Friday, 12 September 2014

The Leibster Award

We’ve been tagged for the Leibster Award, a sort of “chain letter” for sailing blogs.  It represents a very nice recognition by your sail-blogging peers and is a great way to learn of other blogs out there.  Thank you, thank you, thank you The Cynical Sailor and His Salty Sidekick for the nomination!

The game consists of answering the following getting-to-know-you questions and then tagging other blogs. 

Introduce us to your crew. Who are they and what role do they play in your operation?
We are a hillbilly (Maria, from Kentucky, USA) and a frog (Patrick, from Brittany, France) who dropped everything to go sailing.

The hillbilly is an oceanographer who spent most of her career coordinating international research programs before deciding to marry the frog and take early retirement.  The frog is a computer geek who was able to take full retirement at 55 (which is also pretty dang early these days, n’est-ce pas?).

On board our Dehler 34, Spray, Maria is the navigator, sail trimmer, diver, blogger, photographer, and chief worrywart.  Patrick is the primary helmsman, mechanic, electrician, plumber, head cook, and chief “don’t worry, be happy” guy.

What sort of boat do you have and would you recommend it for other adventurers hoping to live aboard? What do you like the least about your choice? 
This is a tricky question.  In the short amount of time we’ve been cruising on our own, we’ve learned that it’s not about the boat.  Lots of cruisers are out there doing amazing things on boats that don’t tick the boxes for a live-aboard, blue-water cruising boat.  But it all boils down to personal preference, sailing project, comfort level, and bank account size.

We have a Dehler 34, 1992 designed by Van de Stadt.  She is a beautiful “classic plastic” yacht, fast and robust (category A), capable of going anywhere.  We fell in love with her immediately, even though she was a bit larger than we wanted for our first boat.  Her previous owners took her out for a trans-Atlantic cruise from France to the Caribbean and back, and we knew she would be capable of handling a couple of cruising neophytes as they took their first wobbly steps in the world of long-distance cruising.

And now that Spray has shown us how much we love this lifestyle, we are hoping to sell her to move up to something a bit larger and more comfortable for longer cruising.  (Sounds terribly ungrateful, doesn’t it?)  Spray’s diesel reservoir is approximately 60 litres (16 gallons) and the water tank only holds 90 litres (24 gallons).  Sure, you can have jerrycans tied everywhere, and in some circumstances, it’s better to be able to shift around the weight where you need it.  The motor is only 18 HP for 4 tonnes and, coupled with a 2-blade folding prop, we are constantly reminded that we are on a sail boat.  Again, others do more with less, but we’re looking for something a bit more geared towards “retirement cruising” for a live-aboard boat.

What are your sailing plans, if you have any, for the future? 
Like moths to the flame (e.g., like every other sailor living in northern Europe) we dream of sailing down into the Med for a few years.  After that, we’ll see what our motivation and confidence levels look like.  Maybe the Atlantic islands (Canaries, Cape Verdes, Azores), maybe a tour of the Baltic, maybe a trans-Atlantic? 

How do you support your lifestyle while sailing and cruising?
During the last 15 years we worked, we lived very modestly, which allowed us to both take early retirement. We rented a small apartment and put more than half of our salaries into savings every month.  Up until the age of 40, everything I owned could fit into my car (a Volkswagon Polo, no less!).  No house, no stuff, no kids, no problem!  Now we live on Patrick’s pension and my investments, and we bought a small duplex to call home during the winter months when sailing just doesn’t have the same appeal.  We still live fairly frugally because that’s just the way we roll. 

What's the best experience you've had while living aboard? 
We only live aboard about 4-6 months out of the year.  This lifestyle has been dubbed commuter cruising by David and Jan at Commuter Cruiser and it describes our situation perfectly. 

It’s difficult to choose a single best experience.  Of course, there are those moments of pure grace when the sun is shining, the seas are smooth, the wind is just right, and dolphins come over to play with you.  We also love the constant change of scenery, discovering new places and making new friends along the way.  The solidarity in the sailing community warms our hearts and reminds us of how good people can be.  Live-aboard traveling allows you to explore the world while carrying your own little “chez toi” with you.   

Name the most challenging experience you have had while living aboard and what did you do to overcome it?
Why is it that naming the best experiences are difficult while the worst experiences are sooo easy to single out? 

The weather continues to be our biggest bugaboo.  Two particularly bad incidents (one along the north coast of Brittany and one along the north coast of Spain) were called “freak” situations because they were short-lived phenomena that weren’t easy to predict.  But the fact that there can be 50 knots of wind and 5-6 meters of swell out there …what? HIDING !?… makes us very uneasy. 

Learning to cope with our own fears and anxieties has been a major undertaking these last few years.  It’s a process of learning to distinguish between fears that are healthy well-founded ones and those that are simply parasitic.  Experience is the best teacher, and we’ve learned a few things to help us avoid bad situations, real and imagined.  At least we now know how to better cope with bad weather when it does strike, which goes a long way to eliminating fears.  Best of all, we’ve learned (only just recently, I might add) that the joys of this lifestyle outweigh the scary bits.  

Is living aboard and sailing an alternative way of life for you, an escape from the system, or is it just a temporary adventure?
Living and sailing around Europe where the weather is not amenable to year-round cruising, we have become “commuter cruisers” who live aboard 4-6 months of the year.  In the beginning, we tried winter cruising and, while there were some magical moments, it was mostly just wet, cold and gray.  When huddled in the saloon while a squall blew over, we would said to ourselves “it’s still better than sitting at home”, and that sentiment carried us through until the day we realized that we had more options than just sailing or sitting at home.  So now when the weather gets nasty, we pull the boat out of the water and go do other things (land cruising, we call it) until the sun comes out again.  

Even with only living aboard part of the year, our lifestyle is definitely an escape from the traditional retirement gig.  It’s a logical response to the question of what to do when you retire early and don’t care much for home and garden.  Traveling is a passion for both of us, and sailing is a great way to move around for 6 months of the year. There are other ways to travel (faster, cheaper, more comfortable to boot) but Patrick is a foody (did I mention he’s French?) and wouldn’t be able to tolerate a mode of travel that wouldn’t let us to have our own kitchen and to eat well !

We’re just getting started in this cruising life, but we’re hooked and hope to have many more years ahead of us.  Here in Europe, we’re also blessed with an almost continent-wide network of canals, so when we’re too old to sea cruise, we’ll move aboard a houseboat and cruise Europe’s inner seas!

Any big mistakes you have learned from that others may learn from too?
The first winter we owned Spray, she broke away from her mooring buoy during two back-to-back gales on New Year’s Eve and was the subject of a rather spectacular rescue by the local maritime rescue service, involving 2 boats and a diver.  We were enjoying the New Year’s festivities at home with friends when it happened.

Most of the damage was to our egos and our confidence levels, but we still had to pull the boat out of the water for an inspection and do some touch-up work on the hull.  Most of the work fell to Patrick since I jetted off to sunny Florida to visit my family for 2 weeks.  Patrick attacked the work relentlessly, scraping, sanding, and grinding in the cold grey wet windy Brittany winter.  He didn’t ask for advice or help, and had to muddle though as best he could. 

By the time I got home, he was in a pitiful state.  He had come down with a bronchial infection from inhaling too much dust (probably the anti-fouling...very bad) and being exposed to the cold wind for hours every day, and was physically and emotionally exhausted.  His confidence was severely shaken, his self-esteem at rock-bottom, and he said he didn’t have what it takes to manage a boat.  He fell into a depression that lasted several months.  We agreed to sell the boat and move on to other things. 

I didn’t blog about it at the time because it was too personal and too painful, but with time we can better understand why it happened. If the sea teaches you anything, it’s humility.  We’ve always been humble in the face of mother nature, but accepting our own weakness and need for help is another thing entirely.  We have to accept that we weren’t born with a natural instinct for managing a boat.  It’s something that has to be learned, preferably with good mentors rather than from the school-of-hard-knocks.  Fortunately, we are now members of 2 sailing associations where help is generously and cheerfully available.  We’ve learned to appreciate this more and more and it’s made all the difference. 

What advice would you give to those that may be interested in following in your footsteps and living aboard and/or cruising?
The only advice we would dare to give is: Learn to sail first.  There are many stories about people with no experience who buy a boat, cast off the lines, and go on to great adventures, but the reason those stories are in the sailing magazines is because they are the exception rather than the rule, and, in our opinion, a bit foolhardy.  Get good sail training through a school or association.  Crewing for others is a great way to learn and to get to know different boats.  Almost every port we’ve ever been in has a message board at the port office where there are notices of skippers looking for crew.  Sail enough to learn not just how to handle the sails but also everything else that goes into cruising: navigation techniques and strategies (including how to navigate without the aid of electronic gadgets... on account of you just never know...), understanding / interpreting weather forecasts, basic on-board safety, how to use the VHF (in France, you need a permit requiring a test), sailing in bad weather conditions, coping with sea sickness (your own or your crew’s), how to manage eating, sleeping, basic boat and motor maintenance, how to recover someone who has fallen overboard, etc. 

And an important piece of advice related to the previous question:  Surround yourself with fellow sailors who can offer help and advice when needed.

What motivates you to blog and what tips can you offer fellow bloggers?
I started blogging as a way to inform my non-sailing family where I was and what I was doing.  They were understandably worried when Patrick and I decided to buy our own boat and head off “alone together” instead of crewing for others.  Having them share in our little adventure helps to demystify the unknown and reduce the anxiety (some of it, anyway).  It’s also been great fun for us to keep a scrapbook of our cruising life and to see for ourselves how we’ve evolved in ways we didn’t expect. 

The only real tip I can offer is to name your blog something other than the name of your boat if you aren’t sure you will be sailing on that boat for years to come.  We really should make better use of other social media or blog directories to draw attention to our blog, but since we hope to buy a new boat soon - a boat that will not be named Spray – we’ve hesitated to “advertise” more widely.  

The other piece of advice I am giving myself is to stress the importance of good photos.  I’m hoping that Santa Claus will bring me a new camera this year and I am looking around locally for a class on digital photography.  I’m just a point-and-shoot person and can definitely see the difference between what I produce and what other blogs put out there. 

Our Nominations
I’m not sure how long this award chain has been circulating, but I suspect that our nominations will overlap with others.  But hey… that just means that lots of us out here really like their blogs, so I hope they’ll forgive the double nominations. 

Like The Cynical Sailor and his Salty Sidekick who nominated us, we follow quite a few blogs (although we’ve fallen behind in the last 4 months we’ve been at sea).  Besides The Cynical Sailor and The Red Thread, here are a few of our favorites du jour:

Just a Little Further - subtitle “it’s not just travel… it’s our lifestyle.”  We love the name of the blog and the philosophy behind it… slow steady progress that has allowed Marcie and David to sail around the world.  The blog has excellent writing (both Marcie and David write for various sailing magazines) and is updated frequently with useful and entertaining information.

Commuter Cruiser - This great site is a mix of practical information and a cruising blog of David and Jan’s adventures in the part-time live-aboard lifestyle.  We also love their sailing philosophy: “as long as it’s fun.”    

The Retirement Projet - Tim and Deb took up cruising as an early retirement project.  As we are following in their footsteps, we’ve had great fun following their adventures with their first boat and first long-distance cruises.

To participate in the Leibster Award, you should:

Refer back to the blog that you nominated you.
Answer questions posed by the nominator (same ones as above).
Nominate other blogs you believe are worthwhile.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Crossed !

Yesterday, we pulled into Port Medoc, France, after a peaceful and ENJOYABLE (!) 34-hour crossing from Bilbao.  We had just enough wind on a beam reach to give us 5 knots on a FLAT (!) sea, with a bright sun and warm temperatures, followed by a night with an almost-full moon and so many stars that it was difficult to identify individual constellations.  In the wee hours of the morning, the wind died down and since we needed to keep up our speed to enter into the Gironde estuary with the tide, we had to finish up with the motor.  We arrived in excellent condition and great spirits.   

Sunrise over Biscay after a beautiful night of sailing.

Port Medoc, France.
Before leaving, we hung out at the Real Club Nautico in Bilbao for a few days, enjoying the swanky swimming pool and club house.  (I was too intimidated to take photos...)  Before we knew it, a pretty good weather window opened up and we took it.  Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that there was much angst and analysis in the decision to go or not, but we’re slowly getting better at judging these things and so we decided not to regale you with the blow-by-blow decision making process this time, as fun as that is.  In the latest version of the weather data program Zygrib, there are two new functions (new to us, anyway) that give information about possible squalls and storms:  the convective available potential energy (CAPE) and the convective inhibition (CIN).  It took me awhile to understand how to interpret them and several of the forums we found on the web, frankly, got it backwards, which added to my confusion.  I’ll write a blog post about it another time.

And now, we are pinned down by distressingly beautiful weather (but without wind).  Port Medoc is situated just inside the Gironde estuary on the left bank surrounded  by hundreds of miles of bike paths through pine forests along a coast with long powdery beaches (including a few nude beaches we will sample later… not taking photos there, either.)  This is also one of the principle wine regions of France and we’re enjoying re-connecting with French food and drink after 3 months away.  It looks like we’ll be here a few more days, and we aren’t complaining one bit.  Feels like summer vacation !

One of the many beaches along the ocean side of Medoc.

The bike path, part of EuroVelo Route Number 1, running from Brittany to Portugal !

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Local colors of Laredo

A few years ago, Laredo expanded its small fishing port to create one of the largest yacht marinas on the north coast of Spain.  Located only 20 miles from Santander and Bilbao, each with large marinas, it’s not clear why Laredo believed this would be a good idea.  But practicality aside, it is a beautiful marina nestled in one of the most picturesque bays and largest beaches along the coast, and we're very glad we visited.

Laredo marina and beach area

Lots of room !
The town is small but not without charm, and we happened to arrive on the eve of the “Battle of the Flower Floats”, a spectacle unique in the world (they say) consisting of a parade of floats created entirely with flowers.  Some of the floats were created using more than 100,000 flowers.  

The evening closed with a fireworks display, shot off from the jetty just south of the marina.  Fortunately for us, the wind was in the right direction to not get ash fallout, and we had front row seats.

Tomorrow we’re off to Bilbao, returning full circle to our original landing spot in Spain.  The winds won’t permit us to head north for the next week, so the strategy will be to keep slowly drifting east until either we reach the French border at Hendaye or the weather turns more cooperative for a hop north.  

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The waiting game begins

We’ve made it to Santander, our “hop-off” point along the Spanish coast, and are waiting for a weather window to head to Port Medoc in France, a 36-hour crossing.  The weather, however, seems intent on keeping us a while longer with a series of depressions blasting up from the Atlantic.  Here in our little corner, however, the weather is a wonderful 25 C and sunny, and it finally feels like summer.  But we’re not keen on sitting in a marina for a week or more, and we’ve already taken all the local excursions we care to (including an overnight trip into the Picos de Europa).   

Santander, Sardinero Beach

A beautiful mooring at Los Peligros beach.

The anchorage at Los Peligros
We’ve decided to keep heading east ever-so-slowly until ….Laredo?  Bilbao?  We’ve been warned that, East of Bilbao, you start getting too far towards the end of the Bay and the predominant wind and swell from the west / northwest make it difficult to head north. (We seem to be having a helluva lot of easterly winds lately, though…).  But we’ve also been told by people who routinely cross from Hendaye at the far end of the Bay to Medoc that it’s not a problem as long as you’re patient and wait for the weather.  I want to be patient but I have to admit that it doesn’t come naturally to me!

The Picos de Europa (crestline above 2500 meters)
Picos de Europa

Picos de Europa
In any case, we’re beginning to feel like migrating birds that overslept and missed the departure date.  The marinas are empty and we’re now the only visitors in the huge marina in Santander, and I anticipate we’ll also be alone in the new port of Laredo.  Patrick keeps reminding me, and he is correct, that the end of August is often quite perturbed while September settles down into some of the best sailing weather of the year.  I hope this holds true this year, too!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Are we there yet?

As we started our return route towards Santander, we had the feeling of being on a very long car trip, with the catchphrase “are we there yet?” repeating in our heads.  We would be sailing around areas we left only a month or two ago, with little sense of discovery.  This dread led us to the decision to try to squeeze into all those small fishing ports that we skipped over the first time for lack of information and fear of not finding an adequate place to tie up for the night.  It’s funny how boredom wins out over fear after awhile. 

That decision has made all the difference.  We’ve enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery in northern Spain.  The photos (taken with my increasingly scratched lens) were taken in the small ports of Luarca, Cudillero, Lastres, and Llanes.

Luarca coastline

Luarca anchorage, buoy + line to shore with the dinghy

Luarca harbor

Cudillero.  We managed to squeeze onto the end of a pontoon rather than pick up a mooring buoy.

The entrance to Cudillero at low tide.  Even the slightest swell makes this a "rodeo".

Cantabria coastal scenes

Cantabria coastal scenes

Cantabria coastal scenes
Entering Lastres

Lastres Harbor
One of the few visitor's berths in Lastres.

Lastres Town
Night scenes in Lastres.  Caution: there are more fisherman around this port than anywhere we've ever been.  Be prepared to feel like you are in an amphitheatre with nearly 100 local fishermen peering down at you !

When the motor is on, one of us is out front WATCHING (after our misadventures from last month).
Llanes and its multicolored seawall

Entering Llanes, rennovated 3 years ago (entrance dragged to about 1.5 m).
Llanes visitors berth, just to the left on entering.

Llanes port
Llanes town is a charming maze of pedestrian streets, quite touristy.

Leaving Llanes
Ribadesella.  We didn't pull in here because of the tides (would have had to leave at 3 am !)

And now we're nestled in the big city of Santander as a series of depressions roll in off the Atlantic.  We will head up into the Picos de Europa for a few days (no, not with the boat) for a change of scenery.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Dodging bullets in Viveiro

The story is getting to be all-too familiar on this bloody coastline:  the weather forecasts agreed on 10 to 15 knots of wind with an occasional afternoon gust to 20; we had 20-25 knot sustained winds with gusts to 32, and a nasty crossed swell just to make things more interesting.   It’s so frustratingly common now that it hardly merits mention.  Just Grrr!

Ria de Viveiro

But we did learn something new, or rather, gained a new appreciation of something we thought we understood.  Stiff winds and steep headlands make for strange bedfellows.  It’s very difficult to predict how the winds will behave in these areas, since the winds go both around and up-and-over the headlands, leaving strange swirls of both calm and accelerations where you would least expect them, even up to a mile offshore.  The situation calls for extreme caution and for avoiding any rash behavior such as, for example, deciding that all is well and shaking out your reefs prematurely, leaving you with full sail up whilst 32 knots of wind blast up your behind. 

The other thing Patrick learned (which I had learned years ago) was not to offer up your fingers to the mainsail traveler cam cleat while jibing vigorously in 32 knots of wind.  The flesh that was ripped off was, he insists, superficial, but blood in the cockpit does nothing to diffuse an already stressful situation.  Gloves, people.  Gloves. 

Since we were only 3 miles from the entrance to the Ria de Viveiro, we decided to treat ourselves and take down all sail to motor in.  Just as we entered the ria, the motor shuddered and started making a screeching, grinding noise.  We put the motor in neutral and the noise stopped.  We put it back in gear and the noise was still there, and getting worse.  For good measure, Patrick put it in reverse and the noise was different but still alarming.  A quick look at the motor revealed nothing.  The winds were calm once inside the ria, so we quickly rolled out the genoa and glided easily down the estuary, while Patrick looked up the telephone number for the port office.  Fortunately for us, the harbor master, a man of innumerable talents named Fernando, speaks fluent French and was still at work at 6pm on a Friday night.  We told them we would come up to the port under sail but needed a tow into the port. 
When all was settled, I went down and looked at the back of the motor from a compartment under the rear cabin berths.  The sight made my blood run cold.  There were metal shavings all over the floor and what looked like a cracked propeller shaft coupling.

A loose shaft and metal shavings
When we were safely in a slip, the harbor master came aboard to look at the motor.  The whistle he gave is, I’m convinced, instantly recognizable in any language as a combination of “bad” and “wow”. He started talking about having to pull the boat out of the water, or in the very least, pull the motor out of the compartment to re-weld the shaft.  Later (e.g., after a big and well-deserved whiskey) Patrick started poking around and discovered that it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  For some mysterious reason, the bolts that connect the shaft to the propeller shaft coupling had come loose.  One of the bolts had slid back far enough that it was scraping against the clutch housing as the shaft turned, cutting little ribbons of metal as it spun.  (See my homemade diagram for more information and, if you know anything about motors and/or mechanical drawing, a good laugh.)

Fully decoupled, but no other apparent damage

1. Clutch housing.  2. Shaft.  3. Offending bolts that loosened, slid back and scraped against the clutch housing.   4. Propeller shaft coupling.  5. Propeller shaft.

The mechanic confirmed the diagnosis, and simply replaced and tightened the bolts with generous doses of Loctite.  He also reduced the idle speed to 800 rpms so that when the motor is put into gear it doesn’t make that horrible Ka-LUNK noise (or not as badly anyway).  He was here and gone within one hour.  We haven’t received the bill yet, but we both agree that this incident clearly falls into the “bullets dodged” file.

Everything back in place.
Despite everything, Patrick smiled at me later that night and said “it’s a beautiful life, isn’t it?”  I gave him the “not amused” look, but then realized he wasn’t joking, and that it probably wasn’t the whiskey or finger pain fogging his brain.  “No, I’m serious.  I wouldn’t want a life with no excitement, no thrills, no danger.  I could never feel this alive by golfing or gardening.”   We realized that this was our 3rd tow and our 3rd surprise gale (the lightest) in only 2 years.  I hate to think we’re getting used to it, but when the motor went down this time, I had none of the regular cement-in-the-stomach sensations.  There’s no education like experience.   Keep calm and sail on…

But wait!  There’s more!  After only one night at anchor and a very windy day sail where the wind turbine should have been charging at maximum strength, the batteries still managed to dip down to 11.6 volts and shut down the GPS.  They are only 4 years old, but they were probably cooked when the shore power charger malfunctioned and died just before we left home.  Our trusty Fernando has found us some top quality batteries for cheaper than we would pay in France, and they will be installed tomorrow.  Now we just have to sit tight and wait for a 2-3 day storm system to pass over us and we’ll be good to go on to the next adventure.  Ah, la belle vie.