Saturday, November 11, 2017

Countdown to Freedom

I'm flying my last trip before we start our cruising season, a 4-day to Santiago, Chile. I won't get any landings on this trip (two legs, three pilots) but it's not a big deal as I reestablished landing currency on my domestic trip earlier this week. Airline pilots have to make three landings every 90 days; if this lapses, I have to make a trip to Atlanta to reestablish currency in the flight simulator. Last winter I pretty well flew under the radar by making sure I stayed current, and I plan to do that again this year by flying a trip every six to eight weeks. I'll likely fly in late December (commuting from Georgetown, Exuma) and then again in early February (commuting from Luperon, DR) and late March (USVI/BVI). I'm fortunate to be flying the Boeing 757/767 as it is a relatively simple, intuitive airliner to fly after an extended absence.

I only had one full day off after my last trip (plus two partial days) and it was a cold, rainy day at that, but we've made good progress on our project list. In my absence Dawn reprovisioned the boat, sewed the cockpit cushions and handrail covers, started the dorade covers, bottom-painted the dinghy, UV-proofed all the canvas, cleaned the Issenglass, refilled the propane cylinders, and several other big projects. Together we removed, inspected, cleaned, and bent on the headsails, inspected the rig, serviced the outboard, inspected and remarked the anchor chain, disassembled and cleaned the grill, etc. A diver came and cleaned Windbird's bottom and running gear and changed the zinc. A fuel polisher is coming this weekend to help us clean out our diesel tanks. In the engine room, I rebuilt the fuel system using some really nifty fuel feed and return manifolds I created - it's a really clean install that replaced a rather ramshackle one. I replaced our VHF whip antenna only to find it didn't fix our antenna problems, and then spent a rather frustrating rainy day troubleshooting the three sections of old coaxial and replacing PL259s before finally concluding I should just replace the whole thing. The new RG213 coax should arrive tomorrow, and running it down the mast and through the boat will be the first order of business when I get back on Monday. On the other hand, my plan to troubleshoot the SSB tuner was resolved in very quick fashion when I raised Chris Parker on 8137 KHz yesterday and he reported our signal loud and clear. I'm pretty sure the last try or two I simply wasn't giving the tuner enough time to tune up on a nearby frequency. It takes a good 5-10 seconds of whistling/humming before the SWR settles down to less than 1.5:1. This is a huge relief, the first time I've been able to raise anybody at long distance on our SSB (the old tuner was fried by last year's lightning strike). I still have a couple other projects left, but they should take a couple days at most.

All our cruising friends are on the move already. John and Trina on S/V Next Place leapfrogged us to Charleston and then Fernandina Beach FL; they'll spend some time in St. Augustine before heading to Abaco about the same time as us. Erin & Kara on S/V Vela hopped offshore from Beaufort five minutes before us, stopped for a couple days in Georgetown SC, and are now already in Fort Lauderdale; they'll cross after spending Thanksgiving with family back in Texas. Dan & Isabelle sold S/V Epiic in Annapolis and are back in Canada already working hard on their next venture to pay for their dream catamaran so they can get back out there with us ASAP. Ernie & Bette on S/V Iemanga just arrived back at Lightkeepers Marina and will be heading south a couple weeks after us. And various other cruising acquaintances are on the move, all generally moving south and east.

Our plan once I get back on Monday is to continue working on projects until (if) we get a good weather window anytime after the 15th, and then hop offshore to Marsh Harbour - about 430 miles, say 3-4 days. This involves crossing the Gulf Stream on the first night out, requiring no strong N or E wind, followed by a run almost straight S during which we'd like to see as little southerly component as possible. This is a bit of a tall order and it's very possible no weather window will be forthcoming, in which case we'll head south along the coast until a good window for crossing the stream presents itself or we get to Ft. Pierce, whichever happens first. We'd love to celebrate Thanksgiving in Abaco, but as always the weather dictates all. We're just happy to be almost ready to cast off the docklines and go cruising again.

Monday, November 6, 2017

After the Storms - What Now?

Our plan for this cruising season, like all sailing plans, has evolved over time. At one point were were thinking we'd go offshore to the Leeward Islands, but then our three wonderful months in the Bahamas last winter convinced us to return there and do the "Thorny Path" island-hopping through the Southern Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Each of these are legitimate cruising destinations in their own right, though slightly more "off the beaten path" than the Lesser Antilles. We planned to finish the year with a few months of cruising the northern Leewards (Spanish Virgins, USVI, BVI) before putting Windbird on the hard in Fajardo, PR for Summer 2018.

That was before this hurricane season, which changed so much throughout the Caribbean but especially the BVI, USVI, and Puerto Rico. First came Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest hurricanes on record that scored an absolute bullseye hit on the BVI and caused extensive damage on Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. John, St. Thomas, Culebra, Providenciales (Turks & Caicos), numerous islands in the southern Bahamas, Cuba, & the Florida Keys. Puerto Rico was spared the worst of Irma's wrath, but only two weeks later was dealt a devastating punch by Hurricane Maria. The island's infrastructure is thoroughly wrecked and it will take years to rebuild. Many residents have fled, and those who've stayed behind (including Judy Handley's son Justin & his family) are living in rather primitive conditions.

This has understandably changed quite a few cruisers plans for the coming season. Quite a few of those we've talked to are skipping straight down to the Lesser Antilles from Antigua southward. Others are spending more time in the northern and central Bahamas. Some are just staying home this year. And others are pressing on to their original destinations, but understanding that it'll be a more primitive, self-sufficient cruising experience, and perhaps with a different focus than before.

We considered skipping ahead or concentrating on the Bahamas, but ultimately decided to visit the T&C, DR, PR, USVI and BVI as planned. Part of our reasoning is that Windbird is already well-equipped for self-sufficiency, & we weren't really planning to take many docks along the way. The good anchorages before are still good anchorages today (and a lot less crowded, with the charter fleet in ruins). These islands' economies are largely tied to tourism, and by going and spending our dollars there we can help them get on their feet. And there will doubtless be opportunities to volunteer in a more hands-on fashion, helping with cleanup and rebuilding. So we're going to go, keep open minds & hearts, stay flexible, and experience what will undoubtedly be one of the more unique cruising seasons in the northern Caribbean in recent memory.

We are changing our timeline a bit. We're planning to cross to the Bahamas a little later than planned, the first weather window after November 16th. We'll spend a little time in the Abacos and Eleuthera before heading down the Exumas, hoping to arrive in Georgetown around December 20th. We plan to leave the boat there and fly back north for family Christmases (and for me to fly a trip to reestablish landing currency) before returning to Georgetown for NYE. In January we'll hop through the southern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, and we'll spend most of February in the Dominican Republic. We were originally planning to spend March exploring Puerto Rico, but I think our cruising there is going to be more limited & transitory unless we find a well-protected port where we can stick around and be useful. We'll spend some time on Culebra and Vieques, and will probably stick around St. John for a week or two. The balance of the season, though, will likely be spent in the British Virgin Islands.

This is a bit of a change from our original plan, which didn't call for a lot of time in the BVIs. Partially this is because we've done it multiple times, partly because it was crowded with charter boats and expensive mooring balls. The beach bar scene there was fun for a week-long charter, but not something we (or our livers!) can afford to do long-term. So our BVI plan was to hit up our favorite party spots (Jost van Dyke, North Sound, Norman's Island) for a night or two at most, hang out in Cane Garden Bay & Anegada for a few nights each, and otherwise seek out the few quiet coves that the charter boats don't make it to.

The BVI we knew, though, is essentially gone - at least for now. All our favorite beach hangouts - Soggy Dollar, Bitter End YC, Saba Rock, Willy T, Bomba Shack, de Loose Mongoose, Last Resort, Anegada Beach Club - are all destroyed or severely damaged (as are many of their owners' and employees' homes). Most of the charter boat fleet sunk or was written off, including my friend Duncan Roberts' beautiful new Jeanneau 51 "Portlandia." So this is a chance to cruise the BVI as it was years ago, before it became a charter mecca, and help the people rebuild what was lost. Because we feel a connection with the BVI from our prior time spent there, this feels like a worthy use of the last two or so months of the cruising season.

The big question is where we put Windbird for hurricane season. Our original plan was to put her on the hard at Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, PR. They have a good hurricane-hardened yard that did very well during Maria. That said, Nanny Cay in the BVI was considered a safe yard and nearly every boat there was a loss to Irma. You can argue that a Cat 5+ direct hit is a once-every-500-years occurrence, but I suspect the insurance companies are going to be very, very leery of insuring anything left in "the box" for the next few hurricane seasons, no matter how well-secured. So that's a conversation we'll be having with our insurance the next few months, and we may end up changing our plans and taking Windbird down to Grenada or Trinidad for hurricane season.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cruising Season 2.0 Has Begun!

Hooray - at last, we've started moving south again! Dawn, Piper and I kicked the new season off with a six day, 452 NM trip from Deale, MD down to Little River, SC. The weather made it more challenging than the reverse trip, which we did nonstop offshore around Hatteras in light weather in late June. This time we did a large portion of the trip, Norfolk to Beaufort NC, via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), which is a similar distance but considerably slower than going offshore since you don't continue moving 24/7. I'm continuing to fly through mid-November and had a 6-day trip reporting yesterday (10/28), and for a while it looked like we wouldn't make it to Little River in time - plan B was to dock in Beaufort and commute out of New Bern. But thanks to a couple of early morning starts we were able to put in serious miles and get it done. Our itenerary was as follows:

Sat, Oct 21. I landed at DCA at 5pm following a 7-day international trip, during which I had a 48-hour layover in Paris on which Dawn accompanied me (thanks John & Trina for dogsitting Piper!). We rented a car and spent most of our time in Normandy touring the D-Day beaches, landing zones and battle sites. I had been considering getting off the dock immediately after getting in, but that only made sense if we were exiting the Chesapeake and going offshore. A big low pressure system and associated cold front forecast for Tuesday made that inadvisable, and there was no sense leaving early if we were going via the ICW because it's roughly 24 hours from Deale to Norfolk meaning we'd arrive there around sunset. So instead we went to Happy Harbour dockside restaurant for a farewell dinner with John & Trina and dockmates Gus and Michelle.

Sun, Oct 22. Up at 4am and off the dock by 5. It was, of course, pitch dark, but we're quite familiar with Shipwright's Harbor and Herring Bay by now so navigation was quite easy. The main danger is crab traps; to keep from fouling one, Dawn stood on the bow with the spotlight until we were out of Herring Bay. This providing an exciting moment when the spotlight's lanyard somehow came loose and Dawn accidentally dropped it in the water! It was good MOB (man overboard) practice anyways, since our spotlight floats. I just dropped a waypoint immediately, slowed the boat, turned around, and inched back towards where we dropped the light. Dawn found it using a headlamp, I stopped the boat alongside and used a boat hook to shepherd it towards the lifeline gate, Dawn leaned wayyy down (with me holding tightly to her legs!) and fished it out of the water. Sweet - those things are like $75!

The rest of the day down the Bay was uneventful, with light air motoring and later motorsailing in light southeasterlies. After sunset the wind picked up a bit and backed, and we got in a couple hours of actual sailing on a close reach during the night.

Mon, Oct 23. We entered the always-busy Hampton Roads inlet just after 3am; it took several hours to navigate the huge Norfolk naval base & dockyards, downtown wharf, and lower Elizabeth River to the start of the ICW. There's a bascule bridge near mile marker 6 (MM6; all distances on the ICW are in Statute Miles, not NM) that doesn't open between 6:30am and 8:30am, we were trying to beat that. We were a few minutes late but the bridge tender let us and another boat through anyways after a 20-minute delay, since the adjacent railroad bridge was down and preventing transit since several minutes before 6:30. While we waited for the bridge we enjoyed the sunrise & admired the other boat (S/V Arun). Our delay at the bridge had a bit of a cascade effect: we missed the 8am lockthrough at Great Bridge Lock (MM12), which delayed us an hour till the 9am lockthrough, which meant a greater portion of the day was spent fighting against increasing southerly winds, which meant we didn't make it to our preferred anchorage at MM65 (Broad Creek), instead tucking in behind Buck Island near MM60. It turned out to be a good choice because we had perfect protection from the south while the winds howled all night. I saw a high of 30 knots when I got up at 2am to make sure we hadn't dragged at all. Later we heard that south of Albemarle Sound boats reported over 50 knots of wind in some wild prefrontal storms.

Tues, Oct 24: The wind had abated considerably in our anchorage by sunrise, and PredictWind's PWG model showed much less wind for the morning than previously predicted (though the GFS remained elevated). I was originally planning to just reposition to Broad Creek but in light of the possible easing I decided to check out conditions on Albemarle Sound and cross if it looked ok. Oof, I needn't have bothered. Once we were on the sound itself, wind was right on the nose at 20 knots gusting 23. We were pounding into big short, square waves and making less than 2 knots headway, and turned around after a mile to flee for the protection of the calm anchorage. The rest of the day quite a few boats joined us there, looking to position themselves to cross the next day.

Wed, Oct 25. We had anchored just outside Broad Creek itself in preparation for a nighttime escape, which we made good at 2:45am. The ICW offers few open-water opportunities for safe nighttime movement, but this is one of them. The front had passed during the night and the wind was now 270 at 12-15, making for a beautiful, reasonably comfortable upwind leg across the Albemarle. I'd been expecting to motorsail but was able to sail much of the way across, handsteering by the stars while Dawn slept below. The only slightly tricky part was going around Long Shoal to enter the Alligator River, but most of the buoys for this area are lit. Our goal was to arrive at the Alligator River Swing Bridge at dawn, which worked perfectly. It was a nice motorsail down the Alligator River until the wind died completely, then we motored into the long, straight Alligator-Pungo Canal. We emerged into the Pungo River shortly before 3pm, making a record-fast stop at Dowry Creek Marina to top off our port & starboard fuel tanks. By now the wind had kicked up again out of the NW, and after the river turned south at Belhaven we had a spectacular broad reach for the last hour down to our anchorage at MM140. We had covered 75 statute miles and put ourselves in a great position to make Beaufort by Thursday night, and still had a good hour to enjoy sundowners before sunset.

Thurs, Oct 26. Another predawn start from a protected but easy-exit anchorage, this time at 5am. The Pamlico River isn't quite as wide as the Albemarle Sound, and I wanted to arrive at the other side and start up Goose Creek at dawn. The cold front had stalled and it was considerably windier than forecast (NW @ 24 kts) making for a wet and wild nighttime motorsail across the Pamlico. Once in protected Goose Creek, it immediately eased to near-calm. We reemerged into Bay River at 8:30am and turned into the Neuse River near Maw Point Shoal at 9:30am. It was windy as hell out there and we started our first leg, a beam-to-close reach on a starboard tack, under double-reefed main and staysail. I was expecting a hell of a beat because the Neuse turns progressively to the right but the wind veered and eased, and we were able to lay our course the whole way 'round. It ended up being a fast and enormously enjoyable 3-hour upwind sail, though at times Dawn and Piper weren't quite so enthused.

So the anticipated slow part of the day ended up being fast, but the expected fast part of the day (Adams Creek & the Core Creek Canal) was excruciatingly slow thanks to a 1.3 knot foul current. Had I done my homework better, I would have read that westerly winds set up lowered water levels in the Neuse and northerly current in Core Creek Canal. Nevertheless we arrived at the Beaufort-Morehead City Highway Bridge (MM204) at exactly our planned time of 4pm, with a welcoming committee of dolphins! Piper, as always, went wild & looked like he was going to jump in to swim with them. From there it was only a short jaunt out of Beaufort Inlet to begin our offshore overnight to Little River. Unfortunately the wind eased rather rapidly & we didn't get to sail-sail any of it. But there was still enough wind to make the first 50 or 60 miles a fast, enjoyable main-and-Yankee motorsail under reduced power. The sunset was gorgeous; it felt great to be on the open ocean again. Our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela were just ahead of us, as they had been since Adams Creek. We talked on the VHF sporadically, but found that we lost contact after only 5 or 6 miles separation (our handheld could still receive at this range). This confirmed our suspicions about our VHF reception, which has been an ongoing issue since leaving Charleston in January - we originally suspected our radio and then a particular PL259 connector, which I had replaced. I hooked up our SWR meter in line with the antenna and the high reading confirmed we still have an antenna problem. Once in Little River, I climbed our mast and took off the VHF whip. It appears to be in very poor condition, with one partially-melted wire that looks like it may have been a product of last year's lightning strike (so maybe a direct strike after all?). A new one has been ordered, hopefully this finally solves that issue. Now if only I can figure out why our new HF autotuner still won't tune.

Fri, Oct 27. An uneventful night with little traffic and little wind, followed by an incredible sunrise over glassy seas. Considering the light conditions we took a little bit of a shortcut across 25-foot soundings at the tip of the Frying Pan Shoals south of Cape Fear. The light breeze continued clocking NE and then E, keeping our mainsail full as we turned ENE for Little River Inlet. The fair current we'd experienced all night continued to favor us and we got to the Inlet at 2:30pm, and on the dock in Little River before 4pm. During the day we'd made a lengthy and rather daunting list of everything we need to do before taking off for the Bahamas in mid-November, and we launched into it immediately after docking and early the next morning before I headed to the airport.

I'll be working trips until Nov 13, meaning every second of my free time has to be spent getting us and the boat ready to go. That's ok, it's a price worth paying for what promises to be an incredible cruising season. In my next post I'll give a preview of where we'll be going and what we'll be doing, and how Hurricanes Irma and Maria have affected those places and our plans.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Solar Project is DONE!

Dawn and I did end up missing the SSCA gam due to a couple of unforseen events. First, our local welder wunderkind Caleb had the long-awaited solar panel frames all ready to install on our solar/davit arch, needed my help to do so, and wanted to get it done this weekend. Secondly, Dawn's childhood friend Cindie decided to make a last-minute trip to the boat. So sadly, we missed the gam. Erin & Kara on Vela say it was a good time. Hopefully we'll still make a couple days of the Annapolis Boat Show.

I did some work on our teak decks over the weekend (replacing/rebedding screws & bungs, epoxying splits) and I should finish that up in the morning, but completing the solar panel project was the main objective. And as of tonight, it's 100% done. We now have 520 watts of solar power: 200 watts in 4 PV panels on the Bimini top and two 160-watt panels in the gleaming new frames on the arch. Together with our wind gen this should meet our daily electrical needs a good 90%+ of the time.

We did manage to get Windbird off the dock yesterday for a nice easy, slow upwind sail across the bay. I had no idea Windbird would go upwind in 5-6 knots of true wind, but she does albeit at a stately 2.5-3.5 knots. We didn't even care, it was beautiful out and the apparent breeze was just enough to cool down a hot day. We anchored at Lowes Wharf just after 5:30pm and took the dogs to land (we're dogsitting Leo for our friends John & Trina on S/V Next Place). Turned out the popular beach bar there is closed on Mondays but they were ok with us walking the dogs there. We had a beautiful, quiet night on the hook, and were anchor up early today to get Cindie to DCA to fly back to Minnesota. We sailed for a bit and motorsailed at reduced power for the rest, wing-on-wing dead downwind to Deale. Once again backing into the slip went very smoothly. We're finally getting the hang of that (he said just before trying it in real wind & current!).

We spent a lot of time today doing planning for our next season. Obviously many of the places we planned on visiting have been devastated by hurricanes Irma and Marie, including the Turks & Caicos, Puerto Rico, Spanish Virgin Islands, USVI, BVI, and St. Maarten. We're still planning on going but our focus will be much different as we're going to try to volunteer as much as we can in the rebuilding effort (particularly in the BVI, which got absolutely destroyed by a direct hit from Cat 5, 185-mph Irma). I'll post more about that later. Tomorrow I'm heading out on a seven-day international trip that will take me to both London and Paris, among other places. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Rest of the Story

Well, the transmission install went considerably smoother than taking it out. That's partially due to being more familiar with it this time, partially because we eliminated the unnecessary pillow block under the engine that made the driveshaft such a bear to take out & put in, but mostly because I had Dave Laux there to help. Actually, I wouldn't say he helped - in fact, he did the lion's share of the work, and I helped him. He's an older guy and is mostly retired from wrenching on boats these days, but obviously still has a great talent for it. We were fortunate to have the contact with him through the Handleys.

The installation took place on Wednesday, not Tuesday as originally planned, because the ordered shift and throttle cables didn't show up at Dave's on Monday. Instead on Tuesday I cleaned the bilge and engine compartment, repacked the stuffing box, and a few other boat chores. Our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela, who we met in Annapolis last year, came down from New York and docked right behind us on Tuesday morning. It was really nice to spend some time with them; we had happy hour on Vela, went to downtown Cape May for dinner, and then had a nightcap on Windbird.

Dave pulled up at 10:45am on Wednesday, fresh off the Lewes-Cape May ferry, with the shiny new transmission and other assorted bits and bobs in the right seat of his pickup truck. He had a machine shop straighten and polish our driveshaft which I had beat up a bit while trying to get the rusty couplings off. Our first order of business was to insert it below the engine and get it in position for transmission installation. Next we removed the old dampener plate from the flywheel of the engine and bolted in a new one. Then I installed the old adapter plate and isolator flange on the new transmission, as well as a new oil cooler. That left the really tricky part: maneuvering the heavy transmission into an impossibly tight spot between the engine and the front of the engine room, slipping it over the driveshaft, lining up the input shaft splines with the dampener plate, sliding it aft against the engine, and getting a bolt started before it slipped away again. It was a two-man job with only room for one person to actually do it. It only took five minutes but seemed a lot longer. At that point we realized that the aft drive shaft coupling was actually behind the prop shaft coupling, and mating them required somehow moving it forward - preferably without taking the transmission back off the engine! It took a while, but we got it, then took a lunch break for Dawn's excellent taco salad and a craft beer.

At this point we seemed 90% done, but we weren't really. We still had to bolt the aft couplings together, install the front split coupling, bolt it to the isolator flange, attach and clamp the raw water input and output hoses to the oil cooler, add oil to the transmission, run the new shift cable through the steering pedestal into the engine room, attach the linkage, then do the same for the new throttle cable (which we were replacing as a preventative measure). The last three tasks took the most time. We got some early payoff by starting the engine and testing the transmission without the linkage attached, at which point we realized the new transmission came with its shifting arm installed up rather than down. Not a big deal to change, but getting the linkage into place and adjusted just right took some doing. The throttle cable went considerably better. And just like that, we had a boat with a brand new, easy-shifting, beautifully working transmission!

We enjoyed a post-project beer and then Dave had to rush off to catch the 6pm ferry home. I reassembled the steering pedestal and binnacle, reinstalled the engine air box, and cleaned up the new cable routing with zip ties. After cleaning up my tools and project supplies, Dawn and I grilled steaks for dinner and then invited Erin & Kara over for a celebratory drink. It felt very, very good to have that installation behind us. And given Hurricane Jose's latest forecasts it felt good to be ready to head back to the Chesapeake.

We and Vela were off the dock at 7am the next morning and steaming out Cape May Inlet shortly thereafter. We were initially motorsailing into a 10 knot breeze, but it became a broad reach once we turned northward around the Cape. At first we motorsailed, then decided the wind was strong enough to turn off the engine. We were ok going a little bit slower as we were waiting for the incoming tide to catch up and give us a boost all the way up the bay. It soon did, but the wind also died after 90 minutes of light sailing; it was forecast to be light the rest of the day. Thus it was somewhat surprising to get a 17 kt gust at 1pm. We turned off the engine and roared off on a 7-knot beam reach. We kept waiting for the wind to die, but it never it - it stayed between 13 and 17 knots for four hours, making for a quick and really beautiful sail all the way up Delaware Bay. Finally it almost completely died at 5pm and we motored the last 45 minutes to the C&D canal.

We reached the C&D while it was still slack water in the canal, but we soon got a boost that pushed us along its 18 miles rather quickly; we exited into the Chesapeake right around 8pm. Erin and Kara stopped at an anchorage just east of the canal, while we continued on in the night. We kept our customary watch schedule: Dawn 7pm-10pm, me 10pm-1am, her 1am-4am, me 4am-7am. On her first watch she woke me for one boat that was crowding the channel a bit, but otherwise it was uneventful. On my first watch the fair current dwindled and then turned foul; the only traffic was a single tug pushing a barge. Dawn saw zero traffic on the dog watch, and neither did I on the sunrise watch until we were approaching Herring Bay at daybreak. It got light just in time for us to ready the lines and fenders and head straight into our marina. This time backing into our slip went very turns out that it's a ton easier when you have a transmission that readily and consistently slips into forward gear for the occasional steering blast over the rudder! In all our 139-nm passage took 24 hours and 5 minutes. Only 5.5 hours of that were pure sailing, but it was very nice sailing and most of the time motoring was very nice motoring (read: completely calm, not beating into waves like when we exited Cape May Inlet).

I was originally supposed to fly a 6-day international trip on the 14th but couldn't make it due to the delayed installation; I had to burn my once-a-year "get out of jail free" card to drop the trip. In its place I picked up two domestic trips, a two-day and a four-day, starting at 7am on the 16th. So after we arrived at 7am on the 15th, I slept a while, putzed around, talked to John and Trina from Next Place for a while (John had an absolutely insane story to tell - while we were gone he crewed on a delivery, in a catamaran that turned out to be not very seaworthy, with the owners from hell on board), and then packed for my trip. At 4:30 Dawn drove me to DCA, and despite heavy traffic we arrived in time for me to take an earlier than planned flight. I stayed overnight in Atlanta and started my 2-day domestic yesterday morning. I finished today and start the 4-day tomorrow. I'll be back on Windbird on Thursday night.

So Dawn and I are planning on attending the Seven Seas Cruising Association's Annapolis gam next weekend, and we were going to take Windbird there (it's at Camp Letts on the Rhode River, just north of Deale). However, the guy fabricating our new solar panel frames thinks they'll be ready for installation then, and that's something we really need to get done. So we may be leaving Windbird in the slip and driving, and I may have to miss one or both days of the gam if Caleb needs me to assist in the installation. Erin and Kara will have Vela at the gam and a few other friends may attend also, but getting the boat ready to go kinda takes precedence right now.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Brokedown Palace

Our trip started on a high note. The two projects that I mentioned in my previous post, replacing the HF radio tuner and installing the Garmin Gwind wired pack, both went well. I wasn't able to reach Chris Parker on the HF radio but I was able to call a friend at considerably closer distance, which narrows the potential culprits - and now our wind instrumentation works perfectly. Stringing its cable down the mast went surprisingly well, with Dawn's help.

So we got out of Deale on Wednesday, Aug 30th, and had a delightful motorsail in light winds to Annapolis, MD. We took a mooring in the inner harbor, and it was so good to be off the dock and cruising again. The next day involved a long motor in completely calm winds to Chesapeake City MD, and then early the next morning we transited the C&D Canal on a favorable current. A cold front had passed during the night, and as soon as we got out into Delaware Bay on Friday Sept 1st we were able to unfurl the sails and turn off the engine for a fantastic beam-to-broad reach to the S/SE, the delight of sailors everywhere. A squally warm front was pressing in from the south, but the forecast was just right for us to run up to New York Harbor before things got too crappy.

And then, just as we were exiting Delaware Bay, the wind died, we started up our engine, and then our transmission started acting up in rather dramatic fashion - refusing to stay in gear, particularly above 60% power. I had to laugh despite myself - this was exactly where Judy & Mark Handley experienced transmission trouble with Windbird in 2005, just as they set off to sail around the world. Then, they ducked into Delaware Bay and met a boat-mechanic genius that convinced them to repower their boat with a new Yanmar and the ZF transmission that was now, after 8400 hours of faithful service, giving up the ghost. Unfortunately I hadn't read that portion of Judy's blog in about a year and, failing to recall that the genius lived in Lewes, DE, took a left turn into Cape May, NJ.

Yeah, no, I'm not that sorry. Cape May has turned out to be a really cool place to be stranded for over a week. It's a funky old resort town turned artist commune, with a bunch of really great restaurants, art galleries, breweries, wineries, distilleries, and a cool naval air museum. We spent the first two days in a rather snooty high-end marina crowded with expensive sport-fishing boats and nearly no humans, then decamped to the much more sociable Two Mile Marina just past the Two-Mile Drawbridge. We've met some great people here who've provided great moral support as I've torn out the transmission and assorted hardware - a considerable task.

Judy Handley, bless her heart, emailed her Delawarian engine guru the moment she heard we were having trouble, and he called early the next morning. David Laux has been an absolute godsend. He gave me valuable guidance throughout the tear-out process. He called his old friends at Mack Boring for us, and hearing they no longer did transmission overhauls, called several other shops. They said ZF transmissions with this many hours on them generally aren't very economical to overhaul, so Dave found a new one in Florida for considerably cheaper than retail. They sent it our way before the Hurricane Irma evacuations got started in earnest. Dave came across to Cape May on the ferry today to make sure everything was ready for the install. He expects to receive the transmission on Monday, and he'll come back across on Tuesday to help me put it in the boat.

We drove up to New York City early Tuesday morning, checked into a hotel in Chelsea, and showed Dawn's mom all around town on a whirlwind, all-day tour ending with a broadway show. It was her first time in NYC and seemed to really enjoy herself, considering that it was a pretty exhausting day. On Wednesday we got her to Kennedy Airport for her rescheduled flight home (she was originally planning to fly out of Boston on Friday) and headed back to South Jersey.

We've been keeping a very close eye on Hurricane Irma as she's worked her way across the Atlantic (she was the Invest 93L I mentioned in my last post). For a while we were worried that she might make her way up here, where we're powerless to relocate to a less exposed spot. Instead she made an absolutely direct bullseye hit on Barbuda, St. Maarten, the British Virgin Islands, and the USVI. The devastation in the BVI is particularly painful, as we've spent so much time there on charters over the last five years. All of our favorite spots are gone, the charter boat fleet is mostly wrecked, and the people we got to know there are largely homeless. We still plan to go to that part of the Caribbean this coming season, but our focus will be drastically changed. Now we'll be loading Windbird up with supplies and volunteering to do relief work.

Tomorrow Irma will be making landfall in Florida; we're keeping our fingers crossed that she weakens and drifts further west, as she had done during much of the last 36 hours. And then we'll be keeping an eye on Jose, which the most recent models suggest may not be headed out to sea quite as soon as we thought. Ugh, this hurricane season is kinda stressful. I just want to get our transmission back in and operational, just in case we need to move our boat somewhere better. Should be there in another couple of days.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Back on the Boat

As you probably guessed by the dearth of blogging, Dawn and I have been off Windbird for the last month visiting family in Minnesota and the Dakotas, in addition to me flying several long international trips. We're back on the boat now, though, and preparing to head north to NYC and Long Island Sound on a 2-week minicruise. Our departure has been delayed by weather, namely Post-Potential Tropical Cyclone Ten that Would've Been Named Irma churning up the eastern seaboard. The rain stopped tonight and the north winds should die in the morning, so we're planning to leave Deale tomorrow afternoon or Thursday morning.

Dawn's mom Marg drove back from SD with her, and will be accompanying us on our cruise. She's flying out of Boston in about a week and a half, though we can change her flight if we get delayed much further. It's her first time seeing Windbird, and we're excited to share a little of our cruising life with her. Yesterday (Monday) we showed her around Washington DC, and today we went up to Annapolis.

While we were gone, I had our HF radio tuner tested at Burghardt Radio in Watertown, SD. It turned out to be the apparent culprit to our HF not transmitting, with damage consistent with last year's lightning near-strike. So we ordered a new autotuner, I installed it yesterday, and then today I called into the Chris Parker show...and got no response. So disappointing, but possibly just RF interference here in the marina. We'll see.

I went around with Garmin a bit on finding a solution to our malfunctioning GWind wireless transducer and finally asked to just have it replaced with the wired version, and they agreed. A Gwind wired pack was waiting when we got back to the boat on Sunday. I planned on installing it today (Tuesday) but it was pretty rainy so I'll work on it tomorrow before we take off. It'd be nice to have working wind instrumentation. It should be a fairly easy install as we already have a GND-10 networked into our N2k network; all I have to do is fish the Nexus cable down the mast (we have a pilot line) and through our cabin ceiling.

Our neighbors John and Trina on Next Place (a 2007 Valiant 50) are possibly coming with us up to NYC. I'll be fun to buddy boat with someone again. If everything goes right - a big if - we'll make it all the way to Windbird's old home of Quissett Harbor in Woods Hole, Mass. It's a gorgeous area and Judy Handley lives a few miles away in Falmouth. Even if we don't make it that far, I'd like to make it to Newport, RI. Judy could meet us there, Dawn's mom would be able to get to Boston to fly out, and it's the "other" U.S. sailing capitol besides Annapolis. But as with so much else, it all depends on the weather. After a slow start the hurricane season really got going in dramatic fashion this week; we're keeping a particularly close eye on Invest 93L.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Home Sweet Summer Home

The morning after my last post, the coolant pump for our engine finally arrived and I spent the day putting the engine back together. It now runs perfectly, leak-free, and quite a bit cooler than it ever did in the past - no more than 170° F, under load on a hot day. It was a really great feeling to fix it myself and gain a much better understanding of our engine's cooling system in the process. My other projects came together nicely, too, and I finished my ambitious to-do list only an hour before I left for my work trip to Lagos, Nigeria on June 24th. It had been an extremely busy, productive four days off work.

Dawn did a wonderful job of provisioning and readying the boat for departure while I was gone (and driving our Xterra north to MD!), and we were ready to leave as soon as I got back into town on Tuesday, June 27th. We said our goodbyes, did our final checks, and cast off the lines at 2pm. We had been in Georgetown, SC for a month and two days, and had come to really enjoy the town. It felt great to be finally moving on, though - the itinerant cruiser lifestyle agrees with us both, it seems. We left on an strong ebb tide and were steaming out into the Atlantic only two hours after departure. We had a benign weather window for rounding infamous Cape Hatteras offshore, sparing us from days of droning up the Intracoastal Waterway, but it wasn't a great sailing forecast for the first few days: no wind Tuesday, light to moderate northeasterlies Wednesday.

We put up the mainsail and in fact there was just enough northwest wind to keep us steady in the swells as we motored east through the night. During my 10pm-1am shift the engine began faltering; I shut it down, rolled out the headsail, and called Dawn up to take the helm while I changed a rather filthy Racor filter, a quick ten minute job. Our first offshore leg in a month had obviously churned up some sludge in the tanks. In the morning, shortly after we passed Cape Fear, the predicted headwinds filled in, right on the nose with a short ugly chop that slowed our progress below three knots. It was only predicted to stay NE for twelve hours and shift SE as we neared Cape Lookout, so we just tacked back and forth and kept the sail driving us through the chop. Unfortunately, the wind didn't shift as forecast, and we were continuing to beat as night fell. It finally shifted, suddenly and decisively, just after midnight, but it also quickly faded so we kept the engine going at a reduced power until 10am Thursday, when the wind finally filled in enough to sail after 44 hours of motoring and motorsailing. We rounded Cape Hatteras in the early afternoon with a big course change from NE to NNW, and we ran with the wind for a while. Sure was nice to have the downwind pole back! The wind faded at sunset; it still would have been strong enough to keep us moving under spinnaker, but we didn't feel comfortable flying the kite at night (with solo watches to boot) so we started the engine again.

Friday morning found us with land in sight again as we passed Virginia Beach, crossed the Chesapeake shipping approaches, rounded Cape Henry, and finally passed over the northern gap of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The wind picked up enough to sail into the Chesapeake, abruptly died, and then filled again rather strongly first from the east and then shifting south. We enjoyed a fast, rollicking downwind sail the rest of the day, alternating between a broad reach and wing-on-wing, surfing down short steep waves that took us astern. By 5pm we were getting a bit overpowered and the autopilot was having real difficulty keeping up; for a while I hand-steered, and then we rounded up to drop the mainsail. As we did, the clew came loose and the sail whipped viciously until we could get it down. At first I thought we had ripped the clew out of the sail; closer inspection showed merely that the pin securing the clew to the outhaul car had somehow come out. No worries. We continued northward under yankee alone, which resulting in a fairly rolly ride but a much better steering job by the autopilot. Late that night the wind shifted more SSW, and I called Dawn up a bit early for her 1am-4am shift so we could gybe - a slightly lengthy process when the downwind pole must be gybed as well.

While we were offshore there had been absolutely no traffic for the first 36 hours - I actually thought our AIS was broken - and then a few ships that passed no closer than four miles and a single sailing catamaran that overtook us just off Hatteras, passed within a mile, and hailed us on the VHF for a friendly conversation somewhat shortened by our horrible reception (I had just replaced a faulty PL-259 connector on our antenna coax, but it clearly hadn't fixed the problem). Now, in the Chesapeake, there was a steady procession of large cargo ships, both north and southbound. We quickly learned to stay just outside of the shipping channel. At least they all had AIS. During Dawn's shift on Saturday morning we started to cross the channel, and right on cue a big white oiler appeared coming up our stern at 20 knots. Dawn wisely woke me from my morning nap (she seldom rousts me on her watches, but has proven smart about when to do so), and I hailed him without result - maybe our faulty VHF, maybe he wasn't listening to 16. Just to be sure we turned 30 degrees to port and scooted out of the channel. The oiler was still several miles away, but the extreme disparity in speed means our changes have to be early and decisive to make a difference.

I napped for another hour and then it was time to roll up the Yankee, start the engine, and head into Herring Bay. It was 10am on Saturday, July 1st, the start of a four-day holiday weekend, and there was already a steady stream of boats coming out the entrance channel for Herrington Harbor Marina and Shipwright Harbor Marina, the latter of which is our new home for the summer. We had covered 477nm, a new record for us, which took us 92 hours for an average of 5.2 knots. I hadn't realized that our fixed-dock slip has a very short finger pier, making it necessary to back in. I tried a few times but the westerly wind was making it very difficult to back into our west-facing slip, so we ignominiously retreated to a nearby T-head for the night and relocated to our slip the following morning when it was calm.

I was originally supposed to work July 1st-4th, but was somehow able to trade for a trip on the 7th-11th, so we had a few days to settle in and get more boat work done. The morning that we arrived we spent a few hours washing the boat and putting her together from the passage, and then explored the marina and environs. Shipwright Harbor consists of five docks arrayed around a point of land that divides two rivers; the much larger and fancier Herrington Harbor North Marina is arrayed along an opposite bank. Sailboats outnumber powerboats at both marinas - a big change from South Carolina - and both feature nice amenities, regular events, and lively communities of liveaboards and cruisers. There are a number of smaller marinas around plus several lively dockside restaurants, a large West Marine at Herrington Harbor, and a decent hardware store in Deale; otherwise the small town offers very little. Groceries and most other things are in larger towns 5 to 15 miles away, but the drive through the beautiful green wooded hills west of the Bay is quite pleasant. Washington DC is only 30 miles away (making DCA very convenient for my commute to ATL), but you'd never know it. Annapolis is 20 miles north. Those who warned us about the summer heat and humidity of the area weren't exaggerating; we're very thankful that Windbird has working air conditioning. Our slip is extremely sheltered, which will be a good thing if any hurricanes head our way, but it doesn't get much breeze.

Our good friends Dan and Isabelle on Epiic beat us north by a few days; their boat was already on the hard at Herrington Harbor. They had decided to come back to the US to sell Epiic and upgrade to a catamaran, but on arrival CBP decided their three months in the Bahamas didn't count as a "meaningful exit" and they're being banished back to Canada until this winter. We had two last nights with them, though. On Saturday we all went up to Annapolis, showed Dan & Isabelle around town, and then met up with our friends Roy and Christina on Moor Passages, whom we had met and buddyboated with in the Exumas and narrowly missed in the Abacos (we sailed into Marsh Harbor as they were pulling up anchor for the passage to Annapolis). They were departing for Maine the next day, but we had a wonderful time catching up. And then Dan & Isabelle came over to Windbird for sundowners on Sunday night, which ended up lasting wayyy after sundown...I felt bad the next morning as they had to be up early to drive to Ottawa! We'll miss those two and hope they'll come sail with us while they're between boats.

A whole new project list sprouted once we arrived in Deale, and we made pretty good progress on it this week even though we basically took the 3rd and 4th off. I found out it was our VHF radio that was the problem, not the antenna; a replacement is on its way. I rebuilt our Racor and replaced fuel hoses, clamps, and the low-pressure aux pump in our engine room; we'll be getting our tanks cleaned & fuel polished later this summer. I troubleshot our faulty wind instrument (which was dead all passage, thank God for our new bimini window so we could at least see the masthead fly) and tracked it down to a faulty wireless reception box, which Garmin is replacing. I've tweaked our bimini solar system and will be installing digital monitors for our solar controllers next week. Our new Solarland fixed-frame solar panels (160W each) for the davit arch have been ordered, and once they arrive a local welder will be modifying our stainless angle brackets to accept them.  Our fairly new VSM-422 electrical system monitor died due to water ingress (an adjacent hose that came loose) and I am in the process of replacing it with a Victron battery controller and Blue Power Panel, which will also serve as the remote switch for our new Victron charger/inverter. I even designed a new custom Blue Seas Systems circuit breaker panel, though the $1700 price tag and abundance of other projects will probably dissuade me from ordering it this summer.

I'm trying to get these projects done fairly quickly because we're planning on spending the bulk of August with family in Minnesota & the Dakotas. And then at the end of August and beginning of September, we're now planning to take a two-week trip through the C&D canal, down Delaware Bay, up to New York, and down Long Island Sound to visit Judy Handley and Windbird's old haunt of Falmouth, MA at the base of Cape Cod. We had toyed with doing the trip before but it's now been rendered necessary by the discovery that Maryland imposes a 5% use tax on any vessel that spends more than 90 days in a calendar year in the state. Dawn's mom is actually going to come out and do the northbound cruise with us, which is really exciting. But this definitely means we have to get our projects done sooner rather than later, and it might limit the amount of cruising we actually do in the Chesapeake this summer. That's ok; our real focus is on getting the boat completely ready to go for the Bahamas and Caribbean this winter. We're really getting excited for that.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When It Rains, It Pours

Still in Georgetown, and not headed north until June 27th at the very earliest - probably later. We've had a bit of a deluge of boat problems and projects, and I've been spending every waking moment working on the boat, except when I'm at work, which has been quite a bit lately. I actually picked up an extra 4-day trip starting late this week because we've been shelling out money at an insane rate lately. Here's the rundown:

Boat Canvas Project: The whole reason we're in Georgetown is to have our canvas replaced at Sharp's Custom Canvas (~$8000). I'm happy to report that our new dodger, bimini, connector and enclosure curtains are all complete and on the boat, and they look spectacular. We ended up having them more-or-less copy the existing canvas, except that we added a zip-open skylight to the bimini, added a zipper to the bottom of the connector, and added canvas strips with velcro to the bimini for securing our new solar panels. Sharp's did really nice work and the project was completed almost on-time despite incessant rain showers and thunderstorms that made patterning and fitting a bit challenging.

Batteries: Our five new Firefly Carbon-Foam AGMs ($2400) finally arrived during the second week of June, and I had two days off between trips to install them. I actually got the project done in a single day; it ended up being pretty easy. Hauling the three existing 140-lb Rolls batteries out of the boat was a bit of a bear but Dawn was able to help get them up the companionway ladder. I positioned the new Fireflies under our aft berth, installed chocks and straps to keep them from going anywhere, and connected them in parallel with beefy 2/0 AWG battery cables to create a single 550AHr bank. The new batteries look great; here's hoping their performance lives up to the hype.

Charger/Inverter: We shipped our faulty Xantrex Freedom SW2000 out to a service center in Bradenton, Florida, and they confirmed that we have a shot FET board and main logic board. Repair would cost $1100, or a new unit would be $2000 through them (I found it for $1600 elsewhere). This was only a 4-year old unit, and the Handleys had gone through another Xantrex as well; they simply don't have a very good reputation. I decided to switch brands and ordered a Victron MultiPlus 3000W inverter/120A charger ($1100) through eMarine in Ft. Lauderdale. It arrived on Monday and I installed it yesterday. As of right now I haven't decided what remote panel I want to get for it, so to switch the inverter on we have to remove a cover under our companionway ladder. But that aside, it seems to work great...and now that we can use shore power to charge our batteries, we have refrigeration again! And air conditioning, which has come in very useful as the rain has made it necessary to keep the boat closed up most of the time.

Solar Project: I originally ordered three 50-watt semi-flexible panels and one 100-watt panel for the bimini but the fit ended up being very problematic, so I returned the 100-watt panel and ordered another 50. Meanwhile I took our current solar controller out from behind our circuit breaker panel and relocated it to the locker behind our nav seat, just below the air conditioning equipment. We now have three solar controllers there, two Victron 75/15s for the bimini panels and one Victron 100/30 for the davit arch. We still have our old Siemens 85s mounted there but will replace them later this summer, and this bigger Victron controller will handle 320 watts just fine. I have all three controllers wired in parallel via a Blue Seas Systems bus bar / fuse panel and then via a very short run to the positive battery bus which starts under the nav seat. The PV wires run through a waterproof gland I installed on the cockpit combing, through the salon ceiling, and down into the air con/solar controller locker. I'm still working on wiring the PV wires from the panels through the bimini. I originally used the short stock lead wires and hooked up the PV wires via MC4 connectors right on the bimini, but it looked absolutely terrible. So instead I am splicing in longer leads that will hide the MC4 connectors in a zipped-up pocket where the bimini attaches to its frame. I worked on that tonight and should have it done tomorrow by noon, I think.

Leaky Water Pump: This seemed like such a minor project that I don't think I've even mentioned it until now. Our coolant circulation pump was leaking and it seemed to be coming from the cylinder return O-ring. So I ordered a new o-ring and two new gaskets online, but they took forever to get here. When I put them in last week and got the engine back together, it was still leaking. Closer inspection revealed that it was really leaking from a weep hole in the pump itself, which is indicative of an internal seal failure. So I ordered a new water pump from A&M Marine, a local repair shop, and on a bit of a whim decided to have them install it since I was leaving on a trip and we wanted to get headed north by June 20th. Can do, they said - since your cooling system will be apart, would you like us to go through your heat exchanger too? It was on my list for this summer but I figured yeah, as long as the system is apart, let's do it and be done with it. Fast forward to two days later when I got a phone call in London: two of the heat exchanger cover bolts were corroded frozen and snapped, so now I was looking at $3500 for a new water pump, heat exchanger and exhaust manifold, plus labor. They already had 7 hours into it at $125/hr and were estimating 8-15 more. I told them to order the parts but I'd put them in myself.

This morning we got the heat exchanger, exhaust manifold and associated parts, but not the water pump. That should be here tomorrow, hopefully. In the meantime I washed down the engine and replaced a few hoses that looked dodgy as well as all the hose clamps that my Skandvik ABA jihad hadn't reached yet, and then installed the exhaust manifold and heat exchanger. Hopefully by tomorrow night or Friday morning we'll have a running Yanmar again. But jeeze, those were a couple of expensive bolts. I don't fault A&M, persay - they tried everything they could to get the bolts loose without snapping them, including soaking them in penetrating oil overnight. But I think I would've been more patient, and if I had still broken them at least my labor would've been free. And in any case I'm learning a lot more about the cooling system by doing the installation myself. Eventually I'm going to get it through my thick skull that the only person that should really be working on the boat is me.

So yeah, that's what's going on. I'll have another few full days of working on the boat and then I'm off to lovely Lagos, Nigeria to pay for some of this! It could be worse. We're sharing the dock with one sailboat that just turned a bearing and is looking at a repower, a big cat that just took major damage from a lightning strike (I feel your pain, brother), and a new cruising family with a new-to-them, 17-year-old Beneteau that has absolutely everything going wrong. We're shelling out money, yes, but it's mostly on stuff that will make Windbird a better, more reliable cruising platform.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Back to Work

Well, the not hardly working thing was nice while it lasted, but my employer has shifted to its summer schedule, meaning a rapid uptick in block hours, and all our pilots are flying whether they want to or not. Besides, it's time for Dawn and I to rebuild the cruising kitty. We have a number of boat improvements on our plate for this summer and will be paying for a slip, so some income will be nice.

A few days after we arrived in Little River, I flew to Atlanta to report for a 9-day trip (which doubled the number of days I'd worked in 2017!). It was a trans-Atlantic international pairing with layovers in London, New York, Amsterdam, New York, and London again. Simultaneously, we sent Piper off to a dogvacay and Dawn flew back to MN/SD to spend a week with her family. Before leaving, we had befriended a cruising couple from Vermont, Ernie and Bette of S/V Iemanja. They had come up from Florida a half-day ahead of us; it was their Chris Parker forecast I was cribbing since Chris forgot to give us our own. Anyways, they promised to poke their head into Windbird every couple of days just to make sure everything was ok.

On my second New York layover, Ernie texted me to let us know our low-voltage alarm was going off. Our Xantrex charger/inverter was on and indicated that it was still in charge mode, but our house bank indicated 10.6v - dead flat. At that voltage our fridge and freezer don't work, and apparently hadn't for some time as all the food was warm and defrosted. Bette set to work cleaning everything perishable out and throwing it away, while Ernie dove into the Xantrex to do some basic troubleshooting. It had good shore power going in, and good 120v out to our main AC bus, but there was less than 1A being put out to the batteries. Ernie observed that it was almost like it was stuck in trickle charge mode. Once the engine was started, the alternator charged the batteries pretty rapidly, but by the next day the voltage was back down to 12.2 with no overnight loads. Our three Rolls AGM house batteries are 4 years old and evidently struggled with sulfidation issues during our Bahamas cruise, but I'd been hoping to get one more season out of them. This pretty well killed them, though. We've been operating with minimal house loads (lights, fans, USB charging, bilge pump, wifi, propane & CO2 sensors) totaling less than 30Ah per day and the batteries still regularly fall below 12.3v, requiring several hours of engine charging to top back up.

I'd already been considering switching to Oasis Firefly carbon foam AGMs when I thought the house bank might need replacing this summer, and decided that now was the time to do it. They're expensive at $480 per 110Ah Group 31 battery; a bank of five for 550Ah set us back a whopping $2400. Ouch. The upside is that they are known to be extremely resistant to sulfidation and can be operated at a partial state of charge (PSOT) as low as 10-20% without repercussion. Traditional AGMs like ours shouldn't be run below 50% charge, which effectively halves our house bank to 330 usable amp-hours. Carbon foam batteries don't lose capacity when you fail to charge them that top 5% absorption charge that takes forever, which was the problem with our batteries this winter (we were sailing everywhere and then running the engine for battery charging - and nobody runs their engine for several additional hours to put only a couple extra amps into their house bank). Carbon-foam longevity is also much better than traditional AGMs, being rated for a whopping 3500 cycles at 50% depth of discharge - and 1000 cycles at an impressive 90% depth of discharge.

The problem is finding anyone with Firefly batteries in stock; they're typically backordered by 2-3 weeks. That's fine for a planned replacement, but a long time to go without refrigeration for an unplanned order. Bruce Schwab at Ocean Planet Energy - a friend of Ernie and Bette's - didn't have any in stock, but gave me a hot tip that Fisheries Supply in Seattle did. They should arrive on Monday. That still leaves us with a bad battery charger, meaning we'll still have to recharge the batteries with the engine until it's fixed even though we're on a dock. I've done all the troubleshooting I can, I'm trying to get somebody local to take a look at it, and if that doesn't work I'll ship it back to Xantrex for repair. If that's not possible, I'm not going to replace it with another Xantrex - they don't have a good reputation for reliability. In that case I'll go with a Victron MultiPlus 3000W unit.

The other part of our electrical refit, which was already planned, is upgrading our solar. Part of this will be replacing our ancient Siemens 85w panels on the stern arch with new twin 160w panels, which will take us from 170w (probably more like 120w these days) to 320w. Additionally, we're adding 250w in flexible solar panels to our bimini top. Between 570W of solar and our BreezeX wind generator, we should be entirely self-sufficient using renewable energy with plenty of juice to spare for things like watermaking. There is nothing that irks me more than enjoying a fantastic sail only to get to the anchorage and having to crank up the loud, stinky diesel to charge the batteries. More than half of our engine time this season was for battery charging.

I ordered three HQST 50W sunpower panels and a single 100W HQST panel off of Amazon; they arrived at Lightkeeper's Marina while I was on my trip. I'll be using a separate Victron 75/15 MPPT charge controller for the port and starboard sides, to avoid shading issues. Before leaving on my present trip, I came up with a pretty good scheme for mounting them and running/hiding the wires; this will be incorporated into the new bimini top we're having made in Georgetown, SC, in the next few weeks.

Last weekend, Dawn and I repositioned Windbird from Little River to Georgetown. There was little wind, so we took the ICW, a repeat of a trip we did in mid-September. Being Memorial Day weekend, there was a ton of traffic on the ICW, but it was a beautiful day and everyone was in a great mood - lots of waves and mostly considerate skippers. We got a late start on Saturday - as we repositioned our Xterra truck to Georgetown early in the morning - but timed the tides just right so we had a mighty boost from the current plus outgoing tide on the Waccamaw River, and made it all the way to a peaceful anchorage at Butler Island, only six miles short of Georgetown. On Sunday it was a quick jaunt down the Waccamaw and up the Sampit to downtown Georgetown, where we docked at Harborwalk Marina. This has a really nice location but is pretty expensive in transient season; we only stayed here because the other marina didn't have room due to a marlin tournament. Tomorrow after I get back to the boat we'll be moving to Georgetown Landing, which isn't quite as proximate to the cute downtown but has much better weekly rates.

On Wednesday, Sharp's Canvas started patterning and building our new dodger. Once that is complete they'll build a new bimini, and then the enclosure curtains. They estimated two weeks to do it all, though I suspect that's a little ambitious. I'm done flying for the month on June 19th, and we'll head north to Annapolis the next day. We'll do as much offshore as we can, though it would require a pretty good weather forecast to go offshore around Hatteras. If that doesn't work, we'll go via the ICW. We've selected our home marina for the summer: Shipwright Harbor Marina of Deale, MD. It's about 20 miles south of Annapolis, within convenient driving distance of both DCA and BWI. I haven't done any sailing in the Chesapeake yet, & I'm really looking forward to it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Passage Log - Day 3.5

Still Wednesday, May 10th.

By late afternoon the wind has backed southwest and filled in, and we've finally picked up a little fair current; it's looking like we'll get in before sunset after all. Dawn and I are in a really good mood and talking about what a nice passage it's been, though I would have liked to motor less. No sooner do I say this than the engine overheat alarm goes off. Crap. I reduce the throttle - and the temperature keeps climbing, above 210 degrees. There's plenty of water coming out of the exhaust. Ugh. I shut down the engine and roll out the Yankee - our first priority is to keep sailing. The wind is actually strong enough that we can do just over 4 knots dead downwind, wing-on-wing, though it's not ideal with no spinnaker pole. It seems we're always going downwind ever since we broke it on the sail from Rock Sound to Governor's Harbour, and on this boat it's supremely useful. A new inboard fitting from Rig Rite is one of the first things we'll order back in SC.

Down below, I remove the engine access panel and find coolant dribbling out from where the water pump joins the cylinder head. I also find a broken hose clamp on the raw water side of the heat exchanger, though the hose is still attached. I put a new ABA hose clamp on but this clearly isn't the problem. I check the coolant overflow canister, as I do every day before starting the engine...and it's showing completely full! Hmm, something doesn't add up. I wait for the engine to cool, and then remove the heat exchanger cap and start adding coolant. It takes over half a gallon. I try to tighten the bolts holding the water pump outlet to the cylinder head but they're quite snug. So apparently the O-ring let go, we've been losing coolant for umpteen hours, I never detected it because I haven't had reason to check the engine while it's running lately, and there's some sort of blockage in the hose to the overflow canister so the loss of coolant hasn't been reflected there. Once I've finished adding coolant I have Dawn start the engine. Yep, it continues leaking from the same spot - but at a rate of 10 small drips every 30 seconds. We can easily make it into port. The water temp heats up to its "normal" figure of 190 degrees (actually a bit warmer than it should run, which is why I''ll be reconditioning the heat exchanger) and stays there. We continue to use the engine, and I go down below every 30 minutes to make sure the leak hasn't worsened.

We enjoy a spectacularly red sunset thanks to some inland fires, and it's the later stages of dusk when we reach Little River Inlet. The safe water, entry, and exit buoys are all well lit but there are a few unlit & uncharted temporary channel buoys that get moved as the deepest channel shifts; Dawn lights them up from the bow with our spotlight, and the entry is perfectly easy. We drop the mainsail and ease into the Bird Island anchorage. There's one boat in there already, leaving room for us and maybe one more. It's just past high tide and the current is just starting to oppose the 15 knot south wind, plus the full moon isn't very high yet, making anchoring a little tricky. We drop the hook once and belatedly realize we're a bit too close to the reedy shoreline; we're in 11 feet of water, which will be only 6 at low tide. We pick up and relocate two boatlengths westward. Perfect. I'm suddenly very tired, hungry and thirsty, with a distinctly windburned, headachy feeling. We make up some celebratory Dark & Stormys and eat a simple meal of gourmet meats, cheeses and crackers, catch up a little on the news and facebook, and collapse into our beds - which are still the seaberths (salon settees with lee cloths). It feels odd for the boat to be so still. I set my drag alarm and immediately fall asleep into a deep, deep slumber.

Thursday, May 11th

I don't get up at 6:30am to listen to Chris Parker, and for once I miss the sunrise. It's a beautiful morning in the still anchorage. I make egg-cheese-and-kielbasa sandwiches on Dawn's homemade habaƱero-cheddar bread for breakfast and brew up some coffee. John Schwab calls to let us know that he's somehow come up with a slip at the usually-full Lightkeeper's Marina, and we tell him we'll be in later today. The tide is already outgoing and we don't feel like motoring 7 miles against a fierce current. On deck we find a prodigious amount of poop on the foredeck - it's only Piper's 2nd time pooping since the passage began, though he urinated on the foredeck fairly regularly. Good dog! Now that he's over the mental hurdle of going on the boat, we need to get another grass mat and teach him to go on that for easier cleanup.

Nevertheless we launch the dinghy, since we want it on the davits while we're on the dock, and take Piper to shore for a slightly more civilized bathroom experience and a good hard run on the beach and up a few sand dunes. Back at the boat we put together a monstrous order based on a list that Dawn's been compiling all season long. I call RigRite and order our spinnaker pole fitting - nearly $650, ouch! John and Beth Schwab stop by the boat on their jetski, and we make plans for sundowners later this evening. At 3:30pm we top off the coolant, start the engine, pick up the hook, and motor the last seven miles to Lightkeeper's Marina. The last time we were here was September 21st, when we left on a planned 3-day cruise that ended up detouring to Charleston. James is on the dock to help us into slip S-5, which is beautifully located near the head of the dock just across from the bathrooms, laundry, and pool. We tell him about our winter in the Bahamas and almost immediately people start dropping by to introduce themselves and check out our boat. I forgot how friendly people are here. I'm not much of a marina guy but this one is pretty tops - very well protected, nice floating docks, immaculately clean facilities, extremely friendly and helpful staff, and very reasonable monthly rates. This will be a great place to pause for a month or so while I work, Dawn visits home, and we get some boat projects done including, perhaps, our canvas.

So that's it. Our first long(ish) passage: 411nm, 61 hours enroute, 6.7 knots average SOG, 24 hours sailing, 2.5 motoring, 34.5 motorsailing, ten 3-hour watches apiece, four fish caught, three incredible sunsets, three beautiful full moons, one minor breakdown, and two grateful sailors that really enjoyed the experience (plus one salty dog that seemed to have a pretty good time, too!). The ICW is interesting in its own way, but I think we definitely prefer going offshore - and Windbird clearly does, too.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Passage Log, Day 3

Day 3 - Wednesday, May 10th

I alter course for an oncoming big freighter out of Charleston just before sunrise, which puts us on a truly broad reach in which the headsail flogs a bit every minute or two. I hate doing this - not just because it’s hard on the sail and sheets, but because it’s quite loud down below for the off-watch crewmember. But when confronted with a ship doing nearly 20 knots, there's typically only one way for a slow sailboat to go to get out of their this cast it's further east. I could gybe but in this wind that's much easier done with two people on deck.

At 6:30 I turn on the HF to listen to Chris Parker weather. Today his part-time sidekick Stormy is broadcasting, and he gets quite flustered when a regular caller, “M/V My Position,” calls in to request assistance. They lost a crewmember overboard last night at 8pm in the Tongue of the Ocean between Nassau and Andros, with no life jacket, and are asking for someone to call BASRA so they can begin a search. Not good at all. With Dawn and I doublehanding and standing solo watches we have a rule about wearing our life jackets whenever abovedecks after dark and not going outside the cockpit unless the other person is up top. It’s way too easy for a weird wave to knock you off balance while you’re preoccupied – and once you’re in the water at night, the odds are against you even if someone saw you go in. And if nobody saw you, forget about it.

Anyways Stormy/Chris forgets about us again but I understand given the circumstances (Chris is calling BASRA in the background while Stormy fumbles ahead with the weather). After the weather and breakfast I head to bed, telling Dawn that it looks excellent for getting into Little River Inlet before sunset. I should've held my tongue. When I get back up at 10am the wind has veered NW and faded markedly, and we have a 2.1 knot current nearly on the nose! Yuck! I fall off 20 degrees to keep a hot angle and get across the current which I suppose is outflow from the Waccamaw River / Winyah Bay, but it persists well past the river outlet. Meanwhile the wind continues dying and I start the engine at 10:30. By 1pm there's only 4 knots true wind speed and I furl the yankee. We creep along at 5.3 knots with barely 4 over the ground. My hopes of getting in before sunset fade.

I think back to the daysail from Little River to Southport that I did with my friend Lance Lindsay last September, and realize I remember the route we took out of the inlet. There was plenty of water, and tonight we’ll be arriving near a high spring tide. The inlet is lit, and there’s a nearly full moon to help us get into the Bird Island anchorage (which is fairly straightforward from the inlet, but trickier from the ICW). So I’m actually feeling reasonably confident about doing this after sunset.

At 2pm Dawn sees a line of splashes across the horizon, which we assume is a pod of dolphins. Sure enough, soon a rather large pod is swimming in our bow wave! Piper goes absolutely ape, running up and down the side decks yelping excitedly, tail wagging. He pokes his head through the bow pulpit and I think he's going to jump in to play with them! There are 12 or 13 dolphins in all, including two juveniles and a baby; two the adults hang around for a good 10 or 15 minutes before taking off. This is the first time that’s happened on our boat, and it's quite a nice welcoming committee back to SC!

I take a nap from 2pm until 3:30 or so and then get up to relieve Dawn a little early. The wind is light and dead behind us, and the day is fairly sweltering so both Dawn and I strip down to our skivvies. We put on some tunes, put the fishing line back out, and are kicking back enjoying a nice day on the water. Later we’re planning to grill up some more fresh Mahi for dinner, and now it’s looking like we’ll be coming in the inlet at 8:40pm, still the later stages of twilight. Bird Island is the very first place we anchored Windbird, back in August, and I’m looking forward to a nice quiet night with plenty of sleep before we take Windbird to the dock tomorrow morning.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Passage Log, Day 2

Day 2 - Tuesday, May 9th

At 6:30am I listen to Chris Parker's weather broadcast on the HF radio; he apparently forgets to give us our own forecast though I had sent him an email requesting one. It's not a big deal as the general forecast is as expected and there is another boat on the same route a half-day ahead of us; I copy his briefing. I'm still pretty tired after Dawn starts her shift at 7am so I head back to bed and sleep until my watch starts at 10am. When I get up the wind has backed WNW and freshened to 10 knots; Dawn already has the Yankee out and we are finally able to kill the engine after 25 hours of motorsailing. We eat a little breakfast, put the fishing lines out, and enjoy the close reach at over six knots, with speed over ground occasionally hitting 9 plus.

Just before noon a fish hits the handline – yet another Mahi, a good fighter but a bit smaller than the first two so we let him go. The Mahi seem to love that green squid skirt lure, so it’s a bummer when the line snaps a bit later and I lose the lure. I have the handline rig set up on the port side, and on a port tack it's elevated enough that the line rubs on the prop of our dinghy outboard, which is on its mount on the aft port side. This is the first time I’ve lost a lure that way, but I have seen lines get tangled there before, so obviously I’m going to have to rethink where I rig the handline. The starboard side would be the obvious solution except that it’s a much better place for the rod & reel.

At noon I calculate our noon-to-noon mileage: 179nm! That’s gotta be a record for Windbird or close to it. At this point it is obvious that we are going way too fast for our planned Thursday morning arrival... but if we're able to stay in the Gulf Stream all of today, I reckon that we can possibly make it into Little River inlet before sunset Wednesday. Once inside, there's a great little anchorage at Bird Island. So I adjust our course to the east to more closely follow the predicted Gulf Stream path, and then Dawn goes further east on her shift while I'm napping because she sees the water temperature falling and the current easing. Smart girl. Later the wind starts backing WSW and then SW, which makes us have to chose between keeping a hot angle or staying in the current. I decide to dig out the spinnaker, which let us do both. We're only able to fly it for 2.5 hours until the wind picks up to 16 knots, at which point we're doing over 7 knots STW and hitting an incredible 11.3 SOG! That’s pretty much the sailboat equivalent of breaking the sound barrier, at least in a heavy cruising boat like Windbird.

Alas, 16 knots is near the limit for our spinnaker and the sun is going down so we hurriedly finish our delicious Mahi dinner and doused the chute. At sunset we see the “green flash” (more of a momentary greenish pinprick) and I head downstairs to nap before my 10-1 watch. Since yesterday's sunset we have logged 188 nm and we are now nearly abeam the Georgia/South Carolina border, with only 147nm to go (140 to Little River Inlet).

When I come up for my 10-1 watch the wind has continued to pick up and is now blowing at 17 with occasional gusts into the low 20s. I consider reefing down before Dawn heads to bed but as we are on a very broad reach the boat is still well in control, so I keep up the full main. Over the next three hours the seas build considerably, but after midnight the wind slacks off to a steady 17-18 knots so I again keep full sail when Dawn comes on watch. This whole time the wind has been at 210-220 degrees which keeps us from going directly the way we want. We initially gybed to stay in the Gulf Stream but that was taking us quite a bit further east than we wanted to go so we've gybed back onto the port tack and hold that the rest of the night. The wind slowly shifts westward through the early morning hours, letting us slowly veer back towards our course line. It also picks back up between 1am and 4am, but Dawn doesn't want to interrupt my sleep so she doesn't call me up. As I'm preparing to go on deck for my 4am watch, Dawn tells me to “get up here!” with some urgency; she later admits that we really should have reefed an hour previously (if not at 10pm). Regardless, we're able to reef under sail pretty painlessly though it involves turning the boat into some rather large, steep seas. We take one good splash over the bow but Dawn somehow escapes most of it at the mast.

Once reefed, the boat scarcely slows down but the autopilot does a much better job of keeping things under control. It's fairly cold out and palpably humid, so I spend my watch hunkered down in the lee of our forward port enclosure panel, facing backwards and watching the big moonlit waves overtake us. There are two distinct swells and every once in a while they join to form a bigger wave that rises above the level horizon. Windbird rides really well in these kind of seas – which is the whole point of having a heavy-displacement boat with a modified full keel – and so it's not scary at all, but rather mesmerizing. I watch each wave racing in, lift the stern, and roll under us with a deep hiss, a spritz of spume splashing over the toerail. It's beautiful out here.