Monday, 25 March 2013

The Never-Ending Shakedown Period

When we were visiting boats to buy and would notice little things that we wanted to change, sellers would always tell us that the rule of thumb is that it takes 2 years to get a boat to be the way you want it.  We thought that was just a way of dismissing our concerns.  Now we believe.

Every time we head out, it feels like a shakedown cruise and I’m beginning to think that this is just the way it’s going to be for quite some time.  But rather than listing of all the things that go wrong, I’ve decided to make a more balanced score-card for our cruises to highlight the positive things as well.

Cool but SUNNY !  The shades make their first appearance of 2013.
Things we broke:

The on/off switch for the refrigerator.  Turns out that the long switch that looked like a toggle (up-down) was actually just a push button (in-out).  Who knew?  Attempts to super-glue it back into place were futile.  For now, we’re turning the fridge off and on by inserting the push button pin manually into the hole left behind when it broke.  Not very elegant, but a whole lot cheaper than replacing the whole control unit. 
The metal bracket that broke.

The auto-pilot angle indicator bracket.  This has been a weak spot that we’ve just been putting on the back burner for awhile now (one of the earliest problems noted in our Tech/Mech list).  This metal bracket connects the auto pilot rudder angle indicator to the rudder stock, and has just been held onto the rudder stock with a stainless steel screw-clamp.  We’ll probably need to find a machinist to make us a new part.

Things we fixed:

Mooring and Running lights.
Mooring and running lights.  After two trips up the mast, we finally got the mooring and running lights fixed.  According to the electrician, the original LED bulbs were “those old cheap Chinese LEDs.”  We now have new superior (French) ones.  We also replaced the duct tape around the bottom seal with a bead of silicone, much better at keeping out humidity, according to the electrician.

Oil Change.  We completed our first oil change, changed the oil filter, and changed the oil in the gear box. 

Things we did right:

Successfully executed a tricky new manoeuvre.  This was the first time we’d taken Spray into the port on the island of Houat.  Here, boats moor bow and stern on two mooring buoys connected by “dumbbell” floats (two smaller floaters connected by a metal rod in between the two mooring buoys).  This system allows 2 boats to moor on either side of the buoys, with the dumbbell floaters serving as a cushion between the two boats. Our manoeuvre to pick up the two mooring buoys, back and front, went very smoothly.  See “Things we did wrong” for the rest of the story.

Navigated solo in the Gulf.  While we’ve been sailing in the area for 4 years now, this was the first time we have navigated solo from the entrance of the Morbihan Gulf up to Vannes, an area renowned for its narrow passages between 40 islands, tidal currents among the strongest in Europe (9 knots in places), powerful eddies and whirlpools, and wind-against-current conditions that can bar the entrance to the Gulf with steep waves.  We, of course, avoided most of that by calculating favourable tidal conditions for the passage.  Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about the wind direction and ended up short-tacking in narrow channels all the way home, but the weather was relatively sunny and mild, so that was actually fun.

Picked up a mooring buoy at Er Gored.  We had a lovely sunny lunch stop at Er Gored beach on the west coast of Monk’s Island (Ile aux Moines) in the Gulf.  We had 3-4 hours to kill waiting for more favourable currents and the bridge opening in Vannes, so we pulled up to the empty mooring field at Er Gored and had lunch (and a nap) in the sunny cockpit.  What a welcomed respite after our sleepless night at Houat ! (see “Things we did wrong.”)

A peacefull Er Gored mooring area...with sun !

Things we did wrong:

Made a bad decision about where to spend the night.  We had not planned on going to the island of Houat that day, but since the wind was good we decided to take advantage of it.  The wind was from the East and was supposed to turn Northeast in the evening.  Plan A was to anchor at Treach Salus beach, one of our favourite spots on the south side of the island.  As we approached the island, I listened to the updated weather report that mentioned 3-4 meter swells from the southwest, which meant that we would not be able to anchor safely (or comfortably) on the beach.  Out with Plan A, move on to Plan B.  The coastal pilot guide says that there are mooring buoys just outside the port of Houat.  We had seen these last fall and it looked like a great spot.  Even though the area would be somewhat exposed if the wind did indeed turn to the Northeast, the pilot said that Northeast winds can raise, and I quote, “a little bit of chop”.  No problem, I thought.  A bit of water slapping and knocking against the hull isn’t pleasant, but as long as the winds are light (Beaufort 3-4) and we’re on a buoy and not at anchor, it shouldn’t be a problem.  We pulled up to the spot.  No buoys.  Apparently, they take these out in the winter but failed to indicate this to the editors of the coastal pilot guides.  Out with Plan B, move on to Plan C.  I’d always been leery of entering the actual port of Houat because the water is not very deep there and we can only use the buoys on the outer edge of the harbour.  We did a slow recon loop around the outside mooring buoys and I calculated that we’d have at least 1 meter of water under the keel at low tide, which would give us a good safety margin even if there was some swell and chop.  We tied up to the last pair of mooring buoys (mooring bow and stern with dumbbell floaters in between the buoys).  The manoeuvre went well, the sun was out, winds were light, and it was a beautiful spot.  Cue menacing music…

Port of Houat.

The calm before a sleepless night.
As the winds picked up and veered Northeast, the chop set in.  No problem.  We’ve done chop before.  The problem was the way we had tied up to the dumbbell mooring system.  We left the mooring lines a bit loose so that the boat could move up and down freely with the swell.  But with the wind pushing us sideways, and with our being tied up on the windward side of the mooring buoys, the bow passed over the nylon line connecting the bow mooring buoy to the dumbbell floaters and began sawing the line up-and-down-and-up-and-down with the bow of the boat. The line was very thick nylon covered with slimy algae and I didn’t think that this would hurt the boat (or that the boat would cut through the mooring line), but still… not a good situation.  We tried adjusting the lines, forward, back, tighter, looser but nothing worked.  I realized that the best thing to do would be to re-moor the boat on the leeside of the mooring buoys.  (Lesson learned:  always moor on the lee side of dumbbell buoys if you have a choice.)  But it was midnight and the winds were stiff, and moving the boat "by hand" without the motor would have been impossible.  The wind had pushed us so far sideways that there was no space between the 2 rows of buoys, so in order to get onto the lee side of our row of buoys, we would have had to push our way in between the two rows.  The concern was that there was a lot of long algae and various bits of mooring lines floating at the surface of the water that I didn’t want wrapped around the propeller.  So we set the lines as best we could and rode out the night with the banging, knocking, and jerking of “a little bit of chop.”  I slept with one eye open and kept checking the lines every hour until about 2:30 a.m. at high tide.  After that, I convinced myself that everything was okay and managed to sleep until 6 a.m.  We headed out into the blustery swell as soon as the first passenger ferry pulled into port around 8 a.m.  (Embarrassment is a great motivator for leaving a port early in the morning…). 

Patrick summarizes the situation by sighing and saying, “Well, we’re less dumb than we were when we left home port.”  And I think this is going to be our mantra for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Spring Cleaning

Weather forecast for this weekend:  gales from the South East, or light variable winds from the South West.  The local marine weather forecasts are all over the place – a sure sign of spring. 

And that means spring cleaning, or rather, doing all those once-a-year jobs to prepare for the main sailing season.

We took our 2 fire extinguishers for their annual check-up.
Fire extinguishers we hope we never need to use.

We bought a new set of offshore distress signals (flares, etc.) to replace our soon-to-be expired ones.  
 Distress signals we REALLY hope we never need to use.

I cleaned the water system with a biocide (PuraTank). 

We bought a couple of new mooring lines (16mm and 18mm polyester) with anti-chaffing tubes made of a supple mesh nylon / pvc mix.  I made hard eye-splices on two other mooring lines (16mm square line polyester) and fixed some large shackles to each eye, ready for rock-n-roll moorings where we may need extra peace-of-mind.

New mooring lines with anti-chaffing gear.

Patrick changed the oil in the motor and the gear box (inverseur).

We tried to change the anodes (zincs) on the motor, but those beasties are very tricky to reach on our motor.  Now that we’re armed with the appropriate long sockets, we’ll try again.  (I fully suspect they’ll be “frozen” with corrosion or salt or both and we’ll need some professional help with that one…).

I noticed that a couple of our bronze through-hull fittings were getting a bit green and scaly, so I took a wire brush to them and then slathered them with marine grease. 

I’m waiting for a sunny day (preferably above freezing) to wash some green slime off the corner of the rolled-up-for-too-long genoa and repair some fraying edges near the clew. 

And I’m also waiting for the temperatures to get above 10° C / 50° F to try the new anti-condensation paint and to climb up the mast to change the bulbs in the tri-colour running lights.  

Anti-condensation paint.

As part of our winter blues retail therapy, we ordered a couple of folding bikes! They have 20 inch tires, 7 gears, aluminium frames, and weigh only 10 kg (22 pounds). Actually, they seem a bit cheap and we don’t expect them to last too long or be too comfortable, but they make us dream of spending a day exploring new places this summer, and in the never-ending grey of a Brittany winter, that’s priceless.

New toys !
Posted on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | Categories:

Friday, 15 March 2013

Summer Plans and the Art of Vulnerability

In just 6 weeks, we’ll be pushed out of our comfortable nest in the port of Vannes, ready or not.  The classic boat festival “The Week of the Gulf” will be invading the port and our winter contract will come to an end.    

Scenes from Gulf Week 2011.
But this is the moment we’ve been waiting for, right?  Time to sail away to see the world!  So why are we so nervous?  

First of all, we haven’t quite decided where to go.  The typically summer range for most sailors in this area is “Cerveza to Guinness” (Spain to Ireland).  One involves crossing the Bay of Biscay, a notoriously rough 3 day offshore passage.  The other involves a 1 day offshore crossing of the bumpy and cargo ship clogged English Channel.  We’ve done both as crew and while both were uncomfortable for long stretches, they weren’t as daunting as their reputations.

Where to go ?
But when we think about doing either of these alone in Spray, our swashbuckling chutzpah evaporates and re-condenses before our eyes as menacing storm clouds.  Friends tell us we’re ready, but we’re way out of our comfort zone with either of these choices.  And isn’t this supposed to be fun?  We want to be baba-cool bohemian sail bums, not intrepid adventurers looking death in the eye over the crest of each wave.  Won’t we slowly gain experience and confidence so that these types of crossings don’t seem so frightening?

The French philosopher Fabrice Midal reminds us in his most recent work, The Tenderness of the World: the Art of Vulnerability, that life without anxiety isn’t possible.  Dreams often turn to tragedy because one is forced to alter reality to achieve them.  A dream usually boils down to doing away with pain, fear, or unhappiness.  But life without these anxious states is not possible in a world where people care about things or each other.  He suggests developing a realistic relationship with anxiety. 

If I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.  I have learned to put my anxiety to work for me, though, since it allows me to play out every possible doomsday scenario in my head, over and over again, preparing me for what actions have to be taken when the time comes.  This practice was helpful recently when our motor died in a 25 knot headwind coming out of a rocky channel.  Patrick later congratulated me on my quick actions (getting the sails up alone while he went below to alternatively plead with /  hurl insults at the motor).  Quick action was only possible because I had rehearsed the situation in my head one hundred times already.  The down side of this is that every new proposal (e.g., “Hey … let’s check out that little cove over there !”) is met with squinty eyes and a blank stare while the movies of everything that could possibly go wrong roll in front of my eyes, which only permits a luke-warm reception to even the best of new ideas.

For now, developing a relationship with my anxiety will start with reducing it to manageable proportions by taking a realistic view of our dreams so that we don’t have to (tragically ?) alter reality to achieve them.

So here is the Reality Check:  While Patrick and I have been sailing for over 10 years now and have logged almost 6000 nautical miles, we have only been sailing “alone together” on Spray for 34 days, and have logged only 492 nautical miles.  And in that time, a lot has gone wrong.  We could effortlessly sign up as crew on an around-the-world adventure with the right boat and skipper, but heading out of the protective confines of our own bay on our own boat is still a wee bit stressful.  The sea looks very different when you’re the skipper and it’s your boat.

No, friends, our mantra for this summer will be “discretion is the better part of valour,” extended title, “it’s supposed to be fun.”  We’ll stick close to the coast in areas where safe havens are within an easy 1 day sail and if we feel better about things along the way, we’ll have more adventurous options available.  Heck, we may even make it to Spain and/or the UK / Ireland this year.  The goal for this summer, however, will not be about reaching a set destination, but rather about mileage building, confidence building, gaining skippering experience, getting to know the boat and our own reactions to her, deciding if we’re cut out for multiple months of living on the boat, and more mundane-yet-essential things like how to leave the house for months at a time (bills, yard care, security, etc.).  That’s enough for one summer.  Swashbuckling can wait.

For more articles about sailing in the face of fear, visit The Monkey's Fist !

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Enemy Within

One of the other scourges of winter sailing, we’ve discovered, is condensation.  When warm moist air inside the boat touches the “walls” (hull) or the windows, the result is a continual cold-sweat inside the boat.  A little bit of this is manageable – you just wipe it up with a sponge from time to time.  A lot of it, however, leads to mildew, ruined cushions, mouldy food stores, a damp feeling everywhere, and nights punctuated with Chinese water-drop torture.

Dehumidifier (only marginally helpful.)
I had taken all the sensible precautions I had learned:  turn on the heat and open some windows, increase ventilation, turn cushions on-end when not in use to increase air flow, always open a porthole above the stove when cooking, eliminate cotton, put food in plastic containers, etc.  I even bought a small dehumidifier (the chemical absorbent kind) and we recently just installed some great “akwamats” under our bed cushions.  These thick mats of latex-coated coconut fiber help increase air circulation and insulate cushions from the bulkhead walls.  (They stink a little bit, though…hoping that will go away with time.)   

But one month in the boat yard this winter without much ventilation highlighted several weaknesses of my strategy that beg to be remedied.  Patrick, ever the pragmatist, suggests we simply stop navigating when it’s cold, but I am convinced that even wintering-over in warm places will still lead to humidity problems at some point and measures must be taken.

This epiphany came to me last week when I discovered that condensation had ruined my breakfast tea, properly stored in a plastic container.  Even some of the herbal teas in individual plastic-like sachets had to be thrown out.  Okay, admittedly, the lid to the plastic container may not have been fully sealed, but still… this meant war.

As I began looking around the boat, I quickly identified several problem areas.  First, the former owners of the boat ripped out all the wall linings and simply painted the surfaces a matte white.  When I first visited the boat, I loved the effect – clean and neat.  Nothing is worse than dingy sagging mildewed wall lining.  But this facelift also means that there is no longer any insulation between the cold bulkhead and the warm air, so we now have lots of surface area for condensation to form.  This is particularly troublesome inside the food and clothes lockers. 

The other big culprit is the metal rims around the portholes and hatches.  This is where the majority of condensation forms.  In the mornings, after a night of breathing in a closed environment, the drips are everywhere, but mostly concentrated on these cold metal surfaces.  One morning last week, the hygrometer read 81% while the temperature was only 8° C / 46° F.  With a dew point of 5°C,  we were very close to creating our own rain clouds.  In such conditions, wiping drips off the window frames with a sponge works for about 1 minute before the beads re-form.  Of course, the answer here is ventilation, but who wants to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag and open the windows in a howling sub-zero wind even before having that first cup of mouldy tea ? 

After reading several blogs from live-aboards in cold climates, I have a few new tricks I’m going to try.

My favourite idea and probably the one least likely to work is Anti-Condensation Paint.  This paint, readily available and reasonably priced, was developed for bathrooms and kitchens, and a few blogging yachties have said it works well for them on their boats.  The paint contains micro-beads of glass, a great insulator.  And it’s available in matte white, so we can test it in a few places before committing to a full interior paint job. 

French version, anti-condensation paint with glass micro-beads.

The next idea is insulating the hatches.  You can make or buy insulated covers that you put on the outside of your hatches.  Apparently, the camping car industry is way ahead of us on this.  Some of the fancier ones are actually a bit oversized, allowing you to leave the hatches open a crack to improve circulation.

The third trick is a simple one, but one that will force us to abandon our ecological moral compasses.  We must accept to turn the heat on full blast and open all the windows.  The idea pains me, and yet, it’s the best way to get rid of condensation. 

I figure that by the time I implement these tricks, the weather will be warmer and this won’t be an issue.  To add insult to injury, I just read that the anti-condensation paint can’t be applied in temperatures less than 12° C / 54° F !  I guess the bright side to all this is that I can strike “painting” right off my list for the next couple of weeks.  Lesson learned: you must winterize your boat BEFORE winter !    

For more articles on winter sailing, visit The Monkey's Fist !

Monday, 4 March 2013

On Winter Sailing

You might imagine that an article about winter sailing would gush over the beauty of the sea in winter, the peacefulness of a perfect mooring, or the abundant wildlife that seems to come alive after the last boat has been pulled out of the water.  While these scenes are inspiring, they are not the reason we sail in winter.  The true reason we sail in winter is, quite simply, that we don’t have much choice.  Either we sail in winter (or rather, cold weather) or we only sail 4-6 months out of the year.

We still haven’t decided if that would be such a bad thing.

And yet, when I come home after a winter sail, I find myself defending the practice to dubious friends and family, saying things like, “We’ve got heat on the boat, you know!” and “As long as you’re well-equipped and you can choose your weather windows, it’s fine.”  But the question we’re still asking ourselves is whether or not we should try to distinguish between “fine” and “actually enjoyable”.  My argument has always been that it’s better than staying at home, but Patrick has begun reminding me that those are not our only two choices.

But before dismissing the idea of winter sailing, here’s a short chronicle of what a typical 3 day weekend sail actually looks like here in southern Brittany.  This is for my mother, who asked, “What do you actually DO when it’s that cold? … Just hunker down around a space heater in the boat for 3 days?!”  (She lives in Florida…)

Weather: completely overcast grey skies, 15-18 knots of wind, daytime highs 3-5° C (37 – 41° F) with wind chills below freezing.  But no rain !

Day 1: 

Left the port of Vannes at 10:00, hoisted sails at 10:30 after passing out of the narrow channels, and headed out of the Morbihan Gulf on a lovely beam reach and smooth seas to the island of Hoedic.  Averaged 7-8 knots (thanks to a well-timed current…).

Lunch in the cockpit en route.  Okay, we hid behind the dodger to get out of the wind, but it was still lunch in the cockpit.  Salmon quiche warmed on the stove, salad, white wine, fruit, chocolate pudding.

Arrived Hoedic 13:30.  We were the only boat in the small 5-slip marina.  We were later joined by 2 other ships-of-fools.

Rigged up shore power and investigated why the auto-pilot was dead.  After 30 minutes of tracing wires, we found a plug that had come undone in the back of the repeater unit (probably knocked out when we shoved one-too-many fenders into the cockpit locker).  Works fine now although I have to now re-do its sea-trial calibration process.

Wild oyster hunting on Hoedic Island.

The tide was rising fast, so Robert and I headed out to gather some wild oysters for dinner.  Patrick started investigating a navigation program glitch (the Automatic Identification System works fine on the free software OpenCPN but not on our very expensive MaxSea).  Benny curled up with the newspaper (with the space heater at her feet !)

Repairs and leisure time.
The nav problem partially understood, we headed off for a walk around the island, finishing at a warm pub for a drink before dinner.

Beautiful walks around Hoedic.
We lingered a bit too long in the warmth of the pub and Patrick and Robert opened oysters in the dark.

Opening wild oysters is hard work...
Dinner!  Oysters for starters, followed by winter stew (sausages, cabbage, carrots, potatoes), cheese, wine, chocolate cake.

Dinner !

Once the dishes were cleared away, Benny introduced us to a ridiculous children’s card game called Dobble that had us all in stitches before long.   

Lights out.

Day 2:

Up at the crack of 9:30.  Breakfast: tea, brioche, toast, butter, jam, yogurt, fruit.  Personal hygiene time, tidying up the boat, and getting the latest weather report.

11:00  Caught the tide for a 1 hour downwind sail to the island of Houat for a picnic lunch in one of our favourite anchorages, the Treach Salus beach.  It was quite grey and depressing, so I didn't take photos.  Here's what it looks like in summer, though !

Treach Salus in better times.
Lunched in the saloon.  Shrimp cocktail and devilled eggs, potato and smoked haring salad, white wine, cheese, fruit, chocolate cake.

14:00 took the tide back into the gulf.  It was a close reach in near-freezing temps with +15 knots of wind, so we put a reef in the main and put up the smaller jib (easier to tack with).  After a few tacks around the rocks of Houat, we made it across the bay on one tack, but then had to short tack for about 1 hour from the entrance of the Gulf to Monks’ Island (Ile aux Moines).  But all that tacking kept us warm ! 

Cold hands, warm hearts ?
18:00  Arrived at Ile aux Moines and tied up to the floating pontoon in the small harbour.  Surprise – shore power has been cut off for the winter.  Tried out the new diesel-powered heating system and discovered we like it even better than the oil-bath radiator. 

Patrick and Robert continued their investigations of the AIS MaxSea.  I got the latest weather report on the VHF radio and calculated the tides for the following day. 

Time for drinks and dinner preparation.  On the menu, a southern specialty, Chicken and Dumplings, made by yours truly, served with garlic green beans, bread, cheese, red wine, and ….drum roll….chocolate cake.

After the dishes were done, we continued our Dobble tournament until 10:30.  Lights out.

Day 3

8:30  There was a stiff breeze and Robert reported that it was really cold out.  This was an ominous announcement from someone who loves the cold and feels unwell when the temperature gets above 15° C (59° F).

We cast off the lines at 9:30, still uncertain about whether we would motor a direct route home or short tack into a stiff headwind for an hour.  After getting into the main channel, we decided to sail.  It was a good decision – great fun with tacking every 5 minutes, so we didn’t feel the cold. (Much.)

10:30 Motor on, sails down, heading home for the bridge opening at 11:00.

11:30 Tied up back home.  Said goodbye to our companions and put the boat in order.  Home, food, shower, nap, cleaning, laundry.

16:30  Walk back to the boat after realizing that I forgot to turn the cooking gas valve off….

Summary:  We did some good sailing, fixed a few things on the boat, and had a fun couple of days with good friends.  Not too bad and certainly nothing to regret.  Would we do it again?  It’s tempting to say no and draw the line at sailing in sub-freezing wind chills, but the truth is that we will probably do it again, simply because the pull of sailing outweighs the discomfort.  Of course, I’m now spending my non-sailing days dreaming about sailing in places where you don’t have to make these kinds of choices… the Atlantic Islands (Madeira, Azores, Canaries), the Caribbean, the South Pacific, etc. 

For more articles on winter sailing, visit The Monkey's Fist !