After a few weeks of drama in Oriental, we pulled away from the dock this morning to continue our adventure. Because the run I had planned for today to Morehead City was only about 25 miles, I set my alarm for 7am. Usually on travel days we are up before the sun but I wanted to get some extra sleep and there really was no rush. I planned to wake up at 7, jump into some clothes and walk up to the Piggly Wiggly to grab a few last minute provisions before pulling off the dock around 9am. Although my alarm was set for 7, at 6:30 our phones all started BLARING that horrifying alarm tone that says a tornado is coming, a nuclear event has happened, or Donald Trump wanted to test the presidential alert system. That alarm tone gets my blood pressure up every time and I guess the resulting adrenaline rush is to be expected but when I opened my phone to see an amber alert for a missing or abducted child named Destiny, I couldn’t help but be a little grumpy. I’m not heartless. I truly hope that Destiny is okay and I wish her and her family the very best… But I don’t want to be awakened that way ever again unless our personal safety is on the line. (I’m kidding of course. If there was anything I could do to help I would.)
Anyway, after waking up I found myself full of energy and had coffee, was dressed and out the door to go the the market by 7. We were expecting a very cold overnight with lows close to freezing. In reality I don’t think we got anywhere near that cold but the lower 40s was cold enough. We have a single, small space heater on board and it kept us comfortable but as I opened the cabin door the cold, fresh air reminded me once again that we need to keep moving south. North Carolina’s winters are mild but not mild enough.
I ran to the market and back and upon my return to the boat found our friend Henry on the dock near the boat. His home is very close to the marina and I suppose he wanted to see us off. Again, we are meeting such nice people on this trip.
We didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to Steve and Claudia from S/V Brynlee who were our neighbors while we were at Sailcraft and as I walked toward their boat Claudia came running over with a huge smile and hugs. She seemed as excited for us as we were! Steve popped out of his boat and Claudia, Steve and Henry all helped us with our lines as I STARTED OUR ENGINE 🙂 🙂 :).
The winds were a bit tricky this morning with periods of calm and puffs and gusts of 18 knots. The canal we were on off Whittaker Creek is a bit narrow and I had to concentrate on getting out without smashing anything. Cindy went to the bow of the boat to help fend us off and make sure we got clear of Brynlee and as we slowly motored away from the dock I found myself singing to myself “On the Road Again…” I also found myself missing Oriental already. Surely, I thought, we would return again soon.
And then, I heard Steve’s friendly voice say “Frank. I think you forgot something.” And I looked back to see Willow sitting comfortably by his side. Ah, Crap! I guess with all the moving around of the lines she hopped off at some point before blast-off and nobody noticed.
As I put the boat into reverse to rescue our pup who was now looking a bit concerned to be left behind, a strong puff of wind moved our bow out into the middle of the canal. ARGH! It was going to be such a graceful exit… After some more maneuvering and lots of help from our friends, Willow was back on board and we were on our way again.
As we exited Whittaker Creek into the Neuse River I moved the throttle forward and enjoyed the feeling of Mavis’ new engine purring away in her compartment. The winds were perfect for sailing at about 20 knots right on the beam but it would only be a few miles to cross the Neuse and I had an engine to break in. I needed to take careful note of Mavis’ performance at various engine RPM settings and having a sail up would throw those numbers off. I was instructed by Stanley at Beta Marine to vary our RPMs every so often during the first 10 hours or so and I ran the boat at varying speeds all the way to Morehead City. It was a bit cold and mostly cloudy. The winds were about 15 to 20 but I was comfortable in the cockpit. Mavis’ cockpit can be fully enclosed by Isinglass which makes a little greenhouse out back. It’s our Florida room. So I put on some tunes and motored down the intracoastal while Cindy danced on the bow and took pictures of everything passing by.
It’s nice to be seeing more and more palm trees. We’ve even spotted some Spanish Moss. I guess we are finally really getting into “the south.” As we passed some of the homes I found myself wondering about the people who lived in them. What does this person do for a living? What do they look like? Does Destiny live in that house?
Approaching the marina in Morehead City we saw a pod of dolphins swimming along. This was pretty cool to see and I understand that from here on south there are stretches of the ICW where we may see more dolphin than people!
I don’t mean to make light of a serious situation with Destiny. I’m pleased to report that after her abduction, she has been found and is safe with her mother. Her abductor has been arrested. But now I feel kind of guilty for not getting out of bed this morning to look for her. I just pictured myself wandering around the marina calling “DEEESTINNNNY….” No. Being on board Mavis for 6 weeks has not changed me. I’m still an asshole.
But, this asshole is going to the Bahamas! Very slowly. Presently, we are at the Morehead City Yacht Basin where we will stay two and possibly (but hopefully not) three nights waiting for some crappy weather to move through. We are being overly cautious because we aren’t in a hurry and would rather not be uncomfortable.
Speaking of crappy weather that can make you uncomfortable… Every day I check with the National Hurricane Center to see if there’s anything brewing out in the Atlantic. Although peak hurricane season just ended, it’s still fairly common to get hurricanes into November. There’s a tropical depression out there that has about a 70% chance of becoming a tropical cyclone in the next 5 days and I don’t like the predicted path. We’ll keep an eye on it.
We are in good spirits and anxious to continue south. Being able to overcome our challenges and continue on has made us stronger and even more determined to manifest our dreams.
This morning, Darrell took care of final connections of our fuel system, raw water cooling, calorifier lines to our hot water heater and cabin heater, and exhaust system. We filled her up with transmission fluid, engine oil, and coolant and then, with very little fanfare and the turn of a key, Mavis’ new engine roared to life!
I was immediately impressed with how quiet the new engine was. Even with the engine compartment open she was a bit quieter than the old Westerbeke was all buttoned up! And once I closed the compartment and let the soundproofing do it’s thing I was really happy!
We did some testing while tied up to the dock and Darrell gave our installation a final once-over and certified her good to go. Working with Darrell Foster has been a real pleasure. From our first handshake to completion of the job he has done everything he has said he would, when he said he would. I find it incredible that he also completed the job well below his estimate even though I had added a new fuel filtration system which cost several hundred dollars and required additional time to install. I can’t say enough good things about this guy. He’s a rare gem in the marine service industry.
The wind was blowing around 20 knots and suddenly we had a working boat again. I kind of wanted to head out and hoist the sails but it was getting late in the afternoon and we had a motor to try out so instead of sailing we motored out of the Whittaker Creek into the Neuse River and ran the engine at various RPM settings taking notes about the boat’s speed in the light chop. Our old transmission had a slightly different gear ratio and our new engine revs considerably higher. As a result the propeller currently installed on Mavis is not perfectly matched to the rest of the system but it works just fine. Once we get to Florida I may investigate installing a more efficient propeller but so far, I’m pleased with the performance we are getting.
All of the local marinas were flooded during Hurricane Florence and as a result just about none of them have working laundry facilities. It was a minor inconvenience when we were only going to be here for a few days but we are going on three weeks now and running out of clean clothes.
Yesterday Cindy made another new friend while walking Willow. Cindy got to talking with Karen who has lived here for 18 years with her husband Henry. She’s an artist so they had lots to chat about but after talking for a bit, Karen invited us to dinner at their house and even offered the use of their washer and dryer! What planet are we on? Everyone here is just so happy to help each other out. People go out of their way to stop and chat. Cruisers walking down the street are routinely picked up by locals and dropped off at their boats. After a few weeks here we already feel like locals. This is such a great little town. If they could just do something about those hurricanes…
Tonight we went to dinner at the Toucan restaurant at the Oriental Marina and Inn. We were joined by Karen and Henry (the couple who graciously volunteered their washer and dryer) and their neighbor and friend, Steve. Karen and Henry keep their sailboat on the creek where we are presently docked. We enjoyed talking about Oriental and (of course) boats. And after talking to Steve for a bit, I wasn’t too surprised that he too was a sailor with a boat on Whittaker Creek. I like this town!
It’s hard to believe we will be leaving Oriental after all! Things were looking pretty crappy there for a while and the future of our adventure was seriously in doubt… But now we can continue with our reliable new engine. There is some weather coming in for Monday night into Tuesday or Wednesday with some more gale force winds possible. The plan for now is to leave here tomorrow morning and do a short 5 hour run to Morehead City where we will pull into another marina for a night or two before continuing.
We’ve come to love Oriental in our longer than expected layover here so leaving will ironically be bittersweet. I’ve said it before but I can’t say it enough. The people here are amazing. It seems like almost all of the 900 residents of this little town are sailors. Many of them, like us, came here by boat. Some never left. Others came back and bought homes. We will definitely return to Oriental… But we hope not until the spring on our way back north!
0.9 hours on the new engine. Fuel and water tanks are full. Just a quick provisioning run to the Piggly Wiggly in the AM and we are OFF! Stay tuned.
Today was a big day. Darrell Foster, our amazing mechanic arrived early to begin taking out our old engine and control panel. To be clear, Darrell is not the original mechanic we started working with here in Oriental. He’s a retired Coast Guard mechanic and this guy is not playing around! About 2 hours after he arrived the old engine was hanging from a crane and set on the ground. Then he took off to get the new control panel and wiring harness. A few hours later, the new panel was installed and everything is set for the new engine to be installed on Friday.
Although, I thought his estimate on the number of hours this job would take was unrealistic, according to Darrell, we are way ahead of schedule so far! This makes me pretty happy because barring any major issues with the installation, I expect that we will come in on time and under budget which in the marine world is absolutely unheard of. The new engine is slated to be installed Friday morning and I’m really looking forward to feeling Mavis’ new engine come to life. After the engine was removed, Darrell said “NOW you’ve got yourself a sailboat.” I took a moment to contemplate that. I love sailing and have been known to resist the temptation to just turn on the engine. But when you’re traveling over 1,500 miles, you kind of need to keep moving. Generally, I try to maintain a boat speed of better than 5 knots and if I’m not getting that from the wind I’ll switch on the motor. Many people don’t know this but the vast majority of the Intracoastal Waterway is just not sailable. You really need to motor day after day for 8-plus hours a day to get anywhere on the inland waterway. It is narrow and quite tricky in spots. There’s just no room to sail and travelling by night is asking for trouble unless you are intimately familiar with the local waters. There’s way too much to hit out here. Once I have developed a level of confidence in the new powerplant, I plan to jump out into the ocean and hoist the sails. Cindy and I both miss the magical feeling of sailing along with no engine making noise and burning fuel. Whenever I sail any distance at all I feel like I’m getting away with something.
Speaking of burning fuel. Our new engine is expected to burn just 1/3 of a gallon an hour at cruise speeds. I was pretty amazed that the old Westerbeke could go on about a gallon an hour. If these numbers are anywhere near correct, the new engine will effectively triple Mavis’ range on engine power! With 36 gallons of fuel on board, we could travel on the engine alone for 600 to 700 nautical miles without refueling! Even if we end up consuming a whopping 1/2 a gallon an hour we could go 400 to 500 nautical miles. I’d be happy with that. This would mean that here, on the Intracoastal we could motor for days without having to fuel up.
Mavis’ fuel gauges have always been incredibly unreliable. As a pilot, I’ve been trained to largely ignore fuel quantity indicators and know what my fuel consumption is. When I realized that the new panel wouldn’t fit in the hole for the old panel without some modifications, I elected to remove the fuel gauges. At some point in the future, I’ll install some modern fuel quantity sensors and tie it all in with our chart plotter. Until then, I need to keep track of how many hours I’ve run on each of our two tanks between fill ups.
As I do every day, I spent some time reviewing the nautical charts for the voyage ahead. We are 140 nautical miles from the South Carolina border. Here on the ICW where 50 miles takes us from sunrise to just about sunset it will be three full days of breaking in the new motor before we can do our next “New State Dance.” It’s about 460 nautical miles (on the ICW) to the Florida-Georgia border. Sailing on the ocean shaves of some miles. The other very significant advantage of sailing “outside” vs. “inside” is that when coastal cruising on the ocean the boat is moving forward 24/7. On the ICW we run from sunrise to sunset and then find a place to anchor or dock. So by sailing offshore and taking shifts at the helm we can easily cover 100 to 150 miles in each 24 hour day vs. 40 to 55! Why spend time sitting on the anchor when the boat can (and in my opinion SHOULD) keep on sailing? And if the wind is cooperating, there’s no need to run the engine, racking up hours, making noise, burning fuel and putting out fumes. Mavis, like most sailing catamarans is capable of sailing considerably faster than she can motor!
We’re not sailing on a schedule but I would like to make up some miles. I’ll be able to relax once we are safely set up at our Florida headquarters in Stuart, at which time I plan to fly home and get one of our cars. Once established in Florida, I also need to start getting some workouts in. I’ve lost an insane amount of not easily gained muscle mass in the past month of inactivity! I have also lost a lot of what little cardiovascular capacity I had! I ran about 3/4 of a mile yesterday at a casual pace and was shocked to find myself winded. I hope it all comes back as quickly as it went away but I don’t think it works that way!
It’s been balmy here in Oriental! Today was 82 but most days have been in the mid to high 70s and only getting down to the high 50s at night but this will change Sunday… We are expecting highs in the 50s and lows around FREEZING for a day or two. We need to get SOUTH!
No captain ever wants to find his vessel in tow behind an assistance towing boat. But here we are getting dragged from the Oriental Inn and Marina to Sailcraft to begin the process of putting in Mavis’ new powerplant.
It was blowing about 25 knots right on the nose and it was a short but rather unpleasant trip. Still I found myself happy to be “out on the boat.” Captain Aaron of SeaTow Crystal Coast was a pro and helped get us docked up better than I could have with our engine running. We are now tied up at our new home marina for the next few days. We are right next to the crane which will be used to hoist Mavis’ old engine out on Wednesday. Then I’ll immediately get to cleaning out the bilge and possibly painting in preparation for the new engine being installed on Friday.
Today we did a major provisioning at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket who offer free dockside pickup and drop off in the pig mobile. How we can spend over $250 on groceries for two people is beyond me. Sometimes it’s not easy or convenient to get provisions so when it is, I think we go a little overboard. It’s good to have a boatload of fresh fruits and veggies and plenty of meats.
We have been doing lots and lots of walking here in Oriental. The town is really beautiful but everywhere you look there’s evidence of hurricane damage. Other than walking, I haven’t been doing much physical activity at all. I feel myself getting weaker. I need to get to a gym. I could do bodyweight exercises but I just don’t and I’m not sure why. Maybe tomorrow.
That’s it for now but I’m trying to update the blog frequently as I promised I would. Cindy and I are happy and looking forward to continuing the voyage as soon as I’m satisfied that the ship is ready to depart. Stay tuned for more… And boaters, do not forget to renew your Sea Tow memberships! It’s one of the greatest values in boating and after years of paying the annual fee, I’ve finally been able to take advantage of their fine services for today’s dock to dock tow.
Long before Mavis developed her recent engine trouble I had looked into the costs of repowering her. I had checked out various diesel options as well as the less desirable (to me) option of repowering with a gas outboard. Some people do it and are very happy but we plan on long range cruising and I think diesel is a must. I had decided that when it was time to repower Mavis, we would go with a Beta Marine 30 which is a Kubota Diesel engine marinized by Beta Marine. These engines have an incredible reputation for being smooth, efficient, and dependable powerplants.
I had no idea we would be putting an engine into Mavis while traveling down the ICW but imagine my surprise to learn that we broke down about 10 miles away from Beta’s USA headquarters… So today, Stan Feigenbaum, one of Beta Marine US’ founders came to our marina and scooped us up for a visit to their Minnesott Beach, NC headquarters for a look at our new engine and (of course) to finalize the exchange of funds.
Stanley took lots of time showing us around his warehouse of new engines and we discussed our particular engine, the installation ahead, breaking her in, our first oil changes, etc. He confirmed for us that the mechanic we had selected to do our installation was respected, reputable, and capable of getting the job done.
We’ve been in Oriental over a week now and it’s starting to feel like it. This is a great place to be stuck but we are itchy to get going. The people here are amazing. We go out for several walks a day to keep Willow occupied and to stretch our legs. The local supermarket, Piggly Wiggly #1 even has Boar’s Head cold cuts! This may not seem important but from the Chesapeake down to here the cold cuts have been what Cindy and I lovingly refer to as ASS MEAT. It’s nice to have access to good meats.
The Inland Provisioning Company is a few steps away from our boat and the people there are super nice and they go out of their way to accommodate the parade of boats making their way south on the Intracoastal. They’ve got some meats, fresh greens, even unwashed fresh eggs. Cruisers on many boats prefer their eggs unwashed because they don’t require refrigeration. So even though it feels weird, we have a dozen eggs sitting on a shelf here on board even though we have a perfectly good fridge about 10 feet away from it. I suppose chickens don’t pop out refrigerated eggs. I also remember being in a Super Walmart in Mexico and seeing cases of cases of unrefrigerated eggs stacked high in the middle of the store. Turns out, it’s kind of a a USA thing putting eggs in the fridge.
We’ve noticed that the dogs here in Oriental are largely FREE RANGE animals. They all have homes. They’re all wearing collars. But many of them are allowed to roam around. I think it’s kind of cool but Cindy worries about them getting run over. So what happens is we walk down a block and a dog will run off the porch or the yard of a home and say hi to Willow. Sometimes they walk with us for a while before going home. Other times they stick around for a quick sniff and that’s it. But Oriental seems like a great place to be a dog… Or a human… Except.
Except for the hurricanes. The Carolinas have a giant bullseye painted on them for any tropical stuff forming in the Atlantic. And Oriental, being coastal and situated on the Neuse River, gets it hard when it comes.
Everywhere we look there’s evidence of what happened here about 50 days ago. There are piles and piles of debris on the front lawns of many homes. The street itself in some places has been completely destroyed with huge 7′ chunks of asphalt having been moved by the intense power of the floodwaters. In our marina, the laundry room was submerged so the washer and dryer don’t work.
Some of the local businesses have reopened. Some haven’t. I think some never will. And we are still about 70 miles or so from Wrightsville Beach which took the direct hit.
We have met some really cool and interesting people here in Oriental but my faves, by far, are fellow cruisers Kit and Dace on their absolutely gorgeous 50′ trawler, Sea Traveler. Stuck together in Oriental while we figured our stuff out and they upgraded electronics, we shared a few great meals and some much needed drinks with this couple before they left us behind today and continued south without us. They’re a bit older than us and I got a glimpse of what Cindy and I will probably be like a few years down the road. I also got some inspiration and sage advice from Kit about my career. I tend to reinvent myself every 10 years or so and I’m way overdue for the next chapter of my professional career. I learned more from Kit than he probably knows. We really enjoyed their company.
The past few days have been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. We have gone from living the dream and getting closer and closer to the tropics to thinking about how to haul the boat and get home to thinking we might be able to fix the engine after all to deciding to buy an engine and forge forward. There were moments — ok days where I lost my positive outlook but I had Cindy there to remind me that we are not the kind of people to give up on our dreams. I don’t know what I would do without this amazing crazy person by my side. Somehow, I’ve got her convinced that I know what I’m doing and can Captain this boat to Florida and maybe the Bahamas… I better figure out how that’s happening. 🙂
Even though we aren’t going anywhere soon, every day I pore over the charts planning the next legs of our adventure. It’s amazing how close everything looks on the chart. Today I considered that for every hour we travel on I-95 when driving, its about a day of boating — and we have not been cruising every day due to weather, exploring, or… engine troubles. But now that we are south of Cape Hatteras and will (hopefully) soon be underway, I plan to make some significant progress south. We aren’t in a rush. But when I look at the charts and see the sheer number of miles ahead, I feel motivated to start knocking them down. I don’t think I fully appreciated what a 1,500 mile boat trip was but I guess I’ll be more prepared for the trip home in the spring.
Aside from our friends and family, I’m not missing much. I expected to. It’s just not happening. Our bed on board is very comfortable but a bit firmer than our super-thick pillow-top mattress at home. We have our technology, a few laptops, phones, iPads. Some clothes… I find myself wondering what the heck we have this large home full of crap we don’t need back at home for. I think it takes a trip like this to realize what you really need — and what you don’t. I recommend that if at all possible, everyone try to cut themselves off for a few months. And just as I say that, I realize how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to pull this off.
For now, we are sort of just waiting to be towed over to the marina where we will be doing the engine swap. Once the old engine is out, I’ll have some work to do cleaning out the bilge from 15 years of oily mess and I’ll probably paint the bilge but then I just sort of have to try and stay out of the way until its time to begin sea trials on the new engine.
Thanks for being interested enough in our journey to keep tuning in for updates. I’ve heard from lots of people who are getting into the blog and that keeps me wanting to write.
As we speak, Mavis is being scheduled for a ‘heart transplant’. The consensus is that our “trusty” Westerbeke needs rebuilding and it’s just not worth rebuilding. It seems that although they have a good name for being long running engines, the Mitsubishi-based Westerbekes have a tendency to suffer from cracked rings which score the cylinders and require a rebuild. For just a few thousand dollars more than doing a rebuild we have opted to have a new Beta Marine 30 installed. The advantages here are numerous. We get a brand new engine with a 5 year warranty. We get a new starter, alternator, heat exchanger, transmission… Everything. And modern diesel engines have come a long way in the 15 years since Mavis was new.
We are looking forward to more power, better fuel economy, quieter operation and — most importantly, the reliability I need to take us to the Bahamas and beyond.
So while we certainly did not budget for a new engine while on this trip, the good news is the voyage WILL CONTINUE after a brief pause here in Oriental.
We had planned to move the boat to the yard and unload her and come home for a few weeks but our mechanic has advised us that we should sit tight. He only needs about a week to get us from where we are now to sea trialing our new engine.
I never thought we could be this elated to be spending a large chunk of money on something like this but we had almost resolved to scrapping the trip and coming down in the spring to sail Mavis NORTH. That would have sucked.
Stay tuned for the continuing voyages of S/V Mavis!
Our newly acquired diesel mechanic’s name is Mike. He lives a few blocks away from the marina and comes with a reputation for knowing his stuff and doing the right thing. He’s a tall guy with a deep, gravelly voice that sounds like Batman. Imagine Batman saying “I think it’s your injectors… I’m Batman.”
Today we removed the injectors from the engine and he did a rudimentary test of compression. He feels that the engine itself is healthy but the most likely explanation for our issue is fouled injectors. After carefully removing them from the block, we drove them over to Deaton Yacht Services for testing. As I handed my injectors over the counter and asked when I could expect to hear back the answer I got wasn’t very encouraging.
“I really couldn’t tell you. It’s been crazy here. We will get to them when we can.” After leaving I asked Mike what that was about and he said “They’re good people and friends of mine. I suspect they’ll get to them today or tomorrow.” I can only hope so because I’ll be uneasy until I hear the comforting purr of Mavis’ engine again.
So for now, we are waiting to hear about the injector pop test. Diesel fuel needs to be injected into the cylinder as a very precisely timed and measured spray that needs to have a certain pattern in order to combust. If the injectors are just dripping or weeping, there will be lots of unburned fuel in the cylinders and the engine can become difficult or (like ours) impossible to start.
Once we hear back we can send the injectors out to be cleaned and recalibrated or we can buy brand new. New injectors cost about $500 a piece for this engine but if it will get us back underway and headed south it just might be worth it.
In the meantime, Cindy and I are exploring and enjoying Oriental. It’s a quaint little town and despite having just been decimated by a hurricane the people here are incredibly nice. Like all of them! Only around 900 people live here but there are thousands of boats many of them, like us, are heading south on the Intracoastal Waterway. There is a shrimping fleet based here and the boats come in loaded with fresh shrimp. I don’t think we have ever enjoyed fresher shrimp than we have found here. There’s a little shack here that sells them by the pound to the public and we plan to go there tomorrow. In the meanwhile, the restaurant here at the marina has delicious peel and eat shrimp.
As much as we like it here, our fingers and toes are crossed that we may be able to get off this dock soon! It’s costing us a pretty penny to be tied to this dock and we are both looking forward to getting further south!
Stay tuned for the continuing saga of S/V Mavis on her grand journey to Florida, The Bahamas, and beyond!
As I write this we are in the beautiful Oriental Marina and Inn. Yesterday, when I went to start the engine, it would crank but not start. Diesel engines are pretty simple machines and I did all of the usual troubleshooting and yet — we are stuck. I spent hours in the engine compartment and I seem to have eliminated the possibility of it being a fuel issue. Unfortunately, this could mean that we are not getting sufficient compression… Which could mean our adventure is over — at least for this year. If we need to overhaul this engine or to re-power with a new one it’s not likely something that would be done quickly enough to leave us sufficient time to get down to the Bahamas before having to head back home in the spring.
I’ve called a diesel mechanic who should be here soon to help try and sort this problem out but I’m beginning to worry. Ok, I’m freaking out. I found myself extremely emotional when I woke up this morning in my comfortable bed in my cozy cabin on our amazing boat. I don’t often get this way but as I reported in an earlier post — the highs are high and the lows are lows. For the past six months we have planned and prepared and worried and dreamed and schemed and done whatever needed to be done to make this trip happen. We are, as they say in poker parlance, all in!
Let’s not even talk about the money… Ok lets… A replacement diesel engine for Mavis would end up costing between $20 and $25k. Presently, being stuck on this dock is costing about $70 per day. I have no idea what the mechanic will charge and if we have to haul her out we will first need to be towed to the boatyard a few miles away. Then we will have to store her on the hard until we can do whatever needs to be done to make her go.
I’m hoping I’m worrying for no reason and that our next post will be a happy one where I’ll be able to report that our grand adventure will continue.
When I first started this little blog, I’m pretty sure my intent was to update it each day with some info about the events of the day, where we were, what we saw, etc. I had intended to use it as a way to both share our experience with friends and loved ones and to use it as a journal of sorts to help me remember the details of the trip.
Unfortunately, I soon realized that running a business from a cruising sailboat while making our way south occupies a heck of a lot more of our time than I had counted on. It’s hard to wear both the “Captain” hat and the “President” hat and I sometimes fear I’m not doing a great job at either. But hey — we’ve made it this far and we aren’t out of business!
We’re often underway just before the sun rises and we plan to be “somewhere” before dark each night. Offshore in the ocean, overnight passages are a fantastic and enjoyable way to cover lots of miles. You just set the autopilot and sort of relax. But now that we are in the intracoastal waterway, there’s just too much to hit at night. So we try to be anchored or in a marina before sunset. I’m pretty exhausted after a day’s run but before bed it’s time to review the weather and plan the next day’s run. Before you know it, it’s time to set out again.
The days are getting shorter and we generally are only getting around 40 or 50 miles a day in on a good day which is about the norm. We are also spending much more time in places than I thought we ever would. I apologize for not posting as much as I would like. I’ll use this post to sort of catch up and bring you up to speed on our travels so far. If you’ve read this much and plan to continue, then strap in… This is going to be a long post.
We really enjoyed Norfolk, VA and spent a few days in this cool city at the Waterfront Marina. We indulged ourselves on great food and drinks and I even got a much needed haircut. Cindy walked to the Chrysler Museum of Art and we did some provisioning using Amazon Now. You just order your groceries or whatever you need and within 2 hours it shows up. We put our slip number on our order and they delivered to the boat!
One night in Norfolk as I was walking Willow back to the boat after her evening bathroom trip when encountered 3 river otters on the dock in front of our bow. They sat there unafraid for a few moments as we drew a bit closer. Then they dove off the dock into the water. As Willow and I made our way down the finger pier to board Mavis, one of the otters picked her head up out of the water and peered over the dock only about a foot from Willow. They were nose to nose for about 10 seconds when the thing jumped up on the dock and chased Willow down the pier!
So after a few relaxing days in Norfolk it was time to say goodbye. We were at the official Mile 0 of the ICW and it was just 1234 miles to Key West, Fl. So we sailed off on a dreary morning down the Elizabeth River to the Dismal Swamp Canal, passing lots and lots of the ships of the mighty US Navy in various states of readiness. Across from the marina was the General Dynamics facility where they do all sorts of work on these mighty vessels and the work continued around the clock!
When I last wrote, I was describing the Deep Creek Lock at the northern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal and Robert the lock master. After our brief visit with him, we set off down the Dismal motoring through the duckweed floating on the surface. Shortly after getting underway I realized the engine coolant temperature was about 10 degrees warmer than it usually is. I monitored it for a bit until I saw the temp begin to climb even higher so I shut down the engine and let the boat drift in the narrow channel of the canal… It’s about 60 feet wide and our beam is 14 feet so there was plenty of room on either side but our mast really needs to stay in the middle in many stretches as tree limbs hang over parts of the channel. We were cautioned to avoid letting our mast make contact with the trees because it’s a good way to end up with snakes on board!
After shutting her down I went to check the raw water strainer. It is very common to overheat in the Dismal Swamp Canal due to a water intake clogged with duckweed. As expected, I found some weed in there and cleared it out but it didn’t seem like enough to cause the engine to overheat. After firing her up, she wasn’t pumping enough water and she promptly got hot. Not wanting to sit there in the middle of the canal drifting from side to side in the gentle breeze I found that if I ran the boat at very low RPM she would maintain about 190 degrees. Warmer than usual but not hot enough to cause any trouble. I ran this way for 7 miles to Douglass Landing which was a convenient dock to tie up to and sort things out. I opened up our raw water pump and found that our impeller had lost 3 of its blades. The blades ended up in our heat exchanger causing a blockage. Even if the little impeller missing 3 blades was able to move enough water to cool the engine, the missing blades were blocking water flow almost completely. About an hour after stopping we were back underway. My theory about what happened is that the duckweed blocked the water flow enough to cause the pump to run dry and destroy the impeller. It’s also entirely possible that it was just time to replace it. I had changed it in the spring before sailing North but we’ve put some good hours on the engine since then.
The duckweed is so thick in parts of the swamp that Willow got fooled. We had jumped into the dinghy to go on a short run to pick up some groceries and had to run though some very thick weed. Willow, perched on the bow, her nose in the air thought the duckweed was dry land and jumped off. The look on her face was priceless as she emerged covered in green wondering WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED!
I’m realizing how quickly my mood can change out here. One minute I’m on top of the world, living our dreams, exploring new places and looking forward to the day’s adventure. The next minute I’m worried about being stuck in the swamp. What if it’s something serious? Is this where the adventure ends? An hour later I’m back on top of the world. It’s been said that when cruising, the highs are high and the lows are low. It’s like everything is magnified out here for some reason. I’m also realizing that the feeling I have at the helm changes very quickly depending on the weather. Obviously if the winds and seas are high and we are hanging on for dear life we aren’t going to be calm and relaxed but I’m talking about something much more subtle. A few days ago, while sailing on the Chesapeake, I realized that I was not feeling calm and at ease the way I would normally feel in 10 to 15 knot winds and 1 to 2 foot seas. Then, after a few moments passed, a large cloud moved just enough to allow the sun to light up the bay, the boat and my face. The winds and seas were exactly the same but suddenly I felt confident, happy and just calm. Until that moment I don’t think I ever realized how much of an impact the sun (or lack of sun) had on my state. I’ll try to be more aware of this in the future.
After getting the engine cooling sorted out we chugged along through the beautiful Dismal Swamp Canal on our way to our next stop which was just a few miles down the canal. The Dismal Swamp Visitor Center was just over the North Carolina line and we crossed the border with a happy little dance. New states mean we are actually going somewhere! We had been traveling at a snail’s pace for about a week, intentionally slowing ourselves down as we waited for our insurance company to green light us to go below Cape Hatteras. The swamp in North Carolina looked exactly like the swamp in Virginia. But it was nice to be in the Carolinas. Looking at our charts, however, revealed that we would be in North and South Carolina for a long time!
We arrived at the visitor center’s free dock and quickly tied up to the pier. There was room for about 3 boats and there were two already docked. After docking up about 6 more boats which were close behind all pulled up needing a place to stay the night so we rafted them up and crammed everybody in for a comfortable but cold night in the swamp.
We had been enjoying 85 degree weather about a week before and the low that night hit 34. There was no power on the free dock and we didn’t want to run our engine or our generator so we piled on the blankets and got as cozy as possible. I started the engine at 6am the next morning and heated things up nicely before departing for the day’s trip to Elizabeth City, NC.
The Dismal Swamp Canal was opened in 1805 and runs 22 miles from Chesapeake, VA to South Mills, NC. We thought it was beautiful and despite our overheating ordeal I would take this route again but AFTER exiting the canal in South Mills, the scenery got epic. Our route took us down the winding Pasquotank River through dense forest with tall cypress trees just growing right up out of the water everywhere. Those few hours on the Pasquotank between the lock and Elizabeth City, NC were some of the most scenic miles we have covered. Photos just don’t do it justice.
Arriving at Elizabeth City we tied up at the Mid Atlantic Christian University’s free dock. We were greeted by some of the fellow cruisers we had met in the swamp and by Dan and Cathy who’s gorgeous and well-travelled sailboat graces the dock. They work for the university and immediately ran over to help us get set up. Lending us a long line to tie off to a tree on the shore and even opening up the showers in the gym for us. Cool people indeed.
Due to a gale that would make crossing the Albemarle Sound less than pleasant to say the least, we spent 3 nights in Elizabeth City. We had dinner with some some new cruising friends and discovered some great little spots for food and drinks in this tiny town. We also walked two miles and back to a Food Lion and did some provisioning.
After leaving Elizabeth City we motor-sailed for a few hours across the Albemarle Sound until the wind shut off. It would blow 4 or 5 knots from just about every direction so instead of watching the headsail flop around like a wet blanket. I took it down and we motored down the Alligator River, through an interesting swing bridge and down to the Alligator-Pungo Canal. Along the route to the canal the skies were full of fighter jets making low passes and maneuvering.
Over the din of our diesel engine I would hear them approaching and crane my neck to watch the free airshow. The planes (Hornets I think) passed pretty close overhead a few times at around 150′. There’s a bombing range on the bank of the Alligator River and I hear this area gets really crazy sometimes when various reserve units rotate in to practice unloading their ordinance.
The Alligator-Pungo canal has no locks on either end and is ridiculously straight and narrow. Along the banks there are stumps of trees just above and just below the waterline. I considered what I would do if we had engine trouble here. There’s really no place to stop for miles and miles. Fortunately this was not an issue for us. As we exited the canal the sun was beginning to set. For the last 5 hours or so we had absolutely NO mobile signal at all. We intentionally carry devices from various providers to use as mobile hotspots with the hopes that if one didn’t work, another would. For many, many miles our phones were useless. You realize how much you depend on the internet when suddenly it’s gone for a bit. As I’ve said before we NEED a connection in order to operate our business and finance this grand adventure. So I scanned the charts and found a marina about 5 miles ahead that offered WIFI. We had intended to anchor out for the night and there were lots of nice spots on this gorgeous evening but we didn’t know if and when we would get service back so we opted to hail the marina and see if they could take us.
About an hour later we were tied to the dock at the lovely Dowry Creek Marina outside of Belhaven, NC. Although we still had no cellular service the marina’s WIFI was useable — barely.
The next morning we chose to depart this marina and go about 5 miles further to the little town of Belhaven.
There we found excellent connectivity and planned to spend the night before setting off for Oriental. Unfortunately, while tied up at Belhaven, another Gale popped up and offered us 35 knot winds to cross the Pamlico Sound to the Neuse River so we ended up staying two nights at Belhaven. We were almost stuck there for 3 or more nights. We had one good day of sailing forecast before more crappy weather was forecast. The forecast called for a day of light winds and sun followed by 1 day of heavy rain and 35 knot winds with 50 knot gusts followed by one more day of 30 knot winds as a nor’easter moved though the area. We wanted to leave Belhaven but didn’t want to get caught out so only after having a reservation at the Oriental Marina and Inn did we set off.
But before leaving we had some very important business to take care of. While on the Alligator River, I discovered we were not alone. Somewhere (probably in the Dismal Swamp) we had picked up an uninvited stowaway. I found some mouse droppings near my electrical panel and promptly freaked out. We are sleeping, cooking, eating, showering, shitting and living in about 450 square feet of living space… There was no room for a disease-carrying rodent to be scurrying around! I resolved to get some traps as soon as we made port. In Bellhaven I purchased 8 traps… 4 glue traps and 4 snap traps. We tore apart the entire boat, emptying all of the storage holds and putting our food into plastic bins for safekeeping until we knew we were rodent-free. We discovered that something had chewed into a 35 pound bag of dog food which we had stored in a compartment under a seat. After setting some traps and leaving Willow on board, we went to dinner with John and Martha from As You Wish, a trawler heading south. We had enjoyed their company in Elizabeth City and were happy to see their boat pulling into the marina. After a nice dinner we returned to our boat to find a tiny field mouse stuck to a glue trap. He was cute. But I confess I got some satisfaction watching him try to pull his little chest up off of the trap.
We left the remaining traps out for a few nights and I’m happy to report that Mavis is free of rodents.
As I write this it’s pouring outside here in Oriental. Cindy, Willow and I are warm and dry inside Mavis’ comfy and rodent-free saloon. Yesterday we walked around a bit. It’s been 45 days since Hurricane Florence came through here and there are still huge piles of debris. Everywhere you look there are people working on repairs and you can hear power tools up and down the streets.
I’m getting a little stir crazy in here but tomorrow, after the rain stops, I will stretch my legs and maybe do some exercise. I also need to change the engine oil. It’s amazing how quickly the engine hours rack up when you’re cruising.
Here are some stats.
We have travelled 600 nautical miles since leaving Long Island on 9/29.
We have put 87 hours on our engine and burned approximately 58 gallons of diesel.
We are currently at mile 185 of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
We’ve sailed on oceans, bays, sounds, rivers, creeks and canals.
We saw a high temperature of 87 back in Deltaville, VA and a low of 34 in the Great Dismal Swamp.
We have killed 2 birds and one mouse since leaving.
That’s it for this monster catch-up post. I promise to try to blog more frequently in bite-sized chunks from now on.
After leaving Norfolk we motored our way south on the Elizabeth River for a few miles on the ICW until we reached Deep Creek where you can elect to leave the main ICW route and take “Route 2” as it is referred to. “Route 2” takes you through the Dismal Swamp canal and the Pasquotank River and rejoins the primary route on the Alligator River south of the Albemarle Sound.
This was intended to be a post on our last few days of cruising through the beautiful Dismal Swamp and Pasquotank River but as I sit here to put some words together, I think our experience at the Deep Creek Lock warrants a post of its own.
We had heard about the beautiful scenic “Route 2” which is shallow and slower. As we were in no particular hurry, we elected to hang a right turn and head for the canal. We had never passed through a lock before and wanting to be sure we were there plenty early, we arrived at the lock a few hours before it’s first scheduled opening of the day… About a half mile before I arrived at the lock, a friendly voice hailed me on the radio to warn me about some shallow waters on the starboard side of the channel leading to the lock. This voice, I would soon learn, was the voice of Robert Peek the lock master at the Deep Creek Lock. Robert has a reputation amongst cruising sailors for being one of the nicest, warmest and knowledgeable people you will ever encounter and his reputation was spot on which is how I find myself dedicating an entire post to the short time we were with him.
We tied up to some pilings and waited for the lock to open. Robert, noticing Willow on the bow shouted over from up on the lock that once the lock opened there was a good spot on the starboard side to let the dog ashore. Then he saw us photographing a large Great Blue Heron. He shouted over “That’s Fred.” and he shouted us the story of Fred and his new girlfriend Wilma and how and why they range right by the lock the way they do.
After a while, the radio cracked again with Robert’s voice. “Captain I’ll be opening the lock at 0830. Set up your lines on the starboard side and I do recommend fenders. When and only when you get the green light proceed into the lock about halfway through on the starboard side.” It was obvious that Robert had said this before.
The gates opened and we entered the lock and Robert appeared about 10 feet above hanging a boat hook down to grab the lines that would keep us in place during our trip up eight or so feet. The lock doors closed, the water began to rise and over the next 10 or 15 minutes or so we got to know a little about this interesting character.
As we slowly rose, the little lock house became more and more visible. There was a manicured little garden of tropical plants in front of the house and dozens and dozens of conch shells everywhere… In neat little rows, in piles and in stacks throughout the little garden and on the front porch of the lock house there were conchs. I later learned that boaters coming north from the islands bring conch shells to leave with Robert who is also renowned as a skilled conch musician.
As the water filled up the lock, he played the conch for us and the other boat locking through with us. As we approached the top of the lock, he told us about a great place to stay. “After you exit the lock, immediately on your starboard side — and I do mean IMMEDIATELY you will find Elizabeth’s dock.” He said this by rote. He had likely said it thousands of times before. But his words still somehow felt genuine. Elizabeth’s Dock is a free dock and he recommended it as a great place to stay the night since we had told him we were in no rush.
After getting set up on the dock I took Willow out for a needed walk in the park behind the lock. As I was walking a raised up and modified Jeep came rolling up. “Hello!” I heard a familiar voice shout. Robert pulled up and we got to talking. And talking… Robert really is a great guy to “chew the rag” with. We talked about boats, and locks, and dogs, and politics, and the local wildlife, the waterway, kids, women, space travel, electronics and lots of other stuff… After a while Cindy came walking over wondering what the heck had happened to me and after some more rag-chewing, Robert said that we should come over to the lock house right before 8 the next morning for some coffee and danishes. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more genuine and welcoming guy.
After a comfortable night on the dock, the next morning we walked over to the lock house and got more of a glimpse into this interesting guy’s life. Inside, the little house was furnished comfortably. Although he doesn’t live there, he has made the place comfy and his own in the 35 years he has worked as the lock master, maintenance man and groundskeeper. There were a few antique comfy chairs and lots of knick-knacks and artifacts on the walls and on shelves. He disappeared into the little kitchen for a moment and popped back out with coffee and yogurt with granola handing it over and saying “you have to eat this.”
He explained that the antique chair I was sitting on was one of the first Lazy-Boy style recliners. We chatted about the swamp and the journey ahead and from time to time Robert would excuse himself to take care of his lock master duties. There were dozens of dolphin figurines, some photos, books, little wooden boats, shells, lighthouses, the kind of things you see in tourist shops in seaside towns and tropical places. I asked him about all the stuff in there and he explained that “everything you see in here is mine… with the exception of that file cabinet, that desk and this radio stuff over here which belongs to the government.” It didn’t feel like we were visitors in a government building. It felt more like we were guests in Robert’s home. It had a charming, lived-in look and I could tell that our host really, genuinely likes people. I got to thinking about how people come and go and he gets to know them for a few hours, shares some coffee and sends them on their way until a few hours later the next batch of boats come along.
I asked Robert what we could bring him on our way back north and he replied without hesitation “conch shells”. He said that it didn’t matter how they looked or their size but how they sounded because each conch has its own sound and the HE would be the judge of that. With that, he picked up a smallish shell from the collection and began to play it for us. Finishing his little ditty, he tossed it aside into the soil of one of his little gardens and then he told us the story of that particular shell.
He explained that he’s the youngest child of a large family and that when he was a child, his brother who was much older than him had taken him out diving for conch in the Bahamas. He said, pointing to the little shell he had just played, that they got that shell that day, cooked and ate the conch and left it on an ant-hill to let the ants clean it up for him. He took it home with him and had set it aside. About a year later if I recall correctly his brother was lost in a diving accident. Shortly after that he picked up the shell and began to play it. Just blowing it at first but eventually learning how to play notes and make other more nuanced sounds. I’m sure I’m not getting all the details of this touching story down 100% but this is how I recall it from our brief visit.
I asked him how he could just throw the shell onto the dirt the way he did when there is obviously so much sentimental value. He said “Oh they’re tough. They can take it.”
As we made our way back to the boat, I heard Robert telling the captain of the boat in the lock about Elizabeth’s Dock. “After you exit the lock, immediately on your starboard side — and I do mean IMMEDIATELY you will find Elizabeth’s dock.”
There is something incredibly Zen about Robert’s life that I find fascinating. The boats come, the boats go. The lock opens, the lock closes, the bridge opens, the bridge closes. He said “You have to understand about this job — that’s all it is and that’s all it will ever be.” He seems quite content.
The fact that he is so loved by the cruising community makes total sense to me now after meeting the legendary lock master of the Deep Creek Lock.