Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Sea, Otherwise

We’ve just discovered that enjoying the sea doesn’t have to stop when the boat is put up for the winter.  For the first time since moving to the Morbihan Gulf in Brittany, we went clam digging with some other hibernating sailors.  It was a cool drizzly day and I hesitated taking my camera, thinking that the photos would only show grey tones (which is a way of avoiding the use of the now ruined phrase “shades of gray”).  I was pleasantly surprised with both the subtle colors and textures of the shoreline as well as the three handfuls of clams we found.  The Brent geese were on their post-nuptial migration from Scandinavia to their wintering grounds, which range from Brittany down to the Arcachon basin near Bordeaux depending on winter conditions.  My guide book says they rarely fly in V-shapes, but we were given quite a show…which was particularly tricky to catch with my camera in the rain. This little outing opened our eyes to new ways of enjoying the sea in winter, and we are eagerly awaiting the next large tidal coefficients to try our hand at fishing for razor clams.

The road to Tascon island, only passable at low tide.

Who says Brent Geese don't migrate in V-formations? 

The mighty hunter.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Eulogy for a brave little camera

This week, I was forced to accept a bitter truth: my Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 has not healed itself by sitting alone in a drawer over the summer as I had hoped. Even worse, my attempts to unblock the zoom, thrown off track by fine Sahara sand from Morocco last spring, have now guaranteed that there’s no saving this brave little camera.  It had a fantastic zoom and I could control aperture, shutter speed and exposure.  Okay, sure, I didn’t actually use those features very often, but the fact that I could manually control everything is what made it so special. 

I do love my Olympus TG-3 tough camera, bought to overcome the frailties of “nice” cameras, but it’s much more limited in manual controls. As Christmas approaches, I was toying with the idea of getting my first grown-up DSLR camera, but I’ve now decided that I am not going to do that until I fully master my point-and-shoot. When is that?  A tutorial I was reading recently said “You’ll just know when you’re ready.”  I'm not there yet.

Here are some of the death throes of my little Panasonic from its last conscious days in Morocco. Rest in peace, friend.  (You can click on the photos to get larger images).

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Cruising Primer

Her face positively glowed with relief.  “Oh you DO have one of those!” she said, pointing to the toilet.  Other anxious faces would appear throughout the summer as non-sailing friends joined us for their first sailing experience, a bit concerned about how they would eat, sleep, or charge their cell phones. 

I’m always surprised by the questions we get asked about the sailing life.  Things that seem so familiar to us after almost 12 years of cruising are unknown to most people, as they were to us when we began this venture. 

Here, in no particular order, is a primer on what it’s like to live on a sailboat.
Our "house" may be small, but you should see our backyard...
How do you go to the toilet?  Let’s just get this one out of the way first, shall we?  Yes, we DO have a toilet, and it even looks like a normal one  The flushing mechanism is a sort of hand pump that draws in seawater and then pumps it all out again at the flick of a mechanical switch.  The contents go into a holding tank (Ellen at the Cynical Sailor has cleverly dubbed this the “PPB”, or the Pee and Poo Box).  The PPB can be emptied into the sea by opening a valve when you’re away from port and the coast.  Each boat has its own rules about toilet paper but we adopt the most conservative approach: nothing goes into the toilet unless it has passed through your body first. Nothing stops up a toilet mechanism faster than paper, and nothing is worse than having to unblock it.  A small trash can sits next to the toilet and all paper goes here. And no, it doesn’t smell.  It gets emptied frequently and has a lid.  You can also put small strips of fabric softener in the can if you want to make sure there are no offending odours.      

Relief in sight.  Everything's going to be okay.
Where / how / what do you eat?  How do you buy groceries?  Our eating is actually very similar to the way we eat at home.  We have a refrigerator (and if we crank up the power, a small freezer) and a stove with 2 gas burners and an oven. The originality of a boat stove is that it is on gimbals, which means that it stays horizontal even if the boat is heeling over at an angle.  This feature, along with clamps, keeps your pots securely on the stove while you plough through the waves.  

Coffee on the go...
When we’re in port, we head for the local markets and grocery stores, so we have fresh food every few days.  We also tend to eat out in local restaurants.  You can learn a lot about a culture by eating “local” and it’s one of our favourite things about traveling.  On longer passages or in more remote areas, we may have to tap into the canned food, but that’s pretty rare for us.  When we’re actually sailing, we tend to eat a simple sandwich that will suffice until we pull into port and can fix a regular meal, or one-dish meals (spaghetti, stew, etc) that are easy to manage on a rolling boat. And there’s always mackerel out there, waiting to be filleted into fresh sushi !

Buying local goods on Brehat island.  Just take what you want and leave the money in the honesty box !
Do you have electricity on board?  One of the first things friends ask when they join us on Mareda for the first time is “Is there someplace where I can charge my phone?” Yes.  We have circuits for 220 volts (European standard power) and 12 volts like you have in your car.  The batteries are recharged by the boat motor alternator (just like your car) as well as by plugging into shore power when in port or by the solar panels.  We have a sensor that tells us how many amps we’re using at any given time and the state of charge of the batteries.  We watch this carefully when we’re at sea or on a mooring away from shore power to make sure we’re not draining the batteries.    

Do you sail at night?  Can you just throw out the anchor to stop the boat when you get tired of sailing?  No, you can’t stop the boat just anywhere for the night, which means you sometimes do have to sail all through the night (or several nights, or days, or months).  Most boat anchors and chains are only useful for anchoring in 10 meters (~ 33 feet) of water or less.  Away from the coast in deeper water, the anchor is useless.  You can stop the boat and drift with the winds and currents, but this is rarely comfortable and always risky.  You may be pushed backwards and lose some hard-won miles or be pushed onto the coast and risk grounding, not to mention running into cargo ships or fishing boats.  When you sail throughout the night, you set up a watch system with the available crew on board where each person takes a turn (usually 3 hours, less in bad conditions) being responsible for keeping the boat moving safely forward while the others sleep.  The autopilot is your best friend at night, allowing you to remain under the spray dodger and out of the wind.  You are legally required to maintain a visual watch at all times, so we don’t spend much time below when we’re on watch.  Since we are usually only 2 people on Mareda, the person not on watch sleeps on the convertible settee in the saloon with a clear view up to the cockpit  and within easy earshot.  The off-watch person also stays clothed and ready to leap into the cockpit if the other needs help.  We almost always put a reef in the sail (to reduce the sail area to slow down and to heel less) whether it needs one or not, just in case.  The person alone in the cockpit wears his life vest with a search-and-rescue light attached to it, and stays tethered to the life lines at all times.
Sunset sail (and rushing to port to avoid a night sail !)
Where do you sleep?  Do you reserve a place in port ahead of time like a hotel?  What if there’s no room?  We stop the boat for the night in ports or along the coast somewhere sheltered from the wind and wave swell.  Ports almost never accept reservations.  You simply call up on the phone or the vhf radio as you get near to port and ask for a berth for the night.  The coastal sailing guide books provide graphics showing the layout of each port, which allows you to find the spot attributed to you.  We’ve almost never been turned away.  If there are no free berths, you raft up next to someone else, which means you tie up next to a boat that is tied up next to the dock.  These raft-ups can sometimes be 3 or 4 boats deep !  We have been notified that ports aren’t accepting visitors because of a regatta or dredging work in the port but if it were a real emergency, they will always find you a spot. 

How do you shower?  We have a shower on board !  This is a luxury we actually don’t use that often because you end up hosing down everything in the shower area and you have to wipe everything dry afterwards.  Most ports have shower facilities although they are often none too appealing and the water is never really hot.

How do you do laundry?  Small items are washed by hand.  Synthetics are highly prized.  Occasionally, the port facilities include washing machines.  About once a month, we find a laundromat and wash things “properly”.  It’s not so bad.  You can meet some interesting people in the laundromat !

Laundry day !
What do you do with your house while you’re away? What about your mail?  Up until now, the house has been shut up with no electricity or water.  The police are notified of our absence and our neighbours have keys to the house and keep an eye on things.  All of our bills, taxes, etc., are handled via internet or through automatic deduction from our accounts, so any mail that piles up is 99% junk.  Our biggest problem is the yard, which doesn’t take well to 6 months of neglect during the growing season.  In the future, we’re thinking of renting the house while we’re away but that has its own set of headaches.  We’re still in the research phase of that idea. 

What about getting seasick?  It happens, but it’s rare now that we know ourselves and how to cope.  We even “cured” a friend who was sailing with us this summer.  He started getting very nauseous and we immediately covered him up with another jacket and warm cap, put him at the helm to steer, and gave him ½ of a travel sickness pill.  He was laughing and joking within 30 minutes. 

Don’t you get scared? It has happened in the past, but it’s rare now.  I don’t remember being frightened at all this past year since we didn’t have any surprise storms and we didn’t have boat trouble as we have in the past. There were quite a few anxious moments, but we’ve learned that a scratch in the hull isn’t the end of the world and that bearing hours of discomfort while pounding through rough seas is just part of the game (to be avoided whenever possible.) 

What do you do when it rains?  Since we travel with no strict calendar in mind, we can choose when to cruise.  Our movements are mostly controlled by the wind and sea state rather than rain.  If the winds are right and it happens to be raining, we just cope with it, wearing our foul weather gear and boots. 

Sailing in the rain is just part of the job sometimes.

Don’t you get lonely / feel isolated / miss friends and family?  We don’t get lonely, but we do miss family and friends. Skype and email are lifesavers when you are lucky enough to have an internet connection. Here in Europe, the public transportation network of buses, trains, and airports, allows us to get where we need to be within 48 hours or less in an emergency.  But one of the best things about cruising is the other cruisers you meet.  Last year along the coast of Spain, we had social events with fellow cruisers almost every night in every port.  The solidarity and community spirit make up for the lack of contact with friends back home. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

November 13

We rush to the television to get the latest news, then shut everything off with the same urgency, eager to focus on something else, anything else.  I lived on one of those streets for 2 years, took my visiting parents to a restaurant next to the one that was attacked.  This past Christmas, we stayed in a friend’s apartment and parked our car in front of the pizzeria that was attacked.  Still, this it-could-have-been-me awareness fails to penetrate the numbness and confusion. 

What finally makes me cry is not the event itself but the beauty of the response. As the shots were heard, residents in the areas under attack opened their doors to those fleeing, their blood-stained couches and carpets bearing witness to the violence of the reception.  Taxi drivers threw open the doors of their cabs, taking as many as they could carry out of harm's way.  The next morning, the hospitals requested Parisians to please stop giving blood. The banks were full after donors had lined up around the clock, some waiting as long as 3 hours, heedless of police warnings to stay home for their own safety. The major trauma hospitals turned away doctors and nurses who had shown up to offer help. In every window all over the country, small candles stood silent watch throughout the night.

All American children of the 70s remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s television program that taught peace, compassion, and tolerance. When faced with traumatic events, he reminded us to look for the helpers.  No matter how terrible the scene, you will always see people rushing out to help, and the helpers always outnumber the bad guys. Staying focused on the helpers keeps hope alive when it feels like your world is falling apart.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Update 1: A Year of Reading the Med

Several weeks ago, I began a project of reading at least 1 book from each of the 23 Mediterranean countries. The start of the project taught me a lot about what I read and why.  This next phase of summarizing what I’ve read is also teaching me that literary criticism is a serious profession requiring skills that I don’t have.  I thought of just sticking to a star system, but in the interest of making this project more of a challenge, I’ve decided to push myself a bit further to try to give you enough information to decide if the book might interest you or not.  Here it goes:

Star system:
* = don’t bother
** = okay 
*** =  good 
**** = excellent !

FRANCE:  Bonjour Tristesse by Fran├žoise Sagan.  ***
A coming of age novel set in the French Riviera of the 1950s, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) follows a young woman as she struggles to choose between a bohemian lifestyle or finishing her baccalaureate degree, and discovers with tragic consequences her own power to manipulate the adults around her.    

FRANCE: Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica by Dorothy Carrington. ****
For those who know and love Corsica, this masterpiece of history, anthropology, archaeology, art history, architecture, linguistics, folk tales and travel literature from 1971 is essential reading.  Informative, entertaining, and lyrical, her love for the island and respect for the fast-disappearing Corsican peasant culture is documented over the 20 years she lived and worked there.  Reflections such as this abound: “I was to marvel at the command of words by those who can neither read nor write them.  But perhaps this was general in the days before universal education began mass-producing minds.  I have often wondered how far the Elizabethan writers were indebted to the virile, vivid speech of an illiterate majority.”  To read and re-read. 

SPAIN: A Heart so White by Javier Marias.  ****
This gem of a novel forces the reader to repeatedly ask whether actions are pure or cowardly, two competing interpretations of “white”.  Written in 1st person prose voice similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez or William Faulkner (e.g., stream-of-consciousness-punctuation-be-damned…but still very readable and even endearing), the story follows an interpreter – someone whose job depends on listening carefully and evaluating the meaning of words – as he learns about the dark past of his father.  And for those of you who have worked in the international arena, there are some hysterical passages about what interpreters think of UN assemblies and delegates !

ITALY:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… by Italo Calvino.  *** ½
This novel (or is it 10 novels?) takes a mad, wild, fantastic look at what it means to read, to write, to be a reader, and to be a writer.  The disconcerting beginning quickly sparks to brilliance as the reader realizes what the author is doing, and the many laugh-out-loud twists and turns keep the pages turning.  That is, up until then end, where this reader got a little tired of the same tricks and began skimming some parts.  But the doldrums don’t last long and the end, where things come together in an unexpected way, is well worth pushing forward.  A great read for book lovers.

MALTA:  Ironfire by David Ball.  ****
This majestic fictional romp through Maltese history brings to life a formative period in Mediterranean history that covers the crusades, the knights of Malta, the Barbary coast pirates, and the Ottoman empire. Reminiscent of the great historical fiction works of James Michener, Ironfire is an intelligent swash-buckling page turner.  Brain candy with a little bit of fiber.  Enjoy ! 

ALBANIA:  Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare. ****
Winner of the 1995 Man Booker International Prize.  A young Albanian boy leads us through the daily life in his village during the Second World War as Albania is alternatively occupied by the Italians, the Greeks, the Italians again, then the Greeks again, then the Italians return, then the Greeks make a short re-appearance, and then the Germans show up.  Folklore, village life, colourful characters, the incomprehensible savagery of war and the magic of childhood create a kaleidoscope of life in a critical period of history. 

GREECE:  Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis * ½
Lest ye think I loved everything I read recently, I give you Zorba the Greek.  If you think the meaning of life can be boiled down to eat, drink, screw, and dance, Zorba is your man.  If, however, you are looking for more out of life or out of a book, don’t look here.  Do yourself a favour and watch the movie instead.  At least there are some great songs there.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mareda, Winterized.

Winterizing a boat is never fun.  It’s a psychological punch in the stomach that tells you that you won’t be sailing again for a very long time, and it can also be stressful because you’re never quite sure you’re doing things correctly, especially if this is the first time winterizing a new boat.

One of our manias during the winterizing process is to take pictures of everything:  what did it look like before we untied that knot? removed that shackle? unzipped that zip?  Here is a list of what we did and what a winterized Mareda looks like.

Mareda, "naked like a worm" as Patrick says.

Stern-to-dock berthing to point Mareda's nose to the southwest from whence come our worst storms.
  • Removed the genoa and main sail.  Fold and put into sail sacks for storage at home in a dry place. 
  • Filled up the gas tank and added an anti-bacterial product to avoid bacterial growth.
  • Emptied the water tanks.  Added ~ 50 cl of white vinegar to each tank with about 2 liters of water, ran the pump to pull the vinegar water through all the faucets, and let sit over night.  Pumped tanks dry and left faucets in the open position.
  • Off-loaded the outboard motor and took to the mechanic for regular maintenance.
  • Cleaned and vasalined the toilet pump assembly.  
  • Shut off cooking gas; off-loaded gas containers.
  • Set out 2 chemical dehumidifiers.
  • Off-loaded all food items, foul weather gear, boots, life vests, and remaining bits of clothing still on board.
  • Off-loaded all books, documents, and electronic devices not fixed to the boat.
  • Off-loaded emergency offshore kit (flares, etc) and grab-bag.
  • Off-loaded all tools (amazing how they can rust just from being in contact with marine air.)
  • Off-loaded bedding cushions, turned saloon cushions on end for maximum air circulation.
  • Off-loaded the life lines, rinsed with fresh water, dried, stored.
  • Off-loaded the dodger, bimini, and lazy bag.  Dodger and bimini need small repairs.
  • Covered winches.
  • Rinsed boat with fresh water, rinsed the anchor and chain well.  Put the anchor inside the anchor locker.
  • Opened all cabinets, refrigerator compartment, storage areas and lifted up all the floor boards.
  • Greased the through-hull valves.
  • Stored spinnaker pole inside boat.
  • Locked compartment containing the life raft.
  • Turned the solar panels to a vertical position to discourage birds from hanging out.  We leave them operational to keep the batteries charged.

Is it still BLING ?

We’re buying some wheel covers and a cover for the cockpit table / chart plotter.  In mid-January (on our wedding anniversary no less…) we’ll pull Mareda out of the water for 3 months of drying out.  We’ll pressure wash the bottom and winterize the motor once she’s high and dry.  

Now we have 5 months to organize all that stuff piled up in the garage waiting to be taken back on board in April. (No pictures of that one !)

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Cruising Stats 2015

We’ve been home for 5 days now and I have just managed to dig a path through the mountain of laundry and sailing gear to my computer.  With a well-deserved rest period at hand, I started looking at our cruising data in the log book and piecing together some statistics, highlights and lowlights of our 2015 maiden voyage on Mareda.

Mareda in Derrible Bay, Sark.

Nautical miles covered: 1430
Number of days at sea: 149
Number of those days actually sailing: 67
Number of hours motoring: 162
Number of different ports or moorings visited: 51
Number of friends sailing with us at various times: 9

  • Friends who joined us, ranging from 2 days to 2.5 weeks. (ALL are welcomed back !)
  • Our first intentional beaching and full dry-out (Batz island). 
  • The Channel Islands, especially Sark, which was new to us. 
  • Brittany north coast: Ploumanac’h, Tregastel, Batz island, Brehat island.
  • Learning to filet mackerel for sushi
  • Discovering Mareda – stable, secure, fast, comfortable, and the lifting keel is priceless !
  • No surprise storms for the first time in 2 years !!  Either we’re getting smarter, or luckier, or it’s simply that having a bigger heavier boat dampens out a lot of the rough stuff we experienced with Spray.

  • Emergency return home for Patrick to have a strange carcinoma-like growth removed from his leg.  All is well but he has to have check-ups every 6 months for the next 5 years.  Not easy for vagabonds...
  • Family health problems that made us feel like we were marooned on the dark side of the moon.
  • Bad weather in northern France and our subsequent decision to abandon the Cornish coast and the Scilly Islands. 
  • Very poor internet in most ports. I think this is owing to the fact that more people are accessing the wireless internet from their boats and the signal strength can't keep up with demand.

Sunrise on the mud, Batz island.

Things that broke / needed adjustment

Genoa furler: impossible to furl by hand in rough winds.  We eliminated one of the guides for the furler line leading back to the cockpit, which reduced the angle of the line and makes it possible to furl easily by hand in calm winds.  When the wind is rough, we still have to use the winch, though.  Other SO 379 owners tell us they do the same.

One of the genoa sheet travelers had to be replaced after a mysterious thumb-sized pit developed.

The mainsail developed several small rips and tears around the battens, which weren’t tightened down appropriately by the shipyard. 

The mainsheet downhaul was located too far aft on the boom and rubbed a hole in the cockpit dodger when we were close-hauled. We re-positioned the traveler sheet and used black Gorilla tape to cover the worn spot.

The spinnaker pole end fittings froze up (corrosion).

One of the latches on the swim platform broke.  Now that it’s fixed, the swim platform in the up-and-locked position pushes too tightly on the cover to the life raft compartment and has rubbed some nasty streaks in the gel coat.

The wireless internet antenna brackets rusted.

The steering wheel pinion system was misaligned (made “clunk” noises in two places). 

One of the solar panels stopped working after a soldered connection broke free.

We have a mystery leak in the refrigerator.  When we defrost, the water ends up under the sink floorboards instead of being led away to the bilges. 

One of the saloon cushions developed a tear on the underside because the Velcro pads are badly aligned.

Patrick has almost perfected his gel coat repair techniques after patching a very embarrassing and deep scratch along the hull.

Having dove under the boat to check things out from time to time, I know there is a golf-ball sized chunk missing from the leading edge of the keel from where we banged into the sill leaving the port of Guernsey.  The lights were green indicating 2 meters of water. “No problem” I thought.  It was only after the bang that I remembered that our draft is 2.25 meters with the keel fully down.  The keel did its job:  it lifted and we slid on by, but not without leaving a chunk behind.  The keel is some sort of composite material and we’ll have the boatyard fix this once Mareda is pulled out of the water this winter.  

We’re waiting for a sunny windless day to remove the sails, but as such days are few and far between, we’ll have to tackle the job come –what-may in the next week or two.  I’ll be happy for it to be done but I still am having a hard time accepting that we’re really done for the season !

Dangling Dinghy.