My First Delivery (Attempt): Carrabelle to Pensacola on a Catalina

With Wild Phil Hickok at the helm, ominous rumblings in the distance, and magic wires and mysterious wildlife awaiting us in the midnight river, me and these adventurous three are about to get underway.  Buckle up!  Strap in!  And let the tale of my first delivery (attempt) begin!

(Annie’s First) Captain’s Log

 Saturday, 8:34 a.m.: Wild Phil successfully de-docks at the Carabelle Marina, docks at the fuel dock, fills up and leaves the fuel dock unscathed.  Motoring through Apalachicola Bay at 4.8 knots with thunderheads building and rumbling on the horizon.  The crew discovers the auto-pilot is not working.

By now, I’m a little irritated this man has now docked three times right out of the gate without issue but—hindsight being 20/20—I now know he’s got plenty of issues coming, so I’m cool with it.  It did show me perhaps I freak out a little too much about docking as this man, a brand new boat owner, didn’t even flinch at it.  I later learned Wild Phil is cocky as hell.  Granted, it usually became a handy, self-fulfilling prophecy, but even when his confidence outgrew his abilities, it didn’t seem to get him into as much trouble as I imagined. Lesson Learned: Confidence, justified or not, is an asset.   

No answer for you on the auto-pilot.  Bob noted in the survey that it was working fine but we just could not get the darn thing to come on.  It may be a wiring issue, but with all of the tight navigating we knew we would have to be doing in the ICW, we knew a good bit of this trip would require hand-steering, so we didn’t investigate the failed auto-pilot any further.  Grab the wheel.  C’est la vie.

Saturday, 10:27 a.m.: Typical Florida pop-up storm creeps up on us.  The crew decides to let Captain Phil handle it solo, which he does like a champ.

Aren’t we nice?  I mean, the man did say he wanted to gain as much experience as possible.  Knowing what it feels like to hold the helm in driving rain is definitely high on the list.

 

Saturday, 11:02 a.m.: Storm passes within 15 minutes.  Engine dies inexplicably.  Crew throws out the head sail for propulsion.  Captain Annie sails the boat around shoaling while Phillip and Phil inspect the engine and investigate.  Phillip determines the engine overheated, adds coolant, allows to cool.  Engine re-cranks and we continue under motor-sail at 4 knots.

When I “sails the boat around shoaling,” I mean puckered my ass and sailed the snot out of that thing!  Eeking out what little navigation I could, with winds of 6-8 knots and 3 foot depths around the narrow ICW, was some of the most pinched sailing I’ve ever done.  Definitely a great experience for me to be forced to sail in a narrow channel with light winds. 

So, what happened to the engine?  At first, we thought it had overheated because Phil noticed it was over 180 on the temp when it cut out and he recalled the previous owner told him the engine would automatically shut down if she overheats, which apparently she did.  We had some trouble locating the overflow coolant bin (the hoses from the engine seemed to go into the bulkhead into nowhere), but we eventually located it in the port-side lazarette.  Why is this a big deal?  Because while we’re scratching our heads and chasing silly hoses, Annie is tacking and turning and trying to keep our keel off the ground.  Lesson here: Phillip and I should have located all of the fluid fills sooner so we could have handled this problem more efficiently.  But, we did still have to have to wait for the engine to cool before it would re-crank.  A quick turn of the key showed the temp was over 200 and the level in the overflow bin was below the low mark, so we definitely thought she had overheated.  A few more minutes of creative sailing by Annie while the engine cooled and she then re-cranked and we were back on our way toward the Apalachicola bridge under motor sail.

Saturday, 12:15 p.m.:  Engine dies again.  Annie takes the helm again while Phillip and Phil investigate.  Crew believes not enough coolant was put in the first time, although the temp had not breached 180 this time.  Bit of a mystery.  Coolant added while engine cooled, re-crank and motor-sailed under St. George Island bridge.

The coolant was just above the “low” mark on the bin.  When Phillip filled it the first time, he filled right up to this mark, thinking it was the “high” mark but further investigation proved the high mark was higher up.  But, no one really had that “Aha, it overheated”-type revelation here because the temp never got over 180.  To be honest, we were now a little stumped as to what was going on with the engine but the crew was glad to be making way and looking forward to stopping for a drink and bite in Apalachicola before heading up “the ditch” to Lake Wimico.

Saturday, 3:45 p.m.:  Engine dies again just before Apalachicola Bridge. Crew is starting to think this is a fuel problem.  Phillip and I note crud in the bottom of the secondary filter globe but the fuel itself looks clean.  Phillip notices the two clamps on the hose leading to the filter are loose and have slacked down the line.  He re-tightens thinking this may have been allowing intermittent air intake in the fuel system, and shutting down the engine.  He tightens the clamps, engine cranks and Phil docks successfully at the Apalachicola City Docks.

Sorry, Mechan-Eric, you can’t get it 100% right every time.  One of his guys must have forgot to tighten the hose clamps back after they changed the fuel filter.  We were all hopeful the engine was just sipping air now and again and this was causing the repeated shut-downs.  Only time would tell.  For now, Phil had navigated his third docking with ease (the bastard!) and I was starting to get a little pissed off by it.  When was he going to finally hit something?  When you’re first learning, you have to bump a few pilings and docks, right?  It’s required.  Apparently not, for this guy.  Proud new owner, Phil, docked safely in Apalachicola:

Saturday, 7:32 p.m.:  Bellies full of Appalachian tacos, fries and beer (just one each, a margarita for me), Phil navigates us off the dock and up the ICW.  Engine running fine for the moment.  Crew plans to motor the ICW overnight.

Yes, another de-docking without incident.  Whatever.  I was over it by then.  Things were just always going to work out for this guy.  He even got duck fat fries that day.  Any day that includes duck fat fries can never be considered a bad day.  If you’re ever in Apalachicola, go to the Owl Tap Room and order these.  That’s not a suggestion. Fries and cheese, smothered in beschamel and topped with bacon. They will change your life!  

 

 Saturday, 9:15 p.m.:  Beautiful sunset on the river, but visibility is very poor in the ICW.  Tight channels and turns and floating debris have to be constantly spotlighted for the helmsman.  Two-man shifts begin with one crew member at the bow spotting, the other at the helm hand-steering.

This was one of those never-experienced-before moments for Phillip and me.  While we had navigated the ditch (the stretch of ICW between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe) many times, it was always during the day.  We had never motored any stretch of that portion of the ICW overnight and we could tell as soon as the sun set and darkness set in that this was going to be a long night.  With cloud cover remaining from the afternoon storms, visibility on the water was almost non-existent.  Also, the markers along the ICW are not lit; they have to “be lit” by shining a light on their reflective tape.  So, each marker had to be located and lit, the borders along the river constantly swept with the floodlight, and floating logs and trees spotted for the helmsman.  It was a bit of a surreal feeling steering solely by the light of your fellow crew-member at the bow.

The spotlight Phil had picked up also proved invaluable.  You see?  The ridiculously-long provision and supply list doesn’t seem like such a joke anymore.  Thankfully, Phil had picked up a 600-lumen floodlight the day before knowing visibility in the river might be an issue.  He also had the foresight to pick up a huge pack of batteries for it, which we burned through in its entirety (18 total) throughout the night, with each battery change affording us a few scary moments of blackness in the murky river. 

While holding these shifts was tiring, what frightened me about it was the engine.  She had been totally untrustworthy during the day, cutting out every couple of hours.  If she did it again in the river, we would have only a minute or two to react, drop an anchor and hope it stuck before the boat would drift out of the ICW and run aground, at night.  For this reason, I made a point during my spotlight shift at the bow to ready the ground tackle for an immediate drop in case the engine cut out anytime during the night.  After several hours running solid, though, we all started to relax a bit and enjoy the cool, crispness of the night.  The clouds started to dissipate around midnight and the stars came out.  While Phillip and I have reveled at the view of the stars from our cockpit many times, it was a new experience for both Phil and Keith to be traveling by sailboat under the stars and was very fun for Phillip and I to be able to share with them.  It was definitely a memorable night on passage. 

Sunday, 4:32 a.m.:  Engine cuts out again while Phil and I are holding watch.  I was at the bow, spotting and Phil was at the helm, thankfully with some room to bob in West Bay, north of Panama City.  After a few minutes, the engine will not turn over.  It also sounds different upon re-crank attempts, like an electrical issue.  I discover disconnected starting wire, re-connect, she cranks and we’re off.

We later called this the “magic wire.”  It was ironically the very same wire that had rattled itself off of our starter right after Phillip and I docked at customs in Cuba in December, 2016.  Here’s a picture from the video we made of it.

When Phil was trying to turn the engine over that morning, it seemed to be making the same sound our Niagara did when we were trying to crank and motor to our slip at Marina Hemingway.  It’s like more of a clicking, electrical sound than a crank.  For some reason, this made me think back on the issue Phillip and I had and I started inspecting the wires to the starter on Phil’s Catalina.  Sure, enough, through a tiny hatch in the head, I found the very same wire that connects to Phil’s starter had rattled off just as it had on our boat.  I popped it back on and “Voila!” the engine cranked and we were back in business.   

This was, I’ll say it, my kind of “shining moment” as a newbie captain because it seemed like such a Kretschmer-style “hand me a piece of duct tape and a coat hanger and I’ll get this engine running” kind of fix.  While the crafty sailing in the ICW to prevent us from running aground earlier on Saturday was definitely much harder and more impressive to me, it was really cool to see the look on Phillip’s face when Phil was mesmerized by my quick fix.  I could tell he was so proud.  That really did feel good.  It’s funny, there’s not a lot of truly really-hard-to-fix problems you face on a boat, usually, it’s determining what’s causing the problem that is the hard part and the fix is really simple.  And, the easiest problems to face are ones you’ve experienced before, just as this one was.

 More importantly, this particular failure to re-crank—because it seemed so different (the sound and the cause) and had left us bobbing (thankfully in enough water at the time) for our longest stretch yet, about twenty minutes at night—was a moment Phil was just about ready to call Boat U.S. for a tow.  He was looking up the number when I recalled the “magic wire.”  So, for this reason as well, it was a very timely, fortuitous fix.  I could also tell Phillip had much more trust in me when he rose instantly when the engine died (I swear that man’s body gets immediately in tune with any boat he does a passage on), he also immediately checked out when I re-connected the wire and the engine re-cranked.  I don’t even think Phil and I were done Whoo-Hoo’ing by the time Phillip crashed back out, which is rare for him to check so easily out of a boat problem and leave it all to me.  Phil looked at me and asked if I was ready to go.  I said “Yep,” and manned my post back spotting again, with Phillip sleeping soundly again below and me, to be honest, feeling pretty darn cool at the bow. 

Oh, and Keith slept right through all of that shit.  Opening the engine compartment, bumbling around the cabin, lights shining everywhere, multiple attempts to re-crank and us shouting back and forth from the helm to the engine below—none of that phased him on the starboard settee.  The man was out.

 

Sunday, 6:28 a.m.:  Phil and I are rewarded with a beautiful sunrise.  The engine had run solid for a couple of hours, then died again around 6:30 a.m.  Crew believes it is a constant “crud in the fuel” problem.  We wait a few minutes, re-crank and continue motoring in the ICW toward Destin.

This really was a stunning sunrise.  I could take a thousand pictures.  I love when it’s a glowing pink ball on the horizon.  And, it was neat to see Phil experience this for the first time from the helm of his boat.  Phil and I were also both exhausted, having held shift since 3:00 a.m. that morning, but the sunrise rejuvenated us and reminded us why we were out there.  Tired, dirty, sweaty, and we didn’t even care.  Even the intermittent engine failures didn’t bother us by then, they were so common and the engine always seemed to re-crank after a few minutes, we just shrugged it off.  “Look at that sunrise, would ya?  What bad could possibly await us?”

 

 

Sunday, 10:46 a.m.:  Naked rower.  Nuff said.

The naked rower!  That’s what awaited us.  After handing the helm over to Phillip and getting some much-needed post-sunrise sleep, I was perched up at the bow mid-morning, reading while we were motoring through another beautiful section of the ICW, an untouched river, and we saw a rower ahead off of our starboard bow.  He was on a kayak with long paddles extending out both sides.  Out of habit from the night before (anyone at the bow should be keeping a bit of a watch for things in the water), I looked back at Keith, who was holding the helm at the time with a now very-well-understood “You see that?” inquiry and Keith immediately clocked the boat a bit over to port to give the rower some room. 

As we began to near him, though, I started to notice the highly-visible tan line on the man’s back, followed by a blindingly-white not-so-tan section below and below that, the very beginnings of a crack.  I looked back to the boys in the cockpit to see if they were seeing what I was unfortunately seeing and it seemed they all were as the chatter had stopped and all eyes were on the rower.  As he passed me at the bow, I could see he was probably nearing eighty, but in fantastic shape, with weathered, leathery skin.  Well, everywhere but there, but you couldn’t really see much of his nether regions with his rowing hands in the way.  And he didn’t seem a bit embarrassed or apologetic that he was, well, rowing by us naked.  A bit impressed by his bravado, I gave him a little wave.  He smiled, laid one paddle down and raised his arm to wave back.  Lesson learned: Never wave at a naked rower. 

 I did not get a picture of the rower.  

But, we did have a very fun morning motoring up “the river,” that day.  Chef Phillip also grilled up some fabulous burgers for lunch (and only dropped one patty overboard.)  Phillip called it a sacrifice to Neptune, “or whatever other Sea God inhabits the ICW.” 

   

Sunday, 12:35 p.m.:  Engine dies.  Yes, again.  Thankfully, in the rather large body of water in Choctawatchee Bay just before the Mid-Bay bridge to Destin.  Crew knows the routine by now.  I take the helm to do some “creative sailing” while Phil and Phillip investigate and eventually decide to change the fuel filters.

Thankfully the shoals in this bay weren’t near as tight as those in Apalachicola Bay, so this wasn’t bad sailing at all.  We had light winds between 9 and 11 knots, enough to push around back and forth while Phil and Phillip disassembled the secondary fuel filter.  The furling drum on the forestay was giving us some trouble.  Phillip and looked at it and it seemed like it had dropped about six inches down toward the pulpit and was really chafing the furling line on the opening of the drum when furling.  It didn’t seem like a really big issue at the time—the sail was out and doing its job—so it did not supersede the faulty fuel system on our “stuff we gotta deal with first” list.  Keith read up on Nigel Calder’s diesel engine maintenance book and actually picked up a few good pointers on how to bleed the fuel system of air once we got the new filter on.  Phil learned how to hack up a plastic water gallon, Annie-style, to catch fuel from going into the bilge, and Phillip had fun watching this newbie boat owner get all sweaty and grimy in the cramped aft berth.  Been there.  Done that.  Soiled the t-shirt.

But Wild Phil was a trooper, getting down there elbow-deep in diesel and fumes, holding back sea-sickness while we were bobbing around.  He and Phillip were able to change the filter on the fuel pump, but they were struggling with the secondary filter, so Phil decided to just dismount the entire globe from the bilge wall.  When he pulled it out and sent it topside for cleaning, Keith and I were both surprised at the amount of crud in the bottom.  It was thick and grainy and likely causing all of our engine problems.  In addition to the grime in the bottom of the globe, the filter itself (which we understood had just been recently changed in Carrabelle) was already a deep black and in need of changing again.  Good for Phil for getting spare fuel filters!  Bad for Phil for getting the wrong type.  Granted, it didn’t sound like it was really his fault.  He had ordered them through Mechan-Eric’s Marine Services office gal in Carrabelle, simply asking for fuel filters for his Catalina, assuming, having just changed the fuel filters for him, they would pull the right type but, for whatever reason, they were not the right type. So, Wild Phil was armed with four spare secondary fuel filters that didn’t fit and facing a dismembered fuel system that would need re-assembly and manual bleeding, only to continue sucking dirty fuel and likely shutting down every couple of hours during another night motoring up the narrow ICW.  It was about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon that he made the call.

   

Sunday: 4:38 p.m.:  Phil decides to call Boat U.S. for a tow.  Fuel system is disassembled with no secondary replacement fuel filters onboard and not enough wind to sail safely under the Mid-Way Bridge or to an available marina.  Boat U.S. responds and advises tow boat will arrive in 45 minutes.  Plan is to be towed to Bluewater Bay Marina in Niceville.

Phil took this like a champ.  Coming up sweaty and stinky—not to mention a little green from his engine work while bobbing around in diesel fumes in the aft berth—but he was still cracking jokes about it.  “Well, I did say I wanted experience,” he laughed as he punched in the number.  And boy was he getting it.  Phillip and I have never had the pleasure of being pulled by Boat U.S. or Sea Tow in our boat yet (knock on freaking wood!) and I’d never been towed period.  While that experience would be new, in and of itself, to me, what I was not expecting was the “experience” we got when the Boat U.S. Captain almost took off our …  You know what?  I’ll save the experience of my first sea tow for another post. Captain Mo (we’ll call him) deserves a post all his own.  It was a damn rodeo.

  

Sunday, 5:48 p.m.:  Phillip holds the helm while Captain Mo with Boat U.S. tows us into the Bluewater Bay Marina.  We dock the Catalina, wash her down and secure the boat for the night.  Phil and Phillip make plans to return the following day with the right fuel filters, change them out and get the fuel system working properly and Phil would then bring the boat the rest of the way another day with a fellow sailor.

Captain Mo … that man.  I can’t wait to tell you about him.  But, first let’s talk about this tow to the dock.  That, itself, is not an easy thing to do.  I had heard friends who had been towed in by Sea Tow before say “they kind of slingshot you in,” but I had yet to experience the pleasure of “being slingshotted” myself.  It’s a bit of a dance and, I can imagine, not one that always ends up with a perfect entry into the slip.  Thankfully, this time, with Phillip at the helm (his first time holding the helm while being towed to a dock) and me at the bow ready to throw the tow line off and make a five-foot leap when the moment was right, we were able to bring Phil’s Catalina in with just a light smack of the rub rail on a piling.  Nothing to it! 

What was funny, though, were the marina’s instructions on how we were supposed to find our spot on the dock.  We were coming in after the marina closed at 5:00 p.m. so they had told Phil on the phone, “We put up a flag at your spot on the dock.”  While being towed in by the delightful Captain Mo, we thought this sounded like a fool-proof plan.  “Perfect, just look for the flag.”  Do you know how many flags fly at marinas?  I had never really noticed before until I found myself at the bow trying to find whatever was to be considered “our” flag.  Just about every boat has a flag.  Many have them on the stern and on the flag halyard.  Some have them all the way up and down halyards like a used car tent.  It seemed like there were a million flags!  All flapping and snickering at us.  We were looking at any available slips, flag or no, to “be slingshotted into” just so we could secure the boat, then move her or coordinate afterward if need be.  While looking, we did spot one available dock with the tiniest little orange flag you’ve ever seen licking the wind.  Seriously, this was probably a 9” flag compared to the dozens of 4-footers waving behind each stern.  It was laughable, but we deemed it “our flag” and signaled Mo to shoot us that way, which he did.  It did feel good to at least have the boat secure, tied up to the dock—not aground or adrift or heading into a bridge—as we all had imagined often each time that darn engine cut out.  Wild Phil’s Catalina wasn’t home, yet, but she was safe and closer. 

 

The Catalina docked safely (again – whew!) in Niceville.

While I may not technically be able to call that a delivery (seeing as how we didn’t actually deliver the boat to its home port in Pensacola), I’ll still call it a success.  This also marked the end of my time on the boat during this delivery.  Phil and Phillip planned to come back to Niceville in the next couple of days—this time with the right fuel filters—change out the fuel filter and get the fuel system working correctly.  Why didn’t I join?  All evidence to the contrary, I do work, and I had a few design projects that needed my attention and, luckily Phillip had a free day he could offer.  I hate that I missed this experience, though, because Phillip’s re-enactment of it that night over drinks was nothing short of an Oscar-worthy performance.

Phillip was standing in the kitchen, legs spread wide, arms on either side out, pulling imaginary lines.  “I was up on deck, with the furling line in one hand and the sheet in the other,” he told me, “trying to sail with whatever little puffs of wind we had, blowing into the sail myself to try and get her to go.”  And he would then do a mock, pull-and-blow.  It was hilarious.  It took half the day, but the report I got was that Phil and Phillip were able to replace the secondary fuel filter, bleed the system and get the engine running again a little after noon.  Afterward, Wild Phil decided to pop out for a “quick sea trial” and run the boat around in the bay to make sure the engine would continue to run for the last leg of his delivery, which he was planning to make the next day.  That’s when things got wild.

Apparently the engine ran fine for a bit, letting Phil and Phillip navigate safely out of the narrow, shoal-lined inlet to the marina.  They cruised around and did some circles in the bay.  Life was great.  Then the engine died.  Of course!  You were totally expecting that, right?  The boys inspected some things.  Everything looked good, Phillip told me.  They waited a bit and tried to re-crank.  That was Phil’s go-to.  “Just give her a few minutes she’ll be fine.”  Not this time.  They bobbed around some more, knowing they didn’t have much time to decide to either sail her in or call Boat U.S. again.  I don’t think Phil could stomach another embarrassing (and, frankly, a bit dangerous in and of itself) tow from Captain Mo, so he made the command decision.  “Sail her in,” he told Phillip and Phillip manned the sails.

All was going well until they started to near the channel entrance, a challenging little dog-leg to maneuver under sail.  With shadowed wind, they were creeping dangerously close to a marker when Phil decided to re-crank at the last minute.  The engine roared to life, he throttled her up to 2,000 rpm “and slammed that baby into gear!” Phillip told me, imitating Phil’s hot throttle move.  Now Phil is faced with the decision to motor safely out of the channel, back into the bay and call his buddy Mo or keep making way through the narrow channel to the marina.  I’m sure you know what he chose.  We call him “wild” for a reason.

They cruise along another twenty feet or so and … Say it with me.  The engine dies again.  Yes, again, this time with docks and waterfront homes to port and a stiff 6 knots of breeze coming over their starboard beam.  Phillip was now doing the same “pinched sailing” I had been eeking out back in Apalachicola Bay, but he said they weren’t going to make it.  The boat was inching closer and closer to collision when Wild Phil again, cranks on a wing and prayer, throttles her up and slams her into gear for another tiny little “turbo-boost” forward before she sputtered out again.  But, Phillip told me it was just enough to let them coast back toward the dock, where Phillip lunged for a piling and Phil docked his boat under sail.  Not a lot people can say they’ve done that.  Phillip and I have, once, and only because Brandon goaded us into it—and very rightfully so, that’s a skill any sailor should try to hone.

Phil called the mechanic there at the marina and he sent one of his guys out to the boat to help figure out what the heck was going on with the fuel system on the Catalina.  Phillip told me this guy, Scott, was great, and took an hour looking over everything, inspecting the filters the boys had replaced, checking the connections at each juncture, bleeding behind Phillip and Phil but finding they had bled the air at every point.  Except for one.  One Phil and Phillip had not seen and one Scott said is kind of rare, on the injection pump.  Sure enough, Scott opened her up, a little whiff of air sputtered out, then a spray of pink fuel and that was it.  One tiny little bubble of air made the difference between Phil’s boat safely docking and crashing into a pier.  Boats … such fun!

With this last point bled, Scott recommended they tie the boat with extra lines on the dock, throttle her up and put her in gear so she could run under load for about an hour to make sure all of the air was out of the system.  The boys did this and Phillip told me the boat ran fine.  Phil made plans to motor the boat the rest of the way (about 12 more hours) from Niceville up to Pensacola the next day with another buddy.  Phillip and I were planning to be on stand-by when Phil came into Bayou Chico to help him get docked up that evening, but Phil called us early, around 5:00 p.m. the following day, to let us know … (can you guess?)

Yep, the engine had died.  Who knew at this point what the heck was going on.  I think we were all so sick of trying to figure out why that darn engine kept puttering out on a consistent basis, we just wanted to get her home.  Phil told Phillip he was out in Pensacola Bay at the time (thankfully with a lot of water around).  We are very lucky in Pensacola to have a large, naturally-deep bay to sail around in.  Apparently, Phil had tried to re-crank so many times, he believed the batteries no longer had the juice to turn the engine over.  Phillip also told Phil if he tried to crank too many times without the engine turning over, raw water could back up in the manifold and get into the engine, causing him way worse problems than the suspected bad fuel.

So, there Phil was again, without an engine and facing the decision to sail in or call for a tow.  “I’m sailing in,” he said.  I told you he was wild.  The right kind, too.  That guy should be the confidence poster-child for new sailors.

Phillip and I ran down to meet Phil at the Palafox Marina, the closest, most easily-navigable marina to him, thinking he could plug in there to recharge the batteries perhaps or stay a couple of days while he got the fuel problem solved.  We didn’t know, but either way, Phil was coming in.  Thankfully, he had a nice, light breeze from the west pushing him downwind toward the marina.  Yet, again, day three in his boat-owning career and here he was about to dock under sail for the second time.

He also told us over the phone as he was coming in that he had run aground that morning trying to get out of the marina in Niceville, but he was able to back the boat up, ease off the shoal and keep going.  He also continued to fight with the furling drum and it eventually chafed through the outer barrier of his furling line and stripped it to the core.  (He learned later from the rigger that the halyard was too loose, which caused the drum to drop and had gotten snagged on the swivel shackle up top, causing the tension and chafe.) So, two more notches in Phil’s “shit happens” belt.

I was amazed at this guy.  Phil really made me feel all of my blubbering and worrying over docking our boat UNDER ENGINE POWER was truly ridiculous.  And, trust me, it was a good feeling.  I’m not saying, plow around in your boat all cocky-like and run into stuff just for fun, but it was a bit of a revelation for me to see a guy so un-phased by it all.  I mean, he probably had the right amount of adrenaline keeping him focused, but there really wasn’t any feat in his boat Phil wasn’t willing to try, accomplishing most of them with impressive skill.  Or luck, either way!

Here Phil comes, sailing into Palafox Marina!

When I asked him how he would rate his second docking under sail, Phil gave me an “eh” hand wiggle, saying he’d do it better next time.  Ha!

But, here’s the kicker.  After Phil docked, under sail, very well I might add at the Palafox Marina, with little help on mine and Phillip’s part, he decided to try one more time to re-crank the engine before plugging in and making a new plan.  And guess what happened?  I’m sure you can.

It’s a boat, right?  I honestly do think they love to f&*k with you.  She cranked right up.  Purred actually.  Phil huffed, laughed, and said “I’m going!”

I was shocked.  This man had some serious sailing cahones.  Surely, that engine was going to die in two minutes, probably right before he could round the concrete seawall and he would now be facing a headwind so light it wouldn’t allow him to navigate under sail.  Also, the Bayou Chico inlet he would be motoring into is super narrow with super shallow shoaling to the south and very-forgiving boats and docks to the north, and Phil was going to trust his very-trustworthy engine to navigate that?  This man was crazy!  I was sure of it.  But before I could tell him that, him and his buddy were off, motoring out of the marina.

Phillip and I were laughing about it while driving over to meet Phil in Bayou Chico.  It’s hard to ever say what the right decision in when cruising.  I just know, now, that Phillip and I definitely fall on the conservative side and Phil, well, he’s a renegade.

About thirty minutes later, though, we saw him rumbling in, just a few slips down from his boat’s new resting place and the engine was still going strong!

For the moment at least.  As Phil neared the slip he hollered to Phillip about whether he should go bow in or try to back the boat in.  I scoffed.

Really dude?!  I’m sure you just spent every last one of your “good luck points” (those are a thing in Annie Land) motoring that tiny little treacherous channel with your funky fuel and now you want to try to back your boat in for the first time ever just … because it would be nice to be able to get on and off easily via the stern?  You do know if something goes awry and we can’t save you, you may no longer HAVE a stern.  You know that right?!

But Phil didn’t seem to pick up all of that, which I was saying with my drop-jaw face.  “I’m backing it in,” he shouted and proceeded to drive past the slip, throw her in reverse and start making his way in, which of course did not go well.  This was probably his first time trying to truly navigate in reverse and we all know sailboats back like a drunken elephant.  Phil started to get the boat cock-eyed and guess what happened?  I swear every bit of this is true.

The damn engine died.

“Son of a!” I heard Phil shout from the cockpit.  I told you luck points were real.  I hopped on the boat his bow was about to hit (a very nice, very new and very much more expensive 45′ Catalina) and fended him off there.  His buddy fended him off a piling mid-ship, and somehow Phillip got a stern line from Phil and was able to wrestle the Catalina into the slip.  It’s a very good thing there was no one right next to him on port or I’m not sure how that would have played out.  But, Phil had done it!  Brought his boat home.  The delivery was done.  And while it does make for a very good tale (and I haven’t even told you the best part yet, just wait for the Captain Mo saga!), what amazed me about this delivery, which didn’t even involve any offshore time, was that it did force new-boat-owner Phil (the wild man) to suffer and overcome many of the things we all fear can and someday  will happen to us on our boats.  Within Phil’s first few days on his boat, he:

  • Had the engine cut out on him in narrow, dangerous channels
  • Had to navigate tight channels under sail alone
  • Had to dock under sail (multiple times)
  • Had to disassemble, diagnose and attempt to repair his engine while underway
  • Had to deal with a faulty furling drum
  • Ran aground, annnddd
  • Had to call for a sea tow

Many of those things I have yet to experience and I’ve been sailing for years.  My best takeaway from this was how experience on your boat, no matter whether it’s good or bad, is really the best thing you can accumulate because the best problem to face on your boat, or any other, is one you’ve faced before.  I know I will never achieve quite the level of bravado of Phil (because frankly, I think a healthy dose of fear helps in making good decisions), I realized many of the things I fear handling are not quite as scary as I had made them out to be.  And for that, Wild Phil, I thank you.

But no more stern-in dude!  That’s just crazy!

Next up, Captain Mo and the rodeo!  Yeehaw!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

My First Delivery Request: a 1992 Catalina 28

“You are not writing about this,” was his only caveat, when Phillip and I agreed to do the delivery.  I knew I shouldn’t have given him a copy of None Such Like It when he was boat-shopping.  But, after the entire saga went down, he knew it was well worth telling the tale.  And, after an agreement to change some names to protect the … bold and brave, I was granted a writer’s exclusive.

Friends, followers, I’m excited to tell you about my first delivery!  And, I say mine, because while Phillip and I did help our buddy, Mitch, bring his Nonsuch from Ft. Myers up to her new home port of Pensacola back in June of 2015, I would easily say I was ranking First Mate at the time, nowhere near Captain.  Not that I am an official USCG Captain … yet (I’ve got just a few more documents to wrestle up before I can send my application to the Coasties), but the boys on this trip were kind enough to let me take more of the lead this time and humor me the title, Captain Annie, for this delivery.

And what a doozie!  As it seems they all are.  And, by that I don’t mean we were battling six-foot waves and thirty-knot winds in the Gulf (this time), because that’s not the kind of experience you have to have every time for it to be a good salty sea tale.  Besides, we all know what my biggest fear is anyway and it’s not out there in the big, open blue.  Say it with me … yes, docking!  That’s sh*t is scary for real.  What was important about this passage, and every passage we go on, is that Phillip and I encountered some situations we had never experienced before, learned some good lessons from it and found ourselves, as we often do, inspired by those we sail with.  In this case, we’ll call him Wild Phil Hickok!

Cue the Old Western whistle and cracking whip sound  *Whoo-psssh*

Wild Phil has been a long-time friend of Phillip’s and had been shopping for a few months for a good, reliable boat he could leisurely sail around Pensacola and to take the family (his wife and two boys) out to spend weekends on the hook.  He had focused on Catalinas as his boat of choice because he knew they were a trusted name and he liked the build quality, design and feel of the cockpit.  What he found was truly a gem.  A 1992 Catalina 28, reportedly in complete working order, down in Tampa (for less than $22k, I might add).  The boat was brought up to Carrabelle for the survey/sea-trial and when our very own Bob Kriegel with RK Marine Services here in Pensacola deemed her “above average condition,” we knew Phil would probably pounce on it.  Wouldn’t you?

It wasn’t long before Phil was inking the line and calling himself a proud new Catalina order and Phillip and I were soon enlisted to help deliver the boat from Carrabelle to her new home port of Pensacola.  Just as we did for Mitch when we were preparing to help him with his delivery, Phillip and I put together a pretty extensive provision and supplies list for Phil for the trip:

Yeah, I know.  A little over the top?  Well, there’s no harm in being over-prepared, right?  What did Phil think of mine and Phillip’s impressive  fore-thoughtedness?

Love that guy.  And, I really can’t tell you why booze is highlighted there.  My Mac must know we pretty well …

Following the recommendations of the surveyor, Phil had the marine service guys in Carrabelle do some work on the alternator and change the fuel filters while the boat was going to be there for a couple of weeks before he could come back to make the delivery. It was actually the same “Mechan-Eric” Phillip and I had hired to put in our new transmission after our first famous failure to deliver our own boat all the way home on the first try, and (way more importantly) he was the guy who approved my duct-tape and Dasani-bottle “catchment bin” to capture our leaking transmission fluid and pour it back in.

    

Ironic?  Not really.  There’s only one mechanic in Carabelle.  But it did bring back some very fun memories when we pulled up to Phil’s new boat and found it docked in the very same place ours was, just four short years ago, trying to make her own way home to Pensacola.

Phil’s Catalina, 2017:

Our Niagara, 2013:

It seemed Carrabelle was a rite of passage.  And while mine and Phillip’s adventure getting our Niagara home from Punta Gorda, FL—which included hacking off the flailing dinghy in the Gulf, having the old transmission eat itself alive, enduring a six-week separation while the boat was in Carabelle having the new transmission put in, only to have the new one leak little red tears into a Dasani catchment system that had to be dunked back into the engine every hour—was quite the experience, it honestly seemed like a little bit of nothing when we saw what Wild Phil had to go through before he finally got his boat home to Pensacola.  In just a few short days, Phil had already accomplished more feats and suffered more failures than many boat owners do … well, ever.  Phil was adamant about holding the helm, handling problems and getting as much experience as possible, good or bad, and I can easily say he’s now (just a week into boat ownership) done more than I have at the wheel.  So, kick back, buckle up, and let this tale begin.

The boys and I—Phillip, his buddy Keith, and our fearless owner, Wild Phil—set off for Carrabelle around 2:00 a.m. Friday, August the 11th.  These working stiffs had so much to do on Fri-DAY (and evening), we only had time to rest for a few hours Friday night before waking at 1:00 a.m. to drive straight to the boat and shove off at dawn on Saturday morning in hopes of getting the boat back to Pensacola by Monday mid-day at the latest so they could go back to work if possible.  Work …  At an office … Who does that anymore? ; )  A 5:00 a.m. Wal-Mart run to pack out the car, a nice sunrise drive, then a pack-out of the boat and we were ready to shove off around 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning.

What this did not leave us (and it was something I was little worried about when they told me the plan) was time to assess and scour the boat to really get familiarized with her and go through our spares inventory.  A lesson to myself later: I should have done this on my own right out of the gate.  On my next delivery I will, and I will probably make a “yacht delivery” checklist, so I am confident I, personally, know where all the sea-cocks and thru-hulls are (as well as the plugs), how to locate, check and fill all the engine fluids, whether there is water in the bilge (and note the level), etc.  But this time, I didn’t.  I unpacked the food, oohed and ahhed over the condition of the boat, chatted with the guys and took a selfie.  I’ll get better at this delivery Captain stuff, I promise.  Or hope, at least.  It really was an impressive boat, though, for the age and price.  Definitely Annie-approved!

Phil and his lovely wife, Pam, who was nice enough to shuttle us down to Carrabelle in the middle of the night.  As far as making the delivery with us?  She said: “You guys have fun!  I’ll see you in Pensacola.”

Little did she know, we wouldn’t quite make it that far … On the first try anyway.  Black crud, thick mud, and a sea tow stud are in store for you.  Stay tuned, friends, the tale of my first delivery will soon begin!

 

Posted in Boat Projects, Sail Skills | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mind, Body, Free: Life Design by NikkiB

What inspires me?  It’s people, you see?  People like me, and people very unlike me.  People who seek out, overcome and achieve.  Particularly this one: NikkiB!

 Photo credit : Val Hawks

You know that moment when you meet someone you just know is going to be a part of your life from that day forward, in some capacity?  Well, and I shouldn’t say know.  I’ll say hope.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life is that it can all change tomorrow.  You meet people.  You connect with people.  You lose people and you learn from people.   And I have learned so much from this fiesty, fiery little gal.  Even as strangers we sensed it.  Every moment we spent together we became less and less strange to one another and more and more connected.  People like Nikki make you laugh, smile, think, challenge yourself and see the things they have accomplished in a way that makes you want to charge the battlefield and conquer your own. I believe Nikki and I felt that way about each other the day we met.

Okay, okay, we didn’t meet up on a mossy rock in the mountains.  That’s from mine and Phillip’s recent trip to Denver to visit Nikki, which is what inspired me to write this post as Nikki and I have traveled a similar path since the day we met: blazing new career paths, striking out into areas of the world that were once foreign to us, striking out into industries that were foreign to us and searching and grasping for those things that connect our mind and body with the world around us and make us feel free.  That’s NikkiB’s mantra: Mind. Body. Free.

But, where was Nikki when I found her?  Not so free.  Stuck in a place she did not want to be.  Nikki and I both actually remember that day, because we were both in very different places at the time.  In addition to some hobby writing and struggling book sales after leaving the law practice (which was earning me just about enough to eat canned beans every night), I was also selling ads for a local magazine.  Yep.  Door-to-door salesman right here.  And, while I was pretty good at it (it helps being charismatic at times), I found it draining, stressful, not very rewarding and just not the right fit for the life I wanted to live.  And, Nikki?  A similar situation.  As a Navy pilot’s wife, she had spent the last handful of years being uprooted and transplanted from one city to the next, struggling to build a career and life for herself and to figure out what she really wanted to do.  While Nikki was an accomplished yoga instructor, a seasoned traveler, photographer and writer as well as a talented aerial silks artist, she knew these weren’t really attributes that translated well to steady income and–knowing travel was a huge priority in her life–Nikki wanted to build a career that offered work that challenged her, engaged her creativity and that she could do remotely.  Anything of this sound like a common struggle to you?

At the time, Nikki was working in a yoga studio, which was fun, but demanded many, many hours of her time (weekends and evenings included) for, again, not the kind of money or work freedom that was going to graduate her from canned beans to exploring Cambodia.

I popped into the studio one day (trying to get them to buy an ad in the magazine, of course), met the magnetic NikkiB and BOOM.  Magic.  A lifelong friendship was forged.  Nikki was hopping around on some Kangaroo boots, in spandex with more colors than I knew even existed.  I was actually (every bit of this is true) leaving the next day for mine and Phillip’s first big cruise on our boat to the Florida Keys in April, 2014, which Nikki was totally absorbed by, and we instantly ignited.  Nikki and I actually ended up doing a photo shoot for the magazine together after I returned (in conjunction with the yoga studio’s ad in the magazine … I told you I was good) which I think was an “Aha!” moment for us both, spending hours getting slathered with makeup only to spend more hours taking staged photos in a studio.

It all felt so canned, when we both knew all we wanted was to be out, abroad, unbridled.  Free!  After that shoot, Nikki and I scrubbed the gunk off of our faces, grabbed my aerial silks and headed to sea!  We hung my silks off the pier at Pensacola Beach, which I’m quite sure was a slight bit of trespassing but it was totally worth it.

This was one of my last days with Nikki in Pensacola and I will never forget it.  Isn’t she stunning?

    

Love that face.  I think it was soon after that day (and a few more wine-induced “Where’s my life going?” girlfriend rants) that Nikki made the bold decision to take charge and change her life forever.

“I’m moving to Colorado,” she said.

“What, really?  Alone?  Why? ” I asked, surprised at the seeming randomness of it.  Colorado?  I’d never heard her mention the word before …  “What’s out there?”

“My new life,” Nikki said.

Nikki knew design, creativity and the creation of photos, videos, articles, etc. was something she was passionate about but she also knew she needed a degree and the technical know-how to create these things digitally (as that is clearly where the world is going).  The tough choice for Nikki, here, was that she was going to have to do it alone.  Her husband, Chris, was still serving in the Navy and would have to remain in Florida while she struck out for a year, solo, to get her degree.  What did Chris have to say about this?

“If it takes one year for you to find what makes you happy, I’ll pack your bags myself.”

You see?  Inspiring.  And off Nikki went.  It was tough to lose a friend like that, but a friend like that you never really lose.  They just move and travel and grow and, in between the times you meet up with them in really cool places like Denver (but I’m sure some day Nikki and I will unite again in Bali, Cambodia or even the Bahamas), you share fun emails, texts and photos to stay connected.  Even though sometimes, being wrapped up in our busy lives, Nikki and I would go a couple of months without checking in, the moment we re-connected, it always felt like no time had passed between us at all.  With Nikki and I, our “check-ins” were often just a photo titled “POL”  for Proof of Life:

Nikki: “POL!”

Annie: “POL back : )”

I am incredibly proud to say Nikki conquered her fears, moved out to Colorado in 2015 to strike out on a path all her own, and she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a diploma in Web Design and Development from the Art Institute of Colorado in June, 2016, having conquered 40 very tough hours of course work in just one short year.

Nikki is now a talented (and highly-utilized) freelance digital designer specializing in User Experience and Interface Design.  And, no one is more proud of her than Chris.  While working as a freelance designer, just since June, 2016, Nikki and Chris have traveled to France, Switzerland, Italy and Asia.  Nikki even did a solo trip by herself to Costa Rica.  She has done it!  Designed and built the very life she wanted.  If any of you out there are looking to create a smart, attractive website or custom app for your business, NikkiB is exactly where you need to start.  I have included her website link below and quick bio, sharing her passion for digital design, as well as her very fun Instagram photos that really highlight the challenging, exciting life Nikki lives.  As she should.  She designed it that way.  And while she was building a digital design career for herself, I found myself inspired and enjoying the challenge of building my own online marketing/writing career that now allows me to travel and work remotely much like Nikki.  Many you out there ask me often how you, too, can build a career that allows you to travel and work at the same time.  Well, NikkiB is one inspiring example.  Know that it will not be easy.  It will often require tough, difficult choices and sacrifices, as well as failures.  It can be a very challenging mountain to climb, but as Nikki said: “after the fog has lifted, you find yourself at a place you could have never dreamed-it’s better.”  If you want a better life, you have to design it.

 Nikki Beck @ NikkiBeck.info

Art Institute of Colorado

Diploma, Web Design and Development, Summa Cum Laude
I create experiences – ones that leave a lasting impression. I am a digital designer specializing in User Experience and Interface Design. I have had the opportunity to work with big brands as well as local small businesses. I strategically plan, research, and test concepts to optimize a user’s interaction with an app or website. I enjoy problem solving and integrating effective UX into an aesthetically pleasing design. I’m inspired most when I get to push creative and technological limits to help clients connect with their customers. I love what I do and sharing that passion with others. When I’m not designing, I’m climbing or riding around the world and taking photos along the way – rock, snow, ice, surf, silks. If it requires a board or movement upwards, I’m there.
– Nikki B
Nikki’s Journey:
  
You recognize that boat don’t you?  ; )
Nikki’s Photos:
   
Find inspiration wherever you can and hold onto those who inspire you.
Posted in Aerial Silks, Landlubber Outings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion: Our Top 10 Varnish Tips

There they were.  Dozens of bobbing boats.  Striking reds to canary yellows. Their hulls glistening from the wet shine of the water.  Then, hours later, they were laid over on their side in the dismal mud.  Looking more dismal themselves because of it. This happened twice a day and took our breath away.

But what do I know about these seemingly disheveled boats?  They must have been in shipshape!  Friends, we were in Roscoff!  Captain Yannick’s village back in France that we sailed to across the Atlantic Ocean from Pensacola last summer.

These photos were literally from our first few hours in France.  A couple of wide-eyed ocean-crossers wandering the cobblestone streets!

And, we had the perfect built-in tour guide.  Yannick himself, who took us around, showed us the fantastic, ancient churches in the downtown square, the cobblestoned streets, the beautiful waterfronts and delicious bakeries, and the even more ancient and even more fantastic castles right next to his very own home.  Yes.  Castles.  People live in castles in France!  And, before we were off to Paris, Yannick made sure we got the very best crepes Roscoff could offer.

  

It was a mesmerizing, humbling visit.  But one of the things Phillip and I remember most about that stunning coastal village were the tides.  Breathtaking tides that rose and lowered more than twenty feet at a time, twice a day.  The beautiful bay we walked along every day to go get our croissant and café, a colorful, glistening pool of boats in the morning was a brown, dry lake bed of boats in the afternoon.

I’d never seen anything like it.  The rather large boats were cleated to the seawall in such a fashion that they would simply sink until their hull touched bottom and then remain fastened tight and upright to the wall.  The boats on mooring balls or anchor, however, out in the bay would drop down with the tide until their hulls, too, reached the bottom and fall gently to one side or the other as the water slipped away.  Many of the sailboats actually had wooden props fastened to their sides to help hold them in a more upright position.  They stuck off like training wheels in the mud.  Can you imagine knowing your boat was going to “run aground” (although I guess that’s technically a “lay aground”) twice a day?  Other than the training wheels, how would you prepare your boat for that?  I’ll tell you: By keeping her shipshape.

And what does your mind automatically spout out after that?  That’s right.  And Bristol fashion!  But do you know why?

Friends, I had the idea to write a fun blog post for you all after we finished our varnish project this summer to share some of the lessons we learned along the way.  (And of course the rewards.  Yes, yes.  Total boat wood porn is coming I can assure you.  Be excited!)  I then had the idea to call it “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” and realized I didn’t really know the origin of the phrase.  You know me.  I love words, and I love to learn how phrases we commonly throw around originally came to be.  For example, do you know where the phrase “wet your whistle” comes from?  I’ll be honest, I always thought it was because our heads are a bit whistle-shaped, with a round bulbous head and a then a thin little neck sticking off.  So, I thought wetting your “whistle” (your neck and noise-maker) would mean taking a drink.  As usual, I was very wrong, but happily so.  Turns out, many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service.

You see?  Isn’t that cool to learn?  So, what about this quirky “shipshape and Bristol fashion” phrase?  Phillip and I were throwing it around often during the weeks we recently spent putting many, many coats of varnish on our wood, but if I was going to write about it, I wanted to know about it.  And, as a learning adventure often is, it turned out to be a very fun Aha! moment for me and a unique trip down memory lane.

The Origin of Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

Apparently over some 200 years ago, the Port of Bristol was a thriving English seaport where many large vessels came via the Bristol Channel to bring cargo to England via the Avon River.  Much like Roscoff, the tidal range in the Port of Bristol was significant, rising and falling some 14 meters (45 feet) each day.  Talking about having to use the Tide Tables to calculate high and low tide!  Ships moored in the Port of Bristol would lay aground at low tide and, because of their keels, would fall to one side.  If the cargo, goods and supplies aboard the boat were not stowed away tidily or tied down, everything tumbled and valuable cargo could be lost and spoiled.  Meaning, boats that were kept tidy and in the highest standards of seamanship were considered to be “shipshape and in Bristol fashion.”  I can assure you the lovely Plaintiff’s Rest isn’t quite there yet …

(as we are elbow-deep in boat projects this summer), but she will be!  And, most importantly, her wood definitely is right now, as we just completed our varnish project for (hopefully) the next couple of years!  Thankfully, our Niagara 35 doesn’t have a tremendous amount of wood.  Frankly, for us, it seems the perfect amount.  Just enough to give her a nice, classic sailboat accent but not enough to overwhelm us with the upkeep.  And, we’re hopeful now, by using a new product this year (Awlwood) we’ll have to do even less upkeep on the varnish in years to come.  For a brief HaveWind varnish history, we stripped the majority of our wood (the eyebrow, handrails, stern rail, grate, swim ladder steps, cockpit table, etc., everything but the companion way) bare back in 2013 and put 10 coats of Schooner’s Gold on it.

 

We lightly scuffed and threw a couple more coats on again in early 2015.  However, this year, we knew it was time to scrape down to bare again on some pieces (particularly our eyebrow which had been flaking since last fall).  But we said “Screw that, we’re going to Cuba instead!”  Ha!  And, it wasn’t a mistake.  But, varnish was definitely high on the list this year.  The handrails still looked very good.  We had our local canvas guy (Tony with Coastal Canvas) make us some custom handrail covers back in 2015 and they have worked very well to protect and preserve the varnish on our handrails.

Our eyebrows, unfortunately, do not hold up as well because each time it rains, or the deck gets wet from spray or dew, the water eventually rolls down and sits until it evaporates on the top of the brow.  That’s why our brow looked like this by the end of 2016:

That is definitely not Bristol fashion.  Shame on you Plaintiff’s Rest crew!

Our stern rail also needed to be brought down to bare wood as it gets a lot of exposure on the back to spray and rain with no protection.

While we were pleased with the Schooner’s Gold we had used in 2013, Brandon with Perdido Sailor told us about a new product that he had been hearing good things about: Awlwood made by Awlgrip.

Brandon said he’d heard if applied right and enough coats, this stuff can hold up for three years before it even needs light coats in between.  What did we say?  Heck yeah!  While wet wood on a boat is pretty, brightwork is not our favorite thing to do.  So, we were excited about trying out this new product.  While the application process was a bit tedious (because the product is designed to chemically bond with the wood, that’s what apparently makes it last so long), Phillip and I were very pleased with the end-product, the color, coats and glassy look and we’re optimistic that it will last as long as promised.  We applied two primer coats (which had to cure 24 hours in between), two initial gloss coats (which also had to cure 24 hours in between), then an additional eight gloss coats two a day (just for good measure).  We also scuffed and re-applied a few preventative coats of Schooner’s Gold on everything else (the handrails, companionway, grate and cockpit table).  For now, the varnish on the entire boat is done.  The wood is glassy and stunning and, on the outside at least, we’re proud to say Plaintiff’s Rest is in shipshape and Bristol fashion:

   

Now that the project is behind us, we’d like to share with you …. (drumroll please):

Our Lessons Learned and Top 10 Varnish Tips

 1.  Be a good stripper!

While we have heard there are products out there that help release old varnish from the wood, we’ve found a five-in-one scraper and some heat is the easiest method.  Elbow grease is usually your best friend.  But for varnish that is still really thick (like on our boat the section of the eyebrow that is protected under the dodger), I put about 15 seconds of heat on it until the varnish bubbles, then it comes right off.

2.  Filling Cracks & Gouges

Unfortunately, one of the bad things about stripping with a five-in-one tool is the occasional gouge in the wood.  While this didn’t happen to us often, I’ll admit to taking out  a few chunks when I was heavy in the stripping.  Sorry gal!  But, aside from the occasional gouge, we also had a few cracks in our eyebrow and stern rail that we wanted to fill and smooth out before varnishing.  We could have used wood putty but Brandon recommended just filling them with epoxy for a much heartier fix, so we did that.

I was worried at first, however, that the epoxy would show through the Awlwood because our epoxy patches were so dark, almost brownish-black.  But, after nearly a dozen Awlwood coats all told, they completely blended and the wood now looks smooth and the color uniform.

3.  Washing the Teak

The wood prep process for the Awlwood was, I’ll admit, a bit tedious but it should be well worth it if that stuff really sticks for three years.  We had to strip the wood down completely bare and wash it.

Yes, wash the teak.  And it was crazy to see how much orange came out of it.  Like we were literally washing the orange oils out.  And it was so sad and grey afterward, I was afraid it wouldn’t get back to that beautiful teak hue (but never fear, it did!).  At Brandon’s recommendation, we used a half-gallon of ammonia with a half-gallon of water, a couple tablespoons of Cascade dishwasher detergent and a squirt of Dawn and it worked like a charm.  We washed our brow and stern rail a few times scrubbing with a Scotch Brite pad against the grain of the wood.

4.  Ditch the Tape!

While Phillip and I thought we were doing a great job back in 2013 carefully taping off all of our handrail bases and the eyebrow so we could varnish without leaving a drop on the deck, we wrong … so very wrong.

It was way harder (and took weeks longer) to pull and pick all the tiny little flecks of blue tape that remained after we’d finished varnishing.  You can see them here around the handrail base as the tape would tear when we were pulling it off.

  

Now, did we make a mistake in leaving that tape out for a couple of weeks in rain and weather (which caused it to deteriorate and meld to the boat)?  Yes, but the varnish, itself, that seeped onto it around the handrail bases and under the brow also caused it to adhere to the boat.  And it didn’t even prevent all of the leaks onto the deck anyway.  I spent many afternoons on anchor with a dental pick trying to get all of the little blue flecks and yellow varnish drops off.  And, the worst part.  The tape pulled chunks of white paint off of our port lights, making them look very un-Bristol like!

No more tape!  Now we just paint carefully and keep a little wet tray of acetone- (or brushing liquid)-soaked Q-tips nearby while painting to catch any accidental dribbles.  It’s really not that hard to not get it on the deck, or wipe it up quick if you do. We will never tape again!

5.  Watch the Weather

But, even if you do, it’s going to rain.  Trust me, it just is.  It’s like washing your car.  The minute you check the weather, decide you’re safe and get a good, wet coat on, thunderheads will start to appear.  You’ll hear rumbles in the distance.  And you’ll start frantically fanning or blowing on your wood hoping it will cure in time to fend off those mean little rain drops.  But if, like us, you decide to put on many, many coats, there’s just a chance one time, right after you put a coat on, it’s going to rain!

“Fight back varnish!  Hold the line!” we would tell it.  And, two things we were pleased to see with the Awlwood: 1) the further we got into the coats, the quicker they began to dry (sometimes in just under 15 minutes), and 2) even if you did happen to get a light drizzle that left little pockmarks in your last coat, it was easy to sand down and lay another coat on.

6.  Watch the Dew!

This was a bit of a new one for us.  Because we’ve been doing boat projects around our somewhat normal day jobs, we were rising very early in the morning to get one coat of varnish on in the a.m., then returning in the afternoon/evening to get another coat on before nightfall.  I will say, it did become a very nice routine seeing the sun rise over our girl’s stern every morning.  Good morning pretty girl!

But, coming to the boat to do varnish in the early hours meant we often found our boat covered in drops of dew.

While that’s no big deal–just dry the wood and varnish–where we made a mistake was to just wipe the wood, not the entire deck.  We often found then, while we were laying on a coat (and walking around the boat causing her to list from one side to the other), the rest of the drops on the deck would converge and come running down to our wet varnish in little streams leaving dried drop marks behind later.  So, if you’re going to do the dew, make sure you dry the entire deck too.

7.  Our Thoughts on Awlwood

As I mentioned, this was our first time using the Awlwood product.  While the prep process and application guide were a bit of a headache, I’m thinking it’s going to be well worth it in the end.  The first two coats we did were the primer and we could tell as we applied them how well they were truly bonding with the wood.  The color immediately stayed “wet” and the primer left the visible grain of the wood behind which told me it wasn’t just coating but actually seeping deep down in.

 

Then the first few coats of the gloss started to bring out just a touch of shine.

But after all layers were applied the brow was just as glassy as the handrails and we could tell from a close inspection of the wood how truly thick the Awlwood varnish on her really is.  I don’t think we’ll have water intrusion, even on the top of the brow, for a very long time!

Another nice benefit of the Awlwood product Phillip has told me is that if you get a nick in the varnish later (say something hits the brow and knocks a chuck out down to the wood), unlike Schooner’s varnish you can fill the nick with Awlwood gloss and essentially “varnish it away” without having to go down to all bare wood again.  This is because the primer remains bonded with the wood, so only the gloss coats can be chipped and they can also be repaired without having to go through the entire process again.  That’s pretty cool!

8.  Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

At least don’t sweat it out doing it outside … if you don’t have to.  If you have a home, condo, garage, shed, etc. where you can set up all the portables to do coats inside, that makes it so much nicer than sweating it out doing in the hot sun on the boat.  It also allows you to get more coats on after sunlit hours or when it’s raining or wet outside.

Man look at the mirror shine on the table!  You can literally read the Schooner’s can in the varnish!  

Sorry … I get a little excited about wet wood!  ; )

One thing we do NOT paint inside anymore, though?  Is these!

Our stinking swim step ladders!  Why?  Because we decided to …

9.  Get a Little Plasteak With It

I know, I know.  We’re supposed to be purists, mostly.  While we do love the wood on our boat and are happy to do a little varnish work every few years to keep it looking its utmost Bristol-ey, these guys were just “Killing us Smalls!”  As you all know, we have a boat for a reason.  We love the water.  We love to sail.  We love to kite-surf.  And, we love to swim.  Which means our swim ladder spends a good bit of time in the water when we’re out on the hook.  And we found, even when we stripped these down bare and slapped something like 12 coats of Schooner’s on, that within just 6 months (only 6?!), they were already starting to flake and turn yellow.  Phillip and I finally said “screw it” and ordered up some Plasteak steps for the swim ladder last fall.

They look totally fine next to the varnish on the stern rail and we have never regretted the decision.  Our steps still look absolutely brand new going on about a year and a half now.

9.  “I’d Do Ten”  

And you have to say that in a “Brandon voice” — all gruff and scratchy.  We love that guy.

Ironically, speaking of Roscoff, that was an open-mouth selfie (Yannick’s favorite) that we took to send to Yannick in Nice, France.  

And, we’ve been saying that for years.  Anytime the number ten comes up in conversation, Phillip and I cock our head back and blurt it out: “I’d do ten.”  Why?  Because that’s what Brandon told us waaaaay back (he’s been with us from the start) in 2013 when we were just starting our very first varnish project.  Phillip and I were ordering up our Schooner’s, researching application methods, etc., having no idea entirely how big the project was going to be or how many coats we would put on.  I’m sure we were both thinking something like three to five.  Then we asked Brandon and, after a thoughtful pause, he said “I’d do ten.”

I’m sure that’s what Phillip and I both looked like.  Ten?!  Are you for freaking real??  But, he most definitely was.  And, so that’s how many we did the first time.  And this time, we really kind of did 12 because we did two primer coats and then an additional 10 coats of gloss.  But, what we learned in varnishing is that the prep work is really the hardest part.  Once the wood is ready, slapping the coats on is nothing.  Sometimes it only takes a quick, rewarding 15 minutes at the boat.  And, if you’re going to take the time to prep the wood, why not spend just another couple of days putting ten coats on as opposed to just six or seven.  You’ll be glad you did two years later when your varnish is still Bristol and banging!  At least that’s our mantra.  Plaintiff’s Rest’s wood is most definitely in shipshape and Bristol fashion now and we’re expecting her to stay that way for a couple of years at least.  Hope these varnish tips have helped.  Happy Painting Peeps!

Posted in Atlantic Crossing, Boat Projects | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Swimming With Sharks!

“What are we doing?”  “I can’t tell you.  It’s a surprise.  I just need your shoe size.”  That’s all I knew.  While Phillip planning some total surprise for me—just on any given day, and especially when we travel—is totally normal, this was one of the first times I was overwhelmingly intrigued by it.  Riddled with the thought of it.  Excited by the unknown prospect of it.  One of the many (many) things that make Phillip and I work so well is that he loves to plan: trips, excursions, first-time experiences and random, active adventures for us.  And me?  I love to do it, all of it, every bit of it.  Seriously, pretty much any outdoor/active/artsy thing he has in mind for us.  Phillip has surprised me with spur-of-the-moment bike tours, walking haunted house excursions, random rock-climbing, pub crawls, even a super intense personal trainer session for me and I loved them all.

That last one, in particular, was a ton of fun.  The Sweat Social out of New Orleans.  Phillip told me we were going for an “adventure run” off of Bourbon Street.  “Okay, cool,” I thought.  I love to run.  Well … jog … semi-fastly.  Let’s put it that way.  But as we jogged along the bank of the Mississippi River near Hannah’s Casino in downtown New Orleans, I ran by a spunky little gal thumping out some awesome booty music, setting up a few yoga mats for a private river-view fitness session and I thought: “Man, that would be cool.  A private pump-it-up session on the streets of New Orleans.”  I tapped Phillip who was running ahead of me and pointed out Street-Fit Frida to him with a thumbs up.  He laughed, smiled, but kept running and I left Frida in my rearview, thinking nothing more of it.  But then Phillip circled around, jogged slowly up to the little circle of yoga mats and said “Surprise!”  I soon found the little private Sweat Social workout session on the Mississippi River was for me.  Me??  You see?  Totally cool shit like that!  Phillip plans it all the time.  He loves to do it and he loves that I will always love to do whatever he plans—no questions asked, with no idea what my day is going to look like.  I just need to know what to wear and if I’m going to get wet.  That last question I forgot to ask this time because, although I didn’t know it, I was about to get very, very wet.

My first thought when Phillip asked for my shoe size, though?  A play date in moon shoes!

Heck yeah!

Or maybe those funky impact-reducing kangaroo boots?  I even thought maybe we were going to some place where you can walk on the walls or ceiling with special Velcro or magnetic boots and gloves.

I would totally do that.  …. Well, with a safety net.  I’m not crazy!  Well, not entirely.

These are serious thoughts that ran through my mind because these are the types of things Phillip might seriously plan for me.  Super cool, right?  What had he actually planned this time?

A dive.  No, take that back.  The best dive of our lives.  To date.

And Phillip has been diving for more than twenty years: for pleasure, in the Marines, as a volunteer search and rescue diver.  He’s gone on hundreds of dives.  I’ve gone on, maybe a dozen.  The best with him, though.  Hands down.  And now the best, ever, for both of us, together.  And it wasn’t out in the Gulf or the Ocean or even a magnificent, secluded cave.  It was in a tank.  In Tampa, Florida.  What made it so special?

We swam with these guys!

 

Yes, sharks.  Right next to us.  We weren’t in a cage.  We weren’t in some protected tank just looking at them.  We were there.  Exposed, in open water, with only a half-inch of neoprene between us and their thousands upon thousands of sharp teeth.  At first it didn’t frighten me because they swam pretty far away but as we got closer and closer, there were a few times I found myself inadvertently in their path as they swam straight toward my face, deciding how best to avoid me, and I did have a few “Don’t freak out Annie, just breathe” moments when the shark locked his eyes on me for a frightening second before he just puttered on by.  It was such an enlightening, frightening, invigorating experience.  Way better than moon shoes I’m sure!  You want one of those moments too?  Well, we’re all suited up …

Whose ready to dive with us?  Some very cool footage for you here from our dive with the sharks, many thanks to the fantastic Dive Masters at the Florida Aquarium who trained us, took us down and graciously filmed the entire dive for us so Phillip and I could share moments like this with you.

Our most important take-away from this dive?  The education and enlightenment as to the true nature of sharks, their docile temperament, the need for them in our oceans and the unfortunate, very human-like tragedy of the greedy, plunder with which we trap, maim and needlessly kill them.  Our highly enthusiastic and passionate aquarium guide and dive masters spent a good bit of time talking with us before-hand about the nature of the sharks, their absolute disinterest in us, particularly as food, and their desire to simply be left alone, to rest, eat and explore.  They also taught us sharks in the wild generally only eat about five times a month and, when they do, unlike the many degrading movies that portray them as human killers, it is not humans.  The occasional reported bite is more often a case of mistaken identity or harassment.

Humans harassing animals?  Noooo!

Don’t you wish that were true?  A shark’s number one enemy is actually humans.  Particularly in China and other Asian countries, where they catch sharks by the hundreds upon hundreds, pull them out of the water for mere seconds to cut their fins off and toss them back—bloody and maimed—where they die in minutes.  Simply because they like shark fin soup.  Knowing that, before Phillip and I went into the tank, changed my perspective entirely.  I didn’t feel as scared as I thought I would.  Rather, I felt sorrow and appreciation for an ancient animal that was put on this earth to help keep it healthy.  What I did not know, but our guide explained to us, is that sharks help keep the oceans and reefs healthy by eating diseased and dying fish.  They help filter the waters of diseases and decay harmful to other fish and marine life.  Yet, there are so fewer sharks in our waters than there used to be because of us.  Greedy humans.  It was humbling.

The dive, itself, however, was mesmerizing.  It was a tank of wonder!  We saw huge sting rays, bright green eels, hundreds of fish, a sea turtle, a nurse shark and, of course, the big beauties we swam with: three tiger sharks, a female approximately 7’5” feet long and two males between 5-6” feet long.  They were slick and silvery, their skin, naturally the color of shimmery low-rider paint, and their thousands of teeth (constantly bared at you because they are always “breathing” water in) scattered in an impressive array in their large mouths.  Because their eyes are located on either side of their skull, they also see two separate fields of vision.  Imagine what that “looks like” and computes to in their brain?  One large panoramic image joining at the bridge of their nose?  I have no idea, but I had a great time imagining what they were seeing.  Especially when they saw me.  A wide, blue-eyed blonde, my hair wafting strangely around my head, these odd appendages sticking out and flailing, and bubbles constantly floating above me.  How strange I must have looked?  Certainly more weird than edible, right?  That’s definitely the impression the sharks gave us as they swam overhead, many times just inches from our heads.  Oh, how my heart pounded!  It was such an amazing experience.  Easily our best dive ever.  And, all because this man decided, yet again, to plan something fun for us.

It only required some spontaneity on my part.  And my shoe flipper size.  Had Phillip said that, I might have had a clue.  But I’d rather not.  Surprises are my favorite.

Posted in Landlubber Outings, Videos | 1 Comment

Captain’s Tribute

A little over 10,000.  That’s how many blue water miles I’ve racked up since I started sailing.  In preparing my Sea Service forms for my Captain’s License application, I’ve had to mentally trek back through my many offshore passages and day-sails to calculate the necessary “days underway” that I need for my USCG 6-pack, and it’s been a very fun journey.  In order to meet the USCG licensing requirements for a 6-pack, I was required to have 360 days on the water, with 90 of those days falling in the last three years and 90 of those days being in ocean or “near coastal” waters.  Luckily for me, the majority of my sailing has occurred in only the last three years so the first portion of that requirement was easy for me to meet.  (It actually shocks me some days to look back and see how much sailing I’ve done so recently.  When you look at the big picture, I really am fairly new to all of this.)

But boy did I take to it!  The day we splashed and re-named our Niagara, just three days after my 31st birthday, May 31, 2013.  With only 400 nm under my belt at the time.  What a ride it’s been!

If any of you are thinking about going for your Captain’s License too, you may be thinking: “What is considered a ‘day underway’ and what does ‘near coastal waters’ mean?”  Good questions.  According to my research and the folks at Mariner’s, a “day underway” is “at least four hours underway,” and “near coastal” waters means seaward of the boundary line.  The boundary line for the western coast of Florida, which is where I’ve done a good bit of my blue water sailing, is 15 nm. Unfortunately, I had not kept up with my sea time from the start.  I would have definitely done that if I had it to do over again because a) it’s humbling and rewarding to look back and reflect on prior passages and b) it’s good to keep up with your sea time in case you ever need to apply it for something like acquiring your captain’s license.  I would recommend any of you out there who may be thinking of getting some accreditation in the marine industry someday keep up with your sea time and have the captains you sail under sign off for you each time you complete a passage.  Here is the Sea Service form the USCG requires for obtaining any license.

You’ll see for each vessel, they ask your “average distance offshore.”  I’ll tell you it was a very cool moment when I was filling out the form for Yannick and I had to think … my average distance offshore during those 30 days across the ocean, had to be at least 1,000 nm+.  That’s wild but so exciting!   I have also since bought a log book so I can do a short, one page write-up on each of the passages I have made, the dates, nautical miles, destination, and one or two memorable moments from the passage.  It’s fun to go back through when I’m feeling nostalgic—or just a little too landlocked—and let my memories take me back to blue waters.

Sunrise on our way to Cuba, December 2016.

It’s been an enlightening, educational and humbling process going back through all of my sea time and reflecting back on those passage.  In doing so, I thought it would be fun to share with you all, the many lessons I have learned from the many captains I have sailed under, the primary being my person, my partner, my forever adventure buddy: Phillip.

 

Captain Phillip

Where to begin …  To the man who—when I come barreling out of a slip at 5 kts and almost take out three boats with both my bow and stern—will say: “It was my fault, honey, I should have … ”  Phillip has had such patience with me from the beginning.  And because we were both so new to the liveaboard cruising lifestyle, it has been so much fun to learn, try, screw up and grow together, both of our hearts 100% invested in each other and our beautiful, frustrating boat.  The greatest lesson I have learned from Phillip is that no matter how hard, or trying or scary any aspect of cruising may be—from running aground, to docking debacles, to discovering you have rotten stringers—it will always be easier, less frightening and more fun to tackle when we do it together.  To my forever buddy and the many more adventures, mishaps and lessons we have in store.  Cheers!

March, 2016: Our first time (and drink – thanks B!) out on the hook after three months, re-building our rotten stringers, re-rigging and conquering about 1,000 other projects at the yard.  Ahhhhh …..

 

Captain Kevin

Kevin has been on this journey with us from the start, from our first boat-shopping days to the purchase of our 93.46% perfect boat and he taught us so much along the way, particularly on defining our cruising goals and how we really want to spend our time on the boat.  The best thing I learned from Kevin?  “Just shove it out.”  A great de-docking technique that will guarantee no wayward backing or unwanted collisions.  Fun video for you here from one of our day sails with Kevin aboard his stunning Pearson 36 cutter, Pan Dragon, where Kevin demonstrates this super simple, never-fail trick.  Just shove it out!

 

Captain Brandon

“Go slow, hit slow.”  The best thing Brandon ever taught me?  Only go the speed at which you’re willing to crash into something.  That’s a good lesson.  We also learned a thousand things from Brandon during our time at the shipyard, one of the most important was: Always label anything you take apart, so you’ll know exactly how it all goes back together.  That way you won’t have to, you know, re-step your mast just to flip a stupid little aluminum plate ninety degrees.  That was fun.  But, one final, very important lesson from B: How to dock under sail.  “Because what you are you going to do when your engine goes out?” Brandon asked as he shamed us into finally, for the time, docking under sail (fun video of that adventure for you here).  And, notice he said “when” not “if.”  Because it’s going to happen.  It’s a boat, right?  Thanks for everything you’ve done for us B.  Cheers!

 

Captain Mitch

Mr. While You’re Down There!  Lord, did we have a time with him bringing our boat home for the first time from Punta Gorda, FL to … well, as many of you know, we didn’t make it all the way to Pensacola the first time.  We only made it to Carabelle, minus a few essential boat parts.  (And if you don’t yet know that story, holy crap, go get yourself a copy of Salt of a Sailor stat!)  One of the most memorable things I learned from Mitch?  Sight sailing.  Or, sailing by the stars as I called it.  Mitch taught me how to sail at night not by straining your eyes at the compass or the GPS but by getting on your course, then putting some part of the boat (a stanchion post, the spreader tip, the clew of the sail, anything) on a star and using that to hold your course.  It was a fantastic revelation and one that made me love sailing at night that much more.  Thank you Mitch.  Oh and “While you’re down there, could you get me some curly fries.”  Mitch.  There’s just none such like him.  Fun video for you here of his Nonsuch 35, aptly named Tanglefoot.

 

Captain Ryan

 

The ambassador of offshore sailing adventures at SailLibra!  What does Captain Ryan say about sailing across the 500+ plus, sometimes gnarly miles of the Gulf?  “Easy stuff.”  As long as you don’t panic, you think first and act second.  After several fun, windy romps across the Gulf on his offshore adventure boat, Libra, I definitely learned from Ryan the art of staying calm.  Even when sailing through the narrow, reef-lined inlet to Cuba in 10 foot seas and 25+ knot winds.  “Easy stuff.”  But, he’ll be the first to warn you: “Oh, if I’m panicking, yeah, you should totally panic.”  A good sense of humor.  That really helps out there too.  Fun video for you here from mine and Phillip’s sail from Key West to Pensacola on Libra.

 

Captain Jack

Jack Stringfellow.  I swear that’s the man’s real name and wasn’t he destined to be a captain with that one?  I’ve only sailed under Captain Jack one time but, to date (and to be honest I hope it stays that way) it was the most extreme conditions I’ve ever sailed in.  From my recent Captain’s exam, I know it ranks a 10 on the Beaufort scale.  We sailed two days on a Leopard 48, into brutal headwinds, topping out at 43 true, 48 apparent, but the boat and crew handled it beautifully.  What did I learn from Captain Jack?  He’ll be the first to tell you, Jack can get a little … wired.  He’s a very Type A personality, very task-oriented and very (very!) energetic.  It’s one of the things that makes him a great captain, but he also taught me the importance of the need for a “safe word.”  Because everyone gets a little wound up at times.  His safe word?  TRANQUILLO!  Fun video here from our very windy delivery of the Leopard, a 400 nm, 60 hour sprint across the Gulf, Pensacola to Naples.  Whew!

 

Captain Ben

I can’t wait to get back to the Bahamas!  But I’m so glad I went when the opportunity struck.  Remember this trip?  My spur-of-the-moment jaunt off to the Bahamas to sail with Ben Brown on his 47’ Beneteau, Cheval, in the Abacos Regatta in 2015?  What a fantastic adventure that was.  And what did Captain Ben teach me along the way?  The beauty of Bossa Nova.  You see, Ben is a long-time musician.  A sax player, and a fantastic one at that.  He played for the Cheval crew several times during my trip and it was the first time I was ever serenaded on a boat.  I found music and the water go together.  Almost like they’re one in the same.  Now, even when there’s no music playing, when I look out on the water gracing our hull, I hear music.  Thanks to Ben, it’s often Bossa Nova and more often than not it’s the song Ben played for us that morning on Cheval — “When she walks, she’s like a samba, that swings so cool and sways so gentle … ” Can anyone name that tune?

 

Captain Yannick

“Don’t tell me I did a good job, if I didn’t do a good job.  If I f&*cked up.  I need to know.”  Love that man.  Captain Yannick.  Our fiery French captain across the Atlantic freaking ocean.  He was so driven, so focused, so phenomenally energetic (working on boat project after boat project, day after day across the ocean) and such a diverse, eclectic personality.

I’ll bet you didn’t know: Yannick was a film student, a fighter jet pilot, a desert race marathon runner, even a published author and a raging Daft Punk fan.  His was an incredible and surprising friendship to form out of our 30 days across the ocean and he still texts me often, just to say “WHOO!  HOO!”  The most important thing I learned from Yannick was confidence.  If you have something to contribute, speak up and say it.  Don’t use your “recommendation voice.”  And, like much of the French do, which I appreciate: Don’t placate.  If a crew member fails at something, placating them by telling them they did a “good job” is not going to help them improve.  A very bold, hearty sailor he is and Phillip and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity Yannick shared with us in letting us sail with him 4,600 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

To all the captains I have sailed under and learned from: Thanks for the lessons, the laughs and the many-invoked Annie “Whoo Hoos!”  But, mostly, to the man who made this entire journey of mine possible.  From completely ignorant second mate (more like deckhand) on our very first sail across the Gulf together, to now an ocean-crossing, aspiring captain, the sailor who has inspired me, challenged me and encouraged me every step of the way.  I can’t wait to sail the rest of the world with you my love.

April 3, 2013 during the survey/sea-trial of our Niagara.  Where it all began.

Posted in Sail Skills, Sea School | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Let’s Talk About this Captain’s Exam

We should, because I can’t believe how close I came to failing.  What I learned was the test itself is not really that hard … if you know how to study for it.  And if you know how to find the Niantic River.  Stay with me.  We’ll get there.

First, let’s talk about this Captain’s Exam.  Had I known exactly what it was going to be like going in, I would have approached my studies in a completely different manner.  And, it was partially on a stroke of wild luck in the last two days before the exam that I took the steps that actually enabled me to pass.  Otherwise, I’m 100% positive I would have failed.  I really would.

Here’s what I learned: The exam is all multiple choice, 120 questions.  30 are devoted to Rules of the Road, of which you can only miss 3 as you must get a 90% on that portion to pass.  (I’m proud to say I got a 100%, and I’ll tell you how.)  60 questions focus on “Deck and General” (think firefighting, environmental protection, life-saving equipment, marlinspike and seamanship, boat handling and boat characteristics, etc.) and you must get a 70% on that section to pass.  Meaning, you can miss 18 of the 60, but the wide range of topics this section covers requires immense studying to familiarize yourself with every potential possible question you might see on the exam.  I learned many folks struggle with this section for that reason—it simply covers such a vast array of obscure, rarely used or cited regulations.  Another 30 questions are devoted to Navigational Aids (think red and green buoys, nuns versus cans, channel markers, navigational lights, etc.), while the remaining 10 questions are reserved for plotting.

In response to the question of whether to physically go to Captain’s School or go at it on my own through an online course like I did, I got many mixed messages from folks who had taken the exam in the past.  (Boaters … the only people on earth you can guarantee will have conflicting opinions on any given topic.)  Some licensed captains told me the school was five days of the teacher simply reading to you, directly from a script with a final exam at the end.  That was one of the main reasons I chose the online course.  I know myself well enough to know I do not absorb information well when it is simply read to me.  For hours.  In a monotone voice.  My brain turns it into that wonka-wonka-wonka of Charlie Brown’s teacher and my mind would totally wander—if it didn’t shut down entirely and take a nap—and I wouldn’t absorb a thing.  Then others told me—after I’d already decided to go the online route—that the school tests you every day, over and over.  That their specific intent is to teach you the answers to the questions.  If that’s the case, had I had it to do over, I would have gone to school.  But, I kind of did, on my own, just before the buzzer, and it literally was the decision that saved me.

So, the “Captain-in-a-Box” package I purchased from Mariner’s Learning System consists of five study books (both hard copy and digital), which cover each topic on the exam with a practice exam at the end of each (hard copy and digital, so two practice tests for each topic), as well as a chart and chart-plotting tools.

The hard copy materials are for your own independent studies, but you must take and pass the online course (trying as many times as you would like) before you are provided the necessary certificate that enables you to sit for the Captain’s exam.

The materials were very thorough, dense at times, but jam-packed with information, which was nice because you could read and try to absorb the knowledge at your own pace, then test yourself at the end to make sure the information actually stuck.  This was one of the reasons I chose the course.  What I was not aware of, however, were the massive amounts of regulations, rules and tedious USCG requirements that were buried in the materials, but not included on the practice exams as well as the intentional trickiness of the questions.  Even if you know the applicable rule for the situation, by heart, many of the questions are tricky and designed to trip you up.  Often, the answers seemed to range from maybe right to arguably righter, but there was only one Coast-Guard approved rightest answer that mattered.

Let me give you a sample.  This was one question that irked me from the beginning.  Particularly because it was a Rules of the Road question, so a very important one, but if I could, I would lodge a complaint about it.  It’s just … arguable in my opinion.  Rule 17 of International Steering and Sailing Rules states that the stand-on vessel (meaning the vessel with the right of way):

“[M]ay take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.”

Sounds simple enough, but let’s look at these two different questions applying that rule:

The answer to #8 is C, while the answer to #13 is C.  Are you in any way confused?  Doesn’t the B option in #8 look awfully like the C option in #13.  The catch?  Whether the action is one the stand-on vessel may take versus must take.  In #8, they ask what is “required” meaning the rule needs to state it is an action the vessel must take.  Although I would argue the “should” in question #13 and “must” fall awfully close together.  But, this is just one example of how tricky the questions can be and how easy it is to pick the wrong one.

The good news?

They’re going to look just like that on the exam.  Exactly like that.  Word.  For.  Word.  Every single practice question I took in the months and weeks before the exam, when it appeared on the exam, read verbatim (both the questions and the available answers) from the questions and answers I had studied.  So, any question I had seen and studied before, always appeared exactly the same in subsequent practice tests, so choosing the right answer was easy.

My main fear going in, however, was that the questions would not look the same on the exam, or there would be others, dozens maybe, that I had never seen before.  For instance, if I had never been asked how many and what type of life preservers are required for 7 adults and 3 children on an uninspected vessel in the practice exams, I was not going to know the answer to that question on the exam.  Is it the materials?  I’m sure.  Buried somewhere along with the 8,043 other tiny little tidbits of information in the 500 pages I read through that seem almost impossible to commit to memory.

While the Mariner’s materials are comprehensive and do provide everything you need to know to pass the exam, for me personally I felt I needed to be quizzed—over and over—on everything that might possibly be on the exam.  Knowing this, on a whim, two days before the exam, I Googled around looking for other practice OUPV exams online and I hit the mother-load.  Thank you BoatSafe.com!  As I started taking practice exams available on other websites, I realized how many more possible questions there were—some straightforward, but many very confusing—and I was failing the exams left and right.  Failing!  I’ll be honest, I kind of freaked out a little.  Thankfully Phillip was out of town those few days because I spent about 10 hours straight each day taking practice exam after practice exam after practice exam.  I literally answered, I’m sure, in those two days over 5,000 multiple choice questions.  I’m not kidding.

I wasn’t sure what else to do.  I felt I could either read through the materials over and over and hope the tiny little tidbits, hidden in the riff raff, would stick, or I could bank on a hope that the questions would look exactly the same on the exam.  I chose the latter and spent hours of time on these sites, until I could ace every single exam, 100%.  I highly recommend these if you are thinking about taking the Captain’s Exam.  They were invaluable to me:  

http://boatsafe.com/uscgboat/  (my favorite, covering all potential topics on the exam)

http://www.raynorshyn.com/NavRules/Default.asp (a very good one, but only covering the Rules of the Road)

http://meiere.com/CreateExam/start_Exam.php (again helpful, but only covering navigation)

With this basis going in—the undeniable fact that I only knew specific answers to specific questions, far more than I knew the actual, entire wealth of material they covered—I was really nervous about the exam.  Despite Phillip’s persistence that I was going to pass, I was not so sure.  I distinctly remember telling him in a text message: “If the questions are the same, I’m home-free.  If they’re different, I’m f*&cked.”  Pardon my French.

So, there I sat on the day of the exam, with four other guys—each of us with parallel rules and pencils in hand—waiting to take the test at a Comfort Inn conference room in Pensacola.  Before the exam, we all started chatting and I found this nervous-looking chap next to me had apparently done exactly what I did.  Memorized all the answers to every single question he could find and hoped they would look exactly the same on the exam.  Then the two guys next to us—each of whom had failed the exam once and each of whom looked far more saltier and weathered than Chap and I did—laughed and told us, that wasn’t the case at all.  “Some of the questions are the same, but others are different,” they said.  You’re screwed, basically, was the message Chap and I got, which pretty much ended the pre-exam conversation.  Then we just sat there and chewed our pencils until it was time to sign-in and start.

Chap and I had already decided we would take the Rules of the Road exam first as that was the one you had to get at least a 90% on to pass the exam.  Meaning, you could only miss 3 out of the 30 questions.  Just three!  I sat first, opened my exam booklet and started working my way through.  After 4-5 questions, I looked up and caught Chap’s eye.  We both smiled.  Huge grins and nodded.

The questions were exactly the same.

Exactly.  Word.  For.  Word.  Chap and I were golden!  We breezed through the Rules of Road.  (He and I both getting a 100%, thank you!) and started tackling the others.  Now, the Deck and General was a little more difficult as I mentioned.  It just covers so many topics, from vessel stability, to emergency procedures, to CFRs, to six-pack specific regulations, to the marine radiophone, marine engines, you name it.  While there are 60 question on the exam, so this allows you to miss 18 on that section and still pass, the world of possible questions they might ask you probably peaks in the 1,000 range, perhaps.  I’m not being precise on that, but it is a lot.  And, I also say with 100% certainty that I would have failed the Captain’s exam had I not gone rogue in the days before and started taking dozens and dozens of sample captain’s exams online because many (many!) of the questions I encountered that I recognized and knew the answer did not come from the Mariner’s materials, but, rather the online exams and—again—they were worded exactly the same.  Say it with me again: “Thank you BoatSafe.com!!”

As I worked my way through, I marked each question I came across that I did not recognize.  And, trust me, they were very easy to spot.  When I say Chap and I memorized the questions and answers, I mean it.  If it was a question you had studied before, you knew it by the time you read the first three words of the question.  You then stopped reading the question and started looking for the specific phrase you knew was in the right answer.  I hate to say that’s the best way to pass the captain’s exam.  But, for me, it just was.  In the Deck and General section, I marked 16 questions I did not recognize and breathed a sigh of relief.  I was 100% confident about my answers on the other 44, so I knew I had already passed.  I simply had a 25% chance on each of the remaining 16 to increase my score above 70%.  Although it wouldn’t matter.  What’s the joke?  What do you call a lawyer that failed the Bar twice before he passed?  A lawyer.  Same here.  A captain who gets a 70% on the Deck and General section of the exam, as opposed to a 100%, is still called a captain.

I breezed through.  With the first three sections (Rules of the Road, Deck and General and Navigational Aids) behind me, knowing I had passed each, I felt I was on the downhill stretch.  Just a coast to the finish line.  While I wasn’t an absolute whiz at the chartplotting.  I generally got 100’s on those exams when I would take my time, re-plot, re-measure and re-calculate, but even when I goofed up somehow, I got an 80 or higher.  I had yet to score below 70.  And, here I was allowed to miss 3 out of 10.  Those are some pretty good odds.  Everything was gravy then, right?

That was until the stupid Niantic River.

I sat there in my chair, shaking my head back and forth, not fully believing what was happening.  I had studied so hard and it was going to come down to this?  The stupid Niantic River!?  I huffed.  The rules said you could not ask the proctor any questions while taking each module of the exam, only after.  But, nothing made sense!  He must have given me the wrong chart or the wrong light list or something.  The question was: “What chart would you refer to for more information on the Niantic River?”  It wasn’t a question, or even the type of question, I had been asked during my many, many chart-plotting practice sessions.  The question was always: “What’s your ETA to the lighthouse?” or “What true course would you need to steer to arrive at Faulkner Island?” or “What was your set and drift at 18:45 on a heading of 43°?”  Any of those I could have answered.

I flipped frantically through the light list, searching for a listing for the Niantic River (although the question had not asked specifically about the light marking the Niantic River) and while I did find a listing for the river but it didn’t in any way match the numbers on the multiple choice answers before me.  I was stumped.  Irritated.  A little pissed off, frankly.  I marked the Niantic conundrum as one question I was probably going to miss and moved on.  The next question asked me what megahertz frequency I should tune to in order to get mariner’s broadcasts for Hartford, Connecticut, and I huffed audibly. Every other plotting test I had taken was just that, an exercise in plotting.  It required marking a lat and lon position, drawing a line, finding a heading, converting true to compass, vice versa, or distance to time.  All of that stuff.  No one had ever asked me what the freaking megahertz was for Hartford freaking Connecticut!  What the hell?  Frustrated, I marked that question as well as one that I did not know the answer to, frustrated to find two of my three gimmees already gone, and I was only on question #4 out of 10.  Things were not looking good for captain-to-be Annie.  The only comfort I took was in watching my buddy Chap flip through his light list just as I had done, shifting feverishly back and forth between the numbers listed in the book which in no way matched those on the exam.  At least I wasn’t the only one who was stumped.

Thankfully #5 was the exact type of plotting I’m used to.  Find the ETA for my arrival at Horton Point if I leave at 11:35 at a speed of 8 kts.  Perfect.  I’m golden.  I start working through a few more like that, hopeful I could get the remaining 8 questions right in order to pass, then I saw it.  While working a heading toward the compass rose, my parallel ruler landed right on it.  The Niantic River!  I had no idea it was even on the chart.  You’re probably thinking: “That might have been a good place to start, seeing how it is the chart-plotting portion of the exam.”  And I would say: “You’re funny.  You think I know what I’m doing.”   Silly you.

I had to hold back laughter when I saw right there by it, too: Niantic River, refer to Chart 13211.  I looked back at the multiple choice questions on dreaded question #2 and there it was.  C. 13211.  How freaking easy!  And what a dunce I was for not being able to answer it.  For not even referring to the chart to try to answer it.  My eyes then started darting around the chart.  What other really helpful things might I find here …  Then I found it.  The megahertz for various marine stations around that area.  For Hartford Connecticut, it was 13.427.  Right there.  On the chart.  I felt like such an idiot.  But a happy one at that!  I was about to pass this sucker!  I made my way through the rest of the plotting feeling like I probably got them all right, but you always guess a little on those when the distances or headings are just a few degrees off.  It’s hard to be that precise with a parallel ruler.

But, I stood excitedly before the proctor and asked him to grade my plotting portion right there on the spot, and he did.  100%.  I nailed that shit!

I can’t tell you how glad I was to know I had passed and to have all of that behind me.  I’m sure a lot of those tidbits about cumulus clouds, MARPOL regs, and the reflective material on lifejackets started to dribble out of my head the minute I left the room.  But that’s fine.  I knew that stuff when it mattered, and I had done it!  Passed the Captain’s Exam!

While I do still have a little bit of work ahead of me in rounding up my necessary Sea Service forms, getting my physical and drug test, the really hard part is behind me.  Now it’s just a formality.

If any of you out there are thinking about going for your Captain’s License, I highly recommend it.  If only just for the education and training.  STCW school was awesome and I have a lot more confidence now that I will respond more calmly and effectively if we do face an emergency out there.

But, for the exam, I also highly recommend you take every single practice exam out there you can find.  Learn the materials, try to make them stick, but after that, try to remember all the answers.  Oh, and don’t forget to actually look at the chart.  Amazingly, there’s a lot of really helpful stuff there.  Who knew?  Stupid Niantic River ….

The pic I texted to Phillip right after I found I had passed.  Happy Cap’n Annie right there!

If any of you are curious about the process or have any questions for me about the study materials or the exam itself, feel free to reach out.  As always here at HaveWind, we’re happy to share!

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