Tanked: mixology woes aboard

Jerry cans lined up on the dock

The dull thud of your heart sinking at that horrifying moment when you realize what you just did and consequences will follow: we all dread it. It happens anyway. Cruising comes with higher highs, and lower lows… pouring the wrong stuff in your diesel tank is one of those lower points.

In mid-2012, Totem was being prepped to move after five months mostly at a dock and a year and a half in Australia. This was the first step to depart Australia: shifting from dockside liveaboard to river mooring before sailing north to Papua New Guinea and beyond. Wrapping up school (the kids’ first and only formal stretch of four-walls education as cruisers), untangling the threads that weave a life integrated to shoreside people and places, packing up for multiple months off the grid and away from stores… we were a little busy, a little distracted.

One of our last steps before kicking off the dock: top of the water tanks. From below deck I listened to liquid gurgling in from the deck fill, and then came the unfortunate cry: “ah, shit.” Jamie doesn’t swear lightly. It hit me even before he filled in the detail, as sound locations processed: the water hose had been in Totem’s diesel tank fill.

Whoops. We own it now!

Water in the diesel tank

I dashed up to the cockpit and we looked at each other, mouths agape. Jamie got that faraway look in his eyes, then headed up to tell the marina manager we’d be late departing…regrets to the boat they had waiting for our berth.

The entire contents of our diesel tank were decanted and filtered, and like bad wine on a tropical island, salvageable.

Jamie started by turning off the valve between the diesel tank and primary fuel filter and lining up jerry cans to decant. Our magical dock neighbors, a French/South African family on the Dean 44 Merlin, offered time and support to get it done. Petroleum and water don’t mix, but kids play always!

Two little girls in climbing harnesses play by swinging in sailboat rigging

Greg helps his daughter, Clea, and Siobhan swing from the rigging aboard Merlin – Brisbane, 2012.

Greg brought over a diesel transfer pump they kept on Merlin which made the job far easier. Contaminated fuel was removed to jerry cans. At first we hoped that putting fuel through a funnel filter would remove the water – NOPE! Only trace amounts of water came out.

man using diesel transfer pump below deck on sailboat

Borrowing Merlin’s transfer pump to return diesel to Totem’s primary tank

Enter our old friend, Gravity. Allowing the water to settle to the bottom (it’s heavier) of a jerry can, diesel on the top could be pumped into a clean jerry can. Rinse, repeat with a series of jerry cans until the entire contents were filtered. Ten gallons of water were ultimately removed.

Gas in the diesel tank

Jump ahead to yesterday around tea time. This was a call from Serendipity, but not about serendipity. Anchored off Antigua with guests arriving soon and plans to head for Barbuda, it was time to top up the diesel tank. With their permission, sharing the event in Kevin’s words as related in the closed Facebook group for coaching clients, Totem Raft-Up (self-named – the TRU Crew!).

TRU Crew comes through again! This post is at my pride’s expense, but I’m going to eat the proverbial crow and share. It’s long but there are some lessons here and recommended gear that saved my ass today and could save yours.

They say bad decisions happen when you are forced into a movement due to timelines like company coming. Looking back, I think it played a part in my stupidity today. We have guests arriving to Antigua tomorrow, and we want to take them up to Barbuda Wednesday. I spent some time the last few days getting the boat ready, and one last chore was to fuel up with diesel. We were happy in an anchorage, it was Callum’s birthday (our 8 year old), and Stephanie was busy making a cake and cleaning up for arriving guests. I had a few hours to kill so I decided instead of moving the boat to the marina I’d just bring 30 gal worth of diesel cans in and fill them, then transfer to that boat. It would save us some time in the morning from having to motor into the harbor to fuel up. No problems…

TRU crew in Barbuda: Steph & Kevin from Serendipity (Live the Voyage) at center, Dave & Marcie from Kairos5 at right.

Well, as this plan was finalized Steph had a good idea to bring extra gasoline to Barbuda. We carry 15 gallons on the rail, but there is no fuel in Barbuda, and with guests from home visiting for week, we plan to spend a lot of time in the dinghy (snorkeling, tubing, etc). So I grabbed an extra yellow jerry can, wrote “GAS” on it, and proceeded to shore….I’m sure you know where this is going.

When I got back I unloaded the fuel, and started to fuel pretty quickly. I was distracted as it was Cal’s bday and wanted to get going. I used a shaker siphon to fuel, which is handy on a boat. I started the siphon and quickly put 5 gallons of fuel into the boat. I started my second can, and then went to clean up the first can and when I grabbed it I saw “GAS” written on the back side of it. Holy shit, 5 gallons of gasoline into my diesel tank. I seriously looked like Jim Carey on Liar Liar kicking my own ass!

Lesson – if you use a yellow can to fill gasoline, mark the shit out of it! 

Here is how TRU saved my ass. Going back to the fall, I lost my engine due to debris that clogged the fuel line. I got it running, but after had my fuel polished. Jamie was awesome help with this, and even though I didn’t use his recommended “emergency” polisher, I took his advice and ordered some parts that you may not think to have on board. It takes two pieces of gear to polish your fuel in a pinch. First, a 12 volt transfer pump, and second, a funnel with a filter.

You could pull the fuel out of the tank and back in through the filter, removing debris. Well, I didn’t use the funnel today but damn did that fuel pump earn it’s keep.

I opened the tank through one of the access holes and removed 23 gallons of contaminated fuel. I then used this handy pump to get the rest. I was able to empty all but maybe a couple ounces out of the tank. I’m going to put a minimum of 40 gallons in the tank before I start the engine. That’s 5,120 ounces. Even if there is a quart of contaminated fuel, that’s only .6% and only a fraction of that is gasoline. I think I’ll be okay, but damn, what a dumb move!

I called Jamie during all of this and he talked me off the ledge. Thanks! So don’t be me and don’t let distractions mess you up!

Serendipity’s crew recovered quickly. It helps to know you’re far from the first, and other TRU chimed in with their (mis)adventures in fueling. I didn’t even get to bringing up the story about our own cruising mentors and the time they added diesel to the water tank… a step further in the levels of cruiser hell. Our highs are higher, but our lows can be lower!

Meanwhile, this is Serendipity’s recent view. The squall passed; it wasn’t such a bad day after all.

TRU Crew anchored off Barbuda: thanks to Stephanie at Live the Voyage for this pic!

In both our situation and Serendipity’s, there was waste product that needed proper disposal. The water that settled in our jerry cans was contaminated, and the gallons of diesel/gas mix Kevin pumped out had to be disposed also. We were both fine, but finding a facility to take the waste fluids isn’t always easy the further out you get as a cruiser.

Gear to consider

A few bits that clearly can be really useful… and for more than just these scenarios, where the wrong liquid ends up in a diesel tank.

Twelve-volt transfer pump.

This diesel transfer kit from Orion Motor Tech would serve both Totem and Serendipity’s uses to pump tainted fuel out the tank. We purchased ours (similar to the model linked) just a few weeks after the water-into-diesel debacle in Australia from a cruiser unloading gear prior to selling their boat.

Other everyday cruising uses: our 12v transfer pump (see photo near the top of the post of Jamie using it) is currently loaned to another boat in the anchorage that needed to polish their fuel to try and remove a diesel bug (a microbial contamination gunking up their fuel, common enough a problem). It’s bailed us out from similar situations when we had a persistent diesel bug in Southeast Asia, and most recently helped polish dirty fuel we boarded at an outer island in the Bahamas.

Fuel filter.

Mr Funnel filters come in a range of sizes depending on how much fuel you’re running through them. We keep a small one for gas going into the dinghy and generator. And a large one for diesel. We also have a Baja filter, which haven’t been made for over a decade. Note that funnel filters remove debris and trace amounts of water (but not more).

Fuel is almost always filtered before it goes in our tanks. The only time we don’t filter is at a high-volume dock or place with a solid reputation. If there’s concern about fuel quality, we put some in a glass jar and wait a few minutes to see if there’s separation.

Siphon hose.

Self-priming hoses mean you don’t get your mouth involved in the siphoning process (yuck!). There are no fuel docks in most of the miles we’ve cruised; siphoning from jerry cans is a fact of life, and it’s good to be prepared.

Sponsorship/advertising note: we have zero association with these brands listed above. These recommendations do use Amazon’s affiliate program, so if you click through a product link and purchase something (anything) on Amazon, that slides some coin in our cruising kitty (thanks!).  I point it out since a couple of people have asked if we had sponsorship from any of products mentioned in our new tools on Totem article recently. Nope! No affiliation with them at all, just like these; we’re just sharing some kit that’s working well on board. Do we have sponsors? Yes, we do. It’s a very few, deliberately kept to the select products/services that we love can be genuinely enthusiastic about, and in limited number to avoid ever being taken as shills. For more information, see our Values Statement.

Totem’s Coppercoat application

Coppercoating Totem’s hull was a thrilling prospect, but pressure to do the application correctly gave me more anxiety any boat project in memory. The product features are substantial: a strong environmental case (nothing toxic ends up in the water, as with conventional antifouling paints), and solid financial value (the epoxy bottom should last for many years, a significant savings). But long term success relies on nailing the application. We did NOT want to screw this up.

Totem started from bare fiberglass bottom (no gelcoat) because a prior owner peeled it, presumably to resolve a blister problem. A clean gelcoat surface is best, ahh… if only! Our process to prep the hull, detailed here, took 18 steps. It also took a lot of ibuprofen! Honestly? This was the hardest part of the entire transition, because Coppercoat cannot be applied over existing bottom paint (every last bit of old antifouling must be removed) and the surface must be smooth. To understand why a smooth bottom is important, you must first understand a little more about Coppercoat.

The British Navy first used copper sheathing in the 18th century to mitigate marine growth. It was a miracle. Skipping ahead from wooden warships to fiberglass recreational boats, copper is still an effective method of deterring marine growth. That sheet form nailed to the bottom is a little problematic, though, so clever people worked out you can mix it into paints instead. Unfortunately, still problematic – the paint sheds, by design, which adds all kinds of nastiness into the water while losing effectiveness. Enter Coppercoat: pure, fine copper powder suspended in water-based epoxy.

Once applied and cured, the final step is to sand the surface to expose copper from within the epoxy. When done applying, sand the surface to expose copper from within epoxy. If the surface wasn’t smooth before Coppercoat, the final sanding will yield inconsistent copper exposure. Totem’s bare fiberglass bottom took much more work than a Coppercoat-over-gelcoat application.

Starting the second coat: not pretty yet. Not at all.

Although applying Coppercoat isn’t complicated, each step needs attention. Getting the application right is key to product success, and we felt that mixed reviews we read online stemmed from improper applications. Coppercoat provides a lot of information to help you get it right, from the UK company’s directions to Coppercoat USA‘s retailer’s six-page list of “do’s and don’ts” with additional tips and tricks. Phone support from the Coppercoat team in the UK helped us to get it right and mellowed my nerves.

Coppercoat epoxy kits consist of three parts: a container of resin, another of catalyst, and a bag of fine copper powder. Coppercoat UK directed us to also add isopropyl alcohol (must be 90% or greater) to add, thinning the mixture.

  1. Mix resin and hardener parts thoroughly
  2. Add isopropyl alcohol (four or five capfuls for the first two coats, five or six in later coats)
  3. Add the copper powder and stir until evenly blended

The mixing was easy: one kit at a time. It took three kits for coats one and two, four kits for coats three and four.

Application is a multi-person job for all but the smallest boats. On Totem, it required three: one person to mix and two people to roll it on. The mixer must monitor while rollers are busy applying, to ensure copper is not settling to the bottom of the container. With Mairen and Siobhan helping, we had four people; that gave one person a chance to rotate out for a spell, or freed someone to get drinks or sandwiches.  We did the work in early December at Cabrales Boatyard in Puerto Peñasco, where Totem rested for months to dry out wet fiberglass.

Application morning

We’ve never done this, never seen it done, and really didn’t want to screw up. Cabrales Boatyard’s manager, Salvador, has been there / done that with Coppercoat. He provided great support, helping us get rolling (sorry…) on application day. In reality it’s quite simple, but his presence and advice took the pressure off us Coppercoat newbies.

Humidity is highest at sunrise, so even in arid Puerto Peñasco (hello, Sonora desert) we waited for the sun to lower overnight dampness, warm our bones and warm the boat. A perfect time to clean the hull in final prep, right? We initially planned to do a wipe-down with isopropyl alcohol. Jamie had just wet the first rag and was wiping it at the bow when I had a chat with the Coppercoat folks in the UK who said – stop! They directed us to just do the dry wipe instead, and said that ideally, we’d have washed the boat with plain water and allowed it time to dry. We were out of time for that, but a dry wipe was sufficient.

Salvador Cabrales helped us mix to ensure that we were doing it right.

Rolling proceeded steadily. Each subsequent coat was applied over the last before it dries, “hot coating” to provide a chemical bond. At that point, the surface is tacky: that is, it’s still sticky, but no material comes off when touched. If any material comes off, it’s still too wet! With two people rolling full time, we completed one coat on the hull at just the right time to start a second coat. That’s great, although a break might have been nice…

The product mixer’s role – Mairen owned this! – included topping up the trays used by those rolling it on, and watching their timing in working through the product. If we had to wait for the next kit to kick, we risked falling behind and having product on the hull dry too much for hot coating.

Sisters working together: touching up around exterior fixtures

We’re lucky it wasn’t hotter weather in Puerto Peñasco, as that could have caused the epoxy to kick faster and made our task more complicated if we couldn’t keep up. If a coat dries, you default to physical instead of chemical bonding on the next coat: the first must cure, then get roughed up, then the application process can resume.

Initial coats go in more thinly; later coats were thicker, as the tacky layers beneath softened the application layer and grabbed more paint. These later coats used substantially more paint than the first. It was exciting to see Totem go from looking like a boat with a bad rash to a glittering metallic hull.

Application complete! This was one very long day. It was hardest on Jamie, who rolled for the duration. Although all four coats were applied to Totem in a single day, the project took a week in total. Three days were needed to cure before Totem could be lifted to move keel supports and jackstands to coat previously uncoated areas. Then, those areas need to cure before final sanding and launch.

Jamie supervises while Siobhan applies coppercoat under areas covered by jackstands.

Nearly four months in, we’re really happy with the bottom. It’s performing as hoped, and I wish the water here was clear enough to show it off better.

Next: what it costs, why it’s a good value vs. antifouling paint, DIY vs. professional, and how the bottom looks after several months in a high-growth area.

Wet bottom: a haulout story

boats anchored at Isla Danzante Baja

Totem cruises the Sea of Cortez;  in about three weeks, we haul at the Cabrales shipyard in Puerto Peñasco, a small harbor surrounded by the Sonora desert. Typically, boats can go a few years between haulouts. So why now – didn’t we just do this in Grenada, six or seven months ago? Yes, we did, and had an unpleasant surprise. This is the backstory, and what we’ll do about it in Peñasco.

At the time we hauled out in Grenada Totem had gotten nearly three years out of the bottom paint applied in Thailand. That’s a good lifespan for ablative! We chose Grenada to repaint (a relatively safe hurricane season location, affordable rates, cruiser-friendly boatyards). Not only that, but in Grenada we had an opportunity to do a “proper” bottom job on Totem.

Prior to hauling in Grenada, we put on three bottoms on Totem in ten years, representing at least 11 coats of paints and primers and barrier coast. That’s on top of who knows how many layers we bought the Stevens 47 then called “Don’t Look Back.” Even then the hull wasn’t very smooth; over the years, accumulation of bottom paint became progressively uneven. By sand blasting the bottom back to the original barrier coat over Totem’s gelcoat bottom, we’d be able to start fresh. The crew at Grenada Marine would help us get it done right!

sailboat in travel lift slings

Totem gets hauled at Grenada Marine

Blasted surprise

To take down the old paint, a specific grade of sand is used; it’s mixed with water into a slurry that’s blasted at the bottom. This removes paint without damaging gelcoat or epoxy barrier underneath. Except what we found underneath the paint was a big surprise: there was no barrier coat. There was not even gel coat. Just bare fiberglass hull.

fiberglass sailboat hull

Bare fiberglass: not what we expected under the paint

The crew sandblasting stopped work to inform Jamie. I’d like to say it was to inform me, too, but I was happily internet-ing away with wifi in Grenada Marine’s lovely open-air waterfront restaurant. But this discovery… it wasn’t really good news. It wasn’t what anyone expected. The only thing to do was remove the rest of the paint, evaluate the bottom, and then decide on the next steps.

Why bare fiberglass?

We suspect Totem had a big problem with osmotic blisters somewhere in her history. Os-whaaa? Osmotic blisters are bubbles on the hull caused by a reaction between salts (from absorbed seawater) and styrene (a chemical in the fiberglass resin). This reaction causes pressure which can be great enough to push outwards between the fiberglass hull and gelcoat outer skin, creating a bubble (or, blister).

It can also happen pretty easily deeper than the surface: when fiberglass boats are made, they’re mainly constructed from heavy-duty fiberglass roving. But the outermost layer is usually thinner/lighter, to provide a smoother surface so that the last layer before gelcoat is a gentler transition to a smooth outer hull. Because that’s a thin layer of fiberglass, in bad cases of blistering this layer can be affected too: it can create voids by pushing out in that last, lightweight layer of fiberglass. (Side note: we’re not chemical / material engineers; this is just our understanding!)

sailboat without bottom paint

Naked hull

We suspect Totem’s problem had sufficiently bad blistering that a prior owner did what’s called a full peel. That’s when all the gelcoat is removed (peeled), and the hull is allowed to dry (hopefully) to resolve a blister problem. The bottom is then rebuilt by adding a new, thin outer layer of fiberglass and a two-part epoxy resin barrier coat over the top of that.

The crew working with us at Grenada Marine murmured approval at the fiberglass hull. Whoever did it had done a nice job, and they appreciated a good layup. The question was: would the fiberglass be wet? Or dry?

It’s a bigger problem

When blasting was finished and we were waiting for Totem to dry from the wet slurry, Jamie was cautiously optimistic that the bottom wasn’t wet. We really hoped it wasn’t, as this signaled the need for more work and more expense. But the crew supporting us, who we had come to trust for knowledge and judgement, looked at Jamie and said – “I know it’s wet.” How? In even that brief waiting period, he pointed out a sheen on the hull’s surface. This was a sticky, shiny film that is a result of the reaction between the salt and styrene. That only happens if there’s moisture in the hull. Subsequent readings on a moisture meter over a period of days confirmed his observation.

Why did it happen?

The crew may have appreciated that fine layup, but we still had a problem. Well-done fiberglass work aside, there were two unknowns in that job which lead to the moisture problem we faced.

First, we don’t know what kind of barrier coat as applied. We can tell it wasn’t a two-part epoxy resin; we’d have seen that layer that when sandblasting. We could hope that that outer layer of glass was correctly done, but we don’t know.

Second, we don’t know if moisture in the hull which caused the blisters had been dried out before the repair was made, or if there was still moisture absorbed in the hull that got covered over. What we had left is a fiberglass bottom without a gelcoat that would shown blistering from remaining moisture, so we can only speculate.

jackstands supporting fiberglass sailboat

Excavating Totem’s bottom

Somewhere between these missing links of information, Totem’s bottom became a wet hull. Jamie suspects the hull wasn’t wet initially, but has happened over time under our ownership due to the problems with the earlier repairs. Why? Because for our first years of ownership we always floated high on our waterline, and in recent years, Totem has sat relatively low on her lines. OK, OK, we have accumulated trinkets on board and the kids have gotten bigger and there are probably a few more items in lockers than when we moved aboard in May 2018! But these would not add up to the mass required to sink Totem to the point where our stern end has settled down to (and even slightly below) the waterline. Most likely this water weight has slowly accumulated over time.

Now what?

We were reluctant to bury the wet hull under more paint, but had few options. The hull needs time to dry out, Grenada’s humidity and rain makes it a poor choice of location. On the other hand, we had plans to sail for the Pacific coast of Mexico. Where better than the dry desert of Baja, already our anticipated destination for hurricane season? So thin barrier coat and two thin coats of ablative bottom paint were applied: enough to get us to an ideal place for drying out a boat, the low humidity of the Sonora desert. These thin layers are already thinning, which we hope makes the job of going back to bare fiberglass for a proper dry-out an easy one.

Totem will sit on the hardstand in the desert while her crew spends a summer back in the Pacific Northwest. A periodic rinse is good and the rain there is measured in millimeters, so a periodic hose-down to help pull out impurities and styrene will be hired out in our absence. We’ll be back in the back half of October after the Annapolis Boat Show. HOPEFULLY, at that point, the hull will measure dry; then the work to put it back begins. Fairing the hull. Adding multiple coats of two-part epoxy barrier to keep water out. Starting fresh, with new bottom paint.

Grenada Marine

We may have had disappointing news during our haulout at Grenada Marine, but the crew we worked with gets high marks. Part of our decision to haul there was the full-service staff. At other boatyards, you hire in contractors associated with the yard. On one hand, that puts the choice of workers solidly in your hands. On the other, being your own project manager adds risk and time (I’d prefer deal with one point of contact the yard if there are problems, rather than a handful of different contractors). We were allowed to mix DIY work in, which helped us save money on jobs we could do, and everyone who worked on Totem impressed us.

Grenada Marine team

Very happy with the team at Grenada Marine! Just before splashing with a shiny bottom

More on blistering

That’s the story of why we’re hauling out again so soon. Here are a few FAQs about osmotic blistering (and water ingress).

What does it look like?

Osmotic blisters can be the size of a coin, or much bigger – especially if the thinner fiberglass layer is what’s being lifted instead of a bubble of gelcoat.

What do you do if you have blisters?

It’s a question of magnitude: the size, quantity, and depth of blisters as well as the type of hull (cored or solid). Depending on the scope of the problem, they can be dug out – dried – filled, then repainted; if there’s time you can dry the bottom further, and re-barrier coat it.

When blistering is really bad, if you can afford it: peel the (permeable) gel coat, dry out the hull, and start fresh with a new barrier coat. Just, a more effective barrier than was apparently applied to Totem!

How do you dry out?

It’s pretty convenient that we have a low-humidity desert stop ahead. Grenada would have required intervention beyond sitting on the hard to sufficiently dry out. Heat lamps, heat pads, infrared lamps, and other options are available. Glad we can just park in the desert!

How bad can it be?

Osmotic blistering is partly a cosmetic problem of unsightly pox. Mostly, it makes a boat heavier. My dear friend Pam Wall lost 1,500 pounds of water weight absorbed in the hull of her beloved Kandarik, when hauled in Portugual for the better part of a year! This is mainly a practical problem for a boat that now sits lower in the water and may be slower. It can be behind some peskier problems than just making the boat weigh more, too We’ve also heard of dampness being felt on the interior, and potentially causing problems with mold/mildew.

Can the hull integrity be compromised?

Hull thickness, and strength of the layup in the materials, make it less likely. In a cored hull, water ingress can cause more significant problems. If the outer skin is thin, the blister and moisture in it can reach core material. Presumably that’s closed cell, but can still leech and lead to larger areas of delamination. Fortunately this is pretty unusual! Bottom line: it won’t sink your boat.

Further reading

An excellent guide to boat care with good information on the why and how of osmotic blisters, and deep details for DIY fixing (because wow, can this get costly) is Don Casey’s This Old Boat.

Totem and crew are enjoying stops along the inside of Baja on the way north to Puerto Peñasco.

Relaxing view from Grenada Marine's restaurant

Relaxing at Grenada Marine’s restaurant at the end of the day

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.

Poised for the Bahamas

0 Miami skyline

“I hear you’re putting Totem on the hard.” “Will you go out again?” In fact, we have no plans to park Totem for an extended stay on land (or in the water), and have never considered remaining in the US. But given the dearth of information in this space about what 2017 holds I can understand the speculation. We are on the cusp of departure and thrilled to be heading out for more adventures afloat.

Cascading events prolonged our departure, but the boat’s been humming, and legged out timing has shaped our direction. Routing clarity comes slowly after many shuffles on how we’ll fill the gaps between now (in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and a year from now  (Pacific Ocean, via Panama Canal). It still has a lot of squiggles and question marks, but the bigger picture should stick.

1- map

For many months, that year-long view was literally nothing more than get out of the US and back to the islands, spend a couple of months in Cuba, and explore Panama’s Guna Yala. (Remember that Plan is a four-letter word for cruisers! Corollary: Thar Be No Schedules)

We’d written the Bahamas off, but they’re now solidly ON, and their late arrival means I’m scrambling for information. Friday I got our Waterway Guide’s Bahamas, Turks & Caicos book. IT’S GORGEOUS. The last years of Western Pacific / Indian Ocean / Southern Atlantic sailing had poor guides, if any, and it put me off. What did exist covered too wide an area to be useful, so I stuck to travel guides instead and started thinking cruising guides weren’t important. You know what? They’re incredibly useful, I’d just been too long without an example of what a good guide offers. So with 2017 Bahamas edition in hand, instead of helping Jamie and the girls scrub the hull that morning, I did this:

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I did also buy a traveler’s guidebook for the Bahamas. I’m probably going to leave it behind, because the Waterway book is better, and has everything I need: the travel guide insights (cultural orientation,  things to bring, cool places to visit) AND annually updated cruising data (what to bring and where to provision, details for moorings and choice anchorages, the latest marina info– even updates on impacts from last fall’s hurricane, and recommendations for things islanders might need that we can ferry over).

Although schedules are the bane of cruising, I’ve happily added a fixed Must Be There date by signing on to present at the US Boat Show in Annapolis in April. Pam Wall and I will lead a 2-day Cruising Women seminar, and I’m giving a few additional presentations as part of the show’s Cruisers University. I’m very excited about this, especially the Cruising Women program. Jamie seems to have been born with saltwater in his veins; before we went cruising, it was important to me to seek information and skills. Women-only courses provided the shared perspective and camaraderie that best supported my goals.  If you sign up, tell me! I’d love to anticipate meetups.

It feels very good to be poised for Bahamas takeoff in Fort Lauderdale, but first we had to get south from Jacksonville to Miami for my friend Lynne Rey’s birthday. Schedules again? Maybe, but no way would I miss this since we could be there! Along the way, there wasn’t  a lot of wind, but some beautiful sunny days and mellow seas that meant Niall could combine studying with watchkeeping in the cockpit.

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Along the way we spent a couple of evenings hanging out with Kirk McGeorge. He’s done a couple of circumnavigations on a sistership, Gallivanter, and now does some crazy cool work building underwater submersibles with an outfit in Fort Pierce (he was a Navy diver, and drove Alvin- THE Alvin- on Titanic, way back when). The last time we saw Kirk was Australia, nearly five years ago! Cruising friendships like his are GOLD – you pick up right where you left off, despite intervening years.

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In Miami, Lynne, her husband Tony (we sailed together in college) and their kids hosted us at the Coral Reef Yacht Club. This made fun birthday celebrations, late nights in the cockpit, kids learning and playing together, and a lot of good times very easy.

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It also made it much easier for a visit from Kerry (the impressive endurance athlete / sailor / quadriplegic I sailed with last month). She gave our family and the Reys a preview of a powerful documentary she’s a part of that I hope will be ready to share publicly soon. Some tissues required after viewing before we could pose for a pic together, our thumbs in the air for Kerry’s nonprofit, ThumbsUp International. ThumbsUp connects people of all abilities to tackle athletic challenges, in particular by teaming able and disabled athletes.

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Please check out the Facebook page for ThumbsUp International and give it a like to show your support! Kerry would really like to nudge it over the 2,000 like hurdle: can we do it?! Follow and share!

More friends visited: we first knew Tiffany and Greg as “the Coast Guard Couple” when we met them in Mexico eight (!) years ago; we last caught up in Australia. They’ve traveled a loop around the world since then, by sea across the Pacific and by land from SE Asia to the UK. Both are Coast Guard Academy graduates, both are hard core professional seafarers, and they had great advice on college and maritime licensing for Niall. Just the folks to help toss the lines when it was time to head to the anchorage, right?

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And then, there was maintenance and repair. Lots of it. Because that’s one definition of the cruising life.

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To give you an inkling of that everyday fun on Totem, and a peek into what’s kept Jamie busy here in Florida:

Outboard: FINALLY FIXED. It’s been sick for five months. Diagnosis by mechanic in Jacksonville: failed CDI unit, but we replaced that and still no spark. Option two: bad coil. Ding ding ding ding! Wires from the coil had both broken…photo above. They were crimped by a strain relief device, but the break was hidden inside of a plastic sleeve. Great 11th hour help from our new friend Conor, who borrowed a flywheel puller from a Miami auto shop to get it done.

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Sundowners on Totem later, time to talk story with Conor (former cruising kid, now physicist) and his dad

Aft cabin: I went to a road trip to Miami with my friend Patty, and Jamie broke the aft cabin. He’s since rebuilt my workspace, relocated the solar and wind charge controllers to a newly-constructed locker, and cleaned up a bunch of wiring spaghetti. Few words for a LOT of work.

Dodger: As a sailmaker, Jamie knows his way around a sewing machine. But canvas work is “fiddly” (his description) and he hoped to outsource Totem’s new dodger sides. But after weeks of no joy or no action from service providers in northern Florida, he took our friends on Shanthi up on the offer to borrow their SailRite and made it himself. Templating with Tyvek from the hardware store, then constructing the final from Sunbrella, Strataglass, and Tenara thread…on the dock, until it rained, with child labor…as you do. It IS fiddly, but he does great work, and saving the expense is a great bonus.

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Before he could get to the canvas, the whole hard top was shifted forward: this meant changing the frame (it’s more vertical on the forward face now) and building new supports.

Deck hardware: fully reinstalled the repaired stanchion base that broke on our unpleasant passage from Bermuda to Connecticut.

Engine: Fixed pesky drip from fuel filters after troubleshooting. Replaced barbs with correct size, replaced 3-way valve fitting, and O-rings. Hopefully this saves the $250 racor replacement kit!

Electrical: We use a rugged Panasonic Toughbook for our nav computer. Both plug connections for the nine-year-old 12v charger had failed; solder now leads directly to the board. All good.

Plumbing: Replaced failing cockpit drain hoses (shared with galley sink drain: presumed grease buildup). Fixed flaw in primary water tank that prevents proper venting with a few holes (and finally found out the actual capacity, two years later- 73 gallons!). Discovered (and replaced) leaking outlet fitting in tank. Aft head required an unclogging adventure, then replacing seals and hose and other work that I’d rather not know too much about. Thanks to my sweetie for being The One That Deals with the Head on board.

…and that’s just what he did on Totem! On friend’s boats, Jamie helped install a solar panel, did a few (three? four? five? I lost track) rig evaluations, and helped get one tuned properly.

I married well.

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One of the more significant preoccupations outside of prepping Totem is working with coaching clients. We thoroughly enjoy helping people make the leap to successful cruising! More recently, the kids have gotten into a few of our Skype sessions, too: prospective cruising kids want to hear the real scoop directly from them. Sitting around the iPad, this is a pretty typical scene.

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We closed our our Miami stay by anchoring in Marine Stadium, a sweet little spot with near 360° protection and a killer view of the downtown Miami. Backlit by twinkling lights from the skyline at night, we could detect dolphins circling Totem only by loud huffs of their breath. An idyllic spot to raft up and make some great memories with the pretty Huckins, Cortado (which is for sale, by the way), and her crew.

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Totem from Cortado

Totem is now in Fort Lauderdale, on our final countdown to departure for the Bahamas. We don’t know when we’ll be back in the USA, but it’s probably some years. I’ve got an insane list, and it includes major items like, oh, battery bank replacement. Full watermaker servicing. Diesel mechanic services. Provisioning for 3 months in islands with limited stores, and high costs. Supplies for Bahamian communities still impacted by hurricane Mathew last fall. Then there are the incidentals “but we won’t be in the USA for how long?” that inflate our list. Here in the mainland, we have access to better breadth of goods, at a better quality, and a better value, than we will likely encounter for a long time.

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It’s been blowing for days, but Totem is in a protected anchorage. There is access to supplies. Anchorage neighbors stopping by to chat from their kayaks. Visits from shoreside dwellers, arriving with friendship, the gift of papaya, and lessons in art (thank you, Jim!).

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Life is beautiful. I’m grateful every day for the choices we have and our freedom as a family, and can’t wait to extend our adventures…starting soon in the Bahamas!

Cruising boat renovations

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“I may have broken the aft cabin.” This is the text I get from Jamie a few hours after I’ve departed Totem for an overnight road trip to Miami. The smoky-green smell of sawdust wafts to me from half a state away and the disarray of a deconstruction project easy to picture. The critical path project for our departure from the US for the Bahamas is to replace the soft sides for our hardtop dodger, so of course, the aft cabin is going to be torn apart.

It comes down to this: cruising boat projects are more likely to be done when you can than when you want to. Those you do when you must often leave something to be desired based on local limitations. And over time, these done-as-you-could projects accumulate into something that stands to benefit from a re-do.

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Kid / candy store

Here in Florida we have easy access to well-made, relatively affordable goods. It’s a short ride to a spectrum of lumber options and hardware. A selection of dying tools were readily replaced: drill, orbital sander, and a jigsaw Jamie’s had since he was 17. Quality wire at great prices was available with help from a friend. So a combination of two needs based in the aft cDSC04203abin—getting our batteries wired up correctly, and dealing with mold in the bamboo paneling—pushed this one to the fore.

Breaking the aft cabin stems from a must-do project that wasn’t done entirely right, based on local limitations. Nearly three years ago we replaced our battery bank back in Malaysia. Moving the bank location under our bunk helped address weight distribution on Totem, eliminating a port list. That move required different wiring to connect to the bus bar nearer the old nav station location. We didn’t have access to the right sized wires, so Jamie made it work by patching long cables.

The knee bone’s connected to the shin bone: charge controllers wired to the battery bank had been installed on a piece of bamboo paneling that got moldy thanks to the damp on board (possibly starting from this unpleasant passage, but condensation during the recent cold months was a kicker). Blinking lights reflecting off the headliner over our bunk at night doesn’t make for a romantic atmosphere (and is just kind of annoying!), so there’s a whole new utility closet being built in the cabin to house these in beautiful organization.

This might have been postponed, but access to the right materials to do it right bumped it up. The kicker was some very nice wires that friends helped us source (Asif’s a rocket scientist, a pilot, and a boat owner– thus knows not just a few things about wiring but a great place to buy quality marine-ready stuff for less).

There are a lot of concurrent projects on Totem right now, and while I’m dreaming about getting the dodger and bimini done (it will happen! It has to) it’s pretty exciting to see the improvements in our cabin.

Life rolls on! The roadtrip was relatively spontaneous. My friend Patricia Leat takes special needs kids and families out sailing on the healing waters of the ocean: she wanted to meet with her friend and Active Disabled Americans board member, Kerry Gruson, in Miami. As it turned out, I’m the one who lucked into a sail with this inspiring woman: Kerry has been paralyzed from the neck down for decades, but despite the limited mobility in her arms she helms the boat with tenderness and intensity. Team Paradise is the Miami-based organization that helps people of all levels of ability get out on the water. Wheelchair? Other needs? No problem, they figure it out.

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I also met up with Pam Wall in Fort Lauderdale. Pam and I are delivering a two-day Cruising Women seminar alongside the spring boat show in Annapolis and had some coordinating to do! Between those two priorities, Patty and I worked in some meetups (Halden Marine, with the supremely helpful JT who provided watermaker troubleshooting for us from halfway around the world, and at Strataglass, to get materials for Totem’s dodger). Of course, you really should have a Cuban sandwich in Miami, too.

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We’ve been lucky to spend time with special people, like my old nanny / au pair, Jorunn, who visited from Norway. I haven’t seen her in at least 40 years, but the face and the voice – I knew them, and it was wonderful.

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Or hanging out with our friends on MV Cortado, who we can’t wait to see again down in Miami soon.

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The ocean beaches, where hunting ospreys flaunted their catch, are best visited with a friend.

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There are homemade pasta dinners with the McMermaids, another family who feels at one with the ocean.

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Spontaneous visits by neighbors Kristen, Hans and their daughters, via dinghy, keeping our psyches closer to cruising while tied to a dock.

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Getting to know Jacksonville a little: Anne Frank’s diary facsimile, in an exhibit at the Museum of Science & History.

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Yet another Amazon delivery,.

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And yet another sunset.

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Maintenance: neither routine or exotic

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One of the aphorisms of cruising describes our lifestyle as performing routine maintenance (or repairs) in exotic locations. This rings true, for better and for worse. “If you can’t fix it, be able to live without it” is another truism for voyagers, and a good reason to go simple. Bundle these with the additional reality that most tasks in our floating life take more time than they do in a normal (fixed, land-based, connected) existence. That’s a good summary of life on Totem right now, although northern Florida is NOT exotic, and this particular outboard fix has proved to be anything but routine.

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Jamie does all our outboard maintenance and repair (ably assisted by #1 grease monkey, Siobhan). A service manual is key: those exploded diagrams and part number references. He’s become very capable, but this time, the unshakable problem (and shifting symptoms) ultimately flummoxed him. Here in Jacksonville, Florida, professional servicing is affordable, parts are available, and we can finally be warm! We have no interested in going any longer without a dependable outboard. Totem’s Our RIB doesn’t row well–none of them really do–and we can’t wait to be liberated from the necessity of docks to get ashore.

The “fix it or deal” aphorism is all too true: when you’ve become accustomed to a creature comfort that suddenly goes away, your everyday life may go from comfortable to camping in a swoop.  It’s a good reason to try and equip minimally, even if you think some choices skew you towards camping. It is so much easier to add than it is to take away. We’ve also seen people who probably over-equipped, then later dropped out of cruising because the reality of constant maintenance to support that gear was more cost or time (or both) than they anticipated. Simply put, cruising involves a LOT of this maintenance/repair thing, and when you’re doing it right, it’s in exotic locations.

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Totem is middle-of-the road in terms of gear. I’m grateful Jamie has the hands-on mechanical skills needed. Shop manuals (like the one for ourourboard, top photo) should be on essential gear lists. Because when we finally had a diagnosis on the part (or maybe, two parts) which are behind our outboard woes, Jamie can see in the exploded diagram how to install it himself, and use the part number to source spares/replacement affordably.

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With hindsight, I also appreciate that some of the things I thought were essential to a happy life aboard…weren’t. For example, back on land, we had a big chest freezer in the garage (gotta put that steer share somewhere!) as well as a standard upright in our capacious kitchen. I never would have dreamed that life without a freezer wouldn’t be a problem. But that was one of the early adjustments to life aboard, and although we installed a small freezer a couple of years ago, I’ve never quite gotten used to using it. At this moment, it’s entirely empty!

Staying put to get this done (whyyyyy must it always take so long?) opens other opportunities. Like giving a presentation to a standing-room-only group at Jacksonville University: I love sharing our stories! And hanging out after with families who have dedicated chunks of their lives to cruising or full-time RV travel. Some long anticipated meetups, like Sara, Tim and kids– coaching clients we’ve gotten to know over the last few months–and the family from Ditching Suburbia who I’ve been in touch with for years now. They’re six year RV life vets currently WWOOFing on a Salatin-modeled farm a couple of hours away. Isn’t their name great?! It says so much in two words. And this family – they are ALL that.

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I don’t even want to know! (Jamie with Mike, from Ditching Suburbia, and Tim)

Jennifer and I started emailing each other when we were on opposite sides of the world a few years ago. Following the route she’s taken with her husband Mark on their Nordhavn, Starlet, has been my dream fodder for places to go in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It was great to finally intersect, and no surprise to find her as fun and positive in person as she is over the internet. I wish I could say we’ll be seeing them again soon, but this boat is South Pacific bound. Give me a year or so…

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When not making plans to meet up in the marina, we’ve been hosted “off campus” by a local family I hoped we’d connect with on the way south. Here’s another great name: McMermaids! It was inevitable when the McCarthy took their water-happy girls cruising. They’re JAX residents and marine scientists who brought us into JU.

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There have been happy hours lost in the maze of books at Chamblin’s, just steps from the marina and the first bookstore I’ve ever seen which might just rival Powell’s. Besides the sheer joy of exploring books, I’ve found some winners to help our travel plans (or just dream with), and we’ve unloaded at least 1o0 lbs of books from Totem there. It is a maze: there are occasionally “you are here” signs with a floor plan to assist. It is FULL of temptation.chamblins

I AM SO EXCITED! Thanks to contributions from my brother and my aunt (and a killer year-end sale), Totem’s deck is now decorated with a paddleboard and SUP excursions are in our future. Our marina neighbor Kristen and her daughter picked me up for the inaugural jaunt. I think I’m supposed to share this SUP with the kids… going to have to work on that.

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175 Totem Art Kids FilterMeanwhile: the On The Wind podcast we recorded with Andy Schell & Mia Karlsson of 59 North went live! Our whole family sat in on the session around Totem’s main cabin table back in Annapolis not long ago, and we talked about everything from the myriad of ways to get started cruising (and our advice on getting started), how we did it, and other shared experiences on the big blue. Play from the link below, go here for iTunes, or here for Stitcher / Android.

This marina we’ve tucked into has convenience. The grocery store is walking distance. There are gobs of available services and resources. It’s an easy place to take care of paperwork and bureaucracy (Cuba permits, new passports for the kids) from a comfortable position. We’re really enjoying meeting up with people. And we’ll enjoy it to the fullest… but meanwhile, to a one, this crew cannot wait to put our homeland on the horizon and find new adventures again.