Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Surviving Isaias

August sort of snuck up on us. We had our heads in the engine compartment replacing the inverter, batteries, and all related wiring when Hurricane Isaias was born.

North Carolina offered us a spectacular sunset after a brutal squall. Orion at anchor to our starboard.

Not being from hurricane country, we recognize that we have a lot to learn. So we fast-tracked our education by talking with everyone around us, and followed internet experts on such matters as spaghetti models and the war between the EURO and GFS models. I became an avid fan of Mike's Weather Page which digests all of the available data and shares thoughts on it daily.

The locals here in Oriental tell us the storms roll right up the ICW from Beaufort on a frighteningly frequent basis from August through late October. The marina has a policy of evacuating everyone when they deem it unsafe so they can secure the property. Typically when this is done there is a 12-hour notice to all tenants to get their boats out.

Lately we've been getting fierce afternoon winds from the South, which drains the harbor of available water, and Minerva has spent quite a few recent evenings in her slip scurfing the sea floor.

Chloe enjoying the post-squall sunset

The first spaghetti models of Isaias indicated he was most likely to hit the tip of Florida and turn into the Gulf of Mexico. And he wasn't expected to amount to much, he was moving too fast and the air was too dry for him to really gather any power. So we went about our business of disconnecting all the power to Minerva (again) and replacing the inverter and its relevant cabling. Then the hot dry air was just too wimpy to bounce him into the Gulf and he turned up the Florida coast. We paused our projects and watched carefully. He was downgraded to a tropical storm and expected to disintegrate before making it to Georgia so we resumed our work and removed and replaced all the batteries and routed them to the new inverter. Then he gained strength again and made clear his course was to bump his way up the East Coast. By then we were reassembled and ready to go... but where?

Isaias could have gone anywhere. Conventional wisdom says to never head East to escape a hurricane as they do tend to make sudden right turns and head out to sea. That left us with North or South. Since he was still in Florida and looked like he would bounce up the coast, South was out. What about North? Spaghetti models were all over the place. He could literally have landed anywhere. Most models agreed that he would even make it all the way up to Maine. So we waited and watched and looked for a place we could sail to and hide.

This is where I learned my first hurricane lesson. You often can't outrun them. We'd had good luck with this in the RV - mostly escaping the worst of the weather by paying attention and planning accordingly, but with a hurricane the more you pay attention the more frustrating it is to make a real plan. As the marina manager says "you can flip a coin and your guess would be just as good as any meteorologist".

Eventually the Cone of Uncertainty (yes this is a real term heard daily - at first I snickered and now I give it respect) narrowed in North Carolina. It became likely he would turn inland close to the South Carolina/North Carolina border, go up through Raleigh then take a right and come out in Virginia. So staying where we were in Oriental would actually be the best plan to avoid the worst of it.

Now on to our plan for Minerva. We knew we'd likely get bounced out of the marina, so we looked into the best places to hide locally. A few marinas in the area are good hurricane holes, one of which we knew Minerva could fit into because she lived there with her previous owner. The place is swanky with a matching price tag, and came with some rules such as a 5-night minimum
, and we could not stay on the boat during the storm. No worries there; Loretta is closeby so we can break her out of RV storage and evacuate safely away. We made the reservation at the marina.

As we studied the weather models it looked like the outer edge of spin (South wind) would hit us at around 40 knots. We've done 35 knots on this boat before. Totally doable.

But the closer the storm came the more unhappy we were with our hurricane hole decision. One morning over coffee Lance blurted out "I don't want to leave her there unattended" and at the same time I said "let's stay at anchor, it'll be good practice for a real hurricane". Our eyes met across the salon table. The decision was made. I cancelled the marina reservation and Lance started removing sails.

The idea is to get everything off the top of the boat that creates "windage". Sails, canvas, biminis, dinghies; it's all got to go. Some of this equipment is heavy and/or bulky. The boaters of the marina worked together while the marina staff secured the charter vessels, and all the boats were prepared to the satisfaction of each boat owner.

Minerva stripped of her sails

On Friday Minerva spent much of the day in the mud. On Saturday morning she was floating with a foot of water under the keel so we made the decision to escape early while we still could get out. We followed the marina staff to the South River where they settled the charter vessels. We scouted the whole river for a spot that was tight but not too tight, deep but not too wide, and had good cell coverage so we could stay in touch with weather updates. Ultimately we chose a spot between the charter vessels B'Seanu and Orion. There was an easy 1000'+ between us on each side. We set our anchor and it held solidly. We paid out all 160' of chain and put it on a snubber to relieve pressure on the windlass. Later that afternoon we got the usual summer afternoon squall with a 35 knot wind and the anchor held well. The motion of the boat was comfortable. We were content that we had chosen well.

Chloe's shore taxi - SUP style

On Sunday a radio channel was established for all the South River Refugees and we used the air time to happily debate anchoring strategies. The general school of thought was to have two anchors out at a 45 degree angle. The current and wind had been conspiring all day to spin us in circles, we wondered about the tangled mess that would create. We discussed it and decided we were comfortable with our one anchor out, it had held so well in the sticky mud during the 35 knot squall, and we didn't want to risk dislodging it to set the second anchor. Besides, the previous owner told us it had held through 2 hurricanes and it had been "good enough to go all the way around the world" so it should be good enough for this little tropical storm. In the end the compromise we made was to prepare the backup anchor so it could be released with a single line removed, and 60' of chain and another 150' of triple braid anchor rode were attached, all of it was  secured to the boat, flaked out on the deck and ready to go. With this setup if we started to drag all we had to do was remove one line and the second anchor would be in play.

I was a bundle of nervous energy and had all that waiting time on my hands, so I finally finished sorting the inside of the boat - settling those last few things that had moved aboard but had yet to find a place to live and were therefore always cluttering up the place. After that I grabbed a soft rag and a can of furniture polish and attacked the interior wood of the boat - there's a lot of it so it took a while.

Finally our wait was over.

Fresh shrimp - we cooked one pound and froze one pound

Monday afternoon began with a 36 knot squall. Fat and angry raindrops pelted sideways, the current kicked in the river and the wind blew the top off the water making visibility difficult. Then it just quit. The summer afternoon squalls of North Carolina are fierce but short-lived. The skies cleared and the water calmed, and we were approached by a shrimp boat, announced by the tornado of seabirds flapping and shrieking above it. Ten minutes, ten dollars and two pounds of shrimp later, Lance was boiling our peel-and-eat dinner while I happily stirred up an assortment of dips from ingredients unearthed in the cabinets. As the sun set we took notice of the boats on either side of us. To our port side about 1000' away, B'Seanu had an anchor light but no AIS signal. To our starboard side at just over 1000' away was Orion who had no anchor light but did have AIS so she showed up on our chartplotter as a potential collision hazard. Without broadcasting an AIS signal B'Seanu would not be noticed by the chartplotter as a potential hazard so we were relieved she had an anchor light. We checked and re-checked our backup anchor, chafe guard and snubber, primary anchor, tightened lines and discussed procedures for every variable we could think up. I set a couple of alarms on the chartplotter: an anchor drag alarm at 250' and a collision alarm at 1000'.

At 9:00 we were robbed of our sunset by thick dark skies which obscured the moon and stars and any available light. We were floating in an endlessly dark bubble accompanied only by the nearby boats' anchor lights which waved like fireflies above and beside us. Lance laid down for a quick nap and I took the first watch. At 10:00 the first real wind hit. The leading edge slapped us with a 38 knot smackdown blast then remained steady between 28 knots and 40. Angry rain pelted us sideways and conspired with the wind to combine the sea and sky into one indistinguishable frothy mess. The motion of the boat was easy, Minerva rides a storm like no other we've known. Since we had the best cell connection with access to regular weather updates and good wind readings on Minerva, we put out regular updates on our shared channel.

Lance and I took turns keeping watch. There really isn't much to do on watch except keep an eye out for other boats dragging into us, occasionally check on the anchor and adjust chafe guards if necessary, and keep an eye out for any rigging lines that needed to be adjusted or re-secured. I chatted on the phone with family and friends while Lance devoured book after book on his Kindle. Surprisingly this did not make him green while the boat rolled.

Around 2am the wind shifted as expected and became notably fiercer. I was just about to come up on watch and Lance was reading, when the boat rolled hard to port and then rolled hard to starboard. I put my feet on the table to keep my balance and felt the shudder of the anchor release from the mud and then Minerva freely glided downstream. I ran to the chartplotter to confirm the sensation, and sure enough we were drifting towards Orion. While I watched in horror the anchor alarm went off followed quickly by the collision alarm.  I shouted up to Lance while I was scaling the stairs - "we're dragging - 2nd anchor now!". Lance put the engine in gear to arrest the slide while I ran along the rail and started untying the line on the second anchor. Lance was right behind me and together we released it into the dark sea, set it quickly, and paid out scope. The motion of the boat immediately changed. We had arrested the drift, and overall the boat was happier with the new anchor. "Where's Orion - how close are we?" "I don't know I can't see her at all it's just black on black on black". We scurried back to the cockpit where Lance got behind the wheel again and took her out of gear so she could rest on the new anchor while I poked at the chartplotter. The distance between us and Orion was 732' and holding steady. We had dragged a total of about 200'. Our plan had worked flawlessly and there was still plenty of space between us and the nearby boats. While we sat there slicked in rainwater and flopsweat we gawped at the wind measurements - 48.6 knots! Of course we'll never know the readings on those two slaps that dislodged the anchor.

Original anchorage, drag and second anchorage. The green circle is the new anchor alarm zone. Orion is the green boat off to the right, downwind.

As the morning light appeared, Isaias left us fitfully, like a petulant toddler determined to get in the last tantrum while being dragged out the door. Winds remained steady at 15 knots with occasional violent gusts to 30. As the sun fully formed the gusts eventually petered out, and we both collapsed and snored for a couple of hours.

We had survived our first Tropical Storm.

Our new latest-and-greatest technology anchor arrives tomorrow.

Nearby, just 156 miles away, the marina of Southport was not so lucky.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Sandwiched Between Two Squalls

"All the little boats are going in. Should we take the hint and follow them?" Lance was standing amidship, the mainsheet in his hand, squinting at the stream of little sailboats high-tailing it for the safety of their slips in the Oriental Harbor Village Marina.

The line of demarcation between squalls

We were on a downwind run with all three sails out. For the first time, I was sailing wing on wing on wing; something I'd been wanting to try since I first saw this boat in the yard.

Sailing wing on wing on wing

We had been watching the storm raging over the town of Oriental for some time. The wall of black sky which had approached from the West was still hugging the shoreline. The town was getting battered. It wasn't bothering us at all out on the river. In fact we were quite enjoying the lightning show. Over there.

"Nah" I said dismissively. "We don't want to try to dock in that, besides if we hang out here long enough it should blow away on its own. Then we'll go in when it's calm." I surreptitiously adjusted the wheel just a scooch to keep the boom on the downwind side, once again it was trying to jibe in the gusty blasts and I was enjoying the cat-and-mouse game of keeping the sails on their proper side.

Less than 20 minutes later the alarm on the VHF radio went off. When Lance pressed the stop alarm button we were directed to the weather channel.

Sustained winds of 45 expected, gusts to 65. Quick-moving weather front crossing Emerald Isle and heading North. Steady lightning and thunder, golf ball-sized hail expected. All boats should seek immediate shelter.

"Where is Emerald Isle?" Lance asked. I shrugged. I assumed it had something to do with the storm we were watching - that squall was still raging over Oriental and now we were all alone on the Neuse River except for the shrimp boats which had suddenly appeared from thin air and were screaming towards us from every direction.

I wonder where they're going I thought to myself, and turned Minerva to follow them. It was then that I saw another black wall coming towards us from the other side of the river, and they were heading directly into its outside edge. This second squall had sneaked in behind us and was closing on us quickly. We got the sails down and secured just in time for the first blast of wind and whipped up water.

Minerva rocked sideways like she'd been slapped in the face, then popped right in to the boiling waves that followed behind the wind surge and stubbornly held her course. Lance and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. That blast would have pinned us down for a while in any of our previous sailboats and we definitely would have been wrestling for control with the subsequent whirlpool wave action. But Minerva took it like a professional boxer with a "that all you got kid?" smirk. My soul filled with pride and relief. We had chosen well. This boat can handle herself in a blow.

We quickly decided the best course of action was to follow the shrimp boats into the narrow and protected channel of Adams Creek on the South side of the Neuse River. Once we got past the tree line the wind and waves settled right down. We found a shallow spot out of the channel and settled the anchor. Lance started dinner while I pulled out the map and found Emerald Isle. Yep, it was just South of us. The strongest wind we clocked on our short journey in was 35 knots so it had lost some steam on its short ride from the Outer Banks to us on the Inner Banks.

Sailing into our sunset slip

The squalls here are fierce but generally short-lived. By the time I'd cleaned up the dinner dishes we were treated to a peaceful ride home under a spectacular pink sunset.

Note to self: when studying the charts and planning the daily sail, also take a moment to look over Google Maps and become aware of the nearby towns and their relationship to the day's planned sail. Lesson learned.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Becoming Liveaboards, motoring along the ICW

Motoring down the ICW on the 4th of July

The hot and wet weather continues. We attack the projects and escape the dock with Minerva when weather permits.

True to our RV lifestyle, flexibility is king, and having two piles of things to do: a rainy day pile and a pile for stolen sunny moments is the way to continue making forward progress.

Loretta in RV jail, waiting patiently for November

We finished scrubbing down Loretta and parked her in the covered parking facility. She'll be safe there for the time being. The plan is to do a shake-down cruise up the NorthEast coast and return to this area in November, swap out boat life for RV life for the month of December in the Keys with our RV friends. We've decided to park Mr. Toad with Loretta until we come to some long-term decisions. By November we'll know how we feel about the boat. One of several things will happen in January depending on how the summer/fall shakedown cruise goes:
  • The RV might get sold, which would be better for her than waiting and aging if we decide to do a long extended cruise around the Caribbean and beyond.
  • The boat might want significant upgrades which would be easier accomplished while we keep the RV as a home base nearby.
  • We might store the RV after our December outing and split our cruising lives in half, with some land-based and some boat-based travel each year.

Our first ever raft-up. From here we had the best view of dueling 4th of July fireworks shows.

With Loretta secured and us finally moved fully aboard the boat, we officially exchanged our nomad titles of full-timers for a new title of liveaboards.

Our planned harbor-hopping route North has been complicated by COVID-19. As of this morning, many of the harbors we were planning to explore are not accepting transient boaters from states that have out-of-control new Corona Virus case numbers, and NC is one of those at the moment. Nova Scotia is definitely off the table since Canada is completely closed to Americans, some states including Maine and New York insist on a two-week quarantine upon arrival. Our harbor-hopping summer plans have therefore become a bit trickier to work out.

One thought is to just kick out into the open ocean, hitch a ride on the Gulf Stream and sail directly to Maine. We could provision for the open ocean trip and the two weeks of quarantine upon arrival, but this is rather varsity-level considering that we haven't had a chance to really get to know Minerva yet. With all this uncertainty we reluctantly agreed to extend another month's rent in Oriental, into the official hurricane season of July, hoping the state restrictions will lift and that we will be welcomed in the NorthEast states for harbor-hopping as originally planned. We'll get out for more local sailing outings and continue getting to know Minerva, by early August we'll be leaving one way or the other. We finished our Tier 1 To Do List and pulled a few items forward from Tier 2. The completion of the Tier 1 list means Minerva is ready to flee the moment a named storm threatens. I start each day checking several weather sources, probably my daily routine for the foreseeable future.

Tug on the ICW sharing a very narrow channel. This one was heading to rescue a barge that was stuck in the shallows.

From the Tier 2 list: get comfortable with GPS routing. That's proving to be a bit more difficult than I expected, the new chartplotter is a lot different from the simple ones we had on previous boats. We followed a friend on his boat South on the ICW for 17 miles to watch a fireworks show, and there really isn't a better way of being forced into learning the GPS than in the narrow channels of the ICW. Here's an example of what we've experienced:

Phoenix picking her way along the ICW on the 4th of July

This is the sailboat Phoenix belonging to our friend Scott, she is a 44' Kelly Petersen. She draws about as much water as we do (depth needed below the waterline not to scuff the seafloor), and Scott knows these waters well, so we followed him down the ICW for the fireworks show. In this picture he's about 200 yards ahead of us. The channel he is in is about 10' wide and about 15' deep and he's currently heading perpendicular to the natural path of the river - in other words he's headed sideways towards the West shore. To his left (port) side the water is about 2' deep. To his right (starboard) side the water is 3' deep. The waters are strong-tea brown from tree tannins, so it's impossible to see through them to get a real understanding of the bottom contours. Can you see the difference between the 15' deep water, the 2' water, or the 3' water? Neither can we. And to us it was unnatural that he was going sideways to our intended direction of travel.

So there we were, happily following along behind him and mostly following along as he jogged here and there for seemingly no reason, we were sort of rounding off the corners of his jogs while chatting with our friends who hitched a ride with us for the outing, when Scott came over the radio and strongly suggested we come back to starboard soon because we'd drifted off course. A quick look at the GPS - yikes - we were heading into 2' water.

From then on we were glued to the GPS. There were no groundings that day, but I see how there could easily become some in the future. Boaters say "there are two types of boaters, those who have run aground and those who will". Yep, our day is coming. We will pay better attention in the future to avoid becoming "those who have" but freely admit it's probably just a matter of time until we scuff our share of soft ICW mud.

Typical waterfront homes in the area known as Sea Gate along the ICW on the way to Morehead City

After the fireworks show it was quite late; Scott and his family chose to sleep on the hook (at anchor) in Beaufort. We decided to motor back up the ICW to return our guests home with just the stars and occasional marker or house lights to keep us company as we motored quietly by. I do love night sailing, and it was easy enough to follow our GPS bread crumbs back home.

Chloe enjoying the breeze

We're hoping for lots more outings like this in July.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Ready to Roam

Lockdown has been good for Minerva. Without a lot of the usual distractions, we've been focused tightly on getting her ready to sail away. Here's what we've been up to all May and June:

Lance installing the antennas for the wifi booster and AIS VHF

 The VHF radio was replaced with one that also sends and receives AIS signals. It communicates with the chartplotter, so we can see other boats, know what they are up to, reach out to them directly by name on the radio, and they can do the same. In the case of emergency there is a big red button to push which will send our information and GPS coordinates to the rescue folks.

We also installed a WeBoost cell signal/wifi booster similar to the one on the RV - it's a good company and the customer service has been very good to us over the years, so when it was time to select one for the boat we called them first. The difference it made in signal strength was immediately noticeable. Now I can work at full bars with Calyx (which runs on a Sprint signal and is truly unlimited).

Cleaning and ultimately sealing the crack in the blackwater tank

The surveyor was unhappy with the forward head tank, indicating concern about surface rust. This bothered us too so we sanded and scraped the rust stains off, and discovered damaged welds that had been poorly epoxied, and they leaked when we filled the tank with the brown brackish water from the Neuse. Ick. We repaired the broken welds, and are so glad we hunted down these drips when it was just river water, not accompanied by smelly black tank leaks in the wall somewhere later on.

Fixing the saltwater pump, the project before the project, tracing down the "why doesn't the aft head work right" solution

The aft head received an Electroscan by Raritan system. Lance installed it in April as a condition of the sale closing but we didn't get a chance to connect the saltwater intake properly then, as it was installed while the boat was high and dry. Essentially we took a very simple (albeit gross, not to mention illegal by USCG standards) direct overboard system and switched it out for a mini treatment plant, legal for discharge in most areas. Now when the contents leave the boat they are completely sanitized.

Repairing the first of two stuck winches

 This winch was stuck solid, and it took some effort to get it spinning again. We found another one in a similar situation and got them both working in fresh grease. In the coming months each and every one will get disassembled and serviced. Now that we've taken the first two apart the project is less intimidating.

Test run in the dinghy. Right after this shot was taken the motor mysteriously died. Now that I look at this picture more carefully I see that he is standing on the fuel line, which may have been the problem.
Troubleshooting the dinghy motor
This is standard dink motor drama: working now, not working next time, no visible reason. In our experience, the only constant with a dinghy motor is that they will be trouble. We decided just to install a permanent mount for it on the rail for easy troubleshooting on days like this. It weighs 60 lbs and ultimately lives in the storage locker just to the right of the camera's view here, having winches and halyards handy make easy work of the lifting. Having a real mount for it to live on while being worked on will likely be helpful in the future.

Replacing the main power switch with a modern Perko switch and fresh cables.
This was a major project that we conducted mostly in the pouring rains of May and required total boat disassembly.

 Of course you already know about the installation of the chartplotter and the accompanying complete electrical refit, we did that in the pouring rains of May.

Sorting all the engine spares
There are so many nooks and crannies on this boat, getting familiar with all of the spares stowed away there took weeks. I chipped away on that while Lance did the electrical refit, pausing here and there for his input or to hand him tools or labels. In the end I ended up organizing the storage lockers by project type, keeping the same-project types of tools and materials together with the hopes of limiting future boat destructo. I expect over time this will evolve.

As part of this process I took out twelve black leaf-bags of trash;  partially used tubes of stuff long since solidified, old yellow page books, bus schedules for Australia, tide charts, bicycle maps and museum flyers, that sort of thing which has all been superceded by the smart phone in my pocket or the electronic chartplotter we installed. I found space for the old paper charts for now, as redundancy is always good, if time goes by without actually using any of them they may become gifts later. Our music tastes are also significantly different from the previous owner's - the Kenny G CD was evicted with extreme prejudice immediately upon discovery.

Lance adding a USB power plug in the dash box

Our friend Joe crafted a beautiful little teak box easily accessible from the captain's chair, handy for small things the Captain du Jour will want closeby: phones, gloves, sunglasses, Chapstick and sunblock. Lance installed a power plug in the back of it, because if the phone will be tossed in there... it might as well be charging too. This was a lovely handcrafted gift from our thoughtful friend and we will think of Joe and his wife Janet fondly as we travel with it.

Testing all the lights. We only had to replace the stern light, all others were good to go. She's lit up like a Christmas tree and we should be easily visible on even the darkest and foggiest of nights.
Also on the agenda was getting-to-know-you day sails with Minerva.

Chloe has found the best seat in the house for days in the slip

What started out to be a project day became a quick sailing jaunt when the wind came up and we'd hit our limit of toiling away in the heat

Putting up the 3rd sail turned out to be easy and natural, not all worthy of the worry I had previously assigned to it

Chloe found her favorite under-way spot right under the Captain's chair

Finding a weather window for a nice weekend getaway proved impossible, so our planned 3-day buddy cruise with Joe and Janet got trimmed down to an afternoon afloat with them aboard our boat instead of their own. Having friends with local knowledge has been invaluable, and we will be forever grateful for their guidance and friendship.

Lance getting to know the windlass. We feel so very fancy and spoiled with this electronic motor. Pulling up this anchor and heavy chain would be tough otherwise, definitely not possible with the easy hand-over-hand method we used on all our previous boats.

On the day of our planned outing there wasn't enough wind to sail so we just motored over to the South River and anchored for a while. The river bottom is a dark gray sticky mud and Joe taught us the locals' trick of leaving the anchor dangling in the water and motoring away slowly with it to rinse it off, much easier than dragging it onto the deck and scrubbing it down like I had planned. Janet had been tracking the weather on her phone, and when the expected black wall of ugly weather approached we high-tailed it back to the slip and got her all tied down just in time for the first blast from the ugly storm. While it rained off and on we spent the afternoon on the covered marina patio chatting with a friend of Janet and Joe's about Bahamas cruising - he had lots of tips and tricks for deep-draft boats such as ours, while they chatted away I took copious notes.

A note about landing a boat in a slip: it's intimidating. Our boat weighs 18 tons and is just under 50' long from pointy end to pointy end. That's a lot of inertia to manage. I've been trying to muster up the courage to give it a whirl for quite some time, but always chicken out and Lance ends up doing it. On this venture the three of them insisted and I ultimately agreed that I would do it if Joe, who has the most experience with heavy boats, would walk me through each step. So he stood by my side and spoke calmly in my ear and with his guidance I landed her safely in the slip and it looked so smoooooth. Everyone wants to be helpful at a moment like this, and what ends up happening is that a half dozen people show up on the dock to grab lines and shout instructions, which are often contradictory and almost never helpful to the Captain who can't hear them behind the dodger window anyways. Lance and Janet were ready with the fenders and the lines and Janet's comment later was "I didn't even need the roaming fender" which was the best thing I heard that day. Now that the first docking is behind me sans disaster I feel more confident to try it again.

Minerva's table is so huge, "pass the salt" takes on a new, more literal, meaning

The day wrapped up with our first dinner hosted aboard. This was the BBQ grill's inaugural launch and Lance is still getting to know it but he persevered; the middle of the potatoes were fine, despite being quite crispy on the outside. By the time the steaks were up he had it figured out and they were cooked to perfection.

Days like this make all the work, tears, frustration, and wallet hemorrhaging worth it. This week we'll be moving aboard and cleaning up Loretta and Mr. Toad for their date with the covered parking facility in New Bern on July 1st.

Many of the marinas along our route North are opening again to visitors as each state lifts their lockdown orders. Our stay here in Oriental is coming to a close soon, but much like our full-timing RV lifestyle, we expect to meet the friends we've made here on the water elsewhere, and knowing that makes the coming goodbyes a little easier to face.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Mom Plans, and God Laughs

On Friday we finished the electric project, and successfully tested the system. Flipping the main switch and having all the electronics systems come online without the previous worrisome flickering, and then hearing the engine start and run was magic to our eyes and ears.

The next thing on the pre-sail-departure checklist: comfy pets.

Chloe in Mr. Toad on a boat project day

Chloe has been coming to the boat with us every day and has just about mastered getting on and off the boat from the pier. Getting up and down the companionway ladder by herself required some patience, a pocketful of her favorite treats, and a whole lot of encouragement. She's just about got it although sometimes she high-centers on the guillotine door. I'll have to put some thought into what I can drape over it that will give her some traction and protect the wood from her scrabbling nails. She picked her own favorite cushiony spots below decks, so then it was just a matter of placing washable fuzzy blankets in those areas, and we bought a small patch of fake grass for pee breaks on long crossings or other days when it's not possible to get ashore. She was first potty trained with one of these long ago so I expect she'll remember and the training on this should be easy. She already has a well-fitting lifevest with a sturdy handle so she's set for getting between boat and dinghy. And she's sailed with us on our two previous sailboats so we know she's a good little sailor.

Chloe considering her strategy for the guillotine door

The cats had never been on a boat before and I needed some time to make the transition smooth for them. A small litter box might fit under the ladder, just need to locate the right sized box and place it. By wrapping the pole that acts as a companionway ladder rail I planned to turn the bottom half of it into a Mom-approved claw-sharpening station. A spot in the window under the dodger would make a warm and stable spot to hang out, all that's needed is some non-skid applied to the bottom of a cat bed with high, stiff sides and Stewie or Starfish would have a warm, sunny spot to keep the captain company. Some hidey spots would probably be welcome if the sailing gets rough, so bedding was shuffled around to clear some dedicated space and it was lined with washable pillows. Perhaps some small hammocks hanging from the handhold rails inside would make for a comfy ride with a window view, that will require some measurements and materials sourcing, I will put some thought into that and pick that project up later. A big fish-retrieval net on the rail and a float on a line already in the water would be a good idea, in case one of them fell overboard and required rescuing.

Starfish took her snuggling responsibilities seriously

Checklist in hand we buttoned up the boat and went back to the RV. Starfish was acting weird. We had put her on antibiotics on Wednesday to address the snotty nose she would get occasionally but it didn't seem to be helping. She demanded to be let out, and then just wandered over to the neighbor's place and howled at them. The cranky old neighbor lady rather loudly announced that she was old and just needed to be put down, interesting to me how she completely missed the irony as she shouted from her trailer steps in her ancient gravelly voice, with her hands on her hips and her feet in ratty old slippers. It was Friday night of Memorial Day weekend and the vet's office was closed.

Starfish cruising the nation from her sunny window spot

Saturday she perked up quite a bit in the morning, so we gave her another round of antibiotics and some loving and went to the boat for a day of assembling and testing the dinghy. By the time we came home she had taken a turn for the worse, I tried to get her to eat something and she turned up her nose at all the food, even her favorite treats and then threw up on the floor. As the night wore on we took turns comforting her as she became more and more miserable and sometime in the night one of her eyes stopped tracking properly and she couldn't balance by herself. Sunday morning found us at the nearest emergency vet hospital over an hour away just after it opened. Filling out their checklist "does your pet have: change in personality, lack of appetite, pain, vomiting..." check, check, check, there was no box for probable stroke/completely miserable. I held her as she relaxed and then left us in the most pain-free way possible, on a quiet and comfortable couch in the back room at the emergency vet hospital.

Starfish stole my new blanket in Montana and refused to give it back

Sunday afternoon the four of us held one another tightly.

Stewie visiting the bar in the campground Keys, Christmas Day 2019

On Memorial Day Monday I was watching Stewie on the patio. The neighbor cats had come by to say hello and he wasn't chasing them out of our campsite with vigor like he used to. He looked so thin, and at the same time was growing a little pot belly. We'd noticed it a couple of weeks ago and put him on worm meds, despite no worm evidence, as that seemed the likely culprit. But he'd finished the first round of treatment and didn't seem to be gaining any weight back, despite eating with his usual gusto. I decided to get him in to see a vet first thing on Tuesday morning, thinking maybe we'd just selected the wrong worm medication.

Stewie relaxing on the patio with us last week

On Tuesday morning the local vet took one look at him and snatched him into the back room, siphoned a sample from his little pot belly and found fluid in his abdomen.

FIP. Leading to a failing heart. Fatal. Soon.
Might be days and might be weeks. 

The room swam out of focus. Not again. I can't do this again. How did we go from probably worms to fatal so quickly? We have beautiful plans and Stewie is a big part of them. I have already taken measurements for his sunny window bed and expect that he will love this next phase of our journey. How long had it been since he last frolicked on the lawn with Chloe and me? A week? Days?

It will be painful. There are no treatment options. You need to make a decision to end his suffering. Now.

So for the second time in three days I pet my cat and whispered loving goodbyes to him as he slipped away from me.

Stewie frolicking on the lawn in Oriental during our afternoon walk just a few weeks ago

Lance and I went home and held Chloe tight. In just a few days we were reduced from a RVing family of five to a sailing family of three. At bedtime I reluctantly wiped "comfy pets" off the checklist and shuffled to bed where, for the first time in 15 years, there were no little furry bodies to welcome me.

Starfish the heat-seeking missle hogging the propane heater in Yellowstone

Starfish lived to be 15 and Stewie lived to be 14. Everyone we've met across the nation will remember them well. While Starfish ruled her kingdom from the sunny RV window, Stewie was always the campground celebrity as he made the rounds to visit our fellow campers wherever we went, or accepted loving pets from fans as he followed Chloe on our daily walks. Together we have traveled all across the USA - twice - and have seen some amazing sights in this great country of ours. They had an excellent life, were well loved and are greatly missed.

Stewie the Savannah cat stalking elk in Yellowstone

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

We'll do it in our underwear then

The storms have been rolling through Oriental, NC. One right after another.

Half the folks we meet on the dock act surprised, and profess that it's highly unusual for May. The other half just roll their eyes and tell us this is the way May is around here.

The new switch on the old French bracket, after a brief polish. So shiny.

We received the chartplotter, radar, and VHS with AIS system, and installed them. When we went to connect them to the existing structure of the boat, though, that's when we encountered unexpected messes. The battery bank includes two different types of batteries wired together in parallel (Lance cursed out loud about that one), and the starting batteries were not segregated from the house batteries meaning we could possibly burn up every little bit of battery by leaving on an errant light somewhere, and then not have anything at all left to start the boat. Since we can't push-start Minerva it had to be fixed.

Opening the wall behind the navigation table revealed decades of wires from long-abandoned equipment, shady wire nuts and other dubious connections. Lastly, the main power switch was original French equipment from 1983, and the intermittent and cranky nature of it left us praying it would cooperate. Lance isn't a religious man, so his ultimate solution involved less praying and more tools.

He decided the best plan of attack was to trace every single wire, remove it if it was unnecessary and replace/repair its connections as needed. After that it would be necessary to segregate and re-cable the battery bank, and replace the main power switch with a more modern Perko switch and dedicated busbar system. Doing this meant building some custom brackets, ordering some new tools, and...

Minerva would be without power from beginning to end.

So, coming back to the storms. At first we dodged them. As they rolled through and turned Minerva into a bucking bronco in her slip, we stayed in the peaceful RV planning, ordering and assembling what we could for delivery and installation in the calm windows. Whenever she stopped bucking we attacked it together, Lance with his head in the wall or sitting on the engine elbow deep in the battery compartment, me handing him tools, labels (yes he bought a special labelmaker to get it all perfect) and cold beverages. Some wires we pulled together with a combination of Lance's strength and my little hands in deep holes here and there. I always knew that skill of being able to fit my whole hand in a Pringles can would come in handy somewhere, sometime.

And then a surprise. Out of nowhere the first named storm popped up and headed right for us. Arthur.
A whole month ahead of the recognized hurricane season.
And Minerva had no power with which to escape.

Arthur ended up slipping past us as a non-event, but while spider-webbing Minerva into her slip in preparation we came to the conclusion that we must double-time this project. Storms or no storms, Minerva can't be sitting here like a lame duck waiting for the next one to hit.

But the storms never stopped. After Arthur they just got wetter. Buckets of rain, one storm after another.

So, a rainy Wednesday found us shuffling down the dock being pelted with fat sideways rain, arriving at Minerva soaked to the skin. I found and installed the bimini, giving Lance and the engine some protection from the heavy rain (why hadn't I figured this out before?), and I settled in with the laptop to work. Every now and then Lance would call for tools or a label, and I would pause my client timer, deliver them to him and get back to work.

The second time I appeared at the companionway door and handed him a tool he did a double-take to see me standing there in my underwear. My clothes were all hanging up inside drip-drying. He laughed as he stripped off his soggy shirt to hang alongside them.

Ah yes, Flexibility. Your lessons have been well received.

We made good progress and she should be up and running soon. We're 70% of the way there now. Clothes or no clothes. Storm or no storm.

Standing on the step handing Lance yet another tool, I had this strange moment of... wonder? reality vs expectations met? It's hard to put a name on it. We have always been boaters and expected our boat life to look like this. Well, maybe with more sunshine but not necessarily with more clothes. The popular saying "owning a boat is fixing it in exotic places" is definitely true. We came in expecting that. There's a work/fun ratio I expect to meet, and as long as they remain in balance I'm content.

People ask us when we are leaving. We are shooting for June but know better than to put a  specific date on it. We'll go when she's ready, when we're comfortable with her, when the weather is right and when Loretta and Mr. Toad have been tucked away safely.

Tools loaned by a friend made short work of the bracket upgrade

I wonder about people that buy a boat and just go. Or are expecting the turquoise waters of the Bahamas and fail to fully consider the bumpy Gulf Stream on the way there. Endless instagrammers can be seen posing with surreal backdrops, but that life doesn't seem real to me. To me, standing in my underwear with wet hair stuck to my back, waving a tool at Lance who can't quite grasp it because the boat is getting tossed around and giggling while he misses it again, both of us soaked to the skin... this is the life.

This. This is truly what we signed up for.

Good times are coming soon. We'll find that magical turquoise water. There will be lots more days of tools coming too. And that's also pretty OK.