Thursday, 31 March 2016

Med Weather and Sailing Instructions Choices

Preparing for a cruise requires lots of information about ports (do they have space for visiting yachts?), anchorages (does this bay offer good protection?), and sailing instructions (e.g., keep 1 Mile offshore of this headland to avoid steep waves).  You also need radio channels and broadcast times for weather information and local security services.  It’s easy to go overboard (so to speak…) buying every nautical guide out there, but when you’re on a budget, choices must be made.  

Trying not to go overboard buying ALL the guides out there...
I’ve limited myself to the 2015 Bloc Marine Almanac (England to French / Spanish border), the IMRAY Guide for 2013 for Spain and Portugal, the 2014 IMRAY Guide for the Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca, and the 2016 Bloc Marine for the Mediterranean.  We've also added the Mediterranean Cruising Handbook and "Spanish for Cruisers" but those are more general (but VERY useful.)

It’s also easy to go overboard with weather information, sources, and equipment.  The VHF radio is mandatory and provides regional weather reports several times per day. But reports over large zones don’t always give you a very realistic picture of the weather where you are, especially in tricky areas around mountains or headlands.  NAVTEX and SSB radio seem to be on the way out, and most people tell me the equipment is finicky and that actually receiving the weather reports is hit-and-miss.  Satellite phones are all the rage, but they’re still too expensive for us (although coming down…love that sat-sleeve idea for cell phones).  We’re left with getting internet via wireless internet in ports and cell phone networks along the coast.  For Spain and Portugal, we haven’t quite decided whether we’ll sign up for a European-wide phone / internet contract before leaving France or if we’ll just buy a SIM card in Spain and Portugal and get a local phone / internet contract.  The cheapest international contract we’ve found is about 40 Euros / month for 5 GB of data outside of France, which seems a bit pricey.

Having internet aboard is critical for weather information when you’re at anchor and not in a port (or more likely, a nearby café or bar) where you can get wireless internet.  We have a number of favorite internet weather sites for coastal spots along the way, and for larger scale weather information, we use ZyGrib files.  For the Med, our Med-savvy friends have introduced us to a fabulous, free, and trustworthy high-rez grib service called Open Skiron, which provides grib files starting in Gibraltar and covers the entire Med.  (Note: these come zipped and are on the heavy side.)  I’ve been playing with these and I can import them into OpenCPN and MaxSea (although still haven’t tried this on the IPAD version…). 

And now, a treat for any of you who can read French: Last week, one of our local sailing gurus, Antoine Maury, introduced us to his friends Pierre and Martine Lavergne, who have spent the last 14 years sailing around the Med on their Sun Legend 41, Logos.  They have a blog that is an absolute GOLD MINE of information.  Enjoy ! 

And on a final and completely unrelated note, I think I have convinced Patrick that we should invest the $16 needed to buy an anchor ball and motoring cone.  These are plastic visual signals that you hoist up to let other boats know when you are at anchor or when you are motoring.  I have always thought that the anchor ball idea was dumb unless you’ve had to anchor in an emergency someplace you shouldn’t be.  The motor cone, though, is useful.  Often, we keep the mainsail up even when we’re motoring (motor sailing).  But once your motor is turned on, you become a motor boat, not a sailboat, and lose the right-of-way.  Other boats, seeing your sail, may think you are under sail and treat you as a sailboat.  Both boats giving way at the same time can lead to problems. You can always pull out a pair of binoculars to see if the sailboat’s motor is pumping out water, but that’s not always possible in a tight spot or crowded area.  Of course, none of these arguments hold any sway with Patrick.  He was simply impressed by the tales of frequent controls by the Portuguese Coast Guard and the $400 fine for not having these $16 pieces of plastic aboard. Whatever works, right?

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Spring Cruising Preps

An anticyclone has been squatting over France for the last week, bringing sunshine and warm(ish) temperatures, and now the calendar tells me it’s spring.  In the span of a few days, we’ve gone from that dreamy fresh-out-of-hibernation state to near panic as we realize how much we have to do to prepare Mareda and ourselves for our Mediterranean adventure. 

A boat we chartered and sailed from Tunisia to Lampedusa, Malta, and Sicily.  This was our favorite anchorage in Gozo, Malta.

Preparing the Boat for the Med

In the summer, it’s going to be hot in the Med (yippee!):  bimini, window shades, wind scoops, small fan, mosquito nets, swim platform, water supply (All taken care of except for the wind scoops and repairing a latch on the swim platform.)

Sailing in shorts and tee-shirts !!  Unbelievable !
In the Med, winds can roll down the mountains and build up to gale force without much warning.  Anchor and chain need to be heavy enough and long enough to keep you securely fastened.  A secondary anchor needs to be ready to go, too.  (Need to splice the rode directly to the anchor chain to increase strength; Need to find a good way to have the 2nd anchor and chain easily accessible from the cockpit.)

We also plan to anchor out often.  I’ve already mentioned the necessity for a strong anchor / chain system and a secondary system.  A flopper-stopper system to reduce rock-n-roll at anchor is also a necessity for a good night’s sleep in anchorages that get a lot of swell (which seems to be just about all of them along the Algarve and Costa del Sol sections of our voyage.) 

A sunny lunchtime anchorage in Tunisia.
In the Med, you often dock stern-to-quay.  We’ll need some more fenders, some longer sheets, and a gang-plank.  The drop-down swim platform is fabulous for stern-to moorings but the height difference or distance from the quay may not always be optimal.  A simple plank with holes in the corners for ropes is an easy(-ish) thing to pull together and is also useful for protecting your fenders if you have to lay alongside a rough cement quay.

I’ve rechecked the off-shore security material regulations and carried out an inventory of our existing material.  Need to buy 3 new hand flares.

Last but not least is getting the navigation taxes and insurance in order and getting Spanish translations of everything. 

Preparing the Navigation Plan

Basically, we'll head south until the butter melts and then turn left.  How hard could it be?

Gozo (I think) over my right shoulder.
But seriously, now...

I still like having paper charts aboard and a friend has graciously agreed to loan us his Med charts.  I suspect we’ll never look at them but their presence comforts me.  We now have 4 (!) nav systems aboard:  The B&G Zeus GPS / Chart Plotter running Navionics in the cockpit; a PC with GPS running MaxSea and OpenCPN, a backup PC with MaxSea and OpenCPN, and an IPAD Air II running MaxSea. 

I have the Mediterranean Cruising guide (Heikell 2012), the IMRAY Guide for Spain and Portugal (2013), and the IMRAY Guide for the Costas del Sol and Blanca (2014).  I still need to get the Bloc Marine Med Almanac for 2015/2016 to have the Colregs up to date.

Using these guides, advice from friends who sail in the area, and recent reports from other sailors on Noonsite, we’ve made a rough plan of our dates and ports and/or anchorages from Arzal to Alicante.  We believe FIRMLY that the most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar, so we won’t be trying to keep to any set schedule.  We’re just going to follow our noses and look at the weather to decide when and where we go.  If we don’t get to Alicante by the time the bad weather sets in, we’ll just put down somewhere else.  In general, we plan to spend June sailing around Galicia, July sailing down the Portuguese coast, spend August along the Algarve to Gibraltar, and in September and October we’ll sail along the Costas del Sol and Blanca with initial plans to winter over in Torrevieja near Alicante.

Tunisia to Lampedusa, Beaufort 5 with choppy seas, and one HUGE helm.  Me in the background with grimace because of 2 freshly cracked ribs (remember "one hand for you, one hand for the boat?")

Preparing Ourselves

I just completed an inventory of our on-board pharmacy and compared it to the checklist in our French offshore sailing regulations.  I have a few items that need to be replaced and will got to the doctor next week for those items requiring a prescription.  We’ve both got dentist and dermatologist appointments in the next few weeks, too.

We have to prepare the house to be abandoned for 6-7 months.  This mostly involves weed control and buttering up our neighbours.  (We are VERY lucky to have neighbours who have become dear friends.) 

Mentally, I think we’re both in great shape and ready to go.  We will have a 1.5-month shakedown period with Mareda before we head across the Bay of Biscay to Spain.  All the reading and talking with more experienced Med sailors has given us a good idea of what to expect (I hope !).  It’s always reassuring to reduce the unknown to manageable proportions.  Here’s what we expect:
  • A wee bit of stress (but the good kind, right?!) 
  • Some charming villages, towns and cities (Galicia region, Porto, Lisbon, the Algarve, Cadix, Gibraltar, etc.).
  • Some not-so-charming areas (large industrial ports, over-built coastlines).
  • Chilly temps and fog around northern Spain; warm weather south of Lisbon
  • Many fishing boats and their unmarked / poorly marked nets and pots
  • Many fish / shellfish farms to dodge
  • Poor internet reception; lots of time spent in cafés and bars trying to get a weather report
  • Getting proficient at Med-style moorings (stern-to-quay) (see “stress” above)
  • Learning to cope with rolly, lumpy anchorages exposed to swell
  • Early starts and lots of motor-sailing to reach the next port before the stiff afternoon breezes set in (or more hopefully, maximizing the use of our Gennaker that allows us to sail in as little as 7 knots of wind)
  • Covering shorter distances than planned to avoid long hours of motoring, followed by longer distances than planned when the weather becomes favorable
  • Some beautiful anchorages with water warm enough to swim in without a wet suit
  • Improving our fishing skills (e.g., anything other than mackerel…).
  • Meeting other cruisers along the way (always one of the highlights of any cruise)
  • Hot weather in July and August; learning to maximize interior comfort and minimize interior mosquitoes and no-seeums
  • A mix of very expensive ports, some reasonably-priced ports, and lots of anchorages to keep overall prices down.

Like most things, urchins are okay with lots of butter and garlic.
And now, it’s off to the ship chandlers and then to the boat yard to see about that new battery…and flares, and anchor rode splice, and…