The installation of the small whiteboard on a cabin bulkhead, just above the refrigerator where the curve of the cabin top meets the deck, was a technical process. Judging what’s level is a trick of the imagination – lining up curves with angles and then realizing that we were listing a few degrees to starboard. The aft water tank was empty. 8.34 pounds per gallon times 42 gallons is 350 pounds of water that was not counterbalancing the 381 pounds of diesel fuel we were storing under the aft cabin. Subtract the missing 750 pounds of water forward then adding the 472.5 pounds of ground tackle meant Caprica was laying over to her boot stripe where a new scum line had formed. With the keen eyeball of a part-time carpenter, I used Velcro to stick the whiteboard to the wall. After surveying the placement of the whiteboard from multiple vantage points within the salon and the forward berth, I confidently wrote June 21st across the top. This was our planned departure date.
Back in early April, it was the symbolic end of winter on the dock when the temperatures at night hovered in the mid-40s and the marina management turned on the precious water. I came home from work and small pools of water had formed in the bleached and cracked dock decking. My heart bounced and a wave of exuberant excitement rushed through me. For months prior, my daily chores included a haul of two five-gallon water jugs from the boat to the frost-free tap. I filled and heaved the jugs on deck and performed the back jarring muscle spasm inducing rapid lift, aim, poor procedure into the forward tank. Occasionally, I would ditch the entire process and take Caprica over to A Dock where we would only be a few hose lengths away from water and our tanks would be filled in minutes. Everything changed when the water came on: commence Hollywood boat showers, long baths for the kid and ample water for dishes or cooking.
Yet more importantly, this symbolic end of winter and the water turned on signaled the beginning of maintenance season. Familiar faces from the previous fall found their way down the docks again, and hard handshakes were shared with longtime friends who busied themselves in the boatyard. I began thinking maintenance, too. In the waning hours of a chilly spring night, I sat in the cockpit listening to small wavelets lap against our stern sugar scoop hull. Over a few hours, I outlined four pages of projects, material lists, schedules, and a desirable budget. All seemed reasonable and even pragmatic. There were necessary upgrades that were due, but most of the four pages were standard maintenance. I exhaled and looked in the deep blue darkness that filled our cove, and immediately remembered that a plan was just a point of departure.
A few days passed and I found myself standing on Golden Hynd, Rick and Kathy’s palatial houseboat, and inspected their new solar panel and charge controller. We’ve chatted about solar panels for years: how to mount, where to install, watts, amps, and how to route the electrical cables.
“This will take the load off the batteries,” Rick said with a natural smile.
Nodding in agreement I said, “It’ll run the refrigerator without a problem.” I remember feeling a bit envious. When we owned Doggie Paddle, we bought a great small Honda generator. The little red Honda ran the air conditioner and kept the freezer going. One crazy hot July night we retreated inside, cranked up the Honda and enjoyed ice cream in the AC while we watched a movie. We lived in luxury. On Caprica, with the generator we’ve watched a move and charged the batteries. We never let the battery charge level dip below 50%, or there is a strong chance of damaging the costly system. I hate it, but we are often the boat at the end of the anchorage running the generator every other day to keep the batteries topped up. The refrigerator and our electronics drain an unreasonable amount of electricity, and I know that we have several thousands of hours on the generator. It’s only a matter of time before the unit fails. As I observed Rick’s new panel, I compared options: generators cost around $1000 and solar panels are a few dollars more.
I took another look at Rick’s solar panel.
“There’s another one,” he said with a little pride.
Dan arrived a few days later right as the tempo of the boatyard picked up. An assortment of cars were parked haphazardly between boats as hoses and electrical extension cords lay strung across jack stands and cinderblocks. Proud owners carefully washed, waxed, buffed, and painted their boats all with an eye on their scheduled launch dates. Dan had a little more ambition than the average yachtsman. As he stood at our stern, Dan said that he’d found a second-hand self-steering unit: an apparatus called a wind vane monitor that used a small paddle mounted on top of a sturdy stainless steel cage that housed a drum. When the wind turned the paddle, a line connected to the drum and the boat’s steering wheel kept a reasonable smooth course. People loved them because they endured a considerable amount of abuse and still steered boats through intense weather. People also hated them because this type of system required precise mounting with little margin for error.
“Do you think that you can swing by later this week and help me mount the thing?” Dan asked. I felt the stress of work, meetings, and the linguistics class that I was taking besides dealing with my own four pages of projects. Yet, I reminded myself that Dan was a precise kind of a guy. I knew that the day I wondered over, everything would be ready to go. So a few days later, I climbed the irrationally high and steep ladder up to his massive boat Columbia. She is the largest sailboat in the yard, and from her beautiful teak deck I looked down across the boatyard. In the aft cabin, Dan drilled a few holes through the transom to attach the mounting brackets for the self-steering apparatus. The brackets had to be perfect, and this had to be correctly done on a transom 8 feet off the ground with both curved and flat surfaces. I thought back to my whiteboard as I cranked down the last of the bolts.
“Okay. That should do it,” he yelled through a hatch.
Outside I examined his wind vane monitor. Dan had rebuilt some of it, and the apparatus looked fresh out of the box new. “I just cleaned it up a little.” Dan said totally nonchalantly.
I shook my head.
“Do you think that you can swing by later this week and help me lift my generator? We just have to drop it in. It’s in the back of the van.”
I looked at the van and then looked at the 15 vertical feet it would have to go up then considered the space it would enter. Knowing that after we mounted the brackets for the self-steering apparatus, Dan would be able to drop it into place. I had a feeling that the generator would be the same – just a little more substantial. So on the appointed day at the appointed time, we hauled his new generator out of the van and lifted it using block and tackle. The behemoth generator took every muscle fiber in my back and legs to hoist. Once on deck, I lowered it into the compartment where Dan guided the mounting bolts to the already installed feet. Again, there was zero room for error and millimeters counted.
“Okay,” Dan said and looked up smiling. “She’s in.”
Dan is what I call a boatyard hero. Before I left he continued to think about how to make Columbia stronger and better for his own trip to Maine. He mentioned that he was going to rebuild the transmission. “I have a big bench I can lay everything out on. How hard can it be?”
As others continued to work on their boats, our spring break and the time to begin work on our boat list arrived. Alison and Eleanor departed Caprica for Michigan, and I completed projects that required our living space to be turned inside out. During that week, I ate standing up and slept in a corner. There’s not much space between projects, wires, plumbing, and tools. Spring break this year called for electronics upgrades, engine maintenance, and a new battery charger. In my pre-project confident wisdom, I’d scheduled two projects a day and estimated that all would be completed by the time my family returned.
On day one, the new VHF radio was installed with little incident, and the AIS (Automated Identification System) was integrated into the chart plotter. These necessary upgrades, along with a remote radio unit, ensured a new level of situational awareness while underway. Feeling emboldened, I began on the new battery charger. This was going to be a four hour project. For the better part of four days, I worked on the battery charging system and chased down problems, issues, and gremlins. It infuriated me and eventually I decided that I had to install an entirely new battery charging system. After I lived in the engine compartment as a contortionist for almost four days straight, I ended up in the ER thinking I had a cardiac event happening. Nope. Stressed, dehydrated, and I managed to torque most of the cartilage between my ribs. Yet, the batteries were charged, and Alison and Eleanor came home to a clean boat.
After spring break, I still had three and a half pages of the to-do list to work through which included the basics like changing filters and fluids. We also decided to purchase two large solar panels and the charge controller. This additional project required a negotiation to return and replace a first set of damaged panels, a few weekends for installation, a chunk of a thumb and a few friends to help lift the panels into place.
And then magically, it was June 21st – our departure date! The boat still needed to be provisioned and one page of projects was left to be completed. Eleanor picked up a bug at school and cooked nightly at a 103 temperature while Alison worked extra hours to pack up her classroom since she has changed schools for the next year. We were lucky to have Alison’s mom here to help with everything, especially with Alison home most nights exhausted and then she picked up an eye infection that required antibiotics and some rest.
With each day past June 21st, we breathed a sigh of relief as projects started coming together, as Eleanor was back to herself, and as Alison’s eyes returned to their normal color. Then the air-conditioning began to lose pressure. It would have been easy to ignore this problem because we were leaving for the summer and wouldn’t need that system in Cape Cod; however we knew that once Caprica was back at the dock in late August, life would return to pure crazy with school starting and there would be zero time to commit to anything other than work. So, I dissected the system. From the intake pump to the hose, filters, elbows, and clamps, I investigated the system step-by-step and I settled on the idea that we might need to haul the boat out to replace the thru hull. Since Caprica would be out of the water, there would be a dozen other big projects that would require attention as time and money would be lost if we didn’t utilize this stint out of the water. In times of boat project darkness, our friends are the light. Under the supervision of our good friend from S/V Tire Swing, John, we dissected parts I wouldn’t have considered. We poked, prodded, and torqued and ultimately healed the system back to 60% productivity after flushing a healthy dose of acid through everything.
I deep cleaned the boat (again), including the bilge, and I had second thoughts about our trip. It would just be so easy to load the car and head to Lake Superior: cool weather, cold water, and beautiful shores all without weather windows, shoals, overnight passages, and anchor watches. I confessed my thoughts and feelings to Alison. By this date, we had already missed two beautiful weather windows and a cool easy week to make the long Chesapeake passage north. I was at an emotional low as it felt like we had only inched towards finally casting off.
It had been a harsh winter aboard and we’ve had some tougher times in our lives. It turned out to be a hard spring. Between work, projects and my classes, there’s been little time for Caprica other than just living on her. Yet the alarm sounded at 5 AM on June 29th and I had the energy to get out of bed and prep the boat for departure. Hours later as we rounded Point Lookout with the sun rising in the east, I realized that all that I had needed was to be underway again.