Feb 28 2010

SPOT tracking

Tag: navigation,preparation,routemattholmes @ 3:28 pm

The AIS tracking feature has been a big hit as we’ve travelled down the coast of california, especially with concerned family.  However, once we leave the country we will be out of range of the shore-based AIS stations, and we won’t show up on the map except maybe in very popular international ports.

At the request of family and friends, we purchased a SPOT tracking device.  It cost $50 (after mail-in rebate), plus a $100/year subscription fee.  For our purposes, each time we press the “check in/ok” button on this little jobby, it communicates our position to one of their satellites, and then it shows up as a pin on our SPOT map, which I added to the sidebar and also to our “Current Location” page (a bigger version).  We plan on pressing the button about once a day; that will be our daily position report.  Supposedly it will have coverage in MOST places, including the coast of Mexico.  However! Important note that THE SPOT WILL NOT SHOW OUR POSITION WHILE WE CROSS THE PACIFIC, SO DON’T WORRY!

I have mixed feelings about this SPOT jobby.  The box it came in was hugely wasteful, with extra stupid pieces of cardboard, the website interface to get it working is terrible, their widget that I put up on our site messed everything up until I did some extra html coding, and even using the damn thing is extremely counter-intuitive.  It’s hard to tell when you’ve successfully turned it on, turned it off, or sent a signal, which is not so cool when you’re out in the middle of the ocean trying to figure out whether it worked to upload a checkpoint or not.  I anticipate it to be buggy, so mom please don’t worry if it malfunctions on us and you stop getting position reports.

So, to be clear: the lack of a daily check/in is not a cause for concern.  It probably means that we’re either having too much fun and forgot to press the button, or else that the piece-of-crap thing busted on us and is no longer working.

(fyi, the pins that you see on land in San Diego are a result of my initial testing right after we bought the SPOT, on foot and by bus; we left the boat in the marina)


Feb 26 2010

San Diego

Tag: humorousmattholmes @ 11:48 pm
We’ve been here four days already; we intend to depart on Tuesday. So far our San Diego m.o. is to wander around running errands and looking for parts. There’s a fair amount of logistical leftovers to deal with before we leave the country, mostly bills and taxes and online crap. Even though we’re in a slip, it’s still more convenient to take the dinghy across the harbor before we hoof it around town. The dinghy ride:

Feb 23 2010

Goodbye & thanks to Pete & Ray

Tag: routemattholmes @ 1:14 pm

Pete and Ray hopped a ferry on Catalina to catch a plane out of L.A. this past Saturday.  Karen and I are extremely grateful to them for joining us during the first leg of our journey.  Their mere presence on board to assist with watches would have been more than enough, but their assistance extended far beyond that.  Pete fixed (finally, for real) our engine overheating problem, fixed the ssb, spliced the radar wiring together, repaired the windlass after I broke it, and got our outboard running, and that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head.  Pete is better at working on boats than anyone I have either met or even heard of.  I consider myself pretty capable at this point, but I felt like a novice apprentice in the presence of Pete.  Together, Pete and Ray gave us great advice at every turn, and while we are understandably very excited to be off on our own, we will sorely miss Pete and Ray.  Thanks Pete and Ray!

Karen and I departed Catalina on Sunday morning, bound for San Diego.  It was a joyous departure, being alone for the first time.  We experienced a consistent 20 knot winds out of the West and Northwest for the whole passage; this wind speed and direction allowed us to haul-ass the entire time.  It was a fast, enjoyable, comfortable ride.  It was wonderful to be out there alone, wonderful to be feeling good and sailing well.

There were two notable incidents: just before sunset we were hailed by an aircraft carrier, which identified itself as being at 20,000 yards, and would we please not come closer than 5,000 yards as they were doing “night exercises”.  I thought to myself–isn’t a “yard” an inappropriate unit of distance in this case?  Later in the evening I spotted a vessel off our port bow, and after a few minutes I determined that we were converging, and not wanting to collide with them I hailed them on the radio.  During my radio call, I identified their exact position, and it took two attempts before they identified themselves as “warship 88” and thanked me as they had “only just noticed us” . . . and I thought to myself–what kind of warship doesn’t notice a sailing yacht first?  I told them not to bother altering course, as I would pass behind them.  We passed about 500 yards astern of them–close enough to see that yes, indeed, they certainly looked like a warship–and then they turned off all their lights.  WTF?  Pretty freaking unsafe to sit around with no lights on.  What kind of boat sits around out in the ocean with all its lights off, especially when it can fail to notice an approaching vessel less than 4 miles away?  Karen and I have no valid explanations.  If it was hanging out there all stealth-like to look for smugglers or illegal immigrants, then maybe they should take lessons on reading their radar effectively–we had lights on, AIS on, and were headed right for them, after all, so what kind of small unlighted illegal boats are they ever going to find?  Anyway, strange things happen out in the ocean I guess, like encountering incompetent stealth warships.

As it turned out, we made such good time that we ended up arriving at the entrance to San Diego around midnight.  It being greatly preferred to enter during the daylight (a lesson learned during anchoring outside Santa Barbara in the dark), we decided to sail around killing time until the morning.

We proceeded to spend the next three hours messing around with sail combinations and positions, unsuccessfully attempting to stop the boat from sailing.

If one simply douses all the sails, attempting the sailing equivalent of “hanging out”, what happens is that the boat bobs around in the waves in a surprisingly violent way, while everything in the boat is rudely thrown from left to right and back in endless repetition until it all breaks, and furthermore sometime during that endless repetition all semblance of sanity departs from the minds of all crew on the boat.  So we don’t do that.

Heaving to is the preferred method of “stopping” the boat.  It is a balanced state in which the force of the jib and the main sail balance each other, working against each other, holding the boat slightly into the wind, such that the boat moves neither forward nor backward, but drifts directly downwind at about 1 knot.  The basic position of the sails required to heave to is straight forward: jib sheeted to windward, main eased to leeward, rudder to leeward.  Every boat is slightly different, however, and modern boats in particular can be hard to successfully heave to (so I have been told).  I was under the impression that our boat, it being heavier, with a medium-length keel and skeg-hung rudder, would have no trouble heaving-to.  I have discovered otherwise.  None of the various methods Karen and I tried throughout the night were successful.  With greater skill no doubt I will get it right, but no matter what I did that night our boat would sail forward.  The slowest I got her to was 1.5 knots–if that was 1.5 knots drifting directly downwind I would have been satisfied, but alas it was 1.5 knots forward, and I would be satisfied with nothing less than a perfect textbook heave-to.  Perhaps that was ambitious for 3 in the morning; perhaps I was being a little insane offshore in the pitch black in a healthy 20 knots of wind, but we were trying to kill time anyway and what else better did I have to do?  Our boat would not be stopped.  Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that our boat loves to sail, but clearly it will require further practice to get her to stop.

After four hours of putting sails up and down in the dark, within sight of all the lights of San Diego, Karen and I convinced ourselves that it would be just fine to enter the bay in the dark after all.  We motored up the channel without incident, and were directed by the harbor police to tie up to a quarantine buoy for the rest of the night.  This accomplished, we passed out for three hours, roused ourselves to motor over to the “cop dock” as they call it around here, and procured a transient slip for a few days at $10.50 a night in which to park the boat.

In retrospect, I am not happy with our late-night change of plans decision to enter the harbor.  If we thought it was a poor choice at the start of the evening, it was certainly a worse decision after we were considerably more tired out.  It all turned out to be perfectly fine and there were no close calls or dangerous aspects of entering the harbor, but it was still the wrong choice.  With or without achieving a  perfect heave-to, we could simply have sailed back and forth for a few more hours.  Tiredness can be an unbelievably powerful force–somehow it convinced me at 4 in the morning that it would be light by the time we got into the harbor proper, which was a silly thing to believe considering it only took us 40 minutes from that point to reach the quarantine buoy.   I suspect there will be many tired situations in the future, and so we would do well to remember it and to steel ourselves against it.

All in all, though, it was a safe and enjoyable first passage for Karen and I, and it greatly eased our minds about our ability to sail alone in a comfortable and happy fashion.

And, to the present: I am glad to be stationary in San Diego for a few days.  We have a number of errands on our list: we need to tie up loose ends from our former life (bills, taxes, etc), purchase spares, and do a few maintenance tasks on the boat.  It will be our last convenient chance to take care of things before heading into mexico–which we hope to do in about a week.


Feb 20 2010

Anchoring lessons in the channel islands

Tag: failures,routemattholmes @ 2:45 pm

We made a lazy departure from Santa Barbara mid-morning on the 17th. Our priorities for the passage were to avoid motoring if possible, and to make our next landfall (wherever it might be) during the daylight–no more anchoring during the dark if at all possible. The first half of the day was the most pleasant sailing so far, in consistent ~10knots of wind off the starboard beam, with a 3 foot 15 second swell.  Meaning: the wind was a decent breeze coming directly in over the right side of the boat, and the ocean waves lifted us up 3 ft and down 3 ft (total 6 feet peak to trough) every 15 seconds, which is a barely discernible rise and fall.  Further meaning: the motion of the boat was extremely steady, the sails stayed nicely filled, and the wind was light enough that lounging in the cockpit still felt warm and balmy.

We had bit the bullet and purchased a cruising guide to the islands offshore from the West Marine in Santa Barbara–that turned out to be a very good decision. My charts for most of the channel islands coastlines are not very detailed, and the two anchorages we have experienced so far are small and difficult.

The purpose of an anchorage is to 1) provide shelter from wind and waves, in that order, respectively and 2) to provide access to land.  The unfortunate trade-off of being in an anchorage is the possibility of contact with land.  It is difficult to overstate exactly how undesirable it is to make contact with land in a sailboat.  For a boat even to “bump up” against any piece of land will almost assuredly result in the boat sinking (unless of course your boat is made out of metal, as Pete never loses a chance to mention–but his metal boat is very heavy and sails very slowly though, so I forgive him for remembering the benefits of metal whenever possible :-).

Anchoring up against the land is like bringing your hand up next to a candle flame for warmth–the warmest you will be is right before you get burned.  Anchoring is just such a gambit: you are angling for protection, but the most protected spot is right up close against the very land that will sink your boat at the slightest contact.

We pulled into the “Scorpion” anchorage on the night of the 17th just before dark, and it was easy to see that being in that spot provided very little in the way of protection from either the wind or waves.  In this case, the word “cove” was completely misleading.  The cliffs were sharp and hard looking, and instinctively I wanted to stay away.  However, a comfortable half a mile away from land, the depth was well over a hundred feet and we may as well have just floated around the ocean, for all the protection to be gained by the spot.  A quarter of a mile away, the depth was finally shallow enough for us to anchor.   It felt very close to the rocks.  Pete assured me that we would experience anchoring situations far closer, so we dropped the “hook”.

Part of the anchoring process is to “back down” on the anchor: one puts the motor into reverse and backs up on the anchor to better dig it into the bottom, and to test that it will hold well.  The first time I backed down on our anchor that night, it started dragging.  I let it settle (did nothing else) and backed down again and it held.  The process had taken close to an hour and we were tired and cold and the wind was blowing us away from the land, safely out towards open water, so at that moment it seemed like our anchoring job was perfectly safe and solid, well done let’s get warm and have a drink, etc.  Then of course the wind shifted just after we got into bed, blowing us diagonally towards the land, and all of a sudden those rocks looked much closer, and much much sharper than they had a few hours earlier.  The fact that the anchor had dragged the first time I had backed down on it came back to haunt me–why did it drag the first time and not the second?  I didn’t do anything differently the second time.  Was it just chance?  If I had backed down on it a third time, would it have dragged?  Given these thoughts, of course I couldn’t sleep well.

We didn’t drag that night, and everything was fine.  I paid for this lesson with lost sleep, elevated anxiety.

The next day we departed for Catalina.  We arrived at the twin harbors area the following afternoon, after a sleepless night on passage bobbing around in zero wind (yet another eventually fruitless attempt to avoid using the motor).  After checking out and dismissing the cherry cove anchorage (full of moorings, not a single spot to anchor) we radioed the harbor patrol to ask where, exactly, was a spot for us to anchor that wasn’t completely full of mooring balls.  We ended up in little fisherman cove.

Yet again, “cove” was innappropriately applied.  More like little fisherman beach, or even more accurately little fisherman bit-of-sand-next-to-more-sharp-rocks.  I positioned us equidistant from rocks and mooring balls, as far away from land as seemed sensible given that we still needed some bottom under us in which to anchor, and that the whole point again is to actually have some protection.  We set the hook, backed down, and all was well.  We went ashore, did shore stuff like shower and laundry and eat french fries, we came back to the boat and ate a great meal, we slept well, the cruising life was good that night, and in this case what I mean by that is that it was actually relaxing and free of anxiety.

Last night we woke up to the sound of our boat banging up against something–this is an unfortunate way to be awakened at 3 in the morning.  It turned out to be a mooring ball–the wind had shifted 180, and apparently our anchor rode was about thirty feet too long to come up short of the mooring ball, and forty feet too short to float past it and tangle us all up in it.  To be frank, at 3 in the morning in my underwear I could have cared less if our rode had fouled around the mooring ball, if only the damn thing wouldn’t have banged against our hull, and then I would have slept for a few more hours and the tangled mess would have at least been a post-breakfast task.

I pulled in 25 feet of our anchor rode–leaving 105 feet of anchor rode in 35 feet of water, or a scope of 3:1.  A scope of 3:1 is the minimum that I was willing to go to, given the situation (usually 5:1 is really nice and 7:1 is overkill).  The mooring ball floated about 10 feet astern of us.  I went back to sleep.  I had just enough time to fall asleep before the damned ball started banging on the hull again.  Given that I was unwilling to shorten the rode any more, I pulled out a second anchor, emptied out the cockpit locker to find the rope rode for it, tied the 300 feet of rope rode onto the anchor, dumped it into the bottom of the dinghy, spent five minutes trying to start the outboard, motored out the second anchor in the dinghy as far as I thought my rope rode would reach, lowered it to the bottom (about 70 ft), motored back to the boat . . . and ran out of rode about 15 feet away from the boat.  Spent 20 minutes pulling the rode and anchor back in, motored 30 feet closer to the boat, lowered the anchor again, went back to the boat, reached it this time, put it onto a winch, then fell asleep laying in the cockpit as karen winched the boat in a hundred feet toward the second anchor.

Moral: anchoring is a skill learned solely through trial and error, and each lesson comes at a high cost.  The price of the tuition is paid with sleeplessness anxiety and unwanted unexpected frantic activity in the middle-of-the-night.  The consequences of failure can be high.  Karen wrote a less serious post about it that I recommend, as an antidote to my worried writing . . .


Feb 20 2010

AIS–worth every penny

Tag: navigationmattholmes @ 2:00 pm

an example of why the AIS has been awesome.

In the middle of Karen and my night watch between Santa Cruz and Catalina, while we were still on the edge of the shipping lane, we were enveloped in dense fog.  I aimed us out of the shipping lane and turned on the radar, but the AIS was the true hero.

We had a 505′ container ship come up behind us doing 20 knots, and because I had the AIS and I could see where they were and where they were headed the whole time, I didn’t even have a need to hail them on the VHF, and never had any reason to worry about them.  They ended up passing less than a half mile to port of us–we never saw or heard them.  During all of this, the radar was most unhelpful.  When the ship was a mile away I could see her as a small blob on the radar (largely because I knew where to look from the AIS, and as she passed us at a half mile, the radar showed her as an amorphous blob extending for over 125 degrees worth of our horizon–as if an entire island was headed our way.

I took two screenshots from the AIS while it was happening, to show off here.  The first one shows the container ship passing us, the second one shows how we could see all sorts of other traffic headed out of LA, through which we passed uneventfully later that night.


Feb 20 2010

Where’s the happiness?

Tag: introspection,routemattholmes @ 1:48 pm

When picturing our departure from the bay area, I always imagined a rapid sense of relief at the work being over, followed immediately by simple happiness and enjoyment of the journey.

It has not been that way.  I have been reluctant to admit this to everyone, because my deep fear has been that I made a colossal mistake, that I won’t end up liking this way of life, and I could barely entertain the consequences of that realization in my own brain, let alone tell the world that I have spent the past few years and all my money pursuing an activity that I don’t like . . .

However, the past few days I have felt my emotions coming around, and I have spent some time thinking about why, exactly, I haven’t seemed to be enjoying myself.  Before leaving the bay, I was spending every waking hour working on the boat getting it ready, and simultaneously spending tons of our savings.  This grew increasingly unpleasant, and I looked towards our departure for a change.  I assumed that upon leaving, all would be well.  But in retrospect it is clear that we experienced no break or relaxation once we left the bay.  It was difficult to sleep well while sailing down the coast, difficult to trust that the motor wouldn’t break, difficult to sleep again after breaking the windlass, difficult to unwind after discovering crucial bits of the rigging that needed tightening, difficult to relax while spending $35 a day in a santa barbara slip, and difficult to sleep again while anchored next to sharp rocks (see next post).

Also, anxiety about the proper functioning of the boat started out high, and is only now just barely starting to ease.  There are still a dozen jobs on the boat that seem to fall under the category of “immediate attention required”–but I don’t have enough attention to go around . . .  More importantly, Karen and I still have a ridiculous amount to learn, all to be acquired through direct experience (i.e. trial and error), and all of which is important for us to know right now.

With a clearer perspective, I can see that these sources of anxiety were normal, and to be expected, and I can cut myself a break for not finding immediate joy in the start of the trip.  Time is resolving these sources of stress, and in the past few days I have felt a definite lightening of the load.  As we start to trust the boat and trust ourselves, my anxieties decrease.  Each night that we spend on the boat while safely anchored increases my ability to sleep soundly.  And there is less and less that requires immediate attention, so the moments of relaxation are increasing.  Admittedly, I have been somewhat out of practice–of relaxing, that is.  Now I am having moments where I feel good, and happy, and excited about what is coming, free of undue worry.  It took longer than expected to feel this way; I cannot tell you what a relief it is to finally be truly enjoying myself and this wild adventure we’re on!


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