Category Archives: What?

Anything related to gear or boat items.

What’s In A Name?

Several years ago, while on vacation in Hawaii, I picked up a T shirt sporting a picture of the Hawaiian state fish. I liked the shirt because it showed the fish’s name in Hawaiian, which is Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. It’s a real mouthful to say, but after some practice it soon flows easily off the tongue, and even tickles a bit in the process.

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A year or so later, I was driving home from work (this was back in our pre retired-to-go-cruising days) and I found myself following a trailered boat by the same name.  There plastered across the entire transom was Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. It just barely fit on a boat that was easily nine feet wide. I laughed out loud. Because the name just tickles my funny bone.

But now it’s several years later, and Rhonda and I have a few thousand miles of cruising under our belts, and the thought of boat names has been on my mind. Particularly because I’ve seen a few lately that make me go, “Hmm, I wonder if they really thought that through.”

You see, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that sometimes a boat name works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  And while it may seem as though an inappropriately named boat might be merely inconvenient, in our experience it can sometimes become a bit of a problem. So I find myself pondering the issue of how to choose an effective name for a cruising boat, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the subject.

Now none of this really matters a great deal if your plans don’t involve cruising. But if you do intend to head out over the horizon someday, then here’s what it all boils down to. While cruising, you are going to find yourself interacting with foreign officials. They may not speak English very well (or at all), but they’re going to have to hear and understand your boat’s name. Second, you’re going to have to fill out forms and declarations that will require you to list your vessel’s name, and sometimes the space to write it isn’t very large. But most importantly, you’re going to find yourself having to use your boat’s name on the radio quite often. From speaking to bridge tenders to negotiating crossings with other vessels, responding to the Coast Guard or checking in and out with harbormasters, you’ll be on the radio a lot more than when you were weekend sailing around your local waters. And long, complex names just don’t work well on the VHF.

The first tip I’d suggest when choosing a good name is to not use something that suggests nefarious intent. This would seem so evident that it hardly needs mentioning. Yet there we were in Marina Gaviota Varadero, Cuba, watching some very un-amused Cuban police detain the crew of an American flagged vessel that had just arrived. Their boat was named “Guns and Drugs,” and sported a large graphic of an assault rifle. Now this might have really cracked up the boys back in Miami, but it didn’t go over so well in Varadero. Our check-in only took two hours. We didn’t see the crew of Guns and Drugs for three days. So if you think “Human Trafficker” is a hilarious name for a boat, don’t be surprised if the Customs and Immigration officers fail to share in your mirth.

I’d also recommend avoiding foreign phrases. If you think “Occupandi Temporis” or “Mi Velero Impresionante” is just so c’est chic, then have at it. But please know that you’re going to be phonetically spelling it slowly and often on the radio, usually to someone who is dealing with background noise from boat or helicopter engines and can barely hear you. Most importantly, try to keep it short. When it comes to VHF radio communications, the shorter the better. One or two syllable words work best. “Ultimate Retirement Strategy” might expertly define your life situation, but it’s a mouthful to have to keep repeating to the Coast Guard every 30 seconds while reporting a vessel in distress. “Cool Sea Breeze” sounds lovely and is pretty easy to understand. But “Sea Breeze” is better, and the best option would be to just keep it to “Breeze.” Trust me, you’ll thank yourself in an emergency.

A boat’s name can often be a highly personal reflection of the hopes, dreams or desires of its owners, but choosing an appropriate one can involve compromise. The point of all this isn’t to dissuade you from putting what you truly feel is the best expression of yourself on the back of your boat. We just wanted to give you a few things to consider when making your decision. Because I can only imagine the issues the crew of the good ship Humuhumunukunukuapua’a would face if they ever tried to take their boat cruising.

Gone Too Soon

Today we mourn the loss of some dear companions who have accompanied us on all our adventures to date. The dearly departed are not of flesh and blood, but rather of aluminum and steel. We’re talking about our less than two year old Back Bay folding bicycles, and this will be their final review.

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We introduced you to our old friends in a previous post, in which we praised their utility. In a subsequent post, we described the issues we were having with their durability in a marine environment and the steps we had taken to maintain them in serviceable condition. I’m sorry to report that upon our return from our recent six month cruise to the Bahamas, we discovered that both bikes had lost their battle with the elements. I’d held on to hope that one more trip to the bike shop for maintenance and repair would render them functional once again, but the cascade of bike organ failure caused by continual exposure to salt spray was just too much for their poor little systems to handle. The brakes were once again frozen, the shifters didn’t shift, and the freewheel on Rhonda’s bike (the set of sprockets on the rear wheel) spun freely in both directions, when it was supposed to turn in one direction only. But the final, fatal failure was the disintegration of the wheels. Numerous spokes on both bikes had corroded through and broken free.

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So at a minimum we were looking at total replacement of the front and rear wheels on both bikes, the replacement of at least one freewheel, and yet another overhaul of the brake and gear systems.

Enough was enough. We’d invested almost $600 in the purchase of these bicycles, and had spent another $300 in parts, repairs and maintenance after our initial shakedown cruise to Cuba and Mexico last year. But we were easily looking at another $250 to $300 to get them back on the road again, and it was just good money after bad at this point. So we chucked a thousand dollar investment in the dumpster and decided to start over again.

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The lesson we learned is that you can’t store bicycles on the deck of a cruising boat. The salt corrosion is just too aggressive. We’d tried keeping them in zippered bags. When that didn’t work to stave off attack by the elements, we tried leaving them open to the air, thinking that occasional rain showers would provide regular fresh water rinses, washing away the salt spray. Who knew that it hardly ever rains in the Bahamas in the spring?

While not quite essential gear, we feel that having a set of folding bikes onboard makes life a lot more pleasant. So we wanted to purchase replacements. But this time, we’ll store them below. It won’t be easy to find the space belowdecks on a 37’ sailboat for two folding bikes, but a year and a half of cruising has taught us a bit about wants versus needs, and we’ve therefore been able to offload a bit of what we’ve been carrying around in our “garage,” (i.e. the V berth), so there should be room.

Our Back Bay bikes had 20” wheels, which I feel is the minimum size for a good, natural feeling ride. In addition to looking just plain silly, I don’t think the little 12” or 14” wheel  “clown bikes,” (my name for them)  could handle the curb jumping, pothole dodging, railroad track hopping sort of urban exploring we’ve used our bikes for in the past. This time I thought we’d take it up a notch and spring for a set of folding bikes with 24” wheels. When folded, they’d only be a few inches larger than our old pair, but the larger wheels and thus bigger frame means you’re not sitting directly above the rear wheel when riding, a position that often makes me feel like I’m going to do a wheelie and flip off the back when trying to peddle uphill.

A few hours of poking around on Amazon turned up exactly what I was looking for, at a price that I was happy with. Durban is a Brazilian company that designs and builds folding bikes in Rio de Janeiro for urban and commuter use. Their Street model folding bike was less than $175 delivered, and I could tell as soon as I unpacked them that they were much sturdier bikes than our old Back Bay bikes, and used much better components with a more precise fit. For instance, the seats slide effortlessly from the collapsed to the extended position, something that was always a struggle on our Back Bay bikes, and the included luggage rack is actually sturdy enough to carry cargo on, unlike the mostly decorative rack on our Back Bays. And they have no chromed steel. Believe it or not, the chromed steel parts on our old Back Bays were the parts that rusted the worst.

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We’ve had the new bikes for a few weeks now, and so far we like them a lot. As I suspected, the 24” wheels deliver a ride that’s almost exactly like a standard mountain bike.

Only time will tell how long our new Durban folding bikes will last. I’m hoping that by storing them below when on passage and with regular oiling, we’ll get much more than the something less than two years of use our previous bikes gave us. Because even though we all know that BOAT means Break Out Another Thousand, it’s just too painful to have to throw a thousand dollars in the dumpster.

Misconceptions and the Realities of Cruising

For those of you who may be considering the cruising life, we think it’s important for you to have an idea of what to expect. We’ve learned in our time afloat that while we do have our share of lazy, relaxing days…

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Beautiful vistas…

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Gorgeous anchorages with crystal clear water…

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And amazing sunsets…

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It all comes at a price. One you have to be willing to pay to enjoy the moments of splendor. You may have seen something like this before:what-i-do

Well, Mom had it almost right. While the Bahamas are indeed beautiful, the weather leaves quite a bit to be desired. In our three months of exploration, we felt lucky if we had one decent day a week. Quite often we’d find ourselves pinned in place for 10 days or more, waiting for conditions to improve enough to let us move to another destination.

Travel along with us on a typical passage from Emerald Bay Marina to George Town. This was the best weather we found in almost two weeks of waiting. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride…

The Family Island Regatta, The Reason We’re Here In George Town

When we set out from Pensacola last December, we only had three firm objectives in mind in what was otherwise a vague and flexible agenda. The first was to spend the holidays in St. Petersburg. The second was to enter the Bahamas through Bimini. And the third was to spend the last week of April in George Town, Great Exuma.

We love St. Petersburg, and have basically adopted it as our second home. And our decision to cross to Bimini was driven by a wish to make the quickest possible Gulf Stream crossing. But why be in George Town by late April? One reason. We wanted to enjoy the 64th annual Family Island Regatta.

What is the Family Island Regatta? For Bahamians, it’s the America’s Cup meets the Kentucky Derby, with some Super Bowl thrown in. As an island nation, the folks here love their boats. Particularly sailboats. And sailboat racing is a major passion. Islands compete against each other to see who has the best sailors and the fastest boats. And each year since 1954, the best of the best have congregated in George Town for the Family Island Regatta.

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And what fine boats they race. We’re not talking about fiberglass, factory built one-design boats here, we’re talking traditional Bahamian sloops. Constructed by hand of madeira (Spanish cedar) and mahogany, the boats are beautiful works of craftsmanship. Sporting canvas sails and rigged with simple blocks and tackle (not a winch in sight), the vessels carry absurd amounts of sail for their size. On many, the booms are easily twice the length of the boat. And they are so lightly ballasted that the crew has to scamper up planks suspended over the side to keep the boats from capsizing.

Boats compete in one of five categories, from the tiny one-man E class dinghies

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to the largest A class sloops carrying crews of over a dozen.

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We watched in the days leading up to the races as the boats began arriving on the inter-island freighters.

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As probably the largest sporting event in the islands, the Regatta also includes a host of shore side events and activities. A virtual village of plywood structures are built around the waterfront to sell beer, liquor, and a variety of Bahamian foods. We’d call them booths, but the Bahamians proudly refer to them as shacks.

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And of course there was a parade, Bahamian style.

And then finally, it was time for the races. With racing spread over four days, the smaller boats go first each day. Up to 30 C, D and E class boats would come to the line for each day’s start, filling the bay with sails.

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Next up would be the B class sloops with a crew of four to six. Typically a dozen boats would race in that class. And the final race each day would feature the thoroughbreds of the regatta, the big class A sloops representing various islands throughout the Bahamas. Six boats competed in this class, most trailed by a separate support boat.

We watched most of the races from onboard Eagle Too, and the course actually passed through part of the anchorage. But for the Class A’s, we wanted to be in the middle of the action, so we rode over to the starting line in our dinghy to watch from up close.

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Now maybe there are other races that begin this way, but it was new experience for us. Each boat anchors at the starting line with sails down. When the gun goes off, the bowman begins hauling in the anchor, physically pulling the boat across the starting line, while the crew scrambles to raise the sails. The crew that can manage the intricate dance best gets away the fastest. Here, watch:

From the mad frenzy and jockeying for position at the start…

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To the controlled chaos of rounding the upwind mark, with crews scrambling to trim sails and man their planks…

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to the majestic parade of the downwind legs…

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it was some of the best racing I believe we’ve ever seen. After four days of intense competition, we were sorry to see it end. I’m definitely glad we made it to this year’s event. Maybe we’ll have to come again next year!

A Tale Of Two Shackles

I spent about 30 minutes today working on a little task that probably did as much to increase our safety and security here aboard Eagle Too as almost any of the many other improvements we’ve performed in the last few years. What was it, you might ask? Well, I’ll show you.

If you own a boat, you know how vital a good anchor and a robust anchor rode (chain and/or line that attaches the anchor to the boat) are. When you’re sitting at anchor and the wind picks up or a storm passes through, your boat’s safety is completely dependent on the ability of your ground tackle (anchor, rode and associated components) to hold up. A 20,000 pound boat like ours, being battered by 40 knot winds, can create hundreds, even thousands of pounds of force yanking on the anchor. But even though we carry a two-sizes-too-big anchor and almost 300 feet of high-test (G4) chain, I’ve always been a little concerned about the weak link in the system, the piece that ties it all together—the shackle.

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When it comes right down to it, no matter how over-sized your anchor or robust your rode, that little link of cast metal is all that stands between you and being dashed against the shoreline in a blow. The problem is that not all shackles are created equal. The 3/8ths shackle we’ve been using for the last few years was one we picked up at West Marine for about $5.

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If  you look closely, you’ll see that the shackle is stamped WLL1T. This means that it’s rated for a working load limit of one ton. Now a ton might sound like a lot. But when a really good blow gets the boat sailing around at anchor, jerking up short on the rode as it completes each arc, the shock loading can be pretty intense.

So today I replaced that shackle with a new one. It’s the same size as the old one. But look closely…

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It’s a bit hard to make out in the photo, but this shackle is stamped WLL2T. Same size shackle, but rated for twice the load of the previous one. Why the difference? Pretty simple really. Let’s look at the other side.

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The new one is stamped “USA”. Now go back and take another look at the first one. You’ll see that it’s stamped “China”. And that’s all you need to know. The new one is the same size shackle, but much better quality, resulting in twice the load rating. It’s a Crosby G-209A, which you can pick up from Defender for a whopping $15.

Here’s another look at the issue. I dug though our parts box, and found another shackle onboard with a 2 ton rating.

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The one on the left is another Chinese made item, and is way too big to work with our 5/16ths chain. But even though it’s much meatier than the Crosby shackle on the right, they both have the same load rating!

If all you ever intend to do is occasionally drop the hook to grab lunch, then any old shackle should do. But if your goal is to cruise, and you want to be ready for whatever Mother Nature might throw at you, then do yourself and your boat a favor, spend the few extra dollars, and just say no to cheap Chinese shackles.

The Focus Begins To Shift

We’ve relaxed into a comfortable routine during our time here in St. Petersburg. For example, yesterday was Tuesday, which means it was movie day. Every Tuesday the Sundial Muvico, a large multiplex theater that’s a ten minute bike ride from our marina, offers $5 tickets and deeply discounted concessions.

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So for three weeks now, we plan our Tuesdays around the afternoon matinee schedule. The first week we saw Rogue One, and last Tuesday we caught Passengers. This week, looking for a change of pace, we watched a little jewel of a movie called Collateral Beauty.

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Do yourself a favor and go see this film. I don’t care what the reviews say on Rotten Tomatoes. If you can make it to the end of this movie without shedding a tear (or a flood of them), you have no heart.

Anyway, today is Wednesday, which means it’s dinner at The Hanger, where they offer their $12 gourmet cheeseburger for half price. So I’m pretty sure I know what we’ll be doing this evening. 🙂

But our time in St. Petersburg is growing shorter, and we’re starting to look at what comes next. Over my morning coffee, in addition to catching up on the latest news, I’ve started perusing the Waterway Guide to outline some possible options for our next few stops. And today, we’ve started some of the maintenance chores we’ve been putting off until we were closer to moving again.

For instance, before putting too many more hours on the engine, I wanted to make sure our shaft alignment was still within specification. We last aligned the shaft after reinstalling our rebuilt transmission while we were at Pensacola shipyard. But the boat was on the hard (out of the water, supported by stands) at the time. And here’s the thing about fiberglass boats—they’re made of plastic, and they bend. Sitting on stands doesn’t support the boat the same way as floating in water does. I know this is true because while we were on the hard, we noticed that the cockpit seat that has to be flipped down in order to access our swim platform would wedge and jam, making it difficult to open. It was due to the way the hull was being flexed on the stands, and the problem completely went away once Eagle Too was floating again.

So while we had gotten the alignment dead-on in the shipyard, I wanted to make sure it was still running true. If you have a boat with a direct shaft, it’s not really a difficult task (if you have a V-drive, best of luck to you. And if you have a saildrive, just completely disregard what I’m about to say. And check for corrosion. Daily! 🙂

Basically, checking the alignment just requires removing the coupling bolts.

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Then you measure the gap between the coupling faces with a feeler gauge. The general rule of thumb is that you’re allowed up to a .001″ gap (that’s one one-thousandth of an inch) per inch of coupler diameter. So for our 4 inch coupler, I was looking for less than a .004″ gap at any point around the circumference.

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I used the .002″ feeler gauge, and it wouldn’t slip between the coupler faces at any point. So we’re good. While our boat may have been bending a bit while on the hard, it apparently wasn’t enough to upset the alignment. I’m glad everything checked out OK, because if it turns out that your alignment is off, you have to start loosening engine mounts and making adjustments, and that’s just way too much to get into today. Google it if you need to know how, as you’ll find several really good online guides on how to do the job.

While I was back there, i also checked our transmission fluid, and I’m happy to say that it’s still nice and pink after about 35 hours of use, rather than brown and burnt smelling. So far it seems that sending the unit out to be rebuilt was definitely the right thing to do, and will hopefully allow us to have weeks, months, years of trouble-free travel in the future.

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To finish up, I pulled the vacuum breaker on the vented loop, cleaned it and reinstalled it. It had started leaking a little salt water onto the top of the engine while motoring. These vents usually have some type of little rubber flapper or check valve inside, and in time they’ll usually accumulate some salt crystals and start to leak a bit. Normally a good freshwater flush is all they need.

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A quick check of all the hose clamps (there are a LOT of hose clamps on our engine, and I always find a few loose ones that need tightening), belt tension (no more belt dust to clean up since we put a new pulley on the alternator during our refit), and a look at the fluid levels and fuel filter bowl, and our engine underway checks are basically done.

We can’t say for sure yet what our next stop will be, but I’m confident now that if called upon, the engine will be ready!

Back Bay Folding Bikes – Long Term Review

We’ve noticed that one of our more popular posts here at Life On The Hook has been our first-look review of the AMC Back Bay folding bicycles we bought at West Marine 18 months ago. To help out anyone who may be considering purchasing one or more for themselves and who may come across our site while Googling reviews, here’s a look at where things stand after 18 months of life in a marine environment.

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First, the good news. The bikes are still doing their intended job, getting us around town to stores, bars, restaurants and local attractions. Now that we’re back in the very bicycle-friendly city of St. Petersburg, we’re using them almost daily, and we peddled the heck out of them when we were down in Marathon in the Florida Keys. And people will often say “nice bikes!” to us as we ride by.

One thing we changed almost immediately was the stock seats the bikes came with.  After a few longish rides, I was noticing the narrow, hard seat was causing some, ahem, discomfort in places where I’d rather not be feeling pain, and Rhonda didn’t particularly care for the way hers felt either. So both bikes now have cruising saddles with wider seats and spring suspension for a more comfortable ride. Mine also has the anatomically correct (and pretty darn important) furrow down the middle to relieve pressure on certain essential nerves. We also added some small LED lights to make riding at night a bit safer.

In the so-so news department, we learned that while the bikes are mostly made of aluminum and stainless steel, they actually snuck in quite a few mild steel parts. A lot of the nuts and various fasteners, while still doing their jobs, are getting pretty rusty. And it turns out that most of the front forks have turned a deep copper color due to corrosion, and the front suspension tubes have to be regularly sprayed with penetrant and lubricant or else they just seize up.

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Now the bad news. The biggest problem has been how totally unsuitable for the marine environment the original bike chain and brake/shift cables are. When we first set out to cruise full time, we stored the bikes folded in storage bags lashed to the lifelines. This keeps the sun off them, but it unfortunately traps moisture, which viciously attacks the steel parts. When we broke out the bikes in Marathon, the chain on Rhonda’s bike had corroded into a flakey clump of rust, and I had to work through the chain link by link with pliers and penetrant to get it to function. Once we returned to Pensacola, the gears on both bikes froze, refusing to shift any longer. It took two days at the bike shop to get them back on the street. The shop replaced the galvanized shift cables with stainless wire, added full-length cable sleeves in place of the partial sleeves the bike had originally, and fitted new, corrosion resistant chains.

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We decided when we headed back out last December for the next leg of our adventure that we’d just store the bikes on deck sans bags. We remove the seats to store below and collapse the handlebars, and then just bungie cord them to the lifelines. They’re exposed to the sun every day, but we’re hoping that regular fresh water rinsing from rain or a dock hose and having the chance to dry out more often will slow down the rust.

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So 18 months later, our Back Bay folding bikes are still serving our needs. But we’ve had to spend an amount equal to the original purchase price on upgrades and repairs to keep them functioning. We’ll still recommend them, because after all, a boat is a pretty harsh environment. Just be aware that you’re going to have to do some upgrading if you want them to go the distance.

Progress…

We finished the first coat of paint today and laid out the anchor chain and remarked it. And FedEx tracking says our transmission was delivered to the repair shop in New Jersey this afternoon. Progress!

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We described the last time we did our bottom in Bottom Job Blues (it was fun to re-read and the tune is still appropriate!). We were very pleased with the performance of our Interlux Ultra bottom paint. It was going on its 31st month, and still had quite a bit of life left in it. If we hadn’t been hauling out to pull our transmission, we probably would have put off doing the bottom again for another six or eight months and achieve our goal of doing our next bottom somewhere down island. Interlux has apparently stopped making Ultra, but the replacement, called Ultra-Kote, still has the extremely high copper content that we prefer (they say it’s the highest available in any paint). They just dropped the Biolux biocide, probably for environmental reasons. Hopefully this bottom will take us through the next three years of cruising. 🙂

Does Imitation Leather Come From Artificial Cows?

Rhonda and I live on a yacht, and we therefore must be rich. At least, that’s what I believe companies that market marine products must think. The simplest little thing that you could pick up for a few bucks at the auto parts store or RV supercenter will cost two to five times as much if you buy the “marine” version. Many times it’s the same exact item, just in different packaging.

I consider it a big score and major success when we can find an alternative to a “marine” grade item that’s just as good, at significantly less cost. Today I want to share one such find with you. It’s my substitute for extremely overpriced sailing gloves.

I really hate rope burns. So I always wear a pair of sailing gloves when we’re out on the water. I prefer the ¾ length with the open fingertips , which protect my palms and fingers while trimming lines, but still let me feel and pick up small things. The West Marine brand is about $25 a pair. I usually prefer the ones from Gill, because they seem a bit sturdier and use a bit more leather for chaff resistance. They’re more like $35 a pair. Gloves1I usually chew through about two pair a year. Or rather, the lines chew through them. Particularly along the outside of my right index finger. After a few months, the fabric in this area will deteriorate and split, leaving my entire finger exposed. After two or three good rope burns, I throw that pair away and don the next (I usually have at least one spare pair in reserve).Gloves2

Now when you consider that there’s no practical way to grip a line with your hand without it running across the outside of your index finger, it’s not rocket science to realize that putting a piece of leather in this area would make the gloves last a lot longer. (And I happen to know a thing or two about rocket science, having written a book on the subject, which you might have noticed promoted here on the site.) But they don’t. I’m going to assume it’s because it lets them sell you more gloves.Gloves3

So one day we’re wandering the aisles at Home Depot trying to find some water filters for our Rainman water maker, and I spot a pair of work gloves from a company called Grease Monkey. Those look just like sailing gloves, I thought to myself. Examining them, I noticed that they had the ¾ length fingers that I like, thick rubber pads on the palms, and a nice big piece of imitation leather up the entire length of the index fingers(!).  So imagine my delight when I saw the price. They were only $9.99! At that price it was worth a try, so I bought a pair as an experiment.

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These Have Been Worn For Several Months

I’ve worn them for several months now, and they’re holding up just fine, at least as well as the pricier sailing gloves I was buying, maybe even better. Why are they so much cheaper? Well, there’s that whole “you own a sailboat, so you must be rich” thing. The Grease Monkey gloves are made for auto mechanics, and as a group, they’re probably much more price sensitive than your typical yachtista. Or maybe artificial leather is just that much cheaper than the fine Corinthian leather that I guess they must be using to make real yachting gloves.Gloves5

I realize we’re not talking about a major savings here. It’s not going to pay for your next bottom job. But hey, 25 bucks is 25 bucks. Personally, I’d rather invest that money in the contents of the liquor locker than in a pair of throwaway gloves.

Try a pair. I think you’ll like them! 🙂

Making Cruising Fun – Our Favorite Gear #2

During our shakedown cruise, we made three international passages on Eagle Too. The first was from the Florida Keys to Cuba. The next was from Cuba’s western tip to Mexico. And the final one was from Mexico back to the Keys. On each of these passages, we had to cross major shipping lanes, where we crossed paths with everything from cruise ships to oil tankers. Naturally, each time was deep in the darkest part of the night.

Imagine trying to slowly thread your way on foot across a busy interstate highway in the dead of night. That’s a pretty accurate analogy for what we encountered. It was pitch black, but we were surrounded by lights. Lots and lots of lights. Were they coming toward us? Moving away from us? Were we in danger of being run over? We really couldn’t be sure. Large commercial ships aren’t lit like the recreational craft we’re used to dealing with. There usually aren’t discernable running lights and a white stern light to help you figure out their direction. Sometimes a single vessel will display a dozen or more lights of every conceivable color. Our boat was pitching, waves were often obscuring the lights from other vessels, and on top of everything else, we’d be tired from being up all night.

In times like those, we were so very glad that we had digital HD radar and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver onboard. With our radar, we could reach out dozens of miles and track the movement of the surrounding traffic. And with our AIS transceiver constantly broadcasting, we could not only see who was out there, we could be reasonably certain that they could see us as well. If fact, on those occasions where our AIS would tell us that we’d be crossing within a mile of another vessel, when I’d radio them on the VHF to confirm our crossing, they’d always reply, “We see you, Captain.” It was very comforting to know that even though we’re only a 37 foot plastic sailboat, we were showing up on their bridge display the same as a 600 foot freighter. And it was also pretty cool to hear a huge ship say, “We’re altering our course to port,” in reply to our “Do you see us?” radio call. Sometimes it’s good to be a sailboat with the right-of-way!AISRadar1

The radar also helped us plot our way around thunderstorms. We relied on it a lot while working our way back up the west coast of Florida during the peak of thunderstorm season. On the water, storms can be deceiving, appearing closer or further away than they actually are, especially at night. More than once in the dark of night our anxiety level would rise when we’d see a cloud near us suddenly start lighting up with continual bolts of lightning. But it would be reassuring to paint the storm with our radar and find out that it was 40 miles away and not moving toward us.AISRadar2

So number 2 on our list of things we’re glad we had onboard for our shakedown cruise were our radar and AIS systems. We love information that contributes to situational awareness, and these tools kept us very aware. Depending on your budget and relative tolerance for risk, we feel the very least you should have onboard for crossing major shipping lanes at night is a very good radar reflector and an AIS receiver. At least with those, you’ll increase your chances of showing up on another ship’s radar (if it’s being monitored, which is a big if), and you can see the AIS signals from commercial traffic. This won’t help you with storms, for that you’ll want radar. And we found that once we crossed the shipping lanes north of Cuba and entered Cuban coastal waters, none of the local fishing boats broadcast an AIS signal, which made the radar that much more important.