Monday, December 21, 2020

Embracing the No Plan Plan

Don't know which of the 3 of us is the most excited about the Arizona taco truck.
Oh wait, it's me. Definitely me.

An excellent Thanksgiving was enjoyed by the Oriental A Dock peeps, spread out in family groupings on the patio. Then bright and early Friday morning we hit the road in Loretta headed for the Florida Keys to meet up with RV friends at one of our favorite places on Earth for the month of December: Tavernier FL. The plan was to do it in a few days; easy 200 mile jumps and meetups with friends along the way.

Breakfast pie - a day after Thanksgiving tradition

The first morning found us at the Elks Lodge in Sumter SC, and Lance was frowning. "My foot hurts". Uh-oh.

Here we go again.

Lance and Chloe keeping an eye on the roadrunners of Willcox AZ

Wrecker train on Hwy 20 just East of El Paso.
You see the strangest things on the roads of Texas.

The original plan was to spend December in the Keys, then travel back to California in January to fetch boat and scuba gear and get a check up on the foot anyways. After a discussion over coffee, we decided the smart course of action was to skip Florida altogether and head directly to California and get a jump on whatever's going on with his foot. So we made a hard right turn and our 800-mile journey became 3188 miles instead.

Sailor friends Janet and Joe have adopted a "no plan plan" philosophy. Considering how everything else in 2020 has gone sideways, it seems like the best approach and we are trying hard to embrace it, too.

Traveling across New Mexico and Arizona does feel like being in a cartoon.
The landscape is just unreal.

Traveling in times of plague comes with some extra challenges to be sure. Every night's stop was in a different location and every place has a different attitude about Covid and how it should be handled - from business as usual to complete lockdown. Fortunately Loretta is self-contained, so with some strategic grocery shopping and by tag-teaming the driving we made quick work of the long journey. The passenger du jour pushed tunes or podcasts over the Bluetooth stereo. After every fuel stop there was a cleaning process to maintain the safe bubble around our home.

The Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln CA is all lit up for the holidays

We'll be here until the foot heals, to spend some much-cherished time with family, and to retrieve the boat and scuba gear for Minerva. Depending on how the weather timing works out we may take another stab at last year's original sailing plan of Nova Scotia, New York, Boston, Annapolis or we may head out directly to the Bahamas or Bermuda. For now we'll go with a no plan plan.

Safe at our home Elks Lodge in Napa, CA

Friday, November 13, 2020

Transmission Mystery Solved, Launch of America-Lap 3

Mystery solved. That transmission was dead. Really, really dead.

With new and old transmissions set side-by-side the problem was clearly visible. A missing circlip had allowed the retaining nut to loosen, driving the shaft through the cover. No wonder the transmission was running dry. And fraying its cable. And working intermittently.

Which means all summer long, all the transmission-related things we fixed, they were all symptoms of this problem, and there was no way we could have known until it was separated from the engine. All of this drama was likely caused by the last service technician's lack of attention to a small but important 50 cent clip. Wish I knew who that guy was. I'd like to leave him a gift. From Chloe. It's already in a bag.

Well, deep breath. Onwards. The shiny new transmission hums along happily and the dead one is off to the knackers.

The two primary winches were also discovered to be dead. This was a bit of a surprise as we had them down as a Tier 3 project. We anticipated them to be like the first two we serviced, solved by simply breaking them down, scrubbing them well, and applying new grease. Alas they are frozen solid from years of neglect. So... new winches for us.

Winch #1 of 2 - we swapped our Lewmars for Andersens

Covid part delays strike again: one winch showed up promptly and the other one is still on backorder.

Dead winch guts are beautiful in a steam punk sort of way

Not to be deterred from our test-run mission, we temporarily shifted the jib sheets to the spinnaker winches for the transmission shakedown cruise. For the first time in 6 attempts, we left for a shakedown cruise and returned successfully. We motored. We anchored. We motored. We sailed. We motored again. We landed in the slip under our own power. What a glorious day! So long overdue!

What a relief!

This week the air conditioner finally gets installed (those parts were ordered in June... Covid delays again), and then the fuel system is being revised to give us greater control over the fuel/engine relationship. These two projects are beyond our scope and frankly we're ready to let someone else work on the boat for a while. We found a great mechanic to handle these two projects and the process will require total boat destructo. Better if we aren't underfoot.

Parking Loretta at the marina made moving back aboard easier

So we moved back onto Loretta. This was the November plan all along, although we thought by now we'd have pictures and sailing stories to share from our grand NorthEast sailing tour. November's plan is to camp with friends in nearby New Bern, followed by Thanksgiving with dock neighbors, and then cruising Loretta to the Keys for December. The rough January sketch is to continue the road trip back to California to fetch our scuba and boat gear, check in with family and friends, doctors and dentists, other mandatory adulting. If the weather cooperates we'll take the bikes out for a mountaintop romp or two.

Oh. And tacos. We will definitely be stopping for New Mexico tacos along the way.

Look out America... two returning full-timers headed your way for another lap.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Fine Art of Kedging

 The forecasts threatened strong winds from the South. The transient boater had just tied up on the outside of the A dock on the South side.

As I walked by with Chloe, I paused beside his boat and started up a conversation.

"Hello, there are strong winds predicted from the South later today. Here that means the water drops away at the same time the waves roll in, and you will get blown up against the dock. You'll probably want to kedge your boat off the dock to avoid being blown up onto it, or anchoring out, or going... well, pretty much anywhere else". He wrinkled his nose at me, pursed his lips and didn't otherwise respond. He glanced up at the sky, which was calm and beautiful for the moment. I translated that as a dismissal. Huh.

Shortly later I saw another boater from A dock approach him, probably to have the same conversation. The helpful neighbor later returned with some spare fenders. Lance and I focused our attention on Minerva; double-checked all of our lines, adjusted chafe guards, and set a new spring line.

Less than an hour later the winds picked up. Minerva free-fell in her slip from +2 feet of water under the boat to 0 and then beyond. We teeter-tottered in the mud with 6 inches or more of water line exposed.

It was then that I heard some shouting. The transient boat was getting battered against the dock, exactly as predicted. One wave would pick her up and try to deposit her on the dock, then the water would disappear and she would try to wedge herself under the dock until the next wave tried to deposit her on top of it again. On one such occasion her sidestay and chain plate took some damage when she got hung up under the dock but the next wave insisted on lifting her anyway. Several boaters from A dock were trying to keep her off the dock with their feet and spare fenders, it was exactly the sort of situation that causes someone to lose fingers or a foot. The winds were getting stronger. Lance suggested I call the dock manager.

Within minutes the dockmaster and his agile crew arrived on a fast dinghy and took control of the situation. With everyone's help, the sailboat was soon safely kedged from the dock and riding the waves gracefully. The boaters of A dock breathed a collective sign of relief, reclaimed our donated lines and fenders, counted fingers and our limbs, and retreated to our own boats while rubbing sore backs.

As we were departing his boat he mentioned he had owned it for a grand total of only ten days.

Kedging from a dock is a handy thing to know. Here's how it's done (photos from the next morning when conditions were significantly calmer):

Step 1: Set the anchor out away from the dock. In this case, since the boat was already tied to the dock a dinghy was used to accomplish this.

Step 2: Using a second line, tie a rolling hitch onto the anchor line, run it through a stern winch and take out the slack. The two lines on one anchor create a triangle-shaped bridle that shares the effort along the length of the boat

Step 3: Tighten the two bridle lines while loosening the dock lines, thus pulling the boat out away from the dock.

Boaters are a helpful bunch. Later discussion revealed I wasn't the only one to warn him about the coming conditions, in addition to the brief conversation I had witnessed at least four other people had told him the same thing and he failed to take action until his boat was receiving damage.

I hope that the boating community elsewhere is as tight-knit and helpful as it is in Oriental. As we begin to move around one thing is for sure: we'll be respecting the local knowledge as it is offered wherever we land. What a cool community, what a great resource.

And I'll be practicing that rolling hitch. That's a cool knot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

They're pretty proud of that

Chloe was wearing her pirate costume. Minerva was flying her NC Sail pirate flag. Lance's new stuffed shoulder parrot and our pirate costumes waited in a salon locker for the evening's festivities. Two fresh bundles of firewood sat wrapped in plastic on the deck. The rum pantry and groceries were stocked. We crossed our fingers and put Minerva in reverse. She smoothly backed away from her slip, and we were off to the fuel dock. So far so good.

We pulled into the fuel dock and topped off the diesel. Minerva leaned a little to her starboard side with the newly full tank. So far so good.

We slipped the lines and backed out of the fuel dock. Lance took her out of reverse and put her in forward and we were off to a fun destination. Finally.

Then forward motion slowed. Lance revved the throttle - we should have been doing 6 knots forward but were just drifting along with the wind and inertia from the initial thrust. Fortunately the wind was at our backs so we drifted slowly past the anchored boats and sailed her back into her slip. Upon further investigation it was discovered that the shaft was not turning with any real intent, even with the engine revs up Lance could stop the propeller shaft from spinning by gently touching it with his shoe, or (as later discovered) his hand and a gentle grip.

Our friends had gone ahead of us for the pirate festivities, and were either making way there or were already settled in Beaufort for a night of pirate partying. Without extra hands to catch us it's good we have had so much practice at landing her in the slip without power. Of the last five times out, we were towed in twice and sailed her in ourselves the other three.

Well, at least we have a plentiful supply of rum. Day drinking anyone? This boat is going to turn me into an alcoholic. Seriously.

Movie night: Fight Club always makes me feel better when I'm angry. And popcorn. And rum.

The mechanic confirmed our suspicion. The transmission really is toast. We thought we had saved it; it can't be saved. When Lance's eyes widened at the quoted price for the replacement transmission the mechanic said "yeah, they're pretty proud of that", which has become our new mantra for all boat repair parts. The new transmission (thankfully one does actually exist) is on its way, we have an installation date on the calendar for end of October, and there's not much we can do but wait for it. Seems like a good opportunity to pull forward little projects from the Tier 3 list while we wait.

Evicting a big pile of untrustworthy line left us with plenty of space for the emergency Danforth, which we rigged with flaked and ready-to-go anchor and rode. This topside port locker had already been outfitted with rubber mats to protect the boat from the anchor.

The good news is that the weather is finally cooler. Which means the air conditioner parts are finally on their way as well after being on backorder since June. We will have integrated air conditioning installed in November, and next summer will be a lot more comfortable.

Lining the topside anchor lockers with snap-together rubber tiles ensures less banging around for the spare anchor, and better drying area underneath. We setup this anchor as an emergency third anchor with chain and rode, and hope never to use it. Cleaning out this locker means we have plenty of space for bicycles.
Lining the starboard topside anchor locker with snap-together rubber tiles ensures less banging around for the old original and now spare anchor, and space to dry underneath. We setup this anchor as an emergency third anchor with chain and rode, and hope never to use it. We also evicted a giant pile of untrustworthy line and old cleaning stuff, replaced it with a new brush, EZ Mooring system and two new 30' long snubber lines. The experience we gained from battling Tropical Storm Isais helped guide us greatly on what should be handy in this locker and I was able to cannibalize some old never-before-used rope into spliceable line with the help of a big bucket of fabric softener, a strong marlinspike, and several days of determination and sore fingers. There is also room for the folding bicycles in this locker once they've been retrieved from California.

While we are disappointed we couldn't do the grand NorthEast tour we had planned this hurricane season, we are appreciating the cooler weather and the bonus time spent with friends. The Tier 3 To Do list is mostly comprised of comfort items which we didn't think we'd be getting to this year, and ticking each of them off means we are more at home on our boat.

The leftover snap-together tiles fit nicely in the aft head over the teak grate, they're easier on the feet while showering

Oriental and nearby New Bern are significantly socially active towns ordinarily. It took everyone a beat to figure out how to translate the usual frequent community events into socially distant and safe events, but we're getting there. Oriental's annual Pirate Jam ultimately was staged on Teaches Point which is surrounded on 3 sides by water. The music still went on, the difference was the fans listened from boats, kayaks, and dinghies. The fans let the musicians know their appreciation with boat bells and fog horns.  Turning in $100 of receipts from local stores and restaurants earned us a Pirate Jam flag, a creative way of supporting the event sponsors since charging ticket prices wasn't feasible on the open water.

Winch, Disassembled, Still Life
There are 13 of them, Lance is servicing them one at a time. Each one is cranky in its own unique way and they are all long overdue for some TLC.

New Bern's MumFest continued with the restaurants spilled out onto the streets into roped off tables spaced 6' apart, staff wore masks to deliver the food and surely put some extra miles on their tennis shoes. Oriental's Front Porch Music Festival continued largely as usual, the fans brought their own chairs and set them up in family clusters, leaving space apart from other clusters, and enthusiastically sang along with the musicians. It feels good to get off our dock and (sort of) mingle with the locals, we simply keep our masks on, keep our distance, deploy frequent hand sanitizer and avoid any situations that are crowded. Hopefully we'll all get a safe vaccination soon, if not these are simple procedures to follow and we are feeling more and more like we can adhere to the new normal and move around the nation safely this way in the meantime.

Mural at the seafood shack in New Bern

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Breaking News... Weekend Visitor Has Hat Lodged in Throat

"I ain't never seen nothin' like it" said the weekend boater, standing on the deck of the fishing boat he had chartered, his hat on backwards. "She started shrieking at him, and the next thing I knew she'd tackled him to the ground and I had to join with 3 of my buddies to pull her off before she shoved his hat down all the way down his throat. What's the world comin' to when a guy can't offer up advice to a local woman without her freaking out? Sailor bitch be cray-cray!"

The Dragon Moat behind The Bean coffee shop

Another witness, who looks significantly like Sam Elliot, crushed his cigarette in the ashtray outside The Bean coffee shop and tsked. "Damn weekend boat renters ought to know better than to come off with a comment like that. He's lucky every boat owner here didn't toss his lifeless body in the dragon moat." The Sam Elliot look-alike went on to say that when he came to Oriental North Carolina and saw his dream boat in someone's backyard, it was a siren call that wouldn't be denied. That was 16 years go. "She'll be ready to sail soon, I think, maybe next year" and took another sip of his coffee.

Sam Elliott

Reportedly the woman sailor and her husband have been working on the sailboat they purchased 6 months ago non-stop; it has caused them great strife and little joy. She was commiserating with other boat owners at the local coffee shop when the outsider barged into the conversation, uninvited, and delivered his line.

The phrase that caused the otherwise calm sailor woman to come completely unhinged? That is a source of disagreement among witnesses. It could have been any of the standard issue comments "you know what boat means: Break Out Another Thousand", "that's boats for ya", "need some help with that little Missy", or "that's boat ownership, fixin' 'er up in exotic locations". While the local boat owners couldn't agree on the actual phrase that set her off, they did agree on one thing.

"It was the overly familiar tone with which he made his unoriginal and unwelcome announcement, followed by the knowing wink that did it."

When last seen the sailor woman was stomping off towards the marina muttering to herself and clutching her dragon coffee cup.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Living in Schrodinger's box


I see them at the marina. At the bar. At the local restaurants.

All around the country, they're always there. 

Those boaters who never leave the dock.

I always wondered to myself...

in a rather judgey way...

What's the point of having a boat if you never leave the dock with it?

Hiding out from another rainy day with the Tour de France

Now I get it.

If the boat doesn't move, you don't know what's wrong with it.

Nothing is broken.

For the moment.

Until you put her in gear.

Take her out of the slip.

Try to do actual boat stuff.

That's when you discover what is broken.

She's not really dead until you crack the seal and see for yourself.

Until then she's both alive and dead at the same time.

The marina shoreline on a warm foggy morning

So for now, Minerva is running perfectly.

We're afraid to leave the dock.

Another squally week makes for spectacular sunrises

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

False Starts

We put the finishing touches on the electrical refit and decided Minerva was done. One more test sail and then we'd finally escape North out of the hurricane zone. We were invited to tag along with Phoenix for a Cape Lookout weekend sail. We were even smug enough to consider, for a moment, leaving right from there on the outside around Cape Hatteras and up to Virginia that way.

Oh, how the smug get smote.

We followed Phoenix down Adams Creek and out into the open ocean. In Beaufort we sailed out against the incoming tide - with all our sails out on a 15 knot beam reach we inched past the channel marker buoys which were leaning hard against the current and throwing up wakes of their own. It felt a little like those nightmares where you are running as hard as you can and not going anywhere.

Eventually we escaped the incoming tide and Minerva realized the speed she'd been straining for. We sailed alongside the shores of the Outer Banks in rather sloppy seas. It felt good to be out in open ocean for the first time on Minerva, she handles the slop like a champ. Ahead of us, we saw the wave action rolling Phoenix around near the mouth of Cape Lookout so we made the decision to take a longer but more comfortable approach which delayed our arrival.

By the time we came around the sandbar that makes up the hook of Cape Lookout, Phoenix had long been settled on her anchor way up in the protected part of the anchorage. Just inside the hook we turned into the wind, fired up the engine, and Lance started taking down the sails while I kept her pointed into the wind. As soon as I put Minerva into gear, she died. I started her back up again, put her in gear, and she died again, and again a third time. Lance was unaware of my struggles and yelled back "hey the boat is coming around you gotta turn into the wind so I can get the sails down" to which I shouted (first a string of cursing, then) "she keeps dying". He let go of his armful of sail to check the engine compartment; I watched in horror as the depth meter read 24 feet, 20 feet, 17 feet. He still had his head in the engine compartment while I ran up and dropped the anchor. In my haste I dumped some chain on top of the anchor instead of letting it set first and then paying out the chain carefully - a rookie mistake and I know better. He didn't find anything obviously wrong with the engine - the filters looked clean and water was entering and exiting like it should. All seemed to be running well until we tried to put her in gear.

The winds were howling and we were being blown against the lee shore.

We looked hopefully for an obstruction on the propeller, alas there was nothing to cut free. Which meant we probably had a transmission problem. Not so easily solved at this remote location. I reluctantly put away the dive knives.

The Lighthouse at Cape Lookout 

As the afternoon became night, the winds increased to a steady 40 knots. We inched towards the lee shore, in hindsight I think the chain was just freeing itself from the top of the new Mantus anchor, but at the time I was convinced we were dragging and so we set the second Fortress anchor. The shelf was disturbingly close behind us and so we took turns on anchor watch.

In the morning we hashed out our options over coffee. The Saturday morning winds were changing direction a bit too haphazardly and we were too close to the 3' shoal to try sailing off the anchors into deeper waters, and the afternoon and next two days were predicted to be the same high winds blowing us onto the lee shore, followed by flat calm on Monday. Ultimately we swallowed our pride and called TowBoat US; they agreed the best course of action was to tow us into a safer part of the anchorage closer to Phoenix for the time being rather than drag us off the lee shore after running aground later, and do the long tow on Monday when conditions were calm.

Wild ponies of Shackleford Banks

With our plan established we explored all we could between rain squalls. By Monday Lance decided rather than getting towed to a shop he wanted to return to our Oriental slip, pull the transmission and replace it himself with the help of a local mechanic in Oriental.

Our tow ride home on Monday was smooth as silk. At the end of the ride I signed a document for $0 towing fees. Yay unlimited towing.

The open ocean portion of the long tow home

The mechanic gave us some good news: a whole transmission replacement wouldn't be necessary - just a cable which was obviously frayed - a readily available $30 part. We were up and running again quickly. We thought the problem was solved, so we scheduled another "last" shakedown cruise before our big escape.

The following weekend we took out a handful of friends for an afternoon sail. It was glorious... until time to put the sails away and go home. I powered her up, turned her into the wind, put her in gear, and she died. Exactly the same as the weekend before.

This time we were close to home, had a nice beam reach, and lots of able-bodied sailors aboard, so the decision to sail her into her slip was a natural one.

Now, if you've never sailed a boat into a slip, let me tell you - getting the speed juuuuuuuust right is of the utmost importance. Too fast and you'll destroy something on the boat or the dock, or someone will get hurt trying to prevent just that from happening. Too slow and you'll drift uncontrollably in the anchorage. In both cases the boat will seek out the most expensive thing to run into. Lance and I practiced this with smaller previous boats; Minerva weighs in at a beastly 16 tons.

Nevertheless, luck was with us. We landed at just the right speed, placed the lines easily, and stepped off the boat like pros. It went off perfectly, largely because the wind was just right for such a maneuver, and also because we had plenty of agile crew aboard. Despite being the only ones aboard with any experience in this maneuver (or perhaps because we were) it was only Lance and I who appeared to suffer from flop sweat. From the outside it probably looked impressive. I still shudder when I think of all the ways it could have gone wrong.

Once we'd waved our friends goodbye, we moved on to problem-solving. Clearly the transmission cable was A problem but not THE problem. More troubleshooting required. Our daily mantra.

The mechanic is a busy guy. While waiting for him to find room for us on his calendar Lance started poking around on his own and discovered some errant belts around the shaft under the engine, probably used by the last technicians to align the propeller with the engine after the last service and then forgotten, and also the transmission was empty. As in NO fluid at all empty. Lance flushed it out - thankfully discovered no glitter - and replaced it with new transmission fluid. By the time the mechanic arrived she was purring like a kitten and smoothly shifting into forward and reverse in the slip, straining against her docklines, ready to go.

With quite a bit less confidence we launched shakedown attempt #3. We joined in with 3 other boats headed to Ocracoke for the long holiday weekend. We put her in reverse, pulled out into the river and pointed into the wind. All seemed well. We motored for a while, then sailed for a while. When it became clear we were not going to make it against the contrary winds to our destination before sunset we tried to fire up the motor again. No love. Turned the key on and... no go.

Once again Lance had his head in the engine compartment while I watched the depth gauge free fall towards zero. When I decided it was getting too shallow I turned her around, filled the sails and we surfed back to the marina on following seas and a strong tailwind. Marina staff towed us into our slip when it became clear there wasn't enough wind in the marina to land her the rest of the way on our own.

Our good friends Janet and Joe, who had been watching our inReach breakcrumbs and guessed we were in trouble when they saw us turn around, were waiting on the dock to catch us, and accompanied us for a commiserating evening of alcohol abuse.

Time to quit. This girl needs a drink.

The next time we opened the engine compartment - a broken spring glinted in the sunshine. Yep, you guessed it, its job had been "kill switch". A 25 cent part; Lance swapped it out in less than a minute. She fired right up, purred like a kitten, shifted smoothly and strained against her docklines in forward and reverse.

We're hoping the third time's a charm, and that we can escape to safety soon. Storm after storm rolls across the Atlantic, we've witnessed two of them become hurricanes, and they are likely to keep threatening us through October. I try not to lose sleep over when the big one is coming for us, and my obsession with weather websites might be bordering on excessive.

It's starting to feel like we will never leave Oriental.

I wonder if Minerva's cursed. Lance believes she just wants to show us all the areas she needs attention up front and when she is content she'll behave. He believes she's testing our worthiness. She's certainly testing the limits of my sanity.

There are worse places a person could get stuck, surely. At least the sunsets are pretty.

Another beautiful post-squall summer sunset behind the Oriental bridge

Wednesday, August 5, 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.

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 BSea'nU and Orion, with plenty of room 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 45-60 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, BSea'nU had an anchor light but no AIS signal. To our starboard side at just over 1200' 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 BSea'nU 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 for the refugees further up the river.

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' before the new anchor set. 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 fall in with 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 posthaste. 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.