29 January 2020

Boat Projects in Paradise

Living on a boat, especially in the Caribbean, can be heavenly. Every day I am grateful for this lifestyle. There is, however, far less lounging on the beach with a mojito than one may assume. The adventure and relaxing segments are necessarily heavily intermingled with constant attention to the inner and outer workings of the vessel to keep her looking spiffy, functioning well, and sailing safely.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

Quite a few boat projects were tackled back in November in the immediate weeks after Argon was  launched in Grenada. Most days since then include at least a sprinkling of boat chores or logistics. Some days are consumed by projects. Here is a sampling of fairly routine boat maintenance and repairs we have tackled recently during a couple of weeks in Antigua - often at anchor, sometimes tied up at Nelson's Dockyard in English Harbor.

Electrical:  Solar Panel Performance

We have four flexible panels mounted on the bimini and dodger with a total rated capacity of 385 watts. We should be able to depend on around 100AH (Amp-Hours) of energy from these on a typical Caribbean sunny day but the generated energy has been somewhat sub par. Step one was to clean all of the connectors and terminals between the panels and the controllers with alcohol. The good news is that our primary panel (the 135w on the bimini) is now doing great, as is the port side 100w panel.  The not so good news is that we're still getting a little less energy than we should and it's clearly because the starboard side 100w panel is just not performing. We've cleaned everything we can on that panel and we sadly conclude that the panel is failing.

All of the connectors for the solar panels were cleaned with alcohol.

Amperage readings in collected over the course of a day showing peak of about 17 amps midday - less than what it should be if all solar panels were functioning well.

Being the nerds we are, we plotted the net income of Amps from the panels for each daylight hour (over several days).  If that starboard panel was performing, the peak would be well over 20A. Seventeen is the highest we record. The main power consumers are the fridge and our work laptops. The fridge is probably using about 60-70 A-H per day (depending on how many ice cubes we can have in our drinks). Our work laptops have 130w power bricks and they need to be plugged in quite a few hours a day. The end result is unless we can get ashore for powering the laptops part of the day, more is going out than is coming in and we still need to run the engine periodically to make up the deficit.

Electrical:  New Windlass Switches (again!)

When at anchor in Maine, USA a few years ago, we learned that the up and down switches for the windlass are woefully unreliable when our windlass suddenly started paying out chain - potentially very dangerous. Now, as a precaution, we now always keep the breaker for the windlass off except when preparing to set or weigh anchor. And, despite replacing the switches with better quality ones, they continue to eventually start to fail after some time. It's not surprising really considering the location way up front on the bow where they are regularly being blasted by salt water waves while sailing. While in Antigua recently, Bob replaced the pair yet again (and purchased another set of spares for when these fail).

Crouching in the bow locker replacing the windlass switches (again).

IT Support:  Flaky WiFi Router

Starting around Martinique, we noticed that our trusty Bullet Wifi Router was starting to not work reliably (even when we could find some wifi to hijack). Bob was down in to a locker again (this time the transom locker) to get access to the network connection to the Bullet. He put a PoE (Power Over Ethernet) tester inline to see if the Bullet was getting power. It was. And... it was also working now.

Bob squeezing in to the transom locker to access the wifi network cabling.

The PoE tester inline with the Bullet. Plenty of power going through.

The diagnosis: Just interrupting and reconnecting the bullet "fixed" it - meaning we have a flaky connection. Bob cleaned the connectors with alcohol and it's been fine... until today. As we edit this blog and get ready to upload, the Bullet is wigging out again. It may be time to just cut the wires and re-crimp new connectors. In the meantime, we will clean the connectors again and cross our fingers. Mobile data has been our front line strategy for connectivity anyway as it has been rare that we can use the Bullet to slurp up some free wifi.

Cleaning:  Polishing and Waxing

The continual salt and intense sun are formidable opponents to a clean and well functioning boat. Salt spray while sailing gets everywhere and given our need to conserve water, we welcome the occasional heavy downpour for a good rinsing. In addition, it is necessary to rid the surfaces of salt before tackling the polishing and waxing. 

Quite a bit time is spent addressing rust spots on the stainless steel and keeping it shiny with extra attention needed in small crevices, around screws, at the base of stanchions and inside turnbuckles. As with waxing the gelcoat in the cockpit and on deck, this is normally done in the morning and late afternoon hours to avoid the intense heat of midday.

This pic is taken shortly after a welcome rainstorm. We sometimes get out on the deck with sponges during heavy rain to clean off the baked on salt. The cool freshwater rinse of our sweaty bodies is a bonus.

Cleaning off the extra stubborn rust spots and polishing the bow roller.

Shiny bow roller. (I wish I took a before picture too.)

Some of the tools and products for waxing and polishing. Flintz for routine stainless steel polishing; OsPho for the more difficult rusty spots; ScotchGuard wax and 3M light compound-wax combination for the gelcoat.

Bilge and Sump Cleaning

Ah, that important albeit dirty, stinky gully beneath the floorboards... We finally made ourselves pull up the flooring, get on hands and knees, and scrub out the bilge, rinse, repeat. And, while we're down there, there is the sump receptacle that catches the grimy shower and sink water. Cleaning the pumps carefully with a toothbrush to get out all the crude accumulated in every corner restores faith in their reliability. We also used this opportunity to test the manual bilge pump - check!

Cleaning of the sump and bilge.

Thorough cleaning of the Rule 1100gph bilge pump.

Cleaning:  Corroded Propane Tanks 

We have two small (10 pound) propane tanks for our stove/oven. When one empties, we arrange for a refill asap to be sure we never run out completely. With regular use one tank lasts 2 to 3 months. The base of the tanks have corroded severely (but luckily the integrity of the tanks remain) causing some damage to the locker as well as lots of noise as they bounce around while sailing. We searched for fiberglass replacements in Antigua but no luck. In the meantime, the locker was cleaned out and we were able to secure a makeshift new base for the tanks out of cut up pool noodles. (One day I'll do a blog on all the various uses of pool noodles on a boat.)

The base of both propane tanks have corroded.

Cleaning: The Bottom

Argon started off the season in November with a smooth, freshly painted bottom. Despite the effective anti-fouling paint, regular scrapping of barnacles and algae growth is needed to prevent growth from getting out of hand. A dirty bottom can dramatically negatively effect a boat's speed also.

Regular snorkling with a scraper or brush to keep the bottom clean.


Inspecting:  Air Conditioner and Steering Mechanism

As we were docked at Nelson's Dockyard for several days, were were able to plug in to shore power - yeah! In addition to not having to monitor and ration electrical usage continually, we could even turn on the air conditioner! But since this would be the first time running it since April, we did an inspection first.

Argon's air conditioning unit is below the forward V berth thus requires the bed to be cleared and mattress to be pulled out.

Inspecting the air conditioning unit - all working well!

At the opposite end of the boat.... we cleared out the aft cabin. The aft cabin functions as our storage closet on board holding all sorts of things including water and diesel jugs, side panels for the cockpit, 2 guitars and other music gear, deflated paddle board and paddle, charts, storm sail, fishing poles, pool noodles and cockpit cushions. We have not used this space for its intended sleeping berth for several years.

Once cleared, the back access panel is removed to allow inspection of the steering mechanism and the vented loop for the sump.

Steering mechanism looks mostly good except for...

Collar seal around the rudder bearing is torn. Luckily no water is seeping in and although not urgent, its replacement is important. Add to the list.

New Dock Lines and Eye Splicing

Ninety feet of 3 strand dock line was purchased to make 2 new 45 foot dock lines. Bob has gotten quite proficient with various types of splicing.

Making eye splices for the new dock lines.

Re-attaching the Jib Furling Drum

Furling in the jib had been oddly difficult and upon examination, we realized the furling drum was not attached properly since Grenada. The pin which sets the height of the drum was not going through the hole it was supposed to. It was going through a larger opening in the rigging toggles allowing the drum to wobble and turn very hard when the line had a heavy load. On a low wind morning while docked we took down the jib to enable lifting of the mechanism and re-attaching it properly. Then the jib was re-hoisted and furled before the winds kicked in.

Adjusting the jib furling drum on a low wind morning while docked at Nelson's Dockyard.

Oh, And Still On the To Do List...

We have since finished our time in Antigua and have started a new boat chore list including: cleaning the bottom of the dinghy, addressing issues with the toping lift, lazy jack refit, rudder collar seal replacement, more stainless polishing and gel coat waxing, cockpit teak cleaning, water tank sanitation, pad eye retrieval and fabrication, sail track car/bearing inspection, vented loop replacement, etc... Ah, the luxurious cruising life!

The dinghy desperately needs a good bottom cleaning. The algae growth is very stubborn and not easily scrubbed off the hypalon surface. The outboard needs to come off and the dinghy brought on land or on a dock with an assortment of chemicals and elbow grease.

We need to retrieve a broken pad eye out of the boom which will entail removing the main sail and tilting the boom forward (hopefully).
The topping lift will be a whole project blog to come. But the short version is that since getting the new main sail in Grenada last November, we're having a lot of trouble with the topping lift getting fouled on batten pockets and reefing rings on the leech of the main sail due to the increase in roach. More than once, the fouled topping lift prevented the mainsail from being swiftly dropped - one time while we were approaching some dangerous reefs. After much consideration of options, we have decided to remove the topping lift and make some other modifications. Stay tuned for a forthcoming blog on how we will manage sans topping lift.

The topping lift hanging up on one of the frictionless Antal rings for the reefing line.

And Now for that Mojito...

In between boat projects, day jobs, and sailing, there is much to enjoy! This is a unique and eclectic lifestyle indeed. Consistent attention to maintenance, repairs and inspections is just part of the cruising lifestyle and enables us to appreciate the more relaxing aspects of island life.

It is not all work! (But perhaps while we are in the water, we should scrub the rudder and water line...)

20 January 2020

The French Non-Connection

Our time in the French Caribbean was wonderful... mostly.  Despite being some of the most beautiful and first-world places with some of the most picturesque anchorages in the Caribbean, there are connection issues - literally and figuratively.  Linda has admonished me to be culturally sensitive in this post. She will redact the testimony if she thinks I've crossed the line.

c'est la vie

Capt. Bob

Language Connection

The thing about the French Islands is... well, they speak French.  We are both high-school level Spanish speakers (which means we are sadly mono-lingual like most Americans). However, it is surprising that even around very touristy areas (like near cruise ship ports and in big cities), there are relatively few people in shops and restaurants who spoke anything but French. Even the Customs/Clearance people often spoke only French and, by definition, they are dealing with people from somewhere else all day long.

I'm not complaining. We faced nothing on the scale of how non-English speakers are treated in mono-lingual America. Normally, our "Je parle anglais?" or "no francais" would be met with "ah, okay... I'll try".  Occasionally, it was met with an eye roll or sigh, but never a "if you don't speak the language, get out of the country" type thing.  Overall, most people were polite or neutral. Mainland Guadeloupe was an outlier as it was much more common to be faced with blatant rudeness at our lack of French. Les Saintes, Martinique and Marie-Galante seemed to be much more forgiving.

So, not complaining, (well a little) but the language barrier does make things more arduous, complicated and harder to connect.  Basic purchases and restaurant ordering is fine, but more complicated interactions can be extremely challenging if not impossible. Our few phrases along with Google Translate and generous locals trying their best with Anglais mostly worked.  Directions, numbers, technical support for a non-working Orange SIM card... that's a different story.

Us being ready with our first two questions for a Car Rental

Designated Feeding Times

Oui, it is very French here. The daily schedule takes a bit of getting used to. When not working, we like to be on the move when we come ashore and pop into different places. We like to sample "a quick bite" or a quick drink at several places or secure provisions and boat parts. There is no such thing as "quick" on the French islands. Many of the restaurants say they are "Snack" places or have a "Snack" section on the menu. A "Snack" on one menu is a Burger with egg on top, salad and frites.  Now, that's a snack!  Budget at least an hour and a half for your quick bite. And be sure to hit the shops in the morning before the 1PM shut down or between 3-5PM (which means another trip to shore later in the evening for the 7+PM restaurant feeding times).

Dinner is late by American standards and especially by cruising sailor standards (9PM is known as "cruisers' midnight"). Dinner is an event. I should say that the food itself is usually incredible, but, an American who is used to attentive service with the periodic "Is everything alright here?",  "Can I get you anything else?", "Would you like another glass of wine?" may feel quite ignored and forgotten. Don't take it personally. What amazed me was how much money is left on the table (literally) by leaving customers with empty drink glasses for the last hour of the feeding or not quickly getting us to pay and move on to open our table for waiting customers. We have learned to go to them to pay; don't wait for the check.  There are skeletons of Americans waiting for checks in some restaurants.

We can decipher menus now (mostly)

Nearly every shop and service closes for a couple (or more) hours in the middle of the day. This is when the designated lunch feeding happens. Once the lunch feeding is over, don't expect to find anything to eat until the dinner feeding time at a million o'clock. During our first time in Les Saintes a couple years ago, we had the misfortune of being starving at 5PM after a long hike and no lunch. We eventually bought a can of peanuts and a bottle of wine at a market we found open. We ate and drank on a public park bench sipping directly from the very nice bottle of Rose de Provence (screw cap).

Because our time is already very regimented by boat tasks, and day jobs and other logistical needs, these regimented feeding times and business closing times can further complicate things. But we are getting used to it and make an effort to adjust when we dinghy to land.

Data Connection

Ugh - this is by far the most difficult thing.  Connectivity is very hard to come by and expensive! Many things conspired against me trying to do my day job here. There were several work telecons that I simply had to drop off from because the connection was so bad. I found it incredibly frustrating because up until that point, the connectivity had been so great in all more third-world countries. If I didn't know any better, it was almost as if the French didn't want me to work.

Whenever I complain to people about difficult connectivity issues in the islands, I'm always met with "oh poor you... you can't work in paradise". The thing is though, if I can't work, I can't be in paradise. This lifestyle is possible for us because we are able to work. When I can't work, I get very stressed and it quickly becomes the exact opposite of paradise.

Combining data and language connectivity issues, I had an Orange Mobile SIM card left over from the previous year which I could not get working. We went to an Orange Boutique in the Martinique Capital of Fort-de-France for help. There was zero English spoken here (3 blocks from the cruise ship terminal in a huge metro city).  Google Translate slowly helped but dealing with a technical issue was incredibly difficult and time-consuming. In the end, they got me going (after I threw enough Euros at them) and I was able to finally have my data for the painful price of 15EUR per Gigabyte.  (We use more than one GB per day.  This was going to hurt!)

One of the most frustrating encounters - at the Orange Mobile store.

Google Fi worked so-so or not at all depending on where we were. I believe they are using the French Digicel (not Orange) network and that was only 3G (or non-existent) in many places.
Orange is LTE.  Digical F is NOT. (Google FI is using the latter)

But, the Beauty

Linda wrote at length about Martinique already. I would say, that this is one place I could return to and charter a boat for a couple weeks.  There are so many great spots on Martinique that you would never need to leave the island in that time.

Sitting Pretty in Saint-Pierre, Martinique
If you prefer swanky urban settings, Martinique has that as well

Les Saintes is amazing. You take a well-maintained mooring for about $12USD/day and have easy access to town. The island seems to be replacing their handful of gas powered scooters and cars with electric golf carts and bikes. We love renting electric bikes to explore the island. You can cover a lot of ground and make it up some pretty steep hills in just a few hours on one of these. If you like a challenge, there are some great hikes here as well.

The mooring field in Terre-de-Haut from a e-bike ride. Can you spot Argon?
Covering some ground on the e-bikes

Getting there was half the fun

We had a fantastic day-sail from Dominica to Les Saintes. Seas were fairly flat with moderate winds over the beam. We kept sails up right up very close to the mooring field. We arrived on Dec30 and things were already filling up for New Years Eve. When we arrived, there were three moorings left. By the end of the day, people were racing for them and fighting (in French) over them.

Sailing on a reach toward Les Saintes from Dominica

Sitting on our mooring in the popular neighborhood near town.

Lodging Upgrade

We went ashore to a hotel to try and harvest their wifi password. In general, we found that wifi was a very protected commodity in the French Islands. It is very common for them to insist on typing a password into your phone or computer so that they don't reveal it (we have the technology to thwart this). But this particular hotel would not even do that unless we were guests! It occurred to me - we're safely on a mooring in sight of this hotel. Let's ask how much a room is. We needed google translate to do this even though there is a giant sign in the reception area that says "We Speak English". So I bought a wifi-password for 160 Euros and they threw in a hotel room, shower and pool. And of course they insisted on typing in the password. Using our technical advantage in the wifi arms race, we were able to harvest the password and use it in the bullet router aboard Argon for the last couple days of our time in Les Saintes. This was a major help. The hotel let us lock our dinghy to the dock overnight (fortunately Linda found a guy who really did speak English to clarify that with).

My 160 Euro wifi password came with this free room/shower and air conditioning!

After leaving Les Saintes, we stopped for just one night in Deshaies, Guadaloupe. It is a good jump off point for a 45 mile sail to Antigua and also a Customs port. Deshaies is a very pretty little town with cool shops and restaurants. You can also rent a car here (with help from Google Translate).  Deshaies is a challenging harbor to anchor in sometimes as it gets deep quickly and the katabatic winds commonly kick things up to 25+ kts.  We were able to get in close enough this time to anchor in 24 feet of water. Not bad. People arriving later in the day (and that night) had a difficult time finding a place in shallow enough water. Often they were getting shooed away by skippers who felt they were trying to anchor too close.

Sitting Pretty in Deshaies

On Balance

This lifestyle is a balance between blissful moments and misery and everything in between.  The end of the leg south last year and the start of the leg north this year were difficult and frustrating for various reasons. Our time in the French Islands, was definitely on the bliss end of the spectrum despite the challenges. Having had the time to get used to the pace and limitations, I would go back any time!