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.



Saturday, August 22, 2015

Health Care Abroad
By Michael

Sailing Pudgy in the Tuamotus.
I’ve written here before about health insurance (we pay about $2K per year for a very-high-deductible policy that covers us internationally) and our experiences dealing with medical issues while cruising in Canada and Mexico. I’ve always been both surprised by and pleased with the quality and affordability of health care we’ve received outside the U.S. Now I can report on an experience with the health care system in French Polynesia.

We needed to get the girls vaccinated for Typhoid. After asking around, we located the primary health clinic in downtown Papeete, Tahiti. All the signs around the building were in French, but by asking around some more, we were pointed to the window where everything starts. We told the receptionist why we were there. Understanding our desire to get our girls vaccinated for Typhoid, she gave us a ticket with the name of the doctor and office where we would go and wait to be seen. Understanding our unfamiliarity with the system and facility, she kindly left her post to walk us to the office we needed to go.

The office was small and clean, but utilitarian and worn. None of the doctors or nurses seemed to be Polynesian, but French expats. They were dressed casually under white coats. We were in a back room before a doctor within 15 minutes.

This was amazing. During the
heiva at Makemo in the Tuamotus
(heiva is an annual festival of art,
sport, and culture that happens
across French Polynesia), I watched
a dozen of these guys hurl crooked,
home-made spears at that coconut
on top of that pole. See the spear
stuck in the coconut.
“We’re headed for places where Typhoid is a concern; our daughters need to be vaccinated.”

In English, the doctor asked the girls their names and ages and wrote a prescription for us to fill.

“When you have eet, you joost coom back and zee nurse will geev zee shot, okay?”

Oui, merci.”

Windy and the girls hung out in the air conditioned offices while I went across the street to the pharmacy.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t have it.”

I continued to another pharmacy a couple blocks away.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t have it—and (tap, tap, tap) looking in the system here, nobody currently has it.”

I returned to the office and reported what I’d learned.

“Just a minute, sil vous plait.”

The nurse spoke with the doctor and he immediately stopped what he was doing and picked up the phone. Then he continued in French to the nurse. A woman standing nearby, in street clothes, turned to us.

“He’s found a pharmacy that has what you need, but…it’s far and you’ll never find it. Come with me please.”

The girls on a spit in Tahanea, Tuamotus.
We followed her out of the office, outside, and down the block. We learned she is the doctor’s wife, having just stopped by for a visit. She urged us all into her tiny car. One of the back doors was broken and the unglued headliner draped uncomfortably across my head. We thanked her profusely. The pharmacy was indeed a ways and we’d not have been able to find it easily.

Medicine in hand, we explained to the doctor’s wife that we’d have to return for the injections tomorrow, that we had to catch the 5:00 p.m. bus (the last of the day) back to the anchorage.

“Hmm, you don’t worry about that, I wait outside and take you back to your boat when you come out.”

Back in the office, without any mention that we’re in a hurry, the nurse spots us, quickly stops to inject the girls, and bids us farewell. We ask how and where we pay. She shakes her head and brushes us off.

The doctor’s wife was waiting for us outside. On the 20-minute drive to drop us off, we learned she is a physical therapist. She has adult children whom she and her husband raised here in Tahiti. She has grandchildren in Paris and Tahiti. She is eager to return to France when her husband retires.

She dropped us off and we thanked her again.

Just like every other out-of-country health care experience we’ve had, I thought: This would just never go down this way in the States.

Not that the health care system in Canada, Mexico, or French Polynesia is without fault, or that the U.S. system is without merit, but to be able to have routine medical needs met casually (in Mexico and French Polynesia we’ve never filled out any forms, oftentimes only our first names are known by the provider), for a reasonable price (in Mexico a consultation with a GP costs $4, a subsequent visit with a GP in French Polynesia cost $35, and we paid about the same in Canada), and efficiently (always quick walk-in service for a GP outside the U.S. and dermatologist and dentist and gynecological appointments in Mexico could always be made for the same day or within 48 hours) shouldn’t surprise my U.S. sensibilities to the extent it does.


Spoonful of sugar needed.
Windy on the pulpit looking for ship-killing shallow
areas as we motored across a Tuamotu atoll--she
spent hours and hours doing this.

Waiting for a coming storm in the Makemo atoll, Tuamotus.

Frances walking the streets of Makemo with our daily
French bread.

Pudgy tied up at the quay in Makemo.

Spectators watching volleyball a competition as part of heiva.

The sky on fire; Eleanor emerging from a dusk swim.

The girls watching sharks, at anchor inside the
Fakarava atoll, Tuamotus.

On Moorea, we toured a juice bottling factory.

The girls and their cousins at dinner aboard Del Viento

Eleanor waiting in the clinic atrium in Papeete, Tahiti.

This is an interesting shot for cruisers and non-cruisers
to see. That dark bulbous thing in the lower-right corner
is a coral head, called a bommie. When they're

present where we drop anchor, we don't want to wrap
our chain around them because it's not good for
the coral and it's not good for our chain. So

what folks do is what we've done here, do our best to
suspend our chain above the bottom so that it
doesn't catch a bommie. It's pretty effective.

We did this just about everyplace we anchored
in the Tuamotus.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Equalizing Lifeline AGM Batteries
By Michael

A Papeete mural.
“What does Nigel’s book say about this?” Windy asked. Her tone was solemn, I knew she understood the gravity of the situation.

“He doesn’t address it.”

“What else have you read?”

“The majority of folks on the cruising forums warn against it, in all caps. I guess there is a risk of fire and explosion, though they make it sound more like a certainty.”

She raised her eyebrows and upturned her palms, So why are you considering this?

“No worries though, the manual from the battery manufacturer says it’s okay—they actually recommend it, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Well, they say we should pump in 5% or less of the battery’s rated amperage at 15.5 volts for 8 hours.”

“And that’s good, yeah?”

“Well, sort of. Our charger will do this, but at 16 volts. I think that half-volt may be significant, but maybe not—I have no idea and haven’t been able to find an answer online. I say we do it—but that variable poses the biggest risk in my mind. I’ll keep an eye on things.”

“What do you mean ‘keep an eye on things,’ how?”

“Well, I’ve read that the temperature of the batteries isn’t supposed to rise above 125 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“How will you measure that?”

“My hand—my folks used to have a Jacuzzi, I think I’ll have a sense…except…”

“Except what?”

“That number is from the Nigel Calder book, it’s for conventional lead-acid batteries, I don’t have any info on AGM batteries.”

Okay, not the most riveting dialogue—unless of course you live on a cruising boat with 600-amp AGM batteries aboard and you’ve recently become increasingly aware of a loss of capacity which has led you to conclude that your batteries are heavily sulfated after four-plus years of both repeated discharges and failing to bring them back up to full charge and now you are considering equalizing them despite the most dire warnings that this might a) cost you money and hassle and then make no difference in the health of the batteries that are so expensive and so difficult to replace where you are and so core to your way of life, b) further damage your damaged batteries, or c) kill you and burn your boat to the waterline. The fact is, after poking around the internet for hours (though at dial-up speeds), I’ve concluded that once published, this post will be the most definitive info out there on one man’s experience equalizing Lifeline AGM batteries. It’s not a lighthearted story. It’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re still with me, keep reading.

The way we use (abuse) lead-acid batteries aboard cruising boats (discharging below 50% though we know we shouldn’t and rarely bringing them back up to a full charge state) causes sulfating to occur. This is a material that forms on and coats the lead plates. It happens unevenly, affecting plates and parts of plates furthest from where the posts are connected. It diminishes a battery’s ability to accept and release current. It can make a partially charged battery appear full, such that it won’t accept more current. The material can turn hard and short out those plates it bridges. It’s bad, and the reason batteries have a lifespan.

But upon noticing the effects of sulfating plates, the common advice is to equalize the batteries—generally described as bringing them up to a near-full charge and then raising the charger output voltage to 16 volts, at which point the batteries will accept a higher current flow and heat up and boil. The effect is supposed to cause the not-yet-hardened sulfates on your battery plates to slough off, either dissolving back into the acid or accumulating as deposits at the bottom of the battery. You’re supposed to leave the charger in this state for 8 hours of dramatic battery heat and sizzle, during which time you’re supposed to constantly monitor acid levels in the cells and keep the plates submerged by adding water. At least this is the prescription for conventional, deep-cycle lead-acid batteries. For AGMs, the only prescription is in the paperwork that came with our Lifeline AGM batteries in 2011—and these instructions are likely unique to Lifeline.

But how did I first realize we had a problem? Upon firing up the engine after the batteries had been heavily discharged, the amount of current—measured in amperes—our batteries were accepting from the alternator was less than the amount of amperes I know our alternator can output—roughly 60. I’ve seen this number diminish very slowly over time and concluded that maybe the efficiency of our alternator was falling with wear. Then I noticed a spike downward in this number, and also realized our batteries were running down faster than I expected. I started reading and I tested our alternator output and I realized we had a battery problem. (Not that we rely on our engine to charge the batteries, but I don’t have the same kind of consistent, high-value numbers to qualify from the output of our 430-watt solar panel array.)

So about now is when you can insert the above dialogue I started with, about halfway between the Tuamotus and Tahiti.

“We need to equalize ASAP, and keep the batteries as fully charged as possible in the meantime, to prevent further damage.”

In Tahiti, Marina Taina graciously loaned us free of charge their transformer we could use to access the 110V power our charger needs. Med-moored across from the largest megayachts in the world, we got busy doing our laundry on the foredeck while the battery charger did its thing. After about five hours, when the batteries were charged enough that our 600-amp bank was accepting only 9 amperes, I cleared the girls off the boat, tore apart furniture to ventilate the charger and batteries, closed all 12-volt breakers, and pushed the buttons to start the equalizing phase.

Spotted this lionfish while snorkeling in
Lights on the panel flashed, the fan on the charger cycled on, the voltmeter shot up to 16, and a piercing alarm sounded.

Apparently, the carbon monoxide detector in the girls’ room is hardwired to the batteries and didn’t like the increased voltage. I quickly snipped the wires behind the alarm. Everything quiet, I put my hand on the batteries. There was not heat, no boiling, no nothing. The only indications that something was happening were the flashing lights on the charger’s panel, the insane reading on the volt meter, and the 21 amperes the previously full batteries were now drawing.

This was the case for the first three hours. I wondered if anything was indeed happening. Then I noticed the lead ground wire was getting warm to the touch.

Another hour passed and I noticed number of amperes the batteries were accepting was increasing, now to 23. This seemed odd, but then I noticed the batteries were getting warm and I remembered reading that the higher a battery’s temperature, the more current it will accept—four hours to go.

At five hours, the incoming amperage was reading 25 and the batteries were warmer still. I put my ear to them and it sounded like bacon cooking. Was this a huge mistake?

The reason that AGMs are not supposed to be equalized is that they are sealed. There is an emergency valve, but if the battery purges anything, there is no way to replace it. Also, being AGMs, I don’t imagine the plates immersed in a restorative bath of boiling acid, so how will frying these things help? I don’t know. But Lifeline advocates equalizing these batteries, so I am just following instructions, sort of—the voltage held steady at 16.

The last three hours, the batteries—and the entire aft cabin where they’re located—became increasingly warm. The negative battery cable continued heating up. The bacon kept cooking. The incoming amperage topped at 32—slightly above the 5% of the 600-amp capacity limit specified. But it never seemed to get too hot, certainly not 125 degrees, maybe 110.

And then, at the 8-hour mark, the charger fan stopped blowing and the incoming voltage dropped to 13.5 and the amperage in dropped to 2. The batteries were still warm and remained so for about the next 12 hours, cooling gradually. We stayed another night connected to power, so the batteries stayed at 13.5 volts for about 30 hours. At the time I finally unplugged, they were accepting less than half an ampere, the lowest I’ve ever seen.

That was almost a week ago and we’ve been back on the hook, living off the grid, and I’m happy to report that the batteries seem much better than they were. After a day of normal usage, I’m not seeing the voltage drop I’ve become accustomed to. Of course, this week we’ve had plenty of sunshine for the solar panels, so it’s hard to tell. But if things take a turn for the worse, I’ll report back (and I’ll update this post).


Walking through downtown Papeete, Tahiti. For
whatever reason, I never took any pics of Papeete's
wonderful new waterfront. There is a nice malecon
with playgrounds, exercise stations, plazas, and more.

In Moorea, I lopped off Eleanor's hair. She waited
until her Auntie Julie arrived so that Julie could
carry the hair home and mail it off to Locks of
Love, an organization that uses donated hair to
fashion wigs for children who can't grow hair for
medical reasons. That's the girls' cousin, Kat.

Here are the girls in Papeete, heading off for an
introductory SCUBA dive. There was not room
in the boat for Windy or I to join them--oh, they
grow up so fast.

So check out the massive antennas on this Chinese ship that
pulled into Papeete harbor. 

Papeete art. In the Society Islands especially, guys
like this in crafts like this, go past Del Viento all day.

One of two-dozen such stands in the downtown
Papeete market.

Will posting this land me on an ISIS non-terrorist watch list?

Del Viento Med-moored in Maria Taina. See the hand truck
with the transformer mounted to it for us? 

Moorea is a nice place to anchor.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Epic Snorkel
By Michael

Violet soldierfish--big eyed and frowning--are
everywhere, and difficult to photograph
because they're so timid.
Do you know what an atoll is? What it means to snorkel in a pass? Whoever you are, wherever you are, I sincerely wish I had the power to transport you to the south pass of the Fakarava atoll on a pretty day and set you loose. We’ve seen and experienced amazing things and events during the past four years cruising: watching glaciers calve in Alaska, relaxing in British Columbia hot springs, riding out the remnants of hurricane Odile in the Sea of Cortez, untangling a humpback whale off Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and much more. But snorkeling the south pass of the Fakarava atoll is way up there.

So an atoll is what you’ve probably seen aerial photos of: a fringing reef that forms a lagoon in the middle of the ocean. It’s actually what remains of an island long gone, eroded and subsumed back into the earth. The Tuamotus archipelago is a collection of dozens of these things. People live on some of the atolls, in communities built on the thin strips of crushed coral that are only a few feet above sea level and dotted with coconut palms. Now, a pass is just that: a natural, narrow cut in the fringing reef through which a boat can pass.

I caught this shark about 30 feet away,
swimming right for me. At about 10
feet, he saw or sensed me and darted
away. Sharks fear me.
But also transiting these passes is a huge volume of sea water, flooding in on a rising tide, rushing out on a falling tide. About every six hours it switches and the water flows the other way, driven by the moon.

These dynamic tidal-washed passes are the founts of colorful ecosystems filled with coral, reef fish, and sharks. Especially on a flooding tide, the water is exceptionally clear. The water temperature is exquisite.

So, snorkeling a pass should now make sense. At the start of a flooding tide, we dinghy out to the entrance, don our mask and snorkel and fins, Windy grabs the painter, and we all roll in for the ride of our lives.

For about a quarter-mile (this particular pass), we’re swept along in the current. We glide effortlessly over a dazzling underwater landscape. I’d use my fins only to dive down for closer looks or to move between deeper and shallower water. Sometimes I’d grab something on the bottom and hang on for a bit, trying to take everything in and prolong the experience. Other times, I’d rush over an area, my head darting from one interesting thing to another, wanting to slow the movie down.

It’s exhilarating. We did it over and over. I hope you enjoy a similar experience one day.

I took all the photos in this post during our South Pass Fakarava snorkels. Most were taken as I swept along with the current (click, click, click), the others were taken while holding myself steady against the current.


Eleanor diving down for a closer
look at something. Both girls have
logged so many hours snorkeling,
they've really become quite adept.
Both pull themselves down the
anchor chain to 25-30 feet to grab
a handful of sand to bring up and
show us.

Taking a look at whatever it is.

There is no village at the South Pass, but there is a tiny
dive resort with these huts for the guests. It's right on the
bank of the pass.

A school of bluestripe snapper. By the way, I wouldn't know
what any of these fish are without my friend Behan on Totem
who advised us to buy a copy of Reef Fish Identification, TropicalPacific
by Allen, Steene, Humann, and Deloach--it's the best.

Pacific double-saddle butterflyfish, foreground, and lined bristletooth.

This guy is pretty unique. It's called a Napolean wrasse and I've heard
they're rare as they're considered a delicacy. The picture doesn't
show it, but he's the size of Frances. Other wrasse we saw were
younger, so their foreheads didn't protrude as much. Like sharks,
these guys swim with remora on them.

In the super shallow fringes of the pass, I was surprised to confront
these large black-tipped reef sharks, about six of them.

This is the edge of the shallows. The deep water off to the left is about
75 feet and visibility was clear all the way to the bottom. That's a
parrotfish in the center.

They're so pretty.

Post snorkel, Windy and Eleanor dragging Pudgy over
the shallows on the way back to Del Viento.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...