Fleeing Fall

It’s only been a week since the last post, but we’ve clicked off nearly a quarter of the east coast in that time. With how long we lingered up north, and fall rapidly approaching, the weather has been quickly degrading, with days of sustained winds making travel difficult. We made the decision to bust south as fast as possible for a bit until we find better weather again, likely once we get back on the ICW.

Our day on the Jersey coast was, fortunately, incredibly uneventful. A little wind picked up in the afternoon, but as ocean crossings go, it was about as peaceful as you can get. The days are rapidly shortening, so even though we started at dawn and conditions were perfect, there just weren’t enough hours of daylight to make it all the way up to Delaware City on the same day. We pulled into Cape May in the late afternoon, parked for the night at Utsch’s again, got takeout from the same restaurant as last time (which was also just as mediocre as last time, so I think we’ll pass next time through here), and chilled out for the evening.

In the morning, we picked up enough diesel to make sure we’d make it through to the Chesapeake and headed out again. It was significantly less calm than the Jersey crossing, but still just fine. It’s possible that a summer in Maine has altered our baseline for “bad conditions” a bit. We timed it to have the current with us the whole way, and when we headed into the C+D canal, got a nice 2kt push the whole way through. We stopped early at Chesapeake City, since we liked our stop here last time through, and spent a lovely afternoon in the sun. Hannah went for a run, I did some boat cleaning, and in the evening we hung out and caught some live music and drank in an outdoor “rum garden” that had opened up over the summer. It was a lovely way to end a weekend that we’d been dreading for months, knowing how the conditions were our last time through here.

On Monday, we resumed our standard routine — make a short hop of a couple hours some time during the day either in the morning or between afternoon meetings. We headed onto the Chesapeake proper and up the Sassafras river, our favorite spot from our last time up the coast. We went deeper into the river this time, since it was super pretty up in there, and there was the cheapest diesel around in Fredericktown, several miles up the river. Unfortunately, cell reception basically everywhere in between our anchorage from the spring and Fredericktown was unusable, so we had to stay at an uninspiring (but cheap) mooring in Fredericktown to be able to work for the day, after filling up with diesel.

Wind was predicted for most of the rest of the week, so in the morning we headed down to what looked like a pretty protected hidey-hole at Fairlee Creek. It looks/sounds like this place is party central on summer weekends, with outdoor tiki bars everywhere on the beaches and dozens and dozens of boats anchored in the shallow bay. This late in the season, it was essentially deserted, and we had a peaceful few days on anchor while the wind tore through the main Chesapeake. A few boats passed in and out for a night here and there, but at least one of the nights we were the only boat in the bay.

Hannah’s shoulder results finally came back in, so we had to make a plan to find a doctor to get a cortisone injection, and miraculously, there was an office walking distance from the Solomon’s marina, where we were planning on meeting up with Jan and Jim again, with an opening on the following Tuesday. So that became the new plan.

Friday, we emerged from our cocoon and crossed over to the west side of the Chesapeake, just north of Annapolis, to a random anchorage I found on ActiveCaptain. It turned out to literally be a tiny river surrounded by solid houses with docks, and we felt more than a little weird just dropping anchor basically in their back yard. However, by the time we got in, we both had meetings coming up, so we were pretty committed. We had a peaceful windless day and night there with kayakers looking oddly at us periodically. We even had a quite good dinner at a waterfront restaurant a short dinghy trip up the river from our “anchorage”.

Today (Saturday), we’re making most of the trip down to Solomon’s, stopping at Hudson Creek, which theoretically will nicely protect us from some overnight wind from the southwest, and the comments say will deliver a lovely sunset over the beach, if these clouds clear a bit (unlikely). I guess we’ll find out. The raindrops starting to fall aren’t a great sign, though.

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Bar Harbor and Roque Island

Bar Harbor at sunset, with the “experience cruise” sailing ships coming in for the night

We ended up spending the whole week in Bar Harbor. The internet was good, the buoy was reasonably cheap, access to restaurants/supplies was excellent, and it’s really pretty there. In between the rainstorms, that is.

About half the nights, we dinghied into town and found dinner somewhere random. The first time we went in, just after a rainstorm, we found a place with a strong review on Yelp, and, after they quickly dried the water off the outdoor tables, had a lovely meal and cocktails. Dinghying through a pitch-black harbor full of lobster pots is an interesting experience.

Later in the week, with better weather, we tried several places that were totally booked out, and ended up just walking by a sidestreet that happened to have a Thai place on it. So we jumped over there and had a, well, intensely mediocre Thai meal, to be honest. But it was our first Thai meal since leaving Seattle, so we loved it anyway. We even had time to make it over to the grocery store and renew supplies before they closed for the night.

Fundamentally, the harbor and surrounding areas are super pretty. Even with the nonstop lobster boats who don’t seem to give the slightest bit of a shit about sending multi-foot wakes at you at all hours of the day, we’ll still be back.

Roque Island. Highwind is just left of center near the bottom.

For the weekend, we decided to head even further east to a well-known spot (up here) called Roque Island. It’s a large private island with a giant sandy beach just off the coast that forms a nice crescent cove protected from all the sides that the wind mostly comes from up here, so it was bound to be a popular anchorage. It was about 40 miles east of Bar Harbor, so we spent much of the day slowboating over there, dodging the densest collections of lobster pots that we’ve yet seen.

When we arrived on Saturday afternoon, there were already ~15 boats taking up the shallow areas of the anchorage. We have plenty of chain, and run the generator a lot, so we happily moved further offshore and anchored in 35 feet of water, well away from everyone. Weather was sour at this point, so we just stayed in for the night instead of going ashore. Sunday was no better, so we mostly just hung out for the weekend and enjoyed the peace and calm. Internet was passable, so we decided to hang out for a few days as people filtered out for the work week.

Mid week, we finally managed to get some good weather and a hole in our work schedules to coincide, and went ashore just before the sun dipped behind the trees and got a little sun in our faces. On the way back to Highwind we were hailed over by a couple on a boat and chatted for a bit about the great loop and some local anchorages to try out.

By Thursday, we were starting to run low on laundry (it’s been a while), so we decided to hop over to the nearby town of Jonesport, which had a rental mooring with access to laundry facilities. The dock was only accessible (i.e. “not high and dry”) near high tide, so Hannah spent the day ashore doing laundry and working from land. We need to top off on water somewhere nearby, then we’re good for another couple weeks.

Amazing full rainbow at Roque

The watermaker we ordered is completed and working its way up to Maine, so we’re tentatively scheduled to head back to Hinckley to get it installed on Aug 10th. This gives us another week and 2 weekends to hang out east here, then head back for the install, and then probably head back west to meet up with John/Joan.

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Repairs and Acadia

We ended up spending a full week on the hard at Hinckley. They ordinarily don’t allow people to stay on the boat while it’s in their yard, but with all the hotels in the area closed, we didn’t have a lot of options, so they graciously let us stay there and use the restrooms/showers after hours for the week.

While we were fixing some of the windows, we noticed some other windows having issues too and dug into those, and I decided to get a new sonar installed, which stretched out our time ashore a bit. But they did a great job, were super easy to work with, and in the end it wasn’t too much more expensive than going to a no-name shop in the middle of nowhere. You could tell the workers there genuinely had pride in doing good work, as well, which was reassuring as they were busy putting large new holes through the bottom of our boat. Stuff we had done:

  • Our bow thruster had continued to be doing poorly ever since coming to the east coast, and after replacing the motor unit. They came to the same conclusion that I did — it just needs a second 4/0 wire run, and to clean up some of the crappy factory wiring while they were in there. Our bow thruster now finally actually moves the boat around!
  • Adding a through-hull to be ready to install a watermaker. We’ve ordered a Spectra 340c (14 gallons/hour nominal) which will be here in a couple weeks to install. We’ll head back to Hinckley to have them install that when it shows up in the mail.
  • Raw water pump replacement — our other pump was leaking, and apparently requires you to own a bottle jack to jack the motor up to replace, which is a tool I don’t keep on board…
  • 1000 hour service — we’d already done most of this preemptively at ~900 hours before starting the loop, but we had a couple last items as we passed through 1000 hours worth doing.
  • Bottom paint — the diver who checked our boat in CT was amused at our near complete lack of paint, so it was time to fix that.
  • Fiberglass repair on the transom — The previous owners had installed some fishing supply trays incredibly hackily, so they leaked into the boat. Patched it over fully and sealed it up.
  • Installed a Garmin PS51-TH forward-looking sonar — after months on shallow waterways with questionable charting, and looking like we’re going to be doing it for at least another couple years, I wanted some insurance.
  • Repaired several leaking windows — Meridian hacked the windows into the boat, didn’t use enough caulk or bedding, and many of them needed re-sealing from scratch. Good times.

The joys of boat ownership. 5 figures of repairs, and only 1 new toy to play with…

We were dropped back into the water on the 16th, and immediately headed over to Bunker’s Harbor, a little spot that sounded good on the ActiveCaptain entry, but in reality was barely wide enough to lay out enough chain to safely anchor in. As we tested the anchor, it jumped once then “set”, which led me to believe it was just catching on rocks at the bottom. With steeply shelving rocky sides, fishing boats waking the shit out of us all evening and night, and very poor cell reception, we weren’t thrilled with our choices. The next morning, we quickly retreated and headed back west to Winter Harbor on the other side of the peninsula, getting a buoy from the Winter Harbor Yacht club for the weekend.

We took advantage of their launch service (a little ferry boat that will take you to/from shore) to bring the bikes ashore and bike around for a gorgeous Saturday. Hannah ended up finding a winery+distillery that was ~15 miles inland, so we biked up to there and braved extensive mosquitos to find that they were something rather interesting — a fruit-based winery. But, unlike the fruit wines we have had in the past, these were actually dry and semi-dry wines based on fruit. Really wacky flavor profiles to have something that smelled and mostly tasted like a pinot, but was made from apples. They also had several interesting liquors, including a lovely rum. So, we ended up strapping a case of wine and spirits to one of the bikes to head home. We left the bikes on a bike rack out front of the yacht club, grabbed the batteries to charge, and headed back to the boat for the night.

Sunday, we wanted to bike over to the offshoot of Acadia NP that’s on this other peninsula and do a big loop ride around it. We had a lazy morning, headed to shore to grab the bikes, and found my bike’s rear wheel resting on the ground, completely deflated. Having never patched a bike tire in my life, it was time to learn how. Knowing this moment would someday come, I had a little tool bag with all the wrenches and allens needed to repair the bike, a small patch kit with plastic tire wrenches, and a tiny tire pump. The process turned out to be pretty simple. Being next to the ocean, once I pumped the tube back up a bit, I dunked it in the water and immediately found the pinhole leak. The super-cheapo Chinese stock tires on the bike gave no resistance to just being pushed back onto the rim with my hands, and we added a Mr Tuffy puncture resistant liner before reassembling. In not too long at all, we were off to the park.

We had a lovely day biking around the park, even though the trail up to the summit of the little “mountain” at the center of the park was closed. Some rangers interrogated us about our bikes and what class they were, which at the time I didn’t know. We later looked and found out they are class 2, which are not allowed off the paved roads in the park, so we couldn’t take an interesting-looking route through the center of the park. We consoled ourselves with ice cream just outside the exit of the park on the loop road, and the patch held up all day!

While we were far less concerned about dragging anchor and destroying our boat, the Internet wasn’t very usable in Winter Harbor either, with either AT&T or Verizon. As such, on Monday morning, we ended up heading back over to Bar Harbor (the tourist town we biked to on the 4th) for some reliable internet for working for the week, where both AT&T and Verizon have pretty strong signals, and set up permanent residence on one of the city’s mooring buoys.

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Maine!

A pretty old schooner welcomed us to Portland, ME

Expecting heavy wind the next full day, in the morning, we decided to head into the Marion harbor and pick up a buoy with Barden’s Boatyard. We pulled up the anchor, went to wash it off, and … nothing. Apparently the washdown pump had decided it was a good time to give up the ghost. Noted. So we grabbed a buoy and started calling around for a spare part. No one nearby had one, so we gave up for the moment, since it’s not super critical that it works. While the day didn’t turn out to super windy, at least in the harbor, it did rain a bunch, so we just hunkered down on the boat and worked, never leaving the boat.

Tuesday morning was our anticipated (short) early morning weather window to make it through the canal and as far up the coast as possible. We were hoping to be able to make it over to Provincetown and spend a couple days anchored there, but the rest of the week looked really nasty (25+ kt winds basically continuous for ~48 hours), so we decided the plan would be to wuss out and go spend a few days in Scituate, another of John/Joan’s suggestions.

We woke up at 7am, and had a pretty uneventful drive up and through the canal. There was a huge mess of fishing boats right on the exit of the canal, which we were able to navigate around, but we heard boats going the other way complaining about it on the VHF all morning. We hit the canal right at peak eastwardly current (5 kts), and the canal has an absolute speed limit of 10 mph, so we literally had to idle through the canal (our idle speed is 4 kts) and still bumped through the limit a few times. There were even police boats patrolling the canal, so we didn’t try to push it.

Exiting onto Cape Cod, we turned northward and did something we haven’t done much in the last few months: set the autopilot for a heading and then stare at the horizon for a couple hours, periodically dodging lobster pots. I’d picked out a spot to grab diesel an hour or so short of Scituate, and as we entered the harbor, despite the charts showing lots of depth, I started getting scary depth alarms of 4 ft or less. Apparently, according to the person running the fuel dock, the harbor shoals regularly and they need to dredge it every few years. Like, maybe right now would be a good time, to avoid another code brown.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We arrived in Scituate, called the suggested launch service, they directed us to a buoy mid-harbor, and we ended up hanging out there for 3 full days while the weather passed. And that was a good call, it turned out. It rained like hell on and off, blew like crazy for the predicted 2 days straight, and was generally uncomfortable, even nestled fairly deep in a harbor, much less if we’d been anywhere actually exposed. In the gaps in the rain, Hannah ran ashore and got a full load of laundry in, some grocery shopping, and picked up a new overpriced washdown pump from a local parts place. On the last night, we even had a great meal eating outdoors at a nice Italian restaurant in town, Riva. Sadly we forgot to take any pictures of our time in Scituate!

Friday was our next semi-weather-window. With this much unseasonal wind, we have to pick any vaguely decent window and go for it. I was planning on making a short early morning stop to Gloucester, but as we went to bed, the weather showed a longer hole of around 4 hours instead of 2, so we made a quick change and decided to try to go all the way to the Isles of Shoals. Our route would take us right by Gloucester anyway, in case the weather simulations were a lie (happens), so we could easily bail. We made it the next 20 miles up to the Isles of Shoals, with moderate chop, and grabbed a buoy.

The Isles of Shoals! We’re in that central harbor there.

The Isles of Shoals are the largest part of a small archipelago about 8 miles offshore from New Hampshire. It was originally a popular-ish harbor back in the 1600s, and has been on the downswing ever since. These days, a few of the islands have a few houses on them, and Star Island has a big conference center run by a religious cult that also lives on the island. There’s a little harbor protected from the ocean on 3 sides by a few islands and some artificial breakwaters that connect them. The harbor is usually a pretty decent tourist spot, with daily boat+walking tours from several companies out of Portsmouth (the nearest city in mainland NH), but with C19, everything’s shut down, and Star Island has a big “ISLAND CLOSED” sign on it.

The harbor, fortuitously, has several mooring buoys owned by a few yacht clubs, all of which are listed as, basically, “first come first serve for non-yacht-club members, and if a yacht club member asks you to leave, get off.” So, even with it being Friday midday, and an afternoon crowd of yachters heading in later on, we risked it, and grabbed a PYC buoy. We figured we’d drop anchor if we had to.

In the end, we got lucky and actually were able to stay on the buoy for 2 nights. The islands are gorgeous. We were treated to two lovely sunsets, lots of 70 degrees and clear sunny skies, we took a dinghy ride around in the ocean swells to check out the other islands, and generally had a great time. Finally some decent weather.

Sunday, with passable weather predicted, we decided to go the 50nm all the way to Portland, ME, to fill up on the cheapest diesel within hundreds of miles, and then see how the weather was doing. It was a pretty choppy morning all the way up, and required a lot of lobster pot dodging, but as we arrived in Portland, we were greeted by a really pretty harbor, ringed with old forts, and a bunch of sailboats out to enjoy the weather.

We stopped at DeMillo’s marina, and Hannah immediately ran off to the grocery store while I slowly filled up on diesel, gas for the dinghy, and fresh water, and emptied a couple weeks of accumulated recycling. I didn’t actually check the news for updates, but with the number of people walking around without masks and eating at restaurants, I assume Maine must have lifted any quarantine restrictions since we left Rowayton.

A 200 year old shipwreck monument

Stocked up for a week or so on the hook, we slow boated our way over to another John/Joan recommendation, Snow Island, 20nm east of Portland, thoroughly enjoying the scenery. Coastal Maine is so pretty. I haven’t been here in decades, and that was a mistake. Everywhere you go is picturesque islands with small cliffsides facing the ocean, waves breaking over rocks, and pretty houses overlooking everything. We even passed a 200 year old “shipwreck monument”, which is really just a hollow pyramid with supplies inside, so if you got shipwrecked nearby, you could go there and possibly not die from exposure. As the sun fell, we arrived, and dropped anchor in an empty bay, with 30 of our closest lobster pot friends.

We’ll see what our plan is from here — probably stay here for a couple days, enjoying the scenery. We’re trying to coordinate getting some work done on the boat by Wayfarer marine, so we’ll try to hook up with them early this week to get some preliminary estimates/dates, and plan our schedule from there.

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Starting a Side Trip to Maine

Hannah demonstrating the rapidly-extinguishing sunlight, and our questionable decisions, to her parents over video chat as we head toward the Marion anchorage

We headed out from Rowayton on Tuesday morning, before work, heading east. For the next month or so, every bit of travel will have to be undone to get back to the main loop, so now we’re off on a really long side trip. We’d spent a bunch of time hearing stories from John/Joan about the trip to/from Maine, and Joan wrote us up a great doc with a bunch of their favorite spots. They tend to cruise longer days at 7kts, and, on weekdays, we tend to cruise short morning trips at 14kts, so their daily “hops” tend to match ours pretty well.

Our first stop was a small archipelago ~40nm away called The Thimbles. They’re all private islands, owned by rich folks who mostly put big houses on them. So, we parked right in the center of their islands and ran our generator on and off for 2 days.

WSJ shot of the Thimbles, not mine. It was windy and/or rainy the whole time we were there, so I couldn’t get the drone off the ground.

The weather was bad on Wednesday, so we just stayed in place, and in the afternoon snuck in a quick dinghy tour of the islands while it rained on us and 2-3 foot swells threw us around when we ventured out of the protected center bit. It was a cool spot, with some neat islands that reminded us of some of our more tropical trips in the past.

The closest we got to a sunset in the Thimbles. Notice the swells rolling through our anchorage.

Thursday, we headed over to Mystic, where there’s a ship restoration company plus museum that I’d remembered from living here as a kid. The entrance to the city has a bridge that you have to wait for, which only opens at 40 minutes past the hour, but there was a protest going on even in this tiny town right next to the bridge, so at least we got to watch that and honk as we went through.

If you squint you can see all of the people with signs protesting to the right of the bridge

While the museum buildings are closed due to C19, the grounds are all open, and you can wander around the top deck of several ships. Staying in their marina, they let you have the run of the grounds after hours, so it’s pretty cool to wander around with no one to bug you. There’s several large period-correct old ships around, undergoing restoration (just ignore that several of them have camouflaged radar domes hiding up in the masts), and while I’m not as much of a historical navy buff as my dad, it’s still hard to not be inspired looking at what mariners used to have to work with.

Mystic also had a nice restaurant with outdoor seating that we walked over for, and managed to sneak in a great meal in between rainy periods. We could get used to this outdoor eating everywhere for restaurants thing.

The next day, in the early afternoon, we walked around the museum while it was open, to chat with some of the volunteers about the ships. Weather was predicted to be fairly bad overnight, so we were going to be cheap and head to an anchorage just outside of Mystic to ride it out. Walking back to our boat to head out, the dockmaster caught us and offered us a good enough deal to stick around for another night that we took it, and the windy night was much easier attached to a dock.

In the morning, we crossed into Rhode Island, topped off on some cheap diesel at Point Judith, and headed into Narragansett Bay. As we left CT, we were heading into somewhat unknown territory with regards to quarantine periods. Some parts of RI had just announced that quarantine requirements were rescinded, but other parts were more unclear. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine had all not said anything about rescinding their requirements yet. So, we had no idea whether we’d be able to get diesel, groceries, or even water once we started into the other states. So, we’re in a mode where we want to keep all of our supplies as topped off as possible in case we do get stuck in a partial or even full 14 day quarantine period along the way.

We stopped for the night at Wickford, another favorite of John/Joan’s, and picked up a town mooring buoy just inside the breakwater. We were going to dinghy into town and try to get some dinner and a drink, but a weather warning popped up saying that a thunderstorm had changed direction and was moving into the area at 90kts, with up to 0.75 inch hailstones possible. So, instead we hunkered down on the boat on the buoy for the night. Fortunately, while it rained and blew like crazy for a short period, the storm didn’t really turn out to be that bad, and the sun even peeked out for a nice sunset after it moved on.

Highwind is just below the middle, with the Wickford breakwater nearly submerged at high tide.

Later in the evening, unfortunately I noticed that the fridge didn’t feel very cold, and some quick temperature readings with a cheapo infrared thermometer confirmed that the fridge was at nearly 50 degrees. We poked around and apparently the cooling plate at the top had made nearly a solid inch of snow, with a quarter inch sheet of ice underneath the drip tray, all of which was nicely insulating the rest of the fridge from the cold generation. Looking like the situation was a little past a normal defrost, we chipped away at the ice and snow for a while, filling our kitchen sink with the results. We’d noticed that it was starting to smell a little bit in there, and this explained why. So, we unfortunately threw away a bunch of meat and dairy before it killed us, and went to bed.

It’s possible that we should not let it get that bad again…

After a lazy morning, the weather was looking good, and so I called around and found a hardware store with a fridge thermometer, so we dinghied into town and made a day of it. We ate lobster sandwiches at a restaurant on the water, walked out to the hardware store and picked up some stuff, and even stopped at a wine tasting room doing outdoor tastings, where we ended up restocking our wine supply a bit.

In fact, we lost track of time doing the wine tasting, and had to scurry back to the boat to head out. We were planning on taking advantage of an evening weather window to make it most of the way up Buzzard Bay to the town of Marion, but we definitely cut it a bit close, with the sun dropping below the horizon with us still 10 minutes out from the anchorage. We pulled into a wide open anchorage to the south of the town with some lingering light reflecting from the clouds, dropped a pile of chain, and called it a day.

In the morning, when we can see something, we’ll pull further into the town’s proper anchorage, behind an island, as the weather is supposed to get nastier in the afternoon/evening, so we’ll want to be protected. From there, we wait for another weather window to finish out Buzzard Bay and head through the Cape Cod Canal into, well, Cape Cod.

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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

(Updated 7/16/2020)

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, or you can get the four-channel version if you have a 4×4 MIMO antenna (rare). 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 usage between the two modems.

We’ve struggled with the unit since we got it, due to various bugs in the firmware affecting us. However, with a firmware update on 7/15/2020, they finally appear to have fixed the crash-reboot issue, and we can finally re-enable carrier aggregation and not have crashes every few hours! In the middle of the night in central Maine, I actually measured some crazy bandwidth numbers, using AT&T:

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.

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

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, when the cell phones in our pocket are struggling, we usually have 15-30 megabits of download, and in good areas, we’ve cracked 160 before.

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

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 limit). 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, but it caps out at 22GB/month before you’re slowed to a crawl.

On our great loop trip so far, AT&T has usually 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, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards until 2021, so we’ll see if things change by then. There currently 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 okay 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. More and more marinas are moving to 5Ghz-based wifi as well, which our unit doesn’t support, so I’m looking to replace this with something new soon.

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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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