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.


  1. Your marine experience inspires me for marine trip. I really want to go on a deck or yacht as soon as possible. But yes marine flooring mat would be a matter of concern too.

  2. Can a cruiser live for "free" for the summer by anchoring a certain distance away from a marina or town and then simply coming into the dock as needed to do shopping, laundry, etc.?

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