Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Offer of a Lifetime

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

Wow! This got my instant attention. Should I say yes?

(Libby says, "if you really want to, go.")

Mike Johnson, a former Westsail owner that sailed his Westsail around the world before selling her, has a 44' schooner that I built back in the mid 1970,s, and last summer sailed the boat half-way through the Northwest passage, but got stopped by the ice closing in. The boat is currently hauled out at Cambridge Bay, and Mike is back in the US. Temperatures now at Cambridge Bay are about 30 below.

I just got a call from him, and Mike is planning on going back up there in the early summer when the ice breaks up, and sailing from there to Nome, Alaska. He figures it is about an 8 week trip. From Nome he will sail to Dutch Harbor or Kodiak, about another 8 week trip. Then down the coast of Southeast Alaska as the weather permits.

He is looking for crew to help and get experience from the master mariner that he is. I can vouch for him that he is truly capable, and easy to get along with. If you are interested, contact me and I will put you in touch with Mike.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Onboard Photography

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida.

Last night we heard commotion in the water next. To the boat. We looked just in time to see a big fish jumping with a dolphin right behind him. The dolphin swallowed the fish in mid air. I was not fast enough with my camera to shoot the picture, but if I did it would have looked like this.

As you can imagine, we see a lot of very photogenic scenes living on board a boat. It frustrates me that I am unable to capture more of them to add to the blog. No doubt I could do better given enough time, effort and money. But there are three obstacles that I think I could not overcome.

  1. Speed. As in the dolphin shot above, many scenes are action shots that require lightning fast photography. I would need expensive equipment always at the ready to have a chance at those shots. In real life, I would be dropping that expensive equipment overboard several times per year.
  2. No stable platform. Many scenes I see would require long time exposures at night. Even on still nights, the boat moves and my pictures look like this.
  3. High zoom. This morning before dawn, the tip of the crescent moon nearly skewered Venus near pink clouds. Very pretty. But when I shoot it with my camera, the moon looks like a tiny dot. I would need extreme zoom to et some of those shots, meaning big heavy lenses which leads back to problems 1 and 2.
Maybe technology will solve all these problems for me, but I am not holding my breath.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Like the Swallows of Capistrano

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

In the past, I've blogged more than once how the migration instinct seems to catch us in ways very similar to wild animals.  One day, we get up, look at the sky, sniff the wind, and suddenly we know, "It's time to leave."   Well guess what, this year it didn't work.  At least it hasn't worked on us as fast as on others.

In recent days, I've noticed a growing number of vacant mooring balls.  That probably means that the waiting list to get a ball will disappear shortly.   We also noticed an abrupt drop off in the traffic on the daily VHF Cruiser's Net.   Then in the past 24 hours we've heard from three friends that they are about to start heading north.  Like the swallows of Capistrano, they felt the urge, but we haven't yet.

What about us?  Libby and I discussed it for the first time last night.   All season long we have been telling people that we will leave here mid-April, go to the Bahamas, and then head north from there.   But I just learned that The Bahamas raised the cruising permit fee for boats Tarawathie's size from $150 to $300.   To make that reasonable, we need to stay there a month, not two weeks.  If we don't leave until mid-April, there's not enough time to stay there a month, and stop in North Carolina a month, and to make New York Harbor by June 1 (our usual schedule).   Hmmm, we'll have to make an alternate plan.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

I have a cold today, but with a difference. It rarely happens in real life, but this time I think I know exactly how I caught it.

Yesterday when checking out at the Publix supermarket in Marathon, I saw the cashier sneeze into his hand, and then pick up my receipt and change and hand them to me. I should have yelled "Keep the change," and fled. But I didn't think fast enough and I accepted the change. Today, I'm paying the price.

It would help avoid these things if businesses trained employees to always sneeze into their elbows. Perhaps alcohol sanitizer could also be kept by each cash register. I don't know what they might do if an open cash drawer is accidentally sneezed on. I suppose that there exist many procedures for these things that I am unaware of.

Jen used to work handling cash in a bank. Poor Jen. I never stopped to think before what a cess pool of germs lurk in cash.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

World Passes By?

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

I've come to a a question that my land-based friends and blog readers can answer better than I can. In the past few weeks we had a number of unpleasant reminders of how out-of-date we are.

  • We wanted shingles vaccination shots. I expected them to be like flu shots; just go to the pharmacy, no prescription, cost about $25. No. We had to both do a doctors visit, get prescriptions, and then get the shots. Cost for the two of us: $600! Ouch. 1200% more than I expected.
  • I had to buy a new alternator for the engine. I saw the wholesale price on the dealer's screen: $73. But my bill was $188! Ouch. 173% markup. I thought that retail markups were max 50-100%. Ouch.
  • I was criticized as a piker for tipping only 15% in a restaurant. I was told that the 15% expectation had long ago been raised to 20% minimum. Raised by who? When?
  • I had an attack of gout. 10 years ago I had the same thing. A single pill of Colchicine cured it. Now I needed one pill once again. Google says the list price for one pill is $0.09 A doctor's visit and 2 prescriptions later, and my bill was $243. Ouch! 270,000% more than I think it should have cost.
  • As I remember it, getting a prescription for pills filled at the pharmacy was something that took 15 minutes. Now, the norm for time to fill seems to be 5-8 hours, or better pick it up the next day. When did that happen?
  • Libby and I both have a Medicare Part D prescription plan, for the past 4 years. This is the first time I've gotten a prescription in those years, so the plan paid nothing because of the deductible. But after checking, I was shocked to learn that the premium for our plan increased 350% in the past four years since we signed up for auto-payment, while the price for other plans had dropped to about what we paid in 2010. I didn't notice because I was not monitoring it closely. Ouch!
I'm a news junkie. I'm very much aware of the modest cost of living increases in the past decade. Why then, am I so ignorant of the skyrocketing increases in these areas? Is it merely a symptom of getting old, or is it a consequence of the sheltered fantasy life we live as cruisers? I think readers of this blog could answer that better than I.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cruising's Biggest Risk

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, FL

You probably already know the technical definition of risk. It is the product of probability times consequence. It applies to both positive and negative things, but we usually don't use the word risk for positive things like winning the lottery. We thing of bad things.

So what bad things can happen to you? Obviously, the worst consequence is death. Fortunately, we have zero direct experience with fatal events while cruising, so the risk is low. On the other hand, we have run aground many times. The consequences of grounding can be severe or even fatal, but so far for us, the consequences have been minor. Grounding is low risk too.

What is the biggest risk? I think that it is being hit by lightning. It happens very often and the consequences are frequently major.

  • Around 1977, I read in the local paper about a sailboat struck by lightning while it was in Lock 9 of The Erie Canal. There were three men inside. It was struck three times in less than one second. The strikes made six holes in the boat, three in the cabin top and three in the bottom of the hull. It sank in seconds. The three men were unhurt.
  • Tarwathie was hit by lightning in Maine in 2006. We had six people on board when it happened, so I was relieved that no one was hurt. Nevertheless, it did $8000 damage to our electronics, but no structural damage.
  • Noble House was a fine vessel owned by friends Dennis and Barbera. We met them here in Boot Key Harbor. In 2009 Noble House was struck by lightning near Lake Worth Florida. Their hull was holed but the boat did not sink. They got towed into port. Then started a nightmare. I'm fuzzy on the exact details, but I heard that Dennis and Barbera spent 6 months of hell in a boat yard trying to get repairs. They had a big dispute with the insurance adjustor, and that caused the problem. In the end, they gave up on their cruising life. We haven't seen them since.
  • Our friends Bo and Joyce on Dreamcatcher, are in The Bahamas. Today I got the following message.

About midnight last night we got struck by lightening and have no electronics Bo talked to the insurance guy 2 times last night now we have to decide where we go for repairs so if you don't hear from us for a while we are traveling. Will let all of you know what happens and where we go might have to get back to the states. Have enough power to run the refrig. for 2 days then food is gone. Just talked to the boat behind us and they got hit harder than we did as it blew out a through hole.

Pray for safe travels and will talk later.

Joyce and Bo

  • I could cite several more examples, but you get the picture.
So, what can you do to prevent this from happening to you. Unfortunately, I can offer a half dozen suggestions, none of which work all the time. The sad truth is that lightning is hopelessly unpredictable in its consequences. Given the exact same boat with the exact same lightning precautions, and given 10 lightning hits in apt hat boat, the most likely result is 10 different outcomes. Any story you hear such as, "I did this and it worked," or "I did this and it didn't work," are useless anecdotes. The can't predict the future.

What precautions do we take on Tarwathie?

  • We have a static dissipation at the masthead, that supposedly reduced lightning risk. I used to have a deer whistle on the bumper of my car. I never hit a deer with that whistle on, but I never hit one with the whistle off either. The moral, there is no way to prove the effectiveness of a device like that.
  • We have a #6 wire that connects the mast to a Dynaplate grounding plate under the hull.
  • We have a plastic conduit surrounding that #6 wire to prevent molten copper from spraying around the inside of the cabin.
  • When lightning is near, we put all electronics possible in the oven of the stove. The oven acts as a Faraday cage to protect devices from EMP (electro magnetic pulse). Hand-held radios and our chart plotter are first priority to put in the oven.
  • Electronics in our ditch kit are stored in metal cookie tins.
Are any of these measures effective? Are we better off or worse off using them? My heart says "I hope so," but my brain says, "indeterminate." Few things in life are so darn unpredictable as lightning.

p.s. my old company, PTI, used to conduct lightning research by shooting rockets trailing wires up into thunderclouds. Whoosh went the rocket. KABLAM went the lightning 1/2 second later. The wire was attached to devices being tested for lightning resilience, An engineer doing the tests told me, "I can't believe that you are paying me money to do this. I am having the time of my life. I would gladly do,it for free."

Below is a picture of triggered lightning. 9 strokes happened before the camera shutter could close. The straight line on the left is the vaporized remnant of the wire. Wind was blowing from left to right.


p.p.s. I hate auto spelling correction. The sentence above saying "the three men were unhurt," was changed by my computer to read "the three men were neutrinos."


Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Magic Number Three

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

Ivan from the sailing vessel Moriah, is a wonderful old salt who gives seminars about all things nautical. Last week I learned something from Ivan that I had not fully appreciated before. It has to do with three, which is a magic number where boating and sailing is concerned.

Ivan was talking about belaying a line to a cleat. But let me begin with another magic number three applied to winches on a boat. This is something I learned by experiment on my first sailboat, an O'Day Mariner 19'.

Wrap the line around the winch only once and the wind will rip it tight out of your hand, perhaps with some skin with it. See below.


Wrap it twice and it will hold weakly if you pull strongly on the tail (the part of the line exiting the picture on the bottom).

Wrap it three times and it will hold securely in nearly all conditions, even if your let go of the tail. Three is magic.

To bring in more line, you must pick up the tail and pull gently as you turn the winch. This is called tailing. Shaking the tail with a loose grip lets the line slip through your hand and more line pays out. Thus you amplify small forces on the tail to enormous forces on the working end of the line. That's what winches are for.

But an unsecured tail is fragile. If you kick it or bump it, it might momentarily become less than three turns and slip. Secure the tail end, or use the self-tailing feature on this winch. (See below) The self-tailer is the metal finger and the double row of plastic rings at the top. Using the self-tailer frees one of your hands to do other things as you crank on the winch.

Put more than three turns on the winch and you are asking for trouble. It can cause the line to cross over itself and foul. That is a starting to happen in the picture below. Exactly three wraps; no more, no less.


Your winch may be as narrow as your wrist, or as wide as a pizza; no matter what the size, the magic number of turns is always three.

By the way, on boats it is always three clockwise turns. All winches on all boats work clockwise so that you never have to guess which way to wrap even if you are upside down, in the dark, and you don't know which is port or starboard.

Now for Ivan's point. What he said was, "if you ever worked on a tug boat, you soon learned that putting a locking turn on a cleat will get you fired. Three turns of any line on any cleat is sufficient. The line will break or the cleat will get pulled out of the deck before the wraps slip." The picture below shows what Ivan meant. The shape of the cleat helps jam the wraps in place.

Below is the way I've been doing it for years. One 360 degree wrap and one locking turn. The rope crossing under itself makes a locking turn. The problem with locking turns is that extreme force on the line causes the locking turn to pull tighter. On a tugboat it may become impossible to ever remove that turn. But on Tarwathie, my way served me well for years, including hurricanes. But now I'm going to change.


But on a sailboat, the lines are small and light. Kicking the tail can make three wraps become two wraps easily. Below is my new post-Ivan way of doing it. Three wraps plus a locking turn.

Below is the amateurish way of doing it, a half wrap plus multiple locking turns.


Below is the (incorrect) way that most nautical books teach you how to do it.


Maybe there are more uses of the magic number three on a boat. Let me know if you think of some.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spear Fished, Damn

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

I like to think of myself as an especially experienced and savvy Internet user. I had my own web page in 1994, back in the time when there were fewer than 4000 web pages in the world. I had email and a domain name way back in the 80/0s, long before the world wide net. In fact I was early enough that I could have gotten the domain name (except that the guy handing out assignments thought that would not be appropriate). If my name was Bob or Harry or Sam, it may have been a different story.

Anyhow, all that chest thumping leads up to my claim that I am extremely resistant to Internet scams and phishing emails. Notwithstanding that claim, I fell for a spear phishing scam this morning. Damn.

I got an email in my gmail account claiming to be from the "Gmail Team". It said that I had two messages waiting about my account. It greatly resembled emails i get from my bank, from PayPal, and from Verizon, so it looked familiar. So i clicked on the link. A login screen came up. I just changed my Google password the day before, so I was used to being asked to renter the new password several times per day.I re-entered my google login data.

Then it dawned on me. Gmail just sends email to my gmail account when needed, and that I was already logged not google to see the message. It was a spear phishing scam. I immediately change my Google password again, and I'll change it again later today after i generate a 64 character random sequence. But I'm kicking myself for being stupid.

Here is the devilish thing about cyber security. Informed, cautious people don't make mistakes most of the time. But most of the time is not good enough. Only people driven to paranoid-like levels of caution (such as Edward Snowden), are careful enough to never make mistakes.

My google account not only gives me email, it also provides access to one of my most prized possessions - this blog. I back up the blog archive once every couple of months. Still, it would be a major setback to me and to you if I lost access to this blog account.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Victims of Bureaucracy

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

Usually it is me that whines about encounters with bureaucracy. But I'm not alone.  This time is Jen is the victim.   Below is her story.  I think I have the essential facts right, but I'm not certain.

Jen's Cobra medical coverage ran out, so she was in need of a replacement.  It seemed that Obamacare came along at just the right time.   Vermont is one of the stated that did its own health care exchange, and also one of the ones where the implementation was a huge fiasco (not a federal fiasco but a state one).   Jen wisely waited until the dust settled a few months before attempting to use the web site.

When she did try, she succeeded, or so she thought.   She entered her data.  She was quoted a subsidy.  She selected a plan, pushed the BUY button, and sent a check for the first month's premium.  Sounds pretty successful.  Beyond doubt, Jen's case is one that the state would count as "successful" as they gather statistics about their own performance.

But then she got a call from the Vermont state government. They said that she was eligible for Medicaid and thus ineligible for Obamacare.  Therefore they cancelled her subsidy.  Therefore the money she sent was not enough to purchase insurance with no subsidy, so they cancelled her Obamacare insurance. She had no coverage at all.

WTF??? Everthing I read in the national news about said that the major functions of the exchanges was to coordinate Obamacare/Medicaid eligibility and to enroll each person in the appropriate kind.  Even if Medicaid enrollment was not automatic, it should have told her what to to.  Even if they didn't do that, it should not have calculated and applied an Obamacare subsidy for her if she was not eligible for that.   It's failure at least three levels deep.

Next step.  Jen asked about her refund the money she paid.  The state employee said, "Sorry.  We haven't even issued specifications for the part of the system to process refunds.  We can't say anything about how long that might take."  Ay ay ay, Excedrin headache #22.

Next she got an email from the state saying that there was an important document online requiring her attention.  She went back on the web site, but it refused to let her look at the document.

Next she called the state about the document problem.  They finally looked at the document themselves.  It was a dunning notice saying that she was late paying for the second month of that Obamacare insurance.   It was the same Vermont state agency telling her that they cancelled her insurance, and dunning her for payment of same.

So, where does that leave Jen?  It's not clear if she needs to start over to apply for Medicaid.  It is not certain that Vermont Medicaid will accept her if she does apply.

Worse, there have been news reports that some states require Medicaid recipients to repay subsidies paid by the state should their income increase in the future.  They have seized people's houses to go after their equity assets.  No such repay obligation exists for Obamacare.  Could accepting Medicaid jeopardize Jen's primary financial asset in this world -- her house?  If so, they would surly warn her in advance, right?

We have no idea if Vermont is one of the states demanding repay or not.  Hopefully, they are not.  Even if they are not, there is nothing preventing them from changing the law in the future to require repay of all subsidies for any purpose with retroactive effect.

A good and sufficient reason for being libertarian is the belief that American governments f**k up almost everything they attempt.  Regardless of good intentions, the end result is often worse than if government never got involved in the first place.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Places To Explore

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

We seem to be stuck in a rut.  A rut we like for sure, but a rut nevertheless.  Our rut takes us south to Florida/Bahamas in the winter and Vermont/Maine in the summer.   That doesn't mean that we don't dream of exploring other places.   The more I see and the more I read, I think that the places most appealing to us lie along the world's rivers and canals, more so than the seven seas.

Below is a picture of a marvelous example.  It is the Falkirk Wheel a rotating boat lift in Scotland, connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal.  In other words it is a lock.  Boy it sure doesn't look like the locks on the Erie Canal.  What fun it would be to sail Tarwathie through this wheel. She would even feel at home because she is named after Tarwathie, a place in Scotland not far from this wheel.

Falkirk Wheel

What about in this country?   My mind keeps returning to the day when we met a man on the Erie Canal who had an aluminum canoe with an outboard motor.   He carried all his camping gear and supplies.  He could cruise all day long at 15 knots.   It was a vessel and a life style superbly well suited to cruising along all the inland waters of North and South America.  My oh my wouldn't that be fun?

Libby and I recently had a taste of life living in a tent.  It wasn't so bad at all. Given the speed of a canoe, we could easily follow the climate to avoid winter cold or summer heat.  Given the size and weight of a canoe, we could have it trucked around portages long and short.

Might we be crazy enough to leave Tarwathie behind and cruise by canoe for a year?  Certainly not.  Well, probably not.  Well, maybe not.  Well ... one never knows.

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

The Keys are famous for wonderful sunsets.  The other day, the dawn was even more beautiful.  The pink colors went all around us 360 degrees as shown in the three pictures below all taken at 7 AM.