Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hold It!

Here we go again on one of the least-pleasant things to work on in a boat. Ever since I had the black water lines replaced in Deltaville, I've had issues with these systems.  A few things were obviously broken (like the toilet seat and bilge pump hose) but others were random leaks that we had yet to resolve.  One in particular that has been an issue was a leak at the bottom fitting of the starboard side holding tank.  If you pumped a little water into the tank it appeared to work just fine.  But once above a certain level, the pressure would cause a leak.

Figuring it was knocked loose when the hoses were replaced, we tried tightening the nut on the bottom, but that didn't fix it like it did with the other tank.  Yesterday we decided that we would loosen the fitting and see if we could reseal it without having to remove it or the whole tank. Removing the tank would require disconnecting four fittings and the tank sensor and then wrestling it out of it's perch in the locker and that would be a very time consuming process and likely break one or more of the other fittings.  We loosened up the fitting and were cleaning it up when we discovered the likely source of the leak.  The fitting actually had a small crack hiding in the threads.  In the process of wrestling the hose back off of said fitting, we made the crack worse so you can now clearly see the issue in the picture below.

The new fitting with the homemade gasket and
the old fitting with the crack.

This fitting is actually nothing more than a 1.5 inch plastic through hull fitting.  We got lucky and found a new replacement fitting at a reasonable price at Sailors Exchange in St. Augustine.  The next trick was to figure out how to install it so it would seal well without removing the tank from the boat.  But before we could do that, we needed to get the old one out of the tank.

The only access to the inside of the tank, other than the fittings, is via a cleanout access panel on the top side of the tank. With the tank installed, access to the access panel isn't easy.  I put on my best MacGyver hat to come up with a solution to remove the old through hull.  I took a scrap piece of vinyl hose that would just barely fit inside the fitting and used that to guide the fitting up to the inspection port. Tada.

The old fitting was bed in place with some sort of sealant.  Of course, applying sealant and getting the fitting back to the hole in the bottom would be a sketchy operation at best. I could see sealant all over the inside of the tank except where we needed it at the fitting. When I was looking at various fittings for plastic tanks I noticed most used gaskets.  Figuring this ought to work, I took some of our left over gasket material from the bimini project and proceeded to make a gasket for the base of the fitting. Now, if the surface isn't too uneven and I can get the clamping pressure right, we should have a seal.

Naturally, the new fitting inside diameter was just a tiny bit smaller than the old one, so I couldn't force the vinyl hose into the new one to help guide it back into position.  Channeling my inner MacGyver one more time, I decided to snake a piece of scrap electrical wire through the vinyl tube so I had a line that ran from the access panel down through the hole in the bottom of the tank.  I slid the fitting over the wire and dropped it into position, guiding it with the wire.  The fitting slid right into place.  Viola.

Knowing that over-tightening a gasket can be just as bad as under-tightening one, I threaded the nut on the end of the fitting and tightened it only hand tight.  We decided that the hose was actually an inch too long and cut it down for a better fit that would put less strain on the fitting.  I slid the hose onto the fitting, tightened up the two hose clamps to hold it in place and we were ready to test the repair.

New fitting installed.

We fill the tank with about two inches of water.  It looks good at first, but eventually a small drip is seen at the fitting.  I use the wrench to give the nut on the fitting a quarter turn and then wipe up the drip.  This appears to have resolved the leak.  We fill the tank to the top and check again.  Still no leak. After letting the water sit in the tank for over four hours, not a drip of water was found. Yay!

We may finally have all the holding tank issues resolved.  I guess only time will tell.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Still Here

Yep, we are still here (both on the boat and in Hammock Beach, FL.).  Been busy working on that whole fun-work balance thing has left me with less time to write posts and less subject matter to write about.  We've been making some trips to the beach, doing some shopping, and getting some work done.  Trying to slow the pace down a bit and that left me with mostly mundane tasks this week.  I mean who wants to read about going grocery shopping, clothes shopping, or washing the boat. There have been a couple things of note though, so I will try to catch you up.

Sometimes I really wonder about the previous owners of this boat.  There have certainly been some strange or questionable maintenance and upgrade practices on the boat.  I don't know if it was the owners themselves or poor contractors, but sometimes I just have to shake my head at the things I find.

This story is about a strange noise that resulted in a discovery in the boat wiring (at this point these discoveries shouldn't really surprise me, yet they still do). After a rather wet weather spell, we experienced a strange clicking noise near the electrical panel.  The noise was very intermittent and I wouldn't call it a buzzing but more of a fast paced clicking.  Naturally, as soon as I would go over to investigate the noise, it would stop.

Eventually we were able to chase it down.  It was coming from the GFCI outlet located at the electrical panel.  This GFCI outlet at this location protects the 120 volt circuit for the starboard side of the boat and was found when we noticed a plug on that circuit didn't have power. I think the clicking was the GFCI outlet trying to trip.  The bizarre part of this scenario is that it should only click once as the circuit trips and should not keep clicking. The other strange thing is that the power to the TV and DVD player (also on that circuit) did not lose power when the GFCI tripped.

So, I start investigating.  I disassemble the panel to try and chase down where the TV and VCR are plugged in and this is what I found...

Not the proper way to install an electrical a house or on a boat.
Yes, that is a household remodel electrical box just hanging behind the panel and not attached to anything.  The zip tie is only holding everything up by the electrical wire. The outlet looked like an ordinary household electrical outlet and was showing some signs of corrosion. There was also no cover plate to prevent anything from falling into the electrical box. I know my surveyor opened up and looked inside this panel so I really wonder why he didn't think this was a problem. In any case, a more stable solution with a better outlet is in order.

I purchased an electrical box I could mount, a new outlet that is supposed to be more weather and corrosion resistant, and a cover plate to further protect the connections within the box.  We installed the new box and then used zip ties to better organize the wiring and make sure nothing was swinging freely or likely to cause further problems.

Looks much better now (safer and more stable) doesn't it?  Hopefully that will resolve the issue. At some point I should probably sit down and go through the entire electrical system on this boat and make sure no other issues are hiding behind the walls.

And a bit of humor from our shopping the other day.  Not exactly truth in advertising.

Maybe it should say 1 kink hose.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Working On That Work-Fun Balance Thing

If you look back through a lot of my posts you see a lot of working on the boat and less of the having fun with the boat.  Recently we've been trying to get some balance restored in that area.  Are there things to fix on the boat...absolutely.  More than I'd like to admit.  But the sanity of the crew of s/v Rover has been in the need of a little repair too.  Since we had a rental car while ours was in the shop having the damage done in Southport fixed, we decided a little road trip was in order.

We decided to take a trip a bit south to see the Canaveral National Seashore.  This is a national park on the space coast that asks visitors to come see the "real Florida" the way it was before the invasion of the high rise condos and resorts.

We drove down to the northern half of the park that is accessible just south of New Smyrna Beach and spent the day exploring and hanging out at the beach. I even dusted off my old Nikon and took a few pictures...

Central Florida seashore without a condo in sight.

Ok...there are some...but they are off in the distance.

I think the Kennedy Space Center is that-a-way...somewhere.

Definitely not a hotel lobby here.

And this isn't a tourist.  Almost ran face first into this little guy suspended
across the path.
The park is on a barrier island. This is the river side.
Seems like a nice place for a kayak ride.
Another one of the local residents.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Computer Guy

Most of my professional career has been spent in the software industry. I've designed, developed, and maintained software for a variety of computer systems from old corporate Unix systems to personal computers to smartphones and tablets. Because of this, when friends, neighbors, and family had computer problems, I was the guy they would usually call on to ask for help. This is one aspect of my old life that continues to be part of my new life.  I've helped people deal with misbehaving computers, helped install and configure software (usually boat or navigation related such as OpenCPN), provided guidance on wireless networking, or dealt with smartphone related issues. The last few days I've been playing tech support for my wife and her new phone.

While I've been happy with our cell phone service, this new phone we purchased for my wife is another story.  It has been a bit frustrating.  My wife had been using a phone she had on T-mobile for the last 5 or so years and, as is typical in any computing device, the newer versions of software required more memory and processing power than the old device could muster.  The final straw was once we realized that the battery was no longer able to hold enough charge.  So we looked at a variety of solutions for a replacement.  We were about to go with a refurbished Google Nexus when we stumbled across a company called Blu.  For about the same price as a refurbished phone, we could have a brand new device that had a feature set that sounded nearly ideal for our purposes. We checked what reviews we could find, didn't see anything alarming, and decided to give it a try.

The Blu Phone...or my nemesis.

Now, given the price, I didn't expect the phone would be perfect.  And initially it seemed to be better than I had expected.  But that didn't last for long.  After playing with the phone straight out of the box for a bit, we synced up the new phone with my wife's account and allowed the sync to install all her applications from the old phone. It wasn't long after this that we started having some problems.  The phone became rather sluggish to respond and would occasionally stop responding to input. I installed a file browser to look around and it made things worse. Rebooting the phone would take forever (15+ minutes is forever in computer time) and when it rebooted it would go into an "optimizing apps" process each time before the phone was usable. It really wasn't looking good at all.  I was starting to think we had made a big mistake with this phone and the debate became not if we should return it but when.

Being "the computer guy" and an engineer, I just couldn't let it go and wanted to understand what the issues were, so I started doing some research.  As it turned out, the boot and optimize problem also seemed to occur on other devices (the Moto X, one of the Google Nexus phones, and some tablet I don't remember the name of) and there were some solutions posted online that worked for some of them.  So, I began trying the various solutions.  I checked the system memory usage and found it to be much higher than it should have been for the number of applications installed.  I uninstalled a couple apps and that helped a little, but not significantly enough to call the phone usable.  I then tried booting the device into the diagnostic/repair mode and clearing the system cache, but that had no effect.

Since it would be a couple days before we could return the phone anyway, my last thought was to do a factory reset on the phone and start setting it back up from the beginning.  This time, instead of letting the device sync with Google and download all the applications that were on my wife's old phone, I told it to treat the phone as a new device.  Once through the initial setup, the device again seemed responsive and working as one would expect.  I rebooted the phone and it took less than a minute.  Once the phone restarted, I went in and removed the few non-standard applications that were pre-installed on the phone (the phone was surprisingly clean and only had some Amazon and Yahoo apps) and rebooted once again.  The phone still seemed fine.

I then started reinstalling the applications that my wife wanted on her phone.  Instead of installing them all at once and then trying to move them to the installed SD card at the end (basically the process we used the first time), I installed each application one at a time.  For the first couple of applications I installed the application, rebooted, moved the application from the internal memory to the SD card (because the OS setting to install applications to the SD card didn't seem to be working), and then rebooted again. After the first application was installed, I saw the optimizing application cycle during the reboot but that was the only time it happened.  The reboot process seemed reasonable after the first couple of applications so I continued installing the rest of the applications, omitting the reboot in between the install of the application and moving it to the SD card.  The rest of the installs went fine, and at no time did we experience a lag in the reboot process.  I also monitored the memory consumption as I performed the installs and by the time I was done I noted that, instead of the 300MB of free space on the internal storage that was found the first time around, the device now reported over 2.75GB of free space.

The phone seems to be behaving much better now, so much so that we may not return it after all. There are still a couple glitches with the phone (the Chrome browser seems to be slow at times and the battery life isn't the best), but  the overall behavior is much improved and the glitches are more in line with what I would have expected from the phone.  With a little more research, I'm thinking that most of the issues may not have been an issue with the hardware but rather problems with the operating system and attempting to sync the applications from her old phone to the new one all at one time.  Only time will tell if this phone will continue to behave, but at least there is a little hope for it now.

So, what does all of this really have to do with living on a boat?  Well, actually, there is a lesson that does apply here.  Being able to work through a problem and some occasional thinking outside the box will serve you well when living on a boat.  It may not be a misbehaving cell phone, but what will you do when your refrigerator stops working at anchor?  Or your boat electrical system starts acting strange? Or your port side engine decides to die after running for a couple minutes? When you just can't pick up the phone and have a repairman show up a few hours later, being able to solve problems can save you a lot of hassle and expense.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Finishing the Battery Install

Bet you thought I was done with this task back in Southport.  The batteries have been installed and functioning for a while now and everything seems good.  But there was one last thing I wanted to accomplish.  Making future maintenance a bit easier.

One nice thing about our old battery bank was it consisted of 3 sealed AGM batteries.  Basically they are the type of batteries once coined "maintenance free". As long as you kept them properly charged and didn't kill them or overcharge them, there was no real ongoing maintenance (although periodic inspection is probably still a good idea).  Switching to the golf cart battery bank, we went away from those convenient sealed batteries to ones that require periodic watering.  Already having far too much to do on a boat, adding this complex maintenance task was the down side of this approach.

Now, you may be asking yourself how checking the water on the batteries could be that complex...or wondering if I finally lost my marbles.  Here's the deal.  To check and add water to the batteries the way they are I would first have to dig all the stuff out of the locker above the battery compartment. Then I would have to remove the false floor to the locker that acts as the battery compartment lid to reveal the batteries.  In order to access the caps to the batteries, I would have to loosen all six of the hold down straps keeping the batteries from bouncing around while we are in motion.  Then, finally, I could check and, if needed, somehow manage to pour just the right amount of water into each cell siting deep inside that locker.  Once that was complete, I would have to replace all the caps, refasten all the hold downs, replace the battery compartment lid/locker floor, and finally put all the "stuff" back in the locker.  Doesn't sound quite so simple now, does it?

Fortunately some folks that make batteries for larger battery banks or battery accessories came up with a solution. There are battery watering systems out there that make the task a bit more manageable, particularly when batteries are not so easy to access. The down side is that some of these systems can get a bit pricey. You can find systems that are fully automatic where you just need to keep a reservoir full of distilled water and the system will fill cells as needed.  For a little more reasonable cost, there are systems that are semi-automatic where you use some sort of pump to periodically pump water into the system to fill any low cells.  After much scouring of the internet, I found a reasonably decent price on one of the latter and ordered it soon after arriving at Hammock Beach.

The system I found was the Flow-Rite Pro-Fill 6-Volt RV edition. The best price I found was at (a boat is just a floating RV, right?).  The 2-battery kit was $44.70 and the pump was $18.03 at the time of purchase.  This made the whole system for my 6 batteries come out to $152.13 (with free shipping). Well worth it if it can make the bi-monthly task of watering batteries go from the above description to a 2-minute fool-resistant job.

The battery watering system and pump
How the system works is pretty straight forward. You replace the caps on each cell of the battery with the special ones in the kit.  These caps have a connection for a water supply tube and are equipped with a float that hangs down into the battery cell.  You connect all the caps together using the water supply tubing. As water is supplied via the line, the cell fills up until the float closes a valve in the cap, stopping the water flow.  This is supposed to keep the water in each cell at the proper level without having to even look into the cell.

The kit arrived yesterday, and since I hadn't yet done any maintenance on the batteries, it seemed like a perfect chance to install and test the system.  Of course, to install the system, I had to perform all the steps I outlined above in order to remove the old battery caps.  I then installed the new watering system battery caps on the batteries and connected the water tube flexible manifolds to the caps (some of the old literature claimed there were both flexible and rigid manifolds, but the kits I received only came with the latter). I cut some of the tubing and connected each manifold together and attached the filling port to a central location in the system and ran it to an opening in the battery box lid. I finished by taking the supply of red rubber caps to plug all the unused manifold connectors.

The pump for the system is a simple squeeze bulb that you are supposed to dip into a jug of distilled water. The instructions say the jug should be below the top of the batteries to prevent siphoning.  I'm not sure if this is really necessary, but the water jug fits nicely into the locker besides the battery box which puts it at the same level as the batteries and makes a nice storage location for the jug of water right next to the filling port.  I hooked up the pump and dropped it into the jug and gave the system a try.  A few squeezes of the pump ball and water was flowing through the tubes.  When the ball could no longer be squeezed it indicates that all the cells are full and the valves in the caps closed to prevent overfilling of the cells.  I disconnected the pump and let the water drain back into the jug.  I then checked a couple of the cells and, although they were not that low to begin with, they do appear to be at proper levels.

Watering system installed.  Lots of black tubes and wires now.

Next time I need to water the batteries, all I need to do is open the locker, move one milk crate of stuff out of the way, hook up the pump, drop it into the jug and give it a few squeezes.  I like that.  I'm sure I will dig down to the batteries again after a few months just to confirm that everything is filling properly, but the system seems simple enough that I don't expect any problems.  I think it will be quite the time saver when watering the batteries and will help me keep them in top shape.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cell Phone Service - A Year With Ting

Getting a new cell phone for my wife reminded me that I wanted to do a a longer-term review of our new cell phone service.  Having a reader recently comment on one of those posts, along with the desire to avoid listening to the news coverage of the Florida primary this morning, has spurred me to get it done. So here goes...

About a year ago we decided to switch our cell phone service from T-Mobile to Ting. While T-Mobile had treated us fairly well (at least as far as cell phone service providers go), the lack of coverage in a few places in the Chesapeake and the hopes to reduce our monthly outlay for service had us looking at alternatives. Being cruisers, there were a few very specific goals we had for a new phone service beyond cost. Coverage and being able to use a phone in the other parts of the world were also high on the list. You can read more about our requirements and decision to try Ting in the posts here, here and here.

How has it been this past year?  Well, our change in usage habits weren't quite what we had expected, but the service has been good and the savings have been great. Even though we haven't had a chance to try using our phones in the Bahamas (although my wife's should work there) and we have been spending more time than we would like in marinas (closer to civilization), we feel pretty good about the switch.

So, how much has Ting saved us?  Well, our old T-Mobile bill was $114/month ($100 + taxes and fees). Over the past year, our Ting bill has been as low as $24.30 and as high as $31.97 with an average for the year of $27.31 including taxes and fees. Our total bill for the year was $327.67.  If we had been with T-Mobile and the rate stayed the same, the total would have been approximately $1368.00 (it is hard to be precise here since taxes and fees seem to regularly change). That is just over $1040 in savings.  Not too shabby.

Now, during my switch from the T-Mobile GSM based network to Ting's CDMA based network I had to buy a new cell phone.  Since Ting doesn't subsidize the cost of a cell phone by locking you into a contract, I had to purchase the phone outright. I can't seem to find the exact figure, but if memory serves I paid less than $140 for the phone (I think it was more like $120 and I used a $25 Ting credit link from another blog, but just to play it safe we'll call it $140). Even if you include that in the cost, we still saved $900. Given subsidies on the phones are generally worth somewhere around $100, I can easily cover the cost of a phone every few years with the savings and still have a lot left over.

These savings haven't been without the application of a little discipline in our phone usage habits, though. Specifically, we try to use WiFi whenever it is possible. I use WiFi exclusively when I do blog posts.  Most non-critical research and "surfing the web" is done on WiFi. This is not only for data, but to make phone calls as well. If we just want to call to keep in touch with family, using Google Voice or Skype with a headset on the computer or using the Google Hangouts dialer on our phones keeps hours worth of minutes off our cell phone bill. Instead of using Google Maps for navigation, having an application like Navmii, which doesn't require a constant data connection and instead stores map files directly on the phone, saves a lot of data usage. (Just make sure you download the maps and look up your destination while still connected to WiFi.) And we have started utilizing text a bit more since those tend to be inexpensive for quick messages.  We usually use less than 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 100 MB of data each month.  We will occasionally pop up into the 100-500 range in one of those categories and that is when the bill "jumps" into the $30 a month range.

With our strategy of having two phones on two different networks, coverage has been pretty good here on the U.S. east coast.  We compare signal strengths on the phones, and they generally don't seem to vary too much between the two networks.  There have been a handful of times when we have found that one had service when the other did not (usually the T-mobile phone was the one without service). Of course, that phone is the older phone (about 5.5 years old), has been well used, and I've often wondered about the strength of the radio inside it, so not sure if there is any real correlation to be had here.  In any case, there have been only a very few remote spots where we haven't had any cell service.

Ting customer service has been pretty good.  The only issues we have really had have been device-related and not service-related, so it is hard to ding them for that. My Kyocera phone had an issue with a software update that caused some Google applications to crash, and it took a while to get an update from Kyocera to resolve the issue. (I ended up beta-testing the fix for them...not sure if the update was ever released to all Hydro Vibe phones by Kyocera.)  My wife's old phone would use small amounts of data even when the data network was supposedly turned off.  My wife's new phone has some issues that seem device-related (more on this below).  The only glitch we've had with Ting was in the original port of my number over from T-mobile - it took a day longer than expected due to some hiccup with their port request system the day we tried.  Otherwise, the bills have been right where we expect them to be with no strange charges.  When contacting Ting, we've always been helped in a timely, if not immediate, fashion. Overall, we have been very happy with their service and find them to be as-good as or better than the other carriers we have used in the past (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile).

When looking at cell phone service, I think a lot of people think that a cell phone is a cell phone and it is the carrier that causes all the problems.  But having worked in the industry as well as having various devices on different networks, I do know that the device itself can play an important role in how well the overall service works.  When my wife and I both had T-Mobile devices, she would get some dropped calls in areas where my phone would work fine...despite hers supposedly being the better (or at least more expensive) device. Her new phone, which we just purchased and had high hopes for, seems to have a few issues and we are currently wondering if we should simply return the phone and try another. And with more services getting away from heavily subsidized phones, handset manufacturers are having to figure out other ways to make revenue on preloading a bunch of software on the phone that you don't need and can't remove.  Some of this software causes more problems than you might think. My only advice here is, regardless of what provider you choose, look at the phone itself and try to find one that has good reviews and doesn't have a lot of extra software on it.  Or, if you are technically inclined, get a phone with a known means of rooting (gaining administrator access on it) so you can delete unwanted software or even install a clean version of the operating system.  Of course, most of this applies to Android based phones.

But enough about phones themselves, this is supposed to be a review of Ting.  And my experience has shown that Ting has been a good choice for us.  They provide a good level of service on multiple networks at a very attractive price point.  Paying only for what you use seems to result in decent savings for most, and can be a particularly large savings if you are willing to apply a little bit of discipline in how you use the service.

Unless something dramatically changes, I think we will be sticking with Ting for a while.

If you are interested in giving them a try,the link below should get you a $25 credit towards either a device purchased in their store or off of your first phone bill for new customers.  While this hasn't altered my opinion of their service at all, using this link does provide me with a credit if you are seriously considering giving them a try, I'd appreciate your using this link to benefit both of us.

Get $25 off a Ting device or your first month's bill when you click here

Well, guess I've procrastinated enough on the engine repairs...time to go to work.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


We have been having some fun playing tourist. Exploring more of St. Augustine, and seeing a space launch were things earlier in the visit and ones that I previously covered. Since that time it seems we have been running nonstop, so I only now have managed to find a little time for another post.  Sorry for the delay.

After the space coast, we went to see Fort Matanzas. This fort was the other half of the protection for St. Augustine as it protected the "back door" inlet at Matanzas that led to St. Augustine. Unlike Castillo de San Marcos, this is a very small fort whose purpose was to warn St. Augustine if enemies were coming. It, like the Castillo, is also run by the park service.  Visiting this fort is free, including the ferry ride over to the island (ok, sandbar) on which it sits.  The park rangers that were guides were very informative and made for a fun visit.

Fort Matanzas

My wife and I have seen manatees in the past, including in marinas where we have stayed. My parents have not, so we decided to take a trip to see the manatees at the Blue Springs State Park.  It was a bit late in the season for the manatees to be hiding up in the river. As temperatures warm, they start making their way back to the coast.  But there were a few that were still hiding in this spring off the St. Johns river along with the other fish that seem to enjoy the near crystal clear water.

Silhouettes of Manatees under the ripples in the water.

The day my parents returned home was also the first of the veterinary appointments for our older dog. In the past we had good luck with the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Colorado, so we made the two hour trip to Gainesville to visit a similar teaching hospital at the University of Florida. We've found that these sorts of facilities tend to be a bit more open-minded about problems and hoped the dermatology department might do something other than blindly go with the prior auto-immune system diagnosis that has produced no results.

The down side of visiting a teaching hospital is that the visits tend to take all day. Seeing the students (who usually come in first and take a history and do some basic examinations) and then the doctors and finally having them go huddle in the back with other students and staff to discuss the case and determine a course of treatment is a time consuming process.  But unlike most modern medicine, be it for pets or us humans, this process seems more thorough and interested in results than money. For all day care, the cost is usually the same as or less than the 15 minutes spent with the typical vet.

A little time at the beach in between vet visits.

They decide to take her off some of the medications she had been on (ones that didn't seem to be working much anyway) and also wanted us to see their internal medicine department. Of course, they couldn't get us an appointment with internal medicine until two days later. In between appointments, we decided the dogs could use a break too (they have been a bit neglected with the family visit), so we took them for a nice long visit to the beach. Another full day at the veterinary hospital, another round of tests, and now we wait on the results to see how to proceed.  On the bright side, they don't think any cancers might be behind the issues. Unfortunately, there haven't been a lot of answers yet as we await the results of some tests.

We're back at the boat now and family is back home so it is time to pick up where we left off.  We've got a few repairs to do and some other tasks and then we will try to rescue a bit of the season before we have to head back north.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Launch at the Cape

Continuing our "let's be tourists" plan for the week, we decided it would be fun to see a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral.  We got lucky (or SpaceX got unlucky) and their latest launch, SES-9, had been delayed 4 times.  The latest attempt was scheduled for Friday, March 4th with a window from about 6:30 PM to around 8:00 PM. The weather forecast claimed there was a 90% chance of success, so scrubbing the mission this time around would likely be for mechanical reasons.  It seemed like pretty good odds, so we made the 2 hour drive down to see about getting a better view than could be had nearby.

Credit: SpaceX

We thought about making a day of it and going to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch from there, but ticket prices dissuaded us. We have all been to the center before and didn't really want to spend the $50/person this time around. (We don't recall tickets being that much before...I guess NASA figured out how to counteract their latest budget cuts...or Florida has found yet another way to gouge tourists.)  We also found out that they wouldn't have any special seating open, so the view from the visitors center is actually obstructed until the rocket clears a nearby tree line. I did a little research and found that the best free viewing area for the launch is just off Highway 528/A1A near Port Canaveral.

We got there early and tried finding a spot to park.  Of course, not being overly familiar with the landmarks, we weren't sure exactly where the correct launch pad was. Fortunately there was an older gentleman there with a sign that read "launch info", had a display about the Falcon 9 rocket being launched, and even a radio setup to pick up the launch broadcast and play it out over speakers.  We talked with him a bit and he pointed out where launch complex 40 is, so we parked where we had a completely unobstructed view about 8 or 9 miles from the launch pad. Now we had about a hour and a half to wait.

Getting some info from the guy who looks like he knows
something about the launch

As the launch got closer, the parking area we are at started to fill up.  What started out with 4 or 5 cars when we arrived slowly climbed to around two dozen as the launch neared.  In hindsight, we probably would have been fine getting there between a half hour and hour early and still had a reasonable place to park.

Parking starts to get a bit more crowded as launch time approaches.
Almost makes you want to look to the left doesn't it?

We found an FM radio station out of Orlando that was providing some information on the launch.  They would go "live" when the launch occurred, but for now they were at least letting us know that the mission was still a go. The only problem with the radio broadcast is that it has a delay in it.  If you were listening to the countdown on the radio, and didn't look up until they said it was launching, you would have missed the takeoff.  We were warned of this fact ahead of time and so my wife started watching about the time they started the countdown on the radio.  I got out of the car and was looking through my binoculars at the launch pad. (I highly recommend binoculars if you do this).

Pretty close to our view with the naked eye.
Picture taken with cell phone through binoculars.

The launch occurred right at the planned time of 6:35 PM.  From the launch pad you could see the engine start, the flames and smoke pouring out and then the rocket fighting it's way through the atmosphere.  Even though it was a small rocket and we were a pretty good distance away, it was still an impressive sight to see.  The rocket went up with a trajectory to the southeast so it got closer to us during the initial climb.  I guess I could write more about all of this, but the information on the mission and videos are available for those who were interested.  All I can say is that it was worth going to see.

Launch. Credit: SpaceX

The rocket vapor trail(s) as the sun sets. The break in the trail on
the right was the first stage separation and 2nd stage ignition.

I do hope that the United States decides that space exploration is worthwhile once again.  Far better endeavor than voting people off islands or dancing with washed up actors.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Tourist in St. Augustine

We've been playing tourist in St. Augustine.  No time to write much, so here are some pictures...

The remnants of the city wall in St. Augustine.

Near/in Flagler College.

Random old city street.

Castillo de San Marcos with St. Augustine in the background.

Castillo de San Marcos with the Bridge of Lions.

The family trying to hide behind a small cannon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Bit Of This And That

Since we arrived in Palm Coast, I have to admit I've been a bit unmotivated. At least when it comes to boat-related tasks. Sometimes you just need a break. So, we've been working on other issues.

One was my wife's car.  When we were in the middle of the battery replacement in Southport, we became the victims of a hit and run accident.  While parked in the Napa parking lot, our car was hit by another car.  My wife heard the crunch and went out just in time to see the the vehicle pull away from our car and take off.  She managed to get the license plate tag and general description for the police.  Not only that, but we ran across the vehicle later that day at the local Lowe's while getting some parts for the battery box changes and helped the police catch the hit-and-run driver.

Crunched Bumper.

Of course, that event left us with a car that needed some repair.  A new bumper cover and some paint and the car should be O.K., but finding a body shop in an unfamiliar city takes a bit of time.  We went to look at a few shops, checking their work while they did the estimate on our car. We found one we like and have an appointment to get the car fixed (in a couple weeks - I guess they are booked through "bike week" in Daytona).

We have had a crew member issue as well.  Our eldest dog has been suffering from ear margin vasculitus (a condition where sores develop on her ears).  She has been suffering from this for nearly 2 years now.  We have been getting her to vets for treatment but nothing seems to be working.  She has been to at least 4 dermatologists as well as other veterinarians and no one seems to be able to figure out what is causing it or an effective treatment. After we got in town, we got her yet another appointment because of an apparent reaction to the latest medications and have now made an appointment with the veterinarian hospital at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Needless to say it has been a bit trying and we are concerned for her.

Another non-boat issue has been my wife's cell phone.  When we switched service to Ting, my wife brought her phone over from T-Mobile.  Ting is our very inexpensive cell phone service provider, and to keep prices low they do not subsidize handset prices.  Since they work on both T-Mobile and Sprint networks, it made sense to just use her phone.  Almost a year has passed, and my wife's phone is getting a little long in the tooth.  The battery isn't holding a charge very well and the operating system and memory limit how well the newer versions of Android and various applications work on the phone.  It is time for a new phone.

My wife isn't an overly technical person and so the task of researching a suitable replacement fell to me. We needed a phone that would work well in both the U.S. and the Caribbean. This not only includes voice calls, but 3G, 4G, and 4G LTE data.  It needed to be an unlocked phone so we could swap out sim cards in the islands to get better phone and data rates. It needed to have enough memory to last through at least a few more operating system upgrades. It needed to be able to act as a WiFi hotspot for times when we don't have other WiFi connection options for the computers. And it wouldn't hurt if it weren't terribly expensive.

We considered purchasing a refurbished Google Nexus phone (in this case the LG Nexus 5).  These phones come unlocked and with only the basic Android operating system, so no memory wasted on useless applications. They typically have transmitters that work with a variety of voice and data networks. The battery isn't replaceable on this device, and we were concerned about how long the battery would last on a refurbished phone.

Blu Dash X LTE

Then we ran across cell phones made by a company called Blu.  They make relatively inexpensive phones that are unlocked. They have an interesting selection of phones with varying feature sets.  We found one (the Dash X LTE) that contained radios that worked on most of the voice and data frequencies used in North America. the Bahamas, and the Caribbean. It had a reasonable processor and moderate amount of memory with the ability to add a memory card. The best part is that the phone retails at a little over $100.  That is cheaper than the used Nexus phone.  The only negatives I can figure out are that the phone may not be all that rugged.  It would be nice if it were waterproof, but that is pretty much a dream.  Given the price of the phone, the build quality might be questionable, but the Blu phones we saw at Best Buy (they had a few, but not the one we wanted) seem reasonably well constructed. Oh, and it also can use two sim cards, so we can keep our U.S. card installed and have an alternate.  We ordered the phone and will see how it does, but we have high hopes it will be a vast improvement over her current phone.

One of these days I should do a more complete longer-term write up about our time with the Ting phone service and how we've been able to cut our phone bill by almost 75%.  The short story is that our average bill for two phones has been about $28 per month with the new service and our efforts to conserve.  We have had pretty good coverage throughout our travel area, with only a few small spots that we found limited or no service. If you are interested in giving them a try, this link can get you a $25 credit.

Of course it is tax time again here in the U.S. That means it is time to fill out government forms and file our taxes.  This year is a fairly simple year for us.  No home and very limited income makes for a pretty simple return.  Not quite the 1040EZ form, but not much more.  Still, it takes time to collect all the needed information and fill out the forms.  And with marina-quality (read 'spotty') internet, getting the federal and state forms filed electronically took more time than anticipated.  But after a little effort, our taxes are complete for another year.

Back in a marina that has $4 per load laundry facilities ($2 wash + $2 dry) has us looking at alternative washing solutions again.  We have used the plunger and bucket and that works OK for wash, but the spin type dryers seem like a good addition to reduce drying time.  If you recall, we tried a combination washer and spin dryer a while back but the spin function left a bit to be desired.  My wife has since decided that the spin function wasn't all that bad, so we might look at another one of those combination units. We have been researching these items as the marina internet allows.

We have a little cleaning to do before family arrives later today and then we will likely be doing more non-boat stuff (and hopefully more fun stuff).  It is a nice break from all the work we have put into the boat over the past months. Rewiring the engine and other projects can wait a bit.