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."
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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...
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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?
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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.
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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

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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?
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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...