Monthly Archives: June 2017

No happy hour

It’s never been far from my mind these last few days. As moving day approaches, if I’m reading the diagram the marina sent us correctly, we’ll have to enter a narrow gap between two piers at the marina, staying under control through nasty swirling currents, heading straight toward shore passing about six slips lined with luxury yachts, execute a ninety degree turn to the right against the thrust of the starboard engine which is trying to turn Escape Velocity to the left. Trying to stop EV using the only operating engine would just spin her to the right but definitely not stop her. I knew the key to keeping this from going all pear shaped would be speed. Enough to get the rudders to bite but as little as possible because I can’t really stop her. The dockmaster suggested running the hour and a half down river the day before and anchoring across from the marina to wait for slack tide because of some wicked currents they have there but I just didn’t want to add still more tricky maneuvering. It’s shallow down there and from a dead stop it takes EV an alarmingly long time to get the rudders to bite with just one engine.

I once helped a friend on a catamaran with one inoperable engine shift from one mooring ball to another further away from a little steel sloop that was whacking them. It took everything we could muster, using our 15hp Yamaha on our dink as a tug and his one engine to keep her off the other boats. It took 45 minutes of harrowing near misses to get her secured to a nearby ball. This is what is going through my mind as we up anchored with plenty of extra time to get to the marina at slack tide. It was a beautiful sunny morning without much wind and I was able to manage our unhappy starboard engine. 

Too soon the moment of truth arrived. After a deep breath I turned into the gap between the piers feeling the swirling currents slewing EV about and reduced throttle. I needed to make the 90 degree turn with as little throttle as possible. She made 45 degrees of that turn and stalled there so I reversed the engine which spun the bows to the right that put them very near the dock and with delicate touch of forward throttle we were next to our slip. I would have never taken that bet. 

Rivergate Marina is nice but expensive, located in an industrial area so no tiki bars, restaurants, or grocery stores. They were good about courtesy rides but really…no happy hour. And I needed it.

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It’s not all coffee and pastry

Sometimes it’s ice cream too, you know. With our new propeller due to arrive in a day or two we spent one last afternoon wandering Brisbane. We’ll definitely come back on our way south in October and most definitely pick up a pile mooring for safety and security, assuming we eventually have two working engines again. From a mooring we’ll feel better about leaving the boat for longer days of touring farther afield. Maybe we’ll even finally see kangaroos in the wild. I can’t believe we’ve been in Australia this long and haven’t seen any outside the zoo in Sydney. 

Again we have no plans other than following our feet wherever they take us. Waiting at a cross walk we saw a reminder of our ex-home. Seems wherever we go, Pittsburgh pops up. 

Never mind the levitating guy in gold. What the heck is the golden casket in the background?

Our final mission is of course to find good gelato. We found ok gelato but any gelato is better than no gelato. 

We found a pretty little arcade and drooled over the Mont Blanc display. Well, I drooled over it. Jack like the hydroplane model. 

Back aboard Escape Velocity we watched a police boat approach. Uh-oh. Jack thought maybe they’d make us move because without Blackwattle anchored in line with us it might appear that we swing out into the ferry channel twice a day. We think we’re well within the channel markers but some of the ferries have been cutting it a little close lately. 

Sure enough they told us one of the ferries complained that we’d dragged (we hadn’t) but the police said they’ve been keeping an eye on us and we’re fine. We told them we’re disabled and waiting for parts and they responded with the usual “no worries, mate.” After that they just wanted to chat. Where are you from? How long will you be here? Where are you going next? They said they’d continue to watch over us until we left. Whew! We weren’t in the mood for trying to reset the anchor again. And anyway, it looks like we’ll be on our way soon. 

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Family affair

Unexpected and unbudgeted boat repairs are always depressing but that’s the price we pay for this life of constant adventure and new horizons. We can’t imagine what would cause two of three blades to suddenly fall off a propeller. They were installed last year in Whangarei by a mechanic we loved and trusted after some shaft work, so it certainly wasn’t any fault of installation. We hope to find the answer when the hub is removed whenever the new propeller arrives. 

In the meantime there’s nothing to do but suck it up and go have some fun. We heard there’s a Sunday market in the botanical garden just ashore and any kind of market always perks me up. 

The garden is peaceful and beautiful and the market is on the far side from the marina and dinghy dock so we enjoyed the long amble through the trees. 

The market is small this time of year with only a few craftspeople and food vendors. 

We timed our visit for lunch and while we waited for our orders I heard an unusual a capella version of one of my favorite songs, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. At first I thought it was recorded but soon realized there was a live band playing at the other end of the market. We claimed a seat on the steps of a gazebo and settled in to enjoy a wonderfully talented family band, five sibs aged from 18 to 26 (their poor mother, I thought!) who’ve been singing and playing together petty much since birth. Consequently they have great vocal blend and their material ranged across styles from folk to R&B to pop. We don’t often get to hear live music, concert tickets being out of our financial reach these days, so when we come across this kind of venue, or good buskers, we always stop to enjoy and support with our dollars when we can. We stayed through both sets of the Fergies and we’d go see them again any time. 

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Nothing but dominos

Saturday came and so did the diver. We had talked ourselves into an easy fix, a line wrap, we hoped. We wondered how Adam the Diver would be able to see in this opaque mess of a river. His boat driver told us he’d have about a foot of visibility.

Adam’s black balaclavaed head broke the murky surface — he’d only been down for 60 seconds — and he flipped up his mask and asked, “How many blades are you supposed to have on this propeller?” 

This can’t be good, I thought. “Three,” we said in unison. 

“Well, you’ve only got one now.” We stood looking over the side, stunned.

“You’ll never find them here,” Adam offered helpfully, and went back under to replace our sacrificial zincs.  

Did I mention they’re very expensive blades, cast in bronze in Italy? Now, where did I last see those spares wrapped in a plastic bag? A previous owner had replaced them with the blades that are now at the bottom of the Brisbane River. After tearing up most of Escape Velocity we found them. Turns out there’s a good reason they were replaced. The gears were worn and they’d only really be good for an emergency. 

We consulted Bruce the mechanic and reluctantly made the cruising kitty-busting decision to order a whole new propeller. There goes our trip to Darwin, M said. 

Bruce started wading through the Volvo number trail to find what we hoped would be the correct replacement and found that in a week he could have it here in Brisbane. It would have helped if we’d thought to have the diver remove the hub and the remaining blade while he was down there. Otherwise we have no way of knowing why the blades fell off or if the hub is damaged or reuseable. Plus nothing beats having the old part in your hand when ordering a replacement. 

We can’t start work on the starboard engine while we’re at anchor because without a propeller on the port engine we’ll be completely disabled. Nothing but dominos. The marina Bruce and Adam need to work out of is very expensive. You can just hear those dominos topple over one at a time. 

So we’ll stay put for a few more days then up anchor and motor an hour and a half downriver and somehow maneuver EV into a slip at Rivergate Marina on one smoking engine. Hopefully Bruce can tear into the starboard engine and finish just as the new prop arrives keeping the marina fees to a minimum. What with the basic Double-Up Theory of marine expense planning in effect we should probably go up an increment and double that. So for example what should take one day will take two weeks, $100 becomes $2000. See how this works? It takes no time for the toppling dominos to become deafening. 


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Short forays

We’re still reluctant to leave the boat to her own devices during tide changes when all hell breaks loose in the anchorage so we plan our trips ashore for the few hours each day when the boats have settled down and everyone’s playing nicely. 

Brisbane continues to charm us. It’s doesn’t have the artsy style of Melbourne or the vast scope of Sydney but the small size is more conducive to those of us who tour and shop on foot. In fact it’s so walkable that we haven’t even bought a public transportation card since everything we want we can find within a few blocks. 

We stopped at the tourist office for a walking tour map but the elderly gentleman manning the desk couldn’t find one and actually discouraged us from our quest. “It’s only interesting if you like architecture,” he told us. We said we do like architecture and that’s why we want a walking tour, to look at the buildings. I don’t think he believed us and he spent a long time leafing through various binders for something that looked like a walking tour map, ultimately with no success. We are on our own. 

We bit the bullet and bought a new Sodastream machine. Our old one is fine but for some strange reason the replacement CO2 tanks sold in Australia and New Zealand use a different thread from the rest of the world. We got our tanks replaced in New Zealand only to learn they won’t work in our machine. For the past year we’ve done without, but we’ll be in Oz for another year and we figured we’ll just get a new one and store the old one until we’re back in the World of Common Threads. 

We also found a store that sells the reusable produce bags and beeswax wraps that have been on my list for ages. I’m doing what I can to reduce the one-use plastic onboard. The reusable produce bags are wonderful and so far every cashier or farmers market who sees them wants to know where they can get them, too. They live in a little pouch in my backpack so I never have to use those plastic bags in the supermarket ever again. The beeswax wraps replace plastic wrap. Our previous owner left so much plastic wrap onboard that we haven’t bought any in five years, but still, I hate to use it to wrap cheese or black bread, which is pretty much all I use it for. Now we can almost eliminate plastic wrap from EV’s waste stream. Baby steps.

Any city that has a luthier right on a main street is ok by us. Normally we’d stop in to chat but today the shop was closed. 

When we got back to the dinghy dock we saw that Blackwattle had moved from the anchorage to a pole mooring. Jack thinks the owner is a single hander and we’re impressed that he could tie up bow and stern alone in these swirling currents. We’re also bummed that he moved because now we’ve lost our sight line that assured us we’re not sticking out in the ferry channel during certain tides. 

Our day ended with sundowners in the cockpit. We can’t see the sunset from where we are but the golden light reflected on the rocks at Kangaroo Point is beautiful enough for now. 


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Shore leave

We made it safely through twenty four hours of tide changes without whacking our neighbors at anchor and figure it’s safe to go ashore. There are free ferries in the downtown area, a nice dinghy dock and a river walk on both shores. I think we’re going to like it here! 

Our only plans were to get ourselves oriented and maybe pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables. The Brisbane central business district reminds us of Pittsburgh, constrained by a river into a tight bundle making it an easy walk from one side to the other. We started across the river from the downtown area where the warm and sunny weather seems to have lured most of the populace into the gardens and parks along the quay. 

We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is winter and a few weeks ago we were freezing on EV under a duvet and sleeping in multiple layers of clothing. The air is still cool even in the daytime but we’re loving this glorious bright sunshine. 

Brisbane is a bike friendly town, so much better than Sydney. If we weren’t so worried about the boat at anchor we’d love to take our bikes ashore and explore the many trails. There’s even a public bike repair station. (Hey Pittsburgh, check it out!) 

One more ferry stop took us across the river to downtown and right into the center of the weekly market. Street food for lunch, fresh fruit and veg for the larder and a wander back to the boat before the next change of tide. Yep, we do like Brissy. 


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Now what?

For the first time in our five years aboard Escape Velocity one of our engines failed us. Oh sure, we’ve had moments when we knew one of them wasn’t operating properly and needed attention, but when Jack went into reverse to pick up the pole mooring yesterday and the whole boat shook, we knew we had a serious problem. I ran down below and took a look. The engine was thumping up and down violently. “Shut it down!” I yelled. I’m not a diesel mechanic but I’d heard plenty of tales over beers at the cruisers bars and my first thought was that we broke an engine mount. Funny, because every time Jack checks or changes the oil, changes the impellers or does any other routine maintenance I always ask if the engine mounts look ok. “They’re fine,” he assures me. 

“It’s the propeller,” Jack said when I came back to the cockpit. There were stray lines dangling from the pole moorings and he thought maybe we got a wrap, but I’d been watching carefully and didn’t see one anywhere near the props. I told him how the engine looked, flopping up and down like it was loose. “Engine mount,” I insisted. 

Whatever it was, we needed help. I already had the number for a recommended mechanic because we want to address a couple of lingering problems with the other engine but we couldn’t wait until after our Brisbane sojourn to call. I explained what happened and described the behavior and the mechanic promised to come to where we were the next day. He passed the phone to his wife for details on our location and to get preliminary billing info, and we ended up chatting for 20 minutes about Australia and Brisbane and ended up somehow on Vegemite, the tar-like yeast spread that most Aussies grow up on, like Americans grow up on peanut butter. 

“Yuck,” I said, and she bristled. Oops. We don’t want to insult the mechanic’s wife before the engine’s fixed. I softened my take on gummy black goo and asked how best to enjoy it. Toast is the usual answer, but she also recommended avocado. Well hell, who doesn’t like avo toast but why sully it with Vegemite? I promised to try it again and really, when in Rome and all that. 

The next day we saw that we were anchored behind a boat named Blackwattle and it made us feel almost at home, since we’d spent so much quality time in Blackwattle Bay in Sydney. As advertised, though, the current runs swift in Brisbane and we also had strong winds. Escape Velocity rode perpetually over the anchor. Every six hours boats swung in unpredictable ways and twice a day we came dangerously close to a small green steel boat. With limited maneuverability we tried threading the needle between getting far enough away from Mr. Green and staying well enough out of the channel where the ferries zipped by many times an hour. We aimed to line up between Blackwattle and a channel marker and after several tries managed a pretty good compromise. Still, we didn’t feel confident leaving the boat. 

The mechanic — Bruce, what else? — came by late in the morning and checked out the engine, having Jack throw it into gear, forward, then reverse, then forward. Propeller, he said. Maybe a line wrapped around it, or bent, or something. He looked over the side at the murky river. “You’ll need a diver,” he said. “Unless you want to go for a swim.” 

Jack followed Bruce’s gaze to the yucky water. Diver it is, and Bruce left a message for the diver he works with. He took a preliminary look at the other engine and quickly diagnosed one of the two problems we’re having — intermittent charging — and gave us a plan for figuring out the other — persistent smoking on high load. Then he told us to call when the diver figured out the prop issue and we’d schedule the work. 

The diver called and told us he’s booked all week but promised to come up river on Saturday morning. It’s Tuesday. 

So here we are in the middle of a beautiful city on a boat that’s well stuck to the bottom but among other boats all swinging wildly at every tidal change. All we can do is stay aboard and monitor the swings through a whole day to be sure we won’t make contact or get dislodged. Oh how we wish we could pick up a pole mooring and feel safe! But it’s completely impossible with one tiny engine way off to the side. Ashore there are cafés and gelato and shops and parks and museums. But they will have to wait. For now we’ll watch the climbers and rapellers on Kangaroo Point and wave to the passing ferries and cross our fingers that our propeller is ok. 

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The view from the back porch

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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 Any landing you can walk away from

Have I mentioned how thin the water is around here in Southport? Our goal was to stage Escape Velocity for our assault on Brisbane, pronounced Brisbin down here, so it was anchor up at first light, whereupon we promptly ran aground in soft sand. After some judicious application of reverse thrust by Yours Truly our happy ship was off, wary of a less than auspicious start. We were in for another day of more motoring. After tip-toeing through some incredibly thin water in a circuitous course running from marker to marker, even though we’d already discovered that that was not a guarantied depth but more of a hopeful Aussie depth, we found our anchorage for the night. It was a little rolly but it offered modest protection from ocean swell and wind behind Potts Point. 

At first light we were back on the throttles winding our way towards Moreton Bay, on the lookout for the ship channel into heavily industrialized Brisbane River. We could see the huge container cranes far before we could decipher the entrance markers to the channel. 

This is a busy port so we had to dodge three massive cargo ships and attending tugs just on the way in. Finally we passed the turning pool for the large ships but it seemed they turned the river over to zig zagging catamaran ferries running here and there at high speed. I found it impossible to anticipate where they were heading next. This is the kind of river that meanders around in a snake like fashion, sometimes tight and narrow and at others, wide and lazy. Slowly the tall buildings of downtown Brisbane hove into view. 

I confess the energy of a city draws me in and finally we could see the mooring poles of the city marina. Even with the currents swirling we still decided to edge into the mooring pole field and give it a go. After all this is not our first rodeo so we fancied a spot of pole dancing. The approach looked good and just as I slipped the port engine into reverse for a critical pivot move the whole boat started to shudder violently, but no thrust. I tried again with the same result. Let’s see, I have swift swirling currents, I’m partially stuck between two poles, and I only have one engine 21 feet from the other! Somehow the current pushed EV’s stern just enough to clear the rear pole and I leaped at the opportunity to spin the boat out of there. I could turn to the left reliably but anything to the right required a lot of speed and space. We were forced to try to anchor in a crowded anchorage with limited maneuverability. It took a couple of tries but we got the hook down with out hitting anything. 

Medicinal dark and stormies were called for due to the condition of the skippers knees! The first one went down quickly and as I tilted the backup, I could have sworn that I heard a didgeridoo across the river at Kangaroo Point. It turns out that it wasn’t just the rum. Dozens of painted aboriginal people were chanting and dancing, blowing white powder into the air, playing didgeridoos and that other thing that they whirl around in a circle. 

That’s pretty cool, but then I noticed several people rapelling down the palisades above Kangaroo Point, past the sheer rock face used to quarry ballast for ships in the past. People were strolling along the National Botanical Park right in front of us. I think I’m going to like it here.

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Leap of faith

The rain finally stopped, the sun came out and with it a full horizon-to-horizon rainbow. Boaters everywhere see rainbows all the time but we don’t often see a full one. We took it as a good omen that maybe we can continue our journey north. The weatherman predicted about a day and a half of break from the unfavorable winds, and especially a reduction in the sea state before it kicked up again later in the week. We needed about 20 hours to reach the protected waters of Moreton Bay and more winds were predicted in a few days’ time. We had a decision to make: go now or wait at least another week. We decided to go. 

Motoring over the river bar we almost regretted our decision. We timed the tide exactly right, but the increased swell coming in off the Tasman Sea gave us about 30 minutes of slamming into big waves and kept Jack hand steering to avoid possible breakers. We finally got past the most uncomfortable bits and out into open ocean but I was glad I’d downed a seasickness tablet before we left. 

It’s been a while since we did any night sailing and being a little out of practice made me somewhat nervous as the sun went down. I told Jack I wasn’t sure I could do our usual 6-hour watch, especially being close to shore and having to dodge rocks and small islands, not to mention the possibility of hitting a sleeping whale. Since we were close to shore big ships weren’t a problem as they stay further out but fishing boats are generally everywhere and most don’t have AIS, the identification system that alerts us to nearby vessels and warns if we’re in danger of a collision. 

On night watches at sea, where our concerns are more for our own vessel and any threatening weather, we feel safe taking 15-minute capnaps, making a long watch less exhausting. But here, sailing inshore, we must stay vigilant every minute, checking the chart, identifying navigation lights, tracking other vessels, monitoring the radio. Surprisingly, I made it through my six-hour watch more easily than I thought, perhaps because of the constant focus it required. Nevertheless I was glad to wake Jack at midnight and crawl into bed. 

By morning we knew we would reach the river bar too early and we slowed down as much as we could. I called Marine Rescue for a report on conditions and they told me to call back when it was light enough for them to see. A half hour later they were happy to report a calm entrance and that’s what we got. As always, Jack piloted us expertly in following the route marked on the chart and we were in calm and safe waters in no time. 

High winds were predicted for late that night so we took shelter behind a low island and dropped anchor in very shallow but calm water. It was dead quiet except for a symphony of early morning birdsong. We dozed and puttered about the boat all day, happy to have finally reached Queensland. 

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