I’m supposed to be writing this from Florida, but the boat gods apparently had other plans for us.
Original plan, as you may recall, was to depart from Norfolk November 8 and head south along the ICW to warmer climes for the winter. But then one of the drawbridges in Norfolk was going to be closed (in the down position, thus halting boat traffic) for maintenance from Nov 6-9. So we moved up our departure to Friday the 5th to get ahead of the closure. But then some nasty weather was developing off the entire Atlantic coast that was predicted to start on Friday and meant we needed to move it up another couple days to get somewhere to hole up for the few days while the storm system blew past.
Of course, even though we had been in Norfolk for the entire summer, this set off a flurry of activity to finish several projects in progress. In our defense, not all of it was due to procrastination. Most was due to the tribulations I’ve mentioned previously in the (lack of) availability of various skilled workers; anything ‘marine’ has been overwhelmed by demand for the past year. But apparently anything ‘marine’ also works better against a deadline, and so new batteries were installed, upgraded lights arrived, the erratic solar controller was changed out, and the island-time detailer put in long days so we had a whole great looking boat instead of half of one. I moved up Roxy’s vet appointment for her rabies booster required for the Bahamas. Stock-up provisioning — done. Doctor and dentist appointments – check. Everything cleaned, stowed, and secured – roger. Lastly, we had to sell the truck.
So there we were the evening before departure, signing papers at CarMax and handing over the keys. It was late as we waited in a cold drizzle for our Uber to take us back to the boat. We were hungry and tired, but feeling a bit giddy with the excitement of a return to cruising, having just severed our last tie to land life. Climbing into the warm Tesla that was our Uber, I remember thinking that soon we wouldn’t be worried about dropping temps. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I inquired of our middle-age driver about his personalized license plate in an attempt at friendly small talk.
“It’s for my daughter. She was killed by a drunk driver when she was 17.”
Yeah, I had stepped into talk that was way beyond small.
I offered my condolences, not knowing how else to respond. He told of how days before her high school graduation a few years ago, a young man in a company delivery truck who was not only drunk but high hit her car head on, killing his daughter instantly. We heard about his struggles that ultimately led to the loss of his job, the subsequent breakup of his marriage, the survivor’s guilt of her best friend who had been the badly injured passenger, and how he turned to Uber driving as his small way of preventing others from getting behind the wheel drunk. So many ripples. We just let him talk, as he spoke in a matter-of-fact way that seemed to be a therapeutic repetition. There was surprisingly very little bitterness in his tone, oddly incongruent with the tragedy and emotion of his actual words. He eventually drifted back to more mundane conversation on Teslas, the heavy traffic we were encountering, and the growth in Hampton Roads since we last lived there. I commented that we had family that had built a home in an area that used to be quite rural. Mentioning the main road off of which they lived, he responded with, “That’s where my daughter was killed.”
Yeah, I had just stepped into it with my other foot.
But again it seemed to bother me more than him. I kept my mouth shut the rest of the ride, seemingly unable to avoid bringing the elephant into the car. Walking to the boat after he dropped us off, we talked about how fortunate we were to have the life we did. And it also served as a reminder that you never know what someone else is going or has been through, so just be kind to everyone.
Casting off the lines the next morning at first light, we knew the first few miles were going to be a bit bumpy but quickly realized it was even sportier than predicted. Nothing that the boat couldn’t handle, but rough for we passengers with confused seas, not-infrequent 4-5’ rollers, and waves over the bow and sides. At one point Dave looked back to discover that we were hobby-horsing so much that the side windows had slid open and water was coming into the cabin! I ran around re-closing and locking the windows and mopping up all the salt water while trying not to break any bones myself. Typically pretty tolerant of boat movement, Roxy had retreated under Dave’s feet at the helm and was whimpering and pawing at him. One thing exposed by these conditions was that the seal on the front window is a little dried out, as evidenced by water trickling down the inside of the windshield and onto the electronic displays. I leapt into my new role as Chief Human Interior Windshield Wiper. As soon as we turned the corner into the Elizabeth River everything calmed down with the waters – as well as the humans and canine – and we joined the line of boats heading south like us and trying to get ahead of the incoming weather. I picked up everything that had been tossed all over the saloon and mopped up remaining sea spray. We passed the Navy base and fell in behind a tug pushing a barge with a crane, who we were pleased to hear call out a big yacht on the radio for the wake he was producing in a ‘no wake’ zone. We got back into our Cruising Groove, with engine performance checks every 30 min, tracking progress on our charted route, and watching for floating debris to avoid. Roxy stretched out on the settee for a stress-induced nap.
At the three hour mark, a port engine alarm began shrieking — low oil pressure! Dave immediately shut down the engine, and I took the helm so he could go back and look in the engine compartment. Good thing I had my previous training on driving the boat — and through this same area as our last underway! Dave returned to say the engine looked fine – i.e. no oil was spraying out or leaking in the compartment – and took back the helm so I could start making phone calls. We were a couple miles north of the Great Bridge Lock. Atlantic Yacht Basin (AYB), one of the premier boatyards in Hampton Roads, was just on the other side of the lock and bridge. The dockmaster said they were pretty full and busy with work, but he’d see what he could do. So we limped along on the starboard engine, with Dave working hard to keep us in one place as we waited with several other boats for the lock and then the bridge. The AYB dockmaster did indeed find a space into which we could squeeze, much to our relief because it was a long way back to the next nearest facility and there was absolutely nothing for an even longer way further ahead. Dave quickly changed out the oil filter as the ‘easy and quick fix’ at the top of the list. After about an hour delay, we cautiously ventured forth again but five minutes later Dave noted the port oil pressure starting to drop, so we turned around.
We were, indeed, marooned after a three hour cruise.
The boatyard was in their peak busy period, and was not going to be able to even look at the engine for several days. Those of you who know Dave know that he is a dog with a bone when faced with this kind of troubleshooting problem. He researched and read forums and blogs, asked his own questions, and ordered parts. He spent the next four days changing out sensors, valves, and anything else he could. But every time we let the engines run, when it got up to temp the pressure started dropping. The boatyard mechanic stopped by and was amazed at how much Dave had already done, even asking with a jesting-in-earnest expression if he wanted a job. He finally had done everything he could without some very expensive tools and more expertise, and requested the boatyard to call in the Volvo-Penta experts – a subcontractor for them.
What followed was further reinforcement of what we already knew about anything involving the marine maintenance and repair:
If Anything Quits, You Sits.
Everyone is overbooked with long waiting lists. We got on the ‘urgent’ list, but it still meant days of waiting. So we wait.
Remember that weather I said was coming to the whole Atlantic coast? Well, the good news is that AYB is on a canal quite a way from any open water, so it was one of the most sheltered places a boater could ask for. While other places along the whole ICW were seeing high winds and record tides that flooded waterfronts and caused several boats to drag or break their anchors and be blown aground, we saw relatively nothing beyond being a bit breezy. Since we would have been sitting the storm out somewhere, being here was a silver lining.
Several days later, Walt and his son Kyle came down. Walt has 37 years of experience working on marine engines including several of his early years with the Navy. While he and Dave talk about our engine troubles, Kyle jumps down into the port compartment and gets to work. I could tell Walt was impressed with how much Dave had already done and his diagnostic logic. When they were done talking about engines, he moved on to his time with the Navy once he learned Dave’s background. But after a few hours and changing out other valves, all we learned upon running the engine was what it was NOT and a manual pressure gauge showed that we did, indeed, have an oil pressure problem. Next up was changing the whole oil pump, but that meant waiting for parts.
So we wait some more.
Walt and Kyle come back a few mornings later, with Walt saying he’s pretty confident it’s a failed oil pump and this should do it. I’ve turned to baking as my stress relief the last few days, and promise them pumpkin bread if they get the engine fixed. Kyle again dives into the engine compartment while Walt tells more Navy stories in between supervising Kyle’s labors. Kyle was pretty fast, and by mid-afternoon we were hopeful and ready for a test run. We started the engines and the oil pressure was actually a little higher on the port side, which Walt was encouraged by. The pressure held while the engines warmed up at idle. Final test is to take her for a spin at higher speeds and we depart the dock, with Walt and Kyle monitoring the engine. Dave kicks it up to higher revs….aaaaaaand the pressure starts to drop. We return to AYB, everyone deflated, and I’m pretty sure this might very well make Dave start drinking. I think Walt truly felt as bad as we did. So I still gave him a loaf of pumpkin bread.
Everything on the outside has been changed out, which means now they have to start looking inside the engine and requires pulling the engine out of the boat – a big job. It also means we are no longer on the Urgent List and will have to get in line for the next available window, which Walt estimated to be about three weeks.
So we wait again.
Still waiting. Starting to feel like we’re Waiting For Godot…
While we wait, we made some new friends as other boaters came and went. A German-Canadian couple also on a powercat that we recognized from our trip north last spring. We enjoyed dinner with them a couple nights and plan on meeting up with them again once we head south. Had some great conversation one evening on a Kadey-Krogen with a retired forensic psychologist and his wellness coach partner. Another couple has been here since August doing a major overhaul of their sailboat with months still to go; Roxy has become buddies with their dog Dipper. One evening we came back from an outing to find another Maine Cat docked right behind us. Since there were only nine built, this was rather extraordinary to have two in the same place, much less randomly docked right next to each other. They are #1/9 to our #9, and we had a chance to compare notes with them before they left the next morning.
It didn’t take long to realize this couldn’t have happened at a better place than two miles from one of the top boatyards in the lower Chesapeake. The people and staff here have been wonderful. We are a very short walk to groceries, a hardware store, restaurants, drug stores (where we both were able to get our COVID boosters), and just about anything else we need. A short walk across the bridge in the other direction is Great Bridge Battlefield Park, with nature trails to walk the dog. Amazon delivers here. Dave’s brother Chuck is only 20 minutes away, so we’ve been able to gather there for football watching or just hanging out. The daily parade as boats of all shapes, sizes, and types come through the bridge on the hourly opening entertains us and admittedly gives a twinge of envy.
The big event while we’ve been here, however, has been that Danica and Fab got married!
Since Australia is still restricting travel, everyone Zoomed in from all over to share in the beautifully simple JOP ceremony – the US, France, Germany, elsewhere in Australia. Planning on a bigger in-person celebration in France and the US hopefully in May.
We’ve now been here a little over five weeks. The latest we’ve heard is that Monday Dec 13th they will be here to pull the engine. It promises to be an interesting feat involving a big crane, a large steel beam, and a water-filled counter balance to lift it up out of the hull and slide it sideways out of the covered cockpit. I know AYB has been doing this stuff for over 75 years, but I’m still pretty sure I’m not going to want to watch. Roxy and I will go hang out in the laundry or ladies’ room until it’s over. Walt and Kyle will take the engine back to their shop – which ironically is about 200 yards from the marina we left on Nov 3 – to work on it. It could be days, it could be weeks.
In a final act of either good timing or bad timing, depending on how you want to look at it, Dave’s knee has been acting up big time in the last few weeks to the point that something needs to be done beyond benign neglect. So he’s seeing orthopedics and getting an MRI. It’s become a competition to see what gets fixed first, the engine or Dave’s knee.
In the meantime…