Cascading events: preventing crisis at sea

Fears of disaster at sea can loom large; even for adrenaline junkies, misadventure is not the desired companion to adventure. Jamie shares one facet of thinking around avoiding crises at sea here; for more, join Cruisers U and attend seminar at the Annapolis Boat Show next month.

Some boaters will experience a crisis situation. All come close, repeatedly… You know, like that time during the headsail change when the halyard slipped away, and then… Oh wait, that one became a crisis. How could a loose halyard go so wrong, right? Let’s let the halyard dangle, for now, while we talk crisis.

What is a crisis? Multiple concurrent problems for which there are no procedural solutions.

An emergency may be terribly bad, but it’s not a crisis. The difference matters. It’s a little like when you were a freshman and procrastinated writing a paper. You pulled an all-nighter and finished it just in time – stressful. Then as a self-assured sophomore, the same thing happened except you had three papers due and a kegger all demanding attention on the same night – stressful with very mixed outcomes. Multiples are much harder to manage.

We sailed into Port Villa, Vanuatu in October 2010 and while figuring out the fairly crowded anchorage, a sailboat was towed past us and put on a mooring.

sailboats in a mooring field off Port Vila, Vanuatu
Lonely boat in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Engine failure came to mind, but we learned otherwise. A guy was out sailing with his girlfriend. It was a nice day that got a little lumpy which caused an issue with the dinghy. He went aft to sort it out – and fell overboard. Like the sinking catamaran, this is a serious emergency. The girlfriend was not a sailor and had no idea what to do. Single problem cascaded into multiple problems:

3) crew member overboard

4) crew onboard could not maneuver the boat being steered by autopilot

5) visual of victim was lost

6) boat was sailing without control towards an island

The number sequence is not wrong. The boyfriend going overboard was an emergency, but problems began earlier as elevated risk: 

1) towing the dinghy in the ocean in unsettled sea state.

2) not taking precautions before leaving the cockpit, especially knowing the crew was not a skilled boater

Girlfriend had a lucky break when fishermen saw the boat sailing towards a reef. They were able to get on board and alter course. She lived. Boyfriend was never seen again. Even if girlfriend was a skilled boater, managing a situation with crew overboard AND lumpy conditions AND towed dinghy problem would’ve been very difficult. This was a crisis ending in tragedy.

tropical island paradise: blue sky, white clouds, sandy beach, turquoise water
Reason #73 to go cruising: perfect, remote atolls. Just because.

The cause was not a single dramatic event. Instead, seemingly inconsequential choices cascaded into crisis and terrible consequences. It’s easy to cast judgement of the man’s choices, but doing so is hollow. Who hasn’t left the cockpit in haste or taken a tiny shortcut in preparations? The take-away here is two main points.

First, multiple problems (crisis situation) divide focus and response efforts. No one problem can be resolved as well as if it were the ONLY problem.

Second, most often crisis is born from a single problem, be it serious or insignificant, that grows exponentially more complex IF more problems pile on. Meaning, when that first “thing” happens, don’t let a second thing happen! I call this “boxing the problem”. Key is understanding when risk in a situation is elevated. Sometimes it’s obvious and instantly dealing with an emergency. Often, it’s subtle and still represents elevated risk. The towed dinghy became tragedy while a sinking catamaran was a textbook rescue. 

This brings us back to the dangling halyard. It’s a typical day along the Malay Peninsula, light winds with a chance of volatility. Husband, in this real event, decides on a course of action after the halyard got away, all the way to the masthead. He chose to go up the mast to retrieve the halyard. Going aloft always brings elevated risk! Doing so at sea is rocketed risk. It was clear from the storyteller, his wife, that retrieving it was unnecessary – just a macho guy thing. Worse still, a squall was approaching but he was only going up for a minute. At the masthead, it took long enough for the squall to hit. Now a single, benign problem (halyard) became a very risky situation (going aloft) and then two problems (dude up the mast and managing the boat in a squall). Bad, right? Get this! While pitching around, mast and man came crashing down.

To recap, there is a concurrent man overboard and dismasting during a squall. Husband had to get untangled from halyard and rigging before it pulled him under while also not loosing sight of the boat in torrential conditions. At this moment we were no longer sure that the guy next to the storyteller was in fact the same macho mast climbing in the story. Confirmation, and relief, came over a stunned group of cruisers when the storyteller wife looked at the guy with a big laugh, saying – you were so stupid! Husband heartily agreed.

A simple, single problem devolved into a full crisis situation. The outcome was lucky, sans rig, but lucky nonetheless. Even if the first domino to fall is a big one, do what you can to prevent it from tumbling others. Box the problem. This takes assessed, reasoned response. I suspect the guy in Vanuatu never imagined that he could be one of those clumsy people that falls overboard. 

Long ago, on a dark, lumpy night I had to leave the cockpit to put a deeper reef in the main. I was wearing a PFD with integrated harness, tethered to Totem. Still, being a little uncomfortable with the elevated risk, I asked myself “is this the last time I leave the cockpit?” It was a question. There is a lot to crisis management at sea. A good place to start is questioning your actions before you take them. I still ask myself that question when leaving the cockpit. Some boaters will experience a crisis situation. All come close, repeatedly…

blacktip reef shark swims next to sailboat hull in clear water
Sharks swim under Totem in Chagos: still feel at greater risk in a vehicle on the highway.

Cruising gear: what about the phone?

Ferry crossing Puget Sound in a smoky sunset

Ah, the freedom of cruising! No commute, no schedule, no phone ringing… WAIT A MINUTE THERE. Phones? We gave our cell phones up when we took off in 2008 for a blue horizon. But the world changed and they crept back in a few years later, and are now indispensable travelers tools. Used as a hotspot, a smartphone is our primary vehicle for getting online aboard Totem. Apps connect us to helpful tools from mapping to translation and a myriad of other tools. Necessary to keep up Totem’s Instagram! Can you use what you have? Do you get a local burner? What about international roaming? Here’s what works when you’re a border-hopping nomad.

Our current solution is to have two phones: one is a permanent US number (keeps us connected to folks at home and gets us online faster in a new place), and the other gets a new SIM card for whatever country we’re in (local rates are more affordable, and we may want to make local calls/texts).

Screenshot of Project Fi app saying Welcome to El Salvador

The US phone is part of Google’s Project Fi; it means we are instantly online when we pick up a new country’s cell tower, as long as it’s one of the 135 countries in their plan (right, that’s most, although not French Polynesia). We are easily reached on a single number for text or calls, and billing is scaled at transparent, affordable rates: free texts, international roaming calls at $.20/minute, and data metered at $10/gigabyte.

It cracked me up as we sailed up the west side of central America this spring when Project Fi announcement on our phone was the first clue an international boundary line was crossed.

The local phone starts with any international-friendly unlocked phone.  Unlocked is essential for swapping out SIM cards when you’re in a new country, of course, so make sure that doesn’t require a trip to the Genius Bar first. Will your current phone will work internationally? Ask the carrier, try this map, or look up the device in Wikipedia. If you’re buying a new phone, look for phones that are GSM, or work on “quad band,” or work specifically on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands.

Why do you want a local number? If we only had one phone aboard, we’d choose this route. First, because this is our primary way to get online, and a local carrier’s plan has cheaper data rates (Telcel in Mexico runs around $5/gb, for example) than Project Fi ($10/gb) in most places/situations.

Second, because we make and receive calls and texts in other countries, and a local contact isn’t going to place an international call to reach our US number. For example: local calls/texts to arrange inland travel or just to coordinate a ride with a taxi to get fuel. Getting around on the back of a motorcycle is common in Indonesia, and when I had a good driver I’d text to request them specifically. 

A teenage girls holds a chicken in front of a backyard coop
Mairen tries out suburban chicken farming

Want to keep your current US phone number? That’s possible but more complicated. If you stay with your current service, know that the international roaming data is likely to be throttled (T-mobile swore we’d have 4G in the Bahamas and Caribbean, but that was only possible with local plans; we were limited to 2G). Also, your service will be cut off with minimal notice if you use it for some months without being back in the USA. Harsh, right? It happens! The fine print in Terms & Conditions for US carriers limit international use (at their discretion); this roaming is intended for part-time only.

Keep your number another way by forwarding it to your local country number. It requires paying for your US service and a VOIP phone number in the US, but that might be important for you. How does the magic happen? This is written up in detail by SV Liquid, check out the post.

I want to try Project Fi!

We think Project Fi kind of awesome. We’re able to help a handful of people save $20 on their first bill if they sign up with this link: https://g.co/fi/r/3208HT (I think it’s capped at 10 referrals. First come first served! It saves us $20, too, so… thanks!). A US address is required to sign up for Project Fi.

Signing up with Project Fi may mean buying a new phone, as only select models are compatible. You can buy one from Google, or buy the right model elsewhere and purchase a plan from Google (the SIM is free). Phones start under $200 for a Moto G6, or you can spend hundreds more for schmancier Pixel 2 or LG models. Nice to know: both Fi-friendly Motorola models have meaningful water resistance, so wet dinghy rides (and even a dunking) aren’t going to kill your device.

Overcast skies and the silhouette of boats in a Puget Sound evening
Long twilight and gray days in the Pacific Northwest summer

Other tips

Apps not direct dial! Despite these two phone numbers we now carry around, what we use most for calls is an app: usually Whatsapp or Skype. Whatsapp is widely used (not just in the USA), and means I can use my US-number-phone to “call” the Costa Rican taxi driver on his phone. Skype is useful because you can use Skype to call a physical phone (landline or mobile), and the rates are much cheaper than Project Fi (a couple of cents per minute, instead of $0.20/minute; it adds up over an hourlong call!).

We added a mobile signal booster to Totem’s kit in 2016. The Wilson WeBoost works by amplifying an existing cellular signal; pick that up with a phone/device on board the boat. Unit pricing varies by how many devices can connect at once, and start around $150. They don’t work everywhere and international benefit is unclear, but we definitely felt the boost in the Bahamas, and again in Mexico… retaining a signal in areas we were told there was none on our way up the Sea of Cortez.

Staying in touch, taking snapshots of your adventures, getting online, growing your Instagram, whatever it is: a phone is indispensable. Got a question about use as a cruiser I didn’t cover? Ask in the comments and I’ll follow up!

Puget Sound denizens, join us in September!

  • Friday-Sunday, 7th -9th: Wooden Boat Festival, Port Townsend. Presenting all three days
  • Friday 14th, 7 pm: Seattle’s Corinthian Yacht Club. Details here
  • Tuesday 18, 5:30 pm: Shilshole Bay Yacht Club’s September dinner meeting. This event is for SBYC members; if you’d like to attend, contact me for details to join as a guest.
  • Friday 21st, 7:30 pm: Puget Sound Cruising Club’s September meeting
  • Vancouver friends, we regret that the BCA event planned for the 12th has been canceled, and hope you might find us near Seattle instead.

Come find us at the Annapolis Boat Show, starting October 4!

  • Oct. 4-8th, afternoons: Cardinal publishing and Good Old Boat booths
  • Oct. 5-7th, mornings: instructors for Take The Wheel
  • Oct. 5th, afternoon: seminar sponsored by Cruising World 
  • Oct. 8-11th: Cruisers U seminars, including Cruising Women with (Behan co-leads with Pam Wall) and Jamie’s popular Crisis Management class

It’s about seven weeks until we return to Totem, but who’s counting? The Pacific Northwest summer is fading an it appears There Will Be Socks before we can return to Mexico. Enjoy these snapshots of our summer and wish us warmth! 

Two women talk gaily in Adirondack chairs on a dock, a sailboat anchored in the distance
lazy summer days with old friends
A large family groups together in a lush backyard for a reunion portrait
Reunion time for Behan’s family

Lessons in flexibility, nurtured by cruising

Three kids and their mama as the eldest moves in at college

Last week we crossed into our eleventh year of cruising aboard Totem. Except we aren’t aboard Totem right now, and this summer has taken a different trajectory than planned. (Pictured today in Portland, Oregon; moving-in day for Niall at Lewis & Clark college.)

Shifting plans isn’t unusual for our family, for our voyaging life. We’re accustomed to having our plans swing, making big changes with little notice. Like last October’s diagnosis of Totem’s wet hull in Grenada, which changed our routing plans for the coming year. Or this summer’s revelation of my mother’s escalating dementia, which rewrote the plans for how we’d spend these few months back in the USA.

What makes change a constant?

Weather is the primary everyday factor influencing plans, making any schedule impossible to keep. You don’t leave port when the calendar says so, you leave when the weather indicates. Calendars are helpful as guidelines only! I cringe when I hear “we’re going to leave on (fill in a specific date).”

PredictWind screenshot showing ocean current data
Bermuda to Connecticut was an extended waiting game: PredictWind shows the Gulf Stream current meanders

Company alters plans, too. Any kid boat knows that intentions to depart may be thrown to the wind if a new arrival in the anchorage turns out have kids that hit it off with yours. It’s not just kids; other boats we wanted more time with have prompted Jamie and me to shift plans to meet them.

Plans should be swayed by the experiences in a new place: another reason why schedules are the enemy. When you find yourself in that perfect anchorage, for whatever reason—the reef to snorkel, the trails to hike, the connections made ashore: why rush off because your timeline says the next destination is due? Of course, this works both ways: when visiting swarms of bees made Puerto Ballandra unpleasant this spring, we left on minimal notice despite stated intentions to remain in place for a few days!

Sailboat at anchor in front of rugged desert hills off Baja
Voyager at anchor in Ballandra
A bee drinking dew from a sailboat deck
That first one seems so innocent, drinking dew from the nonskid on deck… then 1,000 friends show up

New cultures and landscapes prompt us to adapt, too. In step with new norms, we change our interactions with people and places. It’s a whopping 48 countries/territories that we have experienced since sailing away from Eagle Harbor in August of 2008; each arrival prompts familiar questions. Will the markets be weekly or daily? At the crack of dawn or heat of afternoon? Is bargaining expected or unwelcome? How do people greet each other (and what’s the response)?  Is it safe to walk anywhere, or must care be taken?

This steady series of everyday decisions and regular transitions hones adaptability into a skill.  The common sense to seek what you need to know. The courage to base plans on human priorities instead of inhuman timelines.

This adaptability is one of the valuable skills we hope our son, Niall, took with him today as he moved into his college dormitory. It’s an exciting new chapter for our academic eldest, one sure to be full of new features to adjust to. One of the easiest, at least, will be personal space! He turned around in the capacious dorm room, and commented that the closet had more space than his cabin on Totem. (It does, too.) But he faces myriad adjustments in the weeks and months ahead.

The huge closet and comical shoe rack
There’s even a three tiered shoe rack in the closet! So we had to put in Niall’s shoes, for a photo op.

Two girls sitting on the edge of a bed in a college dorm room
Normal dorm room = palatial to a boat kid. Apparently we need Pinterest help for decor however.

Reaching for another tissue this afternoon, it hit home that adaptation is not just his, but ours: finding new rhythms as a family of four aboard. Expanding to fill the gaps he’ll leave around the dinner table, the chores list, the watch schedule, the ironic commentary. We’ll miss him, but embrace what’s ahead. As he has opportunities to grow, so do we: for Mairen and Siobhan, owning roles aboard Totem that he generally assumed with anchoring, reefing, watchkeeping.

Many cruising friends have moved back to land. Swallowed the anchor, as they say. And usually, they report that returning to “normal” sucks…and then they adapt.

We expect an October return to Totem in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. Back to an unscheduled, flexible life for most of the Totem crew. Niall has the double whammy of adjusting both to land life and schedule far more rigorous than the 3rd grade he sailed away from 10 years ago. It’s OK. He’ll adapt!

Niall on campus at Lewis & Clark

Cooking aboard: migrating kitchen to galley

spicy red chiles in a calabash bowl

pinterest kitchen to galley migration

We love to cook. Moving from a spacious, well-equipped kitchen on land to a compact galley on a sailboat did nothing to impact our enthusiasm for creating and enjoying delicious meals. Until you live this truth, it may feel elusive; it’s easy to presume that cooking aboard approximates camping cuisine. I want to kick that misconception to the curb. Or reef. Or whatever! 

This post is part one in a series of galleywise topics, starting with a look at kitchen appliances. What makes the transition to the boat, what doesn’t, and how we compensate for equipment that doesn’t cross over. Are there some compromises? Probably, but do I feel for a moment deprived? Absolutely not!

[Yesterday’s article and video in CNN brought a raft of visitors. If you’re new to our blog, you might want to Start Here or read Who and Why. Welcome!]

Our kitchen on land included a professional range and more electrics than I can count on my hands. Some were everyday appliances, like our espresso machine; others had specialty use, like the Kitchen Aid standup mixer. We liked to entertain and these tools made it easier to cook for a crowd.

Aboard Totem, our galley may be a micro-sized and lightly equipped by comparison, but hasn’t compromised what we’re able to do. We still love to cook, to share meals aboard with friends, to explore the world through tastes and dishes. It cracked me up to see that CNN’s choice of a thumbnail for the video about our family happened to reference our love of food. THAT’S US!

CNN video about Sailing Totem family

In truth: most of our kitchen appliances did not get to the boat. It’s also true that I don’t miss them. OK, that’s a lie. Whipping cream by hand is a pain in the arm, but that’s why I have helpers! But only rarely do the gadgets offer function that can’t be replicated with a simpler tool, or time, or both. Here’s a comparison of commonly used appliances and how they fit in our land-to-boat transition.

On shore: On Totem:
Blender Immersion blender. This gadget (aka stick blender, hand blender) makes everything from smoothies to pureed soups to hummus. AC powered and a big amperage draw, but that’s OK since it’s only on for about 30 seconds! Ours is a much older version of this 400 watt model. Don’t undersize the wattage! At a more extreme end, I have a friend on a relatively low-tech boat that sized their inverter JUST so she could have her VitaMix on board.
Food processor Mandoline. What can I say, I like making perfectly thin and uniform slices of vegetables sometimes! This makes easy, pretty work of things like potatoes and tomatoes. Get 3-4 years from the blades, we currently have an Oxo mandoline. 

More chopper than processor, but there are manual devices that stand in for smaller jobs. Many immersion blender models come with an attachment bowl with a blad powered by the wand.

Mixer For more general mixing, a bowl and spoon are enough. For whipping cream, beating egg whites, or emulsifying aioli (OK so that’s about once a year), a flat whisk stores compactly and gets the job done with a little elbow grease. Helpers are nice.
Coffee/espresso machine Nothing! There are many ways to make coffee aboard, but our shmancy machine isn’t necessary. OK, so I do miss the frother/steamer for milk…

Bread machine Making bread by hand is actually pretty easy; it just takes time, which we have. Sometimes the bread onshore is good enough that I don’t feel compelled (why compete with baguettes on a French island?). Bread machines need space and power, so aren’t a great fit for most boats, but cruisers with power to run one benefit from a cooler galley when baking bread. (Land- and sea-version recipe for our favorite bread, pictured above, in this post.)
Microwave There’s a stove? Microwaves offer convenience we don’t need. The best use other than reheating might be making a hot drink for night watch – but if you’re moving around much on a passage, kettles are safer than the microwave as vessel for boiling hot water.
Toaster Stovetop. Some boats have a toaster; we just make toast in a griddle pan on the stovetop; monitoring necessary, but an electric appliance is not required.
Crock pot Power-hungry crock pots aren’t a good fit for most boats. Our Solavore solar oven acts a lot like a crock pot, cooking at low temperatures for hours; we don’t have one, but friends who do swear by a Thermal Cooker or Wonderbag for the same purpose: slow, unattended cooking.
Instant pot Pressure cooker. A pressure cooker on steroids is all that Instant Pot is! Modern pressure cookers are kind of awesome; programmable functions aren’t necessary.

Some boats do have items we chose to forego; it’s a function of having space and power to make them work. But my point here: so much of what we’re convinced are “needs” … aren’t, really. Like a lot of life afloat, things are simpler. Pared back, what served as a helpful convenience before becomes unnecessary clutter.

Baguettes delivered boatside making baking optional in this anchorage. Mexico, 2010.
Often our methods just need a little more time, and that’s OK. Malaysia, 2013.
At the end of the day, a simple meal is often best. Thailand, 2014.

Cruising and social media: what works?

Swing a cat in an anchorage and you’ll hit a boat with an active online presence. When we were in the planning phase of our cruising adventures (the early 2000s), blogging was nascent; only a few recorded their travels. Hungry for information and inspiration, I hung on every word and saved posts for reference; it helped keep the dream alive for years. Now there aren’t just blogs, but a range of social media outlets. What to do? How to decide? I chatted with a couple of our coaching clients about what they do for a broader perspective. Erin is boat mama to three boys, her family cruising the Caribbean since February; JD and Jen have built their family life around living aboard in San Francisco.

two people on a sailboat with a tropical island

Erin & Dave from Sailing to Roam, on the bow of their boat in St Lucia

Connect with your motivation

This blog began in July 2007, a few months after we bought Totem. I sought to capture memories of our family’s transition to life afloat and to keep our family updated after we left: motivations widely shared among cruisers. It’s evolved over time in terms of motivation and channels; now Totem’s blog/ Facebook / instagram indirectly supports our family as a part of the puzzle for our coaching and Jamie’s work as a sailmaker, and I have the privilege to help inspire others in to live more adventurously by sharing our experiences.

Family on a sailboat

JD, Jen, and Ruby of Tight Little Tribe

For Erin, for JD & Jen, the options were greater when they started (YouTube! Instagram! Facebook! Pinterest! More!) but their motivations are similar. Erin wanted to share their adventures with others and started a blog but “found myself wishing the blog was on Facebook, so that’s what I’ve tried to create, a Facebook page with mini blog posts for busy people.” It’s great, bite-sized information mirrored on her Instagram. Jen and JD came from slightly different places: Jen, blogging helped retain details of their baby girl Ruby’s alternative life afloat. JD, on the other hand, has told stories through video. “From a young age back in Kentucky my friends and I would write scripts, plan scenes, grab the camcorder and make ridiculously cliché 80’s style movies and music videos.” Together, they share a joyful look at life on the water.

What we all share? This form of content creation brings benefits, so that the effort we put in is a fair exchange for our time.

Choosing channels

two kids on a boat with text overlay for PinterestFor boaty folks looking to share their adventures, the focus swings to extremes. For Erin and many others, the more succinct mode for Facebook and Instagram allow active, engaging presence with less effort. Facebook Pages are well suited for the “mini blog” post Erin masters, and Instagram wins for ease of posting… as long as you can get your phone online, anyway.

The cruising blog is still around (hello, reader!) but more work and slower growth. Erin put it this way: “I’d also spoken to several people who had a successful blog (in terms of followers and website visits) but also said it was a lot of work for minimal monetary return.” I can attest to that! For me, it’s an outlet with more complicated rewards: a way to process feelings and hindsight perspective on experiences, a way to connect with and support others.

At the far end of the spectrum of effort-per-upload is YouTube. JD shared that he typically spent around 30 hours per video while making a series of videos that ranged from around 8 to 11 minutes each. That’s about 3 hours of editing per one minute of video – and he has experience with editing! Quality videos don’t make themselves. This is exactly what’s kept us out of the YouTube ring to date.

Twitter and Pinterest deserve a mention as part of the mix for Totem, although neither channel is particularly well fed/watered. But they’re useful as traffic drivers, and I appreciate there are some who only engage with us that way. Low effort for engagement return makes maintaining a presence worthwhile.

Key benefits

We all share similar goals to record our experiences in a kind of digital scrapbook, for ourselves and others. Community engagement is also echoed by many families. Per Jen, “I love feeling like I am part of something bigger, with a group of amazing human beings each working towards adventurous goals.”

Erin points out that they’ve been able to meet other families nearby because she keeps their social media presence current. I believe that making yourself findable is really important for cruising families, to help kid boats connect with each other. REALLY important! The point of Happy Boat Kids, Happy Boat is to provide ideas on why/how to do this.

Sharing our lives has grown a circle of friends in meaningful ways: some I get to meet eventually, many I’ve yet to meet but fill an important role. It’s why I’m knitting stripes to send my friend Amanda for her daughter Brie’s blanket,  a community project making a rainbow-striped blanket by many hands, all reaching to comfort Brie when she needs heart surgery in September. (See #briesblanket)

Sailing community and knitting. Really.

Erin has also garnered a number sponsors: it’s not income per se but has enabled her family to add some nice kit while waving money. She points out this comes with the responsibility to keep brands happy with what she posts, adds some work, and of course, succeeds when you have an honest voice instead of a pitch.

Some hope to generate income. It’s possible, but this is a long road through a crowded space that demands a lot of work and is probably going to net you less than selling doodles of stick figures on Fiverr. Few are successful, but those that are like our (awesome, earned it, work hard for it) friends on SV Delos have a combination of success factors that are hard to replicate.

Going remote

Many cruising grounds are in cell tower range and connectivity isn’t a problem. But for those going more remote (relying on satellite or radio), it’s more complicated.

Blogs and twitter are the easiest, as they can be readily updated from a simple text email and thus are doable over radio or satellite connection. Data-intensive social media channels are problematic. There are ways to get to Facebook (that’s another post!), but scheduling posts in advance is easier. Scheduled publishing is the option for YouTubers as well, uploading before going remote. Instagram posts can’t be scheduled, at least not without violating T&Cs – not worthile. It requires a phone back in internet-land to post; get a trusted friend involved, or fuhgeddaboudit.

Other ways to mitigate days offline is through connecting channels to repost. A blog posted through our Iridium GO is automatically posted to our Facebook Page, and every post to the Page is re-posted on Twitter. It’s a blunt tool approach to use the channels, very much not optimal, but better than nothing when data is limited. IFTTT (if this then that) recipes are a great way to work out the right daisy chain of reposts.

Comoros: many helpers for dinghy landing, not so many cell towers

Growing a following

At a base level, this isn’t rocket science. Provide quality content people enjoy and want to share; post routinely; engage with others. This organic method is what most do, and in a perfect world it’s all you need and optimize by being active. Wild card exposure to a bigger audience lifts awareness: Erin found an interview with a local paper evolved into a piece in the Daily Mail that gave her an early hit. Totem’s Facebook Page grew by multiples overnight in 2013 after a NY Times columnist mention; this month’s Today show interview didn’t hurt either. Giving interviews for other bloggers or magazines and recording podcasts help find new, relevant followers too. And then, there are those who leverage the boob effect. Good on ’em, it’s not for us though!

What about paying for a boost? I’ve seen this work with an Instagram Growth Service; effort involved in finding and attracting other instagrammers to follow you is relatively time consuming and data intensive (when you’re sipping data like a cruiser!). While that may offer a jumpstart, on the other hand, I don’t know anyone who has found Facebook boosting to actually work… incremental exposure for no bump in followers. Participating in groups that support each other’s posts in a given channel have the benefit of both community and a boost.

No pressure – really!

In a discussion thread among a couple of dozen boat families, many shared that they simply aren’t interested, or have other priorities, or prefer share differently. Artist, jewelry maker, and boat mama Elise said: “For those that don’t blog, the experiences and memories and stories are just as real and fantastic as those that do. How do you normally process and share? Online? Then do that. Via conversation? Then do that! Art? Do that!” A resounding YES! The explosion in social media has created pressure to engage that shouldn’t exist; there should be no guilt in opting out.

Trading when you don’t share a language: unforgettable whether it was on Facebook or not

I also chatted this morning with a fellow boat mama here in the Pacific Northwest. Beth shares her family’s travels on Facebook and intends to explore video, but recognizes “…keeping a balance of living without a camera is important to me too. Family time is what it’s all about, right?” Jen and JD admitted there are times when JD feels like filming “and I just want to be in the moment without a camera… which can lead to some marital strife when we aren’t on the same page at the same time.” A simple blog post can balloon into hours after arriving at final content and image editing. YouTube is even more extreme: “I can also go on editing binges where I get home from work,” shared JD, “and after Ruby goes to bed, I will edit till the wee hours. This can go on for days on end until I finish a project.” It’s a lot of work, worth a hard look before embarking and taking time away from other aspects of your life.

Privacy

Jen commented that she didn’t want to have Ruby ever be upset about her online presence as she gets older, something a lot of parents grapple with. Kids growing up today are test driving the online childhood with outcomes unknown. My friend Charlotte has a fantastic article about why she chose to retire her daughter from her social sharing at age 5 (she admits, an arbitrary number). “If I write about and document every memorable, (and non-memorable) moment of her life, I feel as if I will mute her own interpretation of her childhood.” We want our kids to own their definition of self, and childhood memories, not be captive to how we framed them… we want them to be happy and proud, and they’re the only ones who can really do this. As our kids have grown, I’m able ask their permission to use a particular photo or have them choose from a selection to know it’s one they’d like.

For the most part, this hasn’t been a concern, although there was one afternoon in South Carolina where a series of three unexpected visitors knocked on the hull after seeing our location online. I really love meeting people who are interested in our way of life and it was all good, just a teensy bit unnerving!

Totem crew – early days, a gift of the blogging record to look back and see

Cruising and social media: what works? It’s different and evolving. This blog too may evolve (it at least needs a refresh, any website jockeys around?). We’d love to try video, but life is too full to expand for that effort. What do I wish I could tell my 2007 self? That this little family record would have a wonderful future, and to just stick with it.

With extra big thanks to Erin (Sailing to Roam: blog, insta, facebook) and JD & Jen (Tight Little Tribe: fb, insta, youtube) for their openness and honesty in talking about social media use and goals. Check them out!

 

Then and now: sailing Baja nine years later

Sailboats in San Juanico Baja

What’s your favorite place? We’ve heard this question a lot lately. Jamie’s current answer to the “best place” question is that he has 100 top ten favorites. His point (aside from the impossibility of picking just one) is that there’s context needed. Some places are favorites for the delicious food. Others are unforgettable for their Looking back red rocks Bajaunderwater life. Still others for the cultural experiences and learning opportunities they offered. There are so many things to love about a place! The point is made as a family when we each rattle off a few that are top of mind, and quickly finding a dozen “favorites.” And yet what names seems to crop up among multiple family members during that flood? Mexico, and especially, our summer of sailing inside Baja.

Did you ever revisit a beloved haunt from your past, only to find it tarnished compared to the shiny perfection of your memory? That’s what I worried about as we returned to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Our family spent many months there in 2009. Then, as now, we pointed north to mitigate risk during hurricane season.

Returning after so many years and so many countries, would we determine our sophomoric highs to have been idealized in hindsight? Would the drama perceived by our new-to-cruising eyes now seem mundane? Or would familiarity offer comfort?

Northbound from Panama this spring, an old familiarity gradually returned to stars overhead: the Southern Cross still visible, but Orion holding more accustomed placement as our latitude climbed.

Tide pool exploring near San Evaristo, 2009; Totem in the background

We sailed along Baja’s rugged and unforgiving landscape for a month recently, finding a mix of familiar comforts and new discoveries before hauling Totem for our summer away. The kids have mixed memories of our past miles here; Siobhan was only five years old, and her recollections are fuzzy. For Jamie and I, many of our memories center around exploring a new landscape with our children, learning alongside them. Returning with young adults, the everyday dynamic shifted significantly. Our every day life had centered on caring for littles; now it included partners in our adventure as hands-on crew.

Niall at the helm: anchoring in Puerto Don Juan, 2018

The landscape rang familiar for all, even Siobhan. Pictures from nine years ago could as easily have been taken last month. The wildlife, from dolphins to whales to spectacularly diving pelicans: the same.

Anvil with wings looking graceful before splashdown: pelicans at Isla San Francisco

Everyone remembered “the frosting rock” in Los Gatos. Everyone wanted to climb the buttery-smooth looking sandstone cliffs now just as much as they did in 2009.

Totem’s junior crew scrambles up the face in 2009


This time, it didn’t feel quite as daunting to explore with our crew’s longer legs.

Climbing up the frosting rock, Los Gatos, 2018

A skip north in Santa Rosalia the bacon-wrapped were just as delicious, but maybe a little easier to get a mouth around for some.

Niall in 2009 and 2018, Santa Rosalia

Back in 2009, the needs and limitations of young children kept our activy range in a tighter radius: an afternoon on a beach, a walk into town. Our teens make it easier to roam further afield. “How about we try to climb that volcano?” “OK!”

Digging on a beachy afternoon near La Paz, 2009

Hiking Isla Coronados, 2018

A return trip never seems as long as the outbound journey to a new destination. So it feels on our return to the Sea of Cortez: the milestones of points and islands and fishing villages may have been buried in distant memory, but flew by with familiarity this time around. It took the edge off our need to press north, to haul and make our way north for a shorebound summer.

This stretch was eased by familiar faces. In La Paz we caught up with the Boren family from Third Day, a boat we’d shared many anchorages with way back when. Rich now runs CruiseRO watermakers from Cruisers Supply, a shop in one of La Paz’s nicer marinas with the bits and services cruisers want. Rich knows La Paz well and introduced us to gastronomic delights at the spectrum extremes: from street tacos carved off  the al pastor spit, curbside, to serrano ham carved by the ounce in a foodie hideaway.

Amy and Jason (Third Day) help Mairen bury Niall on the beach – La Paz, 2009

Up the coast a ways, former cruiser Jesse (an unforgettable part of our past Baja experience) drove us well inland to experience the whispering history of Misión San Francisco Javier, a 17th century mission halfway across the peninsula and unreachable for us otherwise… breaking on the return trip to try flying drones through the dramatic canyons of the mountains.

Any misgivings about how we’d like Mexico on coming back have faded, but it was these and other members of our cruising family made that return feel more like homecoming. Now there are places we can’t wait to revisit, friends new and old to meet up with, and a whole lot of street taco exploring to do when we head back to Totem this fall. And then, from that base of familiarity, to do what we love most: reach out and explore to find what’s new to learn from, while seeking ways to contribute. Ultimately, “favorite” places don’t matter nearly as much as making the most of the place you find yourself: we’re just that much luckier that Baja has so much to offer.

Two girls. Two burros. 2009.

Turning sailing dreams into reality

Welcome, newcomers to Sailing Totem! For our family’s backstory to a decade of sailing around the world, see Who and Why.  For hopeful cruisers, articles addressing the most common questions found in Start Here. Can we help you? Learn about our lifestyle coaching or get in touch.

This week our family has the incredible opportunity to share our story to a wide audience thanks an interview with Megyn Kelly on TODAY. Hopefully the morning interlude offered these newcomers inspiration and a few minutes to contemplate a different way of life.

We can’t know what will happen until the actual interview. While I expect we may be called to address some of the common questions about cruising, like storms (haven’t been in one) and pirates (knowable regions, don’t go there) and educating our children (our oldest starts college next month), hopefully we’ve been able to communicate that this is an accessible dream. I’ll call success if we crack the door for others choose a more adventurous life, whether that’s afloat like ours or along different path. [Update: I think we did! Watch below!]

People make radical changes in their lives for all kinds of reasons. We looked forward to more time together as a family, a chance to raise children as citizens of the world, to appreciate the privilege of being born with choices and options in our lives, to know the diverse natural wonders of our planet first hand so they might play a role in protecting it. What we didn’t anticipate is how deeply fulfilling it would be.

Important reasons why it’s fulfilling connected recently in an unlikely source. Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe is about PTSD and the challenges military vets face after coming home, but in talking about the benefits of a cohesive society alleviating the incidence of PTSD his book nails assets of the cruising life:

…human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.

Competence comes with time (we know many cruisers who started with very little actual sailing experience. As in, no prior experience at all). Living your values, your dreams, begets feeling authentic with life choices. Our family is tight, as is our community: Kevin Bacon has nothing on degrees of separation among cruisers.

Choosing cruising meant departing from a life measured in extrinsic values in favor of those intrinsic values, a switch  that brought unanticipated contentment. We’d like to help others find that peace, which is why we’re here: why this blog is written, why we’re interviewing with Megyn Kelly, why we put our private selves out there.

I suspect many of the broader audience watching TODAY this morning assumes such big changes are out of their reach. In fact, it’s much more achievable than most imagine; the hardest part is making the switch. Not saying someday, or it’s OK for someone else, or I don’t have the time / funds / freedom; not that, but setting a date, making a plan, and following through.

We long held the dream, but only morphed it into a plan after many years. With a departure date and a commitment, we papered the biggest uninterrupted wall in our home with what Jamie called The Giant Map of Dreams. It had a whiteboard-like surface allowed us to use the 14 foot long map as a creative space. Where could we go? Jamie and I marked dream destinations with dry erase markers, noting the bays we hoped to visit. Our younger children added continents and countries from their imaginations. We did not begin to conceive of the stories these places would tell, of the people we would meet. That swimming with sharks would come to feel almost natural. That babies in faraway places would be named for our children. That wild islands would stop us speechless with their grandeur, or bleached reefs shake us with their fragility. That a little girl in a dugout canoe would ask to trade three underripe, undersized tomatoes for basic writing tools. That everywhere, we’d be reminded that our world is full of beautiful people with their own stories to share. That too often, we’d learn about social injustice and experience environmental devastation first hand.

Now the map of our chartplotter traces a line for the route we’ve sailed Totem around the world. The Giant Map did its job of feeding  dreams of sailing to exotic places. We realize now the impossibility of visiting everywhere we hoped, at least on the first lap. But we’ve grown appreciation for finding the magic in ordinary places – it’s always there, somewhere! – while reaching some of our dreamed-of anchorages as well.

Think it might be for you? Pick up a few books. Watch some videos. Set a date. Let us know if we can help.

Summer in Seattle, after detour to NY for the TODAY show!

Fireworks flashed in the distance last night as the Bainbridge Island ferry pushed through Puget Sound’s dark water. This was supposed to be our last leg for summer travel back to the Seattle area, the culmination of a plan crafted in minutes while in Grenada last fall after learning Totem’s hull needed drying out. Instead, we’re headed to New York soon to tape an appearance on NBC’s Megyn Kelly TODAY. Holy exciting plan shakeups, batman!  Our interview is due to air next Monday, July 9, and we hope you’ll tune in.

How did this come together? Kicked off by a contact through this blog, followed by a broken phone call with a producer in NY as the Baja’s Sierra Gigante mountains interfered with the cell phone signal in our anchorage. Details finally worked out, plans shifted, and a couple of days ago an initial interview was recorded on a California beach with the gentle warmth of Lauren Ina and a great supporting crew.

It’s a little intimidating to think of the scrutiny this will bring. It’s been six years since our first taste of the mixed response from broad exposure after NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted/Facebooked about our family. His post was entirely positive, as were many comments in response, but it’s remarkable what ugliness the anonymous uninformed are ready to throw at you! You know what? We can deal with it. The opportunity to inspire others to live more adventurously, and show just how accessible it is for people who feel stuck in their lives to make a change, is too good to pass up. Maybe we’ll even be able to help a few of them!

For now we’re in a vortex of busy travel. After tens of thousands of miles at the moseying pace of a sailboat, we hit hyper speed this week with a whirlwind of busses, planes, and automobiles… the final ferry transit adding a dose of familiarity on the water… the cross-country trip still ahead.

As much as I miss rocking in our floating cradle at night, we’re overdue for time at home. At least we can rest easy with Totem’s location in the very far north of the Sea of Cortez. Hurricanes are the northern hemisphere sailor’s worry this time of year. But Totem is hauled at Rocky Point Boat Yard, aka Cabrales yard, safely north of named storm risk in the shrimping port of Puerto Peñasco.

It was an intense week of work preparing to go. The boat’s bottom was stripped down to bare fiberglass. We weren’t just packing ourselves up for months away, we were packing anything Niall wanted to bring with him as he moves off Totem to start college. Boatyard owner/manager Salvador Cabrales’ guidance and crew made it possible to get everything done quickly.

Totems bare hull

Totems bare hull in the Cabrales Boatyard

Packing up the boat for months unattended is a big job. One task is removing any food that could tempt pests. Even after significantly reducing our stores, a lot had to come off the boat. One of the security guards, Amador, provided a channel to limit food waste. After telling us about where he lives – “the real Rocky Point,” an impoverished community near the garbage dump where some lives are eked out by picking trash and dogs are used for protection, a door opened. We passed him about 50 pounds of food and several bags of clothes to be re-homed, while relieving our excess.

We’ve been in 48 countries/territories: Tijuana scores the creepiest, most intimidating border crossing EASILY.

Relatives near San Diego were the first stop on our way to Puget Sound with cheap seats on 4th of July flights. Getting to California from Peñasco involved an overnight bus to Tijuana, a forgettable ride with uncomfortable seats and regular stops (including disembarkation of the vehicle at 4am for a military search) that made sleeping a struggle. Walking across the border was the easiest (if eeriest) part, through a cage-like tunnel to homeland security checkpoints. A few days under Dan & Hillary’s care provided the perfect gentle landing, softening re-entry into the bustle of the USA. We love our cousins and are so grateful for their support!

Summer speaking

This summer in the Pacific Northwest is a gift, one we hadn’t anticipated until Totem’s condition made it the obvious choice. I can’t wait to reconnect with friends and family, most of whom we haven’t seen in the decade since we left. A decade!?!? I only blinked, I swear! (And that, truly, is another reason not to wait with whatever it is you’re planning/dreaming).

When we were in the planning/dreaming stages for our own cruising life, attending presentations and seminars from the people who made it, who got away and sailed for a blue horizon, were important to keeping the dream alive until it could be our turn.

Now, it’s our turn to give back. Jamie and I have a number of speaking engagements around the Pacific Northwest this summer. We can’t wait to share our stories, to pass the spark and nuge those in our wake. Maybe you’d like to come to one?

  • July 12: Seattle Yacht Club at 7pm. “10 years around the world” – all welcome, registration required. (206) 325-1000
  • July 24: private talk in Ballard. Practical advice for cruisers turning left from the Strait: get in touch if you’re interested.
  • September 7-9: Wooden Boat Festival. Presenting all three days; for details, see Festival website.
  • Sept. 11: Bluewater Cruising Association – Vancouver, BC
  • September 14: Seattle’s Corinthian Yacht Club
  • September 18: Shilshole Bay Yacht Club
  • September 21: Puget Sound Cruising Club – Destination focus: unexpected gems along our path around the world.

Meanwhile, returning to Puget Sound for the summer gives us even more reach to help gonna-go cruisers in person, a rewarding addition to our coaching service. Jamie’s expertise is available for on board for sail handling or sail/rig inspection. We can do 1:1 guidance about systems or gear choices/setup. My personal favorite: route planning! Affordable rates, plus travel costs – get in touch, and we’ll look forward to meeting you.

Optimizing Iridium GO use on board

Desert mountains and sailboats

Desert and sea are the incongruous pairing when sailing along Baja, where cactus-studded mountain ranges plummet to a Gulf full of marine life. Miles of isolated coastline make for stunning cruising grounds. We love the remote, wild-west feel of the Sea of Cortez… but we need to stay connected. There are approximately 2,534,934 more cardón cactus than cell towers here so we rely upon our Iridium GO.

What do we use it for? Keeping up with email. Checking news. I get twitchy without dipping into social media. Most important is weather: in case we needed a reminder, an early-season hurricane threatened to come our way as we sailed up the Sea these last couple of weeks. These are much the same tasks/functions we use on passages, too. I’ve detailed how we make the GO work for us below to share from what we’ve learned, help with understanding what it can do, and maybe set some expectations. [Unless noted otherwise, the context for all this is an iPad, because that’s what we use!]

Pre-departure checklist

Effective use off the grid starts with preparation before sailing away.

  1. Prep for email:
    • Set up ‘normal’ emails to forward to the Iridium email address, leaving original on the server (so it will download to laptop later when we have wifi later). Prevents needing to pass out the dedicated Iridium email address. Email to that address only accessible with the satellite connection, which is very inconvenient once you’re back in wifi land.
    • Put ‘normal’ email as the reply-to address in Iridium Mail & Web app settings, to avoid replies getting locked in the Iridium inbox.
    • Purge the Iridium email inbox (or risk a painfully long download of the old messages you’ve forgotten). This purge is done on the Iridium website: visit http://iridium.com/mailandweb, login BELOW the Iridium logo (not at the top of the frame!), select Change Email (also on that line below the Iridium logo), and scroll down for buttons to purge Inbox and Big Mail (messages over a certain size are shunted here).

  2. Prep for browsing:
    • Use the Opera browser. Iridium defaults to Safari with recommended links for lower-bandwidth information access. I found these too slow to bother with.
    • Tune Opera browser: select the red ‘O’ – choose ‘Savings Enabled’ and select Mini. Under advanced settings, turn off images. I pre-set the home page, aka Speed Dial, with sites or pages I want to use while we’re remote
  3. Prep for social media:
    • Posting to a Facebook profile? Authenticate Facebook to connect and post with the Iridium Mail & Web app at http://fb.myiridium.net/. Facebook requires this handshake every 60 days. The Facebook app is not GO-friendly.
    • Posting to a Facebook page? Whoops, Iridium app feature only posts pics to profiles, not to pages! I prep by scheduling a few Totem page posts with favorite pictures while we’re away.
    • Using Twitter? You can connect a Twitter account to facilitate posting (the Twitter app is not GO-friendly). When we crossed the Indian Ocean in 2015, I set up Twitter to send texts for certain tweets to our Iridium messenger.

Managing email

We use the Iridium Mail & Web app to manage email. It’s… basic, and a lot of it still acts like beta software, but it’s functional and free. Emails are delivered in plain text format; most attachments will make a message too big to be practical for available bandwidth. For other (paid) email clients, see third-party apps listed on the Iridium site.

Composing email is a lot easier with a Bluetooth keyboard (I use this $19.99 keyboard from Arteck as an easy way to get it done). Sometimes I want to use my laptop and fullsize keyboard; I get those tomes into email by converting them into pdf files that can be transferred to the iPad, then copy/paste the contents into a message.

Sending / receiving email takes time. Here’s a snapshot of the download dialog while I retrieving messages one morning. It took almost 20 minutes! Crazy if you’re used to normal internet. When you can do it from somewhere remote and beautiful? Who cares!

Iridium GO email download

sailboat in remote anchorage

Remote and beautiful: a sea level view of the anchorage at top – Puerto Don Juan. No cell towers here!

Browsing the web

“Browsing the web,” blithely stated as if it were remotely like what you do on a typical wifi connection…. Oh, it’s not! It is like watching paint dry or grass grow, and if you have any hopes for speed remotely resembling what you have at home, it is an exercise in frustration. Shed those expectations! Just enjoy what you CAN do.

It usually takes a few minutes to load the text-version of a web page. Here’s a quick comparison of how Race to Alaska’s Facebook page compares in stripped-down Opera Mini vs. normal display. (Tangent: talk about a nail biter with R2AK! We know crew on two of the boats clawing their way north right now, Sail Like A Girl and Wild Card. Go go go teams!)

comparing Opera Mini and Turbo

I usually have my iPad (downloading *whatever* via the GO) next to me while reading on my Kindle… read a few pages, check GO progress, read a few more… you get the picture. It takes several minutes for a single page. The first one often requires multiple retries before something seems to click in, but once it does, you’re good. When we sailed from Puerto Vallarta to La Paz last month I browsed for cake recipes online via the GO, and found a fantastic berry trifle for Siobhan’s birthday (the same day as our landfall in Baja, graciously served by the Bahia de los Muertos palapa restaurant).

Social media

We use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These apps are not accessible with a GO data connection, but Iridium’s app facilitates posting lower resolution images to a Facebook profile or Twitter account. Web pages for both can be accessed using Opera. The quality can be surprising: this image I posted from our last remote anchorage, off Isla Angel de la Guarda, was good enough to garner comments. The high-bandwidth nature of IG isn’t suited to the GO at all and T&Cs don’t allow scheduling, so our insta goes dark when we’re away from normal internet access.

Iridium GO post to Facebook

I’ve seen some pretty blurry pics posted via the Iridium. Our MO: take a preferred image, use a resize app on the iPad to shrink dimensions, and attach to the Facebook function in the Iridium Mail & Web app to post. Our image settings in Mail & Web are set to 100 (scale of 0-100) with ‘resample’ on; dimensions here for 600 pixels wide. The pic above came out at about 44k, which isn’t horribly onerous to squeeze through while looking decent.

It’s a bummer that the Iridium’s Facebook posting function only works with profiles; many boats, Totem included, maintain a Facebook page as an alternate kind of daily blog. But I can at least access a text version of the Totem page through Opera; I enjoy staying connected to dialogue with anyone good enough to give us their time by engaging there.

Other cruisers!

The GO makes it easy to keep up with other cruisers, too. Texting between two GOs was the easiest way to stay in touch with friends on SV Manu Kai as we sailed towards a deserted bay in southern Mexico a few months back. This week, when we arrived in Puerto Peñasco, we reported back the marina situation (no berths!) SV Lea Scotia, waiting in Isla Angel de la Guarda by text from our GO to their InReach… an email to the GO account on SV Empyrean let us fill in more details to share.

Weather

This is the A-Number-One, Most Important By Far reason we have the GO: good weather data, dependably delivered. We primarily use PredictWind, which is tuned for the Iridium device (more about how we do that in this post). For this last overnight run up the Sea of Cortez, a look at the current patterns was helpful in directing our route to Peñasco.

Sea of Cortez current

A quick comparison of weather models indicated winds would be light or extra light. Cue the motorboat ride! In these examples, the GO is used on a Windows laptop.

Comparing different weather models – easy with PW – indicates probable forecast accuracy.

iOS quirk: there’s a proxy setting to tweak for the GO’s wifi connection. In the iPad settings, choosing the GO’s wifi network > click that circled i for information > Configure Proxy > switch setting to “off” for PredictWind downloads and set to “automatic” for… everything else. Minor.

Setup

None of what I wrote above matters if you don’t have a good Iridium setup to start. First, don’t cheap out on the hardware. The external antenna is essential, tempting as it is to cut that cost. So is quality cable to connect device to antenna. This bundle does the thinking for you.

Second, give yourself ample time for setup and do it while you have good internet connectivity in case you need to troubleshoot. This bears repeating: give yourself ample time for setup! I don’t mean a few days before you expect to need it – I mean a couple of weeks to make sure you’ve figured it out and eveyrthing’s working. Seriously. Most complaints/frustration stem from leaving it too late. PredictWind has good instructions (including video tutorials) to assist.

Finally, having the latest firmware update makes a significant difference! Download link and instructions here. Each update has provided a leap in functionality and/or connection speeds.

All good?

This post hopefully is useful for people wondering how they’d use an Iridium GO and if it’s worthwhile having on board. Did I do OK? Let me know, in the comments or through our contact form, if there are other questions I can help answer. After 3+ years and a couple of oceans, we’ve worked out a few kinks and found this an invaluable piece of kit for our cruising needs.

Totem and crew are on the hard among the shrimp fleet of Puerto Peñasco, making plans for a summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Sailing mavericks, unapologetically motoring

Sailors, like fisherman, can be a little boastful. Fishermen are better at it – complete with battle reenactment, culminating in outstretched arms indicating size. Sailors’ stories aren’t much different – a battle against the elements and with photographs! Of course, photographed waves appear small, so you have to double or triple the size to be accurate. Everybody knows this, really… Sometimes a boast smarts: like those from sailing purists, so called because they sail everywhere. Mostly.

Our sailing purist friends in Seychelles didn’t intend the slight in their boast, “why didn’t you just sail her in. We sail into the anchorage all the time.” We had radioed for a dinghy tow into the anchorage ½ mile away after our oil filter burst, rendering us engineless. I pointed out that wind oscillating between 0 (zero!) and 30 knot blasts on the nose made a very long ½ mile! They shrugged. I could’ve added a counter boast about our passage to Seychelles from Chagos. Roughly 1,031.27 nautical miles that we did in 6-days with the aid of 1 pint of diesel. Their trip was near to three weeks because their route put them into 0 (zero!) wind; and motored so many hours that they had to flag down a passing ship for more.

dinghy tows sailboat

Happily taking a tow, er, barge assist in Seychelles

Another crew that inquired as to why Totem’s diesel appeared to be running when the wind dropped below 8 knots. In a light catamaran they remained unglued in ghosting air. We get sticky and usually find 3 knots of boatspeed isn’t enough. On another day when navigating through a coral strewn atoll, they radioed ahead asking incredulously, “is your engine on?” “Of course,” I said, “so we can maneuver around uncharted bommies.” A chuckling reply came back, “we’re sailing around them fine”. Easy when you’re following, I thought, but didn’t say.

Perhaps my favorite was the crew that boasted of cruising so long that they found a simple approach to cruising is most satisfying, “just like Lin and Larry” without all junk new cruisers have. In that moment, I really wanted to ask if their gas generator was running any better, but it was hot. They switched on navigation electronics, started the diesel engine, and engaged the transmission. Not exactly like Lin and Larry.

sailboat in tropical water

Motoring for close-in caution in Maldives

A boast at its core is an expression of prideful accomplishment. As such, I confess to boasting now and then too, being a sailor and all.

In Indonesia, it’s illegal for foreigners to purchase diesel fuel. The sole purpose is to be daunting, to weed out sailors with less fortitude! No, it isn’t really, but I recall hearing a sailor making this point in a silly boast. Mostly the quirky diesel law proved a minor inconvenience. Fishermen, with outstretched arms, were always happy to sell us diesel from their onboard supply. One exception was in small city of Jayapura on the north side of New Guinea. It’s a conflicted area with an ongoing, hidden ethnic war. Foreigners arrived there fall into one of the three Ms: mining, missionaries, or mercenaries.

We didn’t fit the script, which made clearing in a tedious and involving military interrogations. Once cleared a Navy vessel patrolled Totem at anchor. Fun as that was, we were keen to get diesel and move on. The first guy we approached said okay, okay, okay, come back in two hours. When we met the fellow again, he had a change of heart and told us to go away without making eye contact. We had showered, so didn’t understand the disconnect. This pattern followed with other suppliers over a few days. It turns out that secret police were following us and terminating any questionable business. There was one other cruising boat with us, and a little desperate, John and I dinghied around the harbor of wood and steel working vessels and found the only fiberglass recreational boat. After asking the crew about diesel, they got the boss to speak with us. He was an Indonesian businessman that understood our predicament. After boasting of his friendship with the son of the Minister of Energy, he assured us diesel would be waiting when we came back – just after dark. Without knowing if diesel would be there or if this was a sting, we found the fading twilight was just the veil needed to get diesel flowing. Oddly, gasoline was straightforward to acquire. Dinghy into the fisherman’s dock and wait in line with other fisherman, all smoking. When it’s you turn, saddle up to a 500 gallon open tank of fuel. Using a 5-liter scoop, an attendant plunges elbow deep into gasoline, then funnels it into jerry cans. Easy!

Officialdom may have been prickly, but we had a great time making friends with civilians in Jayapura

Brunei is a tiny country situated along the northwest coast of Borneo. Little about Brunei is inviting to cruisers – mucky water and a more restrictive interpretation of Islam than its neighbors. Dirt cheap diesel is what lures cruisers in. While there and interested new cultural experiences, we booked a tour of the capital city. Though a local guide seemed logical, Zahir, a jovial twenty-something from Qatar was very persuasive, boasting that he was better. “The local people are lazy,” he said.

At the end of a satisfying tour, we employed Zahir’s help in a diesel fuel run. Strictly speaking, it was illegal for foreign sailor types to buy diesel, but this was unenforced – until recently it turns out. Zahir and I set off to the station in borrowed van loaded with jerry cans enough for 125 gallons. Pulling in, station attendants recognized Zahir. The moment wasn’t like seeing a friend, more like spotting a pickpocket in the crowd. They began waving us away and cursing when we didn’t pass. A wee bit nervously I said to Zahir, “I don’t want to cause trouble.” He looked at me with a big smile saying, “No problem, don’t worry.”

With a bundle of Brunei dollars in hand, in a van of unknown origin prepared to carry a lot of flammable fuel, assisted by a jolly Muslim Qatari man was weird enough. Then Zahir dropped to his knees to beg for diesel on my behalf. The outcome was in play: would it be simple shove off was there to be police. Out came one attendant’s cell phone. Then unexpectedly, the employees turned away in disgust. Zahir yelled for me to open the back quickly as he grabbed the diesel pump. In perfect synchronicity, we filled, capped, and loaded 25 jerry cans in a time that would make an Indianapolis 500 pit-crew envious. The money exchange was awkward for me, but persuasive Zahir never stopped smiling.

jerry cans of fuel on a beach

Typical fueling up, cruiser style, on a beach in Brunei

Totem’s recent Panama Canal transit marked the homestretch to complete a circumnavigation. As much as we don’t like schedules, we had one. Our stop in Costa Rica was to wait for weather and… to take on a little diesel. The customs agent was a courteous, tedious i-dotter and t-crosser that couldn’t accept Behan as co-captain, being a woman and all.

Intending to be there for a day or two only, we cleared in and out at the same time to expedite the process. For fuel top-up, we intended to use the taxi-to-fuel station supply chain. More work than the one fuel dock in the area, but price per liter is considerably less. The taxi-diesel supply chain snagged on a technicality we’d not foreseen. Taxi driver asked for our papers and upon seeing our clearance he said the fuel station could not sell to us. Our supply onboard wasn’t too bad, but with average windspeed of approximately 0.00 (zero!), a little more diesel meant we might reach Chiapas, Mexico with more than vapors in the tank.

Our anchorage neighbors were stunned at this news and quickly surmised our predicament. “How much do you need?” they asked. Twenty-five gallons was all; they offered to sell us some of theirs. Out came the jerry cans once again. The next morning, we were northbound ready to sail, motor-sail, or just power along as conditions allowed. Thanks to the cruising community; specifically, the fine people on a boat named Liquid.

One final boast.  On April 7, 2018, the Gifford family, Jamie, Behan, Niall, Mairen, and Siobhan, motored Totem in 0 (zero!) knots of wind into the bay at Zihuatenejo, Mexico to complete a circumnavigation…mostly by sailing.

Jamie originally titled this article Liquid, in homage to the 50′ ketch Liquid and her crew and an irresistible pun with the liquid (diesel) they provided us; it ran in 48 North this spring. We look forward to seeing Marc & Laura again when they sail north to Mexico; below, anchored near Totem in Playas del Coco. The only true purists we know? Impressive navigators in Papua New Guinea, like the family from Brooker island in the picture at the top.

sailboat at sunset