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!

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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