'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch


“Cruising”? Or “Voyaging”?

By Keith
What sort of cruisers are we? I think that’s changing…

Enjoying the waterway at 5 knots…
If you’ve never thought about it – or done it – you might think that there’s only one sort of folks living and traveling by boat, and they’re all called “Cruisers”, but it turns out that’s not the case. I think the first time I encountered the difference was in a book by Lin & Larry Pardey – the Grand Masters of long-distance cruising. During their first circumnavigation of the globe, they found themselves half-way around, needing to either hustle to make it across the Pacific ocean before the winter gales began or stay put for six months and wait for spring. They decided they wanted to get home (Vancouver) sooner, rather than later, and so began a completely different style of voyage. Rather than having no plan, and staying in an area as long as it was fun, they now were making calculated stops to re-provision the boat quickly and keep moving. “Cruising” had become “Voyaging”, and the journey had become the point of their days, rather than the things they saw between each sail.

When we were considering this cruise, my mind was full of the places we might stop and the things we might see. Mystic Seaport, Assategue Island, Smith Island in the Chesapeake, Shackleford Banks, NC… All could be a multi-day stop, maybe a week or more.

The ponies of Assategue Island, Maryland. (Photo:Nicki Dunbar)

But as we actually started the cruise, I began to feel a tension and a discontent. Each potential stop became less and less attractive as we approached it, and each departure became more rewarding. I was in “Voyageing” mode, and hadn’t realized it. Getting south had become the point, and the driving force of each decision.

And so our trip has become a journey, rather than a series of destinations. The journey is the point, and its own reward. Will we be missing something? Absolutely, and we’re keeping track of things to do and see “next time”. But in the meanwhile, we’re getting an overview of the US East coast that few get to experience, and we’re doing it at a comfortable pace that we choose each day.

That’s pretty cool.

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When the “eyes” have it

…by Keith
When last we left our heros…

Perhaps that’s a bit too much drama. Without going into gory details, let’s just say that surgery to reattach a retina is an amazing use of Star Wars technology, for which I’m extremely greatful, and hope never to encounter again. Lasers are a wonderful thing – but aren’t we all the time being warned not to shine them in our eyes?

Just sayin’…

The extended stay in Hampton, VA which my eye surgery required was very much a new thing for us in many ways. It was only the second time we’ve been in a marina slip, and the first time we stayed for long enough (17 days!) to become recognizable as “regulars”. Boats leave, new boats come in, we make friends and share the good spots in town we’ve found, and serve as the welcoming committee for each new cruiser.  

Need a sugar fix? We can help with that! 

It was also the first time we’d attended a cruiser “rally” – in this case the 4th annual Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous. This gathering of 50+ boats and twice as many people is a great place to learn everything you can about following the sun along the ICW (IntraCoastal Waterway), and though we had no idea it existed, by our second week at the dock it was a welcome distraction from our enforced stop-over.

Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous departure breakfast.

But finally the day arrived. My two-week checkup with the surgeon showed the eye healing nicely, and no reason we needed to stay close. The day after we recieved the ok to travel was spent preparing the boat to be a boat (rather than an apartment) again, and the next day we departed. First to the fuel docks for 22 gallons of diesel, then south through Hampton Roads, Norfolk Naval base, and the Portsmouth Navel Ship Yard. Military stuff. Huge. Scary. And very nervous about little boats getting too close. It can be kind of tense. 

USS Zumwalt, and an un-named submarine. Busy place!


But we did it! And nobody shot at anybody or even got testy. We spent our first night at the free docks in Portsmouth, right next to the ferry dock. This is really significant only because it marked the first time I docked the boat with the use of only one eye. It’s a strange feeling, bringing 14,000 pounds of floating home up to an immovable object, and having to guess – based on memory – how far you are from contact with said object! But it actually was not as hard as I feared: Nobody screamed, nothing went “Crunch!” No drama at all, actually – except the anticipation.

Sionna docked in Portsmouth, VA

From Portsmouth, we officially entered the ICW – Mile 0 was just 100 yards from our dock. The next 5 miles south are simply an industrial zone of shipyards, military enclaves and commercial piers, smelly, noisy and crowded with tugs, ships and barges. And believe me, after almost three weeks of living in the city (see my earlier blog on light and noise) we were simply aching for a quiet anchorage, away from all things human. We didn’t quite get it, as there were a couple other boats anchored with us and the Navy has a practice area for their pilots near by, but it was, at least, not in the city.

Anchored off marker Red “32” on the Atlantic IntraCastal Waterway

But first, we had to get there. The day included nine bridge openings, most of which we didn’t even have to wait for because there are so many boats traveling south that we’d just adjust our speed a bit, arrive when a bunch of boats did or when the bridge was due to open, and through we’d go.

Bye bye Portsmouth!

We also got to do our first lock! The water level between Portsmouth and Pungo Ferry, Virginia can be as different as 4 feet, so there’s a lock along the canal to bring the boats up or down as required. Due to the run-off from hurricane Matthew, the difference when we came through was only about 9 inches, but still, transiting a lock is a pretty neat experience, and something else boat-related to add to our list of “firsts”.

“Locking up” at Great Bridge, VA

With a forecast of substantial winds for the following day, we elected to sit tight in our anchorage and let the blow pass by. For us, it was a noisy but comfortable night – but for one of our neighbors…. Not so much. 

See that second boat behind us?  He did NOT have a restful night…

Sometime before midnight I woke up, sat up, and had this feeling that “something” was not right…. I slid the hatch back and took a quick look around the anchorage and was confused for a moment – where there should have been two other boats north of us, there was only one. Oh wait, there he is, off to one side and floating sideways across the channel…
Now it’s a characteristic of boats that when anchored, they face either the wind or the current – whichever is stronger – but when the anchor doesn’t hold for some reason, the boat will drift off sideways, laying perpendicular to the wind. This guy was asleep, and in trouble.
So I scrambled top sides in my birthday suit, grabbed our portable air horn, and started giving a series of five blasts on the horn – the international marine signal for “Danger!” First set – no sign of life aboard. Second set, a light comes on inside. Third set, more lights, and a hatch opens…

And what followed was the most impressive boat rodeo I ever hope to see. It included drifting, backing at high speed through a dark anchorage, going aground in reverse, at least three attempts to re-anchor, and finally the successful anchoring of a 42-foot sailboat in the middle of the channel, followed somewhat later by the irate blasting of a tugboat’s horn as a rather large barge was squeezed by in said channel, in the dark. This poor guy did basically EVERYTHING wrong – but he survived, to drag yet again the next morning when he finally tried to get out of the channel.

I’m starting to think compulsory training and licensing for pleasure boaters is a very good idea.

So that was our exciting first two days back on the water! And today we covered another 36 miles, crossed into North Carolina, and have tucked up in another creek to wait out tomorrow’s little blow before crossing the Albamerle Sound.  

Written October 27, 2016 from Oriental, North Carolina, where we’ve stopped for a couple days to wait for mail to catch up wit us from Maine.  If you’d like to get short update e-mails from us as we move dow the coast, consider signing up for our Farkwar page! Nothing t buy, just enter your email to get a short note to say where we are.  And please take a minute to comment here and tell us what you think! We love to hear from you, field questions about boating and cruising, etc.  Thanks!


Around Town

If you’ve listened to any country music in the last 20 years, you’ve probably heard a song that goes “If you wanna hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Yeah, that.

We planned to spend just a couple days – maximum – in Hampton Roads before continuing south on the ICW.  Buy some provisions, some fuel, a little propane and fill the water tanks, and we’d be on our way.

But then I (Keith) suddenly had a need for medical care – emergency surgery for a detached retina – and a little storm called “Matthew” seemed to have the mid-Atlantic coast in mind as a good place to visit.  Suddenly Hampton. VA became our temporary home while we sorted things out, and we’ve been here since October the 4th.   We’re calling it our personal velcro harbor – we just can’t get free.

So let’s look at the good side.  We accidentally landed where the City Piers are new, strong, and sheltered from storm winds and surge. One of the country’s leading retinal surgeons practices right here, and took me in instantly.  And the fourth annual Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous was happening right there on the docks where we were tied up. Snowbirds. You know, folks that can’t handle the cold in the north, so they run away from it. Folks like us!

And to top it all off, downtown Hampton is just lovely.  Particularly a street – just a block from the City Piers – called Queen’s Way.  Restaurants, bars, shops, etc.  No crowds that we saw, but friendly people who say hello to strangers and just a general feeling of relaxed, gentle fall living.

We hven’t done half the things we’d thought we would by now. There’s the Virginia Air & Space Museum (which we may make it to yet), and a neat restored 1913 carousel that we plan to ride (only $1).  Forts to tour, nearby historical sites like Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg…  The list goes on.

We’re ready to move on, it’s true.  Our boat is starting to feel more like a small apartment than a vessel, and I fear we may have a garden growing on the bottom due to lack of movement. Over the last couple of days boats have been leaving in droves, and it’s hard to stand on the docks, watching new friends and old depart while we wait here.

We’ve got itchy feet, that’s certain.  We’re hoping my next eye check-up will say there’s no reason we must stay close, and if so, we’ll begin a slow migration again, following in the wake of the hundreds of boats that have already departed in the last couple days.  The ICW is crowded right now, and our preferred route to North Carolina – the Dismal Swamp Canal – is closed for the rest of the fall due to damage from Matthew.  Waiting for the crowd to thin isn’t a bad thing either.

But we want to move south again.

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After the rush, the waiting…

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…by Keith, Oct the 14 ’16

We’ve written a bit about the events that brought us here to an unplanned, extended stay in Hampton, VA. Of course, life is often composed of the unplanned, and indeed many of our most significant experiences are a result of going off-script, whether intentionally or forced by circumstances. And so it is with us.

The short update is that my brush with blindness in my right eye has – like our encounter with Hurricane Matthew – been only a brush.  The emergency surgury to re-attach a detached retina was successful, I have full light sensitivity again, and we wait now for the after-effects of the procedure to dissipate and restore normal function to the eye. 

We wait, impatiently. Going into the operating room was all a rush and blur, with little enough time to calm frayed nerves, much less ask all the questions and digest all the answers.  So it’s understandable that we’d miss the part about ultimate recovery time following the operation.  Turns out that a return to a functional level of vision is expected to take about 6 weeks, and totally “normal” vision may take as long as a year…

Or not.  I have a long history of healing faster than expected, often confounding the expectations of the few doctors I’ve worked with, so I remain optimistic that we can continue our travels sooner, rather than later.  But in the mean time I’m beginning to feel – and probably act – like a caged lion. 

Pacing, pacing…

The biggest factor in my impatience is not – as you might expect – my eagerness to continue our cruising. That’s a little of it, but only a little.

No, the real issue for me is lack.

Lack of silence. Lack of darkness. Lack of wildlife. Lack of motion.

You see, we’re in a marina that’s located just downstream of a highway bridge that’s 24 feet above the water, so there’s almost no boat traffic and no wave action. We may as well be living in an apartment in town for all the “boat motion” our floating home exhibits. 

By the same token, we’re parked in downtown Hampton, VA. Street lights, traffic sounds, car horns,  and the conversations of passing pedestrians are all a constant presence, always in the background, sometimes in the foreground. Rarely we hear a single call of a gull or a heron, but frequently we hear the trucks going through all 13 gears as they climb the grade to the bridge. 

And light? True darkness is a memory. If you wake in the night, you have no idea – from the light level – whether dawn is breaking or still hours away, and there will be no sound of morning birds to help you decide.

I’m most appreciative of the place to be while we work out my vision issues, but I’ve realized that I’m not sleeping well, not resting, not comfortable in this very urban environment.  It provides shelter, but no solace. A place to be, but not to live.

A cage, but not a home.


The Art and Science of Anchoring

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(Note: This is what we call a “technical” post. If you think discussions of gear and techniques that are directly applicable to sailing and cruising are “Deadly Boring”, you might want to move on to one of my normal, funny offerings. Really, I won’t be offended.)
In this post, I’m going to outline my patented, never fail system for choosing anchoring gear, selecting a location, and setting your anchor for a secure night or an extended stay. Ready?

Just kidding. There’s no such thing.

But if there were, and if I had it, I could make a killing. Wherever two or more cruising boats gather, the talk will – eventually – turn to the subject of anchors and anchoring, and the opinions will sometimes be as diverse and contradictory as the subjects of an election cycle. 

Well, maybe not THAT contradictory, but I promise there will be strongly held yet conflicting opinions and methods. 

Take this boat, for example. These poor guys have been having a hell of a time the last 48 hours, having anchored, dragged, re-anchored and even moved to a marina for the night (see the blown fender hanging at the side? Likely a victim of a dock bash during the night) before returning to the area where we rode out the storm without moving an inch. And at that they had to try to anchor three times before it held…

If it holds…
So what can you do to increase the odds of staying put? There are some basics that I’ve learned from reading and experimenting, but before I do that, let’s look at the picture above more carefully. I see (or saw) three things straight away that could be done better, and those deal with Scope, Shock, and Windage.
Scope: Scope is the length of rode (chain or rope or both) deployed. The more scope out, the more likely your anchor is to catch and hold well. Recommendations for scope are given as a ratio between the depth from bow to the bottom and the amount of rode deployed, with 3:1 is a minimum for chain rode. 5:1 is better, and 7:1 is reasonable for a gale of 40 knot winds. But more than a minimum is better, always.

But in the case of this boat, we watched them let the anchor out the first time they tried this morning. One fellow at the bow was holding the anchor chain with the anchor dragging in the water, probably 5 or 6 feet down. When they’d picked their spot, he released the chain he was holding, and the chain ran out for maybe 20 feet before it stopped. Since we’re here in 12-15 feet of water, and the distance from the surface of the water to their bow is close to 4 feet, that means they have – at the most – a scope ratio of 2:1. Not even enough to stop for lunch, much less for the night.

Shock: Boats move at anchor. Some even sail back and forth, tugging at the anchor at the end of each swing, and the boat pictured above is a sailer. The problem with that is that chain doesn’t stretch – not even a little. As soon as the chain comes taught, there’s an enormous shock as 14000 pounds of boat is suddenly denied its freedom of motion.

The answer to that problem is a snubber (described below) or – as we’re using right now – a combination of chain and nylon line in your anchor rode. For the last two days we’ve been riding to 75 feet of heavy (⅜”) chain plus 35 feet of ⅝” nylon line. Now nylon is wonderfully stretchy, as much as 20%, so on the occasions when Sionna decides to swing, that line acts like a shock absorber, easing the load onto the anchor progressively and spreading the load over time. The anchor is therefore much more likely to stay put.

And what’s a “snubber”? Simply a short (15-20 feet) length of nylon line with a hook on one end. The hook gets attached to the chain, the end of the line is attached to the boat, and enough chain is let out so that the nylon line is taking the load, with the excess of chain loose in the middle. 

Windage: The wind is a powerful force – a force to be reckoned with. And the stronger it blows, the greater the force it can exert. Not only that, but it’s power increases at twice its speed, meaning that if the wind speed doubles, the force it exerts is multiplied by four. In situations where you expect strong winds, therefore, it’s very important to reduce your windage as much as you can. Look at the picture again:

They removed the main sail – that was a good idea, as sails can create a lot of drag, but see the dinghy? It’s hanging from the stern like a glorified wind scoop – the worst possible position from a windage standpoint. Laying flat on deck, yes, or even trailing in the water behind, but this…

So aboard Sionna (I’ll stop picking on our neighbors now) we have a list of things we do to reduce windage, reduce shock loading, and maximize the holding power of our anchor when we’re expecting significant winds at anchor, but it began long before, when we were choosing the anchoring equipment we have aboard. 

You see, when it comes to anchors, heavier is always better, up to the point when the crew is not able to handle the weight. Same for the chain attached to it – so we chose a 35# anchor (slightly over-sized according to the books) and ⅜” chain – one size larger than normal. To that we attached ⅝” nylon line, again slightly over-sized, but also easier to handle than a finer line.  

The business end of the 35# CQR anchor

Chain and snubber deployed. The snubber takes the load while the chain acts as a backup.
What else? Anything on deck that might come loose, or which presents a significant amount of resistance to the wind. This includes our stays’l (which is stored in a bag on deck when not in use), the sun awning, the sailing rig for the dinghy, fenders, BBQ grill, throwable life ring…

Dinghy sail and mast on the starboard side deck.

Sun awning on the port side deck.
Stays’l (Stay Sail) on the port side deck forward.
BBQ grill (green) and the fenders (blue opposite, usually there are three tied there).
Throwable life ring (“Lifesling”) in it’s bag.

And finally there are the sails themselves. These enormous pieces of cloth can become dangerous should they begin to catch the wind. In a minor blow (say, less than 40 knots) we take lengths of spare line and snugly wrap them, inside their covers.
Wrapped sails in preparation for Tropical Storm Hermine.
We also tie a heavy line around the rolling head sail to be sure it doesn’t decide to unroll – something that has frequently resulted (on other boats) in loss of the whole mast.  
And for stronger winds? Or even a hurricane? The sails come off entirely and are stowed below, along with everything else previously mentioned. Yes, a storm-prepped sailboat is a mite cozy below! But all of these things add to your chances of staying anchored and undamaged in a real storm.
And that, really, is the point. Keep the boat attached to the ground and in safe water, and keep the crew safe aboard or – if it’s a better option – in shelter ashore. Safety first.


Of Storm and Pirate

So far, you have heard a lot about where we are and how we got here from the voice of Keith. So, let me introduce myself. I’m the other captain of s/v Sionna, Nicki. Keith is so good at this blogging thing that I have happily let him write. But he is taking a bit of a break. Here’s why:  

No, he hasn’t decided to become a pirate. But the pirate patch from the gift shop was an easy way to both hold the real patch in place and look a little suave doing it.  Splits, the flamingo, makes a good enough parrot, don’t you think?

When we last posted, we’d played tug of war with a steal I-beam on our anchor, and won. From there we crossed the mouth of the Delaware Bay and spent several days in Lewes, DE visiting family. Many thanks to Bob and Nancy Dunbar for showing us around town, showing us their original-owner, fully-restored better-than-new 1968 Pontiac GTO, The Judge, and for being our own personal Postmaster for a bit. 

After waiting… and waiting for a weather window to go up the Delaware and through the C&D canal, we saw a window that would allow us to go around the outside of Delaware instead. One night in Ocean City and an overnight passage around to Norfolk was the plan. On arrival in Ocean City, behind Assateague Island, as we were easing out the anchor chain, we were welcomed by 9 wild ponies racing up the beach, and moments later, a spectacular rainbow. But our weather window closed as we arrived in Ocean City and we ended up waiting out winds as high as 40 mph, a total of 4 nights. 

On our last full day there, Keith noticed that the floaters in his right eye, which most people have a few of, had begun multiplying. By the time we left for the overnight passage, he had a blind spot. Motor sailing at night is done, ahh, well, in the dark. Without daylight, he wasn’t aware of the blind spot. However, by the time we anchored in Willoughby Bay, just outside Norfolk. He’d lost about 80% of his vision in that eye. He needed medical attention immediately.

But Matthew, a Category 4 hurricane was due to arrive here in 3 days time. We had to work fast to find a safe place to go to ride it out. …or we could focus on saving Keith’s eyesight.

Google showed me “opthomologists near me”, including Wagner Macula & Retina Center. So at 10 am Wednesday morning, we were with Dr Kapil Kapoor, not just an ophthalmologist, but one who is getting national recognition as a specialist in vitreoretinal surgery…. like fixing detached retinas! He scheduled emergency surgery for the same evening. After giving Keith his own personal green laser light show (yes, it was more complicated than just that, but there is a serious ick factor when needles and eyeballs are in the same sentence), we were sent home with a wad of gauze under an ugly perforated metal eyepatch taped over Keith’s right eye and the doctors initials in ink above his eyebrow.

Storm slowed down, turned a little away, and finally was downgraded to Cat 1. It came through here last night as what we’d describe as very gusty and very wet. Had it been worse, we’d still have made the right decision. Keith will be back with you soon. I’m taking good care of him. But for now, we will be hanging out in Hampton, VA for a bit. 

 Hey look, the sun is shining on us again!


One of those days…

“Splits” on arrival in Cape May, NJ

Today would – in some ways at least – qualify as “one of those days”.

You know what I mean. One of those days when things just don’t work, things break, things get lost… One of THOSE days.
And since most of my blogs, Facebook posts and Farkwar updates focus on how totally awesome and amazing and really COOL cruising is, I thought it was time to give a little press to the parts that don’t go so smoothly. Like today.
Today we sailed from Cape May, NJ to Lewes (pronounced “Lewis”), DE. Including the Cape May canal (3 miles long) it was a total of only 15 miles as the crow flies, and perhaps 23 miles as we sailed it. Easy day, except…

Cape May Canal approaching the Delaware Bay

At 9:15am I start pulling up the anchor, and it doesn’t feel right. It’s coming up really hard, and it feels like there’s something sliding down each link of the chain – “bumpbumpbumpbump” – as I crank on the windlass.  

Finally I’ve got all but about 15 feet of chain aboard, which should be breaking the anchor loose from the bottom, but it’s still coming hard as I slowly wind it in. I’m looking down to see what’s happening, and suddenly there’s what looks like a steel I-beam coming to the surface. Wait a minute, that IS a steel I-beam on the surface. And steel I-beams don’t float. Which means… 

“Oh Shit!” 
This was the call heard ‘round the anchorage, let me assure you.
We and Sionna are now drifting downwind toward the other anchored boats, the closest of which is only 25 yards away, with a 30-foot section of 6” steel I-beam wrapped in our anchor chain and preceding us like a battering ram, and I have NO idea how to get it free – there’s just no way to reach it, and everything is too massive to even think about getting my fingers near it… 
Our chain has, over the last three days, somehow wrapped completely around the I-beam at almost the mid-point. Are we going to have to cut the whole thing loose – I-beam, anchor, chain and all – to save the boat?  

While all these observations and thoughts are running through my head, I’m signaling frantically to Nicki (who’s at the helm) to steer us away from the other boats, but I’m not even sure Sionna will respond with this mass of metal hanging off the bow. How can I get it unwrapped? How can I flip that 35-pound anchor over the top of the beam to free it without loosing a hand in the process? How long would it take me to cut it free?

And then, miracle of miracles, it’s gone.  
Slowly, oh so slowly, the beam begins to “spin” along it’s axis, its many-hundreds of pounds doing what I could never do by hand as the anchor comes up out of the water, over the beam, splashes back down and the beam is gone.
Yeah I know, no pictures again. When the most interesting stuff happens, you can never get to a camera, right? It was the same with the pods of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins last week, and now I’m being accused of telling fish stories. Except they ALL got away, which is a good thing.
Well anyway, that was the start to our day. After that the Cape May canal was a lazy cruise, and the sail across the Delaware Bay to Lewes was almost an anti-climax. Almost. Except when the reefing line came loose from the main boom and I had to go forward to the mast in 5-foot seas and 20 knot winds to re-tie it, getting drenched by (warm!) green water in the process and scaring poor Nicki out of her Nike’s because I had JUST unclipped my safety tether to move back to the cockpit when the sea came aboard and doused me. 
See, it’s not all sundowners and sunsets, after all. But here’s one more anyway.

Cape May Harbor, NJ

But you know what? We ended the day tucked into a safe anchorage, smiles on our faces and an awesome coconut-curry fish stew for dinner.  
Because even after one of “those” days, living on a boat and working our way slowly south and away from winter is still an amazing, thrilling adventure. We’re beginning to feel alive and connected to here and now. There are no political speeches, no lies on TV, no reality shows to simuate life…
There’s just life – for real.
What a blessing.