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Posted on July 16, 2019 | 5 comments

Rally Reflections

Rally Reflections

Eight months ago I sat amidst charts and maps learning how to spell Huaritcheru. I noticed that the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia are actually closer to Nicaragua than to Colombia. That Colombia is a country and Columbia is a city in the U.S. I still had little experience sailing and zero experience with the geography of the Western Caribbean. I didn’t know that the Panama Canal was 50 miles long with a lake in the middle and I certainly didn’t know where the heck the San Blas Islands were. I’d never seen an octopus, a green flash, or a Guna Indian. By April 2019, all that had changed and it’s just now, in the familiar comforts of the United States, that my mind has settled and the experience has finally sunk in. When at last I don’t need to interpret the language or wonder how to buy groceries. When there are no more opportunities to snorkel, dive, hike, noodle, host dinner, be hosted, drink, and be toasted with 40 other boats always eager to fill a social void like a dorm of college students. It’s over. It was exhausting. And it was an experience of a lifetime.

“You’ve created an entire civilization down here,” Cara observed when she and Nick visited us in Santa Marta, Colombia to get a glimpse of our lives on the Suzie Too Western Caribbean Rally.

True—we had book club, yoga, Spanish lessons, haircuts onboard, and dinner with friends practically every night. We also gave back to our community–we had trash pick-up days and donated to a local children’s charity. Different from life on land, we were still learning the names of our new friends and we gathered on sailboats instead of in cul-de-sacs. These new friends welcomed my kids to our little civilization like a bunch of doting grandparents. In turn, my kids got a true sense of rally life and blue water sailing (complete with Scopolamine patches). Before long, Nick was helping Allen dock rally boats at the marina and Cara took on the role of chief Spanish interpreter. In Cartagena, we explored the Old City fully adorned in Christmas decorations and twinkling lights strung from archways that created tunnels of festive color.

Later, after spending Christmas in California, Allen and I would return to Cartagena to celebrate New Year’s Eve. We joined millions of people that night all clad in traditional white, with pop-up dinners and dancing in every street and alleyway. And just like that, January 1, 2019 arrived and we sailed to our next destination—the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. The contrast couldn’t be more different.

Most of the San Blas archipelago of nearly 400 islands is uninhabited and all could be uninhabited by the end of this century if the sea level continues to rise. Islands are named in the local Guna language and most end in dup like Uargandup and Narasgandup. You can walk the perimeter of almost every island, weaving through palm trees on white sand beaches and sea stars in the aquamarine water. The indigenous Guna Indians are fierce protectors of their Guna Yala countrydiving is prohibited to preserve the coral reefs and travel to the islands is highly restricted.

It’s illegal to take coconuts from the island, even if they’re on the ground. Most Gunas are fisherman and many today sell their beautifully crafted molas, clothing that originated from the women’s tradition of painting their bodies with geometric designs. Some residents speak Spanish; few speak English. There are no cars, supermarkets, newspapers or Internet. And sadly, there is no way to combat trash, specifically plastic, which is a growing problem from the influence of Western civilization and the ocean’s current from urban areas that reach as far as Africa.

The San Blas is the perfect destination to explore by boat so we spent more than three weeks sailing from island to island. We rarely went ashore; instead, we played constantly in the water. Snorkeling was exquisite as we added turtles, spotted eagle rays and nurse sharks to our growing list of favorites.

Fresh lobster!

As provisions dwindled, potluck dinners became more creative. Potatoes went in everything (except salad!) and I learned that cream cheese can be served with almost any canned food to be called an appetizer. Guna Indians would paddle by in their wooden ulas to sell a couple of lobster crawling in the bow of their canoes. Occasionally, we were lucky enough to buy produce from a Guna who paddled all the way to mainland Panama,

Line at the supermarket!

procured items from local markets, and turned his canoe into a floating vegetable stand. One particularly industrious Guna with a particularly large canoe (and motor) appeared in our anchorage late during our stay when fresh stores were completely gone. Rally boats lined up in dinghies, anxiously waiting their turn to buy pineapple, papayas, carrots and anything green. Slightly wilted lettuce never looked so good.

The social calendar remained active in the San Blas. Allen’s brother and family successfully navigated the travel restrictions to join us for a week of snorkeling, great dinners, and lots of laughs over our new favorite game, Codenames.

In between company and rally events, the Captain and I would sneak off to an unnamed island, drop anchor, circumnavigate the perimeter with a mask and snorkel, enjoy the quiet of a few nesting hawks, and declare the island Gémeaux-dup. Sitting in our anchorage today outside Newport, Rhode Island, watching cars traverse the bay bridge, airplanes traveling overhead, and boats tacking every direction, I can hardly believe that a place like the San Blas exists on the planet. I do hope in my lifetime that we find solutions to climate change and the plastic trash that are devastating these treasured lands.

In February, we returned to civilization with a bang. Enormous westbound freighters with containers stacked 20 stories high waited in queue at the entry of the Panama Canal as their eastbound counterparts exited in between them. Our marina was just outside the canal giving us front row seats for this dramatic maritime commerce.

While we stayed on the east side, we bid farewell to several Rally boats that transited the Canal for their western voyage to Asia. It was an amazing education to see the preparations for their passage and to actually watch several vessels go through the locks of the canal. It’s hard to believe this engineering feat that so significantly impacts our modern world began construction in the 1800s. 

As if the Panama Canal wasn’t enough to captivate us, Shelter Bay marina’s backyard was a magnificent nature preserve. At sunrise and sunset, great roars from nearby howler monkeys would echo through the trees like a haunted house.

Capuchin monkeys and dozens of bird species made curious bird watchers out of all of us. Even a sloth posed perfectly for my camera. Our stay in Panama ended with a weekend to explore Panama City, where we savored electric flowers in our gin and tonics, delighted in the bulk food selection at a Costco-like store, and languished in hot showers at the Hard Rock Hotel. And still the rally wasn’t over.

After watching so many rally members tout their scuba experiences in this diving mecca, I decided it was time to refresh my certification. The Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia were the perfect places to do that. I had the good company of others in the rally at the same experience level and together we rediscovered the skills and witnessed some amazing creatures like reef sharks. Ask me 20 years ago if I thought I’d ever swim with a shark! 

San Andrés is renown for its duty free shopping. Residents from mainland Colombia swarm the little island and leave with overstuffed shopping bags. The ladies of the rally took a break one day from working on boat engines to participate in the folly.

While I couldn’t justify buying high heels for life on a boat, I did thoroughly enjoy lunch and sangria at a restaurant where you tossed your shoes aside to rest your tired feet in the sand. Later in the week, we dragged the boys out of the engine compartments to rent mopeds and golf cart mules—this was not a difficult sell. Relishing the chance to drive something other than a boat, the captains loved every minute of navigating through bustling streets to circumnavigate the islands. I’m still astonished that people find sailing dangerous 

Rally friends Exodus on their stunning Hylas 49

In fact, the next leg of our journey would prove to be dangerous…or at least we prepared for danger. Pirates. We hear they’re out there and we do our best to avoid them. When we sailed from Grenada to Bonaire, we took a route that purposely kept us 100 miles from the Venezuela shore. In Colombia, our Rally leaders collaborated to have the local navy in or near our anchorage at all times. Eager to encourage more boating tourism, the governments of these countries want to avoid crime and incidents as much as we do. Three days later, our flotilla of four arrived safely in the Honduran Bay Island of Guanaja. The dinghy dock where we landed to clear Customs and Immigration actually proved more dangerous than our journey—boat boys fighting over their claim as guides landed one of them in the drink and the other barely missing a blow to the skull with a metal pipe. Not being the target of the dispute, we found the scene completely entertaining. Nonetheless, we were anxious to leave the crowded town center built on this tiny reef where 10,000 residents live shoulder to shoulder—no wonder tempers flare.

By afternoon, we were sitting under  palapas built in the water, sipping piña coladas and eating French fries and fresh ceviché—paradise after two nights at sea and a long 24 hours to clear into the country. Largely undiscovered by tourism, Guanaja boasts lush mountainous pine forests and world-class diving as it is situated on the Mesoamerican barrier reef system, the second largest reef in the world after the Australian Great Barrier Reef. While our itinerary allowed only a few days to explore, Guanaja holds fond memories; quietly snorkeling on my own, I saw my first octopus.

32 miles away still on the barrier reef system is the larger, more popular and more populated island of Roatán. Ten years earlier, I visited this island with Cara, where friends hosted us in their beachfront cottage and we became certified PADI divers. As luck would have it, our friends were on the island again AND Cara was coming to visit! We transformed Gémeaux into a day charter as we returned the earlier hospitality and made sailors out of our friends and their families. Cara and Matt snorkeled each day off the back of the boat, watched dolphins play off the bow, and joined us in discovering the Roatán Brewery—local craft beer and corn hole just like home. Their 5-day visit ended too soon and it was time to send the children home—a teary farewell as the water taxi fetched them directly from Gémeaux to take them to the airport.

We washed the sheets, restocked the fridge, and prepared for the next company. After a long day of weather delays, Gary and Courtney finally arrived looking like pack mules bearing U.S. foods we missed and boat parts for the entire rally. We introduced our land friends to our cruising friends and celebrated our good fortune to have all of them in our lives with a lovely dinner ashore at the 5-star Ibigari. Always a treat to have Courtney onboard, we gave her run of the galley and she gave us delicious meals. She showed me how to make sauces and I showed her how to spot eels and sharks off the reef. We talked and talked, drank champagne on the bow of the boat, and talked some more. Ah, girlfriend time.

Gary and Courtney joined us on an overnight passage as we followed the Mesoamerican barrier reef system west about 100 miles and entered the country of Belize—our final destination in the rally. Boring as it seems:), we never tired of exploring new islands and sharing our excitement each time we discovered a new fish or unusual coral. When it came time for Gary and Courtney to leave, we started planning for their next trip to Gémeaux—the only way we could bear to let them go.

Once again, we washed the sheets, restocked the fridge from a veggie vendor on the street, and prepared for another round—just a short but always enjoyable visit from Jim and Jane.  When at last we settled into the Placencia Marina to celebrate the end of our 6-month rally, less than half of our original 40 boats remained. So many had transited the Panama Canal, left early to pursue their next journey, or were still getting their fill of fabulous diving in Roatán. Already the mood had changed without the full group and we felt the void these new, but deep friendships left. On the other hand, a smaller group in a marina environment allowed us easy access to one another. Just like neighbors in a cul-de-sac, we’d hear the rap rap rap on the hull like the doorbell at the front door. We’d find someone standing on the dock to borrow a part and they’d end up staying an hour, weighing in on the latest mechanical issue or weather forecast. We’d become deeply entrenched in our civilization and were acutely aware that in a few days our cul-de-sac would stand empty again.

It’s difficult to express how life-long friendships can form in such a short time but it’s inherent in the cruising community. We come from different careers, lifestyles, and countries. We share not only a love for sailing, but for adventure and for a simpler life. We accept the risks and dangers in exchange for the thrill of exploring. We pause to watch the sunrise and sunset and know that the sea is not just blue but a hundred variations. We face uncertainty, illness, loneliness, and sometimes death, realizing that it could easily have been one of us. The Suzie Too Western Caribbean Rally brought us experiences of a lifetime and left us with lifetime friends. Sitting alone in Belize’s famed Blue Hole, we reflected on the irony of the hole in our hearts that the rally left. Fair winds and following seas until we meet again.

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Posted on March 13, 2019 | 4 comments

Mountain Sailing

Mountain Sailing

The first thing I noticed about Colombia were the mountains–an endless horizon of flat ocean now distinctly interrupted by valleys and peaks reaching straight up beyond the clouds. New adjectives like Purple Mountain Majesty and Sky Blue replace Ocean Blue and Aquamarine in our color vocabulary. As we enter Colombian waters, Pico Cristóbal Colón gives us a glimpse of its 18,000-foot summit. How I’ve missed the mountains.

I grew up in the mountains–born in Yellowstone National Park and then attending elementary school in Yosemite Valley. Later in life, I lost track of the mountains. Then, one day they reappeared in a most surprising way. “Want to go for a hike?” he asked. “I would love that, I replied, “I’ve missed the mountains.” Allen and I spent the next 9 years hiking the planet. We would hike for miles—I’d pour out sadness, anger and fear of navigating a traumatic divorce; Allen would listen, restore confidence, and offer heartfelt advice. Little did I know that as I was discovering the fabulous trails of the East Bay Regional Park District in northern California, so too was I forming a life-time friendship. 

Bay Area day hikes turned into backpacking and river running and eventually led to the world of mountaineering. I climbed my first peak in hard-shell mountaineering boots and crampons in 2009 when we summited the 12,000-foot Telescope Peak in Death Valley. Then Mt. Shasta, north of San Francisco, where at an elevation of 14,000 feet, I got a taste of what altitude sickness feels like. Later that year, Allen and I climbed the majestic Mt. Rainier in Washington state. And then the ultimate paradise for the outdoor dreamer–snowshoeing across the Antarctic island of South Georgia southeast of South America. Twelve years later I would land on that same continent…this time in a sailboat.

Punta Gallinas, the northernmost edge of South America at 12°N, came into view early morning after our 24-hour overnight sail from Aruba. Cooler air and water temperatures and a different time zone marked our entry to this new continent. We dropped anchor with other rally boats in Ensenada Huaritcheru—a bay flanked by rocky cliffs and a dusty, red savannah that fades into distant snow-capped mountains. A sandy beach directly in front of us with wood thatch structures hinted at a few signs of civilization. Upon closer examination, we discovered a couple hostels, bars, and even world-class kitesurfing in this small indigenous Wayúu community. Soft-spoken women commuted from a nearby village on the back of mopeds and sat among us weaving brightly-colored tribal designs into bracelets and handbags.

The wind whips through this bay, which makes sleeping a pleasure, but puts everything that isn’t securely tied down at great risk. One afternoon, we noticed our dinghy was missing. It was broad daylight and we had been onboard so it seemed unlikely that a thief would have pinched it—as our British friends would say. In fact, the painter rope that ties the dinghy to Gémeaux was still in tact. And then we saw it—our little gray raft being carried away by the fierce current, quickly becoming another donation to the sea. Naturally the captain’s first instinct was to swim after it so he quickly dove into the water and began a vigorous freestyle out to sea.

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Just then, one of the local world-class kitesurfers—I think he was about 12— swept in, indicated for Allen to grab his harness, and resumed his ride effortlessly with a 220-lb body in tow. In just a few seconds, the two of them successfully navigated to the runaway dinghy, at which point Allen released the harness, propelling the kite surfer about 30 feet up into the air. The kite surfer majestically performed several tricks during the aerial opportunity and Allen returned the dinghy to safety. It was all a very spectacular way to learn that constant wave motion can actually wear a hole through the metal eye of a dinghy. Who knew?

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At noon the following day, after a short hike above the coastline, we picked up anchor and began another overnight sail. We had studied the weather and calculated this specific departure time to coincide with an event not to be missed— sunrise over one of the world’s highest coastal mountain ranges. As much as I hate night passages, I absolutely love sunrises. That alarm clock has rung many many dark mornings to allow us to get to a summit and witness the first glimpse of a day. The shadow of the mountain that is cast across the waking city below. That quiet, peaceful moment that lasts only seconds until the world awakens. While hazy, the sunrise today was indeed spectacular as we watched the sun finally reach the top of the Sierra Nevadas and announce a new day.

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Serenity came to an abrupt end, however, when our famed spinnaker played yet another one of her dirty tricks. (See Aruba: Island Civilization for the story of how the spinnaker became untethered from the halyard.)

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I like to tell these stories so our readers get the full scope of this gorgeous sail’s schizophrenic personalities. And you must trust my writing because we only photograph the sail when it’s on very good behavior and looks spectacular. When its other stormy, violent, and narcissistic behaviors surface, we are yelling and running around the boat trying to wrestle it into submission. On this particular morning, 30-35k overnight winds settled into a steady 10k and were mostly behind us—perfect conditions to unleash the eager parasail. Jim Moore was still onboard so the three of us worked together to raise the parasail, cautious to avoid the sail backwinding and getting caught in the main sail. Not enough caution apparently and before we knew it, the sail billowed behind the main and a couple of its tee tiny little orange threads caught precisely in a tee tiny crevice in the spreader that supports the mast. We couldn’t do it again if we tried. We once again found ourselves wrestling the big sail onto the deck, but even 6’4” Allen could not reach high enough to untangle the caught threads. Out came the bosun chair and up the mast I went to dislodge the evil sail, all while we were still underway. I gave Allen a brief moment to shed a tear over a tee tiny amount of damage to the sail and then tossed the little shit into a locker for what I hoped would be a very long timeout. 

Calm once again was restored on Gémeaux as we rounded the corner into Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city. Different from Huaritcheru, Santa Marta boasts a shoreline of high rises and a population of 450,000. Snowcapped Sierra Nevadas, however, still outline the landscape, assuring us that this new temporary home will give us a chance to explore the mountains.

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Posted on March 12, 2019 | 4 comments

Helia Mainsail Headaches

Helia Mainsail Headaches

One complaint we have with the Helia is the mainsail. It has a square top (the trailing edge of the sail doesn’t meet the top of the mast) and it has a large “roach”. The roach of a sail is the amount of the sail which extends aft of a line drawn from the top of the mast to end of the boom.  The combination of the square top and the roach provide extra sail area for the same mast height but complicates the hoisting of the sail.

The main sail is connected to mast with cars which have plastic ball bearings which allow the cars to slide easily on a track attached to the mast. The Helia has a small number of cars (6) which means there is a large distance (more than 10 feet in some cases) between the cars when raising the sail. Because the square top will kick up as it lowered, the top car must be disconnected from the car to fully lower the sail. The problem is this quite a distance off the deck and is too high for Shiera to reach.

After dealing with this headache for awhile after buying the boat, I found a solution with a part called a Gaffe Lock by Karver. This clever device is attached to the top car and allows the sail to detach from mast when lowered and reattach when raised. It does this using a strap on the halyard which pulls into a hook attaching the sail to the car. While it is expensive, it completely solved the problem.

While the large distances between the lower cars was annoying at times, it wasn’t a huge issue until during a passage to the Bahamas when we were assaulted by a large squall with 45 knots winds. We had numerous squalls during the passage and each had lots of rain but little wind.  I had seen this squall approach and it was very dark and threatening. I decided to get the sails down before it hit. I got the jib rolled up but was in the process of lowering the main sail when the squall blasted us. The sail had large billows where the cars were widely spaced and the wind grabbed the bottom billow and ripped the sail from the car. That made a larger billow which then ripped the next car off, and then rest went except the top two. That only lasted a second until the top of sail torn off with a huge crash.  Now we had a huge mess, with the entire main flapping in the breeze and in the water. Shiera and I managed to tame the beast and get it back deck as son Grant struggled to keep the boat into the wind with the autopilot trying to turn the boat back on course (this was his first sail on Gemeaux).

The rest of trip was mostly motor sailing after that, but the sail was repairable when we returned to Fort Lauderdale. Under closer inspection, the car attachment is a stainless steel pin which is screwed into a plastic end cap for the batten. The failure happened with the steel pin tore out the threads from the plastic. The solution was to replace the plastic batten caps with stainless steel caps. That should prevent the failure from happening again. Another solution that other Helia owners have pursued is adding several extra cars. Each car would go between the existing cars thereby decreasing the amount of sail which will billow out. The problem is because of the roach of the sail, the car cannot be directly attached to the sail, it needs to have slack to allow the sail to move away from the mast when lowered. The additional cars also raise the top of the sail making it becomes more difficult to reach the top car from the deck.

Our other complaint is reefing the sail. The Helia has three winches. One is used by the main sheet and the other two are shared with the rest of the lines. The main halyard uses the right most winch which is also used by the starboard jib sheet. The center winch is used by the reefing lines to tighten the clew of the sail, but also used by the port jib sheet. The upshot is that both winches are necessary for reefing but one of them will also hold a jib sheet if the jib is up. While it is possible to switch lines during the reef, the jib sheets have lots of pressure so it is also a good way to lose some fingers. We have typically rolled up the jib prior to reefing to free up the winches and then redeploy the jib after the reef is completed.

Finally the foot of the sail is loose, so it only is attached at the mast to the foot and the clew of the sail is attached with a large strap near the end of the boom. This strap creaks a lot when under pressure making Shiera very unhappy. I haven’t figured a good solution for eliminating the creak.

So while we mostly have made peace with the mainsail, we still have complaints we haven’t solved.

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Posted on February 26, 2019 | 4 comments

Aruba: Island Civilization

Aruba: Island Civilization

“OH SHIT!” Allen exclaimed just as I was just starting to doze off beside him at the helm. I immediately snapped up and dittoed “OH SHIT!” The entire spinnaker sail had disconnected from the top of the mast and was rapidly settling into the sea. Amazingly, the two of us were able to grab hold of the sail’s remaining tether and wrestle the 1000-square foot drenched heap onto the swim step. Slipping and sliding over the slick parachute-like fabric, we stuffed the sail outside underneath the cockpit table to avoid any more temptations from the wind to carry it away. Later, we would discover no damage at all to the sail, the shackle securing the sail, or the props underneath where the sail was settling in the water. A mystery, but all in all, lucky. We motored the final 2 hours of our 6-hour passage to Aruba without further incident, playing the event over and over in our heads. Customs and Immigration pined for the day’s calamity, requiring 3 hours to clear through all the bureaucracy at a hot industrial cruise ship dock with gummy creosote pilings and rusty nails.

Photo: airlines.net

It was quite a sight jockeying 40 sailboats into a single anchorage off the coast of Aruba’s capital city of Oranjestad. Pity the poor boat who just hours earlier had the entire anchorage to himself:( Our first clue that we were in a very civilized and westernized island was the constant air traffic overhead. We could nearly see the faces of arriving passengers flying over our Airport Anchorage  situated just at the end of Aruba’s Queen Beatrix airport. Can’t beat ’em? Join ’em. We put on our fancy clothes, i.e., shoes, and collected about 20 people from our rally for a fantastic dinner in one of the eight restaurants at the nearby Renaissance Hotel. On this Thanksgiving Day I was thankful we averted a catastrophe earlier during our sail. Mostly, however, I was thankful for the shrimp bar and the best Caipirinha cocktail ever.

We spent Black Friday drying out the spinnaker—my least favorite project dragging this enormous sail all over the boat, flailing my body over the sail like a game of Whak-a-Mole each time the wind caught a corner and threatened to pull the entire mass overboard again.

A lovely end to the day, however, dragging the Captain to the local movie theater where our rally bought every seat in the house. Typically thriving on the respite of deserted islands, I thoroughly enjoyed this little bit of civilization—Bohemian Rhapsody on the big screen…with popcorn and Caipirinhas! The captain thoroughly enjoyed his little bit of civilization the next morning when we discovered a Starbucks right near the anchorage.

Civilization continued the following day as we joined several rally friends on an ATV self-guided tour of the island. Yes Dad, I did wear a helmet:) Once off the main roads, it was great fun and a fabulous way to see Aruba since so many of the sights are accessible only by dirt road.

Two days were sufficient to feed our need for civilization so we pulled up anchor and headed to the northern end of the island for a little peace. We passed hotel after hotel with busy beaches and jet skis, parasails, and kite surfers crowding the water front. Yikes-where are the quiet little bays?! Not in Aruba. We settled off Arashi Beach in an anchorage with a few other rally boats, staving off the occasional tour boat by swimming nude off the stern. Sorry, no photo available:)

Snorkeling highlights included enormous parrotfish and two shipwrecks. I don’t know what was more interesting—looking at the wrecks or watching the passengers investigate the wreck through the portholes of a submarine-like tour boat. Overlooking our anchorage was the scenic California Light House so we hiked up the road with rally friends, anxious for a history lesson and a cold drink.

We learned that the lighthouse was named for the 1891 steamship California and we learned the restaurant was closed for the week:( Now parched, we short-cutted our return trip through prickly acaçia trees and cactus to reach icy cold beers at a beach palapa.

As we made our way back to the world of civilization the next day, Allen stopped for a kiteboarding lesson, while I played photographer. We refueled and came to rest at a slip in the Renaissance Marina where we made good use of air conditioning and fresh water and scrubbed Gémeaux until she was sparkly and we earned another Caipirinha at the Renaissance! We skipped the Scorpion at Lucy’s restaurant next door but ate their very yummy ceviche.

Last minute chores before getting underway to Colombia—Allen hosting an electronics therapy session for rally friends, marina checkout, fill sodastream bottles, and provision…after Starbucks of course. An absolute delight meeting Marcus from fellow rally boat, Island Kea, who enjoys perusing the aisles of a foreign grocery store as much as I do. We shared an expensive $15 cab ride to the nearby market and happily provisioned with all the Dutch delicacies, including every variety of Gouda cheese. Santa Claus Jim Moore arrived at 11pm with 4 loaves of Dave’s bread, turkey jerky, enough gluten-free pretzels to feed a flotilla, and boat bits and pieces to delight the captain. We were ready for Colombia!

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Posted on January 23, 2019 | 1 comment

Escape Hatches – Recipe for Disaster

Escape Hatches – Recipe for Disaster

A catamaran unlike a monohull has the possibility of overturning and not coming back rightside up. A monohull can turn over too, but it will always right itself as long as the keel is still attached. A catamaran has two stable positions, right side up and upside down. Because it is possible for the boat to turn in the inverted position with people inside the hull, European boat manufacturers have required the inclusion of escape hatches which can be used to exit an upside down boat. To insure the hatch is as high above the water as possible when the boat is inverted, the hatch is placed at the waterline when the boat is in the rightside up position. All this is well and good, but for most cruising catamarans it is very unlikely the boat will turn over.

The hatch used on the Fountaine Pajot boats is manufactured by Goiot (another French company). It is specifically designed for use as an escape hatch and is rated to be used at the waterline. When we purchased Gemeaux, the marine survey highlighted that escape hatches leaked. It was also noted in the survey that these hatches often leak. I assumed the leak was between the seal and the lens of the hatch. While it is likely that many hatches leak there, I was soon to find out there is a much more serious leak potential.

Goiot Escape hatchAfter about 8 months of owning Gemeaux, we were in the Chesapeake Bay and the port hatch was leaking more than usual. Trying to pin down the leaks was difficult until I pushed slightly on the lens of the hatch and it moved outward. It was then I realized the hatch was not leaking at the seal but was leaking between the lens and frame of the hatch. This would require the hatch to be replaced.

After some work tracking down a US supplier for the hatch and having sticker shock of over $2000 for the hatch, I ordered the hatch and had the boat hauled out of the water to replace it (another $500 to get it out of the water). I carefully inspected the starboard hatch but it seemed fine, no movement between the frame and the lens on that side. Now, I felt prepared to brave the Atlantic on the way to Antigua, no more leaking hatches… or so I thought.

During our crossing all went well until about 500 miles from Antigua when at 8PM, Shiera noticed water on the floor in the starboard bathroom. It was then she saw water spraying across the companionway when Gemeaux hit a wave. The problem was the lens had become detached from the upper part of the frame and now was threatening to exit the boat altogether. If the lens did fall out, Gemeaux would be lost. It wouldn’t sink but it was very unlikely that we could do anything to fix a 3ft square hole at the waterline.

First order of business was to try to get the lens back into the frame. We had a 2-inch glass suction puller for lifting floor panels but couldn’t pull hard enough to get the lens back into the frame. The only viable option was to go in the dingy under the hull and try to knock the panel back in. How scary was that—to be in 6 ft seas at night under the boat? Each wave would drive the dinghy into the bottom of the boat. I was able to time the waves to get a fist on the lens and pound it back in place. Now we needed a more secure fix to finish our sail to Antigua.

In a scene right from Apollo 13, we dumped every adhesive we had on the table. After carefully discussing each choice, we decided on a ribbon of underwater 5-minute epoxy between the frame and the lens. Then we would put 5200 adhesive around the joint. Five minutes is not very long, so we carefully rehearsed our plan and then each of the crew prepared a strip of epoxy for a side of the lens while I went back underneath the boat in the dinghy. We pushed the lens back out, lined the epoxy in the joint and then pressed the lens back into the frame. We could see the epoxy had good coverage in the joint, but just didn’t know if was adhered well. Next, we lathered 5200 adhesive onto the joint between the frame and the lens. We decided to hove-to for the night to give the adhesives time to cure.

Completed repair

As I tried to sleep, I keep worrying that the lens would still pop out of the frame. At 4 AM I came up with an idea to adhere two plastic blocks to the lens with flathead screws drilled through. Then a board was fitted completely across the frame and the screws secured to the board. This effectively leveraged the lens into the frame. We tried several different glues (contact adhesive, silicone, superglue), finally settling on superglue to glue the plastic blocks to the lens. The problem is that acrylic doesn’t take very well to any adhesive, but in our testing, superglue seemed to work the best.

The completed fix held until we reached Antigua where I ordered another lens and had the boat hauled out again. We completed the repair on Thanksgiving Day and celebrated with a BBQed turkey dinner while Gemeaux sat on the hard.

Now I realized the severe safety problem of the hatch. It wasn’t just the hatch that could leak, the entire lens could fall out the boat! The irony is the frame of the hatch is secured with 20 bolts that go through the hull, but the lens is only secured with a thin bead of silicone to frame and silicone does not adhere well to acrylic. I sent a strongly-worded email to both the US Fountaine Pajot dealer and Goiot, the maker of the hatch. I explained that a boat could be lost because of this problem. Unfortunately I didn’t get much of a reply. Goiot said they had no knowledge of failures like this and offered to send new glue to adhere the hatch to the frame. That was not very comforting.

Inside view with fix installed in the upper corners

I decided I could rig a permanent fix for the problem along the lines of a temporary fix. I researched how to attach acrylic to acrylic and found that solvent glue would weld two pieces together. It works by effectively melting the surface of each piece allowing the pieces to join as one. Rather than fit a board across, I used 1/8” aluminum stock in the upper corners across the frame. This still allows the hatch to be fully functional but is impossible for the lens to come out of the frame. The specs on the solvent glue are nearly 10,000 lbs for each 2×2” block. I could lift the entire boat up with that!

In the meantime, our hatch failure was reported on the Cruiser Forum by a boat that had been nearby when it failed. On the forum, I documented the failure, the response from Goiot and my fix. A number of people requested drawings for the fix.

Helia with escape hatch failed

All was quiet for the next 6 months until on the Fountaine Pajot Owners Facebook page a Helia like Gemeaux was reported lost at sea off Africa. The speculation was the boat had hit something in the water and had a large hole punctured in the hull. Looking at photos of the boat, it seemed odd there was no damage to the bow of the boat. Pretty hard to hit something sideways. I tracked down the skipper in Norway and determined the problem was his starboard escape hatch had left the boat at 2 AM in rough seas. He tried many things to stop the inflow of water but ended up being rescued by the Moroccan coast guard and abandoning the boat. This was the exact problem we had, but his lens had completely left the boat.

I posted the information that this was another hatch failure like Gemeaux’s but the hatch had actually left the boat. I included the drawings for the fix and strongly suggested that all owners with the hatch immediately apply a fix to their hatch. Two weeks later another owner off the coast of Brazil had their hatch partially leave the frame. This was now three boats in less than a year that I knew about. I notified the Coast Guard of a potential safety problem (never heard back). Within a month, Fountaine Pajot was notifying owners of the problem and a fix Goiot had developed. I’m not a fan of the fix as it relies on an adhesive bond to acrylic rather than solvent glue to hold the lens in place. I would not bet my life on any adhesive bond with acrylic.

Over the past 6 months, I have been contacted by dozens of owners who want the fix. I have sent a dozen or so people a kit to install and the instructions to many others. Hopefully boats are better prepared now to secure a hatch that is very unlikely to be used for its intended purpose, but could be a disaster like the poor boat off of Africa, or what nearly occurred to Gemeaux in the Atlantic.

Escape Hatch Fix

Hatch Fix parts with Solvent Glue

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