Category Archives: Lessons Learned

Deep Thoughts

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am chicken-hearted. I look at danger and run for the hills. Eli says that I am the kind of person that can turn a perfectly-fun activity into a life-threatening situation. (Arguably, I could say the same about him!) I have an uncanny knack for imagining the worst possible scenario. I go straight there, do not pass go, do not collect $200. When one of the kids gets hurt, Jay has to remind me to stop planning the funeral. And it’s not just a “mom-thing;” I have always had a nervous disposition.

If I operated according to my natural instincts, we would still be living in a ranch-style house with a white picket fence in a quiet little suburb. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would certainly not be pursuing my dreams. While my instincts are to live a small, safe life, my dreams are the opposite—I want to try everything, to go everywhere, to talk to everyone. I’m like Aladdin’s genie-in-a-lamp: “phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space.” I have written about this dichotomy—and about my greatest fear: regret. This is what drives me to live despite my fear. And every time I experience something new, I have to confront that fear and decide whether to heed or ignore it.

For example, I climbed up, but decided not to jump from Morgan’s Head in Providencia. I don’t even like jumping from our high dive, where there is no rocky outcrop to surmount or coral heads to avoid upon landing. (The kids thought the 30-foot jump was great fun.)

Morgan's Head, Old Providence

But I did go ziplining in Panama because I wanted, just once, to know what it was like to jump out of a perfectly good tree and go screaming through the jungle. And, while I have enjoyed snorkeling or SCUBA diving (both of which involve breathing), I have never liked freediving (which involves not breathing). At the same time, I love to watch my kids take a deep breath, swim down into a sandy canyon between walls of coral, and glide comfortably at 10 meters/33 feet or more below the surface, for a minute or two. I sometimes follow them down, to take a closer look at something on the reef, but I get below the surface only a few feet before I begin to feel panicky, like I must get to the surface immediately to breath open air.

Sarah Freediving

So, when the opportunity arose to take an Apnea Total class at Freedive Utila, I signed up along with Jay, Eli, Sarah, and Sam. Aaron opted out (he’s not much of a water kid) and agreed to keep an eye on Rachel while we were in class for a couple of days. I had no depth goals, really, but wanted to conquer my fear of holding my breath underwater so I could enjoy adventure-snorkeling with my family more. Jay and Eli have good breath-holds and are comfortable at greater depths, but Jay had trouble equalizing the air space in his ears past 12 meters/40 feet, and Eli wanted to learn about practicing safely. Sarah and Sam both like to freedive and wanted to improve their skills.

Freediving is a sport with many faces. We recently watched Le Grand Bleu/The Big Blue, an 80s film by Luc Besson about two divers who practice no-limits freediving, an extreme sport where divers compete to go deeper and deeper, using whatever means available. (The current record-holder is Herbert Nitsch of Austria, who dove to 214 meters/702 feet.) The film is interesting because it explores two sides of freediving: the desire to go deeper and find the limits for the human body, and the equally strong desire to see and understand what life is like in the ocean and to get closer to our mammalian neighbors beneath the waves. But if you have seen that film, then you may have gotten the wrong idea about freediving.

Most freedivers are not ego-driven maniacs who risk everything to go deeper. Most are using only their breath, a descent line, and maybe a pair of fins to safely reach depths of 100 meters/330 feet or more. Often, freediving is a means to an end, to go underwater unencumbered by SCUBA gear and explore reefs and wrecks, to go spearfishing, or to experience the Zen calm of descent and the emotional rush of coming back to the surface. And, like any sport, there is the challenge of training one’s body and mind and the fun of doing something you couldn’t do before, always improving and besting your previous depth or breath-hold.

Initially, it seems counterintuitive to go down and down into the deep blue while holding one’s breath—after only a few seconds, the build-up of carbon dioxide signals your brain that it is time to exhale, and after that the diaphragm begins to spasm. We’re land mammals, after all, only distantly related to the whales, some of which can swim down thousands of feet and hold their breath for an hour or more. But we share some interesting adaptations with these cousins and have only discovered our potential by pushing the limits. The human body is a well-designed machine—capable of much more than we demand of it. With training and breathing exercises to improve relaxation and gas exchange, it is possible within only a few days to improve breath-hold, and to dive deeper and more comfortably than one thought possible. (If you’re interested in freediving, I can recommend a book we read: James Nestor’s Deep.)

Jay Ascending from 21m, Freedive Utila

Of course, there are risks, too. Hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) can cause loss of motor control (sambas) and blackouts—rarely at depths, but more often in shallow water as a diver ascends, or at the surface after a dive. Pressure can damage the ears if one doesn’t properly manage equalization of air spaces. This is one reason we took the freediving class—to better understand and mitigate the risks. I have been snorkeling with Eli and watched him go down (deeper than I can follow) and disappear into an underwater cave or tunnel, then waited for him nervously at the surface for what seems like forever. Invariably, he comes calmly gliding to the surface, unaware of my discomfort. Preventing accidents and learning what to do if things go wrong was one of the best parts of our 2 1/2-day class. Already we have changed the way we practice freediving so that we take better care of each other and enjoy safer, more-relaxed snorkeling adventures.

Time for School

Oddly enough, the biggest discovery in the class was that learning to hold one’s breath is, ironically, all about breathing. We spent a significant amount of time during class and in the water just breathing. Having practiced yoga in the past, I was familiar with some of the exercises, like belly-breathing or lengthened exhales, and with the benefits of certain kinds of breathing to the nervous system. When one practices a “breathe-up” at the surface before a dive, it is not hyperventilation, like you might imagine—this only increases tension and decreases safety. It is instead a pattern of deep, slow breaths which induce an almost meditative state that helps one prepare for a stress-free descent. Freediving is all about relaxation and the careful management of oxygen supply. Efficiency is everything; one wants to expend the least amount of energy so that one has more time underwater, either to reach a greater depth, or stay longer at a desired depth. And an anxious brain is a big oxygen-consumer, so learning to calm and quiet one’s thoughts and lower the heart rate makes a big difference. To some degree, it is all in your mind.

Watching my kids prepare for a dive was like watching them fall asleep as babies. Having spent their whole lives around and in the water, they have a comfort that I envy. Observing their dives was one of my favorite parts of the class.

Sam, Constant Weight to 17m, Freedive Utila

Going down myself was more challenging. Even at the end of the first day (when I managed to get down to 6 meters/20 feet), I still felt my heart rate accelerate before the dive, experienced discomfort during the dive, and was ready to come up before I’d reached half-way down the line, the bottom of which was at 12 meters/40 feet. When our instructor, Mariano, asked how I felt, I said, “Happy to reach the surface and breathe again.” He was incredibly encouraging and positive, and offered helpful advice after every dive. And he said the next day would be better.

He was right. The second day, I ignored the goal entirely (the end of the line was at 21 meters/70 feet, which Jay reached easily) and focused on quieting my thoughts and relaxing in the water. Having worked through my fear and learned that I could safely ignore my body’s message to “Breathe now!” for at least a minute, I was able to pull myself down the line, relaxed with eyes closed, to 10 meters/33 feet. Most importantly, I was able to do this without that familiar feeling of panic. Coming back to the surface, as my lungs expanded, I experienced euphoria. I began to understand why people say freediving can be addictive.

Class completed, we got in the dinghy the next afternoon and took our new skills out to the reef. The weather was calm, the sunshine bright, and the water crystal-clear. I love that feeling at the surface when I first get in the water with my mask on, like I’m flying, looking down on coral canyons, rays swimming along the sandy patches, fish darting in and out of rocky caves, the water gradually changing from turquoise to violet-blue as the reef drops off into the inky depths. First one, and then another, of our family dropped down to glide along the bottom of a trench, or down along the reef wall at the drop-off. Each person had a partner at the surface, watching to make sure he was safe, and each took the careful steps of a breathe-up at the surface to make going to depths more comfortable. I also dove down, gliding along a sandy canyon-bottom, like an airplane flying low, looking at the ripples in the sand and getting a close-up of colorful fish at home in forests of coral. I came to the surface, happy to take some recovery breaths, but no longer afraid.

 

What follows is what I wrote in my journal about fear as I mentally prepared for diving the second day.

Fear

Warns me of danger.

Keeps me from repeating bad experiences.

Makes me aware of risks and consequences.

Helps me to stay on the straight and narrow.

Keeps me alive.

But fear

Can cripple me

Can keep me from experiencing

Adventure, discovery, friendship, love.

Is the enemy of faith, the destroyer of hope.

Prevents me

From making progress,

From achieving my goals,

From fulfilling my potential.

Keeps me from really living.

Fear:

What should I do with it?

Name it:

What exactly am I afraid of?

Look at it from all sides:

Is it legitimate?

Is it keeping me from danger or preventing progress?

Should I listen to the warning, or silence the alarm?

Pray about it:

What does the Spirit tell me?

Do not let your heart be troubled.

I am with you always.

Perfect love casts out fear.

If I speak to God about my fears,

He can quiet my thoughts or confirm a warning.

Make a choice:

Allow it to keep me away or proceed with caution.

Keep it in bounds.

Do not be ruled by it.

Make decisions using logic, comparing risks and rewards.

Do not live each day under its shadow.

Do not listen to the thousand whispers,

but search for the one clear voice of reason.

Fear

If I do not master it, it will master me.

 

Final thoughts, from Psalm 139

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast… Search me O God, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Code Zero

When we bought Take Two, she was a lean, mean sailing machine. We tacked back and forth toward the mouth of the Manatee River and sailed across Tampa Bay on weekends and learned how to make her go fast. We used our spinnaker on calm days for a downwind run. We outran afternoon thunderstorms.

Sailing in 20 knots

And then we moved aboard.

We brought tools, spare parts, books, cast iron skillets, 5-gallon buckets of grain, scuba tanks—and, how could I forget? —five kids and all their clothes, toys, sporting equipment, and sundry items. “And sundry items” raised our water line 6 inches over time, and now our sleek sailboat is a fat cat. It takes a lot of wind to get her going. On passages, we don’t even bother to raise the main unless it’s blowing a steady 15 knots. Sure, we might be motor sailing with the jib out, but when the wind drops to 10 knots? Fuhgeddaboudit.

That all changed when we commissioned a Code Zero from Calvert Sails before we left for the Caribbean. We had added a crane to the top of the mast and a bowsprit to accommodate the new sail when we refurbished the rig in Fort Pierce (Spring 2015).

IMG_5341

We hoisted it for the first time on New Year’s Day 2016, and as it rolled out in all its glorious enormity, I heard angel choirs. We were hoping it would turn Take Two back into a sailboat, and we have not been disappointed. It is a reaching sail that fills the gap between our foresail (a genoa) and our spinnaker. We intended to use it for light upwind sailing and heavier downwind reaches.

Code Zero

We sailed across the Bahama banks in March in 15-20 knots of wind and fairly flew along the leeward coast of New Providence, seeing 10-11 knots of boat speed. When the wind started to pick up, we swapped it for the genny, not wanting to be overpowered. Good thing, too, because we saw nearly 40 knots on the banks that afternoon as we approached the anchorage at Highbourne Cay.

After that day, we wrestled it down into a locker (to protect it from the sun) and didn’t see it again for a long, long time as we bashed eastward toward the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. Once we reached the Windwards, we discovered that the trade winds were too strong or too southerly to fly the Zero, so it stayed coiled away for another day while we sailed with reefed main and jib.

That all changed as we began the next leg of our Caribbean circle. Heading north from Grenada, we sailed fast beam reaches to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Lucia, rolling out the Zero when the wind grew light, sometimes ghosting along at half-windspeed in 10 knots of breeze. Heading west from St. Lucia, it’s all downwind, so we expected to use the Zero a lot.

On our way to Bonaire in November 2016, we learned something important about that sail. We had raised, and then subsequently lowered, the mainsail after sloppy seas caused it to bang around too much. We hoisted the Zero without the main and seemed to have a lot of success. Until we hit some squally weather one night during my watch, when I decided to wake Jay to help me furl it. Without the main to blanket the huge sail, all the pressure of 25-30 knots of wind made it nearly impossible to furl. I was easing the sail as Jay furled the continuous line, but as the top and bottom of the sail rolled tightly, the middle caught the wind and bagged and ballooned. Jay was pulling as fast and hard as he could, but if he paused for even a moment, all ground was lost. Of course, it was night-time, he had been awakened from a dead sleep, and had never considered how hard the job would be, so he wasn’t even wearing gloves. We eventually got it sloppily rolled, and then dropped it onto the trampolines. As his hands blistered and bled, we learned a hard lesson—the Code Zero never goes up without the main (and, sailing gloves are not just for race crew).

We used the sail again heading west from San Blas during a period of light wind in January 2018, and, most recently, to sail from Guanaja to Roatan, Bay Islands of Honduras. The wind was directly behind us at about 10 knots. We considered using the spinnaker, but it shares a halyard with the Zero, which was still rigged since our sail from Grand Cayman. Though we swore never to fly the Zero without the main up, it seemed like the perfect light wind day to try it. And it was lovely—quietly swishing through indigo seas instead of listening to the drone of a motor or worrying about the spinnaker folding in on itself as it sometimes does in ocean swells. I went with the kids and lay on the trampolines in the shade and echo of that great sail and enjoyed a gorgeous day on the water. Though we’re still straightening out the proverbial (and sometimes literal) wrinkles, we have grown to love the Code Zero.

Sun Dog

Mal de Mer

Here we have a sweet little expression that sounds so much nicer in French than English, and translates even better, as “Bad (or Sick) of Sea.” That about sums it up. It’s a subject you will not read much about in glossy cruising magazines, but a crucial one that must be addressed.

Sugar Seasick

What’s black and white and green all over? A seasick “Sugar” (2010)

People assume that if we live on a boat, we all love boating and feel comfortable with the motion of boats. It’s simply not true. Jay—the captain, for heaven’s sake—has only to look at waves the wrong way to feel queasy. Our littlest, who has lived on the boat her whole life, gets sick almost every time we set sail. Sarah and Sam frequently feel sick, though Sam seems to get over his queasiness after a day or so. Aaron gets motion sick riding his skateboard on the half-pipe, so he’s pretty much hopeless on the boat. Before they left for the happy hunting grounds, even our cats got seasick. Eli was lucky enough to get the genes for my stomach-of-steel, meaning that it takes pretty severe conditions to make us feel ill. I can be on watch, sitting at the helm, reading or writing, in 6-8 foot ocean swells, in the dark. No problem. Eli can use his flight simulator to fly airplanes while we sail.

Once, Sam asked me if he could play video games, too, and I thought it might be a way to fill a few dull hours on a passage, but he ended up at the rail. Jay asked what he was doing and was incredulous that I would let him sit in front of a screen. It never occurred to me that it would cause a problem, since the seas (in my opinion) were relatively calm. That means I am not very sensitive to the conditions that cause 70% of our crew discomfort.  Of course, I am aware of their misery, and often get the lovely job of holding hair, cleaning up, and fetching water and towels.

Over the years, we have found many ways to deal with this recurring problem. At first, we tried natural remedies, like Sea Bands, which use the secrets of accu-pressure to alleviate suffering. Supposedly. We have tried ginger everything—ginger pills, ginger tea, ginger ale, ginger drops, ginger snaps, crystallized ginger, and ginger-based “queasy pops” (that looked and worked a lot like dum-dums). We have specially-blended essential oil drops (branded as Motionease) to place behind the ears. We have the Cuban fisherman remedy: Coke and Snickers.

And then we have some things that actually work. Despite our desire not to drug our children, their reluctance to put to sea and repeated requests to sell the boat made us rethink our position. On board we now have chewable children’s Dramamine, once-a-day chewable Bonine, Stugeron, and, for the desperate situation, Scopolamine patches (just for fun, look up the side effects on that one). Jay medicates preventatively, as do Aaron and Sarah. We can’t have the captain incapacitated. The two younger children can sometimes be coerced into taking the chewables, although they now associate that flavor with throwing up, so good luck on that one. They usually hang out with a bucket for a day or two and then get their sea legs the old fashioned way. And Eli and I, as the only vertical members of the crew, fetch and carry for the others.

Keep in mind we are on a catamaran. My galley is in the main cabin, with a 360° view of the horizon through the windows. We are not heeled over at all and we don’t “roll”, though the movement is often jerky as the “righting moment” of a catamaran is faster than that of a mono-hull. Some prefer the smoother motion of a deep-keeled, traditional boat, but even with my strong stomach, going down into the hulls to clean something up or dig out supplies has me feeling a bit green, so I can’t really imagine the whole mono-hull-cave experience.

Occasionally, when the conditions are right (usually when someone near me is sick), I can succumb to mal de mer. And what I can say about the experience is that the psychological component cannot be overstated. As long as I go outside and stare at the horizon and get some fresh air, I can overcome the initial queasiness, but if I have to go below for some reason, or if I’m trying to cook in rough seas and can’t step away, or if I’m doing a particularly nasty clean-up job, I begin to wish that someone had invented teleportation so that I could just “beam” off of the boat. It is then that I recognize the hardships that we have imposed on our family, and feel empathy for my children (read “mother guilt”).

We have been sailing as a family for more than ten years (before Take Two we had a little day-sailer in Tampa Bay), and our recent passage to Bonaire marks the first time that no one felt sick. It wasn’t a particularly calm passage—though we tend to pick our weather windows to minimize discomfort rather than for fast sailing—but we did have one night in an uncomfortable anchorage to prepare us, and between acclimation and medication, we seem to have struck the right balance. That does not mean, of course, that we are “cured,” since there is no cure for wind and waves, but we will enjoy that success and cross the next sea when we come to it.

Homeschool Lessons

Summer school is in session, and here, in brief, are some of the lessons learned recently—not only, I might add, by the children, but the adults as well.

#1: Sailing is fun when the wind is blowing and you’ve got a small boat all to yourself. The three older kids did sailing school in Optimist Prams at the Bradenton Yacht Club for a couple of weeks this summer. The weather was mostly un-cooperative, but there were a few good days and, as Eli said, “It was excellent.”

#2: “You are not Gumby.” These words came out of the smart mouth of my nine-year-old son, and they couldn’t have been truer. When he was four—the magical age when the line between fantasy and reality is perilously thin—he had run full speed ahead into a solid wall, hoping, like Gumby, to pass right through. We had a good chuckle as we explained to him that he was not made of clay. I had just finished saying that I was “hitting a wall” around four o’clock each day and I didn’t know what to do about it when I got my advice thrown back at me. This time the joke was on me—I think I’ve been trying to do too much. I did just have a baby…so we’ve gone back to basics and I’m doing better.

#3: Snorkeling for starfish is more fun than writing about them. The kids are finishing up science for the year by writing a book on natural history of the Bahamas. This is our summer project, and they are finding a daily writing regimen to be a bit challenging. I am pleased with the results, however, as they are using complex sentence structure and high-school vocabulary—without being prompted. We may educate these children yet.

#4: It’s hard to be grumpy when there’s a cute baby smiling at you. We all feel happy when Rachel is cooing and smiling at us. She’s the center of our lives at the moment.

#5 Knives are sharp and should not be played with. Sam’s bleeding thumb taught him this lesson after he picked up Aaron’s pocket-knife from where I had put it after taking it away from him during school. Hopefully he won’t have to learn that one twice.

#6 You don't have to catch anything to have fun fishing. Jay took the kids in two dinghies (older boys in one, Jay and Sarah and Sam in the other) for a little afternoon fishing expedition. Sam can successfully cast and reel using a spinning reel now, and Sarah caught a little lady fish. Everyone came home beaming, but empty-handed. That’s why it’s called “fishing” and not “catching.” Maybe someday we’ll get good at it, but at least we’re having fun, and bait isn’t too pricey.

#7 Love is not crabby. Sam came home with a craft he had made at his friend’s Vacation Bible School (it was bring-a-friend day). It was a felt crab holding onto a seashell that said, “Love is not crabby.” Oh, why didn’t I read that message earlier in the day? It was a lesson I needed with Jay out working and me trying to take care of the needs of five children. Just a little more tenderness would do me good. I guess we all have something left to learn. There’s no school like the home-school!

Kiwi Update

Our Kiwi friends left here bound for Mexico on the first leg of their trip back to New Zealand.  

They left behind a general sense that neither boat nor crew was ready for the trip, having struggled just to get to the fuel dock.  We saw them off without misgivings though, believing that the first 50 feet of a trip are always the hardest, fate protects the young during such misadventures, and no amount of preparation is really enough.  

We expected it to take them four days to reach Mexico, and though we did not extract any promises, we expected blog updates on arrival.  But the updates never came and by Day 10 we were worried.  We knew they had a satellite phone, EPIRB, and life raft, and we knew the US Coast Guard did not rescue them.  So we figured they must have diverted somewhere that didn’t have Internet access.

Eventually we got wind that they were back in Florida.  One of the crew had experienced seasickness to a dangerous degree, which combined with a realistic evaluation of themselves and the boat, put the kibosh on the whole trip.  They instead turned for Key West to rest and then continued on to West Palm Beach to put the boat aboard a yacht transport bound for New Zealand.

We share their disappointment, but also their relief.  We also recognize their story as an anecdote for several lessons we’ve learned one way or another.

Communication is important.  We haven’t had a lot of experience worrying about the whereabouts or welfare of other people, but haven’t found those times very pleasant.  As travelers ourselves, we make an effort to let our plans and location be known.  For longer passages we file a float plan with my father, who is the emergency contact registered on our EPIRB.  We also carry the SPOT satellite tracker, which shows our position when underway.  On future trips we will probably also carry a satellite phone.

Plans should be constantly re-evaluated.  We’ve had to relearn this a few times, usually after we’ve seriously screwed up.  Better to change the plan than push a bad situation and risk the consequences.  We crossed a poorly charted bar in bad conditions once.  It was stupid and had the potential to really damage the boat.  We escaped because we were lucky.  We’re now extra careful about plans that have us arriving at a pass or bar in unknown conditions.  If there is any doubt, we change the plans and feel good about it.  We don’t know if it has actually saved us any grief.  We weren’t there.

Don’t underestimate the Gulf of Mexico.  The Gulf is notorious for steep, tightly packed waves that are hard on boats and crews.  The first leg to Mexico was possibly the hardest of the whole trip.

Seasickness can be serious.  The misery of seasickness is difficult to describe, but usually that’s all it is.  It usually lasts for a day or so, during which the intrepid sailor swears to quit and take up gardening.  Occasionally, though, it can be so intense and prolonged that the sufferer can dehydrate and die.  In our case, even a mild case can have serious consequences since we can’t afford to have the skipper incapacitated or his judgment dulled.  Unfortunately, there is no surefire cure, and the most effective defense is prescription medication, which we normally try to avoid.

We probably would have supported any decision the Kiwis’ made, but think aborting their trip (for this year at least) was wise.  Rather than transport the boat, we would have suggested keeping the boat in Florida and trying again next year, but admit our advice is somewhat selfishly motivated since we enjoy their company.  We don’t know all the factors that went into the decision, but we do know the cost of transporting a boat is phenomenal.  Apparently the boat market is such in New Zealand that buying here was still economical.

Communication

The Bahamas cell phone has been a big success.  Not only for talking to the US as we’ve already detailed, but also for local communication too.  The cost of the phone, SIM card, minutes, and forwarding services have been well worth the convenience to us.  We’ve also loaned the phone to other cruisers on a couple occasions.  If we were moving around from country to country, like we expect to in the Caribbean, then acquiring new SIM cards in each would become a greater hassle and expense.  In that situation, we may investigate roaming service from Gymsim, a provider of SIM cards that work (relatively) inexpensively in multiple countries.

Cell coverage is pretty good in the Bahamas, at least around the inhabited islands.  We have a cellular amplifier with an antenna on top of the mast that is supposed to dramatically extend the range.  Unfortunately, it has never lived up to our expectations.  Part of the problem may be that it is a “direct connect” model, requiring the amplifier to plug into the phone’s antenna port.  This connection was always tenuous and highly inconvenient.  It is also becoming more difficult to find phones that even have these ports.  I think we’ll trade ours in for a connectionless “repeater” model.  This essentially puts a cell tower inside the boat, which doesn’t really make me happy, but if it works…

We’ve also already lamented our need for Internet access and problems finding it.  For our next cruise, we will have an Iridium satellite phone.  Besides being a phone which works pretty much anywhere, itself attractive for emergency situations, it can also be used for data.  The connection is slow, but workable for emails and weather data.  

To illustrate the need, at this moment we are watching for a weather window for a 4-day trip back to Florida.  Today is a nice day for the first leg, but the day after tomorrow is no good at all.  If we had the ability to get continuous weather updates, we could go part of the way today and then wait to proceed.  Instead, we feel compelled to wait here for a weather picture clear enough to do the whole trip.

Many boats have single sideband (SSB) radio transceivers for voice communication.  These can even do email with the addition of a Pactor modem.  However, reviews are mixed.  They are not as reliable or easy to use as a satellite phone.  One has to consider all kinds of atmospheric conditions just to figure out which frequencies are likely to work.  Take Two used to have an SSB radio, but her previous owner took it with him.  We still have the insulated backstay and grounding plane, which are the hardest part of an installation, so we may get another transceiver just to be salty.  We’ll skip the modem, though.

We do have a little Sony all-band radio receiver that can pick up SSB broadcasts.  With the proper cable and software it can even be connected to a computer to receive weatherfaxes.  My luck with it has been very poor to date, both for quality of the signal and quality of the information, which has really helped push me toward satellite.

Lastly, we learned during this cruise that our VHF radio does not work well.  In retrospect, we’re not sure it ever has.  Hopefully it is just the antenna at the top, or the unit inside, and not the cable in the mast.  We’ll hire a pro when we get back to diagnose it and make sure we’re putting out a clear strong signal.

Living vs. Sailing

One of the things we’ve learned while cruising is what a small percentage of time is spent underway.  I may have to turn in my man card for this, but I think men often lose sight of this when choosing and outfitting a boat.

Every boat is a compromise, and we have always liked the choices made when Take Two was drawn.  We are still happy in that regard, but if we were ever to buy another boat we might reconsider many of the designs that were summarily rejected before.  Beyond basic seaworthiness, bridgedeck clearances, displacements, and weight distribution just don’t seem as important now as they once did.  Admittedly, they would be more important if we were crossing oceans, underway for days on end, and unable to choose our weather as we now do.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love a sweet sailing boat.  And when we’re underway I’m usually trying to squeeze out every knot.  Realistically, though, much more time is spent at anchor where stability, a light airy interior, ventilation, and other creature comforts are more appreciated features overall.  Besides, I think we sail fast enough as it is.  I would not trade my big dinghy, generator, or watermaker for any amount of additional speed.

This perspective helps us prioritize the summer project list.  While the boat must remain functional, we’ve decided that sailing-related improvements are less important than those that pertain to our day-to-day comfort.  Should we buy new sails, new engines, and new navigation electronics?  That’s all on the list – but at the bottom.  No, our highest priorities are those that we’ll appreciate every day no matter where we are: a galley renovation, reupholstered cushions, shade-giving window covers and awnings, a second bathroom, a clothes washer.  Next priority is our bi-annual haulout to refresh the anti-fouling paint, which keeps us mobile and prevents a reef from growing under the boat.  Then, if we have any money left, I want to add dual wind turbines to reduce our dependence on the generator and extend our supply of diesel fuel.

Replacing the air conditioners will quickly go to the top of this list if they should happen to die while we’re in Florida this summer.  We’ve been waiting for it to happen.  We thought it had happened last summer until I realized the problem was just a $20 capacitor.  If we can’t escape from Florida at the end of the summer, then we’ll install a heating system to help us survive the winter.

Some readers may notice that the projects receiving priority are decidedly “pink” and suspect that Tanya has me at some disadvantage.  But I assure you that is not the case.  I came to these conclusions without (much) assistance, and maintain full control.  So keep your hands off my man card.  Thank you.

Provisioning for Extended Cruising

We are nearing the end of our three-month stay in the Bahamas. Therefore, we are evaluating our experiences here and thinking ahead to future excursions. As the Galley Officer, I am responsible for planning and executing meals and snacks for six (or seven…) while away from posh U.S. grocery stores like Publix and Whole Foods. I tried to plan ahead before we left, not knowing what I would be able to find once we entered unfamiliar territory. I knew there was a “real” grocery store in Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco, and the guide book had ads for stores along the way, but almost everything in island stores must come by boat, so I figured the choices would be fewer and more expensive. I was right.

First, let me admit that there are two ways to approach provisioning. The eat-like-the-locals crowd might argue that people have to eat everywhere on planet earth, so wherever you go, you will be able to find food, and that sampling local fare is part of what makes cruising an enjoyable cultural experience. The second crowd, the bring-what-you-like folks might argue that sampling local fare is well and good, but when you want something special from home, you better have it with you or prepare to pay an arm and a leg to get it. Most people will fall somewhere between the two extremes, but we now lean more toward the “Bring It” rather than “Find It” mentality. 

Our family made several diet changes awhile back, some of which require a lot of whole, raw materials, and a lot of time, fuel and energy. We basically eat nothing processed, as much organic/local produce as possible and pastured/free range meat and eggs and raw dairy when we can find it. Sometimes living on a boat makes this job easier (most cruisers figure out how to bake their own bread, for example), but other times, we are stuck with dried or canned goods that we would much rather find fresh. While it is true that people have to eat everywhere in the world, we do not think that all diets were created equal. The baked goods in the Bahamas, for example, are all made with white flour and white sugar, two things we avoid as much as possible. Pasta, rice and flour in the stores are almost always white as well. If we want to eat whole grains, we have to bring them ourselves and this we do in the form of wheat berries and oat groats that I grind on demand. These are not supplies you will find in even the best grocery stores, but things that must be ordered through health food stores or co-ops like Bread Beckers or Wheat Montana. 

Other things, like local produce, we are happy to buy. I’ve never seen such large, beautiful cabbages as they have on Great Exuma. Depending on where you are in the world, though, the selection is likely to be limited. We compensate for this by bringing canned, dried, or frozen goods that are sometimes available in stores, but often more expensive. Other things that fall into the “available but costly” category would be condiments, quality snack foods (especially good when underway), nuts, and other supplies for baking. Some things we are required to buy fresh, like eggs, butter, milk, and cheese. We have been pleasantly surprised to find really good imported cheddar from New Zealand here, for example.

Meat always poses a dilemma for cruisers. If you are good at it, fishing can be a good source of protein. If you have a sizeable freezer, stocking up on quality meats before leaving is not a mistake. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of whatever small grocery store you find and the packages of “mystery meat” they may sell there, or canned meats like tuna, salmon, chicken, and the old stand-by, SPAM, which Jay likes and I refuse to eat. His protein needs exceed mine, so while beans could easily form a staple in my diet, Jay really needs meat to feel satisfied. We packed the freezer and don’t regret it.

I was happy to discover that I didn’t over-provision for this trip. I ran out at the last minute and bought extras of favorite health-store items like all-natural toothpaste and pure liquid castile soap and don’t regret it for a minute. My crazy bulk-buying at Costco paid off as well, and the only thing I might to differently is to buy more of the things we are running out of, like maple syrup, paper towels, nuts and whole-wheat pasta. When I do shop, I always have sticker shock in the checkout line. I would say the grocery bill here in the Bahamas is double what it was in the U.S. and that is without buying the organic products I am used to, and cutting out extras like chips, ice cream, yogurt, and lunch meats. And what passes for a grocery store in the smaller settlements would make my friends back home laugh. I am happy to patronize these little shops which support the local economy, and have had lovely interactions with proprietors from Green Turtle to George Town, but it’s really not sustainable long-term.

Our decisions are colored by the fact that we view this not as a camping trip, but as a lifestyle, and also by the sheer quantity of food we must buy and prepare to feed a large family. For an adventuresome couple, eating whatever you find along the way might be doable, but for us, I need to know that my growing children will have a healthy breakfast every morning. Although I am cautious about giving provisioning advice to prospective cruisers, I offer this one thought: the reality is that living on a boat limits your space for storing food, so bring as much as you can of the things you feel you can’t live without, and be willing to try new things along the way.

For further reading on this topic you might like The Care and Feeding of  Sailing Crew by Lin and Larry Pardy and Gourmet Underway by Robbie Johnson.

Wonder Wash vs. Splendide

You will often hear me say how satisfying it is to do things by hand. Homemade bread, for example, or binding the children’s schoolwork into books, hand-washing dishes, even washing the laundry by hand is very rewarding. Hard work, yes, but at the end of the day, I have something meaningful, or at least concrete, to show for my time and energy.

So it may come as some surprise when I say I am ready to retire the dynamic duo that make up my laundry system, Wonder Wash and Dyna-Jet. Move over, manual labor and make room for an electric machine. We are in the process of evaluating every system on the boat, now that we have put some miles under the keel and spent some time actively cruising. What works? What doesn’t? And what might change once we introduce a new baby? This last question prompts me to hang up the idea of hand-washing. I already spend the better part of three days a week washing, rinsing, wringing, hanging, and folding the family’s clothing and towels, and that’s with everyone wearing things until they’re actually dirty. How much extra time will it take to wash/hang diapers? And when exactly was I supposed to educate the crew? It’s time to reconsider the trade-offs.

The Wonder Wash serves as an agitator, and although the jury is still out on whether it is actually better than swishing stuff around in a bucket, the crank handle means you can be more methodical about the wash cycle, and that a small person can help with that chore. The Dyna-Jet is a hand-crank wringer attached to a bucket, and with one person feeding clothes through and cranking, another can be pulling, with the end result that most of the murky rinse water gets wrung out of the clothes so that they can be hung to dry in a reasonable amount of time. It has worked just fine, really, and I am pleased that our family of six can sustain the hand-washing for long periods of time. But Wonder Wash is beginning to wear out, Dyna-Jet is rusting, and we are still using an insane amount of human energy and fresh water to get clothes clean.

We are planning to replace these two simple machines with a Splendide, an Italian-made marine washer/dryer that will use, we think, about the same amount of water but get the clothes cleaner, and without ruining my hands. I am going to be busy enough with the extra attention a baby requires without the bother of hand-washing laundry. When we are in a marina, coin machines will probably still do the trick, but when we’re out and about, the Splendide will take over my old job. I’m looking forward to the break, and the children whose chore for the month is “Laundry Assistants” are pretty happy about a machine, too.

As long as it works as promised, the hardest job will be building new cabinetry to add an appliance, and finding storage space for items that will be displaced. We are likely to still hang the laundry and will only use the dryer sparingly, and when the generator is running. But like everything else in our live-aboard life, we have really learned to appreciate things that we always took for granted when we lived in a house.

Fuel Usage

A good long trip is a great time to evaluate fuel consumption and capacities.

With 200 gallons of diesel aboard, there is a tendency to think it will last forever.  Of course it doesn’t, as we’ve already proven.  We also now know that actually putting 200 gallons into the tanks is not such a good idea, and have revised our capacity down slightly.  

With the rough graduations we put on the fuel gauges during our last fill we’re now at least able to monitor the decline with some confidence.  And with the empirically determined generator burn rate (0.4 gal/hr), and the new engine hour meters, we can extrapolate our propulsion burn rate (0.6 gal/hr).  This is useful for various planning exercises.  For example, we can now estimate with some confidence that with a full load of fuel we could either motor 1,600 nm on one engine OR run the generator daily for 320 days.

Propane is our second most important fuel since we use it for cooking.  We were very uncertain when considering a switch to propane because we didn’t know how much we’d use.  With all the cooking, bread baking, and tea & coffee drinking we do, the concern was that we couldn’t reasonably carry enough propane and would be constantly in search of more.  Those concerns were unnecessary as it turns out.  Our 10-month average shows that we get 30 days out of a 20# bottle.  We carry three bottles dedicated for the galley, so we have about 3 months of fuel there.  Our last bottle is projected to run out in 10 days (yes, I have a spreadsheet for that), but we have another 30 pounds for the grill.  The grill has seen very little use on this trip due to lack of fish and cows.

It is very nice not to have to worry about getting propane.  It isn’t available everywhere in the world, and in some cases the bottles have to be sent off to be filled.  George Town is supplied by a truck that comes once a week and queries about when/where are almost a daily occurrence on the morning radio net.  Apparently the truck broke down this week which is causing some anxiety in the harbor.  I’d like to add a fourth bottle for the galley and build a rack to store them more securely and efficiently.

We also carry a fair amount of gasoline.  Our dinghy motors, little Honda generator, and hookah dive compressor all have gas engines.  Gas is harder to store (and more dangerous), so we try to strike a balance between having enough without having too much.  We have four 5 gallon jugs and try to have at least two full at any time.  The dinghy has a 12-gallon tank and we feed it 5 gallons at a time to make it easy to mix in the oil.  

We don’t really have a good way to store gas, but I’m not sure that there is a good way.  I prefer to store the full jugs on the deck to prevent the possibility of fumes inside the boat, but then they are subject to temperature and pressure variations which can’t be good for them.  A hot fuel tank can build an enormous amount of pressure.  Maybe some type of cover would help.  I suppose I could also vent the tanks, but then I’d be concerned about the fuel absorbing moisture.

I count the dive tanks among the fuels.  We have two and they live on deck also, although probably shouldn’t for the same temperature/pressure concerns.  I didn’t put them in a locker thinking they might be a safety risk there too.  We carry the tanks in addition to the hookah simply because we have them.  I can throw a hose on a tank and be in the water in minutes, while the hookah requires more setup and cleanup.  Tanks are also much quieter than the hookah.  But tanks have a very finite capacity, which makes the hookah way more practical overall.  I suspect we’ll continue carrying the tanks (because we have them and do find them useful), but need to evaluate how they’re stored.