Sunday, May 19, 2019

Once in a blue moon

We are under way in the North Atlantic Ocean, just a few miles off the coast of New Jersey. As I begin typing, we are passing Barnegat Light to port. This morning found us anchored in a familiar spot, just off the Coast Guard Station in Atlantic City (map).

When last I posted here, our stopping point was indeterminate. But by the time Louise turned in for her sleep period at 8pm, the forecast across the mouth of Delaware Bay for the time we'd be crossing was acceptable, and we made the decision to press on to AC. I steered off the Cape Henlopen route onto the AC route abreast of Assateague Island.


Approaching Atlantic City from sea.

The remainder of our cruise was uneventful, but seas were building and we had whitecaps as I came back on watch at 0900. Any thoughts we might have had to press on all the way to New York Harbor were set aside and we continued on to Absecon Inlet. We came in on a fair tide and had the hook down early in the afternoon.

The winds that were whipping the ocean into a froth pummeled us in the anchorage, too, but with little fetch the seas were fairly calm. We waited until the winds abated somewhat in the evening before splashing the tender, and we headed ashore for the excellent happy hour munchies at the Chart House in the Golden Nugget, one of our old standbys.

On the way home from the Golden Nugget we decided to take a little excursion through the historic Gardner's Basin, home of Atlantic City's famous clam boat fleet. As we entered the basin we noticed a sheen on the water that extended shore to shore and a quarter mile into the basin; when we returned to Vector some of that sheen was making its way past us and up the Absecon channel. I reported it to the Coast Guard, who then asked me to report it to the National Response Center, and I ended up talking to five people from three agencies, including the NJ Department of the Environment. Most likely the substance was gone before anyone got there the next day.


Blue Flower Moonrise over Absecon Inlet, from our anchorage.

Seas yesterday would have been acceptable to continue to New York, but they are better today, and besides, we're always tired after an overnight passage and can use a day of downtime. Beyond that, it turns out that the opening of large parts of the New York Canal system is delayed indefinitely by flooding, announced just a couple of days ago. We will be pausing in New York City until we know we can make an uninterrupted trip to the Great Lakes.

With a full day of downtime in AC, I had planned to tender ashore and walk the mile or so to the end of the boardwalk at the Ocean Resort (on the site of the failed Revel) and spend part of the day strolling. But I woke up feeling crummy -- queasy and with a sinus headache -- and I ended up staying aboard until dinner time. I did, however, manage to make progress on a project that cropped up on our passage.

That would be the watermaker, which had stalled out on its post-repair test run, offshore on the passage to Beaufort a week and a half ago. After that incident I cleaned the strainers and changed the filters, in the hopes that the stall was just due to excessive vacuum, even though I did not get a filter change error.

This passage was the very next test opportunity, and it worked well for the first few hours. Production dropped steadily over time, though, with the filter vacuum gauge increasing. When I had changed the filters I reused a previously used set that had been cleaned, a common practice with poly watermaker filters. This set is perhaps too far gone to be reused, so yesterday I replaced them with brand new ones.


Atlantic City skyline at dusk from the anchorage. CG station is at right.

The watermaker is back to working normally today and we are happy with the production rate. Unfortunately, when I was working on it yesterday I noticed a leak from the high pressure pump, which I traced to a crack in the pump body. I am waiting on a return email from the service company to see if the pump can be repaired in the field.

Today is our last open water passage until we reach the Great Lakes, and we likely will not need to make water for an entire year as we complete the Great Loop. So once I get the skinny on fixing the pump, we'll pickle the system and disconnect it for the duration anyway.

By dinnertime I was feeling up to going ashore, and we headed back to Gardner's Basin and another of our old standbys, the Back Bay Ale House. It was pleasant and we ate outside, even though it was a bit on the cool side. We decked the tender as soon as we returned to Vector, in anticipation of a pre-dawn departure this morning.

It's a 14 hour trip to New York Harbor, and while I would have been happy to get in at, say, 9pm, if we had left at 7 this morning, we would have pushed against three knots of current for the two miles out Absecon Inlet. At 5am, when we left, we had just over a knot, which was much more tolerable. We'll have a fair current at the New York end, and should have the anchor down around 6:30 or so, in time for a nice dinner against the backdrop of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Skirting DelMarVa

As I begin my post we are under way across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads receding behind us and the ship channel tunnel crossing of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel ahead of us. We are bound for sea, on an overnight run around the outside of the DelMarVa peninsula to Delaware Bay or maybe beyond.


Leaving Norfolk this morning, passing three nuclear carriers and the hospital ship USNS Comfort. War and Peace.

When last I posted here we were bound for Great Bridge, Virginia, and we were tied up to the free bulkhead west of the bridge (map) by 4pm, just as the rain was starting. By dinner time it had let up, and we walked to El Toro Loco for our traditional Great Bridge dinner stop, taking a circuitous route around the soggy grass.

It rained again all night, and was projected to rain on and off throughout the day Sunday as well, but we got enough of a break in the morning for me to get my air fittings from the nearby Doit Best hardware store, while Louise provisioned at the new Kroger, which replaced an older supermarket.


We saw more than one set of goslings at Great Bridge. Tis the season.

We contemplated staying a second night, as it was looking like we'd be stuck in the area for a few days waiting on weather either outside or even up Chesapeake Bay. Ultimately we decided it was better to fuel up early, in case a window opened, and we dropped lines for the 1pm lockage and headed for the fuel dock at Top Rack Marina.

The fuel price here is consistently among the lowest, if not the lowest, on the entire east coast, and is likely the cheapest we'll see on the entire Great Loop trip. We took on 770 gallons, as much as we could comfortably fit without putting the stern too low in the water, for a total of about 1,200 gallons. That will get us 2,000 nautical miles around the loop, give or take, and we'll likely not fuel again until we're on the Western Rivers.


The Corps of Engineers has modernized. QR code at the lock.

As we were fueling we noted lots and lots of families dressed in their holiday finery coming out of the on-premise Amber Lantern Restaurant, and we realized it was Mothers' Day. We made a note to find a casual place for dinner. We were off the dock by 3pm, and headed downriver to the free docks in Portsmouth.

We got stopped in our tracks by the Belt Line railroad bridge, which was down and had a train on it, dead stopped. Four boats were already station-keeping for the bridge. We could see the train inching in both directions between stops, clearly switching cars, and realized we could be there a long while; we opted to pull off-channel and drop the hook (map). We ended up anchored for over a half hour.


Portsmouth at left, Norfolk to the right. All the boats that whizzed ahead of us at the Belt Line bridge had to stop on USCG orders and wait for the departing Carnival cruise ship to spin around.

We pulled in to the High Street ferry basin in downtown Portsmouth just before 5pm. All the docks were already full, and we knew the ones at the North Landing were out of commission. We tied to the bulkhead where they sometimes park idle ferries (map); I called the ferry skipper on the radio and he informed me they had a boat out for maintenance for another week. We made a good choice, because the wood docks were completely underwater for a couple of hours each tide cycle, as it happens, right at dinner time.

Between the mile round trip walk to the grocery store and a lot of standing during the fueling process, Louise's feet were too far gone to walk down High Street for dinner. We ended up eating at the new brew pub right at the landing, Legend Brewing Depot. The food was quite good, and they had a lovely brown ale that I enjoyed very much, along with some other nice brews. We liked the beer so much that we went back Monday for drinks and a pretzel.


Vector at the High Street landing. The ferry is in front of us. If you look closely you can see the docks to the right awash. Legend Brewing is in the curved building at center.

Fully fueled and well docked, we turned our attention to tracking the weather and trying to decide between waiting for an outside window or pressing on up the Chesapeake, through the canal, and back down Delaware Bay. For most of Sunday and well into Monday it looked like we'd have no window for either route until the weekend, and we contemplated cruising up the James River to Richmond, a five-day (round trip) journey.

By Monday night, though, it looked like we'd get weather for the Chesapeake route, at least, by this morning, and so we decided to stay put and see how things developed. That also gave us a chance to take the ferry to Norfolk last night for a nice stroll around town and dinner at the Town Point Club, one of our favorites.


While we had goslings at Great Bridge, at Portsmouth we had ducklings. Mommy is looking for a handout.

By this morning it became clear we would have a very short window outside, perhaps not all the way to New York Harbor (our preference) or even the NJ coast, but at least as fare as Cape Henlopen. The best weather should be overnight tonight. Leaving the option of Atlantic City by end of day tomorrow meant a quick departure this morning right after making the decision to go, and that's also given us a favorable tide all morning. We just whizzed through the  Bridge/Tunnel ship channel with over a knot behind us. In another hour we'll be rounding the corner at Fishermans Island and making our way north along the coast.

Seas across the mouth of Delaware Bay are the great unknown at this point. If they don't look promising when we change the watch at 0300, we'll steer for Cape Henlopen and be in the harbor of refuge by breakfast, where we will hunker down until the next window. If things look good, we will aim for Atlantic city and be there by dinner time. And if the window has opened up further by then, it's another night all the way to New York Harbor.


I'm trying to keep the new helm chair fur-free. If I don't remember to turn it around or fold it up, this is the result. Kitty has the conn.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Virginia bound

We are under way in Currituck Sound, bound for the free docks in Great Bridge, Virginia and one of our all-time favorite Mexican restaurants. The sound is about as calm as we've ever seen it.

This morning found us anchored in a new spot, north of North River Point (map), near the mouth of the river of that name. The south winds and 2' seas that were behind us across the Albemarle meant that our usual digs across the river, near Powells Point, would have been too uncomfortable.


Louise bought me this new scooter mascot, a whimsical dog in a biker jacket, to replace the bear stolen in Fort Lauderdale. He was delivered to Fort McAllister; I finally found time to strap him on yesterday, under way.

The last time we needed to spend a night on the west side like that, we had to drive all the way around the end of the marked spoil area on our NOAA charts, because we had no depth information in the spoil areas, which are often quite shallow. Our Navionics Sonar Charts on our iPad, however, do have soundings in this area, and we found a way across that let us get into the lee of the point a full hour sooner.

We had the hook down just in time for dinner, and a very calm evening and night. This morning we got a fairly early start, passing through Coinjock so early in the day that the docks, which will be full by dinner time, were empty save for a single boat.


A lovely sunset from our quiet and remote anchorage.

It's supposed to rain here all night and into tomorrow, which will disrupt my plans to walk or bike to the hardware store. A leaking fitting in our compressed air system has had me shutting it down overnight for the last few days, leaving us without a working air horn. We have a portable one that operates on canned air, but it's not nearly as effective as the big Kahlenbergs.

In about an hour we'll be out of the sound and into the twists and turns of the North Landing River. The North Landing double swing bridge has been having some problems which periodically strand boats on one side or the other, but we understand as of today one span is operating on a normal schedule, so we just have to squeeze through on half the channel. We should be docked by cocktail hour.

Friday, May 10, 2019

OBX dinner stop

We are under way in Croatan Sound, approaching Albemarle Sound, with Pamlico Sound behind us. This morning found us anchored in a familiar spot, in Silver Lake, Ocracoke Island (map). It was once again a tight squeeze, but we're much more comfortable with anchoring on a short scope than we were on our first visit.

Yesterday after I posted here we continued to have a good run and a bit of fair current, and made the decision to head to Ocracoke after we rounded the Brant Island Shoal Light. The Big Foot Slough entrance channel to Silver Lake is about a 7nm round trip, and adding a few miles for the diversion through Pamlico, is about a 10nm detour to stop here, or about $15 and two and a half hours.


Rainbow this morning near the lighthouse, from our anchorage in Silver Lake.

We opted for the stopover because it's a more comfortable anchorage than almost anyplace else in Pamlico, glass calm overnight, and because after three straight nights without being able to get off the boat, and at least another night ahead of us, we thought it would be nice to get out and stretch our legs a bit.

We made it into the harbor just ahead of the ferry Swan Quarter, threaded our way through a dozen anchored boats, and dropped the hook near the south shore. It was already past 6:30 when we were secured at anchor, and we immediately splashed the tender and headed ashore at the National Park Service dock near the ferry landing.


Sunrise over Ocracoke.

In stark contrast to our last visit, in high season, the town was dead on a Thursday night. The waterfront joint with its own dock was closed, and S'Macnally's, where we ate last time through, had perhaps four patrons. We were in the mood for more walking and a pizza, so we walked around the lake and out Irvin Garrish Highway to Sorella's, which turned out to be excellent. A selection of nice beers on draft, good pizza, a great salad, and even home-made cannoli for dessert. (I did not need the cannolo, or the part of a cannolo that Louise did not finish.)

We decked the tender as soon as we returned to Vector, in consideration of a tight anchorage and an early start. We had dropped the hook between two boats traveling together, and American Tug 34 and a much older generic motor yacht. This later vessel let us know as we came home that they would be weighing anchor at 6am and might get a little close.


The ferry landing and Park Service docks. Jerk in the white motor yacht flew his drone right up to Vector after we anchored.

And so it was that we were up at 0600 when we heard their engine. They got their anchor up without any issues and we watched the two boats steam out of the harbor. They're loopers, so we may well see them again at any number of stops north of here. We had a nice sunrise, and by the time we were ready to weigh, in between two ferry departures, we had a short rain shower and a nice rainbow over the lighthouse.

Todays seas have been choppy, but they're behind us so it has not been uncomfortable. It's a long trip from Ocracoke to the North River, some 72 nm, but there's not much in between, and with Otto driving through open water most of the day (I had to steer out Big Foot Slough and will steer into the North River entrance), putting a couple of extra hours in will give us a comfortable day tomorrow. Tomorrow night we should be in Great Bridge, Virginia, outside the "hurricane box" and with access to some much needed services.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Sound decision

We are underway in the Neuse River, bound for Pamlico Sound. This morning found us anchored in a familiar spot, near the Coast Guard station at Fort Macon park, just inside the Beaufort inlet (map). It was a calm, pleasant night and we got underway this morning with a fair tide.


Sunset over Bogue Banks as we approach Beaufort Inlet.

Things improved marginally Tuesday after we rounded the Cape Romaine Shoal. While the ride was uncomfortable, nether of us wanted to divert to Winyah Bay and arrive in the dark, so we opted to continue on our original route, proceeding direct to the Frying Pan Slue Channel, in the hopes things would improve. We could revisit diverting to Cape Fear at the 0300 change of watch.

We bounced all the way through dinner, with periodic complaints from the cat, who mostly spent the whole cruise curled up in her new Epson Printer box in the middle of the saloon, where the motion was better. After dinner, Louise turned in early, and I settled in for a long night. Of course, the Internet disappeared just as my watch started, and I ended up firing up the DirecTV and watching Law and Order all night.


We crossed paths with USCGC Dependable a few hours out of Beaufort. We were close enough that I had to make passing arrangements by radio; large ships almost never get this close.

Things did improve gradually throughout my watch. I saw no traffic for the entire seven hours, and the only excitement was running into the saloon periodically to clean up after the cat. By the three a.m. watch change the combination of slight improvement and our becoming inured to the motion had us deciding to continue through the slue and on to Beaufort.

When I came back on watch at 0900 there had been a marked improvement, although still a bit of staccato bounce to the ride. But conditions continued to improve throughout the day, and by dinner time it was almost comfortable. We got our Internet back a few hours before landfall, and we ate dinner in sight of the channel buoys. The sun set just as we turned into the ship channel, and we had the anchor down by the Coast Guard station in the last of the twilight, after do-si-doing around a dredge operation.


This morning's view of the Coast Guard Station and Fort Macon Park. Inlet to the left.

The dredge operation provided a bit of schadenfreude entertainment after dark, as we heard the dredge operator trying to wave off an inbound sailboat who was on the wrong side. The dredge had all its light operating properly, and the "danger" side was well off-channel to the red. The dredge kept telling the sailboat skipper to move to the green side, and, I kid you not, the skipper asked "is that my left or my right?" All of this left us with our jaws agape and shaking our heads. We went out on deck as the boat passed us to make sure he wasn't going to hit us.

We only have a short window to cross Pamlico and Albermarle Sounds in decent conditions. Last time through we had to take the inland route instead, and not wanting a repeat, we got under way first thing this morning. We'll be anchored somewhere in Pamlico Sound tonight, or if we can keep our speed made good up, we might even go all the way in to Ocracoke for the night. Wherever we stop, tomorrow will be a long day to the North River, but it's all open water and Otto will be driving.


No trip along this part of the ICW is complete for us without crossing paths with tug Pamlico, whom we've seen now many times. I once posted about her here and we got a blog comment from the skipper's wife.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Lightning damage report and spaghetti wiring

As I promised in an earlier post, I wanted to circle back and do a final tally of damage and repairs from our lightning strike. I will also provide a bit more detail about our electronics setup. This post will concern nothing else, and I will return to our travelogue next post.

If you arrived at this post via a direct link, the background is that we took a direct lightning strike a little over two weeks ago. I described the event and posted video, including a spectacular capture of the bolt itself, in this blog post. I posted some additional damage photos in this one.

All of our VHF antennas are on our mast except one, for the flybridge VHF radio, which is clamped to the frame of the flybridge soft-top. It is this antenna which served as the entry point; the strike blew out the coax at the base of the antenna and arced to the frame, where it was conducted down through the aluminum house, into the steel hull, and then out into the sea via the hull anodes.

The most striking and obvious damage was to the antenna itself. The strike cause the upper 18" of the fiberglass casing to explode, sending fiberglass shards in all directions. Probably the single most expensive piece of damage was the resulting hole in the Weblon fabric of the soft top, where one of the shards was shot through it like a bullet, landing on the flybridge settee. (Photos are in the posts linked above.)

I plan to repair the soft top with some self-adhesive fabric repair tape for ten bucks. But if we were filing an insurance claim for this, the whole top would be replaced, and when last we had that estimated, back in Charleston when we repaired it from storm damage, it would have run a couple thousand. We opted to repair it at the time instead, for around $500, with the shop estimating it would only last perhaps another year. That was two years ago so it is on borrowed time, anyway. We're glad we have a hole in an old piece of Weblon that already has patches (from where we removed antennas), rather than in a new top that they wanted to sell us.

Two pieces of equipment fried outright. One was a Furuno RD-30 NMEA display on the flybridge which displays depth, speed, and water temperature. I acquired a used spare for that display some time ago, which I've now placed into service. The other was a SeaCAS GPS/AIS receiver, which provided a completely separate and redundant position and AIS data feed to the also separate and redundant plotting computer at the pilothouse settee, where the off watch sits. SeaCAS is out of business and there is not really a replacement for this piece of hardware, so the backup plotter is now fed from the AIS transponder.

For absolutely everything else that had damage, that damage was limited to serial port hardware.  All of Vector's navigational electronics are interconnected with NMEA-0183 signals, which consist of ASCII text sent over RS-422 or RS-232 serial lines at 4800 or 38,400 bits per second (BPS). These sorts of signals are sent and received by circuit chips known as UARTs, or Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter chips. UARTs are particularly sensitive to high-energy pulses, and they are infamous for burning out even from current induced on the serial line by nearby equipment such as large motors.

It's not surprising, then, that the electromagnetic pulse from a lightning strike was enough to fry a whole bunch of UARTs. Unfortunately, UARTs are typically soldered directly to the main boards of most equipment and so once they're gone, the entire device needs to be replaced. This was the case with our very newest piece of gear, a VHF radio with integrated GPS and AIS receivers.

The radio itself, including all its whizzy AIS features and other bells and whistles, is perfectly functional, but the two NMEA data ports that send GPS, DSC, and AIS information to other equipment are now silent. I had to just buy a whole new replacement radio. I tried to sell the take-out to someone who doesn't need the NMEA output but found no takers; it's been relegated to the spares locker.

The four-port USB-to-serial adapter on the main chart computer was another casualty, as was the USB port on the computer itself to which it was connected. The computer has four USB ports (also built-in to the main board) and so I just plugged the replacement adapter into a different port. A small USB hub that I had lying around allows me to consolidate the two keyboard/mouse dongles into a single port so we still have one available for file transfers on a USB drive.

One of the UARTs that was lost was one of the four built in to the main Radar/plotter in the pilothouse. That port principally drives the backup input to the autopilot, to be used only in the event that the main plotting computer becomes inoperative. A couple of other items that were eavesdropping on that output had to be redirected elsewhere, but otherwise we don't notice it's gone.

I might just as easily have swapped the main board out of the identical flybridge radar/plotter display, which itself does not use any of its NMEA ports. But then I am putting two working radar/plotters through risky surgery rather than one, so for $200 I bought a third display that had some screen damage to use as an organ donor. It will be a good source for other parts should they be needed in the future.

Lastly, one of the UARTs in the J300X autopilot computer went out. I swapped in a spare for that as well, leaving me with two spares needing replacement: the J300X, and the RD30 from the flybridge. That makes a total of eight serial ports lost in the strike, in addition to the three inside the two fried devices.

This is what we've spent on repair/replacement items:

Shakespeare 5104 VHF antenna$50
SIIG 4-port USB serial adapter$50
Mini USB hub (to replace bad port)$10
Used RDP-149 radar for main board$200
Standard Horizon GX2200 VHF with AIS  $350
Used J300X autopilot computer$150
Used RD30 NMEA display$150
Fabric repair tape$10
Total$970


None of these numbers, of course, accounts for the value of my time. I've likely spent close to 30 hours already on fixing everything, and I'm not done yet. A marine electronics tech would charge north of $100 an hour for this work, and what's worse, it would actually take them longer. That's because there is a certain amount of time involved in just sorting through an existing system and understanding how everything is put together.

This is, in part, the reason why so many electronics problems on boats end up being solved by an entirely new system. It's far easier for an installer to just get a BrandX radar, a BrandX plotter, a BrandX autopilot, and a BrandX depth sounder, plug them all together with the cables supplied by the manufacturer, and know that it's all just going to work. Between the cost of the components and the labor of running new cables all over a fully finished boat, an electronics failure like a lightning strike can thus easily run close to $30,000. It can also waylay your boat for four to six weeks waiting for parts and techs.

I have detailed notes in a bound composition book about how everything on Vector is wired together. I've also, over time, combed through the tangle of wires that comprised our NMEA "junction" when we got the boat, lying in a wad on the floor under the helm, and arranged them in neat terminal blocks fastened to the backboard, so rewiring signals may be tedious but is not the head-scratching exercise it once was.

The complexity of the interconnection diagram means that making changes to the handwritten copy in my notebook can be an exercise in frustration. I mostly have to draw it anew each time I make a change. Having been at sea with no Internet for the last day, I finally climbed enough of the learning curve on a new drawing program to get a halfway decent diagram made up. Now I should be able to make changes electronically without having to draw the whole diagram over again by hand.



It's not perfect by any means. Trying to keep it on a single page meant I did not have room to put all the NMEA sentences being sent next to each line as I had wished, for example. And I had to take a couple of shortcuts to keep things readable. For example, the actual control boxes, under the helm, for both the autopilot and the stabilizers are omitted, with the autopilot control head and the stabilizer fin itself standing in for them on the drawing.

While the drawing is really for troubleshooting and re-configuring the NMEA serial connections, I found it useful to include some of the other connections as well, because it is not always clear just looking at a black box what sorts of connections it has. So the radio frequency (RF) pathways are included, as are the Ethernet that connects the radar repeater display, the RobNet (proprietary Simrad/Robertson network) that connects the upstairs autopilot control, and the "AD10" heading signal supplied to the radar by the autopilot, required for ARPA.

I used different colors for the two different NMEA bit rates, and the direction of signal flow is indicated by arrowheads. Some NMEA connections are shown as bidirectional, but that's for drawing clarity. Such a connection is really two circuits, one in each direction, and an outgoing "talker" is allowed to have more than one incoming "listener." Where a device has multiple ports, the connection is identified with the port it goes to, as labeled on the device.

The connectors seem to run amok on the page because I did not want two lines of the same color to cross. The connection between the two depth displays does not really run down to the bilge first, for example. The connection to the stabilizer control doesn't go to the bilge, either; the control box is under the helm, and solenoid control signals run from there to the bilge. And the connection from the AIS transponder to the Radar/plotter does not really run all the way around the room. Such is the nature of schematics.

A printed copy of this drawing is being posted at the NMEA junction block under the helm, and another copy will be kept in the Operations and Procedures binder we keep at the helm. When a display suddenly stops working it's helpful to know what upstream devices are actually supplying the information.

As it stands today, everything shown on the drawing is working, with the lone exception of the NMEA data connection from the radar/plotter (Data4) to the autopilot computer (NMEA2). Both of those ports are still dead, and will be replaced when we get enough downtime to do it. As I wrote earlier, that connection has never been used (except for testing) and would only be used should some catastrophe befall the main plotter.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Boarded by armed men

We are underway northbound in the Atlantic Ocean, the Charleston jetties receding behind us. We were hoping to go all the way to Beaufort, NC by tomorrow evening, but seas are worse than forecast and we are having an uncomfortable ride. If things don't improve, we may come in at Winyah Bay or Cape Fear instead.


NOAA R/V Ronald Brown leaving harbor with us this morning, with the boxy Charleston Light in the background. Seeing these ships always makes us feel better about our cosmetic surface rust.

We enjoyed our quiet anchorage in the South Edisto, and weighed anchor around 8am to catch a favorable tide through the shallow Watts Cut and Dawho River. On recommendation of a trusted ICW veteran, we diverted off the published channel in a section of the Dawho, following a pre-plotted course, which had us, according to the chart plotter, driving over dry land in one spot. Nevertheless we had 14' the whole way, which meant 8' MLLW at our tide level of +6'.

Once we were out in the deep water of the North Edisto, and passing the turnoff to our infamous intended anchorage in Tom Point Creek, I called ahead to the Charleston City Marina to see if we could move our pre-paid reservation from Monday night back to Saturday. They agreed, and assigned us a spot on the inside of the face dock, our preference.


Our detour in the Dawho. Official channel is south through the markers; narrower, shallower, and not accurately marked.

The early start put us in the Stono River at the entrance to Elliott Cut right at max ebb. There would be 2.5 knots of current behind us right at the entrance. The entrance is narrow, and there is a lot of traffic, especially on a nice weekend day. Vector can be a handful with that much current following, so rather than risk getting cattywampus right in the narrow part with traffic trying to get around us, we dropped the hook in the Stono for an hour or so to wait for about half that amount of current.

Mid-afternoon is the height of weekend boat shenanigans. and there were plenty of go-fasts running by on full plane, water skiers, and the like, along with cruising boats heading to and from the nearby marina. A law enforcement presence is expected  in these conditions, and I noted a sheriff's marine patrol boat come and go from the cut and up and down the river a couple of times. At one point they passed us pretty close aboard.

When the current slacked up to a bit over a knot we weighed anchor and made our way through the cut. At that level of current the entrance and transit was uneventful, but there was lots of traffic. Ahead of us approaching the Wapoo Creek bypass bridge were a couple of little boats and the aforementioned sheriff's boat. We watched someone zip through the bridge in the other direction well above no-wake speed, and the sheriff patrol made a U-turn. But when they made another U-turn after passing us, we knew our six-plus-year streak without boardings was coming to an end.

We slowed down to get the boarding party aboard, and they asked us to continue our intended course, except that we were just a couple of minutes from the marina at that point. Instead we turned into the anchorage across the river and I worked the controls constantly to station-keep while they conducted their inspection. The boarding team was a sergeant from the Charleston County Sheriff's Office and a young enlisted Coast Guardsman.


I was hoping to get rid of this printer box in Charleston, but Angel has claimed it. She was blasé about the whole boarding experience.

Sergeant Fitch kept me company at the helm and asked a dozen questions or so about origin, destination, etc. and called in our doc number and identification. Louise took the CG inspector down to the engine room; he looked in perhaps two places with a flashlight, and after seeing all our squared-away safety gear and well-labeled lockers he pretty much decided there was not much to see. He asked us about securing the waste discharge but did not ask to see anything, nor did he ask for garbage plans, waste placards, or rule books.

In total they were aboard for about ten minutes, after which they wished us a safe journey and a nice day and then left. The hardest part about the whole experience was getting them on and off the boat; our boarding gates swing out rather than in, and getting them open without the rocking patrol boat hitting them was a challenge.

For our less nautically inclined readers who may be wondering, yes, law enforcement can board and inspect your boat at any time while on the water without any sort of probable cause. They can and do look inside drawers, lockers, purses, pockets, bags, and anything else on the boat. The fourth amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures simply does not apply on the Navigable Waters of the United States. Some states have taken steps to limit the powers of state and local law enforcement, but this never applies to federal agencies like the Coast Guard or ICE. Having the Coast Guard in the boarding party eliminates constitutional challenges.

This is just the way it is on the water, and, as much as I think it is wrong and I don't like it, the alternative, as they say, is to avoid going out on a boat. This is also the reason we have to tell our invited guests to leave their controlled substances at home; you might have a prescription for that cannabis in your state, or maybe we're passing through a state where its legal even recreationally, but it is never legal in the eyes of the feds, and federal law takes precedence on the water.

After the boarding drama was over we proceeded to our slip in the marina (map), squeezing in between two sailboats with little fanfare. My replacement autopilot and chartplotter were waiting in the office, and we made arrangements for the marina courtesy van to take us to dinner at the Harbour Club across town, where we had made reservations for our anniversary. At dinner we joked that the proper gift for the 16th was a boarding.


Our bartender, Josh, at Halls on Cinco de Mayo. The hat is definitely out of place in this staid bar with waistcoated bartenders.

We were still one package short, and for a while it looked like it would be delayed more than a day. But by the end of Saturday we had some confidence it would be delivered Monday. We considered continuing north to Isle of Palms and then coming back for it on a scooter, but that would mean another marina stay. We opted instead to just anchor in the harbor for a night. After a grocery run in the courtesy van and pumping out, we shoved off and headed right back to where we had been boarded, and dropped the hook, in a spot we've used before (map).

With a dinghy pass for the marina we headed back ashore for dinner. Without access to the courtesy van we took a Lyft into town and enjoyed one of our old standbys, the bar at Halls Chop House. We enjoyed strolling King street and seeing what had changed in the year and a half since we'd been there last. We're very fond of Charleston.


Two by Two steams up the Ashley River.

Monday morning's USPS delivery came and went with no package, but tracking steadfastly insisted it would be delivered by 8pm. Coincidentally the marina office is also open to 8, so we still had some hope, and we figured to just stay another night in the anchorage. In the meantime, a familiar boat caught up to us, steaming through Elliott Cut just as we were hatching plans to perhaps head offshore today.

While the boat was familiar, we'd yet to meet her crew. Two By Two is a Nova Scotia Pilothouse that belonged to our good friends from down under, Pauline and Rod. They sold her perhaps a year ago, but have stayed in touch with the new owners, Doris and Jeff, and have been working to connect us. We had a number of near misses in the last week or two as Two By Two headed south to Brunswick and back, and the package delay allowed them to catch up to us in Charleston. They took a slip at the Megadock and we met them ashore for a nice dinner at another of our old standbys, Pearlz on East Bay.


Dinner at Pearlz with Jeff and Doris.

This morning the offshore forecast (inaccurate as it proved to be) still looked good, and so we decked the tender and weighed anchor with the outgoing tide. It was a beautiful morning, and I always enjoy cruising past the Battery and Fort Sumter. We made passing arrangements with a NOAA research vessel on our way out the channel, and a pilot boat checked in with us to make sure we'd be clear when a giant container ship came by.

We just passed Bull Breakers and are a couple of hours from Cape Romaine. The incessant chop has made for slow going, and the chart plotter is now predicting a midnight arrival tomorrow. Conditions are supposed to improve during the night, so we'll see if that time improves as well.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Shallow water

We are under way in the Coosaw River, somewhere north of Beaufort (rhymes with new fert), South Carolina. This morning found us anchored in a quiet spot in Skull Creek at Hilton Head Island (map). It's a dreary, rainy day here in the low country.

Wednesday I had the car reserved for noon, and so we called the marina at 11 and asked if we could come in a little early. We were tied up alongside the face dock right at noon and I called Hertz to get picked up. They were short drivers, and we didn't get a ride until 1pm. Feeling a bit short on time, we carted the old printer out to the street with us for the pickup, rather than our original plan of returning to the boat for it in the car.

Savannah traffic is miserable, and by the time we finished at Best Buy along with another errand at West Marine and a quick provisioning stop at the grocery store, I had just enough time to get as far with the printer as a self-test page. We ended up with an Epson for $70, which, while only having middling ratings on Consumer Reports, was one of the few models that would fit in our cabinet.


Backing away from the dock this morning at Thunderbolt Marina. The lovely blue boat with the wood transom is Coconuts.

We did take a brief detour out to our old stomping grounds on Wilmington Island just before leaving for dinner. While there has been a little development, things looked mostly the same. The marina hadn't changed a bit, with the "improvements" they were in the process of making six years ago still, well, in process.

We drove down to Richmond Hill and met up with Laura Lee and John at the clubhouse at the Ford Plantation. It was a very relaxing evening; we very much enjoy their company, and the food, wine, and service were top notch. We can see why they enjoy it here. It was very generous of them to extend the invitation. It will be at least a year before we catch them again, perhaps out on the water in their lovely Selene.

We never seem to run out of things to talk about with them, and we returned rather late in the evening. Louise lost the coin toss on the way down (ok, it was really rock-paper-scissors) and was the designated driver for the return trip. Even though I had booked an econobox, Hertz gave us a high-end Toyota 4Runner with all the bells and whistles, which made for a comfortable day of getting around.

We parked the car in the very same parking lot where we had literally lived in the bus while the boat was being repaired in the yard six years ago. After a long day we were both in bed fairly early. I was up and fixing coffee just as the marina staff were making the morning delivery of Krispy Kreme donuts to all the boats; they left a box of a half dozen on our aft deck and they were still warm when I picked them up. A signature amenity of this marina.

I spent some time in the morning finishing the printer setup on the laptops and Louise was able to get her package labels printed in time for me to run them to the post office on my way to return the car. The downside of the upgrade to an SUV was that it took four gallons of gas after travelling just 95 miles. Although I think I returned it more full than we got it. I can't complain for a $30 car.

Hertz dropped me back off at the marina, and when I walked down the dock to the boat I found a familiar boat docked in front of Vector. It was Coconuts, a lovely Krogen Express belonging to friends Bru and Sandy Brubaker, whom we had met during our time in Deltaville. They had just arrived, and of course we were just leaving. It was nice to spend a few minutes catching up on the dock, though.


Vector in the Beaufort River, as seen from Coconuts.

We dropped lines right at the checkout time of 11, which put us in the Savannah River just in time to hit Fields Cut, one of the notorious shallow stretches on the ICW, at dead low tide. We've been aground in Fields Cut before, and rather than take that chance, we decided to just head out the Savannah River, where I had over two knots of current behind me. We then picked our way across the shallow bar dividing Tybee Roads from Calibogue (rhymes with hoagie) Sound in three footers, and steamed back up Calibogue Sound between Dafuskie Island and Hilton Head.

Long time readers may know that we spent a month on Hilton Head shortly after buying the boat, where we trained with a professional captain every couple of days. We visited every dock on the island more than once and explored every nearby passage. We did silly things like dock at a boat ramp and pick up a mooring ball that had no pennant. By the time we were done we knew these waters very well. It's always a trip down memory lane when we cruise past the island.

As tempting as it was to stop someplace for the night to get ashore, and maybe see our friend Captain Gary, we're trying to make tracks northward and so we just steamed up to the last anchorage before Port Royal Sound, called Skull Creek, and dropped the hook for the night. Between the late start and the extra mileage it was as far as we could get, Beaufort being out of reach in daylight.

This morning we weighed anchor fairly early and started out across Port Royal Sound. Before we got halfway across I spotted Coconuts coming up behind us on our AIS. They caught up to us just after we made the turn into the river. It turned out they wanted to make Beaufort, where they had plans for a few days, before the forecasted rain storm moved in, and so they got a very early start. I joked that they missed the donuts.

Update: We are anchored for the night in the South Edisto River, at a place called Laurel Hill (map). There are no hills here. I had to stop typing two paragraphs ago as we approached a section that required all of my attention, a known shallow section known as the Ashepoo-Coosaw Cutoff. As luck would have it, we arrived at dead low tide, which led to some drama.


This evening's sunset from the South Edisto.

Mindful that the last time we came through here we got stuck in the mud two or three times before finally finding the channel, I spent a good deal of time researching it beforehand. It seems they dredged it over the summer, and a Corps of Engineers depth survey taken in February showed depths of 11' or more at low water through the entrance. A posting to the Waterway Guide in April said the passage was good for 11'.

Ha. We followed the surveyed route and promptly ran into the mud; the water was just five feet deep. I backed out under full power and we dropped the hook in the Coosaw to figure out just what went wrong. Looking at the tide table we knew if we waited an hour or so we would get two feet of tidal help, and in that time I dropped the tender and went to sound it out. Sure enough there was a 5' hump at the entrance which would be 7' when we tried again, and after that we'd have 8'-9' for the first section of the channel. Good enough. In hindsight, had we known about the recent shoaling ahead of time, we'd have just gone down the Coosaw to the mouth of the Ashepoo and back up, which would have taken the same extra hour.

No harm, no foul, and at 4:30 we resumed our journey, now on a rising tide which was over 4' by the time we stopped for the day. We wanted to get through the rest of the cutoff and another shallow section before day's end, so we can use tomorrow morning's high tide to get through the next two skinny spots, Watts Cut, and the Dawho River. That will actually put us into Charleston mid-afternoon.

It looks like most of our packages are already in Charleston, so I will call the marina during the day and see if we can switch our pre-paid reservation for Monday night to tomorrow night instead. That will also let us get ashore for a nice dinner for our 16th anniversary, in addition to boarding our packages. We're hoping the last couple of them show up tomorrow, but if not, we'll anchor in the harbor until they arrive Monday.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Where it all began

We are anchored in the Herb River, just off the Wilmington, in Savannah, Georgia (map). We're just a mile from our afternoon destination of Thunderbolt Marina. This is where our boating life began, a little over six years ago.

From this spot we can see the place where we bought Vector, at Thunderbolt Marine, and also the marina where we moved aboard, Hogan's. It was a short trip between the two, but we had to have John (the seller) captain the boat for the trip; we were so green that the insurance company would not let us operate the boat without a licensed captain aboard.


Sunset over Thunderbolt Marine, from our anchorage. We first saw Vector just to the right of the large shed.

We were at Hogan's for a month, moving stuff off the bus and onto the boat. And when we were almost ready to leave... we ended up right back at Thunderbolt Marine to replace the bow thruster, which gave up the ghost as we were heading to the pumpout dock with yet another licensed captain aboard. He was a single-screw shrimp boat skipper and we were very glad to have him when the thruster quit.

We had a relaxing morning yesterday near Ossabaw Sound, with the favorable tide not starting until mid-day. I updated the blog and got a few things put away, but otherwise took a little break from projects. We had a very nice cruise through the low country of Georgia in the afternoon, passing Isle of Hope, Skidaway, and Whitemarsh islands, among a slew of smaller and sometimes exclusive ones.

We had the hook down here early enough for me to resume work, and I spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening getting the new four-port serial adapter installed. I am very happy to report that it is working just fine, so the garbled port issue was specific to the other adapter. I've packed that one back up and it will be returned to Amazon. Even though there is a dockside tapas restaurant at the end of this creek, we elected to stay aboard and grill up a nice pork tenderloin for dinner.

After dinner I packed up the adapter and printed the Amazon-provided return label. There were streaks in the bar code, which can be a problem, so I printed it again. And again. And again, after several rounds of print-head cleaning. No joy. So I pulled out my syringe and cleaning fluid to clean the ink delivery passages.

That didn't help much, either, and, worse, in the process of manually moving the print-head for cleaning, something got off-track and now the printer does not work at all. I am sure that if I spent a couple of hours taking it apart I will find what tiny part is off-index with what other part of the drive system, and then I can spend another hour pumping cleaner through the heads, all to get another year out of it. But really, we paid just $50 for this printer nearly eight years ago, while we were still on the bus (to replace another printer that crapped out). It doesn't owe us anything, and last night I had just used the very last of our ink cartridge stash.

Considering we will be at a dock this afternoon and we already have a rental car booked, this is a perfect time to just run down to Best Buy and drop another fifty bucks on a new printer. They'll even recycle the old one for us. We'll be back to printing shipping labels by this evening.

In addition to Best Buy, we have a few other errands to run while we have a car, and then we'll drive back down to Richmond Hill for dinner. The car is due back in the morning, and after returning it we will shove off and continue north. I don't expect to have time to blog while we're in Thunderbolt, so our next update will be under way or from another anchorage.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Thwarted in Richmond Hill

We are anchored in the Little Ogeechee River, off the marked ICW channel just east of an infamous shallow stretch known as Hell Gate (map). We arrived around 6pm yesterday, having cruised down the Ogeechee and then through Hell Gate right at high tide of just over 6'. Even so, we had just three feet under our keel in several spots.

After I finished my last post, we had a nice cruise through the entrance to St. Catherines Sound and into the Bear River. We took advantage of a flood tide to run all the way to a nice anchorage in Buckhead Creek, just off the ICW at the junction of the Florida Passage (map). It was a pleasant evening, other than the unending supply of no-see-ums that confined us indoors.

Thursday we weighed anchor a bit after noon to arrive at the low spot on the Ogeechee near high tide. On a six foot tide we had just three feet under our keel there; before Sherman ended his march to the sea by taking Fort McAllister, Confederates would lure Union ships up the river until they ran aground there, and the fort would shell them until they sank.


Sunrise over the Ogeechee from our berth at Fort McAllister.

Once over the hump we were again in deep water, and we tied up on the face dock at the Fort McAllister Marina (map), port-side-to so we could unload the scooters. After wrapping up some lightning repairs that I had started in the morning at the anchorage, and a bit of cleaning up, we strolled over to the dockside restaurant, Fish Tales, and met our good friends John and Laura Lee for dinner. It was great catching up, and we agreed to meet again in our expected two-week stay.

Friday morning Captain Mike dropped by first thing to discuss our paint repairs. He allowed that his guys were pretty busy and he would likely have to do the work himself. After looking it over he agreed that he could get the worst of it, but not all of it, done in the two weeks we were willing to spend, and he would start Monday. We told the marina we'd take the monthly rate, and we settled in for an extended stay, including ordering a number of items on Amazon and eBay.

Friday afternoon, John came by and ran us to the hardware and grocery stores in town. We also swung by Ford Plantation and got a quick tour of his new boat, a lovely Selene 57 that they have named Division Belle. It's just a year or two newer than Vector, but the millwork is much nicer, as is common on the high-end trawlers of the era built in China, including the Krogens and Nordhavns. He also provided some history of the area, including the bit I wrote in my third paragraph, above.

I had come away from my first meeting with Captain Mike with a bit of an uneasy feeling, and first thing Saturday my fears were confirmed when he asked if he could come by. We crossed our fingers that he just needed another look before starting Monday, but, no. He came by to say that, after sleeping on it, he would not be able to take on the project. He was very apologetic, knowing we had detoured up the Ogeechee and taken a slip just to get this done.


Fish Tales restaurant on the dock. I did not think to snap a photo when they were open and busy.

Of course, by this time we now already had packages en route to us at the Marina. Mike offered to pick them up and forward them if need be. The critical ones were already scheduled to arrive Monday, having been ordered through Amazon Prime, and we made the decision to just stay the extra two nights to Monday, at least.

A number of packages had already arrived Thursday and Friday, including the replacement VHF antenna, the multiport USB-to-serial converter, the replacement VHF radio, and a replacement fuel filter for the transfer system. I spent the full three days making repairs, starting with the most critical system, the chart plotter computer, which needed a new USB converter.

That project should have been a slam-dunk. Load the drivers, plug in the converter, connect the four serial cables to it, and configure the correct COM port numbers in the chart software. And yet, nothing I could do would allow it to receive data from the lone 4800 bps port. It received data just fine from the three 38,400 bps ports, and it also sent data just fine to the 4800 bps port. Hunh.

I spent hours trying to troubleshoot this. It happened on all four ports. Yet all four ports worked fine when I connected it to my Linux laptop. I tried changing drivers, deleting and reinstalling every part of Windows infrastructure including the root hub and the USB controller. I moved it to each of the other two working USB ports. I bypassed cables and rigged my laptop up as an NMEA tester, crawling under the helm to double-check each connection point. Nada.

After an entire day of this, I gave up. I connected that cable back to the single-port, obsolete adapter that needed a pirated driver, which worked fine, and ordered a different four-port adapter in the hopes that I will have better results. The replacement is the same model as the one that fried, but was working fine before the strike. If it doesn't work, I will know the lightning scrambled something in the computer's USB hardware. This was the critical part I needed to receive yesterday; I will be testing it later today.


The very nice commercial-grade junction box for the AIS. I connected Louise's computer here.

By contrast, the replacement VHF antenna went into place smoothly, more so than I expected. The nice shiny new cable ran much more easily through the aluminum top frame than its older, more shopworn predecessor, and Shakespeare is even using a slightly thinner cable now as well. The replacement VHF radio was also easy; mostly just a drop-in, although I did need to add some connectors. As long as I had both radios out and side-by-side I bench tested them, confirming the old radio's NMEA ports are defunct. It's for sale now, to someone who does not need that feature.

I had ordered a replacement radar-plotter with screen damage on eBay, intending to cannibalize its main board to replace the damaged main board in our pilothouse unit, which lost one of its four NMEA ports. On Saturday, after I learned Captain Mike was bailing on us, I contacted the seller who, by sheer luck, had suffered a delay in shipping. I was able to wave it off for delivery at a later stop.

Instead I spent a few hours under the helm rerouting NMEA signals to get the last three pieces of equipment working. Those would be the flybridge radio, which needed position information for its emergency distress button, the stabilizers, which need speed information to activate (we've been bypassing the speed signal since the strike), and the backup nav station at Louise's seat, which needed position, speed, and AIS information.

That's all done now, with things generally working better than before the strike (I learn a little more each time I do this). The sheer number of NMEA connections and the complexity of the setup has also now prompted me to climb the learning curve and make a diagram with LibreOffice Draw, since I am tired of re-drawing everything by hand each time I make a change. Reading my own free-hand diagrams and scribbles in pencil while crouched under the helm was the source of some frustration.

After all that, I hardly need the replacement radar/plotter board, except that the dead port was also the emergency backup feed to the autopilot. We've never needed to use it, but it's nice to know we have it, and so I will make the swap when I have the parts.


Last night's sunset over the Little Ogeechee and Vernon rivers.

With things put back together and mostly working Sunday night, we felt comfortable checking out yesterday. We had previously agreed to join John and Laura Lee for dinner at Ford Plantation Wednesday, which we did not want to miss, but we reasoned we could make progress and even save a few bucks by leaving Fort McAllister yesterday, and then renting a car in Thunderbolt tomorrow to drive down. What will have taken us six hours across two days by boat will take just a half hour by car. It did give us a day to kill at anchor, but I still have plenty of work to do.

Even though it was something of a fool's errand, we enjoyed our short stay at Fort McAllister. Louise keeps saying it's the quietest marina we've ever stayed at, and that's even with a very popular tiki restaurant right on the dock. Fish Tales was actually quite good, and we returned Saturday evening for dinner and again Sunday just for a beer. The marina staff were friendly and accommodating, and even knocked some off the bill for our troubles.

In a short while we will weigh anchor with the tide to have following current most of the way to Thunderbolt. We'll anchor again tonight, and be at the dock at Thunderbolt Marina in time to get our $30 rental car from Hertz around noon. We're making a list of errands to do while we have wheels for a day.