Monthly Archives: February 2014

Downwind at a walking pace

After our first day of sailing with the wind on our beam, a very fast and comfortable angle for us, the wind has gone back to its usual east and we’ve been sailing wing and wing for the past two days. It’s a lovely point of sail but slow and a little rolly. Last night we were full and by (I love that term, meaning all sails up) expecting the light wind to continue. Normally we reef the mainsail overnight — reduce its size, just in case we get hit with a squall or the wind kicks up — but we didn’t last night and wouldn’t you know it, the wind filled in from 10-12 kts to 18-22 kts. We went from sailing about 5kts to 8 kts and sometimes 8.5 kts dead downwind. We were well balanced and stable but after a while the wind started coming around to the side and I woke Jack so we could decide if we should take the preventer off and bring the jib back around. We hemmed and hawed and finally decided we were doing ok, and a look at the weather info we had left Puerto Rico with showed that we were in a small area of higher winds and that it would die down a little later. Just to be sure, though, I asked Jack to stay out in the cockpit with me for a while so we both curled up in the corner under one blanket and took turns checking the sails, the wind, the course and the horizon for ships.

Eventually Jack went back down to bed and we resumed our regular watch schedule but I’m feeling all kinked up from sharing the narrow cockpit seaberth for a couple of hours. Jack woke me just before 7am so I could listen to the weather on Single Sideband radio. More of the same. We plan to continue our present WSW course until we’re almost even with Jamaica then turn south. This is to avoid the area of high winds off the coast of Colombia. Our friends stayed 100 miles off and found 35 kts of wind. We’re planning to stay more that 150 mils off and hope that’s enough.

It’s Thursday morning. Jack is sleeping. It’s another beautiful day with blue sky and puffy clouds, not a ship to be seen either visually or on AIS. No birds, no turtles, no dolphins, no flying fish. Just us on the big blue sea.


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Forty! No, not me.

Today my son Drew aka Max aka Sill aka Pumpkinface aka Wee Bairn turned forty years old. I can hardly believe the skinny wiggly creature I brought home from the hospital has hit middle age. Early on I realized he was different. He imagines what’s possible, he can fuse disparate thoughts into a new idea, he sees connections the rest of us aren’t attuned to, he’s impatient with the limitations of the present. In short, he inhabits the future, a place I won’t live to see. But isn’t that what it is to be a parent? We feed and house these little people and then shove them out into the world and hope they “make something of themselves” as my dad used to say. When in fact, we hope they make something of the world.

Drew is kind, affectionate, quirky, funny, considerate, thoughtful and loyal and full of ideas. I think the world is lucky to have him. And so are we.

Happy Fortieth, Drew!

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And we’re off!

It’s been a hectic and stressful couple of weeks punctuated by big fun, mostly thanks to George on Summer Wind, our tour guide, and my cousin Jackie Oliver and his family.






Jack took advantage of the time to knock some chores off the list.




Once we accepted the fact that we weren’t going to be able to catch up to our friends in time to transit the canal together and, more importantly, cross the Pacific together, we relaxed somewhat, secure in the certainty that we will meet other likeminded cruisers to share the long passages with.

At the moment we’re off the coast of the Dominican Republic sailing dead downwind wing and wing (one sail held out to each side like wings.) We left Ponce about 11am Monday after scrambling to check out with US Customs and Immigration, filling the fuel tanks, rigging the preventers we knew we need for the sails on this downwind run, preparing last minute food so i wont have to cook for a few days while we get our sea legs again. On that last one we needn’t have worried. This is our first time sailing off the wind in Escape Velocity and it’s glorious. Last night the wind was on our beam and we made 8 kts for hours without the bashing and crashing of our first two years of windward sailing. I took the first night watch and even though we usually do 4-hour watches overnight I stayed out for 6 hours to let Jack sleep longer and because it was just so darn beautiful. There was no moon until later so from my comfy nook in the cockpit I watched the stars swing and sway as EV danced in the wind and waves. I’m happy to report that Uncle Ray has been flawless — knock on wood — and we haven’t given a thought to staying on course. During my watch there were no ships either, nor any wildlife. I’m always amazed at the beginning of a passage how empty the seas are.

This morning the wind is right behind us and we’re a little slower but I’m enjoying the peace and calm. A lone frigate bird occasionally swoops down beside us looking for fish in our wake. Jack has gone down for a nap. The big decision today is whether we will swing the watch schedule or keep to the Marce early, Jack late pattern we started last night. After the frantic activity of getting ready for the next phase of our journey being at sea again is like meditation. The whoosh of the waves passing under us, the gentle rocking of the boat, the knowledge that we can’t accomplish anything on our list while we’re underway all lull us into a trancelike calm. And though there’s nothing to see but the sky and the beautiful Caribbean sea, we’re not bored. Our senses are heightened to notice subtle differences in sounds on the boat or changes in the clouds that might signal wind or rain.

I may read for a while, but right now the beauty of this moment has my full attention.

Note: While we’re underway we try to remember to mark our position on the Spot (link on the right) but you can also follow us at Just search for Escape Velocity and you should be able to see a realtime position. There’s also an app for that.


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As long as she lies perfectly still

Ponce anchorage has a less than stellar reputation. Poor holding, unfriendly yacht club, lots of free music late into the morning. Things like that go on a place’s permanent record. We quickly found the cruiser friendly docks, people to go with them and decent holding close to the oh-so-exclusive Mr. Uh-uh, that’ll be $10 per day per person to land your dinghy, shiny pants yacht club with wifi. After a modest amount of arm twisting a fellow yachtie gave us the code and our long range antenna pulled in the usual spotty wifi signal. Copacetic so far. Then we began a more or less constant regime of sea trials due to our bizarre auto pilot maladies, often times finding someone had come in and taken our preferred anchoring spot while we were out turning corkscrews and scratching our heads out in the bay. Once anchored, cruisers are loath to up anchor just to go for a sail and you can chalk me up in that column. Still, I had faith in our venerable sixty pound old fashioned delta plow anchor and 150 feet of 10mm Italian chain, hadn’t it already circumnavigated? What could go wrong?

With our friend George helping we found that the new “less sensitive” whizbang direction sensor for Uncle Ray is very sensitive indeed and needs a quiet place to play, otherwise there’ll be hell to pay for anyone needing an autopilot. The original Raymarine installer had mounted the “less sensitive to interference” sensor in an equipment bay that looked more like a huge snake nest, a veritable electromagnetic maelstrom of wires and gear, believing Raymarine’s own installation guidelines. Paper will sit still for anything. We found the sensor liked being far far away from this mess.

With newfound hope in our hearts we needed to celebrate so we declared a spa day at the hot springs and getting back at dusk we found Escape Velocity curiously tied to a mooring ball near where we thought we were anchored. There are no good explanations for this. I’m not one of those skippers who can anchor and head into shore without a thought. This boat was well and truly anchored before we left. A quick ride over to our neighbors left me shaken and grateful. It seems that EV had broken out in a squall and was headed for a rough concrete wharf when they caught up to her and brought her back to the mooring. Cliff said that he was usually drunk by noon but fortuitously he had run out of money that day so he was able to figure out what to do. Lucky us. And lucky that we took the previous owner’s advice and always leave our engine keys in the ignition when we leave the boat. A local I know owned the mooring so I thought we’d just stay there but he came by and said he needed it so it was back to finding a good spot to anchor.

The next day we took EV out again to test the new and improved permanent location of the autopilot sensor. We motored into the wind toward Coffin Island meaning to sail back downwind and really give the pilot a workout. Unfortunately the wind kicked up to the 30s and we figured we’d given Uncle Ray a good enough sea trial and headed back to the harbor. It took us several tries in the high winds before we got the hook in and we moved on to a planned drive to San Juan with George to meet up with our friends from What If.

First up was a short trip to the far side of the harbor to the canvas shop where our repaired dodger was waiting. As we walked up to the shop Marce said, “oh my god is that EV out in the bay?” Just then George started excitedly honking the car horn. This is impossible, not again! We diced with death all the way back to the dinghy dock and bounced out into the bay in Catnip. As we were tying up to EV far out in the bay two other boats arrived to help but we already had her engines started and with our hearts beating wildly, turned her around heading back to the anchorage. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I wasn’t interested in anchoring anymore. I finally raised the marina on the VHF and they said to stand by, they’d get back to me. They never did. We tied up to the fuel dock like we owned the joint and told Luis the fuel jockey that we had a ground tackle problem and we’d be back to fix it. He said, “I know, she looked like a dog sniffing around for a nice place to lie down.”

George drove the hour and a half to West Marine in San Juan and we bought a new 20kg high tech Rocna anchor, then we met Kris and Dean and Derek of What If for dinner. We three Manta crews had a great time in spite of all the uncertainty on our minds. Once again we said goodbye to What If. We keep thinking it’ll be the last time we see them but this may really be the last time.

We got back late to EV still tied to the fuel dock and installed the newly repaired dodger panels in the dark. Seems crazy but we really missed their protection in the cockpit especially in these winds.

At dawn I started implementing my plan to switch anchors, a plan that I formulated instead of sleeping last night. We have a very beefy articulated swivel on the old anchor to attach the chain to the anchor. This has a thick pin which passes through the end link of the chain and screws into the swivel with permanent thread lock, still tight but not too tight. I tied a line to the old anchor and kicked it off the deck for the last time. It’s a poor skipper that blames his gear but I say good riddance. Kris & Dean had reminded us at dinner last night of how many times that anchor had allowed us to drag. Marce winched the new anchor up over the railing with the jib halyard while I guided the shaft into the anchor roller and reattached the swivel. Another Rocna boat. There are a lot of us; we are not early adopters on this one.

We left the fuel dock before the wind picked up and got the anchor down first try. The jury is still out but today was a real test with wind in the thirties all day and I have to say that it seems we didn’t drag an inch, which is quite an improvement. It’s a good thing because we are knee deep in preparations for the passage to Panama and we don’t need any more distractions.

We are lying perfectly still, in the same spot in Ponce harbor, Puerto Rico. I’m liking this Rocna but it’ll take awhile before I completely trust it.


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The view from the back porch


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A community of saints

We’ve been on our boat for less than two years and except for a couple of ocean forays and short cruises on other peoples’ boats we were completely new to the liveaboard and cruising world when we bought Escape Velocity. Luckily everything we’d read about the community of boaters is true, that help is almost always just a dinghy ride away. In the time we’ve been aboard we’ve been helped in a hundred ways, from Marty on True Colors pulling middle of the night ferry duty when Jack had surgery in Ft. Lauderdale, to Alan of Snow White hauling himself up the mast to troubleshoot our wind instrument in Port Washington, to Nancy and Jeff Sternberger in Miami offering their guest room and their out-pilings as our official home. We’re grateful for every bit of advice, every nicetie, every sundowner invitation, every gift of baked goods before a passage, every loan of a tool, every word of encouragement.

There’s a special subset of cruisers who don’t just offer advice or help but pick a time and place and show up with their sleeves rolled up to do whatever needs doing. We’ve been lucky to count many of these saints as friends and we don’t know how we’d have come this far without them. Kris and Dean of What If first started their Save Escape Velocity program in Annapolis when they answered my plea to help us anchor in the tight squeeze of Back Creek during the boat show. Since then they’ve shown up with tools and parts and seemingly all the time in the world to climb the mast, squeeze into the engine rooms and burrow through wiring chases on more fix-it missions than we can count. They also took care of EV when we flew back to Miami for Jack’s medical visit, completely removing the boat from our worry list.

There’s Mark of Macushla who discovered the broken universal on our furler, helped reinstall the replacement, helped replace our anchor chain, tuned the rig, cleaned the bottom, replaced zincs, and generally got us on task when we needed a push.

There’s Ron in St. Thomas who’s not even on a boat anymore but who’s always there with the pithy but sage bit of wisdom that jolts us out of our confused paralysis like a ray of sunshine leading us to a confident decision. When we have an equipment problem I think he stays up nights mentally troubleshooting, then emails us detailed instructions to follow. When we were in St. Thomas he opened up our SSB radio to rule that out as the source of our communications problem.

There’s a new entry in our pantheon of cruising saints, George Huffman, caretaker of Summer Wind. He’s know as That Boat Guy and little did we know as we shared sundowners and gratefully accepted rides to the store in his rental car that he would become Escape Velocity Saint for Life. He listened patiently to our wailing about the autopilot, about the stonewalling we got from Benjamin Brown, the local official “certified” Raymarine technician, about the virtual shrug we got from tech support. When the replacement parts came back and didn’t fix the problem, George snapped into action. Despite being slowed by a painful paragliding landing he used Jack as his hands and eyes and worked through the autopilot installation, then formulated a troubleshooting plan that would work us out of the hole we were in. First up, he disconnected everything from the autopilot except what was necessary for it to run, then had Jack pull the sensor out of its “electrical storm” location and tape it temporarily out in the cockpit. We pulled up the anchor and motored toward the turning basin at the Port of Ponce. Before we were even there George hit the ‘auto’ button and just like that we had a functioning autopilot. (Damn. I buried the lead.)

Why, you might ask, couldn’t Ben Brown of Schafer and Brown, the authorized factory rep, do this? He had moved the sensor out of the cabinet but apparently not far enough away, and when it didn’t make any difference in performance he concluded that the sensor location wasn’t the problem, sending us off in the wrong direction of troubleshooting, then washed his hands of us and refused to finish what he started. It was the problem, and even Ron in St. Thomas knew this remotely because after reading our blog posts on the pilot failure he sent an email saying as much.

So we’ve made a huge leap forward. We still need to find a completely isolated location for the sensor, and to that end we’ve asked Raymarine to send us long cables which they’ve agreed to do at no charge, so good for them. Once we get the cables and get the sensor reinstalled we’ll start building back the system, adding one thing at a time until we know the problems are solved. At the very least, we know the pilot will work independently as long as the sensor has no electromagnetic interference. The installation instructions recommend the sensor be installed three feet from any potential sources of interference yet the original installer picked the location, and the local tech here in Puerto Rico blessed it. We’ve shared this information with Raymarine and suggested they might revise their guidelines because they obviously didn’t work on our boat. And because of their trained techs’ complete failure to put this thing in right we’ve suffered much frustration and heartache, not to mention the time and money involved.

George, in the meantime, hasn’t stopped with the autopilot, but helped replace our halyards, advised on our SSB antenna and watermaker and just generally set his mind to task on anything we mention that has us buffaloed. As I say, he’s a saint. And he apparently can fix anything.

All of these people share common qualities I wish we had, a cheerful no-nonsense approach to any problem and an endless curiosity about how things work and how to improve them.

There’ve been so many other people who have helped us and we’re so grateful to them all — the crews of Moana Roa, Flying Cloud, Field Trip, Sea Schell, Auspicious, Warrior for Life, Little Star, too many more to mention. Add to that the amazing ground support team of my sister and brother-in-law Nancy and Dave, and our son and daughter-in-law Drew and Ericka, and our niece Emily and we never feel alone or on our own. There’s always someone we can turn to for whatever ails us or EV.

We’re in cruiser heaven.


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The view from the back porch


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In hot water

George from Summer Wind knew we needed to get away from the autopilot dilemma for a while and he had a bad paragliding landing and needed some aqua therapy so he herded us into the trusty rental KIA and drove us to the Coamo Thermal Springs. For a buck and a half we sat in hot water for a couple of hours — in for ten minutes or so, out to cool off for a while, in again — we soaked our aches and pains and troubles away. Jack loves sitting in a hot tub and George said it helped his back a lot. I think if it were a little closer to the anchorage we’d probably go every day.




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Well that didn’t work

We got the replacement autopilot parts, installed them with the couple of changes Ben Brown recommended and took EV over to the turning basin to try it out. No good. The compass just spins around and the pilot won’t hold a course at all. I’m at my wit’s end. Again with the tears. Despite my conciliatory email to Ben Brown of Schafer and Brown, he sent us yet another kiss off email and told us he was too busy to help us. What a major jerk! The other Raymarine person is on his way to the Miami boat show. I called the Caribbean rep who was very sympathetic but said he doesn’t have anyone else, and he’s calling tech support for us to see if they can advise on getting it working.

I could just scream. Why? Why? Why?


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Something for everyone

Ok, this time I’m mentally well prepared. Our friend George on Summer Wind suggested we go in the other direction for a hike in the dry desert side of Puerto Rico. Surprising place, this Puerto Rico. John from Bad Bunny was along as he’s always up for some exertion. George has become our de-facto tour director…it’s his car after all and he seems to know his way around the island and sure enough he knew of a roadside vender where we could stop to buy lunch, and a beautiful beach to eat it on. Great BBQ ribs, rotisserie chicken, and for the long suffering vegetarians among us, yucca, plantains and rice and beans with that promised beautiful beach picnic spot thrown in just for atmosphere.



George quickly found the entrance to the park and we were amazed at the contrast with the rainforest park. It didn’t even look like the same island with more cacti than you could shake a stick at, if you were so inclined.





It turns out that George is a paraglider pilot so he’s always on the lookout for launch sites that have a cleared area with no obstructions and that also face the eastern trade winds. Oh and have some height of course. On our way back to Ponce, just as I was settling comfortably into the back seat of the little KIA I heard George say under his breath, hey that could be a possibility. I chimed in with a cheery, hey we’re here let’s check it out. In my defense I really hadn’t thought it through what with having that nice tired feeling there in the back seat of the little KIA. Maybe it’ll just be a drive by. Soon we bouncing up a nearly vertical, twisty, rock strewn, rutted dirt road. Eventually the little KIA said NO MAS and we started climbing by foot with about one third of the mountain to go, there was much huffing and puffing from crew. Great view, bad launch site with all manner of electrical wires and cell towers and the clearing didn’t face east.



As for the descent, just read A walk in the rain but subtract the mud and add loose dry scree, just as treacherous but an easier clean-up. It was steep!


As always we hit a couple of provisioning stops on the way back just to take advantage of the ride. I don’t know why but we always forget things that we need even though we have a compulsive list maker among us. She’s also a compulsive list loser which may explain some of the problem but we’re always grateful for any extra provisioning runs, especially in a car.

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