Sunday, July 1, 2018

The longest passage

It's Friday morning around quarter to eleven, and I am starting this post under way in the Atlantic Ocean. As I begin typing we are 80 nautical miles east of St. Mary's Inlet, the dividing line between Florida and Georgia (map). It's been exactly 24 hours since we weighed anchor and cleared through the Flagler Bridge in Palm Beach, Florida, at the 10:45am opening.

In that 24 hours we've come 251 nautical miles, for an average speed of 10.5 knots. To put this in perspective, we are making turns at the propeller for 6.5 knots, so we have been getting over a four knot push since we entered the Gulf Stream off Palm Beach Inlet. That's a speed boost of over 60%.

Friday's sunset.

This is a speed record for Vector. Even going downriver on the Mississippi, where we did occasionally see perhaps four knots of current, we only sustained a speed of 9.2 knots for a day's travel. We're still in the thick of the Stream as I type, making 10.8 knots, and with luck we can stay with it for another 24 hours as well.

We had a leisurely morning yesterday, owing principally to the fact that the tide was flooding until 10am, and we did not want to push against it for over an hour on our way to, and through, the inlet. Instead we tendered ashore for breakfast, having first checked the passage weather to learn our window was still good.

We landed at the south dock for a change, and also to avoid interacting with "dockmaster" Sam. We had a nice stroll through downtown to the City Hall/Library complex where we knew there was a Dunkin' Donuts, hoping for bagel sandwiches. Their toaster was broken, so we just got four bagels to go for the passage, and strolled back to the Paris Bakery & Cafe, where we had breakfast sandwiches on a sidewalk table in the relative cool of the morning.

We decked the tender upon our return and weighed anchor for the 10:45 bridge opening. That gave us a half knot to a knot behind us all the way to the inlet and out to sea. As soon as we made the turn northward to angle toward the Gulf Stream we had two knots behind us, and that steadily built to the four knots we have now as we got progressively closer to the main current.

We had Internet coverage for the first hour and a half as we angled out to the center of the Stream. We made good use of that to file our float plan, double-check that tweeting from the sat phone was working, and downloading the most up-to-date Gulf Stream current forecasts. Along with, of course, dealing with the usual passel of people who are wrong on Facebook.

When even carrying all the phones and hotspots up to the top of the flybridge ceased to work, we bid farewell to the Internet for five or six days. I think the last time we were completely offline for that long was when we spent a week in the Dry Tortugas. Our route from here will bring us within a dozen miles of Cape Hatteras sometime late tomorrow night, and there is a small chance we can update email then, but we are not counting on it. If we get any coverage, we'll be lucky to have it for even an hour.

Once the Internet gave out, I spent the next two hours or so meticulously plotting the main axis of the gulf stream on my chart program. The NOAA charts show an average position of this main axis, but the Stream moves constantly. We've learned from experience that being off-center by even a couple of nautical miles can not only mean zero push, it can even put you in a counter-current eddy that has you fighting your way upstream.

Gulf Stream current forecast for the southeast states.

The best forecast tool we have produces a series of low-res .JPG images, one for each daily forecast snapshot at 00:00 UTC, or 8pm local time. They go out five days, with today's forecast being the most reliable and decreasing reliability thereafter. With no way to download these after leaving coverage, I had to rely on them regardless.

Latitude and longitude are labeled down the sides of the graphic, but only to the nearest degree, and there is no grid. Transferring the forecast to a chart is a tedious process involving drawing lines from various points on the Stream axis to the lat/lon scales on the sides, and then interpolating the minutes. I tried to estimate where we'd be at six-hour intervals and plotted those points on my chart program. Because the forecasts are 24 hours apart, I used two forecast graphics for each time point (other than the 8pm points) and averaged them.

When all plotted and laid in on our chartplotter it forms a graceful S-curve and it visually corresponds with the forecast graphics. So far, the forecast has proven to be correct; the lowest speed we have seen is 10.2 knots and the highest has been 11.0 knots. While I was doing this, our speed, still on the approach angle, steadily increased from 8 knots to 10.9 knots, when we made our turn to align with the stream.

Our route. Thick red line north of us is the plot, and thin line south of us is our track.

East of Cape Hatteras the Gulf Stream turns northeast and heads out to sea. From there, we need to head much closer to due north, to New York Harbor. And so our planned route diverts from the main axis of the stream east of Cape Fear, and we will angle back in, clearing around Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras and then proceding directly north to Barnegat buoy off the NJ coast. If we do pick up some Internet off Hatteras, we'll try to download an updated forecast so we can try to avoid any counter-currents.

While I was downstairs napping in preparation for my evening watch, Louise spotted several billfish breaking the water. She thought they could be marlin. I missed it entirely, and, of course, no time to grab a camera. At 5:30 I fired up the grill to make dinner -- chicken thighs with a balsamic mustard glaze.

Long-time readers may remember that we ditched the enormous backyard propane grill that came with the boat, in favor of a small electric Weber, which is now secured to a rod mount and thence to the rail. I am adamant about not having propane on the boat, since, second only to uncontrolled downflooding, fire at sea is about the worst thing to have on a boat.

So imagine my surprise when fifteen minutes later, chicken thighs in hand, I went out on deck and opened the lid, and the entire grill burst into flames. My hands were full, so I called Louise out on deck to secure the ensign, which was in jeopardy of flapping right over the flames and catching fire itself.

Sunset Thursday evening. That's the RoRo car carrier Morning Celine overtaking us.

Of course what actually caught fire was a layer of grease from previous meals. The last thing grilled was a batch of andouille sausages, which can be particularly greasy. With fire extinguishers close at hand, I simply turned off the power and monitored the situation until all the grease burned itself out. There's actually almost nothing flammable on the steel and aluminum back deck. The chicken thighs, which I did not put on until all the flames were out, were a bit extra smokey, but delicious.

In the middle of cooking dinner, I had to spend a few moments at the helm as our odometer counted up to 6,177 nautical miles, so that I could reset it to zero. I had replaced this plotter in Memphis, that many miles ago, and there is no way to start the reading where the old one had left off. The best I can do is have it start counting again from a nice round number so I can just add that much to the readings.

In point of fact, the moment I reset the odometer yesterday was the moment we rolled over 20,000 nautical miles traveled (by us; Vector herself has done perhaps 6,000 nm more). The defunct Ocean Venturers will not be sending us a special burgee to commemorate this, the way Nordhavn or Kadey Krogen owners do (they'd be, I think, on their fourth burgee). Still, it is something of an accomplishment and worth noting here. Perhaps in a future post I will summarize our first 20k miles "by the numbers."

We had an early dinner, and Louise turned in at 8pm, leaving me alone on watch. The full moon makes watchstanding easy; I seldom had to leave the pilothouse. A couple of ships passed within a few miles, but mostly the ocean was empty, as was my target list. I watched some TV right at the helm, caught up on some email backlog, and cleaned up an old smartphone.

11 knots showing on our display. You can also see the RoRo "Morning Celine" overtaking us to port.

Shortly after Louise went below, I saw our best speed yet, 11 knots. The plotter had already switched to night colors and I temporarily switched it back to day to capture a screen shot. There's no depth reading because the sounder stops working at around 300 feet, but you can see from the soundings on the chart that we are in a little over a thousand feet of water.

Update, Saturday June 30

I am again typing at 10:45am, right at the 48-hour mark. We've come 238 nautical miles in that time, for an average speed made good of 9.9 knots. Not as fast as our first day, but still impressive, at an average push of over 3 knots. On the chart it looks like we've come a long way out of our way, and it was weird traveling mostly east, away from the coast, for several hours yesterday, but the extra distance is more than offset by the additional speed.

Sunset behind us. Wait, which way are we going?

Our 48 hour average is a respectable 10.2 knots, and the plotter keeps wanting to tell me we will arrive mid-day on Monday. In a short while, however, we will reach our final Gulf Stream waypoint, angling from there over to Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras. The push will drop from three knots down to as little as half a knot, and we will likely arrive in New York Harbor the following day, Tuesday July 3rd. Still, that's only five nights rather than six, and it puts us in a full day ahead of the chaos that is the Fourth of July in the harbor.

Shortly before we left Palm Beach, Louise ran a load of laundry, and we started the watermaker as soon as we were in blue water clear of the inlet. It ran just three hours, making at most a dozen gallons of water, before failing completely. Yesterday I stripped off my clothes, put in some foam earplugs, and spent an hour or so in the 120° engine room trying to resuscitate it.

I measured the feed pump output at 3gpm, a little more than spec, and changed all the filters and strainers even though they looked fine and did not read as clogged on the control panel. Yet still the system will not work; feed pressure is not coming up beyond 55psi or so and 75-80 is required. The low pressure results in poor production and high salinity; after the controller tries three times to restart the system and get at least 3gph out of it at less than 785ppm, it gives up.

I'm out of things to try. Either the feed pump head has a problem, or there is an issue with the Clark pump, both of which I had serviced in Fort Lauderdale back in February. Also, any time I fiddle with it it then needs to be flushed, using five gallons of fresh water; it did that twice yesterday. We're now down past the gauge on our fresh tank, meaning we have less than 100 gallons left, and I can't afford any more flushes until we can get water. Ironically, we could have filled our tank at the West Palm Beach free docks had we elected to do so before we left.

When we lived on the bus we managed to get by on ten gallons of water per day, with 140 gallons lasting two weeks. Everything on the boat is less water efficient (owing principally to not needing to store the waste water), but we're hoping we can stretch what we have left until after the holiday. There's water at the free dock in Yonkers, and I'm also looking at what other alternatives may be available to fill our tank.

We've been running the air conditioner in the pilothouse, but it's been pleasant enough outside to be on deck. At one point we both went up to the flybridge yesterday afternoon to enjoy the weather, and as we were sitting there we spotted ahead of us a disturbance in the force. With smooth seas on either side of it, a riffle of choppy water with whitecaps, perhaps a hundred yards wide and extending out in either direction, lay across our path.

If you zoom in you can see one of the riffles ahead of us, with smooth water on both sides.

As we crossed the riffle our speed dropped from 10.3 to 9.3 knots in the span of a few boatlengths. It was near an inflection point on our plot of the stream, and for a while we thought we had just driven right out of the main axis. I spent the next hour wandering left and right of our plotted course looking for the magic. Our speed did pick back up, likely through no action of my own, as the numbers above attest. We crossed two more of these later in the day with more or less the same result; some kind of underwater vortex as the various currents combine and churn near the very fast Stream.

About that same time an enormous freighter, the CMA CGM La Scala, overtook us on our starboard side, about two miles away. I called and asked him what kind of push he was getting, thinking still that I had left the stream, and he reported two knots. Since we were still seeing three or a bit more we felt better about our line. He asked me the same question and when I told him at least three, he altered course to bring his ship over to our line some two miles to his port.

That was the only vessel we've interacted with in two days. Traffic out this far is very light. We've seen only maybe a dozen vessels either visually or on AIS, including a huge Coast Guard cutter passing us in the other direction, and a sportfish probably on his way to Beaufort who passed astern of us in the night.

This is how calm the seas were today. There is a 3' swell, however. that the photo does not capture.

It's now just past 2pm (I come and go from typing throughout the day) and the Carnival Pride just passed us en route to Baltimore. Even at eleven miles away the ship is so enormous that we could see everything from the promenade deck up.

The excellent push we've gotten thus far means we should be arriving off Diamond Shoals tonight, sometime between 1am and 3am. With any luck we'll pick up some Internet and I will upload this post as well as download the latest ocean current forecast. As of now I have inserted a waypoint off the coast of the DelMarVa peninsula, forming a dog-leg instead of a straight line between Diamond Shoals and Barnegat. That ought to get us another quarter knot, shaving an hour or two off the trip, and also keep us in Internet coverage a bit longer along the Outer Banks and NJ coast.

The Stream heads offshore after Cape Hatteras but subsidiary currents continue north inshore.

Today's project was to adjust the rudder packing. We've been noticing the bilge pump in the tiller flat running more than usual; in most of the boat we run a dry bilge, but in this compartment there is always some water, between rainwater seeping in through the deck hatch, and minor weeping around the rudder gland under way.

When I went down to look, there was copious flow around the rudder shaft. The packing gland has a lantern ring, and so before adjusting the nuts I pumped a bunch of fresh grease into it; as soon as I pulled the gun off a bunch of grease shot back out through the Zerk fitting, so that will need to be replaced. I tightened all four nuts about a full turn and a half, and it's back down to a slow drip. I'll need to replace the packing the next time we are hauled out.

Update: It's 2am and we've rounded Diamond Shoal (map). I can see the Cape Hatteras Light flashing in the distance, and lights from the small towns of the Outer Banks. I have a bit of Internet signal and so I am getting this post out. This might last a half hour or three hours, it's hard to know. I'll catch up on email and forecasts before my watch ends, and Louise will enjoy a bit of coverage at the start of her watch. When next you hear from me we will be off the coast of NJ en route to NY harbor, probably sometime Monday evening.

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