Waiting For Ana

 

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We’ve been meandering our way north at what feels like an excruciatingly slow place, and currently we’re tied to a dock at Barefoot Landing Marina in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Which, if you check out the weather, is in line for a direct hit from tropical storm Ana, the first named storm of the year, developing 3 weeks ahead of official hurricane season. We’ve been monitoring Ana’s progress since the storm spun up over Cuba several days ago and we made the decision to wait out the bad weather in civilization, rather than anchored in some backwoods creek off the ICW. Barefoot Landing has 100 shops and 14 restaurants within a stone’s throw of our berth, and plenty of things to do as long as we don’t mind outdoor entertainment in the pouring rain.

The blue spot is Avatar's current location

The blue spot is Avatar’s current location

We’re not expecting anything excessively damaging or scary from this weather system, but the projections of wind gusts up to 60mph and rainfall measuring several inches, threatening local flooding, are enough to convince us to hole up for the duration. To add to our nerves, as the storm gets closer to the coast the forecasters have been upping their estimates of potential wind speed.

For the past six weeks we’ve been making our way through the low country of northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, enjoying bucolic scenery consisting of vast expanses of coastal salt marshes or wooded areas of tall pines and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. White egrets, great blue herons and ospreys abound. Black headed laughing gulls follow in our wake. An occasional bald eagle occupies the highest branch on the tallest tree.

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Surprisingly to us, small groups of bottlenose dolphins have been languidly cruising in every waterway, marina, and anchorage we’ve frequented.CBPP_20150402_ICW-427-M

Yesterday we spotted a river otter in the beautiful Waccamaw River (the first freshwater stretch we’ve hit). The southern cities en route, including Fernandina Beach FL, Savannah GA, and Charleston SC, are historical and beautifully preserved, with buildings and landmarks dating to pre-Revolutionary War days.

We’ve had very few sunny days however – earlier in April we had nearly two weeks straight of chilly grey, overcast, gloomy wet weather, interspersed with drenching downpours.The sun finally came out just as we took a brief trip back to Tucson (where the weather was glorious and the wildflowers were in full bloom) so that Mike could attend a business meeting and I could catch up on six weeks worth of backlogged mail. Then off to New York City for the Artists’ Reception (video & photo gallery here) for a new exhibition at Agora Gallery, where several of my works were on display. The folks at the gallery in New York were thrilled with their weather – 65º, overcast and breezy, but the best they had seen after an abysmal and unrelenting winter. We went walking in Central Park and it was in full bloom with flowers everywhere, and the city streets were lined with flowering fruit trees. I didn’t have my camera with me so I had fun taking panoramas with my iPhone and turning them into art projects!

Then back to AVATAR in Charleston, SC, to resume our trek northwards. We finally got to enjoy 3 or 4 days of true spring weather, balmy and sunny, before the grey skies caught up with us again. The northern migration is in full swing now, with a parade of boats all heading in the same direction. We are getting familiar with the names of several of the boats that we pass, or who pass us, in the narrow waterway. Winding through the shallow salt marshes they can sometimes be mistaken for land yachts!

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Click on any image below to open a full screen slideshow.

 

 

 

 

 

88 Bridges

 

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To position AVATAR for our ICW adventure, first we had to relocate from South Pacific waters to the continental United States. After accomplishing that in late 2013, it took another two seasons to transit from west coast to east, due in part to our unplanned delay in Mexico last year.

But now we’re really on our way! By mid-March AVATAR had completed the final leg of a 5,500 mile journey from Seattle to Ft. Lauderdale, via San Diego, south along the Pacific coasts of Mexico and Central American countries, through the Panama Canal, a brief stop in Jamaica, and along the narrow shipping lane between the islands of Haiti and Cuba (both countries off limits to American yachts), and north through the chain of islands that is the Bahamas, finally arriving in Florida on schedule.

Offshore AVATAR is a pretty quick boat, averaging 10 knots, so that in 24 hours she can cover 240 miles and a 1,000 mile passage can be completed in just four or five days. The ICW measures 1,000 miles long from Ft. Lauderdale to the south end of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia but, as we set forth, reality is setting in. Negotiating the ICW compares to bluewater cruising like hiking a switchback mountain trail compares to driving down the Interstate!

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First there are the bridges. Our count is 88 bridges en route. On Day One we encountered 18 bridges!  Day Two, 13 more bridges!  AVATAR has an ‘air draft’ of 26 feet. Our cruising guides list all the bridges that span the ICW with their individual clearances (which vary by tide) and schedules. With bridge heights of more than 27′ we sail under with confidence, but lower bridges must be opened to let us pass through. Markers on the bridge supports display measurements for real time clearance based on the water level. This bridge offered 65 feet, no problem for AVATAR.

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Some lift up to open, others swivel laterally.

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Some open on demand, others are on a schedule. To request an opening we make VHF radio contact with the bridge operator who then stops car traffic and raises the bridge for us. In areas with more congested traffic the openings take place each to its own timetable, perhaps every 30 minutes or so, but it varies. Trying to ‘make the bridges’ is like trying to negotiate timed red traffic lights. When you miss one, you will find yourself sailing in circles for half an hour or more waiting for the next opportunity to pass under. Of course the sailboats run a much bigger obstacle course than we do with their tall masts!

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The next challenge is depth. Parts of the ICW consist of deep water rivers, but further south, particularly in Georgia, shallow depths and constantly shifting shoals require a dredging program to maintain a navigable depth. Funding for the dredging is in short supply, so the charted depths can’t be taken for gospel truth. Our bibles, the cruising guides, spell out the trouble spots mile marker by mile marker. AVATAR draws 5 1/2 feet in depth; we keep one eye on the charts and the other eye on the depth sounder as it reads off the numbers. Thus far we have survived some of the more notorious stretches with names such as ‘Hell Gate’ and ‘Little Mud River’.

We signed up for towing insurance, just in case. Boats often have tongue-in-cheek names and I saw one recently named Runaground Sue. The strategy to safeguard against running aground is to pass through the unavoidable shallow spots on a rising tide. That way, if we do get stuck, the plan is to wait it out and, hopefully, float off as the water rises. Tides around here vary by 8-9 feet from low to high, so timing makes a significant difference. Since the bottom is soft sand and mud, no real damage should occur. Steve Dashew, AVATAR’s designer, quips that it’s a good way to clean marine growth off the boat bottom without getting wet!

Both scenarios contribute to slow progress northwards. It would be foolhardy to travel by night in the dark. Based on tide tables and upcoming shallow stretches, sometimes we can’t even start on the next day’s run until mid-day. In Georgia a low-tide low-bridge combo with bad timing actually set us back a couple of days! Even the moon figures in to the calculations; during phases of a new or full moon, so-called spring tide highs and lows are exaggerated beyond the numbers listed on our charts.

A further complication, the ICW is a narrow winding channel that snakes its way through a Medusa’s head of creeks, rivers, sounds and bays that mark the lowlands of North Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. We are guided by a series of hundreds of numbered red and green channel markers, red to port and green to starboard, that steer us along the serpentine path of the navigable portions of the waterway. Stray outside the markers at your peril!

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The net result is that we’re averaging 30 miles per day instead of 240, and the Chesapeake is looking quite far away! Admittedly, as ICW novices, we’re taking the cowardly approach; the good news is that there’s more time for sight seeing!

Click any thumbnail below to open a full screen slideshow.

Reminiscing in Florida

Boy on a Beach, Bimini, BahamasWe’re trying a new style of cruising this year. In the past we made on average three trips a year to AVATAR, staying on board for 4-6 weeks each time. But this year Mike, having ‘flunked’ retirement in years past, decided to stay aboard for an extended visit of four months while Rod and May head home for their annual vacation. Mike’s plan is to cruise up the East Coast of the U.S. via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), something he’s wanted to do since he was a little boy growing up in Florida just a few miles away from ‘The Ditch’.

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We started the trip by flying to meet AVATAR in George Town in the Bahamas, and spent a couple of weeks working our way north through the islands and the stunning crystal blue waters surrounding them. We visited islands ranging from remote outposts inhabited solely by iguanas, to Nassau where we absorbed the astounding atmosphere of the Atlantis Resort – a combination of Vegas casino, giant water park, Disneyland, and aquarium. AtlantisPhoto_09-M

 

Our final stop in the Bahamas was the island of Bimini, only 50 miles from mainland USA. From Bimini we sailed across the Gulf Stream on a pleasant sunny day and arrived at our first destination in Florida, the Bahia Mar Marina in Ft. Lauderdale. This was our first opportunity in months to address some boat maintenance issues, so Mike and I left AVATAR In the hands of Captain Rod and some competent refitters and struck off in a rental car to see the sights, starting with Mike’s old home town of Bunnell.

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Mike is a Florida boy, born and raised in northern Florida’s back country near Flagler Beach which is near Daytona Beach. Except the back country of his day is now a massive community called Palm Coast, and the brick house his father built by hand and where Mike grew up, is now a dental office. There were 22 students in his high school graduating class, and it just so happened our trip overlapped with the 55th reunion of Bunnell High School’s class of ’60. Bunnell HS no longer exists, as it was burned to the ground by suspected arson in the late 60s during the unrest of racial integration in the south. Seven or eight of Mike’s old classmates, including Fern Allen (pictured with Mike above) turned out for the reunion, which is a pretty good percentage considering the age bracket!

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We also made brief stops at a few of Mike’s old boyhood haunts: the ruins of the Bulow Plantation, a former sugarcane plantation burned down in the Seminole Indian Wars of the 1830s, and the Princess Estate (above), now a state park but formerly the country estate of a New England socialite who married an exiled Russian prince and readily adapted to the title of Princess. And of course we had to stop by the Kennedy Space Center, formerly Cape Canaveral, where Mike worked the summer of 1961 on the NASA launch crew (as a self-described flunkee) for the Redstone rocket that sent Gus Grissom, the second American, into space.

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We also took a side trip through the Everglades on an airboat, where we saw dozens of alligators up close and personal. It turns out baby alligators grow up under the supervision of their mothers. Who would have suspected an alligator of having maternal instincts! And we drove to the southernmost point of the United States, the tip of Key West in the Florida Keys, where we ate at the Southernmost Restaurant, viewed the pedestal marking (falsely) the southernmost point of the US (it’s really next door on a restricted Naval base), and admired a stately old home with a sign proclaiming itself to be the “southernmost southernmost house”.

I had never realized how much history there is in Florida. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, founded in 1565 and celebrating its 450th birthday this year. It didn’t take long to realize that what I was raised to think of as the founding events of our country were pre-dated by nearly 100 years down in Florida: in 1492 Christopher Columbus never actually set foot on North America. Instead he landed in the Bahamas (thinking at the time he had located India, hence the branding of natives as Indians). Spain’s Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European to set foot in Florida in 1513, well before the founding of the Jamestown colony (first permanent British settlement in the colonies) in 1607 and the 1620 arrival of the pilgrims.

South Florida between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale is a high octane mix of extravagant waterside mansions, each with its own private dock and matching super yacht. Another notable feature of these palatial estates is the size of their screened in porches, some 2-3 stories in height and spacious enough to be called an aviary, frequently enclosing the back yard swimming pool. I guess it is only logical – hordes of Floridians enjoying a wonderful climate shared with even larger hordes of voracious mosquitoes and no-see-ums. As a boy Mike played in the refreshing mist of the passing neighborhood DDT truck on summer evenings. I’m a little bit surprised he’s still with us today!

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On April 1 Rod and May left for vacation and officially turned over the keys to Mike and me for our extended liveaboard experience. Everything on board was shined up, shipshape, and working to perfection when they departed. Of course it only took a day or two before AVATAR decided to challenge our authority and we started having problems with the autopilot. A string of miscellaneous failures kept Mike busy deploying his electrical engineering skills trouble-shooting and replacing the offending parts. I once read an apt definition of cruising: fixing boats in exotic places!

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Click any photo below to open a full screen slideshow.

Another New York Exhibition Coming Up!

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 5.14.56 PMIf you will be in the vicinity of New York City the end of April, I’d love to see you at the Artists’ Reception at Agora Gallery, where I’ll be exhibiting six new works.

Agora Gallery is a contemporary fine art gallery, established in 1984 and located in Chelsea, New York City’s premier arts district. Agora has a solid reputation and loyal customer base and it is flattering to be included in their stable of artists.

This will my second exhibition at Agora. Last year’s reception was packed with art aficionados and it was a great experience to make my debut in the New York art scene. I’m looking forward to the repeat trip. The exhibition is titled Illumination: An Exhibition of Fine Art Photography, and unlike last summer’s exhibition which showcased a variety of media, this show will be devoted strictly to photography. Also the gallery has expanded, adding a new ground level showroom to its exhibit space.

The show will be up from April 24 through May 14, and the Artist’s Reception will be on the evening of April 30. I’ll be there! Let me know if you can make it.

Happy 5th Anniversary to AVATAR

 

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We are currently celebrating our 5th anniversary cruising aboard AVATAR since launching in New Zealand spring of 2010! At the moment we’re sailing up the east coast of the U.S. and, as usual, attracting a lot of attention from the yachting community. I made the suggestion to Dashew Offshore that they should provide FPB owners with sales literature that we could hand out to interested passers by. And yesterday Adobe released a new iPad app called Adobe Slate designed for easy creation of web based magazine-like stories with professionally themed layouts and design.

Putting the two together, I decided to create my own FPB64 AVATAR informational brochure as an experiment. It came together beautifully, although the limitations of the app quickly became apparent. Presumably it will become more powerful as the software matures.

At any rate, in honor of the completion of five years of cruising aboard AVATAR, I thought I’d take the opportunity to brag on the boat a bit. You can read the Adobe Slate version by clicking on the cover image above, or enjoy basically the same presentation below.

For further information on the Dashew philosophy of boat design and full details regarding the range, see the website for Dashew Offshore at www.setsail.com. To follow AVATAR’s adventures, see the photojournal blog at The AVATAR Logs website www.avatarlogs.com. Link buttons to both are at the top of this page. 

Sales inquiries may be directed to: 

     Dashew Offshore – Todd Rickard at toddr@setsail.com 

     Berthon International – Sue Grant at sue.grant@berthon.co.uk

 

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AVATAR is the first of a series of FPB64 passagemaker motor yachts designed by Dashew Offshore in the United States and built in New Zealand by Circa Marine. AVATAR was launched in Spring of 2010 and, as of her fifth anniversary, has completed 36,000 nautical miles of bluewater cruising and has cleared in to 17 different countries including (in chronological order) New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Philippines, the west coast of the U.S. from Hawaii to San Diego to Seattle, Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, Bahamas, currently the east coast of the U.S. – and she is still on the move. Another FPB64, Grey Wolf, completed an epic maiden voyage In 2014 by sailing virtually nonstop 12,000 NM from New Zealand to Great Britain by way of the Panama Canal.

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The first FPB (Functional Power Boat) was the 83′ prototype Wind Horse, followed by the 64 series of which there are now eleven. Iceberg, a 97 foot model, launched in 2014. Three 78s are under construction with the first launch scheduled for late 2015. All are designed based on principles originally applied to the iconic Dashew designed circumnavigation sailing yachts, which include Deerfoot, Sundeer, and Beowulf. All are ideally suited for short-handed cruising comfortably over long distances, efficiently and safely.

At a cruising speed of between 9 to 9.5 knots an FPB64 has a range of 5,500 to 6,400 NM. Diesel fuel capacity is 3,400 gallons and freshwater storage is 1,800 gallons with an on board watermaker to make more. The fuel and water are stored low in the hull for ballast, contributing to stability and self-righting capability. Power is provided by one 235 HP John Deere engine but a second ‘get home’ engine is included for an added measure of security. Hydraulic Naiad stabilizers contribute to the smooth ride, even in rough seas. Waterline length before adding the stern extension is 64′. Beam is 17′ and depth is 5′.

D8323DCE-01DC-4BCA-8F93-60C1C1E5719D_full3414A4E3-065A-4177-BF6D-6AE658890900_fullThe rugged aluminum exterior belies an elegant, comfortable interior that contains a master suite, a guest (or crew) cabin, and a single bunk cabin (affectionately known aboard AVATAR as ‘the closet’). There are two heads with showers, an office, a galley which features full-sized washer and dryer units in addition to sink, induction cooktop, combination convection/microwave oven, refrigerator, two freezers, dishwasher, and trash compactor. The roomy salon features a lift-up flat screen TV and has a panoramic view of the sea through continuous wrap around windows on three sides, as well as a navigation station with a full complement of electronics. The huge walk-in engine room is a mechanic’s dream. Generous storage is provided both in the forepeak and also in the ‘basement’ below the salon and galley, as well as lift-up cupboards, drawers, and hanging closets throughout the yacht interior.

The exterior features a flying bridge with comfortable seating, a great view, and additional electronics. The aft deck has room for on board storage of a dinghy (on AVATAR we have two) which can be launched by the lifting booms on either side, also a barbeque, fish cleaning station with sink, stern extension platform, and warm water shower.

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  • LOD 64.95′ / 19.85m
  • LWL 63.6′ / 19.4m
  • Beam Deck 17.04′ / 5.22m
  • Extreme Beam (edge of rub rails) 17.72′ / 5.42m
  • Draft at half load (75,000 lbs/34 tons) Canoe Body 3.25′ / 1m
  • Draft at half load (75,000 lbs/34 tons) Prop Skeg 4.5′ / 1.37m
  • Full displacement 90,000 lbs /40,800 kg
  • Air Draft (top of masts-excluding whips) 25.75′ / 7.85m
  • Fuel Capacity 3400 US Gallons / 12,800L
  • Fresh Water Capacity 1800 US Gallons /6800 L
  • Minimum Range of Positive Stability 130-degrees (half fuel in one tank, full fresh water tanks)
  • Cruising Speed 9.25-10.0-knots
  • Top Speed 11.0 knots
  • Approximate Range 9.0 knots – 6400 NM
  • 9.5 knots – 5500 NM
  • Note: speeds/ranges are for smooth water, 75,000 pound displacement, clean bottom

Click any image below to open a full screen slideshow.

 

Memories from Vanuatu

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In our years of cruising to small out-of-the-way Pacific island nations, we have accumulated fond memories of places that many Americans barely know exist. When these small countries suffer a disaster, we always want to help out monetarily to support the recovery efforts, as a payback for the hospitality invariably extended to us by the warm and generous people of these islands.

Last weekend Hurricane Pam clobbered the small island nation of Vanuatu in what may have been one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike in the Pacific. Even now the extent of damage is not fully known, but reports are coming in of near total devastation caused by a direct hit from this Category 5 storm. 90-95% of the homes, buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed in the capitol city of Port Vila and on the outer islands. In these traditional village societies that survive via sustenance gardening and fishing, the gardens and fruit trees have been flattened. The hand-hewn wooden outrigger canoes used for fishing, and which take months to build, are splintered and sunk. Flimsy homes built of wood and coconut thatched roofs are completely gone. Entire villages are totally wiped out.

Fortunately the death toll is lower than expected, thanks to early warnings of the storm and survival skills honed over 5,000 years of living on these disaster prone islands. Rescuers are finding out now that self-sufficient villagers buried supplies of food, coconuts and water in advance of the storm. They took shelter in special triangular cyclone huts built specifically to withstand cyclones, as well as in copra kilns or in the few concrete buildings shared within a community such as a school or a church.

I looked online for ways to donate to relief organizations trying to help out. New Zealand and Australia are the nations most active in coming to the aid of the ‘ni Vanuatu’ (people of Vanuatu), as the country is located about 1200 miles east and north of these two larger nations. But there are some American organizations pitching in as well; if you’d like to send some funds to help out, CNN has published a list of organizations accepting donations to fund relief efforts in Vanuatu at this link:

CNN List of Vanuatu Relief Organizations

In the meanwhile, I thought I’d post a few photos from happier times as we cruised among the Vanuatu islands aboard AVATAR during her very first cruising season in 2010. Below are the ladies of William’s Bay on the island of Erromango, proud of the feast that was days in the making, to be shared with a visiting group of missionaries from Samoa. The event was a peace offering in apology for the murder and ritual cannibalization of two early missionaries that took place in 1839!

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The village chief sent us a formal written invitation to join the villagers and their visitors for an evening of feasting, music and dancing at the community building and grounds. Our ‘hostess gift’ was some petrol to help fuel the community generator which was needed to power the lights and music for the party. Rod was also drafted for some diagnostic support to troubleshoot said generator.

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Fishing and small local gardens are the main source of food for the rural villages on the outer islands, as well as free range chickens and pigs, and the occasional cow. Here the men are netting fish from the beach at sunset. Presumably the beautiful coral reefs surrounding these islands have also been ravaged by the force of the hurricane surge.

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In Erromango we were given a tour of the burial caves, high up on cliffs facing the ocean, that contained the bones of the ancestors. The fierce cyclones jumble the skeletons but the villagers return to tidy things up and pay their respects.

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The women do their laundry in the river, downstream from where the village obtains its drinking water.

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Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 7.53.07 PMIt’s easy to coax smiles from the local kids for a photograph. Afterwards they cluster around the camera to see a replay on the digital LCD screen. Notice the one shy exception behind the canoe!

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It takes months to carve these outrigger canoes from trees on the islands. They are important for transportation as well as fishing. Presumably most have been destroyed by the hurricane. This is Tom from Havana Bay, a low lying rural area not far from the capitol city of Port Vila.

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I took a walk on the island of Efate one hot afternoon and met a local man who invited me for a drink from a green coconut and a tour of his extensive gardens. He sent me home laden with so many gifts of fruit and vegetables from his garden, including a watermelon, that I could barely stagger back to the boat.

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The island of Tanna was also in the direct path of Hurricane Pam, with reports of 95% total destruction. Tanna is the home of Mt. Yasur, one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. We had a highly memorable evening climbing to the edge of the caldera at twilight to see, and photograph, the fireworks.

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Click on any image below for a full-screen slideshow.

 

Horse & Style Magazine

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 3.28.57 PMThis has been a great year for publicity for my photographic efforts. Another magazine contacted me last month in regards to featuring my photos in a two-page spread. I was on AVATAR at the time but luckily happened to be in a marina with good wifi, and also I had the forethought to bring my image library archives with me on the trip! So I was able to provide the images and take advantage of the opportunity. This is the third magazine to feature my photography in just the past five months!

So without further introduction, here is a link to the attractive two-page spread, Behind The Lens, published in the February/March issue of Horse & Style Magazine. What’s nice is that even though the magazine is equestrian themed, they asked to include some of my travel photography as well.

If you click on any of the images below, you will open up a full screen slideshow of the photographs included in the spread above.

 

Hello Caribbean, Goodbye Pacific!

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Hello Caribbean! We cleared the last lock of the Panama Canal yesterday early afternoon and we’ve officially arrived in Atlantic waters.

Goodbye Pacific Ocean! Our entire cruising career has been spent in the Pacific’s blue waters and we have experienced a lifetime of amazing experiences squeezed into a single decade. We are sad to leave it behind.

Transiting the Panama Canal from one sea to another was a major highlight in all our cruising adventures. It did not go according to plan, at least not according to the plan we were expecting, but apparently that is standard operating procedure on the Canal – everything changes all the time!

Our agent, Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies, arranged for us to depart early Saturday morning with a schedule that called for us to meet our official pilot at 9 a.m. and complete the transit by 6:30 p.m. that same day. We were absolutely thrilled to be given a daytime slot as the Canal operates 24/7 and a night passage was a strong possibility.

Based on the size of our boat, regulations required us to have four line handlers on board, also four long ropes (lines) and a generous collection of rubber fenders. Roy provided three experienced men for line handlers (May was to be drafted as the fourth, if needed) and an inventory of lines and bumpers. The Panama Canal authority provides a pilot to accompany every vessel and give specific instructions as to how to proceed. Our captain Rod did the driving (admirably, I might add), but the pilot calls the shots.

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As we got underway, our adventure unfolded as follows. Per instructions, Saturday morning we sailed offshore to await the arrival of our pilot between Sea Buoys #4 and #6. Pilots are delivered to their assigned vessels by an official canal pilot boat that pulls alongside close enough for him to climb over the rail from one boat to the other.

Having acquired a pilot, AVATAR embarked on a seven mile voyage that took us into the channel entrance, under the Bridge of the Americas, and approached the Miraflores Locks, which lifted us two steps up. Then a mile long sail across Lake Miraflores to enter the third set of locks, the Pedro Miguel locks, which took us up another flight to the top level of the canal. At this uppermost level, we were now 26 meters above sea level.

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To navigate through we were assigned to a side channel with three other vessels: a two-decker tour ferry packed with tourists, a 35 meter sailing yacht, and a lightweight fiberglass skiff. Procedure had the first boat, the tour ferry, maneuver into position against the concrete lock wall on its port side where line handlers on land high above work with line handlers on boats below to secure them safely to the wall. The second boat, in this case the sailboat, then rafted up against the starboard side of the ferry.

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AVATAR followed behind, also tying up to the wall of the lock, and the smallest boat rafted alongside us. Complicating the maneuvering are the variables of wind gusts (it was windy), and currents created by prop wash from other boats, the mixing of fresh and salt water, and the inflow and outflow of the water filling and draining from the locks.

Once we were all securely fastened together, the lock was sealed and gradually flooded, which caused us to be lifted up elevator fashion as the water level rose. Once the lock was completely filled, matching the water height in the next lock, all four boats disconnected from each other and sailed single file through the opened gates into the next chamber where the entire tying up and rafting procedures were repeated, and then again at the third and final lock of the Pacific side. Webcam photos courtesy of Mike, who monitored our transit via computer at home in Tucson!

Miraflores

From the Pedro Miguel lock we sailed seven scenic miles along a waterway named the Gaillard Cut, carved out of the mountainsides in stepped terraces.

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The Gaillard Cut opens up into Lake Gatun, a manmade lake some 164 square miles in area, created by damming up the Río Chagres as the final step in completing the Canal back in the early 1900s. It is a 21 mile sail across the lake, before approaching the three consecutive Gatun Locks where we were to be stepped down to sea level again on the Caribbean side.

This is where our schedule took a big hit. We had suffered three or four small delays to the original timetable, to be taken in stride, but as we approached the Gatun Locks we were told we would not be going through until the next morning! Instead we were instructed to anchor in the lake overnight. Keep in mind, we had three extra guys on board who needed to be fed and housed for the duration. The pilot was picked up by a pilot boat and spirited away, but our three line handlers settled in for the night.

AVATAR doesn’t have the space to sleep six, so Rod situated them in the flying bridge with comfy cushions, blankets and pillows. Lucky for them we had installed an enclosure for the flying bridge last spring in San Diego, as it rained twice during the night (first rain we’ve seen in a month). We were even able to offer a nice freshwater shower on the aft swim step with the handheld spray nozzle and warm water. We had made plans to feed our hired crew lunch on transit day, but now May had to conjure up dinner, followed by breakfast and lunch the following day, as well!

Next morning we woke to the sight of a parade of behemoth ships patiently lined up waiting their slot to transit the Gatun Locks. Our turn finally came, following a pancake breakfast and the arrival of a new pilot on board, and we were on our way again.

Somehow, to me, the downward journey was even more exciting. This time we shared a lock with only two other boats – the same sailboat, Manutara, moored to the wall, with AVATAR rafting alongside.

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But the third ‘boat’ in our lock was the oil tanker Nina Victory, 181 meters long, 32 meters wide, weighing 46,000 tons when fully loaded. Nina Victory looked especially large as it was maneuvered into position just off our stern! These huge ships are controlled in the locks by electric locomotives called mules, costing $2.4 million each. Four of these engines were assigned to the Nina Victory. The ship moves forward under its own power but hydraulically operated cables winched under the control of operators in the mules control its position within the walls. Even so, the paint along the sides of the big ships takes a beating. The term ‘Panamax’ refers to the maximum sized ship that can fit through the Panama Canal locks. Nina Victory was pushing the limits of width, if not length.

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The size of the locks are mind-boggling. To give you an idea – if one was lifted out of the ground and stood upright on end, it would be taller than the Empire State Building, the tallest building in existence at the time the locks were built. To move just one ship through the series of locks flushes 52 million gallons of fresh water (enough to meet the entire needs of a large city for a couple of days) into the sea, and yet each lock fills (or empties) smoothly in 10 minutes or less. The fresh water is sourced from two lakes including Lake Gatun, and replenished by rainfall of 101 inches per year. However in modern times, these locks are still not big enough to accommodate the biggest ships in the world – and so a $5.5 billion project is currently underway to provide additional, even larger locks. Read here for more fascinating details of canal transit and the need for expansion.

Accomplished in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, the building of the Panama Canal was an amazing engineering feat. Its history encompasses the national pride of four nations (France, the U.S., Columbia and Panama), idealism, political maneuvering, scandals, fortunes gained and lost, a revolution and the creation of a new republic, and triumphs of technology in the same window of time that saw the invention of the automobile and the airplane.  More than 20,000 lives were lost building the canal just to the mosquito borne diseases of yellow fever and malaria. If you are intrigued, again I recommend the outstanding National Book Award-winning book The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough that ferrets out every riveting detail of an epic story.

Our own canal crossing was but a tiny blip in the history of this canal, but to us it was a very special achievement.

For a full screen slideshow of the above and additional images, click on any thumbnail below:

 

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CBPP_20150128_Panama-466-MFriday January 30 – We’re here! We have arrived in Panama City, 1727 miles from Ixtapa, 1367 additional miles from San Diego, and 1375 miles more from Seattle, 4469 miles in total! We’ve nabbed a berth in the crowded marina on the Pacific side thanks to the agent Rod had the foresight to hire to expedite our canal crossing. Now we’re waiting to find out when we will be assigned our slot for the canal crossing, most likely tomorrow or Sunday.

We arrived here Wednesday afternoon in the same brisk conditions that made that final day’s leg across the Gulf of Panama a bit challenging. The late afternoon light and moisture laden atmosphere combined to make Panama City’s big city skyline glow ethereally on the horizon like the Emerald City of Oz – silver skyscrapers, the graceful Bridge of the Americas stretching across to verdant hills, ships and boats coming and going from all angles. So many ships, each one represented by the AIS on AVATAR’s electronic navigation screens as a green triangle, that the green markers were clumped so thickly they looked more like a land mass than vessels at anchor. The shipping lanes have actual traffic control, on the Flamenco channel, just like airplanes at an airport.

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Great numbers of birds were in feeding frenzies, pelicans falling out of the sky in their kamikaze dives and flocks of seagulls thrashing the wave tops chasing after schools of baitfish trapped near the surface by schools of larger fish attacking from below, all in dinner mode. It was an awesome photo opportunity except AVATAR was bucking her way head on through the choppy waves, so that of the 600-700 photos I took in burst mode, only the very luckiest ones offer even a semblance of sharp focus. So my apologies for technical imperfections – these are offered in the spirit of sharing the scene, if not photographic expertise!

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CBPP_20150128_Panama-294-M-3We spent our first night rolling in the anchorage at the entrance to the (completely full) marina, but our agent in Panama secured us a spot for the next few nights, so now we have power, air conditioning, Internet, restaurants, taxis, etc. all conveniently at hand. Security seems to be a consideration; all the shops and offices for the marina are kept locked and are opened by remote when we rattle their doors. A couple of marines in camouflage are stationed nearby, and security guards man the gateways. The guidebooks advise care in not straying off the beaten track of the tourist friendly areas of town.

There are a lot of logistics involved in going through the canal, sharing the way with huge ocean-going freighters, cruise ships, tugs, sightseeing boats, other yachts, and alligators (the only ones to get a free pass – local joke). We definitely thought it was the better part of valor to employ an agent to handle the fees and paperwork, both for customs and the canal, as well as provide extra equipment including ropes and bumpers, and also the extra labor force required to go through. Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies came highly recommended, and we were exceedingly pleased when we met him in the marina to observe how seamlessly he was expediting our visit.

We have officially been assigned the number 6009305 which will be AVATAR’s permanent Panama Canal ship identification number, in case we ever pass this way again! For transit we will require four experienced line handlers plus a licensed pilot to make the transit, which involves a series of rising locks from the Pacific side, a 48 mile cruise along the canal waterway and across Lake Gatun (carved out of the former Chagres River valley through  the mountains – an epic task), and then a descent through the series of locks on the Caribbean side back to sea level. The trip should take most of the day, possibly even longer. This 48 mile ‘shortcut’ saves 4,000 miles of ocean travel circumnavigating South America to arrive in the same place!

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There are three channels through the locks, a central channel and the two side channels. Roy advises that to assure a daytime passage we should opt for the center, for which we are eligible as long as we exceed 65′ in boat length (we will be officially measured today by canal representatives – from the tip of AVATAR’s anchor on the bow to the brackets of the swim step on her stern), and are able to maintain a speed of 10 knots (not a problem). We are to be rafted to the side of another vessel within the locks. It would have been a devastating disappointment to be assigned a night slot for the transit, arriving on the far side at one a.m. in the morning! No scenery and no photo ops for what most likely will be a once in a lifetime experience.

While we wait, AVATAR will get a good freshwater washdown to get rid of the salt, and we’ll fit in some sightseeing as well as a celebratory dinner out in old town Panama.

More to come!

Almost There!

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Wednesday January 28 – Two days ago we rounded Punta Mariato in Panama, the southernmost point of our voyage at latitude 7º N. We’re now on our way north! The time zone has transitioned into EST which we discovered when one of our out-of-reception cellphones locked onto a stray signal and switched over. Rather than get confused by conflicting timepieces and cellphones, we adjusted our schedule to what Rod named ‘Oven Time’ and agreed to coordinate our day and night watches by the clock on AVATAR’s galley stove!

Our first landfall in Panama was an overnight anchorage in peaceful Bahía Honda. The scenery there was much more verdant than anywhere else on the trip so far. January thru April is the hot dry season in Central America, and it was surprising to see the drought stressed growth all along the coastline when we were expecting steamy green jungles. Panama is starting to catch up with our imaginings.

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The anchor had barely set on the bottom when a small wooden local boat came racing out to greet us, a man with his little boy on a trading mission. Supplies are few and far between when you live in a remote and tiny coastal village with no road and many miles by open boat to go shopping in town, assuming you even have cash to spend. Our visitor introduced himself as Kennedy and his son as Octavio, and he was hoping to use his huge sack of slightly over-the-hill lemons as currency for some shopping needs.

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Items on his shopping list included cookies or candy for his son and perhaps a Coca Cola for himself. After that, D batteries for his flashlight so he could scare aware the critters preying on his chickens in the night, a backpack for his teenage daughter for her school supplies, fishing line, hooks and lures for catching the small fish in the bay. He also suggested that when we arrived at our destination in Panama City’s Balboa Harbor we could get on the VHF radio on the yachting frequency and spread the word to other boaters that, should they pass near Bahia Honda, they might stop over and ask for Kennedy by name. We scrounged up what we could from ship’s stores and declined the lemons, but bargained for a couple of plantains and grapefruit instead.

We’ve had a pretty benign trip the entire distance from Mexico to Panama, with a following current giving us a speed boost and weather cooperating nicely. But this last leg into Balboa has taken a turn for the worse. We only have about 130 miles to go, but the forecast is for windy conditions for a solid week at least, fueled by cold weather systems in the states that push fronts across the isthmus. In addition we need to round Punta Mala (Bad Point), a true cape named for its strong currents and nasty sea state. And then we need to cross the Gulf of Panama, the third of three gulfs, including Tehuantepec and Papagallo, that share a reputation for strong winds and steep waves, especially this time of year.

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We got an early start this morning and hit Punta Mala at daybreak. It’s definitely windy with steep chop, but the forecasts are predicting worse as the week wears on, so this is our window of opportunity. AVATAR is slogging through the rough stuff admirably and Rod is hugging the shore again for protection. The pillow is stuffed back into the china cupboard for only the second time in three weeks. Four sailing yachts that shared last night’s anchorage with us would not be able to handle these conditions so they’ll probably be holed up there for awhile.

We had planned an idyllic week cruising the scenic island group named Las Perlas*, but the weather appears to have scotched that idea, so it’s direct to the canal now. The white towers of Panama City are shimmering on the horizon in the moisture laden air as we approach. We’ll be adjusting our plans as we go and I’ll keep you up to date…more later!

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*An interesting side note, Las Perlas were named by the Spanish in the early 1500s for the pearls found there. Seizing them for their own, the Spanish killed off every single native in the archipelago within two years, and then used slaves to dive for the pearls to add to the plundered riches shipped back home to Spain. The most famous was the 31 carat La Peregrina, an enormous pear-shaped white pearl, that earned freedom for the slave pearl diver who found it. King Philip II of Spain gave it to his wife Queen Mary Tudor of England as a wedding gift, and centuries later Richard Burton purchased it for US$37,000 as a gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. It was auctioned off in 2011 as part of her estate for $11 million dollars.

Click on any image below to open a full screen slideshow of all images.