Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Score: Team Cinderella: 1; Forces of Entropy and Chaos: 1

Totally charmed by Savannah!
We had planned to be in Beaufort SC and Savannah GA for a while – two cities we hadn’t really taken the time to explore before.  Plus, there was a pleasant, congenial, and inexpensive marina here (Lady’s Island Marina – great spot, it’s on our list to return in the autumn) where we would do some boat projects in between explorations.  The marina was so inexpensive that we were able to indulge in a rental car for 2 weeks to get into the living-in-suburbia groove for a while.

We were totally charmed by Savannah.  Everyone who writes about the city, it seems, uses the words “charming” and “gracious” and I understand why!  The city was planned in the early 1700s and organized around a regular grid of leafy public squares. The squares were originally used for drilling the militia, but now they are just lovely small parks in the middle of the urban bustle.  We drove up and down the streets looking at historic buildings, walked for hours along the waterfront, and took a trolley tour.  I didn’t take pictures but if you google “Savannah, GA” and click on “images” you get a wonderful medley of photos of trees draped in Spanish moss, fountains, spectacular architecture, and waterfront, and that medley of images is about the way I remember the town.  On our tour they gave us a brief formal history of the town.
This illustrated map shows all the leafy squares and boulevards (you can get the map here)

You can read the history for yourself, but here just 3 weird little things that struck us:

  • British General Oglethorpe was for us in St Augustine, the “bad guy.”  After all, we were Spanish and he was “the enemy.”  So it was a bit of a jolt for us in Savannah, to see boulevards and parks named for him, and statues in his honor.
  • Savannah is one of the busiest ports in the US.  Even though its on the east coast, It’s on the same longitude as Cleveland Ohio (whoda thunk?) so bringing them by ship this far is a pretty efficient way to move goods that are destined further west.  
  • You can get your beer “to go” from any of the many local pubs and drink it while walking the streets.  

Its not a town that is very easy to visit by boat, no good downtown marina access, so we were just as happy to be nearby, in a place where we had a rental car.

Mixed with playtime, however, were boat projects.  For best look and protection of the wood, 8 coats of oil would be brushed on and allowed to dry overnight, with light rubbing between coats.  So, most mornings Dan spent oiling our teak trim, one coat per day, then we’d take the car and do things in the afternoon while the oil dried.  Sometimes we explored the city and surrounding area, other days we ran rather utilitarian errands.

In addition to the teak, we had two significant boat projects we wanted to accomplish.  The first was figuring out what was wrong with our dinghy.  Back in Annapolis, the outboard engine was somewhat unreliable for two reasons: ethanol in the available gasoline, which absorbs water and is a known problem in marine engines; and the fact that we didn’t use it regularly.  (You know, it is a truism in cruising circles that your dinghy is your family car, well, just like a car that sits too long and then develops minor problems, our dinghy also had that litany of minor sticky problems.)  But now that we were actively cruising again, we were using it every day, and we were using the ethanol-free fuel that was readily available after we left the big Washington metro area, so with both those likely causes removed, the issues should have resolved themselves.  But, just when I had started feeling good about the engine’s reliability, it stopped being reliable.  Again it was acting like it was having trouble getting enough fuel, and worse, we were occasionally smelling a tiny gasoline leak somewhere.

We narrowed the problem down to a broken O-ring in the connector at the end of the fuel hose, but of course you couldn’t just replace the O-ring, you had to replace the entire connector, a part that was maddeningly hard to find.  The guy at the marine supply place across the street from the marina looked at the hose and said that they didn’t have the part that we needed, but helpfully called his colleague across town at West Marine, who said he thought he might have it.  But when we showed up next morning with the hose (thank you, car), the part he had wasn’t a match.  He called another colleague, this time in the little town of Bluffton, halfway to Savannah, who didn’t have the part either, but mentioned another boat repair shop to try (thank you again, car).  Directions were country-style: “Go over the two long bridges, then after the second one there’s a stop light about 3 or 4 miles later…” We finally arrived at a shop selling small open boats and lots of parts for outboards.  The guy was friendly and super-knowledgeable, took one look at our hose and went to a rack and picked up the part we needed.  Its tiny size and price belied the fact that it was capable of completely shutting down our dinghy – it was about the size of a wine bottle cork (yeah, yeah, we needed wine after this whole lot of running around!) and cost $6.  It was the end of the work day, so we also got into a long rambling just-for-fun conversation with the owner, a lot of stories that gave us “local flavor.”  We heard about bribing the bridgetender with a good Southern dinner of friend chicken and grits and greens to guarantee an opening, about duck hunting at Okracoke (since we had announced our intention of going there this summer), and (of course) about the vagaries of gasoline outboard engines.  We got home and exchanged the new part for the old one, and took the dinghy for a test trip up the creek – the current is really strong here, so we cleverly planned our trip to go up current first so if the engine should fail, we’d be able to drift back to our boat without paddling too hard.  But the engine was just perfect – problem solved, and score one for Team Cinderella!

Our second project, though, was a lot more disappointing.  In fact, the only thing uglier than what we found … would have been what might have happened if we hadn’t found it.  Twice back in St Augustine, we smelled something that could have been electrical insulation smoking.  I don’t remember how we decided it was coming from the new hot water heater we had installed just 18 months ago, but it quickly dissipated when we shut off the breaker.  We examined it and couldn’t find a problem, (maybe something had spilled and now burned off?) and called in a marine electrician, who carefully examined our installation, declared it sound, had us turn the power back on, and found … nothing.  We monitored it closely for a few days, turning it off when we left the boat or went to sleep, and found … again, nothing.  All seemed well and we never smelled anything again.  We had plenty of hot water until one day the circuit breaker popped while Dan was taking a shower.  We tried some diagnostics of our own (inconclusive) and then talked to the manufacturer’s technical rep, who had further troubleshooting suggestions.  Unfortunately all of them involved being upside down on the bottom of an awkwardly-shaped cockpit locker while trying to unscrew some very tight, very tiny screws that you could either see or touch but not both at the same time – such is life on a boat designed to make use of every single cubic inch of space.  But after contortions to rival any yoga class, we found a disaster waiting to happen in the form of obvious corrosion around the thermostat and scorching around the electric heating element.  Whew! Glad we found this when we did!  And glad it’s still under warranty.  Score one for the forces of entropy and chaos.  It’s going to be cold showers, or showers ashore in the marina’s (fortunately very nice) bathrooms for a while.

Unless we run the engine.  Our hot water heater is designed to work either by electricity at the dock, or by excess engine heat while underway, and there’s nothing wrong with the engine-heat hot water system.   We’ve been really enjoying ourselves here, but it’s starting to get warm, hurricane season is coming, and we’ve got a serious case of inertia, lingering longer than we ever have before on a northbound run.  Maybe this is just the Universe’s way of urging us to get moving again … we can have hot water every night as long as we’re under way.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Back to the Ocean

I'm a decent navigator/weather router, I really am.  And I should trust myself more.

The weather had prevented us leaving after 6 days in Fernandina, when I would have really preferred, on the night of the full moon.   But a few days later, we had our predicted weather.  By all the forecasts, the wind would start out being in our faces, raising waves from the northeast, but by afternoon would clock southeast, then south, and moderate.  That would also tie in well with the tides, if we left around lunchtime or a little after, tides would be slack or falling and carry us with fair current out the inlet.  In addition, even though we wouldn't have a full moon, this night looked quite promising, fair wind, clear, and only a few hours of total darkness after sunset around 8:30 and before moonrise a little after midnight.

I predicted that about 28 hours would see us docked in Beaufort, SC, in the early evening, and fair currents would carry us up the long Port Royal inlet.  My only concern was that if anything -- anything -- slowed us down, we would get in after dark, and we didn't have radar.  So, reluctantly, we decided to leave early, against the tide and before the seas settled down, just to have a bigger margin of daylight safety on the arriving end.

And so, out the channel we went, beating into ugly, lumpy 3-5 foot seas.  This was my first clue that I should have trusted my initial assessment to wait until the afternoon -- just as predicted, the wind was against us. (insert frowny-face emoticon here)  After about 5 hours we were off the big-ship entry channel for Brunswick, GA and seriously considered calling it quits and going back "inside" to the shelter of the ICW. But we thought maybe, just maybe, things were settling a little, and it sure would be nice to get to Beaufort tomorrow instead of next week, so we cheered each other up and went on. Surprisingly, we had cellphone coverage even that far out.  We had two friends back in St Augustine who were tasked to alert the Coast Guard if we were seriously overdue; we could keep them apprised of our status just by posting regular Facebook updates every few hours.  And as the afternoon dwindled, the seas did too (**ahem!** Just as I had initially predicted! We should have waited!)  It slowly got more comfortable.

We don't tend to have deep philosophical conversations underway, even when (like this day) the autopilot is doing all the work and there is little navigation to require our attention.  At the same time, I can't lose myself in a book, not when its so much more interesting to watch the subtle but ever changing ocean there before me.  I can read any time, like on a rainy day in port.  So we sat, mostly silent but occasionally chatting about trivial, shallow subjects, and made steady progress northward.  By late afternoon we were generally 5-10 miles off the Georgia shore, never completely out of sight of land, but not really close enough to see any detail.

As it had on our last "outside" run from St Augustine to Fernandina, again the ocean seemed weirdly empty.  A few dolphins, a few turtles, and a lot of jellyfish.  Around dinnertime, though, we had the most lovely visitor when a small songbird, who could easily have fit in my hand, landed in the cockpit.  He looked frazzled and dazed, he didn't even look like he would survive the flight back to shore.  I couldn't tell if he was too young to be afraid of us, or just too tired to care.  He hopped into the galley and ate the crumbs of bread left over from our lunchtime sandwiches, and propped on the rim of the small bowl of fresh water we offered. He joined us for dinner - we had lentil soup, while he ate a couple of dead bugs that had fallen on the cockpit floor. He perked up amazingly after his "meal." He perched for a while on our nautical charts for all the world as if he was checking his route, then flew away. "Stay safe, little one," I whispered; "thanx for the memory!"  Later, I submitted the approximate lat-long where he had joined us, and some photos, to the Birding Aboard website.  If citizen scientific observers like us all report these little hitchhikers, it might help understand migration patterns of these rapidly declining songbirds.  And as a bonus, they told us a little about him: "...blackpoll warbler (female or first-year male)...This bird is on a very long voyage! It winters in South America, and breeds in the northern boreal forests of Canada. It's quite possibly a first-year bird, making its way north for the first time."  Wow.  I guess I needn't have worried about him making the 6 miles or so to shore.

Our remarkable little visitor -- blackpoll warbler
We watched the sun set, and switched into "night" mode.  We turned on the red light in the cabin (to preserve our night vision), turned on the running lights and the lights on the instruments.  We were already wearing our life jackets, now we clipped our tethers onto brackets in the cockpit -- our personal rule after dark no matter how benign the weather, clipped in at all times unless you're below in the cabin -- and readied headlamps and searchlight.  The afterglow gradually faded.  With few clouds and no moon, an absolutely impossible number of stars were visible.  I couldn't recognize any of the familiar constellations; the sky was so crowded.  "Can a night ever have too many stars?" I mused.  The weather was warm, the winds had settled down and were gently pushing us northward, and we were still marveling at our little visitor from earlier in the evening.  Life was good.

We each took turns napping while the other stood watch, and the night passed pleasantly.  Around 2 AM we were off the entry channel to the busy port of Savannah; there were more ships in that stretch than we had seen in the entire previous 20 hours.

It was clear now that we were traveling too fast, and we would get to the Beaufort sea buoy well before daylight and while the current against us was at its maximum, over 2 knots.  Plus, the wind was starting up again, so we decided to drop the mainsail.   See, here's where I know I'm a better navigator than I let on, because I was concerned this would happen ... but I just didn't want to wait until midday to start, "just in case."  (Note to self: checking your calculations is not the same thing as second-guessing yourself!)  I clipped myself in at the helm and carefully turned us into the wind while Dan clipped himself to the jackline and went forward to drop the mainsail.  My eyes were glued to the mainsail as Dan lowered it, when the sail was brightly lit by a flash of bluish light.  "Sh*t!" I thought.  "Lightning!  My biggest fear!  I was so freakin' careful with the forecast, there were no predicted t-storms today.  Where did that come from?"

But I never heard the rumble of thunder that should have accompanied it.  What I heard instead was, "Babe." Dan's call was soft, drawn out, voice full of wonder.  "Did you see that? Biggest shooting star ever! COOL!"  It wasn't lightning after all.  A small meteor had exploded, right where he was looking while guiding the sail down.  Close enough that the light of its passing had illuminated our little world.  I missed it, I was looking the other way -- at the sail from the back of the boat, instead of across the sail from the side.

After that, of course, everything was bland by comparison.  We got to the sea buoy early even though we had slowed down, and just hung out floating near it until it got light.  Sunrise at sea?  Eh.  Normally I love it, enough to volunteer to crawl groggily out of bed for the 2 AM - 6 AM watch.  Look at the eastern horizon.  Is it starting yet?  Is it just a tiny bit lighter, charcoal gray there instead of black?  Then later, yes, definitely, I can see things -- the boat, my hand in front of my face, the shapes of clouds, of waves -- no color yet, just shades of steely gray, but light.  There is light again, and I understand the relief that primitive people must have felt. The timing, perfect suspense like a symphony until the first spark of light touches the horizon, and whether the night was magical or scary, it doesn't matter, it fades into the ordinariness of day.

Sunrise at sea: No matter how the night was, scary or wonderful, it is over. "...And I think its gonna be alright / Yeah, the worst is over now / The morning sun is rising like a red rubber ball."
The wind was blowing from the south while the current was coming from the north (Yes, yes, I had predicted this, blah, blah, blah, I hear you, Self.) making for lumpy confusedness everywhere.  But it was light enough to see the channel, so we started in, and after about an hour of hand-steering to mitigate what we could of the sideways waves and foul current, we were in the shelter of land and moving smoothly.  Then it was a pretty trip up the winding Beaufort River, past the historic town, through the swing bridge, and we tied up at the marina where we planned to stay for several weeks, do some boat work, and rent a car to explore the surrounding cities.  First, though: an email telling our friends to stand down, we had arrived safely; a toast to said safe arrival; and a nap!

I couldn't get away without another photo of our hitchhiker! 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fernandina, the Next Town Northbound

Centre Street -- minus the cars, it almost could've been the Wild West era.  Lots of interesting buildings in the 50-block historic district.  We played tourist, walking around with camera and guidebook. 
So after the pleasant sail, we tied to a mooring in Fernandina harbor for a (planned) week.  Funny that we've never stayed here before.  For all of its historic importance as a huge deep water harbor at the northern extent of Spanish territory in the New World, the harbor has always seemed pretty exposed to us.  On our southbound runs, we have often seen wind against the strong current here creating uncomfortably choppy conditions, and the smoke from industry blowing across the anchorage, so we've sailed right on past.  On our northward runs in springtime, we're usually out in the ocean non-stop from St Augustine, FL to Beaufort, SC, so we had no idea what conditions were like in town.  This time, with the encouragement of a Facebook/history reenactor/pirate friend, we decided to stop and explore -- all in keeping with our plan to make this a very slow trip north this year, with lots of adventures along the way.

It turned out to be a great week.  The first thing we had to do was recalibrate our idea of "old" from St Augustine, where we spent almost as much of our time in the 17th century as the 21st.  Although Fernandina traces its history back to French explorer Jean Ribault in 1562, and has been under 8 (!!) flags since that time, most of the structures in the historic district date from the period of the town's greatest prosperity 1875-1900.  We spent over 3 hours in the local museum -- I love visiting these kind of museums, love the stories small towns tell about themselves.

In town, there was music, farmer's market, good meals in local restaurants, and friends.  We also had plenty of time to unwind watching sunrises and sunsets; most mornings' coffee and evenings' sundowners were spent quietly in the cockpit.  We had several dolphin visits (once including a BABY, how cool!).  One day was windy and blustery enough to confirm my opinion of the anchorage, as it was rough enough that we would've gotten soaked going ashore, so we did nothing but sit around reading trashy novels and then making a simple dinner.   Still, by the end of a week we were ready to move on.  When the next weather opportunity came, we were up at sunrise and out the inlet, setting our course due north.

Peaceful sunset from the anchorage

There are several pirate statues around town.  This one is for my friend Greg, who does a mean blue-eyed Jack Sparrow impression -- the statue has blue eyes!

Gettin' our Jimmy Buffett fix -- friend Hambone and his mother came to visit our boat.

Moonrise over town

We were moored behind this odd structure.  Depending on who you asked, they are either marine archaeologist explorers, or treasure hunters, looking for wrecks in the area, which was a popular harbor with Spanish galleons.

Celebrating EIGHT cancer-free years in the Palace Saloon, oldest bar in Florida.
We made it back to the museum on our last day, participating in a little pirate skit to kick off a tour by Roads Scholars (educational travel group for seniors) (photo by Joy Sheppard)

Hanging out with the pirate crew at Palace Saloon.  While we were there, a girl celebrating her birthday asked if she could take a picture with the group us (of course).  But I never figured out why people would do that, pose with people they never saw before or would see after or care about or even know the names of, just to post on social media ... why, exactly?  To make it look like they were having an amazing time?  But after the photo, she didn't interact with us at all, so its not clear how we helped her have fun.  Sigh.  Oh well, glad to help (whatever it was that we did).  More fun for us, the bar has a resin statue of a "pirate" at the front door.  Some tourists were posing with the statue, and we gave them a good start when a group of us live pirates photobombed their picture with the statue!) (photo by Joy Sheppard)