Saturday, 27 September 2014

Rationality is Over-rated

As much as we like to think of ourselves as devil-may-care adventurers, we are, in fact, little old ladies trapped in the bodies of young retirees.  We only pretend to live adventurously.  This fact was thrust upon us today as we pondered the purchase of our next boat.

There are innumerable articles and blogs about how to choose the right boat.  The only one I’ve ever thought was spot-on was one with the headline:  “Choosing a boat is rarely a rational process.”  That’s really all you need to know. 

We’ve managed to fall in love, somewhat irrationally, with a boat that has the following attributes:

The Sun Odyssey 379 DI

Sails well in light winds (important for the Mediterranean, and frankly, any other sailing area where you prefer ticking off the miles in light winds rather than heavy winds), weighing-in at just under 7 tonnes for 37 feet.

Is SMALLER than we were looking for, but the intelligent design of the interior space make it perfect (even luxurious) for us.

Has a swing keel.  Pros and cons abound, but for us, this will open up many possibilities for exploring (more important to us than pure sailing, truth-be-told), including the canals of Europe and the innumerable shallow areas around the English, French, and Spanish coastlines.  As an added bonus, the architect (the architect of the famous French OVNI line) has designed a swing keel that only loses 3% of its windward performance. 

Has dual helms and dual rudders.  Redundancy means safety.  Dual helms also provide good visibility. 

In its 2 cabin version, has enormous living and storage space (reviewers refer to this storage space as “the shed”).

Has numerous options for ease-of-handling, including all lines (mainsail and headsail) led back to the helmsman.

Won the Cruising World Boat of the Year Award (category Mid-size Cruiser) in 2012.  Reviews were sparkling.

So what’s not to love?  Very little, except…

The boat is listed as a Category B boat.*  Here in Europe, that rating means that the boat has been designed to handle conditions with winds up to and including Beaufort Force 8 and waves up to and including 4 meters.  Who would want to sail in conditions that exceed this, you ask?  Unfortunately, you don’t always have the choice, as we found out this summer.  Category B also indicates that you should not navigate more than 200 nautical miles from a safe haven.  Crossing the Bay of Biscay from southern Brittany to La Coruna, for example, is just at the limits.  Still, all of Europe IS accessible with this boat, but the Atlantic Islands (Azores, Canaries, Cape Verdes) exceed the recommended limits. 

Like the little old ladies that we are, we have always approached our sailing projects in a very cautious, step-wise process: 

Step1: buy a boat and cruise between England/Ireland and Spain to see if we really like the sailing life and want to go further.  Check. 

Step 2: buy a bigger boat for longer cruising and head down to the Med for several years.  In progress. 

Step 3:  assess aspirations and capabilities for a trans-Atlantic voyage or more.  We’ll see about that one later. 

What I’m resisting is the idea that we should buy a different boat for each step.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We have some visits lined up to look at a couple of other boats that are resolutely category A (all oceans).  While they are much less comfortable for living aboard than the flashy new one, they are robust enough to do anything and go anywhere. 

And with that, we’ll stop trying to rationalize an irrational process and … go sailing !  We’re off tonight to drift around southern Brittany until the cold wet grey weather sets in.

* But wait !  The dealer just called me back with the good news:  the swing keel is CATEGORY A except if it has in-mast furling, which is not something we want.  This little gem can handle all the sailing we want to throw at it (considering we will not be rounding Cape Horn or attempting the Northwest passage) and we'll never have to buy another boat to expand the range of our cruising. YooHoo !

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Way We Rolled

We sailed into our home port of Arzal last night after 3 action-packed months across the Biscay Bay in Spain.  I tried to stir up some positive emotions about being back home but couldn’t come up with anything more profound than pleasure over the prospects of a flush toilet and a private shower. 

Patrick missed his kitchen and blow torch.  Duck for lunch !
To combat the back-home blues (read: escape from the mountain of laundry, yard work, and house work), I worked up some statistics on how we did things (“the way we rolled”).  As I explained to Patrick to justify my down-time from yard work, this information helps us define our cruising style, which is important when considering the purchase of a new boat.

Number of days = 92

Number of at-sea days = 34

Average port stop, days = 2.7

Longest port stop, days = 12  (stuck by weather at our turn-around point, Camarinas)

Total Miles = 1518

Longest Distances = 216 Miles / 45 hours (4.8 M/hr)  Ile d’Yeu to Bilbao167 Miles / 34 hours (4.9 M/hr)  Bilbao – Medoc

Longest Motoring = 91 Miles in 17 hours (with ~ 1 hour pause to cut fishing net from propeller) from Santander to Gijon.

Average Distances = 45 Miles / sea day.  If I remove the two Biscay crossings, this becomes 37 Miles / sea day.

Speed at which we crack and launch the motor = 3.5 knots (unless we have a time-sensitive destination)
So what does this tell us?  

We spend more time visiting than sailing.  We knew this already, but it’s interesting to quantify it.  I actually thought the average port stop days would be higher, since it seemed like we spent a lot of time exploring, including two overnight excursions, one to Santiago de Compostella and one to the Picos de Europa.  It also seemed like we were pinned down by bad weather frequently, but sailing on average every 3rd or 4th day isn’t so bad for a couple of laid-back drifters such as ourselves. 

The Chateau of the Dukes of of our favorite local anchorages.

Ile d'Yeu by scooter.

South side of Ile d'Yeu

When we do sail, we make a full day of it.  Our average distance of 37 miles / sea day at our average cruising speed of 4.5 knots means we sail about 8 hours / day when we head out.  We actually quite liked the longer treks, mostly planned on days when the weather was favourable.  I had anticipated that we would take smaller hops and stay less time at each place, but the way we actually travelled was more relaxed.

A beautiful late-summer sail home.

A good motor is important.  I didn’t count up the number of hours spent motoring, but it more than we had anticipated.  Our Yanmar 18 HP was a trooper and never gave us problems.  (The decoupling of the propeller shaft coupler was not the motor’s fault).  The diesel consummation is very low - around 1 liter per hour at 2000 rpms and the oil level didn’t budge.  Unfortunately, there’s only so much oomph you can get out of 18HP and we can only get about 4.5 knots out of 2000 rpms on smooth seas.

We were in marinas more often than on moorings.  I didn’t work up the stats on this, either, but we weren’t at anchor very often.  The north coast of Spain doesn’t have very many good anchoring spots or harbours.  Once we got around the edge of Galicia into the rias, we had more mooring opportunities.  Four useful facts arose from mooring or not mooring: 

1) We hated having to inflate the dinghy, hoist it over the side, and attach the motor (if necessary) to go ashore, only to have to hoist it back on board, rinse it, dry it, deflate it, and restore it afterwards.  It’s so much work that we often just stayed on board rather than exploring, which is too bad. 

2) We don’t produce enough electricity with our wind generator alone for more than 2 days of autonomy, and the damn thing vibrates and resonates in the aft cabin, making it sound like you’re rounding Cape Horn anytime the wind exceeds 15 knots.

3)  Our water reserves (90 Litres / 24 gallons) are good for about 4-5 days for the two of us (about 3 gallons / day / person), and we don’t even drink the water from the reservoir. 

4)  We often wished we had a lifting or swing keel.  That would have allowed us to get into more harbours, some shallower areas and/or avoid a few more grey hairs from close encounters with the bottom during big tides.  It would also allow us to get closer to shore and maybe avoid having to use the motor on the dinghy.  We knew that a lifting keel would be useful in Brittany and the Channel Islands, but it’s also true around northern Spain and Galicia.  I’m beginning to think this is true just about anywhere there is a coast line.

The yard work beckons… sigh.

A little weeding, anyone ?

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Leibster Award

We’ve been tagged for the Leibster Award, a sort of “chain letter” for sailing blogs.  It represents a very nice recognition by your sail-blogging peers and is a great way to learn of other blogs out there.  Thank you, thank you, thank you The Cynical Sailor and His Salty Sidekick for the nomination!

The game consists of answering the following getting-to-know-you questions and then tagging other blogs. 

Introduce us to your crew. Who are they and what role do they play in your operation?
We are a hillbilly (Maria, from Kentucky, USA) and a frog (Patrick, from Brittany, France) who dropped everything to go sailing.

The hillbilly is an oceanographer who spent most of her career coordinating international research programs before deciding to marry the frog and take early retirement.  The frog is a computer geek who was able to take full retirement at 55 (which is also pretty dang early these days, n’est-ce pas?).

On board our Dehler 34, Spray, Maria is the navigator, sail trimmer, diver, blogger, photographer, and chief worrywart.  Patrick is the primary helmsman, mechanic, electrician, plumber, head cook, and chief “don’t worry, be happy” guy.

What sort of boat do you have and would you recommend it for other adventurers hoping to live aboard? What do you like the least about your choice? 
This is a tricky question.  In the short amount of time we’ve been cruising on our own, we’ve learned that it’s not about the boat.  Lots of cruisers are out there doing amazing things on boats that don’t tick the boxes for a live-aboard, blue-water cruising boat.  But it all boils down to personal preference, sailing project, comfort level, and bank account size.

We have a Dehler 34, 1992 designed by Van de Stadt.  She is a beautiful “classic plastic” yacht, fast and robust (category A), capable of going anywhere.  We fell in love with her immediately, even though she was a bit larger than we wanted for our first boat.  Her previous owners took her out for a trans-Atlantic cruise from France to the Caribbean and back, and we knew she would be capable of handling a couple of cruising neophytes as they took their first wobbly steps in the world of long-distance cruising.

And now that Spray has shown us how much we love this lifestyle, we are hoping to sell her to move up to something a bit larger and more comfortable for longer cruising.  (Sounds terribly ungrateful, doesn’t it?)  Spray’s diesel reservoir is approximately 60 litres (16 gallons) and the water tank only holds 90 litres (24 gallons).  Sure, you can have jerrycans tied everywhere, and in some circumstances, it’s better to be able to shift around the weight where you need it.  The motor is only 18 HP for 4 tonnes and, coupled with a 2-blade folding prop, we are constantly reminded that we are on a sail boat.  Again, others do more with less, but we’re looking for something a bit more geared towards “retirement cruising” for a live-aboard boat.

What are your sailing plans, if you have any, for the future? 
Like moths to the flame (e.g., like every other sailor living in northern Europe) we dream of sailing down into the Med for a few years.  After that, we’ll see what our motivation and confidence levels look like.  Maybe the Atlantic islands (Canaries, Cape Verdes, Azores), maybe a tour of the Baltic, maybe a trans-Atlantic? 

How do you support your lifestyle while sailing and cruising?
During the last 15 years we worked, we lived very modestly, which allowed us to both take early retirement. We rented a small apartment and put more than half of our salaries into savings every month.  Up until the age of 40, everything I owned could fit into my car (a Volkswagon Polo, no less!).  No house, no stuff, no kids, no problem!  Now we live on Patrick’s pension and my investments, and we bought a small duplex to call home during the winter months when sailing just doesn’t have the same appeal.  We still live fairly frugally because that’s just the way we roll. 

What's the best experience you've had while living aboard? 
We only live aboard about 4-6 months out of the year.  This lifestyle has been dubbed commuter cruising by David and Jan at Commuter Cruiser and it describes our situation perfectly. 

It’s difficult to choose a single best experience.  Of course, there are those moments of pure grace when the sun is shining, the seas are smooth, the wind is just right, and dolphins come over to play with you.  We also love the constant change of scenery, discovering new places and making new friends along the way.  The solidarity in the sailing community warms our hearts and reminds us of how good people can be.  Live-aboard traveling allows you to explore the world while carrying your own little “chez toi” with you.   

Name the most challenging experience you have had while living aboard and what did you do to overcome it?
Why is it that naming the best experiences are difficult while the worst experiences are sooo easy to single out? 

The weather continues to be our biggest bugaboo.  Two particularly bad incidents (one along the north coast of Brittany and one along the north coast of Spain) were called “freak” situations because they were short-lived phenomena that weren’t easy to predict.  But the fact that there can be 50 knots of wind and 5-6 meters of swell out there …what? HIDING !?… makes us very uneasy. 

Learning to cope with our own fears and anxieties has been a major undertaking these last few years.  It’s a process of learning to distinguish between fears that are healthy well-founded ones and those that are simply parasitic.  Experience is the best teacher, and we’ve learned a few things to help us avoid bad situations, real and imagined.  At least we now know how to better cope with bad weather when it does strike, which goes a long way to eliminating fears.  Best of all, we’ve learned (only just recently, I might add) that the joys of this lifestyle outweigh the scary bits.  

Is living aboard and sailing an alternative way of life for you, an escape from the system, or is it just a temporary adventure?
Living and sailing around Europe where the weather is not amenable to year-round cruising, we have become “commuter cruisers” who live aboard 4-6 months of the year.  In the beginning, we tried winter cruising and, while there were some magical moments, it was mostly just wet, cold and gray.  When huddled in the saloon while a squall blew over, we would said to ourselves “it’s still better than sitting at home”, and that sentiment carried us through until the day we realized that we had more options than just sailing or sitting at home.  So now when the weather gets nasty, we pull the boat out of the water and go do other things (land cruising, we call it) until the sun comes out again.  

Even with only living aboard part of the year, our lifestyle is definitely an escape from the traditional retirement gig.  It’s a logical response to the question of what to do when you retire early and don’t care much for home and garden.  Traveling is a passion for both of us, and sailing is a great way to move around for 6 months of the year. There are other ways to travel (faster, cheaper, more comfortable to boot) but Patrick is a foody (did I mention he’s French?) and wouldn’t be able to tolerate a mode of travel that wouldn’t let us to have our own kitchen and to eat well !

We’re just getting started in this cruising life, but we’re hooked and hope to have many more years ahead of us.  Here in Europe, we’re also blessed with an almost continent-wide network of canals, so when we’re too old to sea cruise, we’ll move aboard a houseboat and cruise Europe’s inner seas!

Any big mistakes you have learned from that others may learn from too?
The first winter we owned Spray, she broke away from her mooring buoy during two back-to-back gales on New Year’s Eve and was the subject of a rather spectacular rescue by the local maritime rescue service, involving 2 boats and a diver.  We were enjoying the New Year’s festivities at home with friends when it happened.

Most of the damage was to our egos and our confidence levels, but we still had to pull the boat out of the water for an inspection and do some touch-up work on the hull.  Most of the work fell to Patrick since I jetted off to sunny Florida to visit my family for 2 weeks.  Patrick attacked the work relentlessly, scraping, sanding, and grinding in the cold grey wet windy Brittany winter.  He didn’t ask for advice or help, and had to muddle though as best he could. 

By the time I got home, he was in a pitiful state.  He had come down with a bronchial infection from inhaling too much dust (probably the anti-fouling...very bad) and being exposed to the cold wind for hours every day, and was physically and emotionally exhausted.  His confidence was severely shaken, his self-esteem at rock-bottom, and he said he didn’t have what it takes to manage a boat.  He fell into a depression that lasted several months.  We agreed to sell the boat and move on to other things. 

I didn’t blog about it at the time because it was too personal and too painful, but with time we can better understand why it happened. If the sea teaches you anything, it’s humility.  We’ve always been humble in the face of mother nature, but accepting our own weakness and need for help is another thing entirely.  We have to accept that we weren’t born with a natural instinct for managing a boat.  It’s something that has to be learned, preferably with good mentors rather than from the school-of-hard-knocks.  Fortunately, we are now members of 2 sailing associations where help is generously and cheerfully available.  We’ve learned to appreciate this more and more and it’s made all the difference. 

What advice would you give to those that may be interested in following in your footsteps and living aboard and/or cruising?
The only advice we would dare to give is: Learn to sail first.  There are many stories about people with no experience who buy a boat, cast off the lines, and go on to great adventures, but the reason those stories are in the sailing magazines is because they are the exception rather than the rule, and, in our opinion, a bit foolhardy.  Get good sail training through a school or association.  Crewing for others is a great way to learn and to get to know different boats.  Almost every port we’ve ever been in has a message board at the port office where there are notices of skippers looking for crew.  Sail enough to learn not just how to handle the sails but also everything else that goes into cruising: navigation techniques and strategies (including how to navigate without the aid of electronic gadgets... on account of you just never know...), understanding / interpreting weather forecasts, basic on-board safety, how to use the VHF (in France, you need a permit requiring a test), sailing in bad weather conditions, coping with sea sickness (your own or your crew’s), how to manage eating, sleeping, basic boat and motor maintenance, how to recover someone who has fallen overboard, etc. 

And an important piece of advice related to the previous question:  Surround yourself with fellow sailors who can offer help and advice when needed.

What motivates you to blog and what tips can you offer fellow bloggers?
I started blogging as a way to inform my non-sailing family where I was and what I was doing.  They were understandably worried when Patrick and I decided to buy our own boat and head off “alone together” instead of crewing for others.  Having them share in our little adventure helps to demystify the unknown and reduce the anxiety (some of it, anyway).  It’s also been great fun for us to keep a scrapbook of our cruising life and to see for ourselves how we’ve evolved in ways we didn’t expect. 

The only real tip I can offer is to name your blog something other than the name of your boat if you aren’t sure you will be sailing on that boat for years to come.  We really should make better use of other social media or blog directories to draw attention to our blog, but since we hope to buy a new boat soon - a boat that will not be named Spray – we’ve hesitated to “advertise” more widely.  

The other piece of advice I am giving myself is to stress the importance of good photos.  I’m hoping that Santa Claus will bring me a new camera this year and I am looking around locally for a class on digital photography.  I’m just a point-and-shoot person and can definitely see the difference between what I produce and what other blogs put out there. 

Our Nominations
I’m not sure how long this award chain has been circulating, but I suspect that our nominations will overlap with others.  But hey… that just means that lots of us out here really like their blogs, so I hope they’ll forgive the double nominations. 

Like The Cynical Sailor and his Salty Sidekick who nominated us, we follow quite a few blogs (although we’ve fallen behind in the last 4 months we’ve been at sea).  Besides The Cynical Sailor and The Red Thread, here are a few of our favorites du jour:

Just a Little Further - subtitle “it’s not just travel… it’s our lifestyle.”  We love the name of the blog and the philosophy behind it… slow steady progress that has allowed Marcie and David to sail around the world.  The blog has excellent writing (both Marcie and David write for various sailing magazines) and is updated frequently with useful and entertaining information.

Commuter Cruiser - This great site is a mix of practical information and a cruising blog of David and Jan’s adventures in the part-time live-aboard lifestyle.  We also love their sailing philosophy: “as long as it’s fun.”    

The Retirement Projet - Tim and Deb took up cruising as an early retirement project.  As we are following in their footsteps, we’ve had great fun following their adventures with their first boat and first long-distance cruises.

To participate in the Leibster Award, you should:

Refer back to the blog that you nominated you.
Answer questions posed by the nominator (same ones as above).
Nominate other blogs you believe are worthwhile.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Crossed !

Yesterday, we pulled into Port Medoc, France, after a peaceful and ENJOYABLE (!) 34-hour crossing from Bilbao.  We had just enough wind on a beam reach to give us 5 knots on a FLAT (!) sea, with a bright sun and warm temperatures, followed by a night with an almost-full moon and so many stars that it was difficult to identify individual constellations.  In the wee hours of the morning, the wind died down and since we needed to keep up our speed to enter into the Gironde estuary with the tide, we had to finish up with the motor.  We arrived in excellent condition and great spirits.   

Sunrise over Biscay after a beautiful night of sailing.

Port Medoc, France.
Before leaving, we hung out at the Real Club Nautico in Bilbao for a few days, enjoying the swanky swimming pool and club house.  (I was too intimidated to take photos...)  Before we knew it, a pretty good weather window opened up and we took it.  Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that there was much angst and analysis in the decision to go or not, but we’re slowly getting better at judging these things and so we decided not to regale you with the blow-by-blow decision making process this time, as fun as that is.  In the latest version of the weather data program Zygrib, there are two new functions (new to us, anyway) that give information about possible squalls and storms:  the convective available potential energy (CAPE) and the convective inhibition (CIN).  It took me awhile to understand how to interpret them and several of the forums we found on the web, frankly, got it backwards, which added to my confusion.  I’ll write a blog post about it another time.

And now, we are pinned down by distressingly beautiful weather (but without wind).  Port Medoc is situated just inside the Gironde estuary on the left bank surrounded  by hundreds of miles of bike paths through pine forests along a coast with long powdery beaches (including a few nude beaches we will sample later… not taking photos there, either.)  This is also one of the principle wine regions of France and we’re enjoying re-connecting with French food and drink after 3 months away.  It looks like we’ll be here a few more days, and we aren’t complaining one bit.  Feels like summer vacation !

One of the many beaches along the ocean side of Medoc.

The bike path, part of EuroVelo Route Number 1, running from Brittany to Portugal !

Posted on Sunday, September 07, 2014 | Categories: ,