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Category — Magazine Articles

Living Aboard While Cruising (found in Living Aboard Magazine January 2011)


Our boats are our homes in quite a few cases. Even if for only months of the year or days of the week, our boats can double as our second home if nothing else. In the case of my wife, Pamela, and myself, our boat served us admirably for many years as a second home. We both worked in the San Francisco Bay Area and would go back and forth to our boat from our primary home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Over the weeks and months our boat would begin to look like a home. Books, pots and pans, trivia of all sorts would adorn the interior space, while tarps would grace the boom and other areas of the deck to keep out light and moisture. Of course this makes sailing our boat, Red Dolphin, that much more difficult and time consuming to prepare.


Our 46 foot Ericson sloop is made for sailing, and sailing fast. Even though we lived on it we also sailed it quite a bit. Furthermore, we always completed at least one short cruise each year. Finally, we are now cruising our boat throughout every seeming nook and cranny of California, soon to leave for Mexico. What we have learned is that living aboard while in a marina is seriously different than living aboard while cruising, or sailing.
Preparing for a trip, no matter how short or long involves approximately the same set of problems. Your home is about to become a boat again, you have to set watches, navigation is serious business, dietary choices and cooking change dramatically, entertainment is a necessity that is often ignored, and anchoring is just not the same as being tied up at dock in a marina.
Once you begin to prepare to sail (or motor) you have to go back to the old rule “everything in its place.” In fact, this is so critical that most of us recognize that every object not fastened down or stowed may be a missile with hurtful consequences. While underway, you may even be the “missile” if you don’t have enough handholds throughout the boat. What once was a nice stable efficiency apartment is now a bucking, rolling, fair ride, every motion of which you cannot anticipate. The worst of this is that items that normally would be in reach are now buried in some obscure hold and if you don’t map it out in advance you may never see them again until your next cruise!
Pamela and I often cruise alone for days at a time. This translates into instant sleep deprivation. A fixed watch schedule is a must, and must be followed. We use four-hour blocks of time and this seems to work quite well. The person not on watch does the cooking, or at least the food preparation. Obviously, you will not get enough sleep, but assuming you trust each other you will get four to six hours a day, and that is probably enough. There are other tricks to this albeit controversial, but one trick is to set an alarm timer, either stand-alone, or on your radar, to trigger every ten minutes. In this way if you doze while on watch you will be awakened and can scan for traffic, etc. This technique is not to encourage sleeping on watch but to minimize the consequences of falling asleep while on watch. Our radar unit has a “watchman” setting where we can set a time interval at which point it will trigger on and ring an alarm. After one minute it shuts back off, thus saving power and automatically sets the next “wake up call.”
Navigation is another factor that is critical to safety. Avoiding shipping lanes while missing rocks, islands, and shoal waters are all aspects of navigation other than the obvious, getting where you are going. Fortunately today so many electronic aids exist that this is not the problem it used to be. Just the same, complacency must be avoided, especially when standing watch-on-watch. Pamela and I brief each other when we transfer watch and thus avoid some of the pitfalls that could otherwise occur. Even with all of the nice electronic devices we now have, our boat is still a sailboat and we must come up with sailing solutions. Often these solutions mean changing tack, and thus what once was a nice stable bunk on which one would lay, is now a slide to the deck.
Depending on your level of seasickness, food preparation may not be what it once was. Let’s be real, cooking while underway is no joy. It is a necessity, but I do have a friend that is quite happy to eat out of a cold can! Personally, I find that toughing it out and cooking a meal, even if abbreviated is important to morale, even if it is only mine being served. Being slammed around the galley, having pans and dishes literally fly across the boat is no fun. Organization is critical here as is the concept of using items for purposes not originally intended. One example is the sink. We have a double sink in our galley, which is a Godsend, to say the least. All sorts of preparations occur in the sinks as “stuff” can’t normally fly out of these (not to say that seas can’t be bad enough to contradict this statement). Food choices tend to be more limited. We have making coffee down to a science, as it is more important than most things. We use our stove as a gimbaled platform where we place a small 120V coffee maker. This works so well that nothing moves, just sways with the motion of the boat. We often eat hot cereal; thankfully the gimbaled stove helps with this. Very commonly our entire dinner comes out of cans. Just heating canned food is quite satisfying while battling the elements. If you are out for less than two weeks bread can be kept and used. One trick we have learned is to store the bread in nearly airtight plastic bags and then keep it in a very dark place. No light usually means no mold! Peanut butter goes quite well with this non-moldy bread. Finally, canned milk is wonderful. It is useful for all sorts of cooking (and the coffee) and is easy to reconstitute. It even comes with most of its own water! If you are feeling really adventurous, (this usually occurs when the seas are being nice to you) baking is fun, or at least a morale booster.
Standing watch-on-watch is a bit mind numbing. The U.S. Navy uses this technique as a form of punishment! So what should you do for some form of distraction, otherwise known as entertainment? We like to watch movies or television shows. Fortunately today, with the great electronics available for the boat we can watch a video on our computer or on our DVD player/television in salon. We only do this during daylight hours, set a timer to remind us to check on traffic every ten minutes and enjoy an hour or two of video. This may seem trivial, but once again, it is great for morale. It may even help you sleep when off watch.
The last big difference between living aboard while in a marina and living aboard while cruising is anchoring. Whole books have been written about the techniques of anchoring, types of anchors, selection of rode, bottom conditions conducive to proper anchoring and retrieval, etc. Just the same, one point is not usually covered. That is that your boat is still in motion. Tides and currents come and go. You may have to be careful while moving around while on deck or below. Cooking can still be an intrepid affair if conditions are not good. And, finally, you may have to sit watch even though you seem to be immobilized. Too many stories fill the insurance claims records of boats that ran aground while “anchored.” Pamela and I will take turns sleeping in the cockpit at night with the anchor alarm set on our GPS. Of course, whosoever is on anchor watch is going to check position each time they awaken, which is fairly often. We also set a course line out of the anchorage on our GPS so that we can “bail” without much thought if worse comes to worse. We have had to do that just once, and the course line immediately oriented us to our plight in an otherwise completely dark anchorage.
Finally you reach a marina and your boat once again becomes an efficiency apartment. With a day of normal sleep you will look back at your adventure and realize that it was quite well worth it. In fact it seem nearly impossible that this nice stable “apartment” you are now living in was just the other day a bucking, rolling, swaying, challenging, vehicle of ocean transportation, that you successfully maneuvered to your new home port.

December 25, 2010   No Comments

Alternate Traffic Lanes Complicate Catalina Trips (from Living Aboard Magazine Nov. 2010)

My wife Pamela and I love to sail our boat, Red Dolphin, to Catalina Harbor. Over the past one and one-half years we have spent about 3 months there living aboard our restored forty-six foot Ericson sailing sloop. Catalina Harbor is the safest, snuggest harbor you can imagine, and it offers an environment so close to Hawaii’s that it is quite romantic and relaxed. Of course nearly tripping over the occasional bison makes it more like a scene out of “Lost.”
We have traveled to Catalina several times over the past years and have always been wary of both container vessel and tanker traffic in the Santa Barbara Channel. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) have provided a long-standing traffic separation scheme the length of the Santa Barbara Channel. Ships entering and leaving San Pedro Bay would turn up this separation channel allowing other ships and boats to be able to anticipate traffic and keep a watch for it. Generally speaking we would sail our boat on either side of the separation lanes, leaving them for the big boys!
Well, everything has changed now. In the last year we have seen very little traffic in the separation lanes which has made me quite curious. Furthermore we have noted the passage of many ships both leaving from San Pedro Bay and going to it. In almost all cases they are now using an alternate departure and arrival pattern that conflicts heavily with recreational boaters traveling to Catalina Island’s West End for either side of the island.
Our observations over several passages to Catalina Island are as follows: container vessel and tanker traffic are leaving San Pedro Bay and then turning to a heading of 280˚ magnetic for a course that will take them 8 nautical miles northwest of West End, Catalina Island and then north of Santa Barbara Island and south of the northern Channel Islands. Conversely, incoming vessels seem to come out of the west in a zone between 8 and 12 nautical miles northwest of West End, Catalina Island. This new pattern cuts right through any vessel’s trip from anywhere in the Santa Barbara Channel or northern California. It even complicates U.S. Naval activities as this new cargo vessel route conflicts with the Pt. Mugu Sea Range, where they test missiles! Please realize that this routing is uncharted.
We have observed one other change in traffic patterns.  We have encountered as much or more traffic between San Diego and East End, Catalina Island. In these cases, you are not only dealing with U.S. Navy maneuvers and exercises around San Clemente Island, but with ships approaching from the south and north to refuel off of a tanker. These maneuvers are highly complex and dangerous to be near. We experienced this one spring night when seven vessels of various sizes approached our position to refuel with a tanker that was paralleling us both in course and speed. This all occurred 15 to 5 nautical miles south of East End, Catalina Island over a period of four hours. Finally, all the ships drifted south as the tanker issued one Securitè after another. Of course we were in constant contact with the tanker as it was no more than a quarter mile away for more than 3 hours. The tanker pilot was nice enough to coordinate the other ship traffic for us and thus we avoided any real problems, but still, it was exciting.
So, the obvious question is why is this happening? What has almost all southern California shipping abandoning well charted shipping lanes? Why are we all now at a little more risk and what can we do to protect ourselves as we move our water-borne recreational vehicles around the many beautiful ports of these great southern California waters?
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) instituted a new regulation titled “Fuel Sulfur and Other Operation Requirements for Ocean-Going Vessels within California Waters and 24 nautical miles of the California Baseline.” It went into effect on July 24, 2008 and the effects of this regulation are going to be phased in until 2012. This article is not written to critique this regulation. Suffice it to say that it requires all coastal shipping within 24 nautical miles to switch from heavy fuel oils to light, low-sulfur distillates to reduce all types of air pollution including nitrogen, sulfur, and soot pollutants. Apparently ships have or are developing the ability to switch between fuels. This operation is fraught with danger and expense, thus causing the USGS to issue instructions on how to do it safely. The bottom line for pleasure power and sail boats is that the 24 nautical mile base line is drawn from the east side of Catalina Island to the west end of Santa Rosa Island. For a ship to stay inside of the Santa Barbara Channel traffic separation lanes would mean that it would have to burn the cleaner fuel at much greater expense. San Pedro Bay receives almost all shipping from China and the Pacific Rim. These ships have developed this set of alternative shipping lanes and refueling practices to circumvent the regulation. An interesting note to all this is in one of the rule-making notices on the CARB website. “CARB strongly advises non-tanker ocean-going vessels to continue using established traffic separation lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel and avoid transiting through the Point Mugu Sea Range outside the traffic separation scheme.”
What can you do to be safe?

  • Use your radar effectively. Set it to at least 12 mile range. Determine CPA on your radar plotter.
  • Visually scan the horizon. Use your binoculars.
  • When within 15 nautical miles of West End, Catalina Island be hyper aware. Ships are probably out there.
  • This might just be the time to invest in an AIS receiver. They are now incorporated into VHF radios at very low price. They are very easy to use.
  • Talk to the ships. We talk to any ship that looks like it will get within four nautical miles of our position at CPA. Believe it or not, sometimes they don’t see you. Fiberglass doesn’t reflect radar well.
  • Call the ship on VHF channel 16 giving your name, GPS location, and relative position to them. They will call you back. You will have to switch to another frequency as 16 is for contact and emergencies. Work out a plan with the ship on who is going to do what so as to avoid each other. We have found that the largest container ship captain is as polite as our next-door neighbor.

On a lighter note, we recently were talking with a large Chinese cargo container vessel. We had changed our course marginally so that we would pass each other within on mile, or so. We then received a call from the ship in question to inform us that a “large whale” was approaching our port bow. Sure enough, a quick look revealed a large whale that swam just a few hundred feet ahead of our bow!
This new traffic separation free-for-all is instructive. Many times we have felt that once we safely crossed charted traffic lanes we were “home free.” That is no longer the case here in California and it probably never really was. Scanning for traffic and monitoring your radar and AIS are imperative in all operations. Ship traffic is bound to increase as our foreign markets continue to increase productivity. CARB regulations have ended any semblance of traffic separation, so be safe and look out!

December 25, 2010   No Comments