Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Now we're cooking . . .

This was the third day of our unplanned lay-up in Chicago. In the morning, Phil hung around the marina area, looking forlornly at the empty slip, while Bernie went to the Green City Market. That's not too different from how we expect some mornings will be when we're on the cruise -- except the part about the forlorn look and the empty slip.

Now, the best part about Bernie going to a farmer's market is that she must do something with all the stuff she buys. And that means she cooks.

And Phil eats. Really well.

And he likes that.

Unfortunately, at some point during the middle of the meal, Bernie, who is no longer satisfied with a mere complement on how great it all looks, smells and tastes, asks THE QUESTION.

Lately, THE QUESTION has become an item of dread for Phil. He knows that, while on it's surface it sounds like a simple request to verify that her dishes are working well, it's really a complex chess game of strategy, gained and lost advantage and, ultimately, victory or defeat. And lately, Phil's been on a losing streak.

That's why he tries to hide his frightened shudder when she asks, in a very innocent manner (but which doesn't fool Phil for a moment), THE QUESTION: "What flavors do you taste?"

You see, she knows very well that Phil is completely incapable of describing all the subtle, and many of the not-so-subtle, flavors in the dishes she prepares.

He used to be able to do that back in the days when they'd go grocery shopping together. After all, they only bought the standard cooking items, most of which he was familiar with. You know, things like ketchup, chili powder, and the occasional stalk of celery. Heck, they even cooked together (Yeah, right! Pouring the wine while Bernie stirs the risotto and sears the salmon does not count as "cooking together".) every now and then.

That all changed when she went to culinary school.

Suddenly, she's using ingredients such as "cracked Mediterranean rosemary needles" or "organic ground cumin". These were things Phil couldn't hope to notice mixed in with all the other mouth-watering flavors in her culinary delights.

So that caused him to wander into the kitchen as she was preparing the meal, and ask about what all she was using. Then, when The Question came, he could frantically search his memory, hoping to recall some of the exotic-sounding ingredients.

Unfortunately, Bernie soon caught on and simply began using recipes with way to many ingredients for Phil to remember. That way, he would always forget one or two of the important flavors, and would lose the game that evening.

But at least the ingredients came in clearly marked containers. So Phil soon learned to poke his head into the kitchen every now and then, pretending to make light conversation while desperately searching for containers that bore labels which, with a little luck, he could use to describe the important flavors when that Dreaded Question was asked. (This was a trick Phil picked up from Derrick, friend of ours whose wife, Kristine, went to culinary school with Bernie. Derrick faces "THE QUESTION" when Kristine cooks, too, and dreads it as much as Phil.)

Of course Bernie, who is nowhere near the dullest tool in the shed, soon caught on. She started going to farmer's markets and buying fresh, locally grown ingredients.

That makes the food even better but, without labels, how's a poor guy supposed to know what's in it? After all, chopped up green things look, to a non-culinary guy like Phil, well, like chopped up green things.

So now he's begun lurking around the corner from the kitchen, hoping her cell phone rings. Then he can eavesdrop on her describing to one of her friends the meal she's preparing.

Today, no one called.

So his answer was simply "Lamb. And it's delicious. I especially like these, uh, chopped up green things sprinkled on top."

(For the record, it was Country Cottage Farms' Lamb Chops with a lavender/thyme/garlic crust; Ratatouille, with Nichols Farms' purple peppers, eggplant, red onions, squash, and a Brandywine Heirloom Tomato from Iron Creek Farms; Bennison's Bakery's Rosemary Parmesan Brioche; and Mint and Lemon Verbena infused water.)

See what I have to deal with!

Boy, we can't wait to leave. Can you tell that maybe there's a little stir-craziness beginning to set in? (Yeah, I've already filled up the freezer with food for the trip, tomato sauce (for the trip and this winter), vegetable stock (for the trip and this winter), frozen fresh fruit (so we can still have blueberry muffins and rhubarb pie in the winter.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Today was our original departure date . . .

. . . and it was a beautiful summer day. It was warm, but not too hot, the sun was shining brightly, there was just a light breath of wind, and Lake Michigan was that wonderful deep blue color with no waves at all. It was a perfect day for crossing over to South Haven.

Too bad Meridian is still undergoing repairs.

So we stood at the window, gazed down at our empty slip, and held a solemn moment of silence . . .

Then, it was back to work doing the mundane we're-not-on-our-cruise-yet tasks. You know, things like cleaning the fish tank, dusting off furniture, and backing up the hard drive(s).

But it's not all work around here.

As long as our departure date has arrived, why not act like we're on vacation? And what better port to visit than the City of Chicago? So we've been living a bit of the tourist life lately.

Yesterday, we took a stroll down the lakefront to check out the Cool Globes exhibit. The display features over 100 globes, each five feet in diameter. Most of them are down by the museum campus. Artists designed the globes around the theme of potential solutions to global warming. It's an interesting exhibit, with many good ideas about everyday things we all can do.

Here's a shot of Bernie's favorite, one that extols us to eat locally grown organic foods. No Mr. Potatohead jokes allowed!!!

And here are a few others . . .

Here's another shot of the lakefront, looking out over Monroe Harbor and Navy Pier from the museum campus.

And finally, a nice view of all those lucky people whose boats are not being repaired. Nice view of the Chicago locks and the Navy Pier area also.

That's all for now. We hope to hear good news from Chicago Yacht Yard in the next few days. Cross your fingers for us!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

One and a Half Weeks to Go

The Weather Doesn't Care - and Neither Does The Port Engine!

It's been a whirlwind of activity around here the last couple of days!

On Tuesday, the mechanic came from Chicago Yacht Yard. (Plug for CYY: good folks working there). He tuned both engines and tried to find the oil leaks. OK, he tried to tune both engines. The starboard one was fine and, once he finished, in really good shape. The port engine (the one with the noise) wasn't so great. He couldn't fix the noise while at the harbor, diagnosing it as a bad valve. The engine was running so roughly, he couldn't even adjust the timing. And it appeared that the oil leak was coming from the rear oil seal. Final diagnosis: we would have to take the boat down the Chicago River to Chicago Yacht Yard, about a five mile trip through the lock and under a railroad bridge that we'd have to ask to be raised. We'd never been down the river by ourselves, so this was going to be our first adventure.

The worst news, though, was that they likely needed to pull the engine from the boat and send the bad valve to a machine shop. That could take three weeks or more to complete. And lots of money as well. Yikes!!! (Yikes?!? Phil apparently was watching a lot of Scooby Doo cartoon reruns while he was in the engine room -- did he mention the secret panel that hides the secret room with the recliner, flat screen and surround sound in the engine room.)

So on Tuesday afternoon, after getting over our disappointment, we started working like maniacs unloading stuff from the boat. It was a sad chore. (All of you who are seasonal boaters certainly know the doldrums that occur during the end-of-season boat unloading. It hits us bad every year.) Have you ever seen a sad maniac? Luckily our friend, Captain Morgan, was able to help with this task. The delay was bad, but the worst part was that we'd have to move back into our condo and be land-lubbers for the next three weeks. We haven't really been living in the condo since the end of April. This is going to hurt.

Tuesday evening we took a break and went to see the new Harry Potter movie (non-plug for the movie: not nearly as good as the others. Not much of a plot and no character development. A friend of ours who reads the books - we just see the movies - was outright angry since there was, apparently, a lot of book content that they could have used. It felt like they made a movie for the sake of making a movie about the fourth book.).

On Wednesday morning we finished moving everything from the boat to our condo. Our condo is now a complete disaster (previously it was just a mess)!

Then, at about 11:30 am, we pulled out of the slip in DuSable Harbor to begin the trip down the Chicago River. Believe it or not, this was the first time we've had to pull out of the slip completely by ourselves. We either had other passengers along, or a neighbor at the dock was there to help. Phil's pulled Meridian in and out of slips up in Waukegan singlehandedly, though, so it wasn't all that intimidating. All went reasonably well. (Phil is being nice to Bernie. I was so intent on securing the front line I didn't notice - until it was too late - that the front line holder had caught on the anchor. It snapped off the top part and it is now on the lake floor next to Phil's glasses, Phil's phone, and Mount Coffee Grounds.)

The port engine (the bad one) was running pretty rough, and as we waited for the lock to open, it died. And stayed dead. This was despite Phil's valiant efforts to restart it (while Bernie piloted the boat - equally valiantly). That was a bit scary, but there weren't too many boats around and, hey, we still had another engine that ran just fine! The problem now was that you couldn't make the boat turn to the right when stopped or going very slow. That would make it difficult to maneuver in close spaces - you know, like when pulling into a lock or a slip.

Another first for Bernie and Phil: operating the boat on only one engine. Now we just had to decide whether to proceed with the trip, or to turn back. What to do, what to do?

What we decided to do was this: Bernie would motor around inside the outer breakwater for a while as Phil continued trying to start the engine. That would give us a feel for how Meridian handled with only the starboard engine. After a little while, Bernie announced "hey, this isn't bad at all." Since we needed to get the boat to the yard somehow, we decided to go ahead. We turned back toward the lock.

That's when our luck actually improved. We saw another boat ahead of us heading for the lock. And as we approached, we got the green light and the lock started opening for us both. Just the two of us, so we wouldn't have to dodge other boats. We didn't even have to stop. We pulled right into the lock and, with no problem whatsoever, idled up to the side (the one that would allow us to turn to the left when leaving) and grabbed a couple of the lines along the wall to hold Meridian steady. You'd never have known we had never done this before and only had one engine working!

That's when the fun started. Meridian is a big heavy boat, and when the lock opened again, water started flowing through (as it usually does when a lock opens) and the boat wanted to move. It was really hard to hold her in place. Lesson learned from the boat in front of us (thanks Kristin): take a half turn around a cleat in such a manner that it helps hold her in place, but can be gradually loosened as the water level drops.

We cleared the locks and entered the river feeling that the worst part was over. And it mostly was, except for all the tour boat traffic where some construction blocked half the river. It was like highway construction - each lane takes turns waiting, then gets to go through after traffic from the other direction finishes. With only one engine, it was extremely hard to hold Meridian steady while waiting. Luckily, we didn't have to wait long. We proceeded on through when our time came.

We also got to experience the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's fountain up close. This is the fountain that shoots across the Chicago River between Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Avenue every hour (for about ten minutes). The fountain activated just as we were approaching. We have a roof (real boaters call that a "hardtop". We call it a "roof") so, what the heck, we went on through it. It actually felt like we were going through the rinse part of a drive-through car wash. We stayed dry and, looking back on it, Phil probably didn't even need to have lowered the isinglass windows around the aft deck.

The rest of the trip through downtown was beautifully uneventful. It really is a nice cruise, probably more so when you're not worried about hitting things because you can't maneuver very well! Bernie practiced her boat driving for much of the cruise - waving at the people along the way and bemoaning that there is no official WE ONLY HAVE ONE ENGINE flag which certainly would have impressed the land-based passersby (ha!).

After leaving downtown Chicago, we still had several more miles to go before reaching the yard. As the river opens up, it's a very nice ride. We passed no other boats on the river after leaving downtown, but plenty of barges were tied up along the side loading gravel and various other things. Then, about a mile before reaching Chicago Yacht Yard, we came upon the railroad bridge.

The railroad bridge over the south branch of the Chicago River only has ten feet clearance. Meridian is about sixteen feet high, so we would have to ask for the bridge to be raised. Now we knew this in advance, and never having done this before, we spent some time looking up the proper procedure.

Basically, according to United States Coast Pilot 9 (the official US Government publication on things like clearing locks and bridges, coastal descriptions and conditions, etc. in the Great Lakes region) there are three ways to communicate to this particular bridge tender. We tried all three:

1) cell phone. The number is published in the US Coast Pilot, which was up to date as of June. We tried the number and heard a very nice but very professional sounding lady tell us "this number has been disconnected. no further information is available." (Bernie had said we should try the number before we left but Phil didn't listen to her - again ;) )

2) VHF radio channel 16. We tried raising the bridge tender on the VHF radio. We haven't used the VHF radio very much, but got lots of practice here. Phil actually got pretty good at keying the mike and saying "South Branch railroad bridge. This is power boat Meridian requesting clearance."

3) Sound signal. One long blast of the horn, followed by one short blast. Did you know that for purposes of raising a bridge, there are actually formal definitions for "long" and "short"? Four seconds and one second. Although blasting the horn is kind of fun (prior to this, we only got to do it at the end of fireworks displays), it gets old when there is no return signal, nor movement of the bridge.

Oh yeah, it was still difficult to hold Meridian in place while waiting. The wind would tend to blow us to the left bank, and every time we used the working engine to move back closer to the right bank, that took us closer to the bridge. With only one engine, we couldn't go straight in reverse either. We'd move to the left bank. So, we were gradually getting closer and closer to the bridge.

It felt kind of like we were a solitary knight, on a broken down old steed, standing in front of a locked castle gate. (Seems like Phil has the DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, along with Scooby Doo, down in the Secret Recreation Room in the Engine Room.) You can knock, you can shout, you can throw things, you can, well, do pretty much anything you want. We finally called Chicago Yacht Yard and asked if they had an updated cell phone number for the bridge. They didn't and suggested we continue trying Channel 16 on the VHF. But we also heard them hail the bridge on Channel 16 as well.

Finally, after several more calls on Channel 16, and about three hours after we arrived - ok, only 30 minutes, but it sure seemed like hours - we heard a really loud siren and the bridge started raising!!!! Yippee!!! (Yippee?!? I guess Phil has some old Roy Rogers DVDs along with the Scooby Doo cartoons and Monty Pythonthat he watches in the secret room off the engine room)

And that was pretty much it. We reached Chicago Yacht Yard shortly thereafter - at about 2:30 pm - and one of the mechanics helped us tie up.

As we left, we took a picture of Meridian tied up along the wall. She looks lonely . . .

We then went home, took some badly needed showers, then headed over to Lula's in Logan Square to celebrate, with a fantastic meal, our successful river adventure and all the "firsts" of the day. (plug for Lula's: a great restaurant. Go there. It has a seasonal menu and uses mostly local providers for their ingredients)

Wednesday night we slept in our bed in the condo for the first time since late April. Neither of us slept very well. It's just not the same thing - the condo doesn't gently rock with the waves or slowly sway back and forth with the wind. Probably a good thing, I guess, when you think about it.

Thursday morning it was back to work, with Phil cleaning up the condo and Bernie doing some cooking and "winter storage". Winter storage means freezing fresh fruit for use in the winter. She was lucky to get some cherries from Seedlings for $1/pint. Though she normally doesn't freeze cherries - how can you resist at that price? (Has anyone else noticed a pattern here? "Work" for Phil means cleaning toilets or crawling under grimy engines - with only the occasional break to watch DVDs in the Secret Recreation Room. "Work" for Bernie means playing with berries and vegetables in the air conditioned comfort of her modern WINDOWLESS kitchen albeit the results are good food for Phil to eat.)

Then the good news came - Chicago Yacht Yard called. After further investigating the engine, they determined that, although major work still needed to be done to the port engine, it would not require removal of the engine from the boat. They also would not need to send parts off to a machinist.

The new estimate: it'll cost a pretty penny, but we should be back in the boat by next weekend, with a dramatically better (and partly newer) engine!

Our new departure date: July 30.

As of this writing, we are at a point where, when the boat is ready, we can bring it back to the slip, load it up, and leave! This upcoming week will be devoted to cleaning up the condo, preparing more food, and having fun.

Lesson Learned: Piloting a twin-engine boat with only one engine functioning is hard but can still be enjoyable.

Monday, July 16, 2007

One Week to Go

Today we are one week away from leaving! During the past week, we did much to prepare:

  • We went to a Cubs game (they beat the Astros!)
  • We saw "Live Free or Die Hard" (a perfect summer movie)
  • We went to a friend's daughter's birthday party
  • We went to the Green City Market annual Chef's Barbecue
  • We saw "Transformers" (another perfect summer movie)
  • We had friends over on the boat for a relaxing afternoon
Ok, seriously, we actually did get some trip preparations completed also. We scheduled the mortgage payments for the next two months (and the electricity, assessments, phone, and miscellaneous other regular payments), we put our newspaper on vacation hold, filled out the forms to have our mail collected, and bought various toiletries for the trip (toothpaste, deodorant, soap, suntan lotion, etc). Bernie got much food prepped for the trip, so we'll be eating well! She also made eye doctor appointments for each of us. Phil's was Thursday, and he'll be starting the trip seeing clearly through a new pair of glasses to replace the ones at the bottom of the harbor. Bernie's is later this week.

We also accomplished another key task. We visited Rosley's Crystal Shop in the Lincoln Square neighborhood and bought an Iolite and a Black Tourmaline on Mr. Rosley's recommendation. Iolite is a crystal that aids in journeys. Legend has it that the Vikings used it to aid in finding America. We hope it aids us in finding Traverse City. Black Tourmaline is a stone of protection against negative energies. It also disperses tension and stress (not that there will be any of THAT on this voyage), promotes a laid-back attitude and encourages rational thought. Admittedly, this is a little new-agey. But Bernie has found that a Citrine is quite useful for maintaining a sunny disposition and Phil (although skeptical at first) has found that Hematite is useful for those aches and pains caused by intensive Boat Yoga Sessions.

Phil spent a lot of time in the engine room cleaning, then painting both engines. They look really great now, but it was mainly to find oil leaks. He also regasketed two valve covers and two exhaust manifolds - pretty serious mechanic work for an amateur like him - and installed a FloScan flow meter, which measures how much gas we are using in real time. Hopefully, it will save us some money on the trip by letting us operate the boat more efficiently.

Tomorrow is a big day for us. We have a mechanic coming in to go over the engines and transmissions, make some (hopefully small) adjustments and then pronounce them fit for the trip. We've been getting an odd noise from the port engine, so we hope he can fix that with a minimum of time (and, of course, money). The engines are really the only thing at this time that would delay us, so we're a bit nervous about tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Two Weeks to Go

We are now under two weeks on our countdown to departure and the excitement - or is it the stress? - is beginning to build.

We plan to leave July 23, give or take a few days. We're not on a fixed schedule, so we'll let the weather - and the status of must-do items - dictate when we leave.

This past weekend, realizing we were about to hit the two-week mark, Phil went into panic mode as he had frittered away the Spring. All of a sudden, we had to get serious about completing our preparations. (As though we weren't serious enough already.) Since launching in the spring, here's an abbreviated list of the major things Bernie did while Phil "frittered away the Spring".

Bought and outfitted a dinghy.
We bought a 12 1/2 foot Sea Eagle inflatable on Craig's List from someone here in Chicago. It came with an electric trolling motor, battery, battery box (with meter, handle, external studs for easy hook-up), battery charger, and all the basics such as air pump, bags, seats, canvas cover, canvas top, oars, repair kit, etc. We had to buy navigation lights, safety kit, and davits to carry it on our swim platform. Even though it's a roll-up, Phil didn't want to have to deal with inflating it every time we wanted to use it (that takes away from valuable fritter time). So we got the Weaver Davits that allow you to bring the dinghy up alongside the swim platform, attach it to the davits, then tilt it up.

Practiced using the dinghy.
Never having used an inflatable before, we figured we should get familiar with it. We've spent a number of mornings in the dinghy, tooling around the harbor here in Chicago, practicing with the electric motor, learning how fast it goes (a whopping 3.2 mph in calm water, slower when it's choppy), learning how long the batteries last, and learning how to maneuver it so you don't hit every boat, buoy, pier, and goose that happens to be in the area. Bernie likes to get exercise by rowing, but Phil is more of a "if it has a motor, use it" kind of person. That means the folks out in Monroe harbor often see Bernie rowing "that lazy guy" around the harbor. She gets a lot more exercise than she realizes because she doesn't row very straight. Yet.

Bought and installed a new refrigerator.
Our old one conked out last fall (they just don't make things like they used to -- that one was only 25 years old), so we bought a new one. It actually took a lot of digging to find one with approximately the same dimensions to fit in the cut-out in the galley. And, of course, it couldn't be smaller than the old one! Getting it on the boat turned out to be quite the task. It wouldn't fit through the companionway door without removing the teak trim. There were about 40 wooden bungs covering up the screws that had to be removed (and new ones installed). As long as that was being done . . .

Refinished the companionway (and . . . )
This was one of those projects that was the result of another completely different one. But, as long as the companionway had to be disassembled, and since the varnish had seen its better days, we decided to refinish it. But, since this required removing the door, did we have to pick the one weekend when the temperature dropped to 50 degrees to do this? We decided to refinish the peeling handrail around the aft deck, too, since we had the sandpaper and varnish out anyway.

Installed an inverter and extra batteries
Bernie loves to cook (seasonal food that is locally and sustainably grown). Phil loves to eat the food that Bernie cooks. Put those together, and the following rule emerges: The Refrigerator Must Never Lack Electricity. Enough said.

Ok, so those were the major accomplishments. There were also lots of smaller projects that Phil frittered the Spring away doing. But, none of that seemed to matter this past weekend, when we realized We Only Have Two Weeks To Go!!!!! So now, there's a new project list. We'll be writing about some of our current preparations in upcoming days. (There he goes again - frittering his time away writing a blog entry instead of crossing projects off his to do list.)