Sunday, 25 August 2013

40 days and 40 nights

…and 800 miles of navigation later, it’s time to reflect on our first big cruising experience on Spray.

The 40 day trip:  out (red dots) and back (blue dots).

Trip Out (Red Dots) nautical miles
Trip Back (Blue Dots) nautical miles
Er Gored         6 NM
Concarneau    59 NM
Camaret         65 NM
Aber Wrac’h   37 NM
Roscoff           28 NM
Morlaix            12 NM
Roscoff           12 NM
Tregieur          56 NM
Guernsey        58 NM
Jersey             28 NM

Jersey to St Malo 44 NM
Chausey         17 NM
St Cast            23 NM
Lezardrieux     40 NM
Perros-Gueric 46 NM (storm, rounded 7 islands)
Roscoff           26 NM
Aber Wrac’h   34 NM
Camaret         37 NM
St Hernot        20 NM
St Evette         27 NM
St Marine        34 NM
Glenans          11 NM
Port Louis       30 NM
Houat              29 NM
Vannes           20 NM

1.  Mileage and confidence building.  This cruise was a HUGE step forward for our confidence building in so many ways.  In an earlier blog I mentioned that we would be sailing within our comfort zone this summer, from the southern tip of Brittany to Royan (e.g., the least challenging contiguous coastline of France).  But a mere 2 weeks before heading off, a more experienced friend proposed that we follow him and his crew around northern Brittany and up to the Channel Islands.  This was an opportunity not to be missed.   

We had originally wanted to sail around northern Brittany by ourselves but when I mentioned it to another sailing friend, his reaction was, “What?  You want to sail in the most difficult region of Europe for your FIRST solo cruise?” to which I said, “North?  Did I say north?  No, no, no…my bad French again.  I meant south, of course.”  Needless to say, without a safety net to help us around the scary spots, we never would have tackled this alone.  The experience was made even richer when our friends left the Channel Islands to head home earlier than we wanted and we made our way home alone.  We enjoyed having friends around on the first half of the trip, but were also quite pleased to be “alone together” for the return trip.  (Note that the mileage in between the blue dots is a whole lot smaller than between the red dots !)  The importance of friends merits its own long blog post.  Thank you Daniel and Nelly !

2.  Experience living aboard.  Before we left, I was telling people we were heading off for 1-2 months.  Patrick told me to stop telling people that because he couldn’t really imagine that we would stay on the boat for more than a month without cracking up and heading home for a spell.  As we neared Vannes, neither of us was ready to come home, and the only reason we stopped (for 1 week) was because it seemed a bit silly not to drop in and check on the house when Vannes is on our route south.  Even though the space is somewhat limited on the boat, we have everything we need and are very comfortable.  The scenery changes every day and we love being on the move. 

3.  How to leave home.  I follow quite a few other blogs about live-aboard sailors, but I have yet to find one that describes people who sail, for example, 6-8 months out of the year and then return home when the weather gets rotten.  Leaving a house unattended for long periods is not so simple.  We have wonderful neighbours who keep an eye on things for us, but the yard is on its own.  Three years ago, I planted an “eco-grass mix” with micro-clover that is supposed to give you a lawn that never needs mowing, always stays green and never needs watering.  So far, I give it a 5 out of 10 for success.  Thanks to the wonderful hot and dry weather we’ve been having, the yard was in pretty good shape, although a bit toast-coloured in spots.  We did mow, but could have left it much longer before it got to be an eye-sore.  Four of 7 houseplants placed outside under a tree died, and will be replaced by the best plastic versions money can buy (within reason, of course.)  The weeds took over my decorative gravel terrace out front (e.g. where everyone can see it), so installing a new geo-textile tarp under the gravel will be on my “to do” list when we come home at the end of the sailing season.  (When is that, again ???)

4.  Weathering the storms.  We had a major educational event in the form of a surprise gale and two incidents of the motor dying on us.  Besides the obvious learning experiences those sorts of things provoke, Patrick and I had to learn to work together as a team during these stressful, quasi-emergency situations.  Our approaches are 50% complementary and 50% conflicting, but getting better.  In general, he thinks I’m an overly-cautious, anxiety-riddled maniac, and I think he’s a wilfully uninformed noodle-brain with his head in the clouds.  We’ll keep working on it…   During the storm, however, we were 100% in sync since there was not much we could do but reduce sail and hang on.  We gave each other “check-up” looks (Are we okay?) like children who fall down and look to their parents to know if they’re okay or if they should cry.  It was a good team-building exercise, to be sure, but it bears repeating:  I NEVER want to do that again.

5.  Making new friends.  For the first time, we met sailing couples where both members of the couple take an active role in the sailing and navigation.  In our sailing associations, most members are either skippers looking for crew or couples where one spouse is just along for the ride (and guess which spouse that invariably is?).  We sailed for a few days in tandem with another couple like ourselves and really enjoyed their company.  We had some great laughs exchanging “couples at sea” stories and agreed that RAISED VOICES is just part of any co-skippering program.  The important thing is to wipe the slate clean every single evening (that’s what pre-dinner drinks are for, right?).  We’ve kept in touch with them and hope we can meet up again soon.

6.  Identifing needs.  During this first long cruise on Spray, we’ve identified quite a few needs (okay, most of these are actually wants rather than needs, but still…).  From our gale adventure, we agreed we needed a smart-phone that would allow us to have internet access and thus weather information from multiple sources rather than being limited to the reports from Meteo France on the vhf radio broadcast 3 times per day.  On several occasions, our MaxSea software decided to shut down, so a 2nd computer with MaxSea (wrapped in plastic and stored away for emergency use only) will be on board next time.  We also realized that our on-board GPS system (Magellan 324 FX) only has the detailed electronic charts west of Perros-Gueric and down to Gijon, Spain.  I’m thinking it may be difficult to find these since the model is quite old now.  If we decide to do longer offshore passages, I want an IOR perch, which is basically a 1.8 meter tall floating flag pole that you throw in the water to mark the position of a man-overboard while you manoeuvre the boat to pick him up.  I also want a man-overboard rescue sling and an EPIRB, a small emergency position-indicating radio beacon (gps / satellite-powered).  On a more practical front, we also plan to re-install the black-water tank (e.g., sewer storage) on Spray.  The original one, in stainless steel, was removed by the previous owners because of a leak and never replaced.  All of the plumbing and valves are in place but we need to have a custom-made tank in plastic.  And last but not least, if we head south next year towards the Med, we’ll need some thick dark curtains to keep out the sun.  Our plexiglass portholes are so crackled that we don’t have problems with lookie-loos, but the sun does make the interior quite hot. 

In summary, the last 40 days at sea have saved our sailing project.  This winter was a very tough one for us, with endless repairs, bad weather, and lack of confidence in our own abilities and motivations.  We almost decided to give up on the sailing life.  We even posted an announcement to sell Spray and showed her to a prospective buyer (who was very interested.)  Now when we talk about selling Spray, it’s in order to buy a bigger boat that we could really live aboard for half the year or more.  Spray is a great boat, but she’s a bit too physical for us.  She’s a high-strung thoroughbred, but what we need is a draft horse.  With only 90 liters of water storage, 60 liters of diesel, and only 4 tonnes of weight to weather the storms, she’s not really adapted to a program of long-term vagabondage.  I hate to think about selling her so soon, and REALLY hate to think about all the work that would be involved in buying and refurbishing a new (used) boat.  But neither of us is getting any younger, either, and the clock is ticking !  Decision pending !  But not before another 40 days at sea.   

Next up:  The Route du Vin (the wine route), heading south to the Bordeaux wine country.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Pre-filter foibles

I love it when mechanics say "I've never seen anything like this."  It's happened to us a couple of times.  This time, it was in response to finding a small hole in the diesel pre-filter cannister assembly, which was leaking diesel and letting in air.  We were bleeding out the air bubbles but after awhile they were getting in faster than we could get them out.  The mechanic said it was just dumb luck that we were able to get the motor started after the first stall coming out of the Glenan archipelago.

I call that dumb luck the thick slimy grey mayonnaise that formed in the bottom of the pre-filter cannister, which actually plugged the hole from time to time.  "But", you retort, "there's not supposed to be thick slimy grey mayonnaise in the bottom of the pre-filter cannister," and you would be right.

The pin hole in the cannister.  Veeeery difficult to see.

Eeeuuuuwwwww.  Inside a neglected marine diesel pre-filter.

Turns out you're supposed to drain the water out of the bottom of the pre-filter every-so-often, where every-so-often means every fill-up according to the mechanic, or every 15 days according to my book on the care and feeding of the marine diesel engine.  We knew that one of the functions of the cannister was to seperate out any water than may have gotten into the diesel from condensation in the tank, but we thought, well, you know, draining off the water once every year or so would be enough.  And so now we know better.

The hole?  That one's still got me stumped.  The mechanic suggested that the water lead to rust which led to a hole, but the cannister is aluminum and there was no sign of rust on the cannister itself.  I suspect the hole started when we tried tightening the cannister with some inappropriate implement (wrench or other) and it just got worse over time.

And while we're on the subject of tightening things inappropriately, the mechanic also broke off the air bleed screw when he unscrewed it to chase out the air introduced during the filter maintenance.  Those screws are very fragile and are actually hollow inside.  They are only meant to be tightened finger tight.  Admittedly, the hex-head on it makes it ever-so-tempting to slap a socket wrench on it and hunker it down good and tight, but don't - that's just a tease.  (*confession:  I figure finger-tight depends on the fingers... I used a teeeny weeeny bit of socket wrench anyway.)

Posted on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 | Categories:

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Rounding Lands End

After our surprise storm from last week, we were a bit nervous about tackling the two major passes around Lands End (Finisterre) heading from northern Brittany to southern Brittany, the Four Channel and the Raz de Sein.  These passages are rather mythic, described in the pilot guides as areas having violent currents and dangerous waves if the channels are not crossed at the right time and with the right conditions.  Fortunately, luck was with us this time (we deserved that…) and we had light winds and currents pushing us gently along.  You can’t pass both channels in the same day because each is about 12 miles long and when you get the currents in the right direction for one, they’ll be in the wrong direction by the time you reach the other.  

The St Mathieu Semaphore built around the ruins of an abbey, marking the end of the Four Channel.

The alignment of Vielle Lighthouse and the Plate West Cardinal tower, marking the end of the Raz de Sein channel; and the traditional toast of rhum on making it out.  Patrick didn't want anyone to see him drinking and driving...

We decided to treat ourselves to a beautiful little anchorage called St Hernot in between the two channels in the Douarnanez Bay near the port of Morgat.  My photos were sadly incapable of capturing the beauty of the spot.  It is often used in tourist brochures to suggest similarities between Brittany and the French Riviera.  It was also one of the calmest anchorages we’ve ever had.

St Hernot in the Douarnenez Bay.  Very difficult to do the site justice with my little camera.

This is what a real photograph of the area looks like.

Our next little discovery was the beautiful port of St Marine in the Odet river. 

And finally, we spent two days in the Glenan archipelago, just 10 miles offshore.  This area, too, is often used in tourist brochures and is just as difficult to photograph as St Hernot.  We took advantage of the good weather to dive under the boat to scrub off the algae starting to grow along the water line. 

The archipel photographed by Philip Plisson.

Cleaning duty...again.
Our punishment for these last few days of beautiful weather and sites is that we are now stuck in Port Louis with motor problems.  On leaving the archipelago yesterday morning, the motor died.  We had light winds and were in open water away from the rocks, so I got the genoa up while Patrick tried chasing an air bubble out of the fuel line.  We don’t, in fact, know that the problem was an air bubble, but when it comes to emergency motor repairs, we’re one-trick ponies…. That’s the only one we know how to fix.  After a couple of attempts, the motor managed to stay with us long enough to convince us that the problem was resolved and we sailed to Port Louis, near Lorient.  This morning as we were leaving port, the motor died again, just as we pulled out of the port.  (No, of course, it couldn’t just conveniently die before we cast off…).   We had the mainsail up already, but with boats moored all around and a stiff head wind, we didn’t waste too much time with the motor before calling the harbor office and asking for a tow.  The cherry on the cake is that it’s Sunday and we can’t get a mechanic until tomorrow.   But Port Louis is charming and there are worse places to be stuck for another day.  As Jimmy Cornell always says, the most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar.  As we have very few constraints, we can take our time.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

England 1: France 0

On Monday 5 August, Meteo France predicted Southwest winds, force 4-5 with gusts (11-21 knots), veering west and calming to force 4 in the afternoon.  We were happy to finally have some wind after several days of calm and this looked like a good opportunity to make some distance.  Little did we know that the Jersey Coast Guard, a mere 40 miles away, had issued a gale warning (34-40 knots) for the same day.  Guess who was right? 

The interior after a gale.

I’ve seen many books on heavy weather sailing but never bought one.  Me: “I have no intention of sailing in rough weather.”  Yes.  Well.  Um.  I’ll take 2, please.

We left the river port of Lezardrieux with a strong current and light tail winds and averaged 7 knots over the 9 miles to open water using only the headsail.  When we turned west, the winds were stronger so we decided to hoist the main with a reef, just to be zen.  The euphoria of smooth sailing at 7 to 8 knots didn’t last long.  My log book looks like this:

9-10h:  1 reef + Genoa
10-12h:  2 reefs + ½ Genoa
12h30:  3 reefs + motor
Emergency 3rd reef job.

We’ve had “learn to install 3rd reef” on our TO DO list for quite some time now and we never seemed to get around to it.  Nothing like learning in extremis.  With 30 knots of sustained winds, gusts to 38 (true wind; 43 apparent wind) and 3-4 meter swells, this exercise was a wee bit challenging, but adrenaline can work wonders.  Because we were also close-hauled, we had difficulty maintaining our route and added a little motor power to try to stabilize things a bit.  And then we just gritted our teeth and bashed it out for not 1, not 2, but 4.5 hours.

Unfortunately in Northern Brittany, there are not a lot of ports that are accessible at any time of the tide.  As we were making such good headway earlier in the day, we decided to go around the “7 islands” and head to the next port down the coast, Trebeurden, rather than the closer one, Perros-Gueric, because the loch there didn’t open until  5pm.  The gale hit while we were just beginning to go behind the islands, and by the time we got to the other side and started heading back towards the coast, the tide was beginning to turn… and not in the good direction.  So we rounded the islands, put the current and wind on our bums and headed to Perros, making it there just in time for the loch.

At the worst of the bashing, our MaxSea navigation software died.  Fortunately, good old OpenCPN came to the rescue.  Our on-board GPS was only giving fixed-point data at that point since (as we discovered only recently) we don’t have the electronic charts east of Perros-Gueric.  As we weaved back and forth across the zone, we were playing peek-a-boo with our virtual selves, which is not so convenient for navigating in a gale around rocky areas you don’t know very well.

It was whilst swapping horror stories with other sailors in port that we learned that Jersey had issued a gale warning.  I called the Cross Corsen (coast guard equivalent for this zone) and informed them that conditions were 7 with gusts to 9 rather than the 4 with gusts to 5 that they were STILL predicting as we pulled into port.  They said they had indeed received a few calls about this… but of course, that’s Meteo France’s problem, not the coast guard’s.  A day later, with everyone still talking about the mystery gale, a port manager took the defense of Meteo France and proudly stated that Meteo France issued a gale warning later that evening.  No comment.
So what have we learned?

 I’ll never trust Meteo France again if I have any other choice of met service info.  I was told by local sailors that when Meteo France predicts Southwest winds for northern Brittany, watch out.  It’s apparently a very unstable situation and one they often get wrong.

 I’ll be buying a book on heavy weather sailing very soon.  I think we may have been better off with a storm sail up front rather than the 3rd reef in the main, but it’s not at all clear to me.

Always have 2 computers with navigation software on board.  This occurred to us earlier in the cruise but now we have more convincing evidence that it’s important.  The MaxSea problem was rapidly resolved with a call to the technical support service (had to reconstruct its links with the databases, but all seems well now).

My VION Meteo Concept weather station has a strong wind alarm.  I didn’t know this before.  But it scared the bejeezus out of me at first, and once I figured out where the alarm was coming from, I couldn’t turn it off.  It was not the right moment to read the instruction manual, so I just yanked the batteries out of it to stop the screaming.  It’s back to its normal self now with no apparent signs of damage.

We’re buying a smart-phone with 4G for internet connection and access to weather information without having to rely on Meteo France weather bulletins over the vhf radio.  I’m also hoping we can get one with a GPS and nautical charts as an additional back-up.

Patrick and I came through unscathed physically and the mental stress is diminishing with each passing day (except on days with southwest winds predicted).  No one was sick and I even managed to go down below to make ham sandwiches for lunch.  We both had to change clothes twice because we were soaked from packets of water hitting our faces and drizzling down the necks of our foul-weather gear.  It was exhausting.  This makes us wonder how we could have kept going for much longer without getting really worn down.  With only 2 people on board in that kind of situation, rest is simply not possible.  For shorter coastal hops, it’s okay … you will probably never have to tough it out longer than 5-10 hours.  But on longer passages?  We’ll definitely re-think the whole “extra-crew” issue now.

And last but not least, we’ve now learned how to properly install our 3rd reef.  It turns out that we had everything we needed.   1) Put a small pulley in the reef point on the leech of the sail.  2) Attach the reef line to the bracket on the boom with a bowline knot.  3)  Run the reef line up through the pulley on the sail and down the other side to a directional pulley fixed on the side of the boom.  4) Run the line down the boom to the cleat on the boom.   5)  Attach a small spectra cord through the luff side reef point and fasten it around the boom when the sail is taken in.  Much better !

Reef job: bracket with bowline and pulley in reef point 3

Reef job:  return pulley and cleat.

A good 3rd reef.


Sunday, 4 August 2013

The French Channel Islands

After a short stop to the French coastal port of St Malo to drop off our crew member (...and to sit out a gale and stock up on food...), we headed back to the channel islands, but this time to the french version:  The Chausey Islands.
The walled city of St Malo

St Servan near the St Malo port.

Gale warning in effect...and grocery shopping.

We were a bit concerned about heading to Chausey since friends had warned us that navigating in the area was quite tricky.  It is riddled with rocks, 10m tides, and stiff currents, and the only clear mooring area, the Sound, is chock-a-block full in the summer.  The pilot guides also warned of strong chop with winds from the south east (exactly what was predicted for the next few days...).  But we were also told that it was extraordinarily beautiful, and with two days of sunny, hot weather predicted, our curiousity won out over our fears.  We arrived around noon on the day after a gale warning and had the place to ourselves !  We were rapidly joined by about 150 others, but there was space for everyone, rafted up 3-4 deep on fore-aft mooring buoys.  With so many large neighbors moored in front of us, we were protected from any chop that came up the sound.  And we weren't disappointed with the beauty, either.

The mooring in the Sound, Chausey.  (Fortunately, we had 3 meters of water even at low tide...otherwise, this wouldn't have been possible...)

The Sound, Chausey Islands.  (We're parked in the back of the pack.)

The Sound, Chausey Islands

The view from our mooring.

Big neighbors.

Our large neighbor found a spot to himself.

Hiking around the island.

Evening beaches.

Spray sandwich, rafted up with 2 neighbors on either side.

But life on Spray is not all fun and games.  We noticed a thick fringe of algae starting to grow on the bottom of the boat at the water line and spent a morning giving Spray a "shave".  In the Chausey Sound (before the 150 neighbors arrived) I dove under the boat with a scrub pad and toothbrush to clean the speedo, lock, and propellor (perfectly clean except for a piece of seaweed hanging on to the support.)  Along with lots of motoring in dead calm weather, we've also had our share of squalls.  Those are never fun but they don't last too long and the fresh water cleans the boat (and our sailing vests...). And we discovered a small mystery leak in the tender / annex that we'll have to inspect closer when we can.

Shaving off the algae whiskers.

Cleaning the bottom.

Manoeuvering during squalls.

Mystery leak in boat tender.
We've now rounded the Cap Frehel on the French coast and are slowly making our way to the tip of Brittany (Land's End).  Yesterday we "amused ourselves" (uh-hum) by short-tacking through the passage between Brehat Island and the coast... a very narrow channel with deceptively strong currents.  We are now nestled down in the river port of Lezardrieux and plan to head out to a mooring off Ile Tome or Perros-Gueric tomorrow.   After that, it's Roscoff, Aber Wrac'h, and rounding the point of Finnisterre.  The weather has been quite nasty for a rounding of the difficult Four Channel and Raz de Sein (3 meter swell and wind in the nose), but it looks like we'll have some good north west winds next week that should help push us along smoothly.  Finger's crossed !