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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A Journey of 6000 Miles Begins With a Single Email

I hadn’t heard from the boat broker in a month, so last Tuesday night (Dec 16) I fired off a quick checkin email to see if he had any update on when the January/February sailing was going to happen. I woke up to a lovely response:

Hi David , when would be the earliest you could be ready to go ?  Would December 28th be too early ? We will have a ship in Victoria at that time would have to double check and see if space is available. Next one will likely be early to mid Feb ..

Anthony

We were two days away from heading to Big Sky, MT for a week of getting together with the family for skiing, arriving home on the 28th. I was also scared by the word “likely”, so I shot him a call in the morning to clarify. He did some research and found that the “likely” February boat was currently not planning on even stopping in Victoria due to not enough customers, so we were looking at more likely an early April shipping at best, arriving in FL in May, significantly too late to start the trip.

Frantic calls to marinas and brokers ensued, and we threw together a list of everything that we’d need to get done to get the boat up to Victoria. The week is compounded by it being Hannah’s last week of work (due to the company management imploding, she put in notice a few weeks ago), so we couldn’t just take a couple days of emergency vacation. At least we were planning on driving to/from Big Sky, so those plans are flexible.

Logistics aside, we were looking ahead at weather for the next few days, and were not thrilled by what we saw. When push came to shove, we decided that the additional expense and hassle of days of logistical hell was worth making sure that we could start the loop in time. So, the plan unfolded:

  • Wednesday/Thursday Nights: Pack the boat with clothing/tech equipment/gear, while the record-setting rain makes everything we own soaking wet. Pack car for ski trip.
  • Friday 5AM: Take the boat out from Kirkland in the dark, through the cut, out the locks, and moor in Shilshole Marina for the day/night. Uber to/from work.
  • Saturday 8AM: Head north to Victoria, clear customs, place boat in Victoria Marina, show the captain how to start/run the boat to load it up later in the week.
  • Saturday 5PM: Take the Victoria Clipper back to Seattle.
  • Saturday 8PM: Drive east to Big Sky.

Somehow, amazingly, the plan worked out without a hitch. The promised rain did come, dumping over 6 inches of rain on us over a 48 hour window, and clearly demonstrating that it’s time to re-do the waterproofing on our bimini top. About the time we crossed the Canadian border, it stopped pouring on us, and we had an uneventful clipper trip home and a reasonable drive out to Big Sky.

We got some last minute news about some customs forms that need filing, which will be done tomorrow morning, just in time for them to load the boat a day early, on Friday. If the loading goes well, then it’s just a waiting game, to get a final date to buy tickets out to Florida to pick up the boat.

The GPS tracking link for the boat (also in the links bar at the right) has our Garmin Inreach active on it, so unless the house batteries run out (here’s hoping that our solar can keep it topped off), we can all follow the boat’s transport together!

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Preparation for The Loop

TL;DR: Early in 2019, Hannah and I made the decision to start seriously planning on doing The Great Loop, a year-long marine circumnavigation of the eastern third of the continental USA — up the east coast from Florida, into the great lakes, down the Mississippi, and around the gulf. After much planning, we will be starting the loop in early 2020 on our boat, Highwind, and this blog will attempt to document our adventures along the way. Hopefully, at the end of the trip, we will have done a good enough job to use something like Pixxibook to print out photobooks of the trip.

Hanging our second boat sign in the decaying hut in the Octopus Islands

Despite buying our first boat only a few years prior, we’d very much enjoyed our month-long summer voyages up into Canada, and were looking for ways to spend more time boating and exploring new areas. The obvious next step was to do an Alaska trip, which would take an entire summer, but unfortunately there’s essentially zero cell coverage over much of the transit route and essentially all of the Alaskan waters, making working remotely difficult. Satellite internet is still incredibly expensive for remarkably little bandwidth, so this basically ruled out Alaska as an option. We’re hoping that Starlink will bring a huge improvement to worldwide high-speed connectivity, but that’s still 2-3 years out at this point.

The next major trip we looked into was The Great Loop, because it keeps you close to cell-covered civilization for the overwhelming majority of the trip, and also covers a bunch of the country that both Hannah and I have nearly zero experience with. We’d heard of the Great Loop in the past, but didn’t really connect it with the trip my cousin Kevin did several years ago until were deeper into planning, amusingly enough. Planning started out as a vague joke, until I kept reading trip reports, finding solutions to the major issues with the trip, and getting more excited about it.

Hannah with Aunt Helen at our wedding in 2013

The unfortunate passing of Hannah’s aunt Helen to cancer in late 2018 kicked us into gear to stop putting off future plans, because, really, who knows if you have a future to plan for. So get to it. We decided to just jump into Great Loop planning and see if we could make it work, and have it be a bit of a Helen Parkinson Memorial Tour. Somewhat surprisingly, after a couple months of planning, we both had approval from our jobs to work remote for the year and had determined that we were going to ship our boat, Highwind, to Florida (via a larger boat) to start our trip in early 2020.

We spent much of the summer of 2019 modifying the boat to get ready to work remotely for a year, living aboard. Our boat is a 2004 Meridian 408, an aft-cabin powerboat, which is a good start for a live-aboard, with its huge bedrooms and expansive salon/living area. However, it wasn’t designed for tech-workers, shockingly, so we needed to make some changes. Also, our boat was built for the northwest, so it had diesel-powered heat, but no way to keep the boat cool for the balmy Florida weather we’re looking forward to.

Test-fitting a custom desk as we were shaping it, one cut at a time

We first ripped out the starboard couch, which was already an awkward small 2-ish person couch, and replaced it with a custom desk we built, with room for two of us to work all day. With 2 rolling office chairs, we have even more versatile seating for dinner as well.

The WirEng GigaMIMO Lite, our huge LTE antenna, undergoing testing on our porch

For internet access, I built a complicated 12V-powered internet system involving a giant cell antenna mounted on the hardtop, a router usually used by metro busses to provide wifi, and our existing wifi extender for the rare case where we could actually use remote wifi. We’ve been able to get 50-90Mbit on anchor in the San Juan islands and around Kirkland with the setup, so I have pretty good confidence that internet access is mostly solved.

Our somewhat-ghettorigged reverse-cycle heat pump climate control solution for the loop

For climate control, we worked with several vendors to get estimates, but retrofitting the existing boat with adequate heat pumps was going to be on the order of 25k$, while adding nearly zero value to the boat. After much hemming and hawing, we decided to simply get a home portable AC unit, adapt a custom polycarbonate window insert, and secure the heck out of it. Experiments through the fall have shown that it is a very effective heater, so we have faith that it will work well as an A/C unit in the summer.

Attempting to navigate a giant swath of dozens of boats on Lake Union during one of the Argosy Cruises Christmas boating events

With the boat and our lives prepared as much as possible, we hunkered down and got ready for final transit plans. At the beginning of December, we left our rental slip in Anacortes to bring the boat down to Kirkland to have easy access for final preparations of moving clothing, electronics, food, gear, etc. onto the boat when the time came for transport. A side benefit of this plan is being able to decorate the boat and spend the month following along the Argosy Christmas Cruises, which is always a fun way to get friends together in the winter.

Working with a transport broker since late summer, all signs point to getting on a boat in late January or early February, arriving in Ft. Lauderdale, FL around March 1st to begin the loop. So now we wait…

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