Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bella Gets Wet

Once I had decided to leave the starter issue for later, I went to work on my other priorities. The mast went up, the rigging went up and the boat was launched by the guys at Pier Milwaukee; a great boatyard. I had been calling around about getting a tow down to the McKinley Municipal Marina where I had reserved a slip. There is a dearth of tow boats in Milwaukee. I have tow insurance through Boat/US but their nearest franchise was in Kenosha, a good distance away. As a non-emergency tow I would responsible for half of the charges from Kenosha to me, the tow to the marina, and their trip back to Kenosha. Chris, the owner at Pier Milwaukee, suggested I talk to the boat next door. He had heard that they were going downriver to McKinley that evening.

When Bruce showed back up with his wife, son and dog along, it turned out that he was planning to piggyback on my appointment to get under the railroad bridge. Instead of following me through, I followed him because he agreed to tow me down to the marina. We were on!

Bruce had never towed another boat with a sailboat, but we shoved off, he swung around to grab Bella, and I tossed him a line. We puttered around the first bend of the Kinnickinnick River and lolled our way past the Horny Goat Hideaway and under the 1st St. drawbridge. Bruce was in charge and was contacting the bridge operators as we went. The tricky part is the CP Rail bridge and the KK Ave bridge. The railroad swing bridge and the city street drawbridge are so close together they have to be opened at the same time. There's no room fora a boat between them.

As we approached the CP Rail bridge, the bridge attendant was out on the far end of the bridge beating on it with a sledge hammer! Bruce called the tower and found out the bridge was broken; not moving. We started circling around in the narrow river; to one side a few large fishing vessels and on the other an ancient rusty seawall. After a couple pirouettes, I watched Bruce make another call to the tower and saw his shoulders slump. He called back to me “The bridge is fixed but an Amtrak is coming. We have to wait.”

One more circle, two sailboats dancing mid river in the early evening. The Amtrak train roared across the river, not over our heads but just down the river way. As the rumble died down, the bridges began to move. The rail bridge swings downstream while the street bridge draws up in two halves. It is amazing how close they get when finally open. Bruce opened up the throttle and we scooted under both bridges.

Most of the rest of the journey went smoothly. The Kinnickinnick is quite industrial on the way toward the lake. We went by all sorts of industrial buildings, some with wharves. There were boats stored in nooks and crannies everywhere. The grain elevators we passed hummed like hives. We passed under the beautiful I-765 arch and out into the breakwater area where we passed a couple small lighthouses. Even though I was under tow, I relished in my boat moving through the water.

The breakwater area is huge and runs both north and south of the Government Cut where Milwaukee's three rivers join and enter Lake Michigan. McKinley Municipal Marina is at the very northern end. A beautiful line of fancy racing sailboats coming in off the lake caught my eye. Most of them had single sails that cost as much as I spent on my whole boat. As I enjoyed the boat porn, it occurred to me that they were all coming into the breakwater's northern entrance - right where we were headed! It was the Friday night race, I later found out. About half the racers were crossing our path and going into other marinas around town. The other half were headed into the same yacht basin as we were.

The folks at McKinley Municipal Marina were great. First, they happily took my 5 or 6 day reservation and allowed me to pay by the night so I could watch the weather and pick the right sailing day without paying for nights I didn't use. Then when I informed them I was getting towed in, they put me at the end of a T dock so that I could sail out more easily.

I let Bruce know where I needed to get. He was very helpful. We came wallowing in to the basin toward the end of dock 'B.' Bruce pulled me close enough that I got a stern line on a dock cleat. Going forward, I called to a boater who happened to be a couple slips down the pier. He caught my bow line and attached it. Bruce had been just tugging in low throttle to keep me against the dock. He tossed me my line and was off to find his own summer dock. I rigged a spring line, tightened the other dock lines and went to check in at the office. McKinley is a very nice facility with nice restrooms and showers. The marina is right next to the large Veterans Park and close to the art museum and downtown. A variety of shopping is within walking distance but marine supply stores are a drive. The marina gave me a couple keys for the gate and a hang tag for parking a car; all included.

With no engine, however, conditions needed to be just right to be able to sail out of, and back into, the yacht basin. Conditions never were just right, the wind was often exactly wrong. A couple times we pulled the main sail cover off, but that just seemed to immediately upset the weather gods. A good part of the weekend, a train of thunderstorms marched up from Iowa, across Wisconsin and right over Milwaukee. With my flags regularly stiffly cracking in the breeze, there would be no daysail in Milwaukee. However, we were trapped at a wonderful marina, right next to a big park, with a coffeehouse right across the street. And my crew for the crossing was coming over on the Monday ferry.

Photos: some by Nancy and some by Bubba 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Greeting Bella

I found Bella too soon in my plan. Without the help of my friend Nancy I wouldn't have been able to do the deal. Nancy is one of my oldest and dearest friends, so I was happy when we hatched a plan for her to give me a ride over to Milwaukee. She is important to the whole project and I wanted her there for the launch and to give her a ride on Bella. More on the lack of sailing later.

Back in April I ran over to Milwaukee to spend a long morning poking around Bella and doing some measurements. Mostly, I just wanted to spend some time with her again, but I did use the measurements to order a stove and some graphics for the stern. The logistics were easy when I was driving over and then back home again. It was more complicated when I needed to get to Milwaukee but then sail back to Michigan. Getting a ride solved that problem.

The rest of the plan got a little sideways. I planned to spend a couple weeks in Milwaukee prior to Bella's launch. The first two weeks of June were to be dedicated to getting the mast up, prepping the standing and running rigging, checking things over, and learning about the boat from the previous owner (PO) and then waiting for good weather to sail her home. However, the PO's plans changed as work and life got complicated for him. He was not going to be available after June 1st. The great little company that I drive for gave me two weeks off to move my boat. Then when I had to go back and ask if I could move my schedule up a week – to the day after Memorial Day – they happily obliged.

Nancy had all kinds of touristy things planned to occupy herself in Milwaukee while the PO and I got Bella ready. As it turned out I needed a lot of help. She regularly ran me to the hardware store or to West Marine for parts and supplies. I also borrowed her car to run across town and have a crown glued back in my head by a Milwaukee dentist. She even helped put a fresh layer of bottom paint on Bella, and took a lot of pictures and some video for which I'm grateful.

It wasn't all work. We had some great ethnic food while we were there. If anyone needs a Milwaukee recommendation for Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian or Thai, let me know. I would sail all night to eat at a couple of those places again, but that's getting ahead of the story.

I had a huge list of things to accomplish on the boat before the launch and the trip across the lake. There were safety items, comfort things and stuff just for show – like
the graphics on the stern. On the second day, however, the schedule was disrupted by a 40 year old diesel engine. Not only did it not want to start, but the flywheel didn't want to turn at all.

The PO was chagrined as the engine had just brought him all the way up the river last fall. Before I bought the boat, we talked about the fact that every spring turning the ignition key was a crap shoot because of the engine's age. It wasn't that I expected everything to work the first time. Dead stopped, however, was not in my plan. Especially since the boat was at Pier Milwaukee waaayyyy up the Kinnickinnick River from Lake Michigan. The three miles downstream would be near impossible without an engine, but add in three drawbridges, one that required an appointment, and doing it without an engine was out of the question.

I went to work diagnosing the engine. There was a little bit of movement in the flywheel. Three crucial days were spent – grease covered – coaxing the flywheel, removing the belts, checking the starter and the alternator, scratching my head, replacing the belts, trying again, and over and over. The engine got to feeling a little better and the ignition would spin the engine, but when I dropped the decompression lever it bogged down and just couldn't turn over. The PO and I decided that it must be that the starter was bad.

I had to start thinking about the overall schedule. If I spent the time to pull the 40 year old starter and have it tested, I could find out if the starter was good or bad, but I could not get it fixed in the time I had before we wanted to cross the lake. I decided to stop spending time on my knees with my head in the engine compartment. I had to get back to my list and get the boat safe and ready. Especially now that we were going to sail her across the lake without an engine.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Meeting Bella

As explained in a previous post, I didn't mean to find a boat so soon. But when I found s/v Bella on the Milwaukee Craigslist, she sounded too good to be true, but after talking to the owner for a while on the phone, she sounded more true than too good. I had to see her.

On a random Thursday last December, I was home for a couple days from my truck driving and arranged to meet the owner in Milwaukee on his lunch hour. It was 11 degrees in Hudsonville when I woke, 3 degrees in Milwaukee. By the time I drove through Chicago and around the lake to Milwaukee, it managed to get to 11 or 12 degrees there.

It was love at first sight. I struggled to not try and buy her right then. Bottom paint is made to wear off and most older used boats have a splotchy bottom as more paint was just splashed on. The previous owner (PO) was wet sanding Bella's bottom paint every fall! From the water line down, she looked like a brand new boat.

Then looking up toward the deck, I saw double lifelines - uncoated double lifelines! This will mean nothing to a landlubber, but double lifelines is something only a serious sailor would do. Further, pretty white vinyl covered lifelines are very popular because they “look nice.” However, stainless steel corrodes more seriously when in a limited oxygen environment. Coated lifelines are likely to wick moisture up under that pretty coating and corrode. And the coating prevents you from seeing the corrosion as it progresses. Then when you fall on the lifelines expecting them to help keep you on board and they just don't. Uncoated lifelines allow a skipper to keep an eye on the condition of his lifelines - pretty be damned.

Most of the rest of the tour of "my next boat" was simply confirming the details in the ad and the personality of the PO. You could eat off the engine compartment floor. All the interior lights and the navigation lights outside are converted to LED lights. There is a HUGE inventory of sails - two furling jibs, five hank jibs, a spinnaker and two mains; many in new condition. There are three anchors, the main anchor with way more chain than typical. The interior is mostly original but in great shape. The running rigging (the lines that move sails, etc) was new in 2009. There was $2500 or $3000 worth of upgrades and improvements that I would make on any random used boat that were already done.

The radio is a relatively new Standard Horizon brand VHF that includes GPS and AIS. The GPS is similar to a car GPS without the streets, it simply shows latitude and longitude. AIS is a system for identifying other vessels. Landlubbers might be familiar with the concept because of the movie “Top Gun.” Fighter jets have transponders so that ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ can be tracked in the navigation system. Large ships and other commercial vessels on the water have been equipped with similar transponders. With a receiver like Bella’s radio, the name, call sign, heading and speed of the larger vessels can be tracked.

I’ve carried around a book for several years called “Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere” by John Vigor. His review is reproduced here. s/v Bella is an Albin Vega, a Swedish built, offshore capable boat that ranks highly in Vigor’s book. I recognized the brand and knew the reputation as soon as I saw the ad. Vigor said of the Vega “She’s modest but plenty tough.” The Vega is 6th on his safety-at-sea list which includes several larger boats. She was designed to be a fast, light ocean cruiser and once held the record fastest Atlantic crossing. One of my parameters has always been a relatively full keel with an attached rudder. This greatly reduces the chance of rudder damage as the rudder hides behind the keel as it goes through the water.

Reviews like this one make me excited for our future travels: “She is very handy indeed off the wind. A Vega called Little My III crossed the Atlantic from the Cape Verde Islands to Barbados in 14 days, 16 hours. Richard Henderson, commenting on the trip in his book Singlehanded Sailing (International Marine), says: "She reportedly surfed in the trade winds at speeds up to 13 knots, yet was dry, comfortable, and easily managed.”

Bella was a hidden gem on Craigslist. She is not set up for how most people would sail, but fits my plans to a ‘t.’ December too was a good month to buy a boat as there were practically no other shoppers to compete with. I am super, super - super duper - happy with how she sails!  But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Homeward Epilogue

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