Monday, 25 June 2012

Wither SSB ?

One of my favourite finds during our recent inventory of Spray was the Sony 7600 single sideband radio receiver.  When I was a kid, my sister and I became amateur “ham” radio operators (Kentucky hams, we used to call ourselves).  We spent many happy evenings eavesdropping on conversations, news and music from around the world, dreaming of the travels and adventures we would have.    

A shiny new Sony 7600 (the one I want...)
Despite the many miraculous technological advances of the past 30 years, shortwave radio is still the best way for global cruisers to have news and information from just about anywhere on the planet.  Some AM/FM radio stations can be picked up along the coast for 50-75 miles.  Beyond that, if you want to stay in touch with what’s going on in the world, you have to rely on signals bounced off the ionosphere, which is shortwave or World Band Radio.  During a brief stroll along the dial (“dial” is what older folks call the seek tuning button) you can stumble onto a mix of traditional music from Southeast Asia, a documentary about maple syrup harvesting from Canada, and dire warnings from doomsday cults broadcasting from….well, they never really say. 

You may be asking yourself how useful (or indeed, desirable) it would be to have the ability to listen to, say, classic Chinese opera while at sea.  But you would be ignoring the fact that a SSB radio not only captures radio broadcasts, it also provides access to all-important weather and navigation information at sea beyond the reach of the marine VHF radio.  Combined with a computer and a good antenna, you can obtain both text and graphic weather data anywhere in the world.  Add a transmitter, and you are wired to participate in the global village. 

There are many radio nets established especially for cruisers by amateur radio operators around the major cruising destinations of the world (or more specifically, major cruising destinations of the world where old hams go to retire, which is to say, predominantly in areas with warm turquoise waters, palm trees, plastic flip-flops, and little fruity drinks with umbrellas … hmmmm, I wonder if I have to be 65 to join them ?).  These nets provide local sailing and port information, reports of piracy, queries from worried families about late arrivals, general gossip, and message relays.  They broadcast at a fixed time every day, providing a great source of entertainment, a bit like Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Woebegone Days” on the high seas.

What breaks my heart is that SSB is now most often labelled as “not dead yet”.  The satellite phone and the ability to connect to the internet from anywhere on the globe is rapidly undermining radio services.  On 31 December 2011, Radio France International announced that it would no longer broadcast offshore weather reports on short wave, depriving French sailors of one of their only sources of offshore weather news from a human voice.  An informal poll on Sail the World suggested, however, that the howl of protest was mostly an elderly one, with younger sailors greeting the news of the terminated broadcast with “so what?” 

While it is tempting at this juncture to dive into the sociological ramifications of this finding, I think I would prefer to avoid the debate altogether and just install both a SSB system and a satellite phone on Spray.  But I sure hope those radio net communities are still around when I’m ready to settle down and plant my toes in the warm sand somewhere.  And a final word to the younger generation of sailors who remain stubbornly insensible to the human connection:  when the robots rise up to enslave and kill us all*, the only place that will be safe is on a boat surrounded by salt water, and you can be sure that all us survivors will be coordinating our efforts via good old shortwave radio. 

Addendum:  After being mercilessly teased by my former colleagues for my naïveté regarding a robot’s ability to operate in salt water, I humbly admit that this was an inexcusable oversight on my part.  After having worked for more than 10 years coordinating bits of the Global Ocean Observing System, I should have immediately thought of the Argo and Glider programmes, which are based on autonomous or remotely-operated floats.  In my own defence, to call them robots at this point is a BIT of an exaggeration.  Nevertheless, I did take this opportunity to remind my friends working on Argo that it is not too early to be thinking about a global “kill switch” for those little buggers.

For a list of maritime radio nets around the world, check out the Noonsite Communications pages.

Also on Noonsite, read “The Essential Role of HF/SSB Radio in Ocean Cruising” by Allan Riches.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Learning Curve Blues

We knew that reconditioning and outfitting a 20 year old boat, even one in excellent condition, would involve a steep learning curve.  But what we didn’t realize is that the learning curve is, in fact, multiple curves that keep cropping up relentlessly.  It reminds us of running a trail marathon, where you grunt your way up a major hill and experience relief and elation on reaching the top…only to have your gaze settle on the rest of the trail in front of you, which rolls up and over numerous other hills that stretch out as far as the eye can see.   

We were just beginning to get comfortable with all the epoxies, catalysers, and putties one needs to patch up a boat, and gaining confidence in our own abilities to repair things.  After having refurbished an old house together, I learned once again to appreciate Patrick’s DIY skills.  He doesn’t always do things in what I would consider to be the most logical manner, but when he’s finished with something, it’s both solid and aesthetically pleasing.  When we drew up our “To Do” list, we made mental notes about who we would ask for advice or help with each task.  Slowly we’ve begun to realize with a certain timid pride that we can tackle many of them ourselves.

But our relief and elation at our new-found independence was short-lived as new challenges arose this week.  On our Maintenance Log is a seemingly simple task:  have an electric windlass installed.  While this is no simple operation, we would be paying someone else to do it, which I thought meant that this task would require little intervention on our part.  Pay money, cross something off the list, right ? 

The chain locker
So we met with the electrician to discuss the installation of said windlass. First, he terrified us with suggestions of cutting into the forward cabin and shortening it by several feet to improve the slope of the chain locker (“You guys don’t intend for anyone to actually sleep here, right?”).  After he saw our pale faces, he looked around at several other boats in the yard and found a solution that didn’t involve major alterations.  We will have to cut the chain locker hatch in half and stratify the forward part to have a solid base for the windlass, but that should be the only modification needed.

To test the placement of the windlass and the clearance for the anchor and chain, we lowered the anchor over the side and noticed that the anchor arm pitches upwards and hits the genoa furler as it goes over the davit (or comes up).  Two options were presented: either we manually put the anchor into position on the davit to avoid hitting the furler or we extend the davit a bit.   

The next problem was that even once the anchor is beyond the davit, the anchor blade tends to bang into the prow, which argues for extending the davit.  Since the prow also already has some dings that need repair (probably from hauling up the anchor with the chain raking against the prow), it was also suggested that a metal plate protecting the prow would be a good idea.

We next went inside to look at the battery for the motor that will be used to power the windlass.  Long story short: It’s too small. We have to buy a new one.

That simple task “have electric windlass installed” is now:
  • Cut the chain locker hatch in half and stratify the forward section
  • Buy and install an extension for the davit
  • Buy and install a metal plate to protect the prow
  • Buy and install a new battery
  • … and then “have electric windlass installed”. 
We’ve been spending 3-4 hours every day working on the boat and still haven’t managed to cross many items off our “To Do” list.  When we’re home, we’re on the internet researching models and prices of various pieces of equipment, reading forums for advice, or emailing friends for help.  We work from 10 in the morning until 8 at night every day, and we’re starting to get tired and cranky !  Summer sailing Plan A evaporated weeks ago, and now summer sailing Plan B is starting to look overly ambitious as well.  But as with running a tough race, we’re simply going to have to lie convincingly to ourselves that if we can just get up and over that next hill, things will get easier, and then set ourselves the goal of finishing with no injuries and big smiles on our faces.  

Monday, 11 June 2012

Ghost Ship Inventory

In 1872, three crew members of the Canadian freighter Dei Gratia boarded a vessel they encountered drifting 400 miles off the coast of Portugal.  Not a soul was found on board, and yet the ship showed no signs of damage or a hurried departure.  The crew had simply vanished, and the ghost ship Mary Celeste entered into maritime legend.* 
* For fans of maritime history (and chemistry !), I highly recommend the excellent book GhostShip by Brian Hicks … all will be revealed. 

1st layer of stuff in the cockpit locker.
You may think me a drama queen, but I was strangely reminded of this story the first time we boarded Spray as owners and began the inventory of the equipment left behind.  The standard equipment that was listed in the “for sale” announcement was all there.  But there were also sacks of lines, nets, tarps, bungee cords, gas cans, buckets, fishing equipment, hoses, flashlights, cleaning products, paint cans, putty and gelcoat supplies, rolls of wire and spare cables, wheel and motor parts, kitchen utensils, glasses and dishes, coffee, pillows, and three rolls of toilet paper.  Even if the crew had simply vanished, the boat still carried more supplies than many coastal cruisers we know, and we were reminded that the boat had most recently been outfitted for a trans-Atlantic crossing.   

A small sampling of paints and putties.
Since our list of hull repair tasks was growing by the day, I started the inventory with the mysterious crate of cans and tubes found in the cockpit lockers: 7 kinds of grease, numerous bottles of acetone, turpentine, and motor oil, and 18 varieties of putty, hardeners, catalyzers, and gelcoat paint and polish.  I carefully wrote down the name of each product and read the instructions to try to figure out what each was for.  I thought about labelling things, but was stopped by a fit of giggles when I remembered the scene in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude where the citizens of Macondo lose their memories and start labelling things: “This is a cow.  It gives milk.”  I imagined my first label: “This is polyester for the rudder.  It needs a hardener” but quickly realized that such labels would be more fun than functional. 

After we finished the inventory, we checked with Antoine and Caroline to make sure they had intended to leave all this stuff (in fact, they wanted the kitchen utensils back).  Our next mission is to decide what to remove from the boat.  We are not planning a trans-Atlantic hop anytime soon and don’t need to haul around such a vast supply of emergency repair products.  All those chemicals in the lockers remind me of my first year in college when I decided to double-major in chemistry and marine transportation !

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Naked Truth, Part II

A friend-of-a-friend dropped by the boatyard today to take a look at our propeller shaft tube problem.  At first, he was convinced that we just needed to patch up the stratification on either end of the shaft, but we decided to go ahead and open up the crack a bit to see what the tube looked like a little further back.  Doing so revealed a pit in the tube about 2cm x 1cm completely eaten away by rust.  When we dug a bit further, the tube pulled away from the stratification with little effort. 

Propellor shaft mysteries resolved.
So the good news is that we no longer have any doubt that the tube must be changed, and personally, we feel a bit vindicated in our insistence that there just might be a problem.  The bad news is that Spray now has a gaping hole where the prop shaft tube used to be and we can’t get this fixed until early July.  And the cherry on the cake is that this is not a cheap operation, even doing the work with friends.

We also just received the estimate from the boatyard for the epoxy work on the keel and hull.  I don’t know if my liver will be able to take another month of such surprises.
Posted on Saturday, June 09, 2012 | Categories:

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Zephyr of Nantes is Spray of Vannes !

It’s official, at least as far as the French administration is concerned.  Zephyr of Nantes has been replaced by Spray of Vannes !

From Er Gwennick to Zephyr to Spray, and the new proud owner.

The process was Kafkaesque as expected, but we managed to get it done in just under 7 hours.  Last night, we went to “The Official Web Site of the French Administration” to learn what steps we had to take to register the boat, to change the home port, and to change the name of the boat.  Let’s just forget the fact that many of the steps outlined by the web site had links to important information on other pages that told you the same stuff that was on the first page, but with the helpful suggestion that if you wanted the really important information, you should go to the following link, which took you right back where you were in the first place.

Here are the official instructions:

The seller must deliver to the Customs Office of the home port of the boat :

·         The sales contract, including all information concerning the boat and its administrative situation.  It must be signed by the Maritime Administration.
·         The acte de francisation (proof of registration and annual duties paid)
·         The “pleasure craft form” filled out in the name of the buyer, in 2 copies
·         2 identity photos of the buyer
·         1 original photo identification of the buyer.

If you want to change the home port,  you must:
·         Fill out the form requesting the change of home port ; present this request to the Customs Offices of  both the current home port and the new home port.

Here, as we discovered, is the reality:

The seller  (the buyer does this now) must deliver to the Customs Office of the home port of the boat :

·         The sales contract, including all information concerning the boat and its administrative situation.  It must be signed by the Maritime Administration.  (They don’t do this anymore, which cuts out one step if you actually know about it, which of course, you can’t know about until you present yourself at the Maritime Administration office.)
·         The acte de francisation (proof of registration and annual duties paid).
·         The “pleasure craft form” filled out in the name of the buyer, in 2 copies.  The Customs Office said that this was for the Maritime Administration. The Maritime Administration officer said she didn’t want it.
·         2 identity photos of the buyer.
·         1 original photo identification of the buyer.

On calling the Customs Office, we are also told that we must include the following information:

·         Bank account information required for wire transfers.
·         A document proving your current address, dated not more than 3 months from present date (e.g., and electricity bill usually works).
·         A handwritten request to change the name of the boat.

When we asked about changing the home port, we were informed that there was a home port for the Customs Office and a home port for the Maritime Administration and they are not necessarily the same.  The Maritime Administration suggested we change the home port for the Maritime Administration but leave the Customs Office home port as it was, since that service will soon be restructured to have a central service anyway.  This then gives us:

·         Fill out the form requesting the change of home port ; present this request to the Customs Offices  Maritime Administration of  both the current home port and the new home port.

To be honest, everyone was very kind, efficient, and helpful, despite that daft web site that is clearly maintained by some pin head bureaucrat in an office in Paris who has little or no contact with the services for whom he is the sole information provider.  The Maritime Administration even accepted our file at 16h32 when the sign on the door clearly said they closed at 16h00. And it didn’t cost us anything, unless you count the 3 hours of driving between Vannes and Nantes.  It could have been much worse.

But it’s too early for champagne.  We still have to contact the Radio Frequency Administration to register the VHF radio under the name of the new owner and boat name (Patrick is looking that one up on “The Official Web Site of the French Administration” as I type … heh, heh, heh) and we have to notify our port authorities of the changes, which undoubtedly requires forms and photos.

After these last few steps, Spray will be fully registered with the French authorities.  Then we’ve just got Neptune and that creepy sea serpent to deal with (see earlier posts).

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Dehler 34 Owners !

The check passing hands.
That giant sucking sound you heard around 19h00 GMT centered somewhere over western Europe was the siphon that just started in our bank account.  We’re officially poor boat owners! 

Antoine and Caroline, the charming FORMER owners of Zephyr/Spray, met us at the boat yard to discuss the crack around the propeller shaft tube.  We agreed on a price for fixing it and then drove to our home to sign the papers and celebrate with a little bubbly. 

The keys passing hands.

Neither of us knows quite what we’re supposed to do now.  We’re thrilled, anxious, overwhelmed, and aware that we’ve just accomplished a dream that has motivated our decisions and actions for the last 2 years.  A new chapter of our lives has indeed begun, with a glaring blank screen and a blinking cursor.  More champagne anyone ?

Time for champagne !

The Happy New Owners !