Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Oh, That?

Oh, that aimless back and forth on the Spot Tracker screen (right)? Turns out that the forecast for SW winds was a bit optimistic, and this morning we found ourselves slamming into westerly 20 knot winds, with a little tide against the wind to make the waves stand up and take notice. "Let's see if it's better at lunch time" turned into "I think this is enough for me" very quickly, but not quick enough to avoid one final triumphant wave over the bow, down the dorades, into the cockpit and through the engine breather box. The nice sheltered anchorage we had just left was clearly the place to be, and that's where we spent the afternoon.

We'll try again tomorrow.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Five Hundred and One

Sunrise finds us well out to sea. You could live your whole life in the town and not know what is just here, in the wide bay. The hills have shrunk to a distant backdrop, the roads and neighborhoods and port have become minutiae. Everything that is at the center of things back in town is transformed, from the perspective of Galactic's decks, to details, barely discernable. Around us, and before us all the way to Patagonia, is this primal, elemental place, the ever-shifting sea.

We've started to take New Zealand for granted – our time since the Auckland Islands has been pleasant enough, but after a year in Hobart we're looking for something different from the pleasant/bucolic Antipodean experience. Our hearts already pine for the turquoise waters and unfamiliar cultures of a cyclone-free season spent in the tropics. But then, sailing up this coast, I open my eyes to where we are, and what we're doing. The shoreline is guarded by inaccessible cliffs that glow in the morning sun. The sky is blue again today. The sun beats the ocean surface, first to copper, then to silver. Inland, we watch the signature New Zealand landscape spool by: rugged landforms with a pastoral twist, courtesy of the ubiquitous sprinkling of sheep and cattle. The sere brown of the drought is far behind us, and the hills are lush. Dolphins leap at our bow, a kingfish comes on deck. The boys are playing well together, so well that Alisa and I even get ten minutes together in the cockpit.

For a few months now I've been watching the approach of the 500th post on this blog. For some reason that seems like as much of a milestone for the duration of our time "away", living on traveling sailboats, as the upcoming 6th anniversary of our departure from Kodiak. Like so many milestones, this one seemed far away, and then was suddenly past. So this post is the five hundred and first.

It's a funny thing, living a lifestyle that is so much the product of active choice, so far from the path of least resistance. After choosing to organize our lives to enable this long period of near-constant travel, we are always aware, in the back of our minds, that we are just one choice away from stopping, and going back to a life ashore. On the hard days, when we are confronted by the effort that it takes to keep going, with me on deck singlehanding our 45-footer, and Alisa belowdecks, singlehanding through homeschooling and childrearing, that choice cries out to be made.

But those moments pass. We know that a life ashore would have moments, and discontents, of its own. And for now, we're very happy right where we are.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Galactic at rest at the Napier Sailing Club.

We've spent two weeks here - long enough that it's hard to remember the time when this little harbor seemed so unfamiliar, the way all new places do at first.

In our time here we've gotten the head gasket replaced and had a new bimini made and fixed the roller furling ourselves.  And I've taken the opportunity of this period of stasis to put in a mad bout of work on my marine biology research.  And now the endless west and northwesterlies that have made sailing around East Cape and across the Bay of Plenty so unappealing are finally meant to break, and we're making tracks in the morning.

There's a simple pleasure in this sort of travel - we plant ourselves in a fairly anonymous part of a country that we don't know well, and briefly get to know some everyday people who have nothing at all to do with the tourism industry, the sort of people whom you'd never meet if you were staying in a hotel in Napier for a night or three and then moving on...

The boys with Hans and Solveig.  "Our friends!" Eric would say in the morning.  "I wanna see our friends!"  And as many days as not, Elias and Eric did see them.  
Simpatico kids who also happen to have parents who are pleasant company 
- that's what makes a port come alive for us these days. 

Elias hoping to sell macroalgae to passersby needing to fertilize their gardens.  "I'll get fifty cents from each person and I'll give you the money to help pay for the engine!"  

I think we were fortunate in the outfit we found to do our engine work.  They're a really big outfit, mostly doing construction equipment and logging trucks.  But when I rang them up the day we arrived, I was put through to the service manager, and had the foreman in our engine room within a couple hours.

We were happy with the job they did, and the engine seems to have recovered fully.  But today when I went to dip the fuel tanks I got this surprise - a bilge full of oil, presumably spilled during the job.

So my more-or-less planned-out day before departure suddenly had to accommodate an hour or two of cleaning out the bilge.

I took it in stride, mostly.  I know that things like this happen when you're working on an engine... but if you spilled this much oil in someone's boat, don't you think you'd tell them?  Oh well...

But then, while I was still in mid-clean, we had a visit from Customs.  Alisa had called the local office, trying once and for all to get a straight answer on whether we have to pay GST on gear for the boat.  (It's a long story - the Customs office in Christchurch told us we ABSOLUTELY have to pay GST on gear for the boat.)

But when Alisa called the office here, a couple of the local Customs agents came down to the dock to talk it over.  One of them spent half an hour on the phone, trying to figure it out.  Then, having gotten the final word that we're GST-free, the agents drove me to the shop that had done our head gasket, had the shop write me a new bill without the 15% tax, and then drove me back to the boat.

I'm confident that we've just had the best Customs experience of our entire sailing lives, past and future.

Monday, April 22, 2013


I'm not really into big boats - one of my favorite rules of thumb is that happy sailors have small boats.  When we were boat shopping three years ago we were looking for a boat no more than 42' long.  But of course you don't get everything you want, and Galactic was the right boat for us in a whole lot of ways, even at 45' (that's 13.7 m for everyone else in the world).

So I'm not one to sing the praises of a bigger boat.  But I gotta say that I LOVED having a boat this size for crossing the Tasman and going down to the Aucklands.  Partly this was because Galactic, at more than twice the displacement of our last boat, Pelagic, is plenty comfortable at sea.  But the real advantage of a bigger boat in those waters is the speed.  We have good sails and a fast underbody and when we got a reasonable weather window we could poke our noses out of whatever snug anchorage we were in and make eight or nine or even (with a bit of help from the tide) ten knots (below) so that we were in the next snug anchorage before the window closed.

The other thing that made me happy about our setup while we were down south was our anchor - our really really big anchor.

We've got a 40 kg / 88 lb. Rocna, which we got at a steep discount in California when we were fitting out the boat.  And when the wind started williwawing in Erebus Cove in the middle of the night, with Galactic heeling over and spinning around on the chain, I didn't worry for a minute that we might drag.  (Touch wood!)

And, well, I don't like to go on about practicalities too much on the blog.  More than anything else, I was aware of how much we relied on our various routines to do everything - our routines for finding an anchorage at night, and pulling the hook in the morning, for cooking dinner at sea and gybing the boat when sailing wing and wing in a big swell and for standing watches through the night.  All those things are completely second nature to us now - it's almost like we can just put ourselves on autopilot to get these tasks completed while, hopefully, we're mentally scanning the scene for the possibility of something that isn't routine.

Anyway, it seemed to work...

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Glimpse of Home, So Far Away

Galactic and her crew found themselves at the Aucklands just as a series of gales swept in from the west.  We spent the next few days snugged down in the best anchorages in Port Ross - Erebus Cove (below) and Terror Cove.

Terror and Erebus are names that resonate in the history of polar exploration.  The anchorages were named when the ships were in the Aucklands during voyages of Antarctic discovery, under the command of James Ross.  Later, of course, they disappeared under the command of John Franklin during the search for the Northwest Passage.  Very cool to anchor Galactic in this place.

There was also a settlement here, briefly, about 160 years ago.  Three hundred people lived along the shoreline in this picture, but now the rata trees look like they've been undisturbed since the dawn of time.

A cemetery is one of the few remnants of the settlement.

Many of the graves are from shipwrecks that occurred after the settlement was abandoned.

The weather limited us to a quick trip ashore and some exploring in the dinghy.  But meanwhile, of course, we were at home on board Galactic, and family life went on as per normal.  This is the only way that we could imagine extended travel with little kids.

Home school (boat school?) has become a major focus of Alisa's efforts.

Bundling the kids up takes time!

We scrubbed footwear before and after each trip ashore to prevent the accidental introduction of exotic plants.

When the weather cheered itself up we took Galactic around to Ranui Cove and went ashore to the World War II coast watch station.

The old lookout building.

The pinups are still on the wall, seventy years later.

And the magazines are still stacked in a corner.  This one was a find - Brad Washburn is a hero of Alaskan mountaineering - the central figure of mountain exploration in the Great Land.  Corresponding with him about his first ascent of Mt. Deception, and a route that a friend and I put up on the same mountain fifty years later, was a highlight of my climbing days.  It was great fun to imagine some bored, lonely Kiwi down here all those years ago, reading about Washburn's exploits.

The view from the lookout.  The tip of our mast is just visible as a dot on the shoreline in the center of the photo.

We sailed around to Dea's Head to anchor for the night.  Penguins porpoised in the sunlight on either side of us.  The anchorage was still - and yes, that is a gin and tonic in Alisa's hand.

We had a celebratory pizza dinner in the cockpit.

A period of settled weather had arrived, and we were expecting moderate SW winds on the leading edge of an approaching high.  It was the third week of March, and although we had only scratched the surface of the Aucklands, we were determined not to be caught out by the changing season, either in the subantarctic or at Stewart Island.  It was time to go.

As I took the shot above we were listening to pigs screaming in the bush and New Zealand sea lions howling from the water.  A few hours later the southern lights came out - the aurora australis.  Alisa and I met each other in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the aurora borealis is a part of everyday life, especially if you are a student living in a cabin without plumbing and find yourself making visits to the outhouse in the dead of night.  So it was a particular treat for us to see the aurora australis at least once in our lives. After all these years of traveling, and the effort of getting ourselves to somewhere as far from our previous experience of the world as the Aucklands, we were presented with this sight that was both wonderfully familiar, and something we had never seen before.

All the world is our home, and anywhere where we can manage to get our boat, safely, is a place where we're meant to be.

The display that we saw at Dea's Head was a good one - not one of those times when you wonder if that smudge of light on the horizon is the aurora, but one of those times when the lights dance high overhead.  We woke Elias to see them.

He was a little impressed, but mostly sleepy.

The next day we put to sea.

It was a good trip back.

In the next post - a few highlights of what we learned while operating the boat down south...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Southern Ocean Mojo

Hmmm...was it really only a month ago?

Our trip to the Auckland Islands wasn't at all Southern Ocean sailing in the classic Bernard Moitessier, Beryl and Miles Smeeton way, all graybeards and lonely expanses and coming to the end of one's self.

But... it was enough - enough of a chance for us to dip our toes into higher latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, where the game seems to be so different from the northern environments where we're at home.

To begin with, there was Bluff - gateway to the New Zealand subantarctic.  We checked into the country there, and then returned after our fortnight at Stewart Island so that we could be checked by the Department of Conservation before heading south.

Kiwis (and visiting sailors) love to bag on Bluff.  And it's true that there's not much there.  This is the view of the CBD from the century-old wharf where we tied up Galactic.

Said century-old wharf is a big part of why sailors love to watch Bluff disappearing over the stern.  There are all the rusty bolts and old tractor tires to tie up to that you could want.  When the wind blows southwest it pins you to the dock, and the tide runs like a river.

Here we're using five fenders and two fender boards to make peace with a stack of tires.

There's also a two-meter tide at that dock, so you leave the boat squeezing the air out of the fenders in the morning, then come back to find her out of reach in the afternoon.

Carrying rubbish to town.

The outfitting choices aren't so great in town, either.  We realized that Elias had grown to the point where there was a gap of bare skin between his boots and warm pants...all we could find to solve the problem was a pair of rugby socks at the op-shop.

Luckily, he thought they were just the thing.

So the amenities of Bluff were a bit short of the mark.  But - oh, man.  The people there are friendly friendly friendly.  They set a standard that the rest of (very friendly) New Zealand would struggle to meet.

We finished our business in Bluff...and then there was nothing to it but to head out for the Aucklands.

You'll remember that I was feeling pretty indecisive about the trip.  That hesitation is all about the kids - if it were just Alisa and me on board, I think we'd get up to all sorts of highjinks afloat.  But with the kids in the mix, I'm pretty happy to keep our ambitions in check.

But as it turned out, the passage south was everything that we could have hoped for.  Sun hats in the roaring forties!

Royal albatross.

Black-bellied storm petrel.

After a day and two nights at sea, we pulled into Port Ross at dawn.  Gale- and storm-force northwesterlies were on the way.  Our weather window had closed.

I had, of course, been up much of the night, and was dying for sleep.  But we were here!  The dinghy clearly had to be launched, and a tour of the bay taken, whatever the weather.

Whatever the weather!

More soon.