The Brighter Side
December 15, 2005
We wish we were not in Stuart, Florida. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with Stuart. The municipally operated Southpoint anchorage provides basic services for cruisers: dinghy dock access, trash disposal, pump-outs, showers, potable water, Internet connections. The old town of Stuart is a five minute walk away; it's been tastefully refurbished and boasts a number of bars, restaurants, and shops. The mooring field is also within walking distance of the post office, a major supermarket, and a well stocked hardware store. A Mexican restaurant that offers two-for-one margaritas at happy hour is dangerously close by. No, in terms of services and amenities, we could do far worse than Stuart. The main shortcoming of Stuart is that it is not the Bahamas, and that's where we thought we'd be right now.
We mentioned in our last entry ("Why Are We Still Cruising?") that we had arranged for a mechanic to service the injectors in our diesel auxiliary engine. This is something we do every couple of years because the engine manual tells us to do it. David does everything the manual says because he's convinced the engine is merely biding time, waiting for the slightest excuse to throw a tantrum and grind to a smoke-belching stop. To delay replacing the coolant by only a few hours is to invite disaster. Skip an oil change and you might as well kiss that 600 pounds of brooding metal good-bye. If standing on your head naked was a recommended procedure for placating the engine, David wouldn't hesitate to invert himself; anything to avoid a breakdown.
Almost two weeks ago, David picked up the mechanic Rob and his assistant Doug at the dinghy dock and took them out to the boat. They had the injectors out in two minutes. David said, "You might as well take the heat exchanger into the shop while you're at it and clean the tubes out. It's been two years since I last did that." The heat exchanger was much more reluctant to part company with the rest of the engine. When it finally broke free, it took a big chunk of the exhaust manifold with it.
Rob said, "You've got a bad case of electrolysis there. Unfortunately, exhaust manifolds aren't cheap."
David has yet to find anything related to our engine that IS cheap. He looked at the gaping hole at the side of the engine. "I guess I need one of those, don't I?"
Rob said he would find out how much the new part would cost and how long it would take to order it. An hour later he called us on our cell phone. "I hope you're sitting down," he said. "It costs $2100 and it'll be another week before I can get it and install it on your boat."
David explained we didn't have any children we could sell. Rob laughed; we didn't.
After we hung up David said, "Well, looking on the brighter side of things, now we have more time to finish up the boat projects we were working on."
"If that's the brighter side," Eileen replied, "we're leading truly miserable lives."
In the ensuing days, Eileen refinished our teak butterfly hatch and David replaced the ground plane for our high frequency transceiver, running forty-odd feet of new copper foil along the inside of the hull. The old ground plane had taken on the appearance of green Swiss cheese some time ago and our transmitting capabilities had been suffering ever since. We were motivated to optimize the performance of our radio because our cruising friends Chris Parker and Luis Soltero had just given us a new radio e-mail system to try out.
Chris is the forecaster for The Caribbean Weather Center and author of "Coastal And Offshore Weather, The Essential Handbook"; he broadcasts daily marine weather reports from his 34 foot sloop "Bel Ami" (see www.mwxc.com). Luis is a software guru and director of Global Marine Networks, a provider of wireless communications services (see www.globalmarinenet.com). We know Chris and his partner Mike from cruising in the Bahamas; we first met Luis and his wife Kim when we were in the western Caribbean a few years ago. Both Chris and Luis were at the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) annual gathering in Melbourne, FL, that we attended last month. They were about to launch a new high speed HF radio e-mail and weather service called XNet. Luis told us, "We're looking for guinea pigs to test the system. If you're interested, I think we'll be able to throw in a complimentary subscription to WeatherNet."
It was an offer we couldn't refuse. XNet is designed to work with an established wireless e-mail gateway called XGate; its particular compression technology and wireless protocol make it faster and more efficient than the radio e-mail system we've been using to date (see our December 30, 2004 entry, "Weather Or Not"). WeatherNet is a leading weather-on-demand service, offering over 20,000 weather products to subscribers (see www.weathernet.com). Chris demonstrated a number of these for us at the SSCA gathering. David was particularly impressed with the ocean currents GRIB files. "If we had had that info a few months ago," he said, "we might not have gotten lost for a week in the Gulf Stream on our way to Key West."
David spent last weekend sending and receiving e-mail messages to and from Luis and Chris. For someone who has difficulty setting his digital watch and operating our DVD player, he found that the new system was relatively easy to figure out. "Must be idiot-proof," Eileen said.
Making a radio connection with XNet was simple. David tuned the radio to one of the frequencies Luis had given us; if he heard the characteristic tone being transmitted, he knew the station was available for a connection. This is the opposite of how the Winlink system works for Ham radio operators. With Winlink, you have to wait until a frequency is clear before attempting a connection; there's no way of knowing whether the station you are calling is available on that frequency or is busy connecting with someone else on another frequency. It will sometimes take several tries before you finally find both a clear frequency and an available station.
On Monday afternoon Rob and Doug arrived at the anchorage with our serviced injectors and a brand new exhaust manifold. "Doesn't look like it's made out of gold," David said.
Just before sunset the engine was back together and running. When David returned from taking the mechanics to the dinghy dock, he got the computer out and turned on the radio. "Let's see what the weather will be like for crossing over to the Bahamas," he said.
He opened the WeatherNet programme and started requesting different weather products. There were wave charts and wind charts, GRIB files and text reports, satellite photos and fax images. "Wow," he told Eileen, "You won't believe how much neat stuff there is here."
"Yeah, but what does it all mean?" Eileen replied.
"Well, that's the only problem. It all says we're going to have lousy weather."
This morning we downloaded a bunch of weather information and then listened in to Chris give his radio report for The Caribbean Weather Center. A succession of closely spaced fronts and lows was forecast for the next several days. "I don't see a comfortable weather window opening up for at least a week," Chris told one of his callers.
David turned off the radio. He got out his notebook with its list of boat projects. He began, "Looking on the brighter side of things ..."
"Don't say it," Eileen said.