September 30, 2012

AU to PNG, Days 2 and 3: easy living

It took nearly three days for the wind to fill in, but it's finally here. Totem is now moving along at a good clip, averaging 7.5 knots on a beam reach in 15 knots of easterly breeze. We spend much of our days reading, as books and e-readers littered around give evidence. The ocean sparkles with the indescribably vibrant sapphire color we only seem to find at sea.

Our second day out, we clocked what I think may be our slowest 24 hour passage runs ever- barely 90 miles, and that just because we motoring! We're checking in on the Pacific Seafarers Net, a ham net comes on in the early afternoon (in our time zone, anyway). Land and boat based radio stations in Hawaii, Australia, NZ and other locations around the Pacific track the progress of boats under way that check in on the daily roll call. One by one, each boat provides a position, boat course and speed, sea state and weather conditions. The other two reporting boats yesterday had even less wind than we did in their various corners of the Pacific- it was a theme. One of the net controls joked "no course, no speed, no wind...no hope!"

I don't know about no hope, but it's good that we hit a comfortable stride early since our travel time is stretching out. We're also going to get more wind and bigger seas in a few days. I'm trying not to dread it. The wind we can handle; it's the sea state that will affect comfort level. We'll probably get into PNG on Wednesday, unless the conditions cause us to change from our currently planned route into a south pass inside the reef to Tagula/Sudest.

September 28, 2012

Australia to Papua New Guinea, Day 1: it's going to take longer than we thought

It's always good to expect the unexpected.

Finding the rhythm of a passage usually takes a day, or three, depending on which member of the Totem crew you ask. Settling in to a different routine, dealing with any seasickness(thankfully uncommon aboard Totem), adapting to the shakeup in sleeping patterns. It's not always appealing to add floppy bloody fish into the mix too soon, so the handlines aren't tossed out right away.

Forecasts suggested we'd have a nice broad or beam reach heading up to the Louisiades- 20 or so knots, optimal conditions for Totem to have a comfortable and speedy passage. For about the first quarter of the way we'd  have the wind just forward of the beam, until we pass outside the Great Barrier Reef and can crack off a little to point almost due north to our destination. Glorious!

As it turns out, the breeze is considerably lighter and farther forward, thanks to a high pressure system filled in sooner than forecasted. Sailing closer to the wind is slower, and can be less comfortable. There's a reason the flow of predominant cruising routes is downwind! But just in time, our new mainsail is doing excellent duty: we are holding a higher course than Totem could previously, and still making good way. With these lighter conditions, the seas are calm, giving us a mellow ride over gentle swells. It's beautiful.

Our first full day out passed easily. Watching Australia fade into the sunset as we headed offshore was bittersweet. Gliding under the bright light of a nearly full moon. A lazy sunny day, with cards and reading in the cockpit, and the occasional seabird swooping by to check us out. Help from Niall with watch keeping: it's great to have him take the helm so I can check in on a radio net while Jamie catches up on sleep.

It's easy to get focused on getting to a destination as quickly as possible. This time, I'm savoring the slower ride. So it won't be that ideal four-ish day passage, and it might be closer to six. But that's OK. We're in the groove of passagemaking in record time...time to put out the handlines.

Housekeeping: have you visited lately?


I know a number of our friends and family get the blog via email, so for the benefit of those who don't see the homepage, check it out! I've done a minor facelift and added information. As part of that, tabs to other information about us and our travels have been added. Just a wee tweak, really, although after four  (FOUR!) years it was probably time to update that header.

It's a sign.

Here's what's changed:

  • There's a link to Totem's Facebook page. We post tidbits here between blog updates, and love the comments, so please give us a 'like,' help us spread the Totem love, and check it out!
  • A map with our current position (updated daily via radio) is on the main page, and linked under Journey tab in more detail. Inside Journey, you can hover your mouse over the last position for details included in our radio report (e.g. weather details and sea conditions or anchorage name)
  • Links to the blogs of cruisers we have shared the water with, and the ones we hope to see across an anchorage someday, are now on their own page with a little more context
  • Other sections include a little backgrounder about us, more information about Totem, a gallery of images that runs through highlights of our cruising years (wow, the kids were smaller in 2008), and information about how to get in touch (after a helpful commenter pointed out there wasn't a contact email to be found anywhere!)
This all started as our vehicle for keeping in touch with family, and recording the gems of our family cruising adventures I didn't want to forget. Over the years, I've heard from so many other cruisers (and cruisers-to-be) about information they found helpful that it's gradually included more cruising-specific content. It's still mostly my journal, but now also varies from opinionated, unpublisheds takes on our cruising column in 48 North to tips and tricks we've learned along the way.

Hopefully, this has helped our fellow sailors as I have learned from them. Is it working for you? I'd love feedback! Just remember... we have no internet access right now, so be patient with me when I don't reply. For a month. Of course the mere lack of internet could tweak my brain, and you'll see another kind of update altogether...

September 26, 2012

And we're off- PNG or bust!

Totem is departing this morning for Papua New Guinea. There is a great deal of excitement on board, tempered with a little "are we ready yet?" tension.

Although we have had weeks to prepare, much of the "prep" was waiting for shipments and then weather.The final hours are still somewhat chaotic. Wrapping up details like disconnecting our mobile and internet service and paying last bills, the accoutrements of our extended stay in Australia.

There have been a few explosions of stuff in the main cabin.

We don't expect to have internet access for a month, give or take. For the first time in a long time, we'll be back to posting by radio. The awesome Carla, from Moondance, is helping us with a relay to post photos (Winlink allows attachments, but the encoding prevents them from being accepted in a post to the blog). I'm really grateful for her help, because I'm excited to share some of the tropical vistas we'll soon have from Totem.

Totem's position is updated daily by radio. Those won't show up as blog posts if you get this by email, but you can see them on the website on the right hand side or under our Journey section. So think of us, and hope we're catching fish or watching whales... you know, from a safe distance. Our next gasp of Internet will be in the latter part of October.

And with that, we're off! I sure hope there's enough chocolate on board.

September 20, 2012

Fraser Island: Our neighborhood this week

This week, we worked our way up to Bundaberg, lingering a bit in the aptly named Sandy Straits between Fraser Island and the coast of Australia.

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Fraser is believed to be the largest sand island in the world. More than 50 miles long but less than 10 miles wide, it has ribbons of white beaches backed by gum trees.

The shallow depths and tidal swings provided a minor pucker factor as we sailed between the shifting sand shoals. Friends coming south through this area last year had touched bottom; another went hard aground on a sandbar here in June. 24 hours aground and bouncing on the bar did damage to his boat that we’d really like to avoid. Timing our progress, we passed shallows that would have put us aground with two hours of high tide, looking between the different messages from buoys, charts, water color, and depth sounder with our fingers crossed.

The coast of Fraser treated us to a few sweet little anchorages.It’s also home to dingoes. We brought our own wildlife ashore to inspect.

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They’re common on the island, and have enough run-ins with visitors that warning signs (and and a ring fence) were posted around the resort where we beached the dinghy to hike one day.

Since our friends on Ceilydh and Whatcha Gonna Do (plug: the lovely WGD is for sale!) had seen these wild dogs when they passed through, we had high hopes for our own sighting. Our hikes in search took us to beautiful vistas that reminded me of the view from Chuckanut drive back home.

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We wandered the beaches, where fine silica and little traffic sometimes sank us mid-calf into the soft sand.

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But dingo sightings? No such luck! The hikes and nice beach walks had a spectrum of Australian critters, but the closest we got to a dingo were tracks. Lots of tracks. Tracks criss-crossing the beach, mocking us with the message of what we’d missed. We’d been trying to watch that beach through pea-soup fog in the morning to no avail- I have to wonder if we weren’t being watched from the bushes.

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But what we did find was lovely. Pretty oystercatchers, foraging in the tidal flats with their shocking orange beaks. The perfect geometry and castle-like peaks of a beautiful shell. The coarse surface of an old whale bone, broken in the shallows. Beetle larvae tracks carving a twisty path through eucalyptus trees.

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And my personal favorite, the jewel-like egg sacs of jellyfish. Hundreds of them scattered along one beach, where they glistened like crystal balls in the sun.

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We could have lingered to notch “dingo sighting” off our bucket list, but we’re eager to leave. As beautiful as this is, the excitement of what awaits in Papua New Guinea makes it pale by comparison. So we have pulled in near Bundaberg for our last tasks and deliveries before departure.

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September 18, 2012

A tale of three EPIRBs

Punchline: we have a brand new, 406 mHz EPIRB for sale at a ripping bargain (as in, just don't make us lose too much money on this). Email for details- but do it soon! We depart Australia soon. This EPIRB has a built in GPS, is manually activated, and is coded for vessels registered in Australia or New Zealand.

An E-whaaa?

An EPIRB one of the essential pieces of safety gear on board Totem.  EPIRB stands for emergency position-indicating radio beacon. It's a distress beacon that uses an international satellite system to provide tracking data search and rescue, so that in the unlikely event of a catastrophic emergency we can be found by a rescue crew. We have inadvertently come to own three of them. Redundancy is good, but that's excessive! Within the details of how this came to be is a cautionary tale.

Exhibit A: the EPIRB that NOAA doesn't love

Pre-departure safety check

Before departing Australia, we wanted to have our EPIRB and emergency VHF radio serviced. They were both due for battery replacement, and for important pieces of safety equipment, a check up from a professional is a good idea anyway.

The manufacturer's agent for this region directed us to a distributor in Australia. They had an outlet in Brisbane- great! It was a 4 hour bus adventure to visit, but at least we could do it easily. It would take time to get the new battery ordered from the US, but we were waiting on other shipments so this wasn't a big deal. A pick up date was arranged for 4 weeks later.

I called the distributor a few days shy of 4 weeks to confirm the status; it was all tracking. The next day, they called us with the news that they had been dropped as the Australian distributor for the manufacturer: our replacement battery had never been shipped from the States, and they could not longer help us as they did not have the materials or the certification.

The regional rep for our EPIRB manufacturer was very nice, but couldn't solve the situation. Certification was abruptly removed for competitive reasons, and we were the casualty. Our next opportunity for battery replacement would be with the distributor in Singapore- we were given a generous offer to replace the battery there. However, since we don't expect to be in Singapore until the back half of 2013, we'd have to buy another EPIRB if we wanted one for our pending ocean passage.

It was a little frustrating to hear that our only option was to purchase a second EPIRB. But frugal as we are, we believe this is critical safety gear, so we went ahead and bought one.

That's when it really got interesting

Here's where it's good to know you can't buy just any old EPIRB. Beacon registration is done with the national registry of your ship's country of registration. Country codes are built into each beacon's unique ID. These can be changed, but only if the beacon in question matches the requirements of the country in question.

It turned out that our brand new EPIRB, because it is manually activated as opposed to automatically activated by water immersion, does not meet NOAA's standards. As a result, we can't register it, which makes it useless for us. We also can no longer return it. It took a couple of weeks and ultimately email exchanges with the manufacturer's representatives in three countries (seriously) to work out that this model was a non-starter for us. By that time, we no longer had the original box- it's stashed in a floating bag with the ditch kit- so the local retailer wouldn't accept it as a return.

Because we didn't have enough already

Yes, it was then time to buy a third EPIRB! We could have ordered one from the US, guaranteeing the right coding to be in place but were concerned about adding the vagaries of international shipping to the mess. Instead, we purchased an EPIRB in Australia that we made sure would both meet NOAA's standards and could be re-coded before delivery with a unique ID that we can register in the US.

So... does anyone want to buy an EPIRB?

Our three EPIRBs strung together in the main cabin make for a pretty bit of boat jewelry, but the unit we aren't able to register really should be with someone who can use it. We don't need a spare meat tenderizer on board, and besides, the tweety-bird yellow kind of clashes with our galley d├ęcor. And yeah, it would be nice to recoup at least some of what this learning experience has cost Totem's cruising funds. I know we've got friends in the cruising world getting our blog posts, so please share this with anyone you think may be interested. Just... only boats that are registered in Australia or New Zealand.

If we could do it all over again...

Look closely at manufacturer's claims for service areas. We made our original purchase decisions for gear based upon the ability to get it serviced around the world. While circumnavigation is still not a goal we'll claim, this gear was expected to be ranging far from home for a period of time. It was assumed that when routine maintenance was necessary, we'd be able to get it done...especially in countries like Australia.

It's not just the EPIRB. Our life raft is also supposed to be serviced around the globe. And yes, it's due for repacking, but that has to be done with a certified rep. And yes, you guessed it: there isn't a single certified rep in Australia. That's one we have to postpone.

At the end of the day, we now have redundancy for our emergency beacon. It's not a bad thing. I just wish we could have learned the lesson in a less costly fashion.

September 9, 2012

Almost ready to go

We are getting so close to our take-off date, it's like we can taste it. Waiting for the last few things we need is hard, but there's plenty to keep us busy.

Like dealing with a few winches that had earned a bit of TLC.


We hired a little "adult supervision" from a professional to assure all is well with our trusty Yanmar, and to get a few bits and parts for it serviced and replaced. If anyone comes near Mooloolaba and needs Yanmar service, Graham is your guy! He was a big help and knows his stuff.


I've been able to add to my growing collection of photos of Jamie in awkward positions doing work on the boat.


There was the little matter of a bolt getting stuck in the case around the impellor in our engine. No, I'm not a mechanic and that could probably be explained better...but it's not what you want to occur. Jamie finally got it out. Isn't that a sexy hand?


I've had the pleasure of doing laundry with a fabulous view... but the best part? It had HOT WATER (this is seriously the first hot-water marina laundry we've seen since the US. Yes, that was 2008).


While I'm off the boat, Jamie uses kitchen appliances for his welding projects. *sigh*


Plenty to keep us occupied... but we can't wait to get moving...


September 3, 2012

Totem's boat swag

Our cruising mentors had helped us internalize just how important your boat name will be as a part of your cruising life. That name is your identity. Cruisers you meet- you will know them better in a day than the people you lived next door to for years, but odds are that they will never learn your last name. Nope. They’ll just know you by your boat name. Strange as it may seem, this name is who you are to most of the cruising community that you will meet...and how you represent and share that name is more important than you realize as a pre-cruiser.
Totem's logo. We wanted the Haida orca as a reminder of our home. Korum Bischoff designed this, even incorporating our children's faces into the image. It is perfect for us, and I truly adore it. Which is good, because it's on our transom, our boat cards, an official stamp...and probably more to come.

So no pressure, right? Choosing the right name not only has to be memorable to your fellow travelers and sundowner mates, it must also be radio-friendly (not too long!), internationally pronounceable (it’s clever, but how many of you can pronounce passepartout correctly? And if you happened to take your boat into a country that doesn’t speak English, will pronunciation of your chosen name be easier or harder? And god forbid the situation ever arises, but will search & rescue wherever you happen to be in the world recognize and accurately repeat that name over static and chaos?), and now- that name must also encompass your ethos. Sure- nooooo problem.

Now tack onto that name a brand identity. I’m sorry, but I worked in marketing for too long, and this how my mind works. Like it or not, you are a brand. What does your boat’s name and/or iconography say about you?

Given my background in marketing and work in (shhh!) advertising, it’s odd and maybe a little sad that it hadn’t occurred to me should make how I share this branding in a more concrete manner with my fellow cruisers a priority before we left.

It took our neighbor at the Harbour Pub marina to point this out. Kurt and his family had lived and cruised on their boat, Gumbo Ya-Ya, for years. He works in professional imaging, and his son Korum- a former cruising kid- is a talented designer who created our Haida-style orca icon for Totem. As our cast-off date approached, Kurt asked tactfully what we had planned in the way of boat cards. “Nothing,” our blithe reply. Geez, didn't he realize we had more important things to deal with- like getting that HF running and making sure our autopilot spares worked? Well- bless him, he did, and Kurt also showed up at our going-away with a box of 500 cards with our name, key contact details, and the beautiful orca logo as a parting gift. He knew from experience, in a way that we could not yet appreciate, that these would be important.

Blow me away. And you know what? This has been such an extremely useful vehicle for us. Yeah, you can share and collect boat cards to help stay in touch with the people you meet. Even in our very digital age, we keep parts of our life relatively analog. We aren't toting smart phones around teh overhwelming majority of the time- it's not practical or necessary. Boat cards are a concrete reminder of good times with other boats and people you have met, and have helped us connect and stay in touch.

Next year, we’ll be in Southeast Asia, and I’m looking forward to getting beyond the card with our boat swag. I’m expecting printing to be more affordable there than it is here in Australia (where everything seems to be expensive). Friends of ours have cool tanks or tees or other articles with line drawings and boat names or logos: they make great gifts and are fun for them to wear, too. Honestly, if I’d appreciated this sooner I would probably have had a bunch printed up before we left. It’s a great gift for someone you have gotten to know in a place, where you want to leave a little part to remind them your time together.