Low Friction Rings: like a donut, but sweeter

ring block dyneema

pinterest low friction ringsAs the quotable quote demands, “ask not what your vang can do for you, ask what you can do for your vang”. OK, maybe that’s not exactly how it goes – but after a few months on a pace through the islands to relative weather security in Grenada, there’s time to catch up on projects aboard Totem and tweaking the vang crept to the top of the list. Swapping that weighty block for low friction ring– the pair pictured above– is a sweet upgrade.

Boom vang improvement

When we bought Totem in 2007, she had a 4:1 tackle vang. No hydraulics, no springs, and also, no good. Thus began a series of efforts to improve the situation.

Totem’s vang upgrade history:

  1. Evaluated new vang hardware. Choked on cost. Evaluated contents of rigging locker instead.
  2. Refastened boom vang tang, with new larger fasteners (old ones were pulling out).
  3. Converted 4:1 vang to cascading 8:1 vang with a block we had and $10 of Dyneema line.
  4. Boom vang tang pulling away from boom AGAIN. Just say NO to more holes in Swiss cheese boom! Removed tang and replaced with strop around the boom, made from $10 of Dyneema line.
  5. Mast vang tang broke. Replaced with strop going around the mast, made from $10 of Dyneema line.
  6. 8:1 was good. 16:1 is better! Added another cascade with a block we had and $10 of Dyneema line.

$40 worth of ¼” Dyneema line and the vang was powered up! Ten years later, our vang is a refined simpleton of rigging goodness.

vang setup before

Why is the vang important?

It adds performance when reaching, by controlling mainsail twist (shape of the upper leech). It helps mainsail longevity by reducing chafe against rigging caused by the boom’s rise and fall when running. Also when running, the vang keep the boom from lifting and possibly inducing an unintended gybe. What happens if the boom lifts, is the upper leech collapse towards the luff, and can “back” – gybe! We run with a boom preventer, but the vang cuts the risk further.

To hang a thrifty vang left me wondering if the dang vang would go bang! Well: 46,000 nautical miles later, it did, sort of.

During those years and miles, our cockpit shrank. We blame the children. They just keep growing! Shifting the fiberglass hard top dodger forward about one foot succeeded in opening up the human space…while taking away from the vang space. And this made the vang go BANG! When the vang was eased, the upper block drooped and smacked the dodger front.

vang goes bang

Enter the low friction ring. Modest and elegant. Simple and thought provoking. What the heck does it do? It’s a type of block, but with no moving parts. And a block without moving parts means, FRICTION! Huh? To address this minor inconvenience, marketing geniuses confronted the problem by naming a frictiony block – a Low Friction Ring.

Replacing the heavy block with a 21mm internal diameter, lightweight low friction ring was the elegant solution to fixing Totem’s vang…no more bang. Let’s not talk about the Swiss cheese boom feature, but you can see why we opted for a strop some time ago. This was a no-brainer fix, and Ronstan low friction rings were stashed before we left the USA earlier this year for just the purpose.

This view brought to you by Mt Hartman Bay, Grenada

This view brought to you by Mt Hartman Bay, Grenada

What’s the deal with Low Friction Rings?

Why choose a block with more friction and a sneaky name? Several reasons.

  1. No moving parts! Yes, more friction, but no shattered sheave, chipped cheek, or busted ball-bearings.
  2. Really strong! Alloy construction and geometric shape result in far higher working loads per block size.
  3. Lightweight and tough! No maintenance required, just inspect now and then for rough edges or chafe.
  4. Low cost! As rigging and blocks go, it’s cheap. The one we used in the vang tweak is under $20.

Sounds fantastic, but… isn’t friction not so fantastic on a boat? Well, yes, and no; despite having some friction, low friction rings are a great choice in two types of applications.

Small line deflection

A line going through a block changes angle. This is called deflection. As deflection increases, so does friction. Moderate and big line deflection is the place for blocks with moving parts. Lesser line deflection has less friction, so may be perfect for low friction rings. Possible applications are: furling lines, parts of a lazy jack, foreguy, afterguy, and don’t forget the inhauler! There is no fixed number on maximum angle of deflection, because the amount of line load and type of line affect the amount of friction.

Static and slightly dynamic lines

A mainsheet has a lot of deflection and changing line loads. This is friction soup with a need to make adjustments – so it stays in the realm of blocks with moving parts. Other application can have a little or a lot of line deflection, but not require dynamic adjustment. Set it and forget it. This is the place for low friction rings. And this is where our upper vang block comes in. The line deflects 180 degrees and carries no load or a lot of load, and not much adjustment. My sailboat racing brain scoffs at the thought, but it works for cruising. Tighten the vang, secure, and enjoy the ride.

Other static and slightly dynamic line applications include preventer, leech reef, check stays, running backstays, and barbour hauler. Since this application can have big deflection and line load, the important part is that the adjustment amount must be minimal. There will be FRICTION, so if the line requires much adjustment use a conventional block. When it doesn’t, try a low friction ring for a fraction of the cost.

How a low friction ring is setup is easier to understand in pictures than my clumsy writing: here are some examples of use on Totem.

Mainsail reefing

frictionless ring

The leech reef line forms an acute angle passing through the leech reef ring in the sail. Consequently, the reefed portion of sails gets scrunched by the unreefed portion of sail and reef line, which can make reefing harder and cause sail chafe. The solution is low friction rings lashed to the leech reef ring. Use 3mm Dyneema line for the lashing, with 6 inches of separation between reef ring and low friction ring. Now the leech reef line passes through the low friction ring giving enough separation so the reefed section of sail isn’t so scrunched. The low friction ring is smoother and has a wider turning radius then the reef ring, making reefing a little easier with less chance for chafe. (More about reefing in this post.)

Furler line lead

Totem’s furler line had been lead after through blocks on the toe rail. See where Siobhan’s hand blithely rests on that Andersen winch? Trace the furler line forward from there, and see the inset zoom for where two low friction rings (orange circles) are used.

furler line- inset

The blocks previously in that spot banged on the deck, they were subject to wear/tear, and were generally just toe stubbers. You can use fancy blocks with a spring, but have you looked at what they cost? Right. That’s most of our monthly food budget! So instead of spendy blocks, Jamie lashed low friction rings as leads: a temporary setup, you know, just to trial the solution. It’s been a YEAR, they work great, and are still in their “temporary” position!

furler lead

Preventer turning block

Swapping out turning blocks used in our preventer setup is on the shortlist for low friction rings on board.  The blocks can flail around, banging the deck, and we know at least one of them shows signs of wear. The blocks in question: one on each side, at the forward point.

preventer turning block

There are a few ways to do this, but swapping the block for a low friction ring just feels like the obvious solution. Here, the fact it won’t bang as much is actually secondary to an even more desirable benefit: the ring is a stronger piece of hardware. More robust? cheaper? that’s easy! And let’s talk about systems on board we don’t want to break… the boom preventer is up there. For a more detailed description of our preventer setup, see Safety on Board: preventer setup on Totem.

Other uses of a low friction ring are climbing their way up the project shortlist. Got any to share? Add in the comments or share on Totem’s Facebook page.

Low friction rings: a sweet treat on any cruising boat.

AIS and radar from the hurricane season stragglers

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

 

Pinterest radar AIS aboarSunrise tinted the margins of Puerto Rico’s rugged profile with a warm glow. Making landfall on the west coast after a week of bumpy, on-again / off-again passage making from the Bahamas was a relief. Totem and her crew are the stragglers of southbound boats for hurricane season, long since expected to have the anchor set in Grenada…already a month in Puerto Rico, where we didn’t expect to stop at all!

Changing plans, unexpected events, and making the most of where you are: this may just be the definition of cruising. From the Bahamas, our intention was to pass through the various Virgin islands (Spanish, US, British) where we had places to go and people to see. From the BVIs, the focus would shift to a southbound track towards Grenada.

Unfortunately getting east from the Bahamas at this time of year is, in a word, unpleasant! We ran out of patience to wait for a system that would disrupt the prevailing easterlies. Ideally, that would allow us to take “I-65” (make easting to 65 degrees longitude, then drop south).  But there was no reprieve, and bashing into tradewinds isn’t very fun.

Enter Bruce Van Zant’s “Thornless” approach to routing from the Bahamas to the Caribbean. His alternative is to work along the coast of Hispaniola in daily hops, playing katabatic winds. Transit is made at night, when cooling air rushes out from the land and dampens trades to make easting easier. The trades pick up again by 10:00 in the morning: we’d aim to be settled in an anchorage by then, and rest until the evening settles the breeze again. In company with the family on their Manta 42, Akira, after the washing-machine seas south of Great Inauga it was a pleasant reprieve to follow this method along the north coast of the Dominican Republic—making progress at night, and tucking into anchor when the winds piped up during the day.

catamaran anchored Caribbean

Akira anchored off the lush coast of the Dominican Republic

Lush green hills of Haiti and the glorious aromas of tropical flora drifting to Totem were the first signs of a changing landscape. Balm to our parched souls after months in the flat, arid Bahamas, we watched longingly from the water. It wasn’t our plan to clear into the Dominican Republic at all, but remain on our boats during the brief stops and request safe harbor if pressed by officialdom. It stung to skip what is clearly a beautiful, fascinating place. It’s just the wrong time of year: in hurricane zone, during the season. As we watched a succession of early tropical storms marching across the Atlantic it was easy enough to be reminded that we needed to work towards safer water.

sailing watching coast through binoculars

Niall scans the Dominican Republic coast from Totem’s cockpit.

Steady progress across the top of Hispaniola was interrupted when Akira’s engines started giving them trouble. The cause was indefinite—a bad connection, probably, but definitely dirty fuel as well. Totem could well be next to suffer since we topped up diesel from the same source in Great Inagua. The prudent choice was to take shelter, polish fuel, and figure out the root cause of engine troubles. So much for our perfect weather window to cross the notorious Mona passage to Puerto Rico! A squall slammed through during the entry to Samana bay,  a timely reminder of our fragility with engine troubles on a lee shore. Tracking the squall with eyeballs and radar, we avoided it as best we could, and safely anchored a short time later off the town of Santa Barbara.

dolphins from sailboat after the squall

Mairen and Niall, dolphin spotting in Samana bay after the squall rolled by

If there was an MVP prize for gear that afternoon, it went to the radar. I’ve seen the question often enough: do you use radar? Or a variation: with AIS, why is radar really important? Not only is radar an essential tool, but it’s an entirely different one from AIS: here’s why.

Squall tracking

Our situation off the coast of the Dominican Republic is an excellent example of radar use for squall tracking. Even in daylight, where we can see the location and approximate progress of a squall, radar provides valuable insight into a squall’s course and speed, how it expands and contracts, the better to prepare and evade. That squall ended up packing 50 knots, and we wanted to be out of it ASAP for a host of reasons! Tracking squalls so we can try to avoid or minimize our exposure to them is our #1 use of radar. AIS has zero function here.

Using EBL on radar to track a squall

Using EBL on radar to track a squall

This snapshot shows a squall to the southeast of Totem’s position as we sailed up the Atlantic last year. Placing an EBL (electronic bearing line) on the squall’s radar footprint made it easy to track: was approaching or retreating? With the EBL holding a fixed position relative to Totem, this shows we’re moving away on our course to the northwest. Eyeballing the footprint shows how it’s growing (or not), but additional marks can be laid on the squall’s footprint as well.

Per the cruiser version of Murphy’s law, all this action (hello cargo ship at speed!) is happening at two o’clock in the morning: it was probably challenging pick out the squall at that hour with eyeballs alone.

Chart accuracy

Radar can help validate that your charts for remote-country-of-the-moment are reasonably accurate. Charts are fallible (witness the recent tragic, avoidable loss of  the catamaranTanda Malaika on a reef in French Polynesia). We’ve had errors of up to a mile in countries from Mexico to Tonga. Whether you overlay radar on your chartplotter or compare ship-to-shore distances on different screens, this is a great safety aid. Again, AIS has zero role here. I’m trying to think of where we have seen aids to navigation with an AIS signal outside the USA… there were some oil rigs off Brunei… others probably exist but I can’t recall them. Such aids may be present and growing in developed countries, but not most of the places we’ve been cruising. The bamboo stick on a coral head is more likely to suggest the pass in an atoll.

This snapshot of the south coast of Phuket, Thailand, shows radar overlay on OpenCPN helping validate the accuracy of our charts. The Thai coastline lines up well, as do the blips that match with boats and buoys.

Radar testing of Phuket

Radar testing off Phuket

Spotting vessels

Using radar to see other boats, in particular for collision avoidance, the why most people confuse the value add of radar compared to AIS. And yes, both radar and AIS are very helpful tools for identifying and avoiding other boats.

Florida coast: the yacht UQ($@ passes offshore from Totem during an overnight coastal transit.

Florida coast: a radar blip and AIS data show the yacht XYZZY passing offshore from Totem during an overnight coastal transit.

Leave the USA, and how many boats use AIS? The further from the developed world you go, the less it is used, up to the point where it’s a surprise to see a boat that actually is using AIS. AIS is mainly useful for big ship avoidance at sea, and has pretty much nothing do to with avoiding coastal traffic… which, it turns out, is where most of the boats you’re trying not to hit are located. Case in point: most of those blips on the radar screenshot of Thailand are other boats. Only four have an AIS signal.

Sailing through Sri Lanka, Totem skirted coastwise around the south of the island in the dark night of a new moon. One fleet of fishing boats after another dotted the radar. The smaller boats were difficult for our radar to pick up, but careful tuning and a watchful eye usually tipped us of. They DEFINITELY didn’t have AIS, however… the boats were inconsistently lit, if they were lit at all, and had probably never heard of COLREGS.  This situation repeats itself all over the world! Radar was a meaningful help; even more important, though, was eyes on watch all the time to avoid fishing boats and their nets.

Radar vs AIS

For boaters in North America with relatively limited experience, I can see how they may confuse the radar/AIS case. AIS is so common on boats! Charts are accurate now! What, squalls? They have a lot of safety nets, and not a lot of squalls. But spend any time in the tropical belt, and squalls rule: tracking them is key. I think that’s hard to appreciate when you haven’t experience this, just as it’s harder to appreciate trying to navigate an obstacle course of small fishing boats (or FADs, fish aggregating devices) on a moonless night. There is nothing at all interchangeable about radar and AIS. They are different tools: different sources of information to help clarify some navigation situations.

Would you go without?

There was a stretch in Southeast Asia where Totem didn’t have a working radar. A near lightning strike was the likely culprit in failure of the installed unit. Between being remote, and low on funds, it took a couple of years to replace. This was particularly stressful at times as the incidence of lightning is high in the Malaysian waters we subsequently sailed through: a radar to assist with squall tracking was sorely missed!

Around the same time as we finally replaced the radar, a new AIS unit was put in. When we left the USA in 2008, only receivers were available for private boats: we could see commercial ships, but couldn’t send our own signal. Receiving AIS is great, but since installing the transponder we’ve noticed commercial ships alter course a tiny bit, from miles away, to ensure sufficient sea room. It’s tremendous peace of mind.

I’d prefer to never to go without either of these very useful tools on board.

Meanwhile on Totem

So…. our path has meandered more than hoped. It’s been nearly a month in Puerto Rico already! That’s another story.

Sailing route through Antilles on PredictWind

Our Totem’s track from the Bahamas through Puerto Rico

Slow though our progress may be, the unexpected is to be anticipated in the cruising life. Stopping in Samana Bay introduced us to people, flavors, experiences that have added to our world.

The agent Chicho, who made himself invaluable during our whirlwind stay: interpreting to ease our rusty Spanish, greasing the skids for us to go ashore (despite not clearing in officially, something he also facilitated), pointing us to some truly spectacular barbecued chicken (the same that the Trio Travels crew sent us to, oh wow, it was SO good!), helping us with a side fuel purchase (again, not cleared in!), and talking story (he worked on the wreck of a pirate ship just yards from where we anchored and was full of fascinating information). Boats going to Samana: if you anchor out, this is your guy.

Our intrepid, gregarious self-starter agent in Samana. Thanks Traci for the pic!

Our intrepid, gregarious self-starter agent in Samana. Thanks Traci for the pic!

The opportunity to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, and a pack of kids to help carry it all back to Totem (not to mention, make it more fun! Our girls loved especially loved hanging out with Emma from Akira).

kids shopping in Samana

Our first grocery since the Bahamas: yay fresh produce! Kids a big help to carry it all back to Totem.

Soaking in the bustle of the local market, and slowly remembering how to stumble along in Spanish.

Happy bustle (and sweeeeeet sweet pinapples) of the Santa Barbara market

Sweeeeeet sweet pinapples at the Santa Barbara market

Above it all, the kindness of our fellow humans.

Ferried back to Totem by a helpful panga, coco frio in hand

Ferried back to Totem by a helpful panga, with BBQ takeout for Jamie coco frio in hand

Safety on board: preventer setup on Totem

downwind offshore ocean sailing sailboat

Boom preventer. Boom brake. Whatever you do, whatever you call it, having a way to prevent or dampen the force of the boom to prevent accidents while sailing deep downwind is important. A lot of cruising IS downwind, so thinking through a smart setup is critical! I’ll never forget learning about a boat some miles ahead of us on the Pacific crossing where a crew sustained life-threatening injuries after a crash gybe. Even a planned, controlled gybe tends to give me the willies due to the tremendous force involved: a violent, unexpected gybe can cause significant damage.

The sliver of a new moon wil set before we pull up Totem’s anchor tonight. Ahead is a challenging passage, one we’re not sure how far we’ll take: hopefully, all the way to Puerto Rico, if all goes well (follow our progress at our tracking page on PredictWind). Breeze expected is all forward of the beam, so there’s no need for a preventer– but recently someone asked about our setup. Jamie wrote it up, I took a few pictures to illustrate.

whale spout sailboat sailing ocean mountains

Whale-watching as we sail away from South Africa – preventer in place

DSC_7708What works for us will not right for every boat, but is a safe, strong, and reliable method on Totem. and I’m sharing here in case it helps others install or improve their own preventer. We like it because:

  • Simple approach
  • Side decks left uncluttered
  • No specialized/dedicated gear purchase necessary
  • Puts loads at points able to withstand them (mast/vang/midpoint of boom not intended for the shock loading involved- outboard end of boom is much better)
  • Quickly/easily released from the cockpit if necessary

Totem’s setup: Component Parts

  • 1 x boom lanyard – Dyneema single braid, with ¼” (6mm) diameter.
  • 2 x preventer lines – polyester double braid, diameter depends on sail area (Totem uses 1/2”). Polyester gives a little stretch, but not too much. Length depends on preventer block location and center or aft cockpit. Lines should be long enough that preventer set on one side can remain in place through a gybe.
  • 2 x Preventer blocks or low friction rings – we have blocks, but low friction rings are a great choice: they are more robust and lower cost.

Concept

A preventer must bear considerable loads; in the worst scenario, shock loads that will cause a weak link to fail. For this reason it’s safer to secure the preventer to the aft end of the boom. A middle boom attachment point is more likely to break the boom in an extreme situation.

End of boom attachment can make setup awkward/hazardous or require fixed preventer lines that will cross the deck and get in the way. This preventer setup splits the preventer line into two sections. One line is the boom lanyard; and the others are the preventer lines (1 on each side of the boat). The lines are out of the way when stowed and easy to deploy.

Boom Lanyard

sailboat boom

The boom lanyard is shown above as the line running below the boom. The aft end is spliced around the boom. The forward end has an eye splice to secure to the boom when not in use, as shown, and to use as an attachment point to the preventer lines. When stowed, it’s important to keep the boom lanyard tight along the boom because a drooping line can catch on something or someone.

Eye splice rope line lanyard

Eye splice at the forward end of the lanyard…and around boom on the aft end

This shows one end of the boom lanyard spliced around the boom and the eye splice in the other end. Boom lanyard length should be set as follows:

  1. Easy to secure to the vang attachment when not in use.
  2. Easily reaches the side deck when the boom is out, so it’s safe tying to the preventer line.
  3. Another use for this line is to secure the boom from swinging back and forth when not sailing.

Preventer Lines

sailboat deck

This view down Totem’s side deck shows one preventer line, stowed and ready for use. Things to note, besides those lovely clear side decks:

  1. One end of the preventer line is secured to the lifeline. The other end leads back to the cockpit and is coiled and ready for use.
  2. Fair leads are important! Note that one side of the preventer line runs outside of the lifelines. The other side runs aft along the deck and is NOT fair in this picture. You’ll see that in a later picture I reran this side to go between shrouds so it doesn’t chafe.
  3. The next picture shows me (Jamie) getting ready to connect the boom lanyard and preventer lines together. Note that I am pulling the boom outward for the picture; normally I would be sitting in an easier and safer position when underway. (Behan: you bet he would, or I’d be unhappy about it!)

sailboat

Secured to the toe rail with a Dyneema loop is the preventer line turning block. Friction is not an issue with the preventer, so consider a low friction ring instead.

_DSC7783

Location matters:

  1. Setting the block too far forward increases preventer line length and is hard to run fair.
  2. Setting the block too far aft makes a bad angle when the boom is all the way out.

Our blocks are set about 2 feet forward of the forward lower shrouds, a position that gives a fair lead and good angle to secure the boom.

_DSC7790

Above is a snapshot of the boom lanyard and preventer line, tied together and ready to use. Do not use a shackle! The knot is much gentler should it hit something or someone. This is especially true when you do gybe (by choice). Simply ease the preventer line to allow the boom to swing over.

andersen winch

The other end of the preventer line, ideally, goes on a self-tailing cockpit winch: ours goes to one of Totem’s spiffy Andersen secondaries. This approach makes a quick release easy if needed. If you don’t have an open winch here, you can cleat the line. Either way, be sure to coil the end of the line, and keep it clear to run freely in case you need to quickly release the preventer.

_DSC7792

Here’s the completed setup, much as it can be from our Bahamian anchorage! Notice how the preventer lead has been moved to run fair between the shrouds.

Boom brakes

For some boats, a brake makes sense. These don’t prevent the boom from crossing over, but dampen the movement. We’re not fans of this on Totem because it would place tripping-hazard lines on the side deck. But for other boats, other layouts, they’re a great option: the setup at our friend’s boat Akira, anchored a few boatlengths away, is a great example of this. Keeping it all on the coachroof means there’s no dangerous deck clutter, and they can handle it right from the cockpit.

green line runs to brake on boom, and clutch in cockpit

_DSC7854

I’m looking forward to having a passage that requires setting up the preventer, not this upwind stuff! But for now, will tackle the upwind days ahead by cooking up a storm, checking and re-checking all stowage, and loading books on the kindle from our hometown library.

Another cutthroat game of DogOpoly with crew from the Manta 42, Akira

Another cutthroat game of DogOpoly with kids from the Manta 42, Akira: having a lot of fun with this crew.

Adults in the cockpit, kids in the cabin, paparazzi mama.

With thanks to Bonnie,  for the question and for the kind donation to our cruising kitty!

Introducing Totem merchandise

jamie shirt front
A little while back, two things happened nearly simultaneously. Friends and readers noticed that our friend Brian wore a Totem t-shirt in the opening sequence of videos in his popular YouTube channel, SV Delos. Concurrently, I got an email from Aurelia at 3 Tees, an eco-conscious screen printing company, reaching out to ask if we’d be interested in printing up gear. Problem presented and solved, in one fell swoop! I love that Aurelia cruises in New England with her family: she GETS us, has been a big help with keeping the process simple (me: whaaa? designing stuff? printing? shipping?) and she appreciates how important we felt this gear be produced as sustainably as possible.

Thanks to readers who nudged, and Aurelia who reached out, we’re excited to introduce Totem merchandise.

Starting out with tees, a cap, and the perfect boat bag, all gear has had a solid test drive on Totem. The organic cotton is yummy soft. The durable hemp tote is just the right size for shore excursions and market runs. The comfortable, adjustable cap is Jamie’s go-to. Feel good about it: products are all organic, and use a more earth friendly water based print process. (Sizing note: womens run about one size small, to our fit, but mens/unisex are spot on.)
L-R: with Tambi from Sailboat Story; entering an anchorage; Brian in the Delos intro

The shirts look a little different than Brian’s– that was a VERY limited edition printed with “Indian Ocean 2015.” (I think we had 10 of them made at a shop in Phuket, basically just enough for our crew plus a couple of guests we were expecting!) These have Totem’s logotype and unique orca design on the front. Inspired by Haida artwork, the orca was designed for us by a former cruising kid back before we left Bainbridge Island (look for a surprise in the artwork…I’m not telling). On the back of the shirts: a map with the track we have traveled around the world, and the shoutout to LIVE ADVENTUROUSLY – because doing that, with our family, is exactly what this life is all about!

Map of Totem track around the world

totem hemp bag

Connect to the store through the image below or by visiting totem.my3tees.com. More about products on our new Merchandise page, too.

enter store

niall shirt back

Questions? Get in touch with us, or the crew at 3 Tees !

Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

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Cruisers anchored off a small beach in the Exumas dinghy in for cocktails and chat while the sun sinks behind a distant cay. Most evenings in this idyllic spot new cruisers and old salts alike meet over plans to go fishing in the sound, the best time to avoid day-trippers in the Thunderball grotto, when the mail/grocery ship is due in this week, or just talk story.

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

We picked this location for the kids and I to hang out while Jamie was away based on the trifecta of people, provisions, and connectivity. Well, theoretical connectivity. We have line of sight to the Staniel Cay cell tower, but it’s been so dysfunctional I used our IridiumGO to load offshore GRIBs via PredictWind three out of the last four days!

Screenshot (882)

Weather conditions warrant monitoring, like the volatility that set up this little weather bomb a couple of days ago; I do not want to skip a day because I couldn’t connect.

_DSC6757

At beach sundowners the other night, one of the new cruisers commented that he “needed an SSB before cruising farther.” Thinking how I’d been using our Iridium in our near-shore location this week, it prompted me to ask why he expected to add radio and not satellite comms on board. Totem has both, but if we were starting from scratch, we’d pick IridiumGO over the SSB: no question. He seemed genuinely surprised by this, and unfamiliar with the pros/cons and trends in the cruising community. These are reasons I see for the shift (and our preference).pinterest satellite or ssb

With the Iridium, we can update weather any time—offshore, or in the shadow of an uncooperative Bahamian cell tower. With our SSB, it depends on the timing for good propagation , which is generally two windows per day. Even then, it may still be tricky: I tried, but couldn’t hear all of Chris Parker’s forecast yesterday morning. To download a weather product requires a good connection to a land-based station for the internet handshake. Is “any time” such a big deal? I think so.

Setup costs for an SSB run $4-5,000 for radio, tuner, grounding, cables, and pactor modem with DIY installation. An IridiumGO with the couple of extras (an external antenna and quality cable—PredictWind bundles this, and it’s worth every penny) is only about $1,200.

There are ongoing costs, and radio users will tell you theirs is $0, but most cruisers still subscribe to Sailmail (annual fee). It’s cheaper than satellite airtime, but that’s coming down. When you buy an Iridium GO kit from PredictWind, the airtime service partner is SatPhoneStore. We continue to get our airtime from them today: unlike others, you’re not locked in a lengthy contract and it’s possible to change service levels from one month to the next to help contain costs (pay as you go, “unlimited data”, different levels of talk time, etc.). Manage it well, and it’s reasonable to have years of use from an IridiumGO before it exceeds the cost of an SSB kit. Seeing signs of coming volatility in the forecast: priceless. (SatPhoneStore has a discount for Totem readers: skip to bottom of the post for details!)

European model rain wind forecast

Getting a radio install right is a topic of extensive discussion that I won’t touch except to say—it can be complicated. Installing a satellite is only complicated by the fact that getting the cable to the external antenna may feel like wrestling an uncooperative python. Ask Jamie how he feels about this.

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What’s also not complicated about a satellite device vs. radio setup? Using it! Whether that means it gets used more often, or better, this translates to SAFETY. Easier to understand, easier to use, more familiar mode of communication, arcane knowledge not required.

Radio nets were heralded for building cruiser community and providing a safety net. Their ability for 1:many reach (vs satellite’s 1:1) helps. I value the radio conversations with boats in loose company on a passage and in remote areas, but there are fewer voices now. A family who has crossed the Atlantic a several times over the last five years noted the trend: “it was quiet this last trip.” The overwhelming majority of Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) boats do not use HF radio. We had our radio sked with other cruisers, and texted with boats that used sat systems.

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Looking right…

The Garmin InReach offers an interesting, affordable alternative for getting weather and sending position updates from offshore. Back in Florida, we had a great visit with Dave & Carolyn (“The Boat Galley”) Shearlock. Previously SSB users, I knew they relied on a Garmin InReach for much of their Caribbean cruising, and asked her to give me a demo. Paired with a smartphone to improve the user interface, it is an affordable alternative for weather and texting—weather routers like Chris Parker can fit weather updates into the text limitations to send subscribers their customized route guidance. Read more about InReach on her informative site.

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Carolyn demonstrates the InReach on her linked smartphone

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…and left. Even the wide angle couldn’t fit it all in!

Discussion and marketing materials tout value all of the above options for offshore comms in an emergency (although that’s fading with HF, because you need people to be out there listening if you want to be heard), but none is a substitute for having an EPIRB on board. In fact: we have TWO on Totem—and recently added a PLB as well! Our older EPIRB is installed on the bulkhead, and a new ACR unit is in the ditch kit.

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Mairen reads off the UID to register our new EPIRB from ACR. 10 year battery!

To be clear, Jamie and I have amateur radio licenses and Totem has always had a marine SSB. I used to fall solidly in the “HF is best” camp, but after two oceans / 2.5 years with the Iridium it’s a no-brainer. Here in the Exumas, the mail/grocery boat may not have shown up this last week (Bahamian national elections interrupting service) and the internet may be mostly down, but pretty Big Majors has delivered with people, and I’m doing just fine staying on top of weather without ‘normal’ internet.

I’m a fan of SatPhoneStore service and asked if they’d consider passing a discount to readers, and they said yes! Now through July 31, use SAILINGTOTEM in their shopping cart for 5% off your order. Our IridiumGo airtime is through SPS; they carry the full spectrum of satellite devices from a handheld InReach tracker to KVH domes for the truly bandwidth addicted.

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Gifts that give a little more

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Among the lessons cruising has taught me: that a frugal life brings returns in personal happiness, and that seeking simplicity results not in deprivation but in a feeling of abundance. Living in our floating Tiny Home, “stuff” is the enemy. Still… once the tryptophan effect wears off after Thanksgiving, there’s an undeniable pull for a lot of folks to start looking for gifts.

In that vein, I have a different take on ideas for gifts to give your favorite cruiser this year. First, consider donating to a nonprofit that’s making a difference instead. I’m highlighting a few here that are focused on the health of our marine environment or communities that rely upon it. Second, since most of us are on the hunt for something tangible to give, I have a shortlist of gift ideas for gear that’s not just truly useful…it supports a greater good. Also: codes for discounts!

Here’s a selection of organizations (and an individual) doing good work in support of a healthier marine environment, or better lives for the people that rely upon it.

Louisiade Solar Light Project. AKA- SeaGoon. We met the driving force behind this remarkable one-boat show in Papua New Guinea in 2012. Hans brings donated solar panels, LED lights, and the materials on his sailboat, SeaGoon, to islands in PNG where he installs them in local villages where there is no electricity. He works with islanders to teach them to maintain the systems, and has brought much needed donations to support health and education to islands lacking the most basic of utilities. PayPal donations can be sent to svseagoon@gmail.com; Read more about Hans in this Australian article. (see also: his website / Facebook page)

International Rescue Group. Delivering aid by sea, IRG is currently sending boats to Haiti and using watermakers purchased with donated funds to bring potable water to communities suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Donate here to contribute to an immediate need where every dollar helps. (And because Haitians need help: Good Samaritan of Haiti, and Friends of Ile a Vache, and Waves for Water)

Sea Mercy. Sea Mercy provides health care workers, equipment, and services by boat when these events occur (like tsunami and hurricanes) and local governments are stretched to meet existing emergency needs in remote islands. We know a few cruisers who have enlisted their vessels to support Sea Mercy’s mission to provide aid when disasters occur; you can donate to support this 501 (c) (3) charity on their website.

OceansWatch. Working with island communities in the South Pacific, NZ-based OceansWatch uses their vessels (cruising boats can help, too) to develop and enact conservation plans. Educating communities to help them be self-sufficient through better management of their fisheries is just one example.  More information and a donation link is on their website.

Niparaja. ANiparaja works to protect natural environments along the massive coastline and species diversity of Baja California Sur (among other projecs!). Called “one of the most effective and locally well-loved non-profits” by a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs. More on their website.

Most of us are going to buy some “thing” instead of donating to a cause: here’s a range of options that aren’t just perfect for cruisers, but also support fair trade products, a family business, more sustainable living, or otherwise contribute to a greater good.

Marmara Imports. Many cruisers rave about Turkish towels, the flat cotton weave that dries you…then dries quickly (leave the terrycloth at home…and beware the musty/stinky microfiber!). But not all brands are created equal: Marmara’s organic cotton / fair trade towel quality is exceptional, where others sourced via Amazon weren’t soft and had tassels fall apart. Feel good: this small business’ mission is tied to sustaining artisans who are supporting families and keeping traditional hand-looming skills alive. See the full range on MarmaraImports.com: Use the discount code “Holidays” at checkout to get 20% off through November 30th.

One of the weavers for Marmara Imports; image courtesy of the company

One of the weavers for Marmara Imports; image courtesy of the company

Sport-a-seat. These innovative portable seats have provided the first TRULY COMFORTABLE seating in Totem’s cockpit since, well, ever. Aside from the significant increase in butt happiness on board, the easily adjustable seats use SunBrella, so I know that pretty navy cover will hold up for years. Feel good: support this family enterprise, a husband-and-wife team who are overcoming low quality knockoffs from big marine brands while continuing to provide a superior product. Order from sportaseat.com and use TOTEM15 at checkout for a 15% discount.

Solavore. It’s no secret I love using our solar oven: cooking with the sun helps us go farther, live lighter, and eat well. It’s a perfect match for the cruising life. Feel good: this company actively works to incubate solar-powered entrepreneurs in developing countries. Their Solavore Works arm is making a real difference for families in Kenya, India, and Cambodia…working with local organizations to empower individuals and change lives. Buy your oven from Solavore.com.

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Cooking corn…the very, very easy way!

Outdoor Foundry waterproof backpack. A dependable drybag is essential kit for cruisers, but a backpack style with features beyond “keeping things dry” eluded us. This bag finally does it with a laptop sleeve (remember our laptop/dinghy mishap?) and other functional pockets inside, outside pockets for water bottles, bungees to strap odd-shaped extras on the back, and COMFORTABLE adjustable/padded straps. Feel good: this better backpack is the brainchild and small-biz flagship product of future cruisers Chis and Andi, who are looking for new location-independent ways to support their family for a life afloat. They’re offering another 10% off the holiday discount if you use the code TOTEMFAN at checkout. Your purchase on Amazon with this link sends us a tip.

Luci. This solar-powered portable LED lantern has brightened many evenings on Totem. I love the soft filter and colors of the “party light,” and being the only Purple cockpit light in the anchorage makes it easy to distinguish Totem from other boats after dark too! Feel good: while you bring light to your life…you can help bring it to others. This company seeks to provide clean, safe, affordable lights to people in developing countries: more retail sales = lower manufacturing costs = more affordable lights to developing world. You can give a Luci light to someone in need directly through MPOWERED, or buy one for yourself on Amazon that will tip the Totem kitty.

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This fuzzy, Luci-lit cockpit picture was brought to you by too much rum.

Check out my posts for 2014 gift ideas, the 2015 guide, see my recent post of new books for cruisers, or choose a book from our list of recommended reading…because books are never the wrong answer!

Special offer for Voyaging with Kids: I’ll personalize a book with a message based on your desires, wherever you want. Now there’s a gift you can’t get on Amazon! Book plus shipping in the continental US is $40; other destinations, just ask (shipping costs passed through 1:1). Contact me to purchase.

Jamie wearing Outdoor Foundry's backpack on during a dayhike in Maryland last month

Jamie sporting the Nootka backpack during a dayhike in Maryland last month…tossing Siobhan into the marsh…

There are so many worth nonprofits working to make a difference for marine environments! Calling out more here, in case particular missions speak to you.

  • Hello Ocean! Coordinating scientific expeditions for marine research. Good work that the Hello Ocean! crew turns into films that can educate people about conservation needs: the kind of outreach that desperately needs better funding to help inform the public.
  • Rozalia Project. Programs and ideas for individual action in support of goals for a clean ocean, a protected ocean, and a thriving ocean.
  • Ocean Research Project. Science, education and exploration to direct the sustainability of the oceans. Also, Matt Rutherford!
  • Sailors for the Sea.  Work including green boating guides, educational lesson plans, and more. On #GivingTuesday they launched a new video about their mission.
  • OceanCare. Projects supporting ocean conservation, whale protection, biodiversity, and awareness for marine health issues.

Local organizations:

  • Exumas Foundation. A small and effective organization supporting education, sustainability and more in the Exumas.
  • Science Under Sail. Bahamas-focused projects on climate change, ocean acidification, plastic pollution and invasive species. Now with  MATCHING DONATIONS! Campaign to double your gift underway – plus, cool shackle bracelet.
  • Blind Sailing UK. Helping the visually impaired sail at all levels.
  • Coastal Conservation Association. Dedicated to conserve, promote, and enhance coastal resources in the USA.
  • New England Science and Sailing Foundation (NESS): year round educational programs promoting marine stewardship.
  • Sound Experience. Envisioning “a future where everyone values Puget Sound and chooses to act as stewards of its treasured waters.”
  • Deep Green Wilderness and SV Orion. Marine science and stewardship programs in the Salish Sea.
  • Call of the Sea has been successfully operating on-the-water programs for San Francisco bay area youth since 1984. They’re building another ship, a 124′ brigantine– Educational Tall Ship project — to expand their work.
  • Sailing Angels. Getting veterans and kids with disabilities out on the bay from Kemah, TX.
  • Downtown Sailing.  Providing sailing opportunities for people and families who don’t otherwise have the opportunity- in Baltimore, MD.
  • Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (yes, that’s CRAB). Bringing boating experiences to the mobility impaired.
  • Community Boating. Boston organization providing sailing experiences to people of all ages, abilities, and means.
  • Shake a Leg Miami. Sailing for disabled kids and adults in Biscayne Bay.
  • KATS. Serving underprivileged youth in the virgin islands by providing instruction and experiences under sail.
  • Whale Time. South African database for whale tracking and guides in the Indian Ocean.
  • Warrior Sailing. St. Pete-based program getting wounded warrior men and women on the water and sailing.
  • Tall Ships America. Youth education, leadership development and the preservation of the maritime heritage of North America