Monday, June 22, 2020

Wind-tossed on The Chick

We are anchored in the Chickahominy River, just downriver of the Walker Dam (map), which is the limit of our navigation. Smaller vessels can transit the self-service, manually operated lock, with a depth of four feet, and continue into Chickahominy Lake. We've only been here for a couple of hours, yet we've already had enough excitement to last us the rest of the year. More on that in a bit.

Old City Hall, undergoing renovations. Capitol is somewhere behind it.

As I mentioned in my last post, we needed to stay tied to the dock in Richmond at least another day to let the bulk of the river flooding pass. While rain had been forecast for most of the day Saturday, it never really materialized, and I once again sallied forth on the e-bike to explore some more of Richmond. In particular, I really wanted to get out to Monument Avenue, take in the monuments as they currently appear, and reflect on the import of what is happening right now.

I started my excursion at the east end post office, because Louise and I both had packages to ship out. They would have gone out Friday, except for the fact that our printer ran out of ink and refused to print the labels. We emailed PDFs to our friends, who brought them to us at dinner Friday night. The post office opened at noon, so that's when I set out. From there I decided to head west on Broad Street.

Site of "The Devil's Half Acre" -- Lumpkin's Slave Jail.

That brought me in short order to the site of Lumpkin's Slave Jail, just north of the train station, where I again paused to reflect. From there I continued west until I was downtown, where quite a number of businesses had been boarded up prophylactically. Many of the coverings were stenciled with slogans of support; some suggested that within was either a small local business or a black-owned business. But many storefronts were not covered, and I saw no real damage. Graffiti was generally contained to the temporary boards.

Broad Street storefronts boarded.

After passing through the enormous VCU campus, I eventually came to Monument Avenue, where the first statue I encountered was JEB Stuart. One man was using the base for skateboard practice in between passing cars. I read this morning that the police had to disperse people today because they were trying to topple the massive statue, and there was concern someone would get hurt. Considering what happened in Portsmouth the night we were there, the concern is not unfounded.

JEB Stuart.

Up next, Robert E. Lee, the largest piece on the mall. This has become the epicenter of protest in the city, and on my visit it was a festival atmosphere, not unlike your local farmer's market or art & wine festival, with a handful of EZ-ups, and families strolling the grounds and making a day of it, witnesses to history.

A festival atmosphere around Robert E. Lee.

I passed the Jefferson Davis memorial, really a monument to the entirety of the Confederacy and the most brazen of the lot, Lee's spotlight notwithstanding. I also passed Stonewall Jackson, and Maury, and ended my trip at the Arthur Ashe monument, cleaned up in the few days since being vandalized by counter-protesters.

Jefferson Davis, atop an enormous ovation to the Confederacy.

I came back through the museum district and a different section of the VCU campus before landing at the Capitol, which I had hoped to take in. That was not possible, however, since it's been fenced off tighter than Fort Knox at a perimeter that does not permit any sort of view. On my way home I stopped at the Farm Fresh grocery, where a pair of ink cartridges was waiting for me at the Amazon locker, and where I also picked up a few fresh provisions.

Stonewall Jackson.

When I returned to the boat, I found a six-pack of the local brew, Legend Brown Ale, on the deck, courtesy of a blog reader who had stopped by when I was out. Thanks, Denton! (I texted the number in the note you left; not sure if you got it.) I like the Legend Brown, which we first experienced at their other location, near the free dock in Portsmouth.

Matthew Fontaine Maury.

We were all set to just eat our own grub aboard, given the ever-present probability of rain. But at dinner time I had a short dry window, and ran back out on the e-bike to a parking lot next door to Poe's Tavern, where earlier I had spotted a phalanx of food trucks. I picked up a pair of jerk chicken sandwiches and a side of fries from the Meats & Treats truck and zipped back home for one last meal that we did not have to cook or clean.

After dark we were treated to a fireworks show, launched by a random guy on a random boat just downriver. Friday night after I posted here, perhaps 1 am or so, a group had launched quite a number of fireworks from the dock less than 100' from us; I had attributed those to a Juneteenth celebration. Both "shows" were nice, for a amateur under-the-radar displays, and Louise got to enjoy Saturday's fireworks with me.

Arthur Ashe.

Yesterday morning the debris flow had subsided to a dull roar, and we timed the current next to the boat at a knot and a half, which we judged acceptable for departure. After enjoying the bagels I had procured at the grocery, we singled up, fired up, and cast off the dock with some help from the engine. Once we were out in the middle of the channel I noted we were doing 9.5 knots while making turns for only 6.3, so we had quite the push.

More of Broad Street. Many businesses expressed support on their signage.

Otto-the-autopilot does not handle this much following current well, and so I hand-steered most of the day. We whizzed past the various landmarks and wharves, thankful that no ships were making ready to depart on this pass. We timed our departure to take advantage of the ebb, and we rode it until it petered out, just downriver of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge. We pulled well off-channel and dropped the hook, near a spot called Harrison's Landing (map).

While we were anchored, a large flotilla of logs, some of which had, perhaps, bounced off our hull while we were at the dock, made its way upriver on the flood, surrounding us in the process. The same flotilla came back downriver on the next ebb. Also while we were anchored, TowBoatUS came by to warn us that the river gets shallow outside of the channel. I think he had seen us over there and honestly thought we were already aground.

A number of monuments elsewhere in town have already been toppled or removed, leaving only pedestals.

While we could see the bridge in the distance, and a small marina near it at Jordan Point, and on a Sunday afternoon there were numerous very small, very fast boats passing by in the channel, this was still a fairly remote anchorage, to the extent that once the boat traffic stopped, it was dead quiet. Thus it was a great spot for Louise to send my heart rate through the roof by asking me to cut her hair.

Vector at high water. We can just step across through our boarding gate. Compare to the photo in the last post, where we had to board on the boat deck.

This is the second pandemic haircut I've had to do, and having only one prior experience under my belt, my skills have not progressed. But at least we now have a half-decent pair of haircutting shears, which we bought after the last experience, and by going slowly I was able to do a presentable job. Nothing going on around us suggests either one of us will be able to go to a salon in a very long time, so amateur haircuts will be the new normal for us. We've been cutting my hair on the boat for years, so there's that, at least.

This morning the ebb was already well under way when we awoke, and so after our first coffee we weighed anchor and continued downriver. At this rate, we could easily be back in Hampton Roads by day's end tomorrow, except for the fact that we actually don't want to arrive much before mid-day Friday, because that is when I am expecting an eBay purchase to arrive at the post office, care of General Delivery, in Newport News.

The most I could see of the Capitol. I think the dumpsters as crash barriers is a nice touch.

That eBay purchase is a replacement unit for our helm computer, which crashed three times while we were at the dock in Richmond. I can't be 100% sure what the problem is, because the hardware itself is stopping, leaving Windows to just tell me the shutdown was "unexpected," but as near as I can tell, the CPU is overheating. I did take it all apart and clean out the cooling fan, to little avail. A replacement fan is $150, whereas the whole unit on eBay was $114. I have my fingers crossed that when I move the SSD over to the replacement, it will just boot right up and all will work normally.

Dinner venue. Two more trucks out of frame.

As long as I have to bike over to the post office, I'll also go to yet another Amazon locker, because neither of the two aftermarket ink cartridges in our last shipment was recognized by the printer. They're getting returned, but, ironically, I can't print the return label. I have a couple of other items coming as well.

With nearly four full days before we need to be at the mouth of the James, we decided to make the side trip up the Chickahominy, just to see it. It's about a 15nm trip after turning off the James to our head of navigation at the Walker Dam. We had to pick our way across a shallow bar at the entrance, perhaps 8' at low water, but once in the river it is deep the whole way. It's a meander river, serpentine near the dam, so we're just 10nm from the James.

Unexpected fireworks on the river.

It was a great day for a cruise, sunny and calm. In fact, the outside temperature crept up to 95 throughout the afternoon, and lots of folks were swimming from docks, fishing, or running around on jet-skis. We ran the AC in the pilothouse to stay comfortable, wondering whether we'd have to fire the generator right up as soon as we stopped to keep cool

A better view of the Varina-Enon bridge after passing beneath it.

We need not have worried. A front was bearing down on us, and as we approached our intended destination, the weather alert on the VHF radio went off to warn us of a rapidly approaching thunderstorm traveling at 60 mph and bringing high wind, heavy rain, and large hail. Louise was able to pull it up on the weather radar to give us a more precise arrival estimate.

Sunset at anchor in the James. Ben Harrison Bridge in the distance.

At this point we were in a narrow part of the river, where current ripping back and forth keeps the bottom scoured and can make for depths in excess of 50 feet. We raced ahead to a section where the river widens just below the dam, found a 14' deep section that we figured to be sedimentation, and dropped the hook where we are now, right in the middle of the river.

As soon as we had the anchor set, I dogged everything down on the flybridge, and Louise dogged all the windows. Before I even had the engine shut down, the outside temp had dropped into the 50s and the wind was picking up. It was no more than three or four minutes later that the front hit, and hit hard.

60+ mph thunderstorm passes over Vector. 6 minutes long. We're anchored -- all the movement you see is from the wind.

I restarted the engine, just in case, and had to turn the wipers on full tilt. The driving rain and wind-blown river soon obscured the shore and everything on it. A loud crash informed us that something, somewhere had fallen over; that turned out to have been every single piece of furniture on the aft deck. Louise looked up the hatchway to see the canvas soft top had ripped away from its frame and was flapping loose. The anemometer recorded 50mph before the ripped canvas took it out of commission, but we know it continued to go much higher.

Weather instruments captured 52mph before the sensors stopped working. The temperature drop at lower left, 95-67, happened in the span of minutes. It dropped further, to 57, a short time later.

The anchor held through it all, even when we somehow turned beam-to the wind and rolled a good 10°-15°. We stayed in the pilothouse through the entire outburst, watching the radar set and the chart plotter. It was all over in the span of perhaps five minutes, the storm racing away as fast as it had approached.

I changed into my swim suit, grabbed the waterproof camera, and made my way onto the flybridge. I was able to get the canvas off the wind instruments and get them down, and Louise and I were able to pull the shredded canvas back on top of the frame and throw a rope over it to keep it from causing any further damage.

Aftermath; The top ripped down the middle and flipped over to starboard. Cheap string of patio lights hung on for the whole storm.

While I was working on the instruments. I noticed a trio of jet-skis carrying five young ladies clad only in bikinis and life vests race by upriver, presumably back to their dock. They had passed us in the other direction perhaps an hour or so earlier. It was 95° and sunny when they left the dock; I can only imagine what they went through riding this thing out on PWCs, with no warning. And then, when it was over, they froze their buns riding miles back in 57°. They have more of a story to tell than we do.

Aftermath on the aft deck. I had to move one chair just to get out.

Replacing the ripped canvas is going to be a major pain. Most marine canvas shops are booked out weeks, if not months, in advance, and even when they are ready to start, it can be two weeks or more between measurement and final installation. What lies ahead of us now are dozens of phone calls to canvas shops trying to find one who can squeeze us into their schedule and which is somewhere between here and the northeast. It's daunting.

We can't just leave it undone. There's lots of stuff up on the flybridge, including the hatch from the pilothouse, that depends somewhat on coverage it provides to keep the majority of rainwater at bay. Also, the shade it provides keeps the heat load down in the galley and pilothouse. So this project is now our top priority.

A different view, showing how the weather stations were pushed over by the canvas.

That being said, this soft top was living on borrowed time, and owed us nothing. It was installed nearly 13 years ago, toward the end of 2007, by our good friend John, who owned the boat before us. It served faithfully and without issue for the remainder of his ownership and well into ours, until calamity befell it ten years later when the center seam parted as we rode out Tropical Storm Cindy in Biloxi, Mississippi in 2017. At that time, we taped it together and held it down with a rope until we could get to Charleston.

Furniture blows over violently on the aft deck as we take a broadside gust.

We spent three full months in Charleston, and while we had that much downtime, we got quotes from three local canvas places to repair or replace the top. All of them quoted replacement and suggested that was what was really needed; none thought we could get even another year from it. But one was willing to repair it, without guarantee, for a lot less than replacement, so that's what we did. Long-time readers may recall I took the opportunity to remove and relocate all the equipment that had been bolted on top of it so we could again have a lowerable mast.

Two years later, we were very glad we had not yet invested in a complete replacement top when a lightning strike shot a piece of VHF antenna fiberglass through the top like a bullet, leaving an oblong hole. I covered the hole with repair tape made for the purpose and called it good enough.

Our older anemometer was a casualty of the situation. Maybe I can find some vanes.

So full replacement of the top has been a long time coming, and is one of the projects we had in mind for our next major yard visit, perhaps toward the end of this year. Now its time has come just a tad sooner. Previous thoughts of perhaps including some solar panels in that process will likely be forsaken in the name of expedience.

In the meantime I have taken my cue from Mythbusters, and duct-taped what's left of the top into an inobtrusive and semi-usable position. More duct tape and some scissor surgery is needed when everything dries out. The duct taped result will not survive even mild winds, so it is, at best, a very short-term proposition.

The calm after the storm. We had a lovely sunset after a pleasant dinner.

Of course, I still need to fix the helm computer, and the anchor rollers have stopped turning and need replacing, and the satellite dish stopped working two weeks ago and needs to be looked at. Proving the maxim that cruising is just working on your boat in new and interesting locations.

Tomorrow I hope to put the tender in the water, go check out the dam, and maybe get ashore at the nearby campground and marina. Perhaps we'll then make our way partway back downriver and see if we can anchor in another scenic spot.


  1. I haven't checked on you folks in a while but we're anchored (on fresh water in northern SK) and that made me think of you. Yachting is paying someone to make repairs in exotic locations. Boating is doing the repairs yourself in exotic locations.

    1. That sums it up, Bob. We were hoping to cruise your fair country this year, but it looks like the bad behavior of our countrymen will keep us out.

  2. I almost hate to recommend it with a straight face, but I'd consider trying some FlexSeal tape for a temporary repair. I have a "just ok" quality canvas grill cover I patched last fall that's holding up quite well, and it's in total sunshine during the day and survived subzero Minnesota winter, too.

    I've also used the liquid variety of FlexSeal with other fabric material and found it to be remarkably durable, so durable you wish it would wear out so you could replace it right.

    1. While it might be waterproof, it does not have the tensile strength. The soft top relies on being "stretched" over the frame with a fair amount of tension on the lacing. We did repair a hole in the top, from a lightning strike, with tape.

  3. Big!!
    Sean if that is a Acurite weather station you can buy the whole top section that includes all the cups etc for $15 or so. Been there done that.

    1. I have a new set of cups in my Amazon cart. Ten bucks. I just need to be someplace with a locker.


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