Monthly Archives: December 2013

Black Box Theory

"…Every boat possesses an imaginary black box, a sort of bank account in which points are kept. In times of emergency, when there is nothing more to be done in the way of sensible seamanship, the points from your black box can buy your way out of trouble. You have no control over how the points are spent, of course; they withdraw themselves when the time is appropriate. You do have control over how the points get into the box: you earn them. For every seamanlike act you perform, you get a point in the black box. 


No matter how good your seamanship, there are times when there is nothing left to do but batten down the hatches and pray. If you have a credit balance of points in the box, you'll be all right. People will say you're lucky, of course. They'll say a benign fate let you get away with it. But we know better. That luck was earned, maybe over quite a long period."
When we bought Take Two, one of the first things we did was go through all her gear.  It was an impressive array of mostly useless junk.  At the time we merely noted the existence of her emergency tillers.  These are intended to give direct control of the rudders in case the steering system fails, and are a must-have for any well-equipped offshore boat.
Eventually, at a much later date, we pulled those tillers out and test-fit them.  Our impression was that they were pretty much, um… pathetic.  They didn’t have the strength or leverage to apply adequate torque to the rudders.  Any situation that could knock out our hydraulic steering would eat those tillers for lunch.
Vigor’s Black Box Theory amounts to Karma.  Everyone knows that if you carry an umbrella it won’t rain.  With that in mind, we decided to build new emergency tillers.  
Take Two’s rudder posts are solid 1.5” round stainless rod with machined 1.25” square heads.  At we got some 1.5” square tube to fit over the heads and extend the posts up to deck level.  Ben welded tees onto the top of these extensions, and we got a 48” piece of 1.25” square tube to slide into the tee for a tiller handle.  For added strength we cut some collars from 3” square tube and tack welded them over the bottom of the rudder post extensions to prevent the tube from splitting under load.
These are our new emergency tillers.  May we never need them.
Emergency Tillers 
Update 1/24/14
In the aftermath of the abandonment of the Alpha 42 "Be Good Too", and the ensuing questions about sizing for catamaran rudder posts, I feel compelled to add a bit more information about ours.  I stated above that our rudder posts are 1.5" rod, which is what I see at the top of the tube, and to which are attached the steering quadrant and tiller arms for the hydraulic cylinders.  What didn't seem important to mention at the time is that where the posts exit the bottom of the tubes and enter the rudders, they are 60mm (or 2-3/8").  
I feel that the 1.5" at the top is more than sufficient for the torque loads that the steering system can reasonably supply (or endure).  I could perhaps wish for more than 60mm diameter where the posts span between the rudder and the hull, and where any bending force would be felt, but the rudders are not thick enough to support anything larger.  We do have heavy rudder stops to prevent the rudders from deflecting more than 30 degrees, which should keep them from developing excessive side loads.
We dropped the rudders several years ago during a steering system refurb, but the boat wasn't blocked high enough to get them out completely, so I've never seen what the joint between these two diameters looks like.  If I had to guess, I'd bet that the 1.5" runs the entire length from the top of the tube to the bottom of the rudder, and the 60mm section I see betwen the hull and the rudder is a sleeve to reinforce it at that point. 
Of course, you never know the condition of the welds inside the rudder.  The strongest post in the world isn't going to help if the rudder itself just spins around it or falls off.  As in most things, we take comfort that we have another one.

Why is it SO Hard to Leave the Dock?

Jay has attempted to write on this topic, but he said it was too hard. I thought I’d give it a go, but it means admitting a few painful things, so bear with me.

Reasons we like to travel (or, why we sold a house and bought a boat):

• The freedom and independence
• Openness to new experiences, people, and places
• The simplicity of traveling with a family inside your home
• It’s fun, beautiful, and satisfying
• We learn new things
• It’s less expensive than life on shore or connected to a dock
• Love of Change

Why we like living in a marina (or, why it’s so hard to leave the dock):

• Comfort: nice laundry room, hot showers, convenience of a car
• Good friends on shore
• We like the town we’re in
• Sometimes we need a place to “sit tight” so we can work uninterruptedly
• Illusion of safety from bad weather or mishap
• The boat needs fixing, and is never “ready”
• Aversion to Change

So what’s wrong with us?

A guy stopped by in his dinghy one day and commented on our boat. He had been cruising with his family and thought we had a good thing going, but couldn’t figure out why we were sitting at a marina when we could, ostensibly, be cruising in the Caribbean somewhere. We ourselves feel frustrated that it has taken so long to do the things for which we bought the boat in the first place. Sometimes we don’t travel because our original goals were unrealistic—whether it’s because we still need to be working, or because the boat needs more than we thought it would, or because we have more children than we ever dreamed we’d travel with. Other times, we just get stuck (call it inertia). Like after Rachel was born; we just grew comfortable and could not get ourselves to untie the boat, even though we were physically ready to leave and had places we wanted to go. It may be due to circumstances beyond our control. We’ve been trying to leave Ft. Pierce to go to the Keys for a few weeks now. We’ve done all our last-minute projects, provisioned the boat, done the last load of laundry, checked the systems, waited for weather, and said good-bye to our friends. But at the last moment, we decided to call ahead and found out that there’s no mooring ball available right now. And sometimes, it’s just plain hard because we choose not to do things the easy way. Making something as simple as, say, a PBJ, involves grinding grain to make bread, pureéing peanuts for peanut butter, and picking berries to make jam. Trip planning takes on a whole new dimension for people like us.

We always feel a sense of elation when we break loose, but it comes with a simultaneous feeling of fear and pressure. When we try to leave and have to rethink, postpone, or abort, Jay and I respond differently. Jay feels a sense of relief, because living in a familiar place feels safe and comfortable, whereas sailing in the ocean leaves one feeling out of control and vulnerable. I, however, feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment which dredges up feelings of failure that come from some primal place which defies logic. He heaves a sigh and I start crying. I immediately feel like we’re never leaving, like the whole point of living on a boat is to go somewhere, and like all my preparation has been for naught. He argues logically (thank God) that we are already successful, that we’re raising our family the way we always wanted to, and that the travel is a bonus. Plus, he reminds me, we like it here; that’s why we’ve stayed so long. Of course, he’s right, and it takes me less time to realize it each time, but I still can’t seem to control my immediate emotional response, and it brings him down.  It’s totally ridiculous—I really wish we could just have a good laugh about it and say, “Oh, well, we’ll try again later.” It makes me wonder if maybe we don’t have what it takes to cross oceans. That’s the sort of thing you don’t find out until you’re in the middle of it. Or maybe we still are learning how to work as a team, how to be patient, and how to “go with the flow.” In any case, the other thing about us is that we’re damned stubborn, so we won’t be giving up on Take Two or the traveling life anytime soon.

Rocking the Boat

I’ve been struggling to learn guitar for a long time.  
I had the regular boyhood daydreams of electric guitars, leather pants, and bleached blonde women.  Then later in life I imagined myself swinging in a hammock, sipping an umbrella drink, and strumming Jimmy Buffet songs.  The only difference between these two unrealities being that the second time around I had a wife who thought I was in desperate need of a hobby.  Tanya bought me a very nice acoustic guitar for a birthday gift, and it has been a source of mutual frustration ever since.
Aaron was bit by the guitar bug early.  We raise our kids on the classics, and Aaron has developed a real appreciation for classic rock.  He wanted to play guitar, electric of course, before he knew anything about bleached pants and leather women.  Stubborn purists that we are, we bought him an acoustic instead and signed him up for lessons, promising that if he stuck to his lessons, the electric would come.  You can probably guess what happened.  The lessons were boring and tedious, interest waned, and then we had two acoustic guitars and three intensely frustrated people.
Years pass and I bump into a colleague in the Atlanta airport.  He has an electric guitar on his back and a discussion ensues.  He always wanted to play guitar, and now his kid wants to play guitar, but it’s so hard.  Have I heard of Rocksmith?  No?  Rocksmith is fundamentally a game, but with a real guitar and the intention that you actually learn to play.  It works because it’s fun.
I was intrigued and so picked up a copy of Rocksmith and a red Stratocaster.  Oh man, is that ever fun.  And the kids are into it.  For the last three days, that red Strat has hardly had a break.  Such a workout, in fact, that we’ve already worn out a set of strings.
I’ve realized that electric is better than acoustic for learning.  It’s smaller and less prone to damage.  The strings don’t have to be pressed as hard, so it’s not as painful.  It’s quieter when unamplified, and even amplified can be plugged into headphones.  And it’s more fun.  Rocksmith can work with an acoustic, but really, why would you want to?
Why are we talking about learning guitar?  Isn’t this a sailing blog?  Not really, but I’ll give you a sailing analogy anyway:  
  • To be great at either, and I mean truly excellent, it must be learned as a child.  A late-learner is never going to sail like Jimmy Spithill or wail like Jimi Hendrix.  
  • The fundamentals are not that important.  Jimi played a right-handed guitar upside-down after all, and there have been well-documented cases of compete newbies sailing all the way around the world.  
  • Modern tools go a long way toward replacing ancient knowledge.  Learning to read sheet music is akin to learning proper navigation.  While I would never suggest that either is unimportant, they do create a barrier to entry that isn’t really necessary for basic recreational enjoyment.  Rocksmith is for guitar what GPS is for boating.
Only time will tell how well the whole thing works out, but it’s looking good so far.  Rock on.
Red Guitar 

Top of the Hill

“In his heart, a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” –-King Solomon

If forty is over the hill, then today marks the metaphorical summit of my life. I find that thought both comforting and terrifying. How happy I am to have awakened this beautiful morning to sunshine and calm breezes over blue water, to pelicans diving for fish right outside my bedroom window, to a sweet little girl who came blanky-in-hand to snuggle, to children who were sweeping the main cabin clean as a special surprise for me, and to a husband who makes a great cup of coffee (to make up for the pelicans and toddler waking me way too early). Some good friends made dinner and a birthday treat for me last night, and I struggled to think of a wish as I blew out my candles. Sure, there are things on my “bucket list,” goals I have not yet accomplished, places I still want to go, but, on the whole, I have everything I have ever wanted and I am so thankful for each of my thirty nine years.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that I will get to slide down the other side of the hill—and what a slide it will be, especially if the illusion of time passing faster and faster proves true (where
did all those years go?)  The terrifying part of staring down at the slope ahead is that have no idea what the terrain looks like. I had the sense of making a controlled ascent, though I now see very clearly that much of the good in my life is serendipity and not according to my plan. In fact, the older I get, the more I realize that I have no idea what is good for me, that even my desires change, and that trying to control things is what limits joy and contentment. I can honestly say that if today were the last day of my life, I would look back without regret, but what I want more than anything else is to keep learning new things, to live more fearlessly, and to plumb the depths of love, so that whatever the years ahead hold I will be able to say the same thing at the bottom that I say here at the top: life is sweet and God is good.


Migratory Birds

We are feeling left out of the annual migration of boats. We watched in October as the long lazy Florida summer ended with the first cool, dry days, and on the north wind the snowbirds began to blow in. We are on the east coast, along the Intracoastal waterway, connecting the frozen north to the balmy south, and in one of the last civilized stops before long passages to the islands and their turquoise waters. In previous years we have joined other boats as they crossed the Gulf Stream, but we never fly in formation, so we’re not really part of the flock. We’ve often commented that we sometimes feel alone—the rare family in a sea of child-free couples, but we’re also alone because we don’t do what everybody else is doing.

This is not necessarily by choice, really, because who wouldn’t want to head off into the sunrise for tropical adventures as the temperatures begin to drop? But the stage of life in which we find ourselves dictates when and where we travel, and whom we seek for company. That, and we own a twenty-plus-year-old boat that we are still refurbishing.

We live at a popular marina, and see lots of boats coming and going. We often see familiar boat names, ones we’ve heard on the VHF in the Bahamas or seen in Boot Key Harbor. And the ports of call look familiar too: Ontario, Quebec, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia are common. The Chesapeake-to-Bahamas migration is a popular one, with the same folks traveling the same routes, sometimes for a dozen years or more.

Sometimes a friend unexpectedly comes into the marina, like Bob on Pandora, whom we met last year in the Abacos with his wife Brenda. We ran out onto the dock waving and shouting, and got to spend some time with him while he was here. Not unlike birds, cruisers form a small and close-knit community, and you never know when or where you’re going to meet up again with an old friend, but you inevitably will.

Other times, we watch as boats come in battered by wind and waves and bad weather, like broken-winged birds, jibs shredded, engines dead, pumps running. This is always a heart-rending sight, regardless of the circumstances, and a lesson to never let your guard down where the sea is concerned.

November has passed and it’s past time to be heading south. I’ve seen all the tee-shirts on the docks displaying the places boats have been on their migrations: St. Maarten, Abaco, Barbados, Grenada. Places to which I wouldn’t mind being en route. Sometimes I long to be free to fly with the others, but staying longer has offered other opportunities, like deeper friendships with locals, social activities with other children, overland expeditions, ease of finding food and boat parts, a place to work and to work on the boat. This is the trade-off: we don’t sail on a schedule, so we’re free to stay as long as we’d like and to go only when we’re ready, but sometimes we are left behind when the flock moves on.