Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lagoon Blink
By Michael

Believe it or not, they were not posing
when I spotted them on the pulpit looking
at the sunset, but I did ask them to
freeze so I could grab the camera. 
Dave and Jaja Martin long ago wrote, Into the Light, their gripping account of their second cruise, aboard their second boat, with their three kids. Shortly after, they followed up with a film that is a must-see for any future cruising family. They called this film Ice Blink, in reference to the phenomena by which high-latitude sailors use the reflection of ice on the bottoms of clouds to identify distant paths—paths still over the horizon--through ice-choked waters. In effect, these sailors use the clouds as a mirror to see ahead.

“Wow! Look at that.” I said to Windy a couple days before we left Bora Bora. We we’d been anchored for several days in what must be among the most pleasant of places on earth: a large shallow pool within the lagoon, tucked behind the protective shore of a palm-forested motu. With our Bruce resting in only 8 feet of water, we cautioned the girls not to dive off the deck at too steep an angle.

“What? Where?”

I handed Windy my polarized sunglasses.

“Oh, wow!”

The clouds over the edge of the reef sported bright turquoise bottoms. I’d never seen anything like it. “It’s a lagoon blink, yeah?”

I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures. As it was for Windy looking through her non-polarized lenses, the effect was invisible to my camera. Desperate, I held my sunglasses over my camera lens and tried to capture the image that way. Only partial success. I immediately thought back to a blog post my friend Behan on Totem wrote, about the value of polarizing filters for capturing better—more accurate—photos outdoors and on the water. I’d been meaning to get a filter ever since, but I’d not acted. (read her post here, good stuff)

Well, this episode was the final straw. Today I picked up my new polarizing filter from the Pago Pago post office here in American Samoa, where I’d had it sent to me, General Delivery. Expect better photos on this blog from here on out.


So, I shot this looking through my sunglasses. You
can sort of see the green tinge on the base of the center cloud.
Oh, had I only had a polarizing filter.
Our first waterspout! As non-Floridians, this was pretty
exciting. It lasted nearly 10 minutes.

This rainbow surely would have benefited from a polarizing filter.
This was our first afternoon at sea, leaving Bora Bora.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

How We Roll: Passage Slumber

Sailing far out to sea, such as on the Mexico-to-Marquesas passage we made this year, it can sometimes seem pointless to keep a careful watch when hour after hour, day after day, you see nothing but 360 degrees of empty ocean. But then, hundreds and hundreds of miles out to sea, in the darkest wee hours, you spot a fast-moving ship on the AIS--still too far over the horizon to be seen. You note that the displayed closest point of approach (CPA) is less than half a mile. You watch, wide awake. The CPA doesn't change and now the lights from your traffic appear as a dim glow on the horizon. You watch a while longer until the displayed time to CPA (TCPA) is just a scant 30 minutes. You make a course change and watch as the CPA increases. You radio the ship to let them know you've changed your heading, to ask if they even see you. You don't get a response. You watch. The green running light on their bow dims as the red light intensifies. Finally, the white stern light comes into view and the drama is passed.

This scenario played out twice aboard Del Viento during our 26-day crossing. It highlights the need for careful watchkeeping, despite a seemingly empty ocean.

From our example, it can seem reasonable to rely on electronics for watchkeeping. AIS alarms and radar alarms can be effectively augment the human eye. They are certainly great watchkeeping companions--and a boon to singlehanders faced with choosing the best times to be fatalistic so they can get some rest. But these electronic devices do not eliminate the need for the human eye. Which means that on most boats, certainly ours, somebody is awake and paying attention 24 hours a day when underway.

How do we manage the sleeping schedule?

Traditionally, crew on long passages will adopt a rigid schedule of 3- or 4-hour watch periods (8 to 6 periods in every 24-hour day). For a double-handed crew (such as parents of a cruising family), this usually means on for 4 hours, off for 4 hours, on for 4 hours, off for 4 hours--for weeks on end. Throw in a third crewmember and this schedule becomes more humane: on for 4 hours, off for 8 hours.

But we rarely have a third crewmember aboard (though Eleanor is only a few years away from being ready…). Instead, we maintain an unorthodox, flexible schedule that works for us and has stood the test of many multi-day passages (we've done it the same way since our pre-kid cruising days).

In short, we employ a watch schedule that takes advantage of our natural sleep patterns and preferences. I am a stay-up-late kind of guy and Windy is a wake-up-early kind of gal. I prefer to be very tired before falling asleep, she merely has to lie down and read a few pages before she is out. So aboard Del Viento, a typical day at sea goes thusly:

1730: At roughly the five-o'clock hour, you'll find all of us awake, topsides or down below, me preparing a meal. When we're done eating, Eleanor and Frances will lead the clean-up. Windy will head to her nav station where she'll fire up the shortwave radio and Pactor modem and try to get weather or emails downloaded. I'll head to the cockpit.

2000: By this time, Windy has said goodnight to all. If one or both of the girls is inclined, they'll join her in bed where she'll read to them for a while before she dozes off. Oftentimes, the girls will then crawl back out of bed and head to the other end of the boat where they'll play or read quietly for a couple hours more.

2200: The girls have maybe fallen asleep by now, or will soon be. On occasion, Eleanor will don a harness and headphones and come sit in the cockpit with me and I'll introduce her to all the excellent music that she missed simply because she was born in the wrong millennium (she rarely makes it past midnight).

0300: I'm tired. Sometimes I'll stay on watch to 0400, sometimes I'll fade by 0200, but 0300 is when I usually hit a wall. I'll go below, wake Windy, brief her on anything she needs to know, and crash into the warm spot she's left in the berth. Windy is a coffee drinker and the last sounds I usually hear come from her getting a cup brewing.

0600: Eleanor is an early riser and will likely be up with the sun and talking to Windy in the cockpit.

0900: This is roughly the time Frances and I stir. We all stay awake for breakfast.

1000: Windy goes down for a nap. The girls and I hang out.

1230: Windy is awake. We all hang out. Watchkeeping is a family affair at this time. We eat.

1400: I go down for a nap.

1700: I wake and begin making dinner. Not only am I the only person aboard not prone to seasickness, I also like to cook.

There, that was 24 hours. The schedule works well for us. Windy and the girls will usually do little school work on passage--sometimes school light, sometimes nothing. But there is lots of downtime for everyone, lots of reading and drawing and writing and music listening.

Of course, that's just how we do it. Lots of other crews handle watchkeeping differently. (All of this information is distilled in Voyaging With Kids: A guide to family life afloat--including thoughts and experiences with taking additional passage crew aboard. Both the print book and eBook are now available. Ask for it at your library, local bookstore, or click the link on this blog.)


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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Passage Notes

I'm writing from Del Viento, currently anchored off Suwarrow, a remote atoll in the Cook Islands. Though only 700 nautical miles from our last port (Bora Bora), it took us seven days to get here. Seven unpleasant passage days.

We actually departed Bora Bora headed for Niue, a tiny country well southwest of here. But a few days into the passage, it looked like uncharacteristic westerlies were forecast for our destination. This would have made Niue's single roadstead anchorage untenable. So, we turned northwest and headed for Suwarrrow. All told, we traveled about 800 miles.

The winds were mostly astern, but they blew soft, then harder, then harder, then softer, then harder, and finally softer--which meant lots of reefing our big main. Because the seas were big and a bit confused, and because the wind direction varied with the dozens of squalls that passed overhead, and because we were a few times caught overpowered, we also jibed several times, usually in the middle of the night when we were both tired and it was raining. Our boom brake worked satisfactorily, but it's still an awful event, especially with our 400 square-foot main. So reefs went in and out during this trip, but most of the time we were fully reefed.

We suffered damage on this passage too:

1) The starboard lazyjack line parted at about the halfway point of the passage. This one sucks because lowering the sail is a pain without both sides in place. It sucks even more because this breakdown is a result of deferred boat maintenance. I noticed chaffing on this line back in Tahiti and I could have addressed it since then, I just didn't. My poor seamanship.

2) The upper batten pocket of the mainsail became detached from the sail, from the luff to about halfway to the leech, about 20 inches of thread ripped out. I think this happened during a jibe when the main was reefed and I noticed the end of the batten was lodged forward of one of the starboard stays. I lowered the sail and Windy sheeted it in before I raised it back up, but the damage was done.

3) I noticed more of the UV protection on our headsail is unraveled. This is the same problem that's been dogging us since the Mexico-Marquesas passage. The good news is that all the hand sewing I did on that passage (and later in Ua Pu) is still holding up. The bad news is that there is still miles of unreinforced stitching to fail.

4) Two bolts sheared off on the solar panel arch I built in Mexico, in 2011. This was an easy fix underway, and the arch has held up reasonably well for all it's been through--now supporting three panels. But it highlights the need for reinforcing welding that would have made a lot of sense to have done in Mexico before we left.

5) Our batteries have reached the end of their life. I came to realize that on this passage. The equalization we did in Papeete made a difference, but came too late in the game. Admittedly, I've not been the best battery caretaker. Our lifestyle has demanded a lot from our bank and we've run the lights and music and toys late into many nights when we could have cut back to keep the voltage up. We've lived for weeks and weeks on the hook without starting our engine, and we live just fine--but we have been living just fine for four and a half years at the expense of our bank. All we've ever had to keep them charged is our 430 watts of solar (and the alternator on our auxiliary). I'm sure we'd have gotten more life from them had we invested in a wind generator or a genset--but would we have come out ahead in the long run? Moneywise? It's the nature of boat house batteries that they are never returned to a full-charge state (unless plugged into a dock) and sulfating happens. In our case, sooner than I would have liked.

Also, Windy and the girls were more seasick on this trip than they've been in a while. All of it added up to a passage we were happy to put behind us.

We're going to hang out here in Suwarrow for a few more days and the head for American Samoa where we have mail and parts waiting for us, sent General Delivery. Hopefully the beer there isn't too expensive and we can also find someone with a good sewing machine and good sail repair skills. Then I'll look for a stainless welder who can come to the boat for a quick job. Then I'll try and source replacement batteries. Uhg.
It's hot here in Suwarrrow. We are back closer to the equator, maybe that's why. The heat here is unlike anything we've yet felt in the South Pacific--as hot as it was during our summer in the Sea of Cortez, and the water in this atoll might be even warmer than what we dove into everyday in the Sea. But I'll save my descriptions of Suwarrow until we have internet and I can post pics--probably the first week of October. Where has this year gone?


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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

How to Train a Dinosaur-Era Animal
By Michael

Trying to get away from me.
We dinghied to this shallow area inside the Moorea lagoon, near Taotai pass. Small tour boats shuttle vacationing snorkelers to this spot several times a day. The operators chum with mackerel or sardines and habituated rays and sharks show up by the dozen. It’s a great place to get close to wild stingrays in particular, but not the most authentic experience.

So we got to the spot and there were no tour boats. Frances rolled into the water first. Immediately, three stingrays with 4- to 5-foot wingspans swam up to her, nudging and enveloping her. I didn’t have the camera ready. We all followed her in. Our friends Ryan and Nicole aboard Naoma were with us. They brought a can of sardines. A piece of fish landed near me and rays converged.

Never having touched a stingray before now, I expected a firm-feeling animal with a sharkskin-like surface. Instead I was shocked at how pillowy soft and supple they are. The skin on a stingray’s back makes a baby’s butt feel like 60-grit sandpaper.

They approach like dogs, even seeming to have personalities. Their mouths are on the bottoms of their bodies, about 4 inches aft of their leading edge. So after giving a nudge, they’ll turn upwards and feel you with their mouth. Standing vertically in the shallows, they’d tug on my swim shirt and keep rising up my chest until the front of their bodies were out of the water. I couldn’t help but laugh.

But it was a bit of a nervous laughter. Isn’t this the same animal that ended Steve Irwin’s life years ago? I kept my eyes on the long, rebar-like tails. Yet I knew bus drivers and librarians and honeymooners have been right here, swimming with the same animals, for as long as the boats have been bringing the tourists out.

As soon as I’d push against the rays, they’d respond, relaxing to the point that I could easily manipulate them, moving them to one side or downward. I’d grab the opportunity to stroke their soft topsides, leaving marks where I brushed away a layer of silt, like kids’ hands across a dusty car window.

As the sharks swam around, keeping their distance, the rays seemed focused on getting any food they could, exploring each of us in turn, crisscrossing each other as they swam methodically through the surrounding water, making sure every morsel was gotten. When they decided we had nothing more to offer, they’d retreat about 20 feet and snuggle into the sandy bottom, lined up like parked cars, awaiting the next group.


Eleanor waiting to go.

Frances getting in.

This bastard trigger fish was my nemesis-jabbing--and jabbing me
hard--no matter where I went.

Comin' at you.

Getting away from you.

Ryan and Nicole in the background.

The eye is interesting.

Like parked cars.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Where Do We Go From Here?
By Michael

Windy flying in the chair while under
sail, approaching Moorea.
Before we left Mexico to cross the Pacific, we wondered where we were headed. After French Polynesia, the possibilities are varied. There is a cyclone season starting down here in November, so that is a big driver in our decision-making process (as it is for the entire fleet).

An overwhelming majority of the few hundred boats that crossed the Pacific this year are headed for New Zealand or Australia. These destinations indicate a route and timeline that are so well-traveled there is a name: the Coconut Milk Run. A few boats divert north from French Polynesia to Hawaii, a stepping stone on a path back to North American shores. Totally adventurous contrarians head further south and east from here, to Patagonia.

For a while now, we planned to do what a few others do, which is to aim northwest from French Polynesia, back up across the equator to Micronesia and beyond. Just two weeks ago, we were on our way to Japan—we planned to arrive April 2016 and we’d already begun making contacts in-country.

But we’ve changed our minds—rather, we’ve studied the information available and decided that the part of the world between here and Japan is not where we want to be during an El Niño event. El Niño conditions exacerbate the ferocity and unpredictability of storms in this already unpredictable area and so…no.

Instead, we’ve decided it’s safer to stay where we are, in the South Pacific islands. Do you see the paradox? We’ve decided it’s safer to weather the South Pacific cyclone season in the South Pacific than to venture into that part of the North Pacific. Of course, that means we may wind up in the path of a hurricane-force storm. Accordingly, we plan to spend a six-month stretch hunkered down in a sheltered spot where our boat has a reasonable chance of surviving a very big storm (and with a plan for us to be safely sheltered ashore in that event).

Frances painting our French courtesy
So why not New Zealand or Australia? In short—and as much as we hope to visit both of those countries in the future—they are too familiar. We are enjoying being where the people are not so much like us and where things happen differently than we’re used to.

So, there are quite a few less-familiar places around here where people on boats do hunker down over the cyclone season. French Polynesia is one option that many French sailors choose, but it’s not an option for us, as the French will not allow us to stay here without the extended visa that was too difficult to get from Mexico and impossible to get from here. American Samoa is another option—and it was in the running for a while, especially because I thought I might have a job opportunity there—but we’ve scratched it off our list. Fiji and Tonga are other options because they’re both comprised of intricate archipelagos that feature numerous protected anchorages. Fiji is especially popular. (They even haul sailboats out of the water there and stick the keels in holes dug in the ground for fly-home-and-leave-your-boat-for-the-season-protection.) That said, we’ve chosen the Kingdom of Tonga.

We will likely show up (it’s still a couple months’ cruising and more than a thousand miles away), sus things out, maybe see about renting a “cyclone-rated” mooring, and stay if we’re pleased. If not, we can make a four-day passage to Fiji and settle there. But I suspect Tonga is where you’ll find us. It’s different (hopefully in a good way), the cost of living is low (we need this), and since they just ran a fiber optic cable from neighboring Fiji, the internet is supposed to be decent—which means I’ll be able to let you all know what it’s like.


At anchor in Moorea, Windy's feet and a spotted
ray flying along the sea floor.

Eleanor swinging in the chair.

I shot this, my POV swinging in the chair.

Grouper, roughly a foot long.


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