Fall Settles In

The colors of autumn are beginning to tinge the trees here in eastern Maryland. For us, this can only mean one thing: Time to head south! That will happen in a few weeks, but in the meantime we are once again putting the final tie downs on our fall maintenance and upgrade projects.

We have been working hard on one major, and several minor, projects that are finally coming to completion. Our major project is the installation of a new generator into Harmonie‘s engine room. This major change to our boat’s electrical system has resulted in a long cascade of changes, modifications, and upgrades. From the outside, little has changed, but on the inside Harmonie has undergone a major refit and changed from a boat with a 1990 energy system, to one with a system as modern as any 2020 model year vessel.

Bill has spent 8 hours a day for weeks buried in the engine room (his version of a “man cave”) rerouting wires and plumbing, and making the structural changes needed to accommodate our new generating system. 25 years of modifications and repairs were all brought up to standard, routed in a logical fashion, labeled, and made neat and clean. A master breaker box was installed to collect all the main circuit breakers that had been scattered in various places around the boat.

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Until it Breaks?

We have had a number of discussions with boat owners recently about out maintenance practices, especially around our generator, and I have been surprised by what I heard.

The Issue

What we were discussing was one of the scheduled maintenance items for our Onan generator. Onan’s recommendation is to replace the shaft bearing every 5 years. Onan’s reasoning is while this is a sealed bearing that is “lubricated for life” the grease used gradually dries out and loses effectiveness. Catastrophic failure of this bearing would likely cause a lot of collateral damage and could destroy the generator. Because of this, the maintenance schedule for this task is based strictly on calendar time, and not operating hours.

There is no question that this is a major job. The entire guts of the electrical side of the generator need to be removed to access the bearing. An intimidating job for the mechanically naive, and a major one even for an experienced mechanic. Because of this, many, maybe most, people have chosen to just ignore this item on the maintenance list.

Our Approach

In our thinking, if we take care of our boat, she will take care of us. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know we are constantly working one or another major, or minor, project on our boat. The thing that is important to note, is that VERY few of our projects are in response to an item that failed unexpectedly. All (well, almost all!) of our big projects are either preventive, or in response to an incipient failure we are heading off at the pass.

The idea of ignoring a recommended maintenance item and hoping that it will not matter is anathema to us. We routinely take our boat to remote and isolated places. We need to have confidence that all of our critical systems will support our plans.

Take it Apart!

One of the really important parts of the care for our boat is the philosophy: Just take it apart. If you roam around the boat, and on a regular basis you just disassemble and reassemble something it has a number of useful results. Maybe most important, is you learn how to do it, and gain a better understanding of the key parts and how they work and wear. You will find problems before they stop you in your tracks. You can be sure that you have all the tools you need to repair critical systems. You can compare your spare parts inventory to what you see needs work.

Different Strokes

Now, to be sure, different boats have different needs. A boat that spends almost all its time in close reach of supplies and professional mechanics can have a less stringent maintenance program than one that spends time crossing oceans or in remote places. For us, and for the way we use our boat, the “plan” of “run it until it breaks” is just not an option.

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In With the New…

We have a LOT of work going on right now, mostly electrical. Harmonie was ahead of her time when she was built, but electrical systems change quickly, and there has been a lot of water under that bridge in the last 25 years. As far as new boats go, our AC electrical system is pretty simple, but meets our needs well.

One of the tasks we took on was to bring our 220V AC electrical panel up to current standard. The Amel original was a bit dated in style, and the purposes of the many of the switches had changed over the years, so the original carved-in labels didn’t work any more. While the laber-maker stick-on labels are functional, they really aren’t “yacht quality.” Also, those odd ball Dirupter brand made-in-France circuit breakers are the very devil to find in the USA, and are insanely expensive when you do. Like $150 EACH.

But… the real issue with this panel was not apparent on the surface, but once opened up you can see…

Back behind the scenes is a total spaghetti bowl of wires. Dozens, and dozens of wires jammed in a space too small. None of them are labeled, except for the labels I have put on. Working on this mess is frustrating–at best.

Even if you can trace a wire, at its end you frequently end up with something that looks like this:

A large number of wires twisted together and soldered, then jammed under a compression terminal. It WORKS, but if something goes wrong, or heaven forbid!, needs to be changed, you are hosed.

In other places, you find multiple wires jammed into one terminal, and soldered. While this is marginally better than stacking four or five terminals on one screw, it makes any repairs or modifications extremely frustrating, and is totally unnecessary with a little advance planning.

Out With All That Mess!

I pulled all the wires out of the box, and off to the side. Removed the box, and mounted a pair of bus bars, and a terminal block. Now, with a proper back plane, we can reinstall the wires the right way.

Here we are, most of the way along. All the ground wires to one bus. All the neutral wires to the other, and the hot wires to the terminal block. No screw has more than two terminals under it, and no terminal holds more than one wire. EVERY wire is labeled. And not a drop of solder to be found.

After two days of fabricating, cutting, labeling and crimping, we have everything ready to go.

A pretty dramatic change on the inside. Neat, organized, with all connections visible and accessible for troubleshooting or modification. The change on the outside is less dramatic, but still a major upgrade in form and function from where we were.

There we go! That should keep Harmonie going strong for the next 25 years!

There are a bunch of other projects going on that we’ll post about as we assemble the information.

Safety Note!

There is an important issue here, especially for other Amel owners. Our boat was built with single pole circuit breakers, and we kept that here with this new panel.

This is important when it comes time to get 220V power from a USA shore power connection. With single pole breakers it is NOT safe to connect to a 50 Amp 120/240 Volt plug with two hot wires. We get our 220V power though our isolation transformer, which feeds our system with a single hot wire and a neutral, just like standard European power.

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Catch and Release

At the time of our last post we were still in Lewes, Delaware. We have moved, and are now in Annapolis, Maryland back at our favorite boatyard in the Chesapeake: Bert Jabin’s Yacht Yard.

Getting here started out with a real adventure, and NOT one of the good kinds. Lewes has been a harbor since the late 1600’s. For part of that time is was a fairly important port. There are 400 years of debris on the bottom. On our third visit, we found some of it.

As we pulled up our chain, it seemed the windlass was working a bit harder than usual, but not anything exceptional, until we got to this:

That steel cable is about an inch and a half across, and is as stiff as a steel bar. We can’t bend it, or move it much at all. It took us about an hour and a half to figure out how it was wrapped around our chain, and maneuver the two so we could drop the cable off.

But we were not done yet! As the anchor came up…

…our “friend” shows up again. We never saw the whole thing, or what, if anything, it was attached to. Careful study of the photo would show that what we have is really just a loop of cable over the anchor, but try as we might, we can’t get it off. We eventually tied a line to the anchor, and disconnected the chain. We lifted, we bounced, we dragged, we puzzled.

After another 2 hours, we FINALLY managed to pry the loop of cable off the anchor and send it back to the bottom. All through this time we are very slowly drifting along with the tide out to sea. Lucky for us there are no shallows or other obstructions in our way.

Clearing this mess was hard, physical labor that lasted nearly 4 hours. We were both exhausted and sore for days…

Also, in the spirit of “Catch and Release”, we didn’t catch any fish offshore, but while making our way up the Chesapeake we pulled some trolling lines and ended up landing a big redfish.

Not just big, but TOO big! the local regulations require you return to the water any fish over 26 inches, so back he went!

And More Boat Work…

Always more boat projects… we have just started on a bunch and will be working hord for the next couple of weeks to get them all done before it’s time to head south for the winter. More details on those will be following!

If you are in the area, feel free to stop by, we would welcome an excuse to take a break!

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A Whale of a Time

We promised more fun stuff from our trip out to the Baltimore Canyon, and here it is!

While pilot whales might not be the biggest, or most glamorous members of the ocean going mammal family, they are still cool! We got to see them on the surface–and 500 feet down on our sonar.

Enjoy the movie!

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Out to the Canyon

This past week we made our first real run out to fish “The Canyons” as we sailed from Lewes, Delaware out to Baltimore Canyon. I’ll bet people who live in Baltimore are more surprised than most to hear that Baltimore actually has a canyon.

As a young fisherman growing up on the mid-Atlantic coast “The Canyons” were a mystical place. They are many miles offshore and we never had a boat that could go that far, so reading about them and hearing stories was all I could do. When you actually got out to this magical place apparently fish practically jumped in the boat. Big fish. All the time. Well, reality is a bit different, but not much.

On the northeast coast of North America the ocean bottom slopes slowly and gradually from the beach out 50 to 100 miles to the edge of the continental shelf where it’s about 300 feet deep. Here things change quickly, dropping to 6000 feet very quickly. If the water was removed, it would be quite a dramatic sight. A cliff, a mile high, stretching for thousands of miles, broken only by “The Canyons.”

A Google Earth image of the Canyons on the continental shelf from New York down to Virginia

The Canyons are deep notches carved in the cliff face that is the edge of continental shelf. Some seem to be associated with modern day rivers, others are not. Each of them is a dramatic geological feature. These huge underwater structures have dramatic effects on currents and nutrient flows. Like any kind of underwater structure they attract life on a huge scale.

We took a photo of our sonar screen after we crossed the upper end of the Baltimore Canyon:

The depth drops from 350 feet to more than 1000 feet and back up again in less than a mile.

Every weekend a fleet of large “sportfish” boats head out to troll these oases of life for the glamorous sport fish: Yellowfin Tuna, Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Dolphinfish. Huge engines, and thousands of dollars of fuel get them out and back in a few hours. We sailed out the 75 miles in about 14 hours. We had perfect timing, we were able to sail out, and then the wind died as we arrived, perfect for the kind of fishing we wanted to do.

We trolled for a bit as we moved around, picking up a single mahi-mahi, but we were here on a different search. Not for the glamorous, but for the gourmet. We were out here to hunt for the Golden Tilefish. This was a fish I have never hunted for before. Catching one was one of this year’s fishing goals.

If you have never tasted tilefish, all I can say is, “I am sorry!” Sometime very shortly after her first bite, Karen decided that this was her favorite fish EVER, and they deserved whatever room in the freezer they needed. Imagine the taste of the best lobster you ever had, but with a lighter more delicate texture and you will have it about right.

They are also a great environmental success story. The fishery was “discovered” in the 1980s, and quickly expanded to catching 9 million pounds a year. This was a very slow growing species, and that catch rate just wasn’t sustainable. Currently, the catch rate is running about 1.5 million pounds a year, and it is on everybody’s list as a long term sustainable fishery.

Our research, and prep work paid off. We pulled our first Golden Tilefish up from 500 feet down within a few hours of starting.

Not a very big Golden Tile, but my first. Not only tasty, but pretty.

Since these guys live in large groups in burrows in the bottom mud, once you find one, you mark the spot, and you keep coming back. We added 3 more in short order.

We also caught a couple Blue Line Tilefish, a smaller but closely related species, and to our taste just as good eating.

For a Blue Line Tile, this is actually quit large, over 6 pounds

If you are interested in the details of how we found and caught these fish, I’ll be making a detailed post on our fishing blog within the next few days, and will link to it here.

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So Much To Say!

We took a trip out to the edge of the continental shelf over the past few days, and had any number of fun and exciting experiences. We’ll be writing about some of these over the next few days to keep from getting too long winded in any single post. Besides, there is a lot to assemble to get things well put together.

But just as tempting taste of what’s to come… Tilefish and Dolphins and Whales, Oh My!

Mystery Solved!

At the end of our last post a few days ago, I requested help on identifying a noise we regularly hear in the boat. A noise we assumed came from a fish, but couldn’t be 100% sure. We would typically hear it shortly after dark. The following sample was recorded with an underwater microphone, and is clearer than what we hear inside the boat. What we hear is almost as loud as a quiet conversation.

The Mystery Noise

Without hearing a sample of the sound, only reading my description, my friend Gary, (aka the “Fish Nerd”) suggested a member of the grunt family. A good guess, certainly many of the grunts make a similar noise, but in this case not right. Dennis from the sailboat Ferrity had the right answer: A striped cusk eel.

Now, there are about 250 species of cusk eels, and they range from the very deepest parts of the ocean to the shallows. I had never had much reason to pay attention to them, but strangely enough, two days after being introduced to them as the source of our mystery noise, I managed to hook one on the bottom almost 500 feet deep in the Baltimore Canyon!

No, they aren’t very big, or pretty. Also strangely soft. It was like holding a small bag of mashed potatoes. While this is (almost) surely a different species of cusk eel and not the striped cusk eel we hear inshore, it is still a strange coincidence!

If you really need to know more, you can go to this website by someone with a superhuman interest in fish sounds:


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It’s Aways Something

The Good…

Sometimes it is something good, like the awesomely great spot we are at anchor right now. With every change in tide the dolphins swim by, the ospreys catch their fish, and pretty is just about everywhere. Seriously, it is so nice we wish you were here. Well maybe not ALL of you at once, then it would be too crowded!

I haven’t had the nerve to fly the drone and get pictures because we have been in places with a LOT of osprey. These large and powerful birds are famous for taking a serious dislike to small drones, and regularly knock them out of the sky. That’s bad enough when you are over land, but a disaster over water. It’s not that they are mistaking them for prey–they only eat fish. They just don’t like them!

I made an exception this evening and took a chance, it was just too pretty to pass up. I did get this short clip of the lighthouse and Harmonie.

The osprey didn’t show up until I was ready to recover the drone, when one bird made a couple half-hearted passes at it. I was lucky the drone was close enough to the boat at that point he left before really getting serious about doing damage!

The Bad…

On the other hand, we have been struggling with an unusual number of equipment issues that seem to have all piled on together. We had one of our two battery chargers go south Not a huge deal, we have two. But annoying.

We had our satellite communications device’s battery die. We replaced it, and everything was fine for a week, then the device itself died. It is back at the vendor for evaluation and repair. We do miss this because it is how we get our weather and communicate offshore. Hopefully it will be back soon.

The really big deal is our main ship’s battery bank seems to have gone south, losing much of its storage capacity way earlier than it should have. We have been running some tests recommended by the technical experts at the manufacturer, and will see where that takes us.

We have a couple of upgrade and improvement projects that are in the works for our fall maintenance season, so a lot of our systems are under review. For me, this kind of systems engineering is actually part of the enjoyment of running a boat.

The Plans

The weather forecast for the next few days is delightful. We are taking advantage and running offshore to get some fishing done. With our satellite communications down, we’ll be incognito for a bit, but we promise great pictures and fun stories when we get back!

Help Us Solve A Mystery

There are many noises in the ocean, and some of them you can clearly hear inside the boat. The odd humming of the small midshipman fish in San Francisco Bay, the crackling of pistol shrimp just about everywhere. But there is a noise we have heard in many places, and the origin of this one in unknown to us.

Typically starting around sunset, the sound is like a short burst of machinegun fire, lasting about 1/2 to 3/4 second. tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap It repeats irregularly and not generally close together. This is a pretty common critter, we have heard the sound in many coastal places we have been. But it is not an animal present in large numbers, since we don’t hear many at one time.

Any ideas? Fish? Crustacean? Secret government experiment? Aliens?

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Why We Live On a Sailboat

It can sometimes seem like we must be nuts, living as we do. The space limitations, the costs of maintenance, the everyday work just to keep the boat floating and working as she should. But, then there are days like today when it is all worthwhile. We planned a day fishing (Spoiler Alert: We didn’t catch anything!), and the fun started even before we weighed anchor.

Karen was sitting on deck enjoying her morning tea, when a convoy of about a dozen juvenile cow-nosed rays slowly “flew” past just under the water surface.

For quite a while, they didn’t actually go anywhere, but just swam against the current holding station with Harmonie. We didn’t know it at the time, they portended an amazing day of wildlife watching.

When we pulled our anchor, we made our way out of the southern-most corner of Delaware Bay, and out into the ocean. Motoring south along the coast of Delaware and Maryland. It was calm and the water was smooth. The distinctive dark ripples that mark a school of feeding mossbunker were everywhere. Soon, we saw a school of dolphin in the distance, herding a school of ‘bunker. Then another, and another. Every school of ‘bunker seemed to have their own school of dolphin herding them along as a swimming lunch bucket. At any given moment a hundred or more dolphin could be seen stretching across the calm ocean.

None of them ever came close enough to the boat to be certain of what kind they were. We can be pretty sure from the shape of their dorsal fins that they were not same the bottlenose dolphins we saw in the harbor.

After a while, the dolphin thinned out, and we saw a large log in the water. Or at least what looked like a log–until it raised its head, took a breath, and dove. A sea turtle! And not just any sea turtle, but a leatherback. The largest of the sea turtles, they can weigh over a ton. Yes, as big as your car. For most of the day, there was at least one large leatherback in view basking on the surface.

A leatherback seat turtle pokes his large head up to take a breath.

They feed on jellyfish, have a very distinctive set of three ridges down their backs, and they were everywhere! Most were a distance from the boat, but one was close enough to almost touch.

Returning to the harbor at Lewes at the end of the day was another totally magical experience.

Some days really are rainbows and dolphins!

The sun was low in the sky, flooding the world with the light that every photographer lives for. A brilliant rainbow stretched across the eastern sky and the resident bottlenose dolphin families converged on the boat to welcome us “home” as we carried on under sail right up into the anchorage to drop the “hook” for the night.

Part of our welcoming committee. They followed us closely for 20 minutes. The guy in the rear of this photo–with the distinctive black tip on his dorsal fin–was especially curious.

All in all an almost perfect day. The only improvement would have been if I had caught some fish!

This lighthouse marks the eastern end of the breakwater that protects Lewes Harbor. We are anchored just on the other side.

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Rhythm to the Rescue!

This afternoon had a strong onshore breeze from the east, and scattered thunderstorms. During a break in the weather, I decided to head off and see if I could catch some fish for dinner. Very shortly after I pulled away from Harmonie I came across a pair of rented sea kayaks who were struggling to return to the beach they had launched from, about 2 miles straight up into the strengthening breeze. Dad had worn himself out trying to tow the two kids, and there was no way one paddle was going to move two kayaks that far into a 15 knot breeze!

Before they accepted a tow, they asked me to go check on Mom and her friend. I buzzed over to them, and the ladies insisted they were OK (Yeah, right!) so I went back to Dad and the kids, and told them I’d tow them into the beach, and then come back to check again on Mom.

Taking Dad and the kids in tow. That’s a LONG paddle back to the beach!

When we safety got back to the beach, the kids thanked me for going back out to rescue their Mom.

It took me a few minutes to find the other kayak, but there they were, essentially in the same spot I last talked to them. After half an hour of paddling–and making no progress–toward the beach, with dark clouds looming, and lightning flashing in the western sky, they were now much more agreeable to a rescue tow. I told them they really didn’t have a choice since I had already been thanked for rescuing them.

I don’t think much of the livery operation that rented inexperienced people kayaks with a strong offshore breeze. I didn’t see that they had any kind of chase boat of their own. Certainly I saw no evidence that the rental staff even knew there was a problem. They gave no indication that they were aware that three of their boats had been towed back. Sloppy… and dangerous.

On another note, we really like the town of Lewes. Pretty, clean, like a summer resort town should be, but without any of the “Disney-Fake” vibe a lot of them have. There is a town dock right in the middle of downtown, but we weren’t sure Harmonie would have fit, so we just took the dinghy in. Wonderful restaurants, and provisioning at Lloyd’s Market, a great small independent grocer. Beautiful gardens all over. It is a town worth a stop even if you don’t have to.

We got a recommendation for here as a stop from an Ocean Cruising Club member. A great organization for finding information and the inside scoop about lots of things.

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