Sunday, January 31, 2010

Then: Road to the Sea

I sometimes make fun of the yachting writers, especially of yore, for their insistence on describing every single tack, gybe, windshift and sail change. I'd rather hear about the places they saw, the people they met, and particularly in this case, the person they sailed with! But books about sea voyages,the ones by the Hiscocks, Joshua Slocum, Miles and Beryl Smeeton, etc. are what nurtured my interest in the cruising life,

Two books I've read recently illustrate just how times have changed in the last fifty-odd years. They both remind me that I could be blown back to the Stone Age at any moment and should/oughta brush up on my dead reckoning skills. I see that Doug holds an open 'Celestial Navigation' as his nap approaches. Ah, intent is a start, but will we persevere?

The "Then" version is Road to the Sea, published in 1964. S.E.(Blue) Bradfield was an Australian in his 30s who spent 2 1/2 years building a 30' jarrah-wood wishbone ketch in his parents' backyard near Perth. On their shakedown/breakdown cruise in 1958 Blue, with his wife Dot, (who had never left sheltered waters in a yacht), barely missed several reefs, ran into a tropical cyclone on a lee shore, hand-steered and changed sails constantly, climbed the mast after lost halyards, fell on beam ends and flooded the cabin, and generally had quite a time of it, all before leaving Australian waters.

D'Vara's Egyptian cotton sails blew out a year later, but were reckoned to have lived a full life. There was an engine, (several eventually, since each had major problems), a 3 hp air-cooled gasoline engine, with a 5 gallon fuel tank. There was a paraffin (kerosene) stove and fridge. Dot cooked up fish and chips, date tarts, and other dainties, hand-steered, and seems to have done everything else too, except maybe engine work, mast climbing and celestial navigation. Other than the occasional sly remark, though, she's only crew in this book.

Two eighteen gallon water tanks, but the boat was often too salty to catch extra rainwater. Stowage for spare canvas and ropes. Three months' worth of flour and sugar, rice and spaghetti. Greased eggs and painted tin cans. A collapsible dinghy that had to be bolted together. Trade goods, like safety razors, sticks of tobacco, even old toothbrushes, in exchange for fruit, yams, lobsters, chickens on the 'hoof'.

For navigation, there was a sextant (which had to be checked before each outing), pocket watch, lead-line and taffrail log, paper, pencil (and eraser). Half (well, I exaggerate) the book is about climatic conditions disrupting sights and the uncertainties of dead reckoning in inclement weather. Reading the gory navigational details of their passage through the reef- and current- encumbered Torres Straits at the top of Australia made ME anxious and weary! I'm pretty sure it would have been easy to sell Blue, and Dot, a satellite navigator, at pretty much any price, had such an instrument been available then.

While they often had to hand-steer, they eventually worked out a generally satisfactory sail and tiller-lashing self-steering balance.

Blue and Dot stopped to work en route, but pass over these interludes discreetly. No doubt he was thrilled to sell his book, which despite all that discussion of wind direction, is nicely written, gracefully told account. Also, it's a cultural window into its era: believe it or not, bureaucracy in Belize or Mexico, for example, is downright streamlined compared to the colonial bureaucracy of the 1950s. The Bradfields were also forced to stay ashore under armed guard for arriving in Indonesia without the right piece of paper.

When they arrived in England in 1963, via the Red Sea and French canals, they went to work again. I know from Google that they eventually headed back towards Australia via the Caribbean and Panama Canal, and wrote another book.
map Indian Ocean
med map
"Our way of life is best and we can't wait to get back to it", is where this book ends, or should. Blue also announced, via the end notes on the cover, that Dot was a "'fair dinkum' sailor who has proved herself capable of looking after D'Vara under most conditions. She can also cook."

Mr Canute

It used to be that Doug reminded people of Crocodile Dundee, at least while he was wearing his straw Shady Brady. After maybe 10 years of regular use, that hat is decorating the head of a mule somewhere, perhaps. Doug's current brimmed hat has mesh crown sides and a tight stitched cloth brim. Maybe that's why he now looks like a man known in Bonaccatown, Guanaja, Bay Islands, as Mr. Canute.

His real name was Mr. Norman Knudsen, and we learned more about him from a pair of men sitting in plastic chairs in front of a hardware store on the main sidewalk/drag. "Hello, Mr. Canute", they said. "Good day" replied Doug, not sure what they had said or (in the Bay Islands it's a reasonable question) which language they were speaking. "Mr. Canute?"

They said that Mr Canute built a house out behind Dunbar Rock. He was an American from New Orleans, who had come to Guanaja for many years, and he liked white bread and beer. Turns out that Doug even walks down the street like Mr.Canute. "The younger Mr. Canute, of course."
On the other side of the bay, in the little German bar behind the containers on the beach, I started to tell this story by mentioning Mr. Canute, and the first thing the German and a local customer said was "As soon as I saw him coming in the door, I thought that was Mr. Canute."

Unfortunately, at least for the real Mr. Canute, he's dead. His wife or daughter still comes down to the house, but isn't there now. Still, it's interesting, especially in such a small place, to be mistaken for a popular, or at least known, character. Makes me wonder how often it happens unbeknownst to us, and how Mr. Canute would feel about his white-bread-and-beer legacy. At least he's fondly remembered.

Or so I thought. Next night, at a party, someone asked me if I was with the man who looked like Mr. Canute. Yes, I am, I said. What can you tell me about him?
Oh he was a real pirate.
Do tell, I said, come sit with me.
My informant was an inebriated German, so he submitted to my grilling about the life and times of Mr. Canute.
'Maybe it was in the 1960s when Mr. Canute came to Guanaja. At that time you could stake out land for cattle-grazing simply by driving stakes in the ground and registering it with the municipality. Nobody cared what you did. You could buy acres and acres for $500. Mr. Canute took lots of land. Then he started selling the land. The buyers started having problems with the papers, but Mr. Canute had the money. But all this it is okay with the locals, because they are pirates too!"
UPDATE: another story about Mr. Canute, told to me by a diver who's been here since the 1970s. "Mr Canute was one of the early sat(uration) divers on the oil rigs. There were a couple of them around here back then, and one day I heard a conversation between two of them. He said "I met you at a bouray in New Orleans a couple years ago. In fact, I'm the one who won your Cadillac in that poker game."
For an update about the dangers of containers, as mentioned in the Kersti post of ?Dec. 1, check this link:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Net Control

Put half a dozen cruising boats in the same vicinity and pretty soon there will be a VHF or SSB radio net. Here we’re under the aegis of the Northwest Caribbean Net, meeting on 6209 USB at 1400 UTC, 0800 local time, covering Isla Mujeres to San Andres and Providencia, and sometimes beyond.

There are people who love the nets. I’m one of them. It’s like getting a local newspaper full of information, business, gossip; and it’s always such a revelation to match the voice personality to the vessel if you do ever come across them.

And there are people who hate the nets. I’m one of them too. Endless holiday greetings and blathering on about restaurants and pets, people who don’t listen and fail to communicate, people whose act is not together. Sometimes I find myself shouting at the radio “That’s not what she said!” or “Pay attention!”

So now, I’m the net controller, the mouth behind the mike myself. Apparently I have the radio signal and the voice for it, and, being, I'm told, a bossy older sister, also the training. Tuesday mornings at 8 you’ll find me at the chart table, which has been cleaned off so everything can be written down, pencils sharpened, script propped before me, mike in hand, and as the GPS ticks to the top of the hour, I introduce myself and ask everyone to listen for emergency or priority traffic. It’s all downhill from there.

Vessels underway check in with position reports– today was busy with 12. Boats are going north to Isla Mujeres, and coming south from there; with a new moon high tide they’re coming out of the Rio Dulce; a break in the weather opens windows out of Providencia and San Andreas, and there are short hops in Belize and the Bay Islands too.
“Any relays for vessels I’m not hearing?”

You wouldn’t think it would be so entertaining to watch these little amoebas gliding off across a microscope slide; maybe it’s more like the weird fascination of watching the Weather Channel. We have one of those too, a cruiser who downloads NOAA and other sources and broadcasts the results to the fleet. He’s the single most popular and effective member of this community, although sometimes the forecast and the actual weather are marching to different drummers.
“Fills needed on the weather? Come now.”

Next comes the section called QSTs – basically: what do you need? Information? Parts? Got something to buy, sell or trade? On my days, this section runs together with general check-ins. ‘Wait to be recognized!’

“Jeff’s selling spare parts from his outboard that was stolen before Christmas. Randy’s got a VHF. Are there markers in that pass? Anyone have a phone number for the shipyard? Bob had a ‘4-foot long thick-bodied snake’ on the anchor when he arrived from mainland Belize to an outer cay.” (This is unusual!)

Next check-in, come now. Okay, I've got Windquest, My Way, and one other, all together. Windquest, go.

“Be aware that the Port Captain in Coxen Hole, Roatan, speaks better English than he lets on. New green channel marker at West End, Roatan. Is my radio better today? Can anyone carry a package from Port Royal to Utila? To Cuba? I don’t think we got an accurate measurement when we got diesel the other day, and it was poor quality. We’re still here in French Harbor, no traffic. I’d like to talk to xxx after the net….”

It goes on like that for half an hour or so, until “one last call for check-ins for the Northwest Caribbean Net”. I like to imagine people "reading the mail" as they drink coffee, wash the dishes, brush their teeth; plotting the course of their day with the net in the background. But on Tuesdays, I hope they're not yelling at the radio, or at least, not at me. I’ve done what I can to "facilitate communications among vessels”, until next week. “Thanks, everyone, for participating. The net is now closed and the frequency available for general use.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Diving in Roatan

Sounds like North America is having quite the winter. Just so you don't think we're just lotus-eaters down here in the tropics, I'll report that your big strong cold fronts drag their tails down here, bringing squally showers, gusty winds and chilly blanket and baking weather. Right now we've both got colds.
But in the two halcyon days which followed Christmas, we did some actual SCUBA diving. What's great about Roatan is how convenient this is - the shore is lined with dive sites easy to get to by dinghy. Some you can even walk to, like the wreck of the Prince Albert, which lies (was placed, actually) in the channel between the two nearest resorts, CocoView and Fantasy Island.
In towns like West End, dive shops are the mainstay of the main street.
In the giddy early days of a regular paycheck (thank you Fitz!), we bought a SuperSnorkel hookah rig, basically a lawnmower engine running a compressor feeding two 40-ft hoses with regulators. We haven't used it nearly as much as we'd planned, since storage and access issues were insurmountable. In fact, it spent most of its life in our storage shed. Now in Roatan, it's coming into its own (we store it in the cockpit), but it's also for sale, and being replaced by our single new BC, dive tank and regulator. We'll pay to rent the other stuff when a place like Mary's Place comes along.

from Roatan Dive Guide, by Ignacio Gonzales
UPDATE: As you can see this is a nice dive guide, and a second edition expanded and updated is now available at
This crevice was formed by volcano, or earthquake? aeons ago and was only 5' wide in places. We went down to 97 feet where the colors are generally gone but still, the cobalt void spread endlessly beyond.
Another dive took us to a wall, half of which had 'slumped' in last year's earthquake. Probably, at 2AM, no one was there for that experience. And we saw a couple wrecks - Doug's favorite because 'there's something to see, not just fish and coral over and over again.'

Or a pair of lobsters.
In case you wondered what the inside of a dive tank looks like: this one is engraved with a story about how it exploded - fire and the proximity of 35 other tanks were involved.

All underwater photos taken by Wally Larsen. for definition of lotus eater - more apt than I'd expected!