Tuesday, May 31, 2016

But What About the Weather?

We get ashore somewhere, we start to meet non-sailing friends through the kids, and the question inevitably comes up: what about the weather?  Haven't you been out in terrible storms?

The answer is that we have been out in some sloppy weather, but we've had to go looking for it.

Get this: we sailed Pelagic from Kodiak, Alaska to Hobart, Tasmania.  Then we sailed Galactic from San Francisco to Hobart.  And in all the sailing that entailed, maybe 25,000 nautical miles, we never had a gale at sea.

Never had average wind speeds of 34 knots or more.  Like, not once.

Even now, after we patently went looking for bad weather in Patagonia and the Southern Ocean, we've never seen storm-force winds - average (and I stress average, since that's the definition) wind speeds of 48 knots or more.

And really, any well-found, well-handled boat, with sea room and no unusual issues like wind against current, should be able to wait out a gale without any drama.

OK - confession - I did break my ribs in a gale once...so I guess I shouldn't downplay the drama part too much.

But my point is that while we watch the weather very carefully when we're looking to make a passage, and we continue to be very humble about this undertaking of sailing the world in our own boat, we also have a certain amount of confidence with the issue of bad weather, confidence that's naturally accrued over the nearly nine years that we've been out sailing.

But, when you're starting out, or when you're still in the dreaming/planning stage, the idea of bad weather at sea can be frightening enough to make you not want to go at all.

This should not be the case.  There are techniques that can keep a boat safe in poor weather, and the habits of good seamanship will give you security against the unexpected...there's a reason that "a lee shore" is the sailor's answer to what she fears most in life.

But, when you are just starting out, you don't know those techniques, and you don't have those habits of good seamanship.  So, how do you learn that stuff without going through the trouble of going out and making your own mistakes?

All this is a lead-in to mention Storm Proofing Your Boat Gear and Crew, by Fatty Goodlander.  The book is just out.  I haven't had the chance to see it myself, but Fatty has been sailing the world since before dirt was invented - if I'm not mistaken, he and Carolyn are on their third circumnavigation.  And Fatty has raised the very humble art of magazine writing to new heights in his monthly column for Cruising World.  So all that bodes well for this effort.  If you're dreaming of the life afloat, or if you're already on your boat, and wanting to pick up some cheap knowledge for dealing with "what-if's" on bigger crossings, this book might be right up your alley.

Friday, May 27, 2016

What Was I Thinking?

So, the time came to pull Galactic out of the water and give her a new coat of bottom paint.  It had been a year and four months since we hauled out in Valdivia, Chile, and we were pretty sure we didn't want to haul out in the Caribbean, which will be our next chance after South Africa.

I enquired at the boat yard here in Simon's Town, and found out that in a week their lift would be going out of service for two months.  They could get us out of the water.  But we'd have to do it that very afternoon.

Well!  Normally we plan our haulouts weeks in advance, giving us time to go through all the steps of locating the necessary supplies in a country where we know nothing, and then blocking out the time for me to do the work. (More and more, as Eric gets older, Alisa has also been able to help in the boatyard.)  But just then, I was buried in science work.  Haul out today?  It seemed impossible.

But then - deus ex machina - there is the cost of unskilled labor in South Africa to consider.  One side of this is a lesson about mastery that I am not keen for my sons to internalize: black people work on boats, white people sail them.  Another side of this is that we could haul out Galactic and I could continue to work at my science obligations while someone else painted the boat for us.

This is a very common approach for some yachties.  Really it is a cultural divide in the sailing world. Some people paint their own boats, others have them painted.  This one bit of information about a boat owner is all that you need to make all sorts of inferences about their approach to the grand adventure of sailing the world.  We are very much of the paint your own boat world.  I like to think of Enki as our great friends from the other side of the divide.

So, after a flurry of quick strategic thinking, it was on.  We would come out on the tide, with only four hours' notice.

We came out.  The tractor pulled us up the ramp.  I climbed down the ladder to look at Galactic's underbody, exposed to view.  And I was a little dismayed at what I saw...

I will pause here to note that there is another divide in the sailing world - between those who haul out regularly, and other people, like the wonderful crew of Mollymawk, who, if I have it right, last hauled out seven years ago.

Once again, there are all sorts of inferences that you can make about someone's approach, and their budget, based on which side of the divide they fall on.

We are on the regular haulout side of the divide.  But this time we took it too far.

It turned out that the one patch of bottom paint that we had assessed from the dock when wondering if we should haul out or not - peering down into the water from the dock at the side of the bow in the sun - that one patch turned out to be by far the worst bit of growth on the whole hull.  And it wasn't bad at all.  The bottom paint looked fine.  We could have gone another year without hauling out, no problem.

Later, I had the leisure to reflect that this is exactly what we should have done.  But we were out of the water now, and the boat was being set down, and we let the momentum carry us along.  If nothing else, we reasoned, we would be resetting the clock with a fresh paint job.

Someone else painted the boat while I was working on my laptop.  It turns out that I didn't really like having someone else do the job.  I found the painters about to make one big mistake, and from that point on I was torn between needing to keep an eye on things and not wanting to seem like I was always looking over their shoulders.  (As an interesting tidbit, it was in the yard that I learned about immigrant labor in South Africa.  The workers I asked were all from Zimbabwe or the DRC.)

When the job was done, we went back in the water, wondering if we were any better of than when we came out.

One of the things I love about people sailing the world on a shoestring is how tough they are about money, how resourceful they can be about not opening their wallets to get things done.  In this instance, we rushed ourselves into spending money needlessly, and I'm sure we would've acted differently if I wasn't working, and we didn't have money coming in.

So all our friends on the cheaper side of the spectrum can reassure themselves with our experience.  There's one more reason not to like work - it makes you spend money!

I, meanwhile, have resolved to be a more savvy yachtie.  I've got to be able to hold my head up the next time we see Mollymawk or (God forbid!) Ganesh.

The side story is that the timing worked out that we were on the hard for Eric's sixth(!) birthday.  There were three other foreign boats in the marina, none of whom we knew very well at the time.  They all rose to the occasion.  I don't know which one of them heard that it was Eric's birthday, but the word spread and they all came by with presents.  Meant the world to little fella.  And reminded me, yet again, of how much I like your average traveling sailor.

That's a dassie ("duhssie") on his cake.  Closest living relative of the elephant, size of an outstanding guinea pig.  They've been our favorite African mammal so far.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Juggle Juggle

This blog is one of my guilty pleasures.  

I could be spending my time more profitably in terms of writing - where is that next book, after all?  

And time spent on the blog doesn't really "get" us anything.  (Except for the consideration from Cruising World for reposting it.  Thanks, guys!  And why do you still have that Del Viento character at the top of the page?)

But even though I can't always justify the time I give it, the comfort of keeping this little travelogue going, year after year, and with something of an audience to boot, is its own reward.

Looking down on Simon's Town from Swartkop
So in one month we'll reach the ninth anniversary of our departure from Kodiak.  As we've been meeting locals here in Simon's Town I find that I have fallen into a set way of explaining our backstory: We left Alaska with enough money saved to live on for two years.  Then I discovered that I could work on the boat.  And now we've been going for (almost) nine years.

We've been extraordinarily lucky that I can more or less earn a living at science from the boat.  In addition to keeping our finances afloat, the science also gives me an intellectual engagement that I enjoy very much (though at the expense of time for writing!) and when we return to Alaska re-entry into my professional world should be made a lot easier by the fact that I never entirely left.

I try to keep two research projects going.  That seems to be a good workload while we're sailing.  Just now I have two ending and two others beginning, so it's been a little bit of a crunch time.  The pictures above and below capture my split attention in recent days.

Science - the up close and personal view from my laptop screen
I'm sure I've written about this before on the blog - how it can be such a funny experience to be somewhere new, like South Africa, and holding back from exploring it while I work away on the boat.   Among many other delights, the Cape Peninsula, where we are, has some fantastic hiking.  I get out for an hour walk most days, but I've only taken time for one proper hike with the family in the month since we've been in Simon's Town.

But, as I've often said, no regrets,  The boat makes a pretty good office setting, wherever it is.

And that one family hike that I've been on, and that these pictures are taken from?  I wildly under-estimated how long it would take, and neglected to pack a lunch.  We got back to the boat at three.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Just Another of the Great Capes

So, we started our South Africa sojourn in Cape Town.

And, no, we Galactics are not city people.

I will say that sitting on a bench in the chi-chi Waterfront Mall in Cape Town, watching a swath of the world walk past me, just 36 hours after we completed the passage from South Georgia - that was pretty good as a life-as-hallucigen experience.

But once we'd done that, and taken in the view from Table Mountain, there wasn't too much to keep us.

Luckily, Giselle on Pelagic had told us, way back in Stanley, about Simon's Town.  (And no, not this Pelagic.  This one.)

Simon's Town, she said to us.  That's where you want to be.

After a few days of watching the turds float by on the tide at the Cape Town marina, and not having any place for the boys to run, we were ready.  The trip from Cape Town to Simon's Town is a totally routine day hop of about 60 miles.  Get up at 0400, be more or less awake and away from the dock at 0430, and you're finished well before dinner.

But the trip from Cape Town to Simon's town has an added bonus above most coastal hops.  The route (below) just happens to take you around the Cape of Good Hope.  (What a name!)

Now the Cape of Good Hope isn't the southernmost point in Africa.  That title goes to Cape Agulhas, just a short way down the coast.

But if you compare the two names, you'll quickly see why one gets all the press.

We were on something of a roll.  Only a few months before, Galactic had, improbably enough, been off Cape Horn.

Cape Horn had been a total lark - we weren't going anywhere else but there.  It was just a side trip to see that most famous of all landmarks, and nothing like the traditional experience of rounding the Horn at sea.  But even though it was a lark, we also got a bit of a floggin'.  Three reefs, a staysail, and parted aft lower shrouds.  Lord have mercy.

For this Cape, we were actually going somewhere.  It was legitimately on our way from point A to point B.  But although we had a more businesslike purpose in hand than we had for the Horn, the actual day trip involved was much more tranquilo.

Eric, incapacitated at the Horn ("Grab a bucket!") got his chance to shine this time.
My captain's hat, that physical embodiment of the nearly divine authority that I bear within the confines of our little floating home - that came out for photos in front of the Cape, just as it did at the Horn.
The beast itself
Elias.  He always shines at sea.
So, yeah.  Just another Great Cape.

(And, if you're wondering, I reckon there are five of them: the Horn, Good Hope, and Leeuwin, plus the southernmost points of Tassie and En Zed, whatever they might be called.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Where to Begin

The problems of the world are writ large in South Africa.

Now, some of our very favorite people are South Africans of the diaspora whom we've met elsewhere in this delightful Southern Hemisphere.  And of course we've met quite a flood of wonderful South Africans in the month that we've been in the country.

As an American who travels widely I am very attuned to how tiresome it can be to hear your country criticized.  Even if you share the criticism, outsiders are rarely informed enough for the tenor of their arguments to be very inspiring.  So I should stress that I am not keen to come here and complain about the place.  The locals can do that without my help, I'm sure.

Razor wire on the waterfront

But the troubles of South Africa take some effort to ignore.

Most obviously, there is the number of desperate people about.  A lot of people are struggling to meet their basic needs.  Even in the most protected and privileged enclave in the country, where we have been spending our time, you come across desperation every day.

Then, there is a tremendous concentration of wealth in a few hands.  Some few people are living in quite rarified luxury here.

The signs you see everywhere
And then, there is race.  Everything, for white people at least, is first about race, and then about something else.  And of course there is the history of the country to consider.  Thanks to friends' recommendation I am reading A Dry White Season, by André Brink, which is a reminder of that past.

And, if that isn't enough, there is the failed political system and a weak state.  President Zuma is (from what I can gather) a complete failure.  The state cannot meet its basic obligations, like, for instance, enforcing law and maintaining a monopoly on the use of force.

Simon's Town, where we are now
The upshot of all the above is that we are living like rich South Africans - behind razor wire, in the gated community of a marina.  We are living in the safest area in the whole country, from what I can gather.  But after the places we've just been - South Georgia, the Falklands, southern Chile - the attention to security even in this safe enclave feels quite smothering.

There are some great hiking trails just above Simon's Town, where we are now.  But right after we discovered them, we heard some very strongly cautionary advice about venturing onto them.  And that made the town feel like a cage.  If we couldn't go walking in the hills, and had to spend our days within the marina gates, or walking the short walk down the coast to see the local penguins, then we'd just as soon sail away, thanks much.

We did what travelers do, of course.  We asked questions.  We asked every local we could about whether it was safe to go on the trails.  And we got the widest variety of answers you could imagine.  From "absolutely safe" to "unthinkably risky".

Meanwhile, I've been venturing onto the trails, mostly by myself (i.e., without the family).  And I finally met some local hikers, who were much more authoritative than the other locals we've spoken to, who don't actually go walking.  And the local hikers said there was nothing at all to worry about.  So we've at least got some good family walking to look forward to.

I'll close by noting that it appears we have every chance of going our entire time in the country without having a social interaction with a black person.  It reminds me very much of my time in New Orleans in the early 90s - my personal reference for a segregated situation.  There was a vast swath of the social and artistic and cultural life of that city that was almost completely invisible to most white residents.  And so it feels here - so much of South African life is a no-go zone for us, not least because we have no local knowledge about what is safe and what isn't, and are being very conservative as a result.  But that seclusion from what might be vibrant and exciting in South Africa - that feels like the real loss from a traveler's point of view.

Next post - some of the good stuff!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Big Big Big

This is my favorite picture from the passage between South Georgia and Cape Town.

I'm doing my best impression of the guy who was up for most of the night, keeping sleepless radar watch for lurking icebergs, and the guy who was also doing most of the sailhandling on the passage.

Oh, wait.  I was that guy.  I guess that's why I look like a cross between Joshua Slocum and a pile of sh*t.  It was a long passage, and it took a certain toll.

The boys, meanwhile, have this semi-quizzical look of kids who have been raised to know no other life, but are starting to suspect that there might be some other alternatives out there, somewhere.

For reference, our path is roughly indicated on the map below.  I think I screwed up the location of Cape Town, but you get the general idea.

Getting to South Georgia is much easier than getting away.  We weren't keen to head back upwind to the Falklands once our time in South Georgia was done.  So that left us looking at the passage to South Africa.

This was so so much bigger than any crossing we've done before.  We're quite used to the company of genuinely salty people who take this kind of passage as a matter of course, so I'm reluctant to make too big a deal of it.  But for us...it was a very big deal.  Water temperatures below 2°C/35°F, icebergs, the possibility of really violent weather, and the guarantee of gales at least.  And, as with any ocean passage, it's an arena where you are utterly on your own.  So, again, a big deal to us.

Given all that potential downside, you might ask yourself if this was really a passage for children, five and nine.  Well, believe me, we asked ourselves that many many times before we set off from the Falklands.

We've known a lot of people who have sailed with their children, and I can think of only one set of parents who we thought were being irresponsible.

Taking young kids to sea means that you need to be as sure as you can be sure of anything that you are up to the challenges of your chosen passage.  Almost every parent who we know who sails with their kids understands that standard, and meets it.

But consider our situation.  We've been sailing with young kids for nine years come next month.  We've gradually been branching out from the delights of downwind sailing in the tropics and exploring more challenging areas.  How do we know when enough is enough?  Where do we draw our own line in the sea, beyond which we think it imprudent to venture?

We can't ever let ourselves go too far, and find ourselves committed to a passage that is so difficult that we aren't able to properly care for the kids.  If we got caught out on a trip like the one from South Georgia to South Africa and got into real difficulties, there would be a chorus of people jumping on the chance to condemn us as selfish idiots.  And well.  If we really did get caught out on a trip that was too much for us, we would agree with that assessment.

A haircut in Grytviken before setting out.
So we thought about it for years, the idea of going to South Georgia, and committing to the passage that would get us away.  For most of that time, we thought that we wouldn't go.  It seemed too ambitious a trip for our family crew of amateurs.

But in that time when we weren't thinking we would go, we were laying the groundwork for a successful trip without really meaning to.

We sailed across the Tasman Sea, from Hobart to Bluff.  We made the very moderate crossing to the Aukland Islands, in the New Zealand subantarctic.  We made the much bigger crossing from New Zealand to the Tuamotus, and came to grips with what a less-than-ideal passage might look like.  We got ourselves to Chile without drama, and then spent the winter season on the move in farthest south Patagonia.

In other words, we served an apprenticeship.  We gradually bit off more and more.  Over time we brought the boat into good nick for harder trips.  And more importantly, we turned ourselves into crew who were competent at these sorts of trips.  And we started to meet more and more like-minded people with much more experience than we'll ever have.  We learned to ask these people the right questions, and we listened very hard to their answers.

For reasons of tactics, we left Grytviken in somewhat unreasonable conditions.  Williwaws were pouring off the mountains as we made our way to sea, and once we were out of the lee of the island we found ourselves holding on while Galactic, well reefed down, sailed her wandering path over the steep seas that came charging up behind us.  We all felt rotten (except Elias).  But we figured we'd have conditions much rougher than that soon enough on the trip, and leaving while things were still rough after the passage of a low allowed us to get one more day to the north before the next gale caught us.

I love these pictures of the four of us early on in the trip, hanging out in the cockpit and wondering when the hell our sea legs will catch up with us.

All that I think was so much time spent making our own luck.  We had plenty of the real kind of luck, of course, the luck that was not of our own making.

But we also had some fairly representative lousy conditions on the trip.  We had three gales, all blowing from the north, and thus halting our progress northwards towards ice-free waters.

Once we made it to Cape Town, we heard the reports from four other boats that had sailed from South Georgia or the Antarctic Peninsula, and we heard the stories from locals about other boats arriving in seasons past.

The damage list for those boats was long, and severe.  Broken rudders, exploded sails, rigging failure and boats rolled over.

(Our favorite post-passage quote was from Olivier.  Me:  "Wow, 17 days, that's a really fast passage." Him: "Yes, I had to be fast.  I wanted to get here before I sank.")

Alisa and I are careful not to ascribe merit to a lucky outcome.  But our biggest gear failures on the passage were a chafed-through leech cord on the main and an telescoping whisker pole that wouldn't extend.  We wonder if part of the reason for that happy outcome wasn't that we heave to very quickly.  Once the wind is much over thirty knots we just park the boat and wait for things to get better.  This is a much lower threshold than that exercised by most boats in the Southern Ocean.  And I suspect that there is some real merit to that conservative approach, that it keeps us out of all sorts of difficulties that might arise from the combination of big seas and high boat speed.

Eric tucked his stuffed animal in to keep me company.
Eric and Alisa bunked on the sole for the duration.

The biggest surprise of the passage was how far north we saw icebergs - we encountered them almost daily all the way up to 46° South.  They were mostly huge tabular bergs from Antarctica.  And they made me nervous as hell.

We relied heavily on the advice of our friend Leiv, who counseled that we would find smaller bergy bits only near, and downwind of, their large parent bergs.  The bergy bits are particularly dangerous, since they are like floating rocks, just at the surface where radar can't pick them up.  We trusted in the idea that the parent bergs, easily seen on radar, signaled the presence of any danger.  It worked out.

On our second or third day out we came across a berg with a long fogbank behind it.  When we realized that the fogbank was actually another berg, 10s of kilometers long, our worldview took a bit of a shaking up.  It was one of those bergs that gets tracked from space.

Hard to photograph, but this iceberg fills the horizon.  The scale was a little horrifying.
Eventually we left the ice behind.  The temperatures moderated and we settled down to simply sailing the miles required of us, and wondering how many gales we would meet along the way.  The family spent each day in the cockpit, reading aloud and drawing for hours on end.

Even when the conditions had eased, I found myself under the chronic tension of taking responsibility for a good outcome on such a big jump.

The seas are famously difficult to photograph.  I have some great video, but with my time commitments to science, I draw the line at posting video online.  To quote a Scottish friend, I can't be arsed with it.
Elias is always keen that there be a prize for the person spotting land at the end of a passage.  He very much likes the story of Columbus nailing a gold coin to the mast for the man who first spotted land.

Unfortunately for him, it's always been me who spots land first, even if I'm not really trying to.  I just know where it should be, and am paying more attention to the problems of navigation.  But this time it was Elias who was the first - he spotted the Cape of Good Hope before anyone else.  What a classic landfall.

We dealt with a tremendous amount of shipping coming around the Cape.
Elias was overjoyed to receive permission to strip the insulation from our portlights and hatches as we approached Cape Town.  Our year in the South was over, and this was a fitting act of transition for our arrival in Africa.
Lion's Head, with Table Mountain in the background.
Cape Town!
I shaved for landfall.
She's laughing because she's wearing a jacket but no bibs, and just got soaked while working on the bow.
Cape Town is one of the great ports of the world.  The Royal Cape Yacht Club is the mandatory destination for inbound yachts.  It is tucked right in the heart of the working port, which gave a great feel to our arrival.

So now, after all our years in the Pacific, we've crossed the Atlantic, too.  

We made Cape Town 21 days out of Grytviken, and put a bit more than three thousand nautical miles on the log in the process (though this wasn't our noon-to-noon distances).  Considering that we were hove to four times on the passage, once for two days, we were very happy with the speed of the trip.

The next morning we cleared customs, and had a cook's night out at the yacht club restaurant to celebrate our achievement.

Cape Town marked a tremendous transition in our sailing lives.  More of that, and what we found waiting for us in South Africa, in our next post...