Monday, November 6, 2023

The longest night

We are underway southbound in the Atlantic Ocean, running about seven nautical miles offshore of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina as I begin typing. Our destination is downtown Savannah, Georgia, on our first overnight passage in almost nine months, since leaving Fort Myers Beach for Key West. We're bracing ourselves for a difficult night, for reasons I will relate shortly.

Sunday afternoon a week ago, seas on the Pamlico continued to build, and we questioned whether we had made the right decision. We had to come in as close as depth would allow to the lee of Cedar Island, but once there things were flat enough for a comfortable night. We dropped the hook further west of the ferry terminal this time (map) and were undisturbed by the lights, sound, and wakes of the ferries.

Sunset over Cedar Island from our anchorage.

Monday morning we weighed anchor and made our way into the Neuse River and then down Adams Creek to Beaufort. We arrived to Taylor Creek downtown to find the anchorage absolutely packed with cruising sailboats; the power boats, it seems, all tied up at the town docks instead. No matter how full the anchorage gets, "our spot" nestled between a daybeacon and a skeleton tower for a range light (map) is almost always available, and we dropped the hook there before 3pm.

I sounded the anchorage in the dinghy to see if we had enough depth to our south when the forecast northerly blow would arrive overnight, and as a result we relocated about ten yards closer to the channel. In the evening we headed ashore for dinner at Finz Grill, a new venue for us. The food was decent and they had some nice drafts. Their deck would have been a more pleasant space, but it was a bit chilly and we opted for an inside table.

Sunrise over Pamlico Sound from the same spot.

Tuesday we had figured to just stay put and have a down day, with no outside window in sight and pleasant temperatures finally prevailing. When Louise started the generator in the morning to turn the heaters on, she noticed the thermostat in the forward berth reporting the temperature under the berth, where the return register is located, as 81°F. With a seawater temperature of just 65°F, we knew something was not right.

Under the berth are located the bow thruster, the washdown pump, and the batteries that serve the thruster, windlass, and pump, along with a charger for those batteries. But all those items had been switched off since dropping anchor some 15 hours earlier. That meant the heat was coming from the batteries themselves, or the DC side of the charging circuit (the charger was turned off at its AC breaker).

Vector nestled between a marker and the range light as the sun sets over Carrot Island.

Unexplained heating in an electrical system on a boat is not something to be taken lightly, and so my down day quickly devolved into climbing under the berth in my work clothes to investigate. The entire bay is covered in a fine layer of graphite dust that sheds from the thruster brushes, and it's tricky to avoid tracking that all over the house. One possible explanation for the heating, of course, would be that same graphite layer making a high-resistance connection across the battery terminals. The thruster batteries have been showing signs of failure since we left the yard, adding to the concern.

I ended up removing the charger altogether and taking it apart on the bench. It had plenty of graphite in it, unhelpfully deposited there by its own forced-air cooling fan. I also found a partially melted capacitor. Oddly, it was still charging the batteries right up until I removed it. While I am sure I can replace the bad capacitor, and maybe remove most of the graphite with cleaner, there's not a lot of percentage in fixing a 20-year-old charger and then subject it to more abuse. I cleaned it as best I could, carefully removing the melted bits of cap, and reinstalled it until I could replace it. That cured the heating issue, and I ordered a sealed (IP67) but smaller unit as a replacement for delivery to our next stop.

The inside of the charger, covered with brush dust. Blown cap is center frame.

Tuesday was Halloween, and when we went ashore for dinner we encountered a few costumed children in town. We landed at Mezcalito for dinner, where the entire staff was costumed, along with a few of the patrons. El Día de los Muertos is a big deal in Mexican culture, and a festive atmosphere on the eve is part of that. I could not capture any decent photos, but we enjoyed being there, as well as watching the children trick-or-treating.

In the middle of dinner the couple seated at the next table reached out to say hello. It turned out to be one of our former Red Cross Disaster Technology colleagues, Bill, with whom we worked in North Carolina after Hurricane Irene, way back in 2011, along with his wife Nicole. They, too, have a boat, which was at the Town Dock, and he's been messaging me as they follow along here. It was great to bump into them and to meet Nicole.

The feral horses of the Rachel Carson preserve come within a hundred yards of Vector.

We ended up spending one more full day in Beaufort, to give ourselves a more favorable tide for the next leg to Camp Lejeune and to wait out the wind. It was too cold to work outside or go ashore for kicks, so I got a few things done around the boat. We met up with Bill and Nicole over dinner at Black Sheep, with things having warmed up just enough for the tender ride not to be a misery. It was great to have the time to catch up.

Thursday morning we had an early 6:45 departure to make the 12:30 bridge opening at Onslow Beach. The bridge is under construction, and the rest of the day a work barge reduces the channel width to just 20'. That's normally not a problem for us, but we preferred to avoid threading the needle with just two feet on either side in stiff winds with our brand new paint job. We made the opening with time to spare, and had to station-keep in stiff current.

We're in the middle of the snowbird migration and the anchorage is packed. We're the only power boat.

Making such an early bridge opening put us at Mile Hammock just after 1pm, and with only one other boat already anchored we dropped our hook right in the middle of the bay (map). The bay is completely surrounded by Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, and when we arrived some marines were out practicing man-overboard drills and whatever else they do in their jet-drive RIBs. It was an early end to the day but there is really no place else we can get from there in the daylight. By nightfall there were over a dozen boats anchored.

Water-borne jarheads.

Friday, after the usual slog through two poorly-spaced bridges, we dropped the hook in our regular spot in Wrightsville Beach (map). Once again we re-positioned our anchor not long afterward, this time on account of an unoccupied anchored sailboat that looked like it might have an excessive amount of rode out. Still, we were set in plenty of time for me to go ashore with the e-bike for errands. Those included dropping off an old radar display I had sold on eBay, picking up my shiny new Victron battery charger from the Amazon locker, and loading up on provisions at the Harris Teeter store.

I was back at Vector just in time to drop everything off, pick up Louise, and head back ashore to beat the Friday crowd at our favorite local joint Tower 7 Baja Grill. We were a bit stunned to find it closed for a private event, apparently a wedding for a former staffer. It took us a moment to regroup, and we walked over to the South Beach Grill instead.

Sunset over Mile Hammock anchorage.

The current started reversing after we returned home, and we both kept a wary eye on the unoccupied boat, still unsure of their scope. We swing differently from sailboats to begin with, and our heavy chain compared to the rope rode they were using can exacerbate the difference in swing rates. We were nervous enough out it that after Louise turned in for the night, I set a ten-minute timer on my watch and got up to check the distance every ten minute for another half hour. The gap was opening, and, satisfied we were not overlapping, I turned the timer off.

So I am sure you can guess by now that a jostle at 11:30 or so made me jump out of my seat to see that it had untangled from whatever it was lightly hooked on and covered the 200' between us to come alongside, the first time for us in a decade of cruising. It was a ratty boat and likely had a screw protruding from the rub rail, so we now have our first scratch on the new paint (well, other than the ones we had before we left the yard). It's small and not through to the steel, and can't really be seen from ten feet away -- I could not even capture it with the camera -- so no big deal, but I had a fraught night.

Vector silhouetted against the sunset in Banks Channel, Wrightsville Beach.

Of course, Louise had to gear up and come help me fend off, then back away, weigh anchor, and re-set in the dark. We found a different spot that was an even tighter squeeze (map), and it's a good thing we know this anchorage by heart. In the morning I calculated that they were on 200' of scope, in a dozen feet of water and a very tight, popular anchorage.

Before she had headed off to bed, Louise, the consummate weather router, had projected that we might be able to make an outside run today at least as far as Charleston, and so we opted to just spend another night in Wrightsville Beach. With more pleasant temperatures I walked to the Blockade Runner mid day and learned they have just instituted a new menu in their restaurant that makes it more appealing. Of course, at dinner time, we had to get our Tower 7 fix.

From on deck in Banks Channel. This little power cruiser near us is a Rangeboat.

After dinner we realized this window could get us well beyond Charleston, with Savannah being a longer overnight option, and Jacksonville a two-night proposition. As much as we like Charleston, the option to bypass a huge number of problematic shallow spots and do a lot less work at the helm proved too great. But we had to pick a destination, because Savannah was a morning departure, whereas Jacksonville, like Charleston, would be an afternoon departure.

Complicating things right now is our sleep schedule. In normal times, I'm up to around 2am every night, with Louise sound asleep before 10. That makes our overnight watch schedule a cinch; she retires early at 8pm and I take the watch to 3am. She rises early and takes over until 9am when I come back on watch. But six months in the boatyard, waking at 6am, has thrown my own timing off, with a series of early-morning departures coming down the coast slowing the return of my normal circadian rhythm. Having Daylight Savings end just a day before passage is not helping matters.

Dolphins in our bow wave never gets old. This one was among a group in the very murky Adams Creek. Today on the ocean we had a couple of different groups, including one with three very playful spotted examples. Here in the ocean we can see them well below the surface.

I managed to make it past 2am Saturday night, but just barely, and then, of course, it became 1am. We had a leisurely morning yesterday, going ashore on the ICW side and walking to the Sweet N Savory Cafe for brunch and to pick up a couple of last minute items at Harris Teeter. We weighed anchor with a favorable tide to take us to Tina's Pocket (map), the closest comfortable anchorage to the Cape Fear river for a morning departure.

I was able to stay up until 2:20 last night with great effort, but I was still up before 7 this morning. That let us get an earlier start down the river, which proved to be a good thing because the anchor roller jammed as we were weighing and we had to fiddle with it. All of which leads me to say, it's going to be a long night. I got a little nap in earlier, and I hope to grab another after dinner and before I take the watch alone.

Sunset over Southport from our anchorage in the Cape Fear River last night.

That tipped the scale in favor of Savannah, rather than the two-night passage to Jacksonville, normally not a big deal for us (the second and subsequent nights are always easier than the first). Plus, we have good friends there and it will be great to see them if the stars align. We left the Cape Fear by way of the Western Bar Channel and have been holding about 7nm off the coast, giving us a nice counter-current push; at this moment the plotter says we should arrive at the Savannah River with the flood and be downtown by dinner time. We shall see if this project holds through the night.

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