Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Local Knowledge

The Little Alligator River, N 35 55.996 W 76 01.538

This morning we got a late start, leaving Elizabeth City around 1000. We had to motor at the start, but in a short time a nice breeze started and we could sail. We sailed past the Coast Guard station and got to watch a helicopter practicing dropping and picking up rescue swimmers. It was plain that a sailboat could not be approached that way unless the sails were down. The circle of spray kicked up by the copter's down wash was very impressive.

We also passed the blimp factory but, alas, there were no blimps out in the open today for us to see.

We crossed Albemarle sound, thankfully, in these mild conditions. I've heard the bad stories about the Albemarle and I have no desire to challenge her in bad weather.

Entering the Alligator River from the Albemarle is difficult. The entrance is badly shoaled, and channel markers have been moved and renumbered. Neither our charts nor the Lowrance GPS correctly show the markers. Worst, the shoaling patterns don't follow what the charts and GPS say. Two years ago, on our first passage this way, we struck bottom after passing the entrance.

The chart and GPS show dotted lines marking the entrance to the channel, but there is a green marker far to starboard about 1/2 mile away. The instinctual assumption is that the green must be part of some other channel. Not true.

I had plotted a straight in approach but I was eyeballing that green marker as I came in, wondering if I should divert course to go way over there. I was following two power boats, and both of them were ignoring it and heading straight in. I decided in favor of caution, and elected to go the long way around the green.

After passing through the dog leg in the channel I encountered one of those two power boats aground. He was a Chlorox bottle boat (big bright white plastic with a flying bridge) He didn't run aground by going the wrong way around that green but he was aground where Tarwathie had struck two years ago. I offered assistance but he was already trying to kedge off and refused help.

A few minutes later we heard another power boat on the radio warning a sailboat coming in that was also going the wrong way around the green. "Pay attention to the markers," he said. The motor boat clearly had local knowledge. The sailboat never answered and probably never heard. I watched with binoculars and the sailboat made it through OK. I also heard Tow Boat US on the radio later en route to rescue the Chlorox bottle.

Local knowledge is very valuable, and cruisers passing areas where they don't have it get into trouble even if they try to be careful. In Elizabeth City we heard two stories about the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomoc River during the heavy winds last week. One story was from our friend Andre. He was sailing night and day and in the middle of the night he encountered big steep waves and swirling currents and started spinning around. Andre said that he tried to sail away in each of the points on the compass without success. He dropped the sails and tried to motor away, again trying all the compass points, without success. It was like being caught in the Maelstrom. Finally he tried the old sailor's trick of letting go all the sheets, and stopping the motor, and just drifting. That did the trick.

We heard a similar story from John. John was from Havre de Grace Maryland and he also was sailing down the Chesapeake the same day. John also encountered the weird seas and currents at the mouth of the Potomac.

Yesterday, in Urbanna, I related these stories to our local buddy Gary. Gary was familiar with it. I told him that I would make sure to sail up the eastern side of the bay when passing the Potomac in NW winds. Gary had local knowledge and he had a better way. Gary said that one should hug the shoreline and sail up the Potomac a mile or so, then cross the river and hug the shoreline going out. The squirrelly conditions happen only in the localized spot where Potomac waters meet the bay waters. Nothing beats local knowledge.

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End of Summer

Elizabeth City, NC

Well, yesterday marked the end of our summer season when we were blessed with so many sailing guests. First we had Jerry and Phyllis in Solomons, then Nancy, Karl, Lena and Alex in Buzzards Bay, then Nancy and Lena to Isle of Shoals, then Richard, Warene, Gordon and Janet in Portsmouth, then Carmello and Diane. Finally, we just finished a great week with John and Mary Ann. It ended yesterday as I drove John and Mary Ann back to Urbanna Va in a rented car.

The weather turned really beautiful yesterday, just to show John and Mary Ann a sample. It was sunny, still, and T-shirt warm.

When we arrived in Urbanna it was like old home week. We met our friend Diana the dock master. Our sailing buddy Gary was also at the dock talking to Diane. Our friend Roger was anchored out, just were we saw him last. They were all preparing for the Urbanna Oyster Festival this coming weekend when 50-80,000 people descend on this little town of 500. I'm glad that we won't be there then.

Driving back to Elizabeth City, I hit traffic and it took me four hours to travel 90 miles. That's the first time I've had to deal with traffic in years. It reminds me of how lucky we are to not be a part of that life any more.

We'll be leaving Elizabeth City today with no goal and no plan yet. I haven't decided whether to head for Belhaven or Hoboken next. We'll decide enroute. Either way it will be slow progress with 5=10 knot headwinds.

NC Welcome Center

I stopped at the NC Welcome Center on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal yesterday when driving back. There were another 12 boats there waiting to head for Elizabeth City the next day.
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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Return to North Carolina

Mile 28 on The Great Dismal Swamp Canal

Sorry blog fans for not writing sooner. I haven't had much quiet time.

We had a splendid sail from Urbanna down to Norfolk on Thursday. We started at 0700 sharp and within an hour we had 10-20 knots of wind from the aft quarter. We flew down the bay at 6-7 knots. It was very cold early on but it warmed as the day went on. My mid afternoon we cut into Hampton Roads and sailed past the aircraft carriers and the submarines at the Navy Yards. By 1700 we put in to the Waterside Marina at mile zero of the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW), and by 1900 we were having a nice dinner ashore in a real restaurant.

After discussing our plans, we decided to also stay in Norfolk on Friday so as not to arrive in Elizabeth City too early. On Friday we had an urban day visiting the Library, and the mall, some art galleries and (of course) the battleship Wisconsin.

The forecast for Friday night through Sunday morning is for gale force winds. That didn't bother us too much. We set out this morning (Saturday) in rain and stiff winds. There were more aircraft carriers and guided missile cruisers to look at, but our enthusiasm for scenery was damped by the rain.

By the time we entered the canal, the rain stopped, the sky cleared up, and we are well sheltered from the wind in the canal. The leaves are just turning fall colors here now. Once again we are reminded about how pleasurable it is to sail on rivers and canals. In the Great Dismal Swamp, we have shelter from the wind. We have no navigational pressure (the canal is straight as an arrow), and we see nothing but nature on both sides. It's wonderfully relaxing.

We plan on spending tonight in the canal, but not at the customary visitor's center. There are too many boats at the visitor's center and there will be gale winds tonight. We'll push on to tie up at the wall of the south lock. Tomorrow we'll head for Elizabeth City. Monday we'll rent a car and I'll drive John and Mary Ann back up to Urbanna to pick up their car. After that it will be just Libby and me again for an indefinite time.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Underway At Last

At Sea, N 37 25 W 76 12

At last. The engine is repaired, and we are underway. By tonight we'll
be in Norfolk and tomorrow night we'll be in the middle of the Great
Dismal Swamp.

It has been a long and frustrating wait in Urbanna. The starter on the
engine failed on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon our friends John
and Mary Ann joined us for a week's sail. We couldn't find a mechanic
on the weekenend. On Monday morning I went to a nearby boatyard. "Yes,
we can fix it," they said, "but our mechanic went on a sailboat race
this weekend so he may not come to work today." I got a name of
another mechanic in Deltaville, about 15 miles away. His answering
machine says, "I'm away from the shop today. It may be a while. You can
leave a message if you want to." As of today, he still hasn't called

On Tuesday morning the boatyard mechanic came by and it took him only
seconds to confirm my diagnosis. "Yep. She's shot," he said. I was
prepared for the next bad news that a new starter would take two weeks
to obtain (Just like Dapper Dan hair pommade), but no. There was a
Perkins dealer nearby who has a starter in stock. (I'll write another
blog later about Trans Atlantic Diesels, that's good story). We drove
over in John's car and picked it up ourselves.

The mechanic didn't come to install it Tuesady. More frustration. On
Wednesday morning he came, we put the starter in and made it work. By
1300 on Wedneday we were able to sail away from Urbanna. We took our
new friend Gary with us (That's another story yet to come in another
blog.) Boy it seemed like a very long wait.

On the other hand, our prolonged stay in Urbanna was very pleasant.
Urbanna has only 500 permanent residents, and it seems like we know half
of them already. We know the people at the marina, and at the boatyard,
and at the hotel, and at the crab house, and at Moos, and the
librarians, and at the grocery store, and we know Gary and Nell, and the
other resident boaters in the harbor. Heck, we could probably run for
Urbanna Village Council seats.

The weather has been unseasonably cold and windy. Near freezing at
night and in the 60F region during the day, but the daytime winds have
been blowing hard more than 20 knots so it feels rather cold. That's
too bad. Often the seasonal temperatures around here this time of year
are in the 80s.

With company onboard, I'm not finding much quiet time to sit and write
blogs, but I'll catch up in the near future. We have a lot of neat
stories to tell.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Scenes from Onancock

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More From Onancock

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Urbanna Va, Public Library

We are 20 miles up the Rappahonnock River, and 1 mile up Urbanna Creek. We'll be spending a couple of days here. Looks like another one of those charming villages.

There's a sailboat anchored near us from Valdez Alaska. I can't wait to ask the skipper about his voyage here.

Funny, just after we crossed the Maryland/Virginina border the other day, we started seeing brown pelicans. Lots of pelicans. This is the northernmost point I recall seeing them. They must be very well trained so as to not cross the state border (just kidding.)

Speaking of birds, in Onancock some dirty bird bombed us with berries that created purple blobs wherever they hit. Yesterday, when I took the sail cover off, I found one of those berries folded into the sail. It made a big purple stain on our mainsail. Oh no! I used Oxyclean on it, and the stain became fainter, but it's still there. Does anyone have a good spot removal tip?

p.s. This morning it was warmer and the engine started fine.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Yopps Cove

Yopps Cove VA, N 37 35.491 W 76 25.923

We're headed for Urbana. Urbana is supposedly another of those charming villages one finds up at the end of creeks lining the Chesapeake. We must admit, they sure are charming.

This morning I planned to leave early because winds would be light and we had a long way to go,
but the engine wouldn't start again. Darn! I grumbled and swore at the balky fuel cutoff and I started to open up the engine to take things apart and put them back together again, getting myself thoroughly greasy in the process. Then I stopped to think some more. This morning the outside temperature was near freezing, and yesterday had been cold too. Despite all my fiddling yesterday, the engine finally started fine when the sun had a chance to warm things up.

Hmmm, I studied my diesel books and read about difficult starts in cold weather. There are three types of cold start aids. Thermostarters, glow plugs and air intake heaters. Our Perkins engine had none of those. However, I knew how to get one -- a propane torch, so I rowed ashore to walk up o the hardware store. Before leaving thought, "By the time I get back from the store, it may
have warmed up enough to start anyhow." Nevertheless, off to the store I went. When I returned with a torch, I decided to try the key one more time. It started right up. At least I have another diagnostic to add to my kit, and the next time it happens and I'm too impatient to wait, I'll have the torch handy.

We snapped a photo record of the houses of Onancock Creek this morning. If they turn our well, I'll post the best ones on the blog.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dirty Job Day

Onancock VA, N 37 42.640 W 75 45.463

We did go to the movie Friday night. We saw Flyboys; a film about Lafayette Escadrille (sp?) the WWI French flying fighter squadron manned by volunteer Americans. It was fun.

Onancock is really a quaint and quiet place and very gentrified. There is a 5 star gourmet restaurant and an amateur playhouse; hardly the kinds of things you expect to see in such a small village.

Yesterday a nice breeze came along so I rigged up the sail on the dinghy and sailed her a couple of miles up the creek and back. That was the first prolonged sail I ever had with her and I learned a lot about how to sail her properly. One can't sit in the back of the boat, one needs to put one's center of gravity over the center of buoyancy (translation--sit in the middle.)

This morning I couldn't start the engine. It was the fuel cutoff that gave trouble again. By the time I fixed it I was thoroughly greasy so I decided to do another dirty job that I've been putting off. I removed the head, took it out in the cockpit, took it apart and cleaned the crusted salt off all the internal parts. I have been putting vinegar down the toilet once in a while to dissolve the salt and lime but apparently not enough.

It is a fall-like 61F (14C) here today and there were freeze warnings last night. Hopefully it will be warmer next week when we have John and Mary Ann with us.

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Friday, October 13, 2006


The Charlotte Hotel, Onancock, VA

This is a tiny little village, about the size of Burnt Hills. One thing they do have is a hotel that has WiFi. I'm sitting in the lobby now writing this blog.

This is our second time here. That's how I knew about the hotel. I had forgotten how beautiful it was coming here up the creek. The houses lining Onancock Creek are the most beautiful and gracious looking waterfront homes we ever saw. That's saying a lot because there are many beautiful homes on the Chesapeake including those along the sassafras River and LaTrappe Creek, but Onancock is tops.

We had a very uncomfortable night last night. Our anchorage was sheltered from waves but not from the wind, and the wind howled steadily at 25 knots. Even in the 200 yards from the shore to us, three foot waves picked up and rocked us. I had to sit up most of the night doing anchor watch. There was another boat anchored near us when we came in, but by midnight he was gone. He must have looked for a better place. The irony was that NOAA weather radio was still forecasting 5-10 knots of wind for the rest of the night. Bah on weather forecasts.

We may go to a movie tonight. If so, it will be the first time in more than two years.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Welcome Back To Virginia

Onancock Creek, N 37 43.547 W 75 49.468

Today started out on an embarrassing note. I got up early and started to prepare for departure.
I started the engine and began hauling up the anchor. Libby came up on deck and said, "Where's
the dinghy?" I pivoted around and sure enough, no dinghy in sight. I must have failed to secure
it properly last night. Oh well, I recall saying a long time ago, "If you only make every mistake
in the book three times or less, you're doing very well." That was the second time I let a dinghy
get away from me, so I have one to go.

We waited around until other people began to move. Eventually Chris came by in his dinghy and I
asked him to take me for a ride to find ours. We searched two deep bights in the creek, both downwind
of Tarwathie. Sure enough, down at the far end of the second bight, more than a click away from
Tarwathie, sat the dinghy. We towed it back and I thanked Chris profusely.

We chose to leave today because of the weather forecast. Two days ago they said that there would be
a gale from the North today. Yesterday they changed that forecast to NW 15-20. Last night they
changed it to SW 15. This morning they changed it again to W 20. The reality, when we got out in
the bay was zero knots. At least that was true for the morning, and we had to motor the whole time.
Eventually, about 1300 the West wind did appear. By supper time it had picked up to nearly 20 knots
and we were flying southwards at nearly 7 knots under full sail.

Our delay in leaving this morning though caused us to arrive at Onancock Creek long after dark.
The channel leading into the creek is narrow and winds left and right. Only two of the channel
markers are lit. We felt our way in carefully on minimum throttle and with the wind at our backs.
We navigated with GPS and with a spotlight to find the daymarkers. It was a bit tense but we did
OK. That is a piece of navigation that would be very risky without a GPS. Without the GPS, we would
have been forced to navigate by depth and with the wind behind us, if we turned wrong we would likely
run aground before we could stop.

Yesterday in the late afternoon we put the sailing rig on the dinghy and sailed around the harbor.
DJ, a young boy on Dream Catcher anchored near us, asked for a ride and I let him sail it himself.
He and other children I see onboard these boats impress me. Those kids learn so much about boating
and learn to be so independent and adventurous at a young age. I hope they appreciate how lucky they
are. That's the kind of childhood that every child should have the chance to live.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006


Holiday Inn Select, Solomons Island, MD

Yesterday I drove Libby up to the airport in Baltimore and dropped her off. The weather was awful. There was a 48 hour long storm that passed here. It was cold, and very rainy and there were hard winds.

Just as we pulled in to the BWI airport, the phone rang. It was Orbitz calling to tell us that Libby's plane was on schedule. "Neat technology I thought, but the message would have been more useful if it came before we drove to the airport." After dropping Libby (without a phone) and while leaving the airport the phone rang again. It was Orbitz calling to tell us about a flight delay. "Sigh, ain't technology wonderful, I thought. Not much use for that message now."

An hour later, the phone rang again. It was Orbitz calling to tell me that Libby's flight home next Monday is scheduled to leave on time. "Cripes. Can't they do anything right."

There is, or should be, a principle in information technology that relates the value of information to the timeliness of the delivery of that information. My favorite IT example is the sign above the jetway as you deplane your airline flight. It tells you, "Your luggage will be on carousel B" For an airport with 8 or fewer carousels, that information takes as few as 3 bits to delivery, yet it must save the customer service agent the trouble of answering that question 100 times or more personally. The 3 bits is only valuable if it is delivered to the right gate within the narrow time window as people deplane.

Last night about 0200 I sensed something wrong. I got up and checked. Sure enough, the anchor had dragged 58 feet. That is the first time since Lake Champlain last year that we actually dragged anchor.

Quarters are tight here in Solomons and I was too close to another boat and too close to some docks. I had to go out into the bad weather dressed in shorts, and rig up and deploy a second anchor. By the time I got back to bed I was so cold and wet and so pumped up on adrenalin, that it took 3 hours for me to get back to sleep. If Libby had been here to help me, the net result would have been her discomfort and loss of sleep too. Oh well, it's part of the cruising life and it doesn't happen often.

Today, the docks in all the marinas around here are under water. I figured that it must have been because of all the rain we had. The marina man told me, "No. It is because the storm winds blew all this water into the bay." Huh? The bay runs NW to SE and the storm winds were from the NE. Would expect only SE winds to blow water into the bay. The point is that tides and currents and surges in Chesapeake are far more complex than I understand yet.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Solomons Layover

Holiday Inn Select, Solomons MD

We're layed up in Solomons for a week. On Friday, Libby flys to Pensacola Florida to meet with David one more time before he goes to Iraq. Next week, when she comes back, we'll continue sailing southward.

Solomons is a good place to lay over. We anchor in a sheltered creek. There are stores and laundry nearby. There is also this Holiday Inn Select which has free WiFi if you sit in the lobby like I'm doing. This is the hotel where our friends Jerry and Phyllis stayed last summer.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Crabbing for Our Supper

La Trappe Creek, MD N 38 37.903 W 76 07.216

Yesterday morning as we left Cambridge we encountered a race. Not a sailboat race but a swimming race. It appeared that the race course was 2-3 miles long in the Choptank River. The racers seemed to be almost equally spaced along the course so it must have been a race for time. At the finish line there was a crowd of people and vehicles. It looked to me like all the vehicles and the people were firemen. It must have been a fireman's swimming race. Boy, I have a hard time visualizing me or my fire department buddies swimming a three mile race.

The other day we saw a sailor merrily pulling up one crab after another in La Trappe Creek so we decided to try it. We got lots of action but no crabs. To do it you merely throw a line in the water with a piece of meat scrap or a chicken bone into the water. In a few minutes crabs come along to eat it. You gently pull up the line and the crab is reluctant to let go. When the crab is nearly up to the surface, you scoop it up with a net. Our problem was that we only had a small bait net, not a proper Chesapeake crab net. Every time we tried to scoop up the crab with the net it would scoot sideways and escape. The proper nets are bigger and their lines are made of blue tinted mono-filament which makes them invisible in the water. Oh well, we had fun trying anyhow.

This morning we fixed the fuel cutoff. The cause of the problem was a bronze spring that embrittled and broke. I happened to have a spare spring because last year I replaced a similar bronze spring on the throttle. I should have expected at the time that all other bronze springs of the same age should have been replaced. Anyhow, diagnosis was simple but it took us hours to get the new spring attached. It seems like everything critical on this engine and everything were I have problems fits within a 75 cubic inch volume. That volume is full of manifolds, pumps, and fuel lines and it is almost impossible to reach. Even a forest elf would have hands too big to fit in those spaces. I tried, then Libby tried then I tried again. By the time we succeeded we were both greasy up to our elbows. Does anyone sell laproscopy kits for laymen to work on things like engines?

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