Sunday, March 29, 2015

Forty Years

One of the benefits of my recent work trip back to the States was the chance it gave me to load up on reading for Patagonia.  (Used books are sold for pulp prices these days.  Sigh.)

Got this one from Hal Roth, an old favorite of mine as he hailed from Cleveland, and his How to Sail Around the World remains a great introduction to running a traveling boat.  The middle book of the trilogy in the pictured volume, Two Against Cape Horn, is the account of the cruise he and his wife Margaret made to the Patagonian canals in their 35-footer in 1976/77.

So, that's near enough to forty years ago.  And I found it pretty stunning to see how different both the place, and their experience of it, were from what we are dealing with today.

When the Roths were here, Chiloé was served by a fleet of about 300 engineless sailboats that carried freight to and from the island.  Now of course they are long gone, except for a few that have been saved as yachts.

The Roths were also unable to get any kind of weather forecast at all in los canales, they used celestial navigation to get across the Golfo de Penas, and there was almost no experience of previous yacht visits to the area for them to learn from.  They had to feel their way into Patagonia-specific techniques like tying into shore in the caletas.  The book never mentions meeting another foreign yacht with whom the Roths could exchange information.

Of course, forty years ago the Roths would have been gobsmacked at our GPS and laptop plotter, at our GRIB files that give us detailed weather forecasts updated every six hours.  But I like to think that they would have been even more amazed to see that there is an authoritative cruising guide to Patagonia - the "Italian Guide", as everyone here calls it.  So many people now come to Patagonia on their own boats that there is a guide.  How the world does change.

All of our recent engine-in-chains carrying on also got me thinking about the next forty years.  A friend mentioned how much he dislikes diesels on sailboats, and as David Tideswell, the mechanic on our job, and I talked about injectors and timing gears and gaskets and asbestos rope oil seals, we also talked about how old all of this technology is.

There's a lot of grunt in a liter of diesel, which is what makes these engines the default choice for any kind of heavy work on land and sea.  But of course the carbon pollution from them is pretty inexcusable.  The future is famously impossible to predict, but as David and I turned wrenches with oily hands day after day, I couldn't help but wonder if my boys wouldn't look back at this with the same wonder I look at the steam locomotives of my grandfathers' days.

I can only hope.

And finally!  News on the hard dinghy front.  Alisa found a nice-looking dingher on a motor boat here in the Puerto Montt marina, and charmed the owner with repeated requests to buy it.

After she set up the interaction, I came in to give the boat a test row.  It went well enough - we really can't expect to find a better replacement for our stolen Little Dipper in the short time we have left in Puerto Montt.

The owner, Fernando, is a very simpatico guy, whom I could understand one third of the time perfectly, one third of the time a little bit, and one third of the time not at all.  I came away from our interaction thinking that he wanted to give us the dinghy to help us out (?).  But yesterday Alisa saw him again and he said he was thinking about his price.

So we'll see what happens.

Pay Attention

I occasionally make reference to my other life in this sailing blog - my part-time work as a marine biologist pays for all this nautical carrying on of ours.  Most of my work has to do with the ways that "external" factors, like commercial fishing and climate variability/climate change, affect the suite of species living on Alaska's continental shelves.

So, as a part of this other life of mine, I've got a working knowledge of climate science, and I read some of the torrent of new climate papers that are forever appearing.

This one really caught my eye.

The plot above is the rate of surface temperature change for the globe since 1900.

Almost everything has gotten warmer, of course.  Take a look at poor Alaska.

But then there are those two big areas that have cooled over the last 100+ years.

The cooling spot in central North Africa is apparently an artefact of poor data quality.  But the cooling in the North Atlantic is, according to the conclusions of a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, the result of a weakening Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream is just one part of a global system of surface and deep-water ocean currents that plays a vital role in distributing heat around the Earth to give us the climate system we know.

Human society evolved during a period of unusual climate stability.  But before the appearance of modern humans - on the order of hundreds of thousands of years ago, if I remember my class in Geological Oceanography at all accurately - there are incredibly rapid changes in the climate record, when average global temperature apparently changed by several degrees within a decade or so.

Since the 1980s/1990s, scientists have recognized that sudden change to the Gulf Stream and other global currents could be a mechanism that would produce such a sudden change to global climate, and have accordingly been concerned about the effects of global warming on that current system.

I've seen other studies that presented evidence that the authors thought indicated a slow-down in the global current system, but this one just seemed particularly startling - here's evidence of the Gulf Stream slowing down, in real time.

As many other people have pointed out before me, uncertainty in projections of where we're taking the climate cuts both ways.

If you're growing corn in Kansas for a living, or if you live in coastal Florida, it's looking like good odds that your kids won't end up doing what you're doing.  But for the rest of us, there are all sorts of unanticipated outcomes that are associated with changes like a weakening Gulf Stream.

Addressing the causes of anthropogenic climate change will be an incredibly daunting problem in building consensus within and between countries.

Unfortunately, in both the countries in which I hold citizenship, the political right has nurtured an extensive fantasy world in which the science is not real.  I suppose that the right has the natural role of supporting the status quo, and in this instance that has developed into a situation where a handful of fringe characters, largely funded by carbon polluters and parroting scientific nonsense that has been discredited by a huge body of work (see, for instance, Willie Soon), are given equal weight to the work of tens of thousands of scientists who have reached one of the strongest consensus positions that can be found anywhere in contemporary science, and done it by working in a skeptical, rigorous way.

The motives of people actively involved in science denial are likely captured by that great Upton Sinclair quote about how "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it".

But my heart goes out to people who have uncritically adopted a worldview that bases the denial of climate science on the most abject mix of infactual nonsense.  It reminds me of the intelligent, well-meaning friends of mine whom I've heard repeating balderdash about vaccinations - smart people, often poorly educated in science, unable to correctly evaluate competing arguments.

So, in the end, I suppose this post is aimed at those people.  If you have read this far, and think there is any sort of scientific controversy about the fact that human activities are massively altering global climate, know that you have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods.  And I would propose that it is incumbent on all of us, if we enjoy any sort of political agency in the world, to become reasonably well-informed consumers of information on climate science, and to think long and hard about the possible motivations of people who would have you believe that the entire enterprise of climate science is some sort of idealogical exercise.

When reasonable evidence appears that people are slowing down the Gulf Stream, it's time for reasonable people to pay attention.

A longer description of the Gulf Stream study is here.

Friday, March 27, 2015

It Runs

On this blog I try to gloss over all the boat maintenance issues that bestride our life afloat, like a veritable Colossus.

But then I mention a little thing like our engine being off its mounts and hanging by one end from the engine room overhead, like a hind hanging by the hock, and reader interest skyrockets, as evinced by comments in the triple digits.  (That would be: one, two, three.)

No story there, really.

Our engine is English.  Therefore it leaks oil.  We knew it when we bought the boat, though we didn't quite anticipate the magnitude of oily loss that we would soon become accustomed to.  As in, we shut down every six hours to check the oil.  And if we've been running at full cruising revs, we often have to replace a liter of oil after that time.  

We're totally used to it.  But from the expressions I've gotten when I've confessed this state of affairs to sailors and diesel mechanics, I gather that this rate of loss is about four standard deviations above the mean.  As in, it's our cross to bear, and just about ours alone.

(There.  I knew that religion would be useful to me at some point in life.)

When we bought the boat, I figured, whatever - so we change the seals.  But it turns out that to change the seals on the engine, you just about have to take the thing off its mounts and hang it like a hind by the hock, etc.  We talked to a mechanic in Tassie about doing the job, but he was keen to sell us a new engine, and demurred at our proffered opportunity to change the seals on the engine while it remained on the boat.

That mechanic was British, by the way.  I think he was afraid of the cosmic retribution to British engineering standards that our leaking Perkins represented to him.

So we lived with it.

But then I got a bit of outside perspective when we had Jaime on board.  I shut down in the middle of the night to check the oil, and saw him raise his eyebrows when I explained how much we went through.

That got me thinking that maybe we shouldn't be living with this state of affairs.  And the leaks were really bad enough to be an operational problem.  So when I returned to Chile from my recent visit to the States, I came bearing a new set of seals.  

I could almost convince myself that changing the seals was a job I could tackle myself.  Luckily, though, the marina where we find ourselves, the Club Nauticos Reloncaví, comes complete with David Tideswell, a resident English marine engineer.  So we hired him to do the job, and to suffer for the greater sins of English engineering that our leaking Perkins represents.  That's David in the pic at top.

David made me a little nervous at the outset because he kept talking about how "we" would do this and "we" would do that.  If something went wrong with the job, I wanted a mechanic thinking in the first person singular who was going to see it right.  But (touch wood) everything went fine, and David appears to have been well up to the demands of the job.  Consider this a recommendation if you find yourself in need of a hand in Puerto Montt.

The engine is back on its mounts and, after a mystery involving a stuck kill switch, now appears to be running fine.

Though I only fished one season in my life, and am no one's idea of a commercial fisherman, I tried to channel my inner fisherman throughout the whole experience.  As in - let's get the engine off its mounts, let's change those damn seals, and let's go fishing.  No mystery, no stress.  And (touch wood) it seems to have worked.  With any luck at all we'll be heading south next week some time.

I really can't wait for some winter weather.  It's been a long long time since we had a proper winter.

Meanwhile, all the other preparations are going ahead.  Alisa has done her first huge grocery store hit, and has had the chance to wonder at how much ketchup she always finds herself buying.

And - rite of passage! - we've bought our shorelines for the anchorages of Patagonia, where you tie yourself in close to shore in the anchorages and let the winds go screaming overhead.  Of course, choosing the right shorelines is like every other damn thing on boats - people have different opinions about what's best. We were happy to fall back on advice we gleaned from past chats with our mates on Thélème, old Patagonia hands that they are.  So we got ourselves two spools of floating poly lines, at 220 meters each, and cut them in half to give us four 110 meter lines.  Should be enough.

The line starts as a compact unit at the store, but explodes when you unspool it.  Here Alisa and the boys are hauling two of the four finished lines back to the boat.  See that expression on Alisa's face?  That girl is goin' south.

Even Elias has gotten into the prep.  Here he's sewing the sail cover.  Alisa paid him a buck to do the job, but he still spent most of the time complaining.  I say we shouldn't pay him to help out.

And finally, there was this recent treat - Bill Harrington, long-time Kodiak fisherman and father of a friend of ours, rocked up in the marina here on a boat he had helped another Alaskan fisherman deliver from Panama.  We only got this one poor-quality picture of Bill, though it helps to know that he was playing dinosaurs with Eric when it was taken.

More soon.

Friday, March 20, 2015

I'll Forbear, You Forbear

Readers of this blog will know that I find unnecessary discussion of boat maintenance to be boorish, and writing about it to be worse.

Stupidity may be the greatest sin for the general run of humanity (according to Oscar Wilde, I think?). But focusing on means, rather than ends, is the greatest sin both for sailing writers and for sailors in general.

Some people can write entertainingly about sailboat maintenance, but I don't even try.

So I'll just refer you to this picture to the right, vintage yesterday, from the engine room of Galactic.

That would be our engine, off its mounts and hanging on end.

I won't go into any details, of course.  I will forbear from over-sharing.

The crew, ready to go crabbing
And I would beseechingly ask for a response in kind.  If you are an editor at that leading sailing magazine for which I have resumed a bit of freelance work of late, and you are wondering when those excellent ideas that I pitched your way will turn into actual stories - please, forbear from asking.
Bits of the engine on deck in Puerto Montt

And if you are one of my science colleagues, wondering when I am going to come through with a promised bit of collaborative work - well, I'm sure I'm up to date on that front, without anything outstanding.  But if I've forgotten something, please forbear.

And, if you're a regular reader of the blog, perhaps someone who is nursing their own plans to follow the salty dream, and you're wondering when we're going to get to los canales already, wondering when the blog will be saturated with photos of the towering spires and ice-encumbered waters of Patagonia - well, they're coming.  A delightful Dutch/Spanish crew (the other crazy people heading South in the winter) just left Puerto Montt yesterday, and we hope to soon do the same.

Meanwhile, I'll offer some pics from the final days of our month in the Chiloé region to close:

Black-necked swan

South American sea lions - lobos de un pelo

Wing 'n wing and reefed down

Sunrise with forest fire smoke

More soon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Notes From Far Away

I love this picture of Elias.  It is a reminder of a great evening - a family barbecue at our last anchorage in continental Chiloé before we pointed it to the big smoke of Puerto Montt, the grungy fishing/aquaculture support port where we are preparing for the transition south.

Poor Elias, though - this picture invokes the wonderful parts of growing up on a traveling boat.  There is also this flip side, which is that the kids tend to take the blame when they're around any part of the boat when it happens to stop working.

Like the time he locked himself in the head.

It had already been a day rich in the sweet and sour mix that makes some days so memorable on the boat.  It was one of the most beautiful days we've had on the boat in quite a long time - see the picture below.

But beautiful days, and the blissed-out, I'm-so-grateful-we're-here sailors that they create, have their own special dangers.

Which is to say that "we" hit a rock soon after this picture was taken.

Normally I don't mind fessing up when I do something really dumb on the boat.  I'm very impressed by the continual danger that human error represents for people who are doing things like sailing their own boats across oceans, and I figure that talking about it is the first step to making us all smarter.  Or something like that.

But this one was just too much of a dunder-head move to confess to too publicly.  Luckily, 1) "we" recovered our wits quickly enough to make it a low-speed event, and 2) we have a steel boat.  I already posted a pic of the result here.

So we went on our way, though the vibe of the family as indomitable traveling team was at quite a low ebb.

And then we dropped the pick in a new spot, also very beautiful, and got ready to have lunch and forget all about the errors of the past, and suddenly Elias couldn't get out of the head.

Of course we blamed him for locking it and not being able to unlock it.  What kind of eight year old boat kid would do that!

Disassembling from the outside the lock didn't help.  Joking with Elias about how much more school work he would get done now that he would be living permanently in the head - that didn't work either.

Eventually I took Dremel and hacksaw to the deadbolt and managed to bust him loose.  And once I did that I was able to disassemble the lock completely, and discovered that an internal part had simply given up the ghost, in the process trapping an eight year old who happened to fiddle with the lock.

It was a day.

The place where all this occurred, Bahía Tictoc, was our southern-most point before we turned back north for Puerto Montt.  We made a few fruitless searches of Chiloé for our stolen dinghy on the way, we soaked ourselves in the hotsprings at Isla Llancahué, and before we knew it we were tying into the marina at Puerto Montt.

That's where the boat is now, though I am in California, spending a week at a National Science Foundation-funded center for ecological synthesis, working with a group that is trying to summarize what we know about the ecosystem effects of the Exxon Vadez oil spill.

As for Puerto Montt - well, there will be more about that later, I'm sure.  We've stacked up quite a few boat jobs for ourselves while we're there, as it's our last chance to get everything organized before we head South.  So there was the inevitable bit of port sickness when we arrived, as the mostly idyllic existence of wandering around on our own boat gave way to all of the deferred tasks that are necessary for keeping us going.

More to come.