Fixing Your Boat in Exotic Places

After bouncing around in Titusville for three days, we were ready to head south. The rain and cold wind had kept us pretty much trapped on the boat or in the marina, and we were anxious to head south again in search of that famous “Florida sunshine” we’d heard so much about, but had yet to find. It was still a bit blustery the morning of our departure, but promised to improve later in the day. That was good enough for us. On the way out of the marina, we stopped at the pump-out dock, where the wind made approach difficult and we barely missed a boat that was already there taking on fresh water. The other boat was a Canadian-flagged vessel named Wind Song II. She had ducked into Titusville on the same day we had, also seeking shelter from the storm, and we had heard some of her radio transmissions as we were just a few miles behind them on the ICW. Anyway, after a quick conversation at the dock, we learned they were heading in the same direction we were going, and cruised at about Madge’s speed. We decided to anchor together in Melbourne that night, where I had already researched a spot that should give us protection from the North wind, and which had plenty of room for both boats. So, off we went.

Wind Song tucked in behind Madge, and we had a fairly routine trip to Melbourne. After we anchored, the Wind Songs came over to our boat for “sundowners” — cocktails in the cockpit. We had a great time. Discussing our respective sailing plans, we learned that Wind Song was trying to get to Cuba (which as Canadians they can do , since their country doesn’t hold a 50-year grudge against the island), while Madge is trying to get to Key West. Wind Song was planning on an extended stay in Stuart, FL, to have some rigging work done, while Madge is on a schedule — which is an expressed no-no in cruising circles. (Now we know why.) We both assumed we would part company the next morning and continue along our respective routes.

Early the next morning, Madge weighed anchor and headed out for our 30 mile trip to our next stop, the City Marina at Vero Beach. We had just achieved cruising speed when the engine made a strange noise, the tachometer went to zero and the voltage meter dropped to about 13.0 volts. Since it sounded like the engine was still turning at normal speed, and we were still travelling at just under 6 knots, I suspected that the alternator had gone bad. Since our engine is diesel, it can run without the alternator, but if the alternator were to seize up or the belt were to break, we’d lose our cooling water pump, which would put us out of commission (since we can’t sail in the narrow ICW — or, at least, I can’t). Everything else seemed to be working okay — radios, chartplotter, autopilot and depth gauge. Over the next couple of hours, the voltage continued to slowly drop. When it got to about 12.5 volts, I figured the autopilot was draining the batteries (it requires a lot of energy), so I switched to manual steering for the last three hours of the trip. Other than the physical exertion of manually steering, the rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful. We limped into the Vero Beach City Marina just after lunch, and tied up to a ball in the mooring field.

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To our surprise, Wind Song was about an hour behind us, and when they heard us hail the marina by radio, they contacted us. They had decided to stop in Vero Beach also. Since we had taken the last mooring ball in the field, Wind Song rafted up on our port side. Rafting up is a common practice in Vero Beach, since there are always more boats than spaces, and doubling up allows more boats to stay over. This time, Wind Song hosted the sundowners.

Bright and early the next morning (Tuesday), I opened up the engine compartment to find a thick layer of fine, rubbery dust — a sure sign of a deteriorating belt. I was able to easily slide the belt through the pulleys without any of the pulleys turning, so I figured that had to be the problem. As a test, I tightened the belt as much as I could and cranked the engine. I got nearly normal readings on the tachometer and voltage meter. After giving thanks that the alternator appeared fine, I went about trying to find a replacement belt. I looked up some auto parts stores on line, then Suzy and I hopped on the easy-to-understand, convenient and FREE public transportation system in Vero Beach — take THAT, St. Augustine — and started visiting parts stores. The first store didn’t have our belt in stock, but could order one for us. I kept looking. The fourth store finally had one in stock, but just one. I wanted a spare, so I asked the first store to go ahead and place the order. When we got back to the boat, I installed the new belt and fired up the engine. Everything worked perfectly. The next morning, I hopped on the bus to pick up the ordered spare belt. The store had actually ordered two, so I got them both. Sometimes, having one spare just isn’t enough.

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It had rained on me a bit on Wednesday morning when I went to get the spare belts, and by Wednesday afternoon the clouds opened up and we got more than we bargained for. The rain continued all day, overnight and all day again on Thursday and into Thursday night. We bundled up in our rain suits to dinghy ashore and go places, but we were constantly wet. At least the temperatures had risen to the 70s, unlike the cold rains we endured in St. Augustine and Titusville. There is a riverfront bar and grille about 200 yards down river from our mooring, just across (and under) the Route 60 bridge. Dedicated cruisers that we are, we dinghied over to the bar Wednesday evening for happy hour with our friends from S/V Kanga (we met them in St. Augustine), ignoring the persistent rain. On Thursday, we donned our heaviest foul weather gear to slog through the downpour with the Wind Songs for some last-minute socializing before they headed out Friday morning for Stuart. Fortunately, Friday morning dawned clear, but chilly. We waved goodbye to Wind Song, not knowing when we’ll see them again. Saturday morning was again clear and a bit warmer, and with the opening of a passage window across the Gulf Stream, our friends from Kanga departed for the Bahamas, leaving us alone in Vero Beach.

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While we had resolved our alternator (belt) problem, the heavy rains had revealed some problematic leaks in the deck, so after we dried out the inside of the boat, we set about to do some recaulking, along with other boat projects on our to-do list. I installed a jam cleat to help control the boom topping lift, and fabricated a hoist for lifting the dinghy, motor and all, out of the water along the side of the boat (“on the hip,” as they say) for nightly security, if needed. Suzy and I then tackled a task that had been waiting for some time — replacing the slugs on the foot of the mainsail. The slugs are little plastic tabs sewn into the foot of the sail about every 18 inches, that fit into a track in the boom. The slugs hold the foot of the sail tight against the boom. When we first mounted our new mainsail, the slugs were just a tad too small, and would not hold in the track. Even though the new slugs were “technically” the same size as the slugs on our old sail, there was something just off about them that allowed them to jump the track. We’d been carrying the new, slightly larger slugs for several months, but the job on removing the old slugs and sewing in the new slugs just seemed too daunting, so we put it off. With time on our hands and no other excuses, we tackled the task as soon as the dew dried off the deck, and were surprised to have the task complete by lunchtime, even though we had to completely remove and reinstall the mainsail, topping lift and sail flaking system. We then spent the afternoon trying to adjust and optimize our shortwave radio antenna. Today was spent on the free busses again, traveling to various stores to pick up odds and ends to adjust or improve other items on the boat. In addition, we started work on an upgrade to our wifi system to improve our reception of nearby internet hot spots.

We had a nice breakfast this morning with the crew of S/V Our Dream, whom we had met at the Cruisers Thanksgiving gathering in St. Marys a few months back. They winter in Vero Beach and summer in the Chesapeake. We’ll look them up when we head north ourselves later this year.

It’s been just over three weeks since we left St. Marys. In that short amount of time, we’ve met folks we know will be friends for life. We’ll follow them on their blogs and Facebook, and send them texts and emails. If we don’t see them again on the water, we’ll catch up with them on land. It is said that cruising consists of fixing your boat in exotic places. Well, I’ve certainly been fixing the boat. But it’s not the places that are exotic — it’s the people you meet in those places that make it truly special. We’ve found them to be warm, open and generous. Most will become fond acquaintances. Some will become solid friends. A few will become genuine kindred spirits. And that’s what makes all the fixing worthwhile.