Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why the Dismal Swamp?

When we passed around Whitefish point on Lake Superior (also known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes) we did so because we knew we had no choice. Whitefish Point is dangerous because a long shoal extends out from the point, the long fetch and prevailing winds can make sea conditions difficult  and a simple navigation error can be fatal. And it has been fatal hundreds of time.

On the East Coast of the USA there two similar points that are especially dangerous to the sailor. Cape Hatteras and the aptly named Cape Fear.  Boats need to travel a hundred miles offshore to safely round these points where they can be forced into Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is an extraordinarily strong current running north along the East Coast bring warm water up the from the tropics. The Gulf Stream is essential impossible to sail south because not only is the current fast, but northerly winds create steep seas. Most boats simply cannot maintain enough speed to travel south in the Gulf Stream, if they can, they are beaten up. This part of the Atlantic cost is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

The Gulf Stream may also help explain why the South was so culturally different from the North. It was isolated from the North,  To travel to the South, sailing ships first traveled to Bermuda, and then south of the Bahamas where the crossed the Gulf Stream and traveled back up the south east coast.  This problem was exacerbated after the revolution when the British controlled Bermuda and the Bahamas and the British Navy harassed US shipping.

George Washington sought to reduce the distance and increase safe trade between the north and the south by building a canal through the Dismal Swamp to connect the Chesapeake Bay with the Carolinas. This canal was later superceded by the Virginia Cut, that follows a more direct (and deeper) path to North Carolina. To this day, both canals are used by recreational boaters to avoid the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

To pass through the Dismal Swamp left Norfolk for  Deep Creek which we tool to the Deep Creek lock. After we passed through the Deep Creek lock we tied up on the bulkhead on the other side of the lock surrounded by duck weed.

Surrounded by duckweed in the Dismal Swamp


We stayed the night here before continuing with a convoy of boats south at 5 knots, the speed needed to make the the opening of the second lock at 1:30pm.

The Dismal Swamp Canal

The Dismal Swamp Canal


The second lock connects the canal with the Elizabeth River.  Here the transition to the South seemed official. The wildlife and vegetation is becoming more sub tropical and less temperate.

The Elizabeth River

The Elizabeth River

And we have entered alligator territory.

Alligator Territory

Alligator Territory

We motored down the river, and laughed a little at the two boat ahead of us who seemed to race off down river.  It was not until we arrived at the Elizabeth City bridge that we realized they were rushing to make the 4:40pm bridge opening. We missed it by five minutes and had to motor in circles until the 5:30 bridge opening.

There are plenty of free places to tie up in Elizabeth City, but we decided to anchor out instead. There was plenty of room to anchor and we find anchoring both easier on us and the boat if it is possible.





Greatest naval shipyard in the world

I am not exactly what we saw in Norfolk, VA. I think we saw four or five aircraft carriers. To active duty, two being dismantled and one being built. We also saw a lot of new fangled warships. The new fangled warships don’t look like warships because they do not have many guns sticking out of them. On the Chesapeake Bay we saw a Stilletto stealth ship that hardly looks like a ship at all. We also saw a retired World War II battleship. It looked tiny compared to the modern ships.

Two active duty carriers

The US has ten aircraft carriers in service, and I think we were lucky enough to see two active duty carriers, one being built, and two being dismantled and while we sailed through Norfolk and Newport News.

Two carriers being dismantled

Norfolk was by far the busiest port we have travelled through with warships and container ships crowding Norfolk Reach. We travelled just outside the shipping channel crossing the shipping channel several times to avoid naval exclusions zones. When we crossed the shipping lanes we were dodging big ships.

Dodging ships


Our path south to the Bahamas takes us against the prevailing winds which tend to blow from the south east up the East Coast of the USA. To make our schedule we need to use the diesel engine more than we would like.

To keep our trusty thirty five horsepower Yanmar 3HM35F diesel engine running smoothly, I change the primary fuel filter monthly. Our primary fuel filter keeps the water and gunk out of our secondary fuel filter. The secondary fuel filter is a Yanmar part which both harder to replace and only available from Yanmar dealers. Our primary fuel filter is a Racor 500FG with a 30 micron filter. In the US you can pick up Racor filters in almost every marine supply store.


Racor 500FG fuel filter assembly

Usually when I replace the Racor filter I prime the filter with diesel to prevent air getting into the fuel system. On Wednesday I skipped this step because it looked like the Racor’s bowl and plenty of diesel in it. Frankie was close on hand and I was trying to save time.  So on Thursday when we powered up the engine in preparation to move to Spa Creek for the Annapolis Boat Show staff party it ran beautifully for about thirty seconds before shuddering to a stop.

Most day to day problems with diesel engines can be traced to fuel supply. In this case, I knew immediately the probem was air in the fuel lines because I knew I had taken a dumb shortcut when changing the Racor filter. My first opportunity to bleed our engine! I was kind of excited because bleeding your engine for the first time is a rite of passage for crusing “sailors”.

Mary and I have known since we left Duluth that we needed to know how to bleed our engine.  I had done some maintenance work on the diesel engines in heavy machinery and trucks while working in the Northern Territory of Australia in the mid 1990s and had a vague idea of what to do. I had owned a 1950s Farmall M tractor in Minnesota.  I had also watched lots of Youtube videos of people bleeding diesel engines on sailboats. How hard could it be?

I started by priming the Racor filter.  I then tried turning the engine over. No luck.

The second step was to  push air out of the fuel line to the secondary filter. There is a handly little manual lift pump on the side of the engine:


Manual lift pump

I moved the lever on the lift pump up and down to pump diesel through the lines. I slightlly loosened the bleed screw on the secondary filter.


Bleed screw on secondary fuel filter



Bubbles came out, confirming there was air in the fuel lines. But I was getting impatient with the little lift pump. Our engine has an electric lift pump to draw diesel out of the fuel tank up to the engine so I turned the engine over to get some fuel pumping through the lines.


Electric lift pump

Diesel squirted out of the bleed screw. Great. Tightened up the bleed screw and turned over the engine again. No luck. Bummer.

The next step was to bleed the injection pump.

Bleed screw on injection pump

Bleed screw on injection pump

I loosened the bleed screw. This time I  just turned over the engine until diesel squirted out of the bleed screw. I then tightened the bleed screw. Turned over the engine and it leapt into action.

Cheers and high fives all round.


Going Big

(Warning: Math!!)

Most cruising sailboats run on the same type of electrical circuits as cars – 12 volts. They have batteries to store the electricity (yes, they look just like car batteries) and they generate electricity using the engine, solar cells and wind turbines.

Sailors can guesstimate how much power they need if they know how many amps each electrical device uses. Sometimes the number of amps is stamped on the device and other times it is given as “watts”. Since watts = amps x volts, you can get the amperage draw on a 12V circuit by dividing watts by 12. The sticker on our Group 27 deep cycle battery says it can output 23 Amps for 200 Minutes. So it can store:
23 Amps x 200 minutes / 60 minutes/hour = 76 Amp hours.

Our daily power usage looks like this:
LED anchor light 2W x 12 hours = 2W/12V x 12 hours = 2 Amp hours
Engel Fridge (on low) = 1 Amp x 24 hours = 24 Amp hours
Shane’s Laptop = 90W/12V x 4 hours = 30 Amp hours
LED lights = 4 x 0.5W/12V x 5 hours = 0.8 Amp hours
Fans = 3 x 0.5A x 6 hours = 9 Amp hours
Android and iPad = 3 x 0.5A x 4 hours – 6 Amp hours
LPG Gas controller = 1 x 1A x 3 hours = 3 Amp hours
WiFi antenna and router = 0.5A x 12 hours = 6 Amp hours
Total = 81 Amp hours

We run the Garmin GPSMAP 740S GPS Chartplotter (about 0.75A) while under way but this is compensated by other systems not used much underway – WiFi, fans, laptop.

Assuming our 190W solar array averages half it’s capacity for 12 hours on a sunny day we produce:
85W x 12 hours/12 volts = 85 Amp hours


So in short, our power usage drains one battery per day and on a sunny day our solar array refills one battery.

Up until today, we only had two deep cycle batteries. Our SunSaver Duo solar controller (the device with regulates the power coming out of the solar array) was set to distribute the power equally between the two batteries. Every morning I would switch the batteries. The idea was to hope the solar would cope with the daytime usage and the battery would still be full charged in the evening.

With this setup I was finding we would end up with the resting battery at full charge by mid afternoon and the battery in use only at about 75% charge. From mid-afternoon until night time the 50% of the solar generation was being wasted because the battery at rest could not take more charge. By morning, the battery in use would be down to 25-50%. Since deep cycle batteries prefer to only be discharged to 40-50% we were killing our batteries slowly. This also meant if we woke up to a rainy day we would need to run the noisy engine to generate power.

My conclusion – we have enough power production but our storage capacity was inadequate efficiently store it. Similar problem with battery charging. Each battery cannot absorb more than 120W (10A at 12V). Our alternator can generate up to 30 Amps, so 20 Amps is wasted if one battery is already full.

The solution: go big.


Today I replaced one of the Group 27 marine batteries with three Group 24 batteries in parallel. This will now be our “house” battery bank. The Group 24 batteries can output 23 Amps for 150 Minutes. So the battery bank can generate:
3 x 23 Amps x 150 minutes / 60 minutes/hour = 172 Amp hours.
Just as importantly, there will be enough capacity in the batter bank to consume all our our energy production. Our maximum energy production is 30 Amp hours/hour (Engine) + 10 Amp hours/hour (Solar) = 40 Amp hours/hour. With four batteries (three new plus one old) we can now absorb 4 x 10 Amp hours/hour = 40 Amp hours/hour.

I changed the solar controller to 90/10, which means 90% of solar power generated will be directed to “house” battery bank. We will use primarily, resting it about one day every two weeks.

Next… more power generation. Just kidding. The trick is to keep our power consumption at a minimum. It is easy to see how sailors get stuck in a vicious cycle – more power usage -> more power generation -> more power storage -> more power usage -> more power generation -> more power storage… and soon their boats start looking like space stations!

Laundry day

We do our laundry every week or so. I like doing the laundry at a laundromat rather than a marina because there tends to be better access to laundry machines and the quarters needed to operate them. Today I took Franklin on the the 1.5 mile walk to the laundromat today only to find every single machine full. Note to self, do laundry on weekdays. The pram (stroller) works for groceries, supplies, beer , little boys and sometimes a bit of everything!

Haswell might change my life

Over the last five months we have been gradually eliminating our power hogs and growing our power generation capabilities. As long as it is not rainy for days on end, we can run the boat at anchor without any fossil fuels indefinitely with just 190W of solar and two deep cycle lead acid batteries.

Our last big power hog is the laptop, which on our boat is essential because it is the income generator. There is some really good information on the Internet about laptop power usage. Here is a great article:

And a more scientific one:…=rep1&type=pdf

In short, if you are using your laptop (as opposed to letting it idle with the screen on) then then biggest battery killer is the CPU.

I already use a DC to DC power supply so the best way for me to extend my battery life is to throttle the CPU. To do this I simply go into my power settings and change the maximum processor state to 50%.

So why is Haswell going to change my life? The energy efficiency of CPUs in laptops has not been significantly improved in several years. Haswell is the code name of a new processor from Intel that cuts energy consumption by 50%.

The first Haswell laptops are being released now. There should be a good range of Haswell based laptops on the market by the holiday shopping season. I am hoping buying a Haswell based laptop is going to change my life!

Family Cruisers


Most cruising sailboats we meet are 40-50 ft with a 50-70 year old couple on board. Our 34′ monohull is usually one of the smallest cruising sailboats in the anchorage. Most families with children are on much bigger monos or cats.

So it was a pleasure to meet Bill, Erin and their two young children on their 26′ Westerley Centaur “Never Land”. We met them first about a month ago as we passed through the Sassafras River and they prepared to cast off their docklines.

Annapolis was their first stop of their cruising life and they were nice enough to join us for pork chops the first evening after a long day on the water.

For those who say the cruising life is unattainable consider this. Bill and Erin bought there proven blue water cruiser for $2000 and spent a year fitting out and living on board (to save money) before casting off.

Bill is extremely handy and makes a very modest income helping others with boat projects. He also reduced the cost of his own sailboat by doing all the work himself.

In some ways “Never Land” is better equipped than “Sea Change  II”. His 500 watt solar array dwarfs our 190 watt array and combined with state-of-the-art lithium batteries allow for a full-time freezer.

Bill and Erin inspired me so much I suggested to Mary we sell our “big” boat and save money be downsizing to a Westerly too. Mary promptly replied “Look I will make a deal with you. I won’t ask you for a bigger boat if you don’t ask me for a smaller boat.” Point taken.