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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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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