Monthly Archives: December 2015

Rocking The Cellular World

I love the creative destruction that free enterprise can bring about. Properly operating free markets (i.e. free of excessive government regulation and control) can produce unanticipated destabilizing products or services that can change the world in an instant. An industry that I think has been badly in need of being turned on its head for a very long time is cellular communications. And I think the world just shifted under the cellular industry’s feet.

Have you heard of Project Fi? It’s Google’s entry into the cellular communications market. And in the words of Donald Trump, I think it’s going to be HUGE! And I believe it will make cellular communications for cruising sailors a lot more affordable. Here’s what Google is doing in a nutshell:

First, how does $20 a month for unlimited talk and text sound? How about with international texting included?

Then, it’s $10 per gigabyte for  4G LTE data, and you only pay for what you use each month. Only use 1gb one month, your data bill is $10. Need 4.5gb the next month? Then you’ll pay $45. And there’s no additional charge for using your phone as a WiFi hotspot or tethering.

And here’s why I think it’s going to save cruisers a bundle. Your data is the same price in 120 countries, including the entire Caribbean! I know there are still some of you out there with old unlimited data plans, but they usually only work for domestic data. Head to another country, and you’re stuck paying international roaming data rates, or you have to purchase a local data package. With Project Fi, you can be setting in the Rio Dulce or anchored off Georgetown in the Bahamas or yes, even in Marina Hemingway in Cuba, and you don’t pay any extra for your data. How cool is that? Plus, you can take your phone number wherever you want, because international calling is just 20 cents a minute. So no need to be constantly changing SIM cards (and phone numbers) as you go from country to country to avoid Verizon’s $1.79 a minute international roaming rates.

Now some of you may be thinking, “That’s great, Robert, but it just looks like a really cheap rate plan with some cool features. I don’t see anything that will really shake up the industry.” But here’s where Google is blowing up the current cellular model. When you make a call or send a text on Project Fi, your phone will jump to whichever network currently offers the best connection and bandwidth, including WiFi if available! The system currently uses both the Sprint and T-Mobile 4G networks, but if I were a betting man (and I’ve been known to visit the occasional Blackjack table), I’d bet the list of carriers that join the system grows. So you’re not tied to any particular network.  In fact, you probably won’t even know how your connection is being routed when you make a call, because it’s designed to seamlessly pass off between cellular (currently Sprint or T-Mobile) and WiFi. And oh by the way, when WiFi is available, your calls are free and your data usage doesn’t count, even internationally! (some local fees and restrictions may apply)

There’s a bunch of other cool features as well, such as being able to link any device that can use Google Hangouts, like a tablet or laptop, to your Project Fi account so you can send and receive calls and texts on those as well. And some other stuff that you really should go visit the site and read about.

So what’s the catch? Well, in order to sign up for the Project Fi service, you have to have one of these:

Nexus 5x

My new Google Nexus 5X

The Google Nexus 5X, 6 and 6P are the only phones currently available that include radios for every cellular system on the planet. You see, that’s another destabilizing innovation. Cellular companies want to sell you phones that will only work on their networks. But Google has built a new generation of unlocked phones that will run on any GSM or CDMA network and with any carrier. Boy, let me tell you how much I enjoyed taking my new Nexus 5X to the Verizon store to pick up a nano-SIM and upgrade from my three year old locked-to-Verizon Samsung Galaxy S3. They treated it like they were Dracula facing a wreath of garlic dipped in holy water. It absolutely made my day!

So even if the thought of trying something so revolutionary doesn’t appeal to you, if you’re in the market for an unlocked GSM phone to take cruising (that can also work on CDMA networks!), I strongly suggest that you give the new Google phones a look. Unless you belong to the cult of Apple, of course. Then you’ve made your pact with the Devil when you signed on to a closed, proprietary system instead of an open platform like Android, and you must suffer the very expensive consequences for the rest of time.

So have I switched yet? Truthfully, no. I knew Rhonda and I wanted an unlocked GSM phone to replace our old, tired Galaxies when we head for the islands, and I’d already decided one of the new Nexus phones was the way to go. A $50 off offer just before Christmas made the decision even easier. It wasn’t until after I’d started using the phone that I found out about Project Fi. So I’m still thinking about it. But I’m leaning more and more toward “Yes!”

Two last things you should know. Project Fi isn’t like Cricket or Straight Talk. You can’t walk into the local cell phone store and sign up. You have to apply on Google’s Project Fi site, and then they have to approve your application. This is considered a trial program to test the market, and everyone who signs up is basically a beta tester for the service. I signed up, and had my approval within seconds. Which leads to the second point. Like Google Glass, they could decide to pull the plug on this at any minute, and then you’d have to go crawling back to your old carrier. So if you do switch, try not to go all smug and righteous on your old cellular provider. Because there’s a chance you just might have to mend fences with them later. But how cool will it be if the future is a totally network agnostic phone that just works wherever you are with no outrageous roaming rates?

Santa Apparently Didn’t Get The Memo

In the past, we’ve tended to go a bit overboard for Christmas. But Rhonda and I are supposed to be downsizing our lives to fit within the confines of our LIfe On The Hook™. So we were somewhat surprised when we awoke this morning to this scene:


It looks like the big guy isn’t reading his email. Maybe next year we’ll convince him we need to dial it back a bit. In any event, Rhonda and I wish all of our friends, family, and followers a very Merry Christmas!

Protecting What Matters Most

The boat rushes headlong through the darkness. While sustained winds of 20 knots are more than we prefer, the mainsail is rolled out less than 2/3rds of the way, balancing the helm nicely. The autopilot easily maintains our course. The worst part is the rolling. The quartering seas lift the stern, causing the boat to wallow uncomfortably as it rises on a crest and then settles into the following trough.

It is our first nighttime passage in these conditions, and it is my turn on deck. Rhonda tries to grab a few minutes of sleep below while I keep an eye out above. Movement on the foredeck catches my eye. The boat’s continual rolling has caused the lashings on a fuel container to work loose, and it is starting to break free from the rail. Unclipping my tether and shifting it to the port jackline, I ease out from behind the wheel and start working my way forward. Reaching the port shrouds, I have to unclip for a moment and then re-secure my tether forward of the shrouds.

During that instant when I’m not attached to the boat, an odd wave unexpectedly rocks us.  I lose my balance, trip over the lifelines, and fall over the side. I’m stunned by the shock of hitting the cold water. But I remember to pull the cord on my inflatable life jacket.

Popping back to the surface, I watch as Eagle Too, under the autopilot’s control, sails on without me. In just moments, it’s hundreds of yards away. Her running lights are soon hidden by the ocean swell. And then I’m alone in the darkness.

“Well this sucks,” I think, wondering what Rhonda will do when she wakes up and realizes I’m no longer aboard.

Fortunately, it’s just a bad dream. But one that felt very real. And one that caused me to think very hard about our safety gear, and ponder on the best way to reduce the chance that something like my nightmare can ever happen.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) have been around for some time now, and have saved quite a few lives. But here’s my problem with most of them. When activated, they broadcast a distress signal showing your location to a satellite, which relays it to a rescue coordination center. When rescuers are dispatched to your area, then can home in on a second frequency to find you in the vast dark ocean. And that’s fine. But it can take hours. The best chance for rapid rescue comes from the boat you just fell off of, not from some folks a thousand miles away. But the signals that the PLB broadcasts can’t be received by anything on the boat.

But there’s something new on the market, and it was just exactly what I was looking for. It’s the Ocean Signal MOB1.


It clips to the oral inflation tube of your inflatable life jacket, and is automatically activated when the jacket is inflated. Here’s why I think it is hands-down the best option for shorthanded cruising couples:

First, before attaching it to your life jacket, you program the MOB1 with your boat’s MMSI number (we discussed the importance of MMSI’s in Waddaya Mean We Need A Stinkin License?). When it’s activated, it starts broadcasting a digital selective calling (DSC) message to your boat’s VHF radio, which will trigger the unit’s DSC alarm. This tells everyone aboard that there’s a problem.

Next, the MOB1 starts broadcasting an AIS signal identifying your exact location (it contains a GPS receiver). This information will display a Man Overboard symbol on the boat’s AIS receiver and give the crew your exact location so that they can effect a rescue. If the boat’s AIS is set up with a guard zone to warn of nearby AIS contacts (as it should be), this will provide an additional alarm onboard to notify the crew of a problem. In addition, any other vessels within about five miles will also see the Man Overboard AIS notice on their displays.

The only downside is that since VHF is a line-of-sight signal, and the unit’s antenna is attached to your life jacket and thus sitting right at water level, the effective range of the device is probably only one to five miles. So if  your fellow crew member(s) tend to be very sound sleepers and wouldn’t awaken to a VHF DSC or AIS alarm, well, maybe the traditional PLB is the way for you to go. But this was exactly what I was looking for, and we bought two. At $300 apiece, they’re not cheap, but then, what value do you place on your life, anyway? Besides, we had a fistfull of West Marine Rewards certificates, and along with some $15 off coupons (Rhonda bought one MOB1 and I bought the other so we could each use a $15 off coupon) our actual cost came to something less than $250 each.

So my nightmare now goes more like this. After hitting the water and inflating my life jacket, I settle back with a sigh, anticipating the scolding about my carelessness I’m soon to receive. My MOB1 fires up, its strobe light brightly flashing while it calls the VHF radio onboard Eagle Too. The alarm chirp awakens Rhonda, because we’re both very light sleepers when underway. Sensing something wrong, she climbs groggily to the cockpit, noticing my absence just as the AIS guard zone alarm goes off. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and focusing on the display, she sees the Man Overboard symbol displaying my current nowhere-onboard location. Firing up the engine, she executes a quick pivot and circles back to my location. Once close enough, she turns into the wind, stops the boat and throws me the rail-mounted Life Sling, which I use to pull myself back to the stern, where I easily climb onto the swim platform and back onboard.

“Are you OK?” she asks.

“Yeah, just a little wet,” I reply.

“What were you thinking?” she asks sternly.

“I promise I’ll be more careful,” I say contritely. “Thanks for picking me up.”

“You’re welcome.”

And then I roll over and go peacefully back to sleep.


The Beast Arrives

I’ve heard it said that a proper cruising anchor looks ridiculous in a marina.  Boats that spend most of their days tied to a pier and are only sailed on sunny summer weekends carry a much smaller hook than one recommended for voyaging. We now have a proper cruising anchor. And I have to admit, it looks a bit, ummm, robust I guess you would say.


Our Old 35 lb Manson Supreme Next To Our New 55 lb Mantus

Our 35 lb Manson was the size suggested for our boat for casual use, and except for that one time back in April, it’s done just fine. But now that we’re getting closer to our departure date, it’s time to start bringing onboard the remaining cruising essentials that we’ll soon be needing. High on the list was The Beast. Cruisers rave about Mantus anchors, and many of the boats that I see passing through our marina headed south have one hanging on the bow. I knew it was the way we wanted to go. Checking the Mantus website, we saw that it recommended that for a 37 foot boat weighing 18,000 to 20,000 lbs (that would be us when fully loaded out for cruising), we would want a 35 pounder as a light duty (lunch) anchor, a 45 pounder as a working anchor, or a 55 pounder as a storm anchor. Since the safety of our home and ourselves is no place to try and cut corners, we went for the security of the storm anchor. It seems that at least once a month we get hit by wind gusts over 40 knots (just had some last night, matter of fact), and we want to know that our boat won’t be the one dragging through the anchorage.

Checking the vendor listings for the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show, I saw that Mantus was going to be an exhibitor, and I started thinking about snagging a boat show price. Since the full retail price on the model we wanted was just under $500, I didn’t think there was enough potential savings possible to make it worth taking two days and driving to St. Petersburg. But I knew someone who was making the trip. Rick Zern, our rigger and broker for the sale of our last boat, was there to man the Murray Yacht Sales booth. So I texted him and asked if he’d mind dropping by the Mantus booth and checking on the prices for me. An hour later, the Mantus rep called and offered a $100 discount and took my credit card number. And since Rick was willing to throw the anchor in the back seat of his truck, we also saved on shipping, which is no small thing on a 55 lb anchor. Three days later, he called to tell me I could swing by their office to pick it up.


Now I have to say that I was originally a bit concerned about the idea of an anchor that you have to bolt together. But my research says that no one has ever reported a Mantus falling apart in use.


It took less than 15 minutes to assemble.


The quality appeared high, and everything was heavily galvanized.


So we’ll be counting on The Beast to help us sleep peacefully and well when the winds pipe up. But it does look just a bit big hanging on the bow.


I’m sure we’ll get used to it in time, though. I’m thinking about naming it Kraken. Because it would be fun to stand on the bow and say this whenever we drop anchor:


But I Thought The Odds Were In My Favor…

In my post Disappointing Dinghy Durability, I expressed my disappointment at the air deck floor giving out in our dinghy after only four years. Little did I know that we were only in act one of this little drama. For only two months after the $400 replacement air deck arrived, it too started leaking. Color me unimpressed.

Defender wouldn’t replace the second air deck, because I had used it for two months. It had to to be shipped to a Mercury authorized repair center for evaluation. They gave me the name of the closest one.  So off it went to Solution One Maritime, in Tampa. Who promptly  called me to ask why I was sending them my air deck, since I hadn’t bought the boat from them. Now I might have understood their position if I hadn’t already called them to speak about my floor and get the right shipping address. I pretty thoroughly explained at that time that I had bought it from Defender, and when I made a warranty claim on the new air deck, Defender called Mercury for instructions, and were told to tell me to ship it to Solution One Maritime. One would think that if they were going to have any concerns about the whole thing, this would have been a good time to bring it up. But noooooo, they just said “Fine, send it to us and we’ll take a look at it.”

Fortunately, after much phone tag and the involvement of Mercury, Solution One looked at the air deck, determined it was defective, and sent me a new one for free. It’s currently sitting on deck undergoing what we called a “drop test” in the Navy. That’s where you pressurize a device or system and then monitor it for a period of time to see if it will maintain pressure. In other words, a leak check.


Two things that I learned as a result of this process. First, the air deck came with a 12 month warranty, so naturally it was covered when it started leaking after only two months. But when I asked if my replacement air deck came with its own 12 month warranty, I was told no, it is only covered by the remainder of the original warranty. Since it’s winter now (recent mild weather notwithstanding) and the dinghy won’t get any use before next March or April, that’s why I felt the need to do the drop test before packing it away till next Spring. Just to be sure.

The other thing was an observation by the folks at Solution One that this isn’t supposed to happen. They claimed that Mercury air decks usually last 10 years, and the odds were 50 to 1 that mine would develop a leak in only four years. And having another one leak in just two months? Well, they quoted me 500 to 1 odds of that happening. Lucky me. As for the one I just received, well, they quoted me 5,000 to 1 odds that it will also leak.

So if this one is deflated come tomorrow morning, I’m making a stop at the nearest convenience store to pick up some PowerBall tickets. Because I’m apparently on a hot streak, beating some pretty steep odds at the moment.

If Only We Were Ready!

I received an early Christmas present yesterday. A 50% off offer on a subscription to PredictWind arrived in my inbox.  For three days only, the $199 annual subscription was reduced to only $99. Since I had already decided this was something we definitely wanted before departing for our Life On The Hook™, it was a no-brainer.

What is PredictWind? Well, if you’re not familiar with it, it’s an awesome web based utility that gives detailed weather and condition reports for planning coastal and open ocean passages. Wind speed and direction, sea state, swell height and direction, GRIB files (basically downloadable weather predictions), rain predictions, and much much more. But what really attracted me to it is its ability to do route and departure planning based on the predicted weather. You basically plug in where you are and where you want to go, along with what type of boat you’re sailing (it actually uses your boat’s polar diagrams, which you’ll understand if you’re a sailor) and it gives you recommendations on the best days and times to make the trip, the route you’ll need to sail, and predicts the conditions you’ll encounter along the way.

I’d previously signed up for the limited free edition, which is how I ended up on their Christmas gift list. That version doesn’t offer the detailed planning tools, just the local weather predictions. So when I updated, I naturally had to immediately check to see what it would say about a leap from Pensacola to Tampa, which is a possible first leg on our upcoming adventure. And here’s what it said (you should be able to click on the picture to enlarge it):


If we left this afternoon, the recommended route (in blue) would follow along Florida’s coastline, avoiding an offshore passage. This would be a route that would be a more comfortable first leg for us, rather than heading a hundred miles offshore as departing on Day 3 would require.

Drilling further into the data, the program predicted the following:


If we left this afternoon, the passage should take 1.7 days, or about 41 hours. The maximum wind we would encounter should be 14 knots and we’d spend most of the time reaching (a comfortable sail) rather than pointing (beating upwind).

Holy cow. That’s perfect. Let’s go!!!!!

Oh wait, we’re not ready yet. Sigh. Well, at least I can play with this over the next few months, comparing its predictions with observed conditions. How accurate is it? Ask me in a couple of months. I can’t help but be impressed by the testimonials on their site, though.

Thanks for the early Christmas present, PredictWind!

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

There’s a really old joke that goes something like this:

Why did the man beat on his head with a hammer? Because it felt so good when he stopped.

While it’s not really much of a joke, it does help present the notion that you sometimes have to experience pain in order to truly appreciate its absence.

So I was driving around running some Christmas errands the other day. The roads were naturally congested with holiday traffic, but It was a beautiful, sunny, late-fall-in-Florida sort of afternoon, there were Christmas carols on the radio, and I was content. Now the holiday season can be anxiety inducing at the best of times, with its family drama, social obligations, and soulless celebration of consumerism. But I suddenly realized that I can’t remember ever feeling so relaxed while Christmas shopping. So I pondered on that for a moment, wondering why that could be. And then I realized that the reason I felt so good about the holidays this year, the reason that there was such a smile in my heart, was because the pain was gone. The pain that we had experienced during last year’s holiday season. The pain that had resulted from being told two days before Thanksgiving that we had exactly three weeks to unload or box up 35 years worth of possessions, give the keys for our home of 17 years to people we’d never met, and move into a hotel for Christmas, while also trying to finish a mini-refit on our boat to make her a suitable dwelling. And buy gifts, send cards, shop for family, and figure out some sort of plan for Christmas dinner, all while Rhonda and I both worked full time.

It was a stressful ordeal. One I hope we never have to repeat. But that was then, and this is now. And while there are still a few little inconveniences and minor annoyances that result from compressing a 2,500 ft² life into a 350 ft² space, they’re nothing at all compared to the trauma of last Christmas.

We’ve even managed to bring some Christmas cheer aboard. We naturally have a wreath on the front door.


Rhonda found a swag and flickering LED candle to create the perfect holiday mood in the cabin.


And of course, we have our tree.


Those of you who have been along for the ride may remember that little tree. It’s the one I wrote about in A Chance To Catch Our Collective Breath—the one that the staff at Homewood Suites gave us last Christmas. It reminds us that when we work together, Rhonda and I can accomplish anything we put our minds to, and that Christmas is not a place, but a state of mind. We’re looking for a space onboard to store it, as it’s now part of the family and we wish it to be a permanent part of our Life On The Hook™.

So life is good aboard Eagle Too this holiday season, where the biggest problem is coming up with ways to conceal presents from each other until Christmas morning in such a small space. But now that life has stopped beating us over the head with fate’s mighty hammer, well, it just feels so good. 🙂

The Swift Current Of Time

The calendar page has flipped to December, and our sailing season has drawn to a close. On Deck

WIth Thanksgiving disappearing behind us, the days now rapidly count down to Christmas and the conclusion of this incredible year.


Everything needed for a family Thanksgiving dinner packed in a dock cart ready to take to our youngest son’s apartment.

Fortunately for us, a delightful week of unseasonably warm weather allowed us one last day on the water. After a quick breakfast in the cockpit:


we headed out onto the bay for our final sail of the year.

Sailing1 Sailing2

Then, after several too-brief hours, we reluctantly slid back into our slip, tied up the lines, and sat back with a sigh to reflect on the season’s end.

There may yet be days remaining that would be sufficiently warm to allow us to comfortably take to the water again. But time is growing short, and there are many things yet to accomplish. The day after finishing this final outing for the year, we stripped the sails off the boat, and searched for a suitable place to lay them out to be folded:


so that we could pack them in boxes to be shipped to Sail Care for a thorough cleaning and refurbishment.


Today, the canvas craftsmen arrived to begin the work of constructing our new bimini, which will incorporate the six solar panels we purchased to provide power onboard:

Biminiwhile our riggers went aloft to take the measurements for the new standing rigging we desire before departing.


While our existing shrouds and stays appear sound, the result of Eagle Too having lived a gentle freshwater life, we are reluctant to depart on an extended Caribbean excursion trusting to rigging that is already 18 years old. That’s about 75 in people years, and time takes it toll. New standing rigging is our insurance policy against losing our rig in a blow.

Our last big push has begun, and the days are flying by as we ride time’s swift current.