July 27, 2015

Everyday Life in Exotic Places

Evan has had a sore tooth since just south of Male in the Maldives, Charlie the cat began running low on kitty litter one week in to our stay on Chagos and my shoes all came unglued somewhere in Sri Lanka. We did try gluing my shoes back together. I even had one pair sewn together by a shoe mender in Trinco. But the reality of sailing around the world is even paradise has limitations: sometimes you need sail through a couple of countries before you find a good dentist.

The Seychelles are gorgeous. At least that’s what we hear. We’ve spent the best part of the past four weeks anchored in the same spot, trying to get the dodgy mobile networks to keep us connected to the internet long enough so that we could research dentists, find a pet store and come up with replacement shoes.

I’m not whinging. We ARE in the Seychelles. But one of the mundane aspects of arriving in a new country every month is that everyday needs don’t just stop. We still need haircuts, root canals have to be worked into cruising schedules and Maia keeps working her way through the school year—which means we sometimes need new textbooks.

The Seychelles turned out to be a good spot for doing most of this. While it doesn’t have the sort of stellar medical system that attracts medical tourism, it does have serviceable, reasonably priced dentists. So while Evan had his root canal redone, Maia and I both had cleanings and checkups. We also got haircuts—our fourth and fifth in countries where we don’t quite speak the language. And we found textbooks at the store that supplies the English high school.

Between the big errands we hunted down spare parts for the boat and tasty things for the galley. We also searched out cat litter and cat food. For the things we couldn’t buy here there was a courier service (which required three visits to the post office and three visits to the airport and six 30 minute bus rides to get back and forth).

the best avacados come from one guy in the market--but you need to get there early
After four weeks we can tell you which shop has the best price on cheese, which butcher trims his pork the nicest, where to find stainless boat parts and which bus to catch to get to the dive shop. We may not be able to tell you much about the best beach, best restaurant or best hotel but we can tell you where to get the best baguette and which shop has the cheeriest clerks. And we can tell you that even though some shops have a weird assortment of stuff the clerks are super helpful. Also I can tell you that the nice woman at the hair salon did a great job on my cut—she even told me I have pretty decent white-lady hair.

July 21, 2015

Robbed! Or why monohulls are better than catamarans

Incompetence isn’t a quality I appreciate in most people, but thankfully the thief who boarded our boat last night might want to consider keeping his day job. If he has one.

Despite traveling through some very poor countries, theft isn’t something we worry about very often. Like most cruisers, we’re aware our home can look like a floating department store to some people. So when we’re in a region is known for petty theft, we close our hatches and keep surfaces clear of easily-seen, easy-to-grab high value items like phones, cameras, tablets and cash. On occasions we even lock up the boat.
the closest locals to our boat are these guys--two baby herons
The kind of theft we tend to expect is opportunistic theft; like when our unlocked dinghy was stolen by drunks from the dinghy dock in Brisbane, or when tools were grabbed from the side deck in Mexico. What we don’t expect is to be boarded by a swimmer while we’re sleeping, have a thief enter our cabin and then rummage through our stuff. Not only is that sort of freaky—but I always assumed we’d hear if someone climbed aboard. Or that Charlie the guard cat would attack intruders, or meow or purr loudly in warning…
There aren't many signs of theft in town--just lots of signs that indicate people take fish into inappropriate locations
None of that happened though.

While Port Victoria on Mahe used to have a poor reputation, in recent years it's been pretty safe. But at some point late last night someone swam to our boat and boarded using our back steps. Then he came into the cabin (and missed the camera, laptop and tablet) but grabbed my phone, backpack and a couple of Maia’s bags. After taking the bags back into the cockpit and quickly rifling through them (finding Maia’s change purse but luckily missing my wallet—which would have been the jackpot considering I went to the bank yesterday) he took his little bit of loot, and our dinghy, and headed into the anchorage where he hit at least one other boat—grabbing a backpack and stealing a laptop and iphone from an Austrian catamaran.

Cats have a lot of great qualities (the two hulled, not the purring ones) and being easy to board and having wide open cabins are usually counted as bonuses. Except being easy to board and having wide open cabins also makes them attractive to thieves. My own informally gathered statistics seem to indicate that catamarans are hit more often than monohulls—and the fact the three boats that were robbed in this anchorage (including a French boat two weeks ago) are all cats reinforces it.

The second (that we know of) boat to be robbed last night woke up when the intruder left. He blew his airhorn (which we slept through) and then lost sight of the thief and our dinghy. This morning we were woken by a local guy who watches a couple of boats, and who noticed our dinghy wasn’t where it should be, but was instead on an empty catamaran. He and a friend brought the dinghy back to us and at that point we noticed the pile of bags in our cockpit.

A short while later the coastguard came by. It was nice to see how seriously the minor theft was taken and how mortified the locals were. Two locals helped with a search on the island beside us—with the hope the thief had stashed all our stuff for retrieval later. We also tried to call my phone—but just got voicemail. Later in the morning the Seychelles land police also came out to the boats—the locals who brought our dinghy back to us had called them and arranged for the visit. Finger printing is next. Seriously.

When we commented that is seemed like a big reaction to minor theft the police officer let us know any problem we have is a big problem--and in the Seychelles, they don't like theft.
Victoria is a peaceful moderately affluent town
In our case we were lucky. My phone was a cheap one that was due for replacing and the internet data that was on it was easily transferred to a replacement phone. Maia was bummed to lose the change purse that was given to her by dear friends in Brissie (Desire, she’s so sad…) but she was happy it only contained a little bit of money.

For the most part the theft was more of a lesson than a violation. We travel in a very trusting way—and we have no intention of changing the belief that most people we encounter are not out to get anything from us. But our belongings are equally (if not more) valuable to us as they are to potential thieves. And being an easy target is something we can easily change with a bit more diligence—especially with Comoros and Madagascar coming up.

From now on we’ll be pulling our dinghy up at night. The other cat that was boarded and robbed had their main cabin door closed, but the thief went through a window—so we’ll be closing our door and locking our hatches in their ‘ajar’ position (fortunately nights are cool here—the idea of needing bars on hatches is really unappealing). We’ve tried pressure mats before, but the cat tripped them, though we have heard some boats have had good success with motion sensors—so we’ll check out that option. Finally, we have personal alarms in the bedrooms. These are little self-activated alarms I picked up in Brisbane that I thought I could use if I heard someone board us—unfortunately I sleep better than I thought.

For those who have prepped their boats for high theft areas—any tips for us?

July 12, 2015

Settling Into the Seychelles

We’ve been on the move again for a year: 8500nm through 10 time zones and six countries. This is a record for us. Even the year we crossed the Pacific we sailed less than 7000nm. Some years we’re happy to hit 1000nm. It seems little wonder then that now we’ve arrived in the Seychelles and dropped our anchor in a sheltered harbour we’ve opted to leave it there.

We’ve been busy catching up on all the little things you do when you have extended access to civilization for the first time in a year. There are grocery stores, hardware stores, bakeries, liquor stores, pet food stores (you can bet Charlie the cat is happy!), restaurants and (in Evan’s case) a much anticipated dentist.

Beau Vallon is just one of the pretty coves on Mahe
We didn't know much about the Seychelles when we added it to our cruising itinerary but have been pleasantly surprised--it's a cool combination of mountainous terrain like the Marquesas combined with a French/Creole/African culture. And there are giant tortoises! There are also hikes to hike, beaches to explore and a variety of touristy things to see and do.

Tortoises! The local wild population is extinct--but tortoises from Aldabra atoll are found around the islands
But the big priority for us and the dozen or so South Africa bound boats that are part of our little fleet is to prepare the boats for the next leg. Part of it is the weather—after enjoying light winds for most of past several thousand miles—we’re hitting the part that gets windy, sometimes in our face windy. We’ll also be passing through some of the poorest countries in the world; Comoros and Madagascar. So anything we need to buy or replace (shoes for example) has to happen now.

our poor shoes--the heat and humidity (and saltwater) seems to melt the glue that holds the straps in and the soles on
While we ready the boats under the shadow of the peaks there’s lots of socializing. Or little group of boats (with crews from more than a dozen different countries) has been in loose company for several months now and this is the first stopping point where so many of us have been together at the same time. So we’re trading photos we’ve taken of each other, catching up on stories and getting prepared to follow the seasons into Africa’s summer and our big stop in South Africa.

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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