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/

One Loose Rope

This story story about a love triangle between British con-man, a Trinidadian young man and a Guyanese woman, a life raft party, a SCUBA search and recovery operation, rebuilding a carburetor while underway and many great sailing friends.

It all started with a loose rope I noticed about 8 weeks ago.

We carry a Bombard 6-person offshore life raft on Ad Astra in the event of a catastrophic failure of Ad Astra.  It is hard to imagine what would have to happen for us to abandon our boat.  There is the old saying, never abandon your boat unless you are *stepping up* to your life raft.  The idea being that a boat that is floating is still more safe than an inflated raft and that boats are far tougher than sailors.  In fact, just a few years ago this https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/01/mummified-body-of-german-man-found-in-yacht-adrift-off-philippines German guy was found as a Mummy on his still floating yacht after an unknown number of *years*.

Ad Astra is also a catamaran built by Lagoon producing more cruising catamarans than any other manufacturer with the most number of sea-miles of feedback.  There are other catamarans that are certainly better sailing craft – Outremer, Catana and Gunboat for example.  There are also fantastic high-latitude steel and aluminum hull monohulls that can shrug off bergy bits.  No need to start the multi vs. mono flame war.

The point is that Ad Astra has an enormous amount of redundancy:

  • She carries 3 sails – the main, genoa and gennaker
  • We have two 55 HP Yanmar engines
  • We have two separate diesel tanks 500 liters each with each having extra Racor fuel filters downstream
  • At 2200 RPMs they burn approx 2 liters per hour each and deliver 6-7 knots SOG together, and using just one engine at 2200 RPM we can usually manage 5 kts, for an endurance motoring range of about 2x 250 hours x 5 kts = 2500 nm at least in theory
  • We have two dinghies – one 3.5m and one 2m
  • We have 3 outboard engines – 18.9 HP (2-stroke), 2.3 HP (4-stroke) and 2.5 HP (2-stroke).
  • 2x separate fresh-water tanks 350 liters each
  • 3 separate solar systems totalling 2000 watts of power
  • 2x 80 Amp  alternators
  • 1 5kw diesel generator
  • Storage of 2-3 months of food at all times
  • We carry a small assortment of jerry jugs of water, gasoline and diesel.
  • We also have enough entertainment options that we could supply a village for years

All that above is my excuse why the tether rope on our liferaft unravelling was not a great concern to me.  The liferaft was secure in its stainless steel cradle.  The white nylon rope unraveling was like a loose shoelace.  So I simply tied the tether with my favorite knot – the Bowline!

Although generally considered a reliable knot, its main deficiencies are a tendency to work loose when not under load…”

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later it was loose again.  More bowline knots.  Many of them.  That should do it…

. . .

I was getting close to overstaying my VISA in Martinique, so Kyle and I made the 22nm run to St. Lucia.  It was a very fast downwind run with 25 knots of steady wind, moderate swells and I kept the full canvas up for what would be a record fast passage for us.

Rodney Bay is a large bay, mostly sand, no challenges.  Dropped the hook in 5 meters of water.  Let the wind push us back as we paid out the chain to –

CRUNCH!

FUCK we hit a rock!? Hit a wreck!? A reef!?

BEEEEEEP! The the starboard engine complains as it shuts off.

Kyle flies from the foredeck to take them helm while I grab my snorkel gear to find out WTF!?  The chart shows no rocks, reef or wrecks.  As I jump off the starboard sugar scoop I already see the problem – that loose liferaft tether has wrapped around the starboard prop.

Diving below, the prop is fine, the shaft is nicely polished bronze thanks to the tether wrapping a dozen times.  It takes just moments to separate the tether from prop shaft.  But the crunch sound?  That was the 1.5 inch stainless steel tubing being *torn* apart like a baguette.  The liferaft was now bobbing in the water but thankfully has not triggered the gas cylinder.  Kyle and I complete the anchoring process, then Kyle burrows into the guts of Ad Astra’s stern and I swim below and working together we free the remaining bits of stainless steel and secure the life raft into the cockpit.

Starboard diesel?  Totally okay – like a champ, ate the stainless and took a nap.

Alright.  Fair enough.  My bad.  Broken stainless – not a bad penalty for not securing that tether properly.  All-in-all it was basically interesting.  Huge crunch.  We sorted it quickly.  No yelling, no drama, no injury.  We can fix this.

Kyle and I next day went in to see Liferaft and Inflatables that had great reviews and a nice write-up in Doyle’s guidebook.  The Guyanese Deborah and the Trinidadian Nival were there at the shop and very cheerfully pulled up our 3.5m dinghy out of the water and checked for leaks using a bucket of soapy water and a lot of enthusiasm.  Alas, the leak was shy.  They assured me that no worries, they always find the leak.  But they need to take it to the workshop, but they were so busy with work that they could not get to it for at least 10 days.  Alright, fine, Kyle and I were going back to Martinique to pick up my dad and Max, and then will be back to Saint Lucia to pick up Kaiwen.

A week later Kyle and I sailed back and forth from Martinique to Saint Lucia now with 10 cases of beer for our South African pirate friends JK and Nelia.  Of course, we needed to have a party as we had not seen them properly since the storm planning for ‘cane Mathew.  I still had some Chipotle peppers, chicken, Tequila and limes, and we were going to have a Mexican themed party.

As the sunset, I asked the boys and my dad to clean up the cockpit so I can go retrieve JK & Nelia from their boat anchored just 100 meters away.  JK prepared some very special rum punch…

Moments later, we were returning to Ad Astra just rounding the port quarter when my dad focused on the liferaft box and with determination and two hands decided to haul that box out from under the cockpit table.  Boom!  The CO2 canister exploded at that liferaft started to tragically and most comically fill the cockpit all the while my dad was futilely attempting to push the liferaft back into the box!

We were all stunned.  A liferaft.  Open. In the cockpit. Welp.  It cannot stay there – it is huge.  Tossed it off the starboard sugar scoop and tied it down.  Then we had that epic party in the liferaft that I shared earlier.

It was great fun, and no true worries.  I was planning on having the liferaft unpacked and inspected the next day anyways.  Also it was actually very reassuring to seeing what this $2000 piece of equipment in the white box actually looks like.  It is pretty cool, it has a waterproof battery cable with lights on top and inside, a whole grab bag of food, water, a knife and other critical supplies.  It was fairly roomy with a inflated roll-bar and a zip down door.  It was a floating tent with supplies in a box.  I felt a boost of confidence from the added experience and JK and Nelia also deeply appreciated it as even though they have many thousands more sea miles than I have, it was their first time in a life raft as well.

The next morning is when it started to go further south.

Our first task was to get the dinghy and the liferaft to Inflatables and Liferafts.  Easy right?  We have a 20 HP 2-stroke that planes at 23 mph!  Well, no.  After trying every combination of towing and bridle we were simply drifting out of the anchorage and entering the greater Caribbean Sea.  I started to sweat it.  I started to lose my cool and was thinking we might need to cut the liferaft loose.   One last effort to pull the huge liferaft onto the dinghy.  It was very difficult.  There are large baffles under the liferaft to act as sea anchors.  Heavy.  Lots of clumsy wrestling and finally we had the liferaft onto the dinghy.  We drove back to the anchorage and into the harbor with Kyle giving me verbal instructions as I was blind in the back.

(This next section was so difficult for me to write that it has taken me two weeks to do it.)

As we approached L&I I saw Deborah, Nival and – Francis.

Francis The Fraud.  A 70+ age-spotted con man wanted in the UK & Spain.

Francis quickly collected my dinghy and liferaft and explained that he was the owner of L&I.  Deborah left.

Francis took my liferaft to his house (I learned later), and my dinghy to his workshop.  He needed a deposit to start on these two jobs.  Fair enough.  His credit card machine failed.  Hmm… I have 50 Euro, $200 USD, and $150 EC – good enough to start?  Yes for now.  But come back later to complete the deposit.

Went to the ATM, got another $500 EC, visited him later.  His CC machine still did not work.  Now we are at $1335 EC total deposit or about $500.

Next day: 

Me, “How is the work coming along?  What is the estimate for the dinghy and liferaft totals?”

“Yes, yes, later today I will have your estimate.  Come, let’s go to the bank and see if they can charge your CC.”

Okay.  Bank gave him another CC machine to use.  As we approached L&I, he freaked the fuck out and put his truck in reverse when he saw Deborah and started to tell me this horrible story and intimate details of two businesses, love triangles and affairs and other assorted bullshit.

He sought refuge at his house and took me along.  My life raft and parts were spread across his living room.  How about the liferaft – what’s the plan?  He picked up the CO2 canister and mumbled to himself as if he was thinking about it for the first time.


Me, “Okay.  Nevermind the liferaft.  Let’s focus on just the dinghy leak.  How much? When?”

Francis mumbled, “Sure, sure, at the end of the day I will…”

Ring, ring, bang! His phone rings and there is a knock on his door at the same time.

“Fuck, take him  back to the marina!”, Francis orders his assistant as he gives the keys to the truck.

Francis intercepts Deborah.

After waiting 10 minutes feeling vaguely like we did something wrong.  We left Francis’ house.  The assistant is pleasant enough, but what the fuck is going on?

Stepping out of the truck at the marina I stop and just look at the boats and the sky.  What is happening?

A tug on my elbow.  It is Nival!

Nival says, “Deborah wants to speak with you urgently.”

Me, “I don’t want to talk to more people.  I just want you guys to work, and me to pay.”

Deborah runs up to us, “Why did you go to his house!?” she yells at me.

Me, taken aback, “Hey.  I didn’t want to go to his house.  But, why are you asking me questions?  I have questions!”

We have a passionate and focused discussion.  She also wants to tell me too many details about L&I.  I reject interest into getting involved in their conflicts.

I walk away demanding that they get aligned with each other and have a plan for me by the next morning.

Back at Ad Astra I try again to collect my thoughts when Deborah and Nival come alongside and start again.  Did I know that Francis lost his license to work on liferafts? No.  Which company invoice did he issue the receipt for the deposit?  Fargh!

Bullshit overload.  That’s it.  “Take me to the warehouse and I want to take to both of you at the same time.”

Deborah took me to the workshop.  Francis and his assistant were there.  He looked like a ghost when he saw me and Deborah together.  My dinghy’s outboard was lying on the ground without it’s shell.  And the hypalon strip that covers the inner seam around the anchor locker was removed.  Francis declared that the leak was *inside* and in between the tubes.  It was going to be a major job to re-tube the dinghy.  Thousands of dollars!

Deborah loses her shit and takes charge.  Gesturing to me, we flip the dinghy over, and in a matter of 5 minutes she finds the true leak in a simple location on the bottom of a tube.  I am angry with myself. I could have found it if I had just given myself more time and trust.

Deborah ends up doing the patch, and re-installing the hypalon strip that was wrongly removed and Nival gets my liferaft back and packs it up decently well.

Wow.  Crazy shit.

 

We left St. Lucia in a hurry and sailed right past Martinique to Dominica for our first time.  I posted pictures and videos already, and Dominica delivered on the hikes, Indian River, and great snorkeling.  We will be coming back to Dominica in the next few feeks.

On our way back to Martinique for my dad’s flight, we stopped at Saint Pierre.  This town was blown off the map and 30,000 people were killed instantly by a huge gas cloud.

My dad being a history buff, I knew he would love this place.  After a great 55nm sail back including some reef changes as the gusts came up and down in the channel, we approached this majestic green super volcano.  At just one nautical mile from the town the bilge alarm went off – BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!  It is similar to the engine stalled alarm, but the bilge alarm you cannot turn off with a switch.  You must find the source of water that is freaking out the float switch, eliminate the leak, and pump out the water.

 

Boat is LEAKING!  This is a legitimate concern(™), handing the helm to Max, Kyle and I started lifting floorboards to find where water is coming in.  Starboard – No.  Port – No.  Engine rooms Port and Starboard – No and No.The boat is dry.  So not a true emergency, but you cannot think with the bilge alarm on.

But the Starboard bilge pump is running continuously.  *Snip* wire cutters to the float switch and mercifully that BEEEEEEP! Is killed.  Phew.  Okay it is close to 5pm and Saint Pierre is a somewhat challenging anchorage with narrow shelf at 20-30 feet and then a wall drop down to the abyss.  There was not a lot of anchoring room, and I like to have 10:1 scope.  I settled for being a bit close to one monohull and about 7:1 scope in 20 feet of water.

I was a bit worn out from the sail and from the bilge faux emergency.  And it was getting late in the day, and I like to be on the boat after we anchor for some time to see how she settles in.  So I grabbed a beer and asked Kyle to take Max and my Dad into see the ruins in Saint Pierre.

After just what seemed like 30 minutes and now relaxed, as I was taking sunset pictures of a Neel Trimaran coming into anchor, Kyle was coming back with the dinghy with Max and my Dad.  Kyle noticed that I had the big zoom lens out and started to get his crew to smile for the camera.

As he neared the port quarter of Ad Astra, he decided to rev the 18.9 HP Tohatsu 2-stroke for a fun banking turn for the camera and Max and his grandfather.

Then a slow-motion horror began – the Tohatsu revved to life, and the prop lifted out of the water, Kyle panicked and revved the engine more.  The gyroscopic effect lifted the engine off the transom (another mistake, we failed to re-tighten the transom clamps hard after the misadventure in St. Lucia.

I was setting my camera down when fractions of seconds went by like minutes and we were all paralyzed.  The Tohatsu balanced for a moment on the transom, and then fell back into the water and faded down.  Then bang time returned to normal speed.  Kyle was saying Oh Fuck! Oh Fuck!  I went silent and grim.  Then Kyle and I both raced for the SCUBA gear.

 

We had the gear rigged up and I was in the water no later than 5 minutes later.  However, in that time Ad Astra and the neighboring boat had wandered around.  The sun was on the horizon.  I went straight down into the gloom.  It was poor visibility – no more than 3m, sunset and black sand.  I went straight down, then west to deeper water, then north, then back in a pattern.  Deepest I went was 15m.  I was down at most 20 minutes until it was simply dark and my underwater light was dead. Damn.  So I surfaced into the twilight without the Tohatsu.

Belatedly, we tossed out big red buoy with 10 meters of chain and aluminium kedge anchor to mark my best guess where it went down, but clearly not the correct place as it was in the middle of the pattern I just dived.

 

Nothing to do but go to sleep and wait for light.  At 5:30 am and woke up making a list of the ways we could search for the engine.  I was down to 50% of a single tank of air.  But we did have snorkel gear and a drone!  Reading online it turns out that a drowned engine is fine in salt water for some time and it is actually a good thing that we did not haul it up the night before.  Corrosion kicks into overdrive in the matter of hours with salt water plus the oxygen in air.  At 7:30am the sun finally made it over the tall volcanic peaks and I slipped into the water in my snorkeling gear.  I simple pattern and 15 minutes later I found the engine a full boat length ahead of Ad Astra and more to port than I had expected.

The Tohatsu lettering in white was easy to see.  Turned out we had three Pterois Volitais (lionfish) that took up residence in and about the handles of the engine.  Grabbed my SCUBA gear and my hawaiian sling.  The lionfish were surprisingly stubborn and would not budget.  I had to lift up the prop to give them no shelter and poke at them a lot.  Even so, one decided to face me and flare and it was a bit too exciting.  With the battle one I tied a trio of bowlines on the engine and we used the spare halyard to lift the engine.  Despite being about 35 kg normally, in water it was actually very easy to raise the engine.  Fitted the engine back onto the big dinghy and carefully led around to the rear of the boat, we lifted the big engine onto the stern engine mount, lifted the dinghy on the davits by 8:30am, and by 9:00am we raised anchor and started motoring south the 25nm to Marin.  Marin is the epicenter of French cruising and so all possible marine services are available there.  Also, thinking about how to get my dad to shore with baggage using a small dinghy I wanted to be in calmer water for the small 2.5 HP soft-bottom spare dinghy.  (Mental note – when did we last run the Honda – November?)

 

From my morning reading, before we even had the anchor up, my Dad and Max were washing the Tohatsu with the cover off with fresh water.  Then I sent a text to my french friends Celine and Alaine Chagneau, do they know a good outboard mechanic in Marin that could help with the engine?

Without pause, they started sending me instructions: rinse the engine, spray with WD40, remove the spark plugs, spray with WD40, remove the carburetor, spray with WD 40, pull the starter cord to clear the water.  Clank.  Pull. Clink. Pull. Clank. Pull.  Did this over and over again with huge resistance from the water that did not care to be compressed by the pistons.  Actually got cramps in my right arm and Kyle took over pulling.  Eventually it sounds pretty normal and pulled normal.

Now, disassemble the carburetor, spray with WD40, open the jets, spray with WD40 (notice the pattern yet?)

Only problem, when I removed the fuel input hose from the carburetor, the pretty delicate black plastic nipple integrated into the fuel/air body snapped off inside of the black hose.

 

Reassemble the carburetor, reattach all the parts except for obviously the fuel input hose.  Spray with WD40 one more time.  Leave the cover off to dry it out in the sun.  The whole water damage recovery job including the teardown and reassembly of the carburetor was complete by 11:00am and we were still 2 hours out from Marin.  Felt like a NASCAR pit crew with technical direction from French HQ.

We anchored in between Eloane (Celine and Alain) and Nautik (Rudy and Caroline) who did not yet know each other, but we were friends with both. The engine is raised and clean and everyone assures me she will run again once we get a new fuel body and nipple. Which Celine already identified and ordered from budget marine for us while we were still on our way down! It is my Dad’s last day of his trip and friends on both sides of Ad Astra. So of course – 6 adults, 7 children, a dog and a baby make a great party!


The next day, Steven and Maverick Chagneau and I comb through all the local chandleries for possible parts to improvise a temporary solution to the fuel input.  Even though the replacement part was ordered from St. Martin and will jump on a plane, you always have to factor in island-time.  Which in this case was warranted as the part ended up getting lost in transit with Liat QuikPak and would not arrive for a full week.  Furthermore, it is important to run a drowned engine as soon as possible to steam out the remaining water from inside the engine case.

We found a promising brass nipple and some plastic-friendly epoxy.  A hacksaw to cut the nipple down to size, and then using the Makita portable drill and sandpaper we had a makeshift lathe to shape the nipple.  Mixed the epoxy and rigged up a mold out of some packaging and clothespins.  Set the epoxy up and set aside for 24 hours.

Popped the repaired fuel pump body back into the carburetor and reassembled. The moment of truth – it runs!  It took some alternating choke, open throttle, low throttle, low choke and some care but after about 10 minutes – it was running like new!  Today is a 9 days after the dunking and the Tohatsu is still running with the epoxied part!

What a crazy adventure!

But it all started with one loose rope.

That is why good captains are so picky about keeping a boat in order.  You almost never have a problem from a single mistake, but mistakes build upon themselves:

What did I do wrong?

1) I did not secure the liferaft lanyard properly the first time I noticed it unravel

2) I did not thoroughly inspect under Ad Astra when we got underway in Dominica 55nm earlier to see if the rope €was in order

3) The cockpit was not a good place to store the liferaft even for a few days.  There is too much traffic there, better to find a new secure location out of the way

4) Do not give up on finding your own dinghy leaks. I had all of the tools and supplies to find and fix more own dinghy leak but I had more confidence in others than myself.  That was a mistake.  Next time, before I engage professionals I will truly exhaust my own options and take breaks and think about the problem.

5) When we got the dinghy back, I directed Max and Kyle to secure the 20 HP Tohatsu with the padlock between the camp arms.  I should have double checked myself that the powerful outboard was truly secure.  Someone can easily get a serious injury from a wayward engine.

6) Kyle should not have tried that high-speed turn at the end, that motor is simply too powerful to screw around with.

7) Kyle should immediately have raised his arm high to pull the engine kill switch

8) I should have immediately dropped the anchor and buoy right at the spot that I saw the engine go down before getting my Tohatsu.

9) This is a hard one in hindsight: but I needed to get that carburetor off the engine, as I could not work with it in 1 meter swells with the engine hanging on the transom.  But the nipple and hose were so snugly connected I did not have enough strength to pull it off with my hands.  So I used a pair of pliers on the nipple end that is what broke the nipple as it is almost impossible to pull straight back while balancing against the swells underway.

But what did we do right?

1) The crunch where the starboard prop wrapped the lifeline and ripped the stainless steel – while we moved quickly, Kyle and I did not lose our temper, and we moved very quickly to clear the prop while partially anchored with just 2:1 scope out.

2) When my dad accidently popped the liferaft I knew immediately that it would cost a bunch of money.  But it was not his fault, it was mine for leaving it in the cockpit.  And rather than get angry, it came naturally to start joking and be happy once I verified that he was alright.  It was also great to get inside my liferaft.  Now after visiting a quality life raft shop in Martinique (Le Survey) I got a quote of 1400 € to refill the cylinder, replace the expired consumables and re-vacuum bag the liferaft.  The price for a new one? 1700 €.  Yeah.  I am going to look for another place to refill and repack, perhaps somewhere in Florida or Panama has better prices.  I was expecting ~ $500-700 for the inspection and replacement of consumables.  So it was a net -$1000.  But so what? We got a great party & adventure out of it and we learned a lot.

3) When the Tohatsu went over, I did not yell at Kyle, nor did I need to share any disappointment.  He was already morbidly down on himself.  In fact, later that night, he and I drank a beer together alone where I coached him that he is doing fine.  He is a great guy, but he does need to improve his situational awareness and it was a good day for him to decide to level-up his adulting.

4) With the help of friends we got the engine back to new for the cost of a $2 brass nipple and $9 of epoxy (and probably a can of WD-40!)

These are huge successes for me and my family.  A year ago these problems would have seriously pissed me off.  I would have lost my temper and be in a foul mood for a long time.  It is weird, I no longer have an income, and we are living off of savings.  But I am feeling solid progress on being the better, more calm person that I as a key goal.

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