Monthly Archives: June 2012

Weather or Whether or Not

We have been feeling for some time now that it is time to leave the dock. All of us are itching for adventure after working hard this past year—whether it was business travel, boat projects, schoolwork, teaching or having a baby. Finally, we looked at our sorry excuse-of-a-list, knocked off the have-tos and decided to leave. We picked our weather so that we could have an easy sail down the coast, with a familiar anchorage waiting at the end of the day, and a safe place in case the weather deteriorated (which it had a strong chance of doing). After a false start on a rainy Wednesday evening (violated Rule #1: We only set sail in fair weather), we left on a calm and quiet Thursday morning, optimistically taking dock lines with us, with no fanfare or fuss, just the way we like it.

We got out into the Gulf, only to find the wind already shifting to the South, along with swells on the nose. It was going to be a long day of motoring upwind. We looked at each other and agreed that it didn’t make sense. We hated to admit defeat, but this wasn’t going to be the day to ease us back into our old rambling lifestyle. We both had a lot of unspecified anxiety about leaving the comfort of the dock, and a long, wavy day wasn’t helping. Should we tuck tail and run back to the marina? At Aaron’s request, we decided instead to anchor in Terra Ceia Bay, not three miles from our slip, but a world away by the feel of it. We were surrounded by mangrove islands, not another boat in sight, and plenty of breathing room. We dropped the new 80-pound Manson hook with 5:1 scope (all chain) near Bird Key, because it is nice to look at, close to good mangrove tunnels and coves for exploring, and because we’d been there before. We weren’t really thinking we would be weathering storm-force winds there, or we might have anchored on the windward side of the bay, and would definitely have laid out more chain.

It was just what the doctor ordered. For two days, we swam, kayaked, and found our cruising groove—living without the A/C, power cord and water hose. Even if we had to go back, at least we left for a few days, right? And then the wind began to blow. Terra Ceia is one of our possible hurricane holes. Marinas, especially with floating docks, can be dangerous places in a storm. Aside from wind damage and boats breaking loose, the whole dock can float off the pilings with the high water of a storm surge. In a mangrove-sheltered bay, even if you break loose, the boat is not likely to sustain a lot of damage. So, even with our dubious location inside the bay, we were pretty comfortable as the wind began to climb and whitecaps began to form. I went out at one point to take some swim suits off the life lines and was pelted with raindrops driven by 40-knot winds. Ouch!

We watched weather forecasts and kept our eyes on the skies. It grew wild and wet and uncomfortable. The wind began to blow consistently 30-35 knots with gusts in the 40s. But it was exciting, too. Weathering a storm on the water has a way of making you feel very alive. As the wind shifted, we grew nervous about our proximity to the shore behind us. We used the GPS anchor alarm to make sure the anchor was holding because we didn’t want to end up in someone’s back yard. I wondered aloud if someone in one of those houses was watching us. Later that first night, we thought we saw a spot lite on the end of a dock, but didn’t think much of it.

The next morning, we had a funny email from the guy who lived on the lee shore. He had looked at our boat name, found our web site and contacted us to see if we were okay. He noted that our anchor seemed to be holding, but didn’t know if we had enough food/water for a long stay. He offered to float us a pizza if we got desperate. It was very kind, and we replied that we were fine, and were prepared for this sort of thing. The weather was unbelievable—it just blew and blew and blew, with no discernible lessening of wind or waves. How long, we wondered, could it last? We lost sleep and got cabin fever. While we waited for the storm to end, we traded emails with our new neighbor, finding out that he too had lived aboard a sailboat and cruised extensively, having survived many storms at sea.

What are the odds, I ask you? We anchor in a desperate move to avoid admitting failure, and find ourselves on a lee shore in a tropical storm, in the back yard of a world-traveler and fellow-cruiser! Life is funny like that. I stopped believing in coincidence a long time ago, but I still find myself pleasantly surprised. After the blow finally ended (day five of our unintended cruise to Terra Ceia), we dinghied over to the neighbor’s with a loaf of bread and introduced ourselves. The kids immediately started piling up tree branches that had blown all over his yard, burning off some of that pent-up energy. We ended up spending the better part of our day with our new-found friend, the kids climbing his tree, borrowing his canoe to go on an explore, and crabbing along his sea wall. They were as happy as clams, and we were glad to be ashore in the fine sunshine and gentle breeze and swap stories with an old salt. 

We had reached decision time. Looking at the calendar and the weather, we had to decide whether we had time to get anywhere new before Jay had to be on location for a new project. Our trip to the Dry Tortugas was looking impossible (violated rule #2: We don’t sail on a schedule), but did going back to our slip serve our new goals? Did we even have any new goals? We did what we set out to do this past year: have a baby and refit the boat. But what’s next for us? We were reminded this week why we like cruising, and why we bought a boat in the first place. We managed to break out of the marina, and we don’t really want to get comfortable with a land-based life or feel tied-down. We will never be totally ready and the boat will never be finished, so we just have to pick an arbitrary date and go.

So we went, with a tentative destination, but not really knowing what the future holds. But then, do we ever? And isn't that part of the charm of a roving lifestyle? At least surviving the storm cured us of, or inured us to, our jitters. We left and felt good about it. What a difference a week’s adventures can make.

Rachel Rocks

Rachel is my absolute favorite one-year-old on the planet. Allow me to boast for just a moment—I promise, it pertains to our life afloat. This is our first boat baby. True, Sam was Rachel’s age when we bought the boat, but we were just weekenders back then, and he still remembers our house. Rachel, on the other hand, was conceived on the boat, spent her first hour of life in the water, and doesn’t even know what a house is. So we are getting to see what miraculous things a boat baby can do.

[flickr: 7441316096]

First, Rachel can swim, and that means without floatation. Granted, she has a hard time coming up for air, but she fearlessly dives off of the pool steps (or swim ladder on the boat) and paddles over to me underwater. No coming up spluttering, either. She’s only thirteen months old, and for a while there she swam better than she walked. Finally, she’s decided that walking is the way to go—and boy, can she walk! In this crazy weather we’re having, we’ve got a steady 30 knots of breeze and gusts to 45, and there’s a 2-4’ chop on the bay we’re in. Rachel is completely steady on her feet and has the best sea legs of any baby I’ve ever seen. When Sam was her age, he would fall down at the least ripple (or even a crack in the sidewalk for that matter) and shout, “wake!”

Another thing we like about Rachel is that she loves the engines. This is convenient since her bed is right near the port engine and it vibrates like crazy. She thinks it’s great, and, what’s better, can sleep right through the noise. Actually, she seems to be able to sleep through anything—what a blessing! She also loves the wind and thinks a wild day is nothing but fun. Big waves kind of freak her out a little (lots of shouting “uh-oh!”), but she takes her cue from us, and when we smile and whoop and holler, she smiles back and I know she will come to love the sea as we do. We just stick her in her cockpit swing and let Mother Nature do the rest.

Last, but not least, Rachel can talk. The other kids, to be fair, were also early talkers, but her vocabulary contains words that theirs did not. She recognizes all sorts of “boaps” (boats) and “fsh” (fish) and loves sea birds, “bird” being her first clearly spoken word. She doesn’t know enough to be afraid of the “wa-wa” and loves it in any form. She hates wearing “oohs” (shoes) and won’t even let us put the tiny pink dolly crocs on her baby. That’s got to be a hallmark boat kid trait. Won’t be long and she’ll be climbing in the rigging barefoot with the rest of the gang. Gotta’ love a boat baby.


We’ve been trying to get out of the marina for months.  Don’t get me wrong, we love it there – a little too much actually.  But we felt the need to detach, to do something more along the lines of what we bought the boat for.  After living in a marina too long, we start to ask ourselves why we live on a boat at all.  It was past time for a reminder.

But leaving the dock is hard.  The longer we’re there, the harder it is to get away.  The comforts and conveniences work their way so deep, we think we can’t live without them.  Like OMG, it’s almost July, we can’t turn off the air conditioner, WE’LL DIE!  Never mind that we spent a whole summer in the Keys without air.  We’ve battled heat, humidity, and ninja mosquitos, and prevailed.

I previously said we wanted to go up to the Chesapeake for the summer.  It was a noble goal and we were really excited about it, but we couldn’t get our ducks in a row to leave.  Boat projects dragged out, we spent far too much money on them so that I had to accept some work I didn’t really want, and then the air conditioner came on and it was hurricane season.  

Things finally reached a critical mass.  Something had to be done, and we began preparing for a departure.  We didn’t have a real solid destination in mind, but we were generally trying to get over to the FL East Coast.  It was always sort of assumed that the next time we left Bradenton our first stop would be the Dry Tortugas.  After returning from the Bahamas, it felt like the Tortugas were practically in our back yard, a scant 180 miles away.

All the items were checked off the departure list more or less on time, and the only thing left was the one we couldn’t control… the weather.  With a tropical thing brewing down near the Yucatan, which would eventually become TS Debby, the Tortugas didn’t seem doable.  At our boldest, we’re still fair weather sailors, and after a year at the dock, we weren’t feeling very bold.  

The wind had been steady from the E for days, which is great for the trip back and forth to the Tortugas, but was forecasted to shift S and maybe W depending on how the storm developed.  We couldn’t use the S to get down there, and didn’t want any part of strong W winds.  The weather would probably be rainy and nasty down there anyway, so we decided to take the last day of E and get down to Charlotte Harbor just to make progress.  We knew we could batten down and take a tropical storm there if necessary.

However, once we got out to the Gulf, the Charlotte Harbor plan wasn’t looking so good.   The E wind was already thinking about being SE, and there was a S swell I didn’t expect.  Actually, I had seen that detail during my weather research, but discounted and forgot about it.  The result was that we couldn’t make near the necessary speed to get to Charlotte Harbor by dark, and bashing into waves wasn’t making anyone happy.

This wasn’t what we’d bargained for and we had no need to torture ourselves, so we bailed out.  We did a 180 and headed back to Tampa Bay.  With the waves now behind us, our retreat was 100% faster than our advance.

Slightly demoralized, and without a plan, we were at a loss about where to go.  Should we go back to the marina?  The suggestion was unspoken, but it was hanging in the air.  I think Tanya and I both wanted it, but neither wanted to admit it.  It would have felt like such a failure to go running straight back to our slip.  Eventually it was Aaron who made the decision.  He wanted Terra Ceia.

Terra Ceia is a bay-within-a-bay.  Much of it is grassy flats, but it has a well-marked channel to an interior with plenty of water.  It is busy with fishing boats on the weekend but otherwise is very quiet.  It is almost totally surrounded by mangroves, and despite being only 3 miles from our marina, it has a very remote feeling.

This was the destination of our very first multi-day cruise many years ago.  We’d never been back, but there was something fitting about going there now.  For several days we swam, fished, and kayaked, and generally just enjoyed the boat while waiting out the weather.

There was something else fitting about being in Terra Ceia since that is our presumed hurricane hole for the Bradenton area.  We’re still watching Debby warily and don’t have any confidence in NOAA’s forecast tracks, which just recently moved her landfall from Texas to Pensacola, and even that not for another four days.  It seems like she could come our way just as easily.

We’ve already had more of Debby than we bargained for with two squalls so far with sustained winds of over 40 knots.  We have a new personal record with our instruments recording 47.3 knots during the second squall, which sustained 40-45 knots for over 5 minutes.  We’re only set with 5:1 scope, but the GPS shows we hardly moved at all – and that probably just due to the chain catenary, since we moved forward again after the squall passed.  I’m going to kiss that anchor if we can ever dig it out.  That was money well spent.

What we’ll do next we still don’t know.  I need to travel for a while, so we’ll probably end up at a dock somewhere for the rest of the summer.  Maybe we’ll try again for the other coast after this weather passes.  Or maybe we’ll feel like we’ve had a little break and a little bit of adventure, and can go back to Bradenton contented.

New Old Friends

We had the privilege of bookending the amazing journey of s/v Begonia last week and getting to see some good friends we made in the Bahamas. The Koziuras bought a boat 18 months ago, taking a break from work and pulling their two kids out of school (Sofia is Sarah’s age and Benjie is Sam’s age). This week, after a trip across the Pond and a tour of the Mediterranean Sea and African coast, then back across to the Caribbean, they sold the boat and went back home to pack up for a new and exciting chapter in their lives. They wrote extensively about their journey, and you can read their blog here.

Even though we only spent a couple weeks bumming around on the beach with them well over a year ago, I can’t even tell you how excited I was to see them—what a feeling of long lost friendship regained! I met Karla when she was still wearing her seasickness patch. We stranded ourselves and the kids in our dinghies on Stocking Island like the two helpless women we were then. When I saw her this week, she was an experienced sailor who had crossed an ocean. My admiration could not be greater. The kids, of course, were thrilled to see each other again, and, like only boat kids can, they picked up right where they left off.


When we met, Karla was just getting started—both as a sailor and a homeschool mom. She asked all sorts of questions when we got together. This time, I was the one in awe, asking all sorts of questions. How had the journey changed them as individuals? As a family? How did the kids do on the long passages? Were they ever afraid? What is it like to cross an ocean? Would you do it again? How on earth did you survive without a watermaker?

After a big brunch where we began to cover the above topics whirlwind-fashion, I had the insightful treat of watching Karla do the dishes. I had cheated and used paper plates, but there was still an average-size mess in the galley. I could not believe how little water she used! With the new water meter Jay installed, I can actually see the tanks draining during dish-duty and it is shocking how much water I use. I have been getting steadily better (now that I can budget based on measurable amounts) but Karla was amazing. I guess that’s how you make it without a desalinator. Granted, we have a lot more people aboard who need showers and clean clothes and washed dishes, but still, I learned a few tricks that should help out with water conservation.

One of the things Sebastian said was that they had a new respect for the scarce resources we appreciate so abundantly in this country, simple things like water, fresh food and access to health care. If you woke up this morning in America, you have opportunities that few around the world enjoy. They also said they really appreciate natural beauty, and have a newfound desire to protect it. We felt the same way when we would go to a beautiful ocean beach in the Bahamas only to find it littered with the detritus of modern civilization—thousands of pieces of plastic in all shapes and sizes. When I asked about the daunting task of making an ocean passage, Sebastian said it’s just like any other passage, only longer. If you’re making a one day passage, the last couple of hours are the hardest, and if you’re crossing an ocean the last couple of days are hardest. You get into a normal rhythm at sea, just like you do on land.

They drew several conclusions from their journey which have inspired us to keep going and to try to get back “out there.” First, that raising a family on the boat is a great idea. Ideally, they will buy another boat someday and give the kids a chance to travel again when they are a little older—Sebastian has a circumnavigation dream. Second, the simple life is worth pursuing. “Really, what do you need?” Sebastian asked Jay. Living at the dock is a lot like living in a neighborhood—once you’re “plugged in” you get comfortable and begin to think that you need things, but those things don’t really make you happy. We are still trying to leave (Lord willing) because we have suddenly been reminded that there is a wild and free life waiting for us beyond the horizon.

Celestial Musings

This just occurred to me this morning:

We have Google Sky, an app that you can use in a sort of augmented reality kind of way to view the sky through your phone or tablet and it will show you all the names of all the celestial bodies there.

We have range finder apps that you can use to measure the angular height of an object, ostensibly to determine the distance.  Some even have the very convenient ability to calculate bullet drop.  Umm, okay.

We have celestial calculator apps that contain nautical almanacs through 2099 and will do the sight reductions for you.

So how long is it before you can point your phone to the sky and it can tell you where you are?

Sailing Data Display

I’ve said a few times here that I thought the instrument manufacturers were falling pretty short on the display and visualization of sailing data.  

I’m able to make do with what we have, which are analog needles for wind direction and LCD displays for numeric data like speeds and headings, but it takes a bit of imagination and mental effort to put the various pieces of information together into an accurate picture of what’s going on.  I suppose that’s good since it forces you to really pay attention (some would argue that any electronics are a crutch and a barrier to really feeling the boat), but it also means that the mechanics of sailing remain somewhat mysterious to people who don’t have an innate sense of it.

This is a situation that I think is beginning to change, primarily due to the technology advances in screens and microprocessors.  I can’t help crediting Apple for making pods, pads, and phones a part of daily life, thus creating market demand to drive the technology forward, and showing us that user interfaces don’t have to suck.

I also have to say that I don’t have my finger on the pulse of marine electronics, and I’m not even in the market to buy new instruments.  So I may not be 100% accurate on the capabilities of what’s currently available, but I think I’m pretty close.

Without really looking too hard, this is the best display I’ve seen so far.  It is the B&G Triton T41, and Ben Ellison recently gave it a little writeup over on Panbo.  You may recall that I gave props to B&G for their Zeus displays.  Two points for B&G.

What I like about this display is the little “T” for true wind, and the cone around the “A”.  I assume the cone represents the actual variations in wind direction, and not just a fixed buffer around the current reading.  I’d feel more confident about this if their “A” in the image weren’t dead center in the cone.  Wind isn’t steady and naturally oscillates back and forth.  A good visualization would simultaneously show the range, the average direction, the trend, and hint what direction the next shift might be.

This is a step in the right direction, but I still want more.  About a year ago I felt tempted to try my hand at creating my own display.  I never had any delusions of grandeur, but thought it had potential to be useful.  The odds that I’m actually going to do any more with it are waning, and in order to cement my bragging rights later on, I figured I’d go ahead and show it.  Who knows, maybe some product development person, or somebody else with too much time on their hands, will build it for me.

This is a working prototype running in Windows and reading Take Two’s instrument data over Wi-Fi.  I know it doesn't look like much, but I'm rather proud of it.  This old dog can still learn new tricks. 

The inner dial is relative to the boat, and the outer dial is the magnetic compass (relative to the Earth).  The four arrows around the outer dial are “A” (apparent wind angle), “T” (true wind angle), “W” (bearing to waypoint), and “O” (opposite tack angle).  The bar at the bottom is a rudder indicator.

We’re currently tied to the dock so there is no boat speed, and headings don’t change more than a degree or two.  Without speed, the True wind tracks the Apparent.  About half way into the video, I switch the display from “heading (inner dial) up” to “north (outer dial) up” to show the movement of the dials.

Improvements on the drawing board before development stalled include markers on either end of the apparent wind range, and a color gradient between them to indicate the average angle.  

The next evolutionary step that I would really like to see is a visualization like this overlaid on a chart.  All chartplotters have a little icon to indicate the boat’s position.  The only instrumentation I’ve seen from that is the projected track (where the boat is headed a number of minutes into the future at present course and speed).  Why not a compass?  Why not wind angle indicators?  Why not laylines for your waypoint and opposite tack? Maybe the Zeus does some of this.

So there it is.  You might get the sense that I'm difficult to please when it comes to technology items, and you'd be right.  I often struggle with build vs. buy decisions.  Unfortunately (or not), I can't afford the time to tinker.  I recently found this blog by a guy building his own transducers, which I find fascinating.

Radio Spot

I was asked to share a little bit about our family adventures on alocal radio talk show, "Maternally Yours." It was really fun, and if you want to listen to the podcast, you can find it

No Swimming

A boat from our marina went out yesterday with a guest aboard.  Turns out this guest had a heart condition and couldn’t swim.  So when he reached too far for a dock line and fell in the water, he died.  Several people rushed to assist, and even dove in after him, but it was too late.  They saved him from drowning, but not from an apparent heart attack.

I’ve been searching for my reaction to this, but so far haven’t found one.  I never met the man, and missed the whole hullabaloo.

People fall off of docks and boats all the time, but usually without fatal consequences.  Mark fell in late one night after a few too many.  By the time Bill happened to find him, he was quite blue. Then Bill fell in another day while docking his boat.  Patrick saw it happen from the next dock over and came to help.  All our kids have fallen in, except Rachel, but she will someday.  Aaron fell in just a few weeks ago while trying to slackline between the boat and the dock.  Back on H-Dock, falling in was almost a sport and there was an actual trophy and awards ceremony.  When Mikey went in he knocked himself out and it took two guys to haul his sorry ass back onto the dock.  Injuries are usually only to the person’s pride, but the barnacles can give some nasty cuts.  I haven’t fallen in since I was about eight, but I still have the scars.

The major complication in this case was that the guy panicked.  It didn’t help at all that the docks in that area are fixed and it was low tide at the time.  I’m all for old guys and non-swimmers going sailing, but maybe he shouldn’t have been on the bow without a life jacket.  The owners take their boat out duo all the time, so he didn’t really need to be on the bow at all.  I’m sure they wouldn’t have allowed him to take that risk if they knew he couldn’t swim.

There’s an assumption, especially among boat people, that everyone can swim.  If you can’t, you really ought to tell the captain.  There’s no shame in that.  I know of another case, where a guest, while wading from the beach out to the boat, waited until the water was up to neck to mention that he couldn’t swim.  That’s annoying.

I think I’d sense more tragedy here if I’d known the guy, or if I’d been there to see it happen.  But those thoughts would likely be tainted by emotion.  The fact of the matter is that any of us can go at any time, even moreso a 79-year-old man with a heart condition.  It might have happened tomorrow while he was brushing his teeth.  Falling in the water was bad form, and his last moments must have been terrifying, but if you skip over that part, he was having a great day.  And he died with the sun shining on his face.  That’s not all bad.

So I apologize for not being sad and mushy about all this.  My advice, if you ever fall in the water, is DON’T PANIC.  And always know where your towel is.