01 April 2020

Cruising Under the Cloud of the Coronavirus

Where to start?... Like for many, these past three weeks have been a whirlwind. Argon's itinerary had her just starting a leisurely month through the Bahamas about now followed by some off shore passages to arrive home in Newport, Rhode Island USA by early June. Instead we find ourselves no longer cruising but in delivery mode currently docked in Charleston, South Carolina digging out long sleeve shirts from the bowels of our closets.


Captain Linda Perry Riera


Some seemed surprised when we recently indicated we were ending our island explorations and accelerating our return to the United States. Proclamations of "Stay where you are!" and "The US is a mess!" were shared by many. I can understand why hanging out on a boat in lovely anchorages surrounded by turquoise water can seem like an ideal way to self isolate and implement social distancing. However, as the situation started heating up and becoming more serious in mid March, we so much desired to get home... initially anywhere in the US. And then specifically back to the northeast.

The red line is our journey from last November (Grenada) to March (Puerto Rico). The yellow is our planned path home. So far away. I longed to be home even with (perhaps especially because of) the brewing troubles back in the US.


False impression of an idyllic way to self isolate.


Our main reason for wanting to be home is to be closer and more accessible to our kids and other family and friends. In times of difficulty, ones nuclear family is paramount. And while we have been able to stay in very close contact with our kids, we want to be able to quickly get to them should it be needed. (I know... with current restrictions, there is still separation.) But also to be more accessible to reliable medical care should either of us need it. (I know... even this is at risk.) And also to better able to focus on our jobs. (Oh, jeesh... this is precarious, too.)

As borders began closing, many of our cruising friends find themselves somewhat stuck, unable to freely move about. And unsure when they will be able to return to their homes in Europe, or get out of the hurricane belt. Luckily, we seemed to serendipitously be just ahead of border closures in recent weeks.

This photos seems from so long ago... We enjoyed one night out on the town in Old San Juan the day after arriving in Puerto Rico. This was around 7 March, just prior to COVID-19 news heating up. We had planned to enjoy Puerto Rico for at least a couple of weeks but truncated that timing substantially.


Within days of our arrival, it became apparent that we needed to set our sights on leaving Puerto Rico requiring many logistics such as provisioning, laundry, and propane. In addition to getting the boat ready for an off shore passage.


We cut our time short in Puerto Rico as reports of virus spread increased setting our sights on Bahamas. The day before departure, we started hearing rumors that Bahamas was closing their boarders. However, I could not find anything on line to substantiate. So we left on a 3 day passage to the remote island of Inagua (southern Bahamas between Dominican Republic and Cuba) not knowing if we would be allowed in the country.


Shortly after leaving Puerto Rico, while still barely in cell data range, our phone alarms started announcing curfew orders. We had a strange feeling of escaping just in time. But we were also unsure of what were were escaping to.


Off Shore Passage #1: San Juan, Puerto Rico to Inagua

15-18 March 2020



A veil of worry hung over us during the passage as we wondered how things were evolving back in the states. In addition, we were unsure what to expect when trying to clear customs in the Bahamas.



Close reaching in 15kts of winds with clear skies and warm days.


The first night was quite jaunty but beautiful with a bit of moonlight and starlight.


Thankful to be almost through the third night and nearing our destination.


Upon arrival in Inagua, we lowered the dinghy from the davits and mounted the outboard. I ventured to shore and walked about a mile up the road. The customs and immigration offices were clearly taking the COVID-19 situation seriously immediately requiring hand sanitation and keeping a clear physical distance. After a detailed health affidavit, the normal boat and crew questions, and $300 for the cruising permit, Argon was cleared in to the Bahamas - we were relieved. Initially.


Wonderful to be anchored in the beautiful Bahamian water.


Challenging dinghy dock requiring traversing this ladder quite a way up to the dock. Luckily it is a well protected little harbor and conditions were mild.


Customs and Immigration was quite a way up the main (only?) road.


We were thrilled to be able to replace the quarantine flag with the Bahamian courtesy flag after clearing customs. But our excitement would be short lived.


Cleared to cruise the Bahamas, we discussed accelerating our travels through the Bahamas making our way from Inagua northward. Bahamas is vast.... Nearly 700 islands and cays sprinkled over a several hundred mile swath of the Atlantic southeast of Florida. Vast areas of extremely shallow waters impede navigation and complicate passages.

But, not so fast... News reports were coming in. Friends immersed in the healthcare system and epidemiological data in Massachusetts specifically and US generally were sharing very concerning information about likely acceleration of infections, probable widespread closures and border restrictions. We were acutely aware of the complications should either of us (which means likely both) become ill with COVID-19 including perhaps being unable to move the boat to a safe location should a difficult weather system approach. And lack of reliable medical care on these remote islands was worrisome. In addition, these small islands are heavily reliant on their weekly boat deliveries to keep the islands supplied with basics; one disruption can quickly cause challenges. And we needed to be closer to the kids. We wanted to get home, now even faster than before.

We immediately began to evaluate how we could get to the mainland US more quickly, but safely. First we seriously considered accelerated day hops northward making our way as fast as possible through the Bahamas up to northern Exumas, then over to the east coast of Florida. But instead, we decided on a faster, albeit more tiring, option of another off shore passage to Florida. We set our sights on a decent weather window opening up in just a couple of days.

Passage planning began after being at anchor only a day or so.


My final swim in warm turquoise waters.


Off Shore Passage #2: Inagua to West Palm, Florida

21-23 March 2020 - Now in Get Home mode; the cruise is over

Our mindset is now very much on getting home... first to anywhere in the US, then to the northeast. Our cruise is over, we are in delivery mode, but that is ok. There are more important things to focus on now.

The front end of this passage was challenging. But conditions eased a couple of days in and we were happy to motor on calm seas the last leg. When we got in to cell data range approaching Miami, we were dismayed to receive reports of south Florida closing up and restricting entry. We were unsure of the best harbor to target and if we would be able to clear customs or be quarantined. Several sailing friends quickly shared information and we decided to target West Palm. There was reason to think that a more northerly port such as St. Augustine would be easier to clear in to, however we were exhausted and thought it unwise to try to continue on for another day and night. West Palm proved to be just fine.

I usually find the nights on long passages very difficult. I count down the hours until the first glimpses of daybreak.


Conditions eased towards the end of the passage.


When in data range of the southeast coast of Florida we start getting reports of Florida closing marinas and forbidding boat traffic. I called ahead to West Palm and was relieved to learn we would be allowed to dock.


And we happily got clearance from customs without the requirement for quarantine!


Argon docked at Riviera Beach Marina. The area is normally a hot spot of social activities and bustling outdoor restaurants but was eerily quiet.


More passage preparations. Again.


Off Shore Passage #3:  West Palm, Florida to Charleston, South Carolina

27-29 March 2020 

Everyday we read the news and examine the epidemiology reports about COVID-19. Our three boys as well as Bob have all had their jobs impacted. Our future daughter-in-law is on the front lines as an ER nurse at a major Boston hospital. Family and friends, well everyone, are all dealing with personal versions of this crisis. We desperately want to be home and are making progress but feel so far away still. We hope to make it to Beaufort, North Carolina next but the upcoming weather window allows us to get only to Charleston, South Carolina.


Still just barely warm enough for shorts at the front end of this passage off the coast of Florida.



By day two, we dug out some cold weather gear but do not have much on board as we did not plan to be in these latitudes this early in the season.


We docked at Charleston City Marina and immediately started thinking and preparing for our next passage. We welcomed the exercise on a one mile walk to a grocery store to a grocery store to secure more provisions. And visited a local sailing friend who lent us some much needed cold weather gear.




Thankfully we had the cockpit curtains on board so we can enclose the cockpit during the upcoming colder conditions.


Thank you to a local sailing friend (Greenie!) in Charleston who kindly lent us some of his cold weather gear.


Off Shore Passage #4: Charleston, South Carolina to Beaufort, North Carolina

2-3 April 2020 - planned

We have done our pre-passage checks, filled the water tanks, checked the weather data again, plotted our points and studied charts (and published the blog). We also had a great chat with the dockmaster from a marina in Beaufort to confirm that they will accept us, albeit under quarantine conditions. We will be restricted to staying on board and on the docks, but that's expected at this point in this pandemic we are all dealing with. And as soon as we arrive, we will again start looking for our next weather window to make the next jump towards home still several hundred miles away.

Stay well everyone!!



11 March 2020

WIFI Aboard: The Network that NotWorked, Works Again

One of the earliest projects we did on Argon was to install a Wifi network. It consisted of a Ubiquity Bullet m2 Titanium Radio/Router and a Microtik Wireless Access Point. It was our "ArgonAfloat" Wifi network and served us very well. After six years of baking in the sun and freezing in (some) winters - not to mention operating in a salt-air environment, the Bullet finally bit the dust in February while in Anguilla.


Capt. Bob

We considered several options, but at the time finally decided to just do nothing. On this cruise, we rely primarily on mobile data and that will be especially true for the last leg through the Bahamas before we return to the states.

Red Line is what we've covered. Yellow is still to go!
With a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico scheduled before our passage to southern Bahamas, we re-considered if we should replace the gear and get something shipped in. Once again we considered a few options:
  • Just get another bullet (about a hundred bucks plus shipping)
  • Get a Halo Redport system (about 400 bucks plus shipping)
  • Get a Rogue Wave Dual-Band Pro and MBR550 Router with SIM card (about two grand)
You can probably tell by the additional details in one of those lines, which one I did. We got the Cadillac system - Wave Wifi stuff from Defender in CT. They shipped it to the Marina a few days ahead of when we arrived and it was all here waiting for us.

Why The Splurge?  

We both work extensively from the boat, so connectivity is very important. The Bullet m2 always worked well, but it is complex to configure and tricky to debug issues with. Also, the old m2 version we had would only see 2.4GHz Wifi. Many times, we could see SSIDs from our laptops down below that the bullet couldn't see up on the radar mast! The Halo system also only works on 2.4GHz systems.

Removing the dead Bullet Radio in Anguilla

Wave Wifi makes high-end turn-key systems which are installed on private and charter yachts of all sizes. They offer the DB (dual band) Pro radio which will work with 2.4 and 5 GHz systems. And they have their own brand of "marine-grade" routers/access points: the MBR500 and MBR550.  The difference between these two (besides about $350) is that the 550 has a SIM slot in it and two high-gain Cellular Antennas. Interesting.

We normally buy two of whatever the local SIM card is and stick them in two different phones. Going forward, we have the option of sticking one in the SIM slot on the router and having that serve our main network. I can remember a few times in the Bahamas a couple of years ago where the BTC mobile signal was a bit weak. Perhaps having the BTC SIM in the router with those fancy Cellular Antennas will give us an edge - we'll see next month. We will have to configure the APN and other parameters for each SIM. I think the trick will be to get them to configure the card in a phone at the store and then use that phone to see which APN to use.  It should work.

The one disadvantage of serving up Mobile Data over our primary network is that we will now need to set the primary network as a Metered network on all of our devices. In the past, it was assumed that if our primary network was working, it was connected to some bar or restaurant near the anchorage. Now, we have to beware that it might be backed by expensive and limited mobile data. Windows10 and Android devices allow setting individual Wifi networks as Metered and as such, will not do super-high-bandwidth nonsense over them.

 

SIM Included

They do include a T-Mobile SIM and offer several insanely expensive monthly plans. I saw 50GB for $350 and ran screaming. I left it in the SIM slot for now just to prove that it works.  Later, we will be sticking local pre-paid SIMs in here and crossing our fingers.

 

More Benefits

The MBR550 has a series of ports that can work in a fail-over sequence.  Out of the box it is configured like this and they even name the ports to make it obvious. Previously, we used a separate router (a cheap tp-link) on our Satellite Terminal for offshore passages. Now, the sat terminal will just plug directly into our primary router and it will automatically fail over to it if the Wifi and Cellular data are down. Simple. Additionally, they provide a means to limit the data on each port. I have set the Satellite port limit to 5MB per day. That will avoid a nasty and expensive "accident" when offshore like we've had in the past. The Satellite data is $10/MB and only used for short text emails, GRIBs and to upload our Track underway for those playing along at home.

The Failover config screen. Wifi first, then SIM then Sat

Installation

The hard part of the install was actually done years ago when we installed the original Bullet/Microtik system. All the power and ethernet wiring that was done then will work now. Both the old and new radio get power over ethernet (POE). The Wave Pro DB came with a shiny new POE injector (this one with LEDs on it), so I swapped in the new one (because I like shiny things).

The Pro DB radio in hand and the MB550 and new POE mounted inside.

Bit of a mess during the install.
The Pro DB with spacers ready to be clamped to the radar mast.
Mounted and wired in. The Fleet One Satellite terminal now feeds a port on our primary router (white wire).


A bit of a stretch and balancing act.

And done!

The Review

Don't you hate those Amazon reviews where someone reviews something after owning it for only a couple days?  Well, I'm about to do the same.

It was incredibly easy to set up. The paper instructions included were not so great but I downloaded the manual (and of course put it in dropbox with all the other ship's manuals). One thing that is buried a bit is that you can configure it by connecting to it wirelessly instead of plugging in an ethernet cable as the instructions say. The trick is that the initial password is MBR550's serial number. That said, there is not much config to do. The router allows you to require logins for your users and can even redirect them to a disclaimer page. This is probably a very popular feature on charter boats and large yachts with lots of guests coming and going.

Product placement.


I've been using it for work for several days. The Pro DB is connected to the Club Nautico Guest Wifi here at the marina in San Juan. As is often the case with marinas, the Wifi is horrible at times and not so bad other times. This marina has a 2.4 and a 5GHz guest Access point. While the 2.4 is a slightly stronger signal, I've been having much better luck on the 5 (lately).  It's nice to have the option now.

The physical mounting of the MBR550 router is much nicer than the old Microtik A/P.  It has tabbed legs with screw holes and the footprint is a bit smaller.  I mounted it inside our nav table pod with the Sim slot facing forward.

The Pro DB radio feels very rugged and heavy. It has a standard antenna mount threaded base, however we are not using that yet. I'm doing the hose-clamps to a stainless rail method of mounting for now. Perhaps a winter project will be to add a threaded base to the Edson wing and run the wire up inside it. A nice touch is that when the Pro DB gets power, it makes a quiet bootup sound - like a rapid series of clicks. It's nice feedback to let you know that your POE is working all the way to it.  Like the bullet, there are no LED indicators of power or signal.

Another advantage over the Bullet is that anything the Pro DB connects to can be saved as a Favorite. Come back next year and it will connect - so long as they haven't changed the password which is often the case. The bullet had no such memory so it required another trip to the bar to harvest a password.

Speaking of harvesting passwords, this brings me to one thing that was nicer in the Bullet. The Site Scan Survey results screen for the Bullet was a nice tight table of SSIDs and signal strength. One could sort by signal strength, take a screenshot of that on your phone and go ashore to harvest passwords. The UI in the Wave Scan screen is modern and pretty, but it spreads the list of Access Points it sees over several pages. It will now require several screenshots to capture it all - especially when there are many access points around (most of which are from other boats).

Boo - a phone screenshot only fits four Access Points in this "pretty" UI. Give me the simple text table from the Bullet please!
Something that I have not figured out how to do (or if it can be done) is to change how the Pro DB appears to the access point it is connected to. In the old Bullet configuration, I had us showing up as "Bill's iPhone". This was mainly done because some restaurants/bars in certain places are very protective of their Wifi passcodes and insist on typing them into your phone instead of telling them to you. We would use our superior technology to thwart that, but then we didn't want to appear as "Bullet m2" in their router connected user list (if they ever look). I have a feeling that we show up as "Wave... something or other" now and I don't yet know how to change that.


There is a Bug (or feature) I've run into with regards to Favorites. I had both the 2.4 and 5GHz SSIDs saved as favorites. I deleted one Favorite and... it deleted both of them. Can I put this in Jira?

Time To Get Back To Work, And Play

We're spending a few more days in San Juan and will wait on a window to make a 460 nautical mile (3+ day) passage to Grand Inagua in the southern Bahamas. Besides this little project, we have gotten several other things done on the boat including some bright work. The Bahamas will be a test for the Cellular Data capabilities of the MBR550. Between that, a second BTC local SIM card in a phone and Google FI, we hope to stay well connected most of the time.

In the meantime, we're enjoying San Juan and even dressing up a bit for nights out!







01 March 2020

Back in the US, Sort Of

Argon has been been easing her way out of the deep Caribbean in to more American-feeling territory ever since about St. Martin with its commerce and infrastructure as well as Anguilla accepting US dollars and completely English-speaking. We were welcomed back home with the ease of clearing customs in US territory upon arriving in St. Croix as well as the plethora of Americans inhabiting St. John (both US Virgin Islands). It feels as though we may have swapped exotic adventure for comfortable familiarity at these latitudes. But it's still grand.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

Argon sailed and explored about 160nm in total over the past two plus weeks from Anguilla to St. Croix (USVI) then on to and around St. John (also USVI).

A difficult downwind overnight passage from Anguilla to St. Croix USVI was followed by a grand daysail due north to St. John (also USVI, just southwest of British VI).


Overnight Sail from Anguilla to St. Croix, With Crew

Anguilla is a narrow island a mere 5 miles north of St. Martin. Its topography is nondescript but with gorgeous waters. Locals seem happy to be largely overlooked by their bustling neighboring island with just enough high end tourism to keep the economy healthy. Anguilla seems to have the most mixing of races we've seen in the Caribbean perhaps due to what appears to be an overall higher standard of living for locals compared to other islands where there is a clear divide between locals and ex-pats. The locals were among the friendliest we have encountered in our travels.

After a week at anchor working day jobs, tending to boat logistics and a bit of land exploration we welcomed our dear friends, Lori and Colonel Todd, to Anguilla to celebrate their impending retirement from nearly 30 years in the Marine Corps. Lori and Todd started sailing in Newport a few years ago and were keen to get some experience in big waters, on a larger boat, and to experience the cruising lifestyle.

An overnight westward passage would be a downwind sail in 15-18kt winds. Seas proved to be the most challenging factor with confused 4-8 foot waves bashing our stern quarter requiring constant helm attention and resulting in uncomfortable motion of the boat the majority of the 100nm sixteen hour overnight passage. We had to stay off the wind more than we would have if the seas were calm requiring us to jib a few times and add some miles to the rhumb line. The sea state finally became more rhythmic and comfortable around daybreak as we welcomed the view of St. Croix.

After a week of work and boat logistics, we welcomed dear friends to Anguilla.


Preparing for the 100nm overnight sail from Road Bay, Anguilla to Christensted, St. Croix.


Ready for an evening departure from the windy anchorage at Road Bay, Anguilla.


Lori practicing helming and getting used to the feel of Argon in the lee of Anguilla before dark sets in and seas roughen. (They were both happier than they appear in this photo.) We were mostly double-reefed with just the 90% jib which enabled us to maintain 6.5-7.5kts.


The morning after... A challenging, successful night sail was celebrated with strong coffee as seas calm on the approach to St. Croix.

Christiansted, St. Croix - USVI

Americans clearing in to customs upon returning to the US have the option of using the new Roam App. A bit of time was spent a week prior setting up the account and profiles for about a $30 fee. When in St. Croix, I simply logged our arrival when anchored and waited about 30 minutes to receive an acknowledgement from Customs and Boarder Patrol (CBP) and permission to be back in the US. So convenient! I will try using this again when we leave US territory and return again.

We quickly loved the town of Christiansted with a myriad of beautiful buildings and interesting side streets and art galleries. However, it is not an ideal cruiser's destinantion. The anchoring options are limited and we had an extremely rolly night (but with good holding) after being asked to leave our first anchoring spot. After making our way to an antiquated fuel dock in high winds the next morning to top off diesel and water, we were introduced to the pervasive friendliness of Christiansted. Miracle was a joy to chat with and one of the boat yard workers kindly offered us his mooring in a much more protected and comfortable part of the harbor. Thus after a rough initial introduction, Argon and crew were able to settle in and enjoy the pearls of Christiansted.


Very uncomfortable and rolly anchorage a long dinghy ride from town.


Mircacle, from St. Croix Marina, was a gem. She got us connected with a co-worker who offered up his mooring to us.

On day 2 we were able to get a great mooring behind a tiny island in crystal clear water and a very easy dinghy ride to town. There are ample tie ups for dinghies along the boardwalk but a stern anchor is advisable to prevent the tender from constantly bashing in to or under the docks.


Bob installed this cleat to the transom of the dinghy which facilitated securing the stern anchor rode.


A little bit of partying and celebrating in St. Croix at BES Craft Cocktail Lounge.


Downtown Christiansted, St. Croix.


St. John - USVI

After three nights in St. Croix we released the mooring lines at 0900 for a 35nm close reach sail in 14kts, reasonable seas, with full main and jib landing in a lovely southern bay of St. John by early afternoon. It was great to arrive to a new island and not have to bother with customs (since we were already cleared in to US via St. Croix).


St. John is on my list of top 5 favorite Caribbean places to sail. The numerous gorgeous bays and concise circumference of the island enable one to find a lovely cove to tuck in regardless of the conditions. With a majority of its 20 square miles national park there are numerous hiking options. We enjoyed the following harbors on this trip:
  • Little Lameshur
  • Rendezvous Bay
  • Waterlemon Bay
  • Francis and Maho Bays
  • Lindt Point, Caneel Bay and Cruz Bay
The National Park Service (NPS) maintains moorings requesting $26/night in park waters comprising much of the south and north coasts. While this can add up and impact ones cruising budget, it is well worth it as the moorings are excellent quality and the prohibition of anchoring contribute significantly to the quality of the harbors by protecting the sea beds. Recently slashed NPS funding  in addition to recovery from the devastating hurricane Irma in fall of 2017 is negatively impacting NPS activties including enforcement of fee collection (which will eventually lead to less funds for mooring and trail maintenance). Let's hope that funding and associated activities are restored soon.

More than a week was spent jumping from one harbor to the next around St. John. Favorites are the coves on the less traveled south coast especially Little Lameshur and Rendezvous Bays.


Lori and Todd sailing with us on a close reach from St. Croix to St. John - much more favorable conditions compared to the overnight passage a few days prior.


Argon spent several days in Little Lameshur, sometimes alone. This view is from Yawzi Point, one of the several hiking trails surrounding this cove.

St. John was ideal for regular exercise swims. One morning in Little Lameshur a large barracuda was hanging out around the boat (they seem to enjoy the shadow of the hull). It took me a while to muster up the nerve to gently slide in the water and start my swim. Barracuda are common and not overtly aggressive but they have enormous sharp teeth and one does not want to inadvertently startle a barrack in to attack mode.



Fun impromptu meet up at Francis Bay with a former sailing instructor (Brenton of Blackrock Sailing School) and his current class on their Foutaine Pajot 40 catamaran. A big surprise was that one of the students is a work colleague of Bob's - small world.

Johnny Horn Trail.



Argon moored in Waterlemon Bay.

Eating Aboard

With all the secluded harbors, we were happily eating aboard quite a bit. Although the last provisioning run was only about a week ago in St. Croix, our stores were getting lean. We were still able to muster up some satisfying meals as the cabinet and refrigerator became sparse. Finding fresh vegetables and good quality meats is a challenge along many of the Caribbean islands. Cooking with various types of legumes has become commonplace. Canned mushrooms are a regular in my cooking as good quality fresh mushrooms are non-existent. Cabbage is wonderful for its shelf life and versatility including using in place of lettuce which is difficult to find fresh and does not keep for long. Weak fishing skills prohibit us from relying on fresh fish but we keep going at it.

Crispy tofu with spice Thai noodles.


Braised beef with polenta.

Beef and bean burritos made with Impossible Beef (plant based meat product).


Scrambled eggs and sauteed potatoes with paprika and brie cheese.


What About St. Thomas? And the BVI?

We have enjoyed the lovely profiles of the lively and bustling British Virgin Islands and St. Thomas in the near distance of St. John but have decided to by-pass these popluar island in exchange for more time in the quiet coves of St. John. We will soon set sail westward for the Spanish Virgin Islands (also US territory) first stopping at the secluded island of Vieques.



View from one of the many spectacular hikes on St. John. This one from atop Lienster Point with Tortola and Little Thatch (part of the BVI) in the background.