Monday, June 18, 2018

Georgia on my mind...

This evening Kintala is anchored just off the ICW, north of a place called Isle of Hope Marina. We are a day from finishing our first transit of Georgia, and it was a good idea to come this way. There are many cruiser / ICW tales of woe - stories about how hard it can be to navigate these waters. The trick, or so it seems to me after this one try, is to remember that Georgia has plenty of water that is deep enough to get through, it just isn’t available all day every day in every place. Jekyll Creek and Hell Gate are two places famous for being thin, with a few others where shoaling seems to come and go, sometimes ruining someone’s day. By pure happenstance, the days we came through were ones with the tides working completely in our favor. Low tides were in the morning hours, high in the early afternoons. Excellent planning, all Deb’s doing, had us hitting the skinniest spots at or near maximum water, and we spent most of each day riding a rising tide. With a tidal range up to three feet higher than Kintala’s keel is deep, only once did we see less than 3 feet under said keel; that being the first couple of hundred feet after entering Hell Gate northbound.

A good bit of time in Georgia is spent looking at the shallow mud along the channel

This is also a pretty part of the ICW, particularly the part north of Hell Gate. The southern part of the Georgia ICW is salt marsh, pretty in its own way but with a certain aroma, particularly at low tide, that is - how shall I say - “unique”? North of Hell Gate, where we are now, is pine forest. The water is less brown, more green, and there are plenty of dolphins for company.  An altogether pleasant place to pass through.

Large barges pass this way too. This one had a draft of only 2 feet when we checked its side with binoculars

Another interesting part of the Georgia ICW are the inlets. St. Mary’s, St. Andrews, St. Simons, Altamaha, Doboy, Sapelo, St. Catherine's, and Ossabaw are all pretty big bits of water and open to the Atlantic, each capable of administering a serious thrashing to the unwary. Their particular forte is stacking swift tidal flows against the winds, making for steep, often confused seas. Toss in a passing thunderstorm or two and things can get downright exciting. Crossing a couple of them has the wayfaring boat just a few hundred yards inside the sound, sometimes with the bow pointed off shore. Keep going and make landfall in North Africa somewhere.

These two photos are almost the same, but I liked them both so here they are

These are not protected, thin little channels snaking their way though a swamp. Again, we caught a good ride, though the southern branch of the Ossabaw Sound gave us a hint of what it could do during our approach to Hell Gate. A nearby baby rain shower accelerated the onshore breeze into the low 20s. Flying the jib close hauled on that wind gave us a good push onward, making it possible to pass through Hell Gate today instead of anchoring up and waiting for high tide tomorrow. (Seven knots as opposed to four will do that for you.) But that same wind put a sharp edge on waves being stacked close together. They were way too small to be much of an issue for 25,000 pounds worth of sailboat on a full honk, but were just enough to let one know that things could get much, much more interesting in a very short amount of time.

Muted light at the end of the day in Crescent River, GA

One can hardly talk about passing through these parts without mentioning the abundance of deer flies. They can bite right through a light shirt, not surprising since they bite through deer hide. But they do offer a time-filling distraction to the person not standing at the helm. After a couple of hours' practice one will start scoring a kill on 8 out of ten swatter attacks. A perfect hit leaves the corpse on the swatter, making for an easy toss to feed the fish. They are tough little buggers though, sometimes taking a serious smack and still flying away.

Moving south through these waters in the fall might be a touch easier without the regular assault of convective weather. Then again, the days are shorter making the tide v miles v daylight computations a bit trickier. We might give it a go. Though the outside passage around Georgia can be painless and save time, these are waters too pretty to miss. Cooler weather would make passing this way about perfect, and maybe the deer flies will be out of season as well.

"There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy a freely vast horizon." 
Henry David Thoreau

Friday, June 15, 2018

New Water

It was with a bit of reluctance that we dropped the mooring ball in St. Augustine and headed north. One of the best stops on that first trip South was spending Christmas at St. Augustine, so we like hanging around the place. But hurricane season is already here and Blowin’ In The Wind is still far ahead.

A couple of days later Sister’s Creek also managed to capture us for a few days. When we arrived a swift current was flowing upriver, carrying us past the dock in the narrow channel. The plan was to turn the boat around in a wide spot we knew about from being there before, then approach the dock into the current. The wide spot was completely potted over, tossing that plan into the dust bin. As the dock swept past, Deb asked what I was going to do. I didn’t have a clue. With no other option I started goosing the Beast without mercy while holding the helm hard over, trying to get the bow to swing up into the current without smashing it into the dock. Maybe Deb would be able to lasso a cleat or a piling from the bow, snub us up, and let the current swing the stern to the dock.

But she didn’t need to. The bow kept coming around without the boat going forward much. The angle of approach got better and better. The hull came to rest parallel to, and about six inches from the dock, bow into the current, the now-just-off-idle Beast holding us stationary against the flowing water. Deb took the small step to the pier, cleated lines fore and aft, and there we were. It was a perfect landing the would look good on my new Captain’s license.

It was also pure luck.

The first night we shared the dock with a really nice looking trawler, but we never saw any hint of the crew. Night two had us sharing space with three other boats, and then sharing drinks, stories, and jokes. It was a good time. Two boats left the next morning, the third the morning after with new friends Kelly and Melissa. But later that afternoon we were joined by another nice looking trawler. This one had a friendly crew and some good stories of their own.

Another reason for our stay was less obvious: we simply couldn’t figure out what we wanted to do next. The debate was to go outside, catching up to Blowin’ In The Wind in one big jump. That would also allow us to bypass the shallow bits on this part of the ICW. Shallow bits that are not my favorite part of taking the inside path. But we have never been through Georgia before and it has been two years since Kintala put new water under her keel. A schedule change for Blown’ In The Wind means we have an extra week to catch up. Should we make the outside jump, we would have to find a place to just hang on the hook for more than a week. Why not see some new places? A last consideration was the unrelenting thunderstorms that have flowered every afternoon for weeks. It is comforting to be sitting secure when the winds blow, the lightning flashes, and the rains fall.

That was on our mind because, just two miles short of settling onto the dock at Sister’s Creek we had, for the first time in five years, made a quick stop in the face of an oncoming storm. As the lightning fell and the rain shield slashed its way toward us, Deb pulled the boat a few feet off the channel while I moved to the foredeck to toss the hook. It hit the water just as the rain found us, setting hard as the wind gusts pushed us backward. The snubber went on and stretched out without any help from the Beast. About a quarter mile away a Coast Guard Cutter went to station keeping, stopping dead on their approach to the channel and then using their massive engines and bow thrusters to hold position as the storm crashed over us.

A storm too big for a Coast Guard Cutter to dance with is way too much for Kintala. Every afternoon has been the same, the storms then rampaging offshore every night. We are not huge fans of night passages anyway, though we do them when we need to. But night passages and the kinds of storms we have been seeing these last few weeks? No thanks. After a lifetime making a living in the sky I try to avoiding having that kind of excitement in my life.

So we are in new water tonight, anchored between islands just north of the St. Mary’s inlet. The worst of the storms appear to be past. Tomorrow we will start to pick our way through Georgia, figuring it will take five or six days as we balance the tides against the miles and the shallow spots, aiming to be at anchor before the evening light show starts. Sometimes a not-favorite-thing-to-do can still be something worth doing.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

What are the odds?

Daughter Eldest and family have been struggling with getting Blowin’ In The Wind to ride to her anchor without getting the rode wrapped around the keel. A cure would be 60 to 80 feet of chain spliced to 200 feet or so of rope. But that is a bunch of money and ours is a family of budget cruisers, wandering as far and a long as we can, then stopping to work when the cruising kitty gets too anemic to carry us any further. Living this way means just putting up with some annoying realities. I, for example, would love to have an ice maker, a water maker, an anchor wash-down system, and an auto pilot with a certain level of sophistication. But getting them would mean spending a couple of years working for someone else in order to pay for it all, an even more annoying reality.

Blowin’ In The Wind has her own annoying habits, including having the anchor rode prone to getting tangled up in the keel.

Since Kintala is still in St. Augustine we wandered up to Sailor’s Exchange to see what we might find that would be a cost effective cure to their problems. We were going to provision instead, but Sailor’s Exchange closes early on Saturday and is closed on Sunday. We had hoped for some used chain, which they claimed that they had when we called. But all they really had was new chain at new chain prices, and way too large anyway. We did find a 15 pound kellet that might do the trick. Add a carabiner to hang it on the anchor rode and a retrieving line to pull the weight off the bottom, and their problem just might be solved. Not as good an answer as a better rode, but better than nothing, and at a modest price. I lugged the thing back to our boat feeling pretty good about coming up with something to make their cruising life a little easier.

This morning was the provisioning run. It is about an hour’s walk to the store from here so the plan was to hoof it over, fill up the shopping cart with enough stores to get us caught up to Blowin’ In The Wind, and make use of Uber to get it all back to the marina. Then we would load the Ding and get ready to depart in the morning. That meant we needed to start our day a little earlier than is our usual want when resting at anchor or on a mooring.

As we nosed the Ding up to the dock we noticed a young man hauling a nice looking run of chain and rode out of his dingy. Deb asked if he was getting rid of it, and we were informed that he has just bought a new boat and didn’t care for the chain / rope rode that came with it. An all chain rode was purchased, and he was taking the “old one” to storage. Apparently when he said, “New boat,” he meant a really new boat, not an old boat new to him. The stuff he was taking to storage had never even been in the water.

Deb went into deal making overdrive. The next thing I knew we were loading an (est.) 80 feet of brand new chain spliced to an (est.) 150 feet of brand new 3/4” three strand nylon into the Ding. All in exchange for $100 cash. The young man was happy that he didn’t need to lug the mass to storage where it would likely sit for years before someone tossed it out. We were happy that he was happy.

I have a pretty uncomplicated view of the universe, not giving much credence to the idea of anything or anyone being loose in the cosmos who even knows we exist, let alone bothers itself with our individual trials and tribulations. But what are the chances that we and this young man would pick the exact same day, and the exact same time, and be in the exact same spot to cross paths while just going about our lives?  What are the chances that he would decide to replace the rode on his new boat and be willing to part with the old one? It is, after all, a nice bit of kit and perfectly adequate for what he says he plans to do with his boat. And what are the chances that we happened to have $100 in our pockets that could be traded, on the spot, before the young man changed his mind?

Pretty slim, I would say. But I am really happy that it worked out the way it did. And I don’t much care as to the reasons why or how.

Tomorrow we head out for the last few of days of travel that should, if the cosmos continues to smile upon us, catch us up to Blowin’ In the Wind. We have a boat load of stuff for them, and they have a boat load of stories for us.

Just because they can

Kintala, now riding to a mooring ball in St. Augustine, is slowly catching up to Blowin' In the Wind. The Florida Peninsula’s fascination with afternoon thunderstorms has kept us on our toes.  With careful planning and a good dose of luck, we have managed to avoid getting blasted while working our way through the narrow, winding, and sometimes shallow channels that make up parts of the ICW around here. Today, and not for the first time this trip, we settled onto the mooring ball with thunder rumbling, rain shafts dropping near by, and lighting flashing. The storms responsible had already sparked a weather warning from the Coast Guard, with tales of heavy rain, hail, water spouts, and damaging winds. They rolled right up to St. Augustine, paused, then went past slightly to the south. We barely got wet.

St. Augustine in the twilight

The folks at the St. Augustine Municipal Marina have been nothing but helpful and friendly. The facility took a pretty good beating from Irma and is still recovering. Docks are trashed and the building that (I think) used to be a restaurant looks damaged beyond repair. The staff is working hard to get back up to speed while providing the best service they can to the cruising clan. The pump out boat is up and running, as is the shuttle. They even have a water boat running. The fuel dock is open with pretty easy access, and there is a small store. Nothing but good for those wandering along the way.

The crew of Blowin' In the Wind, now working their way through Georgia, hasn’t always had the same experience. While looking to find a place to provision Daughter Eldest called the St. Simons Boating and Fishing Club to see if they could rent some dock space for a few hours, or even the night. According to Active Captain the facility, though mostly private, will - and has - (according to the reviews) rented space to transient boats. The customer service person who answered the phone informed Daughter Eldest, in a churlish and hostile voice, that St. Simons Boating and Fishing Club did not care for transients and would not even consider letting them touch down for a while.

The crew of Blowin' in the Wind had had a tough night. The current change at 0300 in the morning had swung them too near another boat. It turned out the other boat was laying to 250 feet of rode. It is Georgia so the tidal range is about 7 feet, and they were in 17 feet of water; 250 feet of rode isn’t outrageous. Still, that is a monster swing circle in a small anchorage, and it is likely that, had Kintala dropped an anchor in that place, we would had banged into him as well. In any case, when they called looking for a spot they were tired, a bit stressed, and the little ones on the boat could have used a break. A touch of aid would have been welcome. At the very least just a polite, “We don’t offer that service any longer” would have been okay. But no, they got handed a raft of lip from someone whom they had never even met, let alone harmed in any way.

The crew of Blowin' In The Wind is a resilient bunch. Since it was getting later in the day and they had their own storms to watch, they dropped the hook back where they started while the St. Simons Boating and Fishing Club will become a minor part of the family lore...

..."Remember that time in Georgia, the nice guy with all the rode out, and the witch on the phone?"

We live in a mean spirited age, one where people often do harm just because they can. There is no rhyme or reason to it, no ultimate purpose, no real goal. Just a mean spirit loose in the world, pretending to be tough. Fortunately, there are still many untouched by this international malady, those who offer a kind word or a lending hand…just because they can.

Though it sometimes seems contrary to the evidence, I think the later are still the majority in our little world. After another restless night on the hook Blowin' In The Wind moved to the Morningstar Marina at St Simons Island. There they were greeted as long lost friends. The facility is first rate, though the pool may make it difficult to get the little ones to leave. There is a loaner car for provisioning. Do yourself a favor should you ever be passing through the St. Simons area and avoid the St. Simons Boating and Fishing Club like the plague that they are. The Morningstar Marina will treat you like family.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Keep going

Eagle Too anchored at Rodriguez
In the last 5 days Kintala has covered 230 nm and is now anchored off Eau Gallie, tucked in behind a bridge causeway and riding out a storm. There are wind gusts reported to 60+ and large hail but it looks like we are going to miss the worst of it. After leaving Marathon, friends Robert and Rhonda were waiting for us at Rodriguez Key. It has been two years since the last time we shared space with Eagle Two and it was fun to meet up like that. They are headed back to the Florida Panhandle area for the summer but maybe we will cross wakes again next fall.

The last of the pretty Keys water

After Rodriguez, the hook dropped into the bottom of Biscayne Bay just outside of No Name Harbor. We thought about going in, but decided it would be impossible to leave after just a night’s stay, and we wanted to keep going. We should have gone inside anyway. Though Biscayne Bay is a favored place for us, the weekend power boat shenanigans were a little too much. They kept blasting between the anchored boats like we made up the board of some deranged pin ball game. Even the local Sheriff slashed his way past at full song waving as he launched a sizable wake our way. I would have taken a video of him but that seemed like an excellent way to provoke a boarding. Never provoke anyone who has a gun and a badge, no matter what silly thing they might be doing.

Note to self: weekend time at No Name needs to be spent inside No Name. Inside is fun. Outside is just ugly.

From there it was an overnight run to Vero Beech. It didn’t start out as a run to Vero Beech, but we caught a ride from the Gulf Stream and it was just too good to get off. In the wee hours of the morning just off the inlet to Lake Worth (the original destination) Kintala was blasting along at better than 10 knots on a near idling WesterBeast and a jib working with a 10 - 15 knot wind. That is nose bleed territory for an old sailboat.

Sunset underway

Sunrise after a pretty decent overnight sail

Le Capitan deep in thought

The Ft. Pierce Inlet
Vero is another favored place, but not so much this time of the year. It was brutal hot, with the no-see-em’s flowing though our screens with every little wind gust. The first night’s sleep was lost to the watches of a short handed crew doing a night run close to shore and in busy waters. The second night’s sleep went to bug bites and burning skin. There was no hesitation about bailing out of Vero, sleep or no.

The WesterBeast has been puking a little bit of oil here and there and Deb has been keeping a close watch on it. We have cleaned off this place and that, trying to decide exactly where the breach was, but such discoveries are no easy task on a tired, dirty old engine. After the 25 hour run, the level amount of oil making a mess was getting on the border of being alarming, slowing her engine check this morning as she looked for hints of the source. The worst drip on the engine blankets finally gave a solid clue and she directed my gaze toward the adapter plate for our remote engine oil filter. It didn’t really look wet, but it is hard to see…and even harder to reach. I managed to get a wrench on the thing with a wrist twisted into angles slightly unnatural and more than slightly painful. A bit of pressure and it moved far easier than it should have. YES!

More twisting and unnaturalness got some torque applied, enough for nearly 3/4s of a turn. With the plate now snug, safety wire was twisted into place to make sure it stays that way. Minutes later Vero was happily abandoned.

A seven hour motor / sail run got us here. The Beast is as clean and dry as it has ever been, the storms are almost over, and we are closing in on Blowin' in the Wind.

Tomorrow we keep on going.

Storm rolling in to the Eau Gallie Southwest anchorage

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Shaking down

Kintala is (mostly) a going proposition once again. The new alternator pumps 30+ amps into the batteries, so long as the RPM is bumped up a bit. Which works for us since we never use the WesterBeast as a stand alone generator. Unfortunately there is no clue as to what that RPM “bump” might be as the tach is utterly inert. It could be the thing has simply reached the end of its service life, though my guess is the new alternator has an output signal that is incomprehensible to the old tach. If there is a way to get the two talking the same language, that information seems to have been lost. The tach manufacturer went out of the tach manufacturing business ages ago, with little information from that bygone era finding its way onto the internet. We will likely figure out something but, in my humble opinion, whoever decided that using alternators for tach drive information was a good idea, should have been buying a better cut of weed. We will fix it if and when we can, but the boat will run without it. I do have to admit that this old airplane pilot/mechanic just shudders at the idea of ignoring broken things. Nothing good ever comes from ignoring broken things.

With the boat operable again, we are now looking for a weather window to head north. We almost had one. Unfortunately, by the time the alternator was installed and tested, and the inside of the boat was reassembled into a living - rather than working - area, it was too late to do the provisioning and boat prep needed to be on our way. Not sure that will turn out to be a bad thing, as it appears the weather would have kept us pinned in No Name Harbor for a while. We love No Name, but it is a long, long walk to the store. Given that Sub-tropical storm Alberto is heading in this general direction, laying low for a few more days seems like a good idea.

A good idea that is struggling to make headway against hearts that dearly want to be chasing down Blowin' In The Wind and then finding a place to park Kintala for a visit back to St. Louis. This particular chapter in our voyage has been a trial. After a year at the dock and a lot of work being done to the boat, we never expected this run around the Keys to be a parade of breakdowns. The Jabsco raw water pump, the Lavac head pump, and the Balmar alternator failure have left us missing several potential weather windows. At least this much can be said for the quality of marine industry manufacturing, it is consistently bad.

It is often said that, when it comes to marine items, you can get “cheap”, “fast”, and “good”, but only two at the same time. It seems more like “expensive”, “slow”, and “poor” are the real choices, but you do get all three at once. Recently I touched down on the blogs of good friends also out cruising. One had to replace a starting battery that is barely three years old. The other suffered a (relatively new Jabsco) water pump failure that put his water maker out of service. Both are out in the islands, so they were served an extra portion of “expensive”.

Like all chapters, this one will, eventually, close. Boats are always going to break, and the marine industry is not likely to improve in my lifetime. Fortunately these kinds of problems do tend to come in clusters. We did sit for a long time. This Key’s rounding is simply a shakedown cruse that shook out some problems. We still see sunsets from our cockpit, watch the dolphins and pelicans play, don’t have to please a crass or uncaring employer to keep food on the table, and live a life much more conducive to some basic sanity and humanity than what is often found on land.

Now, if it would just quit raining for a couple of days.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Ding on, Ding Off

A late Wednesday night look at the Thursday weather forecast suggested there was a chance of leaving Marathon and being in No Name Harbor by the weekend. So we got up early, loaded the Ding on deck, uncovered the sail, unshipped the anchor (we store it on top of the anchor bracket so it doesn’t grind on the mooring lines) gladly slipped away from mooring ball S10, stopped by the fuel dock, and motored out into the Hawk Channel. As expected, it was raining when we left. After a while the rain faded away as promised. We were pretty happy to have Marathon off the stern, bow pointed toward a rendezvous with Blowin' In The Wind. The Beast churned happily away, its brand new raw water pump puffing pleasing gouts of water out of the port. It was one of those times when one could not imagine living any other way.

Two hours later the bow was pointed into a dark mass of cloud, rain, and low visibility. Air around the boat throbbed and rumbled while lighting danced off the surface of the water to the south and south east. Airplane drivers have this thing about going through thunderstorms. We don’t. We go over them, around them, run away from them at 500 miles an hour. If one is hanging out at the arrival airport when we get there, we go someplace else for a while. Sometimes we tippy toe our way through a group or line of them, using the onboard radar to pick out alleyways to slip though while avoiding the giants rampaging down the main streets. That was actually one of my favorite parts of being a pro, but woe betide the plane, crew, and passengers if one got it wrong.

I am a sailor now, and different rules apply. Could we keep going and be none the worse for wear? Likely. Boats and airplanes are two different animals surviving in two different environments. Boats go through thunderstorms all the time. It is often hard to avoid when the boat is doing 5 knots, and the storm 20.

Did we need to keep going? In this case the line of storms was closing in at an angle off our starboard side. We had an escape route.

Looking at Deb I said, "This is a really bad idea." Then I turned the boat around.

She called the City Marina to let them know we were heading back. They had not yet checked us out so we gladly picked up the pennant for mooring ball S10 once again. Rig the deck, ship the anchor so it doesn’t grind on the mooring line, cover the sail, launch the Ding.

On the way back to Marathon, Deb noticed that the volt meter on the engine panel was showing just a nudge over 12V while the tach needle lay dead in its gauge. It hasn't been unusual for the tach to die off. After much hashing around the forums, the best bet is the solar panels jack the battery voltage high enough for the alternator regulator to just shut down the alternator. Zero output means zero signal for the tach. Since it is likely that the regulator on this boat is so old that the people who built it had never even heard of "solar power", that isn't a surprise. The idea that this is considered "normal" bugs the snot out of me. This is some old tech trying to live with new tech, and it is an uneasy relationship.

This time the voltage dropped to near 12.0 yet the alternator was still not on line. That means a wonk.

It would be hard to explain the troubleshooting done so far, partly because I am somewhat baffled by what we have found. Somewhere along the line someone installed a new, 75 amp Balmar alternator. But they didn't buy a new Belmar regulator to go with it. Instead we found an "Heart Interface Incharge" regulator. (Actually we found two, one in the spare parts box.) So, was that the original unit and they were saving a few bucks? Who would do that when coughing up the money for the Balmar? If it was original, would a regulator designed for a 55 amp unit work on a 75 amp unit? I've never looked into it. Maybe it would. But, again, why do that?

Was the "Incharge" bought with the Balmar? If so, why? Save a few bucks again? Why buy two? Did they have that little faith in the thing? And is the "spare" really a spare? It looks all new and shiny, complete with a new harness...but who knows? While digging through the paperwork we found that the "Incharge" is designed specifically to keep the tach running when the when the alternator output voltage drops. Is this another wonk, or just new tech overrunning old? For all of this it is still likely that the alternator is toast. It is an old unit as well, and has already been overhauled at least once.

If we end up replacing the alternator a new Balmar is likely out of a reasonable price range. Particularly if a Balmar regulator gets thrown into the package. But will some other unit fit in the mount? What size drive pulley will come with it and what size belt will it take? We are hanging on a mooring ball near the end of the nation's supply chain, and right now there are a lot more questions than there are answers. Normal for the marine industry, I know. But it gets tiring sometimes.

There is no choice but to keep trying. Eventually Kintala and Blowin' In The Wind will be in the same place at the same time. And, when that happens, it will hard to imagine living any other way.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Thrill is Gone

The past few years of cruising, weather decisions have been made incredibly easy due to the entrance of the Storm weather app to the market in February of 2015. We were so impressed with it that I did a post about it, King of the Weather Apps. The Storm app enabled us to ditch a half dozen other apps because it had all the capabilities under one roof: daily and 7-day forecasts, marine zone forecasting, tropical storm warnings and tracks, a kick-ass radar, lightning, wind want it, it had it. But like a not-so-new teenage crush, or that zippy sports car that acquires its first ding, Storm began to lose its luster. First off, the marine forecasting  - even though it was offered under a subscription - was dropped. Then, a few months later, every time you opened the app it had an ad for the new Storm Radar app. A few months later it was no longer an option, but a mandatory upgrade. As of May 23rd, the Storm app will no longer be supported and only the Storm Radar will continue.

Storm was originally hosted by Weather Underground, a service originating from the University of Michigan in 1995. Even though The Weather Channel acquired Weather Underground in 2012, Storm was released in February of 2015 under the Weather Underground name. Storm was the app that TWC was using for its forecasting and tracking. In fact, that's where I first found out about it, while watching TWC tracking a hurricane. My only guess is that they didn't want everyone else having access to the same info (and therefore not needing TWC to interpret it for them) so they released the much less capable Storm Radar app and discontinued support for the Storm app.

In the already frustrating environment of Garmin's takeover of Active Captain and Navionics, the loss of Storm hits the cruising community hard. The information is not lost It's still all out there through NOAA (since that's where all apps get their input from anyway,) but it's not in an easy-to-use condensed format. It requires much more digging, and much more internet usage to get the same information, and nearly every cruiser finds internet bandwidth to be their most valuable currency. So what are we to do?

Some have elected to purchase subscriptions to weather routers like Chris Parker. He offers a great service to a good many people and I'm grateful he's there. But for former pilots like Tim and I, who have always done our own weather, it's not an option. We want to do our own forecasting and be responsible for our own weather decisions. I've spent the last few days while we're stuck in Marathon waiting on a weather window, to research all the options. A discussion of them follows. If you have any additional information or sources that might be helpful, please leave it in the comments below.

General Forecast Information:

  1. NOAA's New Experimental Forecast Chart: This is probably the best replacement alternative to the Storm App. Their new interactive map allows you to pan and zoom, and to click on your location on the chart for a detailed forecast. The chart looks like this: 

    You can see where I clicked on the Marathon area where we are located. When you click on the More Information link in the block, you get a wide variety of forecasting tools, charts, and maps all for your specific area.

  2. Weather Underground: Still one of the best general weather forecast sites. Typical radar, 10-day forecasts, precip, etc.
  3. Weather Bug: Same info, nicer layout, better radar.
  4. The Weather Channel ( Almost exactly the same format and news stories as Weather Underground, not surprising since they own them.
  5. Accuweather
  6. Intellicast
Marine Specific Forecasts:
  1. NOAA's Marine Forecast Home Page: This page gives you a wealth of information. You can get the coastal zone forecasts, the offshore zone forecasts, and the high seas forecasts by clicking on the zone block on the map. Here is the Coastal map:

    Once you click on the zone you want (in my case the South zone,) it will take you to the next page for that specific forecast.

    Continuing deeper, I clicked the Key West Zone and this is the next map:

    And, finally, I clicked on the Hawk Channel just outside Marathon to see what the conditions will be like for the next few days. Here is the forecast:

    If you click on the link in the lower right corner "Forecast Discussion," you will get a text discussion for the area which can be very helpful in discerning trends. Here is the discussion for this forecast
The same procedure is applied to get the Offshore Forecasts and the High Seas Forecasts.

The cat's meow, though, is a very cool interactive graphical forecast map for when you have adequate internet bandwidth. Using the drop-down menu in the upper lefthand corner you can get a forecast map for any of the following parameters:

Maximum Temperature (°F)
Minimum Temperature (°F)
Prob of Precipitation (%)
Precipitation Potential Index (%) experimental
Temperature (°F)
Apparent Temperature (°F)
Dew Point (°F)
Relative Humidity (%)
Wind Speed (kts)
Wind Gusts (kts)
Wind Direction
Sky Cover (%)
Precip Amount (in)
Snow Amount (in)
Ice Accumulation (in)
Total New Precip (in)
Total New Snow (in)
Total New Ice (in)
Snow or Sleet > 0.25in LE, Prob.(%)
Wave Height (ft)
Fire Weather
Maximum Relative Humidity (%)
Minimum Relative Humidity (%)
Dry Thunderstorms
Critical Fire Weather
Severe Weather
Convective Outlook
Tornado Probability(%)
Extreme Tornado Prob.(%)
Damaging T-storm Wind Prob.(%)
Extreme T-storm Wind Prob.(%)
Hail Probability(%)
Extreme Hail Prob.(%)
Total Prob. Severe T-Storms(%)
Total Prob. Extreme T-Storms(%)
Tropical Wind >34kts (Cumulative Prob)
Tropical Wind >50kts (Cumulative Prob)
Tropical Wind >64kts (Cumulative Prob)
Tropical Wind >34kts (Incremental Prob.)
Tropical Wind >50kts (Incremental Prob.)
Tropical Wind >64kts (Incremental Prob.)
Hurricane Wind Threat
Hurricane Storm Surge Threat
Hurricane Flooding Rain Threat
Hurricane Tornado Threat
Water Resources
Daily FRET (in)
Daily FRET Departure from Normal (in)
Total Weekly FRET (in)

There's a lot of other marine specific forecast pages and apps that you can use as well. Most are very specific in the information that they cover. Here is a list of the popular ones, although not comprehensive I'm sure.

  1. Passage Weather (Free - donation suggested)
  2. Predict Wind (Free or subscription), website or apps on both iOS or Android
  3. Wind Guru (Free or subscription) website or apps on both iOS or Android
  4. Sailflow (Free or subscription) website or apps on both iOS or Android
  5. Windy (Free) website or apps on both iOS or Android

Grib Forecast Apps:
  1. Pocket Grib (Initial cost) website or apps on both iOS or Android
  2. Predict Wind (Free GRIB viewer)
Prog Charts:

Because we have an aviation background, we use prog charts to help our forecasting. Prog charts are surface charts that span several days. It helps to see how the fronts move over the time period to understand the progression of the weather. You can get them at the Aviation Weather Center at the link below.

Hurricane Tracking:

  1. The definitive hurricane tracking site is NOAA's National Hurricane Center. It's also available on both iOS and Android as an app. While there's other sites out there doing it, they're all getting the info from NOAA so the NOAA Now app is the industry standard.
  2. Mike's Weather Page
  3. Tropical Tidbits
Hurricane Prep:

  1. Boat US has a fairly comprehensive site with hurricane prep information, including an assortment of checklists and guides.
  2. A blank copy of our insurance hurricane plan the year we were planning on being at two different locations over the hurricane season.

Weather Routing Services

  1. Fast Seas
  2. Chris Parker Weather Routing
  3. Weather Routing, Inc.

Other helpful weather information:

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Waiting days and free upgrades

A couple of good days for heading north have passed while Kinlinla sits, waiting on engine parts. A couple of other days have passed where we were glad to be in a protected bay and double-tied to a mooring ball. If nothing else, this is a life of contrasts and second guesses. All-in-all, waiting these last couple of days has not been too bad.

When we bought Ye ol' Tartan, the GPS at the helm was a Garmin GPSmap 176. We left it that way while on Lake Carlyle for the simple reason that nothing else was required. No kind of GPS was required. If one couldn’t see where one was going on the lake, it was usually a good idea not to go in the first place.

While at Oak Harbor, struggling to get on our way, we decided that keeping a capable GPS mounted at the helm was a good idea. Since I am not a fan of huge screens perched in places that will distract a helmsperson from watching where they are going, a smallish Garmin  GPS 441 was purchased and installed. The original 176 unit was relocated to the nav station since it seemed only right that the “nav” station actually include some kind of nav system. That turned out to be a good idea as the (also new at the time) Standard Horizon VHF - with self-contained AIS capability - isn't as self-contained as advertised.The 176 was pressed into serious service, providing position information the VHF needed for the AIS to function. All of it working well and good for these last 5+ years.

We occasionally talk about upgrading Kintala’s navigation suite. I would dearly love to have RADAR, forward looking SONAR, an auto pilot that will follow a route, and other button pushing goodies reminiscent of my airplane days. All of it integrated with an information back bone where everything is talking to everything else; a veritable "smart boat" with which to play while watching the miles flow under the keel.

But such simply isn’t in the budget. Bottom paint, barrier coats, ship water pumps, engine water pumps, bilge pumps, heat exchangers, bit for this and bolts for that…any boat will chew threw maintenance dollars at an appalling rate. Ours is no exception. It does little good to upgrade a boat that isn’t capable of moving, so that is where the money goes. Only once did the 176 stumble, needing just a touch of cleaning on the contacts to the power switch to get it going again. Otherwise, that chunk of tech has been stone cold reliable, a valuable and deeply appreciated commodity on the good ship Kintala. But it was also old, with utterly outdated and inaccurate charts, and a monochrome screen ever more difficult to see. Some day we were going to have to bite the bullet and get something better in its place. Right now the focus is to try and keep moving. No upgrades in sight.

Yesterday, someone left a Garmin 535, complete with manual, mount, and wiring harness, all neatly wrapped up and left in the “If you can use it, take it” place. A place common where the cruising tribe tends to congregate. Deb found it first and tossed it in the Ding.

There are few things in life better than a free upgrade. For whoever it was that left the Garmin 535 for anyone that could use it…Thank you! The entire refit took only a couple of hours, 3 butt splices, a bit of heat shrink, a few zip ties, and a short tiptoe though the VHF's system menu to reset the BAUD rate to match that of the new(er) GPS. A software update available for both units from Garmin brought them up to speed.  Free AND easy. It doesn't get any better than that.

The 535 now rests at the helm. Yes, the screen is a little bigger than the old, but still small by modern day standards. The 441 took up residence along side the VHF. It now provides the position information for the AIS as well as duplicating - at the nav station - all of the navigational information available at the helm. The old 176 was honorably retired to the "If you can use it, take it" place.

Now, if only I can get the engine running again, we could be on our way to meet Blowin' In the Wind with style; two working GPS units, two independent iPads with multiple chart options, three computers, and two smart phones. And, should it all come a cropper, the sun always sets in the direction of North America. (For where we are sailing anyway.)

But I would still love me some onboard RADAR.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Hydrographic Surveys

There's no question that the internet has made sailing, cruising, and boating in general more safe. We have access to a plethora of weather and navigation information, all at easy access unless you happen to be offshore, accessible even then if you have enough money. The sheer volume of safety information is sometimes its demise, though, simply because there's just so much of it that it's hard to keep track of where you want to go for it and how much of it you want to use. One of the most valuable bits of information that a lot of cruisers neglect is the hydrographic survey. If you're traveling anywhere on the East Coast, using the inlets and then the ICW, the surveys are invaluable.

The hydrographic surveys are listed by district. The Wilmington District carries most of the surveys  for the Atlantic ICW, coastal inlets and crossings, harbors, side channels, and river projects. The Jacksonville District carries the Florida ICW and inlet surveys. Before transiting any of the areas it's a good idea to check the applicable survey. If you think you're going to be away from internet service, you can save the pdf files for viewing offline.

Here's a example of the hydrographic survey done for the Lockwoods Folly Inlet, done April 13, 2018. Most of the really notorious inlets are surveyed pretty frequently so the data is usually pretty accurate. It's pretty easy to see where you can go, and that you absolutely can't follow the magenta line in this case. The aids to navigation are moved frequently here and you can see that right now they go almost all the way to shore before they turn back to the channel. A few years ago, while transiting this inlet, we watched as a 40-foot sailboat run so hard aground here that he fell over on his side. He was single handing and was clearly following the magenta line on his autopilot. 

Hydrographic surveys can also be of use when determining the heights to bridges. Here's the survey for the Wilkerson Bridge in the Alligator-Pungo Canal. If you do use the survey for this purpose, just be careful to check the dates of the survey. This survey is from 2016 so it wouldn't be any use at all as a current estimation of water depth and bridge height.

Maybe the most beneficial use of the surveys is for determining what inlets to use when coming in from offshore. There are a lot of inlets along the coast that are extremely useful, but where the bottom changes so frequently that they require local knowledge. Surveys offer a wealth of that knowledge. Here is the Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach that we use frequently.

It's important to note that not all of the surveys look the same. Here's one from the Jacksonville District for the Saint Augustine Inlet on the Florida east coast. Note that the depths are printed right on the chart and are not color coded with a legend the way that the Wilmington District does it. It's also listed as eight pages in one file. Use the scroll bar on the side of the panel to see all the pages in this example.

It's also important to really pay attention to the details in the printed sidebar. On this example of the Naples to Gordon Pass survey, it says that it's a post Irma examination. Pretty useful for knowing how the storm changed things.

Unfortunately, the formats are not standardized. Each district has its own formatting and not all are as user-friendly. The New England District formatting is probably the most difficult to navigate. After going to the main linked page, you click on the navigation projects drop-down menu and then proceed to each individual state. Then they either offer a zipped pdf file for download, or you can click on each individual harbor or river for that survey.

Hydrographic Survey Districts:

There is a new site where all surveys will eventually be listed together, the main survey listing by state and inlet. It's fairly slow to load and respond to input, so be patient. You choose a state, then an inlet and then if there is a recent survey for that inlet it will be listed so you can click on it. If there is no recent survey it will tell you that. It's a good first effort at standardizing the surveys, but they have a long way to go.

Here are some of the more common districts.

The New England District

Wilmington District

Jacksonville District

Mobile District

Galveston District

San Francisco District

Seattle District (takes you to the main survey page)

There's a ton of information out there available to us as mariners. Navigating that information can be as difficult as navigating the waterways themselves.  I've found the surveys very helpful and if you use them and you have any additional pointers, please leave them in the comments.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Limping in circles...

Kintala is still swinging to a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor. We have been here a week or so, waiting out beam seas and headwinds in the Hawk Channel. This morning held promise of being the start of a marginal, but doable, two day weather window that would see us in No Name Harbor.

Ah, but then we did the engine checks…

Deb found the engine case around the Jabsco water pump completely encrusted in salt. That pump, now officially designated as a Papa-Oscar-Sierra so far as Kintala is concerned, has failed yet again. The good news is it didn’t start puking on the way from Marco Island to Shark River, rather waiting until we left Shark River to come to Marathon. Here we can borrow bikes to ride to West Marine, order up a new pump (again) and a rebuild kit (again) for the old pump. The old-old pump from the last time we did this doesn’t look like a good candidate for rebuild. The plan, from now on anyway, is to have a rebuilt pump always sitting on the shelf. In fact, we will likely have both a pump and a second rebuild kit on the shelf. That is how little we have come to trust this essential piece of equipment, particularly given our tendency to anchor out in places far from support facilities.

Some days I really, really hate the lack of quality control that seems endemic in the marine industry. This would be one of those days. It is the seal at the drive pulley that keeps failing and, yes, I know that often indicates too much tension on the belt. No, it isn’t the belt tension on Kintala causing the problem. (I've put on a few thousands belts.) A good friend of ours, also with a Tartan 42 / WesterBeast, had so much trouble with his Jabsco that he replaced it a different manufacturer’s pump. It turned out the replacement pump had issues of its own, specifically a drift key much too light for the loads placed on it. At least a leaking pump will still move enough water to get one to shore. A sheared drift key will bring the Beast to halt. So we will stay with the Jabsco.

Though this is a good place to get stuck with a mechanical, missing the weather window is now a pretty sure bet. As a result we are going to modify our cruising routine a bit. Back when I made  a living as an air ambulance pilot the procedure was to do a post flight inspection rather than a pre -flight. That way we could be airborne as quickly as possible when called. We still did a quick walk around when climbing aboard, mostly to ensure that no one had bumped into the aircraft with a fuel truck or something.  That was a routine I had established years before. A habit formed the night a fork truck driver at New York’s JFK managed to poke a window out of the Navajo I was flying, but didn’t bother to tell me about it. Fortunately I had duct tape on board…seriously. There are lots of stories in the airplane world you probably don’t want to hear. Anyway…

From now on, when Kintala drops a hook or picks up a ball somewhere where she is likely to be for a couple of days, we are going to do a post-sail deck and engine check. The deck check is sort of done just by putting the boat to sleep for the night or, more accurately, setting up the deck so we can sleep. But, from now on the engine checks are going to get done as well. If that had been our procedure last week, we could have fixed the WesterBeast while sitting, waiting on weather anyway.

We really can’t keep missing weather windows.

It is fair to say that I have been a life long wanderer, by airplanes big and small, cars, motorcycles, hiking boots and, late in my life, sailboats. If this particular trip was being done in any of the above (except a sailboat) the weather that has kept us stationary - and will likely keep us parked even after the Beast is repaired - would not be any consideration at all. It would not cause the least bit of discomfort while moving and certainly would not entail any additional risk. At the moment I am finding that to be a bit frustrating. I know, “The journey is the destination” but this doesn’t feel like journeying. Between trying to stay at least somewhat comfortable while under way, and nursing the mechanicals of a boat in a salt water environment, if feels like limping in endless circles.

But we will limp along knowing, eventually, some kind of wandering line will eventually be drawn on the chart. We will be somewhere else, and that much closer to catching up with Blowin' In The Wind.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Little bits of magic

Kintala is on a mooring ball in Marathon for a couple of days. This is a very well spoken of and popular place among the cruising tribe that frequents these parts. It took a beating from Irma, has recovered some, but it will be a while (if ever) before all of the scars are gone. For all of its charms, it has never ranked that high on Deb’s or my list of places we love to be. Though there are far fewer boats than we are used to seeing, it is still a crowded place. The mooring balls are closely spaced. Pulling up to one is like taking a room in a hotel, or pitching a tent in the middle of a parking lot. Still, it is about the only place to stop on the way around the Keys, and this is our fourth time here.

The anchorage at Shark River with a sunset muted by the
haze from the fires burning in Florida
It stands in stark contrast to the anchorage in Little Shark River, which was exactly the kind of place we have come to enjoy. There were only two boats sharing the space with us. It was quiet and dark. Really, really dark. The kind of dark that lets the night sky overwhelm one’s sense of space, size, and time. “The sea is so big, and my boat is so small,” is a common thought for those who take to big water. In Shark River at night the universe becomes the ocean, and the whole of Mother Earth our -  shared - little boat. Indeed, comparing the size of the ocean to a boat, vs the size of the universe to a single planet, our common boat is tiny beyond comprehension.

I like being in places where it seems some wise old spirit lives, offering up nuggets of insight just to see what you dare do with them.

The sail from Marco to Shark River was a pretty good sail all of its own. Kintala touched 7 knots on several occasions, flying every bit of sail available close against a 10 to 20 knot wind for a good part of the day. But, as good as the sailing was, it was a different bit of magic that marked the day. Flitting all around were these tiny little birds. I have no idea if it is migration time for the little fluff balls, or if a week of stiff winds out of the East had blown a bunch of them out over the water. In any case, there were enough of them around to make it impossible not to notice.

Early in the afternoon Kintala was some 20 miles off shore, groups of the little birds occasionally making low passes over the boat. Eventually one landed. In fact he flew aboard and touched down on my leg as I sat in the cockpit. After sizing me up for a minute or two he flew around a bit as if checking the place out, then scooted off over the water once again. A few minutes after that he was back with a friend. They both fluttered hither and yon, hanging off of lines, checking out the inside of the dodger, poking around the piles of sheets scattered here and there.

Then there were four, then six, and ultimately eight, all hitching a ride back closer to shore.

They put on quite a show, landing on feet and arms, heads and legs. They chased bugs, and even brought down several dragon flies that were not all that much smaller than the birds themselves. They drank water out of a cup, fought over bug parts, fluttered around, sat and preened, hopped up on our fingers, and even let us pet them. There were so many of them that we had to move about slowly, looking where we were about to step or sit, for fear of squashing one of our little guests.

Nether of us had ever seen such a thing before.

Eventually they started to flutter off, the last one riding along in the cockpit for a half hour or so all alone, as if glad to have a bit of space for a while. I have no clue what they were up to, or where they were going, but it was a treat to have them stop by and keep us company for a while. I wonder what kind of stories they might share about us, whenever it is that they get where they are going.

The next day we stayed closer to shore, running off the wind in the lee of the land, which kept the swell down to something comfortable. It was another good day of sailing, but just one little bird dropped by, sitting on the deck for a while, then flashing away in a burst of colored frenzy.

So, after five days of sailing spread out over a little more than a week, Kintala is out of the Gulf of Mexico and back in sight of the Atlantic Ocean.

And that feels a bit magical as well.