Tuesday, May 29, 2012

That ICW Look

This boat shapes a perfect bow wave through tannin-stained water in South Carolina.

The first spring after we’d moved to Annapolis and moved aboard our sailboat, we went to a marina party welcoming home the returning snowbirds.  And I was thinking, “Wow, someday, that will be ME.  Someday I’LL be one of those travelers!”  One guest said to one of the returnees, with a knowing smile, “I see you took the ‘inside’ route. You and your boat have that ICW look.”  In my naiveté, I wondered what “that look” was all about.  Was it weariness from their long journey?  Some kind of nautical nonchalance?   Did they look like an “old salt” or ancient mariner?  Someday, will I have that flair too?

Fast-forward ten years, and we know that wasn’t an unmitigated compliment.

You see them arriving in Annapolis around this time of year, boats that have spent the winter in Florida or the Bahamas returning for the summer, or passing through on their way to cruising grounds farther north in Canada or New England.  Their decks may be cluttered with jerry cans for fuel and water, and they will invariably have a dinghy of some kind.  That’s how you can recognize them as cruising boats, nine times out of ten.  If they came up by the “inside” or ICW (IntraCoastal Waterway) route as opposed to going the “outside” or ocean route, they will also likely have a telltale brownish stain on the bow, jokingly referred to as an ICW moustache. 

It’s not a sign of laziness or poor maintenance on their parts.  The grungy look is due to the water in the middle of the waterway that goes through cypress swamps.  The water in these areas, while not polluted, is naturally a clear deep brown color, like tea.  (That’s not even a coincidence, the same acids, called tannins, that give tea and coffee their brown color, are present in this water.  And far from being polluted, the water was highly prized in old sailing days.  When stored in barrels for long ocean passages, fresh-looking clear water would all too quickly grow foul.  The tannin acids, on the other hand, delayed the growth of algae and slime, so the funny brown water lasted longer. While funky looking, the water is perfectly safe to drink.  (I’m told; I didn’t try it!)

So where does the moustache come from?  When a boat moves through the water, the bow makes a wave and water curls up along the front of the hull.  Keeping that white plastic in contact with dark water for hundreds of miles leaves a stain just like coffee in a white mug.

There are many conversations and much advice about how to get rid of that brown stain, waxes and cleaning products, and natural solutions like vinegar or lemon juice, published in cruising magazines and websites and discussed at cruiser parties.  We have what we believe is the best low-maintenance solution ever invented for this problem.  Our whole boat is a light tan color, very close to the same shade as the stain.  No worries!

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Thanx to my friend Chris R. for inspiring this post.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Oops! "Like Two Ships Passing in the Night"

Cruise ship at night - it is easy to tell what this is from its lights, but not all vessels are so readily identified. (Photo modified from Villa Serendipity, St Lucia)

Our boat doesn’t have radar.  At night, especially, we keep a good watch and have learned to identify other boats by their lights, and to call them on VHF radio to avoid collision.  It’s counterintuitive, but the ocean is actually easier than the Chesapeake Bay for night sailing, there’s just less traffic to interact with.  In the Bay you are constantly alert, over the course of the night there was always at least one set of lights somewhere in our field of vision.  On the ocean you can go hours, sometimes days, between sighting other vessels.

 This happened last week on our overnight trip up the Chesapeake Bay.  It was some time after midnight and the moon was not yet up.  Dan was asleep; I was alone on watch with the stars and my thoughts.  There wasn’t a lot to do, the autopilot was humming happily, every few minutes I’d look carefully in all directions to make sure there were no surprises.  But even if I wasn’t keeping watch, I’d want to look around anyway, the night was mild and pretty, stars peeking in and out through light clouds.  So I watched.  And thought.  There’s nothing, nothing, like being alone at sea, at night, for figuring out if you like yourself.   

We’d passed and been passed by four of ships in the last couple of hours.  Busy night!  Ahead, very small, were the lights of yet another ship.  It was too far away to be a concern yet, but I decided to watch it to make sure we weren’t on a collision course. 

Fifteen minutes later, it was almost imperceptibly larger and closer, and hadn’t deviated – it was still directly on our bow.  I couldn’t figure out what it was based on its lights, but if it kept getting closer and the direction didn’t change, we were going to collide.  I remembered our training – a small reaction or course change early does as much good, and is certainly preferable, to a big panicky change later.  I tried altering course by 20 degrees, and waited to see what would happen.  Nope, they’re still there.  Okay, call them on VHF radio and see what they’re up to.  Nope, radio silence.  This is starting to get serious.  What else to try?

Another ten minutes, they’re Still. Right. There.  Bigger, weirdly-shaped, but Still. Right. There.  Time to wake Dan up, I don’t quite understand what we’re up against, it might take two.  But he didn’t have any ideas either.  We continued, both of us alert now.  Bright and large, it loomed closer.  Until finally the mystery ship began to drift to our left, we still didn’t know what it was, but at least we were no longer going to crash.

As we came alongside, we finally understood – it wasn’t a ship at all, but the lights of the nuclear plant at Calvert Cliffs.  And this understanding was even more worrisome than an unidentified ship.  We sail totally sober – always – but our thoughts were so addled, it was as though we had had several drinks.  Learning how profoundly tiredness affected our decisionmaking was (forgive the pun) truly eye-opening.

(Turns out, this trouble with lights at night isn’t that unusual.  We told our story to our sailing mentors James and Ellen, who sheepishly admitted that each of them once did almost the same thing mistaking the glow of the rising moon below the ocean horizon for an oncoming ship.)

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Official Coast Guard Navigation Rules publication, includes the lights and shapes (skip ahead to Part C, Rules 20-31): http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/pdf/navRules/navrules.pdf

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Overnight Up the Chesapeake

I have a large number of photos of ripples on the water, showing where a dolphin *just* was.  This is one of only two photos I took on the entire 7-1/2-month trip that actually has a dolphin in it.

We stayed in near Norfolk for several days, recovering from the night of a million mosquitoes and the thunderstorm that didn’t happen.  When we got underway again, we would be only about 4 travel days from home.

So, we’re motoring up the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, VA, and I can only describe what happened as “flash-mobbed by dolphins.”   We’re churning along this very developed industrial stretch when Dan called out, “Dolphin!  There! Port bow!”  Cool, I love seeing those guys.  “There!  Again!”  And then, “Another one, over there, by that building!”  and, with increasing excitement, “There, too! Alongside us!”  Suddenly we were surrounded by about a dozen dolphins, leaping and splashing and playing in the sunshine.  They weren’t hunting, or running, just the sheer pleasure of exercising muscles in a way that I don’t remember doing since I wrote my age with more than one digit, and seemingly inviting us to join (or just watch in awe).  They did their magic for a few minutes, then, just as quickly as they had come, with a flick of a tail, they were all gone, again, all disappearing at once.  Surreal.  And *this* is why we put up with the inconveniences to live on a boat.

While the dolphin display was certainly the coolest thing to happen to us in a long time, it wasn’t the only happy thing that happened that day, because that evening we set the anchor behind Old Point Comfort – we were back in the Chesapeake. 

Next day began a beautiful sail with fair winds and an assist from the current, sending us northward at times at speeds as high as 8 knots over the bottom (in still air and flat water, we motor at 6 knots, so this was a 30% boost!)  Our plan was to play with names a bit: there are many “Mill Creeks” in the Chesapeake and we were going to anchor in a different one each night: the “Mill Creek” near Old Point Comfort, then next night the “Mill Creek” off the Great Wicomico River, then next night the “Mill Creek” near Solomon’s Island.  But the weather was so glorious, and we were moving so well, that on the spur of the moment, we decided to sail through the night and reach Annapolis next morning. 

While the decision was impulsive, it wasn’t frivolous; predicted bad weather later in the week could have left us holed up in port somewhere waiting for several days.  So it made sense to take advantage of the good weather now. While he was working with the OSTS sailing program at the Naval Academy, Dan had sailed the length of the Chesapeake Bay on overnight trips with a crew of midshipmen more times than he could count.  While it’s never wise to be complacent about the ocean, his experience did help with our confidence. We were both familiar with the Bay, with our boat, and with overnight sailing together.  And of course, we had everything we needed (a.k.a., almost everything we owned) right here with us – the benefit of living full-time on our boat.  As the sun went down, I rifled through the food lockers for easy sugary snacks to give us an energy boost, pre-made a few sandwiches, gathered flashlights and life jackets and tethers. 

There was one place where our spontaneity could have tripped us up – the “float plan.”  For safety’s sake, it would be nice to have someone on shore know what we were planning and when we were expected in, so they could alert the Coast Guard to start a search if we didn’t arrive.  And of course we hadn’t preplanned that, so no one knew what we were planning. My Life Afloat on Facebook page to the rescue!  I’m lovin’ this new iPhone technology – for the trip up the Bay, we had 100 friends keeping us company, as we posted updates and a few photos from various spots along the way.  Having several friends to chat made the long night watches pass, if not more quickly, at least more cheerfully.

The night was relatively peaceful and uneventful.  We shared the dark Bay with several tugs and barges and even a small cruise ship, and watched a rusty red half-moon rise at about 2 AM.  The fair current was actually too much of a good thing – by about 4 AM we reached Thomas Point light just outside Annapolis harbor.  We had made the trip in record time … but didn’t dare come in until daylight so we could see and avoid the crab pots that always line the shallows.  We had slowed down for our last hour of travel, but we weren’t slow enough, we were still too early.  We “hove to” (a method of “parking” the boat when you are in a place where it’s too deep to anchor) and waited for what seemed like ages – Annapolis was so close, and we were sooo ready to sleep, but we didn’t dare risk catching a crab pot in our propeller.  At about 5:30, the sky went from black, to dark gray, to lighter gray, and began to lift with shades of orange and blue, and we finally completed the very last bit of our 7-1/2 month journey.  Home again!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Thunderstorm! (or not)

Thunderstorm photo courtesy of NOAA

The only good thing that can be said about sleeping in clothing is that it makes for a very fast start to the next day.  And after the night of a million mosquitoes, an early departure was exactly what we had in mind.  Another long day and we’d be across the Albemarle Sound, a body of water famed, like the Chesapeake, for its short choppy nasty waves in bad weather – and bad weather was predicted to arrive late that afternoon.  We hoped to be well across before then.

The winds started to pick up around noon as we reached the mouth of the Alligator River where it empties into the Albemarle and I started to have my doubts, but the weather turned out to be absolutely benign for the crossing.  In fact, I decided that the Albemarle was a rather pretty body of water, blue and sparkling in settled weather.  Then just as we got to the other side and dropped the sail, the winds pick up and the sky began to take on more threatening colors.  But we were across – and it would just get more and more sheltered from here. 

We were still about an hour from our next available anchorage and the winds continued to build and the sky to roil in ominous shades of blue-gray-black.  Weather radar showed huge blobs of reds and oranges (the colors that indicate very strong storms) coming towards us, and the Coast Guard announced increasingly frantic special marine warnings about the storm.  Clarification: the Coast Guard themselves are never frantic, they are the ultimate professionals, they just relayed NOAAs increasingly frantic text warnings that “mariners should seek safe harbor immediately…” (yep, we’re doing that, okay) “winds in excess of 34 knots…” (i.e., gale-force winds from unpredictable directions, good thing we’ve already got the sails down) and “frequent cloud-to-ground lightning” (uh, huh.  We live at the base of a 50-foot lightning rod also known as a sailboat mast.)  The race was on.  It was dark as twilight and the chill wind was pushing us sideways – the sail cover alone was acting like a small sail.  We pushed the engine to the max (thank you Gary at Deaton’s Yacht Service for the excellent tune-up you just gave it last week!) and anxiously watched the sky.  When we heard the first rumbles of thunder and saw the first flashes of lightning, we contemplated the minimally sketchy shelter in front of us.  Should we drop anchor here, where we’d be uncomfortable but probably okay, or do we think the storm will wait just a bit? In another 20 minutes or so we can get to the better spot just a mile ahead? (Note to self: this is where the expression “any port in a storm” literally comes from.)

We decided to press on while the storm loomed ever closer.  We got to the spot we had picked out on the chart … and it didn’t look like we remembered!  But it still looked pretty secure – any port in a storm indeed – and we were HERE and so was the storm.  We set the anchor faster than we ever had, and let out extra scope so it could hold us even more securely in a blow.  I couldn’t help but remember that two years ago we were just a few miles from this spot when we were hit by the downdraft, and was scared of a repeat.  I pulled up weather radar again – there was that line of reds and oranges marching westward toward us – and we went below to finish our storm preparations and wait.  In addition to the extra anchor scope, we left the engine idling and put our cellphones in the oven.  (Huh? What’s THAT all about? Should we be struck by lightning, it would of course scramble all the electronics; the theory I hope never to have to test is that the metal box of the oven would act as a kind of Faraday cage, dissipating the charge and protecting the phones so we could call for help.  We also have a handheld GPS, handheld VHF radio, and backup hard drive similarly protected.)  We sat, away from the mast and other metal, and waited.
It wasn’t long at all before the first rain drops fell. Then … nothing.  Just a light, gentle spring rain.  It was as if we were shielded by some magic cone of protection.  The barometer was rising again.  How could the storm possibly have missed us?  I took a chance on the weather radar – all the storms had dissipated when they reached the western shore of the river, and we were anchored just off the EASTERN shore no more than a half-mile away.  Just like that – gone!  Whew!  And, wow!

Sometime after dinner, it hit us.  Too much adrenaline during the afternoon, and too little sleep the night before, and we were done.  Cooler than last night, and the wind is certainly blowing the bugs away.  We were in bed by 8:30, planning on staying put the next day while the storm blew itself out.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Night of a Million Mosquitoes

Underway again, repairs made and maintenance done.  The engine was humming happily and the helm was easy and the sun was shining and warm.  We had a great day on the water and made excellent time, covering more than 50 miles to anchor near the head of the Pungo River.  There was a small chance of thunderstorms in the evening, so an anchorage that was secure and sheltered was more of a priority than one that had nice breezes.  We were sitting in the cockpit enjoying a quiet evening, with the boat open to the warm moist night air.  Almost 360 degrees of trees, water, marsh, and nothing built by humans in sight in any direction.  This really is the life.

It started to drizzle and when we went below – ugh! We seem to have gotten a little more shelter than we bargained for.  The still air allowed the insects to come out.  There were mosquitos everywhere, a LOT of mosquitos. Un-swattably many mosquitoes, on every surface.  Finally in desperation we closed the boat and burned a mosquito-repellant coil, letting it serve as an impromptu bug bomb.  I’m sure that stuff wasn’t great for humans to breathe, either, but we didn’t have a lot of other ideas at that point.

Well, the bug bomb idea was about 80% effective and soon those mosquitoes were dropping like, well, flies, and we could swat them or pinch them up in paper towels.  Now what?  It’s hot, it’s raining so we can’t sleep with the hatches open, and we’re wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts and socks (all sprayed with Off!) to protect us from the remaining mosquitoes.  And we’re going to sleep exactly how?  The v-berth is even hotter than the main cabin.  Blankets are unthinkable, but so is leaving skin exposed.
We ended up sleeping – or at least dozing – fully dressed, one on each side of the main cabin, me on the starboard settee, Dan on port.  And I’m thinking to myself – this is the 21st century!  We have air conditioning!  We have electricity! Why am I living like this? What, again, is so romantic about this life afloat?

I bet Dan that we’d be laughing about the “night of the million mosquitoes” a few days from now, when we got the boat to Great Bridge, Virginia.  We’d be drinking margaritas at our favorite Mexican restaurant that’s an easy walk from where we usually tie up for the night when we’re in that area, and laughing.  Just, I wasn’t laughing yet. (Note, I’m posting this story 4 days later and I’m STILL finding little souvenirs of this night every once in a while, on the rugs or floor.  And we have arrived at Great Bridge, Virginia, and tonight we’re going to that Mexican restaurant!)

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