1420Ah of Lithium + 2100 Watts of Solar

 

Ad Astra’s DIY Lithium Report

Its Alive!

We are running two fridges, a portable freezer, 5 Macs, a 12 volt water-maker and the washing machine.

  • At the same time.
  • On Solar and Lithium, anchored out.
  • The inverter is now on 24×7, no moving parts, and no diesel is burned.

As far as I know, Ad Astra has the largest, greenest electrical power system for a catamaran in her class.

Max and Kyle wiring up the full 4s12p system

Longer discussion of the systems for Ad Astra

After a considerable investment of time and money we now have what I think is the perfect electrical power setup for Ad Astra. We do not need to burn diesel, we do not have the sound and maintenance requirements of wind turbines, with no moving parts it is a solid state world-traveling power plant that happens to be our house, which also happens to be a sailing catamaran.

Factory Installed Systems

Back in 2012, the factory options I chose to power Ad Astra was (2) Yanmar 55HP Diesel engines each with an 80 Amp Hitachi alternator as well as a 5kW Onan Genset. 1100 Amp-hours of Lifeline AGMs for the house bank, but no solar, wind, or hydro generation.

A side discussion of Air Conditioning:

There was an option for air conditioning for about $25-35k (which requires the 11kW Genset), and my dealer talked me out of it. Sometimes in the hot & humid Caribbean summers or at dusk when the mosquitoes attack from their mangroves, I wish we had AC. But even counting those hot days and buggy nights, I think there has been at most 20 days that I really wished I had AC. So at $1k per day for those days, at $500 a night it would be far cheaper to check into the Four Seasons! Instead, we take a swim, find some shade & breeze. Or go into town and find some ice cream. It really is not that hard to stay cool.

Right now I am typing away in the shade with the trade-winds blowing and it could not be more comfortable. In fact, I am getting a bit chilly, might have to break out the rare sweatshirt tonight.

Water-maker

What? Why do you need a water-maker? Sure, 99% of boats stay in a marina and they can just turn on the dock hose. But being full-time cruisers, we are anchored out 350 days of the year. With five people, cooking, showers, laundry, diving, cleaning, we end up using an embarrassing amount of water. About 50 gallons a day, or 10 gallons per person per day. Most of this is actually for the washing machine.

When we started to cruise full-time in 2016 I knew it would get old really fast running the Genset 2-3 hours a day. In fact, the vast majority of cruisers run their engines or generator at least an 1-2 a day. Only the small, single-handed monohulls with truly modest and salty systems get by with 50-200 watts of solar to stay topped up. Most boats with water-makers have the engine powered types that produce an amazing 60-100 gallons of water per hour, but you have to run the engines. We wanted to be able to make water on 12 volts, and ideally from solar.

The best choice for us was the Spectra Newport 400 that produces about 16 gallons per hour while drawing about 9 amps per hour. So we need to run the Spectra for about 4 hours a day. This was our first addition to Ad Astra for full-time cruising.

(We still have yet to rig up our canvas systems for effective water catching – a 2018 project for sure.)

Watts vs Amp-hours?

For those of you who live a 110v or 220v land-life, you never think in terms of Amp-hours. Well, okay, yes you drone enthusiasts do think of Ah. Perhaps you select your appliances and pay attention to the wattage label at purchase time, but for the most part, people on land simply buy an appliance and stick it into the wall. At the end of the month you get a bill for all of your energy consumption – there is no itemized bill for this light, that computer, the TV, the blender, or the decorative fountain. At best, people can see the AC loads in the summer months, but they do not know what is really driving the power bill. For cruising folks living full-time on their boats they actually do know the energy consumption rates of everything on their boat. And while enjoying a sundowner, cruisers eagerly discuss and learn about each other’s Amp-hour consumption of the other boat’s systems.

I would guess that the full-time RV & van “land cruisers” are also extremely knowledgable of their energy systems.

On land, it is possible to buy a “green-switch” or “watt-killer” which is inserted between your appliance and the wall and it will report on the exact wattage consumption of a particular device. It is a great exercise to build a spreadsheet of everything in your house and understand your consumption of watts.

So, why do folks who float talk in terms of Amp-hours and those on land get bills for kilo-watt-hours?

It is part tradition, but it is mostly a math convenience, remember from your physics class that:

P = V*I

Power = Volts x Current

Power (watts) = Volts (v) x Current (amps)

Most boats are based on a 12v system, just like a car and an RV. Bigger boats might go for 24volts or even 48 volts, but the majority are 12v.

So if Volts, v is always going to be 12v, it is simpler to not talk about watt-hours, but instead just Amp-hours.

Let me give some examples to make it more clear.

House Bank

Lets start with the house bank. Every boat, truck, RV, van, car (and plane) has a house bank. For cars it is usually just that lead-acid starter battery. But for the other vehicles there is usually a separate house bank that is electrically separated from the starter battery which is used only to electrically crank the engine until the engine fires, and the alternator then runs and re-chargers the starter battery. The house bank is separated mostly for safety as all of the lights, appliances, and such are basically luxuries apart from the existential need to fire up your engine. (Yes, most systems have a cross-over switch so that you could start your engine from the house bank in an emergency.)

The old Lifeline AGMs we replaced

Our house bank originally was a (12v) 1100 Amp-hour AGM sealed lead battery array of 5 separate monster batteries each over 100 pounds. So, using P=VI the power of this system of batters was 13200 watts or 13.2kW. Sounds like a lot huh? It should be, at 800 pounds and $3000 this was a serious amount of lead. Now these are the best lead-acid batteries you can buy. Sealed, maintenance-free and should be good for about 500 cycles. What is a cycle? Every time you drain your battery and charge it back up again is a cycle. So with that big lead-acid bank we can use 13.2 kW of power then charge it right? Nope. With lead-acid batteries you cannot drain them below 50% often without causing permanent “sulfation” damage (basically the lead layers on the inside fall apart into crumbs). Also lead-acid batteries are extremely difficult to charge to 100% as it has an asymptotic charging curve where it takes more and more energy to charge closer and closer to 100%. Most lead-acid battery banks are “charged” when they are at 85-90% and people call it good enough. Over time, the battery experiences wear and tear on that lead and will lose its storage capacity. For new batteries that are charged to 90% and down to 50% you have 40% of your total power available, but a more practical rule of thumb is 30%. So, for our big old AGM lead bank we had 30% of 13,200 watts or about 4000 watts of power that we could effectively use before needing to charge them again. Speaking in boater terms of amps that is about 333 amp-hours of effective storage.

How much energy do we need each day?
With lights, computers, water pumps, 2 fridges & 1 freezer we run at about 27 amps per hour (or 27 x 12 = 325 watts per hour. 27 amps x 12 hours = 333 amp-hours. So 333 amp-hours divided by 27 is about 12 hours between charge cycles. Before our solar installation we did run our generator in the morning and in the evening like most cruisers. To get back from 50% charge to 90% charge we need to put back those same 333 amp-hours – each 12 hours of everything being on.  On a more normal day we use between 300-400 amp-hours. and so with the twin Yanmar diesels with the 80 amp Hitachi alternators we could charge our battery bank in two hours: 2 x80 = 160 amps x 2 hours = 320 amp-hours.  Or more fuel efficient, we would actually use our Onan 5kW Genset, but that math is more clear with the Hitachi for this purpose.

Do you see yet? If you work exclusively in 12v, then all of your numbers are smaller by a factor of 12.

Two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening. Two diesel engines running at about 2000 RPMs and using about 0.75 gallons per hour each, so 0.75 gallons x 2 engines x 2 hours x $4 per gallon for diesel = $12 to “fill-up” our batteries for each cycle, or $24 a day! This works out to be about $8800 a year for just the fuel. But that is not all, at 4 hours a day the generator will see about 1500 hours of use. With oil changes at least every 150 hours (10x), new impellers at 500 hours (3x), new v-belts every 500-1000 hours(3x), and other maintenance you are easily looking at another $1k of maintenance. So, in round numbers: $10k a year / $800 a month for electricity.

Many of my cruising friends would be (vigorously) pointing out that we are energy hogs. Folks have cruised for decades with 5% of that electrical consumption, and even less. That is true. I will own that. But for our family of five, we come from a background of online game development. We write software during the day, and play games in the evening and watch movies at night. We live in a four bedroom, four bath house, that happens to sail. This is what we are about and want. We basically want to plug are macs and anything else into the “wall” like on land – whenever we want – AND we do not want a bill – nor do we want to run a diesel engine for hours of the day. Right? Why not have your cake and eat it too?

Why Solar wins

Okay so first thing is we need to generate power from non-diesel sources, wind or solar?

Globally according to wikipedia, we have 303 GW of solar production and 487 GW of wind production and wind is kicking ass in Northern Europe to Texas. And sailboats are the classic wind machine, so wind wins right? Well, let’s check it out:

Wind Power = k Cp ½ ρ, A V3

Where k, Cp, ½ and ρ are constants

So the only two variables you can play with are A and V

A is the circular area of your windmill and V is the velocity of the wind.

Bigger windmills make more power of course, but there is a simple space constraint on how big of a windmill you can install on your bout. Typically it is limited to about 1.5m or 4 feet in diameter. You must mount them where they will get a clear stream of wind and very much away from any fleshy bits of the crew. So A is practically fixed, then you are left playing with V the velocity of the wind. The neat thing about V is the power is proportional to the cube of the velocity!

Sailors like big V/wind right? Well. We actually like it between 15 and 25 knots. More than that and it can be distracting, we can certainly sail in 25-35 knots safely and even comfortably, but we must be extra vigilant. 10-15 is still fine, and below 10 and we have to work hard to make our miles. But cruising boats are at anchor 99% of the time. And when at anchor we like to be in sheltered bays and the lee of islands. First, so that we do not drag anchor and lose our boat, and second, so as to be calm and comfortable. So 99% of the time we are looking to minimize the wind on our boat other than a nice breeze.

In discussions with fellow cruisers that have installed wind turbines on their boats they report that the typically produces about 4 amps, and see peaks in the 10-15 amp range. It is a bit misleading when you see a wind turbine that promises 400 watts / 12 volts = 33 amps and you get just 4-6 amps right? What is happening here is that wind turbines only produce their 400 watts when the wind is blowing at the very top of their operational range.

The nice thing about wind, is that it may blow day or night, so in an ideal tropical anchorage perhaps we see 5 amps an hour, 24 hours a day, or 120 Amps-hours per turbine, so we would need 3 turbines and ideal conditions. I have seen a lot of catamarans with 2 turbines, but I have never seen 3 turbines. And most of the time it is not ideal and the turbines are just not making power. And on the rare day that the wind picks up to 35+ kts you are trying to stop the turbines so that they do not damage themselves.

And they are always making noise. Usually enough to be annoying to neighboring boats, let alone the crew!

We are tropical sailors. We are following the trade-winds around the world as slow as possible. While there is often rain in the tropics, we get lots and lots of sunshine. Being a catamaran, we have a lot of real-estate, so there is plenty of space to mount solar panels. We have installed (8) 265 watt solar panels for 2100 watts of solar power, or 175 Amps of theoretical power. On a typical tropical day we see actually 120 amps across the hours of 10 am to 2 pm, and significant power staring at 7 am and ending at 5pm, all-in our typical solar day produces over 700 amps-hours! That is almost 2x our more normal daily consumption! Compare that to two turbines in ideal conditions that might produce 240 amps-hours.

Solar kicks the snot out of wind.

For small boats.

For industrial scale power production, wind and solar are very complimentary.

Energy Storage >> Energy Generation

Okay that is our power generation, but getting back to the start of this essay – Lithium! We need to store this energy from solar that we are producing so that we can use it across the night and into dark and rainy days.

Storage is more important than generation, for what good is your generation if you cannot use that power when you need it?

Why is Lithium – specifically LiFePO4 better than the fancy Lifeline AGMs?

Two killer reasons, and then two more to take it over the top.

First, Lithium is very happy to be drained from 100% to 10%

Second, Lithium charges linearly – meaning that you simply have to put back the energy you used, not a crazy asymptotic curve like with lead. This means incredibly faster charging times to get to 100%, and a much large range of use of the house battery bank.

So we had 1100 Ah of lead that is 30% usable, to size it in lithium which conservatively can be drained to 80% then we need to solve the equation of 30% * 1100 = 80% of x? = 412 amp-hours of Lithium to get the equivalent of 1100 Ah of lead.

The third is that Lithium is about 25-33% the mass of lead system, and being a catamaran we like to be light! Saving 500 pounds of weight translates into materially faster passage making and more beer-capacity.

Lithium is cheapest!

The full 48 cell, 4s12p on a dry-run setup on the cockpit table, complete with the BMS

The fourth great reason for Lithium is that you get at least 2000 cycles and possibly even 5000 cycles, or somewhere between 4-10x longer lifetimes! This makes Lithium actually CHEAPER than lead-acid house banks.

So if all I needed was 412 Ah of Lithium, why did I go for 1400 Ah?? Well, when building a power plant I think it is wise to plan for future consumption expanding. Second, even with the energy hogs that we are, I have to start and stop the inverter to produce the 110 v power for the macs & washing machines and over-all spend a decent amount of the day concerned about power. Truthfully, I still did not know what was our ideal upper bound of energy consumption. I wanted to have the land lifestyle where we could plug our crap in and forget about it!

So I wanted more than 400 Ah of Lithium. I thought about 600, 700, 900 or 1000? Eventually I decided on 1400, because that was where the price point breaks down for a full pallet of 48 “cells”. It is about a 10% savings.

Cells

I am getting ahead of myself, why I am now talking about cells and not batteries? There are two ways to go with Lithium: turn-key, packaged, marinized batteries from ReLion or MasterVolt or building your Lithium bank from raw cells.

The pre-packaged solutions are nice – they have a form factor that looks just like your current deep cycle batteries, they have the same single positive and negative terminal, and they have solid warranties. But most important, there is circuitry inside of these pre-packaged batteries that perform three safety functions – protection from over-charging, protection from under-charging and cell balancing. So that is a pretty awesome set of positives – but for that these companies charge about 2.5 to 3.5x the cost of the underlying cells. So instead of $6k for cells it could be 15-20k for a turn-key solution. That is a lot of money.

So I went online and did a lot of research, and asked a bunch of questions, and to be honest, I really did not get very many good answers. Most of the lithium knowledgable folks online are trying to make some money on the side by selling consultation. I get it. But I have multiple freaking aerospace engineering degrees that took me many years to pay off. I should get a return on it. So, I dug more, I went to the spec sheets, read some white papers, and read between the lines of many posts. Then I talked to the guys at The Electric Car Company. They had the best deals on raw cells.

At the end of the day it just is not that complicated. You want to protect your lithium cells from being overcharged, you want them to be protected from under-charged, and most subtle of all – especially for a many cell system – but really any Lithium setup – you want ALL of your cells to have the same voltage at all times. Three things:

  • Over-charging
  • Under-charging
  • Balanced Voltages

The under and over charging is probably common sense – you will burn out or burn up your battery. But the balancing needs some extra discussion:

To understand balancing you need to understand the over and under-charging scenarios. Basically an outside circuit measures the “open-circuit” voltage of your house bank and if it is over say 13.8v (3.45v per cell) it stops charging and if is under say 11.8 volts it cuts off the delivery of power. But the devil is in the details, the way that voltage is measured is by what the positive and negative terminals at the house bank terminals are showing. There is NO internal measurement of the individual cells.

The result is that over time, or by poor wiring (see below), you have some cells that have wandered about in voltage space with lower or higher voltages than their peers. But it is just the average (roughly hand waving) voltage, with some cells below and some above this aggregate voltage you are going to end up over-charging some cells and under-charging others and causing permanent damage.

So you need all of your cells to be the same voltage. How do you do that? You need to do two things:

  1. “top-balance” you wire up all of your cells into a single massive parallel 48 cell x 3.45v bank – and then you simply let them sit. For weeks. The longer the better. Basically the over-charged ones will charge the under-charged ones until they are all equal. Max is top-balancing the cells
  2. Then you use a battery-management-system (BMS) to keep them equal. What is a BMS? It is basically a mini voltage meter + battery charger, and you need one for EACH cell. Then you wire these guys all up the same as you are wiring up your cells into series and parallel (see below) and what they do is keep checking the voltage on their neighboring cells and keep micro-charging back and forth to keep them at the voltages

    BMS

If you are really diligent then every 18-30 months you will tear your cells apart and go back and “top-balance” them again for a week or two. This implies you have access to a secondary source of house power (a marina). And you are willing to do the labor of unwiring, wiring, unwiring and wiring your cell network. For Ad Astra’s 48 cells this would be a lot of work, probably about 40 hours for two people every two years. I am going to hope that our digital multimeter shows us nice even charges two years from now (see below).

Okay, so again MasterVolt and ReLion have these three features: over, under and BMS packaged in, but they charge 3x for that.

Over-charging:

We have a Xantrex 3000 Inverter/Charger and it has software programmable charging profiles, so we can simply set a high voltage cut-off for it to stop charging the batteries.

Our 8 solar panels are arranged into 3 separate arrays of 36v 36v and 24v going into 3 different Outback MMPT controllers (fancy DC to DC converters that can take any range of input DC and give you a clean amount of DC at whatever voltage you want – like 14.4) and again software shuts off if too high.

Our Hitachi 80 amp alternators have no such fancy software controls. So this is a potential problem right?

So, we do not need the pre-packaged solutions for over-charging except perhaps for when the engines are running. But we do not run the engines for making electricity, this is only a potential problem if we have multiple days on end of motoring. But even then, add the auto-pilot and the navigation to our already energy hogging lifestyle and we are at 50+ amps per hour. That is a good fraction of those alternators, and so we will charge up the bank, and worst case – do lots of laundry and leave the fridge doors open! Ha! Or realistically – shut off an engine. (There are some sort of shunts I can buy to safely divert this power coming out of the alternators.) But I convinced myself that I do not have an over-charging problem.

So under-charging?

Well yes, so I went with the recommendation from The Electric Car Company to buy a voltage monitoring relay. The problem with this relay is that it uses a ton of power to keep its magnets engaged, and when low on power it fails to power the magnets and that is what cuts the circuit. This thing alone turned out to be our biggest energy guzzler! So I ripped this power leach out of system after the first build (see below). Instead, for under-charging we simply have gone back to what the boat came with – the main’s low battery alarm. But in practice with sunny days, our house bank is full and at 13.0 volts pretty much 24×7! (This is a really big deal. We can go through 2 days of little sun.)

BMS

Yes, these area great and necessary, they are not something you can skip or leverage from your existing chargers and controllers. They are about $22 each and you need one for each cell. Wiring them up takes a small amount of care, but they have friendly green and red lights telling you that they are doing their job. Since I built a nominal 12v system, I wired 4 BMSs in series, one for each of the cells that made up the series section of the battery (see below Series & Parallel).

http://www.electriccarpartscompany.com/3V-1S-Lithium-Lighted-Battery-Balancers

Series and Parallel

Max is the perfect size to do the final wiring inside the battery bay

Okay, when you go online and look at people discussing their scratch-built lithium systems you will quickly come across people saying something like: “I have 600 Ah in 4s6p” or “400Ah in 4s2p” how do you decode these symbols that look like electron orbits around an atom?

4s means “4 cells in series”

6p means “6 (of the series groupings) in parallel”

What does that mean?

Okay, LiFePO4 cells are fully charged at 3.65 volts, but we need 12-13 volts to supply our system, so what you do is simply connect 4 of them in a string with positive to negative to create a 3.65 * 4 = 14.6 volts when fully charged, and more typically they hang out around 3.25 volts each or about 13.0 volts when 4 of them are in a string. Perfect.

That gets our voltage, but what about the storage capacity of the bank? That is measured in Ah (at the nominal 12v) and in the first example above “600 Ah in 4s6p” take the 600 Ah and divide it by the number of of parallel groupings of the 4 in series. In this case, take 600 Ah / 6p = 100 Ah. Now it is clear what someone has built: they bought 24 individual 100Ah LiFePO4 cells (approx $125 each) and made 6 different series strings of 4 cells to create a total capacity of 600Ah at the nominal 12v. For a 24v system, these same 24 cells would be wired 8s3p and would yield 300 Ah of storage, but now at double the voltage.

In the second example, 400 Ah in 4s2p, take the 400 Ah / 2p = 200 Ah cells, and there are 8 total of these cells, 2 different strings of 4 in series and then wired in parallel.

LiFePO4 cells are available in a variety of Ah sizes (and the price is relatively linear with size at about $1 per Ah). Typical sizes are 40, 75, 100, 180, 200 and even 400 Ah!

Ad Astra’s House Bank: 1418Ah in 4s12p

For Ad Astra, I chose Calb nominally 100 Ah cells, but happily the 100 Ah is the guaranteed minimum capacity and I found that my cells delivered averaged at 118 Ah each – a very healthy bonus 18% of capacity! So we have wired up 12 different strings of 4 cells in parallel to create 12 x 118 = 1418 Ah of capacity.

Maybe you are asking why did I sign myself up for wiring 48 cells together? Why not buy the 400Ah cells and make it a 4s3p system for the same 1200 Ah nominal size? One reason is price. Previously I said that pricing is linear with capacity, the truth is that it is mildly exponential with increased capacity and so 400Ah cells cost about 35% more than 4 100 Ah cells.

 

48 of these cells make up our house bank

100 Ah Calb cell sourced from The Electric Car Company

Modularity

That 35% savings is substantial, the 48 100 Ahm cells have a cost of about $6,000 which would have added $2100 more to have the convenience of a 4s3p wiring.

However, there is another reason I went for the 100 Ah over the 400 Ah cells – modularity. That is, suppose one of these 400Ah cells goes bad? Then, not only do I lose a cell, but I have to take out the 3 other cells in that same series string, and instead of having 1200Ah, I would end up with 800 Ah in a 4s2p configuration. With $2k of idle cells.

Now with the 100 Ah configured in 4s12p, and I lose a cell, then I simply re-wire to a 1100 Ah 4s11p configuration. Compare losing just 8% vs 33% of capacity and being out just $450 instead of $2k of cells being idle.

Shipping your Cells

Special mention must be made to the shipping of your LiFePO4 cells. Being lithium based battery tech – very few airlines will ship the cells. That leaves, boats, rail and trucks.

If you order enough cells – such as a full pallet of 48 like I did, then the cells will actually be drop-shipped directly from the factory in China to Long Beach, California. From there, my cells were shipped by truck to Miami, Florida, and from there by ship to Saint Martin, West Indies. The shipping costs were quite substantial at about $1500, and I would have saved probably about $1000 if I had chosen to pick them up in Miami, Florida. Adding on to the advantages of a highly modularity design, imagine if you get a bad cell dead on arrival after a very expensive shipping route? It simply will not make financial sense to ship that bad cell back to China, and back again. So practically you will likely have to eat a bad cell.

Our dinghy carries everything!

What went Wrong, Loose Ends and Do Differently?

As I discussed about the powered relay for maintaining a low-voltage cutoff turned out to be a huge power drain, and so I simply took it out of the circuit. Do I worry about ever dropping too low and damaging the Lithiums? No. We recently went to Mexico City for 5 days, and left the boat with house lights on in two cabins and of course the bilge pumps on standby. With no other systems to draw, the boat simply stayed at absolutely maximum charge. We can be extremely greedy and leave the inverter on overnight without fear of draining too far in single day. So, no frankly, we have no under-charging scenario.

The second time I wired up the 4s12p system after taking out the relay above, I was a bit haphazard where I attached the house, inverter/charger, and the three different solar MPPTs positive and ground leads. I was simply being lazy and assumed that since we have 12 parallel connection points, I could pick anyone of them and that the electricity will flow. That is true, the electricity will flow across the network, that is true, but it will flow unevenly if you attach willy nilly at different junctions in the parallel net.

Experimentally, I was able to confirm the effect and you can see from these charts that just two of the 4s batteries were doing 40% of the over-all work! And 5 of them were doing 75% of the work. Practically, we did not have a 1400 Ah battery network, instead we had a 200Ah main bank, with another 300 Ah partially available.

This is what happens when you do not fully span the parallel network

Span the Full Network

Re-wiring the positive and negative to the extreme opposite ends of the network were an instant night and day effect. Working with limited supplies, I was still forced to wire the generator to stretch across just 11 of the 12 batteries, and the smallest of our solar chargers spans just 6 of the 12 batteries. So, 1500 watts of solar charges the whole network, 2000 watts on half. And that lonely 12th battery loses out on the rare occasion that we use the generator. The alternators span the full network now – as it is the same as the house supply leads. So, there are two cables I should create a some point.

This is really a boneheaded mistake.  But I list it here for transparency and to highlight that it will absolutely dominate your bank’s performance.

Terminal Connectors

Making the terminal connectors – crimp hard!

My only real concern for my DIY Lithium setup is that for the 48 cells, I needed to manually crimp on about 100 heavy duty terminals. Mechanically, there is a definite possibility that my terminals will come apart due to vibration. To address this weakness, there are a number of companies that create excellent looking, flexible, braided terminal connections to your exact size specifications. When I ordered my cells, I did not quite know which way I was going to stack them, and so I did not know the exact length of the terminals I would need. Now that everything is all wired and in place, I do know the length. But now my frugality takes place as each of these larger terminals is about $0.80 down here in the islands, and the large gauge copper wire is super expensive, so I probably already have about $200 invested. I do not know what these custom terminals cost, but even at $2 a piece plus shipping that is $300, and I would not be surprised if they were actually $7 each. So what happens if one of these terminals fail?  Potentially, I have a short-circuit if it mechanically wanders and makes contact with the wrong terminal.  This is my current largest concern.  Otherwise I now have 92% capacity with 4s11p. Simply re-crimp, or use one of our standby cables to bridge the broken connector.

Potential source for braided terminal connectors:

http://www.watteredge.com/industrial-flexible-connectors/braided-flexible-assemblies.html

Speaking of vibration, the whole stack of 48 cells fit very nicely in the existing battery bay, but I did add in some thin boards to act like wedges around the perimeter to make sure it was very snug. This is a critical step as you want your cells to be a single solid state brick.

Fast passage to Grand Cayman

Sunday morning December 10th, 2017 we left Aruba for Grand Cayman, and arrived Sunday December 17th, with a weather stop in Jamaica, all in about 830 nm in 6 days.

Friday the 15th, in the afternoon as we sailed the northern coast of Jamaica, Kaiwen and I had a great long rolling conversation about Cuba, Yucatan, Panama, South America and on to the Pacific. Bright blue skies, puffy white clouds over the mountains of Jamaica, skipping along at 7.5+ kts.  Really could not have been a better sail.  We were sitting up on the flybridge lounging cushions with the shade from the great green genekkar and all of our sailing guides spread about us.

Saturday we made Ad Astra’s speed record by far – 13! kts on a broad reach under about 25 kts of wind and just the great genekkar. Kyle and Max roused me from my off-watch and we doused the genekkar, and raised the main to the 2nd reef and the genoa to the 1st reef and were still making 7.7 kts  after the reefing.

Sunday morning at 04:30, Pink Floyd playing on my laptop, sipping iced coffee from the Blue Mountain of Jamaica, flying along with 2nd reef in the main, full genoa doing 7+ kts in 12,000+ft of water, 2m+ following waves and I can clearly see hundreds of individual lights on Grand Cayman 5 nm to starboard. Everyone has been taking their watches without complaint, and we have had a very fast sail with just one period of motoring out of the lee of the great mountains of Jamaica.

A great sail by the whole family.  Kaiwen and Kyle both cooked multiple hot meals underway and everyone was in bright spirits after the first couple of days of motion-induced bleh.

Cayman Sail Plan

It is no longer clear that we will have time to visit Ile a Vache. Perhaps we will wave at it ala Cap’n Sparrow.

I thought I would share a bit about of passage planning before we take off Sunday morning.
We ended up being delayed here in Aruba waiting for a replacement Xantrax inverter/charger. Tragically, in a rush, when one crew member went to fetch something for another crew member before we left for shore leave we left a hatch open. Then it rained, and the rain found its way through a bunk and fried the battery voltage sensing control board. Obviously, not a warranty item. A few boat units of *sigh*. Anyways, we got the new inverter/charger and after investigating our options on getting the old one repaired, we decided that Auckland, New Zealand makes much more sense than expensive shipping of the broken 60 pound unit. New Zealand a year from now!

After looking at several different routes, I am favoring using the red line as a port-side limit and try to gain more northing and favor Haiti over Jamaica.

But first, we are off to the Caymans for the winter holidays with friends. We are all looking forward to this sail – it will be double our longest sail as a family together at 800 nautical miles.

Our watching keeping plan

We started our preparations today and discovered that the Raymarine Seatalk network was malfunctioning. Grr, this is a big deal, due to the critically important auto-pilot. Our NMEA 2000 network provides redundant navigation, but gotta have an autopilot. Taking the network apart (many hours later) I narrowed it down to being some corrosion on the backbone cable. I cleaned it a bit, and now everything is working again – most of the time. Watching some YouTube videos I am inspired to try some vinegar and salt and then some baking soda and water to clean it up even more tomorrow. As a back up, I can splice on a new male connector.

Max, Kyle and Kaiwen spent their day provisioning, and then Kaiwen started preparing for the voyage with making homemade pasta sauce that will keep and feed us well! She has several other dishes she will prepare tomorrow. Our fridges are freezers and food lockers are stuffed. All the engine oils have been changed recently – but not too recently! Mainsail has been patched up back in Curacao. No P1s on the boat list.

The exact route and timing I have been working on for a while. Besides the timing with the parts and the network troubleshooting, I really want this long passage to be pleasant for the crew, and so I have been waiting for some fresh winds and their larger swells to pass by. By leaving Sunday morning we will have some 2m swells on the beam for just the first day, and then after that the swells will be much more mild. So mild that by Tuesday we are likely to be caught out in a windless state still ~ 150 nm south of Jamaica / Haiti.

Light winds in the middle

So we will slog through Tue and Wed, but by Thursday we should have some very nice winds aft of the beam and modest waves headed in our same direction.

Woot! Some downwind sailing!

Ahoy mates!

 
Ad Astra is wrapping up her stay in fabulous Bonaire. We are heading to the Cayman for the winter holidays.
 
Along the way to the Caymans, we will stop in Curacao, Aruba – and most exciting – Île-à-Vache!
 
That is right – Ad Astra is going to stop in at Captain Morgan’s old base:
We are doing private sailing and diving charters. We are doing this as a low-key way to share our adventures with friends and cool people recommended by our friends.
 
We have 1 or 2 cabins (sleeps 2 adults) available each with their own private shower and toilet. We serve 3 meals a day, and you know we have a good set of libations.
 

Diving:

Lots of gear: own air compressor, 9 tanks, 8 BCDs, 6 regulator sets, U/W lights – and more
 
If you are a tech diver or advanced diver, you would understand how valuable it is to have your own custom liveaboard experience: Dive your own plans. Rebreather, sidemount, solo, whatever your speciality is, once you have dived a checkout dive with me, we will tailor the experience to *you*, not make you conform with the boat.
 
For new divers or folks curious about diving, I have taken the most rigorous training to be a SCUBA instructor under Chris Verstappen of TDS
 

Upcoming Ad Astra Adventures:

 
November 20th: Aruba (5-7d) – stay with us on sunny Aruba – diving, day sailing and relaxing.
 
Dec 1st: Aruba (10-14d) to Île-à-Vache to Cayman Islands – cross the Caribbean Sea on an epic 3-day sail to Captain Morgan’s base. We will explore this gem of an island together and after 2-4 days we will set off downwind for the Cayman Islands. But check this out – first we will stop in at Cayman Brac and Little Cayman for reportedly the very best wall diving in the Caribbean with claimed 200+ ft visibility.
 
BOOKED – Grand Cayman for the Christmas & New Year’s Holidays
 
Jan 10: Grand Cayman (7-10d) diving Grand Cayman
 
Feb 1: Cozumel (7-10d) diving Cozumel
 
Feb 15: Cenotes (7-21d) join me in training to dive the Cenotes of the Yucatan
 
Mar 15: Belize
 
April 15: Roatan
 
Warm cheers!
-Erik

Technical Dive training with Chris Verstappen of Techinical Dive Services, Bonaire

Chris Verstappen of Technical Dive Services, Bonaire

46m / 150 feet below the surface on the sandy bottom just outside the La Machaca Reef, Bonaire.

Opening my waterproof wet-notes wallet, I see two math problems that my Jedi-level Technical Diving Instructor Chris Verstappen has left for me to solve at this depth to see if I can feel some sort Nitrogen Narcosis effects.

  1. What is the Best Mix for 150 feet?
  2. What is the Maximum Operating Depth (MOD) for EAN37 (Nitrox37)

These are easy problems, over the last few weeks with Kyle and Max we have solved these problems dozens of times. 150 feet down with a pencil writing on waterproof paper, I start setting up the familiar equation Pg = Fg * P in the easy to arrange “T” format where Pg is on top and Fg and P are below the bar in the T.

Riiip – there goes my mask. Chris just pulled my mask off my face. It was already gloomy dark down here, and now keeping my eyes open as I have been trained, I keep my buoyancy of about 8 inches off the sandy floor while I use my right hand to put my mask back and then use air to clear my mask.

In the middle of clearing my mask my air is killed. I am breathing on the right side (short hose) after having breathed down to 2500 psi on the left side (long hose) on the way down. Chris had turned off my valve while clearing my mask so I would experience lower-case emergencies piling up on top of each other.

Breathing is priority #1, so I leave my mask slightly akimbo with some water, and reach back to the right-side first stage valve and casually re-open the tank. Chris has already done this to me (and Kyle) probably two dozen times over the last few weeks. First at 20 feet, then 30, 40, 60, 80 and 100 feet.

I am breathing again, back to the mask.

“Ho-ho-ho!” Chris booms 150 feet below like a crazy Dutch Santa Clause delivering the watery version of lumps of coal to would-be divers that want to push their limits.

The mask is in place, what is the Pressure at 150 feet again? Hmm 150/33 + 1. What is 150/33?

Snap!

Chris just unsnapped my right tank’s bottom clip.

100/33 is 3, I know that. But that extra 50 feet?

Snap!

Damn, he just unsnapped the top snap. Now my right-side tank is floating free and drifting away tethered to me by the thin black “necklace” bungee on the right hand regulator.

The math is going to have to wait a bit.

To get the top snap of the tank in place, I need to reach over with my left hand deep past my right armpit and find the large stainless steel ring that I will snap the top of the right cylinder to. This is plenty hard on land when using a bench to support the tank. The first time I tried it, was a solid 10 minutes of pure frustration where I started re-considering my decision to pursue side-mount. Oh, and I have to maintain that flat horizontal working position 8 inches above the floor, keep breathing smoothly, keep checking my remaining pressure, keep an eye on my computer for both keeping the depth steady and how much “bottom” time do we have left. While I clip that tank back on and get back to getting the last bit of water out of my mask, so that I can get back to solving these math problems.

Snap. The top is in place. Now, I have the easier challenge of getting the bottom snap connected to one of the two D-rings on my belt. Checking the lift on the tank I choose the middle D ring. While working to connect it, I get back to the math problem.

Hmm… if 100/33 is 3, then 50 must be half! Yes! I am a genius. Now what is half of 3? 0.5. Now that is a half. Half of 3 is 1.5. Aha! The pressure is 3 + 1.5 = 4.5 Right??* Then all I need to do is solve 1.6 (the maximum partial pressure of O2 you handle before being exposed to possible uncontrollable convulsions and start gulping down water and drowning yourself). 1.6 / 4.5 hmm…. let’s just call it 1.5 / 4.5 = 0.333 – boom! Nitrox 33 is the best mix! Woot! I write this down while Chris has moved on to demanding to know something about this dive, he is pointing to his computer and flashing the “Deco” pinky finger.

Yeah. Let me get back to you Chris. What is the MOD of Nitrox37.

I am task fixated at this point and I do not realize it.

I really want to solve the second math problem. I am good at things. I am going to be good at decompression diving…

MOD of EAN37 = PO2 = 1.6 = 0.37 * P?

P = 0.37 * 1.6 = uh… I want to multiply 1.6 by 0.37…

Chris is again asking me with his pinky finger how much time do we have left at 150. He is gesturing forcefully at his computer and then my computer.

I check my computer, run-time just went from 14 minutes to 15 minutes. We are still good. 14 or 15 minutes is not a milestone for me. But I cannot bring myself to understand he wants to know 20 – 15 = 5 minutes left to go. I have a Math Problem to Solve!

I go back to 1.6 * 0.37 and I think that 0.37 is pretty close to 0.4, and 0.4 * 4 = 1.6 = woot! I am a genius again. P is 4! Going metric, the depth is 4-1 = 3 * 10 = 30m or 100 feet! That is the MOD of EAN37. I write this down with confidence.

Chris will not stop. I do not understand what he wants from me and my computer.

I know I am screwing up. I do not want to screw up. This is my final dive (hopefully) to earn my Decompression cert. I feel my frustration with myself grow. I have always been an over-achiever and take almost everything too seriously.

For this dive I had the role of the dive leader, which included stating explicitly what are the goals of the dive. Included, was for me to recognize when I was getting frustrated with myself and find a way to relax and calm down.

I recognized that I was frustrated and no longer thinking well.

I hand signaled to Chris to stop.

I was experiencing narcosis, frustrated and I needed to calm down.

* * *

We have been doing pretty much only diving and diving training since we arrived in Bonaire a month ago. We started with Rescue and Wreck diving at one of the large PADI shops. The Rescue training was something that I been especially looking forward to as Kyle, Max and I dive on our own from Ad Astra or from our dinghy Exit Strategy, and rarely pay for guided dives. If we are going to learn to dive, then well damn it – we are going to learn to be a self-reliant team.

The Rescue course did teach us new skills but it was not as challenging or rigorous as I was expecting. So then we took the Wreck course and learned to map, use lines and do a mild penetration of the Hilma Hooker down at 85 feet. To be honest, I did not feel like I learned anything specific from the Wreck course, but it was a good experience. But between the Rescue and Wreck courses for Kyle and I the bill was $1200. It did not feel like a good value. Our instructor was very cheerful and went as far as he could inside of the PADI system to teach us more, but fundamentally PADI chops up their courses into tiny bite-sized nuggets with small theory and a fixed small number of dives and everyone basically passes in the same amount of time no matter what.

Initially I went to TDS to get our 4 Aluminum 80 tanks visually inspected as is strongly recommended to be done annually. The typical charge for this service is between $40 and 75 per tank. I opened to the door to TDS and was in awe immediately with the incredible array of exotic diving gear he had on display. Also in his shop were two space-suits – I mean – two closed circuit rebreathers. Also a huge chart of training offered by TDI and SDI which I had been reading about on one of the big SCUBA forums.

He smiled and had another woman in the office who was a PADI Instructor that was in the process of crossing over to being an SDI Instructor and they were in some sort of class. He immediately included me and my family and effortlessly synthesized learnings for me and outlined a path of training for my family.

We started with all three of us in the water to do a basic buoyancy and skills review. Really? After taking Open Water, Advanced Open Water, Rescue and Wreck – he wants to check to see if we can clear our masks?

Yes. For Chris, you are never done learning. Your buoyancy and trim can never be good enough.

He took us to the house reef in front of TDS. We swam under a low rope, cleared our masks while hovering, and made ultra slow maneuvers up across and down a mooring block.

Level, barrel rolls, valves being turned off, floating with your head upside down, the final skill check was to hover just 2 inches off the bottom and glide up to a spoon deeply embedded in the sand. Take your regulator out of your mouth and pull the spoon out of the sand with your mouth and gently lift off the bottom with a breath hold and return the spoon to Chris once clear of the bottom.

We all did fairly well (considering our small number of dives) I think from his reactions as he kept pushing us to do more and more. At the end of the one hour dive in 20 feet with Chris it was by far the most intense and useful dive training I had experienced.

Back in his shop, I said I just want us to all learn what we can from him. Whatever he thought made best sense.

* * *

Back to 150 feet below on La Machaca Reef

Stop and Think.

I signaled the universal sign with two flowing hands that I am going to simply breathe for moment. I shut my eyes, enjoyed the breathe. Exhaled and then looked at my dive computer again. Aha I know what he wants! We are at 15 minutes, this dive was planned for 20 minutes. We have 5 minutes left.

I turn to him, crisply indicate “Deco-5” meaning we have 5 minutes left.

I realize for the first time that I am under the influence of Nitrogen narcosis.

I grab the wet notes and write down “N2 – Slow” (no way that I was going to be able to spell Nitrogen Narcosis) and show to Chris.

He smiles and laughs, and affectionately clubs me in the head.

I stuff the wet notes back into my thigh pocket and relax a bit and enjoy the relatively chilly water of 76F / 25C vs the normal surface water temperature of 86F / 30C, looking around in the twilight gloom I was hoping to see an Eagle Ray like I did the day before on my first trip down to 150 feet. No Eagle Ray. There is a discarded mooring and a vague oil-drum that was filled with cement and a cowfish. But overall pretty desolate compared to the reef.

Chris asks me to point to the way back. I helicopter around and point confidently the way back to the wreck of the Hesper a Venezuelan tug that is at the very bottom of the reef at 115 feet (35m). He shakes his head no, and points about 30 to 40 degrees to left of my direction. I stubbornly maintain my belief in my bearing. With Chris you have to have conviction in your answers as he is constantly trolling you to be sure you really know your stuff. After firmly disagreeing with me, he guides me correctly back to the Hesper. We confirm that we are headed to 21m / 70 feet to our first deco stop and more significantly this is where we will switch to our planned deco gas of Nitrox 50.

As the dive lead, I will be the one directing Chris to switch his to his deco gas first. My job is to watch that he uses the correct protocol of showing me the tank he will switch to, holding the dedicated regulator for that gas in his other hand he traces the low-pressure hose back to the chosen deco gas cylinder. I signal okay, and he confirms his depth and does the switch. After watching him for 15 seconds to be sure he is good with the dec gas, I then reciprocate the deco procedure and perform my gas switch.

Next stop? 7M / 20 feet. Chris is using 2 Shearwater dive computers and I am using a Shearwater that I just purchased from him. As we swim up to 20 feet, I show him I am confused on its current gas setting and he shows me that despite its automatic planning of using deco gas if it has been setup for planning purposes you need to manually set that you have switched gases on the computer. Between all 3 Shearwater computers each has a different deco schedule. The procedure in that case is to follow the most conservative computer. With Chris’s two computers – one on each arm showing different schedules – I joke with him that he must have been swimming rotated 90 degrees.

We finish the last deco stop at 3M / 10 feet, clip the side tanks to my butt rail and we head to the oceanside locker room of Captain Ron’s Habitat where TDS is located.

I am feeling good. I know I had some mistakes and I knew I was experiencing narcosis at depth, but I was maintaining my buddy position so much better during the dive, and was not nearly as task saturated on the way back up. I did push it too far the day before and mildly damaged my right ear attempting to equalize too quickly and I aggravated it again on this dive, but I have enough experience to know that it will be fine if I just take it easy on my equalization for the next few weeks.

Later, back at the surface we reviewed my math: There were two errors with my calculation of the Best Mix for 150 feet. First, I should have used a maximum partial pressure of 1.4 and not 1.6. 1.6 is used only for when you are resting at your decompression stops sucking down special mixes with 50%, 70% or even 100% O2 accelerating the off-gassing of Nitrogen from your tissues due to the lower partial-pressure of Nitrogen in these mixes relative to compressed air. My second error was more serious. The equation for finding the Pressure at a given depth is P = D(ft)/33 + 1 or P = D(m)/10 + 1 in the problem above, I failed to add another +1, it should have been P = 3 + 1.5 + 1 = 5.5, and the target PPO2 should have been 1.4, so I should have solved for 1.4 / 5.5 = 0.25 or Nitrox 25 is the best mix. With Nitrox 33 at 150 feet, the PPO2 would have been = PPO2 = MixO2 * P = 0.33 * 5.5 = 1.815 or 1.8. 1.8 >> 1.6 !!

That is a deadly amount of O2 that would have had a good chance to cause those uncontrollable convulsions and drowning especially a diver working and not at rest. What does that mean friends? Do NOT buy a Nitrox labelled tank off of Ebay or a fellow cruiser and then get it filled up at your local gas dealer with the “best Nitrox” he is willing to put in your tank and go “down deeper and longer!” (I have run into two cruisers who were diving without any idea of the math and physics behind mixed gasses, and another two speculating how they could get their hands on Nitrox tanks without having to take a course.) Most people have heard of the bends, and so they think you would get some warning signs before something Really Bad happens. First off all, waiting to feel the onset of the bends while still down in the water is a fantastically fucking poor idea, because as you come up that last 10m to the surface your body will mimic a 2-liter soda bottle on a hot 4th of July picnic after the 10-year old bored kid shook the bottle for 10 minutes and then rapidly twisted off the top to get everyone soaked in corn syrup. But the corn syrup is your blood and the bubbles are all throughout your body. In your joints. In your spine. In your organs. Skin. And your body treats these bubbles as foreign invaders and immediately treats these bubbles as foreign bodies and immediately starts to coagulate your blood, likely setting up your blood vessels to have blockages. And when the blood vessels are the special ones bring blood to your brain – stroke and death are common.

But that is Decompression Sickness (DCS) – the bends. Oxygen Toxicity from breathing > 1.6 PPO2. Again no warning, you just lose control of your jaw and throat and start convulsions and slurp down water. Have a great buddy with you? That is great. Will not help much. You drown underwater at a depth great enough to run into Oxygen Toxicity on low-mix Nitrox (if you can get your hands on high-mix O2, then you have probably taken Advanced Nitrox and know better) then you are below 100 feet and are likely in a Decompression Dive. What does that mean? It means your buddy has to make stops at say 60/70 feet for X1 minutes, 40/50 feet for X2 minutes, 20/30 feet for X3 minutes and at 10 minutes for X4 minutes. How long are these stops? For a very short, mild decompression dive maybe 3-5 minutes, for a serious tech/deep/long/wreck/cave these decompression stops can be hours long. So even if you have a world-class instructor-trainer as your diving buddy, if you go into Oxygen convulsions below 100 feet, your buddy as absolutely existential decompression stop obligations herself and besides swimming your dumbass to the surface, she needs to do her deco stops, and then she needs to swim your ass to the boat or shore. You are brain dead after 10 minutes for sure. Do the math, there is almost no scenario where you go into Oxygen convulsions and can be recovered. Even if you are at 10 feet and sucking pure Oxygen, if you lose track of what you are doing, or have few emergencies pile up and drift down to the very shallow 25 feet you are now at 1.6 PPO2. Again, you drown at 25 feet. Your buddy takes 15 seconds to notice. 15 seconds to grab you and swim you to the surface. They can not effectively get the water out of your lungs and CPR until you are on a hard surface. After taking my rescue course in controlled conditions of shallow water right on the beach, it is still long minutes of work to swim an unresponsive diver to shore while you divest their gear and your gear while attempting rescue breathes (all the while while their lungs are full of water). 6-10 minutes after sucking water into your lungs and passing out your are dead. OMG! I am never going to dive!! Well that might be your reaction, and maybe even a good idea. But the real point is do not be a dumbass and start diving with Nitrox without understanding throughly how to dive with mixed gas and all of the dangers – and all the math.

Back in Chris’s shop, after a the regular thorough and hours long debriefing he handed me my TDI Decompression Procedures Diver certification card. It was the first certification card he did not hand to me on the last dive of each course. Despite not getting the card in the water at the end of the dive, I was serene and it was not a thing I was thinking about – I just liked the dive – it was a good dive – and I felt like I was a better diver. It reminded me of being in training at Elite Martial Arts back in Austin and doing the belt tests – you know if you did a good belt test and it did not (really) matter to you if you got the belt.

* * *

So what was all the training under Chris Verstappen at TDS?

His plan was that I would be the tent-pole for the family with learning to wear a side-mount setup of twin Aluminum 80s with two regulators. I would have the ultimate safety as a father in the water with two separate tanks, and two separate cylinders as I dove with Kyle and Max.

Runaway regulator? No problem, shut down the offending tank and breathe off the other one.

O-Ring burst? Cannot happen, these tech-side mount rigs are DIN valves.

Catastrophic first-stage failure? Whatever, again, I have another tank.

Ran out of gas? Hard, with twin 80s I had a 105 minute night dive last night and still had 50% gas remaining.

As a catamaran sailor, the redundancy of everything made so much sense to me. I would be my own buddy, and thus a better buddy for Kyle and Max.

Kyle is also very much interested in learning all he can as a diver, so Chris setup up gear for Kyle to learn how to handle “Doubles” – the classic two tanks on your back as his introduction to tech diving. In addition to the gear, I agreed with Chris that I should learn decompression diving. How could I be a good diver without knowing how a basic decompression dive works? All dives after-all are actually decompression dives, just most recreational divers stick with dive profiles where you can get away with just a 3 minute safety stop at 15 feet.

All of the SCUBA training post WW2 starting in Los Angeles and spreading around the world was based on formalized military training with much more theory and assumed that decompression diving would be the bulk of the dive profiles for the divers career. Thus Chris, created a course for me to get to Deco Procedures that would involve Kyle and Max into as much of the training as possible.

The first class? Visual Inspection of High Pressure Cylinders! He understood exactly that we wanted to be a well-trained, safe family of divers. Being able to inspect our own cylinders would not only be more knowledge and independence (and savings over the years) but most importantly we would intimately know our tanks, their cleanliness, how to breakdown and rebuild the valves and how to prepare our tanks for compressed air, nitrox and even what does oxygen clean mean. Now I am a certified High-Pressure Cylinder Inspector and Kaiwen is picking up my tools and 100 inspection stickers so I dabble on the side helping other cruising divers keep their tanks up to date.

To learn Decompression Procedures, I would need to learn how to decompress on high mix gas, so I would be taking Advanced Nitrox – and so I needed Nitrox to start. Previously, I was not interested Nitrox because the compressor I have on Ad Astra is just a compressed air device. Chris being awesome, had all three of us study the TDI Nitrox class together, although being 12 years old, Max officially could only accept the sport version from SDI of Computer Nitrox. (SDI Computer Nitrox skips the math, which was funny as when we did the round robin testing of Nitrox theory and math along with the PADI cross-over instructor, Max was simply the fastest in the room, quick to point out typos in the manuals and tests. Max is now fairly along in creating his own dive planning tool in Python and solves these Nirtox problems as part of the initial conditions and data gathering.)

On Advanced Nitrox, Chris included Max and Kyle in the theory and book testing even though they would not be able to receive cards, at least they had a full grasp of the theory and math of the diving conditions I would be experiencing when doing decompression dives. The same with the Decompression Procedures class, they would not be doing the deep dives or getting cert cards, but Chris insisted they understood all the theory.

Kyle picked up his Intro to Tech cert and we both received our Side-mount Certs after struggling with clipping and unclipping our tanks on many dives.

Next week, the focus is on Max, as he undergoes his Advanced Open Water course with Buoyancy, Underwater Navigation, Deep Diving, Wreck and Night Diving dives, theory and skills. Kyle and I will accompany Max and Chris on these dives with Kyle and I to watch carefully how Chris performs the skills to demonstration quality.

The week after, the focus is on Kyle to get his Deep Diving training with Chris.

Again, with Chris, besides getting these fun cards, the level of instruction from him is far more rigorous than we have experienced, and I have confirmed it with the number of PADI instructors that have come to him for continuing training.

Kyle will get down to 130 feet with true confidence of skill after Chris’ work, and Max will have a much more fleshed out skill set.

It was wonderful that he went way out of his spend dozens of extra hours to include my sons including making available to us a lot of gear to practice with outside of his class. He has been incredibly generous with his time and gear and I can say he is a warm friend of our family.

As for myself, what is next? I will spend the next two weeks diving with Chris as he instructs Max and Kyle and I will polish up all these new skills. Looking forward to getting Lionfish hunting certified for Bonaire (they are incredibly strict) and Chris says I have already fulfilled the requirements for the Solo certification.

But you know what?

Despite all these courses and certs, and being a much, much better diver than when I arrived in Bonaire a month ago, I feel like a true beginner. I feel like I finally have a basic introduction to how to dive.

And, of course, how incredible is that I get to learn all these skills alongside of Kyle and Max?

Ad Astra,

-Erik

Sidemount Gear!

Major Electronics Upgrade!

Anchored off a remote island in the Venezuelan archipelago of Los Roques it was magical to lay back on the flybridge and watch the dark and clear starry night. I used the word “watch” over the expected “star-gaze”, because with the night sky so clear and dark, there were plenty of meteors burning through the sky about every few minutes, demanding a much more active viewing than gazing.

Sitting up there sipping some aged island rum with solar created ice is such a serene experience. But after reaching maximum chill state, my fingers creep over and grab my laptop. We are 10 miles away from the big town of 1000 people of Gran Roque, 90 miles north of Caracas, with zero internet access here, and zero mobile access. Yet, I am connected to the 5 GHz band on the Ad Astra wifi net. Why?

Flipping the laptop open, I start scanning our cloud drive that has 1.2TB of movies and serials. Watching <your favorite movie> with the stars as the theatre backdrop and icy rum in my right hand…

I have just finished a major upgrade of the electronics capabilities of Ad Astra and I wanted to share what I have installed and my learnings.

Newly Added Systems:

Existing Systems:

This past spring I met up with my friend Peter Wraa – a most excellent Danish sailing captain and former stunt pilot – in the off the beaten track Petite Terre islands. Naturally, we started talking about what we want to upgrade to our boats. Peter was satisfied with our big 2000 watt solar update looking like it fit in with the existing Lagoon 450 fit and feel (a big compliment from Peter as he is fussy and thinks our fully enclosed flybridge looks like a doghouse) and started to tell me about his upgrades.

Specifically, he has been replacing his electronics and moved to a NMEA 2000 (think ethernet for marine systems) network backbone and showed me that he could see all of his ships’ instruments from his iPhone. Definitely cool, but at that moment I just wanted to snorkel the pristine waters were I saw over 70 big lobsters in a single snorkel with Max.

Despite working in the games industry and being a programmer, when it comes to tasks like programming the VCR, or getting the most out of the electronic systems on the boats I have owned, I never felt a great motivation. I got enough tech in my day job. Mostly, I want to enjoy the water. And if I am going to be in tech mode, I would like to save my brain’s bandwidth for working on a software project.

Nevertheless, Peter would not stop. He kept going on and on. He thrust a decade old NMEA 183 multiplexer / data server into my hands. Promising me that it would splice into a proprietary Raymarine cable and would then be able to transmit the Raymarine ship instrument data across ethernet to our smart phones and laptops. It had 18 gauge power and data leads and its IP address and port scrawled in faint pencil on the label of the device. Clearly, the fastest path to me being able to enjoy the snorkeling was to accept the gift from Peter and promise him that I would install it.

My main focus in May was to complete the coursework and testing for my US Coast Guard Masters’ License, the NMEA 183 was safely tucked away in a drawer. In early June, I spent a week in Miami taking the captain’s test as well as all the associated overhead tasks. But while I was there, I made mad use of Amazon and fast & cheap delivery to my hotel room. The Western Digital MyCloud dual-drive 4 TB network storage device was one of those packages. The other was a high-speed network switch.

On Ad Astra we have about a dozen portable USB drives of various vintages and capacities that we trade around and try to remember which one has what data. We also use those to backup our Macs. It is pretty confusing. Sure, we should label them more clearly and have a more ordered use pattern. But an always on, single network drive would be much more elegant.

The first project was the integration of the WD network drive with the Ad Astra WIFI hotspot.

The existing BadBoy eXtreme is a WIFI antennae with the optional WIFI hotspot accessory that connects any number of your devices to an external WIFI hotspot. Throughout the Caribbean there are internet providers that cater to cruisers such as Pirate WIFI or Captain’s WIFI by pumping out a WIFI signal that you can pickup on your boat and pay them for the day, week or month. Almost all marinas also have some WIFI that your boat pays for when in the marina, St. Barts has a municipal WIFI, and many bars and restaurants provide WIFI in exchange for some patronage. The BadBoy eXtreme works by creating a WIFI hotspot inside your boat where all of your devices can easily connect and have strong signal. Then it takes that traffic up the mast to your antennae with powered ethernet (15v!) it sends out your WIFI traffic with significantly boosted signal strength. In fact, in many anchorages you need to turn down the power of your antennae for better results so as to minimize noise between the various boats.

More Ports Please!

We have used the BadyBoy system for a year and were very happy with this boat purchase, but the WD network drive has a hard ethernet cable and needed to be plugged into a router or switch. The BadBoy eXtreme naturally to keep costs down has a single ethernet port – designed for the internal boat-facing WIFI hotspot itself. I needed more ports. To address this need, I purchased a Linksys EA6350 Smart WIFI router that had five ethernet ports.

Here is how I used the ports on the new router:

  1. inbound WIFI from the BadBoy
  2. WD network drive
  3. iKommunicate multiplexer and data server
  4. direct ethernet connection of a laptop for higher-speed transfers
  5. spare port

 

The Linksys has a nice admin panel that is available at the default address of 192.168.1.1 from there you can create both 2.4 and 5.0 GHz networks, name them whatever you like, and give each network separate passwords, and many granular controls.

 

One that I found most useful was the ability to set reserved IP addresses for specific devices on the DHCPaddress server. The VesperMarine AIS transponder and the WD network drive tended to wander around in IP address space, and this allowed me to lock them down so that I did not need to update the IP address on the apps for these devices every time I powered up and down the devices.

 

 

 

 

Details on the WD network drive:

The WD drive comes with RAID 0, RAID 1, JBOD, and Spanning as options for using the capacity of the two drives. Basically JBOD lets you just manage the two disks as if they were two hard drives. Spanning logically bridges the two drives to create one larger drive, RAID 0 stripes your data across two drives and allows faster read & writes, and RAID 1 is the most conservative with mirroring on both drives allowing continued access to the data even in the event of a drive failure.

I set it to RAID 1 and as of this moment, I am actually using the RAID re-build feature. There is some sort of failure going on with the WD drive. The symptoms were spotty drive reading over the last 24 hours, and last night the public section of the drive refused to show its contents – even though the data was there. On the impressive web-base control panel for the WD unit I was able to direct the RAID to rebuild the drive, and in the future auto re-build in case of new fail events. At the moment I do not know if we are experiencing a hardware failure, or perhaps one of the two recent guest users (on PCs) maybe have infected the cloud drive with a virus. After the rebuild cycle, all the data is there and the drive is behaving well. This makes me a fan of RAID 1, but there is the open question of where this failure came from in the first 60 days of use on Ad Astra. The WD unit is modular in its design and facilitates rapidly popping in and out new drives (even from other manufacturers) and so I will have Kaiwen pick up a couple of extra drives when she goes back to Austin in October to further the strong redundancy and spare capabilities of Ad Astra.

[Edit: one week later the drive is stable after the re-build, but the original folder that hosted the movie data remained unable to be seen as a network drive by the Macs. Using the web-based WD utility I was able to create a new folder and move the data over – and it has been working fine.]

The WD unit has the ability to create users and user groups, and create individual share volumes that have a ton of settings such as giving users storage quota and access to specific shared volumes. With sensible use of users and permissions I will be able to isolate away any further virus infections from guests.

Tossing away the Power Bricks

Now, a super cool thing about both the Linksys WIFI router and the WD network drive is that the both had a AC to DC power brick that converted 110 VAC to 12 VDC – Woot! Same 12 VDC as the house bank for Ad Astra. We are now able to stream movies to four different laptops all night long over WIFI without using an inverter! This also means that when the main 110V inverter is running that we are not taking 12 VDC from the house bank and inverting to 110 VAC and then pouring that back through a dumb power brick to 12 VDC and needlessly wasting power by warming up some wires. (I lost some dollars on the first network switch that had the AC to DC converter sleekly integrated directly into its circuit board – preventing it being powered by the 12V house system.)

To connect these to the house power, I sourced identical power barrel plugs at a local electronics store in SXM (I kept the original power brick cords intact, just in case I ever wanted to use them on 110 VAC in the future). With the barrel plugs I wired the devices to the new 6 circuit breaker panel that I needed to setup up to power the VesperMarine AIS, the VHF antennae splitter, and iKomminicate multiplexer, to round out the sixth circuit I re-wired the power for the BadBoy to this breaker panel. I added a nice 6 circuit fuse panel and mounted all of this discretely under the navigation table. Now I have the ability to individually power each of these systems:

  1. BadBoy – perhaps we are away from a place with WIFI and want to save 1-2 AHs
  2. VHF Splitter
  3. AIS – perhaps we are someplace where we do NOT want to broadcast our position Venezuela?
  4. The iKommunicate Multiplexer – normally we have the Raymarine instruments off when not moving, so no use powering a multiplexer on a network that is not running traffic
  5. WD Network Drive – to save again some small AHs
  6. Linksys WIFI router – to save again some small AHs

 

Can you See Me? Please!?

The next new piece of electronics is the VesperMarine AIS recommended to me by Renee at Island Water World in SXM.

AIS broadcasts the position, heading, and speed the boats and ships around you typically out to 8 or 10 nm.

AIS is probably up in the top 3 of safety equipment in my mind when at night and in poor visibility and the lights and movement of the other ship is not very clear. With AIS it tells you directly your time to closest approach and how far away will you be at that time. All ships that are over 60 feet in length are required to run AIS in most territories these days. However, smaller boats especially smaller fishing and sailing boats often choose not to spend the $1000 to have a transponder installed. Very understandable, but for me, it is even more important to me that the other [bigger] boats can see me on AIS, than if I can see them. I have total control over how well we keep watch, but I cannot control the watch-keeping on the other boat. It is pretty easy to forget to look at the actual sea and instead glance at the AIS screen and the GPS chart plotter.

The VesperMarine AIS transponder is made in New Zealand and is very cool, it too is a WIFI hotspot capable of broadcasting the AIS and GPS data that it is producing from its own dedicated GPS receiver as well as it’s split into the VHF antennae.

The VesperMarine AIS installation was very straightforward:

  1. Wire it up to 12 VDC
  2. Install the GPS outside with a clear view of the sky
  3. Drill a hole for the cable to pass through and use a waterproof collar for that wire to enter the fiberglass.
  4. Connect the GPS cable to the VesperMarine
  5. Attach the VHF splitter and run one branch to the VesperMarine and one to the existing Raymarine bus.
  6. Connect the VesperMarine to your NMEA 2000 bus
  7. Use the USB connection to your laptop and configure the device

Using the vmAIS for MacOSX, and connected to the VesperMarine unit though a direct USB cable, it took only a few minutes to enter our MMSI and boat information, tell it to stop being its on WIFI hotspot and instead give it the password to the Ad Astra 2.4 GHz crew network. After getting assigned its IP address from the Linksys router I used the advanced networking options on the Linksys admin panel to reserve the assigned IP to the VesperMarine unit.

The WatchMate Android app has four useful views in your pocket:

An AIS Radar display that uses two finger zoom from 0.25 to 50 nm!

A list view of all AIS targets sortable on priority, time to closest approach, closest approach and range

Core navigational data: GPS Latitude

and Longitude, Course over Ground, Speed over Ground, Heading, Depth, Apparent Wind Angle and Apparent Wind Speed.

The VesperMarine is picking up the Depth, AWA and AWS from the NMEA 2000 network, although AWA and AWS are not rendering. Which is weird. The RayMarine i70 happily displays AWS but not AWA. And to my surprise, the iKommunicate multiplexer is outputting very accurate AWA and TWS on the sample iCompass map. So, my wind instrument works – both AWA and TWS, but I still need to figure out what the heck is going with this wind instrument’s flaky rendering. Hmm, the Boat List is never Zero.

 

 

 

 

iKommunicate

NMEA2000 Multiplexer
The  iKommunicate Multiplexer

Installing the iKommunicate Multiplexer was very straightforward:

  1. Wire up the red and black wires to 12 VDC
  2. Connect a RayMarine to NMEA2000 cross over cable into one of the blue ports on the raymarine network and then connect to the NMEA2000 port on the iKommunicate
  3. Connect an ethernet cable to your router or switch

And that is it really!

Now you can connect any Signal K application from any device to all of your ships’ systems!

Below is a screenshot of OpenCPN displaying where we are anchored off of Bonaire with AIS targets visible.

 

 

Now, *every* tablet, smartphone and laptop on Ad Astra (some dozen devices) is now marine multi-function displays!

I am just scratching the surface of SignalK and the iKommunicate device.

This is an open source device with a github for extending the software as you like!

I cannot wait to dig into the wiki for this device and start to customize the digital bridge of Ad Astra!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Los Roques Isles!

Raise the anchor!

We are heading south to the exotic Los Roques archipelago.

It is Thursday July 20th, 2017. In an hour Ad Astra will set sail for the Los Roques island group 433 nm to the south west from Sint Martin. We should have a nice sail, the tropical storm Don has faded as it crossed Grenada and taking strong winds through the southern Caribbean right now. We will be sailing through the weather window behind Don and before the next wave rumbles through.

Have not seen this in a while!

We are sailing south relatively late before the hurricane season ramps up, and already this season has been abnormally active.

The sail itself is very straight forward:

  • The winds have been very strong for the last couple of days with 25 and even 30 kts common throughout the day, the winds should lessen slightly tomorrow, but should still be stronger than normal trade winds.
  • After raising anchor in Marigot Bay in the late afternoon (5pm), we will put two reefs into the main, round the western headlands of the French side of Sint Martin and set the auto-pilot for 180 True South and sail between Saba and Statia for 45 nm keeping the large shallow Saba bank on our starboard side. We should clear the Saba bank in the first couple of hours after midnight.
  • One this reach I expect Ad Astra to deliver at least 7 knots, and would likely consistently give us 8+ with a clean bottom and perhaps more aggressive use of canvas. That being said, even with a dirty bottom, on a broad reach with 25-30 knots of true wind from aft Ad Astra does 9 knots!
  • After clearing the Saba Bank, we turn just 33 degrees to the west and head 213 true for 380 nm.
  • By sunrise of Saturday morning we should be about 40 nm south of the Saba bank, with 340 nm to go.
  • At 7 kts would would then arrive off of Gran Roques at 7am on Sunday morning. If we end up running slower or have some problem, this leaves us about 10 hours of leeway for getting into the reefs at Gran Roques. If we are running faster, such as 8 kts, we would actually have a problem as that puts us in at midnight. To deal with that we will just manage the boat speed and strive for 7.2 or so.
  • I really do not know what to expect in terms of WIFI or mobile phone coverage down there, so it is unclear to me when is the next time we will be able to check in.  I am planning to spend about 4 to 6 weeks between Los Roques and Aves before heading to Bonaire.

Yesterday the boys finished scraping the bottom, while Kaiwen and I do the last bit of provisioning before we head south and get a couple of spare butane tanks (cooking) before we head south.  And all the crew pitched in to clean up after all the fun we had together with Eloy, Isaac, Christine and Abby.

We are all very excited to set sail and head to Los Roques, after so many deliberations and plan variations two days ago Kaiwen announced that she just wanted to start sailing ASAP!

Ad Astra has never been so stocked with food. We had a good amount of dry stores from Martinique, then we added a lot more here in Sint Maarten with two major provisioning trips. Each time our Dinghy Exit Strategy was impossibly loaded as we made the long wet ride across the SXM Lagoon and then upwind Marigot Bay.

We have started getting into making our own bread aboard – I am still excited by the results of my artichoke water and fresh minced white onion bread. So we now have on board months worth of various flours and yeasts and other baking products. I was excited yesterday to find some Tapioca in the baker section. I remember my grandmother Klibby used to treat me with Tapioca!

Found some Memmi noodle soup base so we can make our own Tempura sauce, Udon, and Soba variations. Some chopped clams as Max wants to learn to make his own clam chowder soup. Pestos, mustards, spices, tomato pastes, sauces, lots of various rice, three big bags of potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, and on and on. Also Mount Gay Eclipse in the 1 liter bottle was on sale for $11 so I bought a half a dozen for trade with fishermen as well as a lot of fish hooks that were on sale.

We have teas, coffees, soups, beans, fresh veggies for a week, and 36 eggs. If pressed, I suspect we could manage 6 months on the stores that we have aboard.

Isaac and Christine cooked an amazing lunch of bbq chicken tacos with cucumber slaw, veggies and refried beans.  We have leftovers for dinner.  Kaiwen is also pre-cooking for the passage with tuna and potato salad, 12 boiled eggs and Lasagne!  So we will certainly be able to eat well without any work.

Max organized all of our first aid and medications. We are set there as well. Although at some point we need to get some broad spectrum antibiotics. One doctor in Miami suggested that I invest in some long-duration stimulants(!) as well as some opiates.

Being at the great sailing Mecca of Sint Martin we have tackled dozens and dozens of boat projects and it has been so satisfying to see The Boat List Approach Zero. Is it at Zero? No, it is not. But then again there is not much left on the list:

The largest outstanding defect item is that the Raymarine apparent wind instrument remains stubbornly non-functional. We get apparent speed from the Raymarine unit (true wind speed plus the vector addition of the boat’s speed) but for direction we have to use the organic systems. The true loss is that we can not have the autopilot steer to a fixed angle off the wind. This means that we need to spend more time and energy trimming the sails, or adjusting the course. I have decided that I am going to upgrade to an open NMEA 2000 connecting Maretron solid-state ultrasonic instrument. I first heard of this off a video by Brian on the S/V Delos and since then I have seen quite a few others talk positively of this device. I will wait until Kaiwen goes back to Austin and have her bring it back to Ad Astra in October.

Then we have some small stuff like three new chips in the gel coat over the last 4 weeks, and Kyle’s bathroom door handle needs to be re-installed. The winches need to be serviced, but they are all working just fine after we replaced three failing foot switches. Some of the LED strip lights are failing a fraction of their LEDs, and I bought a few replacement strips here in SXM. So these are a few smaller projects.

The most exciting item left on The Boat List is the glorious LITHIUM house bank install. That will be a dedicated blog post with lots of pictures and videos. But the preview is that I now have on board of Ad Astra 1420 Amp-hours of LiFePO4 cells and all of the shunts, fuses, lugs, wire, high and low voltage protection relays and 48 smart battery managing units. Down south it will be a project over a couple of weeks to make this DIY Lithium setup as clean and as robust as possible. In the end we will have 2050 Watts of solar powering 1420 Amp-hours of battery storage – all of it solid state and green.

Kyle and Kaiwen have just come back from the last visit to a French Bakery until we see the Marquesas sometime in Q2 of 2018. We are having a great breakfast of scrambled eggs stuffing fresh croissants. Kyle has checked us out of the French side of St. Martin. On our way back from dropping of Eloy, Isaac and Christine at the SXM airport we will grab some more cash at an ATM, raise the dinghy on the davits and strap it down for blue water passage.

When we get to Los Roques we are all just going to relax and recover, wait to we get bored, and then take one more day off before we attempt to be productive again.

While we relax this is going to be our view:

And now I am going to my last swim in the Eastern Caribbean here in SXM and raise that anchor!

The Southern Caribbean – a new chapter for Ad Astra!

The Season has begun for Ad Astra – possible Tropical Storm

It is the Fourth of July, 2017 and I drinking espresso on ice and grabbing a bowl of yogurt and cereal while I take advantage of the free WIFI at Cafe L’Oubli in St. Barts.

My friends often ask what about hurricanes?  And my cruising friends ask where will you spend “the season”?

At the moment I have three guest teenagers on board, and I was updating their parents on how we are handling the possible storm.  And I thought it might make a good post to share…

AM July 4th 5-day forecast

As you can see from above it has an 80% chance of forming something cyclonic, and most likely sweep just north of the Leeward Islands. But a good portion of the probability cone includes Saint Martin. Thus, we must activate a storm plan. What will we do?

Currently there is a high-pressure ridge that is keeping this low that is cross the Atlantic on a course for the northern Lesser Antilles. Right where we are at. The storm is forecasted to reach Antigua / Sint Maarten / Anguilla sometime in the night between the 8th and the 9th of July.

I have on board 5 kids: Kyle and Max, Abby (17F), Isaac (17M) and Eloy (13M). I have no other adults on board until July 9th when my wife rejoins the boat at Sint Maarten.

Upcoming dates:

  • July 8-9th – probably storm event
  • July 9th – Kaiwen joins Ad Astra
  • July 12th – Christine joins Ad Astra
  • July 18th – my Lithium cells arrive in SXM
  • July 19th – Abby departs Ad Astra
  • July 20th – Christine departs Ad Astra
  • July 21st – Isaac and Eloy depart Ad Astra

The first two questions I have:

  1. What is the likely track for this storm?
  2. How big is this storm going to be?

On the first question – all the expert and detailed forecasting declare that it is still too early and far away to tell which way the storm will go. Currently tracking to hit north of the general SXM area.

How big will it be? Well, it is early season, so the assumption is that it would be smaller than normal. That being said what is small really? Do I want to ride out a Tropical Storm, Cat 1 or Cat 2 hurricane with kids trying to learn the basics of sailing and diving? No, not ideal.

If I did ride it out, where would I go? From my experience last year in Point Egmont in Grenada, I think I would feel comfortable all tied up deeply in a keyhole mangrove swamp – even with less experienced kids as crew. But the Simpson Bay Lagoon does not have anywhere near like that in terms of a true hurricane hole, it is a vast lagoon with large fetch and not much wind protection. Except one spot – Mullet Pond – where our very good friends Frank and Charlotte just moved into a couple of hours ago. There is space for 4 more boats. But, it will be hot and muggy and full of mosquitos and a far dinghy ride away from anything fun, and we would have to go today to get a spot and be tied up until the 10th – 5 days in a swamp with 5 bored teenagers. Hmm.

Road Bay on Anguilla has great holding and a short fetch in front of me from east winds. And if it was simply a gale with only east winds to worry about, I think I would stay there even over Marigot Bay as the fetch is much smaller and the holding excellent. But with a cyclonic storm the northwest winds and later west driving swells makes Anguilla untenable. In that case, the Simpson Bay Lagoon is better. But still open. So, that really isn’t a plan – scratch.

There is no time really to haul Ad Astra out, and frankly the logistics of managing 6 people on short notice on the hard in and out of a yard makes other options below seem much more palatable.

We could also tie up in a Marina in SXM as suggested by two of my much more experienced captain friends. Their idea is that it the storm is likely to go north or be a weaker early season storm, or both. And so being tied up in a marina and taking loose bits down from the boat is less effort than sailing south with some inexperienced crew. The unsaid thing is if it turns out to be a stronger storm and there is damage to Ad Astra – well that is what insurance is for. We do have insurance, but the named wind damage has a deductible of $20k, so that just means a big bill for me. The other two captains are professionals working on someone else’s boat (and the expenses are not their direct burden).

We could run Ad Astra south. And by South, there are three main variations:

  • Straight to Bonaire (480 nm)
  • Straight to Islas Los Roques (450 nm)
  • Hop down the Leewards (various)

Discussion:

Bonaire
pros: very far away from any possible storm event. Dutch territory – so easy flights for these crew transfers occurring in SXM, better diving training opportunities for the kids, true blue water experience for the kids, modern facilities, easy provisioning
cons: a long 480 nm passage with just myself and Kyle as full crew, the others will have a range of helpfulness to a distraction depending on how they adjust to open water crossing, challenging for me to get my Lithium cells, and we would need to take on the costs 6 flights between Bonaire and SXM, and Ad Astra would be 90 nm dead down-wind of the Islas Los Roques which we have our heart set on exploring. The winds are generally even stronger down there and I doubt we would take on a windward passage. This decision would likely mean that we never see the Los Roques Archipelago. Unless I sailed BACK to SXM after the storm passes to collect my Lithium cells and sail again for Los Roques. This is possible, but it means that we would be crossing the Caribbean Sea three times in July – would not make the list of Good Plans.

Straight to Los Roques
pros: same as Bonaire – far away south and far from any possible storm events. It is supposed to be as beautiful as the San Blas islands so these kids would get an even more amazing experience on Ad Astra. Kyle, Max and I would not miss the Los Roques, but Kaiwen would.
Cons: all the same cons as above, but with more cons: while the security at Los Roques is great, there should be assumed zero provisioning and very little in the way of services. Crew will NOT be able to fly in and out, and I would have to have a pretty short stay in Los Roques and go to Bonaire to do the transfers, and I still have the problem of my Lithium cells in SXM. Unless we do the sail back to SXM and back down again for the dumb idea of a triple Caribbean crossing in July.

Hop down the Leewards

pros: much shorter sailing distances – using just day sails:

  • July 4th St Barts to St. Eustatius 26nm (first country to recognize the American independence)
  • July 5th St. Eustatius to St. Kitts 22nm (or go to St. Kitts today – the 4th)
  • July 6th St. Kitts to Montserrat 50nm
  • July 7th Montserrat to Deshais, Guadeloupe 33nm
  • July 8th Deshais, Guadeloupe to PTP Guadeloupe 45nm

And barring the storm shifting SOUTH, we would be well protected up inside of PTP

And if the storm shifts NORTH, or weakens we do not need to keep on going south, we can wait and see

And if when the storm passes, or turns into a nothing burger, we are an easy broad reach sail back to SXM, and utilizing an overnight passage we are 24 hours away from being back in SXM

And the Kids get to see a bunch of new places!

cons:
Might be moving the boat too often/fast for the kids to really get to know these places (on the other hand, they will get more actual sailing experience), if the storm shifts SOUTH we might be rushing to find a good spot, but this is really a moot point, as a south running storm in the Windwards would likely rake the Leewards even harder.

-Erik

One-Year Anniversary Aboard Ad Astra

It is 6 am, and before anyone else woke up, I wanted to write this note to think over the last year of adventure together. There is a minor tropical wave rolling by overhead with grey sullen skies, winds gusting in the high 20s, rain and thunder. Drinking my cold-brew iced coffee and with RUSH playing it is the perfect mood to reflect.

* * *

A year ago our home was Austin.

We had so many friends from our Elite Martial Arts dojo, the homeschooling families and from colleagues and their families. Many people came together in our last month in Austin to help us get the house ready to sell and it seemed like every day was another goodbye party. Great times.

But a year-ago, yesterday we flew into St. Thomas with a bunch of bags and ready to finally move aboard Ad Astra full-time. Sold and gave away everything. My Dad is holding our wedding pictures and a few artifacts, but we have nothing in storage. No house, no cars, no “stuff”, and no home to go back to.

Now our home is the sailing catamaran Ad Astra.

* * *

Sailing around the world has been a deep goal of mine going back about 10 years, and Kaiwen has been gracious (and robust) to agree to take the family on this non-standard adventure.

It was not a simple decision.

At first, there was not much of “we” in this plan. It was me learning on smaller monohulls – a 27′ Newport and later a 36′ Sparhawk ketch. The healing of the monohull was a deal-breaker for her, and not following my dream to blue-water sail was a deal-breaker for me (both of these are understatements). We both got lucky when we went to a boat show and had the opportunity to walk around a Lagoon 450 live and instantly we knew this would work.

So we bought Ad Astra in 2012 and had fun in in the Atlantic side of France, Spain and Portugal, but came back to Austin for a 4-year side adventure. Starting another game company, buying a home, learning all sorts of DIY crafty-things: brewing beer, making an epic treehouse, open fire pits, gardens, compost piles, bee-keeping and raising chickens, learning mixed martial arts, and just enjoying the great family-friendly city of Austin.

The game company had run its course, we did some successes and we did some failures. The failures were painful, but it was not my first time experiencing a business going sideways. Sure, we could have pivoted again, and we could have struggled for years more, or we could have done a number of things to change a sideways outcome to a slightly “better” mediocre outcome. But I recognized what the situation was, and the 40-year old in me had more wisdom than my younger self. I was not going to lose those years. And even the investors were better served with a crisp resolution, and the employees were snapped up in a competitor or hired by the acquirer within a week.
l

But Austin friends! That was a harder decision than the business.

So many good times in Austin. If you have not yet visited Austin you should, and if you are thinking of moving, Austin is an amazing to live. We so easily could have stayed.

I had achieved a brown belt in our mixed martial arts system and it was the main structure of my week and it would only a few more years to get that black belt – right!? The boys enjoyed Austin immensely. They had great friends, science team, the dojo. There were a number of new things I could do for work…

…but Ad Astra was waiting so patiently for me – and for us.

* * *

I took the fairly standard-track of preparing to cruise full-time. I worked my way up in boat sizes, with Ad Astra being the 3rd boat. I started with day-sailing with an experienced friend Tim Ehrlich. Later, on my own, with friends and then weekends to Catalina, and up in San Francisco, weekends to Angel Island, Napa and Petaluma on the 36′ ketch Andiamo II.

The ketch was a great boat and I miss her. She had this wonderful custom-built top-opening freezer/fridge that was far more efficient than any of the units on Ad Astra. With two huge cat-rigged carbon-fiber free-standing masts she loved to go wing on wing for fast downwind sailing – which was always great at the end of the day to sail the fast sea breezes back to her berth in Emeryville. And she remains the only boat I have sailed back into a berth in a marina.

* * *

Every time I slept aboard Andiamo II, even in the marina I was sublimely happy. Waking up in Angel island, or in the town anchorage of Petaluma made me feel just so good. There are rich complex feelings that are difficult to express. Waking up on a boat strikes deep resonate memories of going camping in the summers with my grandmother June. Cooking in the camper my grandfather Norm hand built with my dad and his brothers. The simple pleasure of taking time slower and walking and hiking. She took me on a trip to England for a month and often we would have simple meals of fruit and a pastry while walking. Those are still some of the fondest, most luxurious meals. Growing up in the depression, she was never a Consumer but was fiercely into Experiences way before hipsters figured out that Experiences >> Stuff.

For my whole life, I have been a night owl and never enjoyed waking up in the morning. But now I am usually awake naturally between 5 and 6 am, fully rested and no use for an alarm clock. It is a great feeling to grab your coffee and gaze as the sky lightens. On passage making, I always seek out the 3am to 6am shifts, I love the mornings now.

Food is better. We cook almost all of our meals, and we take time to think about the ingredients and recipes. There is a lot more effort involved in sourcing our food. No longer can we simply hop in the car, 5 minutes later walk into a mega supermarket and load up the trunk. Now, we have to actively think ahead in time, where will we be? What markets do they have? Local farmer’s market? Fish? Meat? Do they have a modern-style supermarket? Do they have a dinghy dock – or at least a dock nearby? Or do we have friends with a car that will help us with a big provisioning run? All of this work can sometimes be annoying.

For example, last night after another long day of attacking The Boat List, Kyle and Abby wanted to get some groceries. It was 7:45pm we motored to the dinghy dock here in Marigot, and then walked the 15 minutes to the market they wanted to go to, and they were closed. Google let me know that there was still another market open on the Dutch side for another hour. But that was going to be a 6-mile round trip run in our dinghy Exit Strategy, at night, with scattered rain. With the 20 HP Tohatsu we can go pretty darn fast – with just myself it will plane and manage 23 mph, but with 3 people and the overhead of locking up it would be about a 20 minute ride to the market, plus the 10 minute walk back to the dinghy dock, and another 20 minute ride back to Ad Astra – clearly not the same as a 5 minute drive to the local market! We all just smiled and simply went back to Ad Astra and I cooked a pretty awesome dinner of garlic/miso salmon, rice, and stir-fried veggies. I would have made fried-rice, but the eggs were on that list of items we wanted to pick up. Oh well. We still had a great meal and I know we appreciate the food so much more.

And our “backyard” is HUGE – it is the world. I spend much of the time in the cockpit facing the back looking almost always to the west (trade winds). There are mountains to my left, a broad white-sand beach in front of me, and a peninsula with almost an isolated island-hill at the end of it that we need to explore still. The scenery changes all the time. Even at the same spot the weather changes the water, different fish hang out with you. Right now we have a huge 5 foot barracuda that acts like a curious dog that swims up and checks you out as well as another generation of newly-spawned sergeant major reef fish that use the hidden recesses of our starboard sail drive as they roaming reef.

Our neighbors change often, and you meet amazing people. Interesting people who have also made their own choices and paths. We have made great friends with a number of South Africans, Danish, Swiss, English, French, Dutch, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, American, Kiwi, Ozzie, Bequian, and many who do not seem to have allegiance to a nation-state.

We have had a dozen incredible friends crew aboard Ad Astra at various time over the last year, and we are picking up two more from the airport today. It is always a deep pleasure for me to share Ad Astra.

We have visited just about every island in the Eastern Caribbean:

  1. Puerto Rico & Spanish Virgins, Culebra & Culebrita, Viequez
  2. US Virgins: St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John
  3. British Virgin Islands: Salt, Cooper, Norman, Peter, JVD, Tortola, Anegada, Fallen Jerusalem, The Dogs
  4. St. Martin, Sint Maarten, Ile Tintamarre,
  5. St. Barts, Ile Fourchue
  6. Anguilla
  7. Saba
  8. Nevis
  9. Montserrat (and sailed real close to Redonda)
  10. Antigua and Barbuda
  11. Guadeloupe, The Saints, Petite Terre (missed Marie Galant and Diedre)
  12. Dominica
  13. St. Lucia
  14. St. Vincent, Bequia, Tobago Keys, Union, Canoun, Petite St. Vincent, Petite Martinique
  15. Grenada and Carriacou

But thinking back over the last year what stands out in my mind is how much we have all learned. Hard skills, soft skills, culture, nature, and emotional growth. As I had hoped, we are all different people than we were a year before on land.

While I could still be better, I am now far more patient than I was before. When full-time sailing, nothing ever happens on time. The weather does her own thing. The wind and the waves are not yours to have any demands or expectations.

We used to spend every July on Ad Astra while I had her in charter. Naturally, I was full of plans and expectations and I made sure we visited every anchorage, island, cool spot and did every activity we could do – sometimes moving the boat 3x a day. Now we go a week or two without moving the boat at all. When we go someplace we wait until the wind and the waves are simpatico with our destination. No more needless wear and tear on Ad Astra’s gear or crew. We arrive fresh and happy.

When I need to get something ordered or fixed I leave plenty of time for it to actually happen. Today means this week, this week means next week, this month means sometime in the next 8 to 10 weeks. I do not even get annoyed by it. It just is. Just bake it into your plans. Why rush anyways? You can always do something else while you wait. Do some more coding, more exploring, more diving, fix something else, have a BBQ with friends.

It is strange for me to think how carefully planned out my days used to be:

I had Important Appointments all day long

Emails flowing in that Had To Be Answered Now

Stuff To Do!

Now when I make an appointment with a friend we use time resolutions of:

  1. let’s meet this evening
  2. or let’s meet tomorrow
  3. or I will see you in St. Martin in June

Every once in a while, I need to do a call at a specific time for basic life overhead tasks, it now feels like a huge intrusion into my life. Having your own time is the most precious luxury. I would be an asshole not to appreciate this luxury.

But patience with myself has grown – and is even more important. When I am trying to fix something and it is not working out, sure I get frustrated. But a lot less frustrated than before. Now, if I get stuck I have learned to set it aside for a few hours or days even, then a new line of attack on the problem will present itself.

* * *

Hard skills! Check out all the specific stuff we have learned:

  1. Both Max and Kyle have become decent junior programmers in Python and will be work-ready software engineers, if they so choose by the time they are ready to leave Ad Astra
  2. SCUBA – open water certified last summer, advanced this spring and now on to rescue diver for us, 60 dives so far and many dead Lionfish (and some lobster) to our credit
  3. Landed some tasty saltwater fish
  4. Achieved US Coast Guard Master
  5. Learned how to kite surf at Union Island
  6. We do 90%+ of the work to improve, maintain and repair the systems on Ad Astra
  7. Diagnosing and repairing my diesel generator is now straight-forward
  8. I designed our 2050 watt solar system and stainless steel arch and installed them with skilled techs
  9. Have rebuilt toilets, swapped out dead bilge switches, added in solid state switches and bilge counters
  10. Learned way too much about our life raft!
  11. Removed and re-bedded our stanchions and fixed quite a few different leaks on the starboard side
  12. Removed and had our bow-roller built from a machine-shop, re-installed, and fixed our windlass counter
  13. Repaired countless dings and chips in the gelcoat
  14. Learned how to be WIFI pros via the BadBoy extender
  15. Created a whole new 12v sub-panel and installed an AIS transponder, 8 TB hard drive for our movies, pix and music, and a new digital NMEA2000 to network all of the ship’s systems to any device with a screen.
  16. Repaired and improved our dinghy in so many ways: hypalon patches, navigation lights, oars handles, new engine, bumper, added planes, re-finished the bottom with anti-skid
  17. Learned to raise the main quick and professional with one person at the mast hand pulling past the lazy-jacks
  18. Learned how to replace our zincs while in the water and how to scrape the bottom clean saving us thousands from a haul-out
  19. Designed our new 1200 Ah lithium house bank from scratch cells, and installing in a few weeks
  20. Repaired a broken batten with sail thread and epoxy
  21. Repaired a carburetor with epoxy and a brass nipple using a cordless drill as a lathe
  22. Anchoring, mooring, and docking are all now simply routine for all of us – Max and Kyle are fully capable and have done complete passages on their own.
  23. Max does all of our navigation plotting and maintains the ship’s log
  24. Experienced how to tie-up our boat in a mangrove swamp and prepare for hurricane Matthew
  25. Rigging the bowsprit and flying the gennekar is a straightforward task for the crew now
  26. Added Racor fuel-filters to our dinghy and both main diesel engines
  27. Researched and acquired critical spares for all our systems
  28. Repaired the water maker by replacing the brushless feed pump
  29. Learned to splice rope and made an all-new Super Bridle for the anchor and spliced in new Dyneema lifting straps for the dinghy
  30. Installed a butane cooking system in parallel to the propane system

We have so many people to thank – my Dad, friends both in Austin and across the Caribbean, but I want to especially thank Kerry Ollivierre of Bequia for teaching us so much, Michael Steele for landing the Gillespie airplane and Michelle Kindig for kindly allowing us to have our mail delivered to her home.

There be Dragons!

Green Iguana on Petite Terre

May 3rd, 2017

The Petite Terre Isles were so lovely.  I saw them on the chart but dismissed them out of ignorance.

Then my great sailing friend Peter Wraa invited me to meet him and his latest crew in these little lost and protected islets.  It would be a hard 5 hours to windward across a shallow shelf and short choppy seas, for Peter it was a long but fast sail down from Antigua.

Twin islets with a just a 7 foot bar for an entry between the two.

7 foot bar

Entry during a northern swell is forbidden as the bar is completely closed out by breakers.  However, it was calm on our arrival – simply the most shallow entrance bar Ad Astra has crossed.

We took one of the 13 moorings that the French National Park system provides.  Absolutely no anchoring allowed.  For the 13 possible moorings there are 4 full-time rangers stationed on the islands.

There were so many rules on the island, you could not do much more than swim or snorkel in specific zones, or relax on the beach.  I even got busted for flying the drone!

Castille du Max was even more cool from above…

The water visibility was excellent, the fish super plentiful.

When Max and I went snorkeling I stopped counting large lobsters at knee depth after I reached 70!

Now I understood the value of all the rules.  With strict French protection I got my first understanding of what life in these Caribbean reefs must have been like for millennia.  Now most reefs are dying from bleaching, overfishing, lionfish, and silting from urban runoff.

The scariest fish I have yet encountered was a 3 foot diameter Permit Fish with a very ugly jaw and face. When I swam towards it, it turned to face me and swam towards me! Oh shit! Never mind buddy, you are not like the other fish – you win!

Permit Fish

I took a walk to the lighthouse…

The Lighthouse at Petite Terre

… along this beautifully shaded path…

What magical creatures lined this path?

On the bigger island there were so many green iguanas that if you kept your eyes open and walked slowly you had 10-15 of them in sight at all times. They were so docile they let me get my camera lens up very close. We had a very easy downwind passage where Max was my first mate as Kyle was away in Texas and it was his first time helping me fly the big green genekkar.

Check out even more Dragons here: https://bethkania.smugmug.com/ThereBeDragons/