraded the radar displays to slightly more modern and capable units.
  • We installed additional air conditioners in the pilothouse and master stateroom that can run from the inverter under way.
  • We eliminated our Spot tracking device and service in favor of already-paid-for time on our Iridium Go satellite device.
  • We added AT&T cellular Internet to our portfolio in the form of a ZTE Mobley connected-car device.

In a moment, I will share how each of those factors affected our passage.

Departing South Padre in the pre-dawn hour.

Yesterday morning's post was a little rushed. The last-minute decision for an early departure left me no time Monday night, and yesterday morning we were very busy getting under way and then dogging everything down. As I wrote, we had quite some pitching once we were out the inlet, and with water spraying over the bow we needed to dog all the portlights as well as all the lockers and drawers.

Heading out the Brazos Santiago inlet. The calm between the jetties belies the seas of the gulf.

One thing we learned yesterday is that the new latches we installed on the Portuguese bridge lockers are not up to the challenge; the pitching motion had the locker doors exerting way to much force on the diminutive hasps; we'll need to add some "at sea" latches to the doors. I ended up duct-taping them shut to keep the force on the latches to a minimum.

I've previously written here about what we normally do to prepare the boat for an open water passage. With all the motion yesterday morning we opted to also add the rarely-used aft tie-downs to the dinghy and the scooters. In addition to all the running around securing things on the boat, I managed to snap a few photos as we left the inlet and of South Padre behind us gleaming in the sunrise.

South Padre astern in the morning sun.

Notwithstanding our preparations, we did have one casualty of the pitching. I've been using Navionics charts on our iPad Mini as a backup, with more detailed soundings, to our main plotters. I purchased these charts last year to do the rivers. I don't have a good mount for the iPad and it just sits atop the helm; more than once it's lept off, making a number of dents in our woodwork when it lands. Yesterday it managed to hit a circuit breaker on its way down, breaking the handle off.

Oops. I'll have to disassemble most of this panel to replace this.

It was all I could do to crank out what I posted before we lost our Internet signal for good. Importantly, I wanted to post the URL for our Twitter page so folks could follow the sat phone updates. Our Iridium Go satellite device does have an automated "tracking" feature similar to the one we had with our older Spot tracker, however neither Iridium nor our reseller provides a useful tracking map the way Spot does. The tracking messages can only be sent as SMS or email.

Previous hard landings.

Since the tracking messages, built in to the device, are poorly formatted and reference a map site that no longer exists, I opted to generate my own messages manually and SMS them to Twitter. It does mean I need to remember to do it. I stow the Iridium between sessions, and I also download the latest weather when I set it up. I'm still hunting around for a site that can automate more of the process; this is one of those changes I mentioned from a year ago.

Speaking of Internet access, another of the changes I mentioned is our acquisition of a ZTE Mobley hot spot, meant to be installed in a car, and a truly unlimited 4G data plan to go with it from AT&T. While our Sprint, T-Mobile, and even Verizon devices have had sporadic coverage in SE Texas, the AT&T has kept us solidly on line in some pretty remote places; we were out of coverage for only a few miles of the ICW behind Padre Island. I was similarly impressed that it kept us online nearly 14 miles offshore yesterday, when everything else aboard had quit. I'm hoping that will persist today and we might get online when we are abreast of Freeport.

Update: We've just passed Freeport, about a dozen miles offshore, and we were, indeed, online, albeit briefly. Just long enough to load the weather forecast for the gulf waters and send out a couple of quick updates, including one right here on the blog. So by now you know that we are diverting east to the Calcasieu River, adding about 70 nautical miles to our journey and putting us in tomorrow morning sometime.

I've put a couple of jogs in the route to bring us 11 miles offshore of Galveston, so I am hoping we will again have a few minutes of coverage. Then I can upload this post and maybe squeak a few more emails in and out. I just barely managed to crank out the update to our float plan, emailed ahead of each passage to our emergency contacts listed with the Coast Guard.

Yesterday morning's sunrise. Hard to tell how big these rollers are in the photo.

Consistent with the forecast, the seas did eventually get a bit calmer after I posted yesterday. The cat's been pretty miserable, but the humans have managed OK, so long as we remember to keep "one hand for the boat." It's never been flat calm, but the pitching motion has become much more comfortable. Louise made a nice dinner of stewed skirt steak, which we ate in the pilothouse with the one light beer we allow ourselves in such circumstances. We both managed to sleep pretty comfortably off watch.

Part of the comfort factor is undeniably the new air conditoners. Under way, the main engine alternator can supply enough juice to run both of them, which has kept us comfortable throughout the day in the pilothouse but also greatly increased our sleep comfort belowdecks. In the past, on a passage such as this one, it was not uncommon for us to sleep off-watch on the flybridge, spreading the settee cushions out on the deck.

We were a little surprised by the desolation of this part of the gulf. It's not uncommon on a typical overnight passage for us to see several dozen vessels, from small fishing boats to enormous container ships. Last night I saw but two -- a large trawler that we came within a few miles of, and a tanker headed in to Corpus many miles away that I only saw courtesy of AIS.

That brings me to the final change I mentioned, the new radar set. I was surprised to come within a few miles of the trawler, who was also on AIS, and never see a radar return. I did see returns from some oil platforms we passed closer aboard, and the radar has been working fine in inland waters. Louise reported no targets at all during her watch.

This morning after I came back to the helm I fiddled with the radar some. I had a giant ship on AIS about ten miles out, and a small offshore platform at around five miles, neither of which was giving a good return. It turns out our 48-mile radar has been effective only out to around four miles. It turned out to be a tuning problem, and after rebooting in installation mode and fiddling with the tuning for a bit, it's all working normally now.

This last item is a fairly cautionary tale. We replaced the radar in Chattanooga, in inland waters, and all the setup and testing was normal, with no issues showing. I keyed in all the same user settings from the old units and then more or less forgot about it, other than enjoying the new features such as AIS integration. We simply assumed it would continue working, offshore, as well as our old one.

While we were never in any danger -- it was working fine out to four miles, which is a quarter of an hour for even a fast ship to close -- we're accustomed to having situational awareness and ARPA tracking out to well over a dozen miles (the distance to the horizon from our radar antenna). I'm glad we were able to resolve it at sea, especially now that we are adding another overnight to our trip.

Now that we've made our turn onto our new course, the display is estimating arrival after 9am. Once we're in the river we can decide if we want to anchor at the closest spot, or maybe continue upriver to the casino resort we enjoyed so much in the other direction.


  1. Thanks for the updates and cool pictures. Sorry about the iPad breaking the toggle switch.

  2. Glad the Mobley is working out for you. We added one to our arsenal and it's been our go-to device on this trip with my Google Fi phone taking second place. The Verizon MiFi has only been booted once so far.


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