Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Towboat “us” (a nautical comedy of errors? Or an ordinary day in the life afloat?)

One of the wonderful things about living in Annapolis is that sooner or later everyone who’s cruising up and down the East Coast comes through here. Sometimes they just stay for a day or two, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for a season. So even though we’re tied to one spot (for now) by jobs, we are in touch with cruisers from everywhere.
So we were excited to hear from good friends James and Ellen that they were arriving in Annapolis after coming up the ICW from Florida, and we were to look for them and their new-to-them sailboat at about 5:30 Sunday evening. Right on time they hailed us on the VHF as they were coming up Back Creek to anchor. Just as suddenly, a mini-crisis as their engine died, and they were drifting helplessly in the channel at the mouth of the creek. They managed to get their anchor down so they wouldn’t be pushed into the shoal, and called us to ask if we could launch our dinghy to tow them a little way up the creek to one of the City moorings. There they could safely spend the night and fix the engine problems in the morning. As we were lowering our dinghy and engine into the water, our dock-neighbors Richard and Joan came by in their dinghy. “Wanna play bumper boats?” asked Richard. “Actually, if you wouldn’t mind…” we replied, and we recruited them to help as tow well, since they would be able to get to the crippled sailboat sooner than we could. Ever gracious, they said not a word and headed off in the indicated direction. It was only later that I realized they were dressed awfully nicely for a game of dinghy bumper-boats. A few minutes later we got our dinghy launched and followed them down the creek.
When we arrived we found Richard and Joan had already attached their dinghy to one side of the sailboat and were towing it slowly toward safety, while chatting with our friends. We came up to the other side of the sailboat. After a comic scene that briefly had Richard and Joan’s small dinghy towing the sailboat forward while dragging us behind backward, we got straightened out and made a sailboat sandwich with one dinghy on each side. With two dinghies, we made good speed towing … until Richard and Joan’s erstwhile dinghy-towboat ran out of gas! To be fair, they had only intended to take their dinghy across the creek to go to dinner (thus the neat clothing) and they had had more than enough fuel for that. So this time it was our turn to tow the sailboat and second dinghy, while James passed a jerry-jug of gasoline from the sailboat to refuel the first dinghy. Finally our little raftup approached the mooring; our dinghy peeled off to get the mooring line and hand it up to secure the sailboat, and Richard and Joan headed out for dinner.
Next day, problems solved, James and Ellen took their sailboat to Weems Creek where they would spend a few weeks. We had plans to pick them up there by car to go out to dinner. Here at the marina, we can simply step off the boat onto the dock to walk ashore; but at the mooring they lack that convenience, so they would take their dinghy (in yesterday’s heavy rain) from where the boat sat on its mooring to the public boat ramp. Our friends are usually as prompt as only military or retired military folk can be, so we were surprised to be kept waiting. Of course, since we had the advantage of a warm dry car to wait in, having us wait was probably preferable to having them wait for us. We looked up the creek to where their boat was moored. For a moment I thought I saw a small spot motoring near their boat, but as it got closer I saw that instead of our friends, it was a small powerboat with four bedraggled rather subdued looking people aboard, motoring slowly toward the boat ramp. No sign of James and Ellen. But then - mystery solved! I had in fact seen them leave their boat in their dinghy. The small powerboat had had engine trouble and were drifting in the Severn. The recent recipients of a tow themselves, James and Ellen had detoured to help and were towing the small powerboat ashore. That’s the how it is with good deeds. You can’t pay it back, all you can do is pass it on.

Blue Angels

I telecommute; my boss lives and works in Florida. So when I told him that Annapolis virtually shuts down when the Blue Angels perform, his first reaction was something like, "Must be nice to live in a party town. Any excuse, huh?" (Oh, that makes him sound so curmudgeonly; actually I like working for him enormously and the line was delivered in a jokey manner.) But if you live here, you know exactly what I mean. They put on a spectacular show well worth using a couple of hours of annual leave to watch. More to the point, you simply couldn't conduct business even if you wanted to - hard to carry on a conversation when the unmistakeable WHOOSH drowns out your words.
Our liveaboard dock-neighbor Ed Menegaux planned on taking his boat out to watch the show and invited a group of us to go along. Anchoring in the harbor is a different viewing experience than watching from the hillslope below the WWII memorial directly across from the Academy. Granted, the viewing angle for some of the stunts isn't as good. That's more than made up for with the wonderful ambiance. Instead of a picnic blanket and lugging a cooler, we had all the comforts of home, because the boat is Ed's home. We all had comfy cushioned seats and Ed laid out a lovely spread with veggies and dips, sliced cheeses and sausages, marinated artichokes and olives. The harbor was crowded, and we saw some examples of dreadful seamanship (by others! Ed was excellent as always) before every boat found a spot to anchor. We had space and comfort, and at the same time, we got to share the event with lots of others, and participate in the energy of the crowd ooohing and wowing and pointing as the planes passed. Sometimes right overhead at treetop ... er, masthead ... height, it seemed. After they streaked away, all the boats blew their horns and upped anchor. For a few minutes the boat traffic was as bad as the Beltway during rush hour, then within an hour we were back in Ed's slip and the harbor was quiet.
Congrats to the class of 2009!

"Greening" the Bay?

We learned to sail in the Caribbean, and then kept our boat in northern Lake Michigan, so we took it for granted that water is clear. Our mooring in Michigan was in 21 feet of water, and we could look over the side and see the old railroad wheel that was our “anchor.” So it was a bit of a shock, coming to the sadly murky greenish-black Chesapeake. When I first found the satellite maps in Google, I did what most people do first – plugged in my own address. Then I excitedly emailed the link to my friend and boat-neighbor Charlee. “Hey, check this out! If you zoom in you can see our boats, green canvas on yours, tan on ours! And that’s our dingy floating in back!” Environmentally-conscious Charlee emailed back, “Look at all the growth in Back Creek! It’s as green as a grass lawn!” Ugh. She was right. So I found it encouraging to read the article earlier this week in the Capital that there are signs of hope for Bay recovery, and pledges by the governors of the Bay states to do still more. Some ways mentioned to reduce nitrogen pollution included upgrading sewage-treatment plants and septic systems, planting more trees and buffers along streams, planting more cover crops on farms, and curbing stormwater runoff. They seem to have mentioned all the sectors. I was relieved that they didn’t comment on boaters. We use our holding tank, and overall have a pretty small environmental footprint. (Yeah, I'm still feeling smug about our solar panels, too.) On the other hand, conspicuous to me by its absence, were contributions by the factory chicken farms.

Bye-bye electric bills, hello sunshine!

So for Earth Day Dan and I:
  • telecommuted and saved gas (okay, I guess I really did that for myself. love working from home!)
  • took the stairs instead of the elevator to my doctors appt
  • brought reusable bags to the grocery store, where we bought local produce whereever we could
  • wiped the hard disk from an ancient laptop, and collected a bunch of used batteries, to bring to the "personal electronics recycling drive" at work
  • hoped to install the solar panels we bought a couple of months ago, but discovered we had the wrong mounting brackets and had to reorder the right size.
Yay me!

Our plan for the following weekend was to have a nice fish dinner Friday evening, then install our solar panels Saturday morning (the clamps had arrived in Friday's mail). The weather was predicted perfect (80s during the day, 60-ish at night, moderate winds) so we'd planned to anchor out in the undeveloped Rhode River where I could do some long-overdue writing after we finished the solar panel project.

The weekend started great. Salmon brushed with some lemon-pepper-garlic oil that friend Melissa had given us at Xmastime, rice medley with portabello mushrooms and cream (NOT from a Campells soup can, either!) and green beans, and a bottle of wine. But then on Saturday morning, the solar panel installation proved to be more complex logistically than we'd expected. So by 3:00 in the afternoon, we had only the first of the two panels up, and no wiring connected.

We decided that finishing the project would be more gratifying than going out for the weekend. And in many ways, staying in our slip is almost as nice as being out. We're paying the upgrade for an "outside" slip directly on Back Creek, with a great unobstructed view of passing boat traffic - and worth every penny of it!
So we stayed in the slip and stayed on the job and, to make a long story short, two trips to the marine supply store, a lot of trial and error, a fair dose of self-doubt, and reading and rereading the instructions, plus two different textbooks on boat systems, and by mid-afternoon Sunday .... success!

One way or another, sailboats have to be their own power company. You can't very well run an extension cord out to the middle of the Atlantic, so you have to be self-sufficient. When power is limited, you get very aware of every usage, and every waste. The refrigerator is our biggest power drain, which didn't seem so surprising. But the fact that the computer was second-largest, was unexpected. I was pretty confident of my calculations for our power use. If the panels lived up to their advertising, and we continued to conserve as we've done in the past, we'd be able to make ALL our power needs on sunny days, until we have 3 cloudy days in a row. The only thing we wouldn't be able to provide is air conditioning. For that, we'd still need shore power. Of course, if we're on the water, its cooler and breezier so perhaps we'll need it less often.

The first couple of days after the installation were warm and sunny, and the panels produced exactly as expected. We were making 100% of our power needs! We were fixated on the battery monitors the way other people are glued to the TV. Our dinner conversation showcased our engineering nerdiness and contained such scintillating gems as, "Hey, babe, did you know that the fridge is using 4 amps when it runs?" and "What does the panel show now?" By Wednesday when the cloudy weather began, we were still able to keep up, but only because the relatively cool water this time of year did not tax the fridge overly much. Of course, now, after a week of steady clouds, we're unable to keep up until we get couple of good sunny days and needing to supplement with shore power. I can't find much fault in the solar panels for that; after this many dreary gray days in a row, I also need a couple of days of good sunshine to perk up my energy level!

Wait. Stop. Think.

So, we mail-ordered this amazing new light fixture for the main cabin. All our friends have been raving about this - great color light,super energy-efficient, attractive box, etc etc. It arrived yesterday and we can't wait to install it. We're reading the instructions and there's this warning about being careful about the input voltage, if the lamp is operating with input voltage too high it will burn out the ballast. Uh, oh, our new super-efficient solar panels? Could they cause problems when they're running at full capacity on a bright sunny afternoon while the lamp is on?

Panic. We're digging through the technical specs, dig out the volt-ohm-meter, what to do? We spend at least 1/2 hour trying to decide if it'll be safe to combine this lamp with these solar panels.

Wait. Stop. Think. How often are we likely to need to turn the light on during a bright sunny afternoon? Ummm, right, got it! Duh!