Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for October, 2010

Upgrades to Velella’sDrift

Just wanted to call your attention to a couple of new things in Pages and Links:

First, we’ve added a Forespar link because they are now another official sponsor of our trip! They contributed some absolutely fabulous gear that I’ll be writing about soon.

The Itinerary Page is now updated with a pretty little graphic of roughly where we’ll be when.

There’s a new “Where’s Velella Now?” page that links to our GoogleMaps breadcrumb trail, so you can see where we’ve been for the past week.

And, there’s a new Outfitting Image Gallery if you’re curious to see what we’ve been doing all year in LA.


Forced into the moment

Sanded and cleaned decks

Yesterday, I chiseled off the last of dozens of teak plugs that I replaced on Velella’s decks. I spent days sanding, routing out old caulking, and smoothing in new shiny black lines. Months, actually. The plugs were the last in a long line of deck-related projects, and now she’s snug and dry and ready for sea.

We’re moored right next to the seawall in Marina del Rey’s D Basin, so we often have passers-by calling over the fence into our cockpit. I looked up from sanding when a guy said “So, when’r you leavin?” I said “Saturday, maybe Sunday.” And he smiled wide and said “Congratulations.”

People usually say “good luck” or “have fun” or “fair winds” when they hear about our plans. But this gentleman clearly had done this before, because instead he was congratulating me on how far we had already come.

I get close to tears when I realize it’s finally, finally here. (Who am I kidding? I bawl my eyes out.) This day came so suddenly and quietly after months and years of work–the list just evaporated and all that’s left is to turn in our keys. Our good friends Anna and Brad flew down from Seattle and drove away with our car, and just like that, we were back in cruising mode. On foot, slowed down, forced to deal with the moment rather than the future.

Since I had been going 60 miles an hour since I woke up yesterday (this whole month really), I was jittery when we went to bed. In order to help me fall asleep, I asked Prescott to tell me a story, because he’s really good at that. He asked if a story about the Gold Rush would be okay. I looked at him warily. He began: “Once upon a time, there was a prospector looking for gold. But he wasn’t rushing.”

I asked him to stop the story right there, because that was perfect. As I fell asleep, I congratulated us on arriving to a place where we are no longer rushing, and no longer looking forward to what’s next.

Headed back to MDR after splashing

The Magic of HF Radio

I remember in middle school the annual trips to Fry’s, staring in wonder down the aisles full of technology. But that was always for computer games or a faster computer on which to play them: Purchases within societal norms. I wasn’t the hardcore techie. I didn’t bring food into the store, wear a Hawaiian shirt over my beer gut, or dig with sticky hands through the bargain bin in search of cheap diodes, circuit boards, or ferrite clips.

SSB intricacies

But working on our SSB, I came pretty darn close. I realized, as I was trying to explain what an SWR meter is, how bad I sounded. “I need to check the impedance in my HAM radio to see how many ferrite clips I need.” The clerk had no idea what I was talking about.

I say HAM radio because most people have at least a basic understanding of what HAM radio is. Not true for SSB, although they are essentially the same. Both HAM and SSB operate on high frequency radio waves, which give them their signature long range. While HAM stations and SSB transceivers pick up the same frequencies, certain channels are “locked” for transmitting. To gain access to these channels, the operator is required to get a HAM license from the FCC. It’s more effort than is necessary for us, and hopefully keeps us out of the uber-nerd category.

Nessie helping Prescott with wiring

The idea of high frequency radio on our boat blows my mind. We can communicate with people 500, 1000, 2000 miles away, using the same frequencies as my childhood walkie-talkies. With an expanded range we have access to a varied and bizarre list of non-commercial stations. There’s a community college in Texas that broadcasts the BBC, and a naval base in Puerto Rico that carries NFL games. Though we bought it for weather information, it will also be our major source of entertainment. Our options are limited though, and will change as we head south.

By far the coolest thing about our radio is the Pactor modem, a gift from Meghan’s dad. Similar to the modems of circa 1994, this device transmits data information through sound. We hook up our laptop to write our emails which are compressed and sent to the Pactor. The Pactor converts the data into a series of chirps and whistles, and then our antenna spits them out across the ocean. They are picked up by one of fourteen stations around the world, converted back into data, and sent through the internet.

The data transfer rate is about 1 kilobyte a minute. This likely means nothing to you, until you consider that a good cable internet connection is 1,000 kilobytes per SECOND. In other words, 60,000x faster than our connection. If you remember 15 years back to using your dial-up modem, it still operated 900x faster than our SSB.

For this I’m profoundly glad. While it’s a great consolation to receive emails from friends and family, part of the rationale behind our journey is to unplug. I don’t want to look at the internet, or any screen, for the next 9 months. The SSB gives us enough contact for comfort, while allowing communication to remain precious. In the early days of the internet, I had to wait patiently for each email to download from the internet. The SSB harkens back to the early days of the internet, when email was transitioning from postal mail to the instant messages of today. I’m already anticipating our nightly ritual of booting up the SSB, turning on the laptop, and gathering around to see what word we get from friends and family.

All we can hope for are one or two paragraph emails. We’ll get some basic weather information, but surfing the internet is out of the question. We can LOL from the middle of the Caribbean, but without the trappings of modern technology. Which, in my mind, is the magic of HF radio.

Things that go bump in the night

Our to-do list is dwindling. It’s hard for me not to find other things to do to fill the holes… but if I did that we’d never leave. So tonight, we’re headed to Universal Studios Halloween Haunted House to scare the crap out of ourselves. You know, for fun. I hear the production value is incredibly high.

Our haunted evening will have one of two effects on my mental preparedness for our sailing trip: 1. It will really put me on edge, and make me even more jumpy as we get underway, or 2. It will scare me SO much that everything that follows will seem not so scary really. I mean, my first few hours back on night watches will give me goosebumps, but they’ll be a whole lot less scary than if I looked up and saw a severed head hanging from the spreaders or a goopy, toothy sea monster rising up behind me to clobber Velella.

Shoot. As I write this I realize I didn’t account for my imagination.

My imagination, after all, is what makes me sometimes go “tharn.” A term we often use around the boat borrowed from Richard Adams’ Watership Down, tharn is that “state of staring, glazed paralysis that comes over terrified or exhausted rabbits, so that they sit and watch their enemies–weasels or humans–approach to take their lives.” My openly stated goal is never to go tharn. When I do, Prescott has to coax me out of it–so he actively works to ensure that I do not go tharn.

In my defense, my anxieties have matured from just things that go bump in the night. I no longer fear an accidental gybe, or Prescott falling overboard while I’m asleep, or rats running up our docklines, because we know what to do to control those situations and minimize real risk. We’ve even gotten a good handle on the capricious nature of weather (thanks in large part to our seriously upgraded onboard weather forecasting equipment and know-how). I’m confident that we can keep ourselves out of trouble.

What remains to make me tharn is fear of crippling seasickness, and not being fluent in Spanish, and (god forbid) being attacked at anchor. Seasickness, I’m sure, I will endure and survive. Spanish, I’m sure, I will learn on our long night watches on the run down Baja (thanks, Rosetta Stone). Attackers, I must keep reminding myself, always make news, and the real statistics do protect us. And we have protection in the proximity of other cruisers (particularly those whose boats are more tricked-out with stuff to steal than ours!). It’s hard for me not to consider Velella the most beautiful vessel in the world, but Prescott keeps reminding me that she’s really not the most attractive thing in an anchorage for thieves. Either way, I’m sleeping with an air horn and pepper spray by my berth, because they help me sleep more soundly.

And although I’m mostly rational and thorough about possible problems, I would be a foolish sailor if I didn’t ascribe to a certain amount of superstition. Above the nav station hangs a wooden frog figurine given to me by my aunt and uncle (because in Japanese, the word frog and the word journey “kaeru” are the same, so you give anyone you love going on a journey a frog to ensure they return safely.) We wear carved Maori amulets signifying “safe passage over water” around our necks (a gift from Prescott’s parents), and knotted red strings around our wrists, an age-old charm for favorable winds.

Finally, on Tuesday evening, the ASA staff and friends will gather at Velella for a sending-off happy hour. Of course, Neptune will be in attendance, and will be served copious amounts of good wine first. And then a few days later, we’ll depart. But not on a Friday.

American Sailing

As many of you are already aware, I spent the last nine months working for the American Sailing Association as their social media writer. During that time, I had the opportunity to go on some very cool sailing trips to the Bahamas and to Croatia to write about the experience. Well, as it turned out, they liked my narrative writing so much that when I gave my notice this fall they asked if I would continue to write for them over the course of our sailing trip.

At first, I hesitated. I told them I’d worked very hard to be free of commitment, and didn’t want to feel “indentured” to the ASA. But they said they wouldn’t ask me to do anything I don’t already do–i.e. anything outside of the writing I already post here on this blog. So, with the American Sailing Association standing there wanting to basically buy up pieces of velellasdrift, how could I refuse?!

So, the ASA will be sponsoring our trip now, and I will be sending roughly one blog per week back to the their blog site ( They have hired a new social media coordinator to work from the office, but our story will be featured as an ongoing “sailing lifestyle” narrative. In addition, they are seeking external sponsors for our trip from the maritime industry–in fact I just spoke with one today who is looking at sending some gear and coming on board as an official sponsor. So don’t be surprised if you see a burgee flying from our spreaders with some major brand logo on there. Either way, you’ll be seeing these hats a lot probably : )

Because I am truly thankful for their honest support of the “sailing lifestyle.” Only in America can you quit everything to go sailing, and make money while doing it! T-minus 10 DAYS!

I forgot the password

It’s like this blog died and I’m going to revive it. And it’s like I died in LA a little bit and I’m about to be revived by living out my wildest dreams.

The past nine months in LA have been  a blur, in part because we’ve been busy with working harder than ever for every dime, and in part because I didn’t like it too much here. It’s not a place that’s very conducive to living frugally, that’s for sure, and the filth in the Marina just freaks me out. Now I’m so used to the washed-out blue of the sky and the translucent green hue of the water that I don’t really think about it, but I can’t wait to look back on the ball of smog as we leave it astern.

I think I decided to let LA be an out-of-body experience the day Prescott came home from an interview  and told me his future boss asked if he’d ever had a coffee enema. When Prescott said, “um, no,” the interviewer was like, “oh man, you should–it’s totally WILD.” After that, I stopped remembering much of anything about LA.

But I must say, it wasn’t all bad. We danced to Yeasayer under a life-sized skeleton of a T-rex at the Natural History Museum for $9. That was completely awesome. And we got a tricolored kitten for free, who I’m sure by now most of you have met on Facebook, and who will be the subject of many a blog post in the upcoming months.

We’re two weeks out from casting off for good, and our list is still long, but finally dwindling. Here’s a sample of what’s left:

Bind offshore yacht and health insurance

Pull and recaulk decks, and replace popped bungs

Restitch a small tear in the genoa

Finish making screens for the portholes

Spend a day or two up the mast surveying every inch, installing the radar reflector, tie-backs for the lazy jacks, touching up spar paint

Install a water filter that will strain out Giardia and other microbes that will make us sick in Central America

Take Nessie to the vet and apply for her International Health Certificate (read many hoops)

Fix the outboard engine that we got for free from a neighbor (SO AWESOME)

Shopping day for all the other spares (steering cables, hoses, gaskets, etc) and daily living stuff (cockroach tablets, T-shirts and cigarettes for bribing Central American officials, etc).

A bunch of other little things you don’t necessarily care about. The point is, I can see the end of the list. It’s rather scary to see the end of the list, because the list is all I know.

Wow, saying that felt like a confessional, but I said it. I’ve been a slave to the list and that’s IT for almost 2 years now. ICAN’T BELIEVE WEFINALLYMADEITTOTHEENDOFTHELIST!!!!

I also can’t wait to let my mind relax enough to start writing again.