The difference a dink makes

The wind was a steady 25 knots, gusting over 30, blowing straight off the shore of the small island behind which we were anchored. Both of our dogs, whom refuse to to soil our boat (at least while we’re there) hadn’t relieved themselves in more than 24 hours and looked absolutely miserable.

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I held tight to the standing rigging as I stood on the cabin top and looked over my small kayak trying to decide if I could even make any headway towards the island or if I’d be blown back past the boat and out into the middle of the bay if I attempted the trip to shore.

It wasn’t so much that I was worried about what would happen to me and two dogs in life jackets on a kayak — we’d just be carried ashore somewhere in San Leon. The problem was that if I couldn’t get back to the sailboat, Mary would be stranded there, unable to lift the anchor and leave.

That was the weekend we really began dinghy shopping.

But what type and size of a dinghy did we need and how would we power it?

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Luckily we had many boating friends also looking for dinghies, so we waited and learned from their experiences.

Our friends on the Tina Marie Too had a big double floor West Marine inflatable with a 20hp 4-stroke engine. It was comfortable. It planed up. It held a lot of people. It was way too big for our boat. We ruled out a fiberglass floor inflatable.

Our friends on Escondida had an 8′ slat floor inflatable with a 5 hp. It was small, light and could easily be lifted on and off the foredeck. It could also be rolled up and stowed in the cabin. It didn’t hold much, and it was very slow.

Our friends on Folie a Deux bought a Port-a-bote. It wasn’t too heavy, and it folded flat to tie against the lifelines. However, it was only rated for a 2.5 hp motor, and they got caught with a strong headwind in Matagorda Bay and couldn’t make any forward progress.

What we really thought we wanted was a Takacat. However, actual Takacat inflatables are quite expensive, so we started looking at the generic Saturn inflatable catamarans available. Our friends on Hippokampos got curious about them as well and bought one.

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Not tapering together at the bow makes for a very wide dinghy. In fact, we referred to it as the barge. It was sort of a strange ride because you could feel the flex in the middle when a wave raised one pontoon and then the other. They’ve been cruising with it for over a year now, and you can actually read their entire review of it here. While they had no major complaints, we realized there was no way we could put a boat that wide on our foredeck, and we weren’t sure we’d even have the space to inflate and deflate it anywhere on Gimme Shelter.

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We went back to thinking we would go with an 8′ slat floor roll-up with a 5hp Lehr propane engine. While small and slow, that seemed to be the best option for our 34′ sailboat. We also wouldn’t have to carry gasoline along with the diesel and propane we were already carrying. We started saving and kept waiting for the big sale at West Marine.

However, sometimes the right dinghy finds you.

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Our friends over at SVMimzy.com asked if we were interested in a 10′ AB rigid floor inflatable with a Mercury 9.9 hp 2-stroke. While it was about ten years old, it was in really nice shape. I just didn’t think we could lift it or that we’d have space for it on the boat. I was incredibly surprised when the boat only weighed around 100 pounds, and I could pick it up and move it around myself — and it just barely fit on our foredeck. I have to lift it up and bit to open and close the anchor locker, but it works.

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We’ve anchored out more times this year than in almost all of our past years of sailing combined thanks to being able to easily get the dogs back and forth to shore.

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Of course, it’s been useful for more than just carting dogs around. Mary and I have made runs up and down the ICW from Bolivar to Stingarees.

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We can finally explore islands and anchorages together instead of taking turns on the kayak.

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It’s also been great for carrying my photography equipment to shore. I’d never risk it on the kayak, but now I can get the camera, lenses and tripod all safely to shore to set up for great shots like this.

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While we’re getting by with raising and lowering the dinghy and motor using our halyards, the next question is to davit or not to davit.

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Our Best Photos of 2016

Happy new year and welcome to 2017. I hope all of our readers made it, unlike all those celebrities that didn’t.

I haven’t had time to write anything new for the new year, so I thought I’d kick things off with a photographic retrospective of 2016. Deciding on our “best” photos is very subjective, and I didn’t actually ask Mary’s opinion on these. I just scrolled through all the folders of photos from the past year and picked my favorites. So, in no particular order, here are my favorite photos that we took during our adventures in 2016.

So how’s that music thing working out?

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You might remember that we had devised a plan to play music as a means to make money while cruising. The idea of sailing town to town and rocking the tiki bars to pay our way around the Caribbean was romantic and enticing.

So will it work?!!!

We’d been taking part in marina jams and playing songs with our friends at open mics on a weekly basis for a while, but the question remained, could we actually book a “gig.”

We got started in March with a St. Patrick’s Day show playing as a 4-piece band.

Then a small wedding followed soon after, which was an eye opener to how rough it is to play in 90+ degree heat and extremely high humidity. We played that one as a three-piece.

I managed to book a few solo acoustic shows, which isn’t really what I was looking for since Mary and I wanted to play together, but it was a good test to see how things went over when we stripped out the guitar solos and vocal harmonies provided by our friends.

Then we got invited to play a police fund raiser as a four-piece band, which was a fun experience.

Then we actually grew to a five-piece band for another show at our favorite bar before finishing off the year as a four-piece at a corporate Christmas party.

The gross income from our seven paying shows  in 2016 was $2050 (not counting about $200 in tips and $200 in bar tabs.) However, we had to pay out $750 to our other players. That puts us at about $1300 for the year.

So what did we learn?

Four hours is a long time: If you want to get paid in the Houston market, you have to play four-hour cover shows. When you’re playing by yourself with no instrumental solos or jamming, that is a lot of songs. I ran through more than 60 songs per night, and by the end of several shows I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for any song left to play. As we add more and more songs to the repertoire that won’t be as much of a problem, but working full time there is only so much time in the day to rehearse old songs and memorize new ones.

Equipment does make a difference: We started the year trying to mic the cajon with a Shure SM57. While it worked ok at the house when rehearsing, we could never get it loud enough at the bar without feedback. After a long debate, we finally spent the $239 to get a Shure Beta 91A that fits inside the cajon, and it solved all of our drum volume issues. This was a tough decision because the drum itself was only $175. It seemed absurb to invest more than the drum on a microphone for the drum, but in the end, it made a huge difference. I also retired my 20-year-old Shure SM58 vocal mic and replaced it with a $200 Sennheiser e945.

Good performances require rest: I currently have a wrist brace on my left arm. Practice makes perfect, but it turns out that too much practice makes for a pretty intense case of tendonitis. 12 hours a week seems to be my limit on guitar. Mary’s hands get quite swollen by the end of a show after slapping the cajon for hours. My voice also needs rest. Back in September I played four-hour shows two nights in a row, and my voice was already rough at the beginning of night two. By the end, it was really rough, which brings up the next thing I learned.

Not every performance is going to be good: Some nights nothing goes right. We’ve only had one show where things got really bad. It started ok. We had a nice group of friends come out to support us. The crowd was singing along. Unfortunately, I started losing my voice, and I ran out of songs. I thought I had a thick skin from my years in news and public relations, but getting a bad review and not being asked back to play a venue again really crushes the ego. There’s nothing to do except treat it as a learning experience and double down on the rehearsals, so that it doesn’t happen again.

We’re not going to make a living doing this: Yes, the dream is still to play live music as we cruise the Caribbean, but I have a hunch those bars pay even less than Houston bars. I think we were counting on competing against a smaller available talent pool in the islands, but that assumption may be wrong.

I’m not sure what our focus for 2017 will be. When we purchased our PA system we wanted something portable enough to fit in a dinghy to accomodate vocals, guitar and drums playing a restaurant or small bar. We’ve now got it maxed out with multiple vocalists, guitars, violin, bass, etc. While it’s a great portable rig, it’s not the right set up for a full band in large sports bars.

Hopefully we’ll get our foot in the door at some bars in Kemah closer to all of our marina friends.

Last but not least, we’ll be working on some new original music. Songwriting got put on the back burner while we crammed to learn enough cover songs to be able to fulfill our 2016 bookings. With that backlog of music under our belts, we’re ready to move forward with new songs in 2017.

If you have any song requests, please post them in the comments!

Looking for those bookings

As has been mentioned in previous blogs, one of our ideas to slow the burn on our savings while cruising is to play music along the way as a source of income. In preparation we’ve started playing shows in the Houston area to hone our skills, make sure we have the right equipment, and add a little bit of cash to the cruising kitty.

Last week I played a solo acoustic show at Little Woodrow’s in Katy, Texas. It was nice that our Gimme Shelter T-shirts had just arrived the night before.

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This was a very last minute booking, so I was lucky that with less than 24 hours notice I still had 10 friends and blog readers come out to see me.

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We’re currently trying to hard to book at least two shows per month for the rest of the year, hopefully some of which are in the Kemah area. As our schedule fills in, we’ll update the events calendar on our Facebook page.

Until then, here’s a new video of Mary and I covering Bubble Toes by Jack Johnson.

Concert review: Chris Isaak at House of Blues Houston

We don’t go to many concerts these days.

Actually, that’s not completely true. We see many, many live bands. In fact, as a live band, we even played our first wedding concert last month.

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However, we don’t go to many big concerts with famous artists.  A combo of the loud music, late nights, expensive drinks, and crowded venues keeps us away.

There are very few that I would pay to see. Then there’s Chris Isaak.

I saw him a decade ago at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, and it was an absolutely amazing show. When I heard he was coming to House of Blues, and I might get to see him in a much smaller, more personal venue, I was quite excited and pitched the idea to Mary.

Her response was, “I don’t think I know who that is.”

She was not excited. Her only reference to Chris Isaak and the Silvertones was the fact that I cover Wicked Game … but only when we’re jamming with the “Dock Boys.” I’ve heard it murdered way too many times by way too many cover bands to ever perform it at an actual show. (#nevertrustthefalsetto)   Pleeeeease don’t let the band name “Dock Boys” catch on. 

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I put the show out of my mind and went on with my life. That is, until Ticketmaster announced a huge settlement, and I discovered I had many, many discount coupon codes in my Ticketmaster account since they essentially scammed concert-goers with exorbitant “handing fees” and “UPS fees” all through the 90s and 00s.

I decided to check back into the Chris Isaak concert and found there were a few front row tickets still available. I once again pitched the show to Mary and this time she reluctantly agreed. I can’t believe I almost didn’t!  I normally hate concerts.  

We were standing in line along the third floor balcony outside the House of Blues waiting for the doors to open when a guy in sunglasses and a polo shirt holding a white dog came walking down the line kind of whispering to everyone. He was saying things like, “I heard this guy puts on a great show.” and “Oh, I heard it’s going to be a really good show tonight.”

He was already halfway down the line before I realized it was Chris Isaak. He turned around, waved at everybody and went inside. He looks so different off stage, like a normal person.  Not all dreamy like he looks while he’s playing.

I really wasn’t sure if we had front row seating as claimed on the Ticketmaster seating chart or if the entire downstairs of the venue would be standing. Once inside, I was excited to see that we did indeed have front row seats. There would be no tall people standing in front of Mary blocking her view all night. Whenever people start to stand up at a concert I might as well be at home listening to the radio. I can’t see anything. 

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The band came out strong and played a few songs before Chris stopped to introduce everyone in the band and thank the fans for supporting live music. He jokingly promised a “semi-professional state fair quality show.” Then he grabbed a wireless mic and left the stage to sing the next two songs as he strolled through the audience, pausing to sit down with people, so they could take selfies with him as he sang.

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After making his way up through the balcony and back down through the audience, he climbed on the stage, made a few more jokes, and went back to playing guitar.

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I know most of his songs, but Mary only knew one or two. However, I think we both enjoyed the music. The sound was clear and balanced, and his voice was phenomenal. Not only does he hit all the high notes live, he actually went even higher in some songs than he does on the records, and his sustain is unbelievable. The man can hold a note for 12 measures with not so much as a waver in the tone.

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We had made the mistake of ordering a couple of Bud Lights before the show started thinking that they’d be cheaper than the really overpriced craft beer. What we actually got served were $11 Bud Light 40 oz. cans, so Mary had to make a run to the bathroom mid concert. Unfortunately she decided to go right before they played Wicked Game, the one song she new, so about the second verse she came running back.

For what I guess you’d call the second set of the night, the stagehands quickly moved a drum and stool to the front of the stage as one song was ending, and as the next song began, the band transitioned seamlessly to sitting along the front edge as they played some softer, bluesier numbers. Then, when Scotty, the keyboardist pulled out an accordion, they even did a Tejano number in Spanish.

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Fun fact, Kenny Dale Johnson, the drummer, grew up in Borger, Texas and went to high school with my mom and two of my aunts. I think he’s probably the most famous person to come out of Borger.

Chris made a point to recognize this week’s passing of Scotty Moore, Elvis’s original guitarist and a great rock pioneer. The band then covered a couple Elvis songs and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire before returning to their own material.

They left the stage to the sound of a standing ovation and when Chris returned to start the encore, he was wearing his one-of-a-kind mirrored tuxedo.

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You know, to make this a “legit” review, I should have kept a list of the songs they played, but I didn’t. I was way too into the show. In fact, I wasn’t even going to snap any photos except that a House of Blues employee came by passing out flyers encouraging us to snap photos and post them to Instagram with #HOBIsaak.

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The energy stayed high and everyone was out of their seats the entire encore.

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To end the show, Kenny once again came up to the front of the stage to sing some fantastic harmonies on one of the new songs from the First Comes the Night album.

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As the lights came back on, Mary, who really had no idea who Chris Isaak was at the beginning of the night, said, “I think this is the best concert I’ve ever seen.”

I really loved the show.  The jokes were really funny, the outfits were great.  The guitar and bass player kept doing hilarious little dances, and you could just tell everyone was having fun on stage. It really felt like a show, not just a concert. There were a lot of quiet romantic moments as well that really made this a nice night out just the two of us.  

That’s a pretty good review.

Gimme Shelter’s first “gig”

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When the idea of cruising comes around, you start analyzing all of your skills and talents in hopes of identifying something that might be profitable enough to indefinitely sustain your cruising kitty or at least “slow the burn rate” as Patrick Schulte says in his most recent book, Living on the Margin.

Things like sewing and mechanic work instantly come to mind, but Mary and I are also musicians. (Well, at least one of us is a musician … the other is a drummer. #InsertYourOwnDrummerJokeHere #DrummerJokesNeverGetOld)

The idea crossed our mind that perhaps we could supplement our income, or at least lessen our expenses, by playing music at marinas and bars throughout the ICW and the Caribbean.

Recently we met a couple from New York through Facebook who were already cruising and playing music as they went. Their band, Stell and Snuggs, does some interesting stuff. Reading their blog also brought up some important issues. Considering that most bars in the US pay musicians in cash, we hadn’t even thought about needing work permits just to play music outside the US, but apparently you do.

While we were having nice marina jam sessions every weekend, the question still remained, could we get paid? Therefore, we finally booked a show to test both our equipment and ourselves.

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However, most of the bars really wanted something more than just a duo, especially on weekends. Now, in Houston we have quite a few musician friends, so fielding a full band for St. Patrick’s Day was no problem, but I think Mary and I are going to have to step up our game when playing by ourselves.

We prepped about 50 songs, and we ended up rolling through a four hour show with music to spare. My voice was raw and Mary’s hands were swollen, but we did it.

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And yes, we did get paid. For our first show we got $300 cash and a $50 credit on our bar tab. (We also found a whopping $1 tip in our tiny tip can.) Would that help supplement our cruising if we could play one or two shows per week? Absolutely! Is that anything comparable to what a bar might pay in Fort Myers, Florida or Dewey, Culebra? I have no idea.

A few lessons learned:

  • People enjoy top 40, but they get up and dance to oldies
  • We’ve got to further minimize our equipment or we’re going to have to buy a HUGE dinghy
  • Tip jars should be very large, well-labeled and right out front in the middle of the stage
  • We need to record some of our original songs and get them on the blog or on iTunes, so we have somewhere to send people when they ask about it.
  • Don’t forget the important harmonica!

A big thank you to all of our friends, blog readers and Facebook friends that came out to the first show. We haven’t scheduled any more shows at the moment, but if we do, I’ll keep you posted.

P.S. Feel free to post your favorite drummer jokes in the comments!

 

A little music for your weekend

We spent Thursday night hanging out with all of our musician friends at Jive Bar & Lounge Open Mic, and I shot a few videos this week. I’ll post some songs by Cerveza Road, Kristian Davis of Kollective Minds, and Jesse Avila of Poly Seude when we get back from the marina Sunday night after I have time to do some editing. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy our cover of The Weight with our friend Justin Guy on bass.

Guitar Comparison: Gibson Hummingbird versus Epiphone Hummingbird Artist

The Gibson Hummingbird has always been my dream guitar. It had that rock and roll pedigree, mellow mahogany tone, and just enough flamboyance to make it a legendary instrument. There’s just one catch, it’s really expensive.

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I fell in love with the Gibson back in my teens, and more than 20 years later, I finally have one (used, of course, I’m not crazy). However, needing another guitar for boating and camping, I was very curious as to the real differences between the Gibson and the very affordable Epiphone Hummingbird Artists. In fact, I found a blueburst B-stock Epiphone Hummingbird Artist for only $169.

Aside from the headstock you’d think the Epiphone would be a spitting image of the Gibson, but it’s definitely not. First off, their bodies, while both mahogany, are not quite the same size. The Gibson is slightly wider and deeper than the Epiphone with a more pronounced curve to the back.

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Both guitars have a 24.75″ scale neck, which is probably my favorite aspect of the guitar. It really helps me reach some of those chords with wide spreads. While the Gibson neck does feel more refined, when switching back and forth between the two guitars, you essentially feel like you’re playing the same instrument.

The Epiphone has a synthetic bone nut and a truss rod cover with three screws while the Gibson has a real bone nut and a truss rod cover with only two screws.

The rosewood bridges are similar, but once again, the Epiphone has a synthetic saddle while the Gibson has a real bone saddle. However, the Gibson still has cheap plastic pegs to hold in the strings. Being outside of the saddle, I know they don’t affect tone, but for the price, you’d think Gibson would spend $1 for real bone there as well.

There’s a HUGE difference in the tuners. My Hummingbird has sealed grover tuners, and the newer Gibson models have sealed Gotoh tuners. Epiphone doesn’t even mention the brand of their cheapo tuners in any of their collateral. They’re pretty terrible. I had some serious trouble keeping the Epiphone in tune for the first few weeks I owned it, although it has gotten better. With the Gibson, it’s usually in tune when I open the case, and it never goes out. With the Epiphone, I have to make sure and tune it before I start playing, and I might need to readjust it once or twice throughout the course of a three-hour jam. (This is about on par with every sub-$400 guitar I’ve ever owned.)

Of course, the real signature of a guitar is it’s tone, so I made a short video comparing the Gibson Hummingbird to the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro. Both guitars have Elixir Custom Light strings, and the audio was recorded on a Zoom H2n set to 4 channel mode. If you’re reading/watching this on a phone or laptop, you’ll probably have to plug in some headphones to really hear the difference.

So there you have it, a detailed look at the differences between a Gibson Hummingbird and an Epiphone Hummingbird Artist.

Hanging out at the Texas Renaissance Festival

For the past 41 years, people have been converging in costume in the woods near Plantersville, Texas. This year the Texas Renaissance Festival spans eight weekends, all themed, with only two left. November 21 -22 will be a Highland Fling, sure to attract plenty of kilts, and Thanksgiving weekend will be a Celtic Christmas, which probably means more kilts but with Santa hats.

After many weekends of terrible weather, we finally made it for the Barbarian Invasion. However, everyone in our group already had pirate costumes, so they went as pirates, not barbarians. (It’s totally ok to mix themes. No matter what the weekend you see quite a few ninjas, bronies, wizards and an occasional Doctor.

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This was our second year to camp, which is an experience in itself. The campground opens Fridays at noon, and by Saturday morning there are cars and tents jammed into every bit of open area around, so it helps to get there early and stake your claim. The camping fee is $25 per vehicle.

This year we were lucky that our friends Daniel and Shari made it early to snag us a nice flat spot on high ground, somewhat close, but not too close, to the port-a-potties.

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Mary made her own pirate costume by altering the cut of an old jacket from Goodwill and adding some lace trim and fringe adornments to the shoulders, pockets and cuffs.

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Every morning a cannon blast marks the opening of the fairgrounds, and everyone begins the trek to the park. Tickets are $29 for adults and $14 for children at the gate, but you can buy advance tickets at Walgreens for $24 and $12 respectively. However, kids get in free on Sundays.

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This year our friends Bryan and Lorraine had a new booth for Lorraine’s jewelry called Bits and Bobs.

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They’re easy to find. Just walk down towards the Royal Carousal and then look for Gandalf.

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My friend Leo was also there running the RBN fortune-telling tent in Sherwood Forest.

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Everyday around 11 a.m., there’s big parade. It’s a great chance to see all the performers and vendors from the different areas of the park.

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I have to admit, we didn’t sit through many shows this year. The puppeteers, comedians, jugglers and whip masters don’t really do much to update their material year to year, so if you saw the Ded Bob show in 2010, you’ve probably seen it in 2015. However, we did stop by the stadium to watch the jousting.

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We were in the German section of the crowd, and while our knight did have the best hair, he didn’t win the tournament.

Our friends are huge fans of the Pride of Bedlam, a pirate band, so we did stop into the Sea Devil tavern to try some mead and catch a few tunes. Turns out, mead pretty much tastes like honey. Should have seen that one coming.

The  second floor of the Barbarian Inn is a favorite place to people watch (and they have Karbach on tap). That’s where we met this guy who walks everywhere with a goblet on his head.

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We did notice some new art installations in the enchanted forest, and we discovered this great harp player.

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But I still couldn’t get Mary to do the bungee bounce.

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After a long day of walking, eating huge turkey legs, and maybe a little bit of drinking, we made our way back to the campground, but not before stopping to chat with these llamas for a bit.

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Saturday night we never made it to the bonfire. We just circled around our own fire pit and played music until I couldn’t stay awake to play music anymore.

I’m sure there are all kinds of activities and shows we never even knew to attend, so if you want to know more, visit the official web site at www.texrenfest.com

You can see our entire album of RenFest adventures over on our Facebook page.

Want to see my G-string?

Any luthiers or guitar experts out there?

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I always keep a cheap guitar on the boat. I want it to sound decent, but if worse comes to worst, I don’t want to feel bad if I have to use it as a paddle.

My first boat guitar was an Epiphone Dove with a cracked neck that I procured for $30.

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A little wood glue, and it was a nice player for about a year. Then the same spot on the neck broke again, so I stripped it for hardware and junked the body.

My current guitar is an Epiphone AJ. It was a B stock guitar with a few blemishes that I picked up new for $89.

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For the past two years or so, it played and sounded great. Unfortunately it has suddenly started popping G-strings. The last two times I’ve played it the G string has broken at the saddle with less than two hours of use. Then tonight I swapped the strings again, and the G broke while I was just tuning it.

I use Elixir strings, so they don’t rust out in a week on the boat, but they’re about $15 a set. When the guitar is worth less than $100, even $15 is a large investment, especially if the strings are now only lasting for an hour or two of play time. They were previously lasting for up to six months of weekend jams.

My Gibson has a bone saddle, and I see lots of them available on eBay for anywhere from 99 cents to $20. But how do I know they’ll fit, and is a 99 cent bone saddle really any good? Should I search for a replacement nylon/plastic saddle? Should I gift this guitar to a starving artist and find another sub-$100 boat instrument?

Right now I have a B string replacing the G string, so that there’s less tension, but it makes the tone a little funny. Using two B strings is definitely not a long-term solution.

Come on guitar experts, I know you’re out there. What in the world is going on with my guitar and how do I fix it (cheaply)?