Ha Ha

Anyone who knows us well enough knows that we rarely know where we’re going next let alone when.  This is particularly true when it comes to travel.

Those same people are about to have their minds blown.

October 24th at 10:00h we’ll be leaving San Diego for Mexico, and on November 4th we’ll be in Cabo San Lucas.  Why such specific times? We’ve decided to enter a cruisers rally called the Baja Ha Ha.

When we originally decided on our September departure date we thought briefly about joining the Ha Ha, but didn’t seriously consider it mostly since we were hoping to get down to Mexico a bit earlier (beat the rush).  That was before we had a look at tropical storm patterns.  NOAA releases an interesting data set called IBTrACS which holds the paths and intensity of tropical cyclones over the past 150 years.  The data is pretty interesting on its own but even more so after aggregating it by day of the year (working with weather data for a living paid off!).  The result is pretty interesting, heres a plot showing the maximum tropical cyclone induced wind speeds recorded over the last 150 years on several different days of the year. (click to see it larger)

storms by day of yearThe first map shows September 18th (the day we’ll be setting sail); certainly best not to be near Baja then (and definitely stay clear of the Caribbean!).  By October 24th (the beginning of the Baja Ha Ha) most activity has calmed down (at least for northern Baja) and by November 4th (the end of the Ha Ha) there has never been a storm in Baja (though one tropical depression has come a bit close).  By Thanksgiving it looks like clear sailing.

But, timing isn’t the only reason we’ve decide to join the Ha Ha.  Participating will mean that our first real long passage will happen with a large group of other people, many of whom we’ll continue to run into as we head south and across the pacific.  Imagine running into someone in Mexico … and then several months later in some far off atoll in Polynesia.  Now try and imagine not making friends with them.

Want to play around with the data? Download Panoply (Nasa’s data visualizer) and then download my processed IBTrACS data set.

While searching for a way to stitch those four images together I found a solution … on my friend Marcos‘s blog!  What a small internet, thanks Marcos!

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(China Camp was fun. The trip to nowhere a week before…less so. Apologies to nervous friends and family. I just tend to think the most fun things to write about are the things that weren’t all that fun when they happened.)

My head is swimming through the swells in front of me and all I can think is, “At least we didn’t get those jalapeño burgers.”

That had been Nick’s half-joking lunch suggestion. Big, greasy, cheesy, jalapeño burgers, maybe with a tall beer to wash them down; the meal that had been Alex’s unraveling on our last sail. I had commented that it would be a funny idea up until the point when we barfed. He seemed to think even then it still would be.

Scrambling for my bottled water, I burp and taste bitter-sweetness. Delicious.

An hour and a half ago I awoke in the quarter berth to Nick’s hand on my foot. My watch shift was starting. I crawled woozy out of my bunk and put on layer after layer until I maxed out at six on top, and four on my legs. Out of clothes to put on, I headed up to the cockpit. Nick explained that he’d figured out the windvane and the boat would likely just steer itself. He passed quickly belowdecks and I tethered in behind the wheel. 2:45AM. Three hours to go.

Now my tether is tugging obnoxiously at my chest, stretched to the max and trying to pull my back towards the wheel. I’m sitting on the high side of the cockpit. My right arm is wrapped around a lifeline and tucked in my coat pocket. It is freezing out here. The boat dances arrhythmically. I’m looking out for the horizon—anything to remove the boat’s spastic movement from my vision. I can barely make out the difference between the water and sky. Another burp. Oh well, game over I guess.

I lose it over the side. Once, then again. Breathing heavy and wiping snot and vomit onto…where, exactly? My pants? Yes, that’ll do. My eyes sink in and I focus on the horizon, intense. Willing myself healthy.

When I initially settled in behind the wheel, I had the idea that I’d enjoy the solitude for about a half hour, then when I got tired I’d listen to an episode of This American Life. When that ended I’d sit out the rest of my watch, and it’d be over before I knew it. About 20 minutes in the show, with my headphones around my neck pumping out Ira’s Glass’s voice at full blast, I could tell tonight was going to suck. I suffered through the show, and when it ended, I didn’t make it five minutes before slipping up to my current position, too sick and tired to unlatch myself from the tether.

I reach down for the water and take a sip, hoping to remove some of this awful taste from my mouth. As a pleasant surprise, it tastes rancid instead. It’s Glacial Springs bottled water, and they must have put some ingredient in there to add a taste to it,  (some branding thing) because the chemical sweetness of it perfectly compliments the sugary tang of my bile. I spit. I contemplate getting up to get some different water. The sink is five feet away. Forget it.

I take another swig, resign myself to staring off into the distance for the rest of my shift, and pull my foul-smelling hood off my head. I catch an occasional view of the boat out of the corner of my eyes and I almost smile, the color slowly returning to the deck as the daylight sneaks over the foggy horizon.

And then I burp again.

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Anchoring at China Camp

Rusty at Sunset

We’ve caught a lot of flack recently from family and friends who are concerned our blog seems to indicate that our boat is falling apart.  This concern is understandable from most, but old salts know that time spent on a boat can be measured in repairs.  The combination of the sun’s constant UV bombardment and the sea’s corrosive salinity are enough to break everything but our fiberglass hull down to their most basic elements. Therefore, the true measure of a boatowner isn’t how long he can keep all his systems up and running, but how he gets by when these systems inevitably fail.  This is the reason Alex and I like to focus on overcoming failures: it makes us feel awesome.

Nevertheless, to please the masses I won’t focus on our trip out to nowhere 2 weeks ago in which we faced annoying currents, cold winds, and sheared through another set of prop coupling bolts (a problem which we’ve since diagnosed, fixed, and prevented in the future), and will instead talk about last weekend’s pleasantly sunny trip to San Pablo Bay in which nothing went wrong and we ate a lot of really good hot food.

Out here on the west coast, craigslist is THE place to check if you want any second hand supplies, so I’ve got an RSS feed out for all sorts of old sailing gear (though the list of required kit is getting smaller and smaller).  Late last week we found a post that seemed to have our entire wish list up for sale.  The dude lives in Sonoma and a trip to San Pablo Bay was on our to-do list, so we packed the fridge full of food and beer and left the marina early Saturday afternoon.

Our spinnaker had been sitting in the V-berth unused since we bought the boat, so we figured we should probably air it out.  If you’re not sure what a spinnaker is, think of it as a really really big kite you tie to the boat to help go downwind faster, and faster we certainly went.  The spinnaker, staysail, and main were up, and we were soon surfing down swells at 8 knots.

Heading downwind at nearly the speed of the breeze, the apparent wind decreases to almost nothing, increasing the apparent temperature as well as apparent bread, cheese and wine consumption.

In no time at all, we had passed under the Richmond bridge and were setting our anchor just offshore at China Camp.  A call to the Craigslist contact let us know that not only was he already at the beach with our new gear, he was watching us inflate our dinghy via binoculars.  One very self conscious row to shore later, and we were checking out a bunch of reasonably priced gear.

After much deliberation and some incredible haggling on Alex’s part (thanks Tunisia) we walked away with a new fiberglass LPG tank, an EPIRB, jacklines, a pelican case, a 7′ drogue, and 150′ of nylon rode. (In the spirit of this upbeat posting, if these words mean nothing to you, just know that they’re all very nice safe pieces of equipment).  Sunset at China Camp
The rest of the night was spent watching a sunset which outlasted the entirety of Tom Waits’ album “Alice”, eating two different kinds of gnocci, and playing instruments till the wee hours.  Though we could have slept all 6 in the cabin if we needed to, Alex and Omar decided to sleep out in the cockpit.  It was reassuring to hear that the two tallest among us fit comfortably and slept well.

The next morning, we ate newly invented “Zoo Sandwiches”: English Muffins stacked with bacon, avocado, tomato, poached eggs, cheese, and asparagus.  Dave Green and Other Alex needed to get back to the city, so we tested our 5′ 3″ draft and motored down the 7′ deep channel to Loch Lomond where we could drop them off near a bus stop.  Bay weather is so bizarre; Loch Lomond is only a few hours sail from San Francisco, yet the weather there forced us all to change into shorts, walk around barefoot, and strip off layers.
Goat Cheese Guacamole
The sail back to the city started hot and calm, and we were in no rush, so we whipped up some goat cheese guacamole topped with boat-grown alfalfa sprouts and soaked in the sun.  The first 15 miles took 4-5 hours, but we picked up speed in the end and finished the last 7 miles in under an hour.

All in all, this was the most enjoyable trip we’ve made aboard Saltbreaker, and it was more similar to what we expect the trip will be like: hot weather, anchoring in beautiful places, eating well, and enjoying life.  A repeat is planned for the weekend of the 4th when we’ll bring the wooden Dark Star along and barge up at the anchorage, so keep an eye out for more pleasant postings in a few weeks.

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Accidental Practice

Half moon bay (from the previous post) was the first of what will be several practice trips before we head out for real.

This trip and I imagine all upcoming practice trips included things we practiced intentionally and others accidentally. Learning to sail in shifts (and overnight) for example — intentional. Sailing into a harbor because your engine won’t start — accidental. Puking up a jalapeño burger — accidentally intentional. On one hand, it was hardly accidental (jalapeños?! no wonder it came back up), but at the same time it was certainly not intentional (though I do remember claiming boldly “if I don’t get sick tonight I never will!”). Thankfully after sprawling out on the leeward settee for a few hours rest (still clothed in foul weather gear) I felt infinitely better and didn’t have any issues the rest of the trip. Rest assured, canned jalapeños will not be high on our provisioning list.

In addition to night sailing, diesel trouble shooting and puking we also practiced celebrating our eventual return under the golden gate.


practicing returning to san francisco

On our next trip I think I’ll have to work on my pouring accuracy.


Our list of upcoming trips includes a trip north to Drakes Bay, south to Santa Cruz or Monterey and, the one I’m looking forward to most, a trip to nowhere, where we’ll sail straight out for (at least) 24 hrs, turn around and sail back.

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Diesel Repair

Having recently taken a marine diesel repair course, I figured it was about time to do some much needed maintenance on our backup propulsion source.  The class I took was great, if only because the teacher, Hans, drilled into us the knowledge that diesels are incredibly difficult to break, giving me the confidence to poke around and get my hands dirty.

In preparation for a weekend sail to Half Moon Bay, I put some time into the engine; replacing fuel and oil filters, bleeding the fuel lines, pumping out a contaminated diesel sample, changing the oil, and replacing the impeller in the raw water pump.

There are two ways to access our engine, which is underneath the cockpit.  One way is to remove the stairs leading into the cabin, making it easy to work on the fuel and oil systems.  The other way is through a hatch in the floor of the cockpit, opening up access to the alternator and raw water pump.  The problem with this second method is that in order to get your hands down inside the engine room, you need to balance awkwardly with your ribs on the cockpit seats and your head on the floor.  It’s hard to see anything but the engine like this, but I’m convinced that whenever I’m working in this crazy yoga position, there’s a crowd of tourists at Pier 39 pointing and laughing at my legs flailing in the air.

After approximately 200 of these manouvers (lasting only as long as I can hold my breath) I actually got pretty good at taking the raw water pump apart… since I had to do it 4 times to get it right.  My bruised ribs recently healed, but the pride in hearing the water course through that engine and out the exhaust will last forever.  Actually, maybe not forever.  More like 36 hours.

We left Pier 39 around 10 at night on a Friday and motored against the current out into the open ocean where we were finally able to raise sail and turn off the diesel.  The feeling you get when turning off the engine is one of the greatest ever.  Lowering the throttle, the engine slows from a rapid hum to a lazy thumping until it cuts out completely and suddenly the only sound you hear is the wind in the sails and the lapping of the ocean against the hull.

Living on the steadily rocking boat for the past few months has made me more or less immune to seasickness, so I pulled first watch from midnight to 4 am.  Being alone in the cockpit out of sight of land is indescribable.  The movement of the boat through the water disturbs phosphorescent algea which glow in intensely green patches in the wake.  If that’s not enough to keep you awake, the lights of tankers on the horizon present enough danger to keep you on your toes.  At 5 o’clock, I turned over the watch to DG and went to bed.

I woke around 11 to find Alex on watch and the boat buried in fog.  Approaching Half Moon Bay means rounding several buoys which mark the presence of shallow waters and breaking waves.  In the fog, the slow ringing of the buoy bell rocking in the swells could be heard long before it ominously came into sight.  Above us, we could see some crazy pilot doing flips in his single prop plane through holes in the fog.  What a strange way to wake up.

In the harbor, we tied up to one mooring ball but then decided we’d like to moor a bit closer to shore.  Turning the key on the engine, nothing happened.  Nothing at all.  The reason turned out to be simple, but of course we spent two hours dismantling the glow plug switch and checking every other system before finding a wire which had disconnected from the starter.  All we needed to do was plug it back in.  Problem fixed.

Our stint in Half Moon Bay was limited to a dinghy ride to shore, a quick dinner, and a walk, after which we headed back to the boat to get a good nights sleep so we could leave super early the next morning.  Turns out going to bed at 5 am one night and waking up at 5 am the next can really take its toll on a person.  As we motored out of the harbor, my newly installed impeller shredded itself, causing the engine to overheat just as we approached the bouy and shallows.  The engine was quickly shut off and the sails pulled up.  Alex and Dave maneuvered us deftly from danger as I tried to see if there was an easy fix for the engine.  There wasn’t.

Digging up a spare and doing some more acrobatics in the cockpit (this time while the boat was moving) I installed the new impeller and pulled some pieces of the old one out of the heat exchanger.  Fixed.

Just when I thought all was in order, we started to hear an odd clanking coming from the propellor shaft.  Feeling around under the engine, we found that two of the 3 bolts holding the prop shaft to the gear box had sheared off.

I tried to figure out a solution to this new problem, but then I woke up 2 hours later on the cabin floor surrounded by tools.  I guess sometimes you just really need to go to sleep.  We managed to make it back home with our one remaining bolt, and a few days later I was able to disassemble the gear box and drill out the old sheared off bolt nubs.

Though we had a decent amount of problems, we were able to fix them all with parts and tools we had on board.  For our first shakedown cruise, I consider that a success.

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September 19th is international talk like a pirate day.  It will also be our first full day at sea.

We’ve finalized our departure date and (while the details may change) the plan will involve a cast-off party on Saturday, September 17th (Francis Chichester‘s 110th birthday) , followed by our actual departure Sunday, September 18th.

The goal had been to leave in May, a date that we chose based off the requirement of making it to New Zealand before tropical storm season in the southern hemisphere.  While that would probably still have been feasible, it would have left us a bit strapped for cash and rushing to complete our “must do” list before leaving.  Waiting till September will let us knock out some “should do” projects and will let us explore some places along the way that we may not otherwise have had time to do.

The new route is still up in the air (and will be even once we leave) but will almost certainly take us down the coast to Mexico, through Central America (Costa Rica, Panama, maybe El Salvador), South America (Ecuador, Peru) then passing by the Galapagos before crossing to the Marquesas.  From there we’ll island hop through the South Pacific until the beginning of their storm season at which point we’ll take a break in New Zealand.

Now the question is: Where are you going to come meet up with us?

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Give me anything besides a catheter to pass.*


I’ve spent the past three months reading about every medical procedure with a chance of appearing at sea. From treatment of shock, to reducing broken bones, to injections and IVs. I sit, reading, and intermittently wondering what my face must look like to anyone watching, as my eyes widen inexplicably in terror, or I start rubbing my lower lip like mad. I slip from intense interest, eyebrows furrowed, to concealed panic, my page-turning finger rapidly scratching the paper.

The likelihood of us needing to perform any of these procedures is actually relatively slim. It’s fully possible that we’ll all end up back home after cruising without ever having had any issues. We just talked to some cruisers who sailed for years without a problem. However unlikely, though, we can’t afford to be unprepared. And so I read, and cringe, and read.

By now I can handle most of these books’ contents, even as my face rotates through its standard fascination, confusion, horror, cycle. Most things seem doable. Either the immediacy of the moment will force us into action, or we’ll have plenty of time to consider options and mentally prepare for the procedure.

One type of procedure, however, seems somewhat less doable. As much as I think about it, visualize it, or reread the technique, I can’t handle the idea of passing any kind of catheter. Without going into detail, I can safely say that all of these procedures sound gross, surreal, awkward, and uncomfortable for everyone involved. Maybe the best way to fill in the gaps without grossing anyone out is to simply mention where these mystical tubes are supposed to go. And so, a short list:

1. Nostril to stomach
2. Nostril to nasal cavity
3. Urethra to bladder

I mean, nostril to nasal cavity? What are we doing here? Mummifying someone? That’s not really my thing. And that’s for a nosebleed? You’ve got to be joking. Or maybe just crazy? Yeah, maybe you just don’t know what you’re talking about. So long, Advanced First Aid at Sea! I’m reading another book. Yeah, this is better, just cauterize the wound, I can do that. No big–Oh Jesus it’s in here too! And in more depth! Next page! Oh no!! Pictures!

Dear God, give me anything besides a catheter to pass.

*Also please no amputations.

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Stepping the Mast

“Last chance, you guys going to put a coin down there or anything?”


3 Weeks ago, we brought our boat over to Svendsens boat yard in Alameda to unstep (remove) our mast, replace the rigging (cables holding the mast up), and restep (reinstall the mast).  This project, we estimated, would take about a week… maybe 10 days, and so we’ve learned to triple any time estimates in relation to boatwork.

Tradition dictates that when you restep your mast, you should place a gold coin where mast meets boat, positioned so that the hollow mast will slip right over it.  Most people use a coin of some significance; the date on the coin matches the year the boat was built, a birthday, or anniversary.  Our friend Larry Jacobsen had a gold coin custom made for his boat when his mast was stepped in preparation for a circumnavigation.  We had spent some time considering what to place under our mast, but searching for gold coins was dwarfed by larger tasks, like sanding and repainting the mast, installing weather stations and running new halyards and rigging.

When the yard workers asked us if we wanted to place anything on the step we suddenly realized:

1: We had forgotten to stuff the mast with a refillable bladder for rum storage.

2: The only coins we had were the ones left over from coffee that morning.

The mast was hanging inches above the deck, so while it was too late to install a rum bladder, there was hope for a stepping coin. We ran below, searching our pockets, the floor, drawers, and counters for anything that would not only fit inside the mast, but bear some amount of meaning.

I was checking under cushions for lost pocket change when Alex pulled something off of the random junk pile on the nav table.

“…What about this?”.

“yes…YES!  It’s perfect!”

At this point, the mast is already through the deck and slowly lowering to it’s final resting place.  With seconds to spare, we whip out some marine grade sealant and stick the thing permanently to the step.  Luckilly, there are a few moments left in which to snap some pictures before it’s enclosed in its aluminum tomb.

While it’s possible that I’m wrong, I say the following statement with conviction:

We must be the only boat in the world with a mast stepped on a ceramic lucky cat.

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Wheel or no wheel?

Find me a part of a sailboat and I can find you 100 people with different (strong) opinions about it.  Full versus fin keel, wire versus rod rigging … etc.  The question of wheel versus tiller steering is no different.

Certainly, a wheel makes a boat look bigger.  Adding a wheel could turn a boat into a yacht.  On the other hand, many long distance cruisers frown upon them (particularly for small boats) since they just add to the complexity and in turn break more frequently.  Plus they take up really valuable space in the cockpit.  In a way a tiller instead of a wheel is sort of like going from automatic to manual transmission in a car — more control, more pure, but sometimes a pain.  Saltbreaker came with a wheel, and we immediately hatched plans to get rid of it.

That all changed after a trip to the Alameda flea market.

Browsing through the endless stands of treasures/junk we came across several old wooden boat wheels.  The majority of them were expensive, splintering, worn and more fit for mounting on an office wall than the helm of our boat (it was an antique faire after all).  One however caught our eye, built from solid wood, with a brass lining this one looked sharp, real sharp.  So sharp in fact, we didn’t even bother to ask the price, assuming it would be hundreds over our budget.  Then just as we were about to walk away the vendor mumbled, “I’d get rid of that for $50.”

This threw us for a loop, $50?  Did we hear that correctly?  We walked away, but couldn’t stop talking about it.  The conversation went something like this:

“We don’t even know if it’ll fit” one of us would say.

“Its only $50”.

“How much would it cost for the hardware to mount it?”

Long pause,  then avoiding the question, “it would look so awesome”.

After a few laps around neighboring stands we finally came to a conclusion, went back to the booth and approached the vendor.  “Would you take $40?”.  No pause.  “Its yours”.

Picking up the, rather heavy, wheel and walking the length of the flea market we were immediately convinced that not only had we made a great choice, but that walking around with an old wooden boat wheel instantly makes you look ten times cooler.  This was confirmed as we passed the guitar playing girl scout cookie salesman, who began singing (to no tune in particular) “When you’re carrying a large steering wheel and you’re leaving the flea market and you’re hungry buy some cookies”.

Final wheel cost: $45.

Arriving back at the boat we all held our breath, removed the current wheel and to our amazement slipped the new (old) wheel perfectly into position.  Sure we’ll probably need to do a bit of grinding, and figure out how to attach our auto-helm but this will be a much easier install job than any of us expected.
The wheel versus tiller debate will almost certainly continue, but I can tell you one thing for sure.  There is no way we’ll be removing our wheel anytime soon.

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With the recent stories of pirating off the coast of Somalia growing more intense, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we’d do in a situation like that, should it ever come to it. Last week, we arrived at a conclusion.

We are planning on each learning some key phrases in Somali that should help resolve the situation. Like, for instance, after they scream at us while boarding our boat we might hold up our hands and respond with, “No, we’re pirating you.”

Or, as I imagine us all tied up with our backs to each other, staring up at them, “No, you’re our hostages.” Or maybe, in perfect Somali, “No, we’re taking your boat.”

I don’t imagine we’ll need to really spend much time on Somali comprehension. I’m pretty sure if this tactic hasn’t already made them want to untie us and sit down for a drink, that they’re probably just yelling something boring at us, like, “what did you just say?” or maybe even, “do you think we’re kidding around here?”

Which, of course, sets us up perfectly for the final phrase we plan to learn, “Dudes (or whatever the local colloquialism is), do you think we’re kidding around?”

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