31 October 2018

Wrightsville Beach

We had a fast, if bumpy, offshore passage from Beaufort down to Wrightsville Beach. Dozens of southbound boats, including lots of Canadians. But we found a spot to anchor, launched the dingy, buzzed over to the town dock, and Ubered to Harris Teeter for some much needed provisions.

Now we are headed down to Southport where we were lucky enough to score a dock in a marina. The marinas are mostly sold out, and there are no good anchorages down there, so we were lucky.

Petronella seems to be in great shape. We were able to test the Aries on the way down and it performed perfectly. So nice to have silent steering while sailing!

29 October 2018

The Slow Virginia Cut

Like lots of other cruisers, we have been working our way through the Virginia Cut, and I do mean working. 

The VC is a 200 mile 'short cut' inside of Cape Hatteras. The alternatives are to either buck the 3 or 4 knot current off Hatteras, or to head far offshore to get outside of the Gulf Stream before turning south. Both of which options start to sound pretty good after a week or two of motoring down the ICW, or slogging across an angry Ablemarle Sound (it's alway angry, right?), or beating down the Neuse River against 20 knot winds. 

But, hey, it's not all bad. Not with early winter storms forcing us into creeks to anchor for one or two days at a time. We think of them as mini vacations. At least until the meat and eggs and veg and fruit start running low!

But we are almost through to the other end at Beaufort NC, and miracle of miracles, it looks like we've timed it perfectly for an offshore hop down to Cape Fear. We will anchor this afternoon just inside the Beaufort inlet, hook up our Windvane, rig preventers, stow loose objects, and head out this afternoon. We should arrive at the Wrightsville Beach Inlet (yes, those Wright brothers) early tomorrow morning. We'll then anchor, take a nap, launch the dingy, and head into this beach town for provisions and hopefully a decent meal at a nice restaurant. 

The weather is finally nice again so we are enjoying every minute of it. May it last more than a day or two!

17 October 2018

Petronella On The Move

Well! Finally! Our 'Absolutely Must Do' list is completed and we are headed South again. And not a moment too soon.

Hurricane Michael dragged a cold front behind him, and it has been positively chilly for the past few days. That made completing our to-do list easier (less sweat involved).

The final big job was to bend on all the sails, and to sort out any rigging tangles that were left. We of course put all the halyards, etc., on the mast before re-stepping it. We got MOST of it right, but had one twist at the very top of the mast that could not be sorted from the deck. Helena quickly fixed that problem.

Then we were off! We dropped our mooring yesterday morning and headed out into the Chesapeake where a stiff northerly breeze was blowing. The Bay was quite choppy, but once we were able to turn south, the following seas were no hindrance.

We had 50 miles to go get across the wide mouth of the Potomac to our anchorage at Mill Creek, and our house batteries were nearly flat from all the cloudy weather we've had lately, so we motor-sailed all day, with jib and main set.

We averaged 7 knots, hitting 8 for long stretches, so made excellent time. There are a mess of boats heading south, so I wanted to anchor early to secure a good spot in the creek.

I shouldn't have worried. The anchorage was empty when we arrived around 14:00.

Our plan is to travel in the morning, and to anchor early enough to do other things. We shall see how long that resolution survives!

It's good to be on the move again.

16 September 2018

Early Christmas Present

When Helena was last in Brazil, she went to a kind of antique shop looking for a ship's bell. We've been thinking we might need one if we ever get up to foggy Maine.

She didn't find a bell, but did find something she couldn't resist buying for me. As soon as I saw the case, which was very finely made, I knew she'd found a treasure.

Can you tell a sextant by it's cover?
The case had been built with care, and had nice brass hardware, including a lock with key.

Inside was a bronze-framed sextant, made by Filotechnica Salmoiraghi of Milan Italy.

Sextant in case
With inverting telescope installed
Compared with the only sextant I've ever used -- a plastic Davis Mark 15 -- this one felt like the real thing. It has a real heft and the micrometer moves smoothly as silk, with no backlash. All the original parts are in the box, including three different telescopes: a monocular, an inverting telescope, and a "zero magnification" tube. It dates from the 1940s.

It's definitely been used for navigation, so it could use a bit of cleaning up. I will be doing that when other projects allow.

Interestingly, the calibration chart says that this sextant was calibrated on Christmas Eve, 1946, not long after the end of WWII.

Well, Florence is currently making her deadly way through South Carolina. She's supposed to loop up north, and pass not far from the Chesapeake. Today is fairly clear, but it's supposed to rain Monday and Tuesday in Solomons, where P is hauled out. We're debating whether its worth heading down there today to do some painting while the sun shines, if we're going to have to sit out torrential downpours until Wed.

Decisions, decisions...

Hurricane Florence Position

Next Up:

14 September 2018

Hiding from Foorence

Fredrick, MD

We are currently hiding from hurricane Florence at our son Nick's new apartment in northern MD, well out of the danger zone.

We had to make a decision to haul or not on Tuesday morning, because after that, the marina would only be doing storm hauls, which did not including power washing the bottom. Since we've been in the Chesapeake for several months, I was pretty sure our bottom would be foul, so I definitely wanted to get the bottom cleaned if we were hauling.

Also, on Tuesday, Florence looked like she might just turn north once she hit the coast. Other people in the marina were clearly not too worried, but Petronella is our home, and we were not taking any chances.

Out she came!

Of course, the moment Petronella was secure on shore, Florence decided to turn south in search for easier prey. I was perfectly fine with that.

At the moment, we are getting light rain and winds in Fredrick, but Southport, NC, the town we spent Christmas in last winter, is getting hit hard. Hope everyone in one of our favorite towns is doing well!

Florence's track as of this writing

Next Up: Early Christmas Present

13 September 2018

Fixing a Wooden Mast Part 2

After pulling Petronella’s main mast, the boys at Zahnizers laid it on sawhorses outside the shop of Dave the in-house boatbuilder. Dave grew up in a boatbuilding family, and an all around nice guy, so I was looking forward to seeing him work.

I didn’t have long to wait. He was already at it when I arrived mast-side at 9am, looking for both the source and extent of the rot. The good news: the mast had definitely been soaking up water from the deck. The further up the mast, the dryer the wood.

Also good news: I didn’t swoon while watching this surgery take place. With every handful of wet wood dug out, we got that much closer to having a sound mast again.

At least, that’s what I told myself.

Looking for the extent of the rot
Fairly quickly, Dave had all the rot removed and he had started cutting scarfs to re build the compression core. Unfortunately, while cutting the various scarfs, he discovered a previous repair!

With all the rot removed
This was a problem, because if he left the old repair in place, there would be too many scarfs too close together.

After a consult, we decided that the old repair should be cut away, so that there was just one repair, properly done.

With some previous repairs removed

After cutting more old wood away, Dave discovered not one but two more previous repairs, one a 'Dutchman's scarf' using some sort of white wood, like pine.

If we left all these scarf in place, there would be 6 scarfs, all within a foot or so of each other. Clearly not acceptable, so he kept cutting.

Finally, all the old repairs were exposed and removed, and the demolition phase was over. Mostly.

With even more (but not all!) previous repairs removed

The long side in the photo above actually has three scarf in it, but Dave left it in place as a guide and support for the repairs. When replacing the compression core (photo below) he inserted wax paper between the long side and the core so that the epoxy would not glue the core to the side. This would make removing the long side easier later.

Demolition phase (almost) complete... reconstruction begins
Here is with the core and most of the sides scarfed into place. It's starting to come together, now...

Reconstruction continues...

And here is with that final, long side completely removed. We cut it high enough so that we could see above the compression core, into the inside of the hollow mast, above the core. As we'd hoped, it was bone dry, and the old core (with black Resorsinol glue showing) dry and sound.

Phew. This confirmed that the leak was indeed coming from the deck, and not from some where up the mast.

The long-awaited look inside the mast -- all dry!

The final scarf, for the final side.

Fourth side and all old repairs removed

And the whole repair glued up.

Final side scarfed in
All that was left was to shape the repair to match the rest of the mast.

Shaping already in progress!
And that is a repair, properly done! In the end, we decided to paint the bottom of the mast with epoxy, but not to use any fiberglass. The goal is to prevent the mast from sucking up water from the mast again, causing a problem 10 or 15 years down the line.

Repair complete!

And then it was time to paint. Since the mast already was painted with a 2-part epoxy paint, I decided to stick with that, although the prep work for it is crazy.

Here it is with the first coat of 2-part epoxy primer. It doesn't look like it, but I was racing a thunderstorm, so it was a big relief to get that first coat of paint on.

First coat of 2-part epoxy primer on!
That was a few days ago. After lots and lots of painting, I'm NEARLY done, but I've had to abandon the mast job and prepare for the imminent arrival of Hurricane Florence!

More on that adventure, later...

Next Up: Hiding from Florence

17 August 2018

Fixing a Wooden Mast

Okay! After a whole lot of prep work, including getting a second opinion from Cutts & Case -- a well known boat builder in this area -- taking down sails, disconnecting the various wires coming down the mast, taping all the turnbuckles to make it easier to re-tune the rig, removing the staysail boom, getting the outboard off the wooden bracket clamped onto the backstay, removing said bracket, and getting Helena off to Brazil again, we were finally ready to start work on the mast.

To really get started, though, I first had to get Petronella to the service dock. The very narrow looking service dock. And since my first mate was off to Brazil, I had to do it alone.

Actually, the marina would have been happy to send a launch to tow P to the dock, but I figured it was time to solo in Petronella. After all, I've been handing boats practically my whole life. Sure, Petronella was a bit bigger than most of my boats (by like 4x in displacement!) by, hey, how hard could it be?

So, I got up early, had a couple of cups of coffee, rigged bow and stern lines, put out plenty of fenders on the port side (thank God it was a port-side tie-up!), made sure I had a clear path to the bow on port-side, and tied the dingy to the mooring pennant.

Ready on deck, I went below to do my normal engine checks -- including checking both throttle and shift cables -- started the engine, and checked to make sure steering was working.

Then I hit pause for a moment and visualized everything I would do once I dropped the mooring line. I always find this a useful thing to do, even when Helena is on board. It gives me a chance to catch my breath, to take one last look around, and -- most important -- to plan what I was going to do.

There was a light wind blowing, so we should just drift back a bit from the mooring. There was plenty of room behind us, I could see. Once clear, we would motor forward slowly, past that other moored boat, then between those two empty mooring balls...

Once I had a plan in mind, I went forward, and confidently dropped the mooring line.

One good thing about having a heavy, long keel boat is that things don't happen too quickly. I calmly walked back to the cockpit while P considered the prospect of drifting down from the mooring. She'd pretty much made up her mind to do so by the time I had the wheel in hand.

A while later, we had drifted back clear of the dingy, and I put P smoothly into gear. We slowly gathered way, past the moored sailboat, and between the two empty balls, just as I'd planned.

Part 1 executed perfectly.

The service dock was on the other side of the marina, so I had a bit of time to fret. Okay, I admit that my heart rate rose just a tad, thinking about maneuvering P into a pretty tight dock space. I had walked the dock yesterday, just to see what I was getting into. There were several other boats on the next pontoon. Definitely would have to avoid hitting/sinking them. There was also an awkward turn, but I'd worry about that when I got there.

By the way, where the heck was that dock? I had maneuvered around to where I thought it was, but it was no where to be seen amidst the forest of masts to my starboard side. Where was it?

I stepped up to the starboard side deck, to see if I could spot it from there. No, but I could see a red-shirted dock boy waving at me. Phew! Just a little further.

I continued on, until I could see the service slip emerging to starboard. Gosh, yes, there was a bit of a dog-leg to the left on the approach.

My heart was really revved up at this point, but it was no time to faint. I stopped P's forward motion, and used prop wash to make the turn towards the slip. I would have to stay a bit to starboard, so I would have room to make the dog-leg to the left, and into the slip.

Recently, Helena had picked up a book that had a brilliant tip, and I intended to use it. Basically, even with the throttle at dead low, Petronella moves just a bit too fast to approach a dock. There is no way to reduce the throttle further, so in the past, I have had to reverse strongly to bring her massive bulk to a gradual stop.

The new idea (new for me, anyway) was to take her out of gear when approaching the dock, putting her into gear if she lost too much way. The book said this would give me much more control over my boat's speed.

Basically, it's neutral, drift forward, put in gear for a few seconds to keep boat moving forward, put in neutral again so you gather too much way, repeat...

Using this system, we very slowly maneuvered through the dog-leg to port, with the bow ending up slightly closer to the dock than the stern. By then, the dock boy had the bow line. I put P into reverse, gave her a medium burst of throttle, which stopped her within a few feet, and neatly pulled her stern into the dock (prop wash, again.) I  stepped off with the stern line, and voila, we were docked.

Trivial, right? But it was the first time I'd done it on my own, and I was extremely pleased.

In a few minutes, the marina rigger was on the boat, all business, and the job was underway.

Petronella in service slip
He quickly had the boom on deck (I'd already done all the prep. All he had to do was pull the pin.)

Boom down!

With a bit more prep, the crane guy showed up and the rigger was soon up the mast, attaching the sling.

Hooking up the crane

Then, like clock work, even more people showed up and soon my precious, recently rebuilt ProFurl was disconnected.

Whole crew in action
Before I could get really nervous, the rigger was disconnecting the shrouds and, just like that, they were pulling the mast up! I thought I might be sick, but I decided to video the process instead. Naturally, I hit the wrong button on my phone and missed the first part of the maneuver...

And, as neat as you please, the mast was down, and the boys were off to the next job. It's a real pleasure to watch people who know what they are doing.

Mast down!
Then I had my first chance to inspect the bottom of the mast. It wasn't what I was expecting -- a mass of rotting, soggy wood -- but it was definitely cracked and open on the bottom. Enough to soak up a significant amount of water? Maybe?

 First look at bottom of mast
Then it was round to the other end to get my first really good look at the mast head, complete with it's integrated radar reflector. Wow. It looks like business. There are a few changes and repairs I want to make up there.

First look at mast head
And that was it.

Dave the boat builder will be back from his vacation on Monday, and then we will start to figure out where the rot is coming from, and how to fix it.

Finger's crossed...

Next Up: Fixing a Wooden Mast - Part 2

24 July 2018

The Big Push

Life's funny, isn't it?

We were on our way to Block Island and points north this spring when we hit some awful weather off Cape Hatteras. After being hove-to for 10 hours, and seeing nothing but even worse weather between us and Long Island, we decided to duck into the Chesapeake for 'a few days'. Just to wait for a better weather window, you know.

Two months later, we are still here. 

Not that I'm complaining. The Chesapeake is one of the great cruising grounds of the world, and we have found a fantastic base of operations here in Solomons Island, MD. 

The indispensable pool
A couple of things have delayed us. First, Helena had to head back to Brazil for a few weeks to visit her parents. And then, while she was away, I was dumb enough to trip over the mizzen sheet and land smack on my knees. Kneecap Bursitis was the diagnosis; a month of rest (at least) was the prescription. 

Luckily, the best nurse in the world soon returned and I've enjoyed being pampered a bit, whilst doing all the chores on my to-do list that didn't require kneeling. 

(It's amazing how many boat jobs DO require kneeling!)

Petronella's second owner, the writer Les Weatheritt, calls what we are doing 'a Big Push'. This is what you have to do every so often with an old boat, to bring her back up to snuff. That's sailor talk for making her seaworthy again.

As my knee healed and my list of jobs grew shorter and shorter, I started to think we were almost done with our Big Push. I even made the mistake of saying so out loud.

You would think that by now I would know better than to tweak the nose of King Neptune. No sooner did I say the words, "I think we are almost done with our to do list!", than I heard Helena asking me a seemingly innocent question...

"Have you ever noticed this soft spot on the mast?"

"Oh, it's nothing," I said. "Probably a bit of rot just under the paint. It's been on my list for awhile. I just haven't gotten round to it."

The soft spot followed the grain of the wood and was about 1/4-inch wide, and 4-inches long. The paint over it was intact, not bubbled or anything ominous looking. I was sure I could just chisel it back to good wood in a few minutes, and fill the shallow groove with thickened epoxy. Painting it would be the big part of the job, so hadn't given it much priority.

But with Helena's furrowed brow to motivate me, I soon broke out my chisels and awl and started probing around. 

A few minutes later, I had a rather gaping hole in the mast.

The rot dug out.
This hole above is about 5-inches high, 1.5-inches wide, and 2 inches deep. You can see I was not shy about vigorously probing the area around the hole, to make sure there was sound wood all around it.

It does seem to be sound, but this rot clearly didn't start from the painted side of the mast. The water intrusion obviously came from above or from below, and the answer to that question (above or below?) will make a big difference in the repair.

Petronella's mast is hollow with compression blocks where extra strength is needed: at the base, where winches are attached, at the two sets of spreaders, and at the top. 

My guess is that the lower compression block is probably 4 or 5-foot high, from the base of the mast to just above the boom gooseneck and the winches. If the leak is from above, then the water has worked its way through 3-feet of compression block, nearly to the base of the mast. 

If, however, the mast has been sucking water up from the bottom, (because the end grain is exposed due to paint wearing off, or other reason) then the moisture and rot might be localized at the bottom.

Obviously I am hoping for the latter, but there is only one way to know for sure.

We had been planning to pull the masts to inspect them and to give them some TLC before heading anywhere adventurous. I'd been hoping to do this over the winter in Florida where there are some good DIY marinas, but we now we will bring this job forward.

In a few weeks, we will pull both masts and give them whatever attention they need. Besides the repair, we will inspect both masts thoroughly, re-bed all the hardware, replace any bad sheaves, add any new electronics we might decide we need, and giving them a good coat of paint or two. 

Luckily, there is an experienced boat builder (Dave) here in Solomons. We will be leaning heavily on him to make sure both masts are seaworthy.

Maybe then we will be done with the Big Push? 

No, I won't ask that question out loud...

In the meantime, I am going to make a temporary repair so that we can continue our cruise up the Chesapeake. We'll avoid any nasty weather, just to be sure.

The weather here has been great, lately, but just this week we've had lots of rain. Helena caught this beautiful photo this morning...

Amazing sky over the Chesapeake

Next Up: Fixing the Wooden Mast

14 July 2018

Another Look At Weather Faxes

After my last post on the various costs of receiving weather information at sea, I received a couple of emails from people who thought I was overstating the amount of electricity required by the SSB in receive-only mode. That it should be possible to leave the SSB on receive for hours without draining the house battery excessively.

If so, that would enable me to receive weather faxes by SSB at least while anchored, or when I had the energy/time at sea to tend to the reception.

That encouraged me to take another look at it, and to see whether they were correct -- at least with Petronella's specific combination of house batteries and solar panels.

No-Power Weather Fax System

The first thing I tried (or re-tried) was using a system that was completely independent of P's house batteries. I could run this to my hearts content, and never use an electron that might be needed by the fridge, lights, fans, etc.

Since it doesn't take use any electricity from P's house batteries, I call it my No-Power system, although clearly it does take some small amount of power, tapped from the Sun of course.

The basics: SSB radio and iPad with HF FAX App

External Antenna -- this one is really not good enough for WFAX

Beefy battery, with its own solar panel to recharge it (not shown)
Battery powered, AirPrint enabled portable printe
The No-Power system consists of the following components:

1. Tecsun PL 880 portable SSB radio
2. An external antenna3. iPad running HF FAX app
4. A power source independent of house batteries (optional?)
5. Battery-powered, AirPrint enabled printer (optional)

The portable SSB is required to pluck the radio signals out of the air and convert them into sound waves. These sound waves are fed into the iPad and its HF FAX app, which convert the sound waves into images, and the optional printer is used to convert these images into actual hard-copy faxes.

To keep it independent of the house batteries, I use a rather hefty portable power source, which has it's own solar panel to recharge it.

This system seems ideal except for one thing: so far, at least, it produces pretty lousy weather faxes.

WFAX produced by No-Power System
 It is also a bit of a pain to use. I have to hoist a wire (usually up the mizzen mast) to use as an external antenna. This is always in the way, and so far, at least, the results are not great.

I'm blaming the antenna at this point, since the radio itself seems high quality. I will continue to work on this system to improve the quality.

Here is the No-Power system in action:

Low-Power Weather Fax System

Since I could not get quality results from my No-Power system, I started testing my Low-Power system. The only difference is I use Petronella's ICOM SSB and its tuned backstay antenna. All other components are the same:

1. ICOM IC-M700 SSB radio
2. Tuned backstay antenna
3. iPad running HF FAX app
4. A power source independent of house batteries (optional?)
5. Battery-powered, AirPrint enabled printer (optional)

Low-Power System
Petronella's previous owners were very cautious about using the SSB, even in receive mode, and I guess I picked up the habit without thinking. However, during our restoration process, Helena and I replaced all of P's house batteries. I'd never even tried just leaving the SSB on to see if it drained the battery. I just assumed it would.

Never assume!

After being chastised by a number of readers, I decided to put together this low-power system and to let it run for the two hours needed to download a complete set of Weather Faxes. This made me absurdly nervous -- I really didn't want to end up with a dead battery, warm fridge, etc. -- but all for nothing. At the end of the two hours, the battery still had a healthy charge.

I wish I had measured the amp-hours used for this two hour period, but I didn't think of doing that until just now. Next time I try it, I will record the actual power used by the system.

Warning: I performed this test on a sunny day in the Chesapeake, with both P's solar panels working to keep the house batteries charged. I have not yet tried this at night, or even on a cloudy day.

A more modern, energy-efficient SSB would probably use even less power than P's ancient M-700.

That said, the results were much improved. The fax below was received immediately after the one above, on the same frequency. That is, the received signal quality was the same for both faxes. Only the radio and antenna were different.

WFAX produced by Low Power System
Here is the Low Power system in action.


While it still takes more effort to receive weather faxes over SSB than to receive the same faxes via Satellite phone, and the quality is not quite as good, clearly my battery-energy argument was over-stated. It is clearly possible to build a low-power system that produces acceptable quality faxes without killing off the house battery -- and without using any high-cost satellite air time.

It's also more fun than the sat phone. It's something of a challenge to get good results, and like anything you have to work for, more satisfying to accomplish.

I will definitely be using one of these systems to receive weather faxes, whenever sailing conditions allow.

Thanks to all who got me to take another look at this method.

"Life is for learning." -- Joni Mitchell

Next Up: The Big Push

26 June 2018

To The Abacos

Well, all our hard work and preparation paid off: we were were in Southern Florida, ready to cross over to the the Bahamas.

A week before, after finishing our many chores in St. Augustine, we dropped our mooring in time to make the 7:30 opening of the Lions Bridge. We meant to use the fair weather St. Augustine inlet, so I wanted to hit it at slack tide and before the wind had a chance to build. I'd heard all sorts of sailor stories about the inlet, from "There's nothing to it!", to "All the buoys have been removed for dredging! You'll never find the way out!"

As usual, there was only one way to find out for sure.

As we headed out into the inlet, I could see low breakers on either side, with the channel clear between them. On the horizon, pointy-helmeted soldiers seemed to be marching steadily south.

Clearly, it was a bit rougher outside than I was hoping for, but it didn't look too bad.

The big problem, as I'd suspected, was the dredgers. There were two of them: a big one, and a really big one. The really big one, I'd been told, was sucking sand off the bottom and pumping it through a giant hose two miles offshore. Awkwardly, the dredgers seemed to be right in the middle of the channel. And the smaller one was moving around in a brisk and businesslike way.

As we approached, I got concerned about getting in their way. I'd be happy to go around them if I could, but which way? I didn't want to end up aground outside the channel. That would be a bad way to start the trip.

"Do you want me to call them on the radio?" Helena asked.

"That's an excellent idea."

"They say to go right between them," Helena said after consulting with the VHF.

"Between them?"

"That's what he said."

The smaller dredger was still busily moving back and forth, doing whatever dredgers do, but there was a hundred foot gap between the two ships... surely they wouldn't run us down after we'd been invited to pass through.

"Here we go," I said, with what I hoped was a look of steely determination.

The dredgers looked even bigger and more menacing up close than they did from a safe distance, and the sound of heavy machinery, mixed with the steadily growing roar of the wind, was a potent stimulant for careful steering. They did seem to be leaving us a gap...

I pointed Petronella's bow towards the opening, held a steady course so they could see what I was doing, and trusted the professionals knew what they were doing.

They did, and in a few tense minutes we were safely through, past the dredgers, out of the narrow inlet, and into the open Atlantic.

"Shall I put up the sails?" asked my handy foredeck crew, sounding slightly relieved.

"Absolutely," I said.

We were on our way. If only the weather didn't get any worse...

Next Up: Arrived in Fox Town

24 June 2018

The Cost of Professional Weather Forecasts

Somewhere in the last 6000 nm, it occurred to me that I needed to learn more about marine weather. My path of learning had followed the usual pattern:
  1. Obliviousness -- I didn't know what I didn't know
  2. Absolute Surety -- I knew just enough to think I knew everything
  3. Utter Self-doubt -- I knew enough to know that I knew nothing
  4. Novice Level Awareness -- I know enough to be cautiously confident in my abilities
Having finally reached Novice Level, I want to write down what I'm doing, mainly for my own reference, but also to help others who might be further down the learning curve. I provide links to resources it took me a long time to track down, and which I would like to finally have in one place!

This first in a series of weather-related posts will focus on the cost of getting essential marine forecasts while offshore -- i.e. when the cell phone towers disappear over the horizon.

When you are beyond easy reach of the Internet, you must either:
  • Learn to make your own forecasts using the instruments available to you on your boat (eyes, skin, wind instruments, barometer, etc.)
  • Figure out a way to access professional forecasts. 
For hundreds of years, ship masters had to make their own forecasts, but the National Weather Service (NWS) with it's fleet of buoys, ships, weather satellites, and supercomputers do a much better job. Watching the sea, sky, and barometer still makes sense, but getting professional forecasts whenever you can is simple prudence.

Beyond the range of easy Internet access, you have several options for receiving professional forecasts, but the most common (and the only one's I have experimented with) are:
  • SSB Radio (which Petronella came with)
  • Satellite Radio
With an SSB radio you can:
  • Receive Offshore and Highseas weather forecasts by voice, by tuning in to the forecasts broadcast by the US Coast Guard several times a day. (Details and schedule.)
  • Listen in on weather nets, such as those hosted by Chris Parker. (Details and schedule)
By adding a SSB modem such as a Pactor, a laptop, and an email service like SailMail, you can also:
With a satellite radio, such as the Iridium Go, you can receive the same professional forecasts by email. Forecasts sent by voice over HF radio are, of course, not available, but it is much easier to receive the same text by email, anyway. (I'd rather go to the dentist than listen to the Offshore forecast on SSB.)

Thus, the benefits of SSB and Satellite are the similar: professional forecasts received in a timely manner. However, the costs are different:

Monetary Costs

The cost of an SSB transceiver, antenna, antenna tuner, and modem will set you back at least $4,000 USD, not including installation, which could be expensive. Once you purchase the equipment installed, receiving forecasts is free, apart from a subscription to an email service like SailMail.

The cost of a satellite system such as the Iridium Go is under $1,000, and installation is trivial, but you also need to purchase airtime and an iPad, if you don't have one. Depending on how much you use it, it might well cost you $4,000 over a period of years.

Energy Costs

When I started experimenting with Petronella's SSB/Pactor/SailMail system, I quickly discovered a hidden cost of SSB Radio -- amp-hours! Our ICOM SSB is relatively efficient when you are just listening, but as soon as you start doing more, the batteries start groaning.

Sending and Receiving email involves transmitting and receiving data, and also requires the use of a laptop, which has its own power demands.

Downloading a set of weather charts using RadioFax takes over an hour. You can use an iPad instead of a laptop to decode the faxes, and thus save amp-hours, but it is still taxing on the ship's batteries.

My point is that you have to factor in the cost of generating all those amp-hours, unless your boat already generates loads of excess energy. Petronella just couldn't keep up, even with four new heavy-duty golf-cart batteries, and a relatively robust set of solar panels.

The energy cost of running a satellite phone and an iPad are much less. Almost negligible, in fact.

Physical Costs

On an offshore passage, I've learned that it is critical to manage not only amp-hours, but human-energy-hours. After the first day or two, it is easy to get tired, and hard to get rested. Energy wasted listening to scratchy SSB voice broadcasts, or struggling to download email over an iffy SSB connection, or monitoring the download of RadioFaxes is time better spent sleeping. And if you happen to be dealing with nasty weather when the SSB schedule says you should be listening or downloading, well, you are just out of luck.

The physical cost of obtaining a forecast via satellite phone and iPad is much less. You can easily do it while lying in your bunk -- exactly where I like to do my weather forecasting.

Bottom Line

After getting Petronella's SSB system working and experimenting with it on several passages, I came to the conclusion that the total cost of receiving forecasts by SSB was too expensive for us, and I purchased an Iridium Go. We recently completed a six-day offshore passage from St. Augustine, FL to the Chesapeake Bay, and I can confirm that it was much cheaper, energy-wise, to get essential weather information using the Iridium than it ever was using SSB.

I am still glad that we have the SSB, since it is essential for participating in cruising nets and for long-range distress calls. However, for getting weather forecasts, we now consider the SSB as our backup system.

Next Up: Another Look At Weather Faxes

13 June 2018

Petronella Sails North - Part I

Well! How time flies. It has been more than a year since Helena and I bought Petronella, and what a year it has been.

We've had two simple goals: 1) prepare Petronella for offshore voyaging and 2) prepare ourselves. Neither has been as simple as we originally hoped!

First, Petronella herself needed some TLC. In her lifetime, she had crossed the Atlantic 11 times (that we know of), and had been used as a live-aboard in the Caribbean for quite a few years. Her three previous owners had done their best to maintain her, but by the time we sailed her away from Martinique last year, she was tired. Really tired.

We decided to focus on the basics: hull, rigging, sails, engine, in that order. If we could get those four key components ready for sea in one year, we would consider it a success.

If you've been following this blog for the last year, you know we've ticked all those boxes.

We had steel boat expert Howdy Bailey tackle the hull, because it would have taken Helena and I years to do ourselves what he and his crew did in a couple months last fall.

Cancel that -- we could never have achieved what Howdy's team did because we did not have the painting skills they did. Embarrassingly far from it, in fact.

Likewise, we had Argonaut Rigging replace our standing rigging. This is potentially a DIY job, but having watched Jason work all day on it for five days, I shudder to think how long it would have taken me to do the same job. And would I have had the same confidence in the rig? Maybe, but I'm not sure.

The masts and spars had been inspected during the pre-purchase survey, but we asked Jason to check them out as well. We pulled the spreaders ourselves to check them. As far as we can tell, the rig itself is in great shape.

We had a new set of working sails built by Hong Kong Sails. I did all the measuring myself, and thought I did at least as good as a professional would have done -- perhaps better because I took my time over it. But I must admit I was nervous about sending those numbers to a sail maker in Hong Kong. Would they fit when they arrived? The answer was yes, and so far we are very pleased with the results. Check back in 3 years to see how they hold up over the long run.

Petronella's extremely reliable Mercedes diesel engine has always run well, but I must admit it always made me nervous. It leaked various fluids into the bilge, and made a whole symphony of strange noises. We've had several engine gurus on the boat to check her out and to make small repairs, such as replacing the fuel return lines that were leaking diesel into the bilge, and replacing the raw water pump, which was adding salt water into the mix. I have become an expert in changing her various fluids and filters, and have finally found some belts that don't break every 50 hours. I even had a very experienced engine man listen to it run. I wanted to know if her various noises were normal, or if I could stop worrying about them. After listing to the engine for a few minutes, he turned to me and said, "This is one of the quietest diesel engines I've ever heard. You should hear what a noisy engine sounds like!"

So I've officially stopped fretting about them!

After pulling into the Chesapeake to avoid a storm on our way up to Maine, we discovered Solomons Island, MD and liked it so much that we decided to hole up here while Helena flies back to Brazil to check in on her parents. As long as we were here, I decided to tackle the last big item on our list: sail covers. We found a highly recommended maker right in the marina -- Quantum Sails -- and they are working on the covers as I write this. They are backed up, but I am hoping to have them before we leave. Otherwise, they will ship them to us.

And then there were literally hundreds of big and small projects to fix or upgrade this or that system on the boat. We have completed so many small projects that I can't even remember all of them. Batteries, pumps, safety gear... I would like to turn them into a blog post someday, but it's such a big job that I keep putting it off!

The result of all this work is that Petronella is in as good a condition as a 40 year old boat can be.

And what about us? Last year, I realized that the biggest gap in my seamanship was in weather. You can sail for a lifetime on Long Island Sound with hardly thinking about the weather. Just keep an eye on the western horizon, and if you see a long black cloud, duck!

Offshore, it's a different story. Not only is the weather forecast more vital, it is hard to get. I can hardly believe we sailed from Martinique to Florida with the sketchy forecasts we were able to pluck off the SSB and occasional Internet access. We are now able to get good weather forecasts just about anywhere, and I am now confident in my ability to understand them. At least at an advanced beginner level.

But you can only learn sailing one way, and that is by sailing. That's when you find out what's really working right, what's really learned. So we looked forward to our long passage from Florida towards Maine with eager anticipation. Was Petronella ready? Were we?

There was only one way to find out...

Here is a video of the first part of our passage. You can view it full-screen by clicking the [ ] button on the bottom right.

Next Up: The Costs of Professional Weather Forecasts

24 April 2018

Fender Boards

So, we went down to Miami Thursday so that Helena could renew her passport at the Brazilian consulate. Before leaving, we put out some fenders, but NOT NEARLY ENOUGH OF THEM!

I really don’t know what I was thinking. When we came back, of course Mother Nature had found a way to get behind the fenders and to rub a barnacle-encrusted piling against the side of the boat, long enough to rub off a nice big patch of paint.


“I feel like we’ve dropped our baby on it’s head!” I wailed.

“No,” said the more practical Helena. “It just has a skinned knee.”

That thought helped put the disaster into perspective for me. With a slightly calmer air, I decided to sit down and build some fender boards.

I think of them as knee pads for our baby...

Brand new fender boards

Next Up: Petronella Sails North!

18 April 2018

Arrived Daytona!

We fought through a few days of howling winds and arrived safely in Daytona. We will be here for two weeks to replace our rigging and fit our new sails. Looking forward to that first cold beer and hot shower! Not at the same time, obviously.

Next Up: Fender Boards

10 April 2018

Too short a trip!

It took a few days, but we are finally getting into the rhythm of the Bahamas. This involves being aware of the weather forecast for several days ahead, and planning sailing and nightly anchorages to work with the wind, rather than fight against it.

As a result, we've had several days of good sailing, interesting stop-overs, and comfortable nights.

The highlight of the trip so far has been our stop at Green Turtle Cay. Everyone recommends this little town, and rightly so.

The settlement at Green Turtle Cay was founded by Loyalists who fled the US during the Revolutionary War. Many of their original houses are still standing, and the village is a cluster of tiny, brightly painted cottages, with roads designed for pedestrians and perhaps horses, not cars. We had dinner and drinks at the Sunset or Sundowner bar (I forget the exact name), with a great view of Petronella in the anchorage.

Today, we plan to stop at Manjack Cay, which is supposed to have some nice nature trails and beaches. I don't want to leave the Bahamas without going swimming at least once!

Then we will be moseying back to the west, with the goal of heading back to the US on Friday night. We should be back in Ft. Pierce, or perhaps Cape Canaveral if the weather cooperates, by Saturday.

Next Up: Arrived Daytona, FL

07 April 2018

Sea of Abaco

We left Fox Town early this morning to take advantage of the strong SW wind forecasted for the day. The forecast was correct, and we had fair winds all day, and a fantastic sail down into the Sea of Abaco.

And, knock on wood, we didn't have any serious problems. I think this was because we were sailing, instead of motoring, but I might be just a bit biased.

Anyway, a great sail.

We got to our planned anchorage around 4 pm - plenty of time to anchor and square away the boat. And to have two G&Ts and a short nap before dinner. Sun, wind, seas, and G&Ts will do that to you.

Nice evening under the stars. Winds have moderated for now.

——— Forecast ———

NW Bahamas (GrandBaha-Abaco):

S-SSW@12-17g22<SW-WSW@13-18g23k thru overnight;
SW-WSW@13-18g23<veering<L&V Sun8 morning-afternoon;
L&V<SSE-SSW@8-14g18k Sun8 evening-overnight;

SSE-SSW@8-14g18<S-SSW@10-15g19k Mon9 morning-early afternoon;
S-SSW@10-15g19<SSE-SSW@5-12k Mon9 late afternoon-early evening;
SSE-SSW@5-12<7-13k Mon9 late evening-overnight;

SSE-SSW@7-13<S-SSW@12-16g21k Tue10

Next Up: Too Short a Trip!

06 April 2018

Arrived in Fox Town, Bahamas 🇧🇸

I'm taking advantage of the first semi-usable Internet we've had since leaving Lake Worth to send this update.

We had a pretty good crossing Saturday night, arriving on Little Bahama Bank Sunday morning, near Memory Rock. We then spent the day sailing to our first anchorage near Mangrove Cay (pronounced 'key'), flying our yellow quarantine flag. It felt good to lower the anchor, cook a warm meal, and get a good night's sleep.

Monday, we headed towards Grand Cay, the closest Island with a customs office, so that we could officially check in to the Bahamas. We were forbidden to land anywhere until we had done so. However, since it was 35 miles away, we decided to stop for the night at Great Sale Cay, where we had a sky filled with stars.

We arrived at Grand Cay Tuesday morning, but the harbor was too shallow for the long legged Petronella, so we anchored outside and I took our dingy to the town fishing dock too look for the customs officer. I found him on the road to his office. He was on his way home to have lunch, so I hopped in his golf cart and we did the paperwork in his kitchen.

Then it was back to Petronella. Our anchorage wasn't safe enough for an overnight, being so near, and so exposed to the Atlantic, so we lifted the anchor and headed back to Great Sale Cay.

Wednesday we sailed to Strangers Cay, hoping to spend a few quiet days on this isolated island with several nice beaches. We arrived in the afternoon, but decided to put off a shore trip until the next day. The evening was very quiet, just as the forecast predicted, and that night the Milky Way was as bright and clear as I've ever seen it. We looked for satellites and shooting stars, but Helena was the only one lucky enough to see one.

I got up early on Thursday to make coffee and check the weather. The National Weather Service was still predicting a fine, calm day, but Chris Parker — a marine weather specialist that we subscribe to — was predicting squalls and high winds in our part of the Bahamas. There was barely a breeze, so I scoffed at Chris's prediction, until I happened to glance out the companionway and saw the low line of black clouds on the northern horizon. They were headed our way.

If I'd been smart I would have immediately got the anchor up and headed out of our narrow anchorage, but I delayed, hoping the squall would miss us. It didn't, and so we had to get the anchor up in 20 knot wind — never a fun exercise. However, we managed it and were happy to get into the deeper, open water of the bank.

Then the question was, where to go next? With my new-found respect for Chris Parker, I studied his forecast for the rest of the week. The wind would gradually veer from north to east to south over the next few days, so we needed an anchorage with protection from all those directions. There was only one likely destination we could reach — Fox Town on the north coast of Little Abaco Island. The wind was high but we could just sail close-hauled, with our jib and mizzen sails set. A fantastic sail.

We arrived at Fox Town just as the wind died down, making it easy to motor into the small harbor, pick a spot to anchor, and get settled in for the night. Our Canadian neighbors, on the yacht "R Liberty", paid us a visit in their dinghy. We invited them aboard for a chat. They had been in the Bahamas all winter, so were able to tell us all the best places to stop for groceries, fuel, beaches, etc.

We hope to get ashore in Fox Town today, just to stretch our legs and have a meal at one of the local restaurants. Tomorrow the forecast is for SW winds which should be favorable for carrying us to our next stop, where ever that may be.

Next Up: The Sea of Abaco

18 February 2018

The Restoration Continues

Wow, I have a lot of respect for people who somehow cruise, work on their boat, and somehow manage to blog or videoBlog their efforts. I have never been able to keep up with all three, and of course it is blogging that suffers, because otherwise there wouldn't be anything to blog about!

With that semi-apology out of the way, let's get to blogging!

After our long, cold voyage down the east coast of the US, we finally crossed the Florida border near Jacksonville, and like magic, the weather changed. Cold, blustery weather turned into warm-ish blustery weather, which was a big improvement, believe you me. The further south we went, the warmer it got, and by the time we got to St. Augustine -- Helena's favorite town in Florida -- it was downright spring-like.

So we decided to stay awhile.

The reasons are simple: 1) The weather was good -- warm enough to ditch the parkas, but not so hot that you don't feel like working. 2) The St. Augustine Municipal Marina had room for us, while marinas in South Florida were packed with snowbirds (we called). 3) The cost of the marina was at least half the price of those further south. 4) St. Augustine is a great little city, with lots of places for our daily walks, and plenty to do -- actually nicer than many places down south.  5) We managed to find craftsmen to help us with the projects we didn't want to tackle ourselves, namely a good rigger.

Yes, since our plan is to spend a couple of months in the Bahamas, and then to do a long offshore sail to somewhere -- either Bermuda or Block Island, probably -- we wanted to make sure the rigging was up to a possibly boisterous voyage. Petronella's standing rigging -- the wires that hold up the mast -- passed inspection during the pre-purchase survey, but there is no doubt that it is past its prime. Most of it was replaced in 2002, which is a long time for rigging. And she has done at least two Atlantic crossings since.

It was enough to make me think twice.

So we found a good rigger and invited him over to do a thorough survey. The result? The Norseman fittings, turnbuckles, etc., are good, but the wires are starting to 'barber pole', which means the inside strands are starting to rust. No problem going to the Bahamas with the rigging as it is, but it is time to start thinking about replacing the wires.

Since Norseman went out of business awhile back, it is going to be a challenge to find new cones, which are needed to re-use the fittings, but I think I've found a company in the UK that is having the cones made, probably in China. That's good news, as long as they are sound. I have ordered some for the rigger to look at. Presuming they are good enough, we should be having Petronella re-rigged the last week in April.

The other potential problem highlighted by the survey was our six wooden spreaders -- four on the mainmast and two on the mizzen. They are made out of wood and are about the same vintage as the wires. The rigger was a bit concerned that they were all angled a bit too low, which meant that the tenons that fit into the sockets on the mast might be damaged, rotting, or worse. He urged us to inspect them before leaving for the Bahamas, just to be sure.

Helena and I had resisted climbing our very tall (to us) masts, but clearly it was time to do so. Luckily, I have the best mate in the world...

"Ready for work, Captain!"

"The view is great up here!"

"Loosen that shroud a bit more!"

We (ha! I say 'we') inspected all the spreaders, and only found one with some slight damage. It had indeed been tilted at the wrong angle, and the stainless steel socket the tenon fits in had damaged the wood just a bit. Hardly worth replacing the whole spreader for, though. I cleaned up the tenon a bit, added a piece of fiberglass cloth to restore the tenon thickness, and gave the whole spreader a couple of coats of paint. Good as new!

Just a bit of surface damage, but the rest of the beefy tenon is perfectly fine.

I've been cluttering the fo'c's'le with my portable workbench and wood working tools, so I was glad to use them again. Even for a little project like this, having a real workbench makes the job so much easier.

Woodworking on the dock!
We are also refitting Petronella with a full set of new working sails -- from China! But more on that saga, later.

Next Up: To the Abacos

22 January 2018

A DIY Outboard Lifting Crane

When we bought Petronella, her dingy consisted of an old inflatable that literally held itself together until the very day we arrived in Florida from the Caribbean, and a old Honda 2.3 hp outboard. I'd done my best to keep the Honda going, including replacing its rusty old carburetor.

Inside the old Honda 2.3... rust

Rusty old carburetor, and its replacement
The new carburetor got the dead engine running again, but it wasn't reliable. And as my uncle Marty used to say, if you are going to have an engine on a boat, it needs to be reliable.

When it refused to start again in Beaufort, NC, we had enough. I didn't want to get stuck in the Bahamas with a non-working outboard. It was time for a new one.

The 2.3 hp engine was enough to move the PortaBote along with two people at a stately pace of 4 or 5 knots, but I'd read that a 4 hp engine would get the boat up on a plane, which would greatly increase our speed and range of exploration. Yamaha -- my preferred brand -- makes an excellent, 37 lb. 2.5 hp engine, but I was really tempted by the 59 lb. 4 hp model.

Weight vs. speed... Weight vs. range...

After agonizing over this decision for at least 10 minutes, I went with my gut and sent Helena off for the 4 hp model. Surely I could figure out some way to lift the beast on and off the dingy, right? All I'd need was some sort of crane... a DIY lifting crane. Yeah, that was it! No problem!

Our 60 lb. Yamaha 
Lifting the engine from the dock onto Petronella's outboard bracket just confirmed the need for a good, sturdy crane. There was no way I was going to be able to just hand the outboard down to Helena, waiting in the dingy, as we had done with the small Honda. We needed some mechanical help.

Yet, we didn't have room for a dedicated crane like you see on some boats. No, our crane had to be removable, and preferably made out of parts that could be used for other purposes on the boat. We didn't have room to store things that were dedicated to just lifting the outboard.

With those two criteria, I sat down to design a simple, but sturdy lifting crane, made mainly from things we already had on the boat. The video below shows the result.

We are currently in Sister's Creek, just north of Jacksonville, FL, waiting for some heavy fog to lift. We're aiming to spend a few days in St. Augustine.

Next Up: The Restoration Continues