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.
I apologize for the slow updates to our blog. We’ve been super busy! We arrived in Norfolk yesterday and we absolutely love it here.
First… I’m pleased to report that Mavis came through tropical storm (formerly hurricane) Michael unscathed. We had plenty of time to take down our large “screecher” headsail, put out lots of extra extra lines and fenders, and lash down anything that could become a projectile in the 45 knot sustained and 70 knot gusts forecast for Deltaville. The winds were not expected to get serious until about 9pm but they would blow all night.
Some of our fellow transient cruisers at the marina organized an impromptu hurricane watch party in the lounge and the crews from various boats got together. It was nice having drinks and talking sailing and cruising with yachtsmen who have done this trip before. I got lots of information that will be useful as we proceed south. After the sun went down the winds began to pick up and everyone retired to their boats for the night. Earlier today, we met a few people who were anchored out in the creek. They were in for a long, wet and windy night. But then so were we all. The difference in being tied to a floating dock vs. at anchor is significant. In the marina, we didn’t need to worry about our anchor dragging… Or somebody else dragging anchor and crashing into us or fouling our anchor. It was also convenient to be able to get off the boat which is something I did around midnight to let Willow relieve herself.
The winds had picked up to a steady 35 knots with gusts up around 50 and a few over 60. It is difficult to explain exactly how unsettling it can be to feel the whole boat shudder and to hear the winds shrieking through the rigging. At times it felt like we were going to fly away. Just as I was having the thought of our tiny little floating home flying through the air our phones began to sound tornado warning alarms. The alert said “Seek shelter immediately.” I wondered if being on a boat really counted as shelter but there we were. Cindy seemed a bit concerned as the winds picked up even more and the rain came down in sheets. It was about this time when Willow made it clear to me that it was time to go to the bathroom. It was around midnight and the temperature was still around 70 degrees so I hopped into my foulies and out we went.
The floating dock, which seemed incredibly sturdy a few hours earlier was rocking quite a bit. And the tide had risen many feet above the norm. Like on almost every floating pier, there is a ramp that connects the pier to the land. This ramp allows the floating dock to rise and fall with the tides. Our floating dock had risen so high, however, that the ramp was barely accessible. I had to lift the dog and help her up and then jump up myself. On solid land now, little rivers of runoff water were forming small whitewater rapids as they made their way to the creek. After Willow finished up we both returned quickly to the boat — absolutely drenched.
I dried off and got into bed. Cindy and I lay there for hours feeling the awesome power of mother nature. When I woke up around 8am the sun was shining and the winds had died down to about 15 knots. It was a glorious day and I immediately got to checking on the boat to make sure everything was a-ok. Mavis has two very deep hatches on the stern that have been giving me problems. The seals that are intended to keep them watertight are in need of replacement and on one of them the screws that are supposed to secure the latch have stripped. I’ve tried a few times to make a good repair but it keeps failing. One hatch holds a 5 gallon jerry can of emergency fresh water, a bucket and our portable generator. The other holds our kayak paddles, 2 jerry cans of diesel, our shore power cords, water hoses, etc. Upon opening the port hatch I discovered about 1.5 feet of fresh water in the hold and our brand new generator was half submerged. I was really happy to discover that after drying it off, it started and operated flawlessly. I hope that continues.
I spent some time pumping out those holds and doing some general boat cleanup. I raised the screecher sail that I had removed and readied the boat to continue our journey.
Willow enjoyed the large fields in Deltaville. She met a few Portuguese Water Dogs from a neighboring boat and spent time over the past few days running around with them and hunting for squirrels as usual. Her appetite (for dog food) has not returned 100% but she seems much better.
After 5 nights in Deltaville, we departed at dawn and sailed most of the 40 miles to Hampton. We used the engine for the last 3 miles because of a major lull in the winds but they picked up strong just in time for docking. We were expecting light north winds at about 10 knots. This is a little light to keep the boat moving at an acceptable speed if it’s directly downwind. Fortunately, we got gusty winds from the north-northeast between 15 and 25. The winds kept shifting on us making it a difficult trip down the bay but I was happy to be under sail as it will likely be the last real opportunity we will have to sail Mavis for many miles. In fact, over the 1,000 plus statute miles between here and Miami we may only be able to sail about 50 of them unless we hop out into the ocean which we probably will do if the weather is favorable.
We made it into Hampton with plenty of time to spare before sunset but I didn’t want to press our luck and continue the additional 10 miles to Norfolk so we docked at the Bluewater Marina and took a walk to explore Hampton and find some dinner. We found a little seafood place on the water and enjoyed steamed shrimp and crab before heading back to the marina. On our walk we realized that Hampton wasn’t the nicest area. There were some quaint old houses but the security bars and roll up doors on most of the stores indicated a high-crime area.
We ended up motoring down the Elizabeth River 10 miles south to Norfolk the next morning and we are both so glad we did.
We passed the famous buoy R36 which is right outside of the Waterside Marina. This buoy marks the official Mile Zero of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway which runs 1080 miles from Norfolk to Miami. The good news is that this waterway is mostly protected. The bad news is that there are over 130 bridges between here and Miami and about 85 of them will require opening to accommodate our mast. The other “bad” news is that for most of the ICW, sailing is out of the question.
We both really love Norfolk! It’s a clean, small and friendly city with a cool waterfront district and just about everything we could want or need within a few block’s walk. We will probably stay here for a few nights before continuing because we are getting close to Cape Hatteras and we still have not secured approval from our insurance carrier to proceed south of Hatteras before November 1. We hope to get this in place next week.
So for now, we’re here enjoying restaurants and shopping and live music and things we often take for granted like barbershops… I got a haircut and feel human again. We will probably take in the Chrysler Museum of Art and do lots more walking and exploring before we depart here.
So that’s my update for now. I think Cindy is working on putting together her own post from her perspective. Thanks for following the journey!
After a full day of motoring down a calm Chesapeake Bay we arrived in Deltaville and docked at the Deltaville Marina. We put 9.4 hours on the trusty Westerbeke and covered about 60 nautical miles on this run. In order to reach Deltaville before sunset and allowing for a few hours as a safety margin, we left our mooring in Solomon’s about an hour before sunrise. The tidal currents of the Chesapeake Bay run generally north and south and can reach about 1 knot or more in places. Because of the time and distance involved, I knew that we would have currents with us for most of the ride and against us for a few hours too. It all averages out though. For a while we were hitting 7.5 knots and then for a while we were down to 5.25 but we made it in to Deltaville at around 4pm giving us plenty of time to settle in before sunset.
The day’s run was one of the calmest we have experienced since leaving New York but somehow Willow got seasick and vomited in the cockpit… Twice. At least we think she was seasick. We can’t rule out the possibility that she ate something she shouldn’t have back in Solomon’s. She didn’t eat her dinner last night and today she has no interest in eating dog food but was pretty interested in people food. We are giving her the day for her stomach to settle. Hopefully she’ll be back to normal soon.
Upon arrival here in Deltaville, we took on 10 gallons of diesel before getting into our slip and having dinner. 10 gallons is not a lot of fuel to move our home, and everything inside of it 60 miles. But it would have been nicer to sail. Unfortunately the wind was not with us.
It’s nice to be back in Deltaville. Our adventure with Mavis began here in January when we sea-trialed the boat here and after we closed on the sale, we had her hauled out into their boatyard. I spent many nights on the boat here on the hard in the middle of winter while I tackled the 10,000 projects that needed attention before the boat could be launched and sailed home to Long Island. In that time, I got sort of attached to this place. Deltaville is the kind of town where everybody knows everybody. There isn’t much here. Especially in the winter. But in the summer months the population explodes with boats and boaters. In terms of shopping, there’s a 7-11, a grocery store, a fish market, a West Marine, a dollar store, a few restaurants, a gas station, a bunch of marinas, a sailmaker, a coffee shop, other marine services and shops and a liquor store. That’s basically Deltaville. Situated on a peninsula between the Rappahannock and the Piankatank rivers, there is water everywhere.
We plan to stay here for a few days to a week while we wait out Hurricane Michael which is targeting the Florida panhandle right now. After Florida, it looks like it will skip across to the Atlantic Coast and make its way through here and up the coast. I’d rather be cautious and tied to a dock than be out somewhere wishing we were. Plus, we will take a few days to relax and maybe get a few boat projects done. The boat needs constant attention to stay ship-shape. And with all the motoring we have been doing, Mavis is just about due for an oil change. Perhaps I’ll tackle that before we leave here.
We are thinking about sailing over the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay to check out Cape Charles before heading down to Norfolk and entering the ICW. Both of us are looking forward to heading further south than we have been with Mavis in the coming days.
We’ll keep an eye on Michael and will secure the boat as needed for the expected winds. Our floating dock here has finger piers on either side and everything looks very secure. In fact, the dock is brand new. I watched it being built in March and April before we left here. If we need to strip our sails and double up the lines we will. It looks like Michael may still be a strong tropical storm as he moves through here. The current path has the storm passing basically directly over us. It’s always better to be tied to a dock wishing we were “out there” than “out there” wishing we were tied to a dock!
If you haven’t checked out episode 1 of our YouTube vlog, check that first here.
As I write this we are on a mooring ball at Zahniser’s Yaching Center in Solomon’s, MD. But let’s back up a bit because the last time I updated the blog we were in Chesapeake City. Not a lot has happened since our last update. Life on a cruising sailboat is fairly regimented. We wake up most mornings before dawn, fire up the dinghy and take Willow to shore and are underway before the sun is up. We usually run for 5 to 10 hours each day before putting in for the night. As we sail along I scan the horizon for other boats, ships, crab pots, floating logs, etc… I look at the chart-plotter to check our course, and I watch the miles to our destination tick down. I look at our sails to see if any adjustments need to be made and, if motoring, I refer to the engine instruments to make sure all is well with our temperature and oil pressure. This is basically what I do all day. On the ocean and here on the Chesapeake, I usually have the autopilot engaged. This means I really don’t need to touch the helm at all. We adjust course using buttons on the autopilot. Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast but it’s hard to get any actual work done because even though sailing can be as boring as watching paint dry, the ship does require attention. Recently I’ve taken to trying to stay somewhat fit while cruising. I started doing squats in the cockpit. When the seas are rolling you can get a really good workout this way. I also discovered that the furled headsails make a good support for doing handstand push ups. Basic body weight exercises are going to be the routine for a while.
Nothing major to report from here. We are still docked at the lovely Baltimore Boating Center we’ve been kayaking and taking the dinghy out around Sue Creek and getting lots of work done and making the $$$ neeeded to finance this adventure.
Check out the first installment of the SAILING MAVIS VLOG on YouTube!
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