December 18, 2012

Boats Break; living on them is stupid

A walk in the woods
Last night while making dinner I switched on the light over the counter and got, nothing. No, there was a faint glow, and if I squinted, I could chop carrots. Then, when I went to rinse the beans, I had another problem, no water. Our water pump has been cycling for no reason—so we need to turn it off when not using it. So up I went, across the cabin, into the other hull to turn on the water, then back to the sink to rinse the beans, then back to the other hull to turn off the water, then back to the beans, only to realize I’d forgot to put water in the pot to cook them. I called to Ev to flip on the water but he and Maia were dealing with a deflating dinghy so back I went…

There does seem to be some sort of law on boats that when one thing goes on the fritz, several more follow suit. On our first boat we had it happen many times, but the most significant occasion (read costly) was when we reached Panama. First the rigging needed replacing, and then the depth sounder died, then the windlass—but my breaking point was when the stereo stopped working. Using a lead line to find the depth and pulling up an anchor by hand are two old-school sailing traditions I can cope with if required—but I’m wasn't quite up for listening to Evan singing sea shanties.
Afternoon entertainment--a play starring Charlie the Reluctant Reindeer
 Last night’s breakdowns were not in the same league as Panama—a new light fixture, tinkering with the water pump, slapping a patch on the dinghy (if we could find the leak) are all affordable—just time consuming. But it made me realize how much of our boat chore time is spent in triage. Even when were not actually going anywhere, most of our efforts are spent just trying to keep things functioning and afloat. While Evan worked on the inflatable he had to step over the carcass of one engine, past the brand new one that’s waiting to be installed and fish for tools in the projects-under-way pile.

It’s no wonder really that heavily cruised boats go into refit every few years (or every few oceans). And last night as we tinkered and fixed, while trying to catch up on each other's day and actually eat dinner, it all felt frustratingly endless.
Maia's school dance
But afterward when we turned on a Christmas movie (at least the computers still work), and started to hang up our lights and ornaments, and watched a quarter moon rise up over our current city, the small and not so small inconveniences began to feel manageable. The to-do list may grow at the same rate as mildew (time to add de-mildewing to the list again) and boat stuff may break at a rate that leaves us feeling we are always a few steps behind, but the reminders of why we live such a challenging life are always there: When we can stop fixing stuff long enough to lift our heads and look out past the bulkhead that needs painting and at the world we've made such an inconvenient journey to see…
Maia's class performing at the end of year concert

*the pictures obviously don't match the post, they are just a few from life lately

December 13, 2012

Weather - a very brief tutorial

The following is an email I sent to friends on s/v Totem who have been cruising Papua New Guinea and just arrived in Indonesia today. During their time in PNG I have been weather guessing for them since I have a fast internet connection aboard and they had basically only Grib files via sailmail.

I sent this email 22 November.  What I describe became Super Typhoon Bopha hitting the Phillipines 4 December.  Frankly I was lucky to notice this event so early in its development but all the signs were there.

When I write a forecast to them I usually jump back and forth between weather websites and then gather my thoughts and write. This happens to be an unusual email because I was writing as I was looking.  Very stream of conciousness. And sorry for the shorthand - when sending emails via sailmail (where every character counts) I try to be concise.

Wx : to your NE there is a wee CLOSED low that pops up next Friday on ECMWF model. GFS has it further east (more N of Soloms).  It is persistent so probably not a model artifact. When I see closed lows so close to the EQ I pay attention.

Whoops. Looking at GFS precip it's really moist and spiraling.  Serious L? Cyclone? ECMWF 500 mB has it right around surface L (reinforcing), advancing to N of big island PNG next Sunday (2 Dec).  So I've got a closed Low, close to EQ, warm water, spiralling, etc.  This is one to pay attention to folks I think.  More attention over the weekend. Spidey sense is tingling on this one. 

OK. Checked GFS wind gribs (something I sometimes do last).
[eventually] Tropical storm force winds at least, located at 5N-10N 150-140E heading WNW so not a threat to you. Pull a wide area sparse GRIB starting +96 hrs out if you can with sailmail and you'll see it clearly. Storm swell will start arrive maybe next Wed. 14m seas at core of storm! 1st time I've seen Passagewx just print a number on map instead of using colour legend.

December 12, 2012

The People We Meet

 If you ask cruisers why they cruise, the answer, right up there with sunsets and beauty, will be the people they meet. We have become fast friends with people we would never have ordinarily crossed paths with (republicans!), met minor royalty and encountered major politicians, we’ve also met celebrities (though mostly ones only known to a unique subset of people).

One of our favourite ‘you won’t guess who we met’ stories happened on our first trip. We were in a funky health food restaurant in isolated Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica eating an insanely good salad (four kinds of lettuce!). You have no idea what this means unless you cruised that area in the mid 1990’s when iceberg lettuce, wilted cucumber, over ripe tomato and a slice of onion constituted the only ensalada we saw…

Being the only people in the ‘yacht club’ in a seemingly empty bay we couldn’t help but wonder who had the foresight to grow lettuce (and open a yacht club). The question lead to meeting Honey who told us she was an ex-cruiser and that she and her husband along with friends had built a Brown Searunner 40’ tri in Oregon, then sailed down the coast, finally stopping in Costa Rica because the family had grown from five to nine kids and they were out of money. And you know—one thing led to another and they started the yacht club, bought most of the bay to save it from development, and sent some of the kids off to Ivy League schools to polish off the homeschooling…

I don’t know about you—but one thing has never led to the other of owning and protecting some 170+ acres of prime Costa Rican waterfront for me. Not even close. So being nosy I asked Honey what she did—she was a midwife and was helping one of her (extremely well-educated) sons work with local farmers to promote organic (mixed canopy, fair trade) growing—which while noble, wasn’t explaining how a family that used to camp on shore and swam to the beach because they didn’t have a dinghy now owned the beach.

So I asked her if her husband had some other job. A few minutes later we were introduced to Heart, an inventor. A bunch of you sailing types are about to nod and say, ‘ah… I get it’. Which is what Evan said. I, however, shook hands with a bare footed, shaggy haired mountain man in a sheep skin vest and decided drugs were involved.

But no—Heart didn’t grow drugs—instead he took the nascent technology of Nicolas Tesla, and developed a reliable way for 12 volt DC power (stored in our batteries) to be converted into a 120 volt AC current for running 120 volt equipment and then manufactured technology that would help local farmers. Not to mention pretty much every cruising boat in the world. Heart Interface ring any bells?

There’s more to the story—I loved the bit about how they used the power from the first inverter to power the tools to build the next ones, and how without a dinghy they swam the inverters to shore—holding them above their heads… The story cumulates with a power circle on the beach as Heart and Honey put it out to the universe that they wanted the technology to reach the people that needed it, and it ends with a partnership with Rob Trace and the purchase of a whole bunch of vulnerable land… So I could go on, but the true purpose of this post was really to tell about another meeting, a more recent one.

Two years ago I was on an assignment at White Stallion dude ranch with Evan and Maia. An amazing experience that was so much more fun than expected. Even Evan, who claims not to like horses, was a convert.

The only person we met who wasn’t loving the whole horsy thing was a writer called Caroline Lawrence. She was at the ranch as part of her research for a series of books for kids about the Wild West. She told us it would be her second series, the first The Roman Mysteries, was finished and she was moving on to a new theme.

Maia is always eager to learn about new books—so she quizzed Caroline about her books. And Caroline quizzed Maia about horse back riding and how she was experiencing the west. It was a nice exchange and we enjoyed each other’s company over the days to come and then the whole thing may have been forgotten if it weren’t for email.

We’ve met a lot of writers—but Caroline, it turned out (thanks google), was in her own league. If you have a preteen you may know the books (more likely if you are British) and once Maia got started on the Roman Mysteries she was hooked—a challenging addiction when you are travelling all the time and finding book #10 in a series is even less likely than finding four kinds of lettuce. Over the next year we emailed with Caroline a few times—confirming titles (they change from one country to the next) and checking in. Then just the other day this arrived:

Caroline’s new series, The Western Mysteries is up and running and Maia now has the excellent opportunity to review the new books. She’ll be sharing her thoughts on Amazon in the weeks to come.
I’d share a picture of the latest book and the fantastic inscription—but it seems it’s so precious the book's been going everywhere with Maia…

November 18, 2012

Our 1st Ozziversary—things we love about Brisbane

We just celebrated our first Ozziversary on November 15. It was one of those milestones that snuck up on us—it seemed so recently we were immersed in trying to find the hardware store, grocery store, nearest good beach then suddenly I had the answer when strangers asked for directions or tourists asked for ideas about what to do. I know where Albert Street is, I can suggest good ways to spend an afternoon. I actually know what people are saying to me now…

Time flew past while we were caught up with our own routine, but as this season’s boats were wrapping up their Pacific crossings, new cruisers were heading off to Mexico and those ahead of us are exploring PNG, SE Asia or closing in on Africa, and it became impossible not to acknowledge the fact we’ve been here for a whole year.
the jacaranda tree near our boat--my new favourite tree
When you’re used to moving all the time (Maia spent the past five Halloweens in five different countries) staying in one place for an entire a year of seasons feels a bit strange. The surprise of the jacarandas blooming has given way to the expectation the flying foxes will return, and the mild sunny spring days are starting to grow humid, with thunder and lightening storms arriving to cool them off—a sure sign our tropical summer is just around the corner.

Being in a place for a year though also means we’ve developed a bit of a list: things that are good, things that are bad and things that just confuse the heck out of us. But because this is a celebratory post I’ll stick with the good. So in no particular order—here are some of the things we love about Oz:
it's easy to gather friends when parks come with BBQs and shelters
BBQ’s—Almost every park has them. Free electric or wood BBQ’s where you can sizzle your sausages while enjoying lunch at a nearby picnic table. Early on we learned the etiquette. If the barbie is busy queue up your meat and enjoy a bevvie while you while away the arvo waiting your turn.

Bubblers—Forgot your water bottle but refuse to buy bottled water? No worries mate. There are bubblers (water fountains) almost on every corner (and even on a few hiking trails).
City Ferries—We love the public transit system here and the free city hopper ferries are a great bonus. They are slow, and don’t run that frequently but they work for some trips and they are fantastic entertainment.

can you spot the koala?

not a crime scene--this is known as a bloodwood tree, I think...
Flora and Fauna—This is a country full of fantastical creatures and weird plants straight out of a nursery rhyme. The other day a wild kangaroo came up to us in the park mooching for food. A kangaroo! And last weekend we saw our first wild koalas. Seriously, that never gets old.

this is a chook, not a chicken. honest.
 The Lingo—So I’m pretty sure we understand most of what people say to us now. Occasionally I’m still stumped—but now when someone tells me to rug up or suggests we wag off I don’t assume the worst.

Australia Day--just one of the 365 things people in Brisbane appear to celebrate...
Fun, fun, fun—There’s a celebration for that. Could be our city, could be Oz, but there is a festival on right now. And there was one last weekend. And there will be one next weekend. I'll reckon that whenever you read this there will be a festival on.

Public art, parks and spaces—Brisbane prides itself on the amount of public art that’s around the city—in fact it has policies which require new buildings to provide a certain amount of public art or public space. The city also has heaps of parks, pathways and trails—this means we don’t need to leave the city even to find new places to explore. And the playgrounds... Oh, to be a kid.

Farmers Markets—I love markets—especially ones I can walk or dinghy to. And happily we have several excellent options every week. Our favourites are Saturday morning in the West End—a 10 minute dinghy ride away. Or Wednesday afternoon in library square. Cheap, fresh & local. Mmmmm.

The Beaches--Could go on and on and inlcude the hunderds of pics we have but I'll just say the water is warm, the sand is soft, the colours shift through a rainbow of blues and green, and Austraila has 11,761 of them. We're working on finding our favourite.

November 11, 2012

The Day Job--storm story

Because I'm pretty sure most of you don't care where Scarlett Johansson might go for a romantic escape, or which Olympic stadium was the coolest--I don't normally link to the stories I write for a living on this blog. But this one for Cruising World was one that I first wrote about here--way back in Feb 2010. So I thought it fit.

Safety at Sea: When Fury Overtakes a Cruisers’ Safe Haven

Anchoring lessons are learned, some the hard way, when a freak winter storm blows into Mexico's Bahía de Banderas.
by Story and Photos by Diane Selkirk 
La Cruz, Mexico

David Norton
The harbor off La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, in the northern part of Bahía de Banderas, on Mexico’s Pacific coast near Puerto Vallarta, is a popular anchorage for cruisers. In winter, it’s known for providing protection from north winds, though it’s exposed to the south.

Bad weather is something we’re prepared for—at sea. But when the passage is over and we’ve dropped the hook, hurricane-force winds and 6-foot seas are the last things we expect. But we realize that extreme weather can happen just about anywhere. We experienced this firsthand when winds in excess of 80 knots ripped through Bahía de Banderas, on Mexico’s mainland near Puerto Vallarta, toppling trees, blowing windows out of high rises, and cutting power to towns around the bay. Over half of the 60 or so boats anchored in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, in the northern part of the bay, dragged or lost their anchors, and dozens more ended up with shredded sails or impact damage. Two boats went aground.

Read the rest of the story here:

November 6, 2012

The Melbourne Cup

Melbourne Cup spirit at Maia's school
 Ever wondered about the difference between on the wag, chucking a sickie, or being crook?
one of the live sites in downtown Brisbane

Probably not, considering most people don’t need three different phrases to describe the fact they’re not at work… Being crook means you’re actually sick, though many Australians push on and head to work whilst crook—not wanting to waste a perfectly good day off. Chucking a sickie means calling in sick, when you’re not. And being on the wag is what you do on Melbourne Cup day—it’s the moment you leave your desk to go to the washroom, change into a new dress and hat and sneak out the door—hoping your boss and co-workers never notice you left. Which in all likelihood they won’t—because they too are off changing their clothes and sneaking out doors.
watching the race
 The Melbourne Cup is a horse race—in its 152nd running, it’s also a nationwide excuse to start partying at 11am and collectively drop $150 million at betting stations that are conveniently found just about everywhere, including street corners. Maia was the only person in our family to lay a bet (ah, yes the Ozzie school system…) though her horse didn’t fare so well and placed twelfth. Her teacher did better in the staff betting pool—and came away with the prize money and a bottle of wine.
street corner betting station
 It’s called “The Race the Stops the Nation”. And it truly is. There were several live sites in the downtown area where the booze was flowing and people were dressed to the nines.

The race may just characterise Australia better than any other event. Skipping work to bet to excess on a sport many know little about (though this gambling excess fits in with the fact Australians are the world’s heaviest gamblers, by a hefty margin) and then drinking to excess—all without apology or a worry.

November 5, 2012

Rescuing a Neighbour

An easy to deploy rescue system is essential on a boat

First a lifejacket drifted past us, then a shoe. We were driving our dinghy down the pile moorings, looking for open slips for a boat arriving from New Caledonia but what we found was our elderly neighbour in the water.

Falling in is always a risk on a boat—and having some easy way to get out again is essential. But we discovered that because most of us don’t practice and test our escape out of the water methods, they might not work as planned.

In our neighbour’s case he had a ladder. But after a quick attempt on his own he realized not only that he couldn’t climb it but he dislodged it with his efforts. He started yelling and a couple from a nearby boat arrived just before we did, but even with help from the five of us it took about 20 minutes to get him aboard.

We had so many precarious moments in the process. None of us could lift him—but our efforts to support him hampered his efforts to help himself. And not knowing his boat (which was a real mess) we weren’t able to find any sort of lifesling system to help us get him up.

Eventually though (one painful step, and a few heart-wrenching slips at a time) we got him aboard. Getting emergency service was something else though. The emergency number here is ‘000’
(which I only recently learned--shame on me) but the automated system for mobile phone users was difficult to activate while actually trying to help someone. So I ended up calling Evan—who then called for help and relayed the information back through Maia.

With the police boat located well down the river from us, we ended up ferrying land-based emergency personal back and forth, and finally (once he was stabilized and in agreement—he’s a stubborn old fellow) we took our neighbour to the dock and to the waiting ambulance.

This was our third major rescue since cruising. And I wondered yesterday how they must affect Maia. The first time we rescued people it was her who heard the faint yells for help in San Francisco Bay. A group of teens had jumped off a wall to swim but two of them got swept away by the current. By the time we pulled the second boy out he was too weak to even help himself. Then there were the two men who had been adrift with no engine, no battery power, and were out of food and water from a difficult Pacific crossing. Evan and Maia took the dinghy out into heavy (for a dinghy) seas to try to manoeuvre them safely into harbour before their boat drifted further away.

The funny thing is I thought being involved in these high stress rescues might make Maia fearful, but instead they seem to make her even more alert to helping other people. Not a bad record for a kid: helping to five people in three different emergencies by the time you’re 11.

Fellow boaters--anyone have tips or links for simple to rig recovery systems that would work on someone else's boat? It retrospect we should have had some sort of line around him--there were so many moments when I feared that even several sets of hands wouldn't be sufficient for hoisting him up.

October 31, 2012

Halloween—the Aussie take…

 “That pumpkin is a special one for Halloween,” we were told after picking up the pumpkin from the pile labelled ‘Halloween Pumpkins’. “When you carve it you must be very careful. Pumpkins are hard and knives are sharp.”

The thing about being somewhere that is sort of like home, but not really, is it’s the differences that jump out at you. And Halloween in Australia is, well, different… Part of it is what little tradition there was that came over with Scottish and Irish settlers died out over the years—so the execution of Halloween is kind of like they’re trying to play a game they don’t know the rules to and have only seen on TV.

It’s not that Halloween is complicated—it’s pretty much as egalitarian as a celebration gets, as one Canadian reporter aptly put it, “Halloween has become the ultimate civic holiday. It brings us out of our houses to mingle with neighbours. It shows how we cherish our children. It gathers people of all backgrounds together. Halloween has no religion, no ethnicity. It is the festival that fits our modern, multicultural society best.”

One of the American mums at Maia's school has an annual Halloween party which has grown and grown
 At home Halloween has morphed into a celebration that has roots in the harvest festival of Samhain and the Christian holy days of Hallowmas; and the costumes, decorations and traditions range from fanciful to frightening. Sure the candy is fun—but trick-or-treating is really about letting your imagination go wild as you plan and dress up in your costume, then enjoy all the reactions of friends and neighbours.

The first clue that things were different here was when Maia asked kids in her class what they were going to be for Halloween and none of them really understood the question. The dress code here is witch or ghoul. No one was spending weeks planning a costume and no one’s grandpa was going to end up having to assemble a complicated tractor costume from scratch.

The common complaints about Halloween in Australia are it teaches kids to beg and it’s just a bunch of consumerist hype. And I can see how it can look that way. But as a bang for your buck memory-maker I think Halloween might be as affordable as it gets. And I think the community building that comes with meeting all your neighbours kind of balances out the candy consumption…

Despite the differences; the streets were comparatively empty and the limited houses that participated only sported a discreet balloon or at most they had a pumpkin on the stoop giving it an air of a scavenger hunt rather than the trick-or-treating we’re used to--the kids still had a blast. There’s something quite magical about making your way past familiar but darkened landmarks and getting to knock on a neighbour’s door for no reason at all other than to say, “trick-or-treat!”

October 21, 2012

Adventures in Oz—aka cuddling a Koala never gets old

 Maia and I have been back from Vancouver for over a month. We’ve got our routine down, and well the problem with routine is the days compress into one long stream of days that seem like every other day and you forget to pick out the unique moments and savour them.
Playing in the surf
Saskia--our neice and boat guest catches a wave
And I reckon it’s pretty unique here. You just need to stay tuned into the oddness that is Oz and try not to worry that your new Ozzie friends might be insulted by the fact you find it terribly funny that the purchase of a Halloween pumpkin came with a safety briefing (knives are sharp, pumpkins are hard, but the goal is to cut a spooky face into the pumpkin—here are some directions) or that Evan got a one hour talk (complete with quiz) on how to safely climb a step ladder.
Kings Beach
Palm Beach
We’ve pondered the excessive efforts to mandate safety (the population is stupid? Possibly drunk?) and the local’s impressive ability to miss the point (“Did you notice the new countdown timers on all the walk signals?” “Yup, no idea what they are for…”) But one place we do appreciate the safety measures is on the beaches. AU has an enviable surf lifesaving program—a program that grew after the bylaws the banned swimming on the beaches were lifted in 1902. Yup, swimming at the beach during daylight hours was once illegal in parts of Australia…

Surfers Paradise at sunset
The beaches today are great. We’ve been back up to the Sunshine Coast for surfing and fun at Kings Beach and down to the Gold Coast for a day at Palm Beach (you pass through Miami to get there). Like towns, each beach has its own feel—Kings Beach felt like something out of a 1960’s Beach Party movie, while Palm Beach was a little more rugged and wild feeling.