Monthly Archives: August 2011

Irene in the Bahamas

I'm thinking about the Bahamas alot today — remembering all the beautiful places we visited and trying to imagine them in the midst of a Category 3 hurricane.

Most cruisers left the Bahamas a long time ago.  The ones that didn't go back to the US are probably now farther south in places like Grenada, Trinidad, or Panama where hurricanes (statistically) don't go.

Some swear the summer is the best time to cruise the Bahamas.  Calmer breeze, warmer water, fewer people.  I've heard they have some bugs, though.  Nonetheless, I had been intrigued by the prospect and half-considered a trip to the Bahamas earlier this summer.  Now I'm horrified that the thought even crossed my mind.

It isn't that the Bahamas are so much more likely to get hit by a hurricane than a random spot on the US coast (okay, maybe a little bit more likely), but the preparation and evacuation experiences would be completely different.  The US has stores for buying supplies.  Boats can be secured up rivers and deep into mangroves, or hauled out at a marina.  You can get off the boat and into a car (or a plane) and leave. And if the boat ends up on a beach (or a house), there are cranes and equipment to help get it off and boatyards to repair it.  None of these are really available in the Bahamas, or to a lesser extent the rest of the Caribbean.

Of course the US will have about a million people trying to do the same thing, and pulling the boat off a beach is not something you ever want to do.  So preparation and avoidance are key.

On the preparation end, Take Two carries all the gear we think we'd need to secure her for any storm she has a chance of surviving.  Our hurricane plan calls for five anchors, lots of chain, lots of heavy shackles, ratchet straps, chafe gear, and air tanks.  We've got it all, but deploying it would still be a hell of a job. 

Wherever we are, we're always thinking about where we would go for all-around storm protection.  From north to south my list of holes in the Bahamas is Black Sound, Treasure Island, Little Harbour, Royal Island, Norman's Pond, and the Redshanks anchorage in Elizabeth Harbour.  No guarantees with any of those, of course.  Little Harbour looks dicey from a surge standpoint, and I've heard that Royal Island has failed to provide protection in prior storms.

Avoidance is better.  We already endeavor to avoid Florida winters.  I think we'll add hurricane season to that list as well.

Junior Sailors

My oldest son took me sailing today, for a change. For the last ten years, I have taken him traipsing everywhere I went—museums, parks, stores, libraries, beaches, marinas, laundromats, zoos—you name it.  His brother, a mere thirteen months younger, was not far behind.

But today, for the first time, he took me. He didn’t’ take me far—just a quick trip away from the beach and back in a small sailboat, but it was a turning point in our relationship just the same. I am excited about the way our relationship is changing, even when we experience growing pains like sarcasm or stubbornness. He has the subtle wit of his father, and the poetic sensibility of his mother. Our interactions are reaching new levels and we are beginning to glimpse what he will be like as an adult. He will be a full-fledged crew member in just a few short years. I am very proud of him.

Aaron, too, is showing signs of growing independence. Today marked the last day of summer sailing camp, and family members were invited to come along as passengers with a junior sailor. I had the pleasure of watching Aaron show Sam the ropes as he competently took him out on the water in a pram for the first time.

Sailing camp was a success on many fronts. We are happy that the boys and Sarah had the opportunity to learn basic sailing skills in beginning and intermediate classes. Their understanding of wind and sail will be intuitive—something I envy. Additionally, they are building confidence and a love of the water, something that will make them even better crew for Take Two.

High Frequency

We feel the need for some method of long-distance communication.  Currently, we lose access to weather forecasts as soon as we leave Wi-Fi and VHF range, both of which are very short, about 2 and 20 miles respectively.  We’re fair weather sailors and depend heavily on weather forecasts when traveling.  We also like to get off the beaten path, but feel the need to stay at least somewhat connected by email.

There is much debate about whether a marine HF radio (called Single Side-Band, or SSB) or a satellite phone is best to fill this need.  Of course, each has its own strengths and weaknesses:

  • SSB radio supplies broadcast or “party line” communication where one station can talk to many.  The satellite phone is point-to-point just like a regular phone.
  • SSB can transmit and receive over thousands of miles and potentially halfway around the world (depending on atmospheric conditions).  The satellite phone can call any telephone from almost anywhere on the globe (depending on provider).
  • SSB can only communicate with other stations, while the phone can only communicate with other phones.  So you need the satellite phone to call mom on her birthday, and the radio to talk to another boat.
  • SSB is far more technically complex to install and operate.  The satellite phone is as simple to use as a terrestrial cell phone.
  • SSB transceivers (transmit & receive) are very expensive, probably $3000 for a new unit with installation.  Handheld satellite phones are available for under $1000.
  • SSB is free to operate, while the satellite airtime costs upwards of $1/min.
  • An SSB radio can receive synoptic weather charts that are faxed from various met offices around the world.  A computer or dedicated weatherfax machine are required.  The satellite phone could receive the same information electronically via email.
  • Satellite phones can send and receive text messages.  Texts can typically be sent to the phone for free from the provider’s website.
  • Both can transmit and receive data.  The SSB requires an expensive Pactor modem to communicate with shoreside radio stations for sending and receiving email.  A satellite phone works like an old-school dialup computer modem, effectively putting you directly on the Internet.  Both are very slow and greatly benefit from services that filter and compress email messages.
  • It is technically possible to get higher data speeds and always-on access from a satellite system, but the equipment is very expensive and then the bandwidth pricing is about $10/MB.  Maybe someday.
  • Both are susceptible to atmospheric weather, but SSB moreso.  Both would likely be useless in the event of a major disruption like a volcanic eruption or solar storm.  

So which to choose?  The scenarios we envision using long-distance communication (in order of priority) are:

  • Emergency calls.  Getting shore-side medical advice or communicating with Search and Rescue agencies.  Advantage: satellite.
  • Email.  Staying in touch with work, friends, and family from remote areas.  Advantage: satellite.
  • Weather data.  Getting forecasts and data from electronic sources.  Advantage: satellite.
  • Weather forecasts.  Receiving voice broadcasts, specifically from Chris Parker for the Bahamas and Caribbean regions.  Advantage: SSB.
  • Routine calls.  Making regular phone calls for any purpose.  Advantage: satellite.
  • Keeping in touch with other boats.  Advantage: SSB.

Clearly we can see a use for both SSB and satellite.  Satellite receives the priority, and as the simplest to use, is almost a no-brainer.  Most of the proponents of the SSB appear to be older, more traditional cruisers, who put the investment into radio back when that was the only choice.  

A previous owner of Take Two made the SSB investment.  The radio itself was gone by the time we took possession of her, but the hardest parts of the installation are done.  She has an insulated backstay for an antenna, and a submerged ground plate for a counterpoise.  Getting good RF on boats is a lot like voodoo, but it looks like we should be able to get a pretty clean signal.

Taking all of the above into consideration, a used ICOM 710 and AT-130 tuner to complete our SSB installation seemed like a good idea.  We’re having some new cables made up, so we haven’t installed it yet, but we’re pretty excited just to have it.  Replacing the SSB has been on the “someday” list for a long time and crossing it off will give us a feeling of progress.

A satellite phone is still high on the list.  The major decision points there are choosing a provider and a plan.  That will be the subject of another post.

Tied Down

I’m getting antsy. Having become accustomed to freedom and constant change, I’m feeling a bit stagnant in this marina slip. I’m no longer afraid of getting sucked into a land life and not leaving. Now I’m positive I will want to go out there again when the time is right. Heck, I want to go right now.

There are some impediments to our heading out into the great blue yonder at this very moment, though, so, as usual, I need to cool my jets and practice patience. Aside from a few minor things, there’s nothing keeping us from day trips or even an over-nighter. The weather in August in Florida is not very conducive to sailing away. Heat and hurricanes aside, there just isn’t that much wind on the Florida gulf-coast when the water temperature and air temperature are so close. It’s great weather for anchoring and swimming, though, so I’m looking forward to that.

As for a date of departure, that may be awhile. We have checked a few substantial things off the list we made at the beginning of the year: have a baby (check), repair structural damage to boat (check), pay exorbitant tax bill (check), renovate interior of boat (check), buy washer/dryer (check). So now Jay’s out with his nose to the grindstone, working to replenish the cruising kitty. When the time comes, we’ll have to decide whether to use that money to do a few more things on our list or to travel and put the projects on the back burner. It’s hard to stop when you’ve got momentum and the boat is looking so good—and when you find local workmen who are skilled and dependable.

On the flip side, many things that we want to change we have learned to live with, and we could manage another season without fixing them. If it comes down to buying a heater so we can survive a Florida winter or using the money to head South, I will vote for the latter.

One thing affecting a DOD is Jay’s work. One must make hay while the sun shines and that may mean working for six months or a year so that we can save up to travel again. Another question that has an impact on our plans is when will we be ready to travel with Rachel? If I’m trying to nurse a baby, homeschool the kids, wash diapers, feed everyone, and keep house, what kind of a first mate am I going to be? Do we need to take on crew? If the answer is yes to crew, then we’re back to the projects question because we’d need to make a habitable space for an extra person.

The answers to the questions “when/where are we going next?” are veiled in mystery, and until we have done the day-in-day-out for a while, we aren’t going to know. That means my planning and implementing our next year of homeschool and taking care of things on the home-front without complaining. But I miss the blue water, the unimpeded sunset, and the clear starry skies at night.  I feel the lines chafing and I just can’t wait to see what the next journey will be like.

FAQ: How do you protect your kids from the sun?

In a word: we don’t. We actually like the sun and don’t view it as an enemy, but a friend. But too much of a good thing is still too much, so we expose ourselves to it in appropriate amounts.

Now for the long answer.

We get questions like this all the time—especially now that we have a small human with soft and delicate skin. People ask: Do we slather her several times a day? What about at the pool or the beach? Do the other kids burn easily? The answer to all three of those questions is no. We are fortunate in that our genetic recipe for children includes “lovely golden complexion.” Even the child with the fairest hair and eyes turns a beautiful golden brown in the sun. The children have never burned in their lives aside from the occasional pink nose when someone forgot to wear his or her hat. Even Rachel, with her pearly pink baby skin is getting a little baby tan.

Cancer is no joking matter—but we have come to the conclusion that safe sun exposure does not cause skin cancer any more than healthy food causes allergies. I’m sure I’m opening a can of worms here, but we do not believe in slathering our kids with the chemicals in sunscreen any more than we would feed them something we can’t pronounce. The two topics are inextricably linked in my mind: we try not to put anything un-natural or over-processed on or in our bodies.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. It is the first line of defense against all sorts of toxins and micro-organisms. We avoid anti-bacterial soaps and don’t scrub the kids down very often intentionally: they need good critters on their skin to fight malicious microbes. The skin is also the body’s main mechanism for collecting light, which it somehow miraculously turns into Vitamin D, which is integral to staying healthy. That means safe sun exposure every day, not sun avoidance. And, of course, skin is permeable—which means if you can’t ingest it, don’t put it on your skin!

We believe we were put on planet Earth (or evolved here, if that’s your style) under the rays of the sun, and that we actually need its light and heat to thrive. Of course, depending on your ancestry and where you now live, you may be more or less susceptible to getting too much sun. This is easily combatted by getting a tan very slowly, so you can prevent skin-damaging burns, and by wearing hats and clothes. It’s a sensible approach, and unless we’re going to be out all day where there is no shade, we don’t use sunscreens at all. When we do, we use all-natural products like Burt’s Bees.

The problem with sunscreens is chiefly that the cosmetics industry is self-policing and is not tightly regulated by the FDA (and even if it were, I’d be wary). That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse. If you start researching some of the ingredients in your sunscreen (yes, even the kind for babies), you will find all sorts of frightening facts that will probably turn you into a health-nut like me. Next thing you know, your kids will be wearing SPF clothing and eating home-made bread. Come to think of it, that’s actually not such a bad thing.

Note: Great information on the importance of vitamin D and safe sun exposure as well as cancer prevention can be found at and you can check the toxicity of your favorite sunscreens at the Environmental Working Group’s site: