Cruising gear: what about the phone?

Ferry crossing Puget Sound in a smoky sunset

Ah, the freedom of cruising! No commute, no schedule, no phone ringing… WAIT A MINUTE THERE. Phones? We gave our cell phones up when we took off in 2008 for a blue horizon. But the world changed and they crept back in a few years later, and are now indispensable travelers tools. Used as a hotspot, a smartphone is our primary vehicle for getting online aboard Totem. Apps connect us to helpful tools from mapping to translation and a myriad of other tools. Necessary to keep up Totem’s Instagram! Can you use what you have? Do you get a local burner? What about international roaming? Here’s what works when you’re a border-hopping nomad.

Our current solution is to have two phones: one is a permanent US number (keeps us connected to folks at home and gets us online faster in a new place), and the other gets a new SIM card for whatever country we’re in (local rates are more affordable, and we may want to make local calls/texts).

Screenshot of Project Fi app saying Welcome to El Salvador

The US phone is part of Google’s Project Fi; it means we are instantly online when we pick up a new country’s cell tower, as long as it’s one of the 135 countries in their plan (right, that’s most, although not French Polynesia). We are easily reached on a single number for text or calls, and billing is scaled at transparent, affordable rates: free texts, international roaming calls at $.20/minute, and data metered at $10/gigabyte.

It cracked me up as we sailed up the west side of central America this spring when Project Fi announcement on our phone was the first clue an international boundary line was crossed.

The local phone starts with any international-friendly unlocked phone.  Unlocked is essential for swapping out SIM cards when you’re in a new country, of course, so make sure that doesn’t require a trip to the Genius Bar first. Will your current phone will work internationally? Ask the carrier, try this map, or look up the device in Wikipedia. If you’re buying a new phone, look for phones that are GSM, or work on “quad band,” or work specifically on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands.

Why do you want a local number? If we only had one phone aboard, we’d choose this route. First, because this is our primary way to get online, and a local carrier’s plan has cheaper data rates (Telcel in Mexico runs around $5/gb, for example) than Project Fi ($10/gb) in most places/situations.

Second, because we make and receive calls and texts in other countries, and a local contact isn’t going to place an international call to reach our US number. For example: local calls/texts to arrange inland travel or just to coordinate a ride with a taxi to get fuel. Getting around on the back of a motorcycle is common in Indonesia, and when I had a good driver I’d text to request them specifically. 

A teenage girls holds a chicken in front of a backyard coop
Mairen tries out suburban chicken farming

Want to keep your current US phone number? That’s possible but more complicated. If you stay with your current service, know that the international roaming data is likely to be throttled (T-mobile swore we’d have 4G in the Bahamas and Caribbean, but that was only possible with local plans; we were limited to 2G). Also, your service will be cut off with minimal notice if you use it for some months without being back in the USA. Harsh, right? It happens! The fine print in Terms & Conditions for US carriers limit international use (at their discretion); this roaming is intended for part-time only.

Keep your number another way by forwarding it to your local country number. It requires paying for your US service and a VOIP phone number in the US, but that might be important for you. How does the magic happen? This is written up in detail by SV Liquid, check out the post.

I want to try Project Fi!

We think Project Fi kind of awesome. We’re able to help a handful of people save $20 on their first bill if they sign up with this link: https://g.co/fi/r/3208HT (I think it’s capped at 10 referrals. First come first served! It saves us $20, too, so… thanks!). A US address is required to sign up for Project Fi.

Signing up with Project Fi may mean buying a new phone, as only select models are compatible. You can buy one from Google, or buy the right model elsewhere and purchase a plan from Google (the SIM is free). Phones start under $200 for a Moto G6, or you can spend hundreds more for schmancier Pixel 2 or LG models. Nice to know: both Fi-friendly Motorola models have meaningful water resistance, so wet dinghy rides (and even a dunking) aren’t going to kill your device.

Overcast skies and the silhouette of boats in a Puget Sound evening
Long twilight and gray days in the Pacific Northwest summer

Other tips

Apps not direct dial! Despite these two phone numbers we now carry around, what we use most for calls is an app: usually Whatsapp or Skype. Whatsapp is widely used (not just in the USA), and means I can use my US-number-phone to “call” the Costa Rican taxi driver on his phone. Skype is useful because you can use Skype to call a physical phone (landline or mobile), and the rates are much cheaper than Project Fi (a couple of cents per minute, instead of $0.20/minute; it adds up over an hourlong call!).

We added a mobile signal booster to Totem’s kit in 2016. The Wilson WeBoost works by amplifying an existing cellular signal; pick that up with a phone/device on board the boat. Unit pricing varies by how many devices can connect at once, and start around $150. They don’t work everywhere and international benefit is unclear, but we definitely felt the boost in the Bahamas, and again in Mexico… retaining a signal in areas we were told there was none on our way up the Sea of Cortez.

Staying in touch, taking snapshots of your adventures, getting online, growing your Instagram, whatever it is: a phone is indispensable. Got a question about use as a cruiser I didn’t cover? Ask in the comments and I’ll follow up!

Puget Sound denizens, join us in September!

  • Friday-Sunday, 7th -9th: Wooden Boat Festival, Port Townsend. Presenting all three days
  • Friday 14th, 7 pm: Seattle’s Corinthian Yacht Club. Details here
  • Tuesday 18, 5:30 pm: Shilshole Bay Yacht Club’s September dinner meeting
  • Friday 21st, 7:30 pm: Puget Sound Cruising Club’s September meeting
  • Vancouver friends, we regret that the BCA event planned for the 12th has been canceled, and hope you might find us near Seattle instead.

Come find us at the Annapolis Boat Show, starting October 4!

  • Oct. 4-8th, afternoons: Cardinal publishing and Good Old Boat booths
  • Oct. 5-7th, mornings: instructors for Take The Wheel
  • Oct. 5th, afternoon: seminar sponsored by Cruising World 
  • Oct. 8-11th: Cruisers U seminars, including Cruising Women with (Behan co-leads with Pam Wall) and Jamie’s popular Crisis Management class

It’s about seven weeks until we return to Totem, but who’s counting? The Pacific Northwest summer is fading an it appears There Will Be Socks before we can return to Mexico. Enjoy these snapshots of our summer and wish us warmth! 

Two women talk gaily in Adirondack chairs on a dock, a sailboat anchored in the distance
lazy summer days with old friends
A large family groups together in a lush backyard for a reunion portrait
Reunion time for Behan’s family

Optimizing Iridium GO use on board

Desert mountains and sailboats

Desert and sea are the incongruous pairing when sailing along Baja, where cactus-studded mountain ranges plummet to a Gulf full of marine life. Miles of isolated coastline make for stunning cruising grounds. We love the remote, wild-west feel of the Sea of Cortez… but we need to stay connected. There are approximately 2,534,934 more cardón cactus than cell towers here so we rely upon our Iridium GO.

What do we use it for? Keeping up with email. Checking news. I get twitchy without dipping into social media. Most important is weather: in case we needed a reminder, an early-season hurricane threatened to come our way as we sailed up the Sea these last couple of weeks. These are much the same tasks/functions we use on passages, too. I’ve detailed how we make the GO work for us below to share from what we’ve learned, help with understanding what it can do, and maybe set some expectations. [Unless noted otherwise, the context for all this is an iPad, because that’s what we use!]

Pre-departure checklist

Effective use off the grid starts with preparation before sailing away.

  1. Prep for email:
    • Set up ‘normal’ emails to forward to the Iridium email address, leaving original on the server (so it will download to laptop later when we have wifi later). Prevents needing to pass out the dedicated Iridium email address. Email to that address only accessible with the satellite connection, which is very inconvenient once you’re back in wifi land.
    • Put ‘normal’ email as the reply-to address in Iridium Mail & Web app settings, to avoid replies getting locked in the Iridium inbox.
    • Purge the Iridium email inbox (or risk a painfully long download of the old messages you’ve forgotten). This purge is done on the Iridium website: visit http://iridium.com/mailandweb, login BELOW the Iridium logo (not at the top of the frame!), select Change Email (also on that line below the Iridium logo), and scroll down for buttons to purge Inbox and Big Mail (messages over a certain size are shunted here).

  2. Prep for browsing:
    • Use the Opera browser. Iridium defaults to Safari with recommended links for lower-bandwidth information access. I found these too slow to bother with.
    • Tune Opera browser: select the red ‘O’ – choose ‘Savings Enabled’ and select Mini. Under advanced settings, turn off images. I pre-set the home page, aka Speed Dial, with sites or pages I want to use while we’re remote
  3. Prep for social media:
    • Posting to a Facebook profile? Authenticate Facebook to connect and post with the Iridium Mail & Web app at http://fb.myiridium.net/. Facebook requires this handshake every 60 days. The Facebook app is not GO-friendly.
    • Posting to a Facebook page? Whoops, Iridium app feature only posts pics to profiles, not to pages! I prep by scheduling a few Totem page posts with favorite pictures while we’re away.
    • Using Twitter? You can connect a Twitter account to facilitate posting (the Twitter app is not GO-friendly). When we crossed the Indian Ocean in 2015, I set up Twitter to send texts for certain tweets to our Iridium messenger.

Managing email

We use the Iridium Mail & Web app to manage email. It’s… basic, and a lot of it still acts like beta software, but it’s functional and free. Emails are delivered in plain text format; most attachments will make a message too big to be practical for available bandwidth. For other (paid) email clients, see third-party apps listed on the Iridium site.

Composing email is a lot easier with a Bluetooth keyboard (I use this $19.99 keyboard from Arteck as an easy way to get it done). Sometimes I want to use my laptop and fullsize keyboard; I get those tomes into email by converting them into pdf files that can be transferred to the iPad, then copy/paste the contents into a message.

Sending / receiving email takes time. Here’s a snapshot of the download dialog while I retrieving messages one morning. It took almost 20 minutes! Crazy if you’re used to normal internet. When you can do it from somewhere remote and beautiful? Who cares!

Iridium GO email download

sailboat in remote anchorage

Remote and beautiful: a sea level view of the anchorage at top – Puerto Don Juan. No cell towers here!

Browsing the web

“Browsing the web,” blithely stated as if it were remotely like what you do on a typical wifi connection…. Oh, it’s not! It is like watching paint dry or grass grow, and if you have any hopes for speed remotely resembling what you have at home, it is an exercise in frustration. Shed those expectations! Just enjoy what you CAN do.

It usually takes a few minutes to load the text-version of a web page. Here’s a quick comparison of how Race to Alaska’s Facebook page compares in stripped-down Opera Mini vs. normal display. (Tangent: talk about a nail biter with R2AK! We know crew on two of the boats clawing their way north right now, Sail Like A Girl and Wild Card. Go go go teams!)

comparing Opera Mini and Turbo

I usually have my iPad (downloading *whatever* via the GO) next to me while reading on my Kindle… read a few pages, check GO progress, read a few more… you get the picture. It takes several minutes for a single page. The first one often requires multiple retries before something seems to click in, but once it does, you’re good. When we sailed from Puerto Vallarta to La Paz last month I browsed for cake recipes online via the GO, and found a fantastic berry trifle for Siobhan’s birthday (the same day as our landfall in Baja, graciously served by the Bahia de los Muertos palapa restaurant).

Social media

We use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These apps are not accessible with a GO data connection, but Iridium’s app facilitates posting lower resolution images to a Facebook profile or Twitter account. Web pages for both can be accessed using Opera. The quality can be surprising: this image I posted from our last remote anchorage, off Isla Angel de la Guarda, was good enough to garner comments. The high-bandwidth nature of IG isn’t suited to the GO at all and T&Cs don’t allow scheduling, so our insta goes dark when we’re away from normal internet access.

Iridium GO post to Facebook

I’ve seen some pretty blurry pics posted via the Iridium. Our MO: take a preferred image, use a resize app on the iPad to shrink dimensions, and attach to the Facebook function in the Iridium Mail & Web app to post. Our image settings in Mail & Web are set to 100 (scale of 0-100) with ‘resample’ on; dimensions here for 600 pixels wide. The pic above came out at about 44k, which isn’t horribly onerous to squeeze through while looking decent.

It’s a bummer that the Iridium’s Facebook posting function only works with profiles; many boats, Totem included, maintain a Facebook page as an alternate kind of daily blog. But I can at least access a text version of the Totem page through Opera; I enjoy staying connected to dialogue with anyone good enough to give us their time by engaging there.

Other cruisers!

The GO makes it easy to keep up with other cruisers, too. Texting between two GOs was the easiest way to stay in touch with friends on SV Manu Kai as we sailed towards a deserted bay in southern Mexico a few months back. This week, when we arrived in Puerto Peñasco, we reported back the marina situation (no berths!) SV Lea Scotia, waiting in Isla Angel de la Guarda by text from our GO to their InReach… an email to the GO account on SV Empyrean let us fill in more details to share.

Weather

This is the A-Number-One, Most Important By Far reason we have the GO: good weather data, dependably delivered. We primarily use PredictWind, which is tuned for the Iridium device (more about how we do that in this post). For this last overnight run up the Sea of Cortez, a look at the current patterns was helpful in directing our route to Peñasco.

Sea of Cortez current

A quick comparison of weather models indicated winds would be light or extra light. Cue the motorboat ride! In these examples, the GO is used on a Windows laptop.

Comparing different weather models – easy with PW – indicates probable forecast accuracy.

iOS quirk: there’s a proxy setting to tweak for the GO’s wifi connection. In the iPad settings, choosing the GO’s wifi network > click that circled i for information > Configure Proxy > switch setting to “off” for PredictWind downloads and set to “automatic” for… everything else. Minor.

Setup

None of what I wrote above matters if you don’t have a good Iridium setup to start. First, don’t cheap out on the hardware. The external antenna is essential, tempting as it is to cut that cost. So is quality cable to connect device to antenna. This bundle does the thinking for you.

Second, give yourself ample time for setup and do it while you have good internet connectivity in case you need to troubleshoot. This bears repeating: give yourself ample time for setup! I don’t mean a few days before you expect to need it – I mean a couple of weeks to make sure you’ve figured it out and eveyrthing’s working. Seriously. Most complaints/frustration stem from leaving it too late. PredictWind has good instructions (including video tutorials) to assist.

Finally, having the latest firmware update makes a significant difference! Download link and instructions here. Each update has provided a leap in functionality and/or connection speeds.

All good?

This post hopefully is useful for people wondering how they’d use an Iridium GO and if it’s worthwhile having on board. Did I do OK? Let me know, in the comments or through our contact form, if there are other questions I can help answer. After 3+ years and a couple of oceans, we’ve worked out a few kinks and found this an invaluable piece of kit for our cruising needs.

Totem and crew are on the hard among the shrimp fleet of Puerto Peñasco, making plans for a summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Rags From Riches: common pitfalls with cruising sails

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

Jamie periodically shares his expertise in a technical article: here he reviews typical problems cruisers experience with their sails, and how to address them. For more from the wells of this cruising sailmaker, see tagged posts on the topic.

Way, way back when I was designing sails for crazy people that sailed around the world in the Whitbread, BOC, and Vendee Globe races, the sail inventory budgets were dazzling! A maxi-boat (about 82’ long) mainsail in the 1989-90 Whitbread Race could be $35,000. Racing around the globe competitively required at least 4 mainsails. Add 25-ish headsails and even more spinnakers and you can imagine why sailmakers loved long distance races.

That boom went bust when the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race) organizers limited the entire sail inventory to just 17 sails. Millions of sailmakers weep for the loss. Porsche dealers and Rolex merchants report lackluster earnings because sailmakers stopped comin’ ‘round.

There is a glimmering benefit to all of this. More time for sailmakers and cruising sailors to make better cruising sails. Sailmakers will laugh. Woven Dacron sails shimmer like tin, not gold. Cruising sailors will either malign sailmakers for not listening to them and then delivering a product that’s unimproved in 50 years; or worship their sailmaker because by-golly they make ‘em like the good ‘ol days, with leather at the corners!

New cruising rags take riches that are too little for sailmakers and too much for cruising sailors. So, naturally, neither shares much quality time for the other. Cruising sails remain lackluster. Some are okay. Many are just lousy: poor quality or mismatched sailcloth, poorly sized headsail, junk hardware, and lame details. If you think my judgement harsh, it comes from many occasions that go something like this.

Sailor: I hear you’re a sailmaker. Can you look at my main? It has a small tear.

(10 minutes later)

Me: You’re right, it is a tear.

Sailor: Hey! Why are you tearing it further?

Me: Like tissue paper. Rotten sailcloth. You need a new sail.

Sailor: What? How can that be, my sails are only 3 years old?

Me: Oh, in that case we should also check your headsail for UV damage.

Sailor: WHAT!?!?

Sailmakers aren’t trained to gracefully deliver bad news. The emotional toll is terrible, even before Sailor stumbles onto the worst part. They’re at a remote paradise with bad sails and no way to replace them. Sailor weeps for the loss. I’ve had this scenario play out many times, including a mainsail that was just two years old. Moving forward, this cruising sailmaker presents common problems and solutions for better cruising sails meant to go the distance.

The dream… champagne sailing! The reality… repairs in exotic locations. Fixing a new friend’s sail in the Bahamas

(Note: sailcloth is a really big topic. Laminated sailcloth has a place on some cruising boats, but consequences like mildew and delamination make it a poor choice for many. Therefore, my focus is on woven cloth problems.)

Problem: High aspect sailcloth in sails bound for the tropics

Fibers make warp and fill yarns and woven to make sailcloth. High aspect sailcloth has many more fill direction fibers than the warp fibers. Logically the sail designer pairs high aspect cloth and high aspect sail (tall and narrow) to best manage sail loads. This is fine in temperate regions and seasonal sailing; it’s a serious flaw when cruising the tropics.

UV degrades tensile strength of exposed fibers. The outer fiber layer of a big yarn protects the inner fibers like sunscreen. High aspect warp yarns are tiny, and degrade entirely. This is how the cloth can fail in 2 to 4 years of active tropical sailing. Low aspect sailcloth is a better choice, even on a high aspect rig. Of course, always cover the sail when not in use.

Problem: Underbuilt sails

Sailcloth manufacturers provide recommendations to match cloth weight to sail size and type. Fixed calculations don’t account for context, like the type of sailing to be done, but that’s where the conflicted sailmaker comes in. Conflicted because when a situation warrants heavier Dacron or woven hybrid sailcloth, the cost goes up, followed by sail price that appears less competitive. Underbuilt sails stretch and distort easily, and are more susceptible to UV degradation. Stronger sails cost more, last longer with more reliability when going remote.

There are three ways to do this. One is simply higher weight sailcloth. A better method for boats over 40 feet, roughly, is adding a 2-ply leech. This puts more Dacron only along the leech of the sail where loads are highest. Last is woven hybrid cloth the combines Dacron and Dyneema/Spectra fibers, such as Dimension Polyant Hydranet. This is stronger, lower stretch, and lighter than conventional Dacron – with a premium price. Rags from riches.

Sailing wing and wing

Not underbuilt! Totem underway to Colombia

Problem: Low grade Dacron

Dacron is a Dupont brand name that has come to colloquially mean Polyester fiber woven sailcloth. A point murkier than bright white Dacron: Polyester fibers in sailcloth come in different grades. Quality brands such as Marblehead by Challenge Sailcloth and AP Blade by Dimension Polyant use high tenacity fibers that are stronger, lower stretch, and more expensive. Economy Dacron may suit casual sailing needs just fine, but come up short on long distance sails.

Problem: Headsail size

Multiple headsails sized for different conditions would be nice, but limited storage and more work with shorthanded sail changes makes them impractical. Instead, many full-time cruisers have one or two headsails, plus staysail or storm jib. The trick to this compromise is sizing the primary headsail well. Setting off to sail the world with a 135% or bigger genoa is probably not a good match. While it can be partially furled to reduce sail area, doing so creates a poorly shaped smaller sail with bias loading that can distort sailcloth. Consider conditions where you intend to sail and boat characteristics. I find that 100% to 120% range is enough without being too much for boats reaching out to multiple regions.

Problem: UV cover fail

Mainsail covers and UV covers on furling sails use materials resistant to UV degradation to protect sailcloth. They only work while securely sewn in place. Astoundingly, so many UV covers still get sewn on with thread that rots in the sun. UV resistant cloth and rot prone Polyester thread! Instead, Tenara thread does not rot and will last the life of the cover material.

Jamie repairs the UV strip for a friends headsail on the dock in Panama

Problem: Chafe

Chafe happens. Running with the main plastered into the rigging chafes at stitching and cloth. The pocket covering full length battens gets the worst of it. Rigid battens rubbing against shrouds and spreaders can cut through the pocket after only a few short passages. The solution is Polyester webbing sewn on top of the batten pockets. This provides many years of chafe protection, and help to dampen shock load to battens if they impact the shrouds after a gybe.

Problem: Survey says!

Having read many marine surveys, it’s fair to say that most marine surveyors don’t put much time or expertise into evaluating sails. Often sails get lumped together and reported as “good”. The transaction goes ahead and new owner brings sails into the local loft for inspection. A few days later a dispassionate sailmaker reports the mainsail is ready for the bin. The leech has serious UV damage from not being covered. The genoa may last another season or two if the UV cover gets replaced. New owner curses the surveyor. Sailmaker hands new owner a quote for new mainsail and genoa repair on the way out the door, mumbling something about being late for a regatta, before disappearing into an old reliable Volvo.

Wondering about your own sails? Jamie’s happy to share expertise one on one, just send us an email! Meanwhile, Totem is happily seeking out taco carts in La Paz, Mexico, and excited to sail north up Mexico’s Sea of Cortez this month.

Suddenly without steering in the Caribbean Sea

Jamie at the helm sailing by yacht M5

Losing steerage is stressful at the best of times. Losing it when hand-steering gnarly seas that threaten to broach the inattentive sailor, on day one of a four-day sail between countries where the sea state is likely to be worse before it’s better? Hectic! Here’s what happened when steering failed on our recent passage from Colombia to Panama.

The event

Motoring out of the protection in Santa Marta bay (with a small deviation from course to rubberneck the 185’ yacht, M5, pictured above), we quickly entered more boisterous conditions outside the protection of the bay. Steep waves were better managed with hand steering; Jamie worked the helm.  Just a few hours out of Santa Marta, Colombia, Totem lurched after a loud bang from the guts of the boat. “We have no steerage!” Jamie called out from the cockpit, instantly in motion.

He dove for the autopilot controls at the companionway: guessing, correctly, that the autopilot would still drive the rudder. Sure enough, it worked and Totem was under control again.

Braced in the nav station, I called to Utopia II over the VHF to let them know our situation. They were just a few miles away—we expected to remain in proximity to them for the duration, and knowing they would be nearby to render aid if necessary was comforting.

Niall worked the autopilot while Jamie set up our emergency tiller. Being ready for the next level of events can mean the difference between difficulty and crisis. Our concern was that heavy seas would overwork our old Raymarine and cause the autopilot to fail. It happened before: four years ago this month, we lost the autopilot, then the eye-bolt that secures steering cable to quadrant broke, THEN the engine overheated- trifecta!

The focus: limiting this event to a single problem. Driving Totem with the emergency tiller is hard work in calm conditions. With our bigger rudder, as Jamie says—using the tiller is like steering a loaded dump-truck without a wheel!

February 2014: steering with the emergency tiller in Thailand

The cause

With Totem under autopilot control, Jamie started troubleshooting. He began at the quadrant. Eye bolts and cable looked fine. Then followed the steering cable forward until it turns on a sheave upward to the binnacle. Bingo! One cable did not look like the other.

The cause was the weakest link, literally. The steering system is comprised of a length of chain that meshes with the sprocket fixed to the steering wheel. Each chain end has a link that secures to the swaged eye at the end of the steering cable. This last link is different than the others. It has a circlip that allows the link to open to lock the swage eye in place. The link broke under that circlip, due to stainless steel crevice corrosion. Jamie inspected the system just a year ago (with 7x magnifying glass), but as is often the case with stainless steel, you cannot see all of the surfaces where a sign of pending doom may lurk.

broken chain link

The weakest link

The fix

Conditions were tough: square-faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters. These were the steepest wave we’ve experienced. Using the autopilot with constant adjustments kept us well in control. We touched 13.2 knots a couple times without any dramas, but always ready to jump to the emergency tiller.

After 60 miles in those waves and wind from 25 to 40 knots, we anchored that evening at Puerto Velero, just west of Barranquilla. Nice relief to be in safe harbor, but the day was not over. With the miles and conditions ahead of us, we wanted steering back on line. Earlier in the day, while calling out “plus ten, now go minus ten” to help Niall work the autopilot for steering the waves, Jamie thought through possible solutions. We have spare steering cables, but no spare chain. The solution was one of his favorite materials – DYNEEMA!

Working on repairs by headlamp-light, he removed chain and cables. Then spliced 6mm single-braid Dyneema to the last chain pin to run in place of the wire cable. By 10 that night, the linkage was reinstalled and adjusted. There is chance the quadrant or sheaves may chafe the Dyneema; or the chain pin with Dyneema around it may distort or break. We’re monitoring it and is all good, three weeks and 326 nautical miles so far.

Splicing by headlamp-light

The evening was interrupted by a visit from Maritime Police, an event I’d sooner put in hindsight (details, this post). Happy to leave the harbor the next morning, we motored out behind the Aussie cat, Aseka, in the mellow light of dawn and continued to Panama.

Holiday gifts that cruisers want

Paddling in Guadeloupe

As avowed minimalists, this feels slightly awkward putting a post of holiday gifts together. But the reality is that there are useful needs to meet in a life afloat. This peek into what works hopefully aids those anticipating a similar path: a personal look what’s worked for us, and what’s on our wish list, as idea fodder for gifts to the the sailors in your life. It’s organized into four angles:

  1. Best additions to Totem this year
  2. Wish list: functional gifts
  3. Wish list: what the crew really wants!
  4. Especially for kidsThe Great Kayak Debacle of 2016. Weighing pros/cons, we picked the durability of a fixed board over a space-saving inflatable. A shorter (10’) Jimmy Styx model (year-end closeout!) is right-sized for our humans and has provided hours of fun and fitness. Siobhan paddles in front of Totem, photo at top.
  5. Underwater dome lens – talk about bang for the buck. Only $50 to get some of my favoritest pictures ever. Just fit the GoPro inside and swim! It’s so flippin’ cool to have split images with above/below water…like this one showing Totem  floating in crystal Bahamian water while a nurse shark dozes on the sand below.
  6. Pic made possible with a dome

    Pic made possible with a dome port lens over GoPro. Me on deck, Jamie in the water; Staniel Cay, Bahamas.

    • Winches – Jamie likes to fondle our new Andersen stainless steel winches. No, seriously. Aside from the fact they are incredibly sexy mirror-finish stainless, the engineering of these makes them a better mousetrap, starting with guts that require less maintenance. Ribs on the drum don’t need as many wraps for sufficient friction, and they’re kinder to lines than conventional drum texturing. Jamie is all the warm fuzzies from that ribbed drum. I kinda want to get a lascivious picture of him with one.
    • Mantus scuba– we used to wish for dive gear on Totem, but it never made sense; a mix of upfront cost, equipment x 5 crew, limited space, and just not being die-hard divers. But we do really like getting underwater…a lot! Adding a pair of Mantus tanks has been perfect. Good fun for more marine exploring beyond our freediving skills, plus peace of mind as added safety equipment (invaluable if an anchor fouled below freediving depth / hang time capability).
    Kids dive with Mantus scuba

    Kids dive with Mantus scuba. There’s that dome port lens again too!

    • ACR ResQLink+. This personal locater beacon (PLB) was added to our safety kit for taking off to the Bahamas and beyond. My worst nightmare is losing on-watch crew overboard; I still worry when Jamie’s on watch and I’m “sleeping” off watch – these help me actually relax, knowing he’s basically attached to an EPIRB.
    • Drone – we picked up a Phantom 3 pro during the post-holiday-sales last year. I know, have been lame about sharing the footage (will provide room & board on Totem for anyone who can train us up!) but – WOW. The images are amazing! I love the bird’s eye view it offers of our life afloat! New Years Resolution: learn editing and share some videos. I’m not kidding about hosting someone who can school us! (Aline are you reading?! 😊 )
    Dakity bay Culebra Puerto Rico anchorage

    Culebra, Puerto Rico

    • Dinghy. When our trusty Avon finally gave up (well, it was 19 years old) in Thailand, the Highfield we replaced it with was… suboptimal. Not big enough, didn’t ride as well. A dinghy is one of the most frequently used bits of gear on board so we felt the gap. The 10.5’ AB (aluminum, double floor, bow locker) we picked up at Tradewind Yachting Services in Nanny Cay in September is AWESOME.
    • TOTEM shirts! New earlier this year, we adore these super-soft, organic cotton shirts and LOVE seeing people wear them. If you order Totem gear (Ts, caps and a hemp market bag too), send us a picture!Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

      Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

II. Wish list: practical

The next set… well, they aren’t exactly sexy holiday gifts. But the way our family looks at the world is in more practical term (I just realized how crazy that probably sounds to a lot of readers- yes, chucking convention to live on a boat with no fixed address is very practical. Really!): these are the practical wish-list expenditures. Right now we’re saving all our pennies to transit the Panama Canal but; some of these we expect (chaps, shade) others are less likely.

  • Dinghy chaps. Fabric covers fitted to the hypalon tubes extend their life by preventing chafe and reducing UV exposure. These are labor intensive and custom made, haven’t rationalized this expense just yet.
  • Outboard. Dinghy theme lately? Our outboard has been struggling for over a year, something that dependably gets a full load on a plane would be sweet. This 15hp Yamaha would do us right.
  • Repaint Totem’s hull. It’s so beat up, the guys working in the shipyard in Grenada were laughing at us—all in good fun—and asking if they could give her a makeover! Hey, there’s a dugout canoe associated with almost every ding, those are good memories…OK yeah it would be nice to have a pretty boat again.
  • Cockpit shade. We have an AWESOME, pretty new (2016) bimini frame (thank you to the great guys at TurboXS!)…but it still lacks the whole fabric-shade-that-attaches-to-it part. It will be really nice to get the last mile of this addition completed.
  • Sailrite. We’ve gone back and forth on these durable sewing machines. Cons: machines need to be used to stay workable; they are heavy, and they take up a chunk of storage. But in the Pro column: Jamie could do a lot with one, like dinghy chaps and cockpit shade! He’s a sailmaker, used to be a hands-on in the pit guy and knows his way around a pro machine. Our M.O. to date: Jamie fixes other cruiser’s Sailrites that have stopped working after languishing in a locker by bartering for usage to get a project done.
Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

  • Countertops. The formica installed in Thailand, unfortunately, is not good. It’s a long story. But the formica is nearly worn through, the trim wasn’t done right, and a bunch of other stuff. For the Someday files. Solid surfacing would be so dreamy!
  • Solid state external drives. The movable parts on hard drives, in computers and external drives, have shorter lifespans with the small constant motions of a boat. SSDs would be less prone to failure. The multiple of expense is unfortunate (and almost rationalized by failed drives!). The only downside: external SSDs are mostly small, so you’d need a bunch to accomodate all the photo and video files a family accumulates. Sample: this Samsung 2TB drive, ~$800.

III. Wish list: just for fun

What’s your heart’s desire? I asked everyone on board to contribute their “wish” gift idea for something they have zero need for, but a dose of desire. This turned out to be difficult: we are pretty good at being satisfied with what we have instead of craving what the boat next door has! But there are some great ways to be indulgent on board. The top five are our personal picks, the rest are from family brainstorming.

  1. Niall: PADI dive certification. (shhh: I think we figured out how to do this affordably enough in Bonaire next month! He doesn’t read the blog – don’t spill the beans anyone!!)
  2. Mairen: horseback riding. (still with the experiences. C’mon Mairen it’s about Stuff! She never got beyond “more art supplies then?”)
  3. Siobhan: a puppy. KIDDING. Except she wasn’t. Her BATNA wish is to have any book she wants for a year. Qualified with “you know I use the library mostly.” People, she reads a LOT. Thank goodness for ebook loans from our hometown library!
  4. Jamie: Code zero with a continuous line furler on a sprit. Because the sailmaker’s boat is a little bit like the cobblerss kids… often wanting. Here’s why Jamie thinks this is a winner sail for cruisers.
  5. Behan: fancypants freediving fins, and lessons to go with them. (As long as we’re daydreaming, I’d learn from supermama and freediving champion Ashley Chapman at Evolve Freediving, with a whole- family lesson!)

More Totem crew wish-list picks that may generate ideas for giftees on your list:

  • Water-friendly drone. We’re having so much fun with the ‘regular’ drone, imagine one that lands on the water, or follows behind the dinghy – saltwater spray be damned?! This very cool looking Splash Drone 3 lands on the water and floats. Whoa. Or the QuadH2O: double whoa.
  • Mini home theater projector. We watched movies outside on the Delos deck once upon a time; I harbor dreams of hosting anchorage movie nights with a film displayed on a sail “screen.” One that’s bright enough, not to big, and doesn’t draw too much power, decent speakers…or 3 out of 4. Like this maybe (and wow, that’s a good price!)?
  • New computer. OK, not family but Jamie. The Toughbook that is our navigation computer doubles as his personal machine, but doesn’t play well with Windows 10. Newer models do. Still a big fan of Toughbooks for their durability on board.
  • Camera equipment. Better underwater shots with an Olympus Tough: the GoPro is awesome for environmental shots, but fails on macro, and those are fun to take underwater. Above sea level, I traded in all my Nikon gear to migrate towards Sony’s mirrorless a7 series, and will always be drooling over lenses.
  • A dozen Luci lights. We have one and it’s fantastic: indulgent wish list version,- how cool would a strand of them be hung tiki-light style around the cockpit?!the masks they got from Divers Direct in Florida this year, and they’re very reasonably priced (holiday sale: $40?!).
  • Beach fun: boogie boards and beach bocce are our favorites.
  • Fishing kit. Get kids their own tackle box, handline, a net to grab stuff that goes overboard; even a Hawaiian sling spear if they can handle it.
  • Field guides. Not kid books, but GOOD field guides. Identification of underwater life was a big hit from the time we started cruising with littles. Region-specific matters, I believe: the Gottshall two-book set is amazing for Pacific Mexico; DeLoach guides rule for the Caribbean: one for Reef Fish, one for Coral, one for, well, everything else (Reef Creatures).
  • Scooters.  Bikes are impractical; kids like wheels and folding scooters fit. Utility varies by cruising grounds (not a lot of roads in some oceanic regions!), but these are great get-around fun.
  • Arts & crafts. I’m not very crafty, so packaged kits like Klutz are perfect for me. Getting good materials will serve you later: these watercolors are richly pigmented and last a long time. Oragami, beading, or whatever! There are lists for this in Voyaging with Kids.
  • Chocolate. Yes this was on their list. Clearly these are my children.
  • Board games, cards. Our current favorite is Dread Pirate (thank you Sallianne and Doug!). Try cooperative games! Family Pastimes games got us started… Pandemic is the classic. This post about games cruisers play lists a number of other favorites on board.
  • Legos. Our lego days are over, but the kids know these are huge for the younger set.
sailboats anchored rafted drone Caribbean

Totem and Utopia, rafted up for Thanksgiving last week: because 1) better with friends and 2) drones rock!

Want more ideas?

Here are the Christmas gift posts from the last few years. They’re all aimed at cruisers, but each with a slightly different take:

  • Gifts that give a little more (2016). Focusing on sourcing gifts that contribute in some way to a greater good than just the Thing.
  • Gifts under $50 for sailors (2015). Keeping the costs contained! OK, there was one item over $50.
  • Gifts for cruisers (2014). Tried & true: fun, functional gifts that cruisers can use.