Thursday, September 15, 2022

Running Up To Beaufort, Part One

To properly start this new season of the Bubba the Pirate Blog, we must start from the end of last season. Here is a story from mid-December, 2021. It was a hell of a send-off for me on my way back to a stint of truckdriving. 

As early as October, Victor and I had thought that our boats would be launched about the same time. We had talked about heading down the river together, and over to Wrightsville Beach. The main obstacle along the way is Snow’s Cut; a man-made canal that connects the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW) coming down from Beaufort to the Cape Fear River. The tidal currents can rip through the cut and since I had done it a few times, and because Victor had just bought his first big boat -- he was keen to follow someone who had done it.

Victor is a youngish guy, an engineer and recently out of college; recently compared to me anyway. The boat he had bought was going to be his home up toward Beaufort, NC, near his job. We had gotten along from our first meeting and he can geek out about diesel engines, electric motors, and general boat stuff, but had lots of questions too. I don't yet qualify as an 'old salt' but I was nearby, and I have a lot of opinions. And I was a hero one day because I was the last person to hit the start button when his engine started.

His boat, a Willard 36 trawler was near my boat in the yard and he came over one day with a question about his diesel. I demurred that I probably wasn't the right guy to ask. We had talked enough previously that he knew I had been a truck driver for a while.

"But you've started a bunch of diesels," he stated with confidence I hardly deserved. "Can you just come have a look?"

So, I wandered over and climbed up into to the shippy-looking old boat and admired its efficient layout. The floor boards in the main salon were all up exposing the engine. Victor hung onto the water intake hose slung into a tub of water and had me gingerly cross the open space to get to the helm station. I pushed the start button a couple times, but didn't get it started. However, he might have been right about my experience because I sensed that it really wanted to start. We agreed on giving it one more try, so I pressed the button with new found confidence and the big John Deere engine roared to life. We all danced around and I got the credit; though all I did was push the button one more time.

Back at the yard last December, I had just figured out that my engine had seized and Ruth Ann wasn’t going to make the trip. Also, the yard had discovered that Victor’s boat had several cracks in its stern tube. We had talked about me crewing for him in lieu of taking Ruth Ann, but I had started to look for a job to pay for a new engine. The stern tube had to be custom made with an uncertain leadtime, and I was preparing to leave town.

I had pushed my luck and stayed nearly longer than was feasible. Hoping against hope that the yard's boom truck would get fixed and my mast raised. Nevertheless, the mast never moved before I headed back to Florida nearly out of money.

The stern tube had suddenly arrived the first Monday of December and the yard was going to install it yet that week. I had 4 or 5 applications out and was waiting for word on a driving job. Helping Victor sounded like great fun, but timing was everything. I was ready, and it was basically necessary for me to jump whenever one of the trucking companies called.

My batteries had to be at 50% state of charge for storage. So, Wednesday that week I disconnected the solar panels and started using up amps that wouldn’t be replaced. Thursday morning Victor’s boat was ready to go and I had the job offer that I wanted. I was headed back to Florida to drive for a good little company that I had worked for before. I knew the people, the system, the equipment, and the schedule. And I knew that I could work for several months and not have to buy a car. And ... I was going to be able to make the trip with Victor!

Truck driver job ads are a bit like used car ads and I have trouble believing anything I read. Going with the devil I knew was an easy decision once my application had been approved down in Groveland, Florida.

As luck would have it, the company sent me to get a drug test at a clinic that was right across the road from a laundromat that I’d been using all along. The nights had been chilly that week so after it warmed up a little, I loaded my laundry into my bike’s saddlebags and rode into town.

After my clothes were in the dryer, I walked over to the clinic, but they were pretty busy. The lady at the desk suggested that I come back in an hour or so. So, I wandered back to the laundry. Once everything was folded and packed back up, I left the saddlebags on an out-of-the-way table and walked back to the clinic.

Victor texted that the yard was ready to launch his boat. I replied that I was stuck in line at the clinic and he should not to wait for me. It crossed my mind that my reply might have sounded a bit churlish but I didn’t think he was prepared to leave without me anyhow.

When I pedaled back into the boatyard, Victor’s Willard was in the slipway, in the water. He beckoned me aboard, so I ditched my stuff and climbed in. The yard guys had helped with a couple final details and we were ready to make a trip -- momentous but only about 20 yards over to the dock. The boatyard is not a marina, it is, in fact, a boatyard. The dock is a fairly large platform but is only used as a place for skippers to stage their boats either on the way in or out of the yard. In fact, we met a couple that evening, who were preparing to bring their boat up the river and had stopped by to check out the facilities.

Friday evening we prepped both boats. I tidied up Ruth Ann and the space around her and gathered my stuff for the trip. I was likely going straight to the bus station from the boat. Two stuffed duffel bags, my book bag with my laptop, and a ukulele were all I had packed to occupy me for the next six months or so. It was just spitting rain when I pitched my duffels to the ground. After climbing down, I hung them on Ruth Ann’s jack stands to stay dry. Back up the ladder, I did a final check and turned off the batteries. When I climbed back down and was thinking it would be best to make two trips over to the dock … I was confronted by an empty jack stand - a missing duffel!

There’s a few of us hanging around the boatyard, so I immediately suspected that someone was messing with me. However, there had also been a guy, occasionally acting a little crazy, who had recently brought his boat to the yard. Sometimes he was more than a little drunk, and other times random things had come up missing around the yard. I had not met the guy yet, so all that was mostly hearsay, but just in case, I decided to pass by where his boat was.

I grabbed my book bag, my ukulele, and the one duffel I still had, and crunched through the gravel across the yard. Around the building, with a flash from my light, there was no car and no activity around the allegedly crazy guy’s boat. Just then, a pebble skittered across the pavement near me.

“Now I know you’re out there,” I said out loud to my unknown nemesis.

I started walking toward the dock as if giving up. Another pebble skipped over the gravel. After a few more steps feigning nonchalance, I spun around, clicked on my flashlight, and spotted Mike -- laughing and lugging my biggest, heaviest bag.

I hadn’t seen Mike in a couple days and I was leaving. After helping Victor get his boat to Beaufort, I was going to catch the bus to Florida to start truckdriving again. It was good to have a chance to shake hands and say ‘see you later’ to Mike, one of my boatyard pals. My bags were packed heavy, hence the two trips idea. After we laughed and shook hands, Mike said with a smile, “well, I’ll walk down to the dock with you but I’m not carrying your stuff.”

Departure Morning Sunrise
So there I was with everything in one trip, but I didn’t mind. We stumbled down to the dock. I shook
Mike's hand again and tossed my stuff down to the boat. Victor’s mom, Cheryl, was aboard with Link, Victor’s big, ol’ sweet dog -- and lots of food. There were several grocery bags, a large cooler, and takeout supper that was filling the boat with delicious smells. She had brought provisions for a battalion.
“Do you think we’ll have enough?” she asked.

Victor arrived and the three of us, and Link, prepared to tuck into the fried chicken, BBQ pork, coleslaw, and hushpuppies Cheryl had brought from Smithfields. We stowed some of the groceries, moved the big cooler, and each found a place to sit down to eat.

“I’ve been on 3 day voyages with less food than what you’ve brought for supper,” I told her with a smile. “I think we’ll be just fine.”

Thursday, August 18, 2022

If It Was Easy ... [ Part 37 ]

We are back to “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” The Universe has been testing me, but I am unassailable. 

It’s been a frustrating week, but it all started fine. “Started” is a funny word, because for the last eight months or so, my week has been six days on, one day off with my “weekend” usually falling on Tuesday. Anyway, on Monday, which is kind of my Friday, I turned in my two week notice. I will soon be done with truckdriving and will be back at the boat by the first week of September. 

I normally would have rolled back into the terminal during the day Monday, had Tuesday off to reset my DOT clocks and run some errands. There is a lot on my mind as I crash toward the end of this round of truckdriving. Apparently, I had failed to email my dispatcher with my requested hometime. This formality has been a little bit more formal with my current dispatcher. Also, I had a slim week because I had spent most of the day Saturday in a truckstop shop getting my trailer fixed. This meant I hadn’t used up all my hours for the week. 

So I got another load rather than being dismissed for the week. Trucking is an unpredictable occupation and I have learned to just roll with it. I had my doubts from the start about this new plan and as expected it got sideways. I picked up a load of cardboard bales and headed toward Georgia again. The unloading at the papermill went faster than expected, and I headed on to Savannah to grab the Walmart load that was going to get me back to Florida.  

Along the way back, I was watching my clock and how many miles I had yet to go. By the time I got near Gainesville, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the delivery and then ‘home.’ I called in, but my dispatcher was at lunch. The load could have dropped at the terminal for someone else to deliver the next day, but the guy I talked to said it was set up for me to take it all the way and offered no options. I didn’t argue. 

What I did do was pull off at Hawthorne, FL - a little early - where I knew I could take a short hike and get some Chinese food. If I was going to take the load all the way, it didn’t matter how far I drove that day. I’d get there at the same time tomorrow one way or the other after taking the required ten hour break. What that meant, however, was that I was going to roll in on Wednesday and have Thursday off; shifting my schedule by two days. 

When I woke on Thursday, I had a lot on my mind. I already have one foot in Navassa, NC next to sv Ruth Ann, my boat. I took off, dropped the load in Brooksville, and headed to the yard in Groveland (“home”). What I should have done somewhere along the way was get some damn fuel!  When I turned the corner in downtown Groveland, the fuel all sloshed to one side of my nearly empty tanks and I got a short buzz to tell me that I was low on fuel. Dang.  

At the yard, I dropped my empty trailer and called my dispatcher. Pete has been very good to me but I was causing us both a problem. He did not have any advice about fueling up as there are no truckstops nearby, but he had me check with the shop. The mechanics could appreciate the silliness I had got myself into, but could not help.  

I’ve been living out of my truck since late December. My whole living space is about two thirds the size of a full size van. I have standing headroom, and the cab is about as wide as a big van, but behind the driver’s seat is a small cabinet and then the bunk. With all the fancy new auxiliary air conditioning for when the truck is stopped, there is nearly no storage under the bunk. I throw my duffel bag on the seat to make room to sleep in the bunk and throw it back on the bunk when I wake in order to drive. And … there’s a ukulele, a laptop, dirty clothes bag, and other supplies that make those hops back and forth too. Under the mattress, are three boxes I bought from the UPS Store so that I could ship some of my cold weather clothes back to North Carolina. I needed longer sleeves until about March, but haven’t worn them since. Hauling less through the Greyhound station in a couple weeks will be nice, but that stuff is not getting shipped this weekend. 

I couldn’t rely on what little fuel I had to run the auxiliary a/c for 34 hours on my weekend. I also needed that puddle of fuel to make it to a truckstop to get more. The shop thought that I had about enough fuel to get to the nearest truckstop. The other pressing issue was that I had about 55 minutes left of the 70 hours I’m allowed to drive in a week. The truck can’t move without the computer knowing it and there is no wiggle room for goofy personal problems. After evaluating my options, I made a snap decision. Back in the empty lot, the only trailer available was the one I had just dropped. Empty trailers are often worth their carrying capacity in gold. I always need one to move about, empty or not. 

The guard at the gate eyed me curiously as I dragged the same trailer out that I had just brought in. “It’s a long story,” I said as she checked my lights and my permits. Pausing in the driveway, I quickly typed a message to Pete. I was headed to the Pilot Truckstop in Wildwood to get some fuel and spend my 34 hour weekend. It was a slightly dumpy, older Pilot, but it was home … until late Thursday. However, there was no laundry and not a grocery store in sight. I’ll make up for missing my weekend errands on the road after I get moving again. 

svRuth Ann Awaits
All this goofy drama trying to get to my weekend is not unlike my life trying to get to sea.I have been frustrated. I’ve been blocked and bamboozled, but I’ve kept going. I’ve rolled with it for fifteen years and four boats. Things have not gone the way I thought they would; the way I had hoped. It’s been harder, more expensive, and sillier than I could have ever imagined. But I’m still here – still doing it. I will not be turned away! I am already detached from the expectations and the faux authority of normal life on land. For fifteen years, I have been living on my own terms. It has not always been what I wanted it to be, but it has always been headed toward my goal: living aboard and wandering around the Caribbean Basin by sail.

I have no fear of life or death. I have done my best and I am satisfied. If all goes according to plan, I will be sailing before Halloween. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

And Then It Went Bad, just as fast

My last post was called "It All Happened So Fast ... ," as in a good thing. As of last week, it all kinda went bad, unexpectedly and just as quickly.

I had a running joke with Hung Su, one of the senior clergy at the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple. During one of our Thursday morning discussion group sessions, I confessed that I didn’t think that I was a very good Buddhist. With a wry smile, Hung Su reminded me that the Buddha taught that there was no such thing as good or bad, but that thinking made it so. I shot back with my own wry smile that he was proving my point. In much the same way, I’m probably a little better mechanic than I ever claim to be, but I am now confronted with a catastrophic, plan-altering problem with Ruth Ann’s Yanmar diesel. And it may not have anything to do with my skill level as a diesel mechanic. The short version of the curious problem is that I should be able to turn the crankshaft of the engine, but I can’t. And(!) the propeller shouldn’t turn easily when the transmission is in gear  …  but it does. Somewhere between the engine and the gearbox something has gone terribly wrong. And none of the diesel experts around here can explain how such a thing could happen. 

So, if I contributed to this tragedy it was that I’ve been ignoring the engine. I’ve had lots and lots of other things to do during Ruth Ann’s refit. But obviously, I should have paid it a little more attention. Nevertheless, when I brought the boat here from Little River, a trip of about 65 miles, the engine never coughed, never hiccuped, never smoked or made any unusual sounds. It ran like a champ; and I pushed it real hard the first day. That story is here.

I actually moved the boat in July 2019, but I went right back to Michigan to finish helping my Dad. It was March of 2020 when I finally returned to Navassa, NC where Ruth Ann was waiting for me. I started work on getting her into ‘Bristol’ shape and making her mine. It was a lot. There was so much wire in the boat, much of it no longer even in use, that I spent a couple weeks tearing out wire before I had the space to run new wire through the nooks, crannies, and wireways. I took out the tank and toilet of the old system and installed a composting head. Six thruhulls were removed, some by brute force, and new ones installed. One thruhull was no longer necessary and after some grinding and glassing that hole was shut. By far, however, the most hours (many, many) were spent grinding out and repairing blisters on Ruth Ann’s hull. I probably fixed more than I needed to, but I had become obsessed. I was insulted by the mere presence of the blisters. I never had the heart to actually count them, but there were hundreds of blisters. I must have spent two months on the whole process. Nevertheless, I am super proud of how the hull looks today. Most people, even fellow salty sailors, would have no idea how the hull looked before I completed those repairs. Her hull is smooth as a peach and the hull story starts here.

And then COVID hit. For a good while, I never left except to run into town to grab a few provisions or boat parts and supplies. A lot of boatwork got done. After a while though, money was getting a little tight but also the world had changed and my original plan wasn’t such a good fit. 

My plan had been to invest whatever it took to get Ruth Ann rigged for cruising off-the-grid for long stretches of time. I was going to cut it close with my personal capital but after getting the boat in the water, I planned to find some work to refill my cruising budget. With millions of people suddenly out of work, I could no longer be certain that I could find a fill-in job when I needed one. It was time to reevaluate the plan, so I decided to go back on the road for a while, make a little money, and hide out from the pandemic. I was back behind the wheel in late June. 

After a time, things seemed to settle down in the world and I was itching to get back to my boat. So last April after about 10 months, I quit the trucker life again and came back to North Carolina. Reunited with Ruth Ann, I got right back to work. Solar panels and lithium batteries were installed; the mast was pulled and rewired; new navigation lights were installed, and the Dyneema rig I had made was prepped for when the mast went back up.

I could have given the engine a little love along the way. I could have turned the crankshaft a few times. However, I did not have a starting battery or the cooling water connections hooked up, so running the engine was not an option. When I finally got around to servicing the engine, it all began fine. I replaced the fuel filter and bled the fuel line; then replaced the oil filter, the impeller, and the belts. When I tried to start the engine, however, all I got was one loud clunk from the solenoid …. and nothing else. I started troubleshooting; checked the wiring, and tested the starter and the solenoid. The battery was brand new and checked out fine, but when I tried to turn the crankshaft I realized that I had problems. The crankshaft should turn easily. It didn’t. 

A boatyard neighbor had resurrected an engine that had seized from sitting and so I followed his advice. I pulled the injectors from the top of the engine and poured “Metal Rescue” into the cylinders. They soaked for two days, but nothing changed. I tried adding PB Blaster. I got a breaker bar to assist the socket wrench … and nothing. Big trouble. Trouble that was killing my schedule. In a cruel irony, I was counting on moving south and then finding some work -- again. Getting Ruth Ann back in the water was going to use up most of the money I had made this last summer. 

My inventory project was done and I was out of work. I thought I was going to be in the water by the first or second week of November … and then this. All I’ve had to do was work on the engine and haven’t had to buy much in supplies, but my money wasn’t going to last. I have no debt, so I can bet on my plans and push my limits, but when the plans start to not work out, it gets a little sticky. Luckily, I recently got a little help from a friend.

“Another man might have been angry. Another man might have been hurt.”

     -Harry Chapin

One would think that maybe I would get the hint and stop chasing this dream; sell the boat or light it on fire. Y’all have heard me say, more than once, that I’d rather be lucky than good. Frustration was setting in, of course, and I was flabbergasted that the one thing that could hold me back was, in fact, holding me back. But after a few deep breaths and a cuss word or two, the magic started to happen. 

The land pirate who bought my campervan had an engine for sale from a sailboat he had owned. His engine was a different brand from mine but it was just the right size; mine was 15 horsepower, his is sixteen. Repowering with a different brand engine is certainly possible, but it would have to include some engineering and modifications to the motor mounts and likely the propeller shaft as well. Along the way, I had kept Sam, the boatyard owner, up to date on my troubles. He kept trying to sell me a motor out of an orphaned sailboat in the yard; a thirty horsepower motor he said. All I could think was that his engine would burn more fuel and probably wouldn’t fit into my boat anyway. Sam is a card and he kept bugging me about the deal I could get on his motor. 

Finally, one night last week, I dragged my ladder across the boatyard and leaned it against the orphaned boat which is right next to a friend’s boat. I explained to the friend that I had to crawl into that boat so that I could tell Sam that his engine wouldn’t fit. After chatting for a while, it was getting dark, so I excused myself and climbed aboard. I slid back the hatch, removed the washboards, and climbed down the rickety steps into the dank cabin. I slipped the barrel latch and pulled open the door to peer into the engine compartment. I twisted my little Maglite to light the space, blinked, rubbed my eyes, and stared in amazement at the model tag on the motor. I retreated back into the cockpit, closed the hatches, and stumbled back to my boat; ladder in hand, shaking my head. 

The next morning I caught Sam in the office. 

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” I said, smiling.

“You’re finally leaving,” Sam teased. 

“Bad news is I’m fairly certain that your engine is not thirty horsepower,” I continued, ignoring his poking at me. “The good news is it is identical to mine. I want to work out a deal on that engine and maybe those winches in the cockpit too.” 

We made a handshake agreement, right then and there. 

But …

I like to play with my cards out on the table. No bluffs. No hidden agendas. Sam probably already knew, but I told him that I could not buy that engine just then. Regardless, our deal is good for both of us even if I have to go back to work for a while in order to afford it. I will help strip the orphaned boat and prep it to be crushed and sent to the landfill. For that I will get a good price on an engine that will drop into my boat onto the existing motor mounts. I have already turned that engine’s crankshaft and it turns so smoothly, without effort that I can hardly stand it. Along with the engine, I’m going to get a couple nice self-tailing winches, a couple sails, and a matching clock and barometer. 

My mast is still on sawhorses but I want to get it back on the boat before I start working again. With the mast out of the way it won’t get bumped or knocked over, but it will also be easier for the boatyard to move Ruth Ann while I’m gone if they need my spot. 

And about that back-to-work part, I’m going to go back out on the road for six months so that I can afford to buy that engine. The slightly tarnished silver lining is that I should also be able to buy a watermaker when I return. A watermaker was the one missing component in my off-the-grid plan. Once I have one, teamed up with my solar panels and lithium batteries, I will be able to make my own freshwater from seawater. Without having to find a marina or other source of water, I will be able to stay out sailing for very long periods. 

This new situation sucks, but it also doesn’t. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I’ve basically been living on the boat since I sold The Moose, my campervan, and I know that this is the life for me; living aboard is where I belong. 

Please note: this blog will be inactive and my Patreon page will be suspended until I get back to Ruth Ann next June. I will be working on my book and might post a preview here. 

See y’all soon. Thanks for your support. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

It Happened So Fast ...

The Moose and me on the road

It’s such a dime novel cliche but it all happened so fast. I knew it was all coming, but then it buzzed on by, and I was sitting on my boat wondering where I was going to put everything. To back up, I’ve been working for three months at a construction equipment rental company. Last Saturday (10/23) was the big inventory and my work was done. It was a success. Not only did my bosses predict multiple rounds of variance checking - and there were only two - but the outside crew’s count was so close to mine that the managers decided to accept the count and be done with it.

And then suddenly the guy who had put a deposit on the campervan was back in town and we consummated the deal. The Moose and I had been together a long time. It was the end of an era and a little daunting, but I had spent the previous couple days moving out of the van and cleaning it up. The morning my buyer was coming, I finally caught up with the owner of the boatyard and cleared that I could stay on the boat for a couple weeks before the launch.

Ironically, I’ve joked that my little ship was going to feel luxurious because compared to the cramped living in a campervan for so long. However, the first few days I was “living aboard” it was damn crowded. It took a while to find a place to stow everything. The stowing was often complicated by all the stuff that had to be moved to get to the lockers where other stuff could be stowed. 
Getting Near Livable

It has now been about five days. Life is good and the boat is much more liveable. In fact, tonight I’ll finally get back to the double bunk to sleep. For now, Ruth Ann could sleep three. In the future maybe four, but I’ve got some more organizing to do.

Yesterday, I ran some of the last wire needed inside the cabin. When the mast goes up, I’ll have a little more wire to run from the mast to the panel that controls the navigation lights. By then, most all my electrical stuff will be done. I also need to pull my outboard out of the trailer to check it over and test start it. I didn’t get any gasoline while I had wheels, so I’ll have to bum a ride into town.

The best story -- just my luck -- was about the impeller for Ruth Ann’s diesel engine. I ordered a service kit for the Yanmar; a 2GM20F. It came last week with oil and fuel filters, a couple belts, and an impeller. While I was moving aboard, I found a few parts in a drawer that I was going to use for flatware and kitchen gadgets. Curiously, there was an impeller in the drawer that was exactly the same size as the one that came with the service kit. The only difference was the way they connected to the shaft. The Yanmar impeller had a slot for a key, while the one marked “Johnson Pumps” had a pin across the inside diameter. I googled “johnson pumps” and saw shower sumps and wash down pumps; used to clean your deck or anchor chain. I figured there must have been some other pump on the boat previously that wasn’t there now.

So … I threw it out.

Now, I am a pack rat, but ratpacking is my main problem right now as I try to fit all my crap on the boat. In trying to be brave and reform myself, as soon as I understood that I didn’t need that other impeller, I got rid of it. It felt like a little victory … for a while.

I had procrastinated servicing the engine because I don’t have mechanical confidence. Nevertheless, I find that  once I get started, I realize that I know more than I think I do. I can do OK when I need to. So, I changed the fuel filter, bled the line, then changed the oil filter and finally got around to the water pump. Yanmar makes tractors and all kinds of other equipment, so things are not always convenient on a boat. The water pump faces the engine and must be removed to get at the impeller.

I gently coaxed a couple bolts that hadn’t moved in a long time and got the water pump removed. When I turned the damn thing over it said “Johnson Pumps” on the coverplate! I removed the cover and confirmed my fresh fear that the Yanmar water pump had been replaced with a Johnson one. The impeller I had thrown away a few days before was the one I actually needed. The supply company couldn’t have known if I didn’t know, but I don’t have a Yanmar water pump.  Oy!

Today (Monday, 11/1) was laundry day. In my new human- and wind-powered life, that meant loading up the pannier bags (saddle bags for the bike) with as much laundry as I thought I could carry and riding into town. The trip is about nine miles there and back, but it was a pleasant trip actually. I hit the hardware store and the grocery while I was in town for a few things that would fit with my clean clothes. I grabbed some lunch while the dryers were going, folded, packed and headed back to the boatyard. Tomorrow, I’ll do it all over again for a more serious grocery run. Then I’ll be done for a while. The last grocery run lasted me more than a week.

If you’d like to be one of the first to know, one of the first to celebrate with me, when Ruth Ann and I are back in the water, consider becoming a Patron at the link above to Patreon. Even a buck or two a month makes a huge difference. Patrons get early access to the blog, along with other perks like BtP swag, occasional live chats, and sneak peaks at the book I’m writing. There will be a Live Patron Event online during and after the launch, as technology and bandwidth allow. Thanks to everyone for their support. 

Friday, October 22, 2021

Superstitious Mine

I don’t have many superstitions on land, but I have a few around the sea. Occasionally, I make fun of old sailors’ superstitions by participating in them. Other times, it feels more serious than I’d like to admit. I may have told a version of this first story back in 2014, but it’s a good segue into a tale about last weekend. 

In 2013, I had been working on my first boat for about six years and I was really burnt out. Late in the year, I had a heart-opening conversation with a good friend. She gave me the vocabulary that I needed to give myself permission to move on; to give up the boat project I had started with. The traumatic process of letting that first boat go is described in this post

Of course, a sailor is always looking at boats; especially a boatless sailor. Way sooner than I had expected or planned, I found a great boat at a good price. That boat was Bella, an Albin Vega. The story of buying Bella is here. I had found her on Craigslist, went and looked at her in a freezing cold Wisconsin barn in December, and worked out a deal to buy her with a little help from a wonderful friend. When the snow and ice finally melted, I was able to get some time off work to go back to Wisconsin and bring her home. That finally brings us to the superstitions. 

I had owned the boat starting in mid-winter. The Winter Storage bill had been paid, so all I had to do was wait until it was warm enough to go see her again. During that time, I started obsessing about her name. Bella was nice, but it didn’t connect with me at first. I started making lists -- and lists -- of potential names. I’m mostly Irish so I looked up salty names and phrases in Gaelic. I considered Spanish and Portuguese names for some reason. Of course there were options in English, but also in Ojibwe. I fretted and deliberated on many, many potential names. It became a problem; an addiction. While I waited to go get my boat, I had nothing more to do than to grind and grind my brain about her name. 

It felt especially important for me to decide on the name before I went back to retrieve her. I was never sure how superstitious I actually was (still not sure), but I knew that I would have been pushing my luck if I had sailed her across the Lake as "Bella" and then changed her name. It needed to be settled before I launched her again. That was my rationale in deference to Posiedon, Ruler of the Seas.

In the end, I gave up. I had wound myself so tightly about her name that I eventually snapped. I decided to just keep the name. It was a good name; “beauty” in Italian. It also fell in line with my two rules about boat names. First, a boat name should be easy to say and to understand over the radio. And second, the story behind the name can’t be too cute or too convoluted. You will likely be asked many times, “so how did you come to name her that?” The story has to be one that you can stand to tell perhaps several times a day whenever you are with the boat. In keeping the original name my story was abbreviated to simply “that was her name when I bought her.”

When May came around and the snow was gone, I got back to Wisconsin, back to the storage barn, crawled inside to survey my little ship … and nearly fell over at what I found. I had not noticed back on that chilly day in December, but above the door into the forward area of the boat was a small plaque. It was a thin rectangle of metal, laser-cut with the name “Bella” in script. If I had changed her name and attempted to remove that little plaque -- for certain there would have been two screw holes left in the wood, but also, and most likely, the shadow of “Bella” would have been a permanent mark in the finish. Surely the varnish on the door frame had faded over time, but the rectangle and “Bella” was protecting the finish underneath. Superstitious or not, to some degree or more, I would have been completely shaken by the bad precedent of the old name remaining aboard. Further, I didn’t have time to sand and refinish the frame before leaving. 

If you’d like to read the story of meeting Bella again, prepping her, and crossing Lake Michigan without an engine, that story starts here. Click on “Newer Post” at the bottom of each page to get the whole story.

I was happy to have kept the name “Bella” and perhaps to have kept myself and my little ship in the good graces of Poseidon, Davy Jones, and Old Hob. [ certainly not the words of a skeptic ]

That brings me to this last weekend. 

I had ordered vinyl graphics for sv Ruth Ann; her name and hailing port. And after hanging them in different spots and deciding on the best location, I cleaned the hull and applied them. Ruth Ann is a U.S. Coast Guard Documented Vessel, so her name must be in letters four inches tall. I think that that is supposed to apply to the hailing port as well but I had some spacing problems. “Ruth Ann,” just seven letters and a space, is too wide for my transom at four inches tall. I have a windvane mounted at the center and a swim ladder to port, so I only have the transom’s starboard half for her name and hailing port. What I decided to do was put “Ruth Ann” on each forward quarter in 4” high letters, but put “Ruth Ann, Detroit, Mi” in two lines on the transom in letters sized to fit. I think I will be all right. 

After I had emblazoned her name on the topsides, I confirmed that there was no evidence of the old name aboard. Then last Friday night, I caught Mike, one of my boatyard friends, and we walked out to the dock on the river. I had a slip of paper with the old name written on it and a pint of Wild Turkey. Bourbon has become my traditional boat christening liquid and Wild Turkey has been my bourbon for a long while. I’m not really a champagne kind of guy and the boats I’ve owned are not champagne boats either. I poured a shot for Mike and one for Poseidon (I only had two shot glasses). I raised a glass and said:  

“Poseidon, Ruler of the Seas, I beseech thee. My little boat has had many names; the last being neither proper nor fitting for a sailing ship such as her. Please strike that name from your ledger as I will be christening her in honor of my mother and grandmother in the coming weeks. Please keep an eye on my boat and I as we travel your waters.”

And with that, I heartily pitched a shot of Wild Turkey 101 into the Cape Fear River. And then I slipped the paper and the old name into the water to dissolve in the river on its way to the sea. Finally, I poured a shot for myself and another for Mike. We may have had a few more right there on that peaceful night. 

The water here is brackish, a mix of freshwater and salt, and very much connected to the sea. The Atlantic’s tidal currents come all the way here; 35 miles or so upstream. The river actually flows backward at the peak of the flooding tide and races a little faster when the tide is in full ebb. The river will carry the drink and the stricken name straight to Poseidon himself. 

It’s no secret that the boat’s most recent name was “Afraid Knot;” a name altogether too cute and too corny for a proper sailboat. Such a name is befitting only of a lowly, prosaic powerboat. I’ll have no reason to speak of such a name any longer. 

So … was I playing with an old sailor’s superstition? making fun? or was I taking it all very seriously? I don't know what to tell you, but I do know that the first time through, I had forgotten the piece of paper and had go get it in order to do it all over again to make sure that all was right with Poseidon. Sounds pretty superstitious to me. 

Here’s to old sailboats and oak barrel-aged whiskey.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Struggles, Schmuggles

Post Road Trip, loaded bags.

I don’t deserve this bike, but that is getting way ahead of the story. 

It turned out to be kind of ironic that I was working on a blog post about my struggle and all that it can take to dump a career and get a boat set up for off-the-grid travel on the water. I started working on a piece about self sabotage, but it had transformed into a curious review of my project. “Fourteen years and four boats” was the opening line. It all seems a little ridiculous. I can’t decide if I’m a special kind of stupid or a special kind of stubborn or whether I have been on the right track all along. It’s probably a combination of all three, but I wouldn’t want to weigh out how much of each is in there. 

I’ve been through all of the classic self sabotage routines. Procrastination. Time wasting. Burn Out. Distractions. Etc.  Luckily, it had gotten bad enough for me that I could recognize it. Many people suffer from self sabotage without ever realizing that they are doing it to themselves. 

I’ve actually been lucky even after all these years. I’ve learned an awful lot and I’ve done some great sailing too. It was especially lucky that I decided to cash out my 401(k) in 2007. I literally bought that first boat with my so-called retirement funds mere months before the 2008 crash and Great Recession. I had cashed out for a greater purpose, a righteous quest, just before I would have lost a lot of dollar value. 

I got bogged down on that project but I did some good work and she taught me some things. I’ve made better decisions each time from the knowledge I gained on the previous boat. Money, in dollars, is not even the point. I don’t consider that I made an investment in a boat; that’s a fool’s errand. What I’ve done is invested in myself; in the lifestyle I want and in my own skills through the medium of those four boats. 

The luckiest bit of all was in 2018, when my mom got sick, that I could pack up and go home to help. If I had managed to already have had a boat in the water at that time, the logistics of heading home would have been much more complicated. It was a precious privilege to have spent so much time with Mom in her last few months. I had had a boat in Florida, but it was not very close to completion. I simply tarped that boat and left. I spent the rest of that summer in Michigan; precious time with Dad and did a little sailing too. In the end, I managed to sell the Florida project as the opportunity to acquire Ruth Ann came up. 

That special kind of stubbornness showed up today. Stubbornness that kept me going and helped me solve a problem. I was on my way to the temp job, had stopped for gas, and then was only a couple miles away when I heard my serpentine belt go. The Alternator Light came on immediately. I was coming to a stop in the left turn lane of a red stoplight when it had happened. When I got the green arrow, I quickly realized that I also had no power steering. And then the temperature gauge started climbing. Going on into work was no longer an option. The lumberyard where I was working is way out in the country with a gate and a long driveway that would have complicated any recovery of the van if it wouldn’t start at the end of the day. I drove right by the yard and called in at both the shop where I was headed and the temp agency. 

I kept my eye on the temperature gauge except when I was wrestling the steering wheel around a corner. On the small stretch of unavoidable freeway, I had my hazard lights flashing at first, but  was able to sneak up to 55 miles per hour in the cool morning air without pushing the temperature out of the ‘normal’ range. When the Moose and I coasted down the long hill toward the Navassa exit, the temperature went down significantly. I crept down Royster Road to the boatyard where all my tools were. As the gate slowly opened, I noticed that the morning sun was shining through a couple trees that stand over the dock. Of course, I had to stop and grab a picture. Then I lurched over to where sv Ruth Ann sits and backed into my usual spot. 

I plugged the campervan in right away because the battery charger tops up both the house bank and the starting battery. The side windows were still down, so I tried to restart the van, but it struggled. The windows closed with just the dwindling battery power. The engine needed to cool before I could do any diagnosis, so I opened the hood and let it rest while I cleaned up my bike. I was going to need the bike.  

My poor bike has been neglected for over a year. I used it a little last summer, but it spent a long time chained to a fence in the driver parking area of a truck terminal. The poor thing has been chained to the tongue of my tool trailer since about April. I am ashamed of how I have neglected this bike. A flowering vine of some kind had nearly swallowed it. That morning I hacked back all the vegetation and then cleaned up and greased up the bike to make up for my neglect. The front tire checked out fine, but I needed to replace the rear tube as there were a couple leaky patches on it already.

When I decided that the engine was cool enough, I started poking around. To my amazement it wasn’t the belt at all. In fact, the belt was still in one piece and not in too bad of shape under the hood. The belt tensioner pulley bearings had failed and the plastic wheel spun until it melted … and fell off!!  I found the gnarled pulley caught in the front end suspension; it had made the trip all the way home. 

I started checking online and dug up the Haynes manual that I had. The Moose is a campervan built on a Ford E250 work van chassis. All the relevant mechanical information is the same. The manual wasn’t a great help other than the names and locations of parts. YouTube wasn’t that much better, but it’s probably not YouTube’s fault. My campervan is a 1994; 27 years old. Many of the videos were about more recent model vans and, of course, since 1998 or so the belt tensioner design had changed significantly. Nevertheless, I was able to glean some solid information and confidence. The most helpful video was actually about an F150 pickup truck about the same age as The Moose.


If you had asked me two weeks ago -- hell, four days ago -- to point at the belt tensioner, I would have been stumped. I knew what a belt tensioner did, but I didn’t know exactly where it was on this engine. I had never needed to be too deep under the hood of The Moose. I know now! 

With more than a little apprehension, I started looking around online for a belt tensioner. Last fall when I was having transmission trouble and a funny noise, a local Florida shop quoted me almost $900 for replacing the belt tensioner and something else. I’m curious to find that paperwork because in my memory the tensioner was the majority of the $900. The other thing, which I don’t remember clearly, was actually a misdiagnosis of something else that was fixed when the rebuilt transmission was replaced. I haven’t been having any belt problems and I kind of ignored that recommendation because the other recommendation was faulty. 

The Auto Zone website said that a belt tensioner was in stock locally but I called to make sure. They indeed had a couple in stock and plenty of belts too. And for way less money than I had feared. At the boatyard, the crew were just arriving and starting their day. My other friends who are working on their boats here weren’t around yet that early. I wasn’t going to wake someone or pull someone from their job for what really wasn’t an emergency, so I turned to the bike. It was going to be an adventure; and a good story. I don’t think I ever biked into town last year, but I always meant to. The pannier bags were in the back of the van, in the shower actually which I use for storage. The bike was clean and ready to go. And it looked great with the bags on again. I was off. 

On my way past the office, Sam, the owner of the boatyard, had just arrived. 

“Good morning,” I yelled as I pedalled on by.

“Alright!” he answered enthusiastically.

It’s four miles to the Auto Zone from the boatyard and it was a pleasantly cool morning. I waited for the light at Village Road, then swung around behind the Walgreens, and locked the bike in front of the parts store. No sense in making it easy for someone to grab. The Auto Zone guys were great and it turned out that I could buy just the pulley rather than the whole belt tensioner mechanism. I bought a new belt as well. Another half mile down the road was a Food Lion and I had a grocery list too just in case I was stuck at the boatyard all weekend. 

As I came around the corner of the grocery store, I noticed that Brodee Dogs was open. With COVID and the economy and all, Brodee hadn’t been open much when I was around in town. I hadn’t had a dog since last year. It was about lunchtime by then, so -- hey -- this how we do up car repair around here: I stopped for lunch. I had a Tarheel Dog and a Gaelic Ale from Highland Brewing in Asheville, NC. The Gaelic Ale was a rich, full bodied Amber Ale and was so good that I didn’t even get a picture of the Tarheel dog; one of my favorites. After a dog and a beer, I grabbed some groceries, packed them up, and pedalled back out to the boatyard. It was about a nine mile round trip, but the Gaelic Ale in the middle made it an enjoyable ride on a beautiful day. 

The belt tensioner pulley went on very quickly; almost anticlimactically. I had a bit of fun running the new serpentine belt over and around 7 or 8 pulleys and getting it seated and tensioned. Nevertheless, the van started right up and purred as usual without heating up. Success! 

The Load, 2 bags worth

My whole boat project story has been a bit like that day. Escaping ‘the system’ is actually harder than it seems. With some regularity, an obstacle shows up unexpectedly and must be dealt with or fixed. These obstacles can lead right into self sabotage modes. They can cause a cascade of burnt out feelings or, in many cases, become a rich source of distraction and procrastination. It takes some discipline to think “all right, I’m going to fix this properly but as quickly as possible and get right back to my project.” I am so close now to the life that I want that even a belt tensioner pulley failure can’t slow me down much. Further, I’ve exchanged emails with the temp agency, told them that I had fixed the van, and I am still on to work at the lumberyard next week.

It’s another one of those quirky things about doing whatever I need to do to get off-the-grid. Mondays and Tuesdays, I am in a button down workshirt consulting on inventory issues, developing policy ideas, and often working for hours in their computer system. The rest of the week, in t shirt, jeans, leather gloves, and a sun hat, I am grunt labor schlepping lumber around the county; hand-unloading it and carrying it across lumpy, dirty job sites. It’s great exercise actually.  

Now ... back to boatwork.

If you’d like to be one of the first to know, one of the first to celebrate with me, when Ruth Ann and I are back in the water, consider becoming a Patron at the link above to Patreon. Even a buck or two a month makes a huge difference. Patrons get early access to the blog, along with other perks like BtP swag, occasional live chats, and sneak peaks at the book I’m writing. There will be a Live Patron Event online during and after the launch, as technology and bandwidth allow. Thanks to everyone for their support. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Over and Under Bridges

The GW

For a time while I was truckdriving, I delivered office furniture; not like a mover but new stuff by the truckload. West Michigan has a history of building furniture and a lot of office furniture is still produced there. New York City is the office capital of the world, home to many furniture buyers, and always an adventure in a semi. Many drivers were reluctant to take those Big Apple furniture loads, so the company paid a $250 incentive bonus just for crossing the George Washington Bridge. I made several trips into the city. It’s funny how that $250 sounded like a good deal all the way across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but as soon as I was near that bridge, it wasn’t such a good deal at all. Long Island loads were the best because I got the bonus for crossing the bridge even though I passed over Yonkers and escaped to the wider spaces beyond. 

I don’t know why anyone would want to drive a car in New York City, let alone a big truck. And yet, I’ve been into Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Staten Island, and even to Manhattan many times driving a semi pulling a fifty three foot trailer. It was never boring. I’ve been in wall-to-wall traffic on Broadway and witnessed a fire truck slowly wrestling it’s way through, sirens blaring. Somewhat bemused at first, I watched the mayhem as people tried to move their cars enough to make a little room. After a few minutes, however, it occurred to me that there was a fire somewhere! As you might imagine, when I was able to sail under the George Washington Bridge and observe the incessant buzz and chaos of the Big Apple from the water -- that was a special day for me.

Bridge on Lost Lake Trail

I’ve always had an affection for bridges. I’m not sure when it started but it likely got a boost as a kid camping with my grandparents at Ludington State Park in Michigan. In the park, the Lost Lake Trail ran from the campground over several tiny islands on the western shore of Lake Hamlin. I haven’t been back to the park in many years, but back in the day the trail was very special. It had been built by the Conservation Corps during the Depression. Wooden walkways hovered over the marsh areas and gloriously quirky bridges of log and plank jumped between islands. We often got roused early for a morning hike with Granddad; each kid equipped with their own Dixie Cup. Toward the far end of the trail was a large patch of wild blueberries. We all came back with a cup full of blueberries, smiling through berry-stained teeth while trudging over quaint little bridges. Grandma was waiting at the campsite to make a spectacular batch of wild blueberry pancakes. 

I don’t remember the first time I saw the Mackinac Bridge but every kid from Michigan feels they own a part of it. I’ve lived and/or worked near many iconic bridges: the Ambassador in Detroit, and the Sunshine Skyway, the Gandy, the Howard Frankland, and the Courtney Campbell Causeway all in Tampa Bay. And, of course, the George Washington, Throgs Neck, the Whitestone, Verrazzano Narrows, and the Goethals; most of the NYC bridges that allow trucks. 

Foggy Ohio River

More recently, I’ve had a love affair with the bridge that crosses the Ohio River at Ravenswood, West Virginia. The William S. Ritchie Jr. Bridge is a beautiful example of a cantilever bridge; recently painted, shiny, and proud. During my truckdriving years, any load going from Michigan to Richmond, Charlotte, Charleston, or even Savannah, took me across the Ohio River at Ravenswood. I often stopped to take a picture. My favorite pic, though my eyes are closed, might be from when I stopped there with Dad. We were on the way to check on my boat after a hurricane. I had been fretting in Michigan while Dorian had gotten a little close to Wilmington.  

Dad and me at Ravenswood

As I finish my boatwork and get ready to set sail, I’ve been practically living under another bridge. The L. Bobby Brown Bridge carries I-140 over the Cape Fear River. The bridge also looms over the dock at the boatyard where Ruth Ann currently abides. The boatyard is fairly remote and the modern concrete span of this bridge bursts out of the piney riverbanks like some alien structure. It makes for an interesting contrast when the sky is awash with sunset colors. 

The Wilmington area rivers are somewhat counterintuitive. The Cape Fear River comes up to Wilmington from the Atlantic; right into downtown. The river seems to continue on past the city to the Northeast. There is also a smaller river that comes in from the west right across from the downtown Riverwalk. When I brought Ruth Ann to the boatyard, I came up the river into Wilmington. Downtown was on my right and the Battleship North Carolina on the left, when I turned up that smaller river to get to Navassa. I don’t know the history or the reason, but the smaller river is actually the continuation of the Cape Fear River. It wanders to the northwest through the wilderness, up through Fayetteville, and on to Jordan Lake just south of Chapel Hill. The larger river that seems contiguous with the flow out to sea is called the Northeast Cape Fear River once it passes Wilmington. The Northeast Cape Fear does a good amount of wandering too, but peters out somewhere northwest of Buelaville, NC; not near as far north as the Cape Fear gets. 

The L Bobby Brown

When I am headed to work lately, I get on I-140 at Cedar HIll Road and cross the Cape Fear right away. Then I cross the Northeast Cape Fear before I get to my exit into to the city for work. It is a glorious way to start my workdays. The sun is just coming up and painting the sky in pinks and oranges every single day. The Cape Fear River snakes through the cordgrass marshes toward Wilmington, glowing like liquid topaz as the morning light fills in. Then crossing the Northeast Cape Fear, the limbless, naked, swamp-dead cedars stand in uneven rows on the far bank. In the morning stillness, the trees are perfectly reflected in the flat calm river like an old comb; not quite evenly spaced, not all perfectly vertical. It’s frustrating that I can’t take a picture for you, but over the rivers and the marshlands, the highway is basically a continuous bridge for the first five or six miles. There is too much morning traffic and not enough shoulder to pause for a quick snap. Trust me though, it’s better than coffee to get your day on track. 

CSX Bascule Bridge, Navassa

Ruth Ann and I will be back on the water in Late September or Early October. We will launch just south of that bridge and head away further south. We won’t go under, but I will salute the bridge that I’ve been enjoying for a couple years now. Around the bend, downriver from the boatyard is an ancient bascule bridge operated with sauntering southern grandeur by the CSX Railroad. Coming up the river in July 2019, I circled below the bridge for quite awhile waiting for the bridgetender to actually open it. He has to walk across the bridge to close a safety gate before raising the span. You would think he had nothing on his mind but the stroll as he ambled across, shut the gate, and ambled back. He disappeared into the bridgehouse and it was several minutes before the bridge creaked and groaned. The counterweights finally quivered and began to move. I thanked him anyway as I knew I would be back the other way sometime.

Next month after reaching Wilmington, I’ll go back under the Memorial Bridge downtown and head down the river. It’s then we’ll actually be on our way. I’m either going to head straight out into the Atlantic and then up toward the Chesapeake or, more likely, I’ll sneak through Snow’s Cut ‘north’ on the ICW to Wrightsville Beach and spend a few days sailing and adjusting the rig and sails before sailing on.

If you’d like to be one of the first to know, one of the first to celebrate with me, consider becoming a Patron at the link above to Patreon. Even a buck or two a month makes a huge difference. Patrons get early access to the blog, along with other perks like BtP swag, occasional live chats, and sneak peaks at the book I’m writing.There will be a Live Patron Event online during and after the launch, as technology and bandwidth allow. Thanks to everyone for their support. 

Running Up To Beaufort, Part One

To properly start this new season of the Bubba the Pirate Blog, we must start from the end of last season. Here is a story from mid-Decembe...