Float Life

As we enter March, I gear up for the spring maintenance schedule with the approach of our seven-day boat work window in April. This is the one time a year that I come to really reconsider our lifestyle and choices over the past decade. Encompassing sixteen hours a day, the boat work window is characterized by a “Do or die” schedule where upgrades are installed and routine and preventative maintenance is performed. The goal is to have Caprica back in her slip, in order, a little cleaner, a little shinier, and ready for our Memorial Day Weekend shakedown cruise before Alison and Eleanor return from their road trip to Michigan.

Typical project turns any area into a disaster zone.

Remembering that a plan is a point to diverge from, I grit my teeth at the cost of this winter – not necessarily the financial impact of having our diesel heater die an ignoble death on the coldest day of the year, the several trips to Annapolis, or the time off work or the repair bill for a heater that wasn’t repaired. Or even that the budget for our solar panels and AIS is now in the red.

The two upgrades scheduled for this year are now pushed forward to next year: new battery banks, a water maker, new navigation equipment, a new refrigerator and an upgraded windless. The failed heater may have cost us an air conditioning unit on top of the additional pain. These necessary upgrades replace aging equipment or improve the boat so that we can venture offshore to Bermuda in safety and comfort with few worries other than course and weather.

The other side effect of a broken heater is that now we need a new one. Clearly, we will not incur the expense of another Webasto. As much as we loved it we are not going to gamble with the $200 Chinese knock-off version, but we’ll instead install a bulkhead mounted diesel fireplace. This will require building an attractive heat resistant structure to insulate the bulkhead and adjoining couch from the stove as well as drilling a three-inch hole in the deck to run a smokestack. I’ll have to plum electricity and fuel as well all within very narrow engineering confines of what already exists in Caprica’s infrastructure and figure in the diesel fireplace’s requirements.

The other day, I was standing in the tile aisle at Lowe’s when a dour-faced employee approached me, stroking his very first attempt at a beard. He twisted and twirled the fine hairs as he asked me “So what project are you working on?” I smiled and explained what I was doing with the diesel fireplace. The khaki sporting red vested man child frowned and then stood next to me, also staring at the possible combinations of rock or tile that would suit my needs. After a minute, he looked me in the eye and said: “I’ll be right back.” I’m pretty sure he disappeared into the break room.

Now that we are a no-go on solar panels and AIS this year, I don’t have to worry about mounting panels, running wires and installing charge controllers. I was budgeting two days for this project and another day for the installation of AIS. This has freed a labor period of 45 hours, and although disappointed, I’m a little giddy with relief.

Over the last two years, I’ve hauled Caprica out of the water in April. Enjoying the cool daytime temperatures and the seldom threat of thunderstorms, it’s been incredibly (comparable to previous experiences) easy to sand the bottom, perform any repairs, wax the hull and paint the bottom. Even dreaded keel work that requires a grinder, space suit and an industrial diamond studded grinding wheel has been luxuriously comfortable. With the S/V Doggie Paddle, hull work happened during the summer where sweltering temperatures combined with high humidity, swarms of mosquitoes and the perfect timed thunderstorm made life a little less than the average first world county citizen could manage.

The magic of the haul comes in seeing your home lifted out of the water by an aged machine spewing hydraulic fluid while a yard worker walks next to the travel lift pumping a fuel ball to bypass the failed fuel pump. Magic also comes when the yard workers put her back in the water just before your final coat of bottom paint has dried. Our experience with marina yards range on the spectrum to clean and professional to customers are actually an inconvenience. But with every hull out, new lessons are learned and remembered.

A few years ago, I was standing under Doggie Paddle doing a little routine blister repair with epoxy. The temps were in the 90s, and the pot life of the chemical goo was short, but the “Do or die” schedule had me sweating through layers of clothes and bug spray. The epoxy was drying and a few minutes away from the critical moment where the worker [me] needs to roll on a layer of bottom paint. Paint will not stick to epoxy once it has dried. I was working on my knees, in the gravel with a swarm of mosquitoes attacking my forehead when I heard a dramatic cacophony of thunder. My entire field of vision was nothing but beautiful blue skies, then I swung my head to my six and emerging over a tall stand of pine trees was a massive black anvil of a violent thunderstorm. “This is how people get killed in pools!” I thought just as a salvo of lighting exploded out of the tumultuously churning thunderhead. Enormous chunks of deformed hail fell out of the sky, and a torrential downpour of freezing rain abruptly turned on. Leaving my power tools, toolbox, and epoxy I darted for my car, judging it to be safer than a sailboat on jack stands in a field of lightning rods.

The car shook with each gust and lightening strobed around me. Less than 40 yards ahead, a jagged branch of blue, white lightning reached out of the sky and kissed the mast of a derelict blue water cruiser. Sparks showered the yard and surrounding boats; the top of the mast glowed hot red, and a tufted wisp of smoke whipped away in the screaming wind. A terrible detonation of thunder shook me, and I was thankful for my improvised faraday cage even as my meticulous epoxy work and power tools were ruined.

A few minutes expired, and the storm was gone, racing to the east over the Chesapeake. I slumped over my sander, grinder and epoxy materials. The grinder and sander cases for full of water. My toolbox somehow was blown over, and in the mad dash to my car, I had left the lid unlatched. My tools were scattered in the mud. My epoxy work had drooped, sagged like a bull dog’s jowls. I climbed inside Doggie Paddle to change and try to salvage my day but things would only get worse. The lightning strike had killed my refrigerator, battery charger, and engine computer.

A plan is just a point to diverge from, but one thing is for sure – boats are a lot of work and big boats are a lot more work. These experiences weigh on me as we move into the maintenance season and the approach of Eleanor’s 4th birthday. It’s in my reflection of the last decade that I reaffirm that Caprica is our “Goldilocks” boat.

P.E., or Pre-Eleanor, we looked at a Jeanneau 49I. She was way below market value and within the affordability range of two middle school teachers. The owner had taken her down to the islands over the last few seasons and decided that he wanted a catamaran instead. He was stuck with a 50-foot boat, and he was ready to unload her cheap. I came across this thing on a website and went to take a look and instantly fell in love. She was incredible, well maintained and had living accommodations akin to an apartment. In retrospect, she had the same layout as Caprica, just bigger and twin helms.

P.E. with Eddie

Standing in the cockpit, it was hard not to be impressed by the expansive deck ahead. As I looked at the massive winches, quarter acre worth of sails and seemingly miles worth of running rigging, a tiny voice usually drowned out by enthusiasm asked, “What’s it going to cost to replace these things?” I walked forward and across the gleaming white deck to take a look at the ground tackle. Continual use in salt water had taken its toll, and it would all need to be replaced.

“That’s more than a paycheck,” the little voice confronted me with the truth. We could afford to buy her, but would never be able to provide the maintenance. The boat would need three air conditioners and a serious diesel heater – another 10,000 thousand dollars. Ugh.

We looked at a 46-foot boat later in the year. She had three berths and a genuine bed in the forward master stateroom. The galley was equipped with a refrigerator and a large chest freezer. The galley was beautiful and included a whole pantry. She was also fitted with a massive generator. Alison and I imagined sailing on the Chesapeake all day long and then slipping into a secluded anchorage. We could shut out the humid, sweltering bug infested Chesapeake night air and enjoy the comforts of air-conditioning and ice-cream. “A boat like this needs lots of sanding and painting,” I said to Alison. “The only way this will work is if you help me.” She agreed.

As we left the parking lot, the same make and model of the 46-foot boat was sitting in the yard. I pointed her out. The waterline was forever, and it was clear that the bottom job would be nightmarish.

“No way,” Alison said as I exhaled and dialed in the radio for a quiet 3-hour ride home.

Ultimately and wisely following Alison’s advice and instinct, we ended up with our Catalina 36. Then we were blessed with Eleanor, and it was clear that a change was needed. As I’ve written about in previous posts, Caprica fell into our lap, and she has been absolutely marvelous. But, as Eleanor grows we have to consider what’s next.

E & E

We spend roughly 10 months a year at the dock with the occasional weekend trip up a local river, into the Potomac or across the Chesapeake. Our demanding work schedules and need to catch up on weekly to-do lists prevent the random “Let’s take the boat out” night. With the end of the school year, we head to points north where we can escape the Chesapeake swelter and spend approximately two months off-grid living on the hook as we bounce around. Throughout the year, I estimate that we really only have 30 to 40 days underway. Caprica is an ideal live aboard with large berths, a beautiful galley, two toilets, and a spacious salon area. The cockpit is full leaving plenty of outdoor living spaces to be enjoyed while on the anchor. Underway, she is fast and responsive but beats hard to windward. Pounding over breaking waves and wallowing in following seas the compromise for livability becomes immediately evident.

For the next five years, Caprica is our for sure home, and hopefully, we will continue to enjoy our summer cruises. Eleanor will be 9 to 10 years old before we will consider our next significant lifestyle changes. She will be at the age where life changes from excited joy when a parent climbs aboard and says “I’m home!” and she yells “Yeah!” to a stubborn “I know.”

It would be different if we were underway, cursing and experiencing diverse places, new anchorages and fascinating cultures with tide and seasons determining the schedules but tied to the dock for 10 months a year will definitely not be as easy as it is now. Knowing that any life-changing decisions at that point will only be temporary as we consider Eleanor’s needs. At that point in the timeline, Eleanor will be on her way to her own adventures – hopefully ones that include scholarships.

So if space is what she needs, do we find another townhouse? This is something that we’ve done before and could barely cope with. By the middle of my first summer in the townhouse, I found myself walking through the Rocky Mountains, participating in a sweat lodge ceremony and watching an authentic Sundance on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Or do we buy a 47 foot Beneteau, a Jeanneau 49 or the narrow 43 foot Blue Water boat capable of taking us around the world? Do we stay on Caprica? Whatever the choices are, I’m happy that our choices have given Eleanor more than soccer fields, dance class, and the occasional theme park.  This weekend she commented on the tides, the birds, and the reasonable cause of a crack in a dinghy parked up in the yard. Boat life has been good to her; hopefully, we have many years aboard that are good to us all.

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