Personality at the dock

Personality, our home for a week

John sits at the helm surrounded by a laptop computer, chart plotter and other electronics.

John at the helm

Corky, Julie, Betty and John smile for the camera

From left, Corky, Julie, Betty and John

Nothing could go wrong, or could it?

Cruising aboard Personality

The phone rang. Our former neighbors, John and Betty Graham, who now live in Raleigh, N.C., were looking at a trawler for sale near our home in Sanibel, Fla., and asked to spend the night. We hadn’t seen them in more than 25 years and spent the evening going over old times.

That boat didn’t work out, but 5 months later, they found the right one, a 3-year-old SabreLine 36, in Pompano Beach, Fla. They invited us to join them aboard Personality for a portion of the delivery trip from Pompano to Oriental, N.C., its new winter home. Turn down a cruising adventure? Of course not!

In early November, we headed to Pompano Beach for a 6-day cruise to Savannah, Ga. John and Betty had made a 6-page spreadsheet listing every bridge with opening times, minimum clearances, realistically estimated arrival times, references to chart book pages and more. The boat had dual Furuno chart plotters, radar, GPS and any number of VHF radios. They had new Maptech ChartKits and the latest cruising guides. What could go wrong?

With 23 bridges in our path, 13 of them with clearances of 21 feet or less, we knew the first day would be a slow one. But we soon gained confidence in judging clearances, especially at the critical 21-foot level. Sometimes, the gauges differed significantly from the charted clearances.

In South Florida, signs announced when a bridge’s center had a higher clearance than the gauge height. For instance, when the gauge said 18 feet plus an additional 3 feet at center, it generally matched the charted height of 21 feet at high tide. However, one bridge with a charted clearance of 21 feet gauged out at 15 feet. We called the bridge tender for an opening on that one.

As we moved north, the gauge signs measured heights to “low steel,” with no indication of the additional center clearance. We never scraped the antenna, but one time we had only 3 inches of clearance.

As the first day wore on, the electronics began to fail. From the start, the upper chart plotter had been missing the bottom 20 percent of its display, including the important data fields for depth and speed over ground. Then, the whole screen went dark. The lower chart plotter also had problems and eventually lost depth data.

We stopped for the night at the Hutchinson Island Marriott in Stuart. The staff let us eat inside the pricy Baha Grille restaurant using the tiki bar menu, so we wouldn’t have to brave the chilly open-air bar. We highly recommend the marina, which has free wireless Internet and first-class facilities.

With most of the low bridges behind us the next day, the trip became easier, but we continued to struggle with the electronics. This time, the lower station lost GPS as well as depth. With thousands of dollars of equipment out of commission, we had to navigate with a $200 handheld GPS and charts. Not having depth information concerned us the most, especially with Georgia’s poorly dredged channels just 3 days away.

On the second day, we stopped at Kennedy Point Marina just across from the Space Center. We used the marina’s free Wi-Fi service to contact Furuno technical support. The rep said Fairwinds Technical Services in St. Augustine would loan us a chart plotter to replace the worst of the two units.

With our electronics failing, John used his laptop (already loaded with plotting software and charts) wired to a handheld GPS as a backup plotter. Our trip to Palm Coast Resort Marina, our next destination, would take us through Daytona and St. Augustine. Navigating through St. Augustine was a challenge, taking us halfway out of the inlet before returning us to the comfier Intracoastal Waterway.

We arrived at Palm Coast an hour early. Gary, the owner of Fairwinds and a recently retired Navy electronics technician, met us at the boat lugging a tool kit and spare chart plotter. In short order, he had the loaner up and running and the offending chart plotter in his truck. Outstanding throughout, Furuno’s technical support showed a strong desire to solve our problems as quickly as possible.

We resumed our voyage to Fernandina Beach the next morning with greater confidence, but our optimism was short-lived. Both plotters again began losing data, and we were soon relying on handheld GPS units, charts and our own eyes. However, the low-voltage alarm coming from the autopilot display told us that our electronics might not be the problem after all.

We had heard that crossing the St. Johns River could be confusing. Sure enough, the ICW blended into the river with no obvious signs, and we saw green markers where there were supposed to be red. After a quick about-face, we found the ICW entrance and proceeded to Fernandina Beach, where John contacted a local marine electrician to check out the batteries.

The electrician quickly found the problem. An engine room switch that allowed the engine alternators to charge the house batteries was in the “off” position. The batteries were getting replenished only during the evening’s shore power charge. Once off the umbilical, they quickly ran out of power. This happened despite sea trials and inspections by the broker, electronics experts and surveyors. Luckily, the solution was cheap—just the flick of a switch.

The rest of the journey was pleasant and without incident. We anchored out for a night and pulled into Thunderbolt Marine’s facility near Savannah the following day. We’d covered 472 statute miles in 6 days. After a delightful dinner at the Olde Pink House in Savannah and a good night’s sleep aboard Personality, we bid our hosts farewell and headed home.