Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Work week on a suspicious boat

We are tied up at the free city dock in Palatka, Florida (map), having arrived yesterday afternoon after a lovely four-hour cruise upriver from Green Cove Springs. The river was glassy the whole day under gray, drippy skies that had us running with the navigation lights on.

Vector at the Palatka dock, on a glassy river at dawn.

Although I had not really planned on it, we spent five full days in Green Cove Springs, where we tied up at the Reynolds Park Marina (map), a re-purposing of one of the 13 enormous concrete piers built here by the navy to house a mothball fleet (story and historic photos here). We tied Vector to bollards and cleats built for destroyers, literally the largest we've ever used. A system of steel ladders with wooden fenders are hung over the pier sides to accommodate the smaller boats.

This sort of pier arrangement is actually perfect for getting work done, since we could park right next to the boat. The first order of business after tying up was to offload the scooters, which have sat on deck, unused, since we left Palm Beach in June. The weird dock arrangement, however, posed something of a challenge.

Vector at the dock in Green Cove Springs. Note the enormous cleats, and the "dock adapters" between the dock and the boat. Our scoots are at the left.

The ladder/fender devices held Vector at least three feet off the edge of the pier, which by itself would have been no problem, but on top of that, our crane was immediately adjacent a pair of enormous bollards. Between the bollards and the top of the ladder, swinging the bikes out far enough to land them on the dock proved to be a three-person operation; fortunately another boater offered to help and he and Louise together managed to haul far enough back on the tag lines while I worked the crane from the boat deck.

As is often the case, my scooter started right up, whereas Louise's was cantankerous. Some time ago I made up a jumper cable to connect the two bikes together so we would not run the battery down during these hard-starting episodes, and I deployed it immediately. After a half hour or so of fiddling it still refused to start, and I had to admit defeat and resign myself to working on it in earnest the next day.

By this time the engine room had cooled down enough for me to change Vector's main engine oil, slightly overdue. The oil needs to be hot in order to pump it out of the sump, and my plans to change it right after the run from Cumberland Island were foiled by the extra-long day necessitated by the railroad bridge closure. The change interval had actually come due while we were offshore on our three-day run from Beaufort.

The cruise from Jacksonville to Green Cove Springs was plenty long enough to warm the oil up. It was also a gorgeous day and we enjoyed the wide expanse of river. We had a nice stay in Jacksonville, just the right amount of time. We never did make it to the club, which was closed Wednesday for a private function. Instead we ended up at the Irish pub at Jacksonville Landing with our friends Steve and Barb, who were docked at the city marina (the same one we had to abandon due to the music festival) after their own trip up from Cumberland Island.

Just before we headed ashore to meet them, we had a brief visit from law enforcement, in the form of a Sheriff's patrol boat. I was down in the engine room working on the transfer switch when I heard the unmistakable sound of an electronic "air horn" generated by a siren unit. Louise was in the salon, and when she went out on deck they told her they had had a report of a "suspicious boat." She responded that they must have already left, and by the time I got up on deck everyone was having a good chuckle. The deputies were rolling their eyes about how "suspicious" Vector was with her crew of obvious rabble-rousers; they welcomed us to Jacksonville and went on their merry way.

We had no such welcoming committee at Green Cove Springs, but it was an equally welcoming stop. We were met on the dock by good friend Rod from Two By Two, a Nova Scotia 47 pilothouse trawler. Two By Two is on the hard in the adjacent Holland Marine boat yard, and Rod and Pauline had us aboard for cocktails and dinner after I was done with our oil change and a hot shower.

Friday was errand day and I ran up to Orange Park, just south of Jacksonville, on my scooter to pick up prescription food for Angel. We had the script phoned in from her last vet, in Rockland, Maine, to the Banfield inside the Petsmart there, which means we now have a card, good at any Petsmart nationwide, that will enable us to buy her prescription food for the next year. Even Petsmarts are hard to access from the boat, so I bought two giant bags of dry kibble and a few cans of the wet stuff, dropping over a C-note. There is nothing so expensive as a free pet.

As long as I was there, I stopped into the Home Depot in the same shopping plaza and picked up a couple of items before heading south again. On my way back to the marina I stopped at Saint Brendan's Isle (SBI), our mail service, to pick up our backlog of mail. That included the spare autopilot pump that I bought on eBay as well as a brand new pre-paid smart phone, part of an effort to resuscitate our now-defunct Verizon MiFi device.

SBI is in a nondescript metal building a couple of miles north of town, having outgrown the pair of historic storefronts they occupied in downtown Green Cove Springs about a decade ago. Our mail and packages still come to "411 Walnut Street," but that street address (along with the address 413, home of the companion RVMCA Mail Service) no longer really exists -- the addresses on that side of the street jump from 409 to 415. SBI is the biggest customer in this part of the state, so they had enough clout with the post office to have the street addresses "relocated" to the new building outside of town; all the courier services have it as well, and only a small sign on the window of 415 Walnut informs visitors they are in the wrong place. Google Maps never got the memo and still sends visitors, some in search of their mail, to a nonexistent storefront on historic Walnut Street.

We "live" in one of these nondescript bins, of which there are thousands. Mostly they are other RVers or boaters; we've met many of our "neighbors" on the road or on the water.

Walnut Street ends at the river, where the city dock is located, immediately north of the city park that houses the actual spring, now feeding a swimming pool, that gives the town its name. All along the edges of the park at this time of year are hundreds of Christmas trees, each decorated by a different sponsoring organization. It's really quite festive, and the town has also strung lighted decorations on every lamp post and median tree around town.

After I got home from the great mail and pet food run, I tore into Louise's scooter. The spark plug looked fine, although I did clean it, and was making a good spark, which really left the carburetor as the prime culprit. After sitting on deck for four months, that's no surprise, and I guessed the jets were gummed up with varnish. I took the air cleaner off, no small feat in itself on a scooter, and started spraying carb cleaner, which I had picked up for the purpose on my way back from Petsmart, into the throat.

An hour or so of spraying everything I could reach and working the slide up and down moved it from cranking unresponsively to sounding like it was at least trying to catch. Still, I ran out of day without success, and put the side panel back on in the hopes that sitting overnight full of cleaner would loosen the rest of the deposits.

With the scooter still not running and lots of things still to be done around the boat, our plan for a two-day stay was scrapped and we enjoyed a quiet meal at home, knowing we'd have at least another couple of days to sample the local fare. I spent the evening working on the aforementioned smart phone.

We absolutely do not need or want another smart phone around the house, but it turns out that there are more options for relatively inexpensive 4g data on a smart phone than on a dedicated MiFi device. For one thing, many MVNOs require you to enter codes on the dialer and/or send and receive text messages in order to manage your account, which can't be done from a MiFi. And while Verizon itself does offer pay-as-you-go prepaid data for both phones and MiFis, their MVNOs tend to be priced ten to twenty percent below their own offerings.

In a sort of reductio ad absurdum of Moore's Law, I was able to purchase outright an Android 4.4 smart phone, "refurbished" (manufacturers' slang for gear that's been returned to the store after buyers' remorse, then cleaned up before being brown-boxed and resold) with all the bells and whistles for less than 40 bucks, shipping included. That's without a contract of any sort; when you hear the term "burner phone," this is it.

So Friday evening I got the phone set up, verified that it was coming up with lightning-fast 4g service on Verizon, and even set up a whole Google persona for the boat itself. (Android comes from Google, and when you set up an Android phone, if you don't already have one, you get a Google account, email address, and all the snooping you can handle.)

So far so good, but I hear you ask, "what does this have to do with the MiFi?"  Good question, and it turns out that when it comes to LTE data, you can take the SIM card out of your smart phone and plop it into a MiFi device, and, voilĂ , you have shared data via WiFi. In this case, I had to cut the SIM card down, as the phone came with a micro-SIM, but our MiFi takes a nano-SIM. An adapter lets me put it back in the phone if I need to use dialer codes or text messages, or even to make a phone call.

This is definitely not the swoopy unlimited 4g data that we had before they pulled the plug on our $48/month service. But it does give us 5gb of high-speed service good for 30 days, and we can add more at any time even before the 30 days are up. We don't need to pay when we're not using it, say because we're at a marina with good WiFi or we are out of the country, and we can't accidentally go over a data limit and rack up huge overage charges as we can with our post-paid smart phones. Until another cheap unlimited deal comes along, this is the next best thing.

Saturday after another frustrating hour or so trying to start Louise's scooter, including a run to the auto parts store for the kind of carb cleaner you pour into the gas tank, I conceded defeat for a second time and acknowledged that I'd actually have to remove the carburetor and rebuild it. That's a much bigger project, and it took me the rest of the day. It was rewarding, though, inasmuch as the bike started on the first crank once I was done. It's running better now than it has in some time; I think the pilot jet was badly varnished.

Louise spent most of both days cleaning the boat and clearing out the laundry backlog, over a dozen loads (she went through the whole boat and washed all the linens and bedding). Unlimited water and power are a rare luxury for us nowadays, so we take full advantage of them when we can. We rewarded ourselves with a nice dinner at D'Fontana downtown, traveling on separate scooters for the first time in a long while.

As long as both scooters were on the ground and I was in a good place to work on them, Sunday I gave my own bike an overdue oil change. I also tackled another long-standing project on Louise's scoot, to wit, tracking down the source of a slow air leak that flattens her rear tire in a matter of a few days. That turned out to be a small piece of vegetation trapped in the bead, most likely from when I replaced the tire in a weedy field at Deltaville over two years ago.

Rod and Pauline again made us dinner aboard Two By Two, and we chatted about boats and buses. They've just bought themselves a Marathon Prevost, in excellent shape for over a decade old, and now he's learning the intricacies and idiocies of Marathon's conversion practices. I ribbed him about not buying Odyssey for a lot less money and lifetime technical support.

After a long few days of working hard, we took most of Monday for ourselves, catching up on email and a backlog of insurance paperwork before riding around town and shopping at the quirky Fred's across the highway. In our travels we checked out the Green Cove Springs marina, on a different ex-navy pier at the other end of the complex.

This turned out to be a do-it-yourself boat yard of the highest magnitude, with dozens of boats, mostly sail, in varying degrees of re-fit both on the hard and in the water. A large marine surplus store was on premise; we found nothing for Vector but made note of the sorts of items they have in the yard.

On our way to the marina we passed a space shuttle fuel tank, one of the original NASA test articles that was displayed at the Kennedy Space Center before it gave way there to the retired shuttle Atlantis; it was moved here two years ago en route to a private museum before funding ran out for the overland portion of the move. It's unfenced; you can walk right up to it and the custom transporter to which it is mated.

Louise and her scooter looking diminutive in front of the shuttle external tank.

We rounded out our stay with more cocktails on Two By Two before heading for dinner at La Casita in town, en route to the Winn Dixie grocery store to provision. Ironically, the Winn Dixie is across the street from SBI just north of town, but the logistics of grocery shopping precluded us from combining trips.

Yesterday morning we loaded the scooters back on deck, but not before running a copious amount of fuel stabilizer and fresh gasoline into them. Louise made one final run to SBI and I went to the post office, which got the stabilizer well into the carbs. We managed to load them with just the two of us, but this time I stood on the dock while Louise worked the crane; we just managed to miss the bollards on the way up.

We might be the biggest boat to use this dock, a stark contrast from the last one. Palatka's park and clock tower are just onshore.

We timed our departure, just after noon, to have fair tide upriver and arrive at Palatka at mostly slack water. The docks were empty and we had our pick. It was an easy walk through the quaint and historic downtown to a local Italian joint for dinner; this morning we walked to Angel's Diner, the oldest in Florida and still in a rail car, for breakfast. In a short while we will drop lines and continue upriver on the flood, with no specific stop in mind for tonight.

We had fog on and off this morning. This taken from the roof of the St. Johns River Center.


  1. Hi Sean I enjoy reading your blog and wish you posted more often.
    I am interested in that phone deal you talked about today. Could you please supply a link to where you purchased it from.

    1. Hi Caron. I'd rather not mention the MVNO here or post a direct link, but I will send it to you if you email me. I could not find an email address in your profile. Our contact information is under "who we are" in the links section of the sidebar.


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