Hellish Experience at Hinckley Stuart

Look, a giant hole in our boat, in the wrong place, that’s still here to this day.

Note: this isn’t really designed to be a standard blog post for readers to read and care about. This is an accounting of an unbelievably horrible and expensive experience dealing with what should have been a very reputable shop. At this point, I just want this post out there to try to prevent other customers from making the same mistake we did: using this establishment at all. If you’re a standard reader, don’t read it unless you’re really bored.

We’ve been accumulating winter projects for the boat for much of the year aboard. Last year, we had such a great experience with Hinckley in Maine, across several different projects, that we ended up communicating with Hinckley in Stuart and deciding to embark on several major and many minor projects with them while we had to spend a month on work travel flying around the world. And so, at the end of February, we pulled the boat up, spent a week having them scope projects, and then flew away for a month. What should have been around 30k$ of work ended up turning into 71k$ of half-finished, mismanaged, boat-damagingly-bad jobs, that we back negotiated down to 54k$ to get our house back from their threatened months of legal purgatory. And here’s how that happened.

The first week, while we were on the boat, we worked with our service manager, and scoped out several of the more nebulous projects to see where we wanted to land. I had a 15 page google document with all projects listed, scoped, with pictures, descriptions, and more, that they used to form the basic project plan. We quickly figured out, from initial estimates, that we wanted to scope our more advanced projects way in, which was not surprising in the slightest, but arrived at proposals that made us happy, both for cost and scope. We departed on great terms with work underway on some basic jobs, and then communicated via calls and text with our service advisor for the next couple weeks.

The first major project, and a substantial crux of the dispute, was a big job where we destroyed a stack in the middle of the boat that had the washer/dryer and a cabinet in it, to instead place an RV fridge there, and move the washer/dryer over to across the hallway, to replace where one of the two fridges is, and take out the other fridge and build a simple box cabinet. Quite a bit of work, but nothing horribly complicated. We worked with our service advisor to get the estimate down to $11,900, which was a bit higher than we wanted, but we were hoping for some very high quality work that we’d come to expect from Hinckley, so we were willing to pay for it. As they got started, they said that the cabinet over the fridge was going to make the ceiling modifications far more complicated and we could get the price down by about 2000$ if we pulled out the requirement. I figured I could build another cabinet myself down the line if we wanted it, so we took the discount.

I get an early picture of the demolition work progressing, but it’s hard to tell anything from the picture other than that their sawsall skills are a bit haphazard, which starts making me worried, but the service guy insists that it’s just the first cut and will be cleaned up later — fair enough.

Another week passes, with a few smallish questions and some basic status updates, but sounds like all is on schedule and budget, and then I get a text from the service guy saying that today didn’t go how he expected, he ended up getting let go, I should call the company in the morning to figure out what next steps are, but that I should be very wary about cost overruns with the other managers. He goes into details about how he was let go unceremoniously, but likely because he was constantly revising bills down by 50% or more because the service department was always go so horribly over estimates. Not terribly surprising that they let him go, but his messages are going to be good evidence down the line for us about how unapologetically systemic this behavior is here.

So first thing in the morning, I call the shop, and the new manager says that she’ll get me a full accounting ASAP. We talk later that day, and I’m told that we’re something like half done with the fridge/washer project and the bill is already at 17k$ for that project alone. I freak out, since the boat interior is literally chopped to pieces and now we’re basically hostage. I tell them to get the bare minimum done from here to get things back together, since we won’t even be back in the country for another week, much less back at the boat. We set a date for our return and schedule a meeting with the head of service for that morning.

By the time we get back to the boat, the stale bill (for this one project) is at 19k and they say a bunch more work is yet to be added to the total. When I have my appointed meeting, they put another bill on the table for around 26k (for this one project) with everything added in, and I’ve already gone over the boat and seen that the woodwork is shoddy (jigsaw cuts over the edges of the fridge hole, formica already delaminating, etc.) and that the pantry cabinet was never made — there’s still an old fridge in place there.

Further annoyingly, they made the box several inches larger than it needed to be in all dimensions, making the office more claustrophobic than it was before, despite the incredibly clear instructions in the fridge manual to add zero extra room around the listed box dimensions, because the cooling is carefully engineered to flow through designated channels. Then, they also put the fridge on top of a ~14″ high pedestal that they found in the wall when they demoed it, so that the fridge goes nearly all the way to the ceiling. So not only is the box far too large, but it also goes up so high that the room feels even smaller and essentially removes service access to the ceiling panels over it, and looks pretty awful from inside the room. Now that they’ve cut such a large hole in the wall, it’s going to be a complete bear to rebuild the room, so it’s likely to never be properly fixed, but it’s infuriating how this turned out.

Oh, and also the fridge was throwing error codes that took me hours to diagnose and fix. Oh, and the first time we were in vaguely heavy seas, the fridge shifted and dropped an inch or so, and the freezer was locked behind the lower retaining panel, requiring me to break the panel to get it out to let us get into the freezer. I haven’t yet dismantled the box to figure out what critically moved and figure out how to properly support the unit.

So we’re at about 3x the estimate, with a shoddily done project. I argue with them and they literally say to me, “it’s only an estimate, this was a big project, we think you got great value for your money here.” …

At this point, since we end up doing a couple back and forths where I complain about the bill and they send me away to ruminate internally, I’ve had a chance to check over major project #2 — the bow thruster.

So, we had them install a bow thruster tube, for a backordered bow thruster, so that whenever the thruster comes in, it’s a few hours of work after being hauled to put the hardware in place. They estimated around 5000$ for this, and that was actually right on track with my guess ahead of time — it’s a lot of work to build a fairing, make a giant hole, mount a tube, glass/gel it all in, etc. The tube costs about 1000$ on top of that, so we had them go ahead and do it.

I sent the manual for the thruster over, which they confirmed receipt of, and I gave them three locations, in descending order of preference, to install the thruster, based on where it would fit the very explicit clearance requirements in the manual. The manual said the tube needed to be twice the diameter in length. 250mm tube, 500mm min length, and some other requirements around the top of the tube on the inside to fit the motor unit. Guess how long the tube is where they installed it? 200mm, and that includes the fairing making it “longer” than it would otherwise be. The thruster would literally be in free water sticking out either side of the hole. It’s not even close.

In Hinckley’s defense, I showed them the hole and the manual, and they admitted “we can’t really charge him for this”. But then, I asked what to do about fixing the hole, since this is thousands of dollars of hull damage to repair, and they said that they’d refund the labor cost for the thruster install, but that’s it. So now we’re out a thousand bucks for the tube and thousands more to get this hole repaired by a competent shop. Cool — definitely a reasonable response to admitting that you did a bad job.

The stories are just equally weird and dumb from here. We wanted to get two waste hoses behind the two heads replaced, and they originally estimated 1000$, which seemed like a lot, but it was a shitty job that I didn’t want to do, so I said ok. They got into the job a little deeper and said that all of the waste hoses on the boat are actually not waste hoses and need to be replaced with proper waste-compatible hoses, and estimated 2800$ to do everything, parts and labor. I cringed a bit, but again, shitty job, so I said okay, it’ll at least all be new and last another 10-15 years. We get to the end of the job, and the bill is for 8000$. “They had to do a bunch more work than they thought, so it just took a long time, and there were a lot of parts costs.” I didn’t know what to say.

One of the big reasons we came into the shop in the first place is that, as regular readers know, we’ve been fighting vibration issues, especially with the starboard engine, for ~9 months now. After all the other shops had done smaller jobs, we wanted to go nuclear and entirely remove the shafts, couplings, and props, and send it all away to a prop/shaft shop with a scanner. So they did this, somehow managing to charge us 6000$ of labor just to remove the parts, despite that a shop in Deltaville, VA had literally just done this exact same job with one guy in a couple afternoons, 9 months earlier, so it’s not like they were seized up with 15 years of corrosion or anything. They also did stuff like charged 1 hour of labor each for three separate trips to the prop shop to drop off individual shafts and props, 3 days consecutively, 3 weeks before we were going to return to the boat — it’s not like there was a mega hurry to do them one at a time.

By the time we got the final bill with reinstallation, we were north of 10k. They did end up doing some extra work to debug what appeared to be a bent strut on one side, but that was a small portion of the cost in the end. And they ended up only doing the alignment out of the water, never doing it in the water after settling, which, from talking to multiple other shops, sounds like the number one rule of doing engine/shaft alignments.

Those were the most egregious jobs, money-wise. There were a pile of other large annoyances:

  • They were asked to do blister repair on a zone of the bottom, then barrier coat, and then do a bottom job. They ended up doing no blister repair, no barrier coat, and the basic bottom job was 6000$. So now we still have the major blistering problems that was why we went in to get a bottom job in the first place, no barrier coat, and an early bottom job.
  • We asked them to look into a leak on the bridge, and in the writeup, clearly stated that we had pulled down ceiling panels, and the leak is coming from forward of the leak. We’d already eliminated a few sources of potential leaks by re-sealing things, leaving one likely location needing re-sealing. So, we get the bill, and they’ve done 500$ of leak checking, pulling down all the ceiling panels and determining that it was all dry and the leak must be further forward. Thanks.
  • They installed a salt water washdown pump, which, to this day, lightly trickles water out when activated, and I haven’t yet figured out why — there’s plenty of voltage at the pump, and it’s 3.3GPM, so something else is awry.
  • They installed a new 48V windlass, which I clearly told them was 48V and to not wire into anything, and wired the old 12V power line directly into the 48V setup. Fortunately, anticipating something like this, I hard disconnected the line at the panel, so it didn’t damage anything.

So, at the end of all of this, I’m staring at the 71k$ final bill, pointing out all of these errors, and also how their service contract clearly states that estimates must be approved by the owner for all work done and any work over the estimate must be approved as well. After all that, they say that they can remove the most recent bill entirely, which gets us “down” to 54k, since the final invoice hadn’t hit the system yet, and then they wouldn’t have to work with the CEO directly to go further (I suspect this is them trying to save face with corporate and not arise suspicion). I say that’s not good enough, we’re still way over even at 54k. They go away for a while and come back and say something to the effect of, “this is the best we can do. Pay this and leave and never come back, or we’ll take your boat and you’ll have to work it out for months in the legal system.”

So, we paid their extortion, got our boat back, and will never return. And neither should anyone else.

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More of the Same: Inland Rivers and Fall Foliage

Fall Foliage at Pickwick

Since we knew we would not be able to travel much while David was on his all-day quarterly planning meetings, we decided to stay on the hook for several days, moving ~10 miles every couple days before morning meetings started to slowly make southerly progress. The anchorages were peaceful and we were surrounded by the amazing colors of the trees around us everywhere we went.

After some long weeks and a lot of marinas, it was nice to spend a few un-interrupted days on the hook. Thursday was Veterans Day which I had off from work, so we decided to use this as a travel day with me driving while David was on his calls. We stopped for fuel at Pickwick, which had extremely slow pumps. Even with two hoses filling each tank concurrently, we still spent about 3 hours on the dock filling up. This, combined with the early sunsets of winter meant that there was not much light left in the day. As a result, we determined that we would head to AquaYacht Marina, which was still another 8nm away and essentially marked the beginning of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. We pulled into the marina just as the sun was setting and found a large group of other Loopers on the dock. They invited us to join them for dinner, so we had our first Looper dinner in a long time.

We had an early morning wake up on Friday in order to move pre-meetings. We went through one lock and set up anchor in Bay Springs Lake. There are tons of anchorages here on the many fingers that offshoot from the lake, so we picked a random one and dropped the anchor.

At sunset we both signed off from work and opened a bottle of bubbly on the balcony to mark the beginning of the weekend, and the end of David’s long planning week. Golden hour here on the inland waterways in the fall is truly glorious – it really is quite breathtaking as the light hits the trees and you can see the soft glow of all the many shades of the leaves.

We had decided that our new goal was to get to Mobile on Wednesday before Thanksgiving so that we could rent a car and spend the holiday weekend in New Orleans. With that in mind, we knew we had a ways to go on the weekend. We are currently only about 200miles as the crow files from Mobile, but on the winding river, we are more like 4oonm. Our day started out with an 84 foot drop in a lock – the largest change in height we’ve done on the trip so far! It just kept on dropping.

We ended up doing 7 locks this day, and an endless amount of planing in narrow canal sections. These are pretty with the changing leaves, but otherwise 100s of miles of the same views. Just as the sun set, we pulled into Columbus Marina, with a very sketchy entrance marked by 4 sticks marking a “chute”, and just over a foot under both our hulls as we entered. We borrowed their courtesy car and went into town to do some much-needed grocery shopping, then ensconced ourselves on the boat for the night as temperatures dropped. Just as we got back from the grocery trip, one last boat had pulled in (well after dark) to the marina, and we coordinated doing the lock (that was just outside the marina) at 7am with them.

Sunday morning, we woke up to extensive frost/ice on the docks and decks (crunch crunch) and carefully made our way out of the slip. We called the lock right at 7am and they said “we have a boat in here about ready to drop, get on over here”, but the other boat said they weren’t ready to leave yet and we should just go on without them. They traveled at 26kts, we figured we’d see them later in the day.

We only had 3 locks to do today, and they were well-spread-out, allowing easy timing of reaching them, so we had no waits for any locks. Just as we pulled into the third lock and they closed the doors, we hear out on the radio “boat turning the corner north of us, you coming to the lock?” and the doors opened back up. Lo and behold, our buddy boat from Columbus Marina had caught up, ~60nm into the day, so we chatted with them a bit while the lock dropped us. After the doors opened, the other boat took off ahead of us, and we continued at our lesser but brisk pace.

While the vast majority of this section has been pretty identical scenery, we drove past the White Cliffs of Epes, about a mile-long stretch of cliffs along the river. These were actually deposited around the same time as the White Cliffs of Dover. Unfortunately when we passed by, the sun was mostly directly over the cliffs casting most of them into shadow, though there were a few small sections in direct light reflecting the brilliant white of the walls. It was still neat and pretty.

After two long days of cruising, we finally pulled in to Kingfisher Bay Marina in Demopolis, where at least 12 other Loopers were staying for the night. We joined them for a happy hour gathering where those who were leaving in the morning were coordinating to go through the lock just south of here. We decided to pull out our scooters for a very cold ride to a nearby restaurant recommended by one of the dock workers at the marina. At the restaurant, we ran into a group of Loopers who were using the courtesy van from the Marina as we were gearing up with our scarves, gloves and helmets. They invited us to sit with them and they would give us a ride back to the marina! There was six of them, so we all piled into the van, plus our scooters and David in the boot :).

Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of marinas or anchorages on the next leg of the journey to Mobile, which makes it hard for us to do our usual 15-20 miles pre-meetings (especially in the Central timezone, where we have lost an hour of the morning on our work schedules), so we have decided to spend the week here in Demopolis and make our way to Mobile next weekend, and we’ll use the week to get some much-needed packages forwarded along to us.

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The Tennessee River

Getting a haircut on the Tennessee River — from this angle you can’t see the look of fear

We headed back from Nashville on Sunday night because we’d learned something annoying on Saturday — the Kentucky Lake Dam and Locks were closing for the month of November. To get to Kentucky Lake, there are two ways off the Ohio River: the Tennessee River to the Kentucky Lake Dam/Locks and the Cumberland River to the Barkley Lake Dam/Locks. The guidebook suggests going the longer way to the Cumberland because the Tennessee gets all the commercial traffic, since it’s a much shorter route, so pleasure boats end up getting through faster via the longer way despite going twice as far. However, with the main route closed for a month, all commercial traffic was forced to go through the one lock up the Cumberland. I called the lockmaster Sunday night to ask if it was expected to be incredibly busy — he replied “yes, and then some.”

Tuesday looked like it had a passable schedule for us to potentially spend an entire day hanging out in front of a lock waiting for any sort of slot to pass, so we decided to set off at dawn Tuesday to make the best of things. It was around 45 miles to the dam, most of which through a fairly narrow river that was now also full of commercial barge traffic, so it took us until around noon to get to the lock. We’d also been checking in with them on the phone every couple hours to get an idea of when we might have an opening and they had been aiming for around that noon timeframe for us, so had been adjusting our speed to hit that window. When we showed up, they said probably one more hour, and so we hung out in the current of the dam until around 1pm when they actually did let us into the lock. We exited the lock and pulled right into Green Turtle Bay, where we intended to spend a couple days, grateful at only having to be delayed a couple hours instead of all day long.

We had intended to spend a couple days here to get our shit together — we had been rushing hard for the last few weeks due to busy work schedules, visiting parents, and weather constraints, and periodic boat maintenance had been stacking up. Literally — there was a stack of parts on the floor of the living room that Hannah was losing her mind over. Weather for the week was also showing below freezing for the next four nights, which isn’t a thrilling prospect on anchor. Also, my quarter was ending at work and so I’ve been frantically finishing up Q4 planning, including ramping up on two new teams that just got given to me on Tuesday. Hannah had started looking around to find somewhere to get booster shots and found that we a nearby pharmacy was accepting walk-ins on Friday if we stayed around until the weekend. We looked at all those good reasons and decided to give ourselves some breathing room and just spend the week here.

There’s really not much around the area here, so we didn’t have much to do all week, which was a welcome respite. A mile walk away was Patti’s 1880 Settlement, an awkward themed resort with a gigantic restaurant full of waitresses (exclusively women) all wearing matching prairie-ish curtain-like dresses. But they served delicious pork chops. Outside of that, Hannah did some grocery shopping in the nearby town, which required borrowing the warning-light-riddled loaner car from the marina, and we mostly hung out on the boat all week.

I had Friday off work (first Friday of every month) and we drove in around 10am to get our Moderna booster shots. As soon as we got back, I set to work doing all of the maintenance on the boat — oil changes, filter changes (oil and fuel), and changing the three start batteries that were all starting to show their age. Amazingly, the marina had an attached boatyard that had ways to dispose of all of these things, so we aren’t going to have to carry 8 gallons of used oil and 3 used batteries around for a few months. They even had a shop with reasonably-priced oil to refill our reserves.

Right around 7pm, we both started feeling like crap from the boosters, and by 10pm we were both independently wrapped up in multiple blankets, furiously shivering, and decided to go to bed, where we spent a long sleepless night alternating between overheating and crazy chills and enjoying crazy fever dreams. In the late morning, starting to slowly recover, we went and got fish and chips at the resort restaurant for lunch before heading out in the early afternoon.

The leaves had been turning all week we were here, starting to show lovely fall colors. All afternoon, we had a calm passage down the river, passing countless pretty coves. The area between the Kentucky and Barkley Lakes is called, you’d never guess, “The Land Between The Lakes”, and it’s well known as a fall wonderland, with campgrounds everywhere. Judging by the continuous morning gunshots, I’m guessing the hunting is decent too. We set up for the night, just as the sun fell, in a pretty anchorage on the east side of the river.

Kentucky Lake was formed in 1944 when the TVA built the Kentucky Dam and flooded the region. That had the side effect of inundating several small towns, which are still under the water off channel. Charts still show where streets, buildings, and bridges used to be, as well as the original boundaries of the Tennessee River, so that you know where it’s a bad idea to wander around and/or drop anchor, in case you happen to drive your boat into a barn. The anchorage that we set up in used to have several bridges and roads through it, so we set up right in the middle of what looked like a dead zone, trying to avoid hooking something manmade and well-secured.

Roads under the water next to our anchorage

The next morning we woke up to something we hadn’t seen in a while — thick, opaque fog. It was almost freezing overnight, with water temps slightly above 60 degrees — in retrospect it shouldn’t have been surprising, but here we are.

For the first 30 minutes of the morning, it was basically driving slowly by instruments — radar and charts alone — but eventually it started to clear up/burn off.

Eventually Kentucky Lake turned back into Tennessee River and we were back in familiar territory — winding river surrounded by fall foliage. We set up on anchor for the night in an oxbow just north of Clifton, TN. We decided this wind-less and warm-ish evening was a good opportunity to give me a haircut, so that was the evening activity.

We’re going to make very little/possibly zero progress in the coming week, since I have meetings from 9am (local time, while the fog is still thick) through 6pm (after dark) solid this whole week for quarterly planning, so we expect to finish this part of the Tennessee River next weekend and head into the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway towards the gulf.

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On the Hard in Grand Haven

Highwind at the end of the rainbow

[Leland] The packages finally arrived and David was able to put the belts on the Port engine. After our unexpected week in Charlevoix, we were ready to get moving – albeit with the loose prop on the other engine still. At this point we were starting to get nervous about the approaching end of the season – we really don’t want to be stuck on Lake Michigan when everything freezes for the winter. With us finally being back on the move, we started calling places again to figure out where we could get hauled out. Since we are quite heavy and wide, the number of places with a travel lift large enough to safely haul is is quite limited. Add that to the fact that most places on Lake Michigan at this time of year are fully booked with hauling out boats for permanent winter storage, we were beginning to panic! We luckily managed to find a shop in Grand Haven that agreed to haul us out. This just meant that we needed to get 100 miles south on the one engine!

We made it to Leland the next day, which is famous for its “Fishtown” a still-working historic fishing village. This turned out to be one street/dock, which was unfortunately closed while we were there! We had a great meal at a restaurant right by the marina for our first night. The next day strong winds were expected, so we stayed for another night. Since we worked and I made dinner on the boat, we didn’t do any further exploring.

Sunset at Leland

The next day, we headed towards Luddington and tied up on the wall at their marina. Our friends from Mackinac Island caught up with us and our schedules finally coordinated for us to eat dinner together. After dinner we went on a mission for ice-cream and ended up at a popular local spot with a huge line!

House of Flavors, Luddington

We headed out early the next morning for the remainder of the cruise to Grand Haven. Since we’d told them that we would be limping on one engine, they had not expected us until the evening. However, we had figured out that the engine vibration was worse in the mid-range of speed, but we could go on plane just fine. David assured me that it was extremely unlikely that we would entirely lose the prop, and since we didn’t fancy a looooooong day going 4 knots on one engine, we decided to plane. We arrived in the middle of the day when they were non-stop lifting out boats with their forklifts. They told us to return after hours, so we headed a little further around in the corner and dropped anchor. Since it was a lovely day, we decided to go for a quick swim, which might be our last until we get back to Florida! It was a lovely afternoon.

Finally hauled

Early the next morning, we were hauled out. Within minutes someone was taking a look at the loose propeller and had it fixed in about 15 minutes. David had checked the weather report and we were looking at several upcoming days of strong winds. Notice the predicted wave height on Wednesday…21ft!!!!!!

We decided to have the shop take a look at a few other issues (leaking through hulls etc). At this point, we’re pretty old-hat at living aboard while on the hard. And at least here the showers are fresh water!!

It was a fairly low-key week here. Unfortunately David wasn’t feeling too well (not Covid! common cold). There was a great running path right by the marina. As usual, the work took a little longer than expected and we ended up still there over the weekend. One of David’s college friends also happened to be in the area on vacation, so we scootered into town to meet up for the afternoon. There was a Latinx festival going on in town, so we ate some delicious street food.

On our last day, I ran into town for an errand and decided to stop at one of the wineries in town for a wine tasting. Again, the weather was warm, so I sat outside and enjoyed some wine while reading my book.

When we were finally put back in the water, it was in the afternoon, so we travelled about 2 miles down the river to the main Grand Haven town marina for one night. Unfortunately, this was far enough for us to discover that fixing the loose prop had not solved our engine problems. After some filter changing and a conversation with a Yanmar tech, we determined that the problem is likely the injection pump assembly. Unfortunately this is an extremely expensive part to replace, Yanmar-approved rebuild shops in the US seem non-existent (there’s one in Europe!), and Yanmar technicians are few and far between, booked up for weeks, and not amenable to flying out to meet us. So we are in a bit of a quagmire at the moment, but our top priority is getting to Chicago and into the inland rivers before Winter Comes!

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Finally, a Launch!

About a year ago, we posted a story about our first attempt to watch a rocket launch (Titusville and New Smyrna: Poor Social Distancing and Rockets). This involved taking the boat out from the Titusville marina, anchoring, waiting, and hearing “Abort” right after 0 was reached. Unfortunately, we left Titusville to head north the next day, so we did not end up seeing that mission when it actually launched a few days later.

We may not have mentioned this, but we had another near miss as we were working our way south late last year. As we were getting closer to Titusville, we were keeping an eye on the whether or not there would be a launch. Unfortunately, when we were still over 50 miles away, we discovered that there was indeed one scheduled, but we would be unable to get south to see it since it was on a Friday night. We were bummed since we just missed it by a day as we’d be heading to Titusville on Saturday! Since we didn’t have any specific plans on Saturday, we had a lazy morning and started our journey. As we were under way, about 30 miles from Titusville, we hear something on Channel 16 from the Coast Guard about a launch. A little Googling and we discovered that the Friday night launch had been aborted and the new window was around noon on Saturday!! We did actually see the streak in the sky as the rocket launched right in front of us, but we felt a bit stupid since we would have been able to see it from up close if we had realized it had been rescheduled and gotten up earlier to make it to the viewing spot in time!

Now, heading back through the Space Coast on our way north, one of the reasons we chose Cocoa Village for our extended work-project stay was in the hopes that during our time here, we would be able to see a launch up close. The opportunity presented itself when a scheduled launch coincided when a friend of mine who works for Blue Origin would be in the area for a work trip. The launch was scheduled for 9pm and she had a rental car, so we drove to a spot very near the launch site, where we could see (through binoculars) the smoke around the rocket as it was being filled/prepared for launch. We laid out a picnic blanket and tuned in to the audio coverage of the launch. We hear the countdown, but this time we hear the “Abort” call with several minutes still to spare on the countdown. Disappointment!!

The launch was rescheduled for the next day, so we made plans to do the same, since Sara was still here that day. Unfortunately, during the day, the launch was delayed again and Sara headed back home to Seattle. The launch was delayed for several more days, and then finally happened at 3:30am, which we didn’t realize, so we missed it completely.

Then, David and I got a bit neglectful of checking the page (turns out I was looking at the wrong page), and we ended up missing an 8pm launch last week!

It seemed our luck was running out as this is our last week here, before we head north again. In the mean time, David had found a twitter feed that he could subscribe to for alerts about launches. Last night at 2:30am, just as he was about to go to bed, he got a notice that there would be a launch at 4:30am. He set his alarm and we woke up in time to sit on the bow and watch! We’re about 10ish miles away from the launch site here, so we didn’t have an up close view, but it was still pretty incredible, and a few minutes after the launch, we could hear the rumble. Since it was night, it was very peaceful, and the sound seemed to fill the bay. What a beautiful experience!!

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New Internet Setup

Warning: Nerdy informational post. Skip if you just want to hear boating stories.

We’ve been using the Cradlepoint, Rogue Wave, and WirEng setup for the last ~2 years on the boat, and while most of the time it’s been functional, we’ve basically constantly been fighting issues. The Cradlepoint requires manual intervention to switch between providers, the Rogue Wave basically never connects to marina wifi, and the WirEng antenna seems to not be very omnidirectional, so it changes signal drastically as we spin in anchorages. We’ve basically had nearly a year on the boat periodically apologizing during work calls for dropping seconds of audio periodically. During COVID, lots of people have bad internet, but at some point this is going to be a problem.

Knowing I wanted more antennas, as well as more solar, while we were in Maine this summer/fall, we had the bimini canvas modified to add velcro patches so we could move the solar panel setup over from the hardtop, freeing up tons of real estate for antennas, while also doubling our wattage. Since then, I’ve been on-and-off researching options for a couple months. I’ve been leaning toward switching over to a Peplink router, and had still been trying to decide how complicated of a setup to get, other antennas to try, etc., when Hannah ran across an article on SeaBits about his 2020 internet setup. He had a ton of details on his Peplink-based setup, and had tried a bunch of antennas. I exchanged a couple messages with him, posted a little on the Peplink forum, and after a bunch of research, hemming, and hawing, I decided to try a “cheap” version of his setup.

In the past, we had Verizon and AT&T SIM cards in the Cradlepoint that we’d switch between. I wanted to, instead, support at least both of those connections simultaneously, as well as possibly adding TMobile on top. Peplink has a whole slew of different routers available, supporting everything from a single CAT6 modem through to a 6500$ unit with four integrated CAT18 modems. I decided to hedge some of my bets and went with the MAX Transit Duo CAT12, which has two integrated CAT12 modems, for 1000$. The router also supports integrated WiFi-as-WAN, so you can pull in marina wifi and treat it just like another internet connection like the cell modems. It also has a single WAN port, allowing me the flexibility to add another single cell modem and use that as yet another connection to share, which I ended up using in the end.

I picked up two Poynting OMNI-402 2×2 MIMO LTE/3G antennas, which were the SeaBits suggestions, to support two CAT12 cellular modems. They don’t have quite as much posted gain as some non-MIMO antennas, but they effectively pack two fairly-high-gain antennas per unit, in a nice weatherproof package, with integrated cabling, so it should work even better than the GigaMIMO under 95+% of circumstances.

Next, I grabbed two Poynting OMNI-496 2.4/5 dual-band WiFi antennas. Again, these were the SeaBits suggestions. The Poynting antennas have a great marine mount, have sturdy weatherproof packaging, and very good omnidirectional characteristics. So even though they aren’t the best peak gain of all available options out there, in real-world usage they seem to hold up better than anything else.

The interesting revelation that SeaBits had that kicked me over the edge was that he actually mounts the router very close to the antennas, letting you use very short cables (less signal loss/noise). Then you run a CAT6 cable and power cable into the boat to a simple switch (Trendnet 8 port industrial) and wifi access point (AP One Rugged) to actually distribute the internet to devices inside the boat. Separating the purposes like this means that you don’t need to fish a bunch of 30 foot cables from the antennas way down into the boat, with a bunch of noisy crosstalk with other signal cables the whole way. So even though I have way more wires total in play now, the actual arrangement throughout the conduits of the boat is way simpler.

Fishing the four antennas through the hardtop was awkward, since Meridian really didn’t build the thing intending for you to send wires through it, but once we got all the cables through to the center of the hardtop, it was gloriously simple to hook everything up. The router is a nice compact little rectangle with sturdy connectors and a nice removable power junction block. I put everything together, and magically it worked right out of the box. Both cell connections worked simultaneously, and I connected right up to the wifi of our friends’ house we were staying outside, and started setting up all kinds of routing rules.

Four new Poynting residents across the back of the hardtop

Finally, a few days later, after validating that this setup was working well, I took our old MOFI4500 backup router, and hooked it into the WirEng GigaMIMO antenna that we hadn’t been using for the last week. After disabling wifi and a bunch of advanced settings, I stuffed a new TMobile unlimited SIM into it, plugged it into the WAN port of the Peplink, and immediately we were getting internet off all 5 sources (2 wifi, 3 cellular)! After testing this new setup, I hardmounted power to that as well, and now everything was nicely secured inside the hardtop.

Testing the final setup tonight from St. Augustine, I was able to pull 139 megabits down, with the laptop using wifi! And for days now, video calls have been rock solid, using the SpeedFusion Cloud redundancy setup, where it sends packets over multiple connections simultaneously and merges them in the cloud. For around 2300$ total, this setup is a huge step up from the old one, for less than half of the cost.

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North Carolina

From Coinjock, we headed south towards the Alligator River. Along the way, we ran into a problem getting up on plane; Highwind just wasn’t getting up to speed as she should be. We were getting to the right RPMs, but fuel usage was way high at those RPMs, so the motor was having to work too hard to maintain those RPMs. As such, we assumed there was some kind of an issue with the running gear – either we hit something or snagged something. I got on the phone and started calling around to find a diver that would be able to come and check out the bottom of the boat in any of the towns that we’d be heading through. We determined that the most sensible place to get a diver would be Belhaven, which is just south of the Alligator River. We’d be able to make it there doing trawler speed – it would just mean a couple of longer cruises than we expected. At the north end of the Alligator River is a bridge with very low clearance and as we were approaching, we discovered that the opening mechanism had broken earlier that day, and they had no ETA for opening. That left us essentially trapped (along with a handful of other boats); the alternate route around being much longer and not something we wanted to do without the ability to plane. We dropped the anchor north of the bridge and decided to wait and hope that it would be fixed the next day.

When we awoke in the morning, the boat was COVERED in bugs, but the bridge was planning to open at noon, so we pulled up the anchor and started heading south. As David was testing out the speed/planing issue, we discovered that it appeared to have resolved itself. We were now able to plane and reach our normal cruising speed, at normal fuel usage. This really implied we had been dragging a crabpot or something for a while, and while maneuvering for anchoring/unanchoring, had managed to eject it. We decided to still get a diver out to check out the bottom regardless, so we headed south down the Alligator River into the Pungo River all in one shot, basically taking the afternoon off work, since the Pungo canal is the one spot on the whole loop where we have poor internet, even with our giant antenna. We also read that the bug issue was common on the Alligator River and they were less prevalent in the Pungo, so getting out of the Alligator seemed prudent. This was a fairly long cruise and we dropped anchor in the Pungo right as the sun was setting.

The next morning we headed in to Belhaven, this time staying at the Belhaven Marina (last time we stayed on the town dock). The diver was there to meet us and found nothing wrong, besides a few fresh scuffs around the rudder suggesting that we might have snagged a crab pot recently, but no smoking gun. The marina host was extremely friendly and gave me a ride to the grocery store to re-provision and the laundry facilities at the marina were free, so I was very happy, domestically-speaking. Now that we are so far south, we seemed to have discovered a new Summer with the weather being warm and sunny (and humid). We were happy to discover that the restaurant we ate at before (the one that gave us free wine and flowers) was still open and we had another delicious take-out meal, since they had only indoor dining available. While waiting outside for food, we chatted with a local resident who told us about a rooftop bar in Beaufort (one of our next destinations). We also chatted with our sailboat neighbors in the marina – also live-aboards who cruise up and down the ICW.

After getting a clean bill of health from the diver, we headed south to Oriental. We had planned to stay here a couple of days, since we’d been on the move every day for a little bit. We stayed in the same marina, and its outdoor Tiki Bar was now open, so we had a happy hour cocktail and also ate on the outdoor patio of a restaurant that on our previous visit had only been open for take-out. Where the marina’s grass lawn/tiki bar/patio area had been deserted on our first time through, it was now very busy in the late afternoon through the evening. We also didn’t see any masks, so we ended up mostly staying to ourselves on the boat.

Us staying to ourselves in Oriental – me reading and David napping

Beaufort was the next stop and we planned to stay there for the weekend. We had not stayed here on our way up – we stayed at Moorehead City just across from it (which was actually an unplanned-storm-shelter stop for us). We had heard that there would be some boat races there that weekend. We went into the main street and located the rooftop bar for sunset drinks and dinner.

The next morning was pretty windy and rainy. Our plan had been to take the bikes out for a ride over to Moorhead City to see if we could see the boat races and to get some pastries from a bakery I found there. We decided to wait a little bit to see if the rain would stop. We also discovered the bakery was closed on Sundays…boo. After an hour, the rain had basically stopped, so we got the bikes out and rode to Moorehead City to do some errands. Unfortunately we couldn’t see any of the races, so we just turned around and headed back to the boat. But David got an unexpected stop at a Harbor Freight and picked up some new toys.

Our next stop was Swansboro – another town that we had skipped on the way north. You may remember that this was the period when coming north that we didn’t have an anchor bridle because it had snapped. This town turned out to be really cute, with many options for outdoor dining (more than some of of the larger towns that we’ve visited!). We were only staying one night, but I definitely want to stop by next time we pass through.

Looking at the weather, another tropical storm (Zeta) would be coming up north, so we knew we needed to get somewhere safe to shelter. David’s uncle also wanted us to check out a boat for him just west of Southport to see if it would be worth his time to drive down to visit. The marina that boat was in was surprisingly cheap to stay in, so we combined tasks and decided to hole up there for the storm.

We were planning on staying at Topsail Marina at Surf City, but when we called the day before, all of the marinas in Topsail weren’t accepting transient guests, so that screwed up our plans a bit. With no reliable anchorages in that stretch of the ICW, we ended up waking up at dawn to make it all the way to Wrightsville in one shot before work (which was going to be our 2nd day stop). We just stayed on anchor there without going into town, since we had (apparently incorrectly, from later investigation) remembered there being nothing to do there.

The next morning we had a leisurely jaunt into Southport, and then spent the rest of the week in the Southport marina tucked away safely while there were high winds. The storm brought no rain and it was actually in the eighties, so we took a short walk and found a park with a boardwalk out to a gazebo right on the ICW. We did laundry, provisioned, and met a great couple on Inquest, an Endeavour TrawlerCat (which we’re contemplating for possibly our next boat someday) that pulled into the marina the same afternoon we arrived, also to ride out Zeta.

We both have really busy work weeks this coming week, so we’re planning on getting onto the Waccamaw River this weekend, and then making little stops next week to get us to Charleston for the weekend, where we have a marina reservation.

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Internet Connectivity

I’ve since thrown away most of this setup and gone with a new setup described in a new post. So this is just here for posterity.

(Content last 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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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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