Thursday, 29 May 2014

Change of Attitude

As a homage to the great Maya Angelou who died this week, I’ve decided not to complain about our current situation.  Angelou said “If you don’t like something, change it.  If you can’t change it, change your attitude.  Don’t complain.”

So this is my story, with no complaints.

This week, we have been blessed with multiple learning opportunities.  We had intended to test the new mainsail and our night-time navigational equipment with a 24-hour, non-stop sail.  The weather was perfect and we were psyched to test the boat and ourselves.

The wind was blowing a stiff 20 knots with gusts to 25 directly in the nose.  Great stuff for testing the mainsail, we told ourselves.  Curiously, no other boats were headed out and we had the loch to ourselves. The loch master mumbled something about being courageous, chuckling to himself. 

We found a wide spot in the river and hoisted the sail to the 2nd reef point.  We tightened down the sail as much as we could and looked up in horror (wait...does that sound like a complaint?  maybe I should say "wonder"?  "amazement"?).  It was a big scoop !  The reef points in the main sail weren't positioned forward of the pulley sheaves in the boom and we couldn’t tighten and flatten the sail.

Sheaves too far forward on the boom to tighten the sail.

Reef number 2, with sheaves in front of reef point.

Reef number 2.  Sheaves need to move back at least 25 cm.

The river was narrowing and a decision had to be made.  I won the short-lived debate and we promptly turned tail and headed back to the loch.  “Back so soon?” the loch master inquired.  While we were describing our new discovery to him, another educational opportunity presented itself: When entering a loch with a considerable water level change, block your wind generator so that it isn’t spinning dangerously close to the cement walls and, if you have the choice, tie up on the opposite side.  No real damage was done and it was a good lesson learned.

Later that evening, dockside radio (e.g., gossip) informed us that two guys sailed out earlier in the morning to test their new mainsail, and they came limping back home 5 hours later with their sail ripped in two.  Old lesson confirmed:  discretion is, indeed, the better part of valour. 

We made a call to the sail maker, who gave us an appointment…3 days later.  While this was initially disappointing, we later realized that it was a stroke of good luck since our battery charger (shore power 220V to battery 12V) chose this exact moment to die, or rather, stop regulating anything.  Of course we didn’t notice it immediately.  The batteries simmered at 15 volts for at least 24 hours before we realized something was amiss.  After adding more than ½ liter of de-ionized distilled water to both service batteries, we called the electrician.  Note to self:  always have battery water on board.

Fortunately for us, the electrician gave us an appointment the next day and also installed our auto-pilot computer that had been sent off for repair over a month ago.  It was during this visit that we learned:  a) that the battery charger (a 20+ year-old German model) is beyond repair and a new French model (lighter, sleeker, more powerful) could be ours for a mere 350 Euros after a 10 day delay; and b) that our GPS antenna is not doing its job but the internal antenna gives great results.  Note to self: always travel with a small portable battery charger.

The visit with the sail maker presented not only new learning opportunities but also prospects for personal growth as we struggled to come to terms with what he said we had to do.  The short version of this tale is that we have to move the 2 reef-point sheaves for the automatic reefing system further down the boom and add two new stainless steel appendages to the boom gooseneck to make the new sail work.  This will involve learning a set of new skills including, but not limited to, soldering stainless steel, riveting, precision circular-sawing, and how to carefully remove and re-set 20 year-old pulley sheaves that, we’ve since discovered, are obsolete and thus irreplaceable. Note to self: there’s Xanax is in the medicine cabinet.

Our obsolete sheaves.

Posted on Thursday, May 29, 2014 | Categories:

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Magellan FX324 Map GPS receiver info

About the antenna…

When we bought Spray, she was equipped with a now-obsolete Magellan FX324 Map GPS receiver.  The signal was very feeble and an electrician told us the antenna was dead.  We ordered a new antenna (about $150) and were told we were lucky to get one because they weren’t making them anymore.

It worked well for about 1.5 years and then we started having problems again.   The time to first fix could be anywhere from 15 minutes to 4 hours.  We moved the antenna around to different locations and repaired frayed wires, but results were very sporadic ;  good for a couple of weeks and then out again. 

A different electrician had a look at our GPS this morning and, like the first, deduced a problem with the antenna.  After my ear-piercing squeals of protest, he gently explained to us that the Magellan FX324 has a built-in antenna and that  ** YOU DO NOT NEED AN EXTERNAL ANTENNA IN A FIBERGLASS BOAT.**  The external antenna is only needed for metal boats (aluminum, steel, etc.).  The Magellan documentation does mention the presence of an internal antenna but they insist you must have an external antenna (Magellan brand, of course) if the GPS receiver is located inside the boat.  To test this, we simply disconnected the antenna from the back of the GPS, which resulted in a strong first fix in less than 2 minutes.  With the antenna cable attached this morning, it took more than 4 hours.  

We will keep the antenna cable ready to connect in case this strange new method ceases to work for some reason.  I’ve now tested our external antenna-less GPS several times throughout the day, trying to sneak up on it or catch it unawares, but it gives a strong fix, every time.  Bewildered relief.

About the power / data cable…

A blog reader contacted me several months ago to ask if I had any documentation for the data / power cable pins of the Magellan.  I looked through the user’s manual but didn’t find anything.  I tried searching the web for this information in both French and English.  Not only did I not find the information, I found several forums where others were asking the same question.  I asked our electrician if he had a pin-out and he promptly directed me back to my user’s manual, where the information was hiding all along.  I was looking for a circular diagram of the cable pins and the information is listed as a simple table.  Sorry for the delay.

Without further ado, here it is:

FX324 MAP Description                               FX324 MAP Wires
Power 10/36 volts                                          Red
Power 0 volt                                                     Blue
RS232 Reference                                            Green
RS232 Input                                                      Black
RS232 Output                                                   White
RS422 Reference                                            Orange
RS244 Output                                                   Yellow 
Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 | Categories:

Monday, 19 May 2014

Supersized !

When the sail maker came to measure our mast and boom for the new mainsail last week, he informed us that our mast was almost 1 meter taller than the typical Dehler 34 (12.4 m instead of 11.8 m from the top of the mast to the boom).  When he told us this, I rushed home to look up what happens to a boat’s stability when a taller mast is added.  After being initially horrified, I calculated that the increased sail area was only about 1 square meter and so I decided not to worry about it (too much).  So imagine my happy surprise this afternoon when we discovered that our keel is 10 cm deeper than the typical Dehler 34 specs as well !  We’ve been supersized !

Apparently, the Dehler Top models from the early 1990s were available in standard or performance versions, although I’ve never seen it mentioned in the docs.  I have seen other Dehler 34s of this generation with a draft of 1.80 m instead of the 1.70 m mentioned in the specs, so we’re not the only ones. 

It’s a bit disturbing that we’re only just learning about all this, but I am relieved that the taller mast has been balanced by a deeper keel.  Thankfully, I always use a generous under-keel-clearance safety margin (called more simply in French “the pilot’s foot”)  of 30-50 centimeters, depending on swell conditions, so we’ve never grounded because of those additional 10 centimeters. Oh, we’ve grounded for other reasons…

Crispy new mainsail !
And now on our supersized Dehler 34 we have a crisp new mainsail!  It has 5 full battens, which are round instead of flat with tension adjusted by a simple set screw.  The sail maker told us to sail for 30 hours and then adjust the set screws and wrap them with Teflon tape.  We had to move the cleat and pulley along the boom for the third reef point because the 3rd reef on the old sail had a “non-orthodox” spacing, according to the sail maker.  Patrick is now a pro at riveting.

Battens adjusted by simple set screws along the leech.

The sail is fitted with Rutgerson mainsail cars (look like little black Volkswagen Beetles) and we followed the advice of the sail maker and put a bolt at the bottom of the mast grove to act as a stop for the mainsail cars.  The system we had before consisted of two split pins fit into holes in the mast with a small length of dyneema cord between them.  It was pretty rickety and needed to go.  

The mainsail car stop with VW Beetle traffic jam when the mainsail is furled.

We took advantage of this sail change to change the nylon washers in the boom gooseneck.  We didn't realize how necessary that was until we had a look at the old ones.

Changing the nylon washers on the gooseneck should probably be done every year, eh?

While Patrick was riveting, I occupied myself as best I could with odd jobs.  One thing we hate is loud shouting back and forth between the helmsman and the crew when trying to set the anchor.  We've worked out a series of hand signals to avoid this, but inevitably, Patrick forgets our color-scheme to indicate the length of chain going down and has to scream back to me "What's orange again??" thus destroying our silent manoeuvres.  Last year, I decided to write the instructions on the inside of the chain locker hatch, which worked beautifully.  I re-wrote the instructions and added the color codes for the anchor line as well as the chain.  Now I just have to see if the ink holds.  Curiously, white board markers seem to work better than permanent markers.
Chain instructions (in french)

We’re on a waiting list to get into the water, but we should have splash-down by the end of the week.  We’re also still waiting for our auto-pilot computer to come back from Raymarine but would be happy to head off with the more powerful replacement the electrician loaned us.  And then we’re off for a solo (well, duo) 24-hour non-stop shakedown cruise!  Weather permitting, of course…
Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014 | Categories:

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Offhore fears-du-jour

I sat down and had a long chat with myself yesterday (note: a big mint julep does wonders for fine-tuning one’s inner voice).  What is it that worries me about our first solo multi-day offshore passage?  Do I think we’ll be caught in a storm?  That the boat will fall apart under the strain?  That we’ll hit a floating cargo container and sink?  That we’ll be smashed in the night by a fishing boat?  That we’ll be struck by lightning and burn?  None of the above (although it’s funny how that list of disasters effortlessly sprang to mind…):  it’s the fear of being incapacitated with sea sickness. 

On a three-day offshore passage, if things start getting rough, there’s nowhere to hide.  Statistics show that even during the “settled” weather of June and July, it is not rare to have force 7 winds with stronger gusts and 3 meters or more of swell in the Bay of Biscay.  Experience shows that even short-term weather reports can be wrong in this area. 

Even in perfectly acceptable weather conditions, the Bay of Biscay is very lumpy. The bay is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic and prevailing winds, unimpeded for thousands of miles. Over half of the basin is a mind-boggling 4550 meters deep (around 15,000 ft).  Steep canyons connect the abyss to the 200 meter deep continental shelf near the coasts (and in the case of northern Spain, very near the coast, only 12 kms away in some places).  This means that water coming into the bay with the winds and currents gets shoved up onto the continental shelves, where it piles up and then sloshes around trying to find space to spread out.  When a storm rolls in, this can create some of the most ferocious seas found anywhere.  The most dangerous area is right at the shelf break where the water first starts piling up.  In bad conditions, the best strategy is to head for the deep water areas and to avoid the more agitated shallower zones.

Patrick and I have both experienced sea sickness before, although never on Spray.  What gets to us is not the rough stuff that comes head-on but those long offshore swells that roll you relentlessly in a corkscrew motion from the stern quarter, exactly the kind of swell you should expect on a downwind run in the Bay of Biscay.

We have enough experience to know how to avoid sickness: staying warm is the most important for us, and over the years, we’ve had to change our definition of warm and cold.  In general, the instant we feel a hint of coolness anywhere, it’s time to add another layer without delay, even if we don’t actually feel cold.  I’ve had unfortunate situations where I began to feel cold in my hands or arms 10 minutes before the end of my watch and decided to just stick it out.  Big mistake. 

Patrick is more susceptible to sea sickness than I am, but has the advantage of being able to bounce back immediately after he is sick, or at least until the next wave of nausea hits half-an-hour later.  He has been known to eat a big hunk of slimy camembert cheese right after being sick!  (Did I mention he’s French?)  I, on the other hand, don’t get sick as easily, but when I do, I often go down and stay down.  I’ve learned that a lot of my problems are blood-sugar related and as difficult as it is, I have to force feed myself with non-sugary food right after an incident if I hope to stay vertical.  Crackers and soup (prepared in advance and waiting in a thermos) are the best remedies I’ve found, providing not only quick calories but warmth. 

We also aren’t too proud to take motion sickness medicines.  We generally take a ½ dose if we think we might need it and a full dose if we’re sure.  We have some scopolamine patches on board but have never used them.  The list of secondary effects scares us more than being sick.

All of this experience is helpful, though not particularly comforting.  Our previous offshore passages (the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay) have been done with 4 or 5 crew aboard.  You do what you can to avoid being sick, but if you are sick, there’s always a helping hand available.  Not so this time.  It’ll be just the two of us and neither of us can afford to go down for long.  A friend told us recently that the most important thing for a couple crossing Biscay is to make sure that the person not on watch gets sufficient rest.  Easier said that done, I'm sure.

The only comfort I can find at the moment is a big fat waypoint I call “Plan B”:  We can make it from our jumping off point in France (Ile d’Yeu) to the Spanish coast at Santander in 36 hours and then do another 16 hour hop on to Gijon.  Two hops instead of one isn’t so bad (although Patrick is thumping his chest, saying “One hop or not at all !”).  If we assume the weather bulletin is reliable for at least 24 hours, that means we would only have to gut out something unforeseen for 12 hours before getting to a safe haven.  After our storm experience from last summer, we were both pretty wet, cold and tired after only 5 hours, so having to cope for 12 hours seems pretty daunting. 

And you know what the worse thing of all would be?  A perfectly smooth passage.  How would we ever know what we were capable of?  I’d have to relive all this anxiety the next time we planned a long passage!  This reminds me of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail where Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) pleads, “Let me have just a little bit of peril ?” 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Biscay Bound

In one month and one week (although remaining staunchly uncommitted to an actual date), we’ll be heading off across the Bay of Biscay to explore the Rias of Galicia in northwest Spain and the north coast regions of Asturia, Cantabria and the Basque country. 

On the tourism menu:  the Rias (estuary inlets cut deep and wide into the rugged granite coastline), protected islands (one hosting a beach considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world), an inland visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Santiago de Compostela, and numerous wild anchorages, small villages and fishing ports dotted along a steep coastline whose geological features have earned this coastline the designation as a UNESCO GeoPark.      

On the sailing menu:  a 3-day crossing of the notorious Bay of Biscay, another shorter overnight crossing for the return trip along the coast, coping with frequent fog, dodging a dense fishing industry and numerous mariculture sites, getting weather reports and port information in a language we don’t master, and rounding several impressive capes and headlands, some with disconcerting names like “the cape of death.”  The good news is that the currents and tides are diddly-squat compared to those of northern Brittany.

Since returning from our shakedown cruise, we’ve spent most of our time fixing things on the boat (still waiting for new mainsail and repaired auto-pilot), studying and refining the cruise plan, upgrading our navigation software (new MaxSea charts, double of everything on a 2nd backup computer, installing navionics on the smartphone), and pulling together all the bits and pieces needed for 4 or 5 or 6 months on the boat.  The daily activity helps keep the anxiety at bay, but I do have to admit that it is present as a light undercurrent most of the time. These last two years on Spray have taught us the importance of experience-and-confidence building by tackling smaller goals that are just a bit outside our comfort zone.  Last year, I was quite anxious about sailing around northern Brittany and the Channel Islands, especially after an experienced sailor friend said “What?! You guys are going to tackle THAT zone for your first solo cruise ?!”  Today, if you told me I was leaving for northern Brittany tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, and yet it’s some of the most difficult sailing in Europe.  I am, however, anxious about our upcoming cruise and the 3 day crossing in particular, but I also know it represents a major stepping stone for us and one that is necessary if we hope to go further in the future. 

We crossed the Bay of Biscay several years ago, crewing for Guru Bob in a small 24 foot open cockpit boat, sailing from south to north against the prevailing winds.  It was rough.  I felt like I deserved a tattoo afterwards.  This time: a 34-foot offshore boat with a hefty dodger, sailing north to south on a downwind run (we hope). It’ll be fine.  Really.  

Big smiles after having survived a rough crossing of Biscay in 2010.
Posted on Saturday, May 10, 2014 | Categories: ,