Logistics: Waiting for Arthur

Late last week, my laptop had broken and decided to stop charging, so I’d been stuck using my desktop (a bit power-hungry when on anchor…)  Being on a moving boat, with repair shops all closed due to Coronavirus, there’s essentially no way to get a laptop repaired and back in my hands in a reasonable amount of time. After much hemming and hawing, I decided to just pick up a new Macbook, and whenever I can manage to finish a swap with Apple to get the old one repaired, we can sell it.  This forced us to make some awkward timing decisions, which were already awkward due to the upcoming tropical storm Arthur.

The next major segment of our journey involves two big hops: from the C+D Canal, you get dumped out onto the Delaware River/Bay, which is a pretty big “river” with a large tidal swing. From the exit to the canal, it’s about 65 miles out to Cape May, which is the southern tip of New Jersey, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. So, you have to time that to go with the tide or you have a long day ahead of you.

Once you get to Cape May, you have two choices to get north: the New Jersey ICW, or going up the “outside” and running the open Ocean the whole way up. The ICW has been incredibly poorly-maintained, so even with a 4 foot draft like we have, it sounds like a questionable journey at this point, worse so than the Dismal Swamp. However, the outside run is a solid 125 miles up to Sandy Hook. So, that’s a long day. You can theoretically break it up by stopping in Atlantic City, but even that involves a bit of ICW.

So, having day jobs, you can imagine that we’re trying to plan these two hops for a weekend — one day to get out to Cape May, and then a day (or two) to bomb all the way up NJ to Sandy Hook, and then it’s smooth short-hop sailing through NYC to CT. We knew were going to miss the window of the 16-17th weekend for this, since we didn’t want to hurry our way through the Chesapeake. However, tropical storm Arthur is spinning up and is planning to make the middle of this week rather lively, which isn’t leaving us with a lot of options.

When push came to shove, we decided to receive the new laptop in Delaware City, which is just north of the east end of the C+D canal, on the Delaware River, on Monday morning (the soonest it could get shipped). So, after a nice day and night hanging out in the Chesapeake City anchorage, we headed the rest of the way through the canal (which was very boring), and put in at the Delaware City Marina, where we filled up with diesel for the upcoming big legs, emptied the holding tank, and had a lovely 6-foot-away brunch with some friends of ours who live in Philly and drove down to see us.

This morning, when the laptop arrived, we had to make a call on a plan, and the weather forecast had taken a bit of a turn for the worse. Tuesday through Saturday was now forecast to be windy and/or rainy, solid. We asked nicely and the marina owner gave us a discounted weekly rate to spend the week here, so we’re going to just wait out the storm. If all goes well, over the Memorial Day weekend, we’ll hopefully jump down to Cape May on either Saturday or Sunday (depending on weather), and then bomb all the way up New Jersey on Sunday and/or Monday. So, our next update will hopefully be an all clear report from the anchorage inside the nook at Sandy Hook next week. Or some adventure stories about why we’re not there. One way or the other…

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A Week With A Stowaway

Sunset dinghy ride on the Sassafras River

The next day, our friend Peter joined us for the week. He had been out east on a work trip when everything locked down, and he ended up just staying with his mom outside of DC while things blew over. Two months later, he was still there, and desired rescue. They’d been really good about quarantining, and essentially hadn’t left the house the whole time, so we felt safe having him aboard. Ask us in a few days if that was a good decision or if we’re struggling to breathe. His mom dropped him off at the boat in the afternoon, bid him a sad goodbye, and he moved into the front bedroom (or, as we had been treating it, the quarantine-changing-room and pantry.)

The restaurant right at the marina was actually quite excellent, and it was raining on and off, so we were feeling pretty lazy. So, we had a great takeout meal, followed by a nice evening playing games and planning out a rough sketch of the week.

We’d planned out spending a couple nights on the Miles River, on the east side of the Chesapeake. There’s a bunch of various little rivers/inlets feeding it, all with various anchorages. As will be the theme of the week, though, we had some pretty stiff winds expected for the next couple nights, so we found a nice east-facing anchorage (we were expecting a westerly wind) at Long Haul Creek, and set up shop for the night.

Anchored at Long Haul Creek, anticipating heavy wind

It was a pretty little spot that we’d found on Navionics. The anchorage we were aiming at, however, was super shallow (it’s further up the inlet straight into the above picture), so we backed out to the center of the bay there and set up shop for the night. The wind turned out to not be so bad, and we had a pretty calm evening and overnight here. I set the anchor alarm up on a super tight circle (since we didn’t have much drifting room until hitting docks and shallows), so some overnight current changes made for some quick wake-up-and-assess moments, but they all turned out to be okay.

The next day, we went a little bit north into a more open bay by Drum Point, expecting to spend the night there. It turned out to not be that pretty, but the anchor set up well and we had tons of wide open room to circle around and/or drag in the expected wind that night, so we were excited about an uninterrupted evening of sleep. Unfortunately, after setting up anchor and getting to work, we quickly discovered that the cell reception there was useless. Phones had zero reception, and the giant antenna was able to get just enough to hold audio calls, but really not enough to do much else. We struggled for a couple hours until we had a break in meetings in the afternoon to head to another spot.

That turned out to be a giant mistake. The wind was expected to pick up overnight, but it came a little early. Re-entering the main channel, we immediately were in the worst seas of our boating lives. 4+ foot irregular waves with 6 foot randoms, directly from the beam (right into the side of the boat — the worst angle for a boat to take waves from), forcing us to go back and forth at alternating 45/135 degree angles to the waves (causes much less rocking and instability than taking them directly from the side). Waves were regularly bouncing off the hull and splashing over the roof of the bimini (~15 feet off the ground). Hannah and Peter tied down everything they could, but one big rogue wave swept us badly and tossed pretty much everything from the kitchen shelving onto the floor. Amazingly, nothing broke, and the wood floor just has a few battle dings. We had to eat that pineapple pretty soon after that, though…

Everything that launched off the shelves in the waves, gathered on the floor of the kitchen.

We were originally headed for an anchorage just southwest of the Kent Narrows bridge, to avoid the wind, but after a couple hours of battling the terrible seas, we were pretty drained and didn’t want a crappy anchoring session followed by a long stressful night of shallow windy madness in the anchorage (there’s a pattern of everything being shallow and narrow on the Chesapeake). We decided to call a couple marinas right at the narrows, and one had an opening, Harris Point Marina, so we took them up on it.

Sunset at Harris Point Marina. The winds were way too strong to fly the drone, unfortunately.

The narrows township area blocked a bunch of the wind, and we got a lucky gap just as we went to anchor, but the marina was the tightest/shallowest/scariest we’ve ever entered as well. The depth alarm was constantly tagging less than 3 feet under the middle of the boat the whole way to our slip, and we had to back into the slip because it was less than one boat length between the slip entrance and a muddy shore, so you couldn’t turn around, and if you had the props facing the shore you’d run aground (since boats are deepest at the back side). The slip was only about one foot wider than the boat, so I basically backed the boat kinda into the slip and then Hannah and Peter helped bounce us the rest of the way back to the dock. We quickly got lines on everything, and then cheered and broke into the liquor. That was a hell of a day.

Eating a delicious dinner from the Harris Crab House after a long stressful day

Peter actually grew up in the area, so he had bits of local knowledge. When he realized where we were going to spend the night, he got super excited, because there was a restaurant that he and his mom used to love going to once in a while, the Harris Crab House. So, of course, we got takeout, and Peter, with a bottomless stomach, decided to get pretty much everything on the menu, so we ate like kings for the evening.

The next day, the winds had died down and we were expecting a few days of calm weather to enjoy. After sleeping in, we headed not too far north to a nice-looking spot at Hart’s Point. It’s a little inlet with a marina inside, and a shallow spot with several anchorages marked on Navionics with good reviews. We set up at one of the anchorages with a bunch of reviews, and didn’t really think too hard about it, but as the sun went down realized that, on the north end of our anchor swing, we were pretty near the middle of the channel. Fortunately, only two boats came by all evening, but we felt a little bad about it. Lesson learned.

Sunset over our anchorage at Hart’s Point

We’d found a nice looking spot on the Sassafras River for the next day, so we wandered up there in the morning. We had another fun incident of checking internet like a half mile from our anchorage spot, it looking good, setting up anchor, and realizing the internet is unworkably bad. We then moved north 3/4 of a mile and had great internet. At least that anchorage was also solid, with plenty of swing room, and still quite a pretty spot, so it worked out.

We ended up spending two nights here, because it was way better than our original plan’s next spot looked like it would be. We had a great sunset dinghy ride way up the river to Fredericktown together, saw lots of wildlife, and by and large had a lovely couple of days there with mild weather.

Sunset over Chesapeake City. If you zoom in, you can see the three day boats rafted together chock full of a few dozen folks getting each other sick.

All good things come to an end, and we headed up to Chesapeake City for our last night as a group. There’s a man-made canal that connects the Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware River, the C+D Canal. About 1/3 of the way down the canal is this little “city”, which is one of those moment-in-time places. Cute little 2 by 2 block “downtown” area, big grassy park with open mic gazebo by the water, ice cream shop, the works. There’s a free first-come-first-serve dock for a few boats, with a 24-hour limit, so we spent one night there, and got a delicious take-out meal at the Inn on the water, which was definitely the happening place to be on a Friday night. Boats coming in and out all night, chock full of people partying. It was a bit different from the people working the Inn, who all had masks, and had the most pristine organization we’d yet seen for distancing, one way people-movement, and order pickup.

Spring Breaaaaaakkkkkkk, baby

In the evening, after dinner, I did my usual engine checks, and noticed some coolant leaking under the starboard motor. Some quick checks later, and I found that it was actually the exact same failure as we’d had on the port motor several weeks prior, a leaking coolant water pump. Fortunately, I’d gotten two new ones when the last one failed (since things tend to fail in pairs), so I had one ready to go. Peter was a champ and helped me out with the change for several hours. It all went fairly uneventfully.

Having fun draining 7 gallons of coolant to prepare for the coolant pump swap

In the morning, Peter took an Uber to the airport and headed home, and we moved to the center of the inlet to the anchorage to spend one more night there.

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Internet Connectivity

People ask us all the time what we use for internet access on the boat. It’s a vaguely complicated setup, so I figured I’d write it up in case others want to follow in our footsteps (or even better, have suggestions!)

The Cradlepoint COR IBR1700

The central router on the boat is a Cradlepoint COR IBR1700. It serves the wifi network on the boat that everything, including our cell phones, connect to. I’ve set it up to run off the 12V on the boat through a dedicated breaker switch that we leave on 24/7. The unit comes with an integrated dual-antenna (2×2 MIMO) cellular modem with two SIM card slots. You can add a second modem to it with an additional two SIM card slots, and if you have the antennae for it, you can split your bandwidth between the two modems. In all honesty, we’ve been struggling with this unit since we got it, and have had the whole unit RMA’d twice, and the second add-in modem RMA’d twice as well. The problems they’re trying to address are still unsolved, and our internet blinks out once or twice a day for several minutes while the modem spontaneously reboots. I’m probably going to call this wasted money and switch to another unit in the near future and sell this one off. For paying nearly 2000$ between the unit and the add-in modem, I’m not thrilled. But when it’s not spontaneously rebooting on us, it does work nicely.

A MOFI4500 router — simple and cheap, and does the job.

Our backup router is a MOFI4500. It only has one SIM slot, so you’re manually swapping SIM cards to change networks. It only has a single cell modem, which is slower than the Cradlepoint’s cell modem, and the Wifi is slower as well. But not by much. It’s also cheap and just works. For most boaters looking to get a reliable cell internet connection on their boat, this is what I tell them to get.

Our original GigaMIMO Lite cellular antenna. The new unit looks similar, the white pucks are just around twice as long.

The biggest piece of our connectivity puzzle is the antenna. We started with a WirEng GigaMIMO Lite, and while it was an improvement over just tethering, we wanted more, so we upgraded to the full GigaMIMO recently, and it was a pretty big boost. Both GigaMIMO units are 2×2 MIMO antennae, which means it’s basically two antennae in one, with orthogonal polarization, so they send non-intersecting wavelengths, for double the bandwidth (if you have a router that supports plugging in two antennae.) After upgrading, we now regularly get several megabits of internet when our cell phones show zero coverage or are just squeaking by on 1x. We have only lost connectivity in the absolute boonies for a few minutes on one day of the trip so far. The full unit is nearly 3000$, though, so you have to really want that internet to justify it, as well have somewhere to put what’s basically a 3 foot cube of antenna with an unobstructed-by-metal view of the horizon. But in even moderate connectivity, we usually have 20-30 megabits of download, and in good areas, we’ve cracked 90 before.

For actual data plans, we burn through huge amounts of data between work, gaming, streaming, and general browsing. We regularly use hundreds of gigabytes a month, which is far more than the standard plans will give you, so I had to get creative. We have three SIM cards on the boat: AT&T, Verizon, and Google Fi. The AT&T plan is through NoLimitData, and is a nearly unlimited plan (no throttling, 500GB a month warning line). The Verizon SIM is a no-longer-available prepaid truly unlimited plan (no throttling, no limits), though you can get something similar through UnlimitedVille. The Google Fi SIM is our backup plan and lightweight international roaming solution. On our great loop trip so far, AT&T has often had better bandwidth than Verizon, so it tends to be our default active SIM. I don’t yet have a solution for when we get to Canada. There don’t seem to be any actual unlimited plans there, no matter how much money you’re willing to pay, so we’ll cross that bridge in a few months as it gets closer.

The Wave Wifi Rogue Pro wifi booster

Lastly, if wifi is available anywhere remotely nearby, we have a Wave Wifi Rogue Pro wifi booster on top of the boat, across from the LTE antenna. This works fairly well if there’s wifi within a mile or so, though we’ve gotten signals several miles away before under perfect conditions. Under almost all conditions on the loop, though, our cellular setup works so much better than even good marina wifi that we don’t even bother using this. We’ve only bothered I think once on the trip so far, and it was merely academic, while I was debugging some issues with the Cradlepoint’s cell modems. I expect we’ll be relying on this a lot more in Canada, given the likely no-unlimited-data solution we’ll run into there.

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Oriental and Belhaven: Small Town America?

Oriental, NC’s downtown area. We’re at the marina at bottom center.

In between high school and college, I took a year off (read: I was told to take a year off to get my shit together) and spent the summer portion of that gap year in the tiny town of Bettles, AK. 100-something miles northwest of Fairbanks, north of the Artic circle, the town carried a full time population of ~75 people, most of whom were native alaskans, with most of the non-natives running away to warmer climates in the winter. Everybody knew everyone else, and even those of us one-summer seasonal folk, by the end of the summer, knew everyone and they all knew us. It was pretty rough leaving that community that fall.

Our journey up to Oriental was uneventful, and we put in at the Oriental Inn and Marina. The dockmaster was a super nice jolly guy and very proud of his supplies of hand sanitizer for customers to use. Oriental felt like a bit of a remnant of that Bettles feeling. It was an order of magnitude larger, population-wise, but the “main drag” was a single-digit number of commercial buildings, people were sitting on park benches watching the cars go by, families walked together to the two restaurants in town, both of which were serving take-out dinners, everyone waved to each other and stopped to chat (many not 6 feet away), etc.

Amidst the wind and rain, Hannah did find some time to play with making shapes on the bow

We had a weather hole of 2 days of rain that planned for Oriental. When we arrived, we picked up our new anchor bridle, grabbed some more spares and supplies while we had a good marine store around, got some fresh groceries, and mostly hung out and worked. The next day brought us some pretty absurd rain (still not as bad as Surf City was), and we just holed ourselves up inside. After the rain stopped, we ordered some takeout dinner that was tasty, and had a nice 45 minute walk around the town together while our dinner was made. We got in a couple rounds of Gloomhaven and went to bed.

Getting in a game of Gloomhaven on the boat

Another day of rain passed with us doing projects and research. Our bow thruster has been nearly useless the entire trip, and I’d done enough testing over the past couple weeks to determine that the thruster and wiring were fine, actually our batteries were just dying. They’re over 4 years old, were a low end brand to begin with (bought by the previous owners of the boat), and had been abused by dying alternators and some broken charging relays over the past few years. I’d been trying to decide for a week or so whether to go crazy and buy a whole new smart 4-stage externally-regulated alternator setup, a nice Lithium house bank, and dc-dc chargers to charge the start banks.

After looking at prices and complexity of trying to land this project in the midst of Coronavirus, I finally decided to pass and just go with a new high-end AGM bank. I started setting up plans to pick up four new Lifeline 3100T start batteries for our engine and thruster banks and four 6CT house batteries, which will increase our house capacity from 380 Ah to 600, a nice bump, and they’ll fit in all of the current (somewhat hodgepodge) battery cases and boxes, since getting new battery boxes shipped right now is a nonstarter. I can clean it all up later in the trip once I can get some shipments lined up. So now we’re trying to line up a spot to meet those eight batteries at in the next couple weeks, then we get to figure out how to recycle 8 used batteries while looping as well… A problem for another day.

Sunset over Belhaven, NC, facing south. The town dock (with our boat) is in the bottom right, with the Belhaven marina at center. The ICW is out to the top left of the frame.

On Sunday morning, we departed for a 4 hour trip up to Belhaven, NC. Hannah had been talking this town up for weeks, under the impression people had been talking about it constantly on the Great Loop Facebook group. Later, I realized that there had just been the owner of the Belhaven Marina posting different pictures once a week, like a good social media coordinator, and the trick had totally worked on her. The town was essentially totally shut down, and we stayed on the cheaper town dock (sorry Belhaven Marina), despite a sketchy 5 foot depth entrance. But we had another day of nasty weather to avoid, so we hung out for two nights.

I really need to shave more often

Our main highlight of Belhaven was that the dockmaster suggested one place to order a nice takeout meal, Spoon River, so we did. When normally open, it looked like it would be a quite swanky restaurant, but as it was, when we showed up to pick up our meal, the owner seemed thrilled to have some customers, and generously gave us a bottle of wine with our dinner and a bundle of peonies (her husband is a florist.) We took the meal back to the boat, and it was delicious. It’s unclear if anything else is worth going back for in Belhaven, but that dinner was. It turned out to be 2 full dinners (for two) and a lunch (6-ish meal portions). I hope they make it through the recession and we can come back there again someday.

Hannah started a new job this week, so we’re going to try to be a little more conservative with our transit stages for a few days while she gets her feet wet at the new gig. Hannah spent Monday inside while it rained for her first day at work, then was inspired to bake a pie, which we happily consumed alongside our rapidly-booming peonies.

We headed out early this morning, with me driving most of the time while Hannah resumed her usual nonstop meeting schedule, to the next possible stop, an anchorage at the southern tip of the Alligator River. The weather report in Belhaven said it’d be somewhat windy today, but it apparently changes drastically when you go 30 miles east, and we came out of the channel into a 20-25 kt southerly wind. So, our first usage of the new Mantus anchor bridle was under duress, and it worked great. We anchored in 7 ft of water, put out almost 100 ft of chain (we didn’t wanna move and we had plenty of room to swing), and went in to work for the day.

As it turns out, we are a long way from anything here. It looks like Belhaven is actually the closest anything-resembling-civilization, and that’s back nearly 40 miles west of us. The whole day, my cell phone was showing either no signal or a bar or two of 1x. But it proved that our cell antenna was working well, because we were both able to be on conference calls all day, often with video chat.

Just spinning around in the breeze all afternoon

We spent the afternoon getting regaled by nearly nonstop fighter jet passes, presumably from the Norfolk base to the northwest. The wind eventually died down after sunset, and we’re enjoying a pretty calm evening, though the fighters keep passing overhead.

Our plan for the next week involves making our way up to Elizabeth City by Saturday night, and going through the Dismal Swamp Canal on Sunday. It’s a supposedly very pretty alternate ICW route, but it’s maintained at only 6 feet of depth the whole way and is pretty notorious for bumping your boat with sunken logs and such. We’ll see if the risk is worth it or not, if we end up needing to get our props pulled off in Norfolk.

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Titusville and New Smyrna: Poor Social Distancing and Rockets

Starting our day at the Kennedy Space Center

Friday, we did our now-usual routine of waking up early and heading northward up the ICW, this time heading to to Titusville. This had been a planned stop for a couple weeks, aiming for a weekend day to see the Kennedy Space Center, so we got a spot in the city marina for a few days.

Manatees were all over the Marina, and we even started seeing them in the ICW near Titusville

We had an uneventful glassy morning cruise up, and upon arriving in the marina, were greeted by several manatees swimming around, and our first in-person fellow great loopers, Larry and Mary Bailey (the link is to their travel blog). They were super friendly, and we ended up spending a bunch of our stay in town hanging out with them and a couple of their friends that came down to visit as well.

After working Friday, in the evening we had some drinks with the Baileys and then we had a late appointment at an escape room a few miles down the road, so we unloaded the bikes and headed inland to find some dinner. Titusville has a cute little downtown area, but as soon as you get outside of that, it feels like you’ve been teleported back in time. Aging half-abandoned strip malls (and indoor malls), sketchy diners, the works. We ended up picking a pizza place in the mall where the escape room was and had a great cheap meal before heading to the room.

The escape rooms were interesting. It sounded like the owner basically bought plans for them off someone in Vegas that sells escape room plans, and then just built them. One of the rooms was “The Hangover”-themed, and required a nontrivial amount of trivia from the movie to get through, which we required hints for. We got through that one and since the night was still young we did another Harry Potter-themed room that was pretty good, with some neat new tricks, aside from one super-tenuous connection in the last area of the room that even the owner couldn’t really describe how anyone was supposed to understand. Oops.

Saturday was the main event for us — the Kennedy Space Center. I’d been once, ~25 years ago with my family, and Hannah had never been, so we were pretty excited. I’ve been a space dork my whole life, so the color that this added to all the stories that I’d grown up reading about was just beyond awesome. As a pretty incredibly unpatriotic person in the current environment, it was still an awe-inspiring tour de force of the era back when America was actually great. This juxtaposed with the sadness of having them sell off daily tickets to astronaut lunches at the museum, because there’s so little else for astronauts to do these days. In any event, before I get stuck on a rant, the museum was incredible. I teared up more in one day than I have in the last decade combined. If you are even slightly intrigued by space, engineering, or US history, you’ll have a great time.

We got back to the boat, and were invited back onto the Bailey’s boat again for cocktails and snacks, and ended up heading in with them all for a night on the town. We ate a pile of seafood, hit up a wine bar, drank at a great brewery, and finished off at a dive bar. Look at us being all social.

After the night of heavy drinking, waking up early the next morning was rough, but it was supposed to be worth it. As it turns out, SpaceX had a rocket launch scheduled for 9:22AM, and so we couldn’t not go see it. Saturday, I posted on the looper Facebook group and asked what the best place to see the launch would be. Most people suggested just watching from the marina, but Ferrell & Tamara Shaffer (link to their Facebook blog) responded that they were at anchor just southeast of us at the closest spot boaters could get to the launch, and invited us to come join them. So, we gathered the troops and trundled out of the marina at sunup and went over to join them.

We rafted up on them with about 45 minutes to go until launch, chatted for a while, ate breakfast, and then gathered on the bow for the countdown. SpaceX did its usual great livestream leading up to launch — “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, Liftoff! Wait, abort! We have an abort.” Apparently some sensor measuring the force of the rockets as they build up to launch thrust detected an anomaly and auto-scrubbed the launch right at T-0. So, that was disappointing, but what can you do? It was a pretty morning anyway, and we got to meet a second group of loopers. We dropped everyone off at the marina, said goodbyes, and continued our journey north.

This segment of the ICW was a little wacky. It was a very-dredged section, so any deviation from the channel got real shallow, real fast. There are regularly-spaced “spoil areas”, where they dumped the sand from the dredging back in the early 1900s, which had turned into tiny tropical islands in the intervening decades. There were lots of boaters out there today, fishing from the little islands and hanging out under tents in portable chairs. We had to take one long cut (the top picture) that was packed solid on both sides of the channel with people fishing from either the shore or tiny fishing boats in the shallows.

Dolphins playing in our wake — they’re everywhere

We’re also seeing dolphins and porpoises all over the place. It’s pretty crazy compared to the northwest, where if you see a little pod in a weekend you’re lucky. Everywhere we go, as long as we’re doing ~6-7kts, they swim over and play in either the bow or side wake to catch a free ride for a bit.

We ended up anchoring for the night in New Smyrna, a cute little town where the only things open on Sunday are the brewery (even the smallest towns have a microbrewery these days — what a time to be alive) and a little knick knack shop, so we didn’t do much other than walk around and get a beer before heading back to the boat for dinner. We’re anchored in a tight little spot between 2 boats on one axis and a sandbar and a crab pot on the other axis, but amazingly it seems to be holding quite well in what otherwise appears to be loose sand. We’ll see if we get woken up in the middle of the night by the anchor alarm that I have set on a super tight circle…

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Picking Up The Pace, COVID-19 Adjustments, and More Repairs

The ICW has lots of large power line stays just a few dozen feet off the channel. It’s a bit otherworldly going through the gaps when the water’s super calm.

After being holed up at a windy Nettles Island for three days, and finally free of set-in-stone scheduled destinations, we were ready to get moving. Our next two plans were:

  1. Get up to Titusville by the weekend to hit up the Kennedy Space Center.
  2. Get up to Jacksonville the following weekend to then rent a car and drive down to Disney/Universal with Hannah’s brother and a friend of ours.

Early this week is also when COVID-19 officially transitioned from “Seattle’s kinda screwed” to “the country/world is on the exponential infection curve now.” We’d been assuming for a few weeks that many of our desired activities would need curtailing, but it took a while for businesses to finish playing virus chicken with each other and actually start closing. I put the kibosh on the Disney plan 48 hrs before Disney actually closed themselves, but I had some hope that, at a museum at least, we could more or less determine our own desired level of infection risk by how many things we touched/how many people we got near, so for the moment, we held onto the Kennedy plan and proceeded toward Titusville.

Our Vero Beach anchorage — sketchy shallow, mere feet off the ICW, but a pretty area

Our first stop after leaving Nettles Island was Vero Beach. We didn’t really have plans to do anything there, but on working days, it’s hard for us to make too much forward progress. Wake up early, try to get somewhere by 10:30am or so, then fire up the computer and work for the day. On the southern ICW, where you spend much of your time going 6kts, that doesn’t allow for a lot of daily distance. So, we found a nice looking anchorage on Navionics and headed up that way. The anchorage turned out to already have 2 boats in the best spots, spaced just perfectly to not really fit a third in between, so we set anchor ~100 feet east of the ICW channel and monitored to see how bad of an idea it would be.

It turned out to be a pretty great spot. A few boats waked us pretty good, but that was pretty expected. In the late afternoon, Hannah finished up her work for the day and wanted to try out the dinghy. Everywhere we’d been so far, we had backed into Marina slips, so we hadn’t actually had an opportunity to try it out since transporting from the west coast yet. So we put the boat in the water, the motor turned right on (a great sign, since the battery hadn’t been charged in ~3 months), and Hannah went out for a quick spin. She started idling away from the boat toward the channel, and then … frantic arm motions, then a cell phone call. It won’t throttle up at all, it’s stuck in idle. Damn. She tootled back to the mothership, and I started diagnosing.

Dismantling the shift lever down to its core compounds showed how much salt had made its way into the mechanism

Somehow, on the 3 week voyage across the country, salt had managed to find its way everywhere on our boat. We had most things cleaned as soon as it got to the dock in Ft. Lauderdale, but some things, like the dinghy, apparently escaped that cleaning. The shift lever had gotten tons of salt outside and in, blocking the shift mechanism and rusting some of the pivots. Fully dismantling everything, scraping off a lot of salt and corroded metal, and reassembling it fortunately completely cured the issue, and late in the evening we declared success. We were originally going to go ashore and try out an escape room, but the dinghy issues had removed our motivation, so we sat back to enjoy the evening.

The sunset looked promising, so I got out the drone, charged the batteries, got everything set up, went to take off and … red warning, can’t take off. Turns out, there’s an airport inland and our anchorage is right in the approach path to one of the runways. Damn #2 for the day. I called it, put everything away, and decided it was beer:45. So I grabbed a beer and settled in. Hannah went to take a shower, and immediately returned with the bad news that the water pump wasn’t working. Damn #3. Don’t they always come in 3s?

Our water pump setup, a Jabsco “smart” auto-flow-regulating pump

Our water pump had been not behaving super well even while we were still in Anacortes, and had gotten worse since starting the Loop, so we knew this day was coming. I was just hoping that it wouldn’t be, you know, today. So, I spent a few minutes tinkering, and decided to just give up, grab all the tools, and swap the damn thing out. An hour later, we had water again! But this pump wasn’t turning off some of the time when water pressure ramped up. I’m hoping it’s just learning, since it’s an “intelligent” pump, but in the meantime, sometimes we have to power cycle it to get it to stop running…

The next morning, we moved again. Next stop was Melbourne, which the book generously described as, “there’s not much to do here, but it has a great anchorage.” Hannah found an escape room here too, so that was our next intended activity. We got up to the anchorage, which was a roughly half-mile-square of 8 foot deep water to the east of the ICW channel with no other boats, and dropped anchor… and dragged it all over creation. We tried a few different directions, and couldn’t get it to set up strong anywhere. Fortunately, we were over a thousand feet from any even vaguely worrying water, but we really needed to get to work, so we set up an anchor alarm and started working.

For the next 5 hours, once an hour I would hear the anchor alarm go off, move it over another 100 ft, and go back to work. In the late afternoon, I got tired of this, and we found another better-sounding anchorage in Cocoa, another 15nm north. We pulled up the anchor and discovered several cubic feet of seaweed taking up permanent residence on the anchor and chain, explaining the earlier difficulties, but we decided to move anyway.

I am unlucky with airports. Also not smart enough to check the map first.

This section of the ICW fortunately has several 25mph speed zones for us to take advantage of, so we got up to Cocoa in an hour and set a great anchor in some sticky mud just SE of town, next to ~30 other anchored boats, west of the channel, just outside of the under-construction marina. The sunset looked exciting again, so I, not learning my lesson from last time, got the drone ready to go, went to take off, and … no takeoff allowed. Another airport. As my dad always says, he with weak mind has strong legs, so I put everything back away.

Later on, we took the now-working-great dinghy ashore after dark, tying up at a boat launch and hoping no one stole it (and immediately buying a 15ft locking chain on Amazon), and hit up a local escape room. The escape room was a serial-killer basement themed mission with some mostly-non-tech-based puzzles, which was fun. We knocked it out with 22:51 left, which is pretty great for us. We dingied back to the boat in the pitch dark and called it a night.

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Settling In

Current Status: Messy But Manageable

The only set-in-stone date on our trip for the next several months is having to be in DC for the March 6-8 weekend for a funeral. A couple months ago, with that date in mind, and expecting that we’d want to deal with some stuff on the boat before heading too far north, we guessed randomly, picked West Palm Beach to fly out of (~50 miles north of Ft. Lauderdale), and bought plane tickets.

Fast forward to being on the boat, and we think that guess is going to work out pretty well. We have the second round of canvas repairs that will be done either Friday or Monday (contractor-speak for “maybe Monday, probably Tuesday”) as the long-pull work item right now. Knowing we’re here until then, we have been taking the opportunity to catch up on all the boat prep that we missed out on in January when we had to send the boat out on 48 hrs notice.

Hannah taking advantage of a canvas-less cockpit to do some stretching in the breeze

With Sunday spent doing basic provisioning, the weekdays are our first trial of working full time from a boat on the other side of the country while trying to organize shipments, start planning travel, find/book future marinas, and do maintenance.

Monday, we had the pallet full of several hundred pounds of supplies from home arrive, and spent the entire afternoon unpacking and organizing. I stayed up late and installed a new chartplotter (navigation computer/display) and radar to replace our ancient ones. Despite wearing full protective gear and heavily using a vacuum to eat up a bunch of fiberglass, I’m still assuming I took another chunk out of my expected lifespan. Amazingly, I also managed to sell the old units, which I assumed would be nearly worthless, on Craigslist and eBay for 900$ in under a day.

Tuesday, the couch pallets arrived, and we had an exciting afternoon of frantically getting the existing couch out of the boat and getting the new couch on board with literally seconds to spare before the sky opened up. Once everything was installed and cleaned up, we utilized our rental F150 to its fullest, bringing a completely overflowing truck of old couch, pallets, and other misc junk to the dump before returning it in the evening.

Tech-wise, working on the boat has been going fairly well during the day. I picked up a second unlimited SIM card from an AT&T reseller (NoLimitData), stuck it in the second modem on the Cradlepoint router, and enabled intelligent trunking (with the existing unlimited Verizon card), so the router splits our traffic between the two connections. The results, at night at least, have been great (see picture). Midday, when the networks are congested, with the two connections sharing load, we’re at least barely noticing that we’re not on a cable modem, so we can’t ask for much more than that. I still can’t wait for StarLink next year…

Today, after work, I started digging into a few nagging problems we noticed on the boat on our quick trip up to Vancouver. A few of the switches on the flybridge helm had stopped doing anything, including the horn, and there were some issues with the trim tab sensors on the NMEA 2000 network. After messing around with the trim tab sensors for way too long, I finally just unplugged the device, plugged it back in, and quickly tried a fresh re-calibrate before the computer finished initializing it. Boom, all fixed. On to the electrical. I chased one of the issues down to a wire pulling out of a previous crimp connection, another of the issues down to loose spade connectors, and then fully debugged the horn down to it being a hardware issue. I pulled the horn off the boat and popped it open to check it out, only to be met with a horn element full of rust and spider webs/poop. So, a replacement is on its way from Amazon now.

In general, though, things are coming together. More storage/organization supplies are arriving from Amazon by the day, so our living spaces are pretty usable now, especially with the new storage in the couches. The ghetto-rigged A/C unit is doing a decent job, though with it being 88F and quite humid today, it was struggling to keep the inside below around 75, but that’s fine for working. On the fun side, we’ve been soaking a tiny 1 quart oak barrel for a few days to get it ready for aging cocktails, and tonight we declared victory and filled it up with a bunch of Negroni. In a couple weeks, that’s going to be delicious.

Tomorrow, we plan to actually unload the bikes and take some rides around town — hit up an escape room, maybe head over to the beach, etc. We have a pile of Amazon packages coming in the next 2 days with more storage/organization supplies (and some boat parts…), so that’ll take up plenty of time, but we’re hoping to be able to relax for our first weekend of the trip.

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Final Preparations and Initial Plans

As I go to bed tonight, we tick down past the 8-days-to-go mark. So, we’re just finishing up some fairly frantic last-minute planning and logistics, and are ready to move into see-what-happens mode.

Today, we dropped off the last pile of stuff at the freight company to be sent out to the boat. Since the boat had to go through Victoria, we couldn’t send any alcohol out on it, so instead we’re shipping out a few cases of wine and a case of northwest liquor (small batch stuff you can’t get in liquor stores out east). Combine that with a radar and chartplotter upgrade, throw in a folding dock cart, some art, and a few miscellaneous other things, and you have 460 lbs of shrink-wrapped boxes on their way out east to meet us. It’ll give me some fun projects to get started on from day 1!

Speaking of the chartplotter upgrade, we made the call to upgrade the main ancient Garmin 5012 chartplotter to a new 1242 Plus unit. I was looking into prices for getting all of the map cards we’d need to safely do the loop with the 5012, and it was getting up over 2000$. At the Seattle Boat Show, I talked to the Garmin rep and he said he actually knew a few people who had recently just done the Great Loop, entirely using the built-in G3 base map that comes with recent Garmin chartplotters. Given that I could get the new unit for essentially the same price as the map cards I was looking at, it seemed like a vastly superior answer. The reps at the Garmin booth don’t actually sell anything, and I’m sure the margin on hardware is lower than a mass-printed SD card, so it seemed like a genuine suggestion to save some money. But then I found a nice combo sale to upgrade our decade-old radar unit to a Fantom 24 at the same time, and suddenly everything got more expensive…

We also got news this week that our new couch was ready to ship, so it’ll head out east about the same time as our random-stuff pallet. We’re excited for the extra storage!

Lastly, we’ve started trying to look at what a timeline MIGHT look like for our loop. We currently only have 2 hard dates:

  • March 7th, we have a celebration of life for my grandmother, who passed away earlier this year. We have plane tickets from West Palm Beach for the weekend, so we need to get ~100 miles north of Ft. Lauderdale up to PBI by then.
  • November 1st, or so, the locks south of Chicago open from 4 months of maintenance closures, so we can start hauling ass down the Illinois to the Mississippi, away from what will, by then, be quite cold weather.
Transit days on the standard Great Loop, according to Captain John’s Great Loop Cruising Guide

Outside of those two dates, pretty much anything goes, so I’ve been trying to add some constraints/odds to give people a rough idea when to come out and visit us. If we follow a roughly-72-to-75-degree-average high daily temperature for the first bit (colder than we want, but we get north earlier and can explore further northeast), we end up with the following vague-but-quite-aggressive schedule:

  • Feb 28: Ft. Lauderdale, FL
  • March 7: West Palm Beach, FL (100 miles)
  • March 25: Jacksonville, FL (300 miles)
  • April 15: Charleston, SC (300 miles)
  • May 1: Wilmington, NC (250 miles)
  • May 15: Norfolk, VA (300 miles)
  • June 1: Washington DC (250 miles)
  • June 10: Baltimore, MD (200 miles)
  • June 25: NYC (250 miles)
  • July 15: Providence, RI (250 miles)
  • Aug 1: Portland, ME (250 miles)
  • Aug 20: Back to NYC -> Enter Hudson River (500 miles)
  • Sept 5: Montreal, QC (400 miles)
  • Sept 15: Leave Lake Ontario into Trent-Severn (200 miles)
  • Oct 1: Leave Trent-Severn onto Lake Huron (300 miles)
  • Oct 15: Enter Lake Michigan (400 miles)
  • Nov 1: Head south from Chicago, IL when the locks open (400 miles)

We, of course, have no idea if we’ll be able to hit that aggressive of a timeline, since we’re also going to be both working full time and trying to enjoy everything along the way. So, we might just skip everything east of NYC, enter the Hudson in late July, and hang out more in Canada. We’ll see!

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Arrived, But Not Quite in One Piece

Highwind getting unloaded at Port Everglades, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

As the date of the boat’s arrival in Florida got closer, we were thinking that it was probably too early to fly out and start our loop in late January. I’d told my job that March 1st-ish was when we’d start, and while I could have gotten away with it, it was a better idea to stick around for another month to keep building work relationships. So, we started reaching out to our boating community connections to find a captain to pick up the boat and a slip to hold the boat for a month and change. Amazingly, someone found a captain in FL who had a friend with a slip outside a house they’d bought that would be free for a couple months until they got around to buying a boat in the spring, for an amazingly reasonable price. So, we paid a deposit, coordinated pickup details, and slowly watched the Garmin tracking site as the boat wandered its way over.

An Inreach track of the cargo ship’s route (loaded via Google Maps)

It was fun following the boat on its route. They stayed hundreds of miles off shore down the west coast of the US, and then hugged pretty close to Mexico on the way down to Panama, making a pretty consistent 14 kts the whole time. Once they hit Mexico, we’d get emails every day or so with the cell modem on the boat picking up a signal for that middle part of the trip. Then, when they headed north from Panama, they were taking a weird route and going very slowly for a couple days, before turning to the west of Cuba and picking up speed again. We didn’t know what to make of any of it, but it was interesting to watch.

The first picture texted by the captain during the pickup — sooooo where’s the rear canvas?…

On January 18th, after some delays that pushed unloading of our boat into the late evening, they let the captain aboard to start checking out the condition of the boat. We got the first text above, and our hearts sank a bit. Over the last year, we’d replaced all of the canvas on the boat, and paid a premium for some fairly high-end stiff isenglass that would last longer and stay clearer than standard materials, all of which now appeared to be hanging broken or missing from the back half of the boat.

First picture from the captain of the inside of the boat

They let him aboard the boat to check things out, and the inside was a mess. Nothing on a quick inspection by the captain appears to be damaged, but everything was tossed around quite a bit. We later got the story that the cargo ship hit a big storm just north of the Panama Canal, and was seeing steady 35 degree lists in the ocean swells. Another big ship they were also transporting had a large granite countertop break off and bounce around the kitchen for a day and a half. So, things could always be worse.

After some more time aboard, the captain found a pile of stuff nearby that the ship operators had apparently collected as it all fell off our boat. All of the canvas is there, though much of it was destroyed. The grill apparently snapped the railing off the port side of the boat, so that’s going to require some welding and likely a new grill. Not ideal, but nothing catastrophic, at least. Money and a few weeks can fix all of these things, but it’s not really the experience we were looking for.

Eventually, all of the parts were gathered and it was Highwind’s turn to get unloaded. The batteries lasted the whole trip, so my gamble worked out. The engines fired right up and the captain had an uneventful trip inland a couple miles to the dock where Highwind will sit for a bit.

The captain has some local connections, so in the couple days since the boat landed, we’ve gotten the boat fully cleaned to see what other damage there might be, and it doesn’t appear that anything is notably damaged beyond the canvas/railing/grill. Some of the furniture that ended up exposed to the elements in the storm needs some heavier work, but everything else cleaned up nicely.

We are getting estimates for the various required work on those items early next week. We have a special insurance rider as part of the transport, so hopefully most of the costs of repairs are covered by that, but we’ll know more after we get the estimates and start the claims process. Insurance companies are always eager to fulfill claims, so I’m sure this will go smoothly…

No return flight this time…

After assessing the situation, we decided that the Feb 22/23 weekend would be a good option for moving out east, and performed the weird act of buying one-way tickets to the opposite corner of the country. This should give us enough time to get the boat fixed up before we head out, with some time to settle in and receive freight shipments before we should be heading north in early March.

On one last slightly-brighter note, back in November, we commissioned a custom couchbed for the boat to make better use of space and replace our aging and not-terribly-comfortable one, and it’s now finished and ready to ship (the pictures above are the latest ones they sent before saying it was done)! We were intending to have it completed before the boat got shipped, but the early transport changed the situation a wee bit. At this point, it will be shipped to the driveway of the house where our boat is after our arrival in late February, and we’ll swap couches from there.

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On Its Way

After several back-and-forths with Florida on Thursday and Friday, we got our ISF filed (customs forms) and were cleared to load. 3pm Friday, they loaded it up, and 7am this morning the ship departed Victoria, headed to Ensenada. There’s no going back now.

Progress as of this posting from the InReach tracker

I’m gambling a little bit with the batteries on the ship for the voyage, basically entirely because I’m a geek. I disconnected almost everything from the NMEA 2000 network on the ship other than my prototype ShipIt hardware and the GPS antenna, and pulled as much off the rest of the 12V system as I could. This left the boat pulling about 1.8 amps to have the router + cell antenna going to hold connectivity to shore/my house (automatic VPN tunnel), the ShipIt hardware/N2k network, a USB charger for the Garmin Inreach, and whatever else is floating around using power.

A during-assembly shot of me building the solar setup on top of the hardtop last winter

The kicker, and the other side of the bet, is that there’s 500 watts of solar on the roof, but only 390 amp-hours of AGM batteries as a buffer. So, if solar does absolutely nothing, we’ll drain ~43Ah per day and the batteries will be too low to do anything sometime mid next week. But if the solar does, well, really much of anything (which is more likely as it goes south), it’ll keep everything more than topped off. But mostly it needs to make it through the deep dark north before running out of batteries to then find some sun…

Of course, for the vast majority of the trip, the boat looks like it’s going to stay way off shore, well out of range of any cell antennae, so the InReach will be the only reliable tracking mechanism outside of Ensenada, the Panama Canal (we’ll see how Google Fi roaming does!), and then Florida. So, it’s likely that most of my work to keep the network alive will be a waste. Oh well. Experiments are fun.

The current ETA is for the boat to arrive on Jan 2nd in Ensenada, and then ~Jan 20th in Florida. We currently have no plans in place for what to do when that date arrives. It’s still too up in the air around Hannah’s job search and how my job progresses to know if we’ll be ready to move aboard on the 20th or if we’re going to stash the boat somewhere for 5-6 weeks before heading back to actually begin the loop. More updates forthcoming, as soon as we make some decisions…

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