Day 233, Year 1: Ugly Weather on Day 2 of Passage to Tuamotus
Date and Time: Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Weather: Sunny, Strong Tradewinds; Occasional Squalls with Gusting Winds
Air Temperature: 84 degrees F
Water Temperature: 81 degrees F
Latitude: degrees minutes
Longitude: degrees minutes
Location: Marquesas to Tuamotus Transit, Day 2

What a difference a day makes . . just 24 hours. Yesterday at this time we were having a lovely sail. But as night set in, the rain squalls increased and so did the wind. This morning we were sailing under a double-reefed main and a double-reefed staysail, with no headsail flying. We had 22 to 30 knot winds, which is twice the 10 to 15 predicted, and we have the seas that come with that kind of wind. During the night we had gusts to 40 knots during one squall, but usually the gusts are around 35. It is rougher than we had planned, but I guess this is what goes with that Windbird wind “cell” I talked about in yesterday’s log. Windbird does fine in these conditions. It just makes it difficult to move around and do anything except read. I had planned to bake bread and brownies today, but remembering the burn I got the last time I tried that in seas like this, I opted for answering e-mails and reading. This afternoon we had periods when conditions seemed to be moderating. Winds were down to the low 20’s with occasional gusts into the upper 20’s. Right now we are in the midst of another squall!

Our friends Ed and Candice on Stillpoint aren’t faring quite as well. Their aluminum boat was built as a racer and doesn’t have the heavy displacement we have. We can keep our reefed main up for stability, but they had to lower all sails except for just a tiny triangle of headsail. They are moving as fast as us, but it is not as comfortable. And they have an aft cockpit that gets swamped with water in these waves. We have a center cockpit which is much higher and drier, plus we have plastic side curtains to help deflect the water. I sometimes feel like Windbird is the Sherman tank of sailboats, and I like that feeling in these conditions!

We are no longer in sight of other boats, but we can still talk with them on the VHF radio. I think Stillpoint is about seven miles behind us and once in a while we catch a glimpse of them. The catamaran Shiraz taking a different route and is off to the east of us. They are averaging about 7.5 knots, whereas we are averaging about 6 knots, so they will be passing us soon if they have not already. Ed of Stillpoint and Mark talked this morning about the possibility of by-passing the Tuamotus if it stays this windy. The Tuamotus were once known as the Dangerous Archipelago. They are easier to navigate with today’s electronic gear, but when the winds are strong and the seas are sloppy, they can still be a challenge. Each of the atolls is just a fringing coral reef that once surrounded a volcano. The volcanoes collapsed leaving deep craters that are now the lagoons. The fringing reefs support motus or small islets and have a few spots where you can pass into the lagoons, but you always have to be very careful. Just a few weeks ago, one of the boats in the Blue Water Rally washed up on a coral reef on the atoll of Rangiroa. The boat was the Gypsie Moth IV. This boat is the one that a syndicate in England just poured thousands of dollars into to it to rebuild it to its original condition when it was sailed around the world by Sir Francis Chichester. We hear that the boat has now been shipped to New Zealand for extensive repairs. Since we don’t have that kind of financial backing, we certainly don’t want to take any chances. So we may by-pass the Tuamotus and go straight to Tahiti. It is just too early to make that determination.

I said in yesterday’s log that I would be writing a summary of our experiences in the Marquesas to include in today’s log and that Mark would be completing another Captain’s Ramblings. Well, I didn’t get the summary of our Marquesas visit done. We had one squall after another during the night and had to be at the helm constant ready to change course to run with the wind when the gusts exceeded 30 knots. The squalls continued into the morning, so we did a lot of sailing, but no writing. However, this afternoon while I was catching up on sleep I missed last night, Mark finish his fifth edition of Captain’s Ramblings and it is attached. Perhaps tomorrow I will get the Marquesas summary done.

Captain’s Ramblings–Communications
6/6/06

Some of you have written asking for details on the technology we have on board and what we value most. A sailboat equipped for cruising is a very complex environment. We have all the utilities that any city would have: electricity generation, sewage treatment and disposal, waste collection and disposal, water making, and communications. And then there are the systems of propulsion: sails and rigging, and for most of us, a diesel engine. A cruiser should be able to do basic maintenance on all of these systems, though in fact most of us are learning as we go and we depend heavily on each other to fill in the voids in our knowledge. I have never been particularly mechanical so my learning curve has been steep. I’ll start with communications since in many ways the innovations in voice and e-mail communications have made this trip so much more enjoyable, safer, and has enabled us to maintain this cruising log you are reading.

Of course, we have the requisite VHF transceiver. In every anchorage this is our link to the other cruisers around us. It is our telephone (a party line where everyone listens in). Every time we pull into an anchorage as we are motoring around looking for a good spot to drop anchor, we call over to a nearby boat to find out what channel everyone is monitoring in this anchorage. It is usually channel 68 or 69 or sometimes 72 or the standard everywhere: channel 16. We use the VHF to organize social gatherings, to find out where to buy (fill this in with whatever has recently broken on your boat), where the market is, what the store hours are, where to land your dinghy, etc., etc. Sometimes at sea we will use the VHF to maintain contact with boats within sight of us. And we monitor VHF channel 16 at all times at sea. If a ship comes within view and we can’t tell its intended course, we will call them on channel 16 to find out their intentions and to let them know we are here.

The next piece of communications gear is the ham/SSB radio. We both got our general class Ham licenses before we left. Though there are cruisers out here without a licensed ham on board, we believe that at least one person should have their license. There are many nets that are for “Hams-only” and our email service (Winlink) is a service of hams operating throughout the world to give us free access to the internet. Of course, it is a very slow e-mail system so we cannot browse the internet nor can we send or receive very large emails such as those with photos attached. That is why our photos are posted separately on the web site. We send them using a g-mail e-mail account when we have access to high speed internet. Most places seem to have internet access these days and you can usually (but not always) find an internet café. There was only one place in all of the Marquesas with an internet café, but everywhere else we have been able to get online.

Our Ham/SSB radio is an ICOM 706. It was on the boat when we bought it and we are happy with it. There are many brands and models available but from our experience and the stories we have heard from other cruisers ICOM is the preferred brand. ICOM makes several models suitable for cruisers. Most are SSB radios that will need to be modified to transmit on ham frequencies. Some, like ours, are ham radios that need to be modified for the marine SSB frequencies. The ICOM 700 and 710 are tried and true models. ICOM has come out with a new model (the 802) that is already set up for both ham and marine SSB. However, we know of only two installations of this model and both are having trouble with them. I would suggest that you get your radio and ham license well in advance of leaving so you can use it and find out its weaknesses before it is critical (We got our licences, but we didn’t “practice” and we wish we had!). We bought a Pactor II Modem with the Pactor III software upgrade. This modem is the connection between our computer and the radio. Using it and some free downloadable software (Airmail) we are able to compose and send emails with a minimum of knowledge of radio wave propagation. It is all pretty well automated. The software also has a catalog of weather information you can order just by clicking the box next to the items you want. The next time we log on it will automatically send an e-mail requesting the weather information we want. Then a few hours later we log on again to receive e-mail and get e-mails with the weather information either in the body of the e-mail or as an attachment. Weather faxes can also be received using this software. As I mentioned above, we use a Ham-based e-mail service called Winlink that is free. Some cruisers use a commercial service called Sailmail for about $200 a year. Sailmail has the advantage that you can conduct business on it (Ham radio is for non-commercial use only). However, Sailmail has strict time limitations on how much use you can make of it each day. This has made it difficult for some cruisers to fully utilize the weather information available as some of those files are very large and take some time to download. We have a Sailmail account but only use it for doing business, such as ordering parts, etc. E-mail is as critical to us here as it ever was in our work lives. It is how we keep in touch with family and friends, how we receive critical weather information, and how we post our logs. We couldn’t do without it.

Of course, the Ham/SSB radio is also good for voice communications. We use it primarily to log into cruising nets on a daily basis. When we log in we give essential data about the boat, its crew, our position, course and destination. If we don’t respond during roll call for several days fellow cruisers will become concerned and start trying to find us. It is the best safety net we have out here, and it is a good way to keep up with the travels of friends. We would rate our Ham/SSB radio with its modem and computer as one of the most essential items to have on board – so much so that we have a spare computer in case our primary one goes down, which it did a couple months ago. Some cruisers carry a spare radio. We don’t, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Our computer also does double duty in that it serves as the way we store and make backups of our digital photos, of which we have thousands. We do not usually use the computer for navigation, though we have used C-Map charts in the Galapagos and in the Marquesas as we have no good paper charts of the ports and anchorages in these islands. I do, however, have a great program for passage planning: Visual Passage Planner. It contains all the data from pilot charts (average wind, waves, etc.) and uses that information to plot the best route between two points. Of course, the pilot chart information is just historic data and cannot predict the weather we will actually experience, but it is a good place to start. Our computer also has tide prediction programs and a number of other helpful navigation programs most of which we use only rarely.

The last, but not the least important item for communications is our Iridium satellite phone. We can call any phone in the world from anywhere in the world. I have used it to order parts while we were at sea so they would be available when we reached port and to get advice when we had an engine starting problem. We occasionally use it to talk to our kids and other family members. And I have used it to consult with a doctor at WorldClinic when I had a foot infection (I could do another whole Captain’s Ramblings on preparing for health emergencies at sea – maybe later). But in the end, we do not use it often as it is expensive – about $1.09 per minute. We buy blocks of 500 minutes at a time to get the price down from the more than $4.00 per minute it would cost on a pay as you go plan. To us the satellite phone is primarily available for emergency purposes. In theory we could have made most of the calls we did using our radio and a Ham net for cruisers and doing a phone patch. But propagation of radio waves is not always what you want when you may need it most, so we have found the Satellite phone invaluable.

I should also mention a way we keep in touch when on land. If a community has a high speed internet connection we can use a program called Skype. It is available as a free download on the web. With a set of headphones and microphone (Be sure to get a good set as many have thin, easily breakable wires or earphones that fit uncomfortably in your ear.) attached to your computer you can call any other Skype user for free and if you deposit $10 with them you can call any phone for literally pennies. We have made many calls this way and still have about $8.00 credit in our account. This is something I would recommend for everyone – you don’t have to be a cruiser. And if you are a real computer geek you might add a camera to turn your computer into a video-phone. We first learned about this in the Caribbean where we saw European cruisers constantly talking to their computers. Once we asked what they were doing, we saw what a great thing Skype can be.

Using Skype brings up the subject of Wi-Fi. There are marinas and other shore-side businesses that have a Wi-Fi service. Sometimes this is free, sometimes you have to go in and register to get a password. Some had powerful external antennas so boats anchored in the harbor could use the service. Occasionally this was the way we got high speed internet access on Windbird in anchorage. We could have done so more often, however, if we had an external USB Wi-Fi antenna. Some of the signals are marginal and need the extra boost in strength provided by one of these antennas. However, not all external antennas are created equal and we have not yet been able to find one that we believe will work for us. Browsing the internet onboard your boat at anchor is terrific. One of the things we miss most out here is easy access to all the information on the internet. If we could be on the internet at sea we would be doing research on the next landfall. But technology is not at that point yet. At least it is not affordable for us. So we have to do any internet browsing while in port, and even then only in those ports that have high speed access. Having an external USB Wi-Fi antenna is high on our list of purchases as soon as we can find the right one.

In my next Captain’s Ramblings I will discuss propulsion and deal with some of the issues we have had along the way with our engine(s) and transmission(s).

Day 234, Year 1: The Game of Sailing
Day 232, Year 1: On the Road Again