Monday, December 14, 2020

Launch Hook

We are under way southbound in the Indian River, part of the Intracoastal Waterway through the "Space Coast" of Florida. True to its name, we've witnessed two orbital rocket launches since last I posted here. We're finally warm; it's pushing 80 today and we just passed the first bikini-clad crew we've seen in a long time.

Not long after uploading my last post, we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet. When we last came out this inlet, back in April, it was well-marked. Since then, the tropical storm season has been unkind, and all the seaward markers are missing or well off-station. We were thankful to have both a good track and a Corps of Engineers depth survey that seems to be mostly still accurate, and we had good water all the way in.

We made the right-hand turn and continued a half mile north to our usual spot off Vilano Beach (map). Long-time readers may remember that we like this spot because it is close to a free dock with easy access to a Publix grocery store and a handful of restaurants. On this pass, however, we remained aboard and did not even splash the tender.

We could easily have spent a couple of nights here, but it was still not warm enough for comfortable outside dining, we had one more day of good outside passage weather, and I thought if we kept moving we might catch at least one of the launches. So we weighed anchor first thing Thursday morning and shot right back out the inlet with a couple of knots behind us.

Our cozy anchorage in New Smyrna Beach, looking north, before the Delta-IV launch.

Even though we had a good window all the way to Port Canaveral overnight, the security zone established for the rocket launches meant that was not an option. Our only other option south of St. Augustine is a "minor" inlet that we've never used before, Ponce de Leon Inlet. More commonly just called Ponce Inlet, it sits between Daytona and New Smyrna beach. I have a good Corps of Engineers depth survey for it, but it has such a terrible reputation that I nevertheless spent close to two hours researching it Wednesday evening.

A pair of sailboats motored out St. Augustine inlet not far behind us, and also turned southward. I overhead one of them giving advice to an incoming sailboat that was likely at the end of an overnight passage, and he relayed that he saw seven feet of depth in one spot. We'd seen nothing less than twice that, so I called the incoming boat and gave them more precise directions.

Not long after that, it occurred to me that these two southbound sailboats might not even be aware of the launch restrictions, and I called them to pass it along. They had not heard, and even though they were also aiming for Ponce, I think they had been considering Canaveral as a backup.

They would have learned soon enough, as the Coast Guard started making broadcast announcements about the security zone mid-morning. The first launch was scheduled for 6:30pm, and in the early afternoon we started hearing Coast Guard Range Control calling various boaters to ask their intentions and warn them away from the security zone; at least a couple of skippers seemed caught completely off-guard and flummoxed, I think at least one had to circle all afternoon.

ICW dolphins.

I'm not sure what would possess someone to decide to sail past Cape Canaveral without checking the rocket launch schedule, even if not subscribed to the Navigation Alert emails, as we are. Perhaps more baffling is how you can hear a half dozen announcements on the radio and still not be aware until you are called by name and instructed explicitly. I think some skippers are so inured to Coast Guard marine safety "Sécurité"  announcements that they don't even bother listening.

Meanwhile the two sailboats that had been behind us passed us slowly over the course of the day, and were perhaps one to two miles ahead of us as we closed in on Ponce Inlet. Somehow between my conversation in the morning with the other sailboat, my advice about range control, and maybe a couple of other exhanges during the day, these skippers decided I knew something they didn't, even though I had told them I'd not been through this inlet, and they asked if they could follow us in. They made a big circle to fall in behind us.

Before I could make my turn, a bright yellow SeaTow boat with its red and amber emergency lights flashing came racing into the inlet from sea. Among the numerous warnings I'd read about this inlet were inexperienced skippers running aground, and tons of fishing boats blocking the channel. His flashing lights gave me pause; I did not want to enter the jetties if he was responding to a disabled boat. So I called him.

Thankfully he was not en route to assist anyone. The flashing lights are only legal when engaged in "public safety activities," which would include towing or responding to a disabled vessel, but not heading back to the barn. Half these skippers are whackers who drive around with them on all the time, which more or less makes them meaningless. In any event, SeaTow here is so used to giving inlet directions that he gave me the rundown, even though I did not ask. He was mostly right, but my survey was more useful.

Christmas concert in Cocoa Village, put on by the Lutherans.

The inlet proved no big deal, and we made it through without incident, as did my two new charges behind us. We had made such good time that we arrived at the last of the incoming tide and with plenty of daylight, so rather than drop in the first usable anchorage, we continued south through the George Musson drawbridge, where we arrived just on time for a scheduled lift, and through New Smyrna Beach to a familiar anchorage just outside of town (map).

We were in quarters in plenty of time to have a relaxing view of the scheduled 6:30 launch, and while we were ruminating about whether to eat dinner before or after, the launch got pushed back to 8:09, settling the question for us. We had a nice dinner on board, and ascended to the flybridge just before liftoff.

On a clear night we had a great view of an impressive night launch of a Delta-IV Heavy. While nothing like a space shuttle or a moon shot, this is still one of the most powerful orbital launch vehicles in the world. Even here, some 40 miles from the launch pad, you can feel the pressure wave, albeit some four minutes after-the-fact, and we could see the rocket exhaust all the way to main engine cut-off some 70 miles downrange.

We had a pleasant and quiet evening, although we did have to re-set the anchor in a slightly different spot when the tide changed and we learned one of the, ahem, longer-term residents of the anchorage had 120' of rode out (in ten feet of water). It was the first night since leaving Maine where we did not have to run the heat in the evening.

A few of the decorated boats from the parade.

The next launch was scheduled just 15 hours after the first one. Apparently the 24-hour rule that I wrote about on one of our last launches is no longer in effect. Now in striking distance of the cape, we got an early start on the last of the tide, hoping to maybe catch the Falcon-9 launch from Mosquito Lagoon, where we could at least see the pad. There's no place to stop in the lagoon, so we'd need to watch under way.

By the time we were in the middle of the lagoon, we were making good enough time to get all the way through the Haulover Canal and into the river before liftoff, and I picked out a wide spot to stop. Before we could get there they pushed the launch back an hour, and I picked out a better wide spot near Titusville, and before we reached that one it was pushed back again to the end of the window. That let us get all the way to a familiar spot near one of our favorite restaurants, El Leoncito, the scene of much merriment during our first launch, when we met our good friends Cherie and Chris, as well as James and Maria.

At El Leoncito a decade ago. Good times. Photo: Technomadia

We pulled a short ways off-channel and dropped the hook on short scope to watch the launch. Mariner's call this arrangement, where an anchor is dropped for a mere matter of minutes or maybe an hour or two for some reason, perhaps to have a meal, a "lunch hook," so in our case it was a "launch hook." We did not even deploy the snubber.

We ascended to the flybridge where we had an awesome view; we could see the entire top half of the rocket, with just the lower half obscured by trees. The countdown made it all the way to T-30 seconds before it was called off, ending the attempt for the day. Knowing the next window was the following day at the same time, we pulled up our lunch hook and moved just a couple hundred feet, off-channel and behind a daymark, to spend the night and watch the next day.

We were all nicely settled in and I was noodling on how to get ashore later to pick up takeout from El Leoncito, given that the docks we used previously were destroyed, when the announcement came through that they would hold off another day, for a 48-hour delay. We were willing to wait a day, but not two, and so we again weighed anchor and continued on our original planned route to Cocoa. We had a brief delay at the Nasa Causway bridge, whose tender was AWOL; I made several radio calls and a whistle signal before eventually reaching them on the telephone.

What little I could capture of the festival without wandering into the fray.

Cocoa is another place where the town docks were destroyed a few years back. They've been working on rebuilding and the new docks just opened this year, including a long face dock for overnight transient use and a few small slips for day use. The free face dock, complete with water and power, is too shallow for us, so we pulled into the nearby anchorage (map) and dropped the hook.

We splashed the tender and headed ashore for dinner, making a beeline for the new day slips. These are inexplicably posted "No dinghies"; I am thinking that the city wants to keep them open for visitors and not filling up with the dinghies of long-term squatters in the anchorage. We didn't want to take up valuable space on the face dock, which still had room for another transient, and so we pulled around to some smaller cleats behind the day docks. There is no obvious dinghy dock.

This being Friday night in a very busy town, we grabbed the first spot we saw with outside tables; a nice second-floor deck at Ryan's Pizza and Pub, overlooking the harbor. We had a nice table away from the crowd, and we enjoyed our shrimp dinner and draft beer. On our stroll around town afterwards, we stumbled into an outdoor Christmas concert in the park.

While we were still offshore, on our way to Ponce Inlet, we messaged back and forth with Chris and Cherie about connecting somehow. They were camping at Gamble Rogers State Park in their spiffy new Travato camper van, and they even snapped a distant photo of Vector as we passed their camp site three miles offshore. There was really no way to connect at Ponce, but they let us know they'd be driving to Melbourne on Sunday, and we could maybe meet up there.

Vector, left, three miles offshore. At right is a shrimper. Photo: Chris Dunphy

It's only a couple of hours from Cocoa to Melbourne, which meant we had a full day to kill before any meetup. With the Falcon-9 launch rescheduled to Sunday morning, we opted to stay right where were were, in Cocoa, and leave Sunday after the launch. Saturday I tendered over to Merritt Island to run errands at UPS and get some groceries at Publix, and I got a couple of projects done around the house.

In the evening we tendered back ashore to Cocoa Village in search of another outdoor dinner, a bit early to beat the Saturday crowds. It turned out to be holiday festival time -- the lighted boat parade was scheduled for 6:30 -- and the park and most of the town were crowded. We found a tapas place a bit away from the crowd, and asked for an outside table, which they were reluctant to provide since it had been raining all afternoon.

We were already seated, alone on the patio at a damp table, waiting for menus, when the realization dawned on us that the hostess had not been masked, and that, come to think of it, none of the staff we could see inside was masked either, from the bartender to the manager to the servers. We caucused briefly as we waited for the server -- our rules are strict: we'll only dine "outdoors," and the restaurant staff must be practicing good protocol for a viral pandemic.

We agreed to give them a chance: if the server arrived masked we would stay. But when she came out bearing two menus and a basket of chips, unmasked, we waved her off, stood up, and walked away. The server appeared a bit miffed. Florida has no state mask mandate, and an all-business-open-entirely rule. Several counties are mandating masks for restaurant employees, but this is not one of them. This is the first time since the start of the pandemic where we've encountered deliberately unmasked food service staff.

Best I could do for the Falcon-9 carrying SXM-7.

We continued walking and ended up at a nice outside table at Pub Americana, where we observed the entire staff to be following mask protocol, just as had been the case at Ryan's. Two nights of pub food in a row would not be my first choice, but those sorts of dining considerations went out the window for us long ago. At least the burgers were good and they had a nice selection of drafts. Cuisine is now irrelevant; our restaurant selection now goes by outside air, masks, and distancing. Lesson learned for us: in Florida, we need to scrutinize and/or ask directly what the restaurant's mask and sanitation policies are.

We got to see a few of the nicely lit boats on our way home, and some of the festival, which looked fun but less than safe to us. We learned that, by leaving today, we're missing the Hanukkah parade and BMX event (no idea why those are together). This morning the Falcon countdown once again stopped at T-30, but after an hour's delay they finally lit it off, and we had a pretty good view once it cleared the buildings.

Update: While I was hoping to load the photos, add the links, and get this post uploaded after dinner last night, I just did not have it in me. And so I am again typing under way, en route from Eau Gallie to Ft. Pierce on the ICW. We have 15-20 knots of wind on the starboard bow, so we're crabbing a full 10° and making just five knots.

We reached the Eau Gallie neighborhood of Melbourne before I could finish this post, and dropped the hook in our usual spot near the free town dock (map). We were stunned to find just a single other boat in the anchorage, an unoccupied small sailboat, where on previous visits there'd been a half dozen permanent denizens. We splashed the tender, and headed ashore with two weeks' worth of recycling loaded aboard, which I spent several minutes depositing item-by-item into the bin at the park through its tiny orifice.

Technomadic meetup redux, on the patio at Squid Lips. Photo: Chris Dunphy

Cherie and Chris met us on the dock, and we walked next door to old standby Squid Lips for a very early dinner. They have nicely spaced tables on their sandy beach, and the large tables make it easy to keep a good separation. We very much enjoyed catching up over a couple of beers and some decent beach food. The live music was low enough we could still talk comfortably; ironically it was louder in the anchorage when we got home.

Tonight we should be anchored in the neighborhood of the Fort Pierce inlet, and tomorrow we'll continue our southward trek in search of comfortable temperatures in relatively safe-feeling surroundings. I'm not entirely optimistic, but at least we're back in the land of ubiquitous outdoor venues.


  1. Hooray! You managed to meet up with Chris and Cherie..... well done! And, those unmasked servers get the waveoff from us as well.... we're wintering in Davenport, FL.

    1. I hope things are a bit more sane there.

  2. Sean, as you are heading further south and looking for fuel, water, and groceries, also seek out the locations of pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens. You two will probably be eligible sometime in March for the first shots of the Covid-19 vaccinations. You might stop at one of the pharmacies to determine how you two fit in after you give them a little personal information; they will call you on your cell phone when the second shot is due (which is three weeks from the first shot).

    1. Alas, we are near the very end of the line (as we should be) and I will count myself lucky if we get the vaccine before the end of 2021. We are retired and thus do not work in health care or any other essential industry or do business with the public, we have no co-morbidities, we do not live among a vulnerable population such as a facility that includes assisted living or eldercare, and we ourselves are still young enough to be out of the highest-risk category. The New York Times has a tool which will estimate where you fit in the line, here.

  3. I'll keep an eye out for you as you head south. Our roost is immediately south of the St. Lucie Inlet right where the Indian River Lagoon narrows across from the northern tip of Jupiter Island.

    1. Sorry we missed you -- shot out St. Lucie inlet yesterday mid-day and continued down the outside to Palm Beach.


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