Saturday, October 14, 2017

Shake 'em on Down

We woke to drizzle and dragged ourselves and the anchor up to face the day. About two hours after leaving Rhode River it turned out to be the venue of a drama far greater than we’d expected. Monitoring channel 16 on the VHF is generally agreed to be good practice for yachtsmen. Turns out, though, that if you hear a call for help you’re obliged to render it. Hence many boaters simply switch their radios off until, like agnostics, they switch them back on with a cry for help. We are true believers. The drama playing out was a boat fire on a 25’ Catalina at the mouth of the Rhode River. A call to Coast Guard turned into a Pan-Pan-Pan, the boaters equivalent of a cry for help or a long-avoided confession. The Coasties kept calling and for long minutes received no reply. A voice cracked out of the ether, “Coast Guard this is ‘Selkie’ we are in the area and will lend assistance,” hailed a pucker British accent. That was the point at which we knew that all would be well. Several minutes later the captain of the stricken vessel finally confirmed that all aboard were wearing life jackets and they were doing their best to manage things and that despite a Mayday call things weren’t as bad as they might appear. Then, nothing… minutes passed, nothing. What the hell happened, we wondered? We waited and then got distracted by our own navigational questions, until 20 minutes later the Coast Guard ordered a stand down and that things were finally looking up. And indeed that sparked a bit of wind and we picked up a couple of knots. 

The weather never really lifted. It was a cloudy day, but any day on a boat makes for a better time. Mostly. With the best of intentions we focused our efforts on continuing south. The dual challenges of waking late and Autumn’s shorter days made for ambitious goals with conservative ends. Eventually we turned east into the channel between grounding and Tilghman Island and on into the Choptank River. With a drop in the wind we started up the engine confident that all would be well. Hah! Coughing and spluttering Otto gasped and wheezed and sounded like he had the day before. Unhappy indeed. He cried out for a draught beer, or at least some filtered fuel. There was enough of a draft that we continued on to the bay past Todd’s point and dropped the anchor under sail - just for grins of course. Having worked out that the secret to anchoring in the Chesapeake is to do as little as possible and let the anchor set itself, we figured that even with a wind shift we’d be set for the night. And we were. 

The next morning, that would be Saturday, we decided, with a small craft warning in the forecast, the least we could do would be to trouble Mr. Buffet for a lift from our new-found friends at TowBoat US. In short order Trevor turned up with his vessel the Tow Jamm II - earning bonus points for the worst/best pun within a hundred nautical miles. To Oxford we cried! And off we went to Brewer’s Oxford Marina because they answered their phones first. Trevor was both charming and complimentary of Aleta, ‘she moves well through the water.' 

The adventure begins when things go wrong. Had we not run out of gas for a second time in two days we would not have walked the entire town of Oxford, dined well at Doc’s, or met Eric the mechanic. None of that would have happened. Whatever the cost of our chagrin and embarrassment at now having, really(?), run out of fuel twice, we found solace in a wonderful neck of the woods populated with non-judgmental people that gave away as many flavors of ice cream on the last day of season as you could eat. We gassed up on departing and armed with the knowledge that all we have to do to keep going is continue to turn valves until every permutation of fuel filter was aligned with each and every fuel tank, the likelihood we’d ever stop faded like an old photograph. 

We liked Oxford. We thought we might stay longer. But the south called and on we went. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Adventure Begins

As they say, the adventure begins when things go wrong. And wrong they went. After a week of figuring out how to make several of the punch list items work, Aleta (formerly: The Beguine) made her way in slings down to the water and settled in. Once she was tied up at the quay we ran around provisioning and getting things ready for our first shake-down cruise. Of course we needed another week, but that’s always the case. The key to any sailing adventure is leaving the dock and by Thursday we were ready to go. If only Aleta has felt the same way.

First she wouldn’t start - dead after a months on the hard. Her starter battery was exhausted, just not enough amps or oomph turn her big Westerbeke over. Meanwhile the solar panels and wind generator had kept the house batteries sufficiently charged and by combining both sets of batteries we got her cranked over. After 45 minutes at idle an engine alarm suddenly sounded and I quickly switched her off. We scratched our heads for a minute. Still at the dock, we called Bernie, our broker, down from his office and asked for his advice. Bernie is the proud owner of Aleta’s sister ship, literally built at the same time. The engine’s temperature was normal, oil pressure was normal, but the alarm sounded every time we dropped the revs. After a little troubleshooting we narrowed it down a false alarm brought on by the warm engine oil’s lower viscosity and a dicky sensor. With that we decided to hell with it! To hell with the rain that just arrived! To hell with Port Annapolis! We were leaving dock and it was time to sail!

The last few hours of daylight got us as far as the Rhode River, a narrow, well protected inlet perfect for our first night’s anchorage. Chesapeake Bay is as flat and shallow as a bad joke. We picked our way carefully along the river from buoy to buoy staying in the main channel until we turned the corner into the pool and looked for a spot to drop the hook. White marker buoys marked the boundary of High Island shoal. Two hundred years ago many of the shoals around the Chesapeake were farmer's fields. Carol, a little panic stricken at depth sounder reading 3.5’ when we draw 6, flung the wheel over and skidded us back to safer depths without incident. Either the sounder is off, or there was lots of grass, or we got lucky. Our insurance broker told me that rates for boats in the Chesapeake are generally lower simply because running aground is unlikely to damage anything besides the helmsman’s ego.

We finally found the perfect spot. A place where the muddy bottom was 10’ from the murky surface and many yards away from land and other boats. We lined up head to wind, dropped the anchor and 50-ish feet of chain and backed down. Aleta’s heavy Delta-style plow immediately pulled free and we drifted for a bit as the windlass started its slow, steady, and ultimately dirty work. We repeated this falderal twice more until it finally occurred to me we should let the anchor settle, rest in the muck a spell, then, slowly, under gently increasing pressure, encourage it to set. It worked. Marylanders call it ‘wetting the anchor’. We called it a night.  

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Cupcake Years

Dogs don’t speak human. Therefore, to have a healthy relationship, humans have to learn to speak dog. That’s just the way it is. I was lucky, I had a great teacher in Banjo, our late Border Collie/Australian Shepherd rescue. Banjo touched the hearts of everyone he didn’t bite, and even then managed to charm his victims. Throughout his life Banjo taught me about dominance and submission in the dog world, how to wrestle like a dog, and that dogs smile and even dream. I’m not anthropomorphizing here, dogs really do smile when they’re happy, especially if there’s the chance of getting a tidbit of food. Annie does it, but then labradors generally smile all the time. Marlon smiles when he’s trying to ingratiate himself, particularly after a surprise midnight dump on the carpet. The one thing dogs don’t do well is communicate pain, they don’t really have a means of expressing it other than by resting more as they get older. They don’t whine or complain or put their paws on a pain scale of 1-10 frowny faces. 

Nor do dogs want to grow old any faster than the rest of us. Their desire for companionship and getting out for long walks on the beach doesn’t flag, just their ability to do so. Joints get creaky, backs get painful and generally they slip quietly into what we call the ‘cupcake years’. Those final years, or more realistically months, when a dog can’t walk much, spends most of its time sleeping and breaking wind. It’s a time of life when they want to be made comfortable and will often slow down or even stop eating. We humans respond by getting them to eat whatever the heck it is we think they’ll keep down - even cupcakes. After all, what’s the downside risk to dog? A couple of weeks less of life in pain? The upside is smiles and engagement. 

If you think your dog is entering their cupcake years be warned. There’s a phase they go through which is really a con. It’s when they’re pretending to be lame to garner a cupcake. Just understand, once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no way to put it back. And if you really want your puppy back, toss them a pain killer like Tramadol wrapped in a slice of chicken. Once that kicks in the pain eases and all of a sudden your puppy returns, if only for the half hour before Morpheus rocks your drugged up doggie to sleep. 

Do people have cupcake years? Undoubtedly, but doctors tend to fill humans up with so many drugs your grandmother may pass into the next life without ever knowing that all she really needed was a toke and a lemon vanilla cupcake at tea time.