April 24, 2014

Mail call: especially pawsome deliveries!

rustic post office

Mail! It's something we rarely get, unless it's brought by visitors; our changeable routing and backwater destinations make it difficult. Spending a more extended time in one place (wow, almost two months already!) means we've had a chance to actually have things sent to us. That alone is kind of a novelty, but two special deliveries in a month? Unprecedented! (Honey- the new batteries, and the order from Defender- they do not count. sorry.)

The first was a valentine, sent from the other side of the Pacific by my friend Charlotte. Charlotte, like me, lives in a digital world- but as a cruiser, appreciates the rare touch of personal mail. I tried to remember the last time I got a letter in the mail, and I can't. It's been a very long time. That her card held a sweet note with a picture her gorgeous girls in it made me a little teary when I opened it up. Naturally, this was also in the marina office (no way was I waiting on a dinghy right back to the boat!), so now the whole office knows that I'm a little sappy. That's fine, and it's been reinforced by my reaction this week after learning the receptionist got engaged (trust me, if you saw that pretty ring on her lavishly hennaed hands, you'd get misty too) so they're used to me now...

Love letter

The next came special delivery with stamps from France. France! (Niall immediately tore these off for his own collection, he's kind of a Francophile. I have no idea how this happened but suspect our friends on Merlin.) Not only that, but it was delivered to the kids. That's REALLY special and uncommon!

Bailey Boat Cat

The kids couldn't wait, either, and opened it up immediately. Tucked carefully in the padded envelope was a copy of Bailey Boat Cat: Adventures of a Feline Afloat. Sweetly inscribed and pawtographed by Bailey and his humans, Louise and James, they sat in the main cabin and read it cover to cover. Together. In perfect peace and harmony. (This hasn't always been the case lately...) 

our friend Maia with favorite ship's cat Charlie of sv Ceilydh
Bailey presents an entertaining view of life afloat on his human's Tayana 37, Nocturne. Paging through it myself once the kids were willing to share, I loved his clever bits of Whisker Wisdom ("To be curious on a boat is to have the world at your paws") and nautical observations.

A tour through this book shares an intuitive look at what it's like to live on a boat through Bailey's feline eyes. It explores his world on Nocturne without fancy jargon, but plenty of little truths, an abundance of clever wit, and a large dose of pawsomeness. In the process, it actually offers a really nice view for the humans who wonder what this boat living thing is all about. Turning the last page, I even- dare I say it?- I even found myself thinking that maybe someday we should have a ship's cat.

This would be a big step, since our idea of "pets on boats" only started a year ago with a wild gecko (Steve prefers accepts hand-fed snacks brought domain in the forward head, and has allowed a second pet on Totem- our dwarf hamster, Jiaozi). Thanks Bailey - we'll just keep it our little secret for now.

Whisker Wisdom: Take a look around: life is pawesome! Yes, it is. You can grab a copy of Bailey Boat Cat: Adventures of a Feline Afloat in print or for your Kindle on Amazon.

Cat people know it makes us purrrfectly pleased when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

April 21, 2014

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: how cruising kills your Stuff

Snorkeling the Surins- Iona
rich in experiences, poor in Stuff

Standing in the dinghy and holding the toe rail of the Canadian boat, Gromit, we quickly moved from introductions to bon voyage wishes for our newest cruising friends. Totem had recently arrived in the anchorage, and these twenty minutes were all the time we’d have before Gromit and crew departed for Thailand. Would we like their Malaysian internet SIM card? How about the mobile SIM? We open up our various devices, remove the Thai cards that we won’t need any more, and make the obvious trade with a quick swap over the water.

We had reached this anchorage with just enough time for a brief overlap with the ketch Rutea. Our prior meeting with Neal and Ruthie was a flyby in 2009, as they motored out of a small bay in the Sea of Cortez while we motored in and loitered with the boats adjacent for a few minutes of greetings and anchorage tips. A touch over 20,000 cruising miles later, we finally intersected for a night in an anchorage and shared a few hours in Rutea's cockpit that afternoon. The priority was a chance to get to know each other better, but it’s impossible to pass up the obvious swap. Before they left the next day, we did an informal exchange- our remaining Thai baht for their Malaysian ringgit. Their daughter had recently left the boat, and left behind art supplies she wouldn’t reclaim- would we like them? (Yes!)

Time for a swim!

The lovely Tenaya arrived a few weeks later for yet another anticipated (and brief) meeting. Katie, Tenaya’s co-captain, had contacted us a year or so ago for information about cruising in Papua New Guinea. I took one look at their Facebook cover page with a dinghy packed full of happy kids in Vanuatu, and knew these were my people! Another brief but sweet encounter. Some swaps naturally occurred. Tenaya is being shipped to the North Sea, and isn’t allowed to have jerry cans: would we like their deck jugs? How about the stack of travel guides for Borneo, where we’ll be headed this year? We had another Thai internet SIM left by our friend Frank, still loaded with data- would they like it?

Actively sharing from what you have happens naturally with cruisers who are far from home. As soon as something isn’t needed, we try to pass it along.

Cards in the cockpit

The relatively minimalist lifestyle makes this easier. Moving aboard means getting rid of the overwhelming majority of your Stuff: today, we live with just a small fraction of our belongings from prior land-life. The less we have, the lighter and happier we feel, and perhaps ironically, the easier it is to give away.

Back at home, our garage held storage boxes with contents we no longer remembered. Other people have storage units - multiples even - that have been filled for years, with a considerable sum as the ransom for fear they might be needed, someday. On a boat, there’s no room to keep things you don’t need, and that in itself is a gift. Getting rid of those things that you don’t need (and if you have it packed away in a box, or a storage unit, there's not much of a case for "need") is liberating.

Gunung Agung - Totem- Sunset

So when Kathy came back to Love Song from a trip home to the USA last week and stopped by to bring us a stack of magazines, I understood perfectly. She divided them between us and another boat; we’ll read them, trade, then move them along. When we got to Telaga, we brought a bag of clothes we no longer needed that Kathey's boys might fit into. She had a t-shirts that were perfect for our girls.

Being adept at reusing what you have is a good skill for cruising remotely, and even not so remotely. Most cruisers have reduced dramatically in the transition to living aboard a boat. Recycling by passing along to others whatever has become excess, whether it's a spare piece of teak or a good book, is natural.

Liberated minimalists know we feel the love when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

April 17, 2014

Battery bank replacement: power projects aboard

Battery replacement project

More than six months ago our battery bank ticked past the five year mark. That’s a pretty good life for marine AGMs, so we've been thinking for a while about where and how it would be replaced. You can’t always count on easy access to boat bits in the islands of Southeast Asia, so the big concern is that the bank would nosedive in an inconvenient location with complicated and costly results. We wanted to wait as long as possible, but expected it to become necessary at any moment, making it the top priority in a string of power projects on Totem but one that hung in the air for several months.

Battery replacement project



What we put in
Battery replacement project
Totem has AGMs (Absorbed Glass Matt), the deep-cycle sealed batteries commonly used on cruising boats. As we talked to other cruisers in the area, many reported good results with AGM batteries sourced from a local manufacturer. Good batteries, fresh from the factory, with minimal shipping cost (heavy batteries can make it absurdly expensive): a perfect combination. We just had to make our existing bank last long enough to get to the Malay peninsula!

When they finally arrived, it took a couple of dinghy loads to manage the weight. Each one is heavier than Jamie! Thank goodness for friends in the cruising family to help get them on board. If you've been on Totem's Facebook page recently, you already saw how handy the dinghy davits were for loading these monsters on board. They came in really handy, not just to have purchase on the weight, but because could swing them out over the dinghy, then back over the deck, vastly simplifying the transfer.


Tweaking location

Moving weight on the boat was a meaningful side benefit of the project. Totem has listed slightly to starboard since we bought her in 2007. This is primarily the result of tankage being moved around from the original plans, skewing weight on the starboard side. Our house battery bank was also located on the starboard side, just under the nav station (photo above). For the new batteries, Jamie built a box under our bunk in the aft cabin. This would create a significant weight shift: with about 400 lbs coming off the starboard side, and over 600 going in just to port, we might just get a flat boat.

Battery replacement project

Of course, it’s never as simple as just building a box. Over a period of several weeks, Jamie built out the box for the new set under our bunk: grinding down fiberglass (wow, that’s a lot of fine dust), fitting lumber to make a strong base (discovering the many lumber yards on Langkawi!), and building the frame up (I love the smell of polyester resin in the morning…not) to securely hold the new bank. It was a lot of work.

Battery replacement project
before wiring, double-checking with Calder
What about Lithium?

Lithium batteries are getting more common on boats and we’re familiar with some installations that get raves from their owners, on the yachts Tahina and Nimrod. They have some great benefits: because they can be drained more deeply (and charged more fully) without affecting their lifetime use, which provides far more usable power for the same total amp hours in a bank. Their lifetime value- amps delivered vs cost- is superior. This saves weight, too, a meaningful factor on some boats.

On the other hand, they have a higher upfront cost. In addition to the battery cost, we’d have to take on additional projects. We’d need to make sure our alternator was big enough (it probably isn't). We’d need to check the voltage requirements of every device on the boat, because unlike AGMs and their ilk, lithiums can put out higher voltage- over 15v- in a 12 volt system. For voltage sensitive devices like our watermaker, we’d have to put in a regulator.  Maybe in five more years we’ll move to lithium batteries, but it’s too much to take on now.


It's all good.

The new bank is 1000 amp hours, a nice bump in capacity that we definitely need. Totem is floating- dare I say it? nearly level on her lines. I don't get to examine the waterline often, but every time I melt butter in a frying pan and don't see it all run immediately down to one side, I'm going to smile.

Battery replacement project

Amped up readers know we get a charge out it when you read this on the Sailfeed site.

April 14, 2014

Healthcare while cruising

Christmas party
Laughter is good medecine, but we do rely on more than fun

Shuffling down the corridor of the hospital on Langkawi last week, I realized with a start that this marked the first time since leaving the US in 2008 we've sought out medical help for anything but routine or preventative care. I’m embarrassed to be going to the emergency room, but it’s a Friday- Jumu’ah- so the village clinic and local doctor are closed on this Muslim island. The blisters on my legs have reached a level of discomfort I don’t want to wait any longer to address, so I overcome the conditioning and we head for the hospital.

Healthcare and medical emergencies were among the chief concerns I had as a pre-cruiser. Looking back over the last six years, I wonder why I worried so much.

Mexican train
five healthy kids, including two I just shared chicken pox with...

Is it easy to find a doctor / clinic / dentist / hospital / etc.?

People everywhere have basic health care needs, so pretty much anywhere that people live there is a way to access health care. I think that growing up in the US trains us to think that we’ll somehow be turned away or have difficulty getting care abroad. In fact, it’s the reverse of the US. Along our travels, care is accessible, it is generally far less expensive, and medication relatively easy to acquire. We do not need any routine prescriptions, which certainly simplifies this for us. Some planning would be needed otherwise, but it's hardly insurmountable.

In French Polynesia, our friend’s son needed stitches on his head after a minor accident. In Australia, another cruising kid suffered a broken arm. In both cases, medical care was readily available and inexpensive.


What about insurance?

We do carry insurance: a travel policy, intended for catastrophic needs only. We minimize our premium by carrying a high deductible, and presume that we’ll cover all our medical care out of pocket. Medical evacuation for the victim and a parent are covered, a benefit we value in the event of a calamity.

A few months ago, dental workups for our whole family- including an extraction and a filling- added up to less than $200 (about the same as we paid in Mexico). With good care, at such reasonable cost, we would have to try hard to spend enough on medical care for any other insurance coverage to make sense.

Some cruisers and travelers we know have affordable health care in their home countries (such as Australia and the United Kingdom) and return often enough to cover routine needs there. On the other hand, plenty of cruisers don’t. They find, as we do, that locally available medical care is both accessible and affordable.


What about the ACA?

Two things are pertinent for cruisers (but I’ll be the first, I’ll be the first to admit we’re no experts on the subject!) First, the ACA does not recognize travel insurance policies. So the insurance coverage we do cover is meaningless in their evaluation. Second, if you spend most of your time outside the US, the insurance requirement is waived. Because we are outside of the US for more than 330 days in a 365 day period, we meet the "physical presence" test for exemption. That solves the insurance problem, but we can’t afford to fly back anyway! I guess if we get back for a visit, we’ll just be careful to keep it under the maximum allowed days.


Meanwhile, my visit to the emergency room has cost about US$15. Diagnosis: shingles, and aren't I the lucky one, but I have a full-body case (wheee!). I waited about two minutes to be seen, received a basic workup, a consultation with a physician, and medication. One flat registration fee covered it all.

Healthy readers know we live it when you read this on the Sailfeed website!

April 11, 2014

Normalizing the view of family life afloat

Playing in the cockpit

Most of the time, the general public really has no view, or interest, in our very different way of living. The events on Rebel Heart have changed that temporarily, the center of a swirl of media attention. It's given the uninformed,  hiding in the anonymity of the internet, the mistaken impression that their opinions are wanted or matter. Seeing the venom spewed at families who choose this life, it's hard not to feel judged, and feel frustration that there's so much misinformation!

It's time to showcase the way cruising family life looks 99.9999999% of the time. Check out the #kidsonboats hashtag on Twitter, where people are sharing images of their kids, on boats, all over the world. Or this collaborative photo album of family cruisers that's the brainstorm of mom Cindy, raising her kids afloat. There's the awesome video soon-to-be-cruising mom Cidnie pulled together, families from our connected cruising world sharing more photos from around the globe.


Rallying around Rebel Heart, cruisers like Tamiko are taking the naysayers to task for the gross and inaccurate assumptions made Charlotte and family. After publishing a great article in Slate about their life afloat, cruising mom Diane waded through the comments and found a few good questions tucked among the absurd. So, she answered them.

Want to see super normal happy kids growing up- just, afloat? Look at the gorgeous photo essay Genevieve put together of her girls, who happen to be growing up aboard their boat in the Caribbean. Or, take a stroll through this a slideshow BabyCenter published a little over a week ago of our life, from early days as weekend sailors through the miles we've voyaged since. Or visit with Brittany, who is no stranger to dealing with those who question the decision to raise her little girl Isla (and soon, twins Haven and Mira) afloat, and has choice words for those who pass judgement. Or the yacht Momo, where Michelle ponders why people need to judge, and reflects on what she's learned about risk while raising her daughters cruising.

These are the tribe of cruisers, of families afloat, of people who get it. Not jumping to conclusions. Knowing there's a story to be told, and it's for Charlotte and Eric to tell. And meanwhile, as we wait, to offer our support by trying to normalize a public view of family life afloat.

The Kaufmans have expressed profound thanks on their blog, and asked that donations be made to That Others May Live, an organization which provides relief to the families of members of the United States Air Force Rescue community when tragedy strikes.

bobbing off the stern

I'm always grateful when followers read this on the Sailfeed website.

April 8, 2014

Crazy people, taking children cruising

evening bonfire

What kind of irresponsible parent would take their children cruising? That seems to be the underlying message from many corners in the wake of the Kaufman family's rescue in the Pacific from their boat, Rebel Heart.

It's all too easy for me to remember the questions we had from people who didn't understand our decision to go cruising as a family. They dove to the risks, and not to the benefits, and never considered that we had considered those risks already. This was a very deliberate choice driven by family values: not crazy hubris, not selfish interests.

Ridgetop view

Not that this stops the naysayers, who loved to let us know how we were ruining our children's education. Placing them in harm's way. Not to mention, of course, that they would never be properly socialized.

I remember too well what it was like, that run up to cruising: it is full of voices, some from the well-intentioned but uninformed, some in your head, some from those who need to speak against your brave choices to justify their own inaction. Don't let them intimidate you, or let one unfortunate event spun up in the media tip your dreams. Don't let the ridiculous fabrications of the fearful leach into your psyche.

dancing on the beach

Consider the sources, and hold tight to your supporters instead. Their voices align more closely with the reality. Cruising is the fulfillment of our dream to share precious years with our children as they grow. Countless memories and experiences enrich their lives and ours. It is turning our kids into curious, articulate citizens of the world. It has given them respect for cultures and lives beyond our home sphere. It has built our bonds as a family.

No, it's not completely without risk, but we take great care to prepare for the tough realities, and mitigate each of them to the best of our ability. And really, what life is without risk? Whether it is natural disaster, or human error, or pure bad luck- stuff happens, whether you live on a farm in Oklahoma or a boat in Mexico or a condo in San Francisco. None of us are immune, no matter how we navigate our futures.

mairen and bryce

Irresponsible? Crazy? If that's the bucket we get tossed in, well, I'm proud to be a member of the tribe that's chosen to raise children differently.

You know it drives us extra crazy when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

April 1, 2014

Managing power on a cruising boat

paddling home, racing the sun
Living off the grid, providing your own power, is a tremendous feeling. On Totem, it’s one of the compelling aspects of life afloat, hand in hand with a more simple life and a lighter carbon footprint. Relying on our solar panels and wind turbine to supply power needs instead of plugging in is liberating.

That good juice from the sun and the wind is stored in our house battery bank. Currently, that bank has 660 amps total from six 220aH 6v AGM batteries.  When we have steady trade winds, and sunny days, these meet our needs pretty well. For a long stretch, that’s been enough. We’re all power-watching hounds: even the kids understand the numbers on our electrical panel that show the voltage level in the house bank, and the net amperage being used or added at any given time.

Lately,  we’re falling short on power needs. Part of it is generation. Part of it is use. Part of it is storage.

- On the generation side: as it happens, the equatorial zone where we find ourselves often has a lot of clouds- part of this whole convergence zone thing that produces squalls that increase seasonally, as they are now. Not great for solar power generation. It turns out isn't known for having a lot of wind, either (you've heard of the doldrums?). There are windy squalls, yes, but they don’t last long; the steady trades aren't here. The moniker “land below the wind” is well earned. We do have wind and sun and make power from both, just not at the level we'd like- but that's relatively short term. Once we leave these low latitudes, we can more consistently generate green power.

- On the usage front: we’re simply using more energy now than we were back in 2008. Our biggest power hog is the refrigeration, which suffers mightily in the tropics: the 32 year old insulation is ineffective. Our needs are changing, too. As the kids get older, we’re losing more power to the #2 use after refrigeration: digital devices, primarily powering computers. That’s not going to change, so we have to.

- On the storage side: Totem’s house battery bank has been declining for a year. When marine batteries start to go, it's possible to have a slow demise, but things can happen very very quickly. For a while, it was worrisome- juggling a lot of different projects on the boat, we weren't sure when we’d be able to have the magic nexus of time and money to get a new set of batteries installed… but we had to. You don’t get a card to Pass Go wait once the batteries are dead.

The next few months are bringing a really exciting trifecta of power change to Totem. I never thought twice about our power use when we had a conventional land life, but I am positively tingly thinking about what’s coming up:

1. A Silentwind wind generator will soon significantly upgrade Totem's wind power capability.
2. We are adding a solar panel. I big hearkin’ panel. It will double our solar-powered amps.
3. New batteries to replace our house bank are on on the way, and will increase our capacity by 50%.

This is huge. It’s going to take some work, but nothing we (or any self-sufficient cruiser) can't handle, from building the box to hold the 600+ pounds of new batteries to installing the turbine and panels and wiring everything up.

What do you want to know about power on board? Who has solar, wind, or generators helping meet their needs? In the coming weeks, I’m going to get into detail on the work we’re doing and the changes that are happening to our own mini power grid, and want to make it as useful as possible.

Green energy fans like the Totem crew always like to read these posts on the Sailfeed website.