Optimizing Iridium GO use on board

Desert mountains and sailboats

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

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

Pre-departure checklist

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

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

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

Managing email

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

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

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

Iridium GO email download

sailboat in remote anchorage

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

Browsing the web

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

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

comparing Opera Mini and Turbo

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

Social media

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

Iridium GO post to Facebook

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

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

Other cruisers!

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

Weather

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

Sea of Cortez current

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

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

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

Setup

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

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

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

All good?

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

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

Dissecting a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailboat and helicopter

Pinterest passage to ColombiaThis dreaded passage unleashed one true horror. It was not a failure in rigging or other key systems. It was not the feared washing machine sea state. No, it was the ugly reality of unclogging a toilet while sailing at 9+ knots!

That awful job aside, almost everything else on the passage went very smoothly. Weather variance remained on the pleasant side of the forecast, and factors less easily predicted (namely, katabatic winds) were mild. Totem flew along, averaging over 200 miles per day towards landfall in a little over two days. About the most eventful thing that happened was when we were circled a few times by a very curious and official looking helicopter about 7 miles west of Bonaire… as photographed buzzing Utopia, above.

What did we do well?

  1. Careful planning, which included a lot more than just a route plan and the right weather window
  2. Patience to wait for good weather!
  3. Adapting the plan to suit conditions
  4. Anticipating sail handling at night or in rough conditions
  5. Remembering local effects

What could we have done better?

  1. Fish.

OK, so we did the fishing thing exceptionally poorly by not actually putting any lines out (truth be told). We were going kinda fast for mahi, which I’d have guessed our catch, as we have miserable luck with tuna. On the other hand, Utopia DID catch a tuna: and this is all that was left when they reeled it in… ripped out from the gills back. Oh, that would have been some spectacular sashimi!
tuna fish head shark bait

Really though, it was great!

The longer route we planned ran about 416 nautical miles from Bonaire’s mooring field in Kralendijk to the Marina Santa Marta in Colombia. Meals were prepped ahead, just in case… it was nice to just heat & eat. Smooth conditions made a lot of reading time… and time to catch shooting stars on night watch, under clear skies. Shooting stars filled my night watch once the waxing moon set and a carpet overhead shone with a brilliance you can only get from the open ocean’s absence of light pollution. As the tall Sierra Nevada range came into view, a gust of wind brought the rich humus smell of landfall with an intensity I’ve rarely felt after a week at sea, much less a couple of days, a hint of the lushness that awaits.

We have the highly unusual tendency to pace very closely to Utopia II on passages. It’s close enough that we actually have to be kind of careful – when you’re in the ocean, two boatlengths is at least a dozen boatlengths too close for comfort, especially at night! Adjusting course to avoid an unwanted encounter with our buddy boat… that’s a first.

Vessel traffic was minimal, but enough to require a close eye on the radar and AIS. Both proved useful when a ship loomed on a course for direct collision that closed remarkably quickly based on boat speeds and the face we were headed directly at each other. Whatever you want to say about the “rules” of the road, mass wins every time; I appreciate the mate of the 117 meter long tanker who altered course to pad our nearest distance with a comfortable mile of separation.

Hindsight, and changes from the plan

The crew of Rhapsody snapped us departing Bonaire the morning of the 26th. (Turns out that means we missed Second Christmas in Bonaire – which is a THING!).

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

Jamie wrote this summary below on what shifted from our original plan (see the Passage Planning blog post for details), a follow up to the exercise we posed for coaching clients. Pardon the wobbly mouse illustrations annotating this OpenCPN screenshot to help illustrate.

Routing #3, pic5

1. Route change

Based on anecdotal info about sea state, I tweaked original plans and set the route to 50 miles offshore instead of 40. Note the thin line that more or less parallels the blue portion of the chart. The line marks the 1000 meter (330 feet) depth contour – outside is 2000 – 3000 meters, this is the continental shelf where significant depth change can contribute to further sea state unpleasantness as water piles up.

2. Conditions

a. Wind: consistently ENE. I expected a slight change to E, but didn’t happen.

b. Ocean current: the Caribbean current was strong, as expected, and very much in align with forecast position.

c. Waves: by reputation, waves were going to define this passage. There were six distinct phases:

  1. Bonaire to north end of Curacao waves were normal wind driven waves up to 2 meters.
  2. From north end of Curacao to the northernmost point of continental shelf was SLOPPY! Why? Wind from NNE makes wind waves from the same direction. Strong current is perpendicular to wind waves AND causing bunched up water from islands in the way and huge depth change. This made for 100 miles of confused seas from multiple directions. Fortunately, we were there in good conditions with a full 24 hours since stronger winds and bigger waves – so it was lumpy but manageable.
  3. Once north of the continental shelf, waves became patterned and regular wind waves again. A route over the continental shelf (close to shore) would be miserable!
  4. Because sea state was fine, you can see that we cut the gybe corner a little to reduce sailing distance. Good sea state continued after the gybe, so we continued to shave more distance (remaining inside of the planned route).
  5. We had delightful conditions, wind and waves, all the way to the cape, just 4 miles from destination. I’ll talk about that below.
We use PredictWind to see how weather shifts may impact our route plan along the way. Even on shorter passages like this, conditions change and bear monitoring.

Updating route plan on PredictWind while underway: even on shorter passages like this, forecasts change and bear monitoring.

3. Sailing

a. Leg 1 was 220NM on starboard tack, beam reaching. Very fast sailing and more so with current push. We did 208NM in the first 24 hours.

b. Knowing there was a gybe coming, I tweaked the route some to set timing of gybe to be in daylight. We reached the gybe point at 8AM, furled headsail, eased the preventer, gybed in 20 knots of wind with single reef in the main. Easy.

c. With turn to SW, was clear the sailing angle close to dead-downwind (DDW). So we set up for wind-n-wing. Boom out to starboard with preventer on and single reef; genoa poled out to port.

d. We thought wind would shift to E and we would have to take pole down to be fully on port tack, but the shift didn’t really happen – there was a little change but we managed wind-and-wing just fine with wind angle at 150 degrees (30 degrees from DDW, wind over port side).

e. At about 50 miles to destination, course shifted further S requiring pole down and gybing the genoa to the starboard side. Likely this would happen in the dark, so before sunset, I checked all lines to be sure this would go smoothly (OK, I always check them anyway!). This change happened about 4AM and went easily.

f. At 40 miles out, wind was 20 to 25 so put in second reef.

4. Hello, cape!

Route plan, good weather window forecast, and actual weather was as predicted made this an easy and fast passage. It wasn’t all perfect sailing along at 8.5, surfing to 12 knots sailing–although that describes a lot of the passage! But there was also a cape to go around. Always, always, ALWAYS, expect enhanced conditions at a cape.

Routing #3, pic6

Approaching the cape just after sunrise was perfect timing for visibility. Land here is mountainous–the Sierra Nevada range here, part of the Colombian Andes, is one of the tallest coastal ranges in the world. Conditions were a wall of gray overland, with a pronounced dark gray band extending to the west, with rain below it. No other visible signs of wind or sea state build at the cape, but to repeat, ALWAYS EXPECT ENHANCED CONDITIONS AT A CAPE!! Totem already had two reefs in the main, but I thought it prudent to partially furl the headsail as well. Turns out, this was a good idea!!! How it played out, and what we did:

a. Wind built from low 20s up to 35 – 42 knots. This is not GRIB predicted effect, rather, compression induced wind build because of mountainous land. [If you remember one thing: GRIBs are not Gospel! There can be more dynamics at play in determining wind force.]

b. Wind waves of two meters towards the WSW, also compressed around the cape and bent around to be perpendicular to the land. And they GREW, both confused and bigger, much bigger.

c. From cape to destination was four miles. For two miles, the waves doubled to four meters with four waves of at least five meters, from dead astern. All waves are not created equally. A five meter swell (dying wave) is gentle. These were waves (building, living) and very aggressive. Even though five meters isn’t a huge wave, it’s plenty big enough for catastrophe.

d. Things can happen very quickly when going down the face (front) of waves driven by strong wind such as these. The very real risk is broaching – getting knocked onto your side, beam to the waves. The boat doesn’t want to go straight down the waves; it wants to peel off one way or the other (water friction and balance of sailplan). Steering well is paramount to managing these conditions. Our autopilot was doing OK, but I felt better boosting its turning speed with hands on the wheel. Totem has a big rudder, so bites in nicely. It was a very exciting (hairy) couple of miles before seas eased to three meters and then two meters on approach to Santa Marta.

Hindsight

Once in Santa Marta, several cruisers came by that chat. Common theme: what a great weather window we had! The past several weeks it’s been blowing 35-40 knots, and gusts have reached up to 60 making conditions outside hellish. On one hand, we played it well. But on the other, a lot of what’s felt in the marina we presume to be katabatic winds – not so predictable for anticipating a weather window. Partly lucky, partly smart, glad to be on the other side of this particular stretch of water.

* * *

The first taste of Colombia yesterday is sweet: friendly staff welcoming us into Marina Santa Marta. In town, colonial buildings with faded elegance and colorful street art. Pedestrian malls lined with restaurants spilling out into streetside tables with busy conversations and delicious aromas. But more about that later – I’ll leave you with a few images from passage.

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Jamie at the helm as we get past the cape - seas NEVER look as big on camera...

Jamie tethered in at the helm as we get past the cape, while I hide under the dodger – seas NEVER look as big on camera…

Hello, Santa Marta!

Hello, Santa Marta!

Planning a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailing trimming the main

There is a good chance our upcoming passage will suck. Yay…

How do we know it’s not a simple downwind run in the trades? Enough friends, cruisers with miles, have told us how uncomfortable the stretch across the top of South America to give credence to the oft-repeated quote that this is one of the “five worst passages.” That quote is never sourced (if anyone knows a legit data source, please add in comments or contact me!) but experiences show there’s more to it than hyperbole.

How are we going to mitigate the misery? Jamie’s outlined our planning process as an exercise for the people working with us as cruising coaches. A summary of planning factors are and shared via email and our coaching Facebook group. We’ve helped as coaches with information on identifying tools to use, sources to check, questions to ask for developing a plan, as well as fleshed out details that make up the dynamics of this route. The exercise is broken into parts over a few days to facilitate discussion on different aspects in the safe space of the closed group, where there are no dumb questions or tridents thrown by Salty McSaltypants. What follows is pared back version of this exercise-turned-teaching-tool.

Passage Planning Basics

Totem lies in Bonaire over a pretty coral reef, safely secured to a mooring. Next stop: Santa Marta, Colombia! This is the planned route:

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

YOUR TASK:

  1. Assess passage for risks
  2. Learn historical conditions AND track current conditions
  3. Develop a safe, efficient route
  4. Identify the weather window to depart in
  5. identify BAILOUT options, should an issue require getting into port sooner
  6. Know destination clearance processes
  7. Prepare a float plan, if passage complexity necessitates it

At this point, coaching clients are asked to think about what they’d do: to pretend it’s their own passage. Identify tools, research conditions, create a plan, and especially: ask questions! They can document for feedback, discuss on our coaching Facebook group, or just let it sink in as future fodder. Below are the top notes of information shared back with them.

1 – Assess risks

Every passage has them; these are particular to our transit from Bonaire and Colombia. The purpose is to break them down and think about how they impact planning.

Dangerous waves: Comfort underway is all about the sea state. Three factors set up risk here: 1) a long fetch creating bigger waves, 2) deep water bunching at the continental shelf, and 3) strong katabatic winds.

Shipping: This is the highway to/from Panama Canal. The radar and AIS will get a lot of use watching out for traffic!

Debris in Water: River outflows send floating mats of weed and large deadheads; it’s also the leeward end of Caribbean Sea. Risk of hitting debris is higher, especially closer to the coast.

Security: Colombia and Venezuela present security risks of different dynamics, with aggressive incidents at sea and coastally.

2 – Historical weather and current conditions

Historical weather first! It trends in three-month periods, alternating between rough and calm conditions. December to February has rough conditions – lucky us! (It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.) Key dynamics are the prevailing trade winds, from the east (speeds increase in the western part of the sea), and strong katabatic winds off mountains on the continent. These katabatic winds can create sever conditions, including rough/confused seas. Helping Totem along: there should be a positive current, up to 2 knots at times, for the first 12-24 hours. It may not help the sea state, though.

Now current weather conditions: this is a complex 2 to 3 day passage. Begin watching weather well in advance to look for patterns. Look for systems that disrupt/ease prevailing trade winds/waves. The katabatic winds aren’t well integrated to GRIB models. PredictWind has more detail along the coastline, but may understate their effect.

Watch the currents for flow pattern – is it linear or disjointed? Will you have to navigate eddies and meanders? Now that we’re in countdown mode, weather and current are closely tracked to make a go, no-go decision.

pilot chart weather routing opencpn

OpenCPN with Climatology plugin overlay

Sources

Historical weather trend data:

  • Pilot Charts, like Cornell’s Cruising Ocean Atlas
  • Climatology plugin for OpenCPN (shown above),
  • Communication / blog posts by cruisers that have done this trip

Current weather conditions and forecast: note these are what we’re referencing on this passage. Other passages may add regional-specific sources!

  • PredictWind (various models and tools)
  • GMDSS (text) forecasts
  • local marine forecasts
  • observations for cruisers (when possible- thanks Itchy Foot!)

3 – Develop a safe, efficient route

We use PredictWind routing for an efficient path based on wind, waves, and current from four different GRIB models. The results show generally good grouping between the models, suggesting they agree on conditions. This still requires interpretation, however. Wave GRIBs are not good at representing real conditions when waves are affected by some land features; there are also the katabatic wind induced waves to consider.

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

The first third of the PredictWind route is free of increased risk we’ve noted earlier, and takes advantage of good current. Beyond that, we want to keep to deeper water – giving a wider margin to the continental shelf and mountainous headlands, and avoiding shallow banks. Hopefully this will reduce the katabatic wind affect and the chance of debris in the water. On the other hand, there will probably be more shipping traffic.

The wider route adds distance, making it roughly 400 miles. Estimating our boatspeed in these conditions, we hope to transit in a little over two days: a morning departure for a midday arrival after two nights at sea.  It’s possible we’d need to slow down, as we did sailing to Bonaire from Martinique. At least the moon is waxing again, so there’ll be nice light until midnight.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot

4 – Weather window

Watching weather for the last week plus observations from cruisers in Santa Marta to helps index what forecasts show. While the forecast is for  a moderate 20 knots, to 25 knots on approach to Santa Marta, local observation is that wind is actually much stronger – up to 40 knots! Long range forecasts showing a possible window on December 26. That’s our ideal departure date, to give us a few days in Santa Marta before Jamie flies up to Puerto Rico for a rigging job. Six days out is just too far to count on at this point, but we’ll keep watching, seek local reports, and shift Totem’s plan as necessary.

5 – Bailout Options

Curacao and Aruba are options for the first part of the passage. Beyond, bailout options wane, but a helpful post on our Facebook page recommended Cabo de la Vela (thanks James!). In general, we have security concerns about stopping along Venezuela or Colombia and will avoid it if at all possible. Most passages should have multiple bailout options: find them by using guide books, charts, Coast Pilot books, and asking other cruisers.

6 – Destination clearance procedures

Outbound clearance in Bonaire is easy: one stop, one window, and they’re even going to be open on Christmas! For inbound to Colombia, the Marina Santa Marta will facilitate the paperwork, a more complicated process if clearing further west at Cartagena.

7 – Float plan

I won’t get on the float plan soap box except to say – it’s important. We’ll update our existing float plan for this specific passage:  download our float plan template from here.

From our crew to yours, our warmest wishes for happy holidays! We have our festive frolic going on here on Bonaire, and hope the weather window holds for a departure on the 26th.

Hurricane Maria watch: real-time weather

MtHartman

pinterest real time weatherThe news that Maria has strengthened from category 1 to category 5 hit like a gut punch. Learning this update at dinner last night stopped all conversation, then brought on questions: how does this happen in only half a day? Has it ever? Dreaded already for the track this storm is forecast to trace near Irma’s fresh path, prospects for Maria’s impact now feel unbearably worse.

While we waited for news of Irma from a safe perch in St Lucia I summarized the tools for hurricane season weather forecasts that we use most on Totem. Not two weeks later it’s happening again, unbelievable as it feels to watch another major hurricane cut a path through Caribbean islands.

These are the resources we look to for real-time data observations of conditions. It is difficult not to obsessively watch for updates, hoping for news that the friends and islands we care about can catch a break, that a wobble can mean a lower impact on lives and homes and infrastructure.

What’s the wind doing?

WindAlert has real time wind observations from land and marine stations. Jamie was up into the night watching these until Irma took them out. This little station in Martinique shows wind as Maria passed by overnight—that wobble to the north sparing Martinique.

WindAlert wind Maria caribbean

Airport weather stations are another good source, like the one on Guadeloupe via WindFinder.

Windfinder airport weather station

What’s the system doing?

Radar gives us a good look at the size and scale of the active system. Accuweather is usually one of the tabs open to feed us updates. This was the view that greeted me this morning, no good news for Dominica.

Accuweather radar Maria caribbean

What are the boats doing?

A good way to tell what’s happening on the water is to check sites that show live AIS reports, like MarineTraffic. Commercial vessels transponding by satellite will show traffic patterns beyond the land-based stations that the Class B vessels like us (only picked up on coastal repeaters) reflect. And at times like this, it’s a big ol hole where the system is – and boats running away from the path.

MarineTraffic AIS Maria caribbean

In a way, live updates are like watching a slow-motion train wreck that is another hurricane tracing across the Caribbean. Emotions on edge, updates like the cat 5 upgrade and eye tracking over Dominica push me to tears.

The wobble north last night spared the many, many boats that cluster in Martinique but it nailed Dominica, just to the north. Our favorite island stop in the Caribbean thus far, it is also one of the poorest in the Caribbean. Yet after hurricane Irma, Dominica donated US$200,000 in aid to the USVI, and sent additional containers of supplies for relief: this island that has so little to give, giving anyway, to those in their island community who needed them. Hopefully this generosity will be reflected back to them, as they will surely need it.

Looking across Prince Rupert Bay at Portsmouth, Dominica

Looking across Prince Rupert Bay at Portsmouth, Dominica

I think about our brief visit in Dominica last month, and know that the forest where we walked with ghosts in the ruins of a fort is no longer the leafy path.

_DSC9399

I look at a card given tor us by a man in Portsmouth; he had paddled out to Totem and traded fruit for clothes and food. I look at the seed bracelets I wear and think about Joanai, another Portsmouth resident who made these, and hope he has not suffered.

_DSC9792

On Totem, last night was a slumber party as our kids soak up all the time they can with their good friends. In the tangle of bodies on the main cabin sole I know there’s comfort in that proximity, as we all watch and wait.

A hike with friends: guided by Fatty Goodlander from Mt Hartman Bay to Clarke's Court

A hike with friends: guided by Fatty Goodlander from Mt Hartman Bay to Clarke’s Court

Old friends, new friends: a dinghy full of cruising teens

Old friends, new friends: a dinghy full of cruising teens

Hurricane Irma: sailing to safety, how you can help

Totem in Rodney Bay for Irma

Totem and crew are in Grenada. Time and mobility were our key advantages to get safely far from the devastating path of Irma when others could not. When Irma made landfall at Barbuda, we were secure in St Lucia. Clouds streamed from the west at sunset, sucked in the “wrong” direction by Irma. We watched the system’s arrival via glowing laptop screens, as Jamie stayed up half the night glued to live data from weather stations until they succumbed – then followed as best we could in the aftermath, waiting anxiously for news from the friends squarely in Irma’s track.

In the days that followed, a few things became apparent. First, that the destruction in the islands is staggering. Our friend relaying to his evacuated wife that “there is nothing to come back to.” The first pictures to filter out showed destruction beyond imagination, descriptors like Biblical proportions and post apocalyptic all too fitting. First person accounts of the storm and the aftermath describing unimaginable chaos. For those of us making our homes on the water, how terrible to see large boats tossed like toys; piled up on top of each other, upside down, crushed into the corners of “hurricane hole” bays.

One of the early images circulating on social media

One of the early images circulating on social media

It also became clear how tenuous the safety net of these islands is: with no power, no cellular network, the communications have been deeply challenged. In the struggle to get word out and disseminated, misinformation spread.

What’s also evident is the resilience and community of islanders. And they need every ounce of this, because media attention is focused elsewhere. The breakdown at relief in finding friends are safe is sobered with news that desperation in a devastated, disconnected land has turned to violence and looting as the situation is increasingly dire.

There are several organizations offering immediate assistance which can use support.

In Puerto Rico, cruisers Tory Fine and Jon Vidar (Sail Me Om) turned their skills to organize Sailors Helping. What they have done in short order is tremendous. An update from this afternoon: “Today we helped a family get off of St. John, have helped organize boats to Jost Van Dyke, St John, and Tortola, and have raised about $4,000 directly while pooling efforts with a few other organizations and private donors to have access to almost 10 times that to fills boats and planes to the islands.” It continues: “In less than two hours, we have at least two boats going to St Thomas or Tortola, a plane being inspected so it can start flying next week, and a 180′ cargo ship all willing to help bring supplies to the islands and hopefully some people back; We have found four people temporary housing in San Juan; We may have a ride for a trauma surgeon to get to Tortola and a family to get off of St. John; And we’ve raised $2,000 that will go directly to purchasing supplies to fill these vessels.”

They are in tune with what’s needed…NOW. “The islands DO NOT need direct cash, or anymore clothes, first aid kits or baby supplies. They do need cots to sleep on, tarps for shade, food and water, and building supplies. This is where we will be focusing our efforts.”

To read the latest updates, see the Sailors Helping Facebook page. To volunteer or make a donation, visit the Sailors Helping website. And while the comments above reference USVIs and BVIs, that’s not the limit of their focus—at top of the wish list: a peace keeping group to evacuate large number of people at once from St Martin (where the reports of destruction and raiding have been extreme).

sailors helping

Tortola-based Three Sheets Sailing is another example of cruiser solidarity. Safely away (yet close by, and with access to US postal service delivery) in St Croix they’ve joined other charter skippers and now have four boats to shuttle between St Croix and the affected islands. To donate, visit their GoFundMe site; for more information, see the Three Sheets Sailing and Yacht Sea Boss Facebook pages.

For regular updates, follow Where the Coconuts Grow: Jody and baby Brig have evacuated from Tortola, but her husband Peter stayed behind and has the miracles of both a functional tender and a sat phone, offering early information of the real impact. Their boat/home is a total loss, and livelihood too. Jody’s continuing to feed updates to help the greater good, just as Peter works tirelessly for the same on the ground.

Windtraveler: the Tortola-based family’s boat and charter business are both probably victims to Irma, but that’s not flagged the energy of mom Brittany from fighting tirelessly for her home community. Scott arrives soon with resources and assistance: he’s buying supplies in Puerto Rico NOW, and their sat phone is how Peter has gotten word out from otherwise disconnected islands – donate here to help their on-the-ground efforts.

BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma: Initiated on Facebook, this group is an excellent resource for BVI updates and has organized a website detailing relief from organizations to donate money (with transparency about fees taken by fundraiser sites), donate supplies, or otherwise get involved. Visit BVI Relief site they set up.

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Looking for someone? See Irma Safety Check – https://irmasafetycheck.herokuapp.com/search/ (VI focused) and http://www.bvisafetycheck.com (BVIs only)

Additional sources of information and support welcomed, please add in comments or contact me.

The proximity of Irma, our recent stays in the places now devastated, our deep respect for the force of weather – all brings this event close.

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

People we care about have lost homes and livelihoods. The search for the unaccounted for by those who were able to evacuate was sharply painful; tears routinely sneaking up. And it’s not just these places mentioned but Barbuda, St Barth, DR, Haiti… has anything been heard about Irma’s impact on Cuba? I have no doubt there is utter devastation in the Bahamas, and probably also in Turks & Caicos, and tomorrow we’ll learn about how Florida has weathered. It is overwhelming. Processing this while knowing fires rage on several fronts near our home waters, friends are affected by Harvey, the freaking big earthquake in Mexico this morning… it’s heavy. We all do a little to pay it forward, to bring a little light into a dark time. Like the stranger who anonymously bought breakfast for our friends evacuating from the Keys, having been an evacuee himself before and wanting to repay the kindness he was shown.

I keep thinking back to our assets in security: time, and mobility. We had significant notice to make a southbound path. We had tiered plans, backups to our backups, unburdened by constraints that prevented others from avoiding Irma. Weather rules our lives, and is compulsively monitored during hurricane season. At the early whiffs of the system forming, there were at least 10 days to add distance—which we did, in a relaxed fashion with stops in Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique. If things happened faster, there were options for a dash.

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the 'morning after' Irma

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the ‘morning after’ Irma’s VI tear

The tough reality is that most people didn’t have those options, and had other complicating factors: it might have been ties and responsibilities they couldn’t relinquish. It may have been lack of funds. It may have been any one of a number of things outside my reality to imagine. Islanders can’t just drive inland and away (hello, Florida), and as the wreckage amply demonstrates it’s unclear how to find a place that’s safe. Withhold judgment.

As cruisers, the stress / challenge isn’t making our plans and backup plans. It’s around timing decisions. The future size and path of a ‘cane isn’t known as it grows from satellite fluff off the Sahara, but he system’s speed is easier to track, and it’s not fast…moving across an ocean at slower speeds than you need to stay legal driving past an elementary school. From there we can estimate when it’s time to make our move. When we do, it can be decisive: Jamie likened this to a basic collision avoidance strategy used with other boats. Make your move early, and make it clear. At different times this year that may have involved backtracking to the mangroves in Salinas, PR; jetting south to Grenada (check!); ducking southwest to Bonaire. The problem is trying to second guess storm tracks. Until the storm does something decisive, you can’t count anything out. How many times has the predicted track of Irma shifted?

There is a long road ahead for these islands Irma whacked. But among all the hard news, bright spots. Like seeing a post from Andy Schell this morning showing that that our friends Ted & Claudia’s boat/home, Demeter, really truly HAD made it through…moved into an outer-marina berth, even. Finding out that our friends on St John were fine, just cut off from everything in Coral Bay; their home came through, too. They help balance the harder stories: knowing they’re OK. Making it easier to believe we’ll all be OK.

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Cruising from the Greater to Lesser Antilles

 

Drone view of Culebra

Figuring out the names of Caribbean islands was as daunting as learning island groups of the South Pacific. First, there’s a whole lot of them! Pinterest Caribbean geograhy 101And then, where does one country end and the next begin? And could I please have a Venn diagram that shows regions and island groups and countries? At least most Caribbean place names have intuitive pronunciation for English speakers (first guesses at cruiser destinations like Kiribati, Papeete, Whangarei, Nadi, Pago Pago, etc. are usually not correct). Cruiser cred points for anyone who can correctly spell these phonetically in the comments!

Quick geography tangent: Antilles is a general term that refers to ALL Caribbean islands, based on the legend of a phantom island—Antillia—that a 15th century Italian-born historian placed in the Atlantic, far to the west from Europe. As boats sailed from Europe to the Americas and the region became better mapped, Antillia gradually disappeared but the general reference for islands to the far west remained.

“Antilles” is less frequently heard than the subset as they are divided into—Greater and Lesser—which are conveniently grouped geographically: Greater Antilles being larger islands to the north (Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica), and Lesser Antilles being the smaller balance scattered to the east and south. The Lesser Antilles are further divided into windward and leeward islands, which include French Antilles and Dutch Antilles, and then there’s the Lucayan archipelago, didja know the ABCs are an island group not just an alphabet, and… right, too easy to get confused!

Most of our travel through the Greater Antilles was a tease of changing plans as we sought safer waters for hurricane season. We may regret postponing a visit to Cuba, as it is increasingly difficult for a US-flagged boat to access. Passing over Hispaniola I truly regret, and acknowledge the crew of Uma for their generous, speedy, thoughtful, and realistic guidance for visiting Haiti. Where armchair sailors who have no Haitian experience pronounced our certain death if we visited, Kika was a voice of reason: sharing contacts from their months in Haiti, annotating maps, suggesting anchorages. Anchorages we looked forward to visiting, until an unexpected weather window for quicker easting opened. And with that window, we skipped across both Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which together comprise Hispaniola) with one lone (but very memorable) stop. Puerto Rico would be similarly abbreviated if it hadn’t been for the matter of urgent health care. When we moved east again, expected to fast track the remaining necessary stops until Grenada. Anyone who knows our speed is laughing right now…we don’t “fast track” anything very well!

Expecting to skip through Puerto Rico’s eastern island of Culebra as just a pit stop, weather dictated otherwise. With the excellent hurricane hole in Salinas a day sail behind it was worth watching to see what the latest wave from Africa would do.

At left, the "spaghetti model" for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert

At left, the “spaghetti model” for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert; at right, the NOAA outlook about a week and a half later

Weather system 99L eventually became hurricane Gert, happily stayed away, but the active picture illustrates reasons behind the frequent pauses…also known as the wonderful opportunity to spend time with people previously known through the interwebs. Sophie and family, who our kids played endless rounds of jump-off-the-bow-swim-back-climb-aboard-repeat.

kids jumping off sailboat

Long awaited was meeting with Sue and Rick of Orion. Sue and I have been corresponding for quite a few years. You can see the solemnity of the occasion when we finally met up.

meetup with Sue and Rick

Anchored more than a week next to Orion in the Dakity bay corner of Ensenada Honda, they shared “their” Culebra. Long time Puerto Rico residents, they know this area intimately and it was a privilege to experience it with their guidance—from visiting a small museum to exploring on the island.

Sunset behind Totem...

Sunset behind Totem…

 

...sunrise in front of Orion.

…sunrise in front of Orion.

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

girls and cactus

Coaching clients taking a few weeks on their Dean 44 catamaran joined in. This turned into several fun nights of sundowners (and beyond: would that be moonrisers?), playing at the beautiful little island of Culebrita, and some of the best tacos I’ve had in years. For all those memories, somehow I only ended up with pictures of the tacos… and a cucumber-jalapeno margarita, which was even better than you think. Mimzy crew, that was a lot of fun – we’d like a repeat in the South Pacific!

 

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

After a schedule centered around doctors’ appointments it was nice to fall back into a more normal family routine. Setting up dinner in the solar oven. Cribbage in the cockpit when the afternoon cools off. Jamie and I were on swimming restriction while our stitches healed, but the kids weren’t, and drawing them to the reef for a closer peek was Miss Dakity. That’s the name Sue gave a young flamingo that blew into Culebra earlier in the year and seems to have set up (solo) shop. Fuzzy pic… attempting with a zoom lens from simply way too far away, from a moving platform!

7c setting up dinner cribbage in the cockpit 7a kids swim out 7b Miss Dakity

The unplanned month in Puerto Rico was more pleasant than anticipated, medical stuff notwithstanding. More than that, it zoomed PR way up on the list of “places we could see living someday.” There is a vibe that I’m not sure how to describe: maybe it’s why year after year, Puerto Ricans are listed on a long-term study by the University of Michigan as among the happiest people in the world. There is a friendliness here that’s well over the bar of most. The gregariousness of “Puerto Rican Navy” (affectionate name for weekend powerboaters) dancing on the beach in Culebrita (and leaving no sign of their presence behind). The warmth and care and HOUSECALL by Dr Villa. The smile that greeted meager Spanish, helpful instead of patronizing. Even if it weren’t for the beautiful landscape and history to soak in, we’d be sold.

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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.

phone weather InReach Garmin

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.

girl boat epirb beacon safety

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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