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.


  1. Hello there!

    Been following your travels for a few months now and have really enjoyed your posts. My wife and I are out in Goose Creek, about 30 minutes from DT Charleston. Let me know if need any local help with the canvas/mast projects, would be glad to assist if possible.

    1. Thanks for the offer. So far we seem to have everything covered.

  2. How I love sea walks! Fresh air, breeze, sea animals- beautiful!

  3. BEAUTIFUL sunset shot!! Sounds like that was a harrowing trip. Glad to hear that you arrived safely.


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