'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch


It’s not as bad as you might think

(Cover photo by Nicki Dunbar. All rights reserved)

Since we started cruising and living aboard Sionna full-time (we left Maine August 18th, 2016), I’ve been continually impressed by the number of people who think we’re crazy. 

Now the truth is, they may be right – we may be crazy. But we’re not thrill-seekers or risk-takers or even imprudent. So why the frequent (though by no means universal) impression that the life we live is fraught with peril? 

I suppose it’s because what we do is unfamiliar, so as a public service in the interest of reducing the overall level of cultural fear and stress, let me just say “It’s not as bad as you might imagine”.

 I love statistics – particularly accurate statistics, appropriately applied – so here are a few pertinent facts to hopefully put things in perspective.

In 2014, recreational vessels as a whole had a fatality rate of 5.2 deaths per 100,000 miles traveled. Of those deaths, sailboats were statistically absent from the list. (Meaning that motorboats, particularly high-powered and small motor boats, had so many fatal accidents that the few deaths involving sailboats were statistically nil.) Largely this is related to speed. Fast boats get into trouble quicker, and sailboats aren’t fast.

To compare to something most non-boaters are familiar with, the injury rate for boating is 1/10 that of automobiles per 100,000 vehicles/vessels. You’re 10 – times more likely to be injured in your car than on a boat. But it’s also true that the fatality rate for boating (and again, we’re talking about motor boats) is significantly HIGHER than for autos – nearly five times higher! And why?

According to the US Coast Guard report on boating safety for 2014, nearly 80% of people killed in boating accidents weren’t whereing a life vest. Alcohol was cited in almost 50% of cases, and lack of training/knowledge in over 30%.

So you could say that the biggest risk factor in boating is – basically – stupidity. 

The Darwin Awards comes to mind…

So how do you stay safe on a boat? It’s pretty simple, really. Wear a life vest, slow down, don’t drink until the anchor is safely set, and get some training.

What do we do on Sionna?

We train and we study. All the time. Nicki and I are constantly reading and listening, looking at how we operate our floating home, reviewing our equipment and procedures to make sure we’re minimizing the chances of something going wrong, and developing a plan to deal with the risks we can foresee. We also brainstorm. “So, if “X” happens, how would I handle that?” Is a great mental exercise that lets you play out – in your mind – what you’d do if something let loose at an inconvenient time.

We wear our life vests. Always. OK, we don’t wear them if we’re sitting in the cockpit eating dinner, but if the boat is moving, or we’re getting in the dinghy to go ashore, or we’re checking gear on deck during a rough night at anchor, we do.  

We have rules, and we follow them. No leaving the cockpit at night or in rough weather unless the other person is on deck and alert. We tie in (secure ourselves to the boat with a lanyard so that we CAN’T fall off the boat) at night, or in rough weather. Reef (reduce sail area) the first time either of us even thinks it might be a good idea. 

You get the idea.

Safety is a mindset, an intention. We don’t look at sailing and traveling by boat as a risky proposition because it’s far less risky than riding in a car or flying in an airplane the way we do it. But we do keep safety and risk-reduction always in mind,  just as you would look both ways before you cross the street.  It’s common sense.

And besides; we see the best sunsets…

Raw image, no editing!


Lay days and windy mornings

The weather is what it is. 

And that’s as it should be.  Once in a while it’s actually nice to have a day that’s kinda cold, kinda wet, kinda windy… It gives us an excuse to do absolutely nothing.  No boat projects, no laundry, no trip into town for that elusive perfect cup of coffee.​

​And that’s what we have today. A cold front has moved in across the Keys, and instead of 80 degrees and sunny we have 58 degrees, occasional rain, winds north at 15 knots and sometimes more.  

Days like this give us the opportunity to experiment in the galley, too.  I installed a propane stove with oven when we were getting Sionna ready to head south, but it’s a small space, this cabin, and running the oven creates a fair amount of heat.  Try that on an 80 degree day and it become mighty uncomfortable in a hurry!  But on a day in the 60’s, with a. Breeze blowing, the oven becomes a welcome source of warmth, the heart of a happy, comfortable living space.  

And the result? Bread, scones, tomato melts…  all those wonderful foods whose creation would be distinctly unattractive in warmer weather.  And all to the sounds of a boat at anchor: Wind in the rigging, water against the hull, the “Scrooonnnk!” of stretching nylon as the anchors take up the shock of that wind…

You can hear it all on this short video – just turn up the volume to hear our world this morning!


The Vision Thing

We get inquiries now and then, folks wondering how my (Keith’s) eye issues have resolved, and rather than fielding the same basic question every few days, it seems a short blog post on the subject is in order. Granted it’s not really boating related, but it’s a proven facts that stuff happens, even when you’re cruising, so bear with me.
By way of review, here’s what happened. 

I suffered (with fair grace) a detached retina in the right eye back on October 1st 2016, while Sionna and crew were pinned behind the north end of Assatigue Island at Ocean City, Maryland by a 3-day norther. What began as a very small blind spot on the edge of vision (NEVER ignore a blind spot, folks!) gradually spread, and by the time we arrived in Hampton Roads, VA following a 20-hour passage in the Atlantic, I was 80% blind in that eye.

A quick Google search found a surgeon nearby, the initial laser repair was accomplished on October 5th, and we left Hampton on the 21st following a good report and release from the surgeon. As part of the after-care, it was discovered that my left eye also showed weakening retinal attachment, so a preventative laser procedure was performed to avoid a future crisis.

But unfortunately that wasn’t the end. My vision at first cleared gradually, but then stabilized before beginning to deteriorate again, and a follow-up appointment with a surgeon in Charleston, SC confirmed my assessment – the retina had begun to detach again. A second surgury was required.

The second surgury took place on November 15th, and was a more aggressive and invasive style, including the implantation of a band (called a “buckle”) around the circumference of the eye to relieve tension on the retina, and the injection of a silicone oil into the eye to act as a bandage, holding the retina in place as it heals. 

As of this writing (January 7th, 2017) the second surgery appears to have been successful. I say “appears” because – being extremely nearsighted and unable to wear a contact lens or glasses over my right eye until the oil is removed – I’m still functionally blind on that side. In addition, passing a laser beam through the eye’s lense causes cataracts in short order, and my follow-up appointment with yet a third surgeon in December confirmed that I now have cataracts forming in both eyes, with a vision loss of 20% in the left and 40% in the right. 

This is, as they say, a bummer.

But there are bright notes.

First, we’re still cruising,(though I sometimes lament the visual detail I’m unable to see) and have reached the warmth and sun of Florida’s Gulf coast. Score!

Second, when we return to Maine in May we’ll be back “in-network” for our health insurance, and should be able to have the cataracts corrected – as well as a good portion of my near-sightedness. A bonus!

 And speaking of insurance…. 

You’ve heard of the Affordable Care Act? Some folks call it Obama Care – often in a derogatory way, which I’ve never understood, but for us, it’s been the difference between living life and bankruptcy. The total bill for these eye issues has been nearly $30,000, but our insurance has paid over 3/4ths of that. We never had health insurance before the ACA, and won’t have it in future if the program is stolen from us. Yes, we’re broke again – but at least we’re still solvent. Thank you, President Obama – you done good.

Oh dear, I suppose I’ve crossed some line there, injecting politics into a sailing blog? 

But hey – that’s life. 

At least I’m not blind.


December – The Month in Numbers

It’s that time again!  We’re snuggled into the anchorage in Fort Myers, Florida, the weather is generally warm (though today it’s 60 degrees and blowing stink), and we’re staying put for a few days. Now that December is history, let’s look back at the milestones and expenses – both routine and non – that marked Sionna’s progress toward warmth and sun. 

Here, presented in no particular order, are some numbers that I found interesting from the month of December, 2016 or – where so noted – since we left Rockland In August. Enjoy!

1 – Number of collisions with errant boats suffered by Sionna, causing significant but easily repaired damage to her mizzen boom. (Hint: Avoid marinas!)

1 – Number of mechanical breakdowns that required quick thinking, nerves of steel, and anchoring in the MIDDLE of the channel on the Intracoastal Waterway.

14 – Nights in port in December

17 – Nights at anchor (free!) in December

135 – Days since leaving Rockland

79- Days underway since leaving Rockland

22 – Days underway in December

24.7 nm (nautical miles) (28.4 statute) – Average miles covered per day underway

1216 nm (1398 sm) – Miles from Rockland in a straight line.
331nm (381 sm)- Miles covered in a straight line in December

1950 nm (2243 sm) Miles actually sailed/motored from Rockland

*493nm (567 sm) – Miles actually sailed in December
40.1 gal. – Diesel fuel purchased in December

127.5 gal – Diesel fuel purchased since leaving Rockland

**15.3 nmpg (17.6 smpg) – Sionna’s average fuel consumption in December

13.9 nmpg (16.0 smpg) – Sionna’s average fuel consumption since leaving Rockland

***$376.77 – Provisions purchased (Now includes booze, as separating that out was embarrasing)

$40.50 – Coffee/pastries purchased (which comes with Wifi!)

$260.00 – Dining out. It was a rough month.

$15.91 – Propane for cooking since leaving Rockland

$0.00 – charcoal for heating the cabin (It’s been warm!!)

$321.50 – Boat parts purchased in December

$345.05 – Mooring/slip fees for December (when we can’t anchor)

$294.04 – Diesel purchased since leaving Rockland

374amp/hours – amount of solar electricity produced in December

* This is more than twice the mileage we clocked in November.

** A 6 mpg improvement from November. We had better winds to help the engine.

*** Includes food, toiletries, paper products, booze, etc.


Florida’s Boat Problem

Florida has a boat problem.  

More to the point, Florida has an abandoned boat problem.

Unfortunately for us, and the many other cruisers who prefer to anchor rather than pay exorbitant marina charges, Florida also has a problem separating “Effect” from “Cause”, and so their answer to addressing abandoned boats has been both mis-directed and punitive.  Let me explain.

Florida has generally genial weather (if you don’t count the occasional hurricane) and an incredible variety of used boats going cheap.  The latter is due to it’s proximity to the Bahamas.  Northerners get a boat, bring it south intending to travel to the Bahamas or perhaps the Caribbean, and then something happens, he or she decides they don’t like boats, or don’t like each other, or they’re afraid of the water, so they give up the dream, fly back home, and leave the boat to be sold.  Maybe it sells, maybe they just give up, but the price is right for someone to buy it and use it as their home – perhaps someone who has no other home?  Such boats are anchored wherever space can be found, collect the personal possessions of their owners and take on the look of a floating yard sale. A decrepit, decaying floating yard sale. 

Enter the world of the wealthy elite. Someone with a magnificent view of the bay and 150′ of waterfront property decides they also own the view, and  furthermore the water of the bay should not – in their opinion – be sullied by the presence of an anchored boat. ANY anchored boat, because of course anyone who would live on a boat must be poor, undesireable and probably criminal.

So this wealthy individual buys 20 old sailboats, sets up 20 makeshift moorings in front of their property, and illegally creates their own abandoned boat farm, so that thier view of the bay – the view they value so much – is now sullied by their own boats, but no undesireable, criminal cruisers (that would be Sionna and her crew) can find the room to anchor.

Next, this wealthy homeowner gets the local police to not only look the other way concerning his illegal mooring field, but to actively harass any boater who accidentally “strays” into Mr. Rich Homeowner’s space. And finally, he makes life miserable enough for his state representative, that the agency responsible for regulations in Florida’s waters moves to ban ALL anchoring in vast swaths of coastal waters – waters which have always been considered to be public, not private.

The logical answer, I’d have thought, was to do what every state does for abandoned and derelict cars. Tow it, contact the owners (Florida does register boats, so the owner should be contactable), and if they don’t claim their property, auction it off. Destroy the ones that won’t sell (yes, there’s a cost there, but there’s a cost to what they’re doing now that’s potentially much greater – the cost of lost tourism) and enforce the laws Florida already has relating to derelict and non-functioning boats.

They could have done that. But instead the state legislature  has given the finger to boaters from Georgia to Canada (we see a lot of Canadian vessels heading south), basically saying “Don’t spend your money here, we don’t want it. Go home.” 

You can, of course, go to a marina if you can find room. In many areas of Florida, anyway. But not in the best places, and really, nobody wants to spend EVERY day in a marina. Part of the charm of cruising on a boat is the ability and the option of dropping the hook and making your bed right where you are, rather than in a crowd. Besides, marina’s are wicked expensive.

So it’s still a big question mark.  Will Florida’s new restrictions stick? Probably. Will other wealthy people in other states hear about the success of Mr. Rich Homeowner’s crusade against cruisers and force the enactment of similar restrictions elsewhere?  It’s possible.

And in the current political climate, you might say it’s even likely. 


The Okeechobee Water Way

To close out the old year, we finished “Phase Two” of our butter-melting saga – the Intracoastal Waterway!

Phase one (in my mind, anyway) was the portion of our trip south from Maine to Hampton, VA – which is the beginning of the formal ICW.  Technically the AICW (Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway) goes along the entire east coast, from Maine to Miami, but the beginning of the canal segment and “Mile Marker #1″are in Hampton.  

Sionna morning, Hampton VA

So Phase Two was from Hampton VA to Stuart, Fl, where we turned off the ICW and joined the OWW – the Okeechobee Water Way.  This amounted to 988 statute miles (or 859 nautical miles, for you sailor types). 

The OWW, a less well known canal system, cuts across Central Florida just at the north edge of the Everglades, and includes a crossing of Lake Okeechobee; hence the name.  It terminates 150 statute (130 nautical) miles later at San Carlos Bay and Cape Coral, Florida and there joins the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
So that’s what we did on the first day of the New Year – we closed the book on phase two and the ICW and opened Phase Three. By motoring 35 miles west,  coming to anchor in the shadow of a pair of flood control gates. – which we fervently hope will not open! 

And this day also included crossing the hurdle that keeps 90% of cruising boats from taking this route – the 48 foot tall bridge that crosses the canal.

Now I know exactly how tall Sionna’s mast is.  I measured and re-measured and measured again while she was in the boat shed back in Maine, and the mast was down, so I know that even with all the jewelry (the radio antenna at the top – what cruisers call the “curb feeler”) we’re only 40.7 feet tall from the waterline. And to be safe, I think of us as 42 feet.   And since the bridge is listed as being 48 feet, we would fit without even having to hold our breath.

We held our breath anyway. And slowed down to a crawl. And of course fit through with lots of room to spare.  Not that I could tell, having no depth perception whatsoever…  But what we didn’t hear was the “curb feeler” going “tink tink” on the underside of the bridge.  So all’s well in that department.

Meanwhile it is January first, and while our friends back in Maine are dealing with several inches of heavy snow, we spent the day taking off layers, until it was shorts and a T-shirt and a well-earned shower once we finally got the anchor set, because it was hot! 

January. Hot. Amazing.

So tomorrow we’re set to cross the Okeechobee, and in another three or four days we may be arriving in the Gulf of Mexico! And then, well, we’ll see!

Happy New Year, ya’ll.