One man’s experiment with electric propulsion

Electric vehicles (EV) are the future of light duty vehicle, with some forecast that put internal combustion engines (ICE) to soon be less competitive when compared to EVs. Other experts are more conservative on how soon this is going to happen, but it seems clear that ICE is fated to become obsolete as EVs are “the rational, economic choice”.

The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S
The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S  (photo by Oleg Alexandrov)

But what is the situation with marine electric propulsion? Can small sailboat be propelled by electric motors?

Over the water, the most common form of auxiliary propulsion for sailboats over 25ft is marine diesel engine. This proven technology benefits from many years of successful use and a well established industry of dealers and technical repairs. It’s easy to say that the diesel ICE dominates the market on sailboats. Before owning a boat with electric propulsion, my only experience was with diesel engines and, less often, gasoline outboards.

The engine room of a small sailboat
The engine room of a small sailboat (photo by PHGCOM )

THE DIESEL BIAS
Diesel fuel has a couple of good features: a high flash point that allows a relatively safe handling and a good energy density that provides satisfying motoring range with limited storage required. Today new, smaller and more efficient units fit easily in every engine room. Marine diesel give a sailboat an extended range under power and enough horse power to face any difficult situation.
When I first faced electric propulsion it was a quirky novelty, something I was not prepared to deal with. The most important discovery was that we all share a diesel engine bias. The common temptation is to approach the topic trying to ask the question if electric propulsion can replace the diesel engine.

After carefully going through a lot of research, re-doing myself the installation, and using it for more than 2000 nautical miles, I finally have an answer.
No, electric propulsion can’t replace the diesel engine. What it did for me was to change the way I see and use auxiliary propulsion.

A DIFFERENT MINDSET
It is common practice on a sailboat to turn on the engine not only when you need to maneuver around tight docks or anchorages, but also when wind or wave direction shifts to an undesired angle, when the speed drops under a certain threshold, if the battery charge is low or to fight against tides and currents. No matter what is the source of the annoyance, it takes little effort to fix it. Just turn the ignition key on, wait one second and put the throttle in gear and the problem is solved.
Fuel and general consumables are what sit between the choice of motoring or not motoring, and they are usually very easy to find everywhere and reasonably cheap. This mindset implies that power is abundant and available at all times, we can get to destination in less time, going through very little trouble.
Electrical propulsion on the other hand, requires a switch from this mindset, from considering power abundant to scarce. Scarce however doesn’t mean non-existent, it simply means that your reserve has to be cared for and maintained.

ANATOMY OF OUR “LOW COST” SYSTEM
Tranquility, our Columbia 29 built in 1965 is powered by an inboard electric propulsion. The conversion from presumably an Atomic 4, was performed by a former owner who installed an earlier model from the company Electric Yacht. The motor is a simple DC Eltek brushed motor mounted on a 2 to 1 gear, and it works at 36Vdc-65Vdc (48Vdc nominal), with a maximum peak of 130Amps and 100Amps continuous. The power conversion is estimated equal to 6 horse power. It is small and weights a little more than 40 pounds.

Here is a video of Tranquility’s conversion to electric propulsion:

At the time of purchase the boat and the propulsion system needed serious updates, and we were forced to replace the existing battery bank with a new one. We opted for eight 6v Trojan T-125 batteries connected in series for a total capacity of 240ah at 48v. The reasoning behind the choice of a “traditional” lead acid 6v battery is both economical and practical. Lead acid batteries are at least five time cheaper than Lifepo4, and our sailing budget is very limited. Also, in case of a single battery failure it would be easier to replace one “golf cart” battery in different places of the planet, without dealing with expensive shipping and duties.
We use wind, hydro, the grid and fossil fuels to o recharge our batteries. In details, we installed a 48v wind turbine, a 20amp AC to DC battery charger powered by the grid when we are at the dock and by a portable gas generator when at sea, the 12×12 fixed three blade propeller that regenerates power under sail when boat speeds exceed 5 knots.

CRUISING WITH ELECTRIC PROPULSION: THIS IS HOW WE DO IT        With our current system we are able to motor in calm conditions at 3 knots while drawing 20 amps for approximately 15miles before we need any recharge. This estimated range is considered an ideal situation and we try to avoid to use our motor for that long. If we have to motor for more than 1 hour for instance, we would use our gas generator on deck to give some power back to the batteries. The motor rarely runs at more than 20 amps, and when it happens my hearth races as if they were taking my blood rather than electrons from the battery plates.
If we are drawing more than 20 amps it’s because we are fighting headwinds, currents in a narrow passage or a maneuver that requires high thrust, situations that should not last long if we plan our sail wisely and that not affect too much our power reserve. We always try to be very conservative with our batteries but at the same time we are happy to know that we can demand more power if conditions arise. How little we can motor became a game for us, and we feel particularly accomplished when we don’t use it at all.

Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway
Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway

OUR TESTING GROUNDS
Coastal sailing is the most demanding situation for auxiliary propulsion because of narrows, currents, navigational hazards that make sailing hard work and sometimes extremely time consuming. For these reasons, most of our sailing is done offshore where we don’t need auxiliary propulsion. Since we fixed our boat and hooked up the electric propulsion we have been sailing the East Coast of the United States from Massachussets to Georgia round trip with electric propulsion. As we are planning to take on more distance sailing, we considered that a successful test.
Occasionally we useD the ICW, especially on the southbound trip when we went from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC. In that situation, time was a constraint as we were cruising in cold weather and our priority was to get south as fast as we could.
One day for example we needed to sail from Manteo NC, to Hatteras, NC via the Pamlico Sound. The forecast gave us very light wind for the next day, not great sailing conditions. If we waited, we would have to face strong headwinds for the rest of the week and get stuck there. Considering the scenario, We decided to leave early, hooked up our gas generator to motor all the way in a flat Pamlico Sound. Because of the short winter days we arrived at night but once there we had no worries about when to leave for the next leg of the trip that was done under sail.
The rest of the trip we sailed and motor-sailed along “the ditch”. A gentle breeze is sufficient to sail faster than we would motor, and we also tolerate to move slower if that is possible under sail. Carefully timing the tides we can motor faster using less power and so our journey is entirely planned in consideration of weather patterns and current.

THE ART OF COMPROMISE
Kate and I live aboard and cruise full time. So far electric propulsion has never been a concern, nor we live it as a limitation. After some adjustments in our cruising style, we quickly adapted to it. Cruising with an electric inboard propulsion means to compromise. The reduced range limits our possibilities in terms of routes and landing options. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave earlier from places we like to take advantage of a favorable weather window. Sometimes we had to stay longer in places we liked less. More than once a sudden calm, a favorable tide or other “disturbances” led us to places we din’t plan to visit. With this limitations, we learned that it’s not a coincidence that most of the main harbors are built in locations accessible under sail in most conditions, as historically that was the only way to get there.

ELECTRIC PROPULSION MAKES BETTER SAILORS
Electric propulsion forces us to keep sailing even when the boat speed goes below 3 knots. These limits had forced me to work on having a better sailboat. Because of limited power we keep our bottom as clean as possible (I often dive myself or hire a professional when I don’t feel like). Because of our limited power, we purchased better sails for light air and installed a retractable bowsprit to increase our sail area. We spend more time studying landings on the charts, including alternative points of refuge in our planning and always trying to match the tide and the current. Paying closer attention to weather is another consequence of dealing with a limited range. Even if it would not be our first choice sometimes we have to leave at night or arrive with the dark. In other words, our sailing skill and navigation competence have improved thanks to electric propulsion.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
What I am doing today is a sort of a beta test, the science fair version of astrophysics. Considering our limited budget and resources, the results are encouraging and what is really exciting is that there are optimistic signs that this technology will be more and more viable for future use and diffusion in the marine industry.
Even if we are being thrifty, we are aware how our battery bank have a relatively short lifespan. Well cared lead-acid batteries can last 7-10 years but the test of electrical propulsion is a harsh one, that’s why we are doubly careful on how we treat how power reserve
With this in mind, I look forward to what may be available in 2020 in terms of batteries and their cost. The electric car industry, Tesla in primis, has shown the world that the technology is already here and that only scale production and policy are the limits to a wider diffusion. The marine industry is opening up to LiFePo4 technology for power storage, and even if today is still very expensive, there is no need for technological breakthroughs, just a more mature industry and a wider market.
I would use Lifepo4 batteries today if I could afford them. This way I would extend my motoring range by 40% at 50% the weight of my actual setup. In this way I would be less concerned to push down harder on the throttle if I feel like, or worry about the time between full recharges, as lead plate sulfation would not be an issue. I this way I would feel more confident and leave behind our gasoline generator. The much decreased weight would give me better sailing and motoring performance in return. In other words, power will still be “scarce” but less so.

A SMALL MINORITY
We rarely encounter other cruisers with electric propulsion (but thanks to the internet we met a guru and now we know some others) and we feel that somehow we are an anomaly, especially when it’s a calm day and other vessels motor at full steam, while we bob around with full sails trying to catch any breeze and spending very long time to cover few miles. Sometimes it’s not fun. We are lucky that our sailing doesn’t have to follow a particularly strict schedule, so it’s not dramatic either.
When we purchased our boat the type of auxiliary propulsion was not among the most important criteria in our selection, and the fact that Tranquility came with electric propulsion was somehow a coincidence. We thought that we could any time switch to a different system if we wanted to, but after trying it we got intrigued and realized that even with its limitations electric propulsion works for us.

Today electric propulsion would be my first choice for a sailboat up to 35ft. Its minimum maintenance, the fact that is quiet, reliable and simple and has no fumes from fuel and oil are the perks that balance the labor that takes to sail more, which coincidently is why we are on the water in the first place.

Walking in America

We are living a very peculiar lifestyle, we get to experience situations that very few people have access to. The good and the bad, like walking on a disused railway track like iconic vagabonds.

It happened yesterday, when we took our much needed stroll to the grocery store to gather provisions, 2.7 miles away from where Tranquility is docked. It may seem far, but to us it is a reasonable distance to cover for food. Walking gives us a nice opportunity to see the places we are visiting, have sometimes meaningful conversations, exercise. It took us almost an hour to get there, walking in the countryside of the Delmarva southern tip, passing by a golf course, fields of cotton, horse ranches and a cemetery. The path was not well suited for pedestrians, but at least traffic was not too bad, and the mild and sunny afternoon was a special treat.

Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA
Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA

When I walk in America I always feel a little bit subversive. First I always notice that nobody else is doing it. I am of course not talking about big cities, or downtown strips where people walk purposely on sidewalks that keep them safe from traffic. In that case they probably just parked the car not far away or left the train to cover the last steps to get to their destinations.

I am talking about walking in city outskirts, suburbs, small towns and strip malls. As live aboard cruisers we end up in random places where we need to get supply, or just visit particular sites, and we don’t have a car, mainly because we cannot carry one with us onboard I guess. Everywhere we need to go, we go on foot, hire a cab or rent a car if that requires long traveling. And we feel strange. Drivers give you “the look” (a combination of astonishment, curiosity and pity ) as they pass you, some of them even press on the pedal trying to “rolling coal” or honk to acknowledge your presence. It’s no coincidence that roadsigns state “stop for pedestrian” rather than “stop for people”.

With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are
With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are

Walking is becoming more and more dehumanizing. Pioneers who once used to walk through plain and savannas are now regarded as “pedestrians”, somebody who is in the way of the traffic flow. If this sounds a little too dramatic just consider for a second the very basic concept of “Jaywalking”, which happens when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. It is considered an infraction but in some jurisdictions, it is a misdemeanor or requires a court appearance.

What happens where there are not designated paths for pedestrian? Would that be a case where walking becomes a criminal act? “Jaywalking” is a clear sign that the road belongs to cars. That’s why we felt somehow safer when we walked alongside the railroad tracks, luckily not in use anymore. When we walk a random intersection we often ask ourselves if an officer would be entitled to fine us for Jaywalking. If you walk in America you know that it’s not always clear where you are supposed to step around intersections.

People we get to talk to always offer us rides or the use of their car out of kindness, when they learn about our walking intentions. I figure they must be concerned about our safety because to their eyes it is abnormal to walk few miles for groceries. It’s not just that, it is straight-out dangerous.

Every time we hav to explain that it’s ok for us, that this is how we exercise and add other reasons to motivate this bizarre behavior of walking. Plus, on our boat we don’t have very much floor area so walking is very enjoyable every time we have a chance to do it.

The lack of safe walking paths all along the east coast is discouraging. The more people stop walking the more trails and walking path are disappearing. I am sure urban planners like Kate would have sophisticated explanations why America is so badly designed for walking, but it seems reasonable to boil it all down to one main responsible: cars.

Everything in America is designed around cars, the most important form of transportation, in particular commercial areas like strip malls, shopping plazas and such.

When we were living in Georgia, the sight of a person walking on the side of the road would trigger a big flag. I remember saying this to Kate: “Oh look at that guy, he’s walking (not jogging) the causeway… that’s a big flag over there” meaning that when a somebody  in civilian clothes walks somewhere the reason must be a problematic one: a broken down vehicle, a homeless situation, too poor to own a car, a person up to no good. “Can you imagine being there? With this heat?”

Now that we don’t own a car anymore our point of view completely switched. Now we are the anomaly, the vagrants, the subversives. At a certain moment during our walk, Kate stopped and looked at me saying: “I feel weird, we are not supposed to be doing this”.

“You are right” I said, “It shouldn’t take us three hours to do groceries, it all should happen faster, so we can do more things”. Time is a valuable resource, therefore it is better to do things as quickly as possible, especially moving, at the expenses of something that makes us truly human like walking.

Walking upright is one of the basic human characteristics, a revolution that boosted our survival skills allowing humans to walk faster and farther, facing up to spot potential dangers, and liberating our upper arms to accomplish more tasks. It is sad how today walking is somehow endangered, how fitbits and other exercise apps had to be invented to force people to walk more. Walking is so unusual that it changed name: all becomes a workout and people can’t wait to go hiking during weekends, to regain the health we lost for not walking in the first place.

I like to walk, a lot. I think that together with sailing it is my favorite form of transportation. Walking is even cheaper, you only need a pair of good shoes, and that only if you are picky walker. Any shoes are fine.

Walking is becoming more and more a privilege, regarded only to who have the time to afford it or to who live in communities where walking is not a russian roulette played with cars.

Or to people that have no alternative, like us.

Living on a boat has its limitations

It took some effort to pull away from the coast. We are growing fonder of social interactions, family, friends, random people watching on a NYC train. We spent good part of early fall visiting people, re-establishing connections in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York City but also back in my home place, northern Italy. We met newborns and introduced each other to old friends and colleagues on both continents. As much as we are embracing an hermit-like lifestyle relationship and social interactions seem to grow stronger, as if quantity of interaction was not a good indicator of their qualities. This sailing life is not exactly as sequestered as one could think.

Once again we have been adopted by a kind family of Fairhaveners, and by the community at large. We have always felt like at home there, but eventually, after all we wanted to do was brushed off the wish list and after we enjoyed time with kindred spirits, we had no other excuse to linger in the ever cooler South Coast of Massachusetts and eventually we had to sail South. A pilgrim is thankful for the hospitality, but they know when it’s time to leave.

And so we left with the same destination in mind as three years earlier, this time on a more outfitted boat, a better stocked pantry and a tireless helmsman, our Norvane self-steering. The memory of the previous trip had faded in a blur of discomfort and fast downwind sailing. Going offshore in the North Atlantic in November is no joke under any circumstance, and this time we had it worse.

north atlantic sailing route
north atlantic sailing route

Relentless westerlies winds kept us far offshore, more than we actually desired to, pushing us dangerously close to the outskirts of the Gulf Stream. At first it was a spanking breeze, that later became near gale condition from WNW. Heeled on a close hauled course with nothing but a small portion of the mainsail and the staysail, pounding into increasingly bigger waves, Tranquility made slow steady progress to windward. The forecast pictured an approaching cold front bringing strong Northerlies. We were looking forward to it but the weather was late to the meeting and so we could only keep our boat bow to the waves, which was hard but safer than have the breakers on the beam. At that point we would see ten feet high waves, crest to trough.

Finally the Northerlies came so we sailed on a broad reach with winds and waves on our starboard quarter. Immediately the boat’s speed took off. It was adrenalinic. I had to take the helm from the Norvane and carefully anticipate winds and gust to avoid Tranquility taking off on the wave shoulder, accelerating to windward and exposing her beam to the breaking crests. Soon the companionway was boarded up as some of the crests were dumping gallons of water into the cockpit and on top of us. Kate and I had our fair share of showers from “rogue waves” as we called them. Down from our bunks we could hear the slosh of ocean water all over the deck, followed by the watch keeper’s curses.

Eventually I grew too weary of steering and decided to take the mainsail down completely and running on the staysail only. The boat immediately slowed down and became more docile, the Norvane flawlessly kept her on course as I switched roles with Kate. Winds and waves conjured to give us a good angle of approach to Ocean City, MD. After stopping here on our way North we benefit again of the easy inlet, probably the only good harbor on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva peninsula.

Ocean City boardwalk in winter
Ocean City boardwalk in winter

This place in winter felt even more like a bubble. You can look out the window and see the deserted beach of Assateague Island, or you can try another window and see waterfront properties with private docks sitting still in the brightest november day, empty and quiet, a lot of square feet of living space heated and cooled for none’s use. Ocean City MD is the outpost of humanity, the front that tries to resist the big emptiness flowing in from the ocean, the ruins of an idea that everybody knew was wrong but none could do anything to stop, an endless succession of buildings, streets and corners that are struggling to keep up with the passing of time, deserted by the general lack of interest. They keep silent trying to withstand another winter, in need of funding, maintenance, and love above all, only visited by scavengers who benefit from the lack of summer crowd.

Scavengers like us, who found a nice crack in this fabric and we wedged in, with fenders and dock lines and anchor and all. From three days offshore where Mother Nature gave us no discounts, to a temporary protected nest. In these ruins we plugged back in the social discourse to find out things don’t always change for the best and so we diverted our attention from that to fulfill our cruising needs, electrical power, showers and a chance to serendipitously acquire another object to expand our unassorted collection: a stowaway Kite.

Once defrosted in the waterfront comforts we sailed back to the anchorage. It had been a very, very long time since last time we dropped the hook. Since Cuttyhunk in September, if I recall, roughly two months earlier. It always feels a lot different when we are at anchor. It’s like the zero point, everything from there is just adding stuff. Adding shore power, adding freshwater, adding internet, social interactions, malls, driving, noise, smell, shame and judgmental looks.

At anchor we focus on the basics cooking food and eating, house keeping, reading, writing, sleeping long hours, watching Fellini’s movies thinking that Italy in the 60s was the most advanced peak humankind has ever reached (the romantic idea soon demolished by remembering the undisputed hegemony of DC party during those years), eating more, periodically changing the orientation of the solar panel to ensure that the maximum output is kept.

At our peculiar age, a precise step in the western society where on average we are supposed to increase our footprint acquiring a house, a car, hopefully a second one, that rice cooker, maybe a drill press for the garage, we are contained in these tight fiberglass walls that resist the natural expansion of humankind, tossing back everything that does not fall into a place, with objects constantly mixed and reshuffled by a washing machine-like motion that put moisture in the mix, leaving us, members of the advanced western society, crawling in tight corners trying to ignore the growing chaos, with our focus absorbed by primary technological needs. Eventually we reach the point where we can’t retreat any more and we have to surrender, re-organize the space through simple actions that take the entire day.

These walls resisting the colonialist expansion teach us an important lesson. Our living space is growing smaller and smaller. It takes some time at anchor to fight back and put things into place, to cut back, discard, stop acquiring. It can only take so much expansion before the growth become a double edged weapon. There is one thing I can say for sure: living on a boat has its limitations. Planet Earth is a similar type of vessel floating in an inhospitable space, and it can only take so much growth.

Nothing goes according to the plan

Sometimes we embark in ventures and projects with a clear idea of our goals, a defined timeline to respect and the necessary resources. We put in our best good will and hardworking ethic, because we really want to make it happen. Of course, it doesn’t go as imagined, but we correct our actions to still make it to the arrival.

Then the unexpected struck. Sometimes it’s truly the work of fate, other times it’s a miscalculation we made, something we forgot to take into account, a costly mistake. When it depends on external factors we tend to be more proactive or forgiving, but if the fault is ours, we get mad at ourselves.

At least this is how I do.

A friend of mine returned a call after few weeks.  He was abroad for work but The Immigration Services called him back for an interview to renew his green card. All of the sudden I remembered that I too am expected to be interviewed again sometimes next winter. I forgot about that.

I immediately realized that our much dreamed Caribbean sailing was at risk, because I am supposed to fill a very long and complicated form with data I already submitted, return in front of an officer after two years on a yet not defined date, bring the same evidence that my marriage is as lawful as two years before, pay another expensive fee, have my biometric taken for the second time on a not yet defined date to make sure I did not incur in genetic mutations. And pay a separate fee for it.

That made me sad first, then mad, then depressed again. Last night I had a dream that I was sailing to Scotland in winter. Is my subconscious telling me that am bound to  an uncomfortable future ?

Going to the Caribbean anyway and wait to be summoned at will could be very expensive and risky. If we miss the interview then they may revoke my status. Staying in the US for another winter it’s definitely more expensive, not counting that we already visited this coast twice.

The mindset of setting sail from this known coast to less known horizons was the fuel that propelled our journey to cruising. Events out of our controls had already delayed/modified the plan in the past, for the best, to be honest. The frustration of things not going according to the plan is something that I already know and I learned how to cope with.

Still, it hurts.

And still, having to modify the plans again will bring different opportunities. Every fork on the road opens up a new universe of opportunities. What is waiting behind the corner of this not wanted plan?

So while we prepare for this unmpteenth encounter with the bureaucrats and modify our route, we ask ourselves: what fantastic opportunities are in front of us?

Hermine meditations

blog1
Beautiful yawl in Newport Harbor

There is a still atmosphere in Tranquility’s cabin. Kate tastes her latest culinary feat and approves it. <<It’s very good!>> I can hear her saying. Tonight we are going to have polenta and chickpeas and sardines fused in a tomato sauce, a revisitation of an old recipe from a camping trip in the woods of Maine.

Food is ready, deck is secured for what Hermine will decide to throw at us during the night and Labor Day’s morning, as we rest a little while the other boats around us hurry out for the last hours of nice sailing, before it gets too windy. Rest, after all this is what I am supposed to do. I have a cold.

Tranquility sits in Newport Harbor, holding tight to a mooring ball that a kind friend, Clarissa, is letting us use. It sits right in the center of the carnivalesque parade of Labor Day tourists, super yachts, and classic racing. There are better days to visit Newport, but our un-planable voyage doesn’t take into account what’s better or desirable. Things just happen. And so this is going to be the place where we will weather this weird Tropical Storm that just brought destruction to what used to be our home port, Frederica Yacht Club.

We held our breath when we got the first reports from Georgia, while our brave friends were doing all they could to save the salvageable. The impact was severe and a lot got lost or damaged, but luckily our closest friends weathered it fine. Hermine shouldn’t have the same impact up here, but we hold tight as this one already showed its capricious character.

I did not retrace the steps that took us here in Newport yet. The story of our cruise North is stuck in Ocean City MD, and a chapter or two are still due. I haven’t yet found the time and energy to bring you up to date. I will comply with my intentions, but this time it may take me longer than expected.

I am not in a creative drought, nor I am too busy sailing. My mind is focused on a new writing project, and so this blog is affected. I am trying to develop a new blog, and this time I am want to re-start from scratch. The best gift that long term cruising has given me so far is some time and tranquility to grow a seed that was probably inside me for a very long time.

Time doesn’t erase older parts of you and so I have to eventually deal with whom I used to be, or to be more precise, with what I used to do. I used to study and experiment with human behavior. From a selfish point of view, I tinkered trying to change myself. For my paycheck, I helped others face change. In either case I discovered that change is inevitable, sometimes sudden, and when I was exposed to sailing for the first time, some unexpected reactions transformed me.

The aim of my new project is to see how well Psychology and Sailing mix. Not very much is out there on the topic. My research found that most of this hybridization consists in Sport Psychology applied to competitive sailing. After all, even racing is a discipline that rests on mental pillars, like strategy, decision making, coping with stress and team building. But I suspect there is more.

Ok, I spilled the beans, would you follow me on my new course?

East Coast Northbound: climbing capes

CAPES
The Capes

Sailing in the vicinity of capes is always tricky. Wind, waves, tide and other natural events shaped their appearance and at the same time those forces are influenced by the mass of land they collide with. A vessel rounding a cape is subjected to variable conditions, and for this reason it’s always a good idea to give extra miles when rounding a headland or promontory.

The East Coast of the US has several capes that influenced our route in many ways. Mainly they were obstructing our NE progress.  After Cape Hatteras, we could all of the sudden head almost due North, and get faster to cooler weather. Sometimes to go around the coast feels like climbing mountains, the effort increases close to vertical peaks.

Wrighstville Beach to Lookout Bight, NC 72 NM

WB sunrise
Sunrise in Wrightsville Beach

A group of open water swimmers was taking advantage of the early hours and of the momentary absence of boat traffic to practice. Tranquility was the only boat under way and from the cockpit we watched carefully the colorful swim caps and kept a good distance from them. It must be a popular group in Wrigthsville as we counted at least 50 people taming the inlet at 6 am. The sun was barely up but it was clear it would be another hot day.

We had enough wind to leave the Masonboro inlet and head ENE again, but soon we hit lighter conditions and the boat speed suffered. We were hoping to get there at dusk but the pace was not ideal. The wind picked up later when we were already in sight of the Beaufort inlet and the sunlight was gone. After the last gybe we had all the rolling waves hitting us almost on the beam as we were following the bearing of two red buoys marking the entrance of the bight.

We were trusting our chart plotter that was giving us a depth of 30 ft. It was a lie. Right when we heard the sound of braking waves and realized we could be in trouble, the boat hit the bottom with the keel. A sandy bottom judging from the sound. The long keel of our boat just bumped in a sand bank, we turned immediately to port where we found deeper waters and we adjusted our position to the blinking red buoy.

Lookout Bight
LOOKOUT BIGHT VIEW, NORTH UP

We had approached the entrance with a too tight angle and the Navionics Charts had assured we were in no danger. It was a lucky way to demonstrate how chart plotters are not the solution to navigation problems. Had we listened more carefully to the sound of the sea or took a wider, more conservative angle of approach and we could have avoided that. Good lesson for the future.

lookout bight 2
LOOKOUT BIGHT FROM ESE

After the surprising and scary bump we were sailing in flat waters as the land had already cut the swell from the ocean. This time it was upwind as we turned SSW to get in the lee of the sand dunes. It was time to decide where to anchor. We observed the anchor lights at the top of masts, trying to judge the distances from the beach, from other anchored boats and find the good depth to drop our anchor. With a quick look at the horizon it became also obvious that a line of thunderstorms was on our way.

After a little recon we let the anchor sink to the bottom in 17feet of water and I was giving enough chain and rode out to absorb the thunderstorm charging for us. Just as I cleated the anchor rode and positioned the anti chafe gear the squall hit us with some violent wind gusts and blinding rain from the NW. As the anchor had no sufficient time to set, it started to drag away from the beach towards deeper waters.

Luckily we had no obstacles in our path and finally the anchor set bringing our bow to the wind and waves. I calculated that we dragged at least 200 yards before the anchor found a good bite and started to dig into the sand. The thunderstorm raged for few minutes more, before continuing on and leaving a quiet night behind. When visibility improved we noticed we were a little distant from the beach, but we were now trusting the holding of our ground tackle.

LB walk
Walking the dunes
LB dunes
Facing the Atlantic Ocean

We spent few days in the bight. One day we swam ashore and walked all around on the beach. The next day we hiked the beach and the dunes and made it to the other side in the hotter and sunnier day I experienced this summer. We made it, but it was a serious feat. During these hikes, we talked a lot about ideas, a torrent of ideas. Business plans, life plans, travel plans a big collection of our imaginary world had been discussed, analyzed and then dismissed or saved for later discussion. We thought about possible uses of shells, writing ideas, financial investments. Walking enhance our imagination to the point that we could even end up arguing furiously over an imaginary plan that is far from having any foundation.

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Lookout Bight gets busy with any type of craft during weekends

I consider the Lookout Bight one of the nicest place on the East Coast of the US, especially if you have the opportunity ti visit it on a boat. Crowded during weekends, it is remote during weekdays and at night it is absolutely quiet. We swam a lot and I even did my first bottom scrub since we launched the boat. The day we left, when the conditions we were looking for to face the longest and most difficult section of the trip finally came, I noticed a sand shark surfacing and trying to reach my breakfast pot… Even though I am aware how harmless they are, I am glad I went scrubbing the hull without knowing about it!

Lookout bight to Ocean City, MD 289 NM

We expected very light conditions for an extended period of time before venture out of the Bight to round Cape Lookout first, and Hatteras later, and that’s exactly what we got. We had an upwind first part to get around the cape, so light air was actually good, as the flat seas didn’t obstruct too much our progression. Once around, we received a little help from the Gulf Stream that pushed us NE.

I think the best explanation ever of how an ocean current works is from the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo, when Crush the turtle shows it to Marlin <<You’re riding it, dude. Check it out!>>

It was a very nice ride indeed. The Gulf stream current flows close to the Outer Banks Coast. We were sailing downwind about twenty miles offshore in light winds and still we had a steady progress of 4kts even 5kts at times. On a calm ocean we slipped into our watch routine mile after mile and had no visits from thunderstorms. The depth sounder took a peak of what’s outside the Continental Shelf and settled to 385 feet (apparently its maximum reading), but according to the charts we were in an area of 1600ft of depth. Kate shivered trying to imagine such an ocean depth. Here the water was really blue and turned violet when the sun was setting.

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“You are riding it, dude. Check it out!”

The round of Hatteras went almost unnoticed. For the entire trip we kept talking about it like it was Cape Horn or Good Hope. Even if it’s blasphemous to compare it to some of the most stormy capes in the world, Hatteras has a bad reputation among sailors in the East Coast, and we were constantly warned when they heard us talking about going around. Cape Hatteras is also known as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of many shipwrecks happened in the area. The presence of the Gulf Stream, the fierce storms that hit both in winter and summer, and a very thin and steep Continental Shelf make this cape a place not to underestimate and to avoid in bad weather.

After Hatteras we turned the bow North and passed the Chesapeake entrance to continue along the Delmarva peninsula. Our destination was Ocean City where we had the mission to find supplies, regroup and organize the next leg. I remember looking at the charts and asking Kate “How is Ocean City?”. She replied that she spent few summers there when she was a child. “It’s a crazy place you must see”.

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Beta and I checking the approach to Ocean City

Ocean City was attractive to my eyes because of its easy inlet in case we arrived in the dark (as our habit) and for the presence of marinas and shopping facilities. After three weeks at anchor we needed to replenish our fresh water and get a good deal of food. With some 300 miles to get to New England it was one of our last chances to stock up.

We obviously arrived in the early AM in pitch dark and I hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF to ask if the inlet had any recent change from what the charts were telling us. They gave us green light and we approached carefully. With so many buildings and lights it wasn’t difficult to find our way into the inlet and we reached our destination, Ocean City Fisherman’s Marina at 3 AM, tying up at the fuel dock waiting for them to open.

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Our first landing

It was a Saturday morning and fishermen were already leaving. Kate called the owner of the Marina at about 3:30AM convinced that she would talk to the voice mail. Instead she woke him up. She apologized but he reassured her that he was coming earlier anyway because of the early birds coming to the fuel docks, so he told us to go tie up to a near slip and that we could talk later.

We checked in easily and with the BoatUS membership we were granted a discount. We stayed two nights for 101$, which considering the season is not bad at all. In the morning we noticed that ours was the only mast in the marina (and probably in all West Ocean City). All around us sport fishers and other type of powerboats were the only boats.

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Neighbors in West Ocean City

We walked a lot, but all the shopping was close by so we quickly completed the list of our errands. On a saturday night we walked to the board walk, which is this crazy loud, sugar fueled, amalgam of people flowing up and down. Kate wanted me to try any sort of sugary extra caloric eatables and I settled for sea water tabbies and caramelized cashews. On the next monday we left early  with a fully provisioned boat to get to Cape Henlopen, with the plan to sit there and wait for a good weather window.

 

East Coast Northbound: surviving 4th July

Leg 2 Charleston SC, to Little River Inlet 106NM

We left Charleston following the same pattern of the previous leg, leaving in light air and waiting for some afternoon wind, which came, as well as the much dreaded short period waves. We developed a little bit of sea sickness and generally tiredness when we had to dodge thunderstorms all night. We were lucky not to get too heavy squalls, but pouring rain got me quickly soaked. With little or no wind exhausted by the passage of these disturbances, I decided to heave to and just try to sleep in the cockpit.

At dawn, we decided to use the remaining daylight hours and the favorable tide conditions to bail out into Little River inlet, a nice inlet right at the border between the Carolinas. We identified a potentially good anchorage on the charts, on the lee shore of an undeveloped barrier island, Waites Island, and we went for it. Cruising life had already deformed our sense of time. We forgot that 4th of July weekend was underway. The memory came suddenly back when we started noticing a crowd of any possible craft roaming the inlet and generating continuous wakes.

We grew accustomed to all the wake and subsequent rolling of our boat and eventually, around sunset, the anchorage would become again our private property until the early morning brought new fast and furious vacationeers. We were happy to rest and we started to enjoy the show we were witnessing as if it was (and truly is) a fascinating natural phenomena, like penguins mating or wolves hunting. It was a truly American experience as we were not far from the popular Myrtle Beach, suns out, guns out!

Leg 3 Little River inlet to Southport NC 33 NM

After two nights at anchor we decided we were tired of Little River and left for a shorter leg, a daysail to Southport NC. From where we were, going around Cape Fear is a long way out and in again, and it makes more sense using “the ditch” to cut to the other side on Wrightsville Beach. Cape Fear river current is very strong and requires perfect timing so it makes sense to repair in Southport and time the next departure. We also had stopped here on our way south a couple of winters ago and we really liked the atmosphere.

Back then it was cold and not very populated, we gathered with fellow late migrators around the free town docks and shared meals and stories. This time, being the day before 4th of July we couldn’t find any spot in the anchorage or even at the marina. I performed few doughnuts around the fast running channel while Kate was making calls around to see where we could stop.

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Provision & Co. in Southport, SC

Luckily the Provisions & Co., a bar and restaurant right on the waterfront, granted us permission to stay overnight at their complementary docs and leave the next morning. We enjoyed the downtown crowd and a nice meal at the restaurant, and smiled to the many curious customers who came to the boat asking any kind of questions.

Leg 4 Southport NC to Wrighstville Beach, NC 23 NM

It was still dark when we slipped off the floating pontoon. As soon as sails were up and we entered the Cape Fear River we noticed a big help from the current and the winds.  It was incredible to witness how the boat could sail at five knots on completely flat waters and very little wind.

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The vast Army facility at Sunny Point

The quiet flat waters were racing at about two knots in the back bay while we passed Sunny Point, a big Army terminal which serves as “a transfer point between rail, trucks, and ships for the import and export of weapons, ammunition, explosives and military equipment”. The area surrounding the facility is intentionally uninhabited to create a security buffer in case something goes wrong, and of course anchoring is prohibited.

The scenery is stunning and a bit desolating at the same time, but at least is remarkably different from the monotonous waterfront property with dock facility that becomes ubiquitous after you go trough the Snows Cut heading towards Wrighstville Beach. At that confluence a powerboat approached us and an oversized fella at the helm saluted me with “Happy 4th Bro” wielding a beer. We were on the “other side”.

A video is worth 1000 words. Check Kate’s work on “eating wakes for breakfast”

We anchored for a few days in Wrightsville Beach waiting for good weather for the next offshore leg and enjoying the ability to come and go to the public dinghy dock, even though the best feature was definitely the access to free showers at the beach. We also needed a little provisioning as we were planning to visit Lookout Bight, a natural park with no shopping facilities.

East Coast Northbound: Brunswick GA to Charleston SC

 

This time we picked very light conditions to roll out of the inlet and soon after some bobbing around the wind was enough to start reefing the mainsail and learning how to tune our new to us Norvane Self Steering wind pilot. The predominant SW kept blowing stronger and stronger forcing us to gybe every few miles to hold our broad reach course to the North East. The shallow water of the Atlantic coast provided a carpet of short steep waves. It was a bumpy ride, with objects flying all over the boat. We did not respond well to the solicitations of the environment, trying to hanging in there without much enjoyment.

We also encountered the first ugly thunderstorm off Blackbeard Island. We went into T-Storm preparation, reducing sail area, wearing foul weather gear and battering down all the hatches and when we were ready to face the monster nothing too bad happened as we slipped in between squalls. We spent the rest of the night dodging ship traffic in front of Savannah and charging harder ahead making good speed.

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Encounter in Charleston Harbor

The next morning we were approaching Charleston and we decided that it was enough for the first leg of the trip. Thanks to the limited power of our electric motor we had no option but to tack our way into the harbor as it was obviously an upwind course. Luckily the inlet and the harbor are very wide and with the wind decreasing Kate and I revised out tacking maneuvers on and on. Eventually we arrived to the anchorage in Ashley River, right in front of Charleston City Marina, and dropped the hook for a well deserved rest. As I spent most of the night up I was pretty exhausted, and Kate took a great care of me. She literally fed me and put me to bed.

As soon as our body were rested we “dinghied” in and walked around the City. We obviously went straight to the library and on our way there we found out that the library is right beside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church where nine people lost their lives. It was June 17 2015 and many people were commemorating the sad event as we walked by.

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As it happened before we decided to stay longer in Charleston, to re-organize the boat interior after the first offshore leg and to make it our base to visit family in Pennsylvania. This time we rented a car and went for a long car trip, with Beta in tow. The occasion was the celebration of Sister Janet jubilee for her 50th anniversary as a Franciscan nun. The ceremony was very moving yet joyous and I was truly admired with Janet and her sisters’ dedication throughout their actions and words.

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Beta visiting the misty West Virginia
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Family group portrait at the Sister Janet’s jubilee
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Casual meeting in Charleston, brother Bernie!

Before and after the road trip we spent some time in Sullivans Island. We found a secret and creative anchorage and we rowed ashore. This pretty island has an infamous past being the main port where african slaves were brought into the New World. The only reminder of this traumatic past is a little section of Fort Moultry Museum and a bench overlooking the marshes where the Toni Morrison Society place a “bench by the road”. As the commemorative plaque reveals “nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island“.

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bench by the road

Today Sullivan’s Island is a quiet residential destination, where the ‘haves’ enjoy their time on the beach. During our walk we found time to visit the local library which is dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed on Sullivan’s Island as a private in the United States Army in 1827 and 1828, and who used the island setting as the background for his famous story, “The Gold Bug.” The library and many other spaces of the island are located in the disused fortification of the island.

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Eventually we finished our week stay and the weather conjured for another departure. It was time to leave Charleston. We felt like this time we had the opportunity to get to know each other a lot better.

East Coast Northbound: Leg 0, False Start

It’s time for me to write about our journey from Georgia to the New England area. We decided this is going to be our summer/fall cruising ground, so for a while our sailing will be shorter and local. As we came to a soft landing in Buzzards Bay I found more tranquility within to review our progress and Kate’s impressive photographs also helped my memory, so in the next few days I’ll recap the steps that brought us here.

Sailing has a beneficial effect on my writing and I am actively working on different topics. I am trying to publish an article about Tranquility’s refit and working on a science fiction novel I’ve been on for a while. Besides,  I am attending an online course on how to monetize my blog. It seems that the first important task in this process is to “find my niche”. I have no clear ideas of what is my niche yet. Do you?

From Frederica River anchorage to Frederica River anchorage, 14NM

I start this recap with our first fail of the trip. Back at the beginning of June we thought we were ready to catch some good South Easterlies and start our climbing along the East Coast. The expectations about starting the journey were heavy on us, especially after being tucked in the marshes for the first two Tropical Storms of the season. We felt anxious and wanted to leave very badly, feeling disgusted by any extra job list and preparation routine.

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The view from Tranquility’s cabin during Tropical Storm Colin

We picked an afternoon departure with an ebbing tide to weigh anchor. The sailing in St.Simons Sound, was promising and Tranquility moved fast and secure in the smooth waters, but as soon as we entered the inlet things started to get hairy. Big steep waves lifted by the wind blowing against the tide crashed on our bow as we were trying to keep Tranquility close hauled in the long shipping channel out of the Sound. Shoals on both sides did not allow for any leeway and soon we had to start tacking.

During the first tack we go stuck in the trough between two waves. As the boat stalled the jib started flogging very hard and by the time we  got control of the boat again I noticed a rip in the fabric in the vicinity of the clew. I ran to the foredeck and while Kate was controlling the jib sheet I furled the sail. I immediately hoisted the staysail and tried to make up my mind on what had just happened.

It was clear that there was no other call than to go back to the anchorage, as we needed our jib for the miles on. We knew that in Frederica River at least we had the resources to fix it. We turned around and with following wind and tide we rolled on the big waves until we were safe in the lee of Jekyll Island.

Sailing back in protected waters, our minds were focused on how the departure was a failure. Instead of being out sailing we had once again to deal with few more issues, more work to do. We were happy that after all nothing too bad happened but we were definitely bummed and demoralized as we were again dropping anchor in Frederica River, the curse was still on.

In the next couple of days Kate dropped her phone in the water, making us a one phone family. Our old android tablet that we use for navigation decided to give up, the display no longer responded to our finger touch. Two foam cushions that form our sleeping bunk blew off the boat during a squall as they were left on deck to air out. I was able to retrieve one of them during my row back to the boat but the second one was lost forever. Instead of one step forward we were three steps back.

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Our friend Bill helped repairing our jib

We thought we were ready, truth was we needed more preparation and time. With the not so happy mood of who has no choice but keep pushing the stone uphill, we put together some a work and a shopping list, restock our supplies, sew a strong patch in the jib with the help of our friend Bill and his good sailmaking skills, and we were ready to try again, with a mission to stay out as long as we could on our North East quest.

Food on the Sea recipes: Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Some of our cooking tricks while sailing and living aboard may be useful to others that are interested in this lifestyle. Plus they are usually very simple and can be done in every situation, not only on a boat.

The picture of the spaghetti plate from the previous post generated many requests of recipes that I decided to write about it. Thanks to Hubert’s comment I am going to start a new section of this blog with posts about the food we cook aboard Tranquility called Food on the Sea. Some of our cooking tricks while sailing and living aboard may be useful to others that are interested in this lifestyle. Plus they are usually very simple and can be done in every situation, not only on a boat.

Life without a fridge

On Tranquility we don’t have refrigeration. This choice comes from our limited power generation which mainly consists in one 60w solar panel. This still allows us to be totally self sufficient on our electrical power demands. If we are careful we can run lights, fans, radios, pumps, instruments, laptops, tablets and other appliances/devices without need to plug into the grid or to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Refrigeration would take a big toll on our system,and we will be forced to put more solar panels (where? surface on deck is limited) or to find alternative source of power to charge the batteries. As we learned that many people do without refrigeration, we decided to do the same. We also decided to renounce ice and to use the icebox as storage instead. Other cruisers can’t really believe that we are doing it, but the main excuse we hear about having refrigeration onboard is “I have a fridge because I like my beer cold!”. Well, we don’t have alcoholic beverages on our boat, so that solves the problem!

Without refrigeration, we are forced to use the groceries in order of spoilage and to buy groceries more often. We also rely on canned food and other shelf stable goods. Looking for dehydrated cat food for Beta, Kate bumped into a website which is a favorite among “End of times” preppers . Harmony House Foods sells freeze dried and dehydrated food of any kind (broccoli, onions, peppers, berries, literally everything!). We tried them and now we are hooked! For the future we would experiment with drying food ourselves, especially after we fish or bump into a bounty of fresh produce.

 

 

“Spaghetti alla Puttanesca” recipe   

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The ingredients in this recipe are all shelf stable. Of course you can substitute any of those with fresh ingredient, it would only improve the result.

Ingredients for 4 people:

Tomato sauce (1 can)

Pitted black olives (1 can)

6 Anchovies

Capers (1 tablespoon, minced)

Garlic (3 cloves, minced)

Extra virgin olive oil (3 tablespoon)

Dry parsley flakjes

Dry hot chili flakes

Spaghetti (1lbs)

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add the minced garlic, capers, hot chili flakes and anchovies. Stir until the anchovies dissolve into the oil, paying attention not to make the garlic turn brown. 1-2 minutes should be enough. Then add the tomato sauce, bring the heat to low and let the mixture simmer, steering periodically for at least 20minutes. As a final touch add parsley and the black olives chopped to your taste.

Separately bring a pot of water to boil. If we are in the open ocean where the water is cleaner we use half sea water half fresh water to save our water (and salt!). If you use all fresh water add two teaspoon of coarse salt ( a little more if you use fine salt).  Throw the spaghetti in and steer often to avoid they get glued together. Wait for the recommended time on the package but also taste them 1 or 2 minutes earlier to see if you like them. When it pleases your taste drain them in a colander, mix it with the sauce and enjoy it!!

The above recipe is just a guide. The actual pasta pictured above was made by Kate during a day when we were very low on provisions. She was able to literally open cans and in half an hour the magic was done. It was one of the best pasta I have ever tasted. Parola di italiano!

 

 

 

Sea legs and watch system

“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired, anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”

Sitting at anchor enjoying the nice breeze and the shade provided by Kate (and her mom’s) newly designed boom tent is a good payback for all the sweat and effort, all the tense moment when we couldn’t see an end to our work and it seemed that we could never leave. Gazing at the nearby beach, observing any kind of wildlife, from sea birds to dolphins to bros riding jet skis and rude power boaters (there are few kind individuals in the category) put all this preparation labor on perspective. Now it’s time to enjoy.

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Sunset at anchor in Sullivan’s Island, SC

Nonetheless to fully enjoy our new life afloat we had to go trough countless details and preparation. A couple of passages in the open ocean and very soon we found where our preparation lacked and how bad our sea legs were. Cooking meals, resting and even personal hygiene can become difficult tasks out there. Exhaustion by sun exposure, waves shaking and wind can bring to episodes of delirious speech with a low deep tone of voice. Auditory hallucinations are not rare either and happen when your brain mistakes a particular sound for a baby’s cry or for somebody calling your name.

It took a long time to get our sea legs and cruising routines back on track. Sea legs are what keep you standing (or sitting) on top of a vessel accelerating and decelerating under the action of wind and waves. I suspect sea legs are a combination of motor control (governed by the cerebellum in the brain) and muscle tone of the core, so it takes training and exercise to establish a harmonic posture in relation with a shaky floor.

The very first offshore legs put us in survival mode, with the rolling and tossing of the boat depriving us of our natural strength, appetite and comfort. Even without being fully seasick, we were carrying a sort of  malaise. We hung in there resting as much as we could and holding on as of we were waiting for the ride to come to a stop.

 

“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired,
anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”
An engineer’s observation about the collapse of Texas Tower 4 in 1961

 

Gradually we built up some resistance and developed routines. On board Tranquility we use a 4 hours watch system that starts at 20:00 (8 pm, First Watch) and cover the rest of the 24 hours so the boat is never unattended.The person on watch is in charge of navigation duties, making sure the boat stays on course, keeping a proper lookout for hazards and weather change and updating the Ship’s Log. The other crew member lays in the bunk, trying to rest but ready to be summoned in case of “all hands on deck” situation, or “condition one” as we like to call it. We strictly stick to the schedule but we are also flexible in case conditions arise or if it’s time to make landfall.

Beside navigation duties we have daily chores that are split between the two of us and include cooking three meals a day and washing dishes, redding up (Pittsburghese for cleaning), ensuring that the cockpit snack bag is always full, washing and drying rags, towels and clothes,  waste management (composting toilet redd up, trash and recycle locker) and Personal care and Beta care.

The watch schedule and the work routines help to keep us busy and comfortable. When it is properly planned a passage at sea will be mainly smooth, with occasional rougher bits, so it’s important to be ready to face the unpleasant weather in good condition and spirit. If you let the boat get dirty and messy it will affect your well being. If you don’t eat, drink or rest enough you will be tired soon.

As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and so we are picking up with the old habits and safety protocols, by trial and errors. Three years ago, we sailed the opposite route in much worse conditions, during the winter and in a barely fixed boat. Now we remember that trip as if it was not a big deal. Why we became such wimps? It’s probable that memory erases the bad parts and retain the good ones.

We are still learning a lot, and we are lucky that Tranquility behaves so well. She is a tough girl, we have been the weak ones so far. She protected and transported us during the first thousand miles of sailing while experiencing winds in the range of 4 to 40knots, the latter number only briefly during thunderstorm gusts.We have an ample range of sail area available to adapt to different wind and sea conditions and the modifications to the deck and sail controls seem all very successful. The introduction of a third reef in the mainsail, the new boom vang, the sheeting blocks for the staysail, the bowsprit for the cruising gennaker all contributes to a finer sail tuning and ultimately boat handling.

Now we are taking a prolonged stop in the friendly Fairhaven, in the South Coast of Massachussets. This is the place where Joshua Slocum rebuilt his 36ft. gaff rigged sloop Spray, before setting sail for the first ever recorder singlehanded circumnavigation of earth 121 years ago. Incidentally this is where we purchased Tranquility, fixed her up and set sail in November 2013.

We don’t have such an ambitious circumnavigation plan, but we feel the power of the maritime lore of this place. Fairhaven is the fairy tale New England village in front of the rougher city of New Bedford, the “city that lit the world”, the whaling capital of the world portrayed in Melville’s Moby Dick and the city where Tranquility was on stands in a boatyard while we feverishly prepared her for sailing. We have so much connection to this area, friends that keep helping us, favorite places and memories. We are going to keep sailing, visiting other wonders of New England, but this is probably going to be our home base for the next few months. Until winter will force our next move.

 

Two months living aboard and final preparation

We hit the two months mark since we have moved back aboard Tranquility. So far it has been 24/7 work and I suspect it won’t end very soon. The difference with the previous condition is that now we are finally untethered: we sold the car, we have a provisioned and fully mobile boat and we took care of few bureaucratic conundrums strictly related with life on land. So now we can move where it pleases us!

Not too fast, though. The brake at this point is the condition of the boat that keep changing over time. We are making constant improvements in the degree of comfort and sailing performances since the beginning of April. Like the life cycle of a star, the interior and the deck keep going through a alternate state of expansion and contractions. Tools and parts come out of storage, the content of every locker and box has to be moved around, and everything shifts and gets hauled somewhere else. Every time things are put back together we can see the improvements, but then the next job brings more chaos aboard. It is definitely not easy to live and work on a boat, and this is so far limiting our mobility. Luckily we can work at anchor so we don’t have to necessarily be tied to the land, and every trip ashore we unload garbage and unnecessary items gaining more and more living space.

Despite this apparently erratic behavior our preparation happened with a specific spreadsheet-assisted path. Every step put us closer to certain milestones and eventually to the end of the preparation and the beginning of the trip.

The first milestone was to leave the docks. After two years spent running a landlocked life, Tranquility was able to get unchained and make a very slow progress toward the next step, the boatyard. It took us a few days to get there. Our destination was rather close but we experienced issues with some freeloading marine animals and vegetables that were squatting peacefully on the bottom of our boat seriously limiting our speed on the water and ultimately on the ground. Once we were lifted outside of the water they were brutally eliminated, with little or none compassion. This slow pace made for nice time outdoor, timing the tides we moved from anchorage to anchorage, savoring wonderful sceneries between St.Simons and Cumberland Island, all the way into St.Marys and the boatyard.

St. Marys Boat Services became our new home for 1 month. Personally I have been in many boat yards before but this particular one deserves a special mention. It’s very uncommon to find a place where you can both live aboard while working and have free access to their tools. I am not talking about a drill or an angle grinder. Here you have access to a woodwork and a metal shop equipped with table saw, drill press, lathe, welders, belt sanders and other exciting shop tools. The managers are friendly and ready to find a way to help you in every possible way. The community of liveaboards has set some common spaces and rules of cohabitation so it’s easy to meet interesting people, ready to share stories and knowledge.

On the hard we had the opportunity to lose and find again Beta, our cat, who jumped ship for two weeks. We also had a good look at our bottom, dropped the rudder, had a machine shop put a square key in it for a new tiller cap, we replaced the propeller, removed and fiberglassed two thru-hulls, repaired a water intrusion in the deadwood, repainted the topsides, sanded the old bottom paint and put 5 coats of new antifouling, installed a Norvane self steering, new lifelines, interior wood work and painting. I probably forget a lot of other jobs that happened while we were looking for our cat or trying to stay cool in the hot Georgia climate. I have never been a fan of 44oz Jiffy mart fountain drinks, but working in the Georgia heat made me change my mind and I learned how to add more water to the ice after the drink was gone to extend the cooling effect. This is life without refrigeration.

I’d like to go through the details of our work as I did in the past but lately the pace is too high to both work and write about it. I even feel a little guilty in writing this post as the job list is waiting for my attention. You would wonder what possibly is left to do on Tranquility after a two year refit. If you owned a boat before you probably know the answer. If you didn’t, think twice about buying a boat. The reality is that a boat is never fully finished and  wrapping up projects may take more time that you can possibly expect.

Eventually splashing time arrived, after one month exactly. I feel proud of what we did in this amount of time, I am usually pretty unsatisfied with my speed, but not this time! We immediately enjoyed being at anchor in the marshes of Camden and Glynn. The first day at anchor, right in front of the boatyard, we simply laid down and did nothing for the whole day. Then little by little we resumed our course, together with high doses of Battlestar Galactica. Now we are back where we started, saying goodbye to friends and provisioning the boat for a long trip, and of course checking off few more jobs on the list.

If you like to see us on a map, check our Delorme track: https://share.delorme.com/sytranquility

 

 

The good enough boat

There is a lot going on and around Tranquility, even more in our own lives. The final rush to be ready to leave the dock is undergoing, with printed sections of spreadsheets that follow me everywhere I go…

There is a lot going on and around Tranquility, even more in our own lives. The final rush to be ready to leave the dock is undergoing, with printed sections of spreadsheets that follow me everywhere I go. Thankfully Kate is on the organizational side now that she ended her jobs and she is doing an incredible job with boat work and trying to contain  my chaos.

Somehow I am failing to report all of this on the blog. It was difficult to sit and focus on the plan and make time to narrate what was happening. For me writing requires finding an empty space in my mind. There was definitely time and energy to do so, but as the boat required more immediate and interconnected actions, my mind was never really at ease. In fact,  once the big jobs like structural repairs and painting ended we were left with a huge list of smaller tasks and installation that required full attention. Basically we need to put Tranquility back together.

Every single one of these tasks come with decisions, every decision needs a justification. What we liked when we first set step on Tranquility was that the conditions of the boat gave us a very wide freedom of choice. Paul, the previous owner, had suddenly interrupted the refit of the boat and put her up for sale, leaving her bones exposed and unfinished. We liked her structure and her lines and we dreamed about how we could build the rest by ourselves to make her the best possible fit for us. This is the most alluring side of a boat refit, the idea to customize the boat according to your needs and desires. Three years later I just started to realize how this is a big trap we voluntarily threw ourselves in.

For example, at a certain moment you need to install fans to increase the ventilation ability of the cabin, displace moisture and have some cool air pampering your skin when you try to fall asleep, read a book or when you deal with hot pots on the stove. You also need a product that does the job while using 12v DC power frugally and that won’t cost a fortune. Then you check your wallet and try to decide how much money you are comfortable to put in this department.

The quest then starts, researching as many options as you can, scrolling through products lists and supplier catalogs, reading their description, keeping an eye on the price to easily ditch the ones that exceeds your pockets. The market is flooded with products that claim to be the best, or good enough, or just sit there available for purchase and the temptation is always to maximize the outcome, because “you always deserve the best deal”.

I spent a ton of time reading and researching about 12v fans, the ones that swivel and the ones that don’t, multi or single speed, and so on. When this was not enough I sought the opinion of experts and when finally I was very close to hit the Pay Now button the constant fear of settling for something not optimal made me delay the purchase. I was paralyzed by the fact that there could be something better or the same product for a better price, just few clicks away.

On a list of items necessary for a safe passage at sea fans surely sit at its bottom. So try to imagine how this would go for all the more important items an empty boat needs to be fitted for ocean passages. Luckily that process spread through 3 years of pondering, tests and life changes, but it is now, when everything converge to the final preparation that the sunken costs of decision making emerges from the mist of the past. It’s the bottleneck of opportunities, the crossroad of possibilities. All the indecisions and doubts have to disappear because it’s time to go. Why did I ordered two inches wide nylon webbing  instead of one? Why propane leak detectors are so expensive? Where am I going to order those mast winches? When am I finally installing that water maker?

Few years ago I experienced doing boat work and repairs in places of the world where the options were scarce. If I was lucky I could choose between product A and product B, but most of the time I had to go for a single choice, with no alternative on the price. Nonetheless the work was done, and my satisfaction towards the result was boosted by overcoming the challenges of the environment. Feeling like there were no alternatives did a lot for on my perception of the result, feeling heroic to have dealt with such situation.

Doing the same in the US, the bountiful land of opportunity, leave me often with the feeling that the job could have been done better, I look at other boats to seek comparisons, and the spiral of self-doubting keeps spinning. It seems that the number of options alone is not necessarily a good recipe for satisfaction, and instead it generates fatigue and uncertainty. After all, when you have so many options you are the sole responsible of your decisions, and most of the time you end up thinking it could have been better.

Finally the number of options decrease as we are getting close to completion. Most of the equipment is installed or on its way, few items are still missing as we make more space for decisions. Also when things finally fall into place satisfaction for starts to sink in and our good enough boat is looking awesome. I am sure the empty time of writing will be more frequent, and so this blogging adventure will be fueled by the real one. It’s happening!

Keep the paint flow

The itch of going back to the ocean has often disturbed my ability to see all the gifts the Golden Isles provided us with, from wonderful friends to work opportunities, all surrounded by beautiful wilderness and by the warmth of a great sailing community.

Two coats of epoxy primer wrap Tranquility’s deck as I walk the dock in the cold morning, the first sunbeams reflects on the pure white forming little drops of dew on the surface. The hard work is slowing paying off and the grey tormented deck is already a memory. One more coat will hide any further mark of underlayer with an immaculate cloak, then the sexy two-part polyhurethane paint will have the perfect stage to play its glossy role.

Painting and sanding punctuate our days. The weather rules our schedule, as we are doing everything in open air, vulnerable to atmospheric change. We look for dry days, the warmer the better, but this time of the year in Coastal Georgia warm means humid and we have to adapt to good enough conditions. It’s always a little too windy or too humid or too cold. We don’t have the luxury to wait for the perfect day and we do the best with what we get. Other events, from family visits to work obligations, decide when we are able to continue working. We keep pushing but we can’t always walk at the pace we would like and our March deadline is getting closer every day.

Kate is also taking the lead in re-organizing our stuff to re-enter the boat with our long discussed PileSystem©. One pile is named Back to the boat, one is For Sale/Donation, one is PermanentStorage and one is Trash. There are more complicated subpiles that I still quite don’t understand, but I have a blind faith in Kate’s skills and I simply make myself available to follow orders, which for today consists in migrating everything we don’t need from inside the boat with the same formula: Store, Give Away or Dump.

As we work to change our mindset and we go through our belongings I am feeling a profound appreciation for the place we have been living for the last two years. The itch of going back to the ocean has often disturbed my ability to see all the gifts the Golden Isles provided us with, from wonderful friends to work opportunities, all surrounded by beautiful wilderness and by the warmth of a great sailing community. We and Tranquility went through a lot during this time, more than we could have possibly hoped for when we first launch from New Bedford, MA.

My parents recently visited us from Italy. It was their first trip to the US and  we showed them around and took them to our favorite spots in this part of Georgia. We weren’t able to see them all, as they are too many. Through their amused eyes I could see once again how wonderful this coast is from many different points of view. There will a be time for goodbye and as we approach it the feelings of gratitude and nostalgia begin to pay us a visit. But it’s not time yet, we are still here and we have to keep the paint flow.