Makes You Think

In the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin, there is this boat. Its hailing port is displayed on its stern, alone.

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The view from “F” dock.

For more information, you must refer to its two sides; and you would assume from the commonality you will find there that the boat’s official name is A2H.

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Self-explanatory? By no means.

In the radio alphabet you hear used in all the war movies, this would be rendered orally as “Alpha Two Hotel.” (More properly known as the “phonetic alphabet,” the radio alphabet is the key to the title of the 2016 Tina Fey movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which deflates to WTF, which reinflates in social media parlance to something else entirely. Also, it is pretty useful on the radio. The alphabet, that is. Not the movie.)

But the owners who presumably christened A2H have come up with at least two other ways to convey that name to concerned bridgetenders as their boat comes zipping along toward those yet unopened spans in the ICW. Each alternative is displayed on one side of the boat, directly under the presumed name, for the contemplative pleasure of boaters and others who similarly have nothing better to do.

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To starboard.

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To port.

Anyone who has spent time in a boat racing, cruising, living aboard, or just whiling away the weekends might take it for granted that these are two ideas in opposition, two mutually exclusive sides of a coin. And the side that comforts or confronts us on any given day, we are wont to believe, will reflect whichever set of extremes we are destined to encounter in that day’s winds and waters.

But there is a second narrative into which these twin appellations also fit, one that draws them into a unity that complements the duality they more obviously suggest. It is a narrative that sailors strive always to remember and always to thrust away. And I wonder if it isn’t somewhere in the back of the owners’ minds as well.

Very simply put, the boat trip that goes All to Hell may well send the boat’s crew All to Heaven.

Past Tense. Future Perfect?

WARNING:  This is not a happy post. If you are inclined by nature, as I am, to be pulled down by other people’s snarky self-indulgence, please find yourself more pleasant company. I won’t be offended.

Indifferent

Do you remember that moment in the 1960 televised special with Mary Martin when, after drinking the poison to save Peter Pan, Tinkerbell’s life glow began to fade? And Peter pleaded with the thousands of kids ostensibly watching in TV Land to convey to Tink their healing belief in the reality of fairies by clapping their hands? Well, I recently watched that scene, alone, in my cabin, on YouTube. And when Peter pleaded with me, I didn’t clap once.

My indifference made no difference to Tink, however. Twenty seconds later, she was flitting around again, and Peter was moving on to other business of presumed interest to lost boys.

You know what? I don’t believe Tinkerbell was really dying after all. I think that little bitch was faking it the whole time.

Indecisive

In related news, August 25, the first anniversary of our move onto Meander, is drawing near. And I see that it’s been more than three months since I last posted on Bimini Dream.

Let me catch you up. It’s been three months of keeping everyone I love tiptoeing around me and my chronic mood swings, punctuated here and there by one lost and subsequently recovered dinghy and a few other mishaps.

And at this point in the blog’s life, I’m frankly not sure whether I should be catching it up or cashing it in.

They say travel teaches you more about who you are than about where you’ve been. Indeed. What it has taught me is that I don’t like travel.

When we started this adventure nearly a year ago, I was rather hoping it would be different. On my About page, I wrote, “This boat’s gonna give me something worth writing about, and the time and energy to do it.” Now, as I look back on what has emerged since that optimistic first assessment, I’m not so sure.

You see, the guy inside me who is tasked with this blog has been privileged this past year to travel up and down the east coast of the United States, from a rural river edge in New Jersey to the bucolic town of Beaufort, South Carolina. He should surely have had something constructive to say, you would think, about the places he’s seen and about the journeys that connected them.

But the thin and snarky written record he’s produced does not belong to an intrepid adventurer. Rather, it belongs to a chronic complainer, one whose self-absorption and scant consideration of anything outside his head implies a subtle contempt for this whole endeavor.

I don’t like that guy, and I don’t like his writing. And lately, I haven’t wanted to be in his company.

So if Bimini Dream has been too quiet, I’m pretty sure it’s that guy’s fault.

And if Bimini Dream is to continue, I’m going to have to kill him. And I’m going to have to assign the job to some other guy inside me whose every utterance won’t be a waste of my time and a drain on my energy.

The problem is, I’m not sure I believe that other guy exists.

In for the long haul, probably

And because I’m not sure he exists, I am not in a position, as Pete was with Tink, to ask for applause from the gallery to light a fire under him.

That is to say, please do not consider this a Cry For Help. Rather, please consider it an accounting I owe to many readers who, concerned about the blog’s recent silence, have been moved to inquire how we have been doing lately on Meander.

In fact, what I am sure of, in spite of my many character failings, is the gratefulness I feel for how this blog has introduced me to other readers and writers in the cruising life–people whose comments and insights often convey more grace in a single sentence than I am routinely able to capture in an entire post.

And let’s be honest. Someone who needs grace as much as I do can hardly afford to walk away from it wherever it is offered, and I am no more likely to fold up this blog than Tinkerbell is to die away into fairy dust.

A new year on Meander starts on August 25, and every new year comes with a resolution. Mine is to ponder a new voice for Bimini Dream, and to be back in this space soon to see what it has to say.

Figuring It Out

My brother Andy called the other night, and we talked for a couple of hours as we are wont to do once in a while.

And before we settled into the heavy and intense family-centered topics typical of our conversations, he caught me by surprise with a comment:

“I haven’t seen anything new for a while on Bimini Dream.

How about that. I thought no one had noticed.

As time goes by

I last wrote for Bimini Dream during Meander’s month-long stay in Charleston, SC; and shortly after that post, we left Charleston and headed south. We are now in Factory Creek on the north side of Lady’s Island, SC, across the Beaufort River from the charming riverfront town of the same name. On our maiden voyage down the ICW, this will be our southernmost stop.

Factory Creek.

Factory Creek.

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Pam and Honey in Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, Beaufort, SC.

The marina at which we are staying has a DIY boaters’ workshop equipped with many shop-quality tools which are the personal property of the facility’s many long-term liveaboards (bring your own tools if you can; ask permission before using anyone else’s), and we landed here intending that I should spend maybe four weeks knocking out a few boat projects: designing and building a custom composting head to replace our conventional wet head, getting the outboard for our dinghy up and running, preparing to extend our capacity to anchor out and save on marina fees.

And since we landed, many wonderful things have happened. Our stay in this small place eight miles from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island just happened to coincide with my niece Tina’s elevation into the ranks of the few and the proud; and we got to join her proud papa Andy, mama Brenda, and brother Anthony as they watched her graduate. Emerging from my blogging world, Marci and Steve of the sailing blog Zen on a Boat interrupted their travels north from Florida to Oriental, NC, to stop in for a visit, and we got to spend a wonderful evening together. (Ironically, they found me in the marina parking lot not because of my legendary good looks, but because they recognized Honey the Golden Retriever walking me.) Emerging from the blogging world Pam inhabits at Something Wagging This Way Comes, Amy and Rod of the pet travel site Go Pet Friendly paid us similar visits as they passed through Beaufort.

And, reaching out finally to my last employer in the architecture world in a bid to check the bleeding in our cruising kitty, I discovered I hadn’t burned my bridges with her so thoroughly as to forfeit the chance to make some hourly income in a distance working arrangement. (She, like so many others in my life, is obviously a glutton for punishment.)

I’ll say it again: Many wonderful things have happened.

But what hasn’t happened is the completion of more than one tenth the number of things on my project list. And since we landed, more than seven weeks have gone by.

Well, at least the head got itself built.

Well, at least the head got built.

A day in the life

The rhythms of an extended stay on a modestly sized liveaboard-capable sailboat are different from the rhythms of daily travel. In fact, they bear some resemblance to those on land. They’re just less convenient.

One gets up, showers in the marina building, eats breakfast, feeds the dog, and walks the dog; if one has paying work to do, one does it; one eats lunch and does the dishes (including the ones one swore to one’s wife one would get to right after breakfast); if one doesn’t have paying work to do, one might turn to tasks and errands, such as grocery shopping, laundry. . .

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. . .flying the international signal for “Our sheets need airing. . .”

. . . planning boat projects, and doing boat projects—or not; one eats dinner and does more dishes; one streams free TV shows and movies whenever the marina WiFi will support it; one kills more time on social media than one would ever want to confess to one’s priest; one goes to sleep.

The next morning, one gets up again.

All the while, one is surrounded by life and beauty. The water, the marsh grasses and the mud flats over which the main docks are built are full of it: songbirds, snowy egrets, fiddler crabs peeking out of their holes and waving their oversized claws in deliberate little circles as if trying to hail a taxi. A dolphin in Factory Creek. A mink—a mink!–emerging from the grasses, slinking over the mud, and sliding into the water. A small stingray skimming its way across the flats just inside the water’s edge.

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The creatures are not even hard to spot.

One would think that, surrounded by this kind of magic, one would have no end either of things to say or of the desire to say them. But routine has a way of asserting itself against magic, and can leave one, if one is not careful, with the illusion that one has nothing to write home about.

In the 2011 movie, The Descendants, protagonist Matt King makes this comment: “My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they insane?”

Still figuring it out

By temperament, I am a moody bastard with tendencies toward sociopathy and existential despair. (I blame my manic-depressive mom, may she rest in peace.)

By upbringing and by choice, I am a Roman Catholic ray of sunshine with tendencies toward evangelical Christian fervor. (I blame my Roman Catholic mom, may she rest in peace.)

From either perspective, I have yet to figure out what to make of a particular claim often made about the cruising life, one I’ve heard over and over from enthusiastic cruisers we’ve met in the past eight months.

Namely, that the cruising life is the Best Life Ever.

Frankly, nothing in me is content to let that statement stand unchallenged.

If, for instance, the best life ever means the life of highest calling, then my Catholicism suggests a life of unceasing service to others.

But if we accept a lesser standard for “best”—one that aligns itself more completely with self-fulfillment, self-absorption, or just plain selfishness—then this moody bastard can think of plenty of other compelling, obsessive alternatives to the cruising lifestyle, most of which would not receive high marks from middle-of-the-road American society.

Leaving the exaggerations aside, however, I am glad to report today that the cruising life is, so far, a good life.

And it can perhaps be a great one. It’s just still too early for me to know what, exactly, it ought to look like.

But let’s be honest. The question of what life should look like wasn’t exactly one I had ever figured out on land, either.

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PHOTO CREDITS
Factory Creek,  snowy egret, orange sky: Pamela Douglas Webster.
Pam and Honey, composting head, three sheets to the wind: Mike Webster.

Debut

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” So proposed Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmish in 1997.

Check. Learned to sail, quit the jobs, sold the house, bought the boat, living on the boat, blowing through our cash on the boat, no reliable new sources of income yet on the boat. Thanks a lot, Mary.

OK, next proposition:

“Do one thing every day that humiliates you.” So proposed, uh, I, I think, just now.

On one hand, I suspect it’s derivative, although I can’t trace the original.
On the other hand, it does gain some leverage from more well-established propositions such as “Pride goeth before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18a, KJV) and “Humility is good for the soul” (commonly accepted wisdom offered in various shades and formats by at least 1,200 or so people as quoted on Goodreads.)

This admonition to garner one humiliating moment per day is, in my humble opinion, great advice for someone who thinks as often and as highly of himself as I do.

I wonder what great mind first proposed it.

Anyway, that’s why I spent a large part of last week writing and rehearsing four minutes of material for my first-ever open mike standup comedy set.

And this past Tuesday night at the Compass Bar here in Charleston, SC, I performed it.

It went just as I expected: I bombed.

And it was everything I was hoping it would be: I had a great time.

Below, I’ve posted the most successful portion of the set, about 84 seconds on the subject of my athletic ineptitude. So if you love great standup comedy, do not click the link.

But if you just want to witness a daily dose of my self-inflicted humiliation, please enjoy.

Dock Another Day

We’d been in Southport, NC, for the past seven days.

Local color.

Local color.

We’d been cleaning up the boat, working on stuff, waiting for mail to catch up with us, resting, and preparing for our bid to be in Charleston, SC in a few days’ time.

And today was the day we had planned to leave Southport and head west to our next stop, forty-two miles away in South Carolina’s North Myrtle Beach.

But to live the cruising life means to have destinations without schedules. And when NOAA weather radio told us this morning that our trip would feature west winds of twenty-six knots, gusting to thirty-four, we once again rehearsed the reasons for holding our plans lightly. And we decided to stay on the dock one more day.

Also, saying hello to night visitors to the fuel dock.

Fortunately, our neighbors are quiet.

Go slowly. . .

Dangers do not await us in the next forty-two miles of the ICW. Rather, hassles do.

The most notable one will be a length of water that experienced users of the ICW have dubbed the Rock Pile. Comparing one cruising guide to another, it is not clear to me whether the name refers to an eighteen-mile-long stretch noted to have “numerous rock ledges” in it, or to one particularly nasty three-mile channel along that stretch blasted out of fossiliferous limestone during the 1930s by private contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At that time, the engineers progressively reduced the target width of the channel as the work on it got tougher. Today, pleasure boaters approaching the channel are advised to radio ahead to ask if any large commercial vessels might be coming through from the other end. We are to be prepared to wait our turn if necessary.

But this much is quite clear. Once in the Rock Pile, you have little room to maneuver. And if you miss to one side or the other, the stone that lines it will remove fiberglass from your hull in a way that the mud and sand otherwise prevalent in the ICW simply do not do.

Elsewhere along our next run are a few examples of the ICW’s more typical obstacles. There are two inlets from the Atlantic, the first at Lockwoods Folly and the second at the less threatening Shallotte River, each of which will provide an opportunity to run aground on constantly changing shoals. And we must negotiate the openings of two low bridges, one at Little River and one at Barefoot Landing, with their respective tenders.

All in all, this stretch would have been challenging enough to get through on a quiet day.

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Honey was careful to point out that staying might have its own hassles as well.

. . . or don’t go at all.

Now add the wind.

The section of the ICW we are docked in today runs out to the west. Our next forty-two miles lie to the west.

Today’s wind was from the west. At twenty-six knots, gusting to thirty-four. All day long.

If we were on the Chesapeake Bay, the Albemarle Sound or a similar body of open, shallow water, this wind would have kicked up steep waves six to eight feet high. As it is, however, we are in a narrow stretch, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by marshes and barrier islands.

And yet this strong west wind was aligned with this east-west channel all day, creating a fetch effectively a mile long on a mere ribbon of water. And that was enough to get the wave height into the one-to-two foot range–not dangerous, just uncomfortable, pitching Meander forward and aft as she sat on the dock and generating a current that moved us to double our stern and aft spring lines, just in case.

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But not enough to keep the tugboats pushing and pulling these two incredibly long lines of barges from trying to navigate the narrow fendered opening between the columns of the highway bridge beyond. Good luck, captains.

We watched and felt this all day. It was not surprising, much less threatening. But it was sobering.

We imagined being taken by surprise by how the wind and current rearranged the shoals around the markers at Lockwoods Folly. Or being driven off course by a sudden wind shift as we navigated the Rock Pile. Or being caught, after traveling forty miles in a ten-hour day, by a bridge tender’s rightful decision in thirty-four-knot gusts to keep her bridge closed for the day.

All these considerations made it surprisingly easy to postpone our plans and stay right here. And, for once, I’m not whining about it.

Maybe I’m growing up.

Another day

And so we stayed here on the dock in Southport, NC one more day. We kept the boat clean, and we found new stuff to work on.

Tonight, we’ll wait some more, rest some more, and prepare once again to hear tomorrow morning what NOAA weather radio has in store for us.

Meanwhile, we’ll meditate on the lessons that come from a day watching the water.  And we’ll reflect that from now on, our rhythm is the rhythm of the wind.

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CREDITS

Photo of Southport docks by Pamela Webster.

Video and all other photos by Mike Webster.

 

The Ditch At Last

When I started cruising with my wife Pamela and Honey the Golden Retriever five months ago, I was kinda hoping it would change my temperament. I tend to run pessimistic at the best of times; and when times are not at their best, as they haven’t been for the past two months, I can get downright unpleasant.

Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me grouchy.

In retrospect, I guess it was unrealistic of me to expect cruising to deliver the kind of overall personality transplant that, say, only a frontal lobotomy could really make happen. But the lifestyle has taught me that I should at least try to make an effort to celebrate the happier moments it throws our way. The unions. The reunions. The gifts. (From a guest appearance by David Cassidy on the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle: “The here-and-now is a special gift. That’s why I call it the present.”) The departures. The arrivals.

Especially the arrivals.

So we passed this at 10:15 AM on Tuesday, January 12, one week ago today.

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Floating in Virginia’s Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth, No. 36 is not much to look at. But it marks the charted start of that portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (the AISW) known as the Ditch, a thousand-mile-long path of natural waterways, dredged channels and engineered canals that ends, for some skilled, determined, and lucky cruisers, in Key West, Florida.

Reading their own actuarial tables with respect to hurricane season, our boat insurer wants us north of Norfolk each year between May 1 and November 1. So our two months of setbacks and delays may already have put Key West out of our reach this year.

No matter; the other end of the AICW isn’t going anywhere soon. It will be there for us, whenever we arrive.

Meanwhile, after the past two months, it’s good just to have gotten started.

Southbound At Last, Sort Of

When we first moved aboard Meander this past August, we had expected to spend two months getting her, and ourselves, ready for a trip that cruisers on the U.S. East Coast have been taking for decades, a trip of more than one thousand miles to Florida’s Key West via the fabled Intracoastal Waterway, or ICW.

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Florida bound.

Formally, the ICW runs roughly from Boston, MA to Brownsville, TX. But boaters who think of the waterway primarily as a route south from snow country usually have in mind the portion of it that runs from Mile Marker Zero in Norfolk, VA to Mile 1,095 in Miami, FL. In keeping with the practice of more experienced cruisers (and with insurance company requirements that prohibit our going south until hurricane season is over), we figured we would arrive at Mile Marker Zero on November 1, and start making our way south immediately thereafter.

We did not know then how much time we would lose to big things like waiting out Hurricane Joaquin and other storms, and to little things like fixing our engine’s starter circuit and replacing a major portion of our fuel line.

But the waiting is over. Six days ago, Pam, Honey the golden retriever and I left our home port of Cambridge, MD and began our four-day journey southbound to Mile Marker Zero.

Of course, we’re not there yet. And if you did your math in the paragraph above, you’ll have inferred there’s a reason for that.

Cambridge, MD to Solomons, MD

On our first day, we left Cambridge, headed west out of the Choptank River into the Chesapeake Bay, and motored down the Bay to the town of Solomons on the Patuxent River.

We strive to make each of our days on the water blessedly uneventful, and this was almost one of those days. More or less.

We had clear skies, a pleasant but uselessly weak wind from the east that veered as the day went on into a stronger but equally useless wind from the south, and waves just high enough to send some spray over our decks and onto my sunglasses. (Note: When eyeglasses are covered with salt water, do not rub, lest the salt scratch the lenses. Rather, rinse thoroughly with fresh water and pat dry.)

However, since I have a compulsive need to keep things needlessly interesting, I also contributed two moments to our first day linked by the theme of Me Not Paying Attention. But that’s a subject for another post.

Solomons MD to Ingram Bay, VA

Coming off the dock Thursday morning in Solomons was easy. We motored into another clear day with even lighter winds and lower waves, with Virginia’s Ingram Bay as our goal.

Soon, we were passing the light at Point No Point, now under rehabilitation. The scaffolding surrounding it and the temporary construction platform erected next to it have changed its profile for miles, making long-distance identification tricky; and we contemplated how the ever-changing maritime environment keeps prudent sailors on their toes.

Point No Point Light

Point No Point Light.

Shortly thereafter, we were at the Smith Point Light, a classic profile at the mouth of the Potomac River not obscured by recent construction activity.

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Smith Point Light.

From there, we started our ten-mile crossing of the Potomac.

We weren’t two miles across when the trouble started.

What now?

Meander was cruising at 2,800 RPM when her engine speed dropped sharply and inexplicably, without throttle input, to 2,500 RPM. Then, from 2,500 RPM to 2,400 RPM. Then back to 2,500 RPM.

Thinking we had wrapped a stray piece of line around our propeller, I hoped to unwind it. I throttled down, slipped into neutral and then into reverse, throttled up hard a few seconds, throttled down again, slipped back into neutral and then into forward, and resumed at 2,800 RPM.

After less than a minute, the engine speed dropped sharply again, this time accompanied by a pounding that made us think something was going to come through the engine compartment hatch in the cockpit floor.

I then reduced throttle to 2,200 RPM and listened intently as the pounding receded to nearly, but not quite, nothing.

“All right, what the hell just went wrong here?”

Pam and I speculated freely. Did we, in fact, wrap a line in the water around our prop? Other cruisers who picked up lines often reported their engines being stopped cold by them; if our prop was wrapped, why didn’t our engine stop? What if it hadn’t been a line, but something like a submerged log that hit and bent the prop?

Oh, and on a note we hoped was completely unrelated, hadn’t the pump that automatically drains incoming water out of our bilge been running a little more than usual in the past two weeks?

We also reviewed our options. Go on to Ingram Bay as planned, or turn back into the Potomac and try to find a marina there? And where in either location would we find a boatyard to look at the engine?

As we talked through all this, we noticed the engine continuing to hold its own at 2,200 RPM.

And recognizing that Deltaville, VA, the southern Chesapeake Bay’s most important recreational boating center, wasn’t very far south of Ingram Bay, we decided to go on rather than turn back. The decision would move us further south, and closer to a wide range of service options.

Ingram Bay, VA to. . .

Friday morning, we woke up with a plan to take Meander out, run her up to various speeds, and watch the propeller shaft rotate in the engine compartment. We also clung to a faint hope that our original plan to make it to Horn Harbor, VA, halfway the remaining distance to Mile Marker Zero, would still be on the table afterward.

Leaving Ingram Bay, we entered the Chesapeake as Pam observed heavy fog rolling in from the north. So we got down to it. With Pam on the helm and Honey the golden retriever below in the cabin, I opened the hatch in the floor.

Fortunately, prtevious experience has made me well acquainted with the location of the engine compartment hatch.

Fortunately, previous experience has made me well acquainted with the location of the engine compartment hatch.

“Bring her up to 2,200 RPM.”

The propeller shaft whirred away, seemingly content. But I noticed a certain amount of water coming in through a fitting around the shaft called a stuffing box.

Normally, this is not a cause for alarm. The fact that the engine inside a boat must connect to a propeller outside it necessarily suggests the “hole” in the hull—actually, often, a tube called a “stern tube”—through which the propeller shaft must exit. Near the internal end of the stern tube, the assembly known as the “stuffing box” is fitted around the prop shaft and is packed with I Don’t Know What to keep water out of the boat when the shaft is not rotating. When the shaft is rotating under power, often at speeds as high as 3,400 RPM, the stuffing box is designed to allow a little water to pass over it and into the boat to keep it from overheating.

How much is “a little water?” One of the Pack-Your-Own-Stuffing-Box-For-Fun-And-Profit books we keep on hand for rainy-day reading tells us, “About six drops a minute.”

But what was coming in through Meander’s stuffing box at 2,200 RPM sure looked like more than six drops a minute to me.

“Take her up to 2,800.”

At 2,800 RPM, the propeller shaft appeared to try to throw itself out of alignment with the transmission, the rear end of which in turn was shaking. And the water that should have been dripping gently into our bilge at six drops per minute was now whipping itself around the engine compartment in a 360 degree arc.

“OK, then. We’re stopping in Deltaville.”

An hour later, that thick Chesapeake fog caught up with us, reducing our visibility to about three hundred feet. Being prudent mariners, we reduced speed, relied on radar to spot traffic, sounded our hand held air horn when the radar showed something closing on us, tracked our position closely with our paper chart and our handheld GPS device, and blessed the mist as a ratification of our decision not to press on to Horn Harbor. Steering toward the Windmill Point Light at the mouth of the Rappahannock River, our navigational precision was rewarded with the sight of its form emerging from the gray mist forward of our bow.

. . . to Deltaville, VA

Deltaville is on the Rappahannock’s southern shore, just west of Stingray Point, and its water-accessible boating services are concentrated heavily around its Broad Creek. As we headed across the river toward the creek, we picked a phone number out of an old cruising guide left to us by Meander’s former owners and ended up connecting with the Deltaville Yachting Center, a marina that had a service department.

Shortly after we landed, the marina owner, Lew, came down to us at the dock, and we discussed our troubles on the water with him. After running through our already intimidating list of speculative causes, he then added one more possibility.

“It could also be failing engine mounts.”

Oh, great.

On to the work plan, then. It was obvious that one of the marina’s mechanics would have to come down to take a look at Meander. A cost estimate and work schedule would be determined in part by the price and availability of any required parts and equipment, the roster of which in turn would be determined by the mechanic’s diagnosis.

And since our conversation was happening late on a Friday afternoon, it was also obvious that none of this could even begin to happen until Monday morning.

After the owner left, I opened the engine compartment hatch once more, there at the dock without the engine running, largely to contemplate all the things I don’t understand about sailboats.

And that’s when I noticed that the stuffing box that shouldn’t have been admitting any water at all around a propeller shaft at rest was instead dripping at a rate of about one drop per second.

Well, at least that explained our overactive bilge pump.

The investigation

And so we started our southbound journey six days ago. But as of last Friday, we weren’t actually traveling south. Rather, we were here in Deltaville, listening to our bilge pump whirr and waiting for the weekend to pass.

Monday morning, the mechanic came by as promised, and found nothing too badly amiss internally—not even, thank heaven, the condition of the engine mounts. But all this finding did was to transfer our suspicions back outside the boat.

So we ordered Meander pulled out. And as she hung in the slings of the travel lift, we found the following.

  • The cutless bearing, a fitting around the shaft at the stern tube’s external end, was driven up into the tube and out of sight. By what, exactly, is anyone’s guess.
  • The three-blade folding propeller, a $4,500 piece of metal magic that had been tight to the shaft and moving with precision at our marine survey three months ago, was wobbly in all its several joints and parts.
  • The zinc anodes that protect the drivetrain from the corrosion that stray electrical currents passing through seawater can create were broken or missing entirely.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say what caused all this damage in such a short amount of time. We still would love to blame some invisible, unidentifiable One-Time Object that hit us, did its worst, and fell away. Because a lot of vigilance and a little luck could steer us around any such objects that might float past in the future, while no amount of either would alleviate some invisible, unidentifiable Chronic Problem left to reassert itself in another three months.

But for the moment, we at least had the smoking guns that shot our trip south in the foot.

The waiting

So for now, Meander is out of the lift slings and up “on the hard.”

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And once the marina people drop our rudder, pull our propeller shaft, examine it for irreversible damage, remove our folding prop and ship it off to its manufacturer for refurbishment, install our spare two-blade fixed prop on what will either be our current shaft or a new one that would require custom machining, replace the cutless bearing, put the shaft back through the stern tube, reconnect it to our transmission, repack the stuffing box, and run some sea trials, we’ll know how many more days we’ll be here in Deltaville. And what it will finally cost us to leave.

Then we’ll be southbound at last all over again. Mile Marker Zero, here we come.

But not yet.

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PHOTO CREDITS
Key West pano: James Willamore, via photopin under a Creative Commons license.
All other photos: Mike Webster.

Get On With It

When I started this blog, I thought to myself, “Surely, this boat will give me something to write about.”

What I had no way to account for at that time was how little time I would have to write it.

This is no doubt due to a certain naïveté with which I am maddeningly—uh, I mean, endearingly—afflicted. Then, I rather saw my wife and me hopping merrily onto Meander, taking a few days to get to know her, taking another few days to settle in, and then spending the rest of our happy days drifting carefree from one port of call to another while I collected fascinating photos and produced amusing anecdotes for posting at an easygoing rate of, let’s say, five times a week.

Now, less than three months later, I have a very clear picture of the things I didn’t think to set aside time for. Chief among the more recent ones: chronic trouble with our fuel line.

Having moved past them, and having since left Cambridge, MD to arrive at the unlikely mid-November cruising destination of Greenwich, NJ, I am given the gift of a moment in which to try to remedy the fact that I haven’t posted anything here in nearly two weeks. The dismay I feel at this fact is uncomfortable. But not unexpected.

This seems like a good time to fill in the first of those two weeks.

Getting Smart

At last writing, Meander was still in the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin, and I was hanging my head over a small contribution I had made to the petrochemical pollution of the Chesapeake Bay when I blew some diesel fuel off the boat after botching the setup of a pressure test on our fuel line.

Up to that moment, we had suffered no fewer than three engine failures with Meander already underway as we tried to leave the marina on various errands, and we had determined that the probable cause was air intrusion into the fuel line. The first two failures were successfully, if temporarily, addressed in the field by Ralph, a mechanic from the nearby Yacht Maintenance Company. It was after the third failure that, trying to apply Pam’s research into the several places a compromised fuel line could be admitting air, I tried to pinpoint the location of the leak with surgical precision by running the homemade test that unmade our small corner of our marina.

After that debacle, we made two decisions.

First, I was no longer going to try to find and fix the air intrusion at its precise location. By that time, Pam had read too many stories of cruisers who had ended up locked into months-long cycles of Lather-Rinse-Repeat using that approach. Rather, we were going to rebuild the entire line from the diesel tank to the secondary filter, replacing every single hose, clamp, fitting, seal and gasket to which we could get access with new materials, and knowing when we were done that we would be truly done with it for many years.

Second, I wasn’t going to go it alone this time. Rather, we would move Meander to the Yacht of Maintenance Company, where someone with a little more experience with diesel engines than I have (read, almost anyone on the planet) might mercifully take the gun out of my hand if he or she noticed I was waving it in the wrong direction.

Yacht Maintenance Company

And so on Thursday, October 29, the folks at the Yacht Maintenance Company sent Ralph out to us once more to bleed our engine, get us started, and, should the fuel line choose to suck in one last breath of unauthorized air, stay aboard with us during the half-mile ride.

After a blessedly uneventful trip that left Meander safe and secure on their dock, Braxton, the official Service Manager and my unofficial Hand Holder, came quickly to a willing and workable arrangement with us, allowing us to do our own work on the understanding that we would buy our repair materials through their parts department.

As Braxton said, “We’re easy here.”

She started us off by sending Ralph and assistant service manager Scott out to pump the remaining diesel in our fuel tank into a clean storage drum. And after that, life became simple and direct.

Each morning, I would banish Pam and Honey from the boat so I could have simultaneous and unobstructed access to the engine compartment, the fuel tank under the cabin floor and the bilge spaces between them. I would then pull apart the fuel line, length by length and piece by piece, and bring the pieces to Art, the official Parts Manager and my unofficial Baby Sitter. Art would sit with me half an hour at a time sorting through the materials he could replace from stock, the ones he needed to order for next-day delivery, and the ones whose lack of availability mandated the invention of a reasonable workaround.

Art, as Baby Sitter, was also in a position to offer life lessons.

“Art, why is it that every replacement you give me looks a little different than the original I gave you?”

“Mike, that’s going to happen a lot on a twenty-five-year-old boat.”

Then I would take my newly acquired parts back to the boat, installing them length by length and piece by piece, until I got to a piece whose installation logic defied me—for instance, the fuel tank pickup tube whose outlet should have faced toward the back of the boat when I tightened it, but which ended up facing forward instead. Then Braxton would send Ralph aboard again, and Ralph would straighten it out.

So if you don’t own your own boat, go out right now and buy one. Then sail or motor it into Cambridge, MD, break it, bring it over to the Yacht Maintenance Company, and let these people take care of you. They are terrific.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Pam

Meanwhile, Pam would never be caught lounging during an exile I imposed for my personal productivity. Rather, she would find her own ways to be productive: working on her own blog about Honey, Something Wagging This Way Comes, from remote wifi hot spots; running errands to the grocery store, the library and the post office; arranging takeout lunches; spending half a day walking our clothing and bedding two and a half miles to the laundromat and back.

At the end of each day, she would come back to the boat, cook dinner for us, and listen to me kvetch and moan about how little I had gotten accomplished.

And, toward the end of our stay, she would take that one last long trip to the grocery store, unaccompanied by her usual Sherpa, to provision for our trip to southern New Jersey.

Getting On With It

And so passed the first week of my recent blogging silence.

On Tuesday, November 3, I finished up the fuel line replacement at 5:30 PM. On Wednesday, November 4, Ralph pumped the fuel back into our tank, we took Meander out for a blessedly uneventful hour-long field test, and we prepared to depart Cambridge the next day.

On the morning of Thursday, November 5, one week after landing at the Yacht Maintenance Company, we turned the ignition key and pressed the starter button. The engine turned over, but failed to catch.

We waited a few seconds, then pressed the button again. The engine again failed to catch.

With a sigh, we waited a few seconds more, and pressed the button again.

The engine caught and sputtered a little.

I reached up to the throttle and pulled it forward a little, and the engine got over its cough and settled into a healthy putt-putt.

And so, ever onward. We steered Meander out into the Choptank River, and, saying Goodbye-For-Now to our newly adopted home port of Cambridge, MD, set off for southern New Jersey here in mid-November. On the way, we stopped on three different nights at three different marinas, and the engine started without drama or objection each morning thereafter. So we think we have this fuel thing licked for the moment, and hopefully for the next ten years.

Oh, right. You asked, “Why travel north to southern New Jersey of all places, when everyone else in a boat on the U.S. East Coast is headed south to Florida at this time of year?”

Because my brother, the diesel mechanic who put us onto the path to solve the starter circuit troubles we were having a few weeks ago before all this fuel line nonsense began, lives in southern New Jersey. And there’s no going south until we’ve given him and his family at look at the boat.

And I’m awfully glad he’s here. Because after our fourth night in our fourth marina, we tried to start the engine to charge our house batteries; and once again, readers of this blog will have already guessed.

The starter circuit I thought I fixed is suddenly and inexplicably on the blink.

When I started this blog, I thought to myself, “Surely, this boat will give me something to write about.” But I hadn’t thought that what I’d be writing about would be Endless Engine Trouble.

Polluting the water: Diesel spill

To memorialize the past week we’ve spent here in Cambridge trying to track down the fuel line problem that keeps killing our engine whever we try to leave, today’s post consists of a witness report filed yesterday with the United States Coast Guard regarding the incident that capped it off.

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Nothing funny here. . .

I own a documented 1990 Pacific Seacraft 34, official number [number redacted], named Meander. We filed paperwork a few weeks ago to change her hailing port from Fairport, VA to Cambridge, MD, but have not received a new certificate yet.

On Monday, October 26, 2015, I was doing engine work on Meander in slip G-1 in the southwest corner of the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin off the Choptank River. Intending to test our fuel line for leaks by pressurizing the fuel tank through its vent port, I disconnected the tank’s vent line from the port.

. . . unless stupidity is funny. . .

However, in a moment of distraction, I connected the pressurizing equipment, a hose from the exhaust port of a ShopVac, not to the tank’s vent port but rather to the interior end of the tank’s vent line.

. . . but it isn’t.

When I turned the vacuum on, residual diesel fuel in the vent line blew out its exterior end. On my boat, the vent line’s exterior port is located below the companionway and over the cockpit. By the time I realized that I had set the job up wrong, the residual fuel had already collected in the cockpit’s gutters, and some unknown quantity entered the waterway through its drains.

[Editor’s note: Just one cup of an oily product dropped into a body of water is enough to create a slick the size of an American football field. ]

This happened between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM, and checking overboard, I did not see any slicks forming on the water surface. So I left the boat to run some errands. When I returned after 5:00 PM, however, I observed that a slick had formed around my boat and had migrated down the south wall of the marina into the next two slips. I then notified first the Coast Guard, and then Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

At the suggestion of the latter, I also called the Cambridge Rescue Fire Department, who responded sometime around or after 6:00 PM. While I took a follow-up phone call from USCG Petty Officer [name redacted] in the cabin of the boat, the fire department apparently deployed oil-absorbent socks.

After Officer [name redacted] and I finished up, I went above to talk with the fire department’s incident commander. I didn’t get all the details of our conversation, but did hear his suggestion that I call in the morning if it looked as if the spill had spread. The fire department left the site around 7:00 PM.

Just bad enough.

On the following morning, Tuesday, October 27, 2015, it appeared to me that the slick had extended itself along the entire south wall of the marina, so I called the fire department again. The incident commander from the previous evening responded, and we walked the length of the south wall. He concluded that much of what was on the south wall was probably attributable to other boats along it; that the slick attributable to my boat did not appear to have changed; and that there was not enough diesel left in the water to warrant further action.

Officer [name redacted] also followed up with me. At his request, I took the following nineteen (19) photos. The first photo looks east from the marina’s west end; the next seventeen proceed along its south wall from the southwest corner to the southeast corner; and the last photo looks west from the east end.

 

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I solemnly swear (to sell this @#$% boat)

I have read my statement as documented above (and, if applicable, on continuation pages), and to the best of my knowledge and belief, it is true and correct.