Monday, June 27, 2016

VAExit, Dragging, and Baltimore

Sorry...lots of topics on this one as I try to catch up with "real time".  We are in Baltimore and I have better internet access but the rush to get here is now a rush to get the boat ready for the boatyard and us ready for a trip back to Colorado.

In my last post we were at Windmill Point, just outside of White Stone, VA. After waiting for a cold front that brought bands of thunderstorms through the area on Thursday, we departed for Solomons, MD on Friday. We sailed a bit, but after a front passes the winds tend to calm down and we ended up motoring or motor-sailing much of the trip.

One of the old Chesapeake lighthouses.

We were trying to find a place to anchor out and my wife came across a marina that offered floating docks for $1/foot with a BoatUS discount. We figured why not and tied to the dock for the evening. Calvert Marina is a large facility with lots of fixed docks, some covered (for boats without masts), and some reasonably nice and new floating face docks for transients.  The facilities are rather rustic, but the price is right and they also have a courtesy car if you need to re-provision in town.

The next morning we slept in a bit and left the dock around 10 AM.  There was some wind, but as far too often seems to be the case, it was coming from where we wanted to go (straight down the bay).  We beat into the wind for a little bit, but after a couple hours of velocity made good (VMG) around 1.5~2 knots, we again fired up the engines and made our way to an anchorage on the Rhode river just south of Annapolis MD.

Rhode Creek Anchorage.  Boat on the right is the one we
believe ended up a bit too close later that night.
As soon as we turned up the river, the 15 knot wind died (or this anchorage is far more protected than it looks).  The anchorage (known as "Rhode River 1" in Active Captain) already had a number of boats but we were able to find a spot and threw the hook.  We had dinner and settled in for the night.  Sometime around 10 PM the wind picked up a bit.  I don't recall why my wife went outside, but she summoned me out and we found a boat rather close to us.  I checked our anchor alarm and we hadn't moved other than to clock into the wind.  Best we could tell in the dark, the other boat dragged past us.  Although we weren't 100% sure, I thought the boat was the one anchored beside us earlier that evening and there were people on board.

I grabbed my handheld spotlight and tried to get the attention of the occupants of the boat.  After a couple flashes, someone appeared on deck and looked like they were scrambling around a bit (with our generator running to top off our batteries for the night, we couldn't hear or talk to them).  I don't know if the crew of that boat got the anchor to reset or it just reset itself by the time they were up, but the boat seemed to be OK.  Downwind of us and a bit closer to shore than I would be comfortable with but no longer moving.  Crisis averted, or so we thought.

Thomas Point Lighthouse, near Annapolis MD.

About 2:30 in the morning I needed to answer the call of nature.  I noticed that the wind had mostly died and what little there was had caused us to clock around about 180 degrees.  I decided to take a look around and, to my surprise, the dragging boat was now nearly beside us and only a couple feet from our starboard bow.  Since our cabin is right where the other boat would have hit us and since we didn't hear anything, I can only assume that we didn't touch. I was able to grab my boat pole and, without extending it, knock on the deck of the other boat.

I think the guy that popped his head out was a bit surprised to see me standing over him on the bow of my boat.  I told him that I've verified our position with my anchor alarm and that it appears he is dragging.  My estimate is that he dragged several hundred yards, making a U shaped path nearly around our boat.  He asked if we hit or if there was any damage and I told him I didn't think so, but that his anchor might be in the shallow area near the shore so he should be careful when he retrieves it.  He got his crew up and pulled up anchor while I monitored to make sure they, and us, were OK.  To my surprise, instead of resetting the anchor, he turned on his navigation lights and motored out of the anchorage under the moonlight. Not sure why he didn't just go reset his anchor, but either way I guess the problem was solved.  The next morning all the rest of the boats, including us, were where we left them the night before.  I do wish I had a chance to talk with the guy that dragged as I would be interested to know what anchor he was using and what scope...to see if there was anything I could learn from the second boat to have almost dragged into us in the past couple months. Only thing I know is that his rode was mostly line with only a few yards of chain on the end (what I could hear in the dark while they were raising anchor). Glad our Mantus anchor had no such problems and kept us in place.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and some wave generators.
The next morning, after making coffee, we raised anchor and pointed the bow of the boat up the Chesapeake once again. It was our last leg to Baltimore and was a nice and sunny day with almost no breeze so playing motorboat was again on the agenda.  We motored past Annapolis and under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  It was Sunday and there were a lot of boats about.  We came to learn that there was a sailing race across the bay later that day, but based on the number of fishing boats out, I wonder if most were actually interested in the race or just an excuse to anchor out, toss out a fishing line, and have a few beers. Given the number of dead fish we've seen floating in the upper part of the Chesapeake bay, I'm not so sure I would trust the fish caught there.

Baltimore Light (yes, looks a bit like the first one).

We turned out of the bay and made our way up the Patapsco river, past Fort Carroll, under the Francis Scott Key bridge (near where the man wrote the Star Spangled Banner), past Fort McHenry, and into the rather industrial surroundings of  Port Covington in Baltimore. There were a lot of high horsepower boats heading out to enjoy a day on the water and this part of the trip was the roughest ride we've had since...well...the onslaught of power boats at the inlet to Morehead City.  My wife once pontificated that weathermen were wrong and waves aren't caused by the wind but by all the power boats in the world...and I'm starting to believe her.

Ft Carroll, near Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

We find our way to the marina and yard where Rover will be getting a new bottom paint job and some other work done.  I think this is as close as I've ever been docked to military boats (there are a couple of some sort of military transport vessels at the end of the pier here).  They make our boat feel rather small.  A couple days of prep and we will be leaving our boat for the first time in over a year of living aboard.

Rover at the marina dock.  Big, but quiet, neighbors.
Keep your fingers crossed with us that this boatyard will prove better than those we have dealt with in the past.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

From Chesapeake to Chesapeake

We left Chesapeake Yachts, in Chesapeake Virginia near first light.  The idea was to make it to the Gilmerton bridge in time for a pre-rush-hour opening.  Between 6:30 and 8:30 AM and 3:30 and 5:30 PM the bridge does not open except for commercial traffic with reservations (we don't qualify).  We arrived at the bridge about 5:50 AM...and found the adjacent railroad bridge was down.  The other catch with this bridge is that it doesn't open when the railroad bridge is down as the two are only a few feet apart.  The Gilmerton tender said they would open as soon as the railroad bridge did and expected it to open a little after 6 AM.

The Gilmerton Bridge, railroad track on far side.
We sat for over 30 minutes watching the empty train tracks blocking our path.  The train finally did arrive and pass over the bridge. I guess Amtrak schedules are merely suggestions as they seemed to be running quite late based on how long the bridge was down.  It was after 6:30 when the railroad bridge opened...fortunately the Gilmerton bridge did too and we, along with a barge that had been waiting, made it through the bridge before they were closed for rush hour.

Since we aren't on a work schedule, we usually let barges and other work boats have right of way and stay out of their way.  We were letting them get a little ahead of us since I'm sure maneuvering a barge with a tug is difficult enough without having a sailboat breathing down your neck. The barge captain called us on the radio and let us know we should stick close to him until we made it past a couple more railroad bridges or we might get stuck behind one for a while.  He was obviously local and knew the closure schedule (most things for us boaters just say "normally open unless there is train traffic") and we appreciated the tip.

Hospital Point Anchorage near Portsmouth
We made it through the train bridges, Portsmouth, and Norfolk without any further rush hour delays. After and enter the Chesapeake.  Finally out in the open, we were able to set the sails and shut down the engines that have been droning on for what seems like days as we traveled the canals and rivers of the ICW.

With wind from the west-southwest, we were able to sail all the way up past Mobjack bay and the Severn river where we spent the prior summer building the hardtop.  We sailed past Deltaville, where we had hauled the boat a year before in a failed attempt to get some work done. Along the way we saw a couple of the old Chesapeake Bay lighthouses that mark, and sit out on, some of the shoals.

Thimble Shoal Light near Norfolk
We crossed the Rappahannock River and stopped at Windmill Point marina. It was a long day and the weather forecasts on the radio helped us decide we should go for a marina.  Having a courtesy car so we could reprovision a bit was a plus.  The marina was reasonably priced and a newer facility, but I wasn't a big fan of the fixed docks as I found it difficult to set fenders. The weather the next day was filled with rain and thunderstorms, so i was a nice place to hide from the weather.




Thursday, June 23, 2016

Another Dismal Day

After a good meal and a good nights sleep in Elizabeth City, it was time to head through the Dismal Swamp. This route has two bridges that need to be raised to let most boats pass and adjacent to those bridges are two locks.  The locks run on a very limited schedule so you need to time your arrival.  The schedule at both sets of locks and bridges are at 8:30 am, 11:00 am, 1:30 pm, and 3:30 pm.  In order for us to make the 11 am opening at the South Mills lock, we needed to leave the dock at 7:30 am. So, at 7:30 we untied the dock lines and headed on.

Winding up the Pasquotank river is nice.  Being the only boat as the path starts to narrow is even better. We left the river itself and started traversing a canal as the river became a bit too narrow.  Oh and then there is the depth.  When we left Elizabeth City the depths were not a problem and we saw lots of depths well above the usual ICW 12 foot range.  But the Dismal swamp canals are a very different story.  Here, the controlling depth is only 6 feet.

The Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City.
A bit smaller than it is south of town.

The depth, and the fact that most of the canal is a no wake zone, and those that travel this route are a very small subset of those you find elsewhere on the ICW. They tend to be slower or smaller craft, or at least ones that will fit and aren't interested in going fast. It wasn't until we were nearing the first lock that we saw another boat.  We had slowed down since we were arriving early and a trawler appeared behind us and caught up as we were waiting at the first lock.

The South Mills Lock after we entered.

And again when we were ready to go.

The schedule of the locks in combination with the no wake rule means that, if you want to go all the way through the canal, you do so at about 5 knots.  While there are no anchorages, there are a few free docks where you can stop if you want to spend a bit more time in the canal. There are walls and docks near each of the locks, one at a park next to the canal and one at the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center. All the docks are free for a one night stay. In our case we again didn't have time for a lot of exploring...hopefully next time we can spend the night at the welcome center dock and check things out.

One problem with a less traveled and narrow canal is that you can occasionally find floating debris in the canal.  The pollen is one thing, but the large branches or small logs are another story.  Twice we approached ones that blocked 2/3 of the canal span.  In each of those cases, we slowly approached the log and I managed to use a boat pole to push it out of the way.  In one case, we scared two turtles off of the log as we made our approach.

Yes, it was calm on the Dismal Swamp this day.

The highlight of the trip this time is the same as the one from our trip south last winter.  In a name, it is Robert.  He is the lock operator of the Deep Creek lock. A wealth of information on the Dismal Swamp and the surrounding area.  We were there for the 3:30 opening and he even checked with the Gilmerton bridge for us to see if there was a commercial opening scheduled so we might be able to make Portsmouth (of course, there was not).  He is a great guy and well worth spending a bit of time getting to know.

We ended up stopping at a dock that was marked in Active Captain as a free dock. This dock is actually part of a boatyard called Chesapeake Yachts and we got there just before they closed.  We walked up to the office just to verify it was a free dock and we were in a good spot. The lady in the office told us that it technically is not a free dock and they usually charge $1 a foot for dockage. She mentioned that there have been times where their dock was full of boats hiding from weather to the point they couldn't get space for their customers.  But, since we were nice enough to come up and talk she would let us stay there. I wonder if they once offered the dock for free and too much advantage was taken, but I hope they continue to let wayward travelers stay there.  I even found out that they could haul my boat, so I may look into them the next time I need a DIY yard.

The only thing dismal about the swamp this time around was the number of biting bugs out due to the lack of a breeze.  But the area is quite pretty and green and I'd recommend you take the route at least once if you have a boat that can make it.


Northbound Again

We finally left Dowry Creek Marina.  The plan was to leave last Saturday, but as is often the case, weather got in the way.  Gale warnings delayed our departure for a day.  On Sunday the winds calmed down and we were able to head out. Since that time we have been on the go until now, so I'll try to catch back up.

After leaving the dock we  were in the Pungo river for a short trip to the first of many canals that make up the remaining stretches of the ICW (Mile 0 is technically in the Portsmouth/Norfolk area) that we will use to get to the Chesapeake bay. As seems to be the case a lot when we are on the ICW, the wind was pretty much on our nose, so even when we weren't in a narrow ditch, there wasn't much option if we wanted to make any progress.  We motored from the Pungo, through the Pungo-Alligator canal, and into the Alligator river.

There isn't really a lot to say about this leg of the trip other than I have done it several times now and it is getting to be pretty routine.  The only interesting thing that happened is that I discovered that my wife is apparently the Dragonfly Whisperer.  Most pirates have parrots perched on their shoulder, but my wife had this dragonfly that landed and stayed on her shoulder for somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes.  She would walk around the boat and it would just sit there.

Is a dragonfly on your shoulder as good as a parrot?

Sunday evening was spent anchored out in Alligator Creek, just north of the Alligator River marina. Like many stops, we found this one based on the reviews on Active Captain.  It was a nice anchorage with little traffic other than one trawler that joined us about 15 minutes after we arrived.

The next day was a bit shorter trip. We crossed the Albemarle Sound and made our way up to Elizabeth City.  Yes, we are taking the Dismal Swamp route north.  After all of the high engine-power boats with seemingly low brain power captains that have been less than courteous when passing on this trip, the idea of a speed controlled option where those boats just don't go held a strong appeal. Crossing the Albemarle this time was a bit like sailing through a minefield...or at least Florida bay. Crab pots were everywhere, and it didn't seem to matter that we were right on the magenta line that denotes the ICW route.  On top of it all, many of the crab pot floats were dark colors and very difficult to see in the rolling water.  I guess if I were a crabber I would want my floats to be well seen and would avoid known traffic paths so my equipment wouldn't be lost when it became tangled up with a boat...but I guess that is just me.  As a boater, I'm wondering if line cutters on the prop shaft wouldn't be a good idea after all .(I don't really like the idea...but I like it better than the idea of a disabled engine with a possible bent prop from a line from one of these camouflaged floats).

Saw this on the Pasquotank River...thought it looked kind of
like a Blimp hangar...and it was.

We are staying at a free dock behind the Mid Atlantic Christian University.  They aren't really setup for a boat our size and we are tied to a piling on their dock, a tree, and some eye bolts in the sea wall. I've heard they have plans to build a proper face dock for larger boats in the future, but on calmer days their sea wall does work and the price is right at free. They also have guest internet, water, and we were even able to use their gym showers.

Tying to the sea wall at MACU in Elizabeth City.

Elizabeth City is trying to be very welcoming of cruisers.  With free dockage at several locations, some decent restaurants near the waterfront (we ate at Caribbean Breeze and it was pretty good), and friendly folks, I think they are living up to the goal.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Regular System Checks

Unlike a house, often on a boat it isn't the best idea to wait for things to fail. When your home moves around a lot, it seems even more things can fail and fail more often.  As a result, I perform regular checks on all sorts of systems on the boat.

Since we are getting ready to go, I was performing some basic system checks related to moving the boat.  I turn on all the navigation related lights to make sure bulbs and circuits are behaving. Easier to change a lightbulb a couple days before we leave than that morning...particularly when it is only the fault of the bulb about 1/2 the time.  I check the standing and running rigging for any wear issues or other problems.

I check fluid levels, strainers, belts, and hoses, and other items on all the engines as well as give them a general look for anything that appears out of place (something that has gotten longer and longer as I run into issues en-route in our travels). I then start and run the engines a bit to confirm function. While tied to the dock, I test the transmissions to verify shifting and power and make sure there are no strange vibrations or noises. I engage the generator to verify it is also providing power (didn't think I would forget that motor, right).

One of our drive motors.

Those are only a few of the checks one does before heading out.  There are also a number of regular checks I do when just sitting at the dock.  Battery condition and charge, strainers and raw water output for air conditioners, inspection of bilges, and exercising through hulls are among those tasks.  I also try to run the engines and transmissions every 10 days or so even when we aren't going anywhere to splash oil around and hopefully knock off any growth that is trying to attach to the props.

Lots of checking and some fixing. One item I learned to check is what I understand to be the single largest cause of boat fires, the shore power cable.  And that is actually the subject of this post. After performing the pre-departure checks I did a few of the static checks.  I very regularly check the shore power cable and connector temperature by hand when we are running higher load items like air conditioners. I'm not sure exactly how often I check the connectors, but it is typically more than once a week.  If the connector feels warm at all, I will get the non-contact thermometer out for a better look.

In the past I've been able to write off most abnormal temperatures to heating from sitting in direct sunlight, but not this time.  With the air conditioners running regularly the last couple days I check the connectors at the power pedestal and the boat.  The boat-side connector felt warm enough to justify the the thermometer.  I get the thermometer out and sure enough, the connector was reading about 20 degrees higher than ambient at 115 Fahrenheit. The interesting part was that it seemed to be coming from a very specific point in the shore power cord connector.

Since I had the generator running at the time anyway, it was a simple task to switch the AC over to the generator and pull the power connector.  I checked the connector and didn't see any damage or obvious signs of overheating. But I figured it would not stay that way so we made plans to replace the chord. My guess as to the problem was that the connectors inside the boat-end of the connector (the female 30 amp twist lock plug) were getting weak or possibly bent and not making good contact. We monitored the plug and limited power consumption but the connector continued to be warm when we would run the air conditioner for any length of time.

Our long range solution is to replace the chord with a new Smartplug chord and boat connector.  I've looked at the research on the plugs and prefer the simple design with larger contact surfaces. Unfortunately these are not in stock anywhere nearby and we intend to leave soon.  So, as a temporary measure, we replaced the connector on the end of our current chord.  After replacing the connector, we again monitored temperatures and now the connector and boat side receptacle were remaining at ambient temperature. The old connector, when removed from the cord a day later was just starting to show signs of overheating at one of the connections...but it was still a far cry from the scary pictures I've seen in failures of these connectors. I'm very glad I monitor this regularly and caught this early.

Just a bit of discoloration at the socket end.
(Yellow casing removed from end of connector)

Being the curious sort, I decided to cut apart the connector I removed from the chord.  After all, it didn't seem like it was in bad shape at all and I had tried to take good care of the chord, using dielectric grease, always making sure power was off before disconnecting, always using the locking ring, and never forcing or over-twisting.  When I started cutting the yellow cover off of the connector, I found that the embedded screw terminal that clamps the wire to the plug's contact was charred and black. Further inspection revealed that the contact within the plug itself was in good condition and the failure point was indeed the screw clamp terminal. Why it failed I do not know.  Did water manage to make its way into the plug and start corrosion?  Did the wire not get clamped properly?  Was the fact that the wires in this Marinco cable don't appear to be tinned to help limit corrosion a contributing factor? We will probably never really know.

The failed screw clamp and charred wire inside the
molded boat-side connector.

All I can really say is that I'm very glad I checked that plug regularly and found this well before it became a bigger problem.  If you are plugged into shore power, please make inspection of these connections a regularly scheduled check.

A collection of failed twist-lock connectors from Compass Marine.
Read their article comparing these to the new Smartplug 

So what regular checks do you perform that may not be obvious but you feel are absolutely necessary?









Saturday, June 11, 2016

Education and Expectations

"You learn something everyday, if you pay attention". -Ray LeBlond

How about "If you want to properly maintain a boat you must learn something new everyday"...I think that is my version for it as it seems like I'm constantly searching for information on how to do something the right way on this boat.  How to properly wire a windlass, how to install a Plexiglass port light, how to build a hardtop bimini...it is a never ending list.

The past couple days I've been researching and soliciting opinions on what I need to do in order to strip all the bottom paint off the boat and start over.  The theory behind ablative or self-polishing paints is that they slowly wear off, keeping their anti-fouling properties going until the paint is gone.  Of course, they don't wear evenly and you don't want to wait until all the paint is gone before applying new paint, so the result is that over the years layers build up.  Eventually, or so I'm told anyway, the thickness of the layers and age of the older paints result in increasingly larger chips of paint coming off.  Thus the need to remove the paint.

What happens when bottom paint fails
(from a previous boat we surveyed, not ours now)
But, how to remove the paint.  That was the question. I wasn't 100% sure what was under the flaking paint on my boat, all I know is I don't want to screw up the hull because that would be very bad. Sanding off all the old paint is one way to remove it.  That would be a long and tedious approach and could potentially do damage if not very careful of how far to sand.  At the other end of the spectrum seem to be chemical strippers.  Paint the stripper on, wait a while, scrape off the softened paint.  Repeat until you are down to the gelcoat.  No damage to the underlying structure, but tedious and sanding the gelcoat to get another layer of paint to stick would still be required. Sandblasting the paint off would make quick work of the bottom paint, but would also make quick work of the gelcoat and underlying fiberglass.  The best solution seems to be soda-blasting.  Similar to sandblasting but with a media that is far less aggressive than sand.

Then the question is what to apply to the boat. While Leopards don't typically have much problem with blistering, application of a barrier coat seems to be the recommended way to go. A proper barrier coat seals the hull and prevents water intrusion...as long as the hull is dry (don't want to seal in water). Apparently cured barrier coats are, ironically, not the best surface to which to apply anti-fouling paint. So the first layer of anti-fouling paint needs to be applied before the barrier coat is cured. Of course, what anti-fouling paint to use is also a question.  Some paints are better than others, and their effectiveness seems to vary depending on where you are. Some have suggested paints such as Jotun SeaQuantum Static that are used on commercial ships.  We still haven't decided on what paint to use but hope to find a reasonable balance between cost and performance.

That is my recent education.  Of course, I also need to apply something I've learned from previous experiences with boatyards.  I wrote a letter to the yard where I would like to have the work done, explaining in detail what I expect in the business relationship.  I explained how I expect to come up with a detailed estimate before I leave the boat in their care.  I continue on to explain that I understand that unforeseen complications can arise, but I expect to be consulted if costs are going to exceed the estimate by more than a small percentage.

I hope that this is the yard's standard operating procedure, as it should be and is the standard in most industries.  Unfortunately, my experience with boatyards seems to indicate that this is somewhat foreign and running up a bill of twice the estimate without any consultation seems normal. I feel bad, and even apologized several times, that I had to write out basic business expectations.  If I ran a business, I'm not sure how I would feel if a customer was trying to tell me how I already know I should run my business...but again, my history in dealing with yards seems to indicate that this process is a rather foreign concept. So I felt I had to set expectations and make sure we are all on the same page.

Hopefully I've learned enough to do a good job in my choices on our anti-fouling bottom job and to ensure the boatyard we choose does a good job for me.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Day Off - OBX

In yesterday's post I mentioned that we decided to take a day and play tourist. We are waiting to hear back on quotes from a couple boatyards before we decide on our next stop, so we aren't in much of a hurry at the moment.  I also really needed a break from fixing the boat (crawling around the engines on hot and humid days isn't what I'd call fun).  We decided to take a trip out to the Outer Banks of North Carolina (something the locals seem to abbreviate OBX...I guess so it fits in one of those white oval stickers for their cars).

As a pilot and someone who has always had a fascination with flying, I wanted to go see the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The weather was nice, if not a bit hot, to spend a little time wandering the grounds where powered flight was demonstrated as reality.

Sculpture recreating the first flight.

The monument on Kill Devil Hill.

After the monument we didn't have anything planned and decided to just go for a drive down the outer banks to Hatteras island.  Much of this area is a bit too touristy for my taste, with t-shirt and beachwear shops scattered every block down the towns of  Kittyhawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and others.  If it weren't for the Hatteras National Seashore, I'm sure these spits of land hanging off the U.S. coast would be fully developed from one end to the other. I'm thankful that some of our past leaders had the foresight to preserve places like these.

Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse...or the point south of which our boat
turns into a pumpkin according to our insurance.

It was a nice trip and a much needed break.  Now I guess it is time for us to figure out what our next plans will be...if we ever hear back from the boatyards.