Monday, January 26, 2015

Customer Service
By Michael
LA PAZ, MEXICO


Riding Del Viento's bow wave, or
just curious about us? We never get
tired of seeing them.
We’re coming up on our four-year anniversary of leaving D.C. to go voyaging with our kids. During that time, we’ve bought a whole lot of marine-related gear for our boat. Most of that gear has stood up to the rigors of daily use by four people living aboard and cruising full time. Some of that gear has failed to perform in some way and we’ve had to deal with the manufacturer to resolve issues. This post is about the latter.

This is my report, based only on our experience, of how each of the manufacturers we've had to contact have responded to our post-purchase complaints and inquiries. I think this is important because despite the systems redundancy we have aboard, it's always difficult to lose a piece of gear and challenging to coordinate shipping and such from out-of-country. In those cases, the service provided by a manufacturer can make all the difference. Take from my report what you will. The list is ordered alphabetically.
 
Alpenglow: Twice we’ve bought LED lights from this small, Montana-based manufacturer. We now have nine aboard and love them. For one purchase, we were out-of-country and Alpenglow willingly jumped through hoops to get them to us with minimal shipping and customs charges. On another occasion, they spent an inordinate amount of time emailing back and forth to help me brainstorm installation and configuration ideas. I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase from them again, but will note that the owners of this mom-and-pop company have since sold the business to go cruising.
 
Caframo: There were no cabin fans installed when we bought our boat. We did our due diligence before deciding on the Caframo Bora fans. On a couple occasions since buying them, the plastic base mounts they attach to have broken. The first time, I contacted Caframo via email and they sent a couple replacements at no charge. More recently, when another broke, I asked them to send me three and they again did so without question, at no charge.

Imtra: Our Lofrans Cayman horizontal windlass is circa 1970s. When we bought the boat, the previous owner reported that the chain would skip over the gypsy sometimes, whether deploying the anchor or retrieving. He was right, and it was plain to see why: the thing was mounted on deck, well below the height of the chain roller. This meant that the inside angle, measured from where the chain contacts the gypsy to where it rolls off it, was fewer than the 90 degrees specified by the manufacturer. I installed a 6-inch-high pad beneath the windlass and lowered our bow roller when we had a second one built. This helped, but only a bit. When I talked to Imtra (the U.S. rep for Lofrans), they forwarded pics to some of the old timers in Europe and helped us to identify our windlass and to solve the problem. They sent me a new gypsy to try (they weren’t sure it would fit our old model, nor that it was the problem) and that ended our problem (we paid for the gypsy, dearly). Imtra was unfailingly cooperative and helpful.

Polyform: This is a fender manufacturer. When ours died because of sun exposure, I contacted Polyform. I wasn't sure how old they were, but I wondered whether they offered a lifetime warranty. They asked for a bunch of photos of the UV-damaged fenders and told me they were more than 20 years old (I don't doubt this, they came with the boat). But they said they would ship us new ones for wholesale (huge
 
Portland Pudgy: This is the manufacturer of our exquisitely engineered combination polyethylene hard dinghy and life boat. When the lanyard eye on one of our access ports broke, this small Maine-based company sent us a new one at our request, at no charge.
Raymarine: When our handheld instrument repeater and autopilot remote failed out-of-the-blue, they asked us to send it in. After waiting for a long time and hearing nothing, I finally tried contacting them again. It took a lot of time and several emails for them to confirm they’d sent a replacement and to tell me when they sent it and who signed for it. I ultimately determined that they’d indeed sent us a replacement device, at no charge, but that our mail forwarding service provider (St. Brendan’s Isle) had misplaced it, never letting us know it was there. They weren’t the best communicators, but I can’t complain about the results.

Scepter: This is a Canadian manufacturer of plastic jerry cans. I contacted them via email when our flexible spouts began to fail. They asked for photos and then agreed to send us new ones free of charge. They were responsive and easy to deal with.
 
Farallon Electronics: This isn’t a manufacturer, but is a small, California-based rep for SCS, the German manufacturer of the PACTOR modem. The people in this tiny shop are PACTOR gurus and, like Imtra, have bent over backward to help us learn about and resolve issues with an old PACTOR II we bought from another cruiser.

Standard Horizon: Months before we left to go cruising, we bought direct from Standard Horizon their Matrix AIS-enabled VHF radio at the Annapolis boat show. It stayed packed away in the box for another year or so, when we finally installed it. It worked great. Then, in 2012, we bought the RAM3 remote mic for our cockpit. It worked great—until it didn’t. This past summer, the remote started to fail, acting weird. I talked to Standard Horizon and they said the problem was likely in our main radio, a non-owner-serviceable fuse. They’d seen this before. Then, before I could send it in (we’re in Mexico), the symptoms changed completely—the remote went dead as a doornail, and this despite my being able to measure voltage at the socket it plugs into. The house radio continued to work fine. At great expense and inconvenience, I decided to take a chance and send only the remote, so that we wouldn’t lose our house radio. Bingo, they got the remote, confirmed it was dead, fixed it at no charge, bench tested it, and sent it back. When I got it back, it was still completely inoperable.

“You must have a problem in your radio, send them both in.”

“Will you pay for shipping this time?”

They answered no. I sent both units in. They found a problem with the radio (the fuse and a transistor blown, apparently caused by connecting or disconnecting the remote while there is power going to the main radio).
 
They charged me to repair the radio (it was out of warranty, but I protested as the problem seems like a design defect and they lowered the repair charge from $65 to $35 and paid for the return shipping).

All along, communication was very good and very responsive.

Torqeedo: We love our German-made electric outboard. When it failed in Alaska, I contacted Torqeedo USA and they were great communicators. Based on my description of the problem, they offered right away that it was a manufacturing defect (a bearing case that was attached with glue that didn’t mate well with the solvent they used to clean the area first). They asked me to send it in. I asked if they would pay for shipping. They said no. I knew we’d arrive in Sitka in a couple weeks and could receive the package then. They told me when I’d have to get the motor to them in time for them to receive it, repair it, and get it to Sitka. I paid $95 dollars to send it to them. They confirmed receipt of the motor and then the communication withered until it died altogether. After a week in Sitka, walking to the post office every day and trying to reach Torqeedo, we sailed away without our outboard. Weeks later, when we got back in touch and got our outboard sent to us in Port Angeles, WA, it arrived with the plastic skeg busted off. They made me send pictures before they’d replace it, but they did send a replacement. The outboard has worked fine since. But in Mexico, when the Torqeedo-branded solar panel began to fail, I contacted them again. They were again excellent communicators, helping me to diagnose the likely problem. I sent in the panel and they sent a replacement, quickly and at no charge. The performance of the replacement panel makes it clear that the original was defective from day one.
 
--MR

This is a picture going back to our last week in San Diego
when we were returning to Mexico in December 2013, with
our broken boom. During that time we stopped to tour the
Taylor guitar factory and this was the bathroom door.
 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Alfonsina's
By Michael
LA PAZ, MEXICO


It was so dark and pretty before moonrise
out there. There is nothing like a desert
night sky. I mean, It's great at sea too, in
that you're also away from light,
but the fact that the water is reflective
means it doesn't feel quite as dark. And
the fact that you're moving doesn't lend
the stillness appropriate to a night sky.
Of course, I took this from shore, with
my 50mm prime and the shutter open
for about 20 seconds.
There are places I’ve been, years ago, that no longer exist, will never again exist. They’re now boarded up, over-run, paved over, or washed away. What I saw and experienced in these places can no longer be obtained or recreated. They weren’t necessarily special places in their own right, and nothing necessarily notable happened there. But now, because those places are no more, my memories of them as they were, are sacrosanct.

“How long have you been coming here?”

“1985.”

“Yeah, me too! So you remember how it used to be?”

“I do!”

“It’ll never be like that again.”

“Nope.”

Exploring Baja this year, a place of my youth, I recently realized the extent to which I feel defined by past experiences, or maybe the extent to which I want to be defined by past experiences.

A couple months ago, we sailed into Bahia de Gonzaga, up in the Northern Sea. I imagined it would be little changed from how I remembered it from my last visit, about 15 years ago. Alfonsina’s Resort is in the northern part of the bay, just south of Punta Willard. It’s an isolated part of the world, accessible primarily to private pilots and off-road motorcyclists. Resort is a misnomer, as the place is little more than a road house for adventurers (minus the road) constructed of rough rock walls, sheets of tacked-on plywood, and tin and palm frond roofing. The floor is a mosaic of broken tiles and electricity comes at the expense of the drone of a small diesel generator. My fondest memories are of eating huevos rancheros on chipped plates and washing it down with a cold beer as they day began to heat up.

Alfonsina and her sons are a hearty cast, having made axel-breaking excursions down here since at least the 1960s. There is always cold beer and fresh tortillas available in the dining room. There is also fuel for sale, the lifeblood of the travelers who make it here.

Aboard Del Viento this summer, we dropped the hook in front of the tiny rock-and-cement structure I remember. It was immediately clear things had changed. Everything I remembered was there, but diminished by the structures built up around them. Resort no longer seemed like a misnomer.

We went ashore for huevos rancheros—they weren’t like I remembered them, and these plates weren’t chipped. I wore a 20-year-old Alfonsina's shirt I owned and when nobody commented, I pointed it out to the waiter.

“Estaba aqui viente-cinco anos pasado.” I said, letting him know that I know what’s what. He smiled politely, as if to indulge me. He said he’d worked here for three years.

“Como esta Alfonsina?” I asked, as though she and I were good friends, “Ella esta aqui?”

He told me she’d died a while back.

“Lo siento.” I inquired about her eldest son.

He wasn't here this month, the waiter told me. I could tell he was eager for us to order.

While we ate, I spotted a coyote less than fifty feet from where we sat. I pointed him out to Windy and the girls and we watched him forage tentatively. Then a full-sized Toyota Tundra pickup truck roared up and parked. The coyote fled. A clean older couple got out of the truck and took a table inside. They greeted us warmly as they passed. “Did you see that coyote?”

I grunted. Their clothes looked pressed, their hair was neat. This dining room used to seat only the hearty, the dusty, dirty adventurous souls who’d made it here. How did this good-smelling couple even get here?

After a breakfast that cost three times what it used to, we walked along the old runway, surveying the improvements to all the cabins people had built along the beach. Everything was too spiffy. Minutes later, the couple in the truck passed slowly by us, stopped, and backed up.

“Hey, we’re gonna take a drive down to Punta Final across the bay, you guys feel like going for a ride?”

It was the kind of invitation people in remote places extend to each other. I looked at Windy and the girls, “Sure, we’d love to,” I said.

“Climb in.”

Despite the many trips I’d made here over the years, I’d never been to the other side of the bay. I felt a bit guilty though, accepting this invitation from a stranger I’d just derided in my head. As we drove, I learned a shocking truth. Alfonsina’s was no longer the dusty outpost from my youth because a paved road had just been completed that connects it to San Felipe, to the north. A journey that used to take a dozen or more hours in an off-road vehicle, now could be done in less than two hours, in a Honda Civic. Where the road ended at Alfonsina’s, there was now a Pemex station and a grocery store. I felt depressed.

“This is how a lot of people drive roads like this,” said our clean companion behind the wheel. “But by speeding up like this…” I held on defensively to the seatback in front of me and looked over to notice whether the girls were buckled in. “….and take the corners like this…” Ooh—wait, that was nice, easy.

“Ivan’s done a lot of driving on these roads,” the coiffed woman in the passenger seat said.

Ivan dug through the center console as we raced down the rough dirt road. “Here, take one of these.”

He handed back a media sheet with dramatic photos and stats.

“You’re Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart? I’ve heard of you.”

“Yep.”

Stewart’s won the Baja 1000 and several other desert races a bunch of times, he’s a legend in that circle. I relaxed my grip on the seatback.

“So you’ve been down here before, I mean, you know Alfonsina’s from before the road was built?”

He laughed. This was the only prompt needed to get the stories pouring out of Ivan.  He knows everyone, has a house up the road. He's been coming here since the 60s, loving it. It was a fast trip to Punta Final and back.

Things change down here and they’ll continue to change. But there remains much left to explore and memories to be made by new generations, like my daughters. I got out of Ivan’s big truck no longer feeling so badly about it all.

We waved goodbye, my girls’ first memories of this particular place taking root: coyotes, interesting characters, not-so-bad huevos rancheros, and flying down rough roads with grace and precision.

--MR
 
Windy and the girls with Ivan and Linda.
 
Another night sky pic. This I took shortly before
moonrise. The light is the navigation light on the
point. Check out the clouds with the stars. 
 
Frances looking out over Bahia Willard, Del Viento at anchor.
 
 
 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Feliz Tortugas
By Michael
LA PAZ, MEXICO


Eleanor urging her guy on. "Don't help
him," we said, over and over.
Back in D.C., for Eleanor’s fourth Christmas (2006), we began a family tradition. Christmas Eve, she and I baked a ton of cookies and made small parcels of them. On Christmas Day we walked them around our neighborhood. I waited on the sidewalk while Eleanor scrambled up the steps to friends’ porches, knocked on doors, and handed over ribbon-wrapped bundles.

That year, we spread butter, sugar, chocolate, and flour joy to only about a half-dozen homes, all good friends. The following year, we hit a few more houses, to include people we’d only ever waved to. By 2010, Frances had joined our team and we were a cookie-making machine, delivering over two dozen cookie parcels to friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. It was like trick-or-treating in reverse and the girls loved it.

We haven’t stopped since starting cruising. For Christmases in La Cruz, Victoria, Puerto Magdalena, and La Paz, our small galley has turned out large numbers of cookies to pass on. This year we made parcels of cranberry-pecan shortbread cookies and banana bread. We hit some neighboring boats in the anchorage; a couple stranded with a bad dinghy motor; and the security personnel we found among three marinas, the navy housing complex, and the Magote (a developed strip of land across the narrow bay from the city)—all the latter of whom must have drawn the short straw when it came to December days off.

At 5:00, we planned to host a Christmas dinner aboard Del Viento with our friends aboard Manakai, Norma and Christian. (They’re vegan, so we’re talking about a margarine and wheat gluten bonanza.) But when we got back to the boat after delivering cookies, there was an email from our friends who live on the Magote,. “Take the five o’clock ferry and meet us on the beach, we’re releasing turtles today.”

We’ve never done this and couldn’t believe our luck. Our hopes had been dashed for this year, there’d been no eggs laid there since the hurricane and nobody expected any. We shut off the stove, stopped dinner prep, and called Norma and Christian on the VHF.

“Can you stave off your hunger for a couple hours longer, in favor of doing something really cool?”

And it was cool. The little guys are determined, dragging their walnut-sized shells along the sand and into little wavelets that often flipped them onto their backs and sent them another foot or two back up the beach. But they’d regain their footing and plod back into the sea. Once past the tiny breakers, they’d paddle along with a bit more speed, holding their little heads up out of the water, vertically. They looked like little thumbs bobbing out to sea.

There was only a scant twenty to release and a half-hour after they were all gone, after the sun had set, we combed the beach with a flashlight and found five who’d been washed back ashore. They seemed spent, so the girls waded out over the bar to their waists, past the biggest surf, and started them swimming again. Chances are, maybe one out of this entire bunch will make it to adulthood. I hope your new year is better.

¡Prospero Año Nuevo!

--MR
Windy holding a little guy before his release.
 
 
Looking for stragglers after sunset.
 

Frances made the banana bread entirely on her own.
(photo courtesy Frances Robertson)
 
 

A small bundle of shortbread being readied.
(photo courtesy Frances Robertson)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Problem Solved
By Michael
LA PAZ, MEXICO


Frances jumping off a rock this summer.
Looking at it across the anchorage from
Del Viento, I knew the rock appeared
deceptively small and I confidently
bet both girls 100 pesos each that they
wouldn't do it--I wouldn't have done
it at their age. But neither hesitated
and I lost about a case of beer's worth
of pesos. But I was sure proud.
I can’t think of any place more suited than a cruising sailboat to expose the differences between people, in terms of how they think.
 
Take Windy and I. I’m a quick and efficient problem assessor and solver (or I wisely realize when a problem doesn’t need solving) and can be driven to madness by Windy, whose approach can only be characterized as a painfully slow and irrational consideration of every conceivable angle before reaching a conclusion.

“There’s diesel in our fresh water.”

She said this about six weeks ago. I wrote about it here, what I knew then.

“How did it get in there?” she asked.

“I don’t know, must have come from a contaminated bottle that we dumped in.”

“It must have?”

“Sure, no other way it could have gotten in.”

Plain and simple, problem solved, not an open question that has to be analyzed for weeks, certainly not one that warrants repeated, frustratingly irrelevant questions to your husband about the boat’s fresh water system and how he plumbed it when he installed the new tanks back in La Cruz three years ago…okay, surely you see where I’m going with this.

“I figured it out.” She announced recently.

“Figured what out?”

“I know how the diesel got into our water tanks.”

“Not from contaminated water bottles in Bahia de Los Angeles?”

“Nope.”

And she’s right, it’s not from contaminated water bottles.

So here is the fount of the problem,
so to speak. Unlike a house, galley
sinks often feature a bunch of spigots,
some more than us. The main one
that looks like the one in your
house, handles all the fresh water,
whether pressure or pumped,
but no simultaneously. The smaller
tap in front of it is for pumped
salt water, that we can use to wash
dishes. And the little guy flush to
the sink behind it, that's our new
water tank vent.
Apparently, the fresh water tank vent hose that I’d left open to the bilge—the extra-long hose that I planned to someday plumb to the galley sink—had fallen into the bilge. (Of course, the bilge that is perpetually wet from the vent-line overflow that happens every time we fill the water tanks.)

So?

So, our fresh water galley gusher foot pump (we have two of them, one for fresh, one for salt) failed this summer and after rebuilding it and when I began to reinstall it, I realized that the screw holes in the wood base inside the cabinet on which it’s mounted, were worn, stripped. The bigger screw I then used in one of the holes busted the plastic mounting base of the pump.

So we switched to pressure water until we could get it fixed. (We’d not used pressure water in a year.)

So?

So when the pressure water pump drew from a tank with the vent line submerged in bilge water, it created enough of a vacuum to suck that bilge water into our water tanks. (The foot pumps never created such a strong vacuum.)

And there is diesel in your bilge?

No, but there was—traces that wept out of a fitting on top of that tank when we last super-filled it this summer. But now it’s in our fresh water tanks.

The good news is that after weeks of tank cleaning (vinegar, rubbing alcohol, dish soap), engine running (it’s in the hot water heater too), and incredibly profligate water use, I’m finally drinking from our tap (Windy and the girls aren’t there yet, but soon, very soon).

--MR

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Day Got Better
By Michael
LA PAZ, MEXICO


A couple days ago I was moved by a story a fellow cruising parent (and colleague) posted on her blog.

On November 24, Behan Gifford posted a picture on Facebook of a small Burmese boy riding the scooter one of her kids had given him. The picture was taken in the Satun, Thailand boatyard where Behan’s boat is hauled and where this boy and many other kids live with their families in modest workers’ dormitories.

Six days later, the same picture was on her blog with a PayPal button and her pitch to raise money to buy more scooters for more of the boatyard kids. Three days after that, an astounding $1,400 dollars had been raised and Behan went shopping.

Read this post to learn what happened next and then—only then—watch the following video made by the crew of Esper, another cruising boat in the same yard. It’ll make your day. (Note: the video is 17 minutes long and starts with the story I'm writing about, but then features a several-minute update on their boat work. Fast-forward through this for now because most of the gifting story is afterward.)
 


Behan’s story highlights what a small world this is, and perhaps a benefit of it shrinking. Her's is an example of how a big impact can be made and simultaneously worked into our perversely busy cruising lives.

--MR
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