Sunday, May 22, 2016

Switching Switches: Rule to Johnson
By Michael

This is our set up, pulled out of the bilge.
Note the black rectangle beside the lower
pump. That's our new switch.
Except when a boat is sinking, there’s no need for a functional electric bilge pump. It’s one of several pieces of equipment on board that we tend to and will likely never depend on. But still, common sense tells us it’s necessary to have a pump that’s ready to save the boat when things unexpectedly go south.

For five years our primary, automatic electric bilge pump has not always been ready to save our boat. When I last realized it was (once again) not working, it was days before we left for California, leaving Del Viento afloat and on her own for three months to face cyclones without a working primary bilge pump. As if the stress of leaving her wasn’t enough.

I’ve been a good Rule customer. Soon after I moved aboard, I bought a new Rule pump and float switch for the first Del Viento. That was 23 years ago. Since that time, I’ve owned a lot of Rule pumps and switches.

When we moved aboard this Del Viento, I bought a monster of a bilge pump, a 4000-GPH Rule with a snazzy built-in switch. Before we solved the problem of our leaking freshwater tanks, our new pump moved many gallons of water. I was pleased with myself. I’d spent a lot of money on that pump, but I could tell it was going to be money well spent, we self-insure.

Two months later, before we’d even left Puerto Vallarta, my pump died. I took it apart. The circuit board inside, part of the integrated switch, had been sitting and corroding in bilge water. It looked like water had entered the case via the wiring harness. West Marine refunded my money.

I went back to old school, replaced the fancy, failed pump with a 2500-GPH pump and separate float switch, same set-up for primary and secondary.

The pump failed after about 18 months. I replaced it. The float switch failed after another few months. I replaced it too. I stuck with Rule.

Things have been okay since then, a little over 2 years.

Until I tested the pump before we left Del Viento in Tonga. The float switch was the failure point, again.

I shopped for a replacement while we were away. I decided to steer clear of Rule. There are other manufacturers. I learned that Johnson offers a 3-year warranty on their non-mechanical bilge pump switches. Rule offers only a 1-year warranty. That was enough for me.

The new switch is a small black box. It senses water and completes the circuit. I can’t say whether it will prove itself over time, I can only point to the warranty.

In Tonga I told another cruiser about our Rule float switch failure.

“Ha! I think we’ve got three backups of those aboard, we’ve gone through so many.”

I decided to find out why my switch failed.

In short, water ingress. I don’t know from where. Check out the photos.

I took the float arm off the base. So far so good. It was
clear that as the arm rises, it rotates the axle on the base
and triggers a switch inside.

It was not easy to pry apart the float arm. Once I did,
dry as a bone inside, just air.

Prying to the two halves of the base apart was difficult too.
Once I was successful, water poured out. Note the black
wire detached where it corroded. Interestingly, the axle turns
a cam that closes something that looks like the points found
under the distributor caps of old cars. Frustratingly, there is
no excuse for not making this hardware water-tight, like forever.
If we can send a man to the moon...
Again, I suspect the wiring harness is the culprit.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pig on a Pier
By Michael

Frances and Eleanor, my little sea stars.
A string of fronts had delivered nothing but wind and rain, and this morning dawned clear and still. The sun was low and the colors were rich and the water reflected it all. I had a mundane chore to complete: get parts to the welder, at the north end of town.

I dinghied past the small boat wharf and pulled up to a concrete pier closer to my destination. “Mālō e lelei” I said smiling at the Tongans offloading a bright yellow boat. I pointed to their boat and then to my yellow dinghy. “They’re like older and younger siblings.”

“Be careful,” a man told me, pointing to the pier I was tying up to. “It’s very slippery.”

Mālō ‘aupito” I said before climbing gingerly from the dinghy, parts in one hand. The surface, submerged at low tide, was covered in black algae. In my flip-flops, it was like walking on an icy, pitched roof. But the pier is stepped and I was sure footed on the dry concrete of the next level.

About an hour passed before I returned to the pier. Nobody was around, but ahead, sitting on the top of the steps before my dinghy, was a chainsaw and something in a dark burlap bag, the size of a large carry-on suitcase. I noticed the bag move. I saw a pink and white snout poke out a hole in the bag.

Now, you have to understand that pigs are everywhere in Tonga. I’ve never seen one tied up or in a pen, they just roam. Huge pigs root around in any available patch of dirt around town. Juvenile pigs surround them. At night they knock down trash cans like dogs. Mother pigs cross the streets in front of cars and tiny pink piglets run after them, a scene that never fails to delight the girls. Yet, the pigs are fearful of humans. You can’t summon one and if you move towards them, they scatter like hens.

Here we're descending a portion of 178
steep steps from the highest point in Vava'u.
So there is a snout poking from the wiggling bag 20 feet in front of me. I stop. Please don’t keep moving. The pig knows I’m close, it’s getting more agitated. Please stop. I glance around, there is nobody in sight. The bag is moving. No, no, no. It goes over the edge, falling two feet onto the next level. Stop, stop! I run forward. It continues wriggling, off the pier, into the water. I race down the stairs to the next level, eyes on the pig in the bag in the water. There is nothing for my feet to grab and I’m on my back, sliding, scrambling, toward the water. I stop.

Now I’m desperate to save a drowning pig, but just to get across to him on this slick surface, I’ve got to move at the speed of an astronaut on the moon. When I can finally get a fistful of burlap bag, the pig is still struggling, but I’m overwhelmed by how big and heavy it is. I lower my center of gravity and try and wedge a foot so I can reach down with both hands. The bag is ripping where I’m pulling and now a leg pops out of another hole. Like the 100-pound wife who lifts the family car to save her pinned husband, I somehow managed to get the pig onto the pier with me. I’m crouched, streaked with algae-slime, and holding a shredding bag filled with a panting, angry, and terrified pig. There is still nobody in sight.

I hear a loud whistle and lift my head. A fisherman in the small boat wharf 200 feet away is aware of my plight. He is yelling urgent Tongan to someone I can’t see. He turns and waves to me. I nod lamely.

It was another minute before the young Tongan guy rushed up to relieve me of the pig. In that time, the pig and I both calmed. I’d saved his life, but I knew there was only one reason he was in the burlap bag. By tonight he’d be the main course of a family’s feast. Our brief adventure would be his final act.


The girls at the overlook. That's Neiafu, center left in the photo.
Del Viento is someplace on a mooring in front.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

For You?
By Michael

This guy is shown about actual size.
The girls and I went hiking into the
dense vegetation around our
anchorage and saw these guys
everywhere we looked, in webs
that spanned 8 feet in some
cases. I think they're just garden
spiders, but they're enormous.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about writing something in this space to inject a bit of perspective I feared was lacking. I post the prettiest pictures from our lives afloat and I really don’t have anything bad to say about how we’re living. The four of us enjoy ample time without distraction. We’re learning and discovering things together, a unique aspect of perpetual family travel. After nearly five years, there’s not much I would change.

The problem is that I’m a cheerleader for a way of life that I know is absolutely not for everyone.

We regularly get emails from excited, prospective cruisers and cruising families. On one hand, I’m excited for each of them. On the other hand, I can’t help but think at the same time of all the cruising couples and families we know or have heard about who have poured a fortune into a boat and radically changed their lives to take the plunge into the voyaging life, only to abandon their dream a short time later, for one reason or another.

Should I more loudly broadcast the challenges that impact all cruisers, impacting some to a degree that makes cruising untenable?

I can assure you that cruising is scary at times (and very scary, we nearly lost Del Viento one night, a couple years back). I am aware of cruisers who have been injured and some who have lost their lives. I can warn you that living in close quarters is more togetherness than some will want. I know of relationships, of marriages, that could not withstand the stresses of life aboard. I can promise you that cruising will not be like your last Caribbean charter, that you’ll work like a pioneer to meet basic needs. That getting the water, food, and fuel aboard might take days and there’s a good chance you will not enjoy the chore. That it’s you who will fix the stuff when it breaks. And even if you install all the bells and whistles on your boat, you won’t come close to replacing the land-based creature comforts and conveniences you’ve taken for granted all your life. One or more of your crew will likely and often get seasick. I can point to the inherent risks to crossing oceans and living away from immediate access to comprehensive medical care. Of the cost of living apart from extended family and close friends.

The reasons a voyaging life doesn’t work for many are varied and personal. In the end, there is no litmus test for determining what kind of experience anyone is going to have out here or how they’re going to respond to it. Even if I knew a person very well, I don’t think I could accurately appraise their suitability to living the way we do. I think I would be surprised by some I’d think were obvious land lubbers, and I think I would be equally surprised by some I’d be sure where better suited. I’ve just met too many different people out here, from all walks of life, all nationalities, all shapes and sizes, with no discernable common thread. I can’t articulate the reasons it works for us and others. Dumb luck plays a role.

I think the best anyone can do is to respond to their interests. If exploring this planet by boat appeals to you and your crew, if managing the risks and confronting the hardships seem more like a challenge than a bad idea, and if you’re physically and financially able to make this dream happen, go. Because the destinations are indeed pretty, the adventures are grand, and the gifts unexpected. Go because life is short. And pursuing your dreams, even at the risk of learning they weren’t your dreams, is the surest way to feel alive.

My 30th high school reunion is this year and I know that if I was somehow able to attend, and if everyone there was fit, attractive, and bought a new Porsche every year, I would still feel like the luckiest guy in the room. I took a risk to learn that.

This is where we landed, scrambling up this volcanic-rock shore
to get into what we learned was spider land. I wanted to get a
better view up above for some picture taking, but we could
not get a sightline out of the dense growth.

Del Viento in the afternoon sun of Port Mourelle.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Prickling at PFDs
By Michael

The contentious photo.
"In spite of all the efforts of the Power Squadrons, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, state and local boating safety courses, etc., sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets. In ‘Sailing into Paradise’ (Feb. 2016), there is a large picture of a child hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard….Is there a chance [Cruising World] editors could exert at least a little influence to encourage those submitting…articles to show people behaving responsibly?"

That is an excerpt of a letter to the editor of Cruising World, published in the April 2016 issue. The child “hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard” is my daughter.

My first reaction is to assure the letter writer that I’m on their side, that I agree how important it is to ensure the safety of kids around water and to set a good example.

But I’m not on the letter writer’s side. I’m not even sympathetic to their sentiment.

On what basis can the letter writer assert that this photo is evidence that, “sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets?” I’ve met a lot of sailors—sailor parents in particular—and they’ve never seemed to me to be a bunch oblivious to the risks of children not wearing life jackets. But nor have I met any sailors who think those risks are fixed and omnipresent. Risks rise and fall with changes in conditions. Far from being oblivious to risk, we sailing parents are constantly gauging risk as conditions around us change. When we decide the risk of not wearing a life jacket is too high, we put one on and request our kids put theirs on.

Cruising World published the full-page photo of my daughter on the rail because it’s an awesome photo, capturing a happy moment of our life under sail. The letter writer can allege that we are not “behaving responsibly” and that is fine. The letter writer may have asked their daughter to don a vest in the same circumstances; that’s the letter writer’s prerogative. But I would ask the letter writer to direct his objection to me. I’d be happy to explain our rationale, in this particular instance, for not requesting Eleanor wear a vest. But to ask the Cruising World editors to engineer photo submissions so that the magazine might present a world in which all kids are in vests at all appropriate times…times deemed appropriate by whom?...accomplishes what?

We take the safety of our kids (and ourselves) very seriously. We are hyper-aware of the danger posed by a man-overboard scenario. We sometimes sail in rough conditions on the open ocean in pitch darkness where we know that the likelihood of recovering any member of our family crew who goes overboard, is close to zero. We are aware of the danger inherent even in returning to the boat by dinghy when the tidal flow is strong, when it’s dark, when it’s rough, when the water is very cold. We address the risks that are a part of our cruising lives with an arsenal of tools and strategies, life vests being only one.

Situations are complex, people are complex. Do I wear a seatbelt while driving and make sure my kids are buckled up too? Yep. But might I have last year let my kid sit on my lap, unbelted, so she could steer while we drove down an empty dirt desert road in Mexico at 15 mph? Yep. And allowing her to do that was probably just as responsible as allowing the same girl to sit on that rail that day without a life vest. How responsible? You’re welcome to decide that for yourself. But please let us not advocate a world where broad-brush edicts and assertions take the place of judgment and personal responsibility.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Still in the Danger Season
By Michael

The international terminal at Nadi, Fiji is filled
with orchids, hundreds of individual pots.
That's Frances in the background.
We’re back in Tonga, back home aboard Del Viento. Our 38-year-old girl held up in our absence. Alone on a mooring, she weathered two cyclones (Ula and Winston). The only damage she sustained was to the man-overboard pole which we keep mounted in a bracket on the backstay. How we completely stripped our boat bare and forgot to remove that pole is beyond me, though I remember we were scrambling in the days leading up to departure. Anyway, that pole snapped in half. We have both pieces though, so I will try to repair it. 

For the past 10 days we’ve been working to put Del Viento back together. I’m reminded that breaking camp is easier than setting camp. Also, when you’ve not broken camp in years, doing so exposes faults that are easy to ignore in the course of packing up, but have to be dealt with upon next setting up. So, that’s what we’re dealing with now: the dodger zippers and snaps that failed upon tear-down, the frozen shackles that had to be cut off our back-up anchor rode so we could use that rode as secondary attachment points to our mooring, the aluminum solar panel bracket that broke during dissassembly. Also, we’re tackling jobs that we put off long ago, but won’t allow ourselves to ignore now, not when the boat is bare and getting to everything is easier than ever. So, that 1-inch Starboard I bought in Alaska to replace the rotten teak pads beneath our davits? That’s moved to the top of the list. Having someone come aboard the boat to weld struts to attach to the stainless steel arch that supports 3 solar panels? Scheduled.

We’re cleaning out lockers that are normally hard to empty and access. We’re having all kinds of canvas work done. I need to retrieve our primary anchor and 300 feet of chain from the bottom, where we secured them to our mooring before departure. Next week we’ll go collect our dinghy and kayaks from the island where we left them. Eleanor has to change the oil. There is still a lot of mold to deal with. All the while we’re monitoring nearby cyclones (two so far) that remind us we’re still in the danger season here.

It doesn’t sound much like cruising, does it? Well, it is and we’ve no complaints. We’re in Tonga for goodness sake. We are working together like a team, like a family. We’re all healthy. My girls are happy. We’re having lively conversations about where we’ll head next. It doesn’t get much better. I was reminded today that it was a year ago that we left Mexico. It seems to all of us (and not in a bad way)  like at least two years have passed.


Still the Nadi terminal. We were there, like this, for 11 hours.
There are worse terminals to spend 11 hours.

Home! 45 hours after leaving SFO--though that includes 1 night in
a Nukualofa hotel.
Reunited for beers with good friends in Neiafu, this was taken
before we even got back to the boat, about 1/4 mile away.
Tina is in the black shirt, her husband Shane in the grey
shirt, they are from Vagrant. In the white hat is Tawn, of Palarran.
This is my father-in-law, Paul, back in San Francisco. He is
a master furniture refinisher and restorer. He mostly works on very old pieces,
but here he is pictured with a table from an old, storied 1929 yacht: Pat Pending.

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