June 28, 2015

Rudders Belong IN the Water day 2

My fingers are o.k., although 2 of them are a little bruised as the spectra tie down ropes squished my hand between the ropes and rudder stock. I watched as the ropes reduced my fingers to half their normal thickness. And squealed.

We're sailing now with a reefed main and poled out Genoa. The combination is quite stable and the autopilot has not been complaining. So all is well, we're doing 6 knots with 1 rudder and the partial daggerboard (on the rudder missing side). We are 192 miles from port now.


Total non sequitur: if you sail a catamaran around the world on a typical trade wind route, you will spend a lot of time in the SE Trades, port tack. The waves will be coming from the port side of the boat. The waves that slap the inside of the hulls very noisily will hit the inside of the starboard hull. So sleep in the port hull and you will have a quieter off watch. Or wear ear plugs like I do.

- Evan


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June 27, 2015

Rudders Belong IN the Water

With 300 miles to go we were looking forward to landfall in the Seychelles in less than 48 hrs. Visions of fresh fruit and baguettes were dancing in our heads as we made good time under spinnaker. It's been a pretty decent passage so far. Other than one night when we hit a black wall of endless seeming 30-35 knot squalls in our face, when a boobie bird took forlorn refuge in our cockpit and Charlie the cat cowered beside me, it's been a passage of moderate winds and outsized southern ocean swell.
As many of the boats around us succumbed to torn sails, irritable autopilots and engine issues we trucked along: Right up until the moment our port rudder broke free.

Acting quickly, Evan tried to kick the rudder back into position. But the forces of moving quickly under spinnaker torqued the tiller fittings--making it impossible to fit the rudder back in place and nearly broke Ev's fingers in the process. After quickly lowering sails we detached the rudder and pulled it on deck. The we began trying to balance the boat: some jib, a bit of thrust from the motor and a bit of daggerboard.

We let the boats we're traveling in company with know what was up over SSB radio then we started to do the calculations: 300 miles to go, 250 miles of fuel... The strong adverse current makes it even more interesting.

The funny thing is, we're not too worried. One of the boats currently underway has two torn sails, a broken autopilot and 270 miles to go in strong wind. He's still cheerful--so we're totally fine.

The plan is to get to the Seychelles and haul out to reattach the rudder using something other than stainless eye bolts. The bolt which broke, setting our rudder free from the stern, was a brand-new Wichard bolt that replaced an identical 25 year-old bolt. It should have lasted longer than 6 months...

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June 24, 2015

Passage Paralysis

As passages go, the first 300 miles of our 1000 mile voyage to the Seychelles has been blissfully drama-free. In fact, despite the boisterous seas, we're expecting a second 175 mile+ day, something we haven't had since the Pacific. 
The only drama so far was a mild case of passage paralysis. This is the indecisive condition that overtakes sailors on the eve of a longer or unknown passage. The symptoms are obsessively checking weather (the more source options you have the worse the condition can get) and seeking some sort of consensus about the passage forecast while refusing to commit to raising anchor. If the weather conditions experienced by the boats underway match the forecasts, and all the forecast models match each other and the weather looks like it will hold for the 7 day passage you're good to go. If not it's really easy to stay just-one-more-day in that calm anchorage.
Chagos was especially hard to leave: of all the places we've been it's the one we know we can never get back to. That knowledge, coupled with the battering that boats that had left were getting (mostly those enroute to Rodriguez and Madagascar--boats headed to the Seychelles were being bounced but not beat up) made it easy to wait patiently for the perfect weather forecast.
With long distance passage making, it's essential to become proficient in general weather forecasting. Unfortunately what we never develop is local expertise. Every passage needs new strategies. With the passage to the Seychelles we're trying to stay out of the equatorial current by not going too far north, while avoiding hitting the stronger southern winds. This slender ribbon of positive or neutral current and moderate winds also puts us smack in the middle of the intertropical convergence zone; home of thunder and lightning squalls. And did I mention that the forecast models rarely agree on all these elements? And not one single forecast has a feature where it tells you to, 'go now! Your passage will be lovely'.
Some boats just toss up their hands, give up on trying to decifer the data and head out on a specific day, come what may (often a lot of wind, torn sails and autopilot damage). Other boats have been known to let entire seasons pass without ever finding a weather window to commit too. I only have limited data points but I'd really like to believe weather forecasting works and what we really suffer from is hard-won prudence, not paralysis.

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June 22, 2015

Remote Communication

We've been out of civilization for almost a month now and while we're almost out of fresh food thanks to our SSB/HAM radio and our new Iridium Go! I've never felt out of touch. While I know some people have the goal of unplugging at sea—I think we're part of a new nomadic breed that wants both remoteness and connectivity. I'm not sure I would have been happy to spend four weeks in a place like Chagos if I knew I'd be completely cut off. 

Since being in Chagos we've made good use of our communication's options: we've made a phone call home to check on the health of an injured parent, used our Go's messaging function to follow-up over concern about a boat at sea, received vital repair information by email attachment, used Predict Wind's excellent resources for weather and stayed in touch with the Indian Ocean fleet on a 2x per day radio schedule.

If we had to choose just one device, I think we'd still opt for the SSB. By using radio-based mail services like sailmail it allows us to do much of what we need to. And with mobile phone use spreading to the most remote corners of the world it's really only while voyaging across oceans that we use the SSB and sat phone. And it's while voyaging that the SSB radio has its most vital place.

I'm not sure I could ever adequately convey the role a radio net plays in a cruising voyage. The way it works in our informal net is that twice a day the boats that are on passage, or at anchor, check in over the radio with their positions, weather conditions and any questions they have. Someone typically takes on the role net manager and another as weather forecaster.

While it sounds staid—the radio net takes on the life of a radio drama at times. We get the real-life moments of boats enduring terrible weather; 'our boat looks like a war-zone but we're hanging on' or boat putting up with no wind for days on end; 'I think we're setting a record for the slowest passage ever'. What you also get is the benefit of the collective wisdom of a group of skilled boaters—details like how safe a harbour is to enter at night (from someone who was there last week) and real life up dates on whether the weather is matching the forecasts.

The problem with the radio is it's not instant. If you have a problem and the net isn't running for 5 (or 10) more hours—you can't get immediate advice. And if you miss the net, not only will everyone worry about you, but you'll be out of communication for 12-24 hours. This is the gap that the Sat phones fill. Our net includes boats without radios that send position updates in by Sat phone—and often if more information is needed we'll switch to email to ensure clarity.

Our new sat phone also lets us keep up with the world through facebook and other basic mobile sites something I've really enjoyed during our time in Chagos. Today though, it's time to head back toward civilization and easier communication. As one of the last three boats in Chagos we've been reluctant to leave—but the Seychelles are beckoning. So we're pulling up the anchor and heading 1000 miles west. Somewhere along the way we'll hit the 'halfway around the world' mark and we'll no longer be traveling away from home, but will start on our way back.

Image of Ceilydh from the top of Totem's mast courtesy of Behan

June 16, 2015

Mum versus Wild

By the time the moray eel treed me, our walk had already proved a bit wilder than expected. The eel had been chasing a crab when it slithered out of the water up onto the coral beach and struck the fast moving crab with a stunning ferocity. Then it saw my toe and must have decided it looked meatier than a crunchy arthropod and came after me. I scrambled off the beach and onto a palm tree trunk. Losing sight of my tasty toe, the eel decided the crab would be an okay meal after all. We watched it dine and then went back to contemplating our way forward: through thigh deep water over slippery coral, or back inland through dense bush.

Behan and I had set out on a gentle morning beach walk checking to check out a fishing boat wreck at one end of Ile Takamaka. Along the way we hoped to catch site of some of the feral roosters we hear each morning. The poultry is a bit of a mystery on an island with rats—we have no idea how they've survived (and seemingly thrived) in the nearly 50-years since the islanders were expelled. The clue may be in the fact that while it often sounded like there was a herd of chickens in the island's bush, we never saw any sign of them.

As we rounded the far point of the island we became enthralled with a pair of long-tailed white tropic birds. Both of us were snapping madly with our cameras and as we filled our memory cards (and memories) the tide must have started to rise. We wandered on, scrabbling over logs and wading through the ocean, casually deciding to circumnavigate the little island without ever voicing the goal.

It would have been too unsatisfying to turn back. Each tidal pool had a treasure: a shark nursery full of tiny black tip reef sharks, a lagoon with a half dozen turtles and dazzling turquoise parrot fish that dart in and out of the shallows. While each tree held dozens of seabird nests: there were boobie babies, terns and noddies.

As we continued, we were both certain that a distant point of land was the other end of the island and the end of our walk. But when we reached the point (now wading through thigh deep water) we realized we still had a long way to go. The wave height began to grow as it crashed in over the reef, so we headed inland. Even with sturdy shoes and a machete it's hard to traverse the islands—the foliage is dense and often impenetrable. And there were spiders.

But there were also gorgeous old banyan trees and mysterious open groves that must have once been part of the workings of the island. In one place we found the broken globe of an old glass fishing float. Several times we came back out to the beach with its bright red and navy blue coral under foot. In the distance we could see our boats. But then the beach would recede into deeper, current churned waters and we'd need to plunge back into the jungle.

Long after we started, but maybe much too soon, we scrambled back into the dinghy: home to laundry, and bread baking, and everyday things. As a mother I relish the adventures our life gives to Maia. The other day when she and the boys headed off to explore overnight and forage for their meals I celebrated their courage while staying home to wash dishes. Today it was mum vs wild.
Even mums need adventures.


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June 11, 2015

Chagos' Candy Colored Coral

On a recent snorkel here in Salomon Atoll we were treated to a long and leisurely swim with a turtle as well as the puppy-like attention of a very young and curious black tipped reef shark. As Maia swam and dove with the turtle, which circled back again and again rather than speeding off, we were also mesmerized by all the colour around us: fluorescent lime green, pink, purple and blue corals sprouted like wildflowers across the seafloor, each one a more extraordinary shade than the last.  

We've seen the aftermath of coral bleaching many times in our travels—it appears as stark white coral that has crumbled or has algae and seaweed covering it. But this short-lived first step of bleaching, which occurs after the coral animals expel the algal cells (zooxanthellae) which usually live in their tissues—is less well known. To understand what was happening I contacted a researcher through the BIOT. Jon Slayer from the Living Ocean Foundation explained that in healthy coral the algae are pigmented from the chlorophyll they use for photosynthesis, giving most coral a dark green, brown, beige or yellow colour. But when the algae are expelled, the coral's white limestone skeleton becomes visible. And for a brief time a coral with fluorescent pigments may appear lime green, purple, pink, red or blue.

Researchers were in the BIOT in March and April of this year. During their first voyage in April, the reports were extremely positive—there was no sign of the bleaching event that is sweeping through the Pacific and water temperatures were a healthy 25-29° C. By late April, sea temperatures had risen to 30-31° C (which is enough to stress the coral) and a warming (and bleaching) event was in full swing.

It's a helpless feeling to swim in one of the most pristine places in the world and know it's in peril. While we can't change the current situation, we have found a small way to help the researchers: Our group of boats has volunteered to help catalogue the progression of bleaching for the researchers—to be their eyes, when they can't be here. It's a small thing but it's a great excuse to get in the water each day and play with turtles and sharks and revel in all the beauty and mystery of our planet.

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June 8, 2015

Aground part 3: exotic repairs

"Cruising is fixing your boat in exotic places," the oft repeated saying goes. For us it's certainly been true. We've sewn sails in honeymoon hot spots, fixed fibreglass in world class dive destinations and done electrical work in countries better known for their exquisite cuisine. Our travel knowledge runs more to hardware stores and boatyards than boutique shopping and museums.

Most places we've done repairs have the benefit of having some sort of infrastructure though. Even the smallest coastal village usually has a boatbuilding guy with access to basic supplies. But here on Ile Boddam we had one severely damaged rudder and only seven boats to draw from for assorted fibreglassing supplies, which, after a thorough accounting, turned out to be not quite enough.

But I've jumped ahead.

Before we could even think about repairing the rudder from P., the 48' monohull that went up on the reef, the next step was to see if the rudder could be dropped in deep water without accidently sinking the boat. Luckily we have cruising friends who are currently land-bound but who are happy to problem-solve from afar. Graham offered to contact the boat builder and got us not just rudder drawings, to help determine the fibreglass layup schedule for repairs, but information about where the lower rudder bearing comes through the hull.

This detail is critical—if the lower rudder bearing is too far below the waterline, removing the rudder would be like putting a hole in the boat. Happily the rudder bearing was only a little below the waterline and after a few calculations Evan worked out that if we shifted and added 800 kilos of stuff up to the bow, the stern would lift high enough that the rudder could be safely dropped.

Dropping a rudder isn't always straightforward—but luckily in this case it was. Several swimmers secured the rudder with ropes (rudders are often filled with foam and float—but this rudder was so damaged the guys assumed it would sink) and then began detaching it and working it free. An hour later they had towed it to the beach and set it up for drying out.

We tend to carry a lot of fibreglassing supplies but after building a new daggerboard our supplies are depleted. For this repair we'd need several types of fibreglass including mat and cloth as well as epoxy, fillers and a whole lot of boat building foam. Where we came up short was with the foam.

Knowing this isn't a permanent repair, the rudder only needs to steer the boat 1000 miles to the Seychelles, Jamie and Evan got creative. They decided to use the foam for the critical areas that needed shaping. But for the void areas that just needed a substance to provide a surface for the fibreglass skins to laminate to, they invented a new composite they called epoxy coir.
In other words, they came up with the 106th use for coconuts.

Using Totem's generator the guys were able to set up a powered workshop on shore where they took turns grinding out the damage and prepping the surface for repairs. The kids were given the job of shredding coconut husks to make coir while Jamie mixed it with epoxy and shaped it to fill the rudder's voids. It took three days of solid work to repair the rudder:
opening up the damage
filling the voids with foam, plywood, and coconut coir, and glassing
fairing (a bit) and repainting

The next step is to remount it on the boat. It's been decided that nothing can be done about the damaged propeller shaft. The boat will remain engineless until the Seychelles but simply being able to steer is a huge improvement.



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June 4, 2015

Aground! The recovery

If you look at Google Earth and zoom in on Boddam Island in Salomon atoll in the Chagos Archipelago you'll noticed a labyrinthine maze of coral reefs, rocks and bommies. The 48' Wauquiez, P. had been blown into the thickest concentration of this coral—a feat so unlikely that charts, Google Earth and swimmers couldn't agree on a clear path to get them back out.

Before the boat could be recovered though, it had to endure a tide cycle. At 4am, when the mooring broke, the tide was midway through the ebb. Squalls were still on the horizon so the first step was to keep the boat from being pushed further onto the reef if the winds picked up. Using dinghies and divers, two anchors were positioned upwind of to keep the boat stable and then tires and a fenderboard were placed under the keel and hull to protect it from being battered as the tide fell.

Fortunately the weather held, and with the boat stabilized the guys began to check the boat for damage. The hull was intact but the rudder appeared badly damaged and the propeller shaft was bent. This meant the boat wouldn't be able to motor free under its own power without risking significant engine damage. The wheel was also difficult to move so whether or not it would be able to steer was still to be seen.

As the tide began to rise the boat crews struggled to come up with a plan to get the boat free. It looked like there were two possible routes out—so divers explored each option and then marked them with buoys, to see how they each looked from the perspective of the boat. The challenge was neither path was entirely clear. In both cases the boat would be required to make multiple sharp turns; a move that would be difficult under normal conditions but almost impossible with a damaged rudder and a bent propeller shaft.

The initial plan was to use several dinghies in unison as tugs and tows, but almost immediately that plan failed. There simply wasn't enough room between the boat and the reef to fit a single dinghy, let alone several.

The new plan was to go with old-school anchor warping. What this meant was a diver would swim forward along the longest clear path they could find and then have an anchor given to them to place on the bottom—then on deck the anchor rode was pulled in by hand, inching the boat forward, while a stern anchor was eased out to control the swing of the boat. When the boat reached the bow anchor, this became the new stern anchor and then the old stern anchor was hauled up and placed ahead of the boat by the diver.

Using this laborious technique, the boat was moved a few cautious feet at a time over the course of several hours. Two or three divers were in the water the whole time, edging the boat through schools of sharks, around coral and easing it over shallow patches. As the day went on, we kept a cautious eye on the weather—nervous that a single squall could undo hours of work.

Twelve hours after the boat went aground it was securely at anchor and the entire anchorage was giddy with the thrill of the rescue. The sober truth is there are the wrecks of at least three boats in this anchorage and we'd been perilously close to adding a fourth. While we celebrated we knew there was still work to do so we hit the beach for sundowners and began to strategize over part two: how to repair a badly damaged rudder and prop shaft in the middle of nowhere.


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June 3, 2015

Aground! where there is no coast guard

There are many sounds you don't want to hear on a boat: one is wind howling through your rigging and another is urgent knocking on your hull letting you know a friend's boat has blown up on the reef. We had both in the dark hours of this morning.

The waters around Boddam Island are a labyrinth of coral reefs and bommies which break the surface at low tide. Because anchoring in coral like this is difficult (and damaging to the reef) over the years cruisers have put in a number of moorings which appear well-made but are so overgrown with seaweed they're difficult to fully inspect. The practice is to tie up, then back down against the mooring with your engine at full throttle and then dive on the whole thing to inspect it.

Friends on a boat I'll call P. (they haven't alerted family or their insurer yet) did all the right things with their mooring—but around 4am, when the wind reached 30 knots, something broke. They were blown through a maze of coral and ended up wedged on a bommie. As the tide dropped everyone in the anchorage helped to secure them—putting out anchors upwind, laying tires under their hull to cushion against the reef, and searching the charts for a route out of the reef.

Many boaters carry a book called "Where There is No Doctor". It goes beyond basic first aid and ventures into how to stabilize someone for days on end. While there is no book with the name 'Where There is No Coast Guard", we all carry the knowledge that there isn't any outside help in many of the places we sail. Right now there's no towing company, no coast guard, and no local fishing boats to help pull P. free. When we finally get them off the reef there's no yard to repair their damaged rudder and bent prop shaft and no shops for supplies.

Like so many of the emergencies that happen on boats, all we have at our disposal are the supplies we carry, the skills we've developed and each other.

Anyone who is a long distance sailor can tell you how important the cruising community is. There's the value of camaraderie—simply knowing someone else who understands what it means to arrive in Tahiti at sunrise (and who doesn't want to slap you when you mention yet another exotic landfall). There's the generously shared expertise that comes from a wide range of backgrounds combined with hard-won sea miles. And, at times like this, there's the willingness to risk your own comfort, safety and equipment to help out a fellow sailor.

Sailors are some of the biggest heroes I've ever met. They're also the some of the most humble people I know. Today, as six boats and crews pool their resources, skills and efforts to save one of our own it's with the knowledge that any of us could be the one in peril.
And our community is our best hope.



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June 1, 2015

Pausing in Paradise

Today's agenda includes a bit of snorkelling, some writing, and a walk, and if the clouds stay away I want to go photograph the church ruins. I also need to cook meals, do dishes, check on the produce, and flip the eggs. And at 5pm we'll gather with the other sailors (from France, Spain, England, Australia and the US) and have cocktails and appetizers on shore until the rats and coconut crabs stage their dusk assault and we're forced back to our boats.

It's been a long time since we last had the option to stay in one anchorage until we tired of it. Unlike the forced stops where we've waited for weather or parts—we're in Chagos because it's one of those places that people literally sail around the world to reach. There's the tragic history—which gives it an air of gravity and importance—if sailors stopped coming, and stopped sharing the story of Chagos, the Chagossian people would lose one more voice in their fight for justice.

But mostly we're here for the simple lush beauty.
This is as unspoiled a tropical paradise as it gets in our modern world.

In 2010 marine protected area (MPA) was created that covers the territorial waters of the Chagos Archipelago. The reason for its creation was in part a cynical one; the environmental no take zone acts as yet another hurtle to stop the return of the Chagossian people. The result though is a rebounding of fish and shark populations (birds still seem to be lagging: likely because of the rats on shore and their general worldwide diminishment).

Fishing, while not entirely a matter of dropping a baited hook over the side and pulling in dinner, is the easiest we've ever encountered. Even we are catching fish (subsistence hook and line fishing is permitted—though we need to log and report our catch). While the people who actually consider themselves fishermen (you know, with rods and everything) have had to come up with new hobbies after catching too many.

So it's simple slow living while we pause here and take in the beauty. We have fish and coconut to eat as well as all of the supplies we laid on in advance of our arrival. We have ample sunshine and cool rain showers. We have shady jungle trails to hike and colourful reefs (with turtles, sharks and rays) to snorkel. There are friends to chat with and enough kids between us to recolonize the islands.

And each evening when the sky turns pink and the sun drops into the sea I can't help but be grateful that we get to be here tomorrow too.