Reflections on an amazing year

IMG_1686.jpgWe are in Ludington, Michigan.  We’ve been here for three days waiting on weather.  Before that we spent four days in Charlevoix, Michigan.  When we decided to go to Beaver Island and then on to Charlevoix we knew the long windows of good weather could well be coming to an end.  Fall weather on the great lakes is frequently like this.  A day or two of good weather to travel separated by a few days, or more than a few days, of inhospitable weather.  We’ve had a few days that were probably doable though likely not comfortable.  Throughout this year whenever we’ve had a day when we could go but it might not be fun I’ve tried to err on the side of not going and having pleasant travels when we do travel.  We’ve had that luxury.

Sitting in Charlevoix, looking out at Round Lake, a beautiful and tiny little lake before Lake Charlevoix, I spent some time reflecting on the last thirteen months of travels.  People frequently ask me how it has been.  I know they expect that I’m going to say it’s been great and that almost any answer I give is going to sound a little cliche.  My usual answer is that it’s the trip of a lifetime.  It truly is the trip of a lifetime.  I frequently try to remind myself how fortunate we are that we’ve been able to do this trip at 40ish years old.  I know that we’ve failed our children in giving them perspective.  I don’t think they have any clue how fortunate they are to have been able to have this experience.  I think Molly gets it a little more than Maddy.  Chalk that up to age and a little bit of personality type.

One of the single strongest endorsements of the time we’ve had is that no one is in a hurry to get home.  Madelyn will pay lip service to wanting to get home and see some of her toys but there’s no conviction to it.  Molly, Laura and I are all very interested in continuing to travel the way we have.  We’re trying hard to figure out a life that allows us the flexibility to continue to go to amazing places and have amazing experiences.

I’ve had the opportunity to learn a few things about myself.  When I thought of this trip I thought of time spent in the cockpit (the back outdoor area of the boat, not where you drive from, I can’t explain boating terminology, but that’s what it’s called!) with my feet up drinking a beer and watching the world go by.  We’ve done that some but the reality is that with two children and my personality that hasn’t been what the trip is about.  I thought I would relax more than I have.  I thought I wouldn’t be able to find sources of stress.  The reality is I can find things to stress about in any situation, I’ve been able to prove that this year.   The other reality is that I don’t relax all that well.  What I can tell you is that I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do for nearly every minute of the last thirteen months.  I love tinkering, figuring things out, fixing things, keeping things running, making things better.  The boat is a very large collection of things.  They all break, they all need all of the above.  I dread the thought that there may come a time when I don’t have the time to spend doing what I love.  I dread that I may have to go back to paying someone to fix and maintain the boat because I don’t have time to do it.  That will be hard for me if I have to do that.

Some months ago I participated in a very lively debate about the merits of the Great Loop.  A member of the boating community and owner of a prominent boating service who has done the Great Loop posted about what awful boating most of the Great Loop is and how poorly suited it is for many of the people who set out on the trip.  I was a very vocal defender of the loop.  It’s a remarkable trip and pretty amazing to think of all the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve had.  One thing that debate made me think about was the point made about the amount of unfamiliar boating and the fact that some of that boating is quite stressful.  This resonated with me.  We left on August 29th, 2016 and made a left at the confluence of the Little Calumet and the Illinois Sanitary and Ship Canal.  About five miles downstream from there we were in waters we’d never been in before.  That continued until September 23rd, 2017.  Almost 13 months of unfamiliar waters.  Each day brought new and unknown challenges.  Some of the days I thought would be the hardest turned out to be quite easy and some days I never dreamed would bring any challenges brought many.  I think one of the senses of achievement that comes with finishing this trip is the knowledge that regardless of where we go from here we will likely never again have the same level of sustained new and very frequently technical boating.  If we go back to Florida it will all be familiar.  If we go back to the Bahamas even if we explore new parts we will know so much more about what to expect and how to navigate those waters.  The same is true for almost any of the boating we will do in the future.  In addition to boating in unfamiliar waters for the year we boated in many types of water we’d had very little experience with.  We’ve primarily been Great Lakes boaters.  The Great Lakes bring about their own challenges but typically depth, tides and current aren’t among those challenges.  We now have a lot (and in some cases more than we’d ever wanted) experience with those and many other types of boating and challenges.  I hope to go through the Panama canal and explore some of the West Coast.  That will bring many new experiences but even that trip will also encompass waters we’ve been down before and we will know so much more about the types of boating we will encounter.

A moment about the boat.  I’ve written a lot about this boat this year.  We have tested this boat much more thoroughly than the vast majority of recreational boats are ever tested.  We took a boat we bought to cruise the Great Lakes evenings, weekends and a few weeks a summer and lived on it 24/7 for thirteen months.  We bought this boat with 400 hours on it in 11 years.  In the three and a half years we’ve put 1150 hours on it, about 800 of them in the last year plus.  The boat is made to make day trips and weekends very comfortable.  It has made us extremely comfortable for over a year.  It has taken every bit of use (and the occasional sand bar) with general aplomb.  We’ve been comfortable, the boat has been extremely reliable and it has kept us very safe.  We have also found some of the limits of this boat.  Many of them we knew about before we left and some we discovered during the trip.  We now have a very strong idea about what we’re looking for in our next boat.   One of the discoveries we’ve made is that for the first time in owning boats and looking at different boats we are unlikely to improve upon large parts of this boat.  We have just about no complaints about the interior accommodations of this boat and in fact think we will struggle to maintain the comfort we have now.

Preparations and Modifications

I debated making this it’s own blog entry.  I have received a lot of feedback from people who read our blog.  The feedback is split about 60/40 with 60 percent of the people who read my posts telling me that I use way too much technical jargon and provide too much detail on such items.  The other 40 percent tell me how much they love the technical detail and to make sure I keep posting about it.  If you’re in the 60 percent camp you may want to stop here.  You’ve been warned!

Before we left for the trip I spent many months preparing the boat for our trip.  I had the luxury of devoting a lot of time to preparing the boat and I jumped in with both feet.  I made quite a few modifications to the boat, installed a lot of new equipment and changed around things I thought would make us more comfortable.  It’s interesting after a year of running the boat hard to look back at those changes and think about what mattered and what we might do differently now that we know more.

The single biggest change we made to the boat was the Seakeeper.  It’s a really impressive device and changes lots of characteristics of the boat.  I’ve written about it a lot previously but what it comes down to is that the physics are such that it has hugely improved some of the bad habits of this boat but there are others it can’t affect.  To live on the boat for a year with crew members prone to motion sickness as well as a crew member who is freaked out by lateral rocking the addition of the Seakeeper was huge and made the trip so much more comfortable.

We made quite a few interior modifications as well.  We swapped out a table and two chairs for furniture with storage built in.  We removed the cabinet for the original tube television and replaced that with a cabinet with storage on one side and an additional fridge on the other.  Both of those changes were critical to living on the boat for a year.  A seven and ten year old come with a lot of stuff and if I’m honest so do I.  The additional fridge space gave us enough space that we always had enough room for food even if we had to go a long time between provisioning stops.   IMG_20160120_150932652

I also revamped the navigational electronics on the boat.  Surprisingly this was an area of what I would describe as more mixed success as judged by how much I used the elements installed and how much value I’d place on them.  When I did the install I thought a lot about how I’d used the boat around Chicago and tried to extrapolate that out to a year of cruising.  Based upon that and the fact that I was incorporating some upgrades I’d previously done on the boat I ended up with one large and one medium plotter at the upper helm and one large and two small plotters at the lower helm.  I installed AIS for vessel identification, SiriusXM weather and audio, a 12kw open array radar, an additional VHF radio, new instrument displays  and many other small changes.  Previously I’d replaced the autopilot and installed a couple of the plotters I mentioned above.  If we change boats I will not do as full of an electronics refit.  One of the things I learned during the trip was that I relied upon apps on iPads more heavily than I would have expected.  The rapid updates of those applications, the ease of use, the multiple sources of cartography and integration with data services like Active Captain made them extremely useful.  For the past 8 months or so I’ve run every mile with both Garmin Blue Charts and Navionics Boating HD running on two iPads at the helm.   I also discovered that the relatively expensive SiriusXM weather just isn’t worth it.  It doesn’t provide any more value than I get from free weather on a phone or iPad.  SiriusXM audio on the other hand has been one of the most used features on the boat.

Before we left I’d also changed out the house batteries for 6v golf cart batteries in pairs.  The hope being we’d be able to run refrigerators and other house loads for extended periods of time without running the generator.   After two stops on the rivers to buy additional batteries we were successful in that goal.  Before we left I installed a battery monitoring system that watches all the power consumed from the batteries and reports on their voltage, amps used and state of charge.  This turned out to be one of the most valuable systems on the boat.  Just ask Laura sometime about how much time I spend staring at the app for it.  We didn’t install solar power on the boat.  I’m not sure if this was a mistake or not but I know that we won’t leave on another trip without it.  The ability to replenish or even slow the rate of descent of the house batteries without running the generator would be huge.  Currently we have to carefully manage the amount of power we use and then manage the amount of time the generator will have to run in order to return that power to the batteries.  Days when we are away from shore power we have to run the generator between six and eight hours a day.   With solar I think we could get that down to less than three and even more if we attacked the inefficiency of some of our fridges and freezer.

After we left there have been a couple of things that we’ve tackled.   Before we left we’d anchored for the day and never overnight.  Our anchor sometimes held and sometimes dragged.  After anchoring a few times on the rivers in current we realized our anchor was just not sufficient.  We replaced our cheap plow the boat came with for a Rocna.  That was a night and day change.  The Rocna has never failed to set and held in some impressive winds.  We also added a shore power booster to deal with the low voltage seen in some marinas.

One of the biggest things we added to our equipment after we left was headsets.  Headsets are frequently referred to as marriage savers.  They allow Laura and I to talk to each other easily in normal conversational tones.  Previously the only way to communicate was to shout.  This led to frequent issues when shouting to be heard was confused with shouting in anger.  On a boat our size it was probably foolish to think we didn’t need them.  We wouldn’t do without them now that we have them.

Overall we’ve been quite pleased with what we brought and left at home.  There have been less than a half dozen items on the should have brought and the shouldn’t have brought lists.  The next time we pack for a trip like this I think we’ll be able to get even better.

As we think about this trip coming to an end I think it is the thoughts of next time that get us all through.  We have enjoyed this trip so thoroughly that we know there will be a next time.  We’re asked very regularly about our plans from here.  We don’t know.  We will have to see what opportunities are available to us and how we can make it all work.  Right now we have more unknowns than knowns and that makes planning very difficult.

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Day 365!

Today is our 365th day of the trip.  We have been gone for a year.  A year ago we waved goodbye to a dock full of friends and family and headed south to the Calumet River bound for Joliet.  Since then we have seen so many amazing things and been to such incredible places.  When we left I had very high expectations of what we’d see and do.  I think it’s safe to say all those expectations have been exceeded.

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Today we arrived at the Big Chute, lock 44, which as it turns out isn’t actually a lock at all.  It’s a marine railroad that connects two bodies of water.  Rather than a traditional lock there’s a railroad that goes over a road and down a hill to connect the two bodies of water.  The entire thing takes about seven minutes and is quite impressive to watch.   Our boat will ride the railroad tomorrow morning.  We’ve been told it’s likely we will end up riding alone.  Today while watching the railroad run we saw the car typically loaded with between six and eight boats.  After our railroad ride we will head to Midland Ontario and officially be on the Georgian Bay.  We’ve enjoyed the Trent Severn but I think with it’s shallow waters this might be a one and done experience for us.

As we look back at the year we’ve been travelling I looked back at some of our statistics.  I’m always amazed as I look at the numbers.

  • We have traveled 6,489 miles (statute), the dinghy has traveled 736 miles
  • We have been underway for 710 hours
  • We’ve put 1204 hours on the generator (though it’s running right now so that’s going up)
  • We have traveled 138 days
  • We have traversed 106 locks
  • We’ve been in three countries, 14 states and the District of Columbia
  • We have been travelling for 365 days
  • We have spent 288 nights in marinas
  • We have spent 40 nights anchored
  • We have spent 24 nights on a wall
  • The boat has spent 13 nights out of the water
  • We’ve had power 306 nights
  • The boat has been hauled out of the water three times during the trip
  • I’ve changed the oil three times
  • I’ve changed the oil in the generator five times
  • The main engines have gone through three impellers
  • The generator has gone through four impellers and one water pump
  • We’ve bought fuel 22 times
  • We’ve put 7,710 gallons of diesel in the boat
  • 4 teeth have been lost since we left, none by adults (and actually none by Molly)

We will be home in about a month.  All of us except Maddy are dreading it.  Maddy talks a good game about wanting to get home but I think she’s going to realize how good she had it.  We’re really looking forward to seeing friends and family but this experience and way of life are pretty awesome.

Props, props & more props

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.

7DB7F8EE-83E0-4CF9-AD72-64771B7B2728The 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.

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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.

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I feel like we just did this

 

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.

Keeping the Boat Running

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Jeffrey Siegel founder of Active Captain responded to a challenge on facebook to describe his hobby badly.  His response was that he fixes boats in exotic locations.  I can’t think of too many things that have resonated with me that well, it describes a large portion of what I do on the boat.  And I love it.  The mechanical aspects of the boat are a big part of what I enjoy about boating.  With some notable exceptions I enjoy tinkering and improving things on the boat.  I enjoy most of the maintenance (head systems being a notable exception) tasks on the boat and I certainly enjoy the sense of accomplishment from keeping everything running and in good shape.  As I look back at a few of the things that I’ve done on the boat since we left here’s a partial list:

  • Oil change on main engines and generator, twice
  • Impeller change on generator and main engines
  • Oil change and spark plug change on the dinghy
  • Fuel filters changed twice
  • Main engine breather filters replaced
  • Engine zincs changed
  • Shaft zincs changed
  • Seakeeper zinc changed
  • Refrigerant added to salon compressor (thanks Don!)
  • Crossover valving adding to allow the generator to draw and return fuel to either tank
  • Four additional house batteries added
  • House bank wiring redone
  • Countless latches replaced (Apparently the Southco 5 & 10lb latches have about a 13 year life)
  • Hacked together a deck mounted overboard discharge system as our boat lacks one
  • Fiberglass repairs on the dinghy (thanks dad!)
  • Resealed a window
  • Recaulked many linear feet of exterior seams
  • And the never ending task of waxing the boat…

We recently moved from Treasure Cay where we enjoyed the beautiful beach, nature to explore and beautiful resort to head to Marsh Harbour.  Marsh was a provisioning and maintenance stop.  We were able to get to a grocery store that looked like the grocery stores to which we’re accustomed.  I was able to get to a hardware store (twice of course), a marine store and an auto parts store.  I plumbed the necessary valves and adapters in to allow the generator to draw from either fuel tank (an important improvement to try and even out our port list.)  I was also able to perform an oil change,  change several zincs, replace breather filters and generally check out everything in the engine room.

While doing all that maintenance I looked through some of my records and came to some interesting statistics.

  • Since we left Chicago we have put 350 hours on the main engines
  • We have traveled 3,301 miles
  • We have burned 4,783 gallons of diesel
  •  We have been underway for 315 hours
  • We’ve traversed 34 locks
  • We’ve had 59 travelling days
  • We’ve stayed in a marina 158 nights
  • We’ve stayed at anchor 10 nights
  • We’ve stayed on a town wall 4 nights
  • Since the last time I posted one of these reviews we haven’t added any props to our propeller body count so I’m not going to talk about that any more

A few interesting notes about expense.  Thus far we’ve averaged $60.82 a night for dockage.  We’ve averaged $2.67 a gallon for diesel.  We’re spending less per night than we thought on dockage.  We’re spending about what we expected per gallon of fuel but we’ve definitely used less fuel than we were predicting.  One of the things we’ve discovered during the trip is that we are generally much happier moving slower.  Because of the design of our boat when the water gets rough we need to pick up the pace some in order to gain better stability.  That means that we’ve actually gone faster than we might like some of the time in order to try and get a more comfortable ride.

We’re currently sitting in Hope Town waiting out some 30 MPH winds before we decide whether to head south to Exumas or continue our exploring the Abacos some more before heading back to the U.S.  Either way I’m happy to know the maintenance is current and everything looks to be in good running order.

Day 176 – Musings from almost six months gone

We’ve been gone for nine days shy of six months.  This has been the trip of a lifetime.  Many mornings I wake up and marvel at the fact that we have made it this far.  We’ve traveled 3,242 miles.  We’ve traversed 34 locks.  We’ve covered almost countless rivers, lakes, canals, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and several seas.  Oh, and we’ve touched bottom three times, had to be towed off once and damaged four props.  When we arrived in St. Petersburg Laura and I turned to each other and both marveled at the fact we’d made it that far.  Since then it’s just gotten harder to believe that we are where are and doing what we are doing.

We are aware of how fortunate we are to be here.  We try hard to help the girls realize how fortunate they are as well but I worry constantly about our success in that department.  That said, we have been able to be quite successful in providing the girls with the experiences we thought would make the trip worthwhile.  As Molly’s fourth grade class began studying the civil war we found ourselves in the midst of civil war battlefields.  More recently as part of the first grade curriculum Maddy started studying habitats.  We are currently floating in one heck of a habitat.  We’ve seen cows swimming in flooded rivers, fall in the Tennessee Valley gorge, Taylor Swift’s recording studio, dolphins jumping in our wake, houses built on stilts, the biggest cruise ships in the world, sea turtles, sharks, eagle rays, the bluest, clearest water you can imagine, six toed cats, Molly throwing swords and so many hundreds and hundreds of things I can’t list.

Now we find ourselves in the Bahamas hopping from cay (pronounced key) to cay each with their own beauty and charm.  Today we arrived at Treasure Cay with one of the most impressive beaches I’ve ever seen.  The sand couldn’t be softer or finer.  The water off the beach is a beautiful blue-green.  We travel from one postcard to another.

Laura and I have spent a lot of time thinking about what’s next for us.  Do we continue travelling south?  Do we go to Eleuthera? The Exumas?  We’ve had a few occasions recently to be reminded of the limitations of our boat.  It is a tremendous amount of living space for us.   It’s also relatively efficient for a boat of its size.  What it’s not is a great sea boat.  It’s not comfortable in rough conditions and it doesn’t inspire confidence.  We’ve talked about travelling further south into the Caribbean but with our current boat both Laura and I don’t feel like that’s likely to be a great idea.  We’ve thought about looking at different boats and I think it’s likely when we get back to Florida that we will do some looking.  We’ve made a lot of improvements to this boat and it would be difficult to not be able to benefit from all those changes.  So, if we are going to make a change we need something that is clearly a better boat for us and for the cruising we hope to be able to do.  That’s likely not an easy task.

For now we will just continue our cruise through paradise enjoying our time here and soaking up the experiences and beauty.

Day 84 – We crossed the Gulf of Mexico

As seems to be our habit now both Laura and I have started our recent posts with regret about not posting more often.  A lot has happened since I last posted so I’ll try and cover all of it.

As Laura posted about we ended up being off the boat for two weeks while it was being repaired.  It turns out the damage from our time on the sandbar on the Tenn-Tom was a little greater than I’d hoped would be the case.  The primary damage was to the port side of the boat.  At some point during our sandbar adventure we bent the port rudder forward.  That means we hit it going backwards hard enough to bend the stainless steel shaft at about a 15-20 degree angle.  Additionally a part inside the boat that helps locate the rudder was cracked.  Shortly after we left the boat I got a distressing phone call from the yard indicating we needed a new rudder and the rudder table (the part that locates the rudder) was cracked.  The distressing part was that the rudder had a lead time of 6-8 weeks and the rudder table was no longer made, the result of a dispute between carver and the manufacturer of the part.  Fortunately I was able to talk to the manufacturer of the rudder and determine they had one in stock that could be modified for our boat.  The other part would need to be made by the yard.

With this sorted, the propellers sent to the prop shop and the shafts at a machine shop being straightened we had clarity it would take about two weeks to fix the boat.  With that in mind we decided it was a good time to head to Disney World.  So, we made our deal with the large rodent and headed for Orlando for five days of parks.  Laura wrote more about that but we had a good time and the girls did better than we expected.

Once we returned we were able to spend some more time with Tom and Janet, Tommy, Patty, Kato and Naali and Sarah, Adrian and Judah.  We had Tom and Janet ride with us from Pensacola to Destin and then Tommy, Patty, Kato and Naali from Santa Rosa Beach to Panama City.  From Panama City we headed to Apalachicola.  We really enjoyed Apalachicola.  It’s a historic town with a large oyster industry and a cute downtown.  We spent about 24 hours there and enjoyed our time walking around, exploring maritime antiques, a soda fountain and good eating.

We left Apalachacola around 1pm and headed for an anchorage in the lee of Dog Island just off of Carabelle, FL.  We spent the night there before waking up before first light to begin our crossing.

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We had planned to run with another boat, Perfect Timing, a 50′ Hatteras who typically runs about 17.5 kts at fast cruise.  We typically cruise around 21-22 kts so we knew we would be a little quicker but agreed with Perfect Timing it would still be better to have another boat out there than going entirely solo.  As it turns out when we woke before first light they had already left.  We caught up with them a couple of hours into our crossing.  We left in perfectly flat water and ran the first three or four hours with nearly calm waters.  Around the time we caught up with Perfect Timing we heard a very loud boom.  I suddenly became concerned as I knew the military conducts live fire exercises in these waters.  I first spoke with Perfect Timing and confirmed they heard the noise as well and also didn’t know the source.  I then called the Coast Guard and gave them our position and inquired about any potential exercises in the area.  After standing by for about ten minutes the Coast Guard came back and said the Air Force was conducting dog fighting training and what we were hearing was sonic booms.  Sonic booms sounded a lot better to us than bombs.  As we continued on the seas built a little to the point we were seeing steady two footers with occasional 3-4s.  It wasn’t uncomfortable but did cause us to spin up the stabilizer.  As we got closer to shore the seas calmed a little and by the time we were close to St. Petersburg the seas had calmed again.  img_0093As we were pulling into the markers for the North Pass I turned to Laura and commented how it was kind of hard to believe that we’d gotten our boat all the way from Chicago to St. Petersburg.  While we were in the pass Mike Rowe from Rowe Boat called us on the VHF to let us know he was out in his dinghy and would lead us in to the Pasadena Yacht Club where Mike had been kind enough to arrange dockage for us for the month.  We were happy to have Mike’s knowledge of the area as we followed him in.  The approach was fairly easy but would have been made a little more stressful by not being sure what area to hug when for the deepest water.  We also were aided by coming in on a rising tide.  We tied up the boat, plugged into shore power and shut down the engines.  We’d traveled 197 miles in 8 hours and 41 minutes, averaging 19.75 knots.  A pretty easy crossing.

We’ve spent the last few days doing some chores on the boat, cleaning up, resupplying, and relaxing.  The girls have been able to swim two of the three days we’ve been here and we’ve done some exploring.  Thursday we will go to the yacht club for Thanksgiving Dinner.  Friday Grandma Cathy arrives and Monday we will go see Laura’s Grandfather Charles.

We will be here for about a month before heading further south to Fort Meyers for the holidays and further visits with family.

Day 60 – Western Rivers Complete

We’ve  been gone for sixty days.  In those sixty days we’ve completed the portion of the loop that takes you from the Great Lakes down the western rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.  We are currently in a marina on Mobile Bay.  For the first time in our boat’s 13 year life it is in salt water.  Here are some statistics from our first 60 days:

  • We’ve covered 2,147 miles
  • We’ve burned roughly 2747 gallons of diesel
  • We’ve touched bottom 3 times
  • We’ve damaged four propellers
  • We’ve been stuck on a sand bar 1 time
  • We’ve spent 33 days travelling and 27 staying still
  • We’ve stayed in a marina 49 nights, at anchor 6 nights and on a wall 4 nights
  • We’ve been underway for 222.5 hours
  • We’ve visited 7 states

When we decided to do the Great Loop we knew our boat was on the larger side of the boats that complete the loop.  We also knew that we drafted more water than most boats that complete the loop.  One thing I didn’t stop to think about much was the configuration of the props and running gear on our boat.  We have a planing boat.  That means our boat can go fast and that when it goes fast it climbs up on top of the water so there is less hull in the water and hence less drag.  In order for the boat to go quickly and as efficiently as a 60,000 pound 59′ 10″ long hunk of fiberglass can there needs to be as little resistance as possible.  One of the ways this is achieved is our boat has no keel protruding down from the hull.  This means that by about two feet our propellers are the lowest thing in the water.  If we are going to touch the bottom it’s going to be the props that hit.  We’ve done that.  Three times.

Laura posted about our most recent incident.   Last Saturday night we found ourselves stuck on a sand bar at the entrance to an anchorage that was supposed to have plenty of depth.

I included a couple of pictures of us being pulled free.  During the process of trying to free our boat both of the other boats ended up stuck at some point in the process and also had to be pulled free.  This just serves to illustrate the potential for difficulty in these waters.  We’ve boated for a decade on the Great Lakes.  We pull out of the harbor and are in 30 feet of water and never see anything shallower.

After our sand bar adventure we continued down the Tenn Tom to head towards Mobile.  We traveled a very windy section of river down to Bobby’s Fish Camp.  Bobby’s is a loop institution a little like Hoppie’s.  Because of the timing and Hoppie’s location on the Mississippi with no protection from passing barges we decided to skip Hoppie’s.  I was excited to experience Bobby’s.  We did.  It was okay.  The restaurant was okay with lots of fried food.  The experience was fun.  Having to raft boats two deep and still paying the most we paid for months for dockage was less fun.  Bobby’s is the only stop for hundreds of miles so it’s their rules and their rates or anchor for four or five straight nights.

Thursday we entered Mobile Bay.  Within the first five minutes of being on the bay we saw our first dolphins.  Maddy told us that she didn’t care about seeing dolphins as we got on the bay.  Moments later we saw dolphins and Maddy squealed the loudest of anyone.  The look of sheer joy for her was a really great moment.  Less great for Maddy was realizing that we are done with the rivers and now will have periods of open water again.  As many know, Maddy really doesn’t like when the boat rocks.   For the last two months we haven’t had to deal with open water and any waves beyond wake.

Today we arrived at Saunder’s Yacht Works in Gulf Shores.  Tomorrow we will drive to Santa Rosa Beach and see Tom Stein’s family.  The girls are very excited about seeing their cousins.  They will be able to trick-or-treat at Seaside and have a fairly normal Halloween.  Laura will get to sleep in a bed that doesn’t rock.  I’m very excited about having the boat hauled and any damage done from our adventures repaired.

Day 39 – Chatanooga, TN

A lot has happened since I last posted.  Thankfully one thing that hasn’t happened is we haven’t trashed any more propellers.  Yet.  Last Thursday John from Crazy Love and I took their mini van loaded with the set of props we wrecked leaving Pisgah bay and drove 582 miles to Gulf Shores, AL.  We dropped off the newly wrecked set and picked up the set that was dinged in Alton.  In total we were gone for about 17.5 hours having driven just shy of 1,200 miles.  We stopped once each way and quickly in Gulf Shores.  It was a very long day.  The payoff for the long day was that the next morning we were able to have the boat hauled out, the props replaced and be on our way.  Our exit from Green Turtle Bay was over due and it felt great to be on our way again.

On Friday we were able to leave Green Turtle at about 11am and were able to run through the canal to Kentucky Lake and down the length of Kentucky Lake to Pebble Isle Marina.  There we were able to buy cheap diesel, enjoy a good dinner at the local restaurant and enjoy really good cinnamon rolls they serve all the transient boaters in the morning.  The trip down Kentucky Lake was very pretty and featured some interesting remains from before the land was flooded to form the lake.

The next day we got up early and ran a long ways from Pebble Isle Marina to Florence, AL.  It was a run of about 160 miles and took 9.5 hours.  By the time we got to Florence it was dinner time and we went to the restaurant at the harbor for another good dinner.  We were very ready to be off the boat by then.

The following morning we went from Florence to Joe Wheeler harbor.  This took us through two locks including Wilson Lock.  At a 93 foot rise it was largest rise or fall we have been through thus far in the trip.  It will be among the largest of our trip though we will beat it later.  Joe Wheeler Harbor is on the Joe Wheeler Resevoir and part of a large Alabama State Park.  It is a really beautiful setting with a nice lodge, pool and good facilities around.

A little while after we arrived at Joe Wheeler Laura’s mom Cathy and Jim arrived.  The girls were very excited to see both of them.  We had brunch at the lodge and then while Laura and I ran a couple of errands Jim took the girls fishing.  Jim was great with the girls and taught them a lot.  I’m a complete neophyte when it comes to fishing so having someone with Jim’s knowledge show the girls the ropes was really great.  Jim bought the girls live bait and despite our concern they might be grossed out they couldn’t have been more excited about it.  They both caught fish with Molly taking the prize for the biggest fish.  A 10lb carp.  Thankfully the line snapped before they reeled it in.

We spent the next morning, Monday, with Jim and Cathy before they headed home.  We made our way planning to stop at an anchorage on Lake Guntersville.  As we were headed there we heard from Mike on Rowe boat that they were at the Lake Guntersville Yacht club for a gold burgee ceremony for another looper we’d met in Alton.  So, we headed there instead, got to see Tim and Carol from Liquid Assets as they were also there and spent the night.  The next morning we got up and headed to Goose Pond in Scottsboro, Al where we pulled in as Kathy, Livia, Claudia and Sabina pulled into the parking lot.  The image of Livia and Claudia bouncing up and down waving at us was awfully sweet.

We caught up with them, had a nice dinner and got the girls to sleep.  All four in the bunk room.  As anyone who has been on the boat knows, the bunk room is not large.  Four bodies in that room is hard for me to fathom.  In the morning we headed out of Goose Pond and about 50 miles to Cedar Creek on Nickajack Lake.  Cedar Creek was a beautiful anchorage just past the Nickajack Lock.  We got there in the early afternoon giving the girls lots of time to swim.  We then made a nice dinner and got the girls to sleep.  Courtesy of Madelyn that wasn’t an easy task.

This morning we got up quite early and got on our way to Chattanooga.  We arrived around noon and quickly did a little exploring.  The girls rode a carousel and played in a big fountain attached to the aquarium.  We had dinner at a very unusual burger bar on a barge attached to an excursion boat on the river.  The site was odd but the burgers were very good.  Tomorrow night Jack flies in and Sunday Laura turns 40.

Day 29 – We’re on a year long adventure… right?

Before we left on the trip Mike Walsh from Marine Services encouraged me to buy a spare set of props.  At the time I said that I was following his advice with the hope that I would never need them.  Well…  one month into the trip I have not only needed them, but now could use a second set of spares.

As you may remember when we were in Alton, IL leaving the fuel dock we hit a submerged object of some sort just off the fuel dock.  That put a ding in the starboard prop and may well have screwed up pitch on several of the blades as well.  When we got to Green Turtle Bay we had the boat hauled and props swapped.  We then went to Nashville and returned.  We had a great visit in Nashville and returned with several of the boats with which we had traveled.

Yesterday we headed back to Pisgah Bay, the painted rocks anchorage we had visited twice with Tim and Carol.  This was the second time I brought our boat into the anchorage.  It’s an old quarry that was flooded when Kentucky Lake was created.  The first time we visited we followed Tim in and though the water got shallow as we entered we had no problems.  Yesterday we also visited and also had no problems on the way in.  I followed my track from our previous visits and didn’t have issues.  On the way out I wasn’t paying as close of attention to our previous tracks and was about 15 feet further north on the way out.  As we exited we heard large thunk followed by the unmistakable noise of metal hitting rock.  We’d hit the props, I had no doubt.  That 15 feet was extremely significant.

Today we were hauled out and the results weren’t pretty.  This set of props is pretty banged up.  I’m hopeful they can be repaired but it won’t be cheap or quick.  Now the rub, we sent the previous set of propellers to Mobile to be repaired with plans to pick them up when we got to Mobile.  The propellers arrived in Mobile today and will hopefully be repaired quickly.  The propellers that just came off the boat aren’t going to be fixed quickly so we need the set in Mobile here as quickly as possible.  It looks like the most expedient option is going to be to wait until the Mobile set has been repaired and then drive about 8 hours to pick up the repaired set and drop off the damaged set.

We’re planning on meeting Jack and Kathy and the girls in Chattanooga.  Jack flies in on October 6th and Laura’s birthday is October 9th.  We really would like to be leaving here by the end of the week at the latest.  That’s going to be tough but I’m going to do whatever I can to make those dates work.

Now, lessons learned?  I need to be much more aware of depth.  Everywhere we go for the next many months will be in skinny water.  For the last ten years I’ve boated in the great lakes.  I’ve never had to think about depth as a major factor.  It’s a major factor now.  I will be far more vigilant.  I can’t be casual.  I must be more aware of the tools I have.  If I’d followed my track line I wouldn’t have hit.  I also have to consider the size of our boat, the amount of water we draw and make sure we don’t take chances we don’t have to take.

As it stands now we float in our slip with no propellers.  We are very fortunate to be able to do this trip.  I am very cognizant of this and no matter how frustrated I get I work hard to remember that.

Day 19 – Nashville, TN

Today we completed the 160 or so miles from Green Turtle Bay to Nashville, TN.  We are staying downtown at the riverfront docks in Nashville.  We broke the trip up into two days.  Yesterday we traveled from Green Turtle to Clarksville, TN, a trip of about 100 miles.  Today we traveled from Clarksville to Nashville.  The trip took us on about 24 miles on Lake Barkley to the Cumberland for the remainder of our trip.  The trip was beautiful with lots of dramatic bluffs, rock faces and winding river.

Once we got to Nashville we walked across the bridge and took a walk up Broadway.  Nashville is a fun town.  There’s an awful lot to see and do.  I don’t think we will have time to do it all nor is all of it doable with the girls.  We ducked into a bar and listened to some live music, got the girls some kiddie cocktails and shopped for some souvenirs.  We got some great barbecue from a place on Broadway and then walked back to the boat.

In my last post I mentioned the boat was hauled and props swapped.  During the run here I felt some vibrations that I’m hoping are caused by current, not by any further issues with the props or running gear.  Here are a few pictures of the boat getting hauled and the damaged props.