20 September 2010

10 Questions for Final Straw

Clark & Suzy Straw with Kevin Straw in 2002 & 2004 cruised aboard Final Straw, a Mason 54 hailing from San Diego, CA, USA from 2001 until 2008 through Mexico and the South Pacific Islands including New Zealand & Australia. More information including contact info can be found on their website.

What, if anything, do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?
I don't think you realize just how tough long range cruising can be on boat equipment.  As they say, the definition of cruising is "fixing your boat in Paradise."  And, it isn't a joke.  It's true.  Even after a thorough refit before our departure, we still saw the watermaker blow a circuit board 800 nm from land and 2000 nm to go.  Fortunately, we could still use it, thanks to a manual override toggle switch on the circuit board.  Our most serious issue was sucking water into the engine in Manihi in French Polynesia.  Turns out it was a plugged anti-siphon valve coupled with a design error that caused the drain for the anti-siphon valve from the engine and generator to be tied together.  The blocked valve allowed the generator to pump exhaust water into the engine's wet muffler.  After it filled the wet muffler, sea water made its way to the engine's valves.  Wow, what a troubleshooting job that was!  The good news is there's lots of talent among your fellow cruisers.  When a cruiser has a problem, almost everyone pitches in to help!  One Brit showed me how to remove the diesel's injectors and blow the water out by turning the ignition switch momentarily.  In kind, I fixed a  lot of radio and computer problems for others.

Is there a place you visited where you wished you could stay longer?
We tried to carefully calculate our time at each stop.  But, sometimes you like a place so much you stay longer.  That happened to us in Fiji and Vanuatu leaving a very short time in New Caledonia.  We have friends who have spent an entire season there and loved it.  After arriving in Noumea and  thoroughly reading the cruising guide, I know we missed a lot of nice spots.  The next time I would sail north and see more of the main island and then go to the Loyalty Islands on the east side.  I'd also suggest leaving the boat in French Polynesia and take a break back home for the holidays and then return for another 90 day visa and twice as much time in those lovely islands.

How often have you faced bad weather in your cruising?  How bad?
We watched weather very closely and avoided leaving when we saw a forecast of strong weather during the timeframe of the passage.  Of course, you can't do this if a passage exceeds a week or so because weather models are much less reliable after that.  For example, Tonga to New Zealand is very hard to time due to the frequent low pressure systems that cross the Tasman.  It's possible to let them pass by slowing down at latitudes above 25S.  We did sail through some of the unpredictable activity found in the SPCZ and ITCZ.  Normally, it was short lived and looked worse in the distance than it was when it actually hit us.  All told, I'd say we saw winds above 30 knots less than 10% of the time while on a passage.  Some of our worst weather was at anchor or in the harbor.  We saw 50+ knots while at our berth at Bayswater Marina across from Auckland.  The boat was healing in place!  We also saw 35-40 knots while at anchor at Whitsunday Island in Queensland, Australia.  It's very likely you will see bad weather some time on a crossing.  But, preparation will mitigate most real danger.  We carried a drogue and it was always ready to deploy.  But, we never had to use it.

What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?
The bugs at some anchorages.  It was no-see-ums in the Sea of Cortez of Mexico and mosquitos potentially carrying malaria in Vanuatu that I remember particularly menacing.   We anchored at an island off of the Baja mainland and were literally infested by thousands of no-see-ums.  They were everywhere and came in a huge swarm.  They didn't really bite us as we went for bug spray almost immediately.  Then, we went for the anchor and raised it getting away as fast as humanly possible.  It was after that experience when we saw a note in our cruising guide to stay away from that particular spot.  The lesson was read the book before arriving.  In Vanuatu, we had to put mosquito screens up to keep those critters out of the living areas.  It was worse at sunrise and sunset.  The screens cut down on the breeze below and with the high humidity it was tempting to remove the screen.  Fortunately, we didn't get bitten.  But, at one anchorage north of Efate, we knew of three boats where crew contracted malaria.

Is there something you wish you had bought or installed before starting cruising?
One thing I found very helpful after we crossed to New Zealand was the installation of weather sat.  Capturing data from the NOAA LEO satellites when they passed over our area was very helpful when comparing GRIB charts to real weather pictures.  Fronts show up very well and you can compare movement in subsequent orbits.  The other item that wasn't available when we left in 2001 is AIS.  I have used it on other boats since and I would definitely add it in a future cruise.  There were many times when we were unable to contact a ship and understand their intentions or know if they were even aware of our presence.  AIS could have mitigated that problem.

Do friends visit and how often?
Occasionally we had family & friends visit us.  It was generally places where they could fly into easily.  It also appeared to happen earlier in our seven years of cruising than later.  Of course, we were getting farther away from the States as time went on, so, it was a more expensive trip for them and it took longer to get to us.  But, it was fun to share the experience with them when they did come and we enjoyed the little gifts they brought from the States that we couldn't get where we were.

Share a piece of cruising etiquette.
One thing I remember in Tonga was it was bad form to work on the boat on a Sunday.  You also should not wear hats and you should not show frustration.  That was very hard to do with customs!

Another pet peeve was to not anchor on top of another boat.  I can remember letting out more rode just so we wouldn't hear every word they exchanged and wouldn't have to inhale the exhaust from their generator or listen to the tedious sound of splashing water while it ran hour after hour.  This was a problem primarily in the more popular cruising grounds where weekenders or bareboat charters were prevalent.

How do you fund your cruise?
We had planned to do this over a long period of time and saved our nest egg.  We then invested it for a cash flow that covered our expenses to the level we could comfortably live without decreasing the principle amount we had invested.

Of the changes, choices and compromises you had to make along the way, which were you happiest and most satisfied about, which do you wish you had chosen otherwise and why?

I was probably happiest about deciding to take extra crew on the very long passages (ten days or more).  From Puerto Vallarta to the Marquesas, we had four crew.  That meant one crew stood watch only one three hour watch every twelve hours.  That left a lot of time to read, fix things, improve the sail plan, fish, etc.  We made the 2800 miles in 16 days, 23 hours averaging 7 knots and we were all very fresh and, I believe, we enjoyed the trip more.  I also took extra crew on the Tonga to NZ and NZ to Fiji passages due to distance and possible harsh weather.  One warning, choose crew carefully.  It's best if you already know them and have been to sea with them in the past and you really like them!   

The one thing I would do differently is plan a slower cruise across the South Pacific.  The majority of circumnavigators I know say the best part of their entire trip was the South Pacific.  We made the crossing from Mexico to New Zealand in one season primarily to get there for the Americas Cup.  But, if I were to do it again, I would stop in French Polynesia and leave the boat there hauled out and protected for cyclone season.  Then, I would come back and do another season there.  I would spend almost all of the 90 day visa in the Marquesas and Tuamotus, arriving in Papeete just before the visa expires.  Then I'd haul out and return the next year to cruise for 90 more days in the Society Islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea, Bora Bora, etc.) before going on to Tonga and the islands in between.  This maximizes your time in a true paradise instead of rushing through to get to NZ in nine months.

Question I wished you ask...  

What single piece of electronics did you find most useful besides the basic sailing instruments and GPS?
After the basics of wind/speed instruments, GPS and VHF, I'd probably pick the HF radio.  I actually had three separate SSB units on board.  It was our lifeline back to civilization.  We did our email over HF radio and could download valuable weather information for our area.  We could also exchange route data through areas where one boat forwarded to another the safe route into an anchorage by sending their track on C-map over pactor on HF radio.  We also talked nightly to the HF radio nets and made numerous phone patches back to family while thousands of miles from land.  This was incredibly comforting for our family and friends.  All of this was done for free as it was via ham radio frequencies.  I had a bit of an advantage since I first obtained a ham radio license at age 12 and have been active ever since.  But, after helping many others get their license, which is orders of magnitude easier to get now than when I got mine, I have been told many times how useful having a ham license was to their peaceful enjoyment of cruising.   I couldn't agree more.  In fact, it was a radio contact I made with a cruiser in the 60's that got me interested in doing this myself one day.  Forty years after I made contact with Danny Weil on the s/v Yasme arriving in Nuku Hiva, I realized my dream of sailing my own boat into that same harbor.  What a thrill to have my wife and son on board with me.