Thursday, May 11, 2017

On Our Feet

Transient dock, Honokohau Harbor
Just a note to say that we have absolutely landed on our feet in Hawai'i.

The Mothership is in a transient slip that is operated by the State of Hawai'i and costs us all of $8 USD a day. Granted that we had to bring our own yacht, but aside from that I can't imagine a better deal for a waterfront holiday home in Hawai'i.

There is a little beach on one side of the marina, and a bigger beach on the other side, liberally sprinkled with basking green turtles, that is a part of a National Historical Park.

We have had a series of great interactions with very friendly locals - people coming down to the boat with produce from their gardens, or offering us rides, or just to chat.

It's been a great place to make our first tentative dip into the home country.

Now if we could only figure out that pesky detail of foreign interference in our elections...

Saturday, May 6, 2017

All Done But One

Sunrise at sea - my favorite moment of the day
We arrived at Honokohau, Hawai'i, two days ago. One of the two transient berths was blessedly vacant, which gives us a guaranteed place to moor the barky during our entire stay in these islands, that, as blessed as they may be in other regards, are cursed in terms of decent harbors.

And, no small thing, after all those miles of open open ocean travel (our GPS showed 4,919 from Panama City), the close maneuvering to come to rest, Tahiti moored and snuggled next to the other transient yacht in the harbor, went completely smoothly.

We have cleared Customs, which was an astonishingly easy process. A local ex-sailor and ham who gave us extensive help in figuring out the logistics of our stay while we were still on passage has met us at the dock and very very very kindly spent an afternoon driving us around to grocery store and various internet providers. (Thanks, Drifter!) 

And, courtesy of the good people on the Pacific Seafarer's Net who clued us in to the fact that lava is currently flowing into the sea on the south coast of the Big Island, we had the most spectacular landfall imaginable. We detoured to the lava entry point and were greeted by the sight of the massive steam plume as we closed the island at dusk, and then the even more impressive violence of Pele's/Vulcan's river of molten rock flowing down the mountain slope, clearly visible from sea after dark, and the incredible fiery violence of the lava cascading into the ocean, just off our starboard beam.

Now that's the way to arrive in Polynesia.

Alisa was very keen to make landfall at that spot, as any rational person would be. I, on the other hand, was concerned about the implications for our chances of making the harbor in daylight the following day. We made it fine, of course, and I got a valuable lesson, all these years in, of the value of making detours.

For, after all, what is this sailing life of ours, if not a decade-long detour?

We've made our initial accommodation with land life, US-style, in the form of a long afternoon (thanks, Drifter!) spent in the AT&T and Verizon shops, trying to come to terms with the rapacious entities that plug us all in to the post-fact world. 

When Elias complained about how long it was all taking, Alisa and I were notably unsympathetic. "Welcome to land life," we told him. "It's only going to get worse from here."

Is that the correct message to convey?

And, in the grocery store, I had my own moment of homecoming. There in the cooler were long racks of American beer. We had finally, after all our wanderings, arrived at a port where I could just walk into a store and buy a 12-pack of Lagunitas IPA. 

Which I did, of course. But not after taking a moment to go misty-eyed, standing there in the refrigerated beer aisle, considering this physical manifestation, right there before me, of just how good the world can be.

So that's us. Back in the USA.

The crew working together to handline in a mahi mahi

The mahi mahi were small, but they came in dead after being dragged along at 8+ knots, and so could be quickly filleted without long consideration of whether they should be kept or not. Elias is holding his custom-made spoon that was the demise of many of our piscine dinners

Long passages - the untold story. (When fresh supplies run low.)

Passing the hours, and the days

Lunch time, day 29: boat salad, fresh from the can

Watching the miles go by

Alisa's birthday. She is overjoyed because she has guessed Elias' gift before even opening it

A new frying pan! OK, all you landlubber married fellas - you show me the look of joy on the face of your wife of 16 years' standing when a new frying pan is her big birthday gift

The retired frying pan was given a burial at sea - as respectful as it was immediate. RIP, old friend

How the years go by - Elias wasn't lighting Alisa's birthday cakes when we set out. I love his tongue sticking out with concentration

Sailors, brothers

The lava steam plume at landfall

Self-portrait as we prepare to splice the mainbrace, safely and happily in port, Honokohau

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Gluttony, Sloth, and Serenity

The last time we spotted another vessel on this passage was about two weeks ago. That was a tuna seiner, 40 days at sea, who kindly came up on the VHF to ask if we needed anything.

We didn't note the event in the log, so I'm not sure exactly how long ago that was. But in the two weeks or so since, Alisa and I have faithfully kept watch around the clock, with regular short-term assistance from the boys during daylight hours.

That watchkeeping has taken its toll. We have passed much of the trip in an addled, sleep-deprived state. We might have reasonably turned on the radar alarm and the AIS alarm and both o fus gone to sleep at some point, content in the safety of those two electronic eyes and the extremely low chances of crossing paths with anything. But though we've done that in the past, Alisa and I now like to keep watch even in the loneliest stretches of the ocean, for reasons that we can't fully articulate.

Our sleep-deprived state gives a funny cast to the vast amounts of spare time that we have available to us on this month-long sail. We have plenty of time during which we might "do" something, but not the mental powers to concentrate to good effect. The fractured sleep schedules and endlessly distracting motion of the sea see to that. So, will we or no, we tend towards the blissed-out, doped-out, Moitissie-ed-out state of just being.

That blissed out state doesn't make for an any more active existence. Whatever reservoir of self discipline I may have access to does not cover willful physical exercise at sea. I have sat on this trip enough that I want to sit no more in life. That and ritual snacking on my first watch of the night feel to have set my health index back a few notches over the last four weeks/4,000+ miles. Elias has been growing a little paunch before my eyes. I am filled with resolve for the active life when my feet once again encounter the earth.

Our concerns have been filled a bit with the logistical concerns of our impending stay in Hawai'i. Where to come to land, where to leave the barky when we venture back to the mainland for family events, whether we can haul out; the when where who and how of the fixes that we will need to make before setting off for Kodiak.

That buzz of practical concerns is always on a sailor's mind, I suppose, especially when a fairly brief interlude between long passages is planned. But for all that we have bought ourselves a tremendous amount of mental space on this passage, whether we always want it or no. To have "unplugged" ourselves from the noise and dross of the connected, post-Enlightenment, post-fact world, for four whole weeks! The magnitude of this gift will become clear to us once we reach land, and all this time on the endless blue fades suddenly to a dream.

We are less than 90 miles from the Big Island, and have hopes of spying its 4000 m of relief before the day is far gone.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Cakewalk Into Town

Two days out of Honokohau, we find ourselves effortlessly in just the right position.

Two highs are squashed together to the north of Hawai'i, with the front between the two angling down to the south and promising unsettled weather ahead of us. But we're in the clear air just behind the front, enjoying tradewind sailing, and look to arrive at Hawai'i after the inclement weather has left the islands.

Any number of our landfalls over the years have seen me doing the maths on the speed that we need to maintain over the final couple of days to avoid arriving in the middle of the night, and then tweaking the sails fruitlessly as we fail to maintain that speed.

On this well-earned landfall the opposite situation seems to hold. We have been effortlessly making between 7 and 8 knots, well above the average needed to get us to harbor in daylight hours in two days' time. (Everything going to plan!)

We are so happy with our pace that we are even detouring to the southeastern coast of Hawai'i to chase up a rumor of lava flowing to the sea that might be viewable from sea.

Yesterday was Eric's 7th birthday, a much-anticipated event, I can assure you. Alisa brought her festivity-making magic to bear, with special meals and a Minecraft-themed cake. His delight at the day was complete, his youth and innocence still adequate to the simple pleasure of, for instance, waking up in the morning to find the area under the dodger already decorated for his big day. His eyes were shining with joy all day long, and he assured us at bedtime that it was his favorite birthday ever.

The books and other gifts that he received have made a pleasant set of new diversions just as we are passing the one month at sea mark, and all the old books and toys are prone to going a bit flat. And the day of celebration was a welcome change for all of us, now that the days all seem so alike.

Tomorrow is Alisa's birthday, these days coming in twos for the Galactics. We blokes have promised her a day free of galley duty, and I have been regaling her with descriptions of the canned hot dog curry over ramen noodles that we will produce, among other gastronomic delights.

I trust that she, too, will be happy to have a birthday at sea.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Twenty-five days out now, our longest time ever at sea.

We're at the point where the days blow by us without our hardly noticing. First we wake up, then suddenly it's time for dinner and night watch. The days pour through our water. But we seem to barely get closer to Hawai'i. More than a thousand miles to go still.

Luckily our boys are old hands at this. They may get a little hyper at the end of the day, but they don't bug us with questions about how much longer it will take. When they do give into curiosity and make tentative openings along those lines, trying to see if I'll be forthcoming about when we might make landfall, I fall back on the vagueness that has gotten me this far as a combo captain/father.

More than a week, I say. And that's all I'll commit to.

Elias had the spot of the day today. He was at the rail, taking a leak, when his exclamations of wonder roused the rest of us from our blue sky reveries.

A pod of long-finned pilot whales had materialized just next to the boat. Close, but if Elias hadn't been at the rail it seems we might have sailed right by them, oblivious.

What a sense of wonder they gave us, these 20 foot long sleek black cetaceans that punctuated the endless expanse of waves and paid us no mind.

Whatever follies might be playing out in the world ashore, I can confirm that pilot whales still roam the wild plains of the eastern tropical Pacific. Which I find very reassuring.

Elias also plucked another mahi mahi out of the sea today, which gave us all a chance to be filled with a sense of wonder at Alisa's curried fish soup.

I've finished a draft of a science paper on this trip. Anyone who has tried to write a science paper while at sea on a family yacht can tell you what a very bad idea it is. The work gets done very inefficiently, and the experience of the passage suffers somewhat from too much frowning screen time after midnight.

I have also, and this is much more in the spirit of making long passages, discovered Jorge Luis Borges. I picked up a new translation of his Collected Fictions on a recent trip to America, just the sort of spur of the moment purchase at a bookstore that educated people used to make before You Tube was invented. I've finally cracked the book open on this trip, and what a pleasure it is to fill that particular void in my experience of the world and finally read Borges.

He has a particular gift for the aphorism. I plan to start my next scientific talk by quoting this one:

"You will reply that reality has not the slightest obligation to be interesting. I will reply in turn that reality may get along without that obligation, but hypotheses may not."

And, more simply, and very much to the heart of someone who, in the company of his children, watches schools of flying fish exploding from the sapphire water all day long, each lonely fish held aloft on wings that look like nets of diamonds:

"In this world, beauty is so common."
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Around South America

Looking at our logbook, I see that today we crossed our outbound track from San Diego, back in 2011.

So, in a veeerrrry roundabout way that involved a year in Tasmania, we have now completed the circumnavigation of the South American continent.

While we've sailed around a lot, I find that we haven't actually sailed right around many things. New Zealand comes to mind, and what a satisfying trip that was. I hope that we're lucky enough to eventually sail around North America as well, some day.

This sailing life. It looks hard to give up.

Meanwhile, our fondest wishes for the day did come true. Elias and Eric did pull another mahi mahi out of the water, just in time for dinner, making it a 2-mahi mahi meal day.

And, sad note. A weld on the quadrant of the Cape Horn windvane gave up with an heroic clang an hour ago, and part of the quadrant fell into the bilge.

The wind vane had been doing such stellar service on this passage. Now we are without its services until we can get the quadrant welded back together.

Hope that autopilot is feeling well rested and ready to steer us for the next 11 days or so...
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Sunday, April 23, 2017


We're now 21 days into this penultimate passage.

Twenty-one days in, and still about 1800 miles to go by the shortest route. Our previous record of 24 days at sea will be blasted far into second best, no matter what happens.

There has been ample time for everything in these 21 days. Ample time for sweating, early on, and wishing for wind. Now, at the dizzying heights of 12° North latitude, we find it so cool that the blokes sometimes wear shirts at dinner time; jackets have even made an appearance in the depths of night watch.

The time has also been ample for considering the limits to the more boosterish views that you hear expressed about the delights of raising children afloat. News flash: it isn't always idyllic. Eric, poor bloke, has struggled to find his footing for much of this passage. He hasn't fought seasickness at all - he has come far in that regard, at least on a flat sea.

But, trapped like this on the boat for day after long day, he has struggled at times with some of the worst impulses of a six-year-old. When he is alone with Alisa or me he is a delight, but as soon as his brother is around he tends to devolve into fighting and teasing and baby talk. And...we're on passage, so he is by force always around his brother.

Alisa, and especially I, sleep deprived as we are, tend to be short of the patience that an energetic six year old stuck on a boat for three weeks demands.

Looking through old pictures the other night, I was reminded that Galactic is the only home that Eric has really known. Most of the time we wouldn't trade these years of raising a young family at sea for anything; but there are long moments, like a weeks-long passage when one of your kid isn't being his angelic self, when the delight can be hard to find.

Life at sea is just normal life in that regard.

Meanwhile, though, we are well into the champagne sailing. Blue blue sea, sparkling white caps, and steady winds. I occasionally look at the weather forecast out of boredom more than anything else. In the trades as we are there is little to look for except more of the same.

Elias caught us a mahi mahi for our lunch today. Two others were thrown back for being too small, and two others got off. I wonder if he'll bring the sixth one aboard for our dinner?
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Thursday, April 20, 2017


I spent yesterday morning on the bow, sewing the ripped seam in our jib.

I had the most spectacular show of pelagic biology to divert me while I plied the needle.

Little tuna were pursuing flying fish, the momentum of their pursuit occasionally sending the tuna skyrocketing high out of the water.

The flying fish, meanwhile, were loth to take to the air to escape the tuna for the threat of the birds overhead. Frigate birds and masked and red-footed boobies followed along just above the tuna. When the flying fish, in extremis, took to the air, they were likely to be plucked out of it by a hungry bird.

All this was playing out all around us, often less than a boat length away as our bow cut through the sapphire water and I sewed and sewed.

It's easy to get caught up in what the world used to be, and isn't any more. I happened to read a scientific paper the other day that estimated the population of yellowfin tuna in this part of the eastern tropical Pacific at about 20% of pre-fishing levels.

But one of the great delights of travel is reveling in what a wonderful place this world continues to be. Like the place that puts on such show of open ocean life and death, such an arresting tableau of blue marble biology, that I didn't even think to mention the 40 dolphins that also milled around the boat for a long moment.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Monday, April 17, 2017


When we bought Galactic in 2011 we mounted a GPS unit in the cockpit and the odometer on it said 0 nautical miles when we set out from the marina in Alameda, California where we fitted out.

The same odometer reads just at this moment 46,242 nautical miles. The big majority of those miles have been sailed under main and jib.

So that main and that jib are starting to feel a little creaky.

We blew a luff grommet out of the main yesterday, high up on the sail, above the third reef, so we couldn't set even a reefed main until it was fixed.

In South Africa where sails are a good deal we decided not to replace the main. We're still fine with that decision, but keeping this old main going is going to involve a little extra work.

After finding the rip we pulled the main down and unrolled a little more jib to keep us moving.

And that's when we saw that a seam at the head of that sail had come adrift.

We rolled the jib up again to take the load off the failing seam. It was a squally rainy day, unsuitable for a 5200 patch, my go-to approach for at-sea sail fixes. So we settled back to wait for dry weather while we lazed along at 4.5 knots under half a jib alone.

It's a funny thing. When the boat is, well, crippled isn't the right word, let's say "challenged", far far from land, that's when a passage really comes to life. Before you set out, the true nature of the passage isn't apparent. You can plan your best route for the forecasted winds and make a best guess at how many days a trip will take, but when that unexpected thing happens, like both your main and jib ripping at once, that's when the passage declares itself. That's when you find out exactly what kind of ride you bought a ticket for. And, that's when, if you fancy yourself an ocean sailor, you get the chance to see if you're right.

The squalls had moved on by dinner time and after slooowly cogitating through the possible patching approaches open to me, a process enabled by the memory of all the not-so-good patches that I've made in the past, I started gluing away on night watch.

I was finished by 0130. In the morning I sewed up various bits of hardware that needed re-attaching, and Elias and Alisa and I bent the sail back on the mast.

We do have a new South African jib aboard, so we're not too stressed about the state of our old trusty that is currently flying. With any luck we'll get that on deck tomorrow morning, and a few hours of hand stitching should set us right.

That sounds easier than changing sails just now.

So that's us. Panama City 2,000 miles away over the stern, and Kona 2,700 miles in front of the bow. And with any luck, this passage has done all the declaring that it has to do

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Sunday, April 16, 2017

She Knows Me

One thing about life on a traveling boat with your family - the stresses and vicissitudes of the sea leave you nowhere to hide. Whatever good points might recommend you, and whatever character flaws you are carrying through life, are both completely obvious, to everyone.

On my good points this narrative is largely silent.

But long-term readers will recognize one of my salient flaws: an incomplete approach to the business of marine engineering.

You will protest that being less than handy is not actually a character flaw. And in the lubber world, where there is always someone else to help you with the practical matters of life, you would be right.

But in the life afloat, having less than stellar practical skills is a very serious moral shortcoming indeed.

Now, I get by. To paraphrase a performance review that Miles Smeeton received during the war, I excel at fixing boat problems that I never should have allowed to develop in the first place.

And if you take into account that I have a PhD (from Australia, but still), then I am a very handy wrench-turner indeed.

Unfortunately, my practical skills are not judged in the context of my peers in the egghead world. Reminiscent of Woody Allen ("She was a whore at the table and a lady in bed"), I write a scientific paper like a diesel mechanic might, and I change injectors like a tenured professor.

And my peers in the sailing world set a very very high standard when it comes to making things work. We know any number of people who can weld up a new cabin heater, or replace their centerboard with a custom-made fixed keel, and have.

And while we've watched all of these exquisitely practical people making their seagoing homes hum, Alisa has gotten used to the business of shopping out little jobs that I will never get done - this bent hinge, that rusty second hand child's bike, the busted gudgeon and pintle set on the ever-delicate Walker Bay dinghy.

I can claim the time demands of my science life, and do. But doing so will not change the fact that we set out from Panama with a busted whisker pole, a nifty extendable affair that no longer extends.

In its current collapsed state we can only pole out a deeply-reefed jib. And thus we have been sailing, day after day on this light-wind passage, dead downwind with a jib sized for a gale. Our alternate-universe Galactic, the one that set out with a skookum pole, is a day ahead of us at least.

Alisa has not complained. She has not made the slightest play towards blame or shame. She has not even hinted at the possibility of interviewing relief skippers.

What she has done, that endlessly optimistic believer in the salvageable nature of her better half that she is, is she has started a job list for fixes and improvements that we might accomplish on the boat while in Hawai'i.

The top item on that list is "spi pole".

Even after all these years afloat, she looks to a brighter future.

You could sail the world without my wife. But I wouldn't recommend it.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Boobie of Doom

Elias, our fishing master, is naturally, given his upbringing as the son of an ex seabird biologist, very concerned to run a bycatch-free operation.

The other day, we caught a red-footed boobie.

We usually watch any boobies carefully and quickly pull in the lines if they show interest in our lures. But this one gave us little chance. Before we knew it, he was on the water and pecking at our lure.

I hauled him in hand over hand (he had bitten at our hand line). It turned out that he was hooked through the lower mandible. It was a "clean" wound, though a bit bloody, and after some quick work with the needle nose pliers the bird was back in the water. I'm hopeful that he will recover pretty easily from the experience.

What hasn't recovered is our fishing effort. We are now extra-loth to leave the lines out without carefully attending them. And where we were towing a phalanx of offerings - two handlines, the rod, and two "exciter bird" teasers - now we put out a much less ambitious set. Just the one handline, or two at the most. I'm not quite sure what Elias' reasoning is for favoring the handlines over the rod, but I trust him.

Whatever else this passage might offer, it doesn't look to be rich in fish dinners.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Friday, April 14, 2017


We carry about 600 liters of the stuff, which has been easily enough for our longest passages in the past.

On the 21-day trip from South Georgia we washed dishes in fresh and took minimal care with our consumption, but arrived in Cape Town with enough water left for days and days of dockside use, which allowed us to live off the delightful Grytviken water and saved us from the less delightful Cape Town version.

So we've never really worried about drinking water on passage.

This passage, it is apparent, is a little different.

We are now 12 days in, and Hawai'i is still more than 3,000 miles away. It has been above 30° C / 90° F throughout, and the sweat pours off us, day and night.

So naturally we have been drinking water pretty freely. This didn't worry us, but we did take more than normal precautions. I fossicked around in the plumbing parts locker and came up with the pieces to re-plumb the salt water tap at the galley sink, which I years ago disconnected, so that we (she) could wash the dishes in salt.

As I said, we weren't worried. But there is a long long stretch of empty ocean ahead of us, and we imposed pretty draconian limits on wash water that were a bit hard to take for our constantly sweating bodies.

And then, a couple days ago, something odd happened.

The port tank, which we have been using almost exclusively so far, was feeling funny at the foot pump when we drew water. This is often the first sign that the tank is getting low.

And the fridge pump, which uses drinking water as a coolant, was getting air when pumping from the same tank. (!)

Oddly, there was also some water in the container that the overflow hose for the port tank flows into. This normally happens only when the tank is overfilled when we're taking water.

So, something of an open ocean plumbing mystery. Add to that the combination of a fail-dangerous setup and human error early on in the trip that saw some water mistakenly pumped from our starboard tank into the then-full port tank, into the overflow hose, and thence into the bilge.

We thought that only about 10 liters were lost in that incident. But we weren't entirely sure that it wasn't much more. Because - admission - we don't have a way to see how full the tanks are. I hold that people who are going to sea only when they're ready never leave, while nearly everyone who is actually sailing the oceans of the world is doing so with a boat suffering some shortcoming that really should have been addressed before they set off.

On Galactic, that shortcoming might be our inability to gauge the tanks.

So, with the port tank looking like it might be running low well less than half way into the passage, mental alarm bells started going off.

I plotted the distances to ports in Mexico where we might top up. They were blessedly close - less than 300 miles - and the winds wouldn't make it tough to get there.

Elias started asking me what we would do if we ran out of water. We hadn't shared any of our concern with him, but all of our admonitions about being careful with water had made things clear enough. It's hard to hide things from your kids on a boat.

I answered that we always had the emergency 80 liters in jugs on deck, which we could ration severely and stretch a long long way.

He asked what I meant by ration, and then he asked what we would do if those ran out.

I had thought this through, of course, and told him how we would try to distill sea water on the galley stove. But I also stressed that it was vanishingly unlikely we would get to that point.

That night, after the boys were in bed and Alisa was on the HF, checking in with the Pacific Seafarer's Net, I bit the bullet and opened the inspection hatches for both tanks.

The port tank was surprisingly full. Clogged filters explained the funny foot pump feel and the fridge pump sucking air. And Alisa pointed out that the vicious roll we had suffered through on a windless night might have been enough to slosh water out of the overflow hose.

The starboard tank was almost completely full.

So...we're set. At this rate I wonder if we couldn't go 45 days or even 50, which is quite a long way for four people to stretch 600 liters.

We celebrated with bucket showers and a freshwater rinse for all hands. The boys were ecstatic at the treat.

It was quite a relief to look in those tanks and see how well we're doing, and I have resolved to get sight glasses plumbed into the tanks so we can see how full they are.

But through all this, neither Alisa nor I have ever felt tempted by the idea of an onboard watermaker. As long as our backs are up to hauling jerry jugs now and again, a watermaker is beyond our personal line in the sand of unreasonable onboard cost and complexity, an expression of the attitude that every problem in the life afloat has a technological solution which we are happy to sneer at for now.

As I was writing this, a squall passed overhead. We set the smaller of our two raincatchers and filled the kettle. And, more importantly, the whole crew mustered on deck naked and felt the shivery joy of cold freshwater running over our salt-itching bodies.

And that might be a little moment of passagemaking delight that stays with us for a long time.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Friday, April 7, 2017


Yeah, that would be us. Six days into the trip, and 3,951 miles still to go.

This is going to be our longest-ever by far.

Flew the chute today, after we caught the marlin.

Let the marlin go, with a streamer of monofilament hanging from the hook in its mouth. Sometimes I think that our fishing efforts are largely a way of putting plastic into the ocean.

Elias was so pleased with the experience of getting the marlin alongside and then releasing it. He has more or less completely taken over fishing responsibilities from me, and he caught the thing on a handline that he set up by himself.

Not bad for a 10-year-old, I suppose. But very much the norm for a yachtie kid.

He was also so pleased about how he and I worked together to get the beastie alongside without the benefit of a reel. Afterwards he commented several times to me about what a good team we are.

I wonder if he can see the approaching day when he is more competent at some practical things than I am. Can he smell the equality of standing that would imply between us?

Meanwhile, if you're interested, I believe that our position is being posted to the YOTREPS web site. Search for Galactic, or KL2DM.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Isla del NoNo

Greetings from the big big Pacific.

The wind speed has gone less than. Not a zephyr disturbs our sweaty daydreams. Thirty five C/94 F in the cabin just now, an hour past noon.

All going well, we will in a few weeks cross our outbound track from San Diego and thus complete our circumnavigation of South America.

And what an odd continental circumnavigation it will be. All the way around, and we only visited one South American nation - Chile.

Our mates on Mollymawk, who have mastered the slow-travel pace, spending YEARS in Brazil and Uruguay and Argentina and Chile along the way, would doubtless be aghast.

But everyone finds their own speed. That's one of the joys in this life afloat - how many ways there are to do it.

Still, though we do love that part of sailing that involves busting out the big miles, lately it seems that we have been passing up more than we would have liked. All that time in Panama, for example, and we still never birded the Pipeline Road, we never visited Boquete or any other place in the mountains.

So, when an idle glance at the plotter the other day showed Isla del Coco only a few hundred miles off our track, interest was kindled on the part of the Captain and the Morale Officer.

Let's go to Coco! we thought. When are we coming this way again, after all? It's a place that you can likely get to only with your own boat, which are widely known to be the very best places in the world. And Coco can stand in for Tristan de Cunha and the Galapagos and Lord Howe and Easter and Pitcairn and all the other wonderful places that we have somehow missed visiting along the way.

A quick note to our indefatigable agent ashore (thanks, mom!) requested the background info that more organized yachties would have likely have looked up before going to sea, when they were writing up their passage plan...or whatever it is that those people do.

The answer that came back was a bubble-burster. No vessels allowed from foreign ports (Coco is Costa Rican), permit required, must be applied for at least 15 days in advance with notarized forms, etc. etc.

No Coco for us.

Hawai'i or bust.

Now if only Elias would catch us a fish, already.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Right Turn, Marge

We left Panama three days ago, on April Fool's Day.

Rather than turning left for a fourth trip across the South Pacific (no one should be that lucky!) and a new life in Australia, we turned right and began the long trek back to Kodiak, from whence we set forth nearly a decade ago.

This is a sailing blog, not a current-events blog.

But it is apparent that we have timed our homecoming more spectacularly than most long-term sailors. That part of our journey that has us returning to the starting point, pondering the changes in ourselves and our old haunts, is bound to be caught up in the narrative of what is going on in the home country.

To whit, we don't have to wonder any more what America might look like as the wheels are coming off. Now we just have to wonder if that's the setting that we want our boys to be growing up in. Thus the left turn/right turn decision that I referenced above.

Which really wasn't much of a decision for us. We love Tasmania, and some bits of mainland Australia, but they aren't Alaska.

Alaska is that superlative which Alisa and I were both lucky enough to discover in our early twenties. It is the home where our hearts will ever dwell, and we are both ecstatic (is that the word?) at the chance of discovering it again through the eyes of these two remarkable boys of ours.

So we're sailing back to Alaska. But that doesn't mean that I am at all sanguine about the state of affairs in the home country. I've even been practicing a motto to sum up my thoughts:

Elect a pussy-grabber, regret at leisure!

Pretty good, no?

I'm concerned about all sorts of things about the current administration, and am particularly concerned about what happens when said pussy-grabber and the third-rate help he has attracted are faced with an actual crisis out there in the real world. Or, I might equally be concerned about how strong the temptation will soon be, for this group of people with such limited ability to inspect their own motives, to start a war and get everyone off their backs already.

So I've been seeing the current situation as a race between getting to a constitutional crisis and getting to a war. And I've been wondering what it means to have one of the parties in a two-party system so thoroughly co-opted by the tinfoil-hat crowd.

But...funny thing. Though my fingers obviously ran away with me just now as I started thinking and typing about what we are heading back to, out here in the wide wide eastern tropical Pacific the situation in the US seems pretty remote.

We have had almost no wind so far, and Alisa has been marveling over and over that such a vast expanse of water could be so flat.

Neither of us have been very tired, and we are keeping watch around the clock effortlessly. We play cards or chess with the boys, I have been reading the Lord of the Rings out loud, and I have hour after hour for concentrated science work, combining mindless tasks like making figures for a paper with long meditative wanderings through the thickets of ideas that will boil down into some small bolus of new knowledge that my colleagues and I can contribute to the human experiment.

And I have been reminded yet again how much I love the open ocean. There is something so wonderful about daring to make an ocean crossing in your own boat with your family for crew. The scale is sooo much greater than anything on a human scale. The solitude is so pure, and the moments of wonder and delight are so all-engrossing.

It certainly makes all the effort of the sailing life more than worth it. And it gives Alisa and me that greatest of luxury in this particular turning age of ours - the time to reflect, and the distance to step back, and a ready-made perspective of the horizon that endlessly encircles us, without the distracting concerns of quotidian life.

From this perspective, I can look at our future with anticipation, and at our present with satisfaction.

What more could anyone want?
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Who's the Fool?

Tomorrow, on April 1, we plan to finally set out from Panama.

At least it won't be a Friday.

We checked the wind forecast a month or so ago, and it looked quite good for our impending passage. Back then, you could pick up the trades quite close to the Central American coast.

But! There seems to have been a seasonal development. The North Pacific high has started moving poleward, I suppose, and the trades have followed it.

We're looking at hundreds and hundreds of miles of verrrry light winds - most often less than 5 knots - before we get to the trades.

We really hate motoring at sea, but it looks like we are going to suck it up for a motor-fest in the coming days...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

It Must Be Good

Great friends of ours recently bought their first cruising boat.

In the nautical world, this is recognized as a dark and lamentable turning point in anyone's life.

Just joking.
Sort of.

We spoke with these friends of ours - really some of the most remarkable, steadfast, and simpatico people we have met in our decade afloat - right in that awful extended moment when the depths of their predicament had become fully clear. (Drop us a line, guys! We want to know how it goes.)

Everything on their new boat boat seemed to broken. They were looking at that insurmountable job list that is a part of most stories of how someone acted on the dream and bought their own traveling boat. And, I think, they were trying to figure out if the lake of expense and angst that had suddenly opened at their feet, demanding to be swum, was really going to be worth it.

We talked with these friends, just when they were re-evaluating their view of the sailing life through the new prism of boat ownership. At one point, one of them asked me if I ever got off the boat.

"Sure," I said somewhat defensively. "I get off the boat."

We have just spent a couple weeks anchored in Las Perlas Islands in Panama, poised on the verge of our big jump to Hawai'i.

Granted, I have been pouring heart and soul and considerable time into the scientific research that keeps us going financially, so my time budget would not be representative for most yachties.

But still, a few days ago I looked at Alisa, wiped the dust from my brow, and said to her, "I had my answer wrong. I should have said, 'Get off the boat? Why would I ever want to get off the boat?'"

Because, when I haven't been trying to understand the ecological implications of sea surface temperature-sea level pressure coupling in the North Pacific, I have been pouring heart and soul and discretionary hours into projects like those illustrated above: fixing the wind generator (partly successful) and renewing the nonskid deck paint in crucial areas (generally regarded as a stunning boat maintenance coup).

Meanwhile, our transmission has developed a leak that seems to have eluded my first attempt at a fix. And our busted telescoping whisker pole seems likely to set out for Hawai'i in a still-busted state. This is a really classic boat problem - it was broken when we reached Cape Town, got fixed there, failed nearly immediately on the trip back across the Atlantic, got fixed again at Ascension Island, and then broke immediately again.

So this is us, a decade into the sailing life, on a well-used boat, which are generally less maintenance than the marina-sitters of the world. We're always fixing something.

And yet, for all that effort, we are all four of us completely enthralled with the sailing life. Consider the days we have just spent at Las Perlas, off a deserted beach, in waters thick with life, at a spot that you could only get to your own boat.

See the beach fire pic above from Las Perlas - I expect that our next beach fire will be in Alaska.  See the photos of Eric below, swinging from a halyard.

And see the happy family, very much together, very much in the same boat, below.

Buying your way into that kind of living with some boat maintenance...who wouldn't make that trade?

Brown pelican, catching dinner

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


At night we can see the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper at the same time, emblems of the choice that we will soon set into motion. When we leave Panama, which of our two countries will we return to? Which way will we turn, left or right?

We have found a little Galactic oasis here in Las Perlas Islands, off the Pacific coast of Panama.

The ocean around this place is rich. Hundreds of pelicans dive bomb the waters around our anchored ship on the turn of the tide. Flocks of terns are like mist rising off the distant water. We had a close view of a humpback on our sail into this anchorage, and also the first-ever look at a hammerhead shark for three of us, as one of those beasties from the menagerie of evolutionary delights swam at the surface behind the mothership.

The beach here is our own. The boys, bless them, are old enough to just take the dinghy ashore and play without us.

This place keeps reminding me of the eastern seaboard of Australia. Something about the tropical forest down to the beach, and the ancient flat rocks that are revealed around the points at low tide.

My main business here has been painting the decks. The nonskid in our deck paint has worn down after six years of constant use to the point where areas had become deadly when wet. We have all had slips in the cockpit, and resurfacing the most worn spots was one of the few must-do jobs before we went on passage again.

So the random orbital sander has come out of deep storage. I have been sanding, and answering Alisa's questions about whether I really need to sand so much. I painted the second coat for the cockpit benches and well late one evening and listened to the boys and Alisa playing an uproarious game of Uno down in the saloon.

Elias has shamed me into taking him spearfishing with the replacement spear that we finally bought in Panama City for the speargun that Alisa found floating, spearless, in the lagoon of Moorea nearly six years ago. But we find the water impossibly opaque here. Visibility is nothing. We dive again and again, hoping that a fish will swim nearly into us at the right moment so that we can spear it. We know people who have been spearfishing successfully here, but they are not the beginners that we are.

Eric took Alisa for a sail in Frisky while Elias and I spearfished yesterday. He steered that little boat for nearly a mile in each direction. Alisa reports that he is cut from the same cloth of idiot-savant small boat sailor as his brother. Looking at the sail not at all, shoulders slumped in complete relaxation at the tiller, giving a casual bloke in a boat wave to the fishermen driving by, while he makes the boat go just where he wants. No idea what they're doing when they sail, these boys of ours, but they do it well.

The three Litzow men live without shirts, except for when we are venturing into the sun. At night the air blowing down the hatches feels liquid in its capacity to refresh. I tell the boys to enjoy it now, as there will be nothing like it when we get to Alaska.

And that's about as much anticipation of Alaska as we have indulged in. It feels too far, too unknown, to contemplate much.

A friend who has just bought a traveling boat with her family and is now drinking from the fire hose of boat ownership asked me, with some urgency, what I liked about the sailing life.

This is one thing. Being self-contained in our family life, while we are also being expansively, and exuberantly, of the world.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Freak of the Week

This one is for all the boat maintenance aficionados in the audience.

The shot above is the back of our engine instrument panel in the steering pedestal.

As with nearly all the wiring on Galactic, it's a neat, professional looking job.

But I was motivated to dig in there because our tachometer has stopped working, and I wanted it operational for the Canal.

A quick fix got us through the Canal experience with some evidence beyond that of my ears for judging how fast the engine was turning.

A more thorough investigation on the Pacific side showed this:

We've always known there was a bad cockpit fire on Galactic two owners before us. And this appears to be the last damage from that fire to be found and remedied.

These cables run from the engine room, through the stainless steel tubing of the pedestal, to the instrument panel.

The heat of the fire was apparently enough to melt the insulation off the wires. So for years - and for us, for two crossings of the Pacific, and two crossings of the Atlantic - the ignition switch and engine instruments were served by nothing more than bare corroding wires, surrounded by ash and melted insulation.

How they ever worked in that state is beyond me...

So. The fact that I've been getting through jobs like this speaks to the fact that we are getting closer to setting out for Hawai'i.

And in addition to these boat jobs, I've gotten through a pile of science work and we've finally been able to leave Panama City.

We're all happy about getting away from the Big Smoke, none more so than Elias:

Sunday, March 19, 2017


This picture encapsulates the mix at our Panama City anchorage. In the background, bristling skyscrapers, funded to some degree by the service industry for wealthy foreign nationals looking to evade the sovereignty of their home countries.

In the foreground, the expensive playthings of the local moneyed class.

And in between, anchored work vessels, mostly having to do with the constant business of the Canal.

So, a pretty dynamic setting.

And, on the other side of the causeway from which this picture was taken, La Playita, the anchorage for most of the traveling boats in Panama City.

That's the Mothership, on the left
The water there was dirty, the anchorage was rolly, and the traffic of high-powered launches setting out from the anchorage to meet various ships occasionally sent tsunamis of wake rocking through the anchored fleet. But for all that, La Playita turned out to be a really favorite spot for me.

At this time of the year, nearly all of the yachts on the scene have just come through the Canal and are about to jump off for that greatest of all sailorly delights, a crossing of the South Pacific.

All of the derelict boats and stuck boats and tough-luck stories are on the Caribbean side of the Canal. (Well, most of them, anyway.) The boats on this side are full of really self-actualized people who are about to realize lifelong dreams. There's a frisson of excitement in the air, and a few butterflies in stomachs. Great things are about to happen.

I found it to be a really infectious, enjoyable atmosphere to be around.

Add to that mix a few long-term resident boats who run a very effective VHF net to help all the transient yachts that are looking to cross off final items from pre-passage lists, and the fact that Panama City offers a tremendous range of services, and you have reached that final circle of paradise for sailors, those most practical of all people: Panama City is a (relatively) easy place to get things done.

Of course, there can be a down side to getting things done, as Elias found out when the family went to the dentist for cleanings. Some cattywampus teeth in the back of his mouth, which we had been aware of at least since South Africa, were ready for an intervention. As in, extraction.

The night before the big event, Elias asked us in all innocence - will it hurt?
We answered with the standard parental prevarication (lie): no!

Well. I got to run off with Eric to the hardware while Alisa stayed with Elias for the event, which involved sawing the buried tooth in question in half so that it could be pulled.

Afterwards, Elias asked us, again in all innocence - When you said it wasn't going to hurt, did you really think it wouldn't?

Panama City is a bustling place
And this is a yachtie whose bustle was a fair match for the city's. She was forever charging off and getting stuff done, preparing for our long miles ahead
There was one other noteworthy dynamic in La Playita: dragging boats. While we were there, at least four unattended boats started on the passage across the Pacific without waiting for their owners.

This picture is from the worst incident of the lot. The owners of both boats were gone. And, annoyingly enough, the anchorage was completely empty - most sailors in the anchorage were off at a rally meeting, doing their very best impersonation of landlubbers. (I know, my anti-rally mania is getting tiresome.)

Anyway, Elias loves charging off in the dinghy to board a dragging yacht, and in this case he was super-helpful. He listened to my instructions, he didn't panic or get over-excited, and he tied fenders in place with good knots.

The only bummer was that as everyone else was off at the meeting, there was little help on offer when Elias and I couldn't get the boats separated on our own...

Friday, March 10, 2017

What I Like

That's what I like. Galactic is just to the right of the guard tower
Panama, rather than being the between-the-oceans transit lounge that I was expecting, has turned out to be a fantastic destination on its own terms, regardless of our business with the Canal.

A highlight for our crew of wandering biologists has been the biodiversity. More bird species have been recorded in this little country than have been recorded in all of the US and Canada combined.

As for the people part of travel...I find that I am getting to be more and more like our friend Richard, on the indefatigable yacht Thélème, whom we met all these years ago. Richard, who has been sailing much longer than we have, once explained to me that he has reached the point where, if given the choice between two anchorages, one in front of a village and another off by itself, he inevitably finds himself gravitating towards the lonely anchorage.

Portobelo and the lay of the land
And so it has become with me. As a case in point, I offer up the delightful Caribbean port of Portobelo.

The place is filthy with history. Sir Francis Drake was reportedly buried at sea just off the harbor, and the history only ramps up from there.

Portobelo today is a fairly quiet roadside town, come down quite a long ways from the years, centuries ago, when it was a terminus for the transshipment of the fruits of genocide.

The town is something of a backpacker destination, and has a very lively Carnival scene infused by the local Afro-Caribbean culture. There are two Spanish forts, long since abandoned, right in the town, and all sorts of little eateries for bored looking tourists.

And, from day one when we made our immigration formalities there, I would have happily not set foot in Portobelo the town ever again.

The other side
But the other side of the harbor, away from the town, was my very image of travel idyll.

Here it was possible to anchor just off of another derelict fort, this one a three-level affair with a large waterfront fort, a smaller one a hundred meters or so up the hill, and a third at the top of a short track through the jungle.

 The area around the two lower forts has been cleared of trees, producing a wonderful forest-grassland ecotone that was a birder's dream. It was always possible at the end of a day of science work to nip over with a boy or two and spot a handful of new species.

And when there were other kids about for the junior Galactics to play with we would send the whole mob ashore to go nuts in the forts without the inconvenience of adults sticking up the works.

Just look at the top picture in this post - can you imagine a better setting for the 6 to 10 set to be left to their own devices?

Our great friend Diana gently, and rightly, pointed out to me that my recent anti-rally screed sounded suspiciously like the ravings of a grumpy old fart.

(But, Diana, they're doing it right now! The "Puddle Jump" rally is having a meeting today in Panama City. When did anyone ever dream of going to sea so that they could attend meetings? And now they'll go to this meeting, and then they'll hurry through the Tuamotus so they can make it to the staged cultural event in Moorea, all the while ensuring that they travel half the world round without leaving the bubble of people very much like themselves.)

So yes, you're right, Diana. Grumpy old fart status attained.

And so it is, perhaps, with the people side of travel.

I still love meeting people, and various yachties remain some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. And at times in the past we have gone to great lengths to achieve friendship across cultural and linguistic barriers, with extraordinarily wonderful results.

But our affairs with town life in a place like Panama can be fairly transactional, and the trouble of getting past my awful Spanish to make a meaningful connection with a local can seem like more trouble than it is worth.

In contrast, a place like that abandoned fort on the other side of the harbor from Portobelo, redolent with history, offering reasonable solitude, and the delight of learning a new place through its avifauna...put me in a place like for a couple of hours with my family, and I am completely content with life.

Monday, March 6, 2017


When I'm back in the Lower 48 USA version of land life, one of the things that I immediately notice is how desperately important status is.

People drive around in Mercedes cars or BMWs and the whole point seems to be having that very expensive hood ornament that you can push into other people's faces.

How silly! Who would dedicate their lives to earning enough money to guarantee an existence of brand fulfillment?

But, then, on further reflection, I begin to see the point. Status is incredibly valuable. Put in the plainest terms, if you have status, you live longer. (Read about the Whitehall Study. It's fascinating.)

So if status grants you a longer life (and all sorts of other benefits in terms of happiness and access to high-quality mates and so on and so on) then of course people will go to great lengths to pursue it. And a BMW badge on the hood of your car is what evolutionary biologists would call an honest signal of quality. You can't just gin up a luxury car in your garage. You have to buy one, and they cost a lot, and so having one is a difficult-to-fake signal of your status in the society.

Not that dedicating your life to earning enough money to drive a fancy car isn't an ugly trap. But there is an unarguable logic to the trap.

And all this has anything to do with

Motoring towards the Caribbean side of the Canal. A vast field of anchored shipping, all waiting to get through
There was this funny dynamic that we noticed in the Caribbean.

Suddenly, we were cool.

Yachties when meeting each other almost never ask the normal first question of land life - What do you (or did you) do for a living?

That would be grotesquely poor manners in the life afloat. Plus the answer would usually be too dull for words, anyway.

But yacthies meeting each other do typically ask about each other's program. Where have you been? Where are you bound?

A lot of sailors in the Caribbean are just starting out. So when we tell people about where we've been, we find ourselves suddenly rocketing to the head of the sailing hierarchy.

Both in the Alaska work boat world, and among the highly-accomplished sailors whom it has been our pleasure to get to know since we left Alaska, we've noticed that there is a strong correlation between ability and humility. The most accomplished people don't have to spend time letting you know how good they are.

I hope that we follow that example and don't spend much time trumpeting our accomplishments. But for all that, Alisa and I both noticed felt to be held in esteem by new acquaintances. We had a version of social status that we were unused to. And it was a very pleasant elixir. I wonder if we weren't just noticing the feeling of our blood pressure going down.

Whether or no, I think that's all over now that we're on the Pacific side. Most of the boats here are about to jump off on very large trips indeed, on some of the greatest adventures that it is possible to have on your own boat. And we are, once again, just another boat in the pack.

Which is fine with us, of course. We'll fall back on that Hiscockian thing of leading a life that has you thinking well of yourself, rather than measuring yourself through other people's opinions.

An early touchstone of commonality between our line handler Denise and the Galactics - Denise likes Tin Tin, too!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


We're through.
First thing - festoon your boat with fenders. These are tires wrapped in plastic, 
supplied by Tito, the indefatigable ex-cabbie and general Canal fixer
All is right with the world. Or at least with our world.

Galactic is bobbing once again on the Pacific, our home ocean.

And the Pacific immediately feels more oceanic than the Caribbean. There are goodly tides here, and upwelling, which brings a salty sort of chill to the water and a frantic energy to the biology. Pelicans plunge diving. That sort of thing.

The start. Two of our lock mates heading for Gatun Locks at dusk - the reefer vessel Autumn Wave and some nameless catamaran under the care of a very congenial delivery crew from all over Latin America 
With the benefit of my vast experience of one Canal transit, I'll suggest a few pointers for a happy experience.

First, put fenders all over your boat. This is not a time to look cool. When you think about how many fenders you need, don't think about everything going right. Think about something going wrong. We had 14 fenders out as our baseline state, and four more in reserve.

Second, listen to your transit advisor. They are experienced in the ways of the Canal, they know what's going on, and the best thing you can do is to do what they tell you.

Third, know when you shouldn't listen to your advisor. I've heard a few yachties referring to the advisors as pilots, but they are not pilots. A pilot takes over both control of a vessel, and responsibility for the vessel, from the master. When you're transiting with an advisor, you're still acting as the captain of your vessel. If an advisor is careless or mistaken, you have to speak up for your own interests, respectfully and firmly.

Fourth, treat the people on your boat as honored guests. A transit requires a captain, four line handlers, and an advisor to be on board. Alisa was one of our line handlers, so we had four people on board beyond the normal ship's company. These people are key to the success of your transit, and so treating them well, beyond being a simple observation of the iron-bound law of shipboard hospitality, is also an obvious way to look after your own interests.

Autumn Wave being guided into the Gatun Locks. We're going to follow them into the left-hand lock.
A northbound ship is coming through on the right-hand side
Jude of Tanda Malaika, line handler extraordinaire
We were particularly fortunate with our line handlers.

Things weren't looking great just a couple days before the transit. The Brazilian yachties we had lined up flew back to Brazil for a visit and accidentally left their yellow fever vaccination certificates on their boat in Panama. Net result - they couldn't get back into Panama to help us transit.

Our new yachtie friend Denise (is there any other kind?) on Sold the Farm, who had already been through once, kindly stepped up to offer her help. We had an expat from Panama City lined up as the second, but we were still one short.

Into the breach stepped Emma and Jude, 14- and 19-year old sisters who are living aboard their family catamaran, Tanda Malaika, in the Shelter Bay marina in Colon and had already done six transits apiece.

Their parents' rule was that they could only line handle as a team. So, long story short, the expat bowed out (thanks anyway, Doug), and we signed on the two girls.

All three of these line handlers were exactly what you would want - salty around boats, and with previous experience in the Canal. They were pleasant company in the tight confines of a family yacht, and they looked around for things that needed doing. I reckon they went a long way towards making the transit smooth, and making me look good.

And, incidentally, there was a lot of talk with other yachties beforehand about whether we really needed four line handlers, since we were almost certain to be rafted with other vessels and thus wouldn't be taking four lines to the Canal walls ourselves.

Well. First of all, we saw how things are always in flux during a transit, and there's every chance that a change of plans could have left us locking through alone.

And second, even if you're just rafting up to other boats, which is all that we did to get through, having lots of extra hands makes things so easy. The currents and winds and vagaries of other boats can require a little extra response.

We had so much anticipated the Canal personnel throwing us heaving lines so that we could pass them our shore lines, but it only happened once, as a last-minute change of plans saw us in a raft of three, with a work boat taking the position on the wall. Elias got this shot of the heaving line being thrown at dusk. That's the line there, snaking out over the mule - the engine that rides on a wide-gauge railroad and guides ships through.
Holding a heaving line - the other end is in our line handler's hands
Going into Gatun Locks
In position and ready to lock up. Going through at night made it all extra cool.

I asked our line handlers about their previous experiences in the Canal while we were still in the Flats Anchorage in Colon, waiting for our advisor.

They immediately brought up this one advisor they had seen in action, name of ____ , who they said had nearly sunk a boat. Or something like that. I didn't get the details.

As we approached the first locks we rafted up to the cat with whom we would be tied while locking up. The cat had much more powerful engines than ours, and so the advisor on the cat would be in charge of the movements of our two rafted vessels.

And wouldn't you know it, that advisor's name was _______.

Sure enough, he (and the skipper of the cat) proceeded to angle Galactic towards the canal wall, fast, as they drove along, blithely talking about something much more important than what they were actually supposed to be doing.

I yelled at the advisor, and got barely a notice. Then Alisa and I yelled at him, much more loudly. Like, as loudly as two people whose uninsured home is being driven into a concrete wall in the night by a careless stranger.

The advisor was plainly annoyed. But he also corrected his course.

On our second day. Massive infrastructure, in continuous use for a century

Our own advisor on that first day, Rick, was everything you could want. He was competent, he was charismatic and a lot of fun, and he was really happy to engage with us. He made the effort to learn the names of all seven of us on board.

That other advisor on the cat, though, took some management. It was not the time for me to be the shrinking sailboat owner, silently worrying about things. It was the time for me to channel whatever tiny little element of the super-assertive Alaskan captain that I might have buried somewhere very very deep within me.

And you know, I think there's a rough sort of art to publicly, quickly, and plenty loudly, telling someone to his face that he doesn't know his job and needs to learn it quick, while at the same time maintaining the ability to work with that person.

This is not the normal state of interpersonal interactions on our little family ark. But it all went fine.
We arrived in Lake Gatun late, and had a great group dinner on the mooring ball. The next day we motored for five hours or so to reach the locks that would take us down to the Pacific.
The trip across the lake gave us plenty of close looks at ships.

Our very happy crew. That's Moisés on the left, our advisor for the second day, and another competent, congenial gem. Alisa next to him of course, then Jude, Denise, and Emma. Alisa did triple duty throughout, as is her wont: line handler, mother, and morale officer for the whole mob of us. She served up great meals to everyone. Moisés wasn't shy about telling me what a lucky man I am. 

When locking down, the ships pull in behind the yachts, and plenty close.
Mules in action
The volume of shipping is continuously impressive. This is our AIS screen, zoomed out to show the entire peninsula.
Our only other drama came when we were locking down at the end, through Miraflores Lock.

There tends to be current behind you in this lock, and it can be a tough place for an under-powered single screw vessel to hold her position while waiting for other boats to get tied in. The plan, therefore, would be for us to raft to the Torah, a powerful launch that was going through with us, and to let them maneuver us between the two levels of the final lock.

In retrospect, it was probably a sign when the advisor on the launch introduced himself and told me that I might have to be ready to supply a little reverse if needed.

After we had locked down through the first level of the locks, Torah untied from the wall and started motoring forward.

And instantly, the (American) captain of the Torah started steering like a drunk on rollerskates. 

The poor guy only seemed to understand two speeds - full ahead and full astern. Time and again he wildly oversteered and found himself in danger of spinning right around inside the lock.

With us tied to him.

And time and again he gave it full throttle to get himself out of a jam. Moisés was constantly on the radio to Franklin, the advisor on the Torah, relaying instructions to me to help power the launch out of trouble.

I remember saying out loud at one point, "What is he doing?". But then I settled down into the situation of being shackled to an apparent crackhead with a thousand horsepower engine at his command and paid very close attention to Moisés' instructions as the way to get us through the experience.

Between the Torah's wild full power oscillations and our own puny 40-horsepower attempts to aid something like a straight course, the lines between the vessels repeatedly stretched out violin string-tight, and then went full slack.

I was so so happy when the line handlers finally had Torah tied into place.

Moisés, it turns out, is a foreman for the Canal authority launch operators (the advisors are all employed by the Canal authority in other capacities, and take advising gigs on their days off). This was a private launch, apparently serving the needs of agents, and had nothing to do with the Canal. And to his vast credit, Moisés spared not a breath to castigate the errant captain while the wild ride was going on, and merely worked hard and intently to get us through it.

Afterwards, though, he was scathing.

And then the cat came along us, and it turned out that their advisor on this second day was a trainer for Canal launch operators. He had watched the whole show, and he and Moisés had a long, disbelieving, can you believe that shit? kind of talk between themselves.

The culprit
The linehandlers on the Torah were a very friendly bunch, though.

Looking down from the final locks towards the Pacific.

The last gates open, and we're free to go.
My captain's hat came out as we made our triumphant way down to the Home Ocean. I have rocked that hat exactly twice before this: at the Cape of Good Hope, and at Cape Horn. I reckon I'll bust it out a fourth time when (inshallah) we re-enter Kodiak Harbor after a decade away, and then I'll hang it up. So to speak.
And, while the captain's hat is clearly a lark, I will admit that playing the captain's role was an unexpected pleasure of the transit. Normally Alisa and I do everything together. Our ship is small enough that it can be that oddest of all oddities, a democracy afloat. Most of the time anyway. But during the transit we had all this extra help on board, in the form of competent sailors. So I could mostly stand behind the wheel, do the steering thing, and direct the efforts of others.
Maybe there's something about middle age that makes that attractive?
Getting the line handlers ashore after the transit
The end