I feel like I’ve written this blog post before. Maybe that’s because I basically have. Prior to leaving for the trip when asked what I was most nervous about I would usually answer the dynamic of the four of us living together in relatively close quarters and shallow water. We’d never boated in shallow water before so I knew that would be a new dynamic to deal with. Turns out that concern was well placed. Very well placed.
A word of warning. Some have noted by blogs are very technical and they have no idea what I’m talking about. Others have written and asked for more technical blogs. This blog will satisfy those looking for more technical details and bore to tears those not interested in those aspects.
Two weeks ago shortly after leaving New Smyrna we rounded the bend around the Ponce inlet and found a sailboat stopped directly in our path. I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on but watched another sailboat go around him on the stopped sailboat’s starboard side. Without a lot of time to decide what was going on I followed the other boat around and passed the stopped boat on it’s starboard side. As I got next to the boat the captain of the stopped boat told me to throw a large wake if I could because he was aground. As he was saying that our boat ground to a halt, both engines shut down and that unmistakable noise of the props hitting bottom was heard again.
It had been over six months since the last time I’d heard that noise. At that time we were on the Tenn-Tom and relatively new to the loop, and somewhat unbelievably hadn’t even made it to the really shallow water yet. Since then we’ve traversed all of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the Keys, a bunch of Atlantic ICW and the quite skinny waters of the Bahamas. Now, dead in the middle of the channel on the ICW without a hazard marker we were aground. I made a call to Tow Boat U.S. and the tow boat on the way for the sailboat responded and let me know he would be on scene shortly. At about that time the sailboat floated off (the tide was rising) and motored on. Being a sailboat and having a stout keel he had no damage. About five minutes later we floated off. I put the boat in gear and before even bringing the engines off of idle I knew we’d bent the starboard prop, AGAIN. Bad words were said, mostly in my head as both girls were with me. The tow boat arrived and after some difficult negotiations with him he agreed to lead us through the area and show us where the deep water was. We made it through and vibrated in to Halifax Harbor in Daytona Beach.
The next morning, a Sunday, I was able to find a diver who was able to change the props that day. That solved our debate between swapping props by diver or being hauled again. We waited about four hours for the diver to arrive. He then called and let me know he couldn’t find the equipment he needed, a prop puller, to complete the job so he wouldn’t be able to do it. At that point I scrambled some more and found another diver who would be able to do the swap. About an hour later he and an assistant arrived to do the swap. He was an experienced diver who has been doing this work for 30+ years. Within two hours both props were off the boat and on the dock.
As I expected the starboard prop had a big gentle fold in one blade of the prop. It confirmed we hit sand and hit going pretty slowly. Now time to put the good set on the boat. The diver, who had been sharing war stories of various calamities, went down with the port prop. I could hear banging and work being done for about 15 minutes. He then popped up holding his hand to his chest. I could tell something was amiss. While working on getting the prop on the shaft the diver had taken off his gloves, a big no-no. The prop started to slide off the shaft and he reflexively tried to catch it. Our props are heavy, around 100 pounds each, with blades that come a pretty sharp edge. The edge of the very heavy prop went through his palm. After he stood around dripping blood for a few minutes and refusing to show me his hand he relented. His palm was cut straight through to the bone. The tendons were cut clean. I grabbed a fair amount of gauze and tape. Applied pressure until the bleeding slowed enough to wrap it and he held his hand over his head. At that point it was pretty clear the props weren’t going back on that afternoon. He left and headed to the hospital with promises of returning in the morning with another diver to finish the job. So, Laura and I moved all four props into the salon so that our roughly $20,000 in propellers didn’t walk away.
The diver was as good as his word and in the morning he, his assistant and another diver arrived. The other diver and assistant tried for about an hour and a half to get the prop on and weren’t able. At that point the diver called in yet another diver to help. The three of them were now able to get the props on and we were back in business. We left shortly after that and headed up to Marineland, Florida. We had a nice night in Marineland and some very good pizza delivered. We spent the evening looking at Activecaptain and various charts, guidebooks and other resources to get a handle on the shoaling and hazards on the trip between Marineland and St. Augustine. There are many charted and lots of changes as a result of Hurricane Matthew last fall. We made arrangements to follow a Kady Krogen 42 and their substantial keel through Matanzas pass and the Devil’s Elbow. After much stressing about damaging our less than 48 hours-on-the-boat props the run turned out to be quite easy, deep and pretty. We arrived in St. Augustine earlier than planned despite running very slowly.
We’d been warned extensively about the currents in St. Augustine and the advisability of entering at slack tide. We’d tried to time our trip so we would arrive at dead low tide and the slack current it brings with it. We were about an hour early so we did slow donuts in front of the marina waiting for the current to slack out. Eventually I lost patience and we headed in, docking turned out to be pretty easy and afterward I decided we were probably overly cautious. No harm done there.
At that point my stress level went down a good bit. We were in St. Augustine for a week and had two days until my parents arrived. The girls were very excited to have Mema and Pop-Pop visit. We walked into town just to take in St. Augustine on a very hot afternoon. We loved St. Augustine. It was another reminder of the magic of this trip. I’d never given St. Augustine, FL a moment’s thought. It turns out it’s the oldest city in the U.S. ripe with history and interesting sites, and some tourist traps too. We had a great visit with my parents and enjoyed all the history and sites. While we were in St. Augustine the wind was ripping most of the time were there. We frequently saw 30+ MPH wind. We were very fortunate to be on the north side of the docks where the docks provided a very effective break wall. The boats just the other side of the dock weren’t as fortunate. And one particularly unlucky boat kitty-corner from us was hit twice by boats trying to dock in the slip next to it. Here’s a picture of a Great Harbour 37 who just didn’t have the power to compete with the wind and current. They spent about five hours tied up like this.
Tuesday morning came and it was time to say goodbye to Mema and Pop-Pop. They waved to us as we left the dock and they headed for the airport. As soon as I put the boat in gear leaving St. Augustine I felt a vibration from the starboard side. I made a mental note and kind of ignored it. That day we ran inside up the AICW to Fernandina, FL. Fernandina was hit hard by Matthew. Their docks are still mostly in ruins and they have very few mooring balls that have been inspected and are in service. Fortunately there are a few good anchorages close to town. So, we anchored, put the dinghy down and headed into town for a late afternoon walk around and dinner. Fernandina is adorable and another entry on the list of cute little towns we otherwise would never encounter.
As we left the boat I noticed that the house voltage was lower than it should be for how long we’d been at anchor. Before we left Chicago I rebuilt the house bank with golf cart batteries and a fairly sophisticated monitoring system. A well built and well cared for house bank should last a minimum of three years. We have been using ours for less than one and have treated it very well so this was concerning. I spent much of the night obsessing over this and trying to figure out why we would be having problems. I load tested each battery, used a specific gravity tester on each cell of each battery to figure out the condition of all the batteries and attempted to inspect every aspect of the system. In doing this I found a small variation between the batteries but nothing that pointed towards root cause. That night starting at 3:35am the low battery alarms started going off. By 4:30 I’d had to start the generator because voltage was so low.
The next morning we got up and ran to Cumberland Island, a national park, to hike the island a little and hopefully see the wild horses that roam the island. We didn’t find the horses but we still had a run planned into Georgia so it was time to get going. While on the island we hiked to the Atlantic side and noticed how calm the ocean was. That changed our plan and caused us to decide to run outside and up to St. Simons Island rather than our previously planned Jekyll Island. We had a pretty run up the Atlantic in big gentle swells. At least I thought it was pretty, my other three crew were a little green. We made it into St. Simons Island without incident and got tied up and had some dinner and a quiet night.
The next day a diver was working on a boat across the dock from me. From having the props replaced I knew that I was missing a zinc on the port shaft so I asked him if he would mind installing a zinc for me. While he was down I asked him to check the starboard side and see if he saw any reason for the vibration. At the same time the diver was working under the boat I finally found the problem with the house bank. While working on it I put my hand on a connector and found it was very warm. A crimp had failed in one of the cables connecting the 8 batteries. Fortuitously one of the main suppliers of heavy gauge marine cabling is in Brunswick, GA, about a 15 minute drive away. I was able to call them, order the cables I needed and pick them up a few hours later. They are in and the bank is performing properly again. While I was discovering the issue with the house bank the diver put the zincs on and came up to report a ripple in the starboard prop. I was shocked as we hadn’t hit anything (that I knew of) and the damn props had only been on the boat 11 days.
Shocked or not the prop needed to come off. So, once again, I scheduled a diver to come out and swap both props. The diver came out this morning and got to work. Since we arrived in St. Simons the wind has picked up again and is blowing well over 30 MPH. This has stirred the water up and didn’t make the diver’s work any easier. Quite quickly the diver had the starboard prop off and on the dock. Indeed there was a good kink in the prop but well away from the tip of the blade. This means the blade didn’t hit bottom and we must have hit floating debris at some point. We never felt a thing which is surprising since the props are pretty big and pretty durable, it takes a big impact to bend them. So, the source of the bend remains a mystery. The other prop came off pretty easily and now they were both on the dock. Now it was just a matter of putting the other set on the boat.
At that point we left to run into town to try and get Laura’s phone fixed. It has decided to randomly power off and is in need of replacement. While in town I got a phone call from the diver that it was too rough to get the props on and that he’d lost both of the pieces of key stock that lock the props onto the shafts. He also mentioned that all of his tools, phone, and the money I’d paid him for the job went into the water and were lost. I feel terribly for the diver. While we were on our way back to the marina he was able to find one of the keys in the mud under the boat but the other one remains lost on the bottom. He is trying to have another one made and will be back tomorrow mid-day to hopefully finish up the job.
So, at this point in the trip we are up to a propeller count of six props damaged, five separate instances of having to swap props and two multi-day sagas in getting them done. The thought has occurred to us that a keel would be a lovely feature on a boat. We have tried to get a deal done to purchase a different boat but it seems like we aren’t going to be able to get it done while on the trip. The primary complicating factor being our unwillingness to own two boats. So we either need to find someone who will take our boat in trade or a buyer for our boat. That’s not so easy to do when living on the boat and travelling continuously. So it seems likely we will return to Chicago with our current boat and figure out our plan once we return. Unless of course anyone is in the market for a 570 with two sets of very recently tuned props.