Saturday, September 27, 2014

Adapting to boat life

When I signed up to live on a boat in Tonga, I really didn't know what I was getting into. In fact, I was just delighted by the prospect of sailing around tropical paradise with a couple friends from Seattle who were sailing across the Pacific. I figured Josh and I would get a taste of home and be able to see places we'd never lay eyes on otherwise. I looked forward to snorkeling, reading books on my iPad and swapping stories of paragliding and sailing adventures with folks who were already my friends. (Remember, I'm an introvert so making new friends in foreign places is tough for me.)

What I didn't expect was all the complications and new norms that are part of life at sea. For those of you who've sailed or lived on a boat or even lived off the grid, these may come as no surprise. But to me, sailing was a whole new world, different from what I've experienced even on long trips in the backcountry or traveling in third-world countries.


#1 Fresh Water is a Big Deal

Before we left Seattle, captain Jeff had a part sent to us for the onboard watermaker which needed repair. When Josh and I arrived, part in hand, we all discovered the manufacturer had sent the wrong thing. This meant we'd have to go on producing water 10 gallons at a time, in 30 minute intervals so as not to overheat the pump.

This homemade water is our lifeline in a sea of salt water. We rely on it to stay hydrated, to wash our dishes and to shower or rinse after snorkeling. We try to use as little water as possible, but it's always gone too quickly. And, as I learned, you can only make fresh water where the ocean is clean -- that is, when you're not in port or anchored in a silty bay. In Neiafu, the capital of Vavu'a, we went nearly 6 days without making water and many of those without taking a shower to conserve water. (Yes, we smelled.)

Even when we can make water multiple times a day, we still conserve water, turning off the shower between rinses or showering on the swim deck, rinsing in the ocean for all but the last rinse. There is even a foot pump to operate the bathroom and kitchen sinks, which we use to reduce the water flow and thus wasted water. I consider myself an environmentalist, but this is the first time that I have really conserved water in earnest and, man, is it work!

#2 The Cold Air is Always Escaping

The sailboat's kitchen is nicely appointed with a deep, chest-like refrigerator and freezer. This is where we store our prized items like bacon, frozen meats, diet coke, beer, and fresh veggies. Every time we get into the frig or freezer, a little coldness escapes and must be regenerated by the boat. That means running the generator, creating noise and sucking down the fuel reserves. Josh and I have gotten faster at finding things in the frig and freezer, and have learned to get everything we need out at once. We let the doors slam shut, yanking our fingers out just in the nick of time, but still the cold air escapes.

We monitor the temperature of the frig and freezer on a display mounted on the wall above them. When the freezer gets to 11 degrees, we celebrate. On the day I help Cheri with the monthly defrosting of the frig and freezer, I notice the frig temperature reads a balmy 102 degrees. No wonder I am sweating as I run the hair dryer to melt the ice that has built up inside. It takes hours for the frig to return to its normal temperature in the 50 degree range.


#3 The Loo has Limits

All this getting into the frig and freezer results in delicious meals, which we devour along with plenty of water and the nightly cocktail. Eating of course leads to pooping, which is another problem. The toilet tank gets full. Everyday. We have been warned that we don't want it to overflow. There's no way to check how full it is, so we just try to dump it daily. The boys pee overboard. I offered, but was told that's unnecessary. We try to use the bathrooms in town as often as possible. I hold it as long as I can, so as to avoid unnecessary flushes which seem to use a lot of water (and thus, space in the tiny holding tank). In sum, the toilet tank is a daily topic of conversation as the captain debates when and where to dump it and we all try to stay upwind during that dirty trick.

#4 All Anchorages are not Created Equal

Most of the time we are anchoring the boat. The two exceptions so far have been in Neiafu and once, for a few hours, off Euaiki Island when we tied up to a resort's mooring buoy. Early on, Jeff appointed me "cruise coordinator" tasked with selecting the islands we would visit and in what order. I was excited about this job, and surprised to learn that just because it's in the book, doesn't mean we can anchor there. Some key guidelines I've developed include:

  • No anchoring in coral as it makes it hard to get unanchored and it damages the reef.
  • No anchoring if the ocean floor drops off steeply as it can be near impossible to find the perfect spot.
  • No anchoring in very shallow water (less than 15') or deep water (more than 65').
  • Avoid anchoring with reefs nearby as the boat may swing on its anchor at night.

The best anchorages are sheltered from the prevailing wind direction, have sandy bottoms about 20-30' deep that gently slope and lack coral heads or reefs to get tangled up on. Oh, and if they can be next to an island with soft, white sand beaches and colorful coral reefs teeming with fish, all the better! Not surprisingly, this is a tall order and one we rarely attain despite our best intentions.


#5 Wind is your Foe and your Friend

On a sailboat, the goal is to sail from place to place. (Duh.) But where you go, when you leave and how quickly you get to your destination all depend on the wind--it's direction, speed and regularly. There are wind forecasts and, like in paragliding, they are rarely 100% accurate. One yachtie we met claimed she could give a more accurate forecast just by adding 50% to whatever the weatherman estimated.

Wind direction and wind speed are not static. They change over the course of the day and even from minute to minute. When the sailboat is on autopilot, it turns to keep the wind at the proper angle to the boat. So when the wind switches, our heading switches. This makes sailing to a predetermined destination a little tricky. It also makes it hard to know when you're going to arrive. On minute you are going 5 knots in wind that is blowing 15, the next minute the wind jumps to 20 knots and you're going faster, or worse: the wind drops off and you're barely making 1 knot of forward progress.

When the wind cuts out or blows from the wrong direction, it is tempting to motor. And sometimes that's the only option. But, like I mentioned earlier, fuel is precious and we don't want to waste it when we could be sailing instead. So, we try to time our sailings and pick our destinations to match the wind direction. And when the sailing gets tough, sometimes I get seasick and then take a nap.


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