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"Gone Cruising" with Bill & Shirley Martin, and their dog Saylor

The Sailing Blog of At Ease

03/18/2005
AT EASE, and her crew, are becoming land bound. It's true… she sets in her borrowed slip in the Ocean Springs Small Craft Harbor, firmly tethered by shore power and shore lines, constrained by real and assumed demands, with cruising plans for the year all on hold. Family demands, well inland, necessitate crew members be in a "ready" position to respond, and Ocean Springs is about as accessible as any coastal locale… certainly more hospitable than most and certainly populated by dear friends. That the area is a delightful playground, pleasing to the eye and palate, and reasonable in seasonal extremes just adds to the plus column.

Shore bound, we say, and indeed we are. Even more ties snake out to ensnare the unwary. We have a car, duly purchased to accommodate all this land travel, and now we have a house, purchased to provide that land base a more commodious home. What a flood of changes accompany those so very basic purchases. Suddenly there is a need for insurance here and there, furniture, accessories and such, pots and pans and plates and cups and towels and napkins and lamps and bedspreads and "stuff".

And commitments abound… those monthly expenses of phone and yard and electricity and newspaper and security system and more. And don't we need a better this and bigger that or another of those now that we are to live ashore for some time?

Some time ashore… that's the plan. Not foregoing all cruising, of course, but cruising that is to be curtailed nevertheless. Trips outbound to the Keys, to the Bahamas, to Central America or Mexico are all well within newly imposed time and distance limits. Three to six months of cruising, we think, would be possible, perhaps with interim trips home. We think it may even be possible to leave AT EASE temporarily at some distant, shore side base, where we might travel to and from for intervals of play afloat. We don't really know. Life is changing.

And this journal will change, possibly in content, certainly in frequency. In the past, we have reported on daily life aboard, routines and maintenance, on voyages hither and yon, on adventures ashore intermittently, and on discoveries and people invariably. What would one report on when living ashore? I suspect the mundane will inspire neither writers nor readers… but, as always, the future is murky.

02/16/2005
By 0730, Sunday, the 13th, we were up, well rested, and had AT EASE underway in essentially calm conditions. We had spent a pleasant night hove to about 30 NM offshore, well away from fishermen and sea-lanes, just waiting for daylight to enter Pensacola. Just outside the Bay's sea channel, we turned into the wind and dropped all sails, then motored up the channel, past the Navy Station, and into the Bay.

Pensacola, and its surrounding area, had experienced severe damage from hurricane Ivan. Many marinas have simply not reopened and rubble and damage are everywhere in evidence. We had called on the radio for local knowledge about diesel fuel availability but had received no reply. I called the local Tow Boat US on our cell phone and was told that fuel was only available on the east side of the bay (well out of our way) and in Bayou Chico within the bay. There we headed, arriving and realizing we were down probably to our last gallon or so of diesel. Creeping up the bayou, looking left and right, we saw obvious damage remaining everywhere and no sign of life (i.e. open businesses) ashore. Bottom line, nothing was open on Sunday. We anchored… forced to wait for business hours Monday.

Our dinghy fuel tank was one of our casualties from the gale; washed overboard after its tether line chafed through. So I rowed the dinghy up and down Bayou Chico, checking marinas, still in a fruitless search for diesel. Finally, the office staff of Bahia Mar Marina, ladies all excited about their newly arrived desks and computers (it looked more like a bank than a marina), took pity on me and persuaded one of their yard workers to drive me into town to get a couple of jerry cans of diesel at a gas station.

With AT EASE refreshed, we got underway via the ICW moving west. We motored past extensive storm damage, blown windows and roofs, structurally damaged homes and condos, and mile after mile of skeletal pilings, drunkenly askew, with the all too visible remains of shattered and sunken boats. Folks are proud of what they have accomplished since the hurricane. I'm amazed that it could have looked worse.

Bear Point, a marina on the western end of Perdido Bay, was selling diesel, but even here damage was starkly evident. We called to gain reassurance that the water leading to their fuel dock, an area surrounded by badly damaged piers, was free of wreckage... and so it was. After nursing our diesel for so long, we felt positively decadent to have a full tank again. We continued west, motor sailing in the light but southerly breeze.

By nightfall, and in increasingly hazy conditions, we were nearing the western side of Mobile Bay and preparing to cross under the Dolphin Island Bridge and out into Mississippi Sound. A Coast Guard boat came alongside, declaring their intention to board for a safety inspection, and so they did. While I maintained some progress along the narrow approach channel, two well mannered petty officers came aboard, checked documentation and required equipment, asked Shirley a host of questions so they could fill out their report forms, and were ready to depart in something like 30 minutes. Very efficiently and professionally done.

The channel leading into Mississippi Sound is well marked but with day marks and unlighted buoys. They were essentially invisible in the darkness. We tuned the radar to very short range and used it to position AT EASE between the marks, and to move from side to side in the channel as we encountered east bound tows. It was a relief to get back into more open water. We crossed the Pascagoula ship channel, empty of ship traffic for a change, and moved over to the north side of Horn Island to anchor for the night.

Tuesday morning, the seventh day out, we awoke to a thick fog; visibility something less than a quarter of a mile. We were entertained all morning by the chatter of tow and commercial captains moving their vessels through the soup, each contributing their own observations (and lack thereof) in rich and colorful language and in the comfortable and welcome accents of the deep south blended with contributions of both "good ole boy" and Cajun.

That was a good opportunity to document storm damage. We knew we had lost our dinghy fuel tank over the side. We now discovered we had also beaten a Fortress anchor, secured on a bow roller, to pieces. Only the shaft was left. We had a cleat, part of my mainsail reefing system, shear off the boom and the resulting stresses made a relatively small tear in the mainsail before I could redistribute the load. The traveler car failed. Two of the four bearings supporting it on the track broke off under stress. The fixed TV antenna, mounted on the mast, separated from its base and went soaring to hit the water well behind AT EASE. A support arm and one of the mounts on a solar panel failed. There was general wear and tear, line chafing and such, throughout, wet lockers and wet clothing, wet bedding, and gear both topside and below. We also have about 20 lbs of soggy dog food, salt water and a ruptured container of oil, to clean out of the lazarette locker. All in all, we got off pretty light.

It's magical when heavy fog lifts. It isn't gradual… rather it is like opening a curtain… in this case suddenly exposing a brilliantly blue sky and bright sun shinning down on the rather dingy, dirty-brown water of the sound. In the distance, receding inland, we could see the fog like a wall, almost deliberate in its progress, not disappearing, just moving away. We knew it could move back just as quickly. We eagerly hoisted the anchor and motored down the Biloxi channel, turning into Ocean Springs and its small craft harbor, feeling very much like we were coming home.
 


02/15/2005
After our blissful departure from Key West and its attendant shoals, enroute to Ocean Springs, MS, some 5-7 days across the Gulf, we motored through the evening and night, even through the next day and evening, in conditions beyond calm… really placid seas and just a hint of breeze. By Wednesday evening, we were roughly along the latitude of Tampa but some 70-80 NM offshore. We had intentionally held pretty far east of our rhumb line in anticipation of a front winging in from the northwest. From this easterly position, we had the option of diverting into Tampa Bay for shelter if the front seemed to be too rambunctious.

Weather forecasting is always iffy… the more so the farther one is predicting into the future. The most immediate information is better but I am convinced the only accurate weather description occurs when one talks about yesterday. For this trip, Shirley and I daily downloaded the National Weather Service 24 and 48 hour weather faxes. Additionally, we had a good friend ashore with access to a commercial weather service and he graciously forwarded that information to me daily. All reports generally agreed that the front would pack some punch… winds around 25 kts and seas 6-8 feet, 10 foot at the worse. The reports also suggested the front, a high pressure cold front, would have continuing weather impact for a day after passing.

Shirley and I considered the options. Winds to 25 kts are no struggle for AT EASE, she really likes 15-20 kts to sail well in any kind of sea state. It takes that much power to punch through the waves. Even 6-8 foot seas are manageable; that's really more the norm for Atlantic trade wind sailing. We factored in the uniqueness (to us) of the Gulf and its tendency to produce very steep, what we call "square" waves, and still decided it was a "go"… we would punch through the front and proceed as close to NW as possible against winds reported to be from the north; later to move to the NE.

Thursday morning, about 0200-0300, the winds began to build. I already had the main up, and a reef in place, and had out the yankee headsail. Over the next couple of hours the wind built from 15 kts up to 20 with gusts to 25. AT EASE had a "bone in her teeth", white foam and spray around the bow, as she plunged into the building seas. We headed NW against the initially northern winds. By daybreak, winds had increased to 25 sustained, gusting to 30 and the seas were confused and building rapidly; we were in near gale conditions. By midmorning, we had sustained winds over 30, into gale conditions, and the seas had built to 8-10 feet. With sail alone, we were just overpowered. We kept one rail in the water and between the clouds of spray breaking over the boat and the waves coming aboard along the starboard gunnel, crashing against the primary winch and then surging over the rail and into the cockpit, AT EASE was wet and struggling.

Conditions worsened and it became clear we simply could not generate enough sail power to keeping working to windward in these conditions. The options included turning and running downwind, back to Tampa, now some 100 NM ESE, or reducing sail still further to lift AT EASE off her ear and then adding engine power to keep working to windward. We opted to keep going. I eased the main until only the aft third was drawing air, furled the yankee, and started the engine. Maintaining just enough power for good boat control, moving about 4 kts over ground, we plowed ahead.

The seas were building and confused. On watch or off, it was hard work for both of us. On watch, one basically just held on, monitoring instruments and keeping the boat under control. Boat motion was violent and in three dimensions and just holding on required significant physical effort. This is where injuries occur… when the boat's motion is unpredictable and violent and the crew are tossed around within to bang heads and break bones and gouge skin. Even off watch, trying to sleep, even with lee clothes to hold one in, we were still using arms and legs to brace and could never really relax. By 1100 Thursday morning we were ready for a break.

I turned off the engine and hove to, using only the reefed main. Like a lady, AT EASE turned her shoulder to the waves and her motion, while still lively enough that holding on was a chore, became less violent. Through several hours, we napped, grabbed some hot food, and got ready for the evening. A Coast Guard Gulfstream flew over at low altitude… wonder what they thought?

About 1430 we got underway again, motor sailing about 300 degrees, shouldering the confused seas and now sustained 30+ kt winds. AT EASE pitched and plunged, bucking sharply as the large seas drove by, shuddering when waves and sheets of spray crashed aboard. Water, under that kind of pressure, will find its way in… anywhere. Even the dorades, special vents that separate air and water to ventilate the boat, couldn't handle the volume of water without significant quantities of water finding its way below. Clothes, bedding and crew… we got wetter... and colder. We hunkered down in our foulies, trying to stay warm if not dry.

We were able to make very little progress over ground throughout the afternoon and into the evening and by 2230 we hove to again, left navigation lights on and just tried to get some sleep. Winds were now sustained 35 kts with the highest gust noticed at about 40 kts. With the continuing demand to brace against the boat's motion, sleep was broken at best. One or the other was up every few minutes checking the radar and boat. Through the night we drifted, making about 1-2 kts, moving almost due east

Daybreak, Friday, revealed a beautiful clear day… bright blue skies and huge seas. Wind was now down a bit… about 25 kts sustained, gusts into the 30 kt range. We were now seeing 12 foot seas routinely, some breaking waves, with some 15 foot seas about here and there. The seas had become a bit more regular, contrasted with the confused seas of yesterday and last night, so we could more easily maintain directional control. We were able to get underway, sailing with reefed main, staysail and yankee, now being pushed westerly, still 100 NM offshore from anything.

From the cockpit, we watched the walls of deep blue water build off the bow, rising so far above the boat it seemed inevitable we would dip the bow and ship the wave down the length of the boat. Yet, each time, AT EASE sensed the building wave, shoulder turned and ready, raised her bow and climbed, dropping off the crest into the trough with a crash, flinging huge sheets of spray to the wind that then fell on the boat like surf.

We had white water on the boat essentially all the time, not having time to drain before the next wave struck, but we only had green water come aboard a few times when we came down off a crest and stuck the bow into a wave. On those occasions, even with our enclosed cockpit, it was as if a bucket, maybe a barrel, of water had been thrown directly into the cockpit, not impeded at all by our enclosure, soaking whoever was on watch.

By noon, Friday, conditions were getting better. Winds were down to 20-30 and seas probably 8-10 ft. By 1630 the winds began backing to the NW, pushing us further into the SW, and then dropping to 10 kts… just not enough power to sail in these seas. Near dark, I opted to move north again, motor sailing, with 3-4 kts progress in the unchanged wind and seas, trying to close the shore still some 100 NM away. Apalachicola seemed our best bet. We could make progress in that direction assuming the wind didn't clock. The wind had been expected to clock north to northeast but just wouldn't budge from the northwest; the direction we wanted to go.

At just past midnight, Saturday morning, the engine abruptly stopped. We had experienced some RPM cycling at highest running speeds earlier so I assumed we had clogged filters. We hove to again, bouncing about, while I climbed into the engine spaces and changed filters… finally all three filters… and still couldn't get fuel flowing enough to bleed the system. Unexplainably, we seemed to have run out of fuel. Frustrated, I climbed out on deck and, one at a time, hauled our four jerry cans of diesel back to the cockpit where Shirley and I, in a real feat of balance and agility, managed to pour and filter the cans into our fuel tank. Below again, now with primed filters, I got the engine running and by 0200 we were underway again, but now sailing without the engine in an effort to conserve fuel.

We had filled up the internal tank and four jerry cans before leaving Key West. We burn about a gallon an hour when under power. The engine hours and fuel use simply didn't add up… we seemed to have been about 20 gals short. It's still a mystery… but best guess is that I simply had not "filled" the internal tank in Key West. Sailors will know that you fill until you hear the sound of diesel coming back up the fill tube. You have to stop immediately then else foam and diesel come boiling back out to fill the cockpit and make a nasty stain on the water… folks, especially official folks, get upset at that. Although I "thought" I heard the tank fill, "thought" I could see foam in the fill tube, I apparently had shorted our fill by about 20 gals. Bummer!

With the fuel from our jerry cans, I knew we had just enough to (barely) reach Pensacola some 95 NM away. That now became our destination. It was only reachable by motor sailing; that pesky wind, now falling quickly, was still dead foul from the NW. Only by motoring could I get any power out of the sails at all. By 0830 on Saturday we had the reef out of the main and were motor sailing with staysail and yankee, enroute to Pensacola. All day, we closed shore until about 2230 when we stopped and hove to again, some 30 NM offshore, to await daylight for our approach.
 

02/09/2005

AT EASE got underway again yesterday, dropping off the mooring at Garrison Bight and moving back around Flemming Key to take on fuel in Key West Bight (Conch Harbor). We arrived back in Key West just after 2200 the night before and made our way via cab back to the landing to pick up our dinghy and motor out into the bay in search of our home.

Back aboard, we spent some time turning equipment on, plugging in electronics, checking equipment, then turned in, into our own bed, back home after essentially a month of living here and there, with Shirley's family and mine, and with friends. How nice to be home again. There is, however, one big gap. Saylor was left with a vet, "boarded", they say… "jailed", I say… in Ocean Springs. Both Shirley and I find ourselves looking about, checking on her, making sure she has water, etc. It's disconcerting.

On Tuesday (2/8) morning, we picked up our mail, stopped by to let the Key West (Garrison Bight) folks overcharge us for the mooring, then dinghied into the Navy Marina to provision at the commissary. Loaded down with packs and bags, we trudged back to the dink and then once more across that beautiful, blue-green bay, to AT EASE, who had seldom looked better in the bright sun. Shirley stowed below while I went about the deck correcting the casual neglect that accumulates when we stay in one place too long. Just getting our three lines off the mooring ball took more time than anticipated but we finally had only a single line rigged to slip from AT EASE's deck. We emptied and hauled the dinghy aboard and secured her to the foredeck. Finally, Shirley slipped the last line from the mooring and we fell off to head in for fuel.

Waiting for one's turn at a fuel dock, especially in a busy inner harbor, precisely where fuel docks tend to be located, is always an adventure. One should really go very early in the morning or late in the evening, definitely not mid afternoon. We began that clumsy dance, backing, turning, drifting, circling, dodging traffic moving in and out, impatiently waiting our turn on the dock. Finally, the last Canadian boat finished filling fuel… and water… and washing down the deck… and dumping garbage… and departed. We slid in alongside and passed lines to waiting hands from bow and stern. "Ahead", the attendant called, "come forward." The man on the stern line locked us down on a cleat. "Come forward", he yelled impatiently. Again I tried and again the man on the stern line locked us down. "Come forward"… more insistently. I stepped off the boat and explained, patiently I thin, that it was indeed difficult to move forward when the guy in back stopped me each time.

The attendant, with more than a bit of frustration, finally clarified the problem, informing all on the dock that our Good Samaritan, the fellow who kept cleating our stern line down short, "… doesn't even work here… I don't know who he is." Our Samaritan, knowing when he wasn't wanted, beat a hasty departure. We did too, immediately after fueling.

We motored west, out through the channels going through the shoals surrounding Key West, and off into the Gulf. About the last sight of the island that disappeared over the horizon was the upper works of the cruise ship laying alongside Mallory Square. Offshore, we motored in calm conditions, pushing into a heaving sell from the north that left AT EASE bucking in a not unpleasant pitch. We threaded through the crab pots, among the numerous fishing boats, even into the night, watching their lights fade even as their radar returns faded, until we where out past the 70 ft contour and into deeper water.

Just before dark, Shirley brought a heaping plate of roasted chicken, carrots and spinach to the cockpit. After dark, Shirley stood watch while I slept. After midnight, I awoke to relieve her. By 0200 she was back up, complaining that her cold medicine wouldn't let her sleep. I slept the night away.
 


01/03/2005

The New Year still finds us hanging on a mooring at Key West's Garrison Bight. There seems little drive to move on with AT EASE's crew. We have excuses enough to justify lulling about day by day. We're waiting for renewal of our boat insurance, a process which always seems to take much too much time and which involves our insurance company asking for a much too detailed itinerary of sailing plans for the upcoming year. Detailed plans when we have proven again and again we are attention deficit sailors driven more by distracting impulse than intent. We're waiting as well for a sickly computer to return from repair.

That's only one of a list of boat chores, the inevitable boat chores, that never go away and only temporarily gets shorter. While here, I have replaced and swaged a broken masthead fitting on our topping lift, a wire rope that holds the boom up when the sail is down. I'm waiting for a calm water day to again climb the mast and secure the new fitting. While up there, I'll replace our worn lazy jacks, the rope and bungy assembly that semi-flakes the mainsail when lowered, a real labor-saving device. Our old jacks or stretched and worn to the point of impending failure.

These daily winds of 15-20 kts, with accompanying whitecaps through the mooring field, have worn our patient dinghy as well. She jolts hard against her poly tether; hard enough to feel even AT EASE jerking up short at the force. I put a hard rubber snubber on the tether line to absorb the shock loads and sat back smugly content, feeling that problem could now be stricken from the list. Within two days, the snubber, which should have taken a couple of thousand pounds of shock, had simply failed…pulled apart. Back to the drawing board, I designed a mixed nylon and poly system, with a new snubber on the nylon. We still use poly on the dinghy, a line that floats and therefore stays away from our prop when the dinghy is towed. But now the poly tether is secured to the nylon three-strand line and snubber that stays attached to AT EASE. Conceivably, we could use both lines to secure the dinghy, a belt and suspenders approach, and do so in heavy conditions, but for now we seem to have the dinghy riding much better in even active conditions.

I've replaced the thermostat in our diesel; she simply wasn't running hot enough. That now only wears the diesel but really cuts down on the availability of hot water in the boat and I have never liked cold showers. Now, with a new thermostat and a spare, we're cleaner and more comfortable.

I've replaced our Link 1000, the electronic control box that manages our electrical system. The Link in placed did everything but manage our inverter, an irritating failure given our new-found habit of daily television viewing. The new unit now gives us push button control and monitoring, allowing me to be even lazier if that is possible. It really was asking too much to have me go clear to the cockpit, open the lazarette hatch, bend over and turn the inverter on (or off) by hand.

Other electrical issues have arisen. A splice in the battery sensing wire on our voltage regulator was loose, leading to erratic performance of the alternator. I was able to troubleshoot that pretty quickly. The really means I have had to work on that system often enough to be very familiar with the wiring.

I also noted we weren't charging from our wind generator and our solar panels. Now given that I check that about 600 times a day on average, I probably caught that failure in the first few minutes. With my handy multimeter, a tool that's out at least once a day, I finally traced the problem to an amp meter, mounted just beside the Link, that had failed. I jumped the meter for now, until I can replace the unit, so still have that wondrous flood of energy, 10-20(+) amps, coming in from the brisk winds and bright sun. I just don't get to gloat over the numbers as casually now; it takes effort to walk over and put on my hand meter to see the actual numbers. I still do it, of course, but only about 500 times a day. It's just not as convenient.

Certainly there are other chores, more shopping, boat stuff. I found a broken roller on our traveler car, the track system that moves the mainsail from side to side. It probably needs welding but as a temporary solution, probably more a wish than a hope, I loaded it up with a metal epoxy to see if that might hold. We're replacing our depleted spares locker with more filters (oil, fuel and water), replenishing our store of onboard oil reserve, adding a couple more deck hauled fuel cans to give as a bit more range, and giving the boat a good inspection. We still don't really know where we are going, but we are getting ready to go there, sometime in the future.


12/31/2004  &  01/01/2005

AT EASE stills hangs on a mooring off Garrison Bight, Key West. Days pass by with our bobbling about as weather systems, front after front, march by. We are used to Key West anchorages which are tempestuous… high winds and white-capped waves, wet dinghy rides and cool to cold weather interspersed with intervals of balmy sun. This year has been no exception with daily winds of 15-20 kts routine, although AT EASE is more comfortable, all in all, with our cockpit enclosure.

There had been little to draw me ashore, plenty of provisions on board and mind numbing television for entertainment, so wet rides in the dinghy have been avoided by and large. With Shirley's return to the boat, after a three week sojourn to Arkansas for family time, we make the trip ashore with more frequency, shopping chores and desire for exercise seem to predominate. The walks downtown or to the local malls really are pleasant interludes.

Key West has been sleepy through the holidays with much smaller crowds than we have seen in the past. Cruise ships still make their stops, temporarily adding to the crowded streets with their rented scooters and bikes, but the throngs of walkers and lookers seem anemic by comparison with previous years.

Now New Year's Eve has arrived. We planned a "do" ashore after having drinks aboard AT EASE with John Hixson and his lady, Debbie, who wanted to see how we lived. She really got a taste of our life style. First the near mile ride out in the dinghy, through 15-20 kt winds and white caps, salt spray and all, and then the active ride of AT EASE as she rode the mooring. After a drink, maybe a few, the lure of celebration ashore dimmed and the augmented crew opted to stay aboard and appreciate the downtown gaiety from a different perspective. We all looked forward to the fireworks display, a Key West tradition and historically among the best shows we have seen.

Midnight's magic moment neared and we hurried to the cockpit as New York's ball fell on Times Square. There… just over the harbor… the first of the fireworks. A rocket soared and exploded in a shower of multicolored stars. And then… well… nothing. Oh there was the occasional blast, sometime a burst, maybe even a mini-cascade of bursts here and there on the horizon, but no, absolutely no, fireworks display. Not even the typical boaters broadside of outdated flares and pyrotechnics. I'm afraid it was unanimous. I didn't bother to sort through my signal flares either. Some years end with a bang… some with a whimper. December 31, 2004, a date which shall live in infamy, ended here with barely an exclamation.

The avid but aging partygoers aboard AT EASE, all struggling to stay awake so far past our bedtime, who had started so optimistically, eager to party the night away, now closed out the evening with a final dinghy ride, carrying our guests ashore, now wetter, now colder, and now made older by a calendar that never looks back.

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