“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain


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Quick, simple fuel polisher

We have been struggling with fuel issues since getting bad fuel running from Irma and Maria in 2017. The biggest problem is that Catalina did not install any inspection ports in the the fuel tank. To effectively clean the tank you need to access both sides of the baffle. Because the tank is installed under the sugar scoop you need to remove the tank to install clean outs. And why remove a 20 year old metal tank and re-install it, it might be better to get a new tank. That’s a job better suited to when we are stopped to work again. So I’m stuck trying to figure out the best way to keep the motor going for the next year or two.

I have decided my best option is install a fuel polishing system I can use regularly. Especially under sail in rough conditions when stuff get stirred up.

Some of these modifications would be slightly different on a stock motor with the Facet lift pump and Racor R20 primary filter. But the concept would still work.

We have a Racor 500 as our primary fuel filter and a Walbro FRB-8 fuel pump mounted on the bulkhead. We run a 10 micron filter element in the Racor 500. The on engine fuel filter is a 2 micron. The Walbro isn’t cheap but I had gotten frustrated with the poor quality of the cheap $35 automotive lift pumps. Since I was going to spend some real money on the fuel lift pump I researched options. The Walbro is larger than the factory Facet cube style pump. But it is also rebuildable in the field. A new Facet would have cost $80, the Walpro was $150. The Facet delivers fuel at about 7 gph, the Walbro varies on demand up to 40 gph. I did have the idea of building a polisher in mind when I made the decision to go with the Walbro.

To make the polisher I installed a three-way valve on the effluent of the Walbro pump. One direction goes to the supply for the on engine filter. The other direction is hard plumbed to a T fitting. One side of the T fitting goes to the return line to the tank. The other side of the T fitting goes to return coming from the engine.

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When the three-way valve is turned to the engine fuel goes from the pump, to the one engine filter and then on to the high pressure pump and injectors. The return fuel goes to the T fitting and then on to the return line to the tank. When I select the polish position, the fuel goes from the pump directly to the return line to the tank.

The factory power setup for the pump is a quick disconnect tied to the solenoid switch. This is why you can push the key forward to activate the fuel pump as part of the self-priming system. On the pump side of the quick connect I added a second wire going to a switch. The other side of the switch is connected to my positive buss in the battery compartment with a fuse in line. If you turn on the switch, the fuel pump is activated. This is great for priming filters after changes. But it does active the solenoid switch and therefore activates the preheat circuit, you wouldn’t want to leave this on for long polishing efforts. But disconnecting the quick connect eliminates the preheat circuit. You could also add a second switch to shut off the preheat circuit. I did take a unused heat shrink quick disconnect end, put some wire insulation in the crimp end, crimped and shrunk it. Now it works as a cap to eliminate accidentally groundings to the engine.

So to activate the polisher you turn the selector valve to polish, disconnect the quick connect and flip the switch. It can run for hours polishing the fuel and returning it to the tank. Not a perfect system but good.

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The next step will be to add a 2 micron filter somewhere on the return line, likely with a bypass loop so that returned fuel from the engine isn’t going through it.

Before I started building the system I shocked the tank with a double treatment of Biobor JF fuel treatment. I then ran the polisher for 20 hours in three sessions. The fuel looked clean and there was some definite build up in the bowl of the filter. I then switched to a 2 micron filter and ran it for another 8 hours (not advised for the Facet pump). Following that I did another treatment of the Biobor JF and a treatment of Starbrite Diesel Watersorb. I have now been running the polisher again for 2 hours. The fuel is now cloudy. Hopefully this clears up after several hours of polishing.

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After the fuel clears up, I will change the filter back to a 10 micron and drain the sediment out of the bowl. Then it will be time to go for a sail in hopefully 6-8 foot seas to run the polisher while getting knocked around a bit.

I also need to break out the label maker and clean this up a bit.


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A Different Setup for a Mainsail Pack

The Dutchman System that is standard equipment on C310s with traditional mainsails is a decent setup for sail flaking. But it still requires someone to be at the mast to flake the sail properly or it will sit too high for the sail cover. It can also be tough to adjust properly so it doesn’t interfere with the sail shape but also holds the sail on the top of the boom.

For cruising, a mainsail pack is the preferred solution for mainsail dropping and covering. However, we have a footed mainsail. Most of the packs join under a loose footed mainsail with snaps. We like a footed mainsail for cruising and didn’t want to loose that as an option. In one discussion on Sailboat Owners’ Forum, someone posted this photo of a mainsail pack that doesn’t go under a loose footed mainsail.

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I scoured the internet but couldn’t find anyone making a system similar to the photo. I talked to several canvas shops and none had ever make a pack in this manner.  So this was going to require some or all DIY.

After talking to several friends we found Lee Sail Covers. Its a small company in Ohio that does various canvas work including making mainsail packs similar to the Sailrite system. They use WeatherMax80 fabric for their packs and it was a reasonable $440 for the completed pack.  However, she had never heard of a system like we were doing. So we did the measurements (note: give yourself an extra 6-12 inches at the mast to allow for the height of the headboard on the sail) and had her make a pack that was left unfinished with no snaps on the bottom. We went with the 4 line attachment option.

From there we went to the Sailrite website and ordered some luff tape and aluminum awing trackthat fits 5/16-inch luff tape. When the pack arrived we sewed the tape onto the bottom of each side. This was all the easy part of of the project.

Next we needed to add two blocks to the mast (HARKEN 29MM CARBO CHEEK). I decided to install them just below the top spreaders. Our friend Jaime assisted with this greatly. I hoisted her up the mast and she drilled and tapped the mast to install the two blocks. I then drilled and tapped the mast for two cam cleats (RONS MEDIUM C CLEAT CAM CLEAT) to secure the lines. I used the plastic cam clean bases and sanded them to match the curve of the mast. Tef-Gel was used on each stainless steel machine screw. Note: I plan to add to fairleads where the lazy jack lines go past the bottom spreaders.  

With the Sailrite style packs, 3/4 inch PVC pipe is used to stiffen the length of the pack. Our length was 13.5 feet. According to some friends that have used the system, using two pipes joined with a coupling creates a chaff point that damages the pack. So we had to go to a plumbing supply house and get 20 foot lengths of the PVC pipe. We also decided to get schedule 80 pipe as it has thicker walls and is stiffer.

To attach the aluminum awing tracks to the boom, we used #10 stainless steel machine screws every 8 inches. We drilled and tapped the boom. We used Tea-Gel on each screw to protect against galvanic corrosion between the aluminum and stainless steel. The track comes in 48-inch sections. We left gaps for drainage and reef lines at given spots.

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For the lazy jack lines we used 3/16-inch Sampson Yacht Braid. Instead of splicing the stainless thimbles into the line I tied constrictor knots and finished with heat shrink (this was an experiment for the dynema lifeline project that was to come). We added a couple of short loops of paracord to the pack for securing the main halyard while anchored.

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After we installed the pack, we did some shakedown sails. One problem we had was the pack wanted to move forward. To address this we added two grommets to the rear of the pack and tied a small line to the topping lift to keep it pulled back.

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We have now sailed over 1,000 nautical miles with this setup and love the upgrade. With the full mainsail up, we can drop the halyard from the cockpit and sail goes 95 percent of the way down and sits in the pack. When we get into port, we put the sail down the rest of the way and zip the pack close.

One issue we have is that sailing in the Caribbean trade winds, we seldom have full mainsail up. When we drop the reefed mainsail it doesn’t have enough weight to pull the sail down. We are working to configure a down-haul to allow the dropping of the mainsail from the cockpit when reefed.

We also plan to add mast gates to allow the mainsail to drop closer to the boom.


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Rum Tank … and new water heater but no one cares about that

The factory 20 gallon water heater was rusting out and leaking.

To remove the tank there were a couple of obstacles. The factory had the aluminum L bracket on the port side of the heater. But the starboard side was in a slot cut in the fiberglass that makes up the shelf the refer compressor sits on. So we started with removing the L bracket and the pressure relief valve. It then took 3 people to move it over to port enough to get the bracket out of the slot. Then I had to cut some of the fiberglass from the opening. We were able to turn the heater and get it out but it took a fair amount of effort.

Once the heater was out it was easy to put the 6-gallon heater in its place. It was shorter and narrower. We used the same L bracket on the port side. Then secured the starboard side down on the platform that was made for the heater.

This left an approximately 10-inch wide area between the back of the water heater and the fiberglass shelf for compressor. We did some searching at a couple of local chandleries and found a 6 gallon water tank that was 8 inches wide and the same height as the water heater. We secured the tank down with padeyes and nylon straps.

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I plumbed the tank to a small, 1 gallon per minute, 12 volt pump that I mounted on the shelf next to the compressor.

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The fill for the tank is just capped off in the starboard rear laz for now. I have the tank vent and effluent hose from the pump loosely installed for now at the opening of that laz, just above the cockpit shower head. Both are capped when not filling a use bottle, the Angels already got their share they don’t get seconds. The pump is controlled by a momentary switch that is also mounted by the cockpit shower.

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Now I will say that I want to install a tap at the sink labeled “RUM”. But my Bride is afraid we will drink more if it’s that easy. Probably rightly so. So instead we have a two plastic 1.75 liter bottles (one Mount Gay and one Captain Morgan. We fill the bottle from the tank and then keep them on the shelf behind the settee.

We left St. Thomas with just under two cases of Cruzan Dark Rum in the tank. It’s our go to rum and in the USVI you can get if for under $8 a liter.

Now if I could only find a deck fill labeled RUM I could really finish the installation.


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New Lifelines

Today I finished our new lifelines. As a quick disclaimer, we haven’t used side gates since the ICW, so this wouldn’t work for others.

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Our lifelines were the original coated steel wire. They had rust spots, saged, were unsafe and unsightly. We replaced the top gate with a solid bar to assist with solar mounting. These are schedule 80 stainless steel. The stern side are secured to the old welded attachment point with a split end connection. On the gate stanchion side it’s a 90 degree elbow. I had to remove the tube going through the stanchion for the lifeline to get the elbow to fit. All set screws are aggressively spotted and secured with red loctite. The spotting was the hardest part of the project, took 2+ drill bits. In addition I put two part thickened epoxy in each fitting prior to securing the set screws.

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For the life lines I used 7mm New England Ropes STS-WR2. This is dynema with a double braided UV and chafe cover. It’s designed for wire replacement for things like lifelines and rigging. It is difficult to splice because of the bonding between the core and the cover. But, unlike straight dynema, it can hold a knot. So I used constrictor knots to attached the lines to hardware and to put thimbles in for lashing. I cleaned up the bitter end and used heat shrink to cleanup the look.

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Then it was just a matter of pulling the lashings tight. The first try did have too much stretch and knot creep. But I retied shorter and was able to pull it tight enough that my Bride could stand on the lifelines with minimal deflection.

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Unlike other dynema lifelines we have felt, the 7mm is thick enough to feel comfortable in the hand.

This project was completed in a day but we waited another two weeks to cut the bitter ends and do the heat shrink to see if there was anymore stretch.


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Smitty 2.0

Over the past couple years, while we were working to refill our cruising kitty by working in the Virgin Islands, we were also working to improve our boat to better fit the type of cruising we enjoy and to make her more seaworthy. During this time we even considered if we wanted to sell our beloved boat and get something larger. We looked at a couple of storm damaged boats from Irma and Maria but ultimately concluded we didn’t want to trade a cruising ready boat for a project that would require time and money that we could instead put into Smitty to make her better suited for us.

These improvements included:

  • Adding a 12 volt water maker
  • Installing solar wings to give us more power generation
  • Changing from a single solar controller, that was damaged by corrosion from sea spray thanks to Hurricane Maria, to two controllers that give us better feedback
  • Installing a high output alternator with an external regulator
  • Replacing our old and hurricane damaged electronics with new
  • Replacing our worn-out vee berth mattress
  • Removed the main hatch, bedded with butyl tape and through bolted instead of screws
  • Changing our mainsail handling from the Dutchman system to a stack pack
  • Ordering a new headsail better suited to sailing in the trade winds
  • Replacing the “Berry” our hurricane damaged stolen kayak and making a rack for it
  • Adding more chain to our anchor rhode
  • Installing an arch to hold additional solar and lift the dinghy out of the water
  • Replace our leaking water heater and install a rum tank
  • Refinishing the cockpit cushions
  • Installing a lithium ion primary battery bank and AGM reserve bank
  • Replacing fuel lines and switching to the Racor 500 filter
  • Replacing the leaking cockpit bimini and improving the connector for better shade and rain protection
  • Giving the dinghy a refit too with chaps and nonslip floor
  • Rebedding and potting all of the stanchions and rails
  • New lifelines
  • Inspecting and rebedding the chainplates
  • Laptop stand and set it up for use as a backup navigation
  • Replace the interior cushions (Soon Come)
  • Shedding extra weight to improve Smitty’s sailing characteristics
  • Tweaking the sail handling to make single handing easier

It will take us some time to get caught up on posts for all of these improvements while also posting about the places we are visiting. We won’t be putting them up in any particular order. If there is an improvement you are considering or want to know more about, please let us know. We will work on those first. We already have a request for the writeup on the stack pack conversion, so that one will be coming soon.


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Been Awhile

It’s been awhile since we have put anything up on our blog. Between the poor internet, being busy with work and a number of other excuses we could list, it’s been too long since our last post.

We have been busy spending our full-time wages on repairs and upgrades to Smitty. It will probably take several posts to get these caught up to where we are at the present.

The upgrades and repairs in this post are the result of Irma and Maria. We have found that a number of electronics have ended up toast as a result of salt spray or just increased salt in the air. Some, like the controls for our refer, went almost right away while others, like our Rogue solar controller, took months to manifest. But when you pull these items apart you can see salt and corrosion on the circuit boards and sometimes even find the area that shorted out. Our friends on land have had similar issues. If we ever end up going through another hurricane (let’s hope not!) the first thing I will do is wash down anything with a circuit board with fresh water followed by rubbing alcohol.

So lets talk about some repairs we have done. The first thing we lost after the storms was our refrigeration. We had failed to block our vent cowlings on the stern and water poured into them getting salt water all over the refrigeration compressor. The compressor its self was fine but the control module and the circuit board were toast.

Luckily I was able to salvage a control module from another boat. But that boat didn’t have the circuit boar. So I reproduced most of the function of that circuit board using wires and a terminal strip. It worked and we had refrigeration again but it wasn’t as efficient and didn’t have the diagnostic ability of the original.

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Refrigeration module about to be salvaged from another boat

When our friends Jamie and Keith on s/v Kookaburra arrived in November they brought a spare control module and circuit board with them. Jamie is a former marine refrigeration technician and an invaluable source for help in these maters. They arrived just in time as our refrigeration began acting up again just after they had settled in on their mooring in Elephant Bay.

With the spare parts in hand I began trying to get our refrigeration in proper working order. However after replacing the salvaged module and putting the new circuit board in the refer was still drawing more power then before and not staying as cold as it should. Jamie and I went through the system but couldn’t find the cause. Out came the trusty multi-meter and we started looking for issues. Sure enough we found a massive voltage drop at the compressor. With our batteries reading 12.55 volts (solar disconnected to help with the diagnostics) we were only seeing 12.35 volts at the compressor. Worse yet it would drop to under 10 volts when the compressor would kick on. This was likely trigger a voltage sensor on the compressor that is there to protect our batteries. Keeping with the multi-meter and using some 20 foot lengths of wire we eventually determined the issue was with the ground somewhere between the engine and the battery bank. We used the wire to jump the positive and negative connections to several locations around the boat to find were the voltage drop would be present and absent. For instance the voltage drop was still present when we put the wire in to feed the compressor from the battery selector switch and negative buss bar behind the electric panel but it was gone when we connected the compressor directly to the batteries. By this process of elimination we were able to determine where the voltage drop was occurring. So off I went to clean and check all of my ground connections in that run.

Several years ago I had installed a negative buss bar on the port engine bed to allow Smitty’s grounds to go to a buss bar connected to both the engine and the battery bank thus eliminating the potentially problematic “stacked” connections that come from corrosion that builds up on the block and causes more resistance in the connections. Well as it turns our I missed one connection that was on a different bolt on the block. This one was to ground the refer compressor and several other items. Once I removed this connection, cleaned up the connector with a wire brush and moved it to the negative buss bar everything was working perfect again.

Chalk one up for the multi-meter. And add a spare refrigeration module to the list of necessary spares for us to carry.

Our next area of corrosion issues was our engine instrument pod. Some of our alarm buzzers and gauges started acting funny. There were too many of them in one spot for it to be anything but the instrument pod for the engine. I took that apart and sure enough found some corrosion in the “European style connection strip” that Catalina used in the pod.

I removed the strip, cut back a few inches on the wires to eliminate any corrosion and terminated them with marine adhesive heat shrink ring terminals. I then used two 65 amp terminal strips to make the connections. The system is much more secure and resistant to corrosion.

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The starting circuit was separated from the gauges on different terminal strips to allow for better spacing and easier diagnostics in the future.

Then we had a big dollar item succumb to the residual effects of Irmaria. This time it was our Rogue solar controller.  This was a $400 piece of hardware that literally is irreplaceable as the company has stopped making these and is no longer in the business of making small solar controllers.

Again more corrosion then we would expect to see on an item only a few years old.

The one good thing that came out of this was that solar controller technology has come a long way since we did our research. After talking to a few cruising friends and doing some research we purchased two Victron BlueSolar MPPT 100/15 controllers (Should have bought the MPPT 75/15 but not a major difference) with the Bluetooth Dongles for programming and monitoring. (Note: Victron now makes the SmartSolar MPPT Controllers with the Bluetooth built in) We opted to go with two smaller controllers instead of the one large controller. Our array is a mix of panels; 500 watts coming from two 100 watt semiflexible panels, two 50 watt semiflexible panels and two 100 watt hard panels (more on these later). My research suggested that separating these onto different controllers would yield better results. Sure enough, these new controllers have about 15% better production than the single Rogue controller. Plus being able to monitor my panels through an app on my phone is really convenient.

The last (hopefully) item we are choking up to Irmaria is our Raritan Macerator Pump with Waste Valve.  We purchased this as a Defender First sale item from Active Captain when they used to do weekly emails before the Garmin acquisition. Its more expensive but the idea of a macerator pump designed for a “clean” swap out or fix appealed to me.

Raritan Macerator Pump

Now while I am upset this failed, I am so glad I put this in.  It worked exactly like advertised. I changed out to the new pump in 2 minutes with zero mess. I didn’t even have to use paper towels to cleanup the area after. And the pump failed with the holding tank 3/4 full. So this could have been ugly. But thanks to this well engineered pump it wasn’t.

So hopefully that ends the Irmaria related upgrades. We have also made a number of upgrades to the boat that where more geared towards making life on Smitty better. Oh, I lied. We also lost our windex and the directional portion of our Raymarine wind transducer from the mast head. In addition our RAM Mic for our VHF would no longer transmit. So these are some other items that got upgraded that we will discuss later as part of the electronics upgrade we did.


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Smitty vs. The Two B#tches: How our Catalina pocket cruiser survived two category 5 hurricanes in the Northern Caribbean

Its 5:30 in the morning, the four sailors and a dog sharing this condo are sitting nervously in the living room. Close at hand are our “ditch bags”, backpacks with bare necessities like a change of clothes, cash, water, protein bars, flashlights, VHF radios and a machete. It has been about 20 minutes since the condo started losing its roof. The first chunk of terra cotta tiles went in one loud crash. Now it sounds like someone is beating on the storm shutters with a sledge hammer. The front door is bowing in from the wind and pressure, you can feel it vibrating, pulsing, but we don’t want to brace anything against the door as it is the only way out if the roof gives.

ZING! There goes another section of roof, the terra cotta tiles sounding like out of tune piano keys being played as they slide against each other.

I heard the tiles smash on something across the street. I reassure myself that my ditch bag is close at hand and I put my dog’s leash on. I think the time to make a run for it may be close.

The wind outside is howling. My ears are popping from the pressure. Pressure that is forcing the water from the toilets. I have been through storms before but nothing like this. The last thing we saw on the news before the power went out was that Palmas Del Mar, Puerto Rico, the very spot where we were, was to get the northeast corner of the eye wall and receive the most destructive forces. Later we would learn that the winds topped 170 knots (about 200 miles per hour). The forecast put the pressure at 908 millibars, making Maria potentially stronger than Irma, the storm that brought us to Puerto Rico to begin this latest adventure.

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In 2015, my bride, Summer our dog and myself set off to do something different. We had grown weary of our corporate jobs working in small boxes every day while spending ours commuting in and out of Boston. We had sold the house, the cars and almost everything we owned. We replaced our fancy Ridel wine glasses with tin cups. We had lived on our Catalina 310 for a few years as we payed off debt and saved some money to leave the cold northeast for someplace warmer. That quest for warmth brought us down the US east coast, through the Bahamas and settling in US Virgin Island. We now call a mooring field on the northwest side of Water Island home and work on St. Thomas.

Photo 3 Smitty Mooring

Living in the Caribbean on a boat means you need to have a hurricane plan. Regardless of whether you carry insurance or not, you need a plan. We have insurance so our plan is also part of our insurance. Basically our plan consists of two options. First, RUN! Move the boat out of the path of the storm. Depending on timing and the storm’s path it can sometimes be possible to sail far enough out of the path to a different island or anchorage that won’t get as big of an impact from the storm. Running too late often results in serious loss of both life and boat.

The second option is to HIDE! There are two main places to hide: mangrove swamps and marinas. Both of these options have positives and negatives aspects. If done properly a boat gets pushed against the mangroves, which could result in some cosmetic damage, but the trees would act as a soft cushion to keep the boat from getting significantly damaged. The same can’t be said for hitting a concrete dock or pile. But being at a dock might allow you to get off the boat but while still being able to check and adjust lines during the storm.

Storm surge, wind direction and the changes in both as the storm passes are significant concern in finding a place to hide. However late arrivals, unprepared boaters and derelict vessels are the biggest risk to the able seaman during a storm event. Planning for this factor can be challenging and is usually best handled by hiding in a group of boaters you know will be prepared. For mangroves, go with those you know and treat the location of your hidey-holes like something you want to keep from WikiLeaks.

Some may have noticed that hauling out was not on our list. This option can be very expensive. We received quotes of $5,000 for our 31 foot boat to be on the hurricane haul out plan. Yes, just to be on list for a haul out, additional charges could apply if you actually needed to haul for a storm.

Also, sailboats stacked against each other with the masts up can topple like dominos. At least in the water the boat can heel in response to the wind. There are some places that have pits that a hauled out boat can be placed in and then secured with tie downs and fill around the hull. There are also some yards that have concrete pads with tie down anchors for strapping the boat down. But in this part of the Caribbean I was not comfortable with most of these locations. I felt they were too exposed and too low lying. We had also heard stories of the tie down anchors being old and rusted and being able to be pulled out by hand. The devastation of these storms showed that we made the correct decision in removing this option from our hurricane plan.

Staying on our mooring also wasn’t an option. Elephant Bay is a great place during the prevailing conditions. But even 20 knots of wind from the southwest can make it rolly and bouncy in the mooring field. There is a lot of rock along both sides of the West Gregory Channel and concrete from the commercial port that cause the swell to reverberate making it feel like waves are crashing on your boat from all directions. With the clocking winds from a hurricane the seas and surge in this area would be too much for the mooring or the boat to handle. Following Irma, only three of the over twenty boats that tried to ride out the storm on their moorings were left.

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This was our second year living in the Virgin Islands during hurricane season. After lots of fumbling and being over anxious in our first season, experience and friends helped me develop a better weather strategy. Now I have my routine down and reliable sources for storm related information. My two primary resources are Mike’s Weather Page (www.spaghettimodels.com) and Windy (www.windy.com).

Mike’s Weather Page is a great collection of the various resource for hurricanes include links to view the major models. A quick look at the page will show you if there is a potential system worth looking at further. Diving deeper you can view the GFS, EURO and CMC models with a simple click. In addition Mike provides some great insight into what trends he is seeing in the models and how to interpret the information available on his Facebook page.

Windy, formerly WindyTY, is a graphical representation of the GFS and EURO models with some additional factors. On Windy you can look at sustained wind, gusts, precipitation and waves as well as other options. The GFS, EURO and CMC models have large time jumps (6-12 hours) in between each graphical representation, Windy helps fill that gap to get a better idea of the hourly progression of the storm. Based on the times of model updates I had cut my weather watching down to twice a day; once with coffee in the morning and once in the evening during sundowners before dinner.

On Monday, August 21st, I started to become concerned. Both the EURO and GFS models were showing a potentially strong low pressure system developing that could signal a tropical storm or hurricane. The GFS model had this system turning north before impacting the eastern Caribbean. This is the typical pattern that most storms that develop in the eastern Atlantic follow. However the EURO model was showing a high pressure system north of the Caribbean that would push this system further south and west before it turned north. I watched this development over the next couple of days. The potential storm started to become a more frequent subject among cruisers and live-aboards while enjoying the local happy hours or meeting at the dingy dock. But most were not too worried and expected the system to turn north. After all the GFS, the USA’s premiere model and the one used by NOAA, showed the system making the typical turn.

Meanwhile, the EURO continued to show this system making a direct hit on the Virgin Islands and then moving along the northern coast of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. My  wife and I had decided to take this storm seriously. On Tuesday, August 29th I began making preparations. I made sure our gasoline gerry cans were full so we had fuel for the generator and dinghy engine. I topped off the diesel in our tank and gerry cans. We made a list of supplies and provisions (missing one critical item that will come up later) and began acquiring the items on our list. Part of our hurricane plan is to always have several months worth of food on the boat. Since we are on a small boat that means most of those provisions are canned or dried food. I ran our watermaker to ensure our tank was filled along with our gerry cans on deck. I also topped off our two propane tanks.

On Saturday, September 2nd we headed for Culebra as part of a two day jump to Puerto Rico’s southeast coast. The winds didn’t cooperate and we were only able to sail part of the way and ended up motoring a large portion of what should have been a downwind trip. But something was off and we were not making a good speed under motor. Part of the issue was the equatorial currents were running in reverse of their typical direction and were against us. The other part was a yet to be realized issue with Smitty. After a nice dinner and some margaritas at Zaco’s Tacos we were off early the next morning to Puerto Rico.

A friend had mentioned we check out the Yacht Club at Palmas Del Mar. It was on the way to Salinas, our original destination. Based on the topography of the area, the mountains of Puerto Rico would be between us and the soon to be named storm Irma. The storm was not forecast to hit Puerto Rico until late afternoon into the evening on Wednesday, September 6th so we figured we could checkout the yacht club and if we didn’t like it we could head to Salinas on Monday with time to prepare the boats for the storm.

On the way to Palmas Del Mar Smitty began experiencing fuel issues. Several times we dipped in RPM but then it would resume running normally, although still slower than we typically motor. At first we had attributed the slow speed to a fouled bottom. But after the dips in RPMs we knew the issue was fuel related. I went below and checked the Racor filter. Sure enough the bowl was filled with water and debris (most likely microbial growth brought on by the water).  Remember that critical item I mentioned above? It was the on engine fuel filter. I forgot to check my stock and I didn’t have any new filters. I had several of the Racor filters but none of the on engine ones. I began changing fuel filters but that would only buy about two hours of motoring per filter. The wind was now on our nose, probably affected by the hurricane behind us. We limped into Palmas Del Mar before the sunset but were down to one fuel filter in our inventory.

After arriving at Yacht Club we checked the weather again. The EURO still showed the path of the storm heading directly over the Virgin Islands and then along the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Using Windy we predicted that we would be in a good wind shield thanks to the mountains. Further the strongest winds were to come from the north clocking to the west then southwest. Palmas Del Mar is exposed to the southeast but fairly well protected from all other directions. Salinas was most exposed from the southwest to south. Also, the strongest part of the hurricane is the northeast portion of the eye wall. We would be southwest of the eye, in the most favorable area of a hurricane. Given the forecasted track of the storm and the wind directions we were likely to see, we opted to stay in Palmas Del Mar for Irma. Our friend Kendra had made the run on her boat Sea Frog and decided to stay as well.

We spent the next couple of days prepping the boat. We stripped the canvas and anything else on deck. Spread out lines in different directions. We rented a hotel room with Kendra and moved many of our valuables and important things up to the hotel and we waited. In the end most of our preparations and worry would be unneeded.

In the afternoon on Wednesday, September 6th, Irma began being felt on Puerto Rico. The hotel was less than a half mile from the Yacht Club. There was satellite television and we saw some of the awful footage coming out of the eastern Caribbean and the Virgin Islands. Through Facebook we began to see pictures and observations posted by our friends. The reported damage was horrific. The islands we had come to call home were devastated. Irma was the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history and likely one of the most damaging ever to pass through the Caribbean with winds over 230 knots (265 miles per hour).

By the late evening the majority of the storm had passed by us. I walked down to the Yacht Club and there was little to no real damage observed. I doubt we saw winds beyond 70 knots. Our run strategy had worked and we had picked a spot that was safe for our boat.

In the days following Irma we began to put our boat back together. We rented a car and went around Puerto Rico looking for fuel filters and sourcing parts to build a fuel polishing system. This took way longer than it should have because many of the parts I needed had been bought up by people with generators before the storm. About a quarter of Puerto Rico (from Fajado to San Juan) was without power. It took many stops and many fruitless attempts over two days to finally get all the parts I need. I was never able to find a replacement on engine filter. I constructed the polisher and spent several days polishing the fuel that was in the tank.

This whole time we were watching hurricane Jose. The models showed it turning north and avoiding the islands but it was still a concern. And all of our friends back in the Virgin Islands had no way to get weather reports. So we watched the weather and texting people about the storm.

With the fuel problem fixed, we put the headsail, bimini and solar panels back on. Long hot days working in record setting heat in Puerto Rico. We began collecting lists of needed supplies from friends on the islands. The requested items were things you would expect like generators, chainsaws, pressure washers, mosquito netting, etc. We also joined the group Sailors Helping formed by several cruisers in Puerto Rico and other islands to help bring relief supplies to the islands hit impacted by Irma. Sailors Helping had already been organizing donations and getting them on boats heading for the Virgin Islands. Our plan was to stuff Smitty full of supplies and sail back to St. Thomas to help our friends. We setup a rental car and then I checked the weather as I always do….

So this is where Maria came into the mix. Instead of getting almost two weeks of warning like we did with Irma, we only had five days notice. It was Friday night, September 15th. The EURO had the track going just to the south of us with landfall near Salinas. The GFS had the track going just to the north of us with landfall near Fajado. If you split the middle you would hit us dead on.

We wanted to run but where?

Based on the track, Virgin Gorda would have been a good option. Tuck in close to the island in North Gorda Sound and we would have some good elevation between us and the storm. But there was floating debris from Irma: roofs, docks, damaged boats, etc. All that made transiting that area risky and there would be no support once we arrived in the Virgins Island. No water, electricity, food, fuel or internet to get information on the storm. The rest of the Virgin Islands were out for the same reason. We didn’t want to run to Salinas or Fajado because it looked like they might get more of the storm.

It was five days out. A run to the Dominican Republic would take two days. Bonair would be three to four days. We hadn’t been out to test the motor since we polished the fuel. And Summer’s international health certificate expired on September 3rd, so we could possibly get turned away at either of those ports. In addition, Kendra is sailing solo, so a multiple day run is something she has not done and would be extremely difficult on her.

So we stayed…

We spent the next few days redoing the work we had just undone. Sails and canvas were taken off, lines were put back out and all steps were made to try and keep Smitty safe. Some how I found more places to tie lines. Including making sure our guardian Wonder Woman was well secured to face Maria.

Pic 6 Wonder Woman

Each successive run of the hurricane models changed the projected track. First it would go further west away from us, then it would go right over us. Then back west. This was all EURO. The GFS had it going north still with its own variations. All of the model changes gave me a bad feeling. We were still dead in the middle between the two. I felt it in my gut that we would get a direct hit.

As we walked away from Smitty to head towards our shelter for the storm I felt as confident as I could. Maria would be our seventh hurricane since owning Smitty. However, most of those were in the northeast where we typically didn’t see actual hurricane force winds in the protected harbors. The forecast now had us getting winds well over 100 knots. After seeing all of the devastation in the Virgin Islands from Irma it was really hard to have a positive feeling about what would come next.

We headed to our rented condo. We were again joined by Kendra from Sea Frog. We also invited another sailor to join us. Todd had been nicked named “Spider Man” by the other boaters in the Yacht Club. Somehow Todd had managed to get 38 lines on the Lagoon 37 to hold The Cool Change in place.

As we all settled in at the condo I opened a bottle of Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum and we toasted to our boats that they be strong in the face of Maria. Several more toasts followed with chants of “Fuck Maria!”

Nervous anticipation kept most of us from sleeping. By four in the morning the wind was howling and no one could sleep.

It was 8:30 in the mooring on Wednesday, September 20th, and we were about to come out of the worst of it. The roof had held for the most part; more terra cotta tiles had gone flying but the roof sheathing below had held. We had water dripping from the ceilings in several locations and it was coming under ever door including the sliders behind the storm shutters. By 10 in the morning the wind was still blowing and it was raining but it was not as fierce as before.

Todd and I ventured outside for a look. From the top floor of the condo building you could see part of the marina. Todd’s boat, The Cool Change, was perfectly center in the view between two buildings that partially obscured the Yacht Club. She was floating with her mast up. The same could not be said for other boats. We saw masts gone, boats out in the middle of the fairway barely hanging on by one or two lines and masts tipped in a way that could only result from a sunken boat. One of those tipped masts was in the area of Smitty and Sea Frog but the buildings blocked too much of the view to know if it was one of our boats.

At one in the afternoon we felt it was ok to venture out. We put on fowlies, grabbed a few supplies and started to head for the Yacht Club. Upon stepping out of the condo the seen was chaotic. Trees were down everywhere you looked. Pieces of terra cotta tiles were thrown about. The roads were impassible to cars and barely walkable in some locations. The stucco had been stripped from the buildings by the winds. All of the palm fronds had been removed from the tops of the palm trees giving them a look of a tree that had been decapitated.

Continuing to make our way we found flooded streets and more carnage. Eventually we made it to the Yacht Club and we could see that both Smitty and Sea Flog were still floating! The tipped mast was from a boat that had been next to Sea Frog.

Pic 7 sunken boat in front of sea frog

The Yacht Club building had been pummeled with water and flooded by a storm surge that appeared to be 10 feet or more based on the damage to the building. This would have put the fixed concrete docks six feet under water during the height of the surge. A small rental car building that had been in the parking lot was completely gone and only remnants of the building would later be found in drainage ditch. One vehicle, a Hummer H2, that was left in the parking lot was pushed several parking spots over until it had come to rest against a light pole. Several boats had been dismasted. Many of the boats that didn’t remove their sails had them blow out and were shredded by the wind. Other boats had bashed against the docks or piles and some were holed. And several boats had sank in their slips. It didn’t appear that many boats escaped damage.

It was still blowing about 70-80 knots with gusts up to 100 knots. Todd and I cautiously made our way down the dock and out to our boats. The gusts were so strong that at times we had to drop to a knee and make ourselves into a tight ball to avoid being blown off the dock. We first passed Todd’s boat and there did not appear to be anything wrong or any lines broken. Next week came to Sea Frog’s former neighbor, he had broken free, smashed two piles until they toppled and sank in the fairway.

Unfortunately this caused some damage to Sea Frog. Sea Frog was tied to one of the piles that he smashed and the loss of those lines let Sea Frog rub against the dock. In addition, the tilted mast had hit Sea Frogs forestay damaging the foil to her roller furler.

Smitty appeared fine. She had lost several lines, all of which were double braided lines that appeared to have exploded in the middle of the line! We had lost six out of eight stern lines and a couple of springer lines.

We reappropriated (fancy pirate word for steal) as much line as we could find. Todd climbed aboard Sea Flog and secured several of the newly acquired lines to cleats, winches or any place he could find. Together and slowly we moved Sea Frog away from the dock. Todd would “pump” the line and when he let go I would pull in the slack and secure the line to the cleat or bollard. Inch by inch we moved Sea Frog against the wind. Eventually we had here five feet off of the dock and firmly secured by several lines. We used some of the new to us lines to add some stern lines to Smitty. We used the same technique to move Smitty further from the dock. With nothing left to do we returned to the condo to wait out the rest of the storm.

In the morning we headed back down to the Yacht Club. We started looking around at the damage and talking to the others boaters about how they faired during the storm. There were 40 boats in the Yacht Club for Maria. Of the 40, six had sunk, six had been dismasted and 25 others had some damage ranging from cosemtic gelcoat scuffs, bows missing from pounding on the dock, damaged sails and rigging and holes through the hull that put the boat at risk of sinking if quick repairs aren’t made.

Getting in the dingy and traveling out into the private docks in Palmas del Mar the damage only got worse. As the surge pushed into the canals it became concentrated and more destructive energy was present. Large Viking cabin cruisers were lifted up and but down on top of piles. Sailboats were pushed up onto docks and left resting on their rudders. Boats were sunk in tangled masses. Out riggers were bent and broken from the force of the wind. There was no pattern or reason to the damage. One boat was damaged and sunk while the boat at the next dock was untouched with canvas carelessly left up still intact.

In the end Smitty’s damaged was limited to a shorted out control module for our refrigeration. The compressor is located below a vent that was installed to allow the heat to escape. But salt water spread into the vent soaking the control module that subsequently failed.

There was a lot of luck and a lot of preparation that went into keeping Smitty safe through these storms. Its hard to say which was the bigger influence in surviving the storm. But we are proud of our tough little boat.


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The Three Passages: Part 3 – The Mona Passage

Continuing on our sail along the Thorny Path to the Caribbean Islands we went from Samana in the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. The Mona Passage is considered by many to be the worst passage on the Thorny Path. There are shoals where deep, strong currents get forced up on to shallower waters. Thunder storms are knows to “charge like bulls” down the peaks of Puerto Rico and wash onto vessels with little notice (we will unfortunately learn more on this in the coming days). Most of the passage is in the lee of Puerto Rico, which could give you a break from the trades on your nose but could also give you shifty wind patterns that are hard to predict. This passage was plotted to be approximately 150 nautical miles and to take around 30 hours. 

mona_passage

As we previously wrote, the first thing you must do to prepare to leave Dom Rep is get your Despachio. At Samana there is a port official station right at the marina but he typically doesn’t get until 9-10 AM. We spoke with him the day before we wanted to leave, as he had asked us to do when we checked in. We told him that our little armada was looking to leave as early as we could the next morning.  He said he would handle our paperwork and come in a little early to get us on our way. We paid our marina bill and prepared the boat for departure. Sure enough he showed up early, around 7 am, and was over to our boat around 7:30 with the paperwork and his small security force.  He boarded Smitty and just wanted to take a quick look below before he actually stood there and watched us leave the dock. He was efficient and our whole group was off the dock by 8:30 am.

We were the first out of the marina. We set a course out of Samana Harbor at a slow pace to let the rest of the group catch. Once we were all clear we headed towards the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic. As has been typical with these passages, the winds and seas were higher than forecasted. It wasn’t too bad at this point but we did have 10-15 knots of wind on the bow and the sea state was choppy at about 3 feet. We headed south east and hugged the coast as we approached Hour Glass Shoal.

Hour Glass Shoal is a large shallow area for the area. The depths go from several thousand feet around the shoal and in the middle of the Mona Passage to less than 200 feet on the shoal.  So while this is not a shoal where you risk grounding your boat you still need to treat it as such. The equatorial currents will run along the southern coast of Puerto Rico and then wrap up into the Mona Passage. When those currents and ocean swells heading north hit the shoal they stack up and the sea state can go from some benign like 10 foot ocean swell at a long period but steep, high waves that rob you of momentum and can damage your boat. There are two major routes around the Hour Glass Shoal.  You can continue to hug the coast and travel more due south, keeping the shoal on your port (left) side until you are in the deep water again. Then you turn east and head towards Isla de Mona. In the lee of Isla de Mona you head northeast towards your chosen harbor for making landfall.  This is the path taken by motor boats typically. The course is to go north of Hour Glass Shoals by 5-10 miles, traveling a due east or slightly northeast course until you are safely in deep water and then continuing southeast in the lee of Puerto Rico. This was the course we chose. We continued southeast until we approaches the Isla Desecheo and then headed a little more south to head towards Puerto Real.

After all of the planning and hand wringing over the weather window, the Mona ended up being good to us.  We had 15-25 knots of wind just off the nose most of the passage and the sea state didn’t interfere with direction or speed. It was calm enough that we trolled a line all through the Mona, with no luck unfortunately. We covered 157 nautical miles in 28 hours and were tied up at a marina in Puerto Real by around noon.

We were able to clear in over the phone since we were American citizens and already had our US Custom decal for the boat (something we learned about and ordered in the Bahamas). The others had to rent cars and go to the US Customs and Immigration office.  The office was nice enough to let them do the initial checkin by phone and then go the office the next day after getting a night’s rest. Soon we would be in Caribbean Sea and on our way to St. Thomas, our ultimate destination for this year. But first there would be some major drama that would shape the next month of cruising….