April 30, 2012

Finding The Sweet Spot—Cruising with Kids

Maia began circus when she was six--it has consistently stayed her dream and passion
How old? How long? What works? What doesn’t? I get asked variations of these questions all the time when it comes to cruising with kid(s). My favourite—which we’re asked more than you would think—is, Did we bring Maia with us for the trip?

When we say that yes, indeed, our seven, eight, nine, now ten-year-old (how the heck did that happen?) is along for the ride the question inevitably goes back to one of the ones above. And the oft spoken assumption is pretty soon she’ll be a terrible teen who will rebel against our lifestyle and will want to go shopping in the mall—and what will we do then?

First let me say this—cruising kids come in all ages. We’ve met folks cruising with newborns (many born along the way) and people cruising with their young adult ‘kids’.  The bulk of the kids fall between the ages of five and 12 though—and with good reason. Cruising with kids under five is a whole bunch of work—it can be fun work, but it can also be isolating (you don’t get invited to as many parties or on the longer excursions) and exhausting (night watches take on a whole new level of complexity when you know you have a busy day ahead).
If you asked her what she misses most about life before sailing she would tell you she misses the circus
Teens are a totally different challenge—but not for the reason you think…
Rebellion, we’re told, is seldom the issue. Excessive maturity is.

Most parents when they plan to cruise with their kids have this hazy idea that while sailing together will promote family togetherness it will also give their kids a chance to evolve into their best selves without the pressures of peers, the excesses of westernized life and the limitations of schools that teach to the test.
And it works.

They often pass through this sort of seamless childhood—confident, clear and certain about what they need and want in their lives. And that’s where the teen years get tough—because sailing isn’t always what they need and want. But unlike typical teens who maybe don’t want to go on that annual summer sailing trip because they’ll miss their friends—it’s a bit more complex.
Maia visited two schools and four classes before deciding to audition for a performance troupe--she sees it as a step toward her future career
 There is something that happens to kids when they are part of a family that works to buy a boat, quit jobs and head off in pursuit of a dream. They grow into people who believe in their own dreams. We’ve met kids who wanted to stop sailing so they could pursue musical goals, apply for early admission to college, have better access to powerful computers or rejoin a sports team. And as parents we’re sometimes faced with a sudden and very difficult question:
Whose dreams take precedence?

April 26, 2012


We stood wedged in a thick crowd lining the side of the road, around us flags were waving and people clapped and occasionally wiped away tears. Unknown to Maia she was getting a history lesson in heartbreak and hope: Gallipoli, Passchendaele, El Alamein, Buka, Bougainville, Han River, Seoul, Babang, Duc Lap, Long Tan, Al Rumaythah, Doan and Kakarak. Congo, Cyprus, Uganda, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Solomon Islands and Darfur.

She thought she was watching a parade with pipe bands and soldiers, and old men and women—their chests heavy with ribbons and medals, sprigs of rosemary and poppies. And we decided not to explain a world of conflicts; a small country on the edge of the earth that tries to bring peace; brave men and women who believe in freedom.

It’s enough that she witnessed the long parade of battles gone and forgotten, and of peacekeeping that never ends. It’s enough that she sees us plan a cruising route around a world where risks are ever-changing, as peace gives way to strife, and then war retreats to truce.

This wasn’t a day to judge the wisdom of war; this was the day to honour valour and believe in heroes.

Lest we forget.

* ANZAC Day commemorates and honours the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli during World War I. It’s become a national day of remembrance and celebrates the distinct Aussie spirit of courage, ingenuity and good humour. And when the parade is over they all head to the pub to gamble and drink like, umm, Australians...

April 18, 2012

Message in a Bottle

Maia's bottle--one month and 284 ocean miles later--found by Stof and Sara
 “Mum, Dad… Do you want some wine?”
Wine is something I rarely say no to, unless I’m on a passagewhich, incidentally, is exactly when Maia encourages us to drink. It’s not that she’s looking for more mellow parents (I hope) it’s because she loves sending out messages in bottles. Because for someone who’s sent out maybe a dozen bottles since we started sailing almost three years ago—she’s had a remarkable track record of responses.

The recent news that another of Maia’s bottles had been found in the middle of the Coral Sea—on Huon Reef, a month after she tossed it in at Chesterfield Reef, some 284 nautical miles distant, made me wonder about the history and enduring romance of a message in a bottle. Because—as mail goes—it’s about as reliable as Correos de Mexico. Though it is free—which makes it a slightly better bet.

It turns out messages have been sent out in bottles for a very long time (to varying degrees of success). The earliest recorded sender is said to have been the Greek philosopher Theophrastus who, somewhere around 310 BC, threw bottles into the Med with the hope of proving it the water flowed into the Atlantic—it’s not clear if he heard back. Then in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I was apparently so inundated with bottles coming from the British Fleet she appointed an official “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”—a gig which I believe has since been discontinued.

My favourite stories of messages in bottles are from more recent times. There is the poignant (if unproven) story of a passenger aboard the torpedoed Lusitania, who wrote a message in a bottle and set it adrift just moments before sinking. It’s said to have read: “Still on deck with a few people. The last boats have left. We are sinking fast. Some men near me are praying with a priest. The end is near…” While another famous shipwreck had this message: "From Titanic, goodbye all, Burke of Glanmire, Cork” The bottle, set adrift by 19-year-old Jeremiah Burke, floated in the currents for almost a year before it washed up only a few miles from his family's house.

There are happy stories carried by bottles as well—including the story of bored young Swedish sailor who dropped a bottle overboard with a message asking any pretty girl who found it to write. Apparently a pretty girl did—and Paolina and Ake Viking were married in Sicily in the autumn of 1958. And every year or two there is a news story of a school-child’s fragile glass bottle making an improbable voyage to a faraway place and someone finding it—and sending back a message.
 And so—in the interest of childhood dreams and wondrous outcomes we drink our wine. Then Maia writes her messages and seals them carefully and tosses them overboard and imagines the miles her bottles will float and the stories they may carry back to her.

April 13, 2012

Sailor’s Perspective

The first sight of land is my favourite: the way it rises from the ocean first as a mirage, then as something solid, exactly where the GPS said it would be, but different. It’s a mysterious thing—looking at shore, trying to sort out what you are seeing, as the ocean distorts the angles, and the land ahead looks flat and confusing when compared to a chart.

It’s not like flying into a place when you look down and can pick out the park at a bend in a river or the shape of a church on a hill. Making landfall is perplexing, it’s an unfolding story that only makes sense as you sail closer and the hills separate from plains, and the uncharted straight lines give way to the expected curves.

I thought of this as we flew into the Whitsundays. Out in the distance I saw the pearl-necklace shaped reef. Below me were velvet islands and shifting blue-shaded water dotted with stationary sailboats. From our boat I could never see this all at once. I would only learn the shape of shore as I earned it—by sailing around each point: turning a map into a landscape and then into a memory. But flying is like being given all your Christmas gifts at once, unwrapped.
Whitehaven Beach made for a peaceful anchorage on a stormy day
Once we landed we jumped on a high speed boat—and cruised through the islands seeing more in two days boat travel than we would see in a week of sailing. Maybe more—because we’re inclined to find a place we like and stay, savouring it.

There is something odd about travelling at this quick a pace. A sense of when you’ve seen a place—if only from a distance and at high speed—you’ve experienced it. You’ve done it. And how could it change?
Maia in her stinger suit--leaping into the ocean
But when you sail the landscape constantly remakes itself around you. One moment it is bright in the sun, or there is a bird singing in that tree, or a friend waving from that boat. And, even if you stayed forever, you know you could never fully know a place.
Cockatoo on Hamilton Island--ruffled by the breeze
I thought of this as we flew away from the reef and the islands: feeling ready to check the Whitsundays from my list as “done”.
Then I reconsidered when I imagined the view from the little stationary sailboats far below—the view without answers, the one steeped in mystery and questions.

April 10, 2012

How to Wreck a Boat

So here’s the deal—even with lots of ocean miles and plenty of experience you can still wreck your boat—in the span of a few heart beats.

When we came down the river Friday morning it was on a spring tide (it’s a full moon thing—not a season thing) which meant there was a lot of water pushing us to the sea adding 3+ knots to our boat speed in places. There was also 15 knots of wind in our face.

We needed to pull into a fuel dock—so the choice was dock into the wind? Or into the current? A sustained strong gust made us choose the wind—but as we approached the dock, and the wind died, we realized we chose wrong. But we bounced onto and along the dock and managed to stop ourselves after losing only a little paint.

But then it was time to leave. Leaving into a strong current is a cake walk if there is nothing directly ahead of you—but if you have mega-yacht row downstream, with the first big shiny yacht a boat length away—leaving gets trickier. Or technique was to angle our bows out into the current by going in reverse—then when we were pointed into the middle (and past the power boat) we hit it with full forward throttle and the wheel hard over.

The boat was promptly pushed back into the dock by the current and we were now hurtling toward a huge, expensive looking powerboat. Evan called for me to turn harder and raise the rpms to redline—hoping to get the boat to turn. Which it did, inch by inch. We could have kissed the powerboat as we swept by—literally.

Then the engine died.

We are still on Fiji fuel. But we filter fuel as we it bring aboard and we have two more inline filters. But the engine still laboured and died. And then laboured and died again. Evan decided it was a fuel issue. I decided we needed a sail. So we unfurled the genoa and tacked down the river until we reached a wide spot where we could anchor. Only to discover that the hateful Italian anchor windlass, had after three months of non-use, had turned bitter and seized up.

So you got this? We just about flatten the boat, and live. Then the engine dies on a busy river and we set a sail and live. We get to a safe place to drop the anchor and the windlass won’t work… It feels like we should just go home. But can’t.

But Ev drops the anchor manually then set about replacing the fuel filter. The engine starts—so he sets out to fix the windlass. His multimetre (which would diagnose the problem) has a flat battery. So we decide to haul up the anchor by hand and fix the windlass out on the bay.

So we head off—and after ten mellow minutes the engine starts to die. A freighter is coming—so I aim for the river bank where we drop anchor—again.

 This seemed like a good time to sit down, have lunch and decide if we really wanted to go out for the weekend after all. Because it sort of seemed like maybe we weren’t meant to. But then Maia mentioned the Easter Bunny and we rallied. Evan completed a repair on the windlass sans helpful tools and changed the fuel filter and the next morning we headed to join our friends.

the sort of sailing mishap that is fun--rather than fraught

April 8, 2012

Easter Downunder

I’m still getting used to being upside down: Christmas in summer, Easter in autumn, winter hitting in June... For me, holidays are so indelibly linked to the seasons that Easter, and its ancient history of springtime renewal and rebirth, seems hopelessly out of sync with our shortening days and the root vegetables that have appeared in the grocery stores.

Growing up, Easter was my favourite holiday. And not just because of the chocolate. No, my best, brightest memories are of walking in the woods with my mum, dressed in a gauzy new dress, searching for trilliums and Easter lilies—those first signs of spring.

You have a choice when you head out cruising—you can hold fast to the customs of home and try to impose them on the place you find yourself. Or you can try to go deeper (maybe?) and find that sweet spot where your family’s traditions and the world around you make peace with each other.

The idea of holidays—the repetition of stories and rituals—which eventually become part of your identity seems lost to cruising families. Maybe you can keep them for a year or two, but by year three, four, or ten you’ve added so many layers of newness and change to your life that what you end up celebrating rarely bears any resemblance to what you started with.

I think this is one of the poignant challenges for nomadic families. Most of us have touchstone traditions that root us to a place, or a spiritual path. But as we travel with Maia, and I thumb through my own Easter memories, trying to decide what should endure, I realize there are some memories I simply can’t recreate for her. And there are some traditions which will come and go and may never grow significant in her mind. And maybe that’s okay.

This Easter—as I hid eggs and chocolate high on a sand dune over looking Moreton Bay—this was the quiet conversation that occurred between three mums—who, between us, have been travelling with our 5 kids for almost 18 years. We talked about the customs we’ve kept and the ones that time and distance have swept away and then we marvelled at the wonder of the egg hunt we created—one we could never recreate.

And then the children came—and they cleared the dunes in what seemed like seconds. In their hands they held eggs and melting chocolate. And then they laughed and played on the dunes—surfing down them.

And maybe someday when they plan their own Easters and they search their memories for some nostalgic moment to recreate, the missing ingredient might just be sand.

April 3, 2012

Cameras for Cruising - Technical boring post

Evan here.  As the more technically minded of our family I thought I'd contribute a few thoughts on cameras for current and prospective cruisers.  We currently (at last count) have 6 cameras and 1 video camera aboard.  And sometimes I think that's barely enough. Seriously, we do take a lot of photographs because of Diane's work as a writer. Good photos really can help sell a story - but they do a nice job of illustrating a blog as well.

What do we have aboard, and why?  Let's start with the big guns, the Digital SLRs or DSLRs.

  • Canon 7D
  • Canon 20D
Why do we shoot with a DSLR? Better pictures. Now a great photographer can make great photographs with a lousy camera - but most of us aren't great photographers. A DSLR can help the less photographically challenged among us achieve better results.  However, my pet peeve is when somebody looks at a particularly nice photo I have taken and says "Wow, great photograph. You must have a great camera."  To which I usually reply rather sarcastically "Yeah, and Hemingway had this awesome typewriter...".  Off the soapbox.  DSLRs do offer a range of benefits:

- shallow depth of field
- more accurate and faster autofocus
- much better low light (high ISO) performance
- faster frame rates
- better viewing in challenging lighting (dark or bright sun)
- a range of lenses to allow wider views or more reach than a typical point and shoot

Why do we have 2 DSLRs?  Simple - one is a backup. When you're shooting for money, you can't tell that Tahitian Ukele Maker that the camera is busted and we'll have to come back another time. You bring two bodies, each with a suitable lens.

Our newer 7D has a host of benefits over it's older sibling, but amazing autofocus (helped me get this shot: Maia and the dolphin ) and high ISO performance are two ones that really are most apparent. We did save a lot of money by not upgrading every generation (the 20D is about 4 generations removed from the current 60D, it's closest relative)

Right, on to lenses. Our lens collection cost more than the 2 bodies put together. Which is how it should be. An old photography truism is "spend money on glass". And have we ever. Here's our lens collection and why we have it.
  • 17-55 F2.8 IS. This is a fast (F2.8 is fast for a zoom) walkabout zoom with typical focal lengths for a cropped sensor DSLR. The IS means it has image stabilizing, so it can be hand held at slow shutter speeds than normal. It's also quite heavy and expensive - about $1000 or so. But it is sharp throughout it's range and I shoot with it wide open without hesitation.
  • 18-55 F3.5-F5.6 IS.  Covering nearly the same focal range, this is the cheap backup, about $150, or 1/8 of the super duper lens. We were very happy to have it when the expensive zoom seized up 1/2 way across the Pacific. And it's nice light weight means its a great hiking lens when you don't want to carry a lot of weight. Stopped down to F8, it produces sharp images, but shoot it wide open and you see it's nowhere near as crisp as the big brother. This is the type of lens most people get when they buy a kit, and they don't know what they are missing if they never step up to a better lens. There are mid-priced zooms for ~$500-700 that offer 90% of the performance of the expensive zooms for example. In the Canon range you would be better of with a 17-85 F3.5 - F5.6 or 15-85 these days

  • 24-85 F3.5-F4.5 (This is mostly a legacy lens from film days - but I was happy to have it when Di went camping last weekend and I needed something semi-wide to shoot some dinghy accessories for a story).  In 35mm film days this was a great lens, but on a cropped sensor DSLR it's not very wide (38-135mm equivalent)

  • 50mm F1.8 This is the super shallow depth of field portrait lens. Everybody with a DSLR should consider a prime (non-zoom) lens with a wide apeture. They are relatively cheap (about $100-250) and offer a lot of creative effects with selective focus. Also brilliant in low light.  F1.8 is 2 stops faster than the cheap zoom F3.5. 2 stops faster is FOUR times the light getting in. (You can also consider a 24/2.8 or 35/2 or a 28/1.8)
  • 70-200 F4 L.  You need a telephoto. Why have a DSLR and only have 1 lens? This is a particulary super sharp telephoto in the Canon family. Much better than the 70-300 cheap and slow version. But if you have to economize a telephoto is probably a good area to do so - probably less than 10% of our photos are shot with this lens. If you are an avid nature photographer (birds, whales, etc) you can't have enough focal length.
  • 1.4x Extender.  So you buy an extender. This attaches to the telephoto lens to give 280mm focal length or 420mm equivalent in 35mm film terms. Which is a lot of reach really. Note - most extenders do not work well (or won't physically fit) on the cheaper lenses. You're better off with just the plain cheap 70-300 telephoto. Get one with image stabilization.
  • I'm currently jonesing for a 10-22 super wide angle. Di probably won't read this far down so don't mention it to her. I'll rent one for a day or two and see if I really need one.
What brand? Canon or Nikon would be my usual recommendation unless you have a bunch of Pentax lenses from the film days. They offer the best range, best repair support, and if you're in a moderate size city, you can usually rent Canon or Nikon lenses and flashes easily for a day or so for that special occasion when your lens dies. Generally I've found that you can sell used lenses for only slight depreciation if bought new and same price if bought used. We used to have a macro lens that we just didn't use. So I sold it for what I paid for it. Don't keep a lens you're not using - boats are too small!

Now that I have made my long winded post for why you want a DSLR, let's consider the compacts. We have 3 point and shoots of various vintages.

One was the first digital camera Diane got for a Chrismas present many years ago. It's still working mostly fine but it's nominally Maia's.

Two is a cheap Canon A-series I found in a parking lot. Again, works fine, nothing special.

Three is another Canon P&S. We bought this used because it came with a full underwater housing. We really like having a camera with underwater capabilities. So much of our memories of crossing the Pacific are entwined with snorkeling among the amazing sea life.

Friends who have 'ruggedized' point and shoots that are good for 10' or 15' of depth did find they sometimes flooded when snorkeling just that much deeper. So beware if you use those types - they also seem to have a fairly high failure rate in consumer blogs.

But you need a point and shoot or two - for those days you're carrying a lot of groceries in the market a big camera is too much, or you're trying to be discrete. Or just a backup to the DSLR should it fail.

I'm not a big fan of the current crop of 'smaller sensor' interchangeable lens cameras. They have a limited lens range, and really aren't that much smaller than the smaller DSLRs. And they tend to be similarly priced. They also usually use electronic viewfinders instead of looking through a glass prism - which are not as nice.

If you think a DSLR and lenses are too expensive and bulky, consider the higher end P&S like the Canon G12 or Nikon P7100 - the 'enthusiast' level P&S.  Of the Pansonic Lumix series. Anything with a fast F2.8 or faster lens.

Don't forget some accessories:
  • Velbon Tripod - with a quick release plate (you can't believe how much better using a tripod with a QR plate is compared to doing without). Not often used, but vital when you need long exposures, like sea turtles crawling up the beach at midnight - seriously
  • Gorillapod - the mini portable travel tripod
  • Canon 430EZ flash
  • a big Pelican case to keep them dry and safe from tropical humidity. And to avoid lens fungus. Throw in some silica gel to keep it dry inside.
  • drybags for shore excursions
  • photo management and processing software. We use Lightroom. It's very good.  Apeture is somewhat similar.
Please please back up your photos regularly. If you have friends flying to visit you, buy a big portable hard drive, copy everything to it, and have them take it for safekeeping. Having multiple backups in physically separate locations is always prudent.

Oh, yeah I did say 6 cameras didn't I? #6 is the one in my iPhone.  Happy picture taking.