Friday, July 29, 2011

Of Birthdays And Chore Days

From the log of Capt. Matty Black

The day before yesterday was our first full day by ourselves on this Grand Voyage. It was also Jennifer’s birthday. Her present was a set of lava stone earrings from San Miguel, the island of her maternal ancestry.

We have switched gears from eating out all the time to buying fruits, cheese and figs that are so juicy they drip all over your fingers when you eat them. We take our little picnic to a park and eat there.

To cap off Jennifer’s birthday, we took a cab ride to a 300-year-old fort on the coast, which had been converted into a restaurant and hotel. There we enjoyed drinks and appetizers as we watched the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean which we had crossed.

Yesterday was in stark contrast to our day of rest. All we needed to do was drop off our auto-steering device for servicing, buy some pins at the marine store, pick up mail waiting for us at the post office in Lisbon, and try to upgrade our internet connection device. Four stops.

This would be, at home, perhaps a one-hour set of errands. Maybe two because all phone/internet stores are notoriously slow.

It took us ALL DAY! We didn’t get home until 9 p.m. And we only got two out of three tasks done! It was a day of trains, metros, buses, cabs, and lots of lots of walking in 90-degree Fahrenheit weather – all just to get to the post-office and the phone store.

Today, we will have to complete the other two errands.

To add insult to injury: The phone store (By the way: this was Vodaphone’s Portugese flagship headquater’s store) told us that there is no possible way on Earth that we can buy a single connection device for our computer which would give us internet access in all of Europe.

In each country, we will have to throw away our old device (a $40 unit – and that is just for slow access) and find an internet store and buy a new device and sign up for that country’s plan.


In this day and age, it is impossible to belief that we cannot get universal internet access.

Oh, yes, there is ubiquitous so-called “free” Wi-Fi. But that is turning out to be practically useless. The marina Wi-Fi’s are so heavily used that you often can’t connect, or you get kicked off.

The other option is to pay for a coffee at a cafe, and struggle with their systems. Sometimes the password they give you works, sometimes they don’t.

And besides, it’s just awkward to either Skype with friends while in a noisy and public cafe, or to spread out all your invoices and bills.

For three days, I have been trying to get a good internet session. And without luck. Some of that is because we have to take turns using this single internet-connection device and yesterday was Jennifer’s turn.

Ok, ok, enough of this ranting and raving. All of this is just to say that you please need to be patient with us. We want to stay in touch and are trying, but it is not easy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Eight Day Slop

By now, some of you know we have arrived in Cascais, Portugal. (Capt. Matty Black here.)

And to clarify a technical issue: We have heard that SPOT didn’t transmit tracks after the first 200 miles. We don’t know why, but I hope we warned everyone that such things happen. It is still a new technology in its infancy. We don’t know when it is working and when it isn’t. Our unit just blinks indicating a message was sent. Apparently those messages got re-routed to oblivion.

Cascais is the first harbor you come to on Portugal’s Atlantic coast. It is a cute little European seaside resort town with cobblestone streets, many restaurants, but not too cutesy.

We arrived after an eight-day ocean crossing from San Miguel island in the Azores.

And let’s just be blunt: The crossing was miserable. Absolutely miserable.

The crew was Joseph, who had done the first leg with us, Beth (our good friend and a sailor herself), Jennifer and myself.

Beth and Jennifer had never done an ocean passage. I had promised them a “milk run.” Ha! The only milk that ran was spilt milk when I tried to make myself cereal in 12- to 15-foot, pounding waves, driven by 20 to 35 knot winds for eight straight days, with nary a glimpse of the sun.

A slog, from the day we left until we arrived.

Many times someone had a bowl of cereal or soup or chili knocked out of their hands, skittering across the cabin floor. Bodies went flying. Everything got wet and soggy. Equipment broke.  

The cockpit would fill with water from crashing waves. The water would often crash over the bow so fiercely that it would shoot under the lashed down dinghy into the crevices of the dogged-down hatch over the head (the toilet) and douse us with water while we struggled to maintain our position on the can until we finished our business. Beth started wearing her rain jacket before going to the head.

In honor of Joseph's love of “shakey cheese” (canned, grated parmesean) which he poured on everything, the head became known as “The Shakey Can” for obvious reasons.

Other parts of the boat acquired their own monikers. The settee bench, which was one of our three berths, has a lee-cloth which straps the lying person in so a wave can’t knock you out. The settee became known as “The Burrito.”

Our new super-delux mattress which we afforded ourselves for this voyage is great and soft in port, but out on the high seas, it bounces you up and down so much that your body, at times, will rise and then slide across the mattress before coming to rest again. That bunk became “The Bouncy Castle” (like those air-filled children’s playhouses.)

The Quarterberth is the long berth in the aft end of the boat, which became preferred by some since it is quieter there and lower to the waterline, making it less bouncy. But it was a bit stuffier and got its own douses of water when waves would crash so forcefully into the cockpit that they would wash into the companionway of the boat and then through cracks into the quarterberth. So that moist and dark womb became known as “The Afterbirth.”

Beth, like Goldilocks, tried all the beds and still couldn’t get good sleep and so she eventually crawled into the curved settee around the dining table and wedged herself in with pillows and cushions and backpacks and towels and created “The Rat’s Nest.” And there she would scurry after every watch and bury herself in most of her belongings, nestling down into the smallest of shapes. 

Don’t be shocked. She was not alone in this eventual loss of interest in maintaining land-based standards of hygiene or decorum. I was asked how many times – or if at all – I had changed my underwear, and I refused to answer, invoking the Fifth Amendment protecting against self-incrimination.

But Jen, she crowned us all. On the flight to the Azores, she and Beth received eye-shades for sleeping. They both used their eye-shades extensively, until Jen’s disappeared toward the end of the passage. It was lost for three days. Finally Beth noticed Jen was walking around looking like she had a load in her tights. Out came her eye-shade.

Meanwhile, we had to deal with a bilge pump that was back-filling from the exit drain. We found it would stabilize at a reasonably safe level, but we had to relocate the float-switch so it wouldn’t run incessantly and drain the battery.

And after just two days, our ship’s steering wheel began to seize up. It got tighter and tighter. We dissembled the binnacle post (to which it is attached) to see if we could lube it. No luck. We wondered if it was because I had changed to a new lube in the Azores and the tube warned ominously: “Caution – clean out all old lube since some lubes are incompatible.” But we dismissed that possibility since both lubes were marine-grade gear lubes. We speculated that it could be something caught in the rudder, like rope or a massive hunk of seaweed. But a few days later, some squirts of PB Blaster (even better than WD-40) into the steering wheel column solved that problem.

Oh yes, and then the ship’s auto-steering broke. We still had a windvane steering device, but we no longer had a motorized auto-steering. It turned out to be fine since we used the windvane for almost all the passage.

Twice, during the eight days, we hauled down the mainsail and noticed that pins which held the sail to the mast had come loose and disappeared. The first time, I replaced the pin with a bolt. The second time, two days before arrival, we just left the mainsail down, since it was blowing 30 knots anyway. We sailed under staysail alone.

I silently prayed the staysail would hold out, as winds gusted to 35, to 38 and once to 40 knots. Once in port, we found a long rip in the staysail at the leech.

And yet ... and yet throughout all of this, throughout bouncing, spilling food, aching muscles from stress but no stretching or real movement, -- after sleepless nights, and the fact that Joseph and Jen suffered from a form a sea-sickness which doesn’t affect your stomach but gives you a constant, eight-day headache, -- and yet throughout all of this, our crew made good cheer to a bad play.

Jokes were told, food was somehow scrabbled together by Jen and Beth. Dishes were done in a clatter. Conversations were enjoyed. Photos were taken. Whales were spotted a couple of times. Dolphins did jump out of the water to entertain us once or twice.

Above all, I am so immensely impressed that neither Beth nor Jen ever batted an eye to the wild and tumultuous conditions we faced. Each stood their watches. Each alone at night, in waves cresting, wind howling and the boat crashing.

Jen admits that she heard the mythical voices of which sailors whisper and only admit to each other, lest to be thought of as dramatizing or being a bit lulu. They were calling her name. She heard whistling which was distinctly different than the wind in the rigging, but something far more ethereal. Something eery. Something almost scary. Perhaps because it almost seems to beckon into abandonment and the darkness.

Fetching a distant shore always, but especially under our circumstances, fills one with awe. The awe is a mixture of a quickened sense of nature’s raw immensity, and a pride that one had the fortitude to rise with commensurate determination to face nature, accept her and deal with her rawness. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Our time in Horta

So sorry to everyone about being so out of touch.  Internet access has been difficult.  It is everywhere and free but so jammed with users that you often have a great signal and still can't get online.

Mathias trying to skype  at an outdoor cafe, he had to move away from us so he could hear, the only reliable wifi is at a cafe, but not too much privacy.

One of the traditions in Horta is for boats to paint their boat name on the sea walls in the marina, for good luck.  There are some really amazing and intricate designs, its just cool to see all the boats that have come through the town and what you see represents only the past few years, as they erode pretty quickly.

Carol painted our boat name for us, using paint she found around the Marina, so happens she found green paint, like Dolphins' hull. Pretty sweet.  Thanks Carol!

On our second to last day we finally rented a car and got to see some of the island.  The climate here in the Azores is very changeable, you can wake to fog and overcast skies and then it moves to bright sunshine and back to cloud cover at the end of the day.  On our day out it was all of the above.  We drove around the exterior shoreline of the island and then went to the center to see the giant Caldera, which is the hollow bowl where a volcano erupted about 400 years ago, all the islands have these, as they are all volcanic, like the Hawaii of the Atlantic.  Unfortunately the cloud cover so so dense we couldn't see anything.  This is what is it looks like (taken from the internet):
It should have a lagoon at the bottom but when another volcano on the island erupted in 1957/8 it created fissures that leached the water out, so it is dry now most of the time.

The Caldera is in the center of the island and we were able to see the beautiful scenery and typical farms with a few cows and vegetables.

I loved all the cows, these two were particularly cute.

This old gal wouldn't get out of the road until we slowed way down and let her amble over to her farm gate.

The island is so fertile, it must be the volcanic infused soil, the wild flowers were really gorgeous and the roads and farms were lined with hedges of hydrangea.

Here are some pix of the volcano that erupted 60 odd years ago.  The call the volcanic rocks "black gold" and make everything from jewelry to flagstones to park benches out of the stuff.

Some volcanic swimming holes at the edge of the sea.


We could have stayed another 2 weeks at least, but we were excited to get to Sao Miguel (pix from here tomorrow).

Horta harbor from above.

Pico Mountain, on the neighboring island of Pico, its huge - 7,713 feet high and dominates the view from the harbor, its peak is often hidden in the clouds, but on our last day I was able to get a shot of peak uncloaked.

Our last meal in one of the many seaside cafes.

Mathias indulging in his 5th order of blood sausage - yuk!

Next stop LISBON!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Horta, Faial, AZORES!

The last few days have seemed like weeks, in a good way.  I felt like I had been preparing for leaving for so long that actually getting here was becoming more of an idea that I talked about and explained than an eventuality.  Then there were all the goodbyes:  in Vermont, Rhode Island (NYC - Jeff) and then Boston, another sign that I was really doing this crazy thing, leaving my life and friends for two years!  It still didn't seem real until the last day when I had to say goodbye to my very closest people, that was hard, really hard.

I took my very first, First Class plane flight, it was excellent.  I can see how people get addicted to the ease of this type of traveling.  No lines, free drinks, comfortable seats and smiles lots of smiles, your smiling, the airline attendants are smiling and all your fellow first-classers are smiling, why would they be, its all so easy.   But despite all the ease and comfort I still didn't sleep and I arrived excited and exhausted just as I do with all my cattle-class flights.

I was a bit disappointed that I wasn't able to arrive before Mathias and greet him at the dock after his three week long, heroic voyage, but I never expected that he would come to greet me at the airport.

Ah!  Reunited.

Our little apartment is just perfect, its a remodeled 19th century fishing cottage, like many of the houses in the town. 

The view from the garden at the top of the apartment

Horta is a major stop for sailors crossing the Atlantic,  and almost all the boats in the large marina are sailboats, and the tourists and transient sailors who are stopping to revive and reload and this gives the town a relaxed and almost gracious vibe.

View of the marina from the top of our street.

Boats at dusk, with the volcano on Pico, the next closest Island visible in the background

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Ok, a quick update. We arrived in Horta a couple of days ago and it has been go-go ever since with clean-up from the trip, getting through customs, buying replacements for parts that broke, getting 200 pounds of laundry to the cleaners, sorting out left-over food, and a dozen other details.

All that by way of apology for not having made contact with all of our friends and family yet.

So, I have just about 15 minutes here to enter a few words before we have to head off again.

If you followed the trip on the tracking site, you probably saw that we had a calm departure from Rhode Island. Too calm, in fact. We lollygagged for about two days. The next phase of the trip was a series of "Fresh Breezes" and gales. The first Fresh Breeze being about 20 to 25 knots of wind, followed a few days later by a gale with sustained winds of 30 knots and gusts to 35 with waves from 3 to 4 meters. (9-12 feet) And the third Fresh Breeze was 25 knots sustained and gusts to 30 knots.

The last one helped us along quite a bit. During that one, we were doing six knots of boat speed, but we were in a strong part of the Gulf Stream and so we had an extra two knots of current, giving us a total of 8 knots "over land." During that blow, we had two of our record days, doing about 160 nautical miles each day. Otherwise our average was exactly what I had expected it to be, which was about 100 mile days.

The forces on a boat out to sea are tremendous and almost unimaginable. It is as if a giant hand picks the boat up like a five-year-old would pick up a toy car and shove it backward and forward on the floor, going "Brrrmmm, Brrrrrmmm!" The boat slams back and forth in heavier weather and drawers slide open, pots crash in their cubbies, the entire shelf of books cascaded down onto to floor, your body is slide or tossed from one side to another, and trying to open the door to the head is a dangerous operation, let alone trying to pull your pants down and trying to end up on the toilet. It's a bit like trying to land the space shuttle in a driveway. You're lucky if you get anywhere close.

And after every blow, we would discover the various pieces of equipment that had been bent or broken or disappeared overboard. Heavy duty shackles would come undone and bend apart. The halyard which holds the mainsail up almost chafed completely through. Thank god, it held on and didn't rip apart during the storm. Our reefing line (which is used to shorten the mainsail during heavier winds) chafed halfway through. Everyday we would do rounds on the boat to see what might be coming undone.

And we had to do the repairs. Replace the broken or missing parts; re-splice new shackles onto the halyards, stitch chafing guards into various places.

Other repairs too: The belt on the engine chewed up in the first week. I replace that.

The bilge pump was going on much too often, and we searched and searched for where water was coming from. Never really found it, but after three weeks, we found that it only happened during rougher weather, so I'm not too worried about a leak in the boat. We might just take more water over the bow than we think and the water enters through the anchor chain pipes.

The batteries wouldn't hold a charge very well during the last half of the trip and so we began to turn everything off (like the GPS) and sail just by hand steering or with our windvane (Monitor) steering system which doesn't use electricity and by night we would simply watch for lights instead of using AIS or radar.

The water coming from the tank began spitting out algae. I will need to open the water tank and do a thorough cleaning once we get to Europe. But in the meantime, we used the tank for doing dishes and used our bottled water for drinking.

But those are just all the normal aspects to an ocean passage. Nothing uncommon or even too troublesome. When we live on land, we have all these issues too, except we simply bring our car to the repair guy, or we call the electrician or the plumber.

On a boat, YOU become the repair guy, the electrician and the plumber.

Oh yeah. I was the plumber. And what do you call the plumber for? To fix your toilet when it won't flush any more. Our head was getting more and more troublesome. It took more and more effort to flush. And finally it wouldn't flush anymore. I was the lucky one who final deposit wouldn't go down. Actually I WAS lucky because it was up to me to fix it, and I was glad that if I had to get right down to the nasty, it was MY nasty and not someone else's.

So I spend a half-hour to simple get a few tools and the replacement gasket. Because on a boat, you have to open a cupboard, take out five boxes to get to the one tool box you want, then put everything back in a way that it would fly around while you are using it; and after you use it, re-arrange everything again. Anyway, in lumpy seas, I had to rebuild the head, open up the deposit-plugged pipe that was clogged, muck out the faulty rubber valve V-E-R-Y carefully, and insert the replacement valve, and re-assemble.

Our policy on board during the trip was to keep all trash that was plastic and non-biodegradeable, and to throw overboard: glass, metal, paper, and food. When it came to this faulty rubber valve that was now, um…. dirty, I violated our policy and V-E-R-Y carefully walked it up to the cockpit and begged Neptune's forgiveness as I committed it to the sea.

Now, that is all the drama just because drama makes a good story. They were minor annoyances to an otherwise fabulous trip. Almost every day we had dolphins visit us and play around our boat and dive around our bowsprit. The last night was amazing: it was pitchdark and the dolphins were shooting through the black water, which lit up with bioluminescence. So it was like seeing fireworks under the water with darting curvy lines of green-white shoots of light.

Flying fish were spotted and one day a squid washed onto the deck with a wave. About the size of a middle finger but with disproportionately large eyes about the size of your fingernail. We saw birds the entire time, thousands of miles from shore. A shark fin here and there. Endless shooting stars. Several times we saw the humps of whales pass by.

Scott, (aka Young Master Boyd) saw a sea turtle one day. He also saw an albino Dolphin. Scott became known as The Spotter because he saw more things than any of us. He was the first to spot land. (The island of Corvo.)

Carol was our master sail trimmer. She could squeeze four knots of boat speed our of less than ten knots of wind. She was also the main nourisher. While us other three would scrounge for nuts and chips one more time, she was the one to put on a pot of real food and take remnants of this and that and presto: we had a salad.

Joseph was our ever vigilant first mate, doing rounds every day to check shackles, ensuring the dinghy was still tied fast, inspecting for chafe. And more than once, was on the foredeck in 20 knots and rolling seas, reefing a sail, or trying to tame a flogging sail, or all the way out on the bowsprit while it dipped up and and down into the sea, fixing the wraps around the roller furling.

Once, on night watch, I saw a bit of glow on the horizon and a minute later, I saw the light of a ship off the port bow. It got a bit larger, and then I saw a few more of the ship's lights. That meant it was much closer than I initially thought. I stirred to get upright and started peering into the darkness and saw the ship's lights were now glowing red. Concerned I turned on the monitor to see the AIS and radar and find out the ship's course. But just as I was doing that, I saw the ship become bigger and more orange and change into a beautiful, rising crescent moon.

The moon played this trick on me once before during a passage to Bermuda in 2006. I could almost see it laughing as it rose.

Horta is a great town. It has maintained all of its original Portuguese nature. Most of its tourist traffic is by sailing yachts. All kinds of boats here, from the run-down to a beautiful 130 foot (30 meter) sailing yacht. But as in contrast to other port towns in which there are now only tee-shirt shop, after sunglass hut, after jewelry shop, after tee-shirt shop, Horta has all original shops and nary a tee-shirt or sunglass to be found.

Coffee places don't serve anything that we understand as coffee, and the staff speaks very crude english or not at all. A cappacino is a sweet powder mix drink. An espresso is barely enough to fill a hollow tooth. And a coffee with milk is the closest thing that you can order that approximates a latte.

The restaurants are excellent and reasonably priced. The best, freshest seafood you have ever tasted because all of the day-boat catch ends up in the local restaurants and nothing is shipped elsewhere.

Yesterday we all had dinner at a place that serves each person their own extremely hot, square lava rock and then offer you raw fish and meat and you sear your own food on the lava. The lava, of course, being abundant on this volcano island.

We intend to head out on the ninth. From here, Scott and Carol will be leaving. Joining are Jennifer and Beth. We intend to do a 30-hour trip to San Miguel and spend a day there seeing if we can find Jennifer's grand-parent history, and then onward to Lisbon.

C'est tout for now.

-Capt. Matty Black