Friday, January 20, 2006

Favorite Gadgets # 7 - RAM Mike

RAM stands for (I think) Remote Access Microphone.  When you add “Mike” to that it sounds kinda redundant, doesn’t it?


Anyhoo, this gadget is essentially an auxiliary microphone with a long cable for our marine VHF radio.  What makes it special is that it has nearly all the controls on it that the base radio itself has, as well as a very good speaker.  We take it out to the cockpit prior to getting underway for any trip, short or long.


On our last cruise, prior to having the RAM mike, it was often difficult or impossible to hear another vessel calling us if both of us were out in the cockpit.  The base radio itself is located down in the cabin, next to the chart table.  If the engine was running, or if there was a lot of wind, chances are we wouldn’t hear anyone calling us.


Having the RAM Mike in the cockpit is almost like having a second radio.  Aside from it being close at hand, its speaker is quite loud and easily heard above engine or other noises.  It has also enhanced our safety in that neither one of us has to go below to answer a call.  We can maintain a lookout for other vessels and hazards while talking on the radio.   This is especially handy if, for example, we are receiving directions from a marina or harbormaster as we are entering an unfamiliar port.  We can actually look for the landmarks they are telling us about, right while they are talking to us.


It used to be that when making passages we had to leave the radio on at night for safety.  If the person on watch had to make or answer a call, it would inevitably awaken the off-watch crew.  Now we just turn down the volume of the base radio at night.  The person on watch can then receive or make calls using the RAM mike in the cockpit without disturbing the precious sleep time of the other crewmember below in the cabin.







Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Our Bottom is Smooth Again

We had been away from Mexico for over four months, so we were a little nervous as we approached the border, especially since the van was carrying two large boxes of materials needed for Kavenga’s epoxy barrier coat.  Although we weren’t trying to hide anything, it still can be a little unsettling when you approach an international border and need to stop at Customs.  We would never make good drug smugglers.


As it turned out it was practically a non-event.  The Mexican Customs agent wasn’t interested in the details of what we were bringing.  “Boat Parts” was good enough for him as long as we had the receipts showing what we paid for them in the States.  We paid the duty (Mexican sales tax + 2% = 17%) and were on our way to Kilometer 21, the Immigration and vehicle checkpoint.  That was easy too.  Got our Mexican visas stamped and a vehicle import permit (which we found out later we may not have needed due our visa type), and we were on the road to San Carlos.


We rolled into Marina Seca (the boatyard in the desert), that evening with just enough daylight to go take a quick peak at Kavenga.  She was right where we left her and looked pretty much the same although we could see that yard workers had cleared out all of the brush that had been growing underneath her, including the little cherry tomatoes—darn.  They had also ground out all of the blisters in the fiberglass beneath the waterline.  Essentially, she was ready for the barrier coat process.


We stayed inside the yard in the van for a couple of days.  But we could see that living in the yard for a few weeks was not a pleasant prospect with all of the dust, noise, and lack of facilities.  Our old South Pacific cruising buddies, Bob and Janet Pedersen (formerly of the sailboat, Jubilation, and now of Kelly Marie) were also at Marina Seca getting their boat ready to sell.  They were living in their RV at El Mirador RV park 3 miles north of town adjacent to Marina Real, the other marina in the San Carlos area.  That was enough of an incentive along with the yard conditions to get us to cough up enough pesos for a month’s stay at El Mirador.


That was probably one of the smartest things we have done recently.  We loved it at El Mirador.  It is not just a nice RV park, it is probably the nicest we’ve ever stayed in.  Each site has its own cobble driveway and cement pad for patio furniture, etc.  Cable TV was provided with all the major networks, plus HBO and a few others.  We had wireless internet in the van.  There are two tennis courts, a pool, rec room, Laundromat, and first class restaurant.  And the views around the park are dramatic: craggy peaks, high mountains, beautiful bay with sandy beaches, the marina.  An unusual benefit (some might disagree) was the nightly serenade by the local pack of coyotes that would sometimes come right through the park after dark.  If you have never heard coyotes up close and personal, it is indescribable.  The best we could say is it somewhere between, wolf, human and alien being.


For the first three to four weeks our routine was to go for a run in the morning, watch the morning news on TV (OK so we watched the Ellen Degeneres show, too), read our newspaper or book, have lunch and then head over to the yard to check progress on Kavenga.  We were pleasantly surprised on that score.  We had expected to have to stay on top of things in order to keep on schedule, but it wasn’t necessary.  They moved Kavenga to the work area shortly after we arrived and began work on her immediately and essentially didn’t stop until she was done.


The barrier coat process went as follows: a) sandblast old bottom paint away, b) remove fiberglass gelcoat with special planer, c) grind out all blisters, d) fill and fair the ground out areas with epoxy mixed with silica, e) sand the hull fair, f) fill, fair and sand any remaining low areas, g) apply two coats of red epoxy primer, h) apply four coats of epoxy mixed with barrier coat additive, i) sand hull and apply three more coats of epoxy mixed with barrier coat additive, j) sand hull, k) apply two coats of anti-fouling bottom paint.  Items a and b were done prior to our departure last Spring and c was done while we were gone.


Almost all of the work was performed by the same single yard worker, a young man named Jose.  Some days it would be close to 90 degrees and he would be wearing full coveralls with a hood and respirator mask.  But he always had a smile and an “Hola” for us whenever we showed up.


Once we could see that the project was nearing the end, we started preparing Kavenga to go back in the water.  We filled her bilge with fresh water and switched the cooling water intake to the bilge instead of from the “sea”.  This allowed us to start the engine while out of the water to make sure that it was ready to go.  It was.  The batteries seemed to have suffered no ill effects from having not been charged all summer.  Contrary to what we had been led to expect, they had lost hardly any of their fluid.


Although we didn’t really plan it this way, it turned out that Kavenga was ready to launch the day before our prepaid month at El Mirador was due to expire.  Thankfully, it was a nearly windless day when the tractor and trailer hauled Kavenga the mile or so up the highway to Marina San Carlos.  We say that because the marina is very tight and built in a natural wind tunnel that amplifies any winds, making maneuvering very interesting. 


Before we knew it we were out into the Sea of Cortez and on our way up to Marina Real, an easy 45-minute trip up the coast.  We pulled into our assigned slip on Dock 12 and then Bob and Janet were kind enough to give us a ride back to Marina San Carlos to get the van.


So, we had one more night on the van before moving back aboard Kavenga.  This allowed us to make sure Kavenga was ready for habitation before leaving the comforts of the van and El Mirador.  Good-bye cable TV!  But by comparison, the living space in Kavenga seemed like a palatial mansion compared to the van.


Once we were out of the van, we needed to basically get Kavenga cleaned up and provisioned for travel, and the van cleaned out and ready for storage.  Again with Bob and Janet’s help, we drove the van out to Ranchitos, a “housing development” on the outskirts of San Carlos and parked the van in a storage compound run by an American couple.


We started listening to the weather nets on the short-wave radio again and heard that we had a good weather window for crossing the Sea of Cortez to Baja.  But because of the shallow entrance to Marina Real, we had to wait until mid morning to leave our slip on the 1st of December.  So instead of heading straight across, we just went around the corner and anchored in the lovely little cove just over the hill from El Mirador, Caleta Lalo.


In order to make landfall at Santa Rosalia on the other side of the Sea early the following day, we left about midnight after getting about four hours sleep.  It was a moonless night, but the compensation is a sky filled with more stars than you will ever see in light-polluted North America.  And between the two of us, we saw ten shooting stars or meteors that night.  We managed to sail for part of the trip and before the sun came up we received a dolphin escort leaving luminous tunnels of fluorescence in the water.


The winds that were predicted to come up in the early morning and make our arrival at Marina Santa Rosalia challenging, never arrived.  We ghosted into our slip without any swearing or shouting from shore or from us to mark our arrival to the boats already there.  Once secured, it was time for a shower and then a nap to catch up on the sleep we missed during the overnight passage.


In the next episode, we’ll head on down the inside of the Baja peninsula, an area considered by many to be the best cruising grounds in Mexico





Monday, January 16, 2006

Favorite Gadget # 6 - GPS Alarm

There always comes a time when cruising sailors find themselves in somewhat dicey anchorages.  The cause could be poor holding (rocky or oozy bottoms come to mind), high winds, or nearby dangers (rocks, reefs, coral heads, etc.).


When these situations occur it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep.  In the past (1990-1993 cruise) we tried using the anchor alarm on our depth sounder, which would go off if the water depth changed by a preset amount.  But that only worked if we were anchored on a sloping bottom where the depth changed rapidly.  In an anchorage with a flat bottom but with dangers nearby, it wasn’t much of a help.  The only other solution was to set an “anchor watch” which meant that one of us either got up periodically to check our position or stayed up for a period of time and alternated watches with the other crew person.  Neither of these options was very popular aboard Kavenga, although we did it when we had to.


Now, in the age of sophisticated GPS units (Global Positioning Systems), relief has arrived.  Once we arrive at a new anchorage, we leave our GPS on and after a half hour or so the boat has settled into its initial anchored position.  Using the GPS alarm feature, we can set it to go off at increments of 60 feet.  In other words, at the lowest setting, if the boat moves 60 feet from where we initially anchored, the GPS beeps to inform us of that fact.  Sometimes, conditions are such that the winds are variable and the boat is naturally shifting around.  We typically have out anywhere from 100 to 200 feet of anchor chain.  So our “swinging circle” can be as much as 200 to 400 feet in diameter respectively.  If the boat is moving around a lot, but not dragging its anchor, we might set the alarm for 120 feet or even 180 feet if there are no reefs or rocks astern of us.


In addition to the alarm, the tracking feature of the GPS tells us what’s going on.  As the boat moves, it leaves electronic “bread crumbs” in its path, little blips on the screen.  As the boat naturally swings from side to side and pulls on the anchor, it eventually leaves an arc of bread crumbs, which we have dubbed the “smiley face”.  This arc is in fact a electronic image of part of our swinging circle.  As long as Kavenga stays somewhere on that arc, we know we aren’t dragging anchor, we are just moving around the anchor.  However, if the bread crumb trail starts to resemble the pattern of a falling maple leaf that gets farther and farther from its initial arc, we know something is going on.  This happened to us recently in an anchorage called El Cardenal on Isla Partida, north of La Paz.  We were anchored close to the rocky, high cliff shore.  We moved to the center of the cove and re-anchored with the wind still blowing 25 to 30 knots and had no problems thereafter.  We subsequently reasoned that the bottom closer to the cliffs and rocky shore, probably had less sand over the rocks that had fallen from the cliffs over the years, making for an irregular and less penetrable bottom.  The GPS bread crumb pattern alerted us to what was going on even before the alarm when off.


So, score another one for modern technology.