Facing up to health care

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Keeping up with routine health care needs isn’t a problem when cruising. It’s rare to be in a place where quality care cannot be found, or reached quickly should an emergency arise. In Puerto Rico we played catch up with dentist and dermatology checkups.

Pinterest health careWe arrived in Puerto Rico expecting to hop-skip-jump across the south coast, continuing (we hoped) to blast our way east to the BVIs, then make southbound tracks to Grenada. In the landfall of Puerto Real, Marina Pescadería’s owner/manager, Jose Mendez, welcomed us like old friends. He had already arranged service from an outboard mechanic we asked after via email, and walked us through extensive recommendations to make the most of a short stay: beaches, restaurants, shops, services. Goodbyes with the Akira crew (their kids with our girls, above) was the only down side of our stop. Everything was easy with Jose’s help, and any concern we had about muddling through a few tasks with our lapsed Spanish evaporated.

But even just a few days is enough to work in a dental checkup, and the whole crew was overdue; Jose booked us an appointment with a recommended dentist in nearby Mayaguez. Dental care has been particularly easy to meet while cruising: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, is the latest on our Dentist Around the World tour (Mexico…Australia…Malaysia…Seychelles…St. Martin…Puerto Rico).

All five Totem crew had teeth cleaned by a hygienist and checked by the dentist; two earned bonus sealant treatment, and xrays confirmed Niall’s wisdom teeth have to go…that comes later. Excellent care, nice facility, US board certified dentist…total bill, $300. A bargain, yet at the higher end of what we’ve paid along the way for routine dental care (the exception was Australia, which had prices similar to the US mainland).

Eastbound along Puerto Rico’s south coast, Totem’s engine overheated: the first sign that plans for a speedy trip to the Virgin Islands would be thwarted. Diverting to the port of Ponce, we called Jose for a recommendation. No problem! Despite the fact it was late afternoon on Friday, a couple of hours later Jose’s preferred diesel mechanic, Cesar, was sitting in Totem’s cockpit at 5:30pm sharing his ideas for troubleshooting.

Anticipating a week to deal with what we presumed to be a failing heat exchanger meant enough time to tick another health care item off the list – Jamie and I were due to see a derm, something we try to do annually. A few days later what we hoped to be a routine pass through a highly recommended clinic in Ponce…wasn’t so routine after all.

Jamie’s had a couple of troublesome spots on his face (treated by derms in Malaysia and South Africa); Drs. Villa and Sanchez didn’t like them a bit. My galaxy of freckles and moles turned up a few more suspect spots. Five biopsies, dozens of stitches, and a skin graft later: we are fine, but Jamie had both basal cell and squamous carcinomas on his face (my dysplastic nevi were just that: misbehaving cells, nipped before becoming problematic).

Dr Santaliz sutures Jamie while Dr Villa looks on

Dr Santaliz sutures Jamie while Dr Villa looks on

Most were done in Dr Villa’s clinic, but he felt the carcinoma on Jamie’s nose was best handled by Mohs surgery. With a phone call to his friend in San Juan, we were fit in for 10:00 the following morning—the doctor’s last day in the office before a family vacation (to go sailing in the BVIs, as it happened!).

All told, we had four office appointments; these appointments ran as long as Jamie’s three-hour adventure in the Mohs clinic, which required three passes (and an olive-sized divot) at tissue on his nose before the cell margins were pronounced clean. And then, there was a “house call” when Dr Villa came see us in Salinas (we moved to this sweet little anchorage, more cruiser-friendly and affordable than Ponce) and removed his stitches en plein air…and bring us mangoes from the tree in his garden. When was the last time you heard of a doctor doing house calls?

Healing well, one week after the skin graft

Healing well, one week after the skin graft

All told, the dermatology adventure took a few weeks and cost a freckle under $4,000. It’s a chunk but we can deal (hey, anybody need a quote for a new sail from Jamie?). If you’d like to know more, this post details how we approach medical costs and insurance (cliff notes: catastrophic coverage to avoid financial devastation from a major event, and all routine care paid out of pocket).

The sun exposure we get from cruising clearly doesn’t help our situation here, but everyday exposure now isn’t the primary problem. The reality is that Jamie and I are experiencing this not so much because of cruising, but because of a combination of genetic factors and childhood sun exposure. OUR kids benefit from sunscreen; we spent our childhood summers outside before SPF was an acronym anyone knew. A dermatologist checking me, years ago, said we should give up on plans to take off on a sailboat. Well, no. But we can be careful and thoughtful about protecting ourselves from the sun. I’ve written about sun protection while cruising, and the advice is unchanged.

If there is a single takeaway from our health care adventures in Puerto Rico, it’s this: that quality care is available away from the comfortable range of home. If I can press a second point, it’s that care is generally quite affordable. It may not always be cheap, but along our travels–and a working annual budget that puts us below the poverty line in the USA–it is manageable, and strengthened a sidelong view on the insanity of insurance rates and medical costs in the US.

Meanwhile, our quick pass through Puerto Rico easily became a month. That’s fine. Sure, it’s added some stress as the hurricane season heats up, and a progressively growing series of “waves” off Africa trying to spin up into Caribbean hurricanes. That, too, has slowed progress as we take the prudent steps to remain near hurricane holes instead of pressing forward regardless. But taking care of health was the priority, and along the way it enabled myriad experiences by spending more time in Puerto Rico…

…like enjoying beautiful vistas from the mountains to the sea while driving to the dermatologist outside San Juan.

mountain vista puerto rico

A rental car to get to doctor’s appointments provided easier day tripping to explore the history in Old San Juan…

castillo san juan

Niall offers scale for the fort's walls

Niall offers scale for the fort’s walls

girls at fort wall

…to visit the breathtaking, and imminently approachable, Ponce museum…

Shoes required

Shoes required

…to find out of the way cafés, and indulge in a survey of pressed sandwiches (the best: at El Balcon del Coliseo in Ponce…WOW); recommendations from the doctors for the best roast pork, and a detour through the central ridge to find the perfect place to enjoy it.

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tripleta sandwich

Meanwhile, here we are about a month later, and you have to look up close to know Jamie’s had a hunk taken out of his nose.

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Want to learn more about health care or other hot topics for cruising? In October, I’ll be at the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis—talking formally and informally to anyone with interest and time about their cruising questions! One of my six seminars at Cruisers U is specifically about health care, and will dive into much more detail than this post can cover.

  • October 5-8: staffing the booth at L&L Pardey Books, signing copies of Voyaging With Kids and telling anyone who will listen how inspiring Lin’s books are.
  • October 6: Cruising World Workshop: Prepare to Cast Off (register here)
  • October 9-10: Cruising Women seminar (part of Cruisers U): two full days, including a morning spent aboard a boat.
  • October 11-12: Cruisers U: delivering seminars on a half dozen topics –including health care! Also: on-board communication tools (satellite and radio), passagemaking, common new cruiser errors, dollars & sense (cruise budgeting), and more.
  • Fee for show entry; additional fees/registration for seminars. For more information see the Annapolis Boat Show website. Let me know if I’ll see you there!

VHF radio etiquette

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“Thanks for the wake, @$$%*#!”  Unpleasant to imagine, unpleasant to hear, and rude on all sides. We haven’t heard that since leaving the USA and I don’t miss this aspect of many boaters in close proximity plus a dose of …well, of whatever it is that prompts throwing a wake or respond like that! They need to go cruising.DSC_1185

Summertime radio chatter included restrained and frequent USCG reminders not to use channel 16 for radio checks, to move conversations away from 16 (reserved for distress and hailing only), and more publicly aired inanity. And more from people who didn’t know how to talk over the radio. Reliance on radio fosters good habits cruisers… eventually. Learning and modeling good protocol pays off. It shouldn’t feel silly, unless you’re prone to slip into CB jargon (“10-4” or “good buddy” have no place on VHF).

Lack of decency aside, a lot of perfectly decent people also simply don’t seem to know how to use VHF radio. Poor protocol hampers understanding at best and creates dangerous situations at worst…and between, a lot of the time just results in frustration.

VHF protocol is to repeat the name of the boat you’re calling two or three times, followed by “this is…” and the name of your vessel twice.

After making contact, request to switch from the hailing channel (16) to a working channel such as 68, 69, or 72 for conversation. The other person should reply confirming that channel, or propose another. Without confirmation, you can find yourself scanning channels to find where the other person went, or if they heard you clearly. Once switched to the working channel, be sure the channel is not already in use before reestablishing contact.

In conversation, saying “over” at the end of each transmission hands the conversational baton back to the other boat. This may be unnecessary if the audio is clear and the other person is familiar. Indicate your departure from the conversation by saying “Totem is clear” or “Totem going back to 16”. “Over and out” (or any jargon associated with CB radio or dated cop shows) is like waving a big red noob flag: “out” is for switching off the radio, not standing by to await response…you go over, or you go out, but you don’t do both.

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Mint- and functional! classic radio telephone spotted in Walvis Bay, Namibia

These may be obvious but the simple act of confirming an action, like “Totem switching to 72,” is often skipped—leaving the listening boat to wonder if the switch actually happened. Radios can be finicky: transmissions get stepped on, have interference, or just aren’t in range. Did the other boat hear your request to switch to 72? We often use our handheld in the cockpit and it’s awkward to flip back and forth from 16 to 72 to find out.

It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of good habits, especially if a newer-to-cruising boat can listen to / model from more experienced boats around them. Home waters were another story: our US sojourn was a good reminder not to take VHF protocol and etiquette for granted. A petty spat over the airwaves is unpleasant. Repeated calls on channel 16 by boaters requesting radio checks get old fast. If a boat is speeding or tossing a big wake in a slow or no wake zone, swearing at them out on the radio accomplishes nothing (and is an offense for which you may be fined!). You can always issue a Sécurité call, and be sure to mention the boat by name as a hazard to navigation.

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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!

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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.

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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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Guns and cruising

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“What kind of guns do you have on board?” This was the opening question from a new acquaintance at a cocktail party. Loaded with assumptions from someone who doesn’t know us, and who has no intention of traveling the way we do. Walking down the dock the other day, a woman was overheard talking about practicing at the range because they were going to Mexico, and she’d need her gun there. It’s a big scary world out there, gotta protect yourself!

Or…it isn’t, and you just have to ditch the paranoia and think about it a little. The reality of our personal safety risks as cruisers is out of scale with those perceptions. But I guess in the “if it bleeds, it leads” media, a lot of people are lead to believe that the world outside the US borders is a dangerous place. It’s just not right. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve felt safer outside the USA during our years of travels than I do back at home. The scariest moment in our eight years of cruising came in California and had nothing to do with malicious intent…but that’s another story. What I wish the guy at the cocktail party had asked is “how do you stay safe?” This is something we think about all the time! Besides a healthy appreciation for our own lives, we carry our most precious cargo on board – our three kids. Any impression that we are cavalier about safety is misplaced.

Piracy hotspots are well known and easy to avoid. Our encounters at sea are so minimal they’re almost not worth mentioning. We were scouted in the South China Sea, a definite hotspot, but only for commercial vessels. There was a fishing boat in Sri Lanka that followed us for an entire day. We know it was a bunch of fishermen, and MAYBE it could have spun into something more than that, but that’s pure speculation. When the sun got low and they were still tailing us, we radioed our buddy boat and they basically beelined to our position… the fishermen left. (FWIW, these same guys traded us gorgeous fish!)

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Just countries get an unwarranted bad reputation; others simply need to be understood as more complex than just “bad” in general. O on couple of times we’ve chosen to travel in places that were so-called “dangerous” after our research concluded we’d be able to visit with minimal security risks. Papua New Guinea is one of those countries with a terrible reputation. It can be dangerous and has some crazy violent crime, just like the USA. But with a little bit of research, and understanding both where and why crime occurs, we made a plan to avoid problems and spent an unforgettable three months with few concerns. We had basic rules: we mapped locations with positive first-hand reports (I wrote about it here), we avoided places that were trouble hotspots (unique dynamics to PNG with extraction industries for mineral/timber/fish, or population centers), and we always trusted our gut: if a place didn’t feel right, we moved on.

Mexico is a more familiar for most Americans, like the woman down the dock who thought she’d need to arm herself. I chalk this up to lack of understanding and media influence. Staying safe in Mexico mostly comes down to “don’t be stupid” (walk around Tijuana drunk at 2am? Involved in drug trade of any kind?). We paid attention to the coconut telegraph and local reputations (watch your dinghy in Mazatlán, and your outboard in Barra.). Pretty sure most cruisers who have been to Mexico would agree with me: we feel safer there than we do in the US by a wide margin!

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Petty theft happens. If you think disguising your outboard to look beat up and old will make it less appealing, think again. It’s an outboard. Our US flag was probably stolen off the back of the boat in Seychelles, but we’re not even positive that was deliberate vs slippery line and knots coming undone. Our horseshoe was taken off the back of the boat in Labuan, Malaysia…probably. I think it was secure? Know the reputation of places you go, what to do or not do, and then be open. We’ve also noticed that folks who assume people are out to get them until proven otherwise are more likely to have problems with petty theft. There’s no statistical significance to the observation, but something demonstrated often enough.

With a return to the Caribbean ahead, we have a lot to learn about staying safe. Once again, it’s an area with risks to learn about and decide how to approach. Should we put bars across the hatches? Are there destinations to rule out? There’s a lot to figure out, but we’ll do our best, and we sure don’t think we’re safer by staying at home.

Back to the question we had at that cocktail party about how many guns are on Totem. Diplomatic me wants to say that guns on board are a personal choice and your choice is fine, but I’m not feeling very diplomatic. Guns aboard are a bad idea for a pile or reasons. Had the German boat recently boarded in the Philippines not had guns aboard, the woman aboard would probably still be alive. So would Sir Peter Blake.

While cruising in Mexico, we met a former green beret colonel out cruising with his family. His training is extensive, and his opinion- which I respect- was that the training needed for a gun on board is WAY outside the realm of the typical cruiser. It’s not just about going to the range, and how to handle it, but the microdecisions about when to use it. Even with all of his training, he felt he was safer without a gun on board than with one.

Aside from the fact that the best way to be shot by a gun aboard is to have a gun aboard, it’s a hassle. You have to declare them on entry in a new country. That country will almost certainly take them for you until you clear out, and your port of entry and intended port of clearance could be a long distance apart. Lying and hiding guns? Laws vary of course, but can mean incarceration or death if they’re found! Go ahead, cowboy. If someone is determined to target us and to take our stuff, I’d rather just let them take it than risk greater personal injury to my kids or myself.

Passage planning: the float plan

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Writing a float plan is a simple thing to do, may be critical in the event of an emergency, and is all too easily set aside and left undone in the stack of tasks that precede going offshore. Provisioning. Checking the weather. Vessel integrity checks. Checking the weather again.

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The bare minimum of a float plan is providing someone you know with basic information about your vessel, passengers, destination, timeline for departure and return, and contact information. That’s it. The USCG doesn’t take float plans; this is for someone you know and trust. If you don’t arrive within an expected timeframe, they’re tasked with notifying the Coast Guard if you do not meet your timeline to return.

Why do you need one? This is boating safety 101. It should not be lost in the false hubris of pride in self-sufficiency. If you don’t think you need one, consider friends/family at home who will suffer if you decide to skip this simple step and the unthinkable happens. A float plan includes the critical details that fall through the cracks of what you think they know…but might not.

Use your EPIRB registration

In addition to providing a float plan to trusted individuals, use your EPIRB registration to capture details. The registration form has an exceptionally important field – “Additional Information”. This free-form field is not required, but is a great place to share any other details which might possibly be helpful for SAR agencies in the event of an emergency.

We use it first to provide the email addresses for our emergency contacts, since the form only takes telephone numbers, and the link to a Dropbox folder that contains copies of our float plan, photos of Totem in and out of the water, and other information which could be useful in an emergency.

Back in Malaysia in late 2014, I got in touch with one of our designated contacts to confirm they’d be on point for our float plan and share details of our voyage. In the process I was asked a very reasonable question by our friend Dan: “so if they call me – what do I have to do?” This shouldn’t have pulled me up short, but for a moment, it did. We are so accustomed to considering emergency scenarios from our perspective, and not the shore side view, that I had not truly thought through about how to prepare those back at home. What should they expect to happen, if our EPIRB is triggered? What information did I need to make sure they had available?

Beyond the float plan: what we do on Totem

We create a detailed document that goes beyond the basics of a float plan.

This document starts with a crew list including the name, age, and passport numbers of everyone on board. It also includes shore side emergency contacts for any other crew joining our family.

Details about Totem come next: hull type and shape, rig type, color, any unique details that would identify her from the many other white sloops of the world. Having recently hauled, we have photos of Totem out of water showing the keel profile. I don’t want to think about her being identified upside down, but it could prove useful.

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Safety gear aboard is listed, from our life raft (make / color / description) and ditch bags (also with visual descriptions). Also included are registration copies for both of our EPIRBs.

If we’re traveling loosely in company with any other boats, those people may have the best information about our location or local conditions. Those boats, their names, and their contact details (including at-sea contacts such as sat phone or radio-based email addresses) are included in the folder, as are the details for any radio nets we take part in.

While I hate to think about it being necessary, copies of paperwork for our health/life insurance and boat insurance and the contact for our insurance agents are included. We also provide a spreadsheet with links, logins and passwords for critical accounts in case the unthinkable happens.

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Our last critical step is to provide a clear set of directions for our emergency contacts at home. They’re given our expected arrival time/place, and outside date after which we should be considered overdue. If we haven’t contacted them by the outside date, we provide a list of contacts for them to make. First, to try and reach us at sea (via the Iridium GO). Second, to attempt to reach boats we’re traveling in company with. Finally, to contact the appropriate Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center. I put numbers and links in the document to make it easy.

A related consideration: outside of float plan specifics is worth considering. I’ve seen friends subjected to abuse after disaster struck their families, and news of it hit the general media. To mitigate that, consider nominating a trusted friend to take over any online profiles you maintain in the event of an emergency: login to your blog, Facebook, any other profiles you use. If the unthinkable happens, a friend can shut down your blog to comments, deactive your Facebook profile, or take other steps to spare you the exposure and pain of judgement from the uninformed but righteous anonymous internet.

Templates help: google “Float Plan” for a pile of options. And look at the turquoise water in the picture below, because getting places like that (Hermit Islands, PNG) safely is the end game.

Jamie and I have re-opened our coaching service after a hiatus due to “too busy”! Do you have questions about cruising? Want some help figuring out how to realize the dream, choose the boat, prepare (without going broke!), stay safe, or just better understand what it’s really like? We’re mentoring people to answer those questions. Learn more about how to work with us, or get in touch to get started.

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