Quality Time

Richard at Bimini_2012-from-Aimee.jpgTime. There never seems to be enough of it. Despite enjoying one of the most memorable summers of my adult life, what with my girlfriend Karen agreeing to marry me, the seesaw that is the work-life balance was tilting heavily in the hectic direction. An escape on the boat to unplug and recharge was calling my name. With the remnants of Hurricane Hermine kicking up seas to the east, we decided to spend the week after Labor Day cruising west and exploring the Connecticut coast.

During our first days cruising to Clinton and then on to Branford, I frequently felt the urge to pick up my iPhone, swipe left and check my work emails. Advice from my colleagues—John Wooldridge told me to “take it slow and enjoy every second,” and Jason Wood said, “Take a real break, chuck your phone in the drink on Day One and share your new number with us when you get back”—reverberated in my mind and allowed me to put the phone away.

And our week away from the real world provided everything we could hope for in a boating adventure. We enjoyed smooth sailing and squalls alike. There were nights when we slept peacefully beneath the stars and others when we cursed the boat while simmering in puddles of our own sweat. There was also a sleepless night in New Haven, where 2- to 3-foot seas on our mooring made for a night we’ll never forget. The seconds felt like hours waiting for the sun to come up. We enjoyed some great meals and a couple of terrible ones. We discovered destinations we want to return to and others we don’t.

With the end of our trip nearing, we had really found a groove. We were working well together and just enjoyed hanging out and being on the water.IMG_5254.JPG

That’s when I got news: My colleague at Power & Motoryacht, Richard Thiel, had suffered a major stroke. He wasn’t going to recover.

He spent a couple days in hospice, and early this morning he passed away.

It was a punch to the stomach. Richard was as active as they come; a cyclist and serious boater. My colleagues and I shared our shock and sadness, and Jason again provided sage advice: “If anything, this should be a lesson on how important enjoying your life outside of work is. Enjoy your boat and fiancée.”

Cruising home toward Essex this morning, the sun glinting off the ocean, my thoughts drifted to Richard. He was a legend in the marine industry whose time testing boats left a permanent—visible to all those who test boats for a living—wake on the ocean. Richard, always gracious with his time, followed my blog; it pangs my heart knowing this post will land in his inbox, never to be read.

Richard and I spoke frequently of sharing a meal at the Blue Oar, just up the Connecticut River. Alas, busy schedules and lifestyles prevented such a meal. In my last email to Richard, I suggested we get together for that long-anticipated breaking of bread (and beers). It would go unanswered.

After what I’m sure will be a long winter, I plan on visiting the Blue Oar when it (and the boating season) reopens. I will pour a pint for Richard. Instead of hearing tales from the “glory days” of marine publishing or soaking up knowledge from the longest-serving Editor-in-Chief in Power & Motoryacht history, I’ll sip a cold beer and be thankful to be a member of the brotherhood that is Power & Motoryacht. I’ll be thankful that I’m able to run in Richard’s wake. I’ll forever be thankful that, on every boat test from now until I hang up my notepad and decibel reader, Capt. Thiel is watching over me.

I’ll forever be thankful that I’m running in the wake of a giant.

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Let There Be Light

I watched through envy-filled eyes as boaters who had done hardly an hour’s work were lowered from the travelift to the resting river below.

How!? I mean, gahhhh, another one,” I’d stammer, pointing wildly at the carefree looking family sailing off into summer.

Karen rolled her eyes and went back to varnishing. We had accomplished a fair amount in early spring; the brightwork had been tended to, the mast received six coats of varnish and was really starting to shine again. The hull was waxed and painted and still … there was much left to do. It was time to call in the troops; we asked my parents to come up for the weekend to help blitz through the remaining projects.

On our to-do list was two tasks that had eluded us since we bought the boat four seasons ago: Fixing the wiring and adding running water. Yes, water and electric, a reminder of how involved this restoration project has truly been.

IMG_91200700 on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning would come, they would arrive and it was game on. Now something of an annual tradition, we quickly settled into the tasks at hand. Karen and my mom fell into a rhythm of chatting and working, first painting the hull of the dinghy with an inflatable bottom paint before adding a layer of varnish to the toe rail.

My old man and I opened the slide-open draw that housed the boat’s electrical and exhaled deeply while taking in the sight. To explain the current electrical situation, well, let’s just say I’ve seen tumbleweeds with more order and organization. Thankfully, my dad has an above-average handle on marine electrical and we had a new DC panel in place within a couple hours. We’d go on to swap out some tarnished old cabin lights with some glistening new LED lamps.IMG_4242

With a couple flips of the breaker we had light. It was a little victory but certainly one worth celebrating.

Next up was the water tank. Because of a design flaw and many years of neglect, the water tank beneath the sole of the salon is susceptible to contamination from bilge water. After working through a half dozen possible options, I decided the best solution would be to place a 26-gallon Plastimo water tank under the forward V-berth. The most demanding aspect of this project was acquiring all the fittings, hoses and pumps we’d need; the actual installation was completed within an hour. Besides adding running water to the head and salon sinks, we also ran a hose to the stern of the cockpit where it will serve as an outdoor shower.IMG_9137

We worked hard that day and were proud of what we accomplished. We had a few laughs and spent time unplugged talking about our hopes for the coming summer. Looking back on that weekend, I realize you don’t really need to be on the water to enjoy the positive affects of boating. The season has begun.

Savoring Summer in Shelter Island

Leaves along Connecticut’s Route 9 had begun to trade their deep green for hints of orange and yellow; nature was showing its hand. Fall is here. With a long holiday weekend on tap the Karen Marie would be chasing the horizon at full throttle trying mightily to catch back up to summer.

That’s how it came to be that we motored from Essex early Saturday morning, hitching a ride down the river with an outgoing tide. The early, yet strong rays of sun burned off the morning dew providing a smoky hue to our cruise. Short chop in the Sound and the confused waters of Plum Gut made for a less-than-leisurely ride over to our destination of Shelter Island’s Dering Harbor. Covered in a weird combo of salt spray and sweat, we eventually tied up to our mooring in the southeast corner of the harbor and took in the view of sailboats and blue-hulled powerboats bobbing up and down in the clear water surrounded by beautiful homes and lush green tress.exposure 1

After a bit of settling in, we hopped in the dinghy to explore town. It would be a short trip. The main street in town, and the hub of activity, is a short block comprised of a True Value, a gas station, toy store, a rustic looking bar/restaurant called Dory and a café/deli/grocery store called Marie Eiffel Market where we stood on a line nearly out the door for a pair of excellent sandwiches. It was clear that we would be back.

After a bit of R&R I had a little “work” for the magazine to tend to. For the next issue’s gear column I was testing and photographing a uniquely shaped inflatable standup paddle board called the Sea Eagle NeedleNose 126. (I know, I know…tough job!) The paddle board ended up working great; it went from rolled up in a backpack to fully inflated in two minutes and as you can see from these outtakes, it ended up being a lot of fun.

An evening of grilling and watching the sun set capped off the rest of a pleasant night.

Day two was kicked off the Shelter Island way with breakfast from, where else but Marie Eiffels. Determined to better see what the island had to offer we rented bikes from the gas station (apparently specialty stores aren’t real popular here). The plan for our half day rental was to take a “nice easy” ride out to the northeast jetty and then double back to a marina/boat builder called CH Marine where we could shower and inspect any new builds in progress. Well, that plan lasted until the first stop sign when Karen tried to pass me. A two hour race would ensue that I’m sure did little to help tourist relations. (When the island wasn’t whizzing past, it was really a beautiful way to see Shelter.)IMG_2964_1

Stopping at CH Marine yielded both refreshing showers and the chance to see a newly built 34-foot runabout. With a really unique blue Awlgrip paint job and sweet down east lines, I was not alone in ogling the new build. Many visitors stopped to snap a few pictures.

Refreshed and feeling like humans again, we hopped a 5-minute ferry ride from Shelter to Greenport, a beautiful town that is often referred to as one of the most beautiful on Long Island. The thing about the most beautiful place on Long Island on the most popular weekend of the summer is, well, it gets pretty darn crowded. Crowds of inebriated college kids, ice cream-covered children and older couples filled the streets in what would be become a very strange scene. We would enjoy a cold beer at the Greenport Brewery before I convinced Karen that it would be in our best interest to explore a nearby down-on-its-luck boatyard. She hardly puts up a fight anymore and just rolled her eyes. After climbing around a few rotten wooden boats, I found a real gem. Something that 7-year-old-boatyard-exploring-Daniel could only have dreamed of…tucked being an abandoned rust covered building, surrounded by a small flotilla of derelict sailboats was…a 1967 Lockheed submarine. My jaw dropped as I took in the site. “You can trespass in boatyards your whole life and never find something like this,” I whispered to Karen who began to realize another plan, this time for a “5 minute yard visit” was going out the window.IMG_2411

After poking around the sub for too long, we decided to end the day with a drink at the waterfront bar called The Blue Canoe. Watching the sun set with a couple cold rum drinks, you couldn’t really write a better official end to the summer.

We’d return home the next morning and our mini vacation, much like our bike ride, and our summer, would end all too soon. But this short weekend reminded us of how much we enjoy cruising to, and exploring new destinations. There’s just a certain excitement that comes with not knowing what’s around the next corner, it might just be the submarine you’ve spent 20 years searching for.

Breaking Murphy’s Law

I like to think that there’s an alternate universe where best laid plans actually come to fruition; a place where anchors set on the first try, seas lie flat on travel days and spare parts stay sealed and tucked away in the bottom drawer. In short, if such a universe existed, it would be the opposite of this past weekend in Essex.

The plan was for my folks and family friends to cruise up the river and spend the weekend, while my brother and his girlfriend would drive up to meet us. It all seemed simple enough. Then our friends had a medical scare that forced them to return to the dock one day into their vacation. My parent’s port prop was introduced to one of the many semi-submerged logs floating in the Sound, causing them to limp in one engine. And as for my brother, Murphy’s Law visited him in the form of a dead battery when he stopped in the middle of Connecticut. Not really the start to the weekend I was expecting.

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The staff at Brewer Dauntless carefully raise the Sharon Ann.

But before you think this is a sad story, think again. In today’s world of watching out for only numero uno, we encountered a lot of people willing to offer a helping hand. A perfect stranger helped jump my brother’s truck before leading him to the auto parts store for a replacement battery. The staff at Brewer Dauntless Marina would call in staff in on a Sunday to haul my parent’s Egg Harbor and pull the props. It would have been easy for them to leave the boat on land while waiting for the folks at the nearby Hale Propeller to scan and fix the props but they insisted on towing the boat back to their original slip as to not disturb our weekend plans.

Our friend’s vacation may have ended abruptly but the medial diagnosis yielded a wholly treatable condition, for which we were all thankful.

We may have all met up a little later than expected and after a trying morning it would have been understandable if everyone were a bit grouchy. But faster than you can say “let’s go to the pool,” we were relaxing and having a good time. The evening would prove to be equal parts simple and pleasant. With a couple racks of ribs and corn on the grill, we enjoyed some beverages and caught up. Our nightly entertainment was courtesy a wildly-over-the-top party on a Sea Ray at the end of the dock. Loud club music and frequent shrieks of “whoop-whoop” was hysterical when heard from afar.

Breaking out a game of Catch Phrase (which always seems like a good idea at the time) would elicit a similar, albeit more sober, intensity. By the time we put the game away only one death threat had been made, which is pretty good.

Sunday provided us with a brilliantly beautiful morning and while most of the crew probably would have liked to stroll and shop in town, I had other plans. As loyal readers know, I have been in the grips of a fierce battle with crap-filled cormorants and my guests were unknowingly about to become my recruits. Armed with spike strips and reflecting tape, I planned on converting my classically inspired wooden mast into an intimidating death stick.

Together my parents, brother and Karen carefully and slowly pulled me to the top of the mast. I guess I took a little too long setting my spikes because next thing I knew everyone tied down the lines they were holding so they could better critique my work. “Swing your whole body out to the side,” suggested my old man. With a tie wrap stuck between my teeth, one arm around the mast and the other tying down the strip, I mustered through gritted teeth, “oh yeah, no problem.”

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Yes, I’m sure I’m doing it right!

When the chores had ended we retreated back to the pool before all going our separate ways. A lot of obstacles originally stood in-between us and a successful weekend, but that’s the great thing about boating; it doesn’t take much to create a great weekend on the water. You don’t need reservations, or a big crowd; or as I would relearn: plans. Some of the best memories come from the simple spontaneous things like a stupid game, horsing around in a pool, or completing a simple project.

Murphy’s Law be damned.

A Terrible, Perfect Night

Tired, frustrated, and drenched in sweat, I spun the Karen Marie in a tight circle to retrieve my lost boat hook that was lodged in the chain of a mooring ball and now protruded straight up from the water like a big middle finger. No, my evening was not going according to plan.

My original vision for the night began with a nice easy wash-down of the boat, which in recent weeks had become a bombing strip for cormorant crap. Then Karen and I would enjoy a cold drink or two on our glistening boat, enjoying all that is right in the boating world.

Well, as the old saying goes, when it rains it pours. With a temperature near 90 and not even a zephyr to cool us off, we were sopping with sweat. We’d wash the boat from bow to stern and then notice some stubborn spots we missed. We scrubbed and scrubbed. My suggestion to Karen that she “try using some elbow grease” was met with a look that suggested I was in for a world or more than bird crap.

From there I spilled some content from our porta-potty on my hands while en route to empty it. Simmering at this point now, we returned to grab our mooring, which we’d done a hundred times. This time our pickup stick (a float used for easily retrieving a mooring line) broke off and our mooring line became impossible to grab. “It’s fine, we’ll grab one of the empty moorings then I’ll fix it,” I said. Good plan but then our boat hook got stuck in the before-mentioned chain of the mooring ball, ripping it out of Karen’s hands.

By the time we retrieved our boat hook, fixed our original mooring ball and tied the boat up for the night, my pride hurt more than the sweat in my eyes.

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Annoyed yet determined to salvage some of the night, I stripped down to my boxers and dove into the water. And I have to say, I surfaced feeling like a new man. I swam over and grabbed a hold of the dinghy with one hand and let the four-knot current rush passed me. Looking back towards shore, I watched as the pink and purple remnants from sunset slowly disappeared. Karen even agreed to join me in the raft and sit with her feet in the water.

The harbor was whisper quiet, such that the only sound was the rushing tide that carried away the stress from the day’s many mishaps.

Driving the dingy to shore at 5:15 this morning, my eyes still blurry and adjusting to the first rays of sunlight, Karen said, “I definitely think we should do this more often.” Thinking back to all the work it took just a few moments of peacefulness I responded, “absolutely.”

Boat Deliveries and Unlikely friendships

The morning of our last day aboard Gizmo began with a heightened sense of urgency. 106 miles, 4- to 6-foot seas, and almost 20 knots of wind stood between us and Camden, but we were determined, come hell or following seas, to get there. The hatches were battened down, and loose cameras and other assorted gear was stowed away and secured.

Leaving Isle of Shoals, off New Hampshire, in sloppy conditions, it was immediately apparent that we were in for a long day (cruising speed was an average of 9 knots). Our Duffy 37 slipped and slid down the backs of waves; the autopilot was frequently turned to standby as we slalomed through patches of lobster traps. After an hour of standing wide-legged and braced at the helm, fatigue would start to creep in. The casual watch schedule that Ellison and I had been keeping was replaced by a strict hour-on, hour-off schedule. The watch changes allowed the helmsman to be as fresh as possible, and we kept at it for most of the day.

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Like many things in life, the challenging conditions we faced made our long-awaited approach into Camden that much sweeter. Conifer-covered mountains protruded from the sea in front of our bow; Ellison’s smile grew as friends threw him a wave in the inner harbor. “Man I really love it here,” said Ellison as he exhaled a deep breath of crisp, clean air.

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In short order we tied Gizmo to her floating dock in the harbor, then made our way to the Ellison estate, which Ben himself built in the 1970s. After some much-needed showers, and even-more-needed glasses of wine, we found ourselves, and his lovely wife, Andrea sitting on his porch in the shade of Camden’s Mt. Battie.

We began the time-honored tradition of recounting tales from our five-day adventure. “You wouldn’t believe this burger joint we went to in Plymouth,” Ben would say. “Oh, tell Andrea about pulling into Isle of Shoals, this is a good one.”…“Yeah, then this group on the dock started chanting in unison.” Story-swapping would continue until two bottles of vino—and our remaining energy—had been polished off.

I had joined this delivery to increase my navigation and marine electronics knowledge, which I gained in spades. But the more important take away for me was how time on the water can form the most unlikely of friendships. Before pulling away from Essex, Ben and I were professional acquaintances whose only shared experiences were a couple dozen e-mails. And aside from a similar profession we’re almost as different as they come. Where Ben enjoys listening to countless hours (and I mean COUNTLESS HOURS) of talk radio and spending time with his grandchildren, I prefer country music and often have a friend from college crashing in my cramped apartment. We have very different opinions on the meaning of “optimum cruising speed” and our preferred bedtime differed by a good four hours.

Shared experiences and a common goal at sea have a funny way of erasing all those land-based differences and forming what I hope to be a long-lasting friendship.

Camden harbor

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Four Lessons in Using Modern Marine Electronics ● Auto Routing has a long way to go: A function I got to test on multiple manufacturers MFDs was the auto-routing function. Now, to be fair, each system warns users that auto-routing is not a replacement for proper course plotting and that’s a good thing. Most auto routing had us running on the wrong side of buoys, over shallow shoals, and running too close to shore. This function is best used to create a quick and dirty route that you then change and tweak to ensure safe cruising. ● No search function that I could find: Most new MFDs lack a search function that helps you locate a particular marina quickly. This would have been extremely helpful when I was trying to locate Scituate after exiting the Cape Cod Canal. When getting bounced in choppy seas is not the time to be scrolling along the coast in search of a port you’ve never been to. ● Keep it simple: Gizmo has dozens of screens across her expansive helms. Information overload is a very real thing, unless you’re electronics guru Ben Ellison. Having forward-looking and side-scanning sonar systems, fishfinders, instrumentation, charts, numerous split-screen radars etc. can easily distract you from the basics of boating, like staying in between the buoys. Just because you have insane functionality doesn’t mean you have to use it. ● Hard-key autopilot controls are king in rough conditions: Ben had his upper helm equipped with a hard-key autopilot control, which was easy to use even in rough seas. The MFD touchscreen control was much more difficult (for me) to use when things got lumpy. I’d intend to change our course by a few degrees quickly then accidentally hit the +10 degrees that would send us way of course. I eventually chose to hand steer around lobster pots.

Delivery from Essex to Maine

The sound of waves crashing on the jetty waft through the saloon, while Power & Motoryacht’s (the magazine I work for) Senior Electronics Editor Ben Ellison—illuminated by a single red LED overhead, pecks at his keyboard. He’s toggling between plotting the next day’s course on Coastal Explorer and answering questions posted on his electronics blog, panbo.com.

“This guy is asking a question about the very thing we’re doing right at this moment,” Ellison says, his eyes glued to his oversized monitor. “Wi-Fi out on the water can be complicated.”

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It’s 10:00 pm after a hectic day. Ellison spent five hours teaching an intensive “Soup to Nuts Navigation” class at the International Cruising Boat Expo held at Brewer Essex Island Marina in Essex, Connecticut, a course where he led new and experienced boaters through the finer points of course plotting. Later in the course he led small groups to his floating electronics laboratory—his 37-foot Duffy, aptly named Gizmo—to share some insight on equipping a helm.

“You’ll never see another boat like this,” laughs Ellison, while his students ogle an MFD-filled helm and four (yes, the man has four) radars. He walks through the various MFDs and explains what some of the strengths and weaknesses are of each.

Gizmo's five radars

Shortly after class is dismissed, Ellison is scurrying about his boat, tidying up and preparing to shove off. The water tank is filled; lines and fenders are stowed away.

Once away from the dock, Ellison finds a seat at the centerline helm of his flying bridge and begins doing what he does best, fidgeting with electronics while his boat makes its way out the Connecticut River to the Long Island Sound. After months of cruising, teaching, and testing, he is finally returning to his homeport of Camden, Maine.

I joined Ellison under the guise of helping him during the delivery. The truth is I fully expect to get more out of this trip than he will. My current electronic-navigation arsenal includes a 5-inch Garmin GPS and Navionics loaded on my girlfriend’s pink iPad mini. A trip with the guru of marine electronics aboard a boat with, again, four freakin’ radars, I’m bound to get an education that isn’t offered in any class.

So with light winds and calm seas, we logged 46 miles from Essex to Point Judith’s Harbor of Refuge. Having MFDs from Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno, and Simrad in your face was overwhelming, but I have a feeling I’ll get a lot of time to practice with them during this delivery. Stay tuned.

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