09 April 2020

Cruising Under the Cloud of the Coronavirus, Continued

Every day seems to present more constriction...
  • marinas confine arriving crew to their vessels; and many close to transients altogether
  • conducive weather windows become few and far between impeding progress up the east coast
  • temperatures drop as higher latitudes are achieved
  • our chests tighten as we examine the statistics each day

And although we have been focused on getting us and Argon back home to Newport, Rhode Island safely and quickly since departing San Juan mid March, we concede. For now. We are tired physically and emotionally. Yesterday Argon's dock lines were doubled, a couple of bags were packed, and we boarded an Amtrak train for our land home in Newport.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

To help combat the disappointment, Bob updates our Google Earth track. When I look at how far we have come in just a few weeks, (yellow) I don't feel as defeated.

Red: Course over 5 months November through March (Grenada to San Juan).   Yellow: Course in just over 3 weeks mid March through early April (San Juan to Hampton, VA).  Green: Remaining leg to be sailed later in spring or early summer (Hampton, VA to Newport, RI).

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

One of our worst overnights

While in Charleston, Bob spent several hours re-examining the depth and bridge data of the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW) to see if there was a segment we could transit but our mast is just a tad too tall. We reached out to Argon's builder to confirm the exact specs, and considered climbing up the mast to flip the VHF antennae upside down and remove the tricolor navigation light to cut off several inches. But the measurements remained too close and the thought of the complications should we hit a bridge resulted in us continuing to use the open ocean path.

After much studying of possible inlet options and weather data, we pushed off the dock in Charleston before sunrise and caught an ebbing tide to quickly make our way out to the open Atlantic Ocean for the 225nm sail to the northeast. We expected a uncomfortable overnight with 15-17kt winds from the northwest. However, the forecast was a bit off in the wrong direction... we were instead rudely greeted by 22-28kt winds with more of a northerly component than westerly hence wayforward of the beam in growing seas. For about 5 hours starting a 0100 we were getting hammered. Waves jumped over the bow and port side regularly. Initially we sailed with a double reefed main and just a sliver of jib. But eventually we furled the foresail up completely and motored sailed with just a bit of the main to make better headway towards Beaufort.

By daybreak conditions improved, and even became ideal as if the recent difficulties were just a dream. Or a nightmare. Motoring in to idyllic Beaufort inlet further helped us recover.


Sunrise upon departing Charleston inlet.


Cockpit enclosed and layered up. Conditions would kick up later in the journey.
 
Much nastier than predicted.


Salt salt salt everywhere. Glad to have copious amounts of free water for a much needed cleaning.

We were generally confined to the marina in Beaufort with the exception of a walk through town and a cockpit visit with local friends. The town of Beaufort has closed off all incoming roads except for one with a checkpoint to prohibit non-residents from entering. And after a particularly cold night aboard, we were able to borrow a very warm thick blanket from local friends.

Mostly confined to the docks but with very comfortable surroundings at Homer Smith Marina in Beaufort inlet.


Thankful to have a wide cockpit to allow an appropriately distanced visit from a dear local friend.


Our one walk off the marina property revealed a ghost town.

Passage #5:  Beaufort, North Carolina to Hampton, Virginia

Threatening thunderstorms

After just a few days in Beaufort, we departed to take advantage of an acceptable but not quite ideal short weather window for the tricky passage out and around Cape Hatteras. The front end of this passage would have very light winds and flat seas requiring motoring which at this point neither of us minded... we are in delivery mode and are looking to get miles underneath the hull. Then some comfortable sailing with more motoring at the end. However, thunderstorms were also in the forecast and they hit when we were just off Hatteras. Ugh.


Lovely Beaufort waterfront as we motored slowly in the narrow, shallow channel against a flooding tide.


Beautiful yet menacing weather system approaching as we near Cape Hatteras.


VHF weather alert announces a band of severe thunderstorms some with up to 60kt gusts. We prepare the boat and ourselves to get hammered. Luckily the strongest ones passed to our south leaving us with heavy rain, quite a bit of lightening, but modest winds and no hail.

As we watched the menacing storm approach from the northwest, we noticed a commercial boat on AIS about 17 miles to our northwest likely in the front. Bob radioed the vessel Red Hook and spoke to the Captain who was now experiencing our future weather. We were relieved when he said the conditions were moderate with just 20 knot gusts and a little bit of rain.

The line of thunderstorms eventually passed over us without too much trouble. There was lightning around, but not too close. Still, it was a relief when we started seeing the lightning on our starboard side going away from us!


After a nerve wracking early evening, I settle in for a long night watch. These off shore passages are tiring and are now also quite cold. Despite many layers I was freezing by the end of my shift and quickly crawled under the thick comforter recently borrowed from friends in Beaufort.


Thankful for the spectacular glowing full moon that lit up the night sky when the clouds permitted.


Closing Argon Up and Heading Home

Many of the marinas and yacht clubs in Virginia and Maryland were now closed to transients. We were able to confirm a slip at Bluewater Marina in Hampton with the caveat that we could either only stay a couple of days, or we could keep the boat there but we could not stay aboard. Nothing personal. <sigh>

Friends with more sophisticated weather analysis skills as well as our hired weather router all confirmed that there would likely be no acceptable weather window for the 60 hour sail from Hampton to Newport, Rhode Island. We discussed options at length... stay on the boat and wait (but we would have to find another marina... problematic). Or go home with the plan to return in late spring or early summer after the coronavirus situation settles down and weather patterns improve. We decided on the latter. And then we evaluated if we should transit by train, plane or automobile. I'll spare you the details but for several reasons we returned home by rail.


Plenty of lines and fenders secured. Hatches, helms and console all covered with canvas.And local sailing friends have kindly agreed to check in on Argon.


We have the entire Amtrak car to ourselves for the 12 hour comfortable ride to Kingston, RI. After walking up several cars to the cafe, I saw only two other riders.

Now What?

We have been quite socially isolated these past several weeks with minimal interaction and contact with others. However we have been far from bored as it has been extremely busy with passage planning complicated with the evolving coronavirus situation as well as the overall logistics and falling temperatures. The time on passages is mostly filled with either sailing the boat or trying to sleep given it is just the two of us (these have not been relaxing wine and cheese sails). Our social isolation has not involved any binge watching of Netflix, nor playing board games, nor experimenting with exotic dishes and no Zoom meet ups. It's been busy and we're exhausted!

Upon arriving at the Amtrak station in Rhode Island, we were greeted by the friendly albeit official National Guard to record our information for the RI Department of Health and instruct us on a two week quarantine which is really just a slightly more strict adherence to social isolation. (The state of RI was an early adopter of fairly strict guidance and requirements.) Perhaps it's finally time to check out that Tiger King guy I've been hearing about.

Quarantine order for mariners arriving in Newport Harbor. The spirit of these requirements also apply to those arriving in Rhode Island by land from other states.

Good bye protected boat life. Hello land life in the COVID-19 age.


Back in our home. I have flowers!
Bob's new control surface was waiting for him at home. Just a couple hours after we arrived it was set up and he was in the studio making lots of great noise. I think our neighbors know that we are home now.





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!