Sunday, March 29, 2015

Forty Years

One of the benefits of my recent work trip back to the States was the chance it gave me to load up on reading for Patagonia.  (Used books are sold for pulp prices these days.  Sigh.)

Got this one from Hal Roth, an old favorite of mine as he hailed from Cleveland, and his How to Sail Around the World remains a great introduction to running a traveling boat.  The middle book of the trilogy in the pictured volume, Two Against Cape Horn, is the account of the cruise he and his wife Margaret made to the Patagonian canals in their 35-footer in 1976/77.

So, that's near enough to forty years ago.  And I found it pretty stunning to see how different both the place, and their experience of it, were from what we are dealing with today.

When the Roths were here, Chiloé was served by a fleet of about 300 engineless sailboats that carried freight to and from the island.  Now of course they are long gone, except for a few that have been saved as yachts.

The Roths were also unable to get any kind of weather forecast at all in los canales, they used celestial navigation to get across the Golfo de Penas, and there was almost no experience of previous yacht visits to the area for them to learn from.  They had to feel their way into Patagonia-specific techniques like tying into shore in the caletas.  The book never mentions meeting another foreign yacht with whom the Roths could exchange information.

Of course, forty years ago the Roths would have been gobsmacked at our GPS and laptop plotter, at our GRIB files that give us detailed weather forecasts updated every six hours.  But I like to think that they would have been even more amazed to see that there is an authoritative cruising guide to Patagonia - the "Italian Guide", as everyone here calls it.  So many people now come to Patagonia on their own boats that there is a guide.  How the world does change.

All of our recent engine-in-chains carrying on also got me thinking about the next forty years.  A friend mentioned how much he dislikes diesels on sailboats, and as David Tideswell, the mechanic on our job, and I talked about injectors and timing gears and gaskets and asbestos rope oil seals, we also talked about how old all of this technology is.

There's a lot of grunt in a liter of diesel, which is what makes these engines the default choice for any kind of heavy work on land and sea.  But of course the carbon pollution from them is pretty inexcusable.  The future is famously impossible to predict, but as David and I turned wrenches with oily hands day after day, I couldn't help but wonder if my boys wouldn't look back at this with the same wonder I look at the steam locomotives of my grandfathers' days.

I can only hope.

And finally!  News on the hard dinghy front.  Alisa found a nice-looking dingher on a motor boat here in the Puerto Montt marina, and charmed the owner with repeated requests to buy it.

After she set up the interaction, I came in to give the boat a test row.  It went well enough - we really can't expect to find a better replacement for our stolen Little Dipper in the short time we have left in Puerto Montt.

The owner, Fernando, is a very simpatico guy, whom I could understand one third of the time perfectly, one third of the time a little bit, and one third of the time not at all.  I came away from our interaction thinking that he wanted to give us the dinghy to help us out (?).  But yesterday Alisa saw him again and he said he was thinking about his price.

So we'll see what happens.

Pay Attention

I occasionally make reference to my other life in this sailing blog - my part-time work as a marine biologist pays for all this nautical carrying on of ours.  Most of my work has to do with the ways that "external" factors, like commercial fishing and climate variability/climate change, affect the suite of species living on Alaska's continental shelves.

So, as a part of this other life of mine, I've got a working knowledge of climate science, and I read some of the torrent of new climate papers that are forever appearing.

This one really caught my eye.

The plot above is the rate of surface temperature change for the globe since 1900.

Almost everything has gotten warmer, of course.  Take a look at poor Alaska.

But then there are those two big areas that have cooled over the last 100+ years.

The cooling spot in central North Africa is apparently an artefact of poor data quality.  But the cooling in the North Atlantic is, according to the conclusions of a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, the result of a weakening Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream is just one part of a global system of surface and deep-water ocean currents that plays a vital role in distributing heat around the Earth to give us the climate system we know.

Human society evolved during a period of unusual climate stability.  But before the appearance of modern humans - on the order of hundreds of thousands of years ago, if I remember my class in Geological Oceanography at all accurately - there are incredibly rapid changes in the climate record, when average global temperature apparently changed by several degrees within a decade or so.

Since the 1980s/1990s, scientists have recognized that sudden change to the Gulf Stream and other global currents could be a mechanism that would produce such a sudden change to global climate, and have accordingly been concerned about the effects of global warming on that current system.

I've seen other studies that presented evidence that the authors thought indicated a slow-down in the global current system, but this one just seemed particularly startling - here's evidence of the Gulf Stream slowing down, in real time.

As many other people have pointed out before me, uncertainty in projections of where we're taking the climate cuts both ways.

If you're growing corn in Kansas for a living, or if you live in coastal Florida, it's looking like good odds that your kids won't end up doing what you're doing.  But for the rest of us, there are all sorts of unanticipated outcomes that are associated with changes like a weakening Gulf Stream.

Addressing the causes of anthropogenic climate change will be an incredibly daunting problem in building consensus within and between countries.

Unfortunately, in both the countries in which I hold citizenship, the political right has nurtured an extensive fantasy world in which the science is not real.  I suppose that the right has the natural role of supporting the status quo, and in this instance that has developed into a situation where a handful of fringe characters, largely funded by carbon polluters and parroting scientific nonsense that has been discredited by a huge body of work (see, for instance, Willie Soon), are given equal weight to the work of tens of thousands of scientists who have reached one of the strongest consensus positions that can be found anywhere in contemporary science, and done it by working in a skeptical, rigorous way.

The motives of people actively involved in science denial are likely captured by that great Upton Sinclair quote about how "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it".

But my heart goes out to people who have uncritically adopted a worldview that bases the denial of climate science on the most abject mix of infactual nonsense.  It reminds me of the intelligent, well-meaning friends of mine whom I've heard repeating balderdash about vaccinations - smart people, often poorly educated in science, unable to correctly evaluate competing arguments.

So, in the end, I suppose this post is aimed at those people.  If you have read this far, and think there is any sort of scientific controversy about the fact that human activities are massively altering global climate, know that you have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods.  And I would propose that it is incumbent on all of us, if we enjoy any sort of political agency in the world, to become reasonably well-informed consumers of information on climate science, and to think long and hard about the possible motivations of people who would have you believe that the entire enterprise of climate science is some sort of idealogical exercise.

When reasonable evidence appears that people are slowing down the Gulf Stream, it's time for reasonable people to pay attention.

A longer description of the Gulf Stream study is here.

Friday, March 27, 2015

It Runs

On this blog I try to gloss over all the boat maintenance issues that bestride our life afloat, like a veritable Colossus.

But then I mention a little thing like our engine being off its mounts and hanging by one end from the engine room overhead, like a hind hanging by the hock, and reader interest skyrockets, as evinced by comments in the triple digits.  (That would be: one, two, three.)

No story there, really.

Our engine is English.  Therefore it leaks oil.  We knew it when we bought the boat, though we didn't quite anticipate the magnitude of oily loss that we would soon become accustomed to.  As in, we shut down every six hours to check the oil.  And if we've been running at full cruising revs, we often have to replace a liter of oil after that time.  

We're totally used to it.  But from the expressions I've gotten when I've confessed this state of affairs to sailors and diesel mechanics, I gather that this rate of loss is about four standard deviations above the mean.  As in, it's our cross to bear, and just about ours alone.

(There.  I knew that religion would be useful to me at some point in life.)

When we bought the boat, I figured, whatever - so we change the seals.  But it turns out that to change the seals on the engine, you just about have to take the thing off its mounts and hang it like a hind by the hock, etc.  We talked to a mechanic in Tassie about doing the job, but he was keen to sell us a new engine, and demurred at our proffered opportunity to change the seals on the engine while it remained on the boat.

That mechanic was British, by the way.  I think he was afraid of the cosmic retribution to British engineering standards that our leaking Perkins represented to him.

So we lived with it.

But then I got a bit of outside perspective when we had Jaime on board.  I shut down in the middle of the night to check the oil, and saw him raise his eyebrows when I explained how much we went through.

That got me thinking that maybe we shouldn't be living with this state of affairs.  And the leaks were really bad enough to be an operational problem.  So when I returned to Chile from my recent visit to the States, I came bearing a new set of seals.  

I could almost convince myself that changing the seals was a job I could tackle myself.  Luckily, though, the marina where we find ourselves, the Club Nauticos Reloncaví, comes complete with David Tideswell, a resident English marine engineer.  So we hired him to do the job, and to suffer for the greater sins of English engineering that our leaking Perkins represents.  That's David in the pic at top.

David made me a little nervous at the outset because he kept talking about how "we" would do this and "we" would do that.  If something went wrong with the job, I wanted a mechanic thinking in the first person singular who was going to see it right.  But (touch wood) everything went fine, and David appears to have been well up to the demands of the job.  Consider this a recommendation if you find yourself in need of a hand in Puerto Montt.

The engine is back on its mounts and, after a mystery involving a stuck kill switch, now appears to be running fine.

Though I only fished one season in my life, and am no one's idea of a commercial fisherman, I tried to channel my inner fisherman throughout the whole experience.  As in - let's get the engine off its mounts, let's change those damn seals, and let's go fishing.  No mystery, no stress.  And (touch wood) it seems to have worked.  With any luck at all we'll be heading south next week some time.

I really can't wait for some winter weather.  It's been a long long time since we had a proper winter.

Meanwhile, all the other preparations are going ahead.  Alisa has done her first huge grocery store hit, and has had the chance to wonder at how much ketchup she always finds herself buying.

And - rite of passage! - we've bought our shorelines for the anchorages of Patagonia, where you tie yourself in close to shore in the anchorages and let the winds go screaming overhead.  Of course, choosing the right shorelines is like every other damn thing on boats - people have different opinions about what's best. We were happy to fall back on advice we gleaned from past chats with our mates on Thélème, old Patagonia hands that they are.  So we got ourselves two spools of floating poly lines, at 220 meters each, and cut them in half to give us four 110 meter lines.  Should be enough.

The line starts as a compact unit at the store, but explodes when you unspool it.  Here Alisa and the boys are hauling two of the four finished lines back to the boat.  See that expression on Alisa's face?  That girl is goin' south.

Even Elias has gotten into the prep.  Here he's sewing the sail cover.  Alisa paid him a buck to do the job, but he still spent most of the time complaining.  I say we shouldn't pay him to help out.

And finally, there was this recent treat - Bill Harrington, long-time Kodiak fisherman and father of a friend of ours, rocked up in the marina here on a boat he had helped another Alaskan fisherman deliver from Panama.  We only got this one poor-quality picture of Bill, though it helps to know that he was playing dinosaurs with Eric when it was taken.

More soon.