March 19, 2012

What do you need to go cruising? Part 3: water games.

Continuing the theme: if you don't have a boat yet, are there cruising essentials you can buy in advance?

We covered books, and some ideas for personal gear. All very practical. But there's more to cruising than pure practicality, so think about those things which will be part of your everyday enjoyment. For us, most of those relate to spending time in the water. With the opportunity to swim in warm, tropical seawater just steps away, there weren't many days we stayed out of the water.

niall diving...oh, wow
Niall diving in French Polynesia

Snorkel gear: we picked up gear at yard sales and rummage sales over the course of a couple of years. Average price: ridiculously cheap. It wasn't high end gear, and many were lost to leaks, but it met our needs really well for the first 1-2 years of cruising. There was something for everyone, and that meant it wasn't a tragedy if a mask was lost overboard or left on the beach (not that we know any children *cough* who would do such a thing *cough*). We started replacing gear around the 2 year mark, partly because our own standards were increasing and partly because what we had on board was finally wearing out. We're now systematically replacing everyone's gear, and wow, it's pricey- easily over $100 per kid and several hundred per adult. Deals are sweet if you can find them.

Wetsuits. Just because it's the tropics doesn't mean you won't get cold in the's still well below your body temp. A thin wetsuit will help extend your time in the water. We wore them extensively all through the tropics.

Rashguards. These are primarily for sun protection, but also protect you from jellyfish. This isn't idle cruising FUD: poor Mairen was stung by jellies on one of her first swims in Mexico. We were able to get inexpensive, custom rashguards for full body coverage in La Paz, Mexico. Almost every cruiser there can direct you to the lady who makes them in town! The kids loved their "jellysuits" at least in part because they could pick their own material out. The sun rots them, so have backups for when your working set finally falls apart.  Union suits or two-piece top/bottom sets are a matter of preference.

Beyond snorkeling: if you dive, this is another obvious area to source gear. We're considering dive gear, and weighing it against getting a hookah rig. Not knowing just how much time we'd spend with our heads underwater when we left to go cruising, we didn't consider the high cost of equipment (not to mention allocating space for the gear on board). It was far to expensive to acquire either of these in Mexico or the Pacific.

Kayak. These are great backup tenders or transportation and entertainment in their own right. I have spent many happy mornings gliding over a lagoon, solo or getting some 1:1 child time... looking at fish and coral and talking about the day. For many reasons, I love our kayak. It was a Craigslist special that lived in the garage before it lived on the bow of Totem. Nothing fancy, but pennies on the dollar of new- especially after leaving the US. Kayak paddles were harder to find, and we ended up paying retail for those in California. As a result, our two paddles cost more than the kayak!

what? in the kayak again?
Puget Sound, with our friends from Koi- before we had a proper paddle

Surfboard. Ours was a gift from my aunt, Julie. I love it somewhat irrationally- because of the connection, no doubt. It's something we wouldn't have spent the money on to buy for ourselves before we left, not knowing how much enjoyment it would bring. Many waves (and many afternoons of kid-floating) later, it's hard to imagine being without a surfboard! Now we're looking at adding a stand up paddleboard and possibly a second surfboard (because it's always more fun with a friend!).

surboard + kayak paddle
Floating in the lagoon, Makemo, French Polynesia

Speargun. We got into spearfishing more than we ever expected, due in great part to two folks: the example and support from our friend Ethan on Eyoni (the guy who speared a fish so big, Latitude 38 thought it was photoshopped!), and the support and advice of our "home island"er Robert, who emailed tips and ideas while we were getting started. If you think you will too, it's another somewhat pricey item that's unlikely to come on your boat and good to shop for bargains or second hand. If you'll buy one online, try to get your hands on one first so you have a feel for a length that works: something you can easily reload in the water, in full gear. Don’t get the type with a screw-on tip. Tips come off too easily, and those spears weren't replaceable in the Pacific (the integrated type was readily available).

As long as we're talking about playing in and around the water, here a few more things that come in very handy.

We have both inflatable (for comfort in most conditions) and not (for when it's really wet and you don't want an accidental inflation). If your boats comes with PFDs, they will be the bulky Mae West style that helps meet USCG regulations when you have extra bodies on board, but which nobody wants to wear, ever. Children grow and need additional sizes in waiting. If you generally use inflatables, have lots of spare kits for re-arming: label them clearly before stowing so there's no problem matching the right kit to the right PFD later. We could not find these in Mexico, they cannot be shipped, and I'm not sure they can be carried on airplanes either.

Dry bags.
When (not if) you flip your dinghy: having your fancy camera safely stowed in a dry bag will suddenly make that $15 investment invaluable. We have a waterproof backpack, but it's not comfortable for any meaningful weight/distance. This may sound crazy, but there were even times we were swimming to shore instead of taking the dinghy. It might have been the heat. It might have been the surf, and not wanting to roll the dinghy. It may simply have stemmed from being stranded because a  partner/guest/child has taken the last of the tenders to shore already. Whatever the reason, but you can throw stuff- like a change of clothes!- in a dry bag, swim in, and carry on.

Next in the series: boatliving daily basics.

March 15, 2012

What do you need to go cruising? Part 2: personal gear.

Continuing the theme: what "stuff" makes sense to acquire before you even have a boat, but actively anticipate cruising? The last post on books was the most obvious one to me, because (as a committed bookworm) there's so much to gain from them and feed the dream while you're still in the early stages.

Buying ahead can help future cruisers score big bargains, or at least avoid paying full retail in the frantic months prior to departure. It's highly unlikely that higher value items that aren't installed/wired into the boat will be included in a purchase, so this is the perfect category to scope. What have we found most useful that fits into that description?

Handheld boat equipment

VHF. You may not realize it now, but your life will be coordinated by VHF. I consider two handheld units to be a practical minimum, so you have a backup when (not if) your primary fails you in an inconvenient location (ours chose Tonga). If you have a family, consider having more so you can keep track of children.

Enjoying the view
Omnipresent VHF clipped in for an early morning hike: Agua Verde, Mexico.

GPS. Let's face it. We have fun practicing with a sextant, but we are not going to use it in more than a novelty and educational capacity. There: I said it. Having multiple backup GPS units is good. Besides backing up (in least two) the possibility of failure with our primary GPS on board, they're fun. We've been geocaching in Mexico with the Don Quixotes, and it was a blast. A handheld can be handy for land-based travels, too: that path up the volcano seems really obvious on the way up, but perhaps not so obvious on the way down.

Night vision monocle. The use may seem too small to bother with, but it can be indispensable at times of stress for understanding what is around you. At those times, whatever it costs feels like enough...better yet, source with patience and a discount.

Other handheld equipment that we don't have on board (but wish we did): these qualify as very nice boat jewelry that I would love to have scored a deal on before we left. My opinion isn't quite based on direct experience, but 20/20 hindsight.

Satellite phone. To date, we have been 100% radio centric. I still expect to be radio centric in our cruising communication, but having had our SSB fail- not once, but twice, at critical points in our Pacific crossing- I want backup. It would have been stupidly expensive to source a sat phone in the islands. We expect to have one on board when we leave Australia.

Range finder. How many times have we been at anchor in a blow and thought...I wonder how close we're getting to that cliff? I'll tell you: ENOUGH! Once would probably be enough, frankly. And it's been more than once. I am debating one of these for Jamie's birthday... ssshhhhh... maybe he won't read this far.

Handheld watermaker. This is a high-end ditch kit item, the kind of thing you never hope to need. Yes, we could build a solar still and yes, we hope we never need to. But if we hadn't been hemorraging money just before we cut the docklines, we would have gotten one. And then there was that day, a week out of Mexico heading for the Marquesas, when our watermaker failed and contaminated every drop in our tanks. We had nearly  two weeks until landfall, and that day would have been a lot less stressful with a backup aboard.

Personal  electronics

eReaders for everybody! We now have five of these on board, because we couldn't share. Totem has a mix of nooks and Kindles, but frankly, I don't think the brand matters as long as 1) it is e-ink based (not backlit, like a tablet: power pig, harder on eyes, and not so hot in bright sunlight) and 2) it can read the popular ePub file format. That describes almost every ereader on the market.

Tablet- iPad or Android. Yes, in addition to the ereaders. No, we are not digital junkies. Honestly? We haven't crossed this bridge yet and are getting by fine, but like the sat phone- we won't leave Australia without one (and probably two) on board. I'm leaning towards Android. It would be good enough as a media device, but they offer benefits for navigation as well - thank you, Navionics. I'm convinced that we could have navigated better through the reefs in Fiji with a tablet than we did with our sets of (extremely inaccurate) paper charts plus chartplotter.

Cameras. Even if you're not a big shutterbug, you'll probably want good images of your travels. If you are a serious photo fiend, get a nice DSLR. We didn't get one until after Year 2 (thanks to my awesome brother. Very timely that he was expecting a kid and decided to upgrade, and passed us his old Nikon body). Also- at least one underwater camera, for a few reasons. The basic one is that they are the ultimate durable pocket-sized camera: they won’t die when (again, not if) the dinghy flips, and they will help you remember those pretty fish you saw so you can ID them when you're back on the boat. Besides, they just keep getting more affordable. We had a cr@ppy camera that made it only about one year (possibly because it had a 3 meter rating, but I routinely snorkeled with it to 6+ meters), but it's easy to find cameras rated to 10 meters now. I'd shop for this, but not buy until you know you're in the home stretch- technology just changes too quickly. I've got my eye on this nice Lumix.

Mairen, the next fish
Some of our best memories are captured by basic point-n-shoot underwater camera. Vava'u, Tonga.

Personal gear / soft stuff

Foul weather gear. Good gear is stupidly expensive. It's also an excellent item to score on eBay. We have foulies (and backups / crew spares) purchased for a fraction of retail. My best score was a top end Henri Lloyd jacket for Jamie, $800 tags still attached, <$200 on eBay. That said, these just don’t get worn very much in lower latitudes… but when you need them… they are worth their weight in gold.

Sun protective clothing. In lower latitudes, the fancypants SPF rated stuff does make a difference. If  you are super white, and genetically disposed to melanoma like us, it's important to take seriously. Big hats, swimming skins, and ventilated clothes with good protection values are worth it...and, expensive at retail. Solumbra and Coolibar are good providers... I personally troll the semi-annual Patagonia sales.

budding naturalists
Niall and Mairen sporting serious sun protection. Isla Isabel, Mexico.

Sunglasses. Not so much a "buy ahead" as a "plan ahead." Do you have optical insurance that will cover your sunglasses? Make sure you maximize the benefit and get new pairs as soon as you are eligible, so you have plenty of spares for later. Not helpful if your prescription is changing, of course, but mine wasn't. Especially after the LASIK!

First books... then personal gear... up next in the ruminations on useful cruising "stuff" you can source in advance: the fun stuff.

March 13, 2012

What do you need to go cruising? Start with books.

In the theme of the last post: what "stuff" is helpful to acquire before you even have a boat, but actively anticipate cruising?

One area that makes a lot of sense (and not just to us- thanks for the comment, Carolyn!) is to pick up the books that are staples of a cruising boat's bookshelf. It’s possible some will come with the boat you purchase, but there’s likely to be minimal overlap. They can get very expensive if you pay full retail at the last minute. And besides, sinking into the pleasure of reading books that are part of your pending adventures can help keep you motivated and focused on reaching the goal of actually leaving and going cruising.

We put these into three general categories:  references, regional guides, and local literature.

reading up on the coast pilot
I think I'd actually wait to get this book. Taken on "cut the lines" day in 2008.

Essential References

A general cruising guide. There are a number of solid cruising guides available, and they generally come down to different points of view on how to do the same thing. The different philosophies or approaches to cruising will make one resonate for you. My pick is Voyager’s Handbook by Beth Leonard. It is comprehensive, clearly written, well organized, and thinks through topics from several angles or budget levels. If you're not sure, the library is a great way to try a few out.

Nautical references. Two which we think are imperative, but which in all honesty are rarely cracked, are Chapman's and Bowditch. These aren't just books, they're institutions! When you really need them, there's not a substitute...and they get expensive at retail.

Medical references. There are a lot to choose from. Like cruising guides, pick those that work best for you. We acquired ours during our advanced first aid course, which gave us the advantage of familiarity with them from the training.

Mechanical references. Two words to cover this: Nigel Calder! We swear by his Boatowner's Mechanical and Electrical Manual. Not realizing we had a copy, a commercial fisherman friend gave us another as a departure gift. Tells you something, right?

“Nice to Have” References

World cruising overview. I really like having Jimmy Cornell’s 2-book set, covering major seasonal cruising routes and country basics, as a handy reference. Reading through these helped think about top level route planning and the basics of what to expect in countries along the way.

Knots and splicing guide. If you’re into knots and splicing at any level beyond the basics,  The Ashley Book of Knots is the one to have. Jamie learned from this as a teenager at the Mystic Seaport, and always wanted a copy. I’m not sure how but our crew to the Marquesas, Ty, also knew it was the perfect gift and hole on our bookshelf to fill.

Fishing guideThe Cruisers Guide to Fishing is full of practical information. My personal favourite: tips on filleting different species. We didn't catch the variety of pelagic fish we would have liked, but found a lot of helpful information here.

Selected cookbooks. We have a lot, because we love to cook, but I think most boats can use two: all-purpose cookbook (which you probably already have) and a cruising-specific cookbook. For covering the bases and including a lot of really great tips on provisioning, I really think Amanda Swan-Neal's The Essential Galley Companion is just that. Essential. For everything else, I love Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything.

Regional guides

We did not anticipate how important regional guides would be, and departed with too few on board. Sure, we left with plenty books for Mexico, but that left us facing the difficult and expensive acquisition of books for the South Pacific after we had left easy access behind at home.

Regional cruising guides change infrequently, and can often be quite expensive. Find out which books you want for your anticipated cruising areas, and start trolling eBay for deals. For boats on the Pacific side of Mexico, Shawn and Heather's awesome cruising guides are excellent dream fodder, even if you won't need them for practical use for a couple of years. If you're planning to head across the Pacific, many of the Pacific Island guides can be hard to acquire. It can be really hard to visualize what you need.The year before we left, I couldn't have picked more than a couple of island nations out on a map, and that's probably being generous.

Country travel guides change a little more often, but the core content that I find most useful- historical overview, local maps, information on cultural norms- stay the same. Lonely Planet, Moon, Rough Guides... whatver you like: these are great to troll for 2nd hand from another traveler. Our guide to Fiji had years/miles but will still extremely useful.

Field guides to regional flora or fauna are even less prone to change. We get huge enjoyment from identifying what's around us and they can be hard (or expensive) to acquire after you depart. Bird guides, reef life and fish identification, plant life, marine mammals, etc. These are ideal to scope out at garage sales or thrift stores.

Local literature

It's hard to beat the incredible feeling of reading Melville's Typee when you're in the Marquesas, anchored at the very bay where he writes about being held as a captive in 1842. Reading literature tied to the areas you visit adds so much to what you can learn and enjoy about the places visited cruising. You appreciate culture in new ways, and see places you visit in new dimensions.

For a great list of titles for crossing the Pacific, our friends on Galactic wrote about their favorites. It seems we have a pretty good mind meld going there. Just read their list!

A note on digital

It should go without saying, but many of these are available digitally. Totem has been modified to add many (many) linear feet of bookshelves: we do love our books! Now that everyone aboard has a reader of some sort, I'll be happy to reclaim a few of those feet for other storage purposes. But... maybe this will someday seem old fashioned to the digital natives we're raising, but I find it hard to beat the hard copies for the majority of books listed here. I'm not going to be tucking my e-reader into a backpack to take into town, like I would with a travel or field guide. It's too flashy, and too subject to being broken / drowned / stolen. I'll keep my dog-eared paperback, thanks.

The  biggest exception here are the local literature. These are books I'll be reading in the shade of the cockpit or on a soft evening at anchor. As much as I thought I'd mourn the tactile loss of a Book, it's not come to pass. One great advantage with many of the classic books is that they're available for free. It makes building this aspect of your library one of the really great areas you can put time and energy into before buying that boat, much less sailing off into the (low bandwidth) sunset.

Books: the first installment in useful cruising "stuff" I think you can reasonably acquire before you have a boat. The next installment... is percolating.

March 9, 2012

What do you need to go cruising?

We got an email recently from a cruising buddy, who had been in touch with a family planning to go cruising. They don't have a boat yet, but were actively looking and trying to get ahead in anticipating the cruising life.

The fundamental question they wanted to ask was this: how can you start acquiring essentials for long term cruising before you have a boat? The underlying concept: while you have time (and an income), attempt source the essentials by trolling eBay and Craigslist so you minimize paying retail at the last minute.

My gut reaction was that accumulating stuff at that stage was a little premature. The kneejerk response was rooted in two parts. First, after four years of living aboard, I pretty much think of "stuff" as the enemy. Second, I remember how hard it was getting rid of too much stuff when we moved out of our house in 2008. And besides... there are so very many things that could come with the boat you purchase, why put time and effort (and cash) into it now? Overwhelmingly, cruisers have at least a year with a boat before they take off. Isn't' that enough? This acquiring-in-advance just felt like a distraction, and a reversal of the simple life cruising idealizes.

Puerto Don Juan
Dinghy on the Beach, Baja

But then I started to think about it some more...and Jamie and I started ruminating...and brainstorming...and the list of things you could reasonably acquire in advance started to grow.

It's not just about the stuff you need (which is highly subject to individual interpretation, anyway). It's about the dream of cruising: of keeping it present, and doing little things every day which bring it closer to reality.

It's also about saving money. With time and patience, there really are quite a few things which are generally essential to have, and if you can score a fantastic deal, the worst case is that you end up having to resell one later. This is potentially a hassle (not to be underestimated in the chaos of trying to cut docklines at last!) but not going to literally cost much. I think it's fair to say that almost every cruiser we know- ourselves included-  hemorrhaged cash as their anticipated departure date loomed. Much of this is due to unknowns (we really did not plan to buy that autopilot THE DAY BEFORE WE LEFT, but when the one on the boat died, we didn't exactly want to hand-steer from Puget Sound to San Francisco either).

So stay tuned. Lists o' Stuff are coming.

No retouching
Sunset, Sea of Cortez

March 5, 2012

Mementos from Marquesas

I can't help revisiting the sailor's tradition of picking up a tattoo in the South Pacific. Our friend from the former FlyAweigh (now "out there" as Water Music), Alison, shared more pictures on one of her trips to Sydney. Thanks to her, I've got an image of Hyo's to post.

This is on the inside of her forearm, so when she's standing, arms at her sides, you just see the tiniest tip of the gecko's tail curling around to the front of her arm. I think it's subtle perfection and absolutely gorgeous. On the inside is this cute snappy critter.

It's freshly inked here.

Hyo's forearm

Then, there's this. Alison's cool ankle gecko drew in a small friend. Was it natural attraction?

Alison's gorgeous tat

The best part of this whole getting inked thing is that I love, love, love my tattoo. Irrationally, somewhat unexpectedly...well and truly love it. My own little vanity at fortysomething.

But what's been really fun and a little surprising is how to someone in the know, the design is instantly recognizable as Marquesan. The circle of people for whom that has meaning isn't very big, and it's a group I'm proud to be a part of. It's like our own private signal- "hey- you too?"

I crossed an ocean. I traveled to islands on the far side of the world. And every day now, I've got a tangible reminder of an achievement that will mark my life: to remind me to be strong, to have perspective, and be proud of what I can do.

March 2, 2012

Managing surge with docklines and snubbers

Totem's parking spot in the Brisbane river comes with lots of current and regular rolling from the wake of passing ferries. Both of these are quite unfriendly to docklines. Poor Totem springs back and forth in her slip, and snaps so hard against the docklines that it honestly hurts me a little inside. We clocked the motion at almost 4 knots (and then learned that our neighbors recorded 6 kts)! The jerking back and forth is tough on lines and tough on the boat- we badly need to absorb the shock.

Jamie wrote about docklines and dealing with these conditions in some detail for this month's issue of 48° North. At the time he was writing the article, we were working through our options. Our assumption was we'd switch to nylon 3-strand line (it's stretchier, unlike the old genoa sheets we have masquerading as docklines) and put on a snubber.

Standard snubber setup
When we bought Totem, there were already two snubbers on board. They were the conventional garden variety snubbers you see around marinas that look like this one pictured. I scanned enough reviews to gather that people love them as much as they hate them. The material matters: some suffer from UV degradation and don't last. They do a nice job of acting like a big hung of bungee integrated to your docklines.

We used snubbers like this while we were in a marina on Bainbridge Island. In hindsight, that must have looked pretty funny. There's not much surge to speak of in little Eagle Harbor! But they were already on the lines- possibly stemming from the prior owner's time at a marina in Hawaii.

One of them was still buried in our transom garage "somewhere"; the other had gone bloop to a watery end many moons ago. You kind of need two for a functional system. We might not find a quality snubber here- friend Toast said the snubbers they saw in Auckland were terribly UV-degraded.

Many people use smaller line to minimize the jerking. It's got more spring to absorb the shock than larger, heavier line. You can put a bigger, badder line on in addition as a backup- but using underspec'd docklines just strikes me as a questionable option.

We have dock neighbors that employ a seriously robust looking setup. It made me wonder if the simple snubber was really enough- check out that monster spring!

Docklines in Brisbane

We wondered if the chain was really smart (seems like a link could get weakened from bending around the cleat under load), but our friend Jason on the cat EA knew otherwise. He's a rigger at West Marine and has replaced busted docklines for a lot of the boats that rock in the swells at the dock in San Francisco. The default solution there is to chain an old tire to the dock cleat, then tie your docklines to the tire.

So...what to do? Buy a snubber? Go for a whole new system? In the end, we defaulted to a choice that has proven to be brilliant on a few levels. Totem has a few spare fenders on board which can't be inflated thanks to a defective pin fitting. They're quality UV resistant construction and have just enough give in them. There's a handy loop at each end to secure to our lines. So now, we've found a use for something that was "broken" and kept a bunch of plastic out of the landfill in the process. And- it WORKS.

Docklines in Brisbane

It looks a little silly, sure. However, several weeks later I can confidently say they work exceptionally well. I no longer feel the need to pat a bulkhead and apologize to our boat when she moves with the surge. But about those docklines...

UPDATE: this did not have long term success. The fender bungee did work exceptionally well, right up until it didn't. The extreme surge in the slip ultimately broke the fender, but it did take a few months. Given less extreme conditions, it would probably have been sufficient and a great way to re-purpose something that was otherwise headed for the garbage. Instead, we just used stretchy lines for the remaining handful of months we spent in Brissie.