Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Radio Communications

Most cruising boats are equipped with a Pactor Modem. This is a device that interfaces between a PC and a single sideband radio (SSB) to facilitate email, downloads of weather data, etc.

Britannia is not equipped with a Pactor. Rather, I've been using a program called RMS Express that skips the Pactor hardware and just uses a PC soundcard device to interface with the SSB. I have been curious to see how and if this was going to work as we get farther and farther away from North America (where most of the recieving stations are located). As we're now about three days away from making landfall in the Marquesas, I feel like I can comment with some authority on the efficacy of RMS Express and Winmor:

When we were on the North American coast, we could connect 24/7 almost without exception. Connection speeds ranged from between 250 bytes/min to about 5K bpm, but averaged around 1K. Boats we've talked to using Pactors report connection speeds of 3K bpm as a more typical average. An email such as this one will average maybe 1500 bytes, so connection speeds aren't a big issue for us (what do we have to do that we can't wait a minute and a half for an email?).

I have been afraid that as we've gotten away from the US, we'd lose connectivity, and in fact we have to a degree. The first 1000 miles offshore, I noticed almost no difference in our ability to connect. In fact, some stations were coming in stronger since we didn't have a land barrier. Between 1500 and 2000 miles offshore, things have gotten a bit more sporatic. I can no longer connect at will, and connection speeds have dropped to an average of closer to 500 bpm.

However, I've discovered that if I pay attention to propogation (rather than just logging on whenever I want) I can still connect fairly reliably. I've been booting up at sunset, and the night before last had a blazing connection at 3K bpm. Unusual, but fun to see.

There are two weather downloads that we get (or would like to get). One is GRIB files, and the other is weather faxes. GRIB files vary in size, but to get an accurate picture of where we are, I usually request a file that's about 3.5K. That's still a reasonable download, but I'm starting to be unwilling to download GRIBs with abandon. Weather faxes can be up to 30K and are out of the question (plus, they can be downloaded without email straight through the soundcard on the PC).

Boats next to us with Pactors are still getting connection speeds of better than 1K bpm, however they're reporting that they have to start paying attention to propogation times as well.

We'll see how things pan out as we get farther west and farther south. We're close to the end of our big passage, but still have many thousands of miles to go before the stations in Austrailia or New Zealand start to become closer than North America.

Bottom line:

If I could afford a Pactor, I'd have gotten one - it'd be nice. But, so far RMS Express remains functional, and not having the Pactor hasn't hurt too badly. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Crossing the Equator

My watch last night was incredible. Winds were light and abeam, but just enough to keep us gliding through the water at about 5 knots. The clouds had lifted, and the sky was awash in starlight. Starlight. I never really knew there was such a thing. As we were sailing, I was looking around and couldn't quite figure out what was wrong with the picture I was seeing. Then I realized that though the moon hadn't risen, the visibility was amazing, and everything was bathed in a subtle and mysterious glow. If we'd been hiking, I could have seen every step in the starlight. In all my previous experience, starscapes are only seen when it's dark, somewhat by definition - the darker, the more stars. But I was very aware that there were stars I couldn't see because other stars were too bright - it was literally the most stars it's possible to see, I think. It's difficult to render this through words alone, but it was awe inspiring. Particularly when coupled with such perfect sailing.

Then, we crossed the equator. I was off watch at that point, and Amanda woke me up wearing a moustache and a captain's hat. Apparently cross dressing is somewhat of a tradition when you cross the equator - sailors are an odd bunch.

So, now we've crossed into the South Pacific proper, and though we still have about 700 miles to go before we make landfall, it's starting to feel like we're almost there. We've been reading through the guidebooks and allowing ourselves to start getting excited about the destination and not just the journey.

Current Position:
01.05S (that's south, baby!) by 131.01W

Friday, April 22, 2011

Through the ITCZ

We've (I've?) been stressing about the ITCZ for about the last week. Where should we cross? Do we just head due south? What will the squalls be like? Should we motor, or keep the sails up if we're going slowly but still making progress...?

Anyway, last night was the big night. We were at about 05.30N at sunset last night, and the ITCZ was supposed to be at 04.00N or so, so I knew that we'd be through it or at least in it by the morning.

We watched an absolutely EPIC sunset that was shortly followed by a spectacular thunderstorm that was thankfully far enough away not to worry about. It was gorgeous to watch, but each lightning strike was a reminder that we were about to run the gauntlet. After dinner, Amanda went to sleep, and I took the first watch. I was pretty tired, so I set the egg timer for 20 minute intervals and went to sleep. My watch went something like this:

0 mins: scan horizon. note lightning, worry a little, sleep.

20 mins: scan horizon. note clouds appear to be breaking, worry a little less

40 mins: scan horizon. wonder what happened to nimbus clouds. note boat speed has dropped to 3.5 knots. wonder about motoring.

60 mins: scan horizon. stop. stare 360 degrees in awe. note total absence of clouds. note boat speed of 5 knots. note winds from the south east. note southern cross. note more stars than ever seen before. reflect on fact that we're in the middle of the Pacific and perhaps are farther from light pollution as it's possible to be.

80 mins through 200 mins: repeat 60 mins. add moon.

220 mins: repeat 60 mins. wonder what happened to the ITCZ

So, we're currently doing 5 knots in the south east trades. Apparently, the ITCZ moved north as we moved south, and we basically missed it. I'm counting us incredibly lucky, but am not convinced that we're out of the woods yet. The ITCZ moves much faster than we do, so it could come back and settle on top of us again. With that in mind, I've set our course for 180 degrees rather than the rhumb line to Hiva Oa which is closer to 225 degrees. We'll adjust course when we're south of 4N. (Current position: 04.31N, 127.00W) which is as far south as I've seen the ITCZ on this trip. I don't want to jinx it, but I have my fingers crossed that we may have gotten incredibly lucky.

Stay tuned.

In the mean time, think Clouds by Georgia O'Keefe and you'll have a pretty good idea of what we're looking at.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Up until now, we've had pretty mellow weather on this passage. The trade winds are a little heavy during La Nina years, so it's been 18 to 22 knots pretty much every day which has lead to a bit of bumpy seas, but otherwise it's been a fast and mellow passage.

We're currently about 123.0N by 8.5N (I understand the SPOT is no longer working), and I think we're just starting to get the first hints of the squalls that are supposed to populate the ITCZ. Last night, the moon was large enough to give us a pretty good view of the surrounding clound cover. Looking around, I noticed that there was one particularly dark and ominous cloud. As I was watching, the whole sky lit up 360 degrees around us. I was trying to remember the rule about counting between lightning and thunder to determine distance... I think it was actually reasonably far away from us, but it sure FELT close. Like right on top of us close.

It was an odd feeling of paralysis for me. I knew to put the electronics in the oven, but otherwise I wasn't sure what to do. Should we try and sail away from it? We weren't moving very fast, and I had the spinnaker up. Should I drop the spinnaker incase there was heavy winds associated with this thing? If so, should I put up other sails? Motor?

Ultimately, it ended up being pretty nerve wracking, but not a big deal. We got some heavy rain, but no lightning close to us, and not more than about 18 knots of wind.

But, it looks like we're in for more. Currently as I write, there's another squall line that's just caught up to us. Again it's about 20 knots, and raining (no electical component this time), so it's not a big deal. It also feels like MUCH less of a big deal when it's not the first time and it's during the day.

And, now we have a plan:

When we get the first hint of a squall line, we turn on the radar so we can watch and see which way it's going. The squall this afternoon was moving quickly, but by turning perpendicular to it, we miseed the brunt. The electronics go in the oven, and the spinnaker comes down as soon as we have 15 knots apparent. It's not a complex plan, but there's a good deal of comfort in having action to take.

I'm really looking forward to being through the ITCZ. I feel like I can't really relax having to look over my shoulder for squalls (here comes another one), and it's hard to keep a good course since the spinnaker comes down and we can't reach as deeply without it. When we're in the southern trades, and we're just running a rhumb line course to Hiva Oa, I'll be pretty stoked.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Check in

Amanda checked in last night via Winlink. They are safe and well. Just wanted to let you all know since we noticed their Spot Tracker hasn't updated in a few days.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


I've spent a lot of time in my life looking for places where no one goes.  This is a whole new world though - we've traveled about 750 miles now and haven't seen a soul since we broke off from the boats we left with.  I know there are people out here, but...  not many.

And it's wonderful to realize that I'm NOT in some crazy far away corner.  75% of the planet is like this.  That's mind blowing to me, and truth be told makes me pretty happy.  We get so caught up in the fact that we're terrestrial animals, that I think it's easy to just forget that the sea is by far a larger percentage of planet earth.  It's also three dimensional.  Not to suggest that terra firma isn't (yes, I know there are birds, bugs, etc), but there's really no plane out here where most of the action is.  The surface a boundary, not the main stage.  It's pretty wild to think about our tiny hull floating miles above the sea floor and think about how much is underneath us.  

We saw dolphins again last night.  It's been awhile (since the outside of Baja), and it felt good to be in the presence of mammals again.  These were a smaller, different type than what we were seeing up north.  Some point when the boat stops flinging me wildly from side to side, I'll go and look them up.  It was another huge school though - at least a hundred, I would guess.

The days are blending together, but the sweet moments like the dolphins or the star scape we had last night mark the time in a weird sort of qualitative way.

By my calculations, we're about 25% of the way there.  I don't know if this wind will hold (we've been averaging well over 6 knots and have been doing 7+ all day today), but it's neat to see the miles tick by and realize that we will actually make landfall here sometime...  a thought inspiring enough for us to pick up the French Polynesia book this afternoon and start getting pretty excited.  It's still difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that this passage will culminate in such a cool destination.  Intuitivly, it feels like we should be ending up just somewhere else in Mexico...

Back to my watch.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Day... Three? I think...

It's hard to keep track. Since one or the other of us is always on watch, sleep schedules aren't a reliable track of the days. I really wonder what this will feel like in another week or two. I know I'll be less tired as we fall into a routine, and I could imagine that a month may go by quickly. As Amanda said yesterday (?): "I think each hour will go by slowly, but before you know it, a month will have passed". It's an odd mix of utter monotony and real excitement.

Here are some of the highlights so far:

Flying fish. Flying fish are COOL! I guess I'd never really thought about them before, but I sorta figured they'd be like flying squirrls. That is to say that they'd jump, glide and land back in the water. That's not actually the case though - they have wings. Real ones. They look like little hummingbirds, and they actually truly fly along the surface of the water for quite a long ways, and get high enough up so that one landed in our cockpit. He looked a little stunned, and it was weird to feel like I was picking up a slimy fish and a bird struggling to flap it's wings all at once. Anyhow, I think he made it. There are tons of birds out here too, and they seem to have a pretty good time chasing after the flying fish. Which makes me wonder what evolutionary advantage there is to being a fish that flies - seems like you're just making it that much easier for the birds to find you. I wish I had a way to look them up... projects for land. At any rate, they're neat and fun to watch.

The sunrise this morning was also amazing. It wasn't the most colorful sunrise I've seen (though the shades of orange and pink were a welcome contrast to a seemingly endless expanse of blue, grey and white), but sunshafts broke through the clouds in a hundred different places and made it look like the first sunrise the earth had ever seen. It was pretty breath taking. I could tell it was breath taking, because it was sufficently stunning to make me pause Ira Glass (a friend has given us literally every episode of "This American Life", and watches suddenly fly by).

I've been struck by how much I can feel our motion across the earth. Not through the water - that's fairly obvious as our bow wake comes streaming by, and the boat rolls. I actually have a sense of movement to a different place. I have been trying to trick myself into getting up, looking around and thinking that we haven't gone anywhere, but it doesn't work. I can tell that our location is changing even though there's nothing to mark it by. I don't understand where that feeling comes from, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to discover it. I don't think anywhere but at sea could you travel 400 miles and not be able to articulate a difference in the "land"scape.

Anyhow, enough for today.

Back on watch so Amanda can sleep.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day One

The full impact of what we're doing has hit me cerebrally and only just. Viscerally, this feels just like what we've done in the past, and I don't know how many days at sea it will take before I finally realize that no anchorage is shortly impending.

We took off from Banderas Bay yesterday after waiting about a week for a weather window (we were both happy for the down time, and I was particularly happy that the calm winds coincided with good swell ? I'm finally sore from paddling). The winds were forecast to be in the 10 to 12 knot range yesterday and then picking up today to be in the 15 to 18 knot range. That forecast fell a little short, however: we had been sailing for about an hour when we put the second reef in, and we've been seeing 20 to 25 knots since we left. The bad news is that we've been in pretty uncomfortable seas ? short period wind chop with a fading ground swell underneath in the 6 to 8 foot range. Nothing scary by any means, but our course has us beam on, and she's been pretty rolly all night. The good news is that we're flirting with our first 200Nm day. If we keep this up (which we won't) we'll be in the Marquesas in less than three weeks.

It usually takes us a few days to get into our rhythm at sea, and this has been no exception. I've had a head cold for the last day or two, so I was uncomfortable anyhow. I think we're both operating on about 2 hours of sleep.

We're happy though. It's exciting to think that this passage will culminate in a truly exotic destination, and the winds and seas have died enough to be tolerably comfortable (we're down to a single reef, and doing 7.8 knots as measured by the GPS), and the air has the heavy damp feeling of the tropics which is enticing.

The only true misadventure we've had so far is our autohelm dying about three miles from shore. We've got a spare, but if the spare takes a dump, we'll be in for a challenge. I thought about heading back since we were so close to land, but we've been waiting for this window forever, and we've got a lot of boats with us who have been waiting as well. It's also getting later on in the season to burn another week or two trying to find parts in Mexico which is a challenge. I'm optimistic that we'll be ok ? the spare is in good shape thanks to the parts that Suzy brought with her when she visited in La Paz.

We've heard feedback from folks that the SPOT tracker may be, well? spotty. So please don't worry if we disappear. Likewise, I can only guess at how long this email connection will last as we get away from the coast of North America. All concerned friends and family should rest assured that we've got a good Sat Phone, an EPIRB and buddy boats that are still less than a mile spaced.

Special thanks to Tucker for helping us to post this ? we love you man :)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Provisioning and Waiting

Most everything that was on "the list" is now crossed off. Krister and I spent the last few days plowing through projects, provisioning, stowing, and cleaning so that we would be ready when the weather was right to go. Which was supposed to be yesterday...

But we're still here. The Pacific high stalled out and is effecting the winds connecting us to the trades. Right now there's a variable south wind, it's raining off shore... I'm happy to have some time to review what I may have forgotten and to get a bit of down time before we go. The new forecast looks like maybe Friday? But we'll see. Everyone here doing the Puddle Jump is a bit worried that the weather window is still farther off and all our perfectly provisioned boats may need fresh supplies again.
Fresh water for our tanks.

In the meantime... we enjoyed a great dinner and live music with our friends from Pionero and Dolphin at The Black Forest. It's a German restaurant... in Mexico... and you'll be happy to hear I ate sausage (with potato salad and red cabbage). While the boat is stocked with vegetables, tofu and soy products, I wasn't going to miss out on this unique cultural experience.

Ken, Krister and Skip

Dinner at Black Forest (Amanda, Ken, Skip, Robin, and Krister)

The blonde gypsies with Gio on 5 string violin.

Krister is at the surf shop right now looking for a replacement surf board. Later today we're hoping to get out of La Cruz with the afternoon winds and sail Punta Mita. There's a good surfing swell predicted to hit there tomorrow and I'll be able to do some reading and relaxing.
So, for now the plans are in a holding pattern until the weather changes.

Here's hoping for sunny skies and fair winds!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

San Blas to La Cruz

After our slow passage we decided it would feel good to get out, stretch our legs and see some land sights! We splurged on a mangrove/ wildlife panga ride tour. It was fabulous... lots of birds, turtles and crocodiles. Of course we paid tourist prices, but we figured we wouldn't be spending any money while crossing the Pacific so we could bend the budget a bit this month.

San Blas is a beautiful town, but our anchorage had too many no-seeums and thieves. So, after two days we left for La Cruz full of bites and two surf boards short. Warning to all cruisers that want to anchor here: lock it or take it below deck before going ashore.

The famous bells of San Blas
Remains of a Spanish fort

We're in La Cruz now... just finishing our final preparations for the Pacific crossing. We filled our fuel and water tanks along with all our jerry cans. We've been to three markets buying all the food we can carry. Tonight is the last Puddle Jump meeting, and the last of the last boats will be leaving this week. The weather window looks like it will be opening Monday, so we're aiming to leave then too. Can't believe we're already leaving Mexico! It's all going so fast, and there never seems to be enough down time to relax. In a way I'm really look forward to the solitude of the long ocean passage.


We won't be able to post photos during our passage- we may be able to talk a friend into posting to the blog through our SSB radio connection, but no promises. So until we make land-fall in Hiva Oa, the Marquesas, French Polynesia... you'll have to settle for watching our spot tracker inch it's way across the Pacific!

Adios y que les vaya bien! Nos vemos!