Thursday, November 3, 2022

First Flight of First Light

The plan had been to spend one more day in New Bern, meet some old cruising friends for dinner, blow that pop stand the next morning and head to Oriental. But this morning's check of the weather suggested that today was the day for making good our escape. A few phone calls later and new plans were made for having the car catch up to us. With goodbyes said and hands shaken with the folks at Duck Creek (who have been as helpful as they could be for the last year) we headed down the dock to get underway for the first time in just shy of 4 years.

First sunrise on First Light. And a beautiful first light it was.
One of the reasons we love the boat name and didn't change it.

We scurried around trying to remember all the “heading out” chores that needed done, and to figure out which ones apply to trawlers. Obviously uncovering the sails and running the sheets and halyards wouldn't be necessary. Engine oil checks? Yep, x 2 though all the fluids were changes yesterday so that seemed redundant. Still, Deb suggested I look over the engine room anyway. I did: and put away the fan that had been left in there, stowed a half bottle of coolant sitting by the port engine, picked up some stray wiring, and moved a tool box back to where it belongs. Pre-engine start engine room check is now on the departure “must do” list. Then we talked over how we were going get out of the slip, down the creek and into the Neuse River. It has been a while since we reviewed nautical charts.

Painting the stripe is very very high up on the Captain's to-do list.

When we couldn't come up with anything else needing done, I fired up the engines(!) while Deb pulled in the lines. A few bumps forward with the shifter levers, a few bumps back, and we cleared the dock without much ado. It was a slow and careful crawl down the creek as, along with the gen-set, the depth gauge that had worked during the sea trial stayed dark and dead in the panel. First Light draws less than four feet, but it is still spooky poking along without knowing just how much water is under the keel. A cool thing was that the upper chart plotter, which didn't work yesterday, lit up this morning without hesitation. RADAR! For the first couple of miles the helm felt very weird. Hydraulic steering takes a little getting used to. What took zero time to get used to was bringing the auto-pilot on line and just punching in the required headings. At some point we will figure out how to make it track a route, but for now, after the years of wrestling Kintala's wheel for hours at a time, heading hold was more than enough of a giggle.

The Neuse taught us some pretty harsh lessons in the past. More than once we limped into Oriental beat up, broken, and looking for a place to hide. But today? Today was as perfect a day as one could have for first trip in a new-to-us boat. Traffic was light, as were the winds. The slightest swell rolled under the bow while wavelets from the port side didn't move the boat at all. After the truncated, rigging-blocked view from the aft end of Kintala, the expanse of water visible over the bow of First Light was nothing short of amazing. At one point a King Pelican took flight off our bow. The only thing missing was a visit from a dolphin, welcoming us home. The hours strolled by as some of the very best we have ever enjoyed on a boat. It was hard to grasp that we made it, that we were back on the water and moving at our own pace.


Back in the day, when a marina came into view, the adrenaline started to flow and the brow started to furrow. Getting Kintala onto anything but a face dock in a calm wind was far more luck than skill. As great a sailing boat as she was, docking was a nightmare. Backing into a slip was generally completely out of the question. In fact, as I sit writing this and looking at the boats around us (with one exception) the only ones stern-to are trawlers and catamarans. And I know why. Deb talked me into the marina and down the right fairway. We counted slips and spotted an empty one that looked to be ours between a Lagoon 40 Cat and that stray sailboat parked stern-to. Today there was a little wind blowing but it made no difference. First Light obeyed my commands without complaint, eased back into the slip and stopped right where I asked. Deb set a couple of lines to hold the boat still, I shut off the engines, we set fenders, added lines, hooked up to shore power, and called our first trip a complete success.

For the next couple of days we will enjoy one of our favorite towns from our previous cruising days, get some more work done on the boat, and marvel at just how lucky we have been. 

The reflections from the sun on the water in the cabins is one of the things I missed most
when we returned to land. It's amazing how much these little things all add up to make
this life as wonderful as it is.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Launch Day...

We have been through a lot of launch days; Nomad, then Kintala, and now, First Light. Each has come with a certain amount of trepidation, which I find odd. I flew airplanes for a living, still do once in a while. Literally thousands of launches were made into stormy, or ice filled, or minimums weather skies. There were maintenance flights and first flights on just built or heavily modified airplanes, some of which limped home with engines shut down or other abnormalities. (Probably why they are called “test flights”.) There were delivery flights in neglected airplanes that had been sitting on the ground for years and were no longer “serviceable”. Those flights required special permission from the Federal Aviation Agency and came with strict limits as to when, where, how high, in what weather conditions the plane could be moved, and who was allowed on board, always minimum crew only. A mechanic (me) had to certify that the aircraft would (likely) make the flight in more or less one piece. Then the pilot (me again) would jump in and go. As might be expected a lot of those flights involved a certain amount of...shall we say, “adventure”? Then there were the flights into some of the busiest airports on the planet: Chicago, Denver, LA, DC. And flights to and from dirt runways with questionable lighting deep in the Rocky Mountains. Yet never, in all of those thousands of “launches” into a possibly hostile sky in sometimes questionable equipment, did I experience the kind of butterflies that come with launching a boat.

Of course the lift time was delayed. Though we were first on the day's schedule another boat pulled into the pit late last night. It was suffering some kind of a failure that required it be lifted first thing in the morning. By the time it was out of the water, bottom scraped and pressure blasted, and sitting on stands, most of the morning was gone. We had been up since 0600 getting First Light ready to splash. All we could do was take walks around the yard and try to ignore the butterflies.


Eventually it was our turn. First Light was eased off of the stands, moved, then lowered gently into the water. Except for the sea trial it was the first time the boat had been floating in nearly 4 years. She has been on the hard nearly as long as we have.


Then came the fun part. I got to drive the boat through a very crowded marina and back it into our temporary slip-for-the-day (or two). It was a chance to warm the engines and transmissions as we had an engine expert standing by to change all the fluids and filters once tied to the dock. It was also the very first time for your's truly to helm a twin-engined trawler. Caution was the word of the day, but the minute we cleared the lift pit something became wonderfully obvious. One has far more control over where this boat is going when slow and in tight spots than was ever available on Kintala. It was a 180° turn out of the lift pit. Then it was a run down a narrow fairway lined with boats to be followed by another 90° turn to port. After that it was time for a 90° swing, bow to starboard, while backing into the slip, this in a fairway only slightly wider than First Light is long. And it was no problem at all. Mind you, the wind was less than 5 knots so no “big boy” points were accrued. But...DAMN!


We were both a little buzzed after tying off in the slip. The engine expert took over. It was near the end of the mechanical work when the first problem reared is head. There is something wrong with the ship's generator starting circuit. Though the gen-set worked just fine during the sea trial, it is now an inert lump sitting at the back of the engine room. After a bit of poking and prodding deep in the tangle of wiring taking up space in the control unit, our expert engine guy allowed that he was getting out of his depth. (The mark of a true expert is someone who knows what he doesn't know, and is willing to admit it!) But he happens to know an expert generator guy. But it all came out even as our expert engine guy is also an air-con expert. He cleared a simple airlock and showed me how to properly power up the system. Shazam! Cold air. (Not that we plan on using it much. But it is nice to have.) 

Our engine expert, Darrel from Foster's Mobile Marine


The next problem to peak over the transom was a recurring glitch with the Raymarine plotter at the upper helm. In this day of smart phones and iPads, such is not much of an issue insofar as navigation goes. But it is also the screen for the onboard radar. RADAR! How cool it that? Turns out the engine guy also knows a Raymarine guy. If we can't figure it out, someone will. 

So, at this very moment of typing, I am sitting in the covered Fly Bridge, enjoying a cold one, feeling the boat move gently, and listening to the wildlife playing in the sea grass. Around me is a venue of pure joy, afloat in a marina once again, surrounded by water, and boats, and trees. I walk a dock to get to the boat, step on board without climbing a ladder. It is hard to explain just how perfect it all feels.


In the next day or two we will head down to Oriental where First Light will stay until Spring. In between, St. Louis still calls (though at least two trips to the boat are planned). There is family I am already missing a little. There is also an income that will help cover those last few items I would like to have working before we head off once again. But, at least for now, it feels like we have made it back. And it feels good.


The painter's dog seemed a little nonplussed at the removal of his shade boat


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Decisions, decisions, decisions...

It has been more than a year since we purchased First Light. Having her on the hard this long was not part of the plan...not that we had much of a plan. When we left Kintala, our intent (plan if you will) was to get back on the water as soon as we could after my two year commitment to the job was over. We knew it would be in a different boat, exactly what kind still to be determined. Once we were back on the water roughly half a year would be spent cruising with the family we left behind living on their own boat. The other half would be spent here in St. Louis, enjoying the life that has unfolded here. It would be the the aquatic equivalent to the retired couple who takes to RV living, bouncing around the country to catch up with the people they love scattered across the country. It has been nearly four years since we returned to land; buying First Light was a commitment to making it back "out there."

As the months went by, we managed multiple trips to our new-to-us trawler. Trips spent (as was expected) getting the thing ready to splash. And we are getting close. But life has a way of changing things up. The family that lived on a boat now lives in Kansas. Kansas, as you might be aware, is far, far, (far) away from anything like big water. Indeed, it is about as far away as one can get from the water while living in the US of A. This required some serious rethinking about how we wanted to go about living.

Our first adventure of full time cruising meant more than half a decade of seeing the people we love most in the world just two or three times a year. Being away from growing grandkids was a heavy burden that came with the lifestyle. Until then, I had never faced that kind of heart ache. It was serious. More than once tears flowed while sitting in a beautiful anchorage, thinking of those far away. Facing the same kind of goodbyes that came with our first foray onto the water did not hold much allure. Going back to it only worked when leaving our land-based family was temporary, while the other side of the equation meant pulling up to our water based family and dropping anchor next to them. 

Then again, even with the heart ache, and having no family to meet "out there," being land locked for the rest of our lives doesn't hold much allure either. So the long debates started. What do do with First Light, how to make this work? How to balance being drawn in two opposite directions? How to be with family and still satisfy the wanderlust that resides deep in both our our souls? 

It was always assumed that, when our return to full time cruising no longer made sense, First Light would end up on a dock not too far from St. Louis. So, a few weeks ago and still not knowing what the short term plan might be, we did some looking at the long term. A weekend spent scoping out the marinas along the rivers surrounding St. Louis ended in Alton, IL. After a little bit of debate we decided that Alton would, eventually, be First Light's semipermanent home. It is within easy reach of our land side St. Louis home. There are rivers to explore with places to anchor out for long weekends. And there is a massive lake just a day or two's journey way. We could, when we felt like it, just spend time on First Light while on the dock, living the boat life and heading out for an adventure whenever we felt the need. First Light will become our (floating) cabin out in the woods. But between now and then? No real clue.

Things putter along as things tend to do. We set tentative plans to depart sometime late this year, literally within the next several weeks. The thought was we would take First Light to the Islands one more time, then bounce around for a while. Eventually we would head back to the States, wander around the Keys, along the West coast of Florida, and up the rivers, and end up back in St. Louis. We would be doing the bottom half of the great loop, only going backwards and against the current. Once in St. Louis we would take up our no-longer-full-time-cruisers lifestyle. But there was one little hitch in that plan. What to do with me after we settled in? 

We have survived these last few years on land because of a few very fortunate breaks. The first was that of ending up in a perfect living arrangement. A small apartment literally just yards aways from family we love and deeply missed during our years on Kintala fit our minimalist lifestyle. And second, I ended up at a job that is interesting, basically painless (unusual for jobs in my experience) and pays pretty well. That last is important for two reasons. The first is, not to put too fine a point on it, the world is a seriously screwed up place at the moment. Having options because we also have resources available just feels like the smart thing to do. And the second? Deb is pretty sure (and I happen to agree) that me being land locked without something like work to keep me occupied and challenged, would be...shall we say, difficult? As someone once said, "Getting married is for better or worse, but not for lunch." 

The logical choice, at least for a while, would be for me to keep working after our return. Queries at the shop suggest that a leave of absence is possible, leaving me something to do to keep from driving Deb crazy when we get back. But for reasons I can't explain, the impending departure was making me very uncomfortable. Something just didn't feel right about the plan, but it was all we had. 

We had considered a second option, with the same approximate departure date. It had us heading north rather than south. We had not had Kintala in the Chesapeake Bay for the last couple of years of cruising. It is a place we both enjoyed. Putting around it in a trawler would be a lot of fun. We have family there we haven't seen in a long time. There was some thought of making the bay First Light's permanent playground. But it is a long drive from St. Louis and what to do during the winter was a complete blank. That plan was quickly dismissed. Having First Light in the Chesapeake full time would simply not work. Back to plan “A."

While at the shop this week, I checked with the powers-that-be about the leave of absence. There is such a shortage of airplane drivers in our part of the world that instructors are getting very hard to keep, so the shop is pretty accommodating. They will be willing to hold my job and have me back as long as I would be back, full time, in just a few months. But I did need to give them a date as soon as possible. Scheduling clients, instructors, classes, recurrent training, and available equipment is the constant nightmare of this kind of operation. Just as I was about to tell them mid December until late spring time frame when I got a text from Deb suggesting I not give them a date. A possible third option was on the table. 

Burgee for America's Great Loop
Cruiser's Association
Don't go south in the winter, go north in the spring. Do the top half of the Great Loop in the right direction, with the current behind us. A plan similar to plan “A”, but with some attractive differences.

The north half of the Great Loop is territory we have never explored. It would be a new adventure. The Islands and bits of Florida that we love have all been hammered by Mother Earth since we came ashore. Maybe we experienced them at their peak and it would be best to remember them as they were. Moreover, big as she is, First Light isn't really a big water boat. Sure she could make the Islands easy enough, and work between them.  But, truth to tell, the ICW, rivers, and bays, are likely places where she (and we) will feel more at home. Also, I am happy with the idea of there always being being a land route between us and the family, one with no international borders to be crossed. And the best part of the plan? Grand kids can (if they want) come and go, meeting us at different ports of call, traveling with us for a while, and then heading back home with little difficulty. If there are no grand kids on the water to take First Light to, have the grand kids come over land to First Light.

Maybe our home for a few months?

This has become the new plan, and it feels right. The next trip east we plan on splashing First Light. She will take up a dock in (we think) Oriental until spring. We will use up virtually every vacation day I have to travel east and take her out to strut her stuff. But there would still be an income to cover whatever issues might come to light once her system are put to work once again. Come spring we will take that leave of absence and head north up the ICW, becoming part of the cruiser migration one more time. But, once north, we will turn into half-loopers, ending up at the dock in Alton. I'll head back to the shop and we will settle into the next chapter of our lives. Who knows, maybe some day we will head south again, cross our looper's wake, and see what might come next.

So that is the plan...for now.

Oriental Harbor Sunset


Sunday, July 31, 2022

All work and no play?

Having grandkids along on a boat work trip is a good thing, it turns out. By the end of the previous half dozen trips to the boat for Work Week we've been so tired that passing things like Pilot Mountain State Park on the drive home elicited a vague "We really need to stop there sometime and see what it's like." With the help of the boys on this trip (see Tj's previous post) we finished a day early and had time to go visit the maritime museum in Beaufort, NC and an amazingly cool wooden boat shop there. After leaving there and a night spent in a hotel with a wonderful outdoor pool, we happened to be passing Pilot Mountain State Park with a few extra hours to spare so we all voted to stop.

Pilot Mountain is a geological wonder of quartzite monadnock formed millions of years ago. The surrounding mountains eroded over the years and left the knobby formation intact. While you're not allowed to climb the knob itself, there is an easy .8 mile hike around the base of it that yields very rewarding views along the way. We have plans to return again with more time to explore. 

This is the parking lot at the visitor's center, but you can drive up to the parking lot near the top which we did. There were actually people walking all the way up the road and a few bicyclists tackling the climb on their road bikes. My grandson assures me that his dad could do it "in about 20 minutes." (The gauntlet has been thrown Dad...) There's also shuttles that go up to the parking lot if you don't want to take your car.



The elevation here is about 2400 feet.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are visible along the horizon.

Later that evening after arriving at the hotel we found this amazing park, Legacy Grove Park in Wincester, KY. The boys had a blast climbing on everything and land surfing on the artificial turf hill. They even provided cardboard box bits to surf on.





There was a running water feature with a play area that was a creek as well as several water tables with pots, pans, pitchers, collanders, and a pumping well to get more water to play with. Another part of the park had a music feature with all sorts of drums and bells. It was an incredibly well thought out park and I wish we had one in St. Louis. The boys agreed it was the most awesome park they'd ever been to. And it was a great nudge for me to remember to balance out the work/play ratio to something just a bit more reasonable. Thanks boys!

You have to appreciate beauty no matter where you find it. This was the sunset from the hotel window last night.

Water Ready

After a slightly longer than normal break we were back working on First Light. The timing put us in the boat yard in the midst of a heat wave, with daily temperatures deep into the 90s. The day I started this post it was 1817 local time. Our little weather station had the air temperature at 96, a heat index of 115, and showed the barest hint of a breeze. I was reminded of the months I spent working in the boat yard trying to earn enough to keep cruising. Days that were not among the highlights of our years on Kintala. Yet here we were again, toughing it out while trying to get First Light ready to splash.

We had two major jobs on the list for this trip; both pressing due to insurance concerns that I don't completely understand. What I did understand is not getting them done in a timely manner was going to cost us. The first was replacing the starboard engine thru-hull. The new one is a proper sea cock complete with backing plate and anti-rotation screws. The install went smooth for a boat project, aided by the fact that Grandsons M (12) & G (10) joined us for this trip. Both regularly work with me on home projects and they have been a real help during this trip. Their young bones are far better suited for climbing in and out of engine room hatches and fetching necessary tools than are mine. They got their hands dirty as well or, in the case of the thru-hull, got a proper coating of sealant. They were rightly proud of the work they did helping me fill the hole that was in the bottom of the boat.

The second job required adding over-voltage protection to five different power feeds. Two 100 amp breakers were needed in the engine emergency start system, with three 50 ampers required in the battery charger circuit. The engine starting circuit I kind of understand as those lines were basically unprotected. On the other hand the boat has survived four decades without said protection, and now it is a hazard that must  be dealt with before the insurance company will let the boat get wet? The battery charging circuit is already protected by two different circuit breakers; each of which will likely open long before those 50 amps pop. But that's what the survey says, that's what the insurance company demands and that, as they say, is that.

The morning of the wiring task was spent at the parts and tool store. I got me a new toy, a hydraulic crimper that will easily handle the 6 AWG task at hand. Expensive, but still far less than it would have cost to contract the job out. And, well, I got me a new toy. We found the terminals needed for the 100 amp job. Those for the 50 amp job had to be ordered and would be a day behind.














At first glance the 100 amp breakers in the emer-start circuit looked an easy install. Cut the wires, add terminals to the cut ends, install the breakers, zip-tie as necessary, finished. A schematic etched into the faceplate of a box marked "Starting Switches" with 3 switches mounted, suggested that simply turning them to "OFF" would drain the wires of any spark-making capability. But I am a skeptic when it comes to many things, with boat wiring being near the the top of that list. My little volt meter showed both lines full of spark-making potential. It didn't appear that any combination of switches removed said potential. The day was wearing on and my heat fuzzed brain was giving up on the puzzle. Time to head for a cold shower and tackle the puzzle anew in the morning. 

Sleeping on a problem is often a good way to solve a problem. The next morning I just pulled the ground wire off of the emergency start battery. A quick look at the voltmeter affirmed that the lines were dead and the dikes were brought to bear. An hour or two later and that half of the insurance electric mods were done. I know the engine starting circuits, both normal and emergency, were tested during the sea trial. But that was nearly a year ago now and I have simply forgotten which switch does what. The first time we go back in the water the engine contractor will be along to check the work he did for us. I will get a refresher course on switches when that happens. 

With nothing else to do to until the electrical system until parts arrived, I went back to working on the cockpit roof / solar panel mount.  An earlier project that is mostly finished, it still needed some edge work done. Ninety plus degrees in blazing sunshine? No hill for a climber. But it was a slow climb, with many breaks to fill the water jug and squirt down with a hose. Did I mention that it reminded me of some hard days I had hoped to never see again? By the time the parts showed for the second half of the electric job I was as nearly spent as the day.

The next morning brought an enthusiastic start at getting the last wiring mod finished, and all went well for oh, 20 minutes or so. With battery charger powered down and all the boat battery switches open, there was no chance of making sparks, right? The volt meter suggested no spark potential. But First Light has solar power charger circuit laid on top of inverters coupled with AC charging systems riding piggy back engine alternators backed up with a gen-set. Not all of that was installed at the same time. With revised and up-to-date schematics for old boats being non-existent, what were the chances of some kind of sneak circuit of which I had no clue?  I disconnected the ship's battery bank ground cables. Also, the work area in question was directly above that same battery bank. Moving slow and being careful was the watchword for the mod. And a good lesson for the two young mechanics working with me.

Breakers installed and original wiring rerouted to them; it came time to fabricate new wiring back to the charger. And...the parts that had shown up the day before were wrong. Yep, who would have guessed that? The boys and I headed off to find the right ones, wiring connectors for 6 AWG wire with 1/4 inch mount holes. After more than an hour of fruitless searches through 4 different stores, we returned to the boat with tails tucked and anticipating another day's delay for the right parts to arrive. Deb took over the search and drove off. A half hour later she sent me a text. She was on the way with the right parts. If you need parts, send one of the world's best parts department managers to find them. (That is why she ran my aircraft parts department for many years!) Good mechanics might be rare. But Part's experts? One in a million among good mechanics.













A couple of hours after she returned with the needed bits, wires from the breakers to the charger were fabricated and installed. Zip-ties were were placed to make for "happy" wiring, battery ground cables connected, breakers and switches were closed. The charger came on line, and our little electrical world was up to insurance standards. After a bit of clean-up work, and so far as we know at the moment, First Light is water ready once again.

With the project targets met, and a little extra, Deb changed the getting home plan. Instead of a two day trip she changed it to three. Day one would include a ferry ride across the Neuse River to Beaufort, NC to visit a maritime museum along with a boat shop dedicated to working on wooden boats. Then we would head west for a couple of hours to a hotel with air conditioning and a pool.

The trip across the Neuse was just a 20 minute ride but, the moment the ferry dropped the mooring lines and began to back away from the loading dock, my heart took a little lurch. This was the first time we had been on near-to-big water in over three years on any kind of a boat. Standing on the upper deck, looking across the expanse, smelling the salt air, and watching a couple of cruising boats work their way along the river... For just a moment it seemed like a good idea to ride the ferry right back, head to the boat yard, have them fire up the travel lift, drop First Light into the water, and motor off somewhere, anywhere, that we could drop the hook and hope for a few dolphins to swim by and welcome us back. But heart tugs aside, there are considerations to consider and plans to be made before that can happen.

I am pleased with the progress we made and the chance to spend some quality time with the grandsons. But, short of a life-threatening catastrophe, this is the last time I work on a boat during the Summer months while south of the Mason-Dixon line. Which may be the biggest consideration to consider to setting a splash date. So, as is normal with all life, we will just have to see how it all unfolds while trying to muster up the necessary patience and garnering what little wisdom can be found so as to make the best decisions we can.