Sunday, June 23, 2013

A great time was had by all (now with photos)

We are on our way away from the whole excuse for a shakedown cruise (and one might even say a key element to our getting on with this trip) -- celebrating my parent's 50th Anniversary.

My Mom & Dad invited us 5 kids and all of our kids to celebrate their union at the Rancho Alegre Lodge in Jackson, WY. It was my first time in the Teton's in 30+ years, and first time for everyone in my immediate family.  We ate well, saw many slide shows, played more D&D than I have played in years (and I've picked it up recently!), went hiking, took the tram, went white water rafting and generally had a great time.  I can say with all honesty that I would love to do it again.

My brother-in-law Tom helped troubleshoot and fix the issue with the issue with the slide.  And now I know enough to order the right parts and get it fully repaired w/o having to necessarily go to the Tiffin Motorhome Factory.  Though we probably will as we really enjoyed the Winnebago factory back in 2009.

We also got to see the very nice Emergency Room in Jackson courtesy of our daughter breaking her wrist and splitting open her chin while biking.  The doctors and nurses were great.  And now my daughter has all sorts of excuses to get away with what she would like to get away with anyhow.  The downside is that our return trip is going to be abbreviated as we would prefer to get her stitches taken out both at home and on the timeframe that the ER recommends.  Getting the splint switched to a cast is just the icing on the cake.

We did manage a quick day in Yellowstone including seeing Old Faithful, eating at the Old Faithful Inn and seeing the Mammoth Hot Springs.  Lots of driving today, but now we are in West Yellowstone and will see just how painful a speed run back to the Bay Area can be.  Can we do it in 2 awful days?  Or stretch it to 3 painful ones?  Tune in for more...
This is the rig (before we couldn't get up the first hill).  And testing the autopost feature.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Shakedown

We've got the rig and it's outfitted.  Time now for the shakedown cruise.  Originally the plan was for this cruise to the Tetons and Yellowstone was to be the start of the Trip.  But then reality intervened and we realized that we could not packup our entire house in the 1 week between getting a leasee and departure.  So, we're going to the Tetons & Yellowstone and back (maybe by way of Crater Lake, or if we really stretch it Snoqualome Falls for some cherry pie).  Then we drive across the country.  2000-3000 extra miles never hurt anyone did it?  Don't tell the kids.

We scheduled 4 days for the drive figuring then we could go slow.  The first day we got started a little late.  3.30p.  But at least everything that occurred to us to pack was packed.  The traffic leaving the bay area was rough.  We rolled into Sacramento around 7p.  Dinner was awesome.  It was free pie night -- everyone who had an entree (including kids meals) got pie.  We all won.  Except me, I suppose, because Martha had a side salad, so I had to split my pie with her.  Those who are married understand.  Unfortunately, being free pie night, the place was packed and service was slow.  After paying and then filling the diesel (71 gallons! ~$240) it was dark.  And then made a wrong turn going for the RV park and had to back out in the dark on to a fairly busy street.  Martha was a trooper directing me & Landshark.  I have to get her a pair of flashlights like the people who direct planes use.  And my resentment over the pie diminished significantly.

Leaving Sacramento the next morning was straightforward.  We drove to Reno and stopped for lunch at Joe Bob's Chicken Shack.  It was awesome.  Perfect chicken tenders for the kids, buffalo wings made on site.  I can't thinkof when I have had better chicken.  Getting into and out of the parking lot was a bit bouncy, and on our way back to the highway I had to turn a bit tighter than I would have liked and heard some box hit the ground in back.  Whatever. 

We continued in heavy traffic towards the highway when Martha suddenly called from the back, "Do you know the side is out?"  I looked in the passenger side mirror and sure enough, one of the sides is half out.  Yes, an optimist may say it was half in, but the fact is that having a slide at all out while driving is not unlike the Mr. Bean episode when his fly is stuck open and he's waiting to meet the Queen.  It not only isn't done, it could get you hurt or killed.  I try turning the generator on, turning off the engine, putting on the emergency break, Martha and the three kids are trying to pull it in -- anything to get control over the side.  No dice.

The light turns green, so we take advantage of our huge size, blow off the left turn on to the highway and smoothly cut across traffic at 5 mph to turn on to the frontage road while everyone in back frantically holds on to the side to keep it from sliding further.  I reason that every other driver on the road would notice me with half of my side hanging out and just want to not be involved.  I was rewarded for my faith and we safely made our way into a large parking lot.

Going out, I find that I can push or pull the slide in easiy from the outside, and I remember how the previous owner mentioned something about pins that sheer off.  Opening the panel beneath, I find 4 pieces of metal which used to be 1 pin.  Luckily the previous owner was kind enough to leave a supply of 3 pins. With the help of our handy dandy radios, my tools and a lot of patience, a new pin was aligned, tightened and we were back on the road. 

The unexpectedly good deal I got on Landshark is starting to become clearer.  But I still rationalize that if I had bought through a dealer, the same situation could have occurred, but I would have paid more and they wouldn't have left me a few pins. 

Paul later said, "I thought when the side went out our plan was over, and I was relieved.  But then I was sorrowful." Me, I was very touched that Paul shared this with me.

During the afternoon I started to realize the joy of having so many batteries and an inverter.  Unlike every other RV I have been in, we were able to run the full electrical system while under way.  Just awesome.  The kids had full freedom to play with various electronics with no fear of running out of power. 

Our campground was pretty good, and we failed to take full advantage of the sports bar & karoke night they were hosting.  But fortunately, we were far enough from the bar not to involunarily share.  A good night's rest was had by all.

This morning was a slow start, literally.  First campground I've been at which included free breakfast (donuts!) in addition to the more standard free showers.  I wrote 3 more blog entries, showered and we were ready to go.

Cue second time I questioned the price of the rig.

Waiting to turn into traffic, the engine sounded a little light.  I finally got my opening and floored it. 
Nothing.  I didn't hear any change in the engine idle.  Without thinking how ridiculous this was to do, I leaned my body forward.  Still nothing.  I took a deep breath and changed my turn signal to the right (to loop back into the next driveway, hopefully).  Another opening and I literally stood up on the accelerator.  Standing there, and leaning forward almost touching the windshield, Landshark ever so slowly crested the final bump in the ramp and we eased up to 5 mph to loop back down the driveway.

The only thing that had changed as far as I knew is that I had filled the fresh water tank.  Great.  50 gallons was enough to stop this trip.  This could be bad.  I head back to our spot and decide that it's a good time to empty the black and grey tanks.  Hell, if this trip is over, we might as well have clean tanks.  I checked out the coolant recepticle (previously unmentioned problem which was actually my first time I questioned the price of the rig, so I'm actually on the 3rd -- and 3 is the charm...).  I button us back up and we head up the exit ramp again.  We accelerate smoothly and have no problems. 

It is a mystery. 

Hopefully it will never reoccur.


Now that I'm selling the rig (the trip is over :( ), I realize that I should likely point out what I've learned after the year+ with the rig especially after posts which dig into the rig at all.

1.  Slides rolling out on their own.  Scary.  Really scary.  And after going to the Tiffin factory and talking with the techs, I know what happened.  The last owner never learned how to do it right, and he passed on his ignorance to me.  He told me that to operate the slides you get them close to the end (1-2 inches), and then make these quick little presses over and over and over again -- 7-8 presses is good.  That way the motor is not overloaded.  The guys at Tiffin told me that you hold that sucker down until it stops.  It's smart.  You're not.  By pressing the button over and over again, you're putting 1-2 tons of stationary pressure against a motor which needs a ton of torque to move it at all, and there's just these little sheer pins to hold it on.  And yes, they sheer.  He showed me how doing it even 1-2 times starts to mess with the pins (and he then replaced them).  Bottom line, after 30-40 times rolling slides in and out after learning that trick, I never had a single slide sheer pin break.  It compares rather favorably to the every other time I messed with the slide they would sheer off.  Moral of the story, get instructions when you get a new rig.
2.  Motoring up that incline.  Oddly, it never happened again.  Whole trip.  Not once.  My brother in law the mechanic said that when a diesel is cold, they occasionally have a tough time catching.  Bottom line, if I have a sharp incline early in the morning, I give it a running start.
3.  The coolant thing is a total mystery.  We had it happen twice more in the states (once at the actual repair shop when I went to get the repair guy!).  Once on the trip.  Once more since having been in the states.  I've learned to keep a gallon of water ready for if the check engine light comes on, and it slows my departure down by 2 minutes when it happens.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Outfitting the Rig

One might think that dropping the better part of a huge hunk of change on a RV would be enough.  But then one would be content to be part of the typical RV crowd traveling from gravel lot to gravel lot in search of a relatively flat spot to plug in and sleep horizontally.  And we definitely did not want to be those who head into the backwoods with their cruiser, crank the generator and watch Sunday football on their 42" TV.

No.  First and formost we are sailors.  Cruisers.  True, we're land cruisers, but cruisers nonetheless.  At the very least we had to have solar.  And that's where it all started.

My sailing books bought in the heyday of the worldwide trip provided some insight, but Bill Moeller's Boondock RVing condensed it perfectly.  And he was a sailor originally.  I needed solar, a solar controller, batteries, inverter, generator, shore power connection.  My eyes glazed as a looked at the schematics.  I'm so annoyed I didn't take at least one electrical engineering class in college.

But after re-reading a few relevant chapters 5-10 times, supplementing with numerous websites and the realization that each component costs from $500-$2k, I started to get it.

PV solar panels are relatively straightforward.  They take in sun and create direct current (DC) which can be used to charge batteries.  One has a solar controller connecting them to a) prevent the reverse at night (batteries draining to dimly light the panels?) and b) efficiently charge the batteries.  This rig is big, so we put on 3 150w panels.  I'm already wondering if I should have put on 4 while I was at it.  When one drops sums like the complete system, an extra 5% for one more panel is looking to have been a cheap price...  Anywho.

Solar fills batteries, not your laptop's battery, the rig's batteries.  And we've been to the dry camping battery rodeo before (where we're all crowded under one bulb and it dims out to the smell of sulfuric acid rising from the battery well).  We needed more batteries.  Lots more.  6 will hopefully do it.  They certainly have weighed down the rig by close to 400lbs.  But now we have 600 amp hours (6 @ 220ah x 6v golf cart batteries wired in series/parallel yadda yadda), which is enough to run everything but the air conditioning from anywhere from 20 minutes (oven) to all night (nightlight).  I might even get to watch the Stanley Cup without the sound and smell of a diesel engine.

But first I need something to convert all of that wonderful DC power into alternating current (AC).  That item is called an inverter.  You may have had one in your car to charge your laptop or something like that.  We needed something bigger.  Something that would power an oven or hair dryer for more than 20 seconds before melting.  A "whole house" inverter.  I stretched the heck out of my RV repair guy's understanding, but sorted out a good solution which does exactly what I want.  When it's on, I can turn on any electrical appliance and it just works.  And I now understand the schematic drawings.

Throw in a few details like a charge controller monitor, alternator/charger monitor and so on and we're all set.  My electrical system is ready to rock.  As long as we stay in North America and/or want to boondock all the time.

Unfortunately, we're going to Europe.  They're on 220v AC (usually) rather than 110v AC of North America.  After still more research I tracked down a step-down/step-up converter.  With this, I can plug shore power into a 220v circuit and it should work.  At least that's what they tell me.  We'll be sure when we're in the UK and we plug it in for the first time.

The other system which our RV research lead us to think about was the drain system.  The massive 4" mummenshanz hoses standard to the US would not work.  We needed a macerator.  BOAT (break out another thou').  Now we can run a hose into anything we can reach with our hose.  I have to use it later today for the first time.  I'm frantically writing this because I fully expect that a post about my Sani-con experience is forthcoming.

And how about propane?  That standard is different (and more convenient) in Europe as well.  Instead of the screw on ACME connector that North Americans have, Europeans have 2-3 quick release methods for the Autogas system.  Fortunately, one can buy adapters.  So, I have two of those.  Hopefully it will work.  Other, older websites, suggested rather hacky solutions that I did not like the looks of.  Especially when it comes to pressurized delivery of flammables.

Diesel and water are the same as far as I know.  Still have to order a USA round sticker (to show country of origin).

Most other of the RV systems are fine with Europe.  We did the usual tuneup stuff, replaced two tires which were fine for 5k miles, but probably not another 10-15k.  Changed the oil.  Resealed the roof.  Replaced the panel which was torn open when I ran over a post on our first trip.  The usual drill.

And today we are on day 3 of our shakedown cruise to the Tetons.  The adventure has begun.

The Rig

Getting ready for a trip of this magnitude has involved months of thinking, quite a bit of research, a whole lot of gumption and some willingness to open the wallet.  Especially when it comes to the rig.

Our starting realization was that our 31' Class C was great for weekends, or even a week.  After all, we had an 8 week trip across the country in it years ago -- when the boys were 9 and Sarah was almost 4.  But now they're 13 (and going to be 14!) and 7 (going on 14!) respectively.  This was not going to work for a year.  I wasn't sure it was working on that fateful camping trip.

The boys needed a space to call their own, and being an RV, a space slightly larger than a coffin would have to do.  Similarly, breaking down the table every night so Sarah could now sleep somewhat uncomfortably (she's very tall for her age), wasn't going to work for a year.  We needed something with bunkbeds, but was a motorhome (having access to kitchen and bathroom while underway is awesome).

Initial thoughts lead us to the Winnebago Sightseer 35J.  It was a big step up from our current rig, fit the bill, and most importantly for a "value-conscious"/"investment-oriented" family like us, fit the budget.  I hovered on rvtrader and kept watching for good prices.  Being fairly common, there were a lot of options even without flying across the country.  I was developing a strategy and was ready to head out.

And then the news on Landshark hit.  Engine was in bad shape.  Should be replaced.  I had to get a second opinion.  And the guy from whom I got the second opinion mentioned diesels.  Great.  All my research went out the window.  And the choices were far fewer.  But there was one that was interesting.  A Tiffin down in LA.  It was bigger and fancier than I had ever planned, but it was only a bit more expensive than the gas models.  But after my experience with old Landshark and the fact that the Sightseer had the exact same engine (albeit newer and with the design flaw "fixed"), I figured it was worth a look.

A week later I was driving home the biggest RV I have ever driven -- a Tiffin Allegro 35QBA.

Step 1 of the Plan was complete.

The Thinking

The thought of our European sabbatical appeared when we were camping in old landshark.  It wasn't a great camping trip.  Heck, it wasn't even a good camping trip.  But like sailing, a bad day camping is better than the best day in the office.  At least in an RV.  I hate tents in the rain.  Even a mediocre day in the office is better than being soaking wet in a tent in the rain.  But I digress.

I woke up that beautiful Sunday morning, and I was feeling somewhat melancholy that my dream of sailing around the world with my kids while they were still of a certain age (ie, not teens) was over.  25000+ miles at 7 knots takes several years.  Heck, I wasn't sure we could pull off a decent trip back and forth from the Caribbean to Europe.  I didn't even think a tour of the Mediterranean was reasonable in that time frame.

Not in a boat.

Ah, but at 100km/hr, one can see a lot.  A lot more than at 7 knots.  And one can get inland.  True, going to downtown Rome isn't going to happen, but it wasn't going to happen in a cruising catamaran either.  Anchoring isn't that much pricier on land, and there often are more options.  And if anyone gets really annoying, there is the option to pull off the road and take a walk rather than put someone adrift in the dingy.

Over coffee that morning I casually mentioned homeschooling the kids for a year living in an RV to Martha.  There was a combined look of horror, mixed with a smattering of panic but yet a tiny sparkle in her eye.  At first I suggested touring the US, Canada and Mexico (we've already been to all of them in Landshark the former).  Some doubt began to cloud the sparkle.  Then I hit her with the big one, "I bet we could even ship an RV to Europe."  As I pointed out to her, when we were in Spain a few years ago, there was a Class A RV near the ferry to Morocco.  (Admittedly I did not remind her that it it was the smallest Class A I have ever seen -- 26' at most.  One doesn't make an omlette w/o breaking some eggs.)  The continued spark in her eye showed me this was a caper worthy of followup.  Or at least some research.

Within 20 minutes after getting home from the camping trip, we both met in the kitchen and declared that the Scherer Family / some family in Washington did it.  And not only did they do it, they did it in a Sightseer 35J which is exactly the RV I had been thinking would be perfect for our family.  We've been Winnebago fans, have been to the factory.  We haven't joined the club or done a rally, but we certainly have done 6 of the proverbial 9 yards.  The next several hours filled in much more research and gave us the broad strokes of a plan.

  • Buy an RV
  • Outfit it
  • Rent out the house
  • Go

The details could be filled in later.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

An American RV in Paris

Landshark "the concept" has a whole new lease on life.  Not the old Landshark.  That one has been sold after getting a whole "new to her" engine to replace the one that blew a sparkplug, sucked something into a valve and effectively made it unsellable according to California law.  Of course, I didn't know all that before we bought new Landshark, or I might have held off.  But as they say, in for a dime in for a dollar.  Or in the world of RVs, in for 20k, in for another 20k.

We have a whole new-to-us rig (and much more than 20k entry point *shudder*).  A lovely 36' Tiffin Allegro QBH.  It has bunk beds, thus the boys have their private domains for our next adventure.  And now Sarah gets to sleep on the couch instead of clearing the table.  Also, it seems to double in size when the slides are opened up.  Sure, it doesn't have much storage (I think it has been weighted down a bit too much for the chassis, so in an effort to minimize the weight people add to it, they skimped on storage), but that's OK.  It is a Class A RV weighing in loaded close to (and hopefully not more than) 24,000 lbs and standing a proud 12'6".  Driving past Semi's I look down on the other driver.  I have yet to be passed by anyone who is sitting higher in the air than me.   Yes, tunnels can be alarming.  So can construction.  And trees.  But I have a truckers GPS and faith in our ability to find some fun adventures while sleeping comfortably.

Speaking of, the biggest adventure lies in our very near future.  We've rented our house out, I've given notice, Martha soon will give notice and we're pulling the kids out of school to go on a year of homeschooling adventure.  And if homeschooling for a year in an RV doesn't sound like enough, we've decided to ship Landshark to Europe.

Yes, Europe.

Yes, it is an American RV.

No, we haven't lost it.

We've found at least 1 other family on the internet who has traveled with similarly sized RVs apparently successfully (the Scherer family sold the RV after a full year and returned to Washington).  We've found private label books that specialize in cataloging "pitches" (RV sites) which can hold a 24'+ RV.  And it does point out the ones will hold the size we have.  I comfort myself with the fact that there are people who have 45' RVs in Europe.  They don't blog, but they exist.  At least in rumor.  Or perhaps as cautionary tale.

Our plan is to drive across the country, load it on a roll-on, roll-off ship (RORO, not Scooby saying Ruh-Roh), wait 3-4 weeks and unload it in Southampton, UK.  After that, things get a little vague.  But we know that we can move back into our house in August 2014.

That's the plan, and we're doing it.  More about how we've outfitted Landshark and our shakedown cruise to the Tetons tomorrow.  Or maybe just later tonight.