Warm And Cold, Feeling Drained And Being Filled

By Douglas Bernon
November 24, 2000
Norfolk, Virginia
36 51.583 N 76 18.486 W

I can appreciate that the Inuit have maybe eight billion words for snow, but I'd hoped this year not to talk about snow, not to see snow, not to feel snow, not to be anywhere near snow.

Yesterday, as we altered course from 188 to 255 degrees, turned the corner at the Thimble Shoal Lighthouse, dropped our sails and started to motor into Norfolk, we were at least several weeks behind our imagined schedule. Huddled behind the dodger, watching our breath before us, bundled with every layer of fleece and foul-weather protection we own, and with only our eyes exposed to the world, I was reminded of Fran Leibowitz's felicitous aphorism: "life is what gets in the way of plans." Just then, the sun disappeared, the temperature dropped and the gray rain turned into ... snow. Last night, I went to sleep with my hat on. Not good.

But all's not bad either. We puttered along for another four miles, mesmerized by behemoths: rows of aircraft carriers, battleships, tankers, tugs and submarines. When we rounded Buoy 25, we closed for good the Maptech Chart Kit we'd been using since New Jersey, and opened the one that goes from Norfolk, Virginia, all the way to Florida. Often I've liked reading a book so much that I didn't want it to end, and I'd linger over pages, rest between paragraphs, or merely close it on my chest and wait awhile. But in this case, I was delighted to put those covers together and turn towards what's next. While we're way behind whatever it is we thought our schedule was supposed to be, we're also delighted to be doing what we're doing, which is to say that whatever it is that cruising is about, it's surely not speed. Why else would people choose to travel at about the same rate as a Holstein?

Photo of Ithaka at the Norfolk Boat Works Ithaka, waiting out a cold front at the Norfolk Boat Works.

Tonight we are tied up at the Norfolk Boat Works, visiting with our friends Michel and Germaine — who arrived here a week before we did from Mobjack Bay — and temporarily becoming part of the extended family here in this most unusual boatyard. While not a transient facility, Rob Powell and Karl Creekmore, the two owners, welcomed us with open arms. With an arctic high-pressure front lingering overhead, the temperature here is 40 degrees below the norm, and the wind chill is in the teens. The weather man says it's the lowest temperature this week since Mastodons wandered these parts. Wuss that I am, I was thrilled when Bernadette said she wanted to wait until this front passes so we won't turn into Popsicles before we get south. We're itching to take off, though, on the portion of the Intracoastal Waterway from Norfolk to Miami. Itching yes, but not THAT badly.

Photo of John Sprock John Sprock gave us advice and lent us extension cords and a battery charger dedicated to equalizing batteries. He's aboard Osprey, a 52-foot Bowman, his labor of love that he's gutted and is rebuilding.

The Norfolk Boat Works is a unique environment: There's a grand, black pooch that ambles everywhere, first-rate yacht repair services, storage services, and lots of very-very-very-long-term-do-it-yourself rebuild projects that are more or less going forward. Nestled unobtrusively between an oyster cannery on one side and some old piers on the other, and an easy walk to downtown, this is a kindly place where people have lent us cars, heaters and electric cords, a portable battery charger, taken us out to dinner and breakfast, and offered up oodles of help, encouragement and good cheer. Leaning out from a barge in front of NBW is an enormous Christmas star that the owners, staff and live-aboards in this boatyard put up for a marine charity parade last week to support the Elizabeth River Project. However, if I focus only on the external world, I'd fail to report the grander drama of this week, and several before it, which has been more mechanical and interpersonal. Several readers of our log have e-mailed us (which we both like immensely) and generously opined that I'm too hard on myself and that I ought to lighten up. This is excellent counsel and, while not news, I thank you for your kindness. Alas, I am who I am.

Photo of Allen Christopher, Michel Savage, and Rob Powell Friends in Norfolk (left to right): Allen Christopher, Michel Savage, and Rob Powell.

Cruising, for all its many delights, is quite a challenge. When we take on some major new task and role in life, the canyon between where we stand and who we want to be is immense. For people who've been successful in their careers, and who may have forgotten how hard it was to get a foothold those many years ago, that chasm between aspiration and reality can be downright painful. For me, I often feel that I'm straddling that chasm, and someone is moving those footholds farther apart. Anyway, this week I've been much vexed and sometimes despairing about what I thought was a problem I'd created with our batteries and charging system.

For people who haven't lived on boats, it's important to remember that the seemingly inexhaustible land-based supplies we use willy-nilly (water, fuel, electricity) are precious goods, whose minimal acquisition takes up whole days on board. And then once you've got it, you have to find a place to put it. Consider electricity. To get more of this quickly-consumed commodity, one either has to be attached by electric umbilical to a shore socket or run the ship's engine to make power to save in the ship's batteries, or gather power from solar panels or miniature windmills mounted in the rigging.

On Ithaka, to charge our batteries, we have solar panels and we run the engine. We're sparing of our electrical consumption, and have chosen to have no television, no microwave, no electric kitchen appliances, no washing machine, no hair dryers. We only use minor electrical gizmos that can be fired up in 12-volt cigarette-lighter fittings. Our biggest power munchers are our refrigeration system (which eats gobs of it when we have it on), interior and navigation lights, our computer, and our telecommunications gear.

Photo of Christmas decorations atop the Norfolk Boat Works barge   Decorations atop the Norfolk Boat Works barge.

Ithaka has two battery "banks" (perfect nomenclature, really, for something so valuable). One bank is actually a single battery whose sole purpose in life is to start the engine. The other bank is made up of four very large batteries (305s) linked together to store our power for everything else. When we bought Ithaka, we replaced the old batteries with what are called deep-cycle, wet-cell batteries. After doing our homework, we chose the ones made by Rolls because they're immensely powerful, reliable and mercifully forgiving if you screw up. That turned out to be a great decision. On our boat, we have two alternators attached to the diesel engine that, when the engine is on, make electricity to be stored in the batteries for later use. The little alternator automatically starts every time the engine starts and stores electricity in the start battery. The big alternator has to be turned on manually and then makes electricity for the large bank of batteries. Here's where I messed up. I haven't been turning on the big alternator often enough, and consequently our bank account of power has been consistently low. In my inexperience, I was only turning it on when we needed to fire up the fridge. Not a mortal sin, you might say? But wait. Batteries resent terribly being undercharged, and can become persnickety and uncooperative, looking as if they are full, sounding as if they are full, but not being able to deliver the goods — in other words, not offering enough power to supply your basic daily needs. In fact, undercharging can ruin a lower quality battery completely. This, by the look of our diminished available amp hours, I feared I'd done. The thought of this kept me up worrying for two nights.

Photo of Be Prepared To Stop sign Great advice for cruisers, on the side of the road. Sometimes words of wisdom emerge in unlikely places.

In your car you have an elegantly simple gauge with E and F indicators that tell you at a passing glance what amount of fuel is available to you; without conscious thought you have a general idea of how many miles you can go. On most boats, there's no such simple gauge for electricity, although last week we bought and installed one, the Link 20, that does that very well. Anyway, because I've been grossly undercharging the batteries over the past few months, and because I was mis-interpreting the voltage, amperage and specific gravity readings — Get the picture here on the yuppie learning curve? — I assumed we had a terminal problem with our batteries, and that I'd caused it. I've been turning lights off like a miser as I walk the length of the boat, badgering Bernadette about power consumption day and night, and pestering everyone I know about whether or not we had to perform battery surgeries or get new ones. Because in sailing there are so many proclaimed experts with different theories, I'd worked myself into a dither and was becoming, my beloved tells me, rather a pain.

Over the past week I'd read and reread various parts of Nigel Calder's book on electricity, and I purposely super-overcharged the batteries (a process called equalization) to try to remedy any damage done by the previous undercharging. What this does is shock and knock the hardened sulphate crud (the result of undercharging) off the plates inside the battery so they can once again do their thing and accept a fuller charge. But I wasn't confident, as it seemed that nearly everyone I turned to offered opposite advice. Meanwhile, I've also been conducting more junior-high school science experiments to determine voltage and loads, making time and amperage discharge graphs, and driving myself and anyone around me nuts.

"That's enough!" said My Personal Commodore. "I can't stand this anymore. We're calling the Rolls company, and asking them."

So today I reluctantly searched out the phone number for the Rolls company up in Nova Scotia and, with my tail between my legs, I phoned them. I spoke with James Surrette, whose family runs and owns the company, and he spent more than half an hour walking me through an exquisitely elementary and useful lesson on batteries, battery care and how to interpret correctly the information I'd graphed. Mercifully, it turns out the Rolls is particularly resilient to my novice mistreatment, and is now fully charged up again, none the worst for wear.

Bernadette is relieved, and no longer will brook my turning off lights too quickly. I'm more relieved than I can express that I hadn't screwed up as badly as I thought, and I'm grateful to new friends in Norfolk and Nova Scotia, who in the midst of unwelcome cold, warmed us with their kindness. As we headed south over the Thanksgiving holiday, we gave thanks for our health and each other, for the privilege of this trip, and for the friendships that always seem to make the difference.