Saturday, January 21, 2017

No. You Can't Have Our Bow Line.

It was Cuba that finally made us tough.

At both Cienfuegos and Cayo Largo, we had to tie up to a marina dock to make our peace with officialdom.

At both of the marinas in question, Alisa glumly handed our bowline to the waiting marina worker, hoping against hope that this would be the time that the person receiving our line would know what to do with it.

No luck.

Both times, the worker took our bow line to the nearest dock cleat, pulled it as ever tight as he could, and then made it fast.

If you do that with a moving boat, and the dock cleat in question is towards the stern of the boat, only one thing can happen.

The boat is brought to a screeching halt by the bow. That's something like halting a trotting horse by the nostrils. The bow can only come slamming in towards the dock (and the stern can only go shooting out away from the dock) with a speed and violence that is commensurate with the force generated by the (slight) speed and (massive) weight of the boat.

In Cienfuegos, the dock was concrete. Alisa managed, with alacrity and disregard for her person, to fend off.

In Cayo Largo, not so.

In this case the dock was aluminum. We're steel. The resulting BANG was enough to make the onlooking mangroves shiver. Result - a big fat dent in the dock, and a teeny little scratch in our paint. I'll have to remember to hit that spot the next time I do touch-up.

The thing is, though, that while these were two quite egregious examples - "Great, you stopped us five meters short of where we were going. Now let's untie the poor boat and move her forward" - they were far from unique.

All too often, people running forward, eager to help you dock your boat, have no idea at all what to do. They grab the closest line on offer - from the bow - and, wanting to do something, pull on it or tie it off too soon and generally screw up everything.

As a result, Alisa and I had over the years developed a strong but diffuse aversion to any help docking the barky unless we really needed it. We couldn't exactly put into words why we hated help. We just hated it.

But Cuba made us see the light. Our dislike of help is actually very specific. It centers on the fascination that various forms of landlubber have for the bow line.

With recognition, comes solution.

Take today. I am about to jet off to Alaska to give the outstanding problems of boreal marine ecology my personal attention for a week or two. As such, our goal for the day was to get Galactic tied up in the marina where Alisa and the boys will live while the Mothership is captainless.

(I have discouraged Alisa from that hideous nautical custom of the relief skipper.)

We came into something of a screaming horror of a docking situation. Tradewinds right up our stern, and fresh. Our designated spot far far into the nether reaches of the marina, in the armpit where two docks come together with barely a Galactic-length between them. And the dock taking a little turn just before our slip so the trades would both be blowing us bow-first into the dock and towards the 36' Hunter (read: the single boat in the world that is less tolerant of being run into by 18 tonnes of steel than any other) that would be our neighbor.

Alisa and I were firm. We would not give up the bow line. The very nice worker with whom we were chatting on the VHF would get our spring. And he would bloody well like it.

Elias, as AB, was set the task of standing by with the bow line while Alisa tended spring and stern.  She explained the plan to him: "Don't give the man the bow line. He'll ask for it, but don't give it to him. We're doing spring line, then stern line, then bow last."

We came in, got the Mothership far far back in the trap of the narrowing docks, and predictably, I couldn't make the turn into our slip given the available room and wind speed.

A series of tiny little turns ensued as I repeatedly backed the barky up into the wind until we were nearly touching the boats at the dock behind us, and then risked a little forward gear to push our bow where it needed to be.

The dock worker, seeing everything not going to plan, began loudly demanding the bow line. That way he could give it a heroic tug when we got close, and our stern would go crashing into the defenseless Hunter, and everything would end according to the script that seems to have been written by the evil gods who govern all things in that third ring of hell, the marina.

Elias consulted with his mom. This grownup was demanding the line that he was holding. Should he give it to him?

Alisa stood firm.

Our helper had to make do with the spring.

And, except for a leetle hiccup when he decided that the spring line would be much more useful if it were led to a cleat downwind of us, rather than to the upwind cleat which was our entire hope and plan for stopping our 18 tonnes with the trades behind her (quickly set right by a burst of volume from the skipper's voice box), everything went perfectly.

It may be slow. But we do learn a few things as the years go by.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

No Dust On Us

Entering Colon harbor at dawn

This much shipping traffic - our AIS screen. Drift to the wrong side of the channel and harbor control is going to let you know about it.
Roberto the Panama Canal admeasurer. Eric got to help measure the Mothership
I got to help with paperwork
We're thinking in big chunks of ocean on board Galactic.

South Africa-Cuba. Panamá-Galápagos-Hawai'i.

And so on, to the logical end.

But sometimes to make a big chunk of ocean go by under your keel, you have to get through a little hoop first. Like, for instance, the Panama Canal.

Alisa and I both get instinctively nervous when the movements of the barky are constrained by forces outside our own control.

So when friends shared the news that booking a slot to transit the Canal might get difficult during the peak months of February and March, we saw a problem that needed to be gotten after, quick-like.

We hope/plan/intend to cross to the Pacific side in February, after I return from a fortnight of work in the Great Land and one of those Lesser United States. Like everyone else we know who is transiting the Canal this season, we're making our own arrangements, without using an agent. So, in order to book a slot, we had to clear in to Panama (that doesn't happen when you arrive in the San Blas), get ourselves to Colon to get the boat measured, and then pay our fees.

So it's been a hectic week so far. Ripper sail to the Port of Entry Sunday, on Monday talked the Port official down from a $20 bribe request to $10 to check us in (Where was the steely, "we don't pay bribes" spine of Carolyn Goodlander when I needed it? The official just said to me, "That's fine. Go ahead and check in at Colon then"), caught a ride from friends to the fantastic town of Portobelo to make our peace with Migración and get SIM cards the same day, made our appointment for the admeasurer Tuesday, then journeyed to Colon (where we do not care to anchor) and back today (Wednesday) to get into the Canal system.

Whew. This carefree wanderin' life can be a rush when you're trying to get someplace.

But we feel like we've gotten away with something to get Galactic measured before I jet to Alaska on Sunday.

And meanwhile, we've been having plenty of fun in Panama in our spare time. The birds! The ruins! The Snails!

More soon...

Friday, January 13, 2017

Four Wet Dogs

They were four wet dogs who made landfall in the San Blas Islands yesterday.

We put to sea from Cuba expecting that we would get 30 knot winds on the passage to Panama. A certain "show me something I haven't seen" world-weariness may have infected the pre-trip preparations of the Galactics.

The wind would be behind us, we reasoned.

Well, no.

A closer consideration of the geometry involved, including the crucial vector of our 8+ knots of forward progress, and what that does to the apparent wind, would have revealed that we would spend most of the passage on a beam reach. And as any sea dog will tell you, an entire world can be held in the difference between a broad reach and a beam reach at 30 knots.

We hadn't made quite all of our heavy weather preparations before the trip.

We knew that there was no need to get the trysail bent and lashed prior to departure, and the series drogue fixed to the stern cleats and lashed firmly on deck, so that a quick cut of its lashings would be enough to deploy that air bag of the sea. We do that for crossings that have some measurable, but small, chance of getting *big*. Thirty knots in the Caribbean doesn't count.

But it might have been really nice if *someone* (maybe the *someone* who has the t-shirts saying "The captain is always right and I'm the captain") had remembered to plug the naval pipe with plumber's putty. That would have been a nice touch. Ditto remembering to cover the stack for the propane heater in the aft cabin.

And it might have been nice if *someone else* (maybe the *someone else* who is the living walking sea goddess for the lucky dog in the funny t-shirts) had remembered not to dog the saloon hatch on top of the little knot in the bungie cord that holds the hatch cover in place, so that the gasket was deformed around the little knot, and each wave could send a little emissary below to the spot on the sole where Eric likes to sleep while we're at sea.

Pauvre Eric! His seasickness is getting so much better, but he still got to enjoy Alisa's famous tamale pie twice, once on the way down and again on the way back up.

And in addition to these little oversights in the ship's watertight comportment, there was the issue of the dodger. Tired stitching and design limits were both at times inadequate to the seas that came aboard. They who will beam reach in 30 knots will have to get used to the dubious pleasure of boarding seas.

It's amazing how much water that dodger blocks when it's all in one piece. When it wasn't, quite impressive amounts of the wet came through. The chart table and all of the electronics that it houses even got a hit. And the cushions that we normally sit on became saturated affairs. Alisa and I did some emergency at-sea stitching which helped things quite a bit. And we rigged the famous Antarctic Entry quite early on to give us some protection on the aft end of the dodger.

But for all that, the area under the dodger remained no refuge for our saturated crew. It was far too warm for raingear, so we passed the days and the nights in our saturated swim wear. Salty skin discomfort ensued.

Sitting around in salt-soaked shorts for day after day is enough to make anyone want to be an armchair sailor.

The interior of the boat was something of a salt-caked scenario. But it's amazing how quickly, once you gain a nice protected anchorage and give the interior a wipe down and have your dinner with victory chocolate pudding for all hands, that interior goes back to being your comfortable domestic refuge.

And, for all that hold-on-kids, we'll-be-there-in-a-couple-days excitement of this crossing, we did manage to put up some good numbers. Noon to noon runs of 152, 182, 177, and 186 nautical miles, the whole 750 miles in four and a half days.

And now Glenn Gould is tickling the 88s, and Alisa is baking bread, and we have the promise of catching up with friends, old and new, who are also in this famous archipelago.

All is right with our world, thanks very much.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Vicissitudes

For all that a sailing boat of one's own is the nonpareil way to see the world, there are certain allowances that must be made in the realm of what some would call practical considerations.

On a sailing boat, you don't always go just when you would want to.

Take our departure from Cuba. For days we eyed a 36-hour calm in the forecasts. It stretched from Cuba way down into the southern Caribbean. If we left before the calm arrived, we'd find ourselves bobbing in place on the ocean, with no beach handy for throwing around the old pill.

The longer we sail, the less stomach we have for motoring at sea. There was no way we would consider anything so redneck as motoring all of a day and a night and a day to pass through that calm.

So we waited. The calm came, and we went snorkeling and played baseball on the beach.

The calm passed, and we cleared out. But the light southeasterly that had been forecast declared itself as a fresh southerly. An absolute headwind.

So after we cleared out, and satisfied all the quaint formalities that are beloved by nations and officials around the world, with the extra bonuses when clearing out from Cuba of a springer spaniel to search our boat and a dog handler in mini skirt and black lacy stockings, we motored away from the dock, at just the moment we had promised to leave the country, and made it as far as the anchorage a half-mile away, safely out of view, where we anchored for the night.

Early morning found the headwinds gone. We did that gauche thing that we hate more and more to do, and motored for quite a long time to make some distance on that first nearly windless day. The forecast showed the wind coming up northerly, but quite fresh. A little error on the part of the model might even see us catching a bit of gale-force wind. So we were looking to be as far south as we could, where the wind wouldn't blow so hard for so long.

And all that was what we considered just to begin the five day (or so) trip to Panama.

Is it any wonder that when we start making plans to meet someone in some particular place, we start to get nervous? The one thing we trust in our sailing lives is our inability to predict our whereabouts at much into the future.

We are amateurs, after all. And I figure that's the amateur's right, to be a bit vague about schedule.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

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Saturday, January 7, 2017


Does anyone else see regret as an essential part of travel?

Our visit to Rapa, for me, will always be marked by a splendid chance that I had to be open-hearted and big-spirited, which in the one moment that I had to take it, I missed.

Alisa and I were looking through Cuba pictures yesterday, and we came across the ad for live music that she had photographed in Cienfuegosso that we could follow up. Somehow in our rush to get out of Cienfuegos before Christmas, we neglected to go check it out. Other things seemed more pressing at the time, but of course now I can't even remember what they were.

So, no music for us in Cuba, if you can believe it. I guess I'll have that to regret.

But I'll note that it's a very different regret, having gone somewhere and then thinking of something that you left undone while visiting, than the regret of never going at all.

In haste, with a good wind and our outward clearance about to arrive...

Friday, January 6, 2017

It Was the Best of Offices, It Was the Worst of Offices

I took a wonderful break from the duties of the science life over Christmas, when we were anchored at Cayo Rosario. Long beach walks with the family and lionfish spearing with Elias and endless games of Risk with the boys were the result.

Even before New Year's Eve I was back at it, though. Whatever you might think about scientists (Vanguard of an international conspiracy!), they do work harder than nearly anyone. Over and over I'm impressed at what an effort is required to make a useful contribution to our knowledge about the world.

The working title for the contribution to knowledge that is currently in prep (as we say in the business) by myself and a group of academic colleagues is "The End of Regime Biology in a North Pacific Ecosystem". However useful this contribution may be, I'm making my part of it from our traveling boat where I have no permanent office and am always sharing limited space with our boys.

This arrangement ends up being particularly hard on Eric. When I am concentrating ever as hard as I can, and he engages in some annoying behavior that is the cultural right of six year olds, I can find myself getting annoyed (that's why we call it annoying behavior, after all) to the very end of my tether.

That, and there are the endless interruptions of boat life. The propane tanks need to be changed. We need more water. The stuffing box is unaccountably leaking to the point where the bilge pump is turning on. All of it requires that I lay down my train of thought and lay hands on the boat to make things somehow better.

The days go so fast, as do the years, and I can have so little to show at the end of them in terms of finished work. In my darker moments I make tortured appeals to Alisa about how much easier it would all be if I just had an office somewhere and could separate work life from family life.

But, then! The boys take the PE break in their morning of school, jumping off Galactic and clearing cob-webby heads, and I jump in with them. Or, I take a break before dinner and swim into the beach to play baseball with them for an hour. Or, I step into Elias' schooling as he and I read The Old Man and the Sea aloud to each other. Or, after the boys are finally in bed, Alisa and I repair to the gentle tropical breezes of the darkened cockpit to enjoy a rum drink and each other's company.

At these moments, it is obvious that I have the best office in the world.

Any of our sailing friends would jump at the chance of having my income while they were sailing. But I don't think many of them would sign on for the amount of work that is involved.

And I'll admit that when I daydream about our second decade of living afloat (inshallah) I daydream about doing it without working as a scientist.

But there is also the essential joy of having an active life of the mind while we're off in obscure parts of the world, having a life of adventure. And having that science life, and the income that it gives us, has been a great way to have both things.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Annus Mirabilis

In Cuba, notes that can be converted to foreign currency are CUC - pronounced "kook".

Since our complete absence of advance planning for this trip has left us a bit short on CUC, we had to make a few choices in the shops of Cienfuegos. I am glad to say that we were able to throw down for at least one luxury item, in the form of a quite economical but still French bottle of sparkling wine. Which is well chilled in the fridge just now. The trades have been keeping Galactic's two wind generators going to the point where we found a fleck of ice in one of our chilled water bottles yesterday.

(The liter of Havana Club rum that we bought in Cienfuegos I am not counting as a luxury good, since it set us back $6 USD.)

Between that chilled wine and the 6 or 7 lobster tails that we also have in the fridge, we are looking well sorted for our New Year's Eve.

As 2017 has been drawing nearer for the last few weeks, Alisa and I have occasionally been commenting with some sense of wonder over the year that 2016 was for us.

We started the year in the Falklands. We spent a month of the year on Safari in South Africa and Namibia. We crossed the Atlantic twice. We had the bar-none trip of our lives to South Georgia.

We put 11,600 nautical miles on the clock. With the notable exception of a mad traveling family of our acquaintance who have found the groove of slow travel, I tend to get very nervous around boats that never go anywhere. What is the point? For me, any year that sees us crossing the 10,000 mile barrier is a good sailing year indeed.

And there were smaller notable moments for the team. Elias went scuba diving. Eric learned to read and to ride a bike. The boys went trick-or-treating for the first time. I gave talks at two scientific conferences, and published two first-author scientific papers and a handful of magazine stories. Alisa learned to be a teacher for a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old, which is a different skill set than that involved in teaching 9 and 5, and ever so critical to making our family life afloat work.

So, without wanting to jinx ourselves by taking notable delight in our incredibly good fortune, I think it safe to say that we Galactics find ourselves entirely pleased with the way that we have conducted this final entire year of our first decade of full-time sailing.

That lobster and wine is going to be well enjoyed tonight.

I'll close by wishing the best to our readers for this coming year. And if you dream, metaphorically or actually, of casting off the lines and sailing for distant shores, may 2017 be the year you do so.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!