'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch

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The Long Stretch Between

(Sorry, no pictures. I have them, but one of the realities of cruising is that the internet service you find is wat you have – and this one in Vero Beach FL won’t allow me to upload photos!)

When we began this trip, I had envisioned that the blog would become something of a travelogue. A day-by-day (or at least a week-by-week) description of what we saw, thought, felt and wondered about.  Instead, it’s become more a record of my irregular inspiration. I’ve written when the mood struck and a topic presented itself – often as a result of a semi-dream state in the wee hours of the morning.

The problem with relying on the sleep fairy for blog ideas is one of memory. I’ll wake – or nearly wake, or dream I’m waking – but I’ll be in no condition to write down the idea the sleep fairy left me, nor will I have anything to write with and on, and anyway it’ll be dark so I can’t see to scribble…. And that’s a shame, because I know there have been some wonderful blog post ideas that are forever lost to the vagaries of my middle-aged memory.

But such is life. Rest assured that there have been some incredibly scintillating posts, real corkers, and you’d have absolutely loved reading them, sharing them, quoting them at office parties and swank soirée of every description.  

Really – that good.

What I’ve been left with instead is the bare highlights. When something really significant happens, like detached retina or near-death in an inlet, you hear about it, but the three days we spent wending our way slowly through the beauty of the Georgia marshes gets barely a nod, and I haven’t even mentioned most of South Carolina. 

Now in fairness to Georgia, the beauty of the ICW in that stretch doesn’t translate well to the written word. I’ve heard many people lament that that stretch of the ditch is deadly dull. “There’s NOTHING THERE!!” (emphasis mine) they lament.
And I suppose that’s true, if your definition of “something” is humans and the mess they make. But the marshes are quiet and soft and the air is sweet. The Great Egrets and Brown (and White!) Pelicans are abundant and a joy to watch in their feeding antics, the Dolphins are frequent visitors in their hunt for food and playmates, and there’s an energy to the marsh that lowers the blood pressure more effectively than Prozac ever dreamed. 

Cumberland Island, too, is lovely, and if the weather had cooperated, we’d have spent a couple days there, but we were forced out by a Norther that made the only anchorage untenable after only a couple hours ashore, and we have not one picture of ruins, horses, armadillos and deer who hardly know or care what humans do around them. Magical, it was, and we plan to return some day.

South Carolina was – well – a strain. The waterway is clogged with McMansions right down to the water, each more pretentious than the last, yet in the next mile decay and poverty are more prominent than the pelicans.  

Charleston has gorgeous architecture, it’s true, and it’s one of those places that many find delightful. “So much to DO!”, they cry, yet we found grid-lock, urban sprawl and overdevelopment at its worst, and the subtext of racial tension and a distrust of strangers (eye contact while walking down the street? Certainly not!) had us longing for open water long before we were able to seek it. We won’t be back there if we can avoid it.

But then there was St. Augustine, FL – the perfect antidote to Charleston. An old city, steeped in history, with lovely architecture, illogical streets and wonderful pedestrian ways. Yes, the downtown is horribly touristy – carefully designed to separate the visitor from their money – but there is a color and a vibrancy to the town and a welcoming energy in the people that lets you forgive that aspect. 

And let me tell you, they know how to light up the town for Christmas!

Add to that a lovely cruiser community, with many snowbirds like us choosing to make the harbor their winter home, and three days wasn’t long enough by half. We’ll be back on one of our migrations, I’m sure.

And one other thing that Florida has? Water.

Ever since leaving Norfolk, VA, we’ve had our eyes and ears glued to the depth sounder. Sionna needs 4 ½ feet of water to operate, and for comfort we’d prefer more. Below 10’, we become nervous, as the bottom can come up quickly. It makes for a tense and tiring day, and it was that way from Norfolk (mile 0 on the ICW) all the way to St. Mary’s, Georgia around mile 885.  

But now we’re south of all that. The canal here is deep, approaching 20’ most of the time, and if it’s sometimes narrow (50’ or so), it’s often straight, and it slopes at the edges enough that watching the navigational markers with an occasional glance at the depth is enough, and we can relax a bit. Vero Beach, where the boat is tonight, is sheltered, cozy and safe, and so welcoming to cruisers that it’s nick-named “Velcro Beach” in honor of all the sailors who came for a night and stayed for a lifetime. And it’s warm.

Did I mention that it’s warm? As I write this it’s 85 degrees on Christmas Day, and Nicki went for a swim in the pool this evening to cool off. On Christmas. That still seems like a miracle to this northern boy.

Such are the thoughts of a cruiser on this lazy, 80 degree winter evening. We’ll get you some pictures next time.


Loving the Journey, but…

So why don’t we write more often?  After all, the success of a blog – I’ve been told – is determined largely by the output of the writer.  Blog advisors (yeah, that’s a thing) will tell you that a blog should be posting new content every day. Every. Single. Day.

Which probably has something to do with the Sesame Street effect.  If you’re not familiar with it, it seems that a criticism sometimes leveled at the long-running children’s program “Sesame Street” was that its format of short (30 to 60 second) skits and videos (which were designed to engage and hold the childs attention most effectively) actually produced an entire generation of adults with the attention span of a Cocker Spanial.  

In the blog world, that means if you don’t publish every day, your readers forget you exist and wander off to something more interesting, like the American election circus or a MacDonalds commercial. So if you, gentle reader, feel the need to do something more scintillating, like eating a Big Mac, I can hardly blame you: It’s Big Bird’s fault.

So why don’t we write every day, like a good blogger should?

Because we’re tired.  We’ve spent the last four days driving our home along a sometimes narrow, occasionally confusing and not infrequently shallow canal that is never the same two days in a row.  Sand and mud move and flow, marks are moved, barges sweep the banks, and houses and docks are added every day. 8 hours of that and you’re ready for a stiff drink and a long sleep, let me tell you.

Grand Dunes Bridge, Mile 358 of the ICW

So we end up going to sleep about 8:30pm, wake around 6:00am, get underway by 8am, and once the anchor is down, it’s supper, secure the boat for the night and repeat.

But oh, that 8 hours of driving…

Reds to the right – or left. Huh?


I assumed – when we were planning this trip – that the actual travel days on the ICW (or “The Ditch”, as it’s called out here) would be basically boring.  Follow the markers, keep the red ones on the right and the green ones on the left, and try to stay awake.  I was wrong.

First off, I only have one eye working still.  Since we’re moving south, the morning sun is off my left side, which is often pretty blinding, what with the reflection off the water and all. Without. Right eye to fill in, I find that it’s sometimes a it of a challenge to see where we’re going. That’s tiring.

Second, the markers are sometimes confusing, and rarely they are actually wrong.  that’s due to something called “Shoaling”. Shoaling is the movement of mud and sand in the channel, when that loose material from, say, a hurricane, decides to build up right where last week there was a clear channel.  Yes, the Coast Guard is out here putting things back to rights, but that takes time, and the shoals change every day.  It can be pretty tense working your way through some of those changeable areas, and more than once we’ve heard the depth alarm go off, requiring a mad application of reverse and much hissing of “where’d the water go?!” before things are resolved.  At the Shallotte Inlet in North Carolina (mile 330) we actually had to ignore the markers and navigate using advice we received from friends, plus an image Nicki located on the Army Corp of Engineer’s website of the depths – and we still came within 6 inches of grounding before we felt our way through. Whew!

No wonder I’m not sleeping so well some nights. I lie awake replaying the day’s lessons and trying to plan tomorrow’s route…

Sionna going 5.4 knots over dry ground. Cool trick!

Oh, and technology?  Not 100% That’s a picture of the screen on our chart plotter – a nifty little device that projects the GPS position of our boat onto a digital chart.  Hmm… we seem to be sailing over dry land… And at over 6 mph!  This is why you watch the marks first, not the screen.

And finally there’s the trash.  Trees, sticks, floating garbage, sunken boats… They’re all out there, and they’re not fun to meet up-close and personal.  We’re constantly looking for such things, in addition to other boats, barges and markers, and the combined effect is that we get to the end of a day exhausted and ready for a nice rum beverage, a warm meal, and an early bedtime.

So that’s why we don’t write every day.  We’re loving the journey, the experience and the adventure. But sometimes, we just don’t have the energy to get creative at the keyboard.  We hope you understand. 

But you can always watch the election news if you need more stimulation!


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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The Jersey Shore

September 15, 2016

Atlantic side of Sandy Hook, NJ
Beautiful. Over-built. Flat. Vulnerable.

Those are some of the descriptives that come to mind from our last four days, as we’ve made our way down the coast of New Jersey toward Delaware Bay. Beautiful bays, marshes and dunes – and there’s a large, often garish, “what were they thinking” house built on most of them. Or being re-built, as the reconstruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is ongoing.

It must be my country childhood/Maine-based eye that sees it all as just “too much” Too many buildings too close together, too many boats (my God there are a lot of boats!) going way too fast. Faster than any reasonable human should want to go.

And flat. If you grew up here, you probably don’t notice, but the only thing higher than the houses is cell towers and water towers. And probably that’s what makes it feel vulnerable. There’s no shelter from anything meteorological that might happen, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. 

As we’re finding out this morning. Our Monday morning wake-up routine of coffee or tea, an English muffin and talk was rather rudely inturupted by the arrival of a squall from basically out of nowhere. I saw a little rain coming, went back on deck to let out a little more anchor rode “just in case”, and just made it back to the cockpit (almost) when a wall of wind hit us like a brick: 40-45 knots, the anchor chain stretched out straight and the GPS and visual reference points showing Sionna very slowly dragging back from the force of it, plowing a trench in the sand below, but slowing… slowing…

And stopping after 80 feet or so. Meanwhile we’ve started the engine in case it’s needed, and stripped down to minimal clothing in case an “all hands on deck” becomes necessary. Comes a quick break in the rain, I go back to the bow and let out a proper storm-scope of anchor rode.  Then the wind begins to easy, and we begin to breathe…

We had intended to move farther south today, but this isn’t what the forecast was calling for, and now we’re glad we were a little slow getting started today – being out in these narrow canals in that wind would have been a mite tricky. 

Sometimes being lazy is a good thing.


The thing about Inlets…

There are many aspects of our travels along the northeast coast which are memorable in a good way: Incredible sunsets, new bird species to identify and marvel at, great holding for our anchor. 

But perhaps the most memorable thing for us, and the thing we’ve had to learn about by experience, is the currents: The flow of water into and out of this land which is, basically, one big estuary.

On Friday the 16th we sailed from Sandy Hook – at the state’s north-eastern tip – south along the coast to the inlet where the Manasquam River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Now, the Manasquam isn’t very big, as rivers go, and while we’ve read lots of advice about “running an inlet” (as they call going to or from the ocean), and knew in theory to time our transit of the inlet for a slack current, we got there early.  

That’s what sometimes happens when you make pessimistic estimates as a matter of course – sometimes things go much smoother than you expect, and you actually get somewhere – say the Manasquam inlet – 2 hours earlier than expected, and instead of slack water, there’s a current flowing out against you.

But how bad can it be, right?

Bad. Worse than bad. Really awful.

The books are right – don’t arrive early. The ride through the inlet was horrible, with 6-8’ standing waves that made it feel like we were pointing first straight up, then straight down, and slowed our forward progress from 5 knots to less than 2. It felt like it took forever to clear the ¼-mile long inlet, and being passed by powerboats going 15 knots and leaving a churning, tossing wake behind did NOT make it easier. Really? Passing in an inlet? Please!

And no, I’m sorry to say that there are no pictures of the process. I had all three hands and my front teeth on the wheel trying to control a boat, and Nicki was hanging on for dear life and warning me when boats were about to pass us because I didn’t dare try to look behind us myself.

But we made it through safely – if not wisely – and we won’t be putting ourselves in that situation again, even if we are early. 

Inlets, it turns out, really are not to be trifled with. They are memorable in a bad way.

 But then, I’ve heard swans can be pretty nasty too, pretty as they are.


“Storage” – the A to Z Challenge

A2Z-BADGE 2016-smaller_zpslstazvib

“Storage”, in the context of cruising, gets divided into two major sub-issues.

First, there’s the issue of owning a boat, and where you’re going to put it when it’s not in the water. The other quandary is what to do with your “stuff” when you move out of your house/apartment/hovel and onto the boat.

For anyone not familiar with boats, the question of where to put it when it’s not in the water might come as a surprise. I mean, it’s a boat, right?  So… it’s meant to be, like, in the water, right?

Well, yes and no.   At the moment, we live in Maine. We have this thing called “winter” up here, and during the winter water does this weird thing where it gets stiff and sharp and unpredictable…  You can leave a boat in the water here, yes, if it’s a sheltered location, but the risk of damage to the boat is significant, so as a general rule no one does – boats are hauled out when it gets too cold to be comfortable on the water (usually sometime in October, depending on the year) and stored ashore, hopefully under some sort of shelter, or at least a tarp to keep the snow and rain off.  The picture above is of Sionna in our greenhouse-style boatshed. (We closed off the end of the shed after putting her inside.)

But we’re leaving this rental house in July this year, taking Sionna down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to Florida, and next summer will be leaving her in Florida while we come back to Maine to work for the summer.  Oops, storage again!  Where do you put your boat when you’re going to be 1500 miles away for the 5 months of summer?

And what about your stuff? Furniture and clothing and knick-knacks and tools…

That’s where the storage unit picture comes in.  We don’t have a whole lot of stuff, really, (see “D” – Downsizing) but we have some, and we’re hoping we can wedge it all into a 5′ x 10′ storage unit in town. Except for the tools and boat parts, which will be packed into a 7′ x 8′ utility trailer and parked at a friend’s house.  For free – but he gets to borrow my tools any time he wants.

As for Sionna, she’ll be staying in a boat yard in south-central Florida while we’re gone, out of the water, and we’ll be watching the weather forecasts and praying no hurricanes decide to make a Florida landfall.  Cruising does have its share of worries, just like real life.