Monday, December 10, 2007

Crossing The "Big Bend" + Answering Some Questions

Hello all-
First, let's talk about crossing 140+ (nautical) miles of the Gulf of Mexico... mostly at night. There are several problems, foremost of which is deciding when the weather forecast is suitable to go ahead. Then there is the chance of hitting something along the way, especially when your boat's cruising speed necessitates a night crossing. There is commercial traffic, and yes, there are crab pots and fishing nets for much of the way across.

This past Saturday (12-7), as we traveled down the Gulf IntraCoastal Waterway with our friends Bob & Sue on Tom-Kat (link to Tom-Kat's blog entry for that day), we listened intently to weather reports around the Gulf region. We also checked several internet web sites including two with live data from NOAA buoys (link) and a Navy wave height model (link) and another NOAA wave height & direction prediction model (link) (note: for some reason, these maps are upside-down).

Here's Sue & Bob waving good-bye as we depart the Moorings dock at Carrabelle.

The day was rather calm, with a building high pressure system and light winds around the north-eastern perimeter of the Gulf. It looked like a great "weather window" but the forecasts were that it would not be as good for at least a week... winds were predicted to build within 36 hours, a cold front was coming (which usually bring rough weather), etc etc.

Photo at right shows the mast of a vessel sunk in the West Pass between Dog & St. George Islands.

So the Winnie W. made just a brief touch-and-go at the Moorings Marina in Carrabelle, which we regret because it's such a great place.... and the weather was relatively kind to Kathie & I as we took turns napping & driving the boat for 22 hours straight. We had to dodge some other boats, judging by radar & visible light, we also dodged one unlit obstacle that looked very big & solid on radar, and we had a few narrow scrapes with crab pots (this doesn't sound like much, but the lines can get tangled in the propeller... BIG problem). No rough waves, either! In fact the weather was so kind to us that it was flat calm for the last 1/3 of the trip.

This photo shows dawn on the open Gulf, a cheerful sight after many hours of tense darkness!

Winnie W. arrived in Clearwater Beach at about 3:30 on Sunday (12-8) afternoon. We were ready for a shower, a pizza, and a good nights sleep. We didn't get the pizza, instead we took another nap and went out to dinner at Frenchy's with fellow Great Loop cruisers Chuck & Claire from Odyssee (link to their blogspot).

Finally, here's Clearwater Pass. We go under the bridge and take a left to the Municipal Marina!

We've had a number of questions from people, by comment on this blog or by e-mail. The first answer is "thank you all so much for letting us know you're watching;" it really means a lot to the crew of the Winnie W. to know that you care!

Answers to questions:
Among the bigger jobs we did to get ready for "serious cruising" was to install a bow thruster. (link to Webshots photo series) This was a pain in the neck, more ways than one. It really gave Doug a nervous attack to saw a pizza-sized hole in the bow of our boat! Then it was also troublesome to get the components aligned properly and to stay that way while the fiberglass resin hardened. Finally, the wiring components (300-amp DC breaker, plus key parts of the controls) are not available off the shelf. The breaker was first installed using a much lower rated breaker than needed, which tripped instantly and kept us from using the bow thruster for a month or so, until the real breaker arrived. Next, the control circuitry seemed erratic and the indicator light kept burning out after a very short use. With some diagnostic help from friend and electrical expert Ron M, and a real he-man indicator light supplied by friend Jeff D, the bow thruster has worked perfectly ever since. It is not necessary, but it's quite a nice helper to make smooth dockings and to maneuver into locks.

We have had to fix a few things along the way, like replacing the raw water impeller which is really minor and needs to be done every so often anyway, rebuilding/replacing the alternator (link to blog entry), and the genset coolant pump (link to blog entry); but the Winnie W. has had only two real problems: batteries & engine cooling.

The engine is not boiling over, just running about 5~10 degrees warmer than it should. This is actually better, for a diesel, than running 5 degrees too cool; however Doug is futzing with the cooling system every time we take a lay day. He replaced the thermostat, which is a 3600 hour maintenance item anyway, in Dog River near Mobile. He has also flushed both raw water & coolant circuits, thoroughly cleaned the heat exchanger, and a few other things which should definitely have fixed the problem.

Here is the Winnie W's genset. It has been
moved off it's normal mount in order to
work on otherwise-inaccessible plumbing.

Batteries are a big concern for any cruiser. They are the power source for all times when not tied up at the dock... i.e., all the time when *really* cruising! The batteries get charged by either the engine alternator, or by a separate generator... if the boat has one, which Winnie W. does. We installed 3 new Interstate SHM-29 batteries for the "house bank" which should provide more than twice as much power as we consume for lights, refrigerator, etc, in a 12-hour period. We've replaced these batteries under warranty 3 times along the way, which is time-consuming & troublesome. Doug is not satisfied that they are performing up to spec, but they are doing well enough that we can continue to anchor out.

Common Problems we have NOT had- fuel filters clogging, engine boiling over, transmission blowing up, banging propellor into rocks/logs/etc; electric fires or wiring snafus, pirates, scurvy, mutiny. Just lucky!

Here is the Winnie W's beautiful propeller; looks like a piece of jewelry, doesn't it?

One more question we are often asked: "What has been your favorite part of the trip?" This is a toughie. About 90% of the places we've seen have been our 'favorite' and they are so different it's impossible to really compare them. We loved visiting Wolfe Island in Lake Ontario, and that's probably Hank's favorite stop so far. The North Channel of Lake Huron lived up to it's reputation for beauty. Joliet Illinois was a pleasant surprise; previously I connected that name with the Federal prison (long since closed) but the town is very friendly and a fun stop. The Tennessee River had much to offer and a kinder, gentler cruising atmosphere. The Gulf is rather similar to our familiar Southeast coastal waters, but with deeper channels and more big-city places to stop (hello, seafood restaurants!). How could we pick a favorite?!?

Best wishes to all- Doug & Kathie


norm said...

Congratulations on making the jump succesfully. I'm surprised you took a big step and not a more near coastal route with a stop in Cedar Key. But I know you have a schedule and it is ingrained not to pass up a favorable weather window.


Anonymous said...

Hi Doug and Kathie,
Tom-Kat indicated you guys were ending your trip in St. Augs shortly, which would be sad for me, as that's a few minutes a week of vicarious cruising that I'll have to do without. But reading your blog over the last few months has helped me narrow the criteria for the next boat. We have vascillated between sail or power, admiring the skill of sailing to the convenience of power. The one aspect I have admired about the Winnie W and other pilot-houses is that they seem to "feel" like a home. In our case as in others, the husband may do the transaction, but it's the wife that buys the boat.

Fair weather,

Ben M.