Thursday, August 30, 2012

Weather Aware
By Michael

The Chaotic Pendulum in motion.
I remember days in my Washington, DC life when I’d leave my climate controlled office wearing a light jacket, surprised that cold, gusting winds were blowing snow flakes around my head.
“Christ!” I’d say to a bundled-up coworker, “I didn’t know it was going to snow today; it was pleasant yesterday.”

“They announced it on the news last night.”
“Huh, I missed that.”

Those days are gone. I can’t think of a lifestyle that would keep me more in tune with the weather than the cruising lifestyle. Windy and I often know what the conditions are where we are and what they are at a weather buoy twenty miles offshore. We usually know the forecast for the next ten days and how that forecast has evolved over the past 48 hours. When we’re passage planning, we look at the forecast twice a day—covering a 500-mile stretch of coastline. Planning two trips across a shallow inlet in King Salmon recently, we could tell you on what hour the high and low tides fell those days. Will there be moonlight on the nights of that upcoming passage? We know.
Eleanor quenching her
thirst at a drinking
fountain in the museum.
And the nightly news is no help in our pursuit of weather info. For the past year we’ve used and the features of the Navimatics navigation app on our iPad. Using, we select an area that encompasses our route and then can watch an animated 7-day wind forecast for that area. It has proven to be extremely reliable and we depend on it. From the Navimatics app, we are able to query data from specific weather buoys (data from en route that provide real-time local wind data that reaffirms the PassageWeather info, as well as wave heights that let us know what kind of a ride we can anticipate. Too we use other sources and our VHF radio weather channel broadcasts that are available along the U.S. coast.

I’ve always heard how difficult it is to predict weather, how the ever-increasing speed and computing capacity of super computers is being brought to bear on the problem, but that there is still a long way to go. I accepted this, but I never understood the reasons for it until we took the girls to San Francisco’s Exploratorium. There, they had on display a Chaotic Pendulum that made it all clear. This thing has three interconnected pendulums that all swing about the same axis when a knob is turned.
Apparently (and intuitively), there is no reasonable way to predict the movement of the interconnected pendulums. While the movement of a single pendulum would be easy to predict with knowledge of mathematics and the input forces, it is exceedingly difficult with multiple, interconnected pendulums. Not impossible, but any very slight error in terms of the input forces or the friction on a single arm, anything…and the calculus of the motion quickly becomes flawed, at odds with reality.

And so it is with weather systems. When multiple areas of circulating high and low pressure systems collide in a three-dimensional space, it is just like the Chaotic Pendulum—nearly impossible to predict the outcome, except in the very near term, such as related on the nightly news, for those who pay attention.

An interesting aspect of marine weather/wind forecasts is the nature,
or pattern, of the air flow. Out at sea, air masses flow uninterrupted
by changing topography--an additional contributor to chaos.
This results in consistent flows over large geographic areas. In this screenshot, note the difference in
wind direction and strength over land and sea (this is the
entire coastline of the Baja California peninsula).

Eleanor standing before the Palace of Fine Arts, just outside
the Exploratorium and built in 1915.

Also at the Exploratorium when we visited was a full-scale
mock-up of the Curiosity rover that just landed on Mars.
Have you seen Seven Minutes of Terror? (You must.)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dog In The Rigging
By Michael

Oh crap, what have I done.
Well, it was characteristic me: not a whole lot of forethought, not the best outcome.

An hour had passed since we left Petaluma, motoring slowly down the river, watching the marsh go by. My in-laws were aboard for the trip: Windy’s folks, her brother Paul, his wife Pao, and our two nephews, A.K.A the O-boys, Otis and Oliver. It was warm, everyone was fed, and it would be another few hours until we reached San Francisco. Windy and her mom and brother sat on the bow with the boys. My father-in-law was at the helm and the girls played down below with their Auntie Pao.

Two-year-old Oliver willingly handed me his beloved stuffed puppy when I encouraged him to let me show him something.
“We’ll haul Puppy up the mast, it’ll be funny, what do you think?”

He nodded approvingly and I was happy he was game. In retrospect, all he clearly understood was that I was smiling, I was promising something funny, and not having spent too much time with me, did not yet have a reason not to trust an adult he knew.
Oli and Grandpa Paul
in happier times,
off the boat.

I let him help me tie the spinnaker halyard around Puppy’s soft belly. When I noted a bit of concern on Oli’s face, I waved little Puppy’s arms and rocked his body side-to-side, as though the creature was pantomiming his excitement about going up the mast. This helped, but didn’t completely erase the unease. I imagined what must be going through his little two-year-old mind: “I trust you Uncle Mike, and while I may be nervous and unsure, I know that once you haul my puppy up that mast, I am going to get such a kick out of it I will probably laugh my head off. Carry on good sir!”

In retrospect, I think what was really going through Oli's two-year-old mind was: "I trust you Uncle Mike, but what the hell are you doing with Puppy?”

Now there is not a sailor alive who would knowingly haul the bitter end of any halyard up the mast because it’s not going to come down on its own and retrieving it can be a big pain in the arse. Of course, if something is attached to that bitter end, no problem, simply let go of the halyard and it will come crashing back down to the deck. Of course, to be effective, that something must weigh more than a four-ounce stuffed animal.
When I saw Oli on the verge of tears after hauling Puppy ten feet up, my response was to hoot and holler and haul Puppy another ten feet up, to where he could get a good look at our new Furuno radome and delight Oli to no measure. This didn’t go over well. I let go of the halyard to get Puppy back into the arms of his distressed owner on deck. Puppy didn’t move.

I wiggled and jiggled the halyard for several minutes while apologizing to my nephew.

“Oh, I’m sorry Oli, we’ll get him down, he was just going on a ride. Look, he’s smiling!”
In the end, I was saved by Windy’s genius. By duct taping a pasta spoon to the end of our extended boat hook and climbing up to the top of the sail, she was just able to fish Puppy down. (Click here for a video of the exciting finale.)

I have several older nieces and nephews who all bear emotional scars from similar encounters with Uncle Mike. I saw in Oli a chance for redemption, a clean slate. Now it is just Otis left.

The girls rode the outside of the cable car up and down
the streets of San Francisco.
As we headed out the Golden Gate Bridge, a couple of teams
practicing for the Americas Cup World Series blasted in front
of our bow with hulls flying, their chase boats alongside. These
45-foot cats feature rigid wings in place of a conventional
mainsail. The black Oracle boat was also a fixture on the Bay
while we were there.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Bay Area Anew
By Michael

It ain't like closing the loop on a circumnavigation
or anything, but sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
was a big deal for the Robertson family, and
especially Windy.
When we searched for a boat to live aboard and cruise, we restricted our search to the west coast of the Americas. Though we spent the previous dozen years building a life on the East Coast, we both grew up in California. If we were going to be out exploring the world for a long time, it was important to Windy (and me) that we start our long-planned journey visiting friends and family along the West Coast.  Nowhere is the concentration of such folks greater than in the Bay Area.

After sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, we headed straight for Horseshoe Cove (in front of the Presidio Yacht Club and practically underneath the Bridge) where we spent our first two nights at anchor. From there we headed around the corner to Richardson Bay where we anchored right off a beautiful small beach in Sausalito and used this as a base for trips inland to visit parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins, and friends that Windy’s had since grammar school.

The girls were beside themselves
when they stumbled upon a hobbyist
making bubbles in a Sausalito park.
After about a week, on a clear, hot August day, we motored about 15 miles up the narrow Petaluma River (it’s a slough). The waterway is bound by marsh and hills rise on either side. We passed slowly by vineyards. Swans and majestic egrets watched us pass. Once in Petaluma, Windy bought a couple small pairs of tennis shoes at a thrift store and enrolled the girls in a week-long sports camp with our friends' kids. We soon learned the toll just a year of the cruising lifestyle has taken on our girls. While they can tell you about fifteen different types of sea anemones, about what it’s like to play with a seahorse, and about whales feeding and breaching, my girls throw a ball about as well as a penguin and catch about as well as a tree trunk.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t up to helping them turn things around in their athletic lives as I was hard at work battling the flu. Windy enjoyed dinners and nights out with friends.
By the time we left Petaluma and motored/sailed back to San Francisco with Windy’s family aboard, my condition was deteriorating. We hit near gale-force winds in San Francisco’s famed “Slot” between Angel Island and Alcatraz before we dropped the hook in Aquatic Park and I spent the next four days in my berth wanting to die.

I ventured out once with Windy and the girls to reclaim a hot fudge sundae I was denied as a child. (My family was in Ghirardelli Square in the late 1970s and I’d done something wrong and was made to suffer the trauma and humiliation of watching my little sisters enjoy the dessert without me. Things are better now; I'm over it.)

The lovely, lovely trek
up the Petaluma River.
When my fever broke and reading became possible, I finished Mike Litzow’s South From Alaska and became increasingly anxious and stressed reading about his anxiety over transiting the Washington-Oregon coast aboard a sailboat with his family prior to the start of the fall gales—and they were going south. Here I was laid up, it was already mid-August, we still have a long way to go, and are planning a visit in Portland to boot.

I imagined our northward progress being thwarted by the fall gales and panic set in.
Windy announced Tuesday morning the 14th that a weather window was closing and we may get stuck in San Francisco for a spell. “It’s one o’clock now. If we pull the anchor, motor around the corner and get fuel, we can be headed under the Gate by two and the tide will be slack. Are you feeling up to it?”

“Not at all.”
“Okay, let’s go.”

And away we went.
We hauled out over the weekend at KKMI Sausalito so that I could
replace two thru-hull transducers for our new instruments. According
to the operator, we tip the scales at just a hair over 28,000 pounds.
When I married Windy, she came with good references. Elise, Heidi,
and Leelee are just a few of the folks who have known her well
for thirty years.
 You know how stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is all
the rage? (It's like yoga in its popularity.) I looked out the boat one
morning in Sausalito and saw this: a yoga instructor and two students
going through their poses on SUPs. Only in California.
Only traveling up a navigable river in a Mediterranean climate (such
as to Petaluma) could you sail by a landscape that includes in one scene
vineyards, eucalyptus trees, palm trees, and marsh against a
backdrop of dried grass-covered hills.
This is the beach we anchored off in Sausalito. Like all of the
anchorages we used in the Bay Area, it was free.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Get Out There
By Michael

Bird reflected in the diesel sheen on the
water in the commercial fishing harbor of
Pillar Point, in Half Moon Bay, California
Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting in which the psychologist played by Robin Williams confronts the cocky, self-assured, know-it-all genius played by Matt Damon:

So, if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written…But I bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.

And so it is with sailboat cruising. As I wrote in a previous post, the knowledge you pick up from magazines, books, blogs, and videos is very different than the practical knowledge you gain from being out there.
Because few of us can afford the time and money to hire someone to provide hands-on training out there—such as the ocean passage making instruction offered by John and Amanda Neal—we’re left to provide our own instruction, through exposure, getting out on the water and experiencing the unexpected. And the unexpected is not always fun.

In the early 1990s, as a twenty-something new owner of the first Del Viento, I was less cautious than I am today and as a beginning sailor, downright reckless. On occasion early on, I’d end the day cold and wet and scared, having lost control of the pitching boat, with sails flapping in 20 knots of wind and a loose headsail sheet whipping madly about. I made promises to sell the boat when I reached shore and to never sail again. Sailing can be like that.
Fortunately, things never seemed so bad once ashore and I would head out for more, learning to tie stopper knots, remembering to don a harness, learning when to reef, and just getting to know my boat better.

In the late nineties, Windy and I faced two significant unexpected events on our seven-month cruise from California to Florida, one at the start and one at the end of our voyage. The first found us sailing downwind, about 50 miles off the Northern Mexico coastline, in strong winds and increasing seas. Overnight things intensified and we ripped our mainsail in half with a loud pop following an accidental jibe. I was aware of preventers and boom brakes, having read about them in books before we left, but I hadn’t yet sailed in conditions where they were so critical. This experience left an indelible impression about why they are important. We pulled the sail down and tied it off at the first set of reef points above the tear, later having the sail repaired by other cruisers with a sewing machine.
The second event was a subtropical depression, the first of the 1997 Caribbean storm season. We were en route from the Columbian island of Providencia to Honduras’s Roatan. In the middle of the fourth night of our passage, I woke Windy. It was a clear sky, but the entire horizon astern was a black wall. We reefed the sails for a storm and waited for the punch. Hours later it overtook us, hitting like a squall but not letting up for the next 30 hours. We both hung on and ran with it, the wind and seas building all the while. No book or video I read before this time or since, could have prepared me for what it was like to be at the helm, running like this. After ducking into Maria la Gorda, the large bay on the southwestern side of Cuba, I was tired but exuberant.

We didn’t anticipate the storm, it was an unexpected event. But I learned that a storm, with winds at 35 knots, gusting to 50, can be managed. We didn’t manage it as well as we could have, or should have, but we got through it. I have context now for reading about other strategies, a real-life foundation for developing my own understanding.
In his The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat, sailor and author John Vigor writes that Eric Hiscock, a legendary cruising sailor, worried privately for many years that his stout cruising boat would someday be caught in bad weather. When that day finally came, late in Hiscock’s cruising life, he and his boat fared well. Hiscock later wrote, “Fortunate indeed is the man who, early in his sailing career, encounters and successfully weathers a hard blow.”

So don’t wait for Hal Roth’s How To Sail Around The World to arrive from Amazon. Push pause on the entire library of Lin and Larry Pardey’s DVDs. Take what you know now and prudently embark on the next voyage that fits your comfort zone. If you’re lucky you’ll soon weather that hard blow that pushes you just a bit and leaves you ready for the sea’s next lesson.

Cousins gather in Santa Cruz. On this day, we had 10 kids aboard
Del Viento, all related.
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