Sunday, 13 April 2014

Splashdown with a Sticky Seacock

Spray was launched for the beginning of her 2014 adventures yesterday.  It’s impossible to be blasĂ© about your boat going in the water when each launch has its own last-minute crisis.  This time:  a stuck seacock.

Just before heading home the night before the launch, I looked around the boat to make sure everything was ready to go.  Clever girl that I am (irony) I decided it would be a good idea to close all the seacocks.  All closed but one:  the toilet evacuation valve.

We tried WD-40. 

We tried gentle and then not-so-gentle tapping with a hammer. 

We tried cleaning with a long bottlebrush from the outside (note: wear eye protection for that one…).  

We gave it another big dose of WD-40 for the evening and went home, defeated, to think over our next move.

We believe that if something hasn’t gone through your body first, it has no place in a sea toilet, so we knew that paper or other “foreign matter” couldn’t be the culprit and reasoned that the blockage must be some sort of dried seawater scum.  Patrick and I both headed to our computers and checked out the various French and English blogs on the subject, then met back to compare notes. 

The winning solution seemed to be to plug the exit hole with a wooden through-hull plug and then fill the evacuation tube with vinegar to let it dissolve whatever is blocking the seacock valve. 

We also learned from these helpful internet sites that we should have been thinking of this LONG BEFORE launch-eve.  I was so pleased with our winterizing procedures and never read anything about sticky seacocks in other blogs or sites on winterizing.  I’m going back now and adding this one to our winterizing list !

The next morning, with only 45 minutes till launch time, we filled the evacuation tube with vinegar and waited.  After about 20 minutes, lots of bubbling and burping gave us hope that something was dissolving.  With 10 minutes to go, I tried the seacock valve again.  I could just begin rocking it back and forth.  I continued this rocking, with more liberal squirting of WD-40, and within a few minutes it gave way and I could close it ! (and open it ! …and close it ! …and open it ! …).  We were in euphoric disbelief.  

Plugging the evacuation tube.

Double, double, toil and trouble; vinegar burn, and toilet bubble.
After this incident, the launch went more or less without surprises, which is NOT to say that it went smoothly.  The motor coughed and petered out a couple of times before belching black smoke and finally kicking into gear.  The GPS, newly fixed on the balcony and working beautifully on dry land, decided to take more than 1 hour to get its first fix, which only lasted for about 5 minutes before the GPS declared that it had lost contact with the satellites and was unable to get a position.  We fixed the mainsail and had a devil of a time with one of the batten receptacles that came apart and didn’t want to go back together again, an already difficult task made worse by the fact that we were working with a flogging sail over our heads with a capricious wind changing directions every 15 minutes, all the while slipping and sliding on the newly polished roof.  The good news is that we’re less stupid than we were 24 hours ago.  The even better news is that the electrician is coming tomorrow to look at the auto-pilot and the GPS (except he doesn’t know about that one yet…).  

In the lift.

...and in the water.

Tomorrow: our first night on the boat, and then, if we have a GPS, off to start Shakedown 2014 !

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A New Spring Wardrobe

The sailing season is upon us and we’ve had no serious offers on Spray, so it looks like we’ll be heading down to Spain (Galice) with her this year.  But the old girl deserves a new outfit for the trip:  we have decided to replace the mainsail !

This is a BIG DEAL.  The mainsail we have is made of mylar / taffeta and is 7 years old, which is the expected lifetime of such sails.  Given that this one has completed a trans-Atlantic voyage and spent one year baking in the Caribbean sun, it’s had a hard life and is ready to be put out to pasture. 

We'll be thrilled to be done with the SOFRAMME sponsor publicity we inherited, too.

Mainsail in profile.
The big thrill is not just that we’ll get a new sail but that we’ll get a lighter Dacron sail (light in comparison to the mylar / taffeta anyway), which will make it easier to hoist, furl, reef, and store in the lazy bag...all great things for a couple looking for less physically-demanding manoeuvres.  The mylar / taffeta sail is a real monster – very heavy and rigid.  Hoisting is a team sport and furling always requires someone to go to the mast to pull and pack.  Trying to squash a heavy, rigid sail into a standard-sized lazy bag is also a feat and I’m surprised we haven’t busted the zipper yet (although we have had to re-rivet the lazy bag runners.) 

I’m sure it’s an unrealistic fantasy, but my dream is to point the nose of the boat into the wind, let run the halyard and have the sail drop into the bag, where only a minimal amount of arranging is needed before easily zipping up the bag, all in under 5 minutes.  Surely, as far as sailing fantasies go, this isn’t asking too much, is it?

In other news, on Sunday, we visited an exquisite Beneteau Oceanis 393 (version performance 2004) as a potential replacement for Spray to take us far and wide.  Result:  Didn’t love it.  It’s impossible to identify anything that was particularly wrong with it except that it just left us cold - no coup de coeur.  One down, how many more to go?

Three more days and Spray is in the water !!  We’ve been working 5-6 hours every day to get her ready and fatigue is beginning to set in. 

Things we’ve done:

Pressure washed and scraped the hull to remove all anti-fouling paint down to epoxy layers (this is the biggest time consumer)

Washed hull and polished

Washed deck and put on 2 coats of color protection / polish on roof and cockpit area

Miscellaneous silicone and sika touch-ups

Reconnected batteries and tested instruments

Took fire extinguishers for annual check-up

Installed new crown on gas stove burner

Bought new lifebuoy and floating flashing rescue lamp

Rigged dodger, side panels, lazy bag, boom vang and mainsheet traveller

Fixed life lines in place

Had a new auto-pilot angle indicator bracket made

Mastic epoxy on a few spots on the keel

Gel coat touch-ups

Varnish touch-ups

Bought new Bloc Marine 2014 (tide tables, rules and regs info)

Refill pages of Logbook (make my own and just add sheets in a 3-ring binder…)

Things we still have to do:

2 layers of anti-fouling bottom paint

Put on the new anode

Do dock-side / dry-dock tests of pilot (zero rudder angle)

Fix new lifebuoy lamp to balcony railing

Finish gel coat and varnish touch-ups

Secure life raft on roof

Chase the air bubbles out of the fuel line of the motor

Put Spray in the water

Put on mainsail and headsail on furler

Load cushions and all equipment

Inspect and re-provision pharmacy

Food preparation / provisioning

Pack clothes, SHOWER, check the weather and head off ! 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Batteries in, Bets off

We loaded the batteries on the boat today and rushed to test our soldering job on the GPSantenna .  We are gobsmacked to announce that it works !!  We still have to test it at sea but so far so good ! *

Antenna on the balcony.  Do you think we over-did the tie-wraps ??

The GPS satellite fixes:  7 full bars in under 1 minute ! 

*reminds me of a joke:  An irrepressibly cheery optimist drives his co-workers mad with his positive attitude in the face of even the darkest situation.  One day, one of them cracks and throws him out the window of their high-rise building.  As he falls through the air, he keeps saying to himself, “so far so good…so far so good…so far so good…”.  

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

GPS Antenna (Re) Placement

Have you ever wondered what the inside of your GPS antenna looks like?  Me, neither.  Unfortunately, this week we had curiosity thrust upon us and were forced to cut into our Magellan FX324 GPS antenna. 

Our problems began two years ago when we decided to be more clever than the average sailor (uh-hum…) and install our new antenna inside the boat, thus protecting it from sea, salt, and accidents involving things on balconies being occasionally mangled. 

GPS antenna out of harm's way in the closet behind the toilet.

The placement of a GPS antenna inside the boat is hardly revolutionary and we know people who have great reception with this arrangement.  We found a snug place for it in the closet just behind the toilet which, when initially tested, worked extremely well.

After about one year, the kick-ass satellite signals we used to get diminished to the point that obtaining three full signals was like pulling teeth.  We couldn’t find any physical reason for this and of course it only happen occasionally, making it one of those mystery problems so beloved of boat owners.  Several times, after waiting for more than 30 minutes with no luck at all, I unscrewed the antenna from its wall-mount and moved the antenna outside.  Within less than one minute of doing this, we would obtain 9-12 full-strength satellite signals and all was right with the world…except that I was left standing like the Statue of Liberty in the cockpit holding my GPS antenna proudly aloft. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  That’s only funny for so long.

As (bad) luck would have it, the fact that I un-screwed and re-screwed the antenna from its wall mount several times led the cable to split (I swear I was careful not to get kinks in the cable…), and the wires around the cable became frayed to the point that there were only a few hair-thick strands holding everything together.


For sailing season 2014, we’ve decided to move the antenna back outside and to fix it to the balcony, come what may.  We had to cut away the frayed part of the cable and re-solder the new cable end and wires to the electrical circuit board of the antenna.  It looked so easy. 

Before and After.  Here's to hoping that beauty is only skin-deep.

Neither of us is too proud of the resulting soldering job, but we worked on it for over an hour and decided that this was the best it was going to get.  And the best part is that we don’t even know if it works yet, since the batteries won’t be reinstalled on the boat until later this week.  Stay tuned …all bets accepted until the batteries get installed. 

Spray will be in the water on 12 April !!!!  Busy busy !

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The boat seller blues

We’ve only been home for one week and already I feel like a caged animal, looking desperately for escape routes.  Part of this is surely the weather, but a good deal of it is also feeling trapped between not having sold Spray and not having found a new boat to love. 

For Sale sign: had to make a new one after 1 month of rain and wind blasting.

On selling Spray:  We’ve reduced the price to reflect more reason and less sentiment.  Curiously, this has attracted a spate of tall men recently, all of whom seem genuinely interested in Spray even after they are forced to tilt their heads at uncomfortable angles in the 1.85 meter (~ 6 ft) clearance in the saloon.  But in the sober light of dawn, they realize that it’s not a good choice for them and never call back for that promised follow-up visit.  I can’t blame them, but I think I’m going to start the guided tour inside the boat rather than waste time extolling Spray’s exterior virtues.

On finding a new (used) boat to love:  I’ve come to accept that there is no such thing as the perfect boat and the real challenge is to balance reality with opportunity.  Experience of others has shown that a successful cruising adventure is rarely dependent on the boat.  So after much soul-searching, I now admit publicly that we will not (likely) be rounding the Horn anytime soon, and that, in fact, our cruising plans for the medium term are no more ambitious than those of many sailors to whom the French boat market is targeted.  I have decided to take a “when in Rome” approach, stop being a boat snob, and take a serious look at the Bens, Jens, Dufours and Bavarias that make up the majority of offers in France.  Current favourites (although it’s still difficult for me to consider any of these a favourite) are:  Oceanis 393 Clipper, Bavaria 38 Cruiser, Dufour Grand Large 385, Sun Odyssey 39.  Cue music:  If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

To make myself feel like our project is advancing, I spend 1 hour each day studying Spanish from the most excellent “Spanish for Cruisers” by Kathy Parsons and another few hours reading Lin and Larry Pardey’s “Storm Tactics Handbook” and Rod Heikell’s “Mediterranean Cruising.”  This is followed by a couple of hours of scanning the web for boats and reviews, thus giving me the impression of a full work day.  Next week, weather willing, we will start getting Spray ready for launch: a good scrub-down, a few minor repair jobs, loading and connecting the batteries from their winter storage unit, 2 layers of anti-fouling bottom paint, and then “re-arming” her with her sails.   

Once launched, the plan will be to sail locally until mid-May, and if she hasn’t sold by then, we’ll head down to the northwest coast of Spain (Galice) and Portugal for the summer, heading back in September or October.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll decide that Spray isn’t so ill-adapted for a couple of middle-aged old farts and their Mediterranean project after all.  

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Not-so-opposite of Winter Cruising

In the southwest corner of Morocco close to the Algerian boarder, the Erg Chebbi dunes area gets rain only 7 days a year.  Omar, our camel driver, was thrilled for us that we were there to experience one of these rare days.  Hmmm.

There were only a few drops really, but they were accompanied by a very cool wind that sent us scrambling for polar fleece and turbans with veils to shield our eyes from the blasting sand.  The fabulous sunset and sunrise over the Sahara we had been dreaming of were simply not to be seen through the milky sky, and we headed back to the guest house base camp just after dark to dance away the blues to the rhythm of Berber drums.

Our ships of the desert. We named them Modestine (mine) and Makes-tracks-with-chocolate (his).

Omar and Patrick sharing some camel humor.  Omar loves silly riddles and had us in stitches.

Breton Berber dancing.

Berber clapping lessons.
Despite having carried the Breton weather with us all the way to Morocco, our land cruise has filled our heads with enough new sights and insights to keep us reminiscing enthusiastically for years.  One unexpected outcome of our land cruise, however, is that we learned some things about ourselves that have implications for our sailing life.

1.  Even though land cruises allow you to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time compared to sailing, the lifestyle doesn’t suit us.  Staying in hotels and eating in restaurants every day got old very fast.  One can only eat couscous, tajines, or grilled brochettes for so long before pleading for spaghetti.  We sorely missed the ability to shop in the markets and make our own food on board Spray.  And we won’t mention the 27 days without beer or wine…

2.  Even though we covered a lot of ground, the car did most of the work while we slowly atrophied.  We did walk a lot while visiting various sites, but on the whole, the lifestyle was far too static for us.  On the boat, there’s always something to do and down-time is minimal.  I particularly missed my folding bike that we use in port to explore new areas.

3.  Patrick is one cool cucumber.  I already knew that, but it’s always nice to see this quality confirmed in a variety of circumstances.  He drove more than 2600 km through crowded markets, busy cities, a sand storm, rain showers with useless windshield wipers, and over the Tizi-n-Test pass with spring wash-outs along the “road”, all without raising his voice, clenching his jaw, or tightening his butt cheeks a single time.  I, on the other hand, was doing all three simultaneously on a regular basis. 

4. What we liked the best was the changing scenery while driving and meeting locals and fellow travelers in the guest houses.  The imperial cities and UNESCO World Heritage sites are spectacular, but what we enjoyed most were the things that most resemble sea cruising:  being on the move, changing scenery, and encounters with interesting people.

5.  We won’t give up land cruising, but we have a new appreciation for sea cruising that we didn’t have before.  I’ve been frustrated that we haven’t gone further / faster with our sea cruising and thought a good dose of land cruising would make me feel better. Instead, I now appreciate the quality of life that sea cruising brings, even if the cost is a slower pace.

And now for a few miscellaneous photos from some of our favorite spots:

Palm oasis at Skoura

Palm oasis at Skoura

Enough iron-oxide in the Saharan sands and hills to bring on an ice age? (For the more curious readers, see the latest Science Daily article from the lab of my friend and former classmate Danny Sigman.)

A depression in the Atlantic kept the Essaouira fishermen in port for 7 days.

Roman ruins at Volubilis (where we bumped into our next-door neighbors from Brittany).

Road through the Todgha Gorge.

Road through the Dades Gorge.

Market in Meknes.  (Hint: WASH the dates thoroughly before eating...).
Sugar and spice and everything nice.

...quickly followed by the not-so-nice bits...

...and more not-so-nice bits...

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Land Cruising: March in Morocco

During our first 18 months of the cruising life on Spray, we have come to realize that sailing in Europe (including the Mediterranean) means that our live-aboard lifestyle will be limited to 6-7 months of the year.  Rather than resign ourselves to 6 months of relative hibernation with an occasional cold wet blustery sail to local areas already thoroughly explored, we decided to use our winter months to “land cruise,” to explore parts of the world not easily accessible by sail. 

And nothing says “opposite of winter sailing” like the Sahara Desert.

At the end of February, we will head off for a one-month circuit of Morocco.  Land cruising has a lot in common with sea cruising: stage planning, decisions based on weather, self-sufficiency and coping with surprises, managing long-distance and often troublesome communications, the excitement of discovery and a bit of anxiety about the unknown.  Let's hope it doesn't also include emergecy repairs to a diesel engine. 

For Morocco, we’ve been warned about aggressive hawkers, harassment, pickpockets, terrorists, corrupt police and their surprise inspections of tourists’ cars (looking for, and always finding, infractions), poor roads, infectious water, unsanitary conditions, and pedestrians who decide to throw themselves into the path of tourists’ cars in order to get an indemnity for bodily injury (payable on the spot).  I suspect this last one is a sort of gung-ho traveller’s legend, along with the one that warns of men who throw nail-studded planks under your car to burst your tires and then direct you to their cousin’s garage, conveniently located just around the corner. 

But we’ve heard far more compelling stories about the breathtaking beauty of the country, its historical and cultural marvels, and the legendary warmth and hospitality of its people.  Edith Wharton said it best: “One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.”  That’s gotta be worth a friendly bribe or two.

Our Morocco Circuit: starting in Marrakesh and traveling roughly counter-clockwise

We’ll begin our circuit in Marrakesh, a World Heritage site chosen for its masterpieces of North African architecture and art, with its labyrinth of narrow streets, bazaars and souks, palaces, gardens, ramparts, and squares, clothed in an overdose of colours, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations that our French guidebook calls “violent”.  We fully expect to be overwhelmed in both good and bad ways.

The Atlantic Coast
Leaving behind the bustle of Marrakesh, we’ll cross over to the Atlantic coast, stopping first in port city Essaouira, a World Heritage site also known as Mogador, the ancient Portuguese military and trading port that linked North Africa to Europe beginning in the 16th century.  Today Essaouira is a seaside tourist destination particularly appreciated for its beaches and ever-present winds (great for wind surfing), its medina (old city center) and fish market, and its art and North African music scene.  From here, we will wander up the Atlantic coast, taking in the beauty of the rugged coastline and making short stops in Oualidia (called the St. Tropez of Morocco by one guidebook) and Safi (known for its artisan pottery quarter) on our way to the historical fortified Portuguese port city of El Jadida, yet another World Heritage site.

Rabat and the Imperial Cities
Continuing up the Atlantic coast and circumventing Casablanca (saw the movie), we will begin exploring the Imperial Cities, the historic capitals of Morocco.  Along with Marrakech, Rabat, Fez and Meknes make up the quartet, with Rabat serving as Morocco’s current capital.  Rabat is also a World Heritage site, heralded for its unique early 20th century town planning that harmoniously mixes the old and the new, protecting the architectural treasures of the Maghreb culture in a thoroughly contemporary city.

Leaving Rabat, we will head west to Meknes and Fez, with stops in Volubilis (largest site of Roman ruins in Morocco) and Moulay-Idriss (holy city and sanctuary of the first Muslim sultan).  The medina of Meknes, a World Heritage site, will be a warm up for the World Heritage city of Fez, considered to be the jewel of Moroccan culture, not only for its rich architectural and artistic heritage, but also for its historic role as the birthplace of religious and intellectual thought and home to the oldest university in the world.

Middle and High Atlas Mountains to the Ziz Gorge
Having gorged ourselves on culture in the first part of our voyage, we will begin moving south, climbing over the Middle and High Atlas Mountains to explore the marvels of mother nature.  Our first stop is Azrou and one of the largest cedar forests in North Africa, home to both large populations of nesting storks and Barbary apes.  The next few stages will depend on the weather, as snow can still be a problem in the high mountain passes during late February and early March.  From Azrou, if weather permits, we will push on to Midelt at an altitude of 1488 meters. This altitude and a handful of gemstone vendors are the highlights of Midelt.  However, Midelt is blessed by its location along National Route 13, approximately 4 hours’ drive from Fez, which is the limit we set ourselves for maximum daily travel time.  From Midelt, we climb briefly into the High Atlas Mountains before beginning a slow descent to the Ziz Gorge area, nestled between arid desert mountains, palm oasis, and the river bed. 

The Southern Oasis Region to the Sahara Desert
Ar-Rachidia marks the end of the Ziz Gorge area and the beginning of the Southern Oasis route to Tafilalt, the largest oasis region of Morocco.  On the road map, this route is shown as a string of green valleys dotted with palm trees in a sea of arid desert landscapes.  At the end of this route is the town of Merzouga on the edge of the Erg Chebbi (Chebbi dunes), one of only a small number of dune systems of the Sahara Desert in Morocco.  We will stay one night in a family pension in Merzouga and then head off on camels into the dunes to spend a night in a tent village campsite under the stars.  We were warned that unaccustomed western butts can only take 2 hours of camel riding per day, so we will only venture out a little distance one day, back the next.

The Gorges to the Atlas Mountain Hollywood
From here we’ll head east along the High Atlas valley to two gorgeous gorge areas, Todra (night stop in Tinerhir) and Dades (night stop in Boumalne), continuing eastward along the serpentine route through the Dades valley to the cities of Skoura, Ouarzazate and Ait-Benhaddou.  After several days spent absorbing the dazzling natural splendour of the Atlas mountains and southern oasis region, Ouarzazate promises to be a complete change of pace.  It’s principle claim to fame is the Atlas Film Studios, a favourite Hollywood backdrop for desert-inspired films, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Man Who Would Be King, The Mummy, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, The Kingdom of Heaven, Kundun, and Game of Thrones, among others.  To avoid the shock of transition from natural splendour to commercial kitch, we’ll push on to the World Heritage fortress village of Ait-Benhaddou located along the ancient caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakesh. 

The Anti-Atlas
Leaving the valley (a relative term at over 1000m elevation) at Ait-Benhaddou, we will begin our climb up over the Anti-Atlas Mountains (weather permitting) through the Tizi-n-Bachkoum pass (1700m), past the town of Tazenakht (brief stop to visit the carpet weaving cooperatives), then east over the Tizi-n-Ikhsane (1650m) and Tizi-n-Taghatine (1886m) passes to the town of Taliouine, the saffron capital of Morocco.  Continuing eastward and down, we will head to Taroudant, the “little Marrakech” and the nearby palm oasis at Tioute.   

The Big Decision
From Taroudant, we have a big decision to make, depending on the weather, our level of fatigue, and our courage.  To reach Marrakesh, we have two options.  One is to take the highway east to the coastal port city of Agadir and then head west on another highway to Marrakesh.  The other option is to head directly up and over the High Atlas mountains through the Tizi-n-Test pass (2092 m), one of the most spectacular mountain routes in Morocco but also one listed on a web-site called “dangerous roads dot org”.  Friends have done it and said that if the roads are passable, this can be done in a basic rental car and is not particularly difficult if you have nerves of steel and liberally use your horn.  If the roads are not passable, there is a barricade system that officially shuts them down before you get too far down the road.  If we do make it over, we’ll stop at the 12th century Tin Mel mosque and spend a night either in Ijoukak or in the Alps-like town of Ouirgane.  Total driving time, depending on Patrick’s nerves, weather and road conditions, will be between 5-8 hours (225 km) with lots of stops. We may take up smoking for this stretch.  Otherwise, the mostly uninteresting tourist megapole of Agadir and its warm year-round beaches will be our last stop before completing the loop back to Marrakesh.         

We have no intention of taking a computer with us on this trip, so reports from the road will have to wait until we get back or for the occasional internet cafĂ© or connection from a hotel computer.  I’m excited about that aspect of being out there, disconnected and off-line, although we will try to be diligent about sending a little email home when we can to ward off the worries.  Roz Chast's “Parental Valentines” cartoon in the New Yorker gave us a good laugh as we emotionally prepare our families for the trip (thanks for the link, Joe !)  

Parental Valentines by Roz Chast