Made it to Senegal

Hi everyone! We made it to Senegal!

This passage was much easier than the last one. It was over 850 miles, so we were prepared for it to take over a week to get here. That’s a long time on a little boat!

The weather was pretty much in our favor all the time. That meant almost the entire way the wind was behind us, or on our port beam (perpendicular to the boat on the left side). When the wind is exactly behind you, you can put the main on one side and the jib on the other in a configuration called wing-on-wing. It’s really beautiful to behold! And it makes the boat go fast, so we got here in just 7 days!

I had morning watch this time, which was from 0600 to 1000. Getting up was easy because someone was there to wake me up. Then the rest of the watch went fast as I fished, watched sunrise, reconfigured the boat for daylight, and then got Evi up to do our radio conversations (at 8 and 9). It was a great way to start the day; I will happily do morning watch again.

One day I had a great watch. It started out with night time dolphins. They made streaks of phosphorescence. You could not see the dolphins at all, just the comet-like streaks moving around the boat. Cool! Then at dawn, I caught a fish. I put the line back in the water because it was tangled up and in my way in the cockpit. I got another fish immediately, so now I had two fish flopping around not quite dead, and another tangle of line. I figured, well three would not be TOO much, and put the line in again. I went below to find the rum we use to kill the fish (pour it in their gills), but got another fish when I was below decks. This time I did not put the line back out! Evi came up from bed and helped me gut, fillet, and skin them. We had them for lunch and dinner for three days!

For the record, the fish were all tuna, about 16 inches long. They yielded over 3 pounds of fillets!

One evening as we were getting ready for bed, we hit a whale. It was this big hard bonk, then the boat kept going. It was pretty scary for a second, until we were certain that the boat was not taking on water, and that the whale would not try to take revenge. Other than floating containers (like the kind you see on trailers on the highway) whales are about the only other thing in tropical waters that can hole a fiberglass boat like Wonderland.

During the first few weeks aboard (over a month ago!) I read the books Evi has on board about sailing, sailboat maintenance, cruising, etc. One of the things from those books that stuck out in my mind was this sentence: “Baking perfectly matches the pace of life on a boat. When you run out of bread from land, try making some yourself!” After a few days at sea, I was sitting on morning watch thinking that the regular breakfast (granola, yogurt, milk, and the first of many bottles of water) was getting old. I decided that I wanted to bake scones for the crew so that they’d be ready when everyone got up. I went below and took a look in the Moosewood cookbook, but there was no scone recipe! How could that be? So when people woke up, I asked if there was another cookbook on board, but there were not any with scone recipes. So we asked on the radio, and got a recipe, but it used some magical English flour called self-rising, so we had to experiment with the recipe some to figure out how to simulate self-rising flour with our boring European flour and three-year old American baking powder. The first try was OK, but on the second day the skipper said they were Out Of This World! (The secret, it turns out, is to use the broiler to brown the tops. The high sugar content in the dough makes the tops brown in a really satisfying way.)

I also made bread the next day. It turned out great and I got a request for a repeat performance for Thanksgiving.

We had a great Thanksgiving while underway. We got email from both my Mom (thanks mom!) and from the Pratt family. We had been making plans and setting aside produce for several days before. We were hoping to catch another fish for Thanksgiving, but had a vegetarian menu planned too, just in case. We didn’t catch a fish after all, so we had mashed potatos, baked sweet potatos, carrots and broccoli steamed and buttered, garlic sesame green beans, and homemade bread.


It was my night to cook dinner tonight. I’d been looking at the crepe page in the Moosewood cookbook for ideas for dinner crepes ever since I made them for breakfast a few days ago. They were a hit for breakfast, so I figured dinner was the logical next step!

Moosewood suggested a spinach and ricotta filling. That sounded ok, but a little bit boring. I was also a little worried about finding ricotta here. Spanish supermercados are a little funny about cheese. There are often 15 variations on manchego, but no other kinds. Want parmesian, ricotta, or brie? Too bad!

So I had a backup plan: steamed cauliflower with ginger orange sauce. Of course finding fresh ginger in Spanish markets is about as hard as finding ricotta, but the girls managed to snag some a while ago and have been using it to make fresh chai. It’s starting to go soft, so I was looking forward to helping get rid of it.

As usually happens with my plans, everything went to hell when it came time to implement them. I like having a plan so that I can tell when I’m no longer following it! The problem was that my day to cook was a Sunday, and I was too tired Saturday night to remember to shop. (Saturday, we got up at 0430 to sail from La Palma de Gran Canarie to Santa Cruz de Tenerife.)

So I went out shopping this morning, but struck out. So dinner was going to need to come from stocks on board. I decided to stick with the spinach, but instead of wilting fresh spinach (normally the only cooked spinach I can stomach) I’d use canned. I knew at least Hannah likes canned spinach because I noticed that she put it in the shopping cart. I made a crepe filling by sauteeing onions in olive oil. I added lots of pepper and cumin (another Hannah favorite) to the onions. I dumped in a drained can of sliced mushrooms and the canned spinach (also drained). Even with draining, the pot had a lot of liquid which I imagined would destroy my crepes (which by this point were rolling off the line into a somewhat balky but warm oven). So I cooked the hell out of the spinach filling with the top off to boil off the liquid.

The spinach, in retribution for me putting the heat to it stunk its usual stink. I grimmaced and decided if I was going to get anything to eat tonight I was going to have to make another filling. So I started thinking about the leftovers on hand. We had some chicken I could have used somehow, and a very few cooked potatos. I started thinking about the rosemary chicken and potato pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, but didn’t have any rosemary. Then I got a bolt of inspiration: dosas are Indian crepes, and my favorite dosa filling is curried potatos. Now I was excited about making curried potatos for my crepes, but I wanted to make more than the single serving of leftover potatos we had. I looked at the crepe batter: one half gone. The crepe production line was only going to be up and running for 15 more minutes. The evil stench of the boiling spinach spurred me to action; I’d be damned if I was going to sully my crepes with that filth. And I started becoming concerned not even people who like cooked spinach would either! The entire fate of dinner rested on the curried potatos!

In the movie adaptation of this story, this is where they will cue the chase scene music as our hero (played by Denzel Washington, undoubtedly) swings into action…

So I put the potatos (3 of them, sliced into 1/16th inch thick half-moons) into a frying pan and just cover them with water. I turn up the burner to NASA hot (thank you, Alton Brown) and parboil them until they are a little over halfway done. All the time, my left hand is turning out crepes, like sands through the hourglass. Will the potatos cook in time? Will Our Hero save dinner?

When the potatos were done enough, I tossed the water and set the steaming spuds aside. I put 2 tablespoons of oil into the pan, then added 2 tablespoons of curry paste and browned it a minute. Then I dumped in a thing of yogurt and stirred it in. I added the potatos and a bit of water and simmered them. I played stupid games with the top on and off again as I wavered between freaking out that they weren’t cooking fast enough (lid on!) and that they’d be too runny (lid off!).

Like the ending of a Hollywood blockbuster, the curried potatos got done when the last crepe did, which was just a few minutes before the guest from the next boat over showed up. We sat down for dinner, and everyone enjoyed both fillings. I have to admit, the spinach filling was pretty good.

But the curried potatos were excellent!

Roll credits as Our Hero washes dishes.


I said before that on watch we only need to check for traffic and other changing conditions. If that’s all we have to do, then who’s steering? The answer is the autopilot!

Wonderland has two autopilots on board. The first one is an electronic one. The other one is analog and operates off of the power of the wind and the boat going through the water. They are both pretty interesting, so I’ll explain them both.

The electronic one is tied into the rest of the electronic instruments via an onboard network called SeaTalk. It gets the current heading from an electronic compass (which lies a lot) and it can also find out the direction of the wind from the mast-top windvane. Finally, it has a sensor of the steering mechanism to know where the rudder is. It uses all that data, plus the course you tell it you want to either steer to the course, or keep a constant angle to the wind. If our GPS was on SeaTalk, it would be able to send the bearing to the next waypoint into the autopilot too. I said the electronic compass lies, but luckily it lies in a manner consistent enough that we can ignore the absolue reading it gives, and just let the autopilot use the changes in the compass reading to steer the boat. The thing about the electronic autopilot is that it takes a lot of electrical current to run it. It’s not the electronics that take so much, it’s the mechanical steering arm that turns electricity into the force necessary to move the rudder. When it is steering, you can go below and look at the power consumption and literally see spikes when it steers left then right over and over to counteract the waves. Power use is important because sailboats are engineered to have small engines, small diesel tanks, and small electrical systems. The windmill and the solar can provide enough power for basic needs, but if you were going to use the electric autopilot 24 hours a day, you’d need to charge the batteries with the diesel engine a lot. When you are at sea for over a week (and there’s always a chance that one week will turn to two or more if various things outside your control go wrong) conserving fuel is important. And there’s always a chance the engine will fail.

In fact in Las Palmas de Gran Canarie, we met a boat named Chant Pagan which had it’s engine fail on the passage. They had only an electric autopilot, so in order to save battery for things like sailing instruments and the radio, they had to steer by hand. There were only three crew on hand experienced enough to steer, so they had a very long passage, each steering on average 8 hours a day. Luckily for them the weather cooperated – almost too well, as they had 25 knots of wind from the NE and tall following seas. Steering in those conditions takes a lot of concentration! Poor Chant Pagan.

Safety comes from redundancy, which is part of why Evi has the other autopilot on board. It is a Rube Goldberg contraption that hangs off the back of the boat. For the first several hours I watched it I swore it couldn’t possibly work. When reality proved me wrong and I looked a little closer at it (after 2 days of puzzling) now I see how it works. The idea is pretty simple. If you stood at the back of the boat holding a piece of cardboard up in the air edge on to the wind, but then the boat turned a little with respect to the wind (due to a wave, say) you’d feel a force exerted on one side or the other of the cardboard, right? And it might be possible to use some ropes and pullies to hook that piece of cardboard up to the steering wheel, right?

So that’s all there is to a windvane steering system. Or it would be, if the piece of cardboard was the size of a billboard, which would never do. The rudder requires quite a lot of force to do its job, so in turn the windvane (cardboard) would need a lot of force to turn the rudder. So what we need is an amplifier. My buddy Cary could whip one right up with a soldering iron and a trip to Fry’s, but then we are back to using too much power (sorry, Cary). What we want is an autopilot that uses no electricity. Where else can we get power on a sailboat? Well, it is a good bet there’s some wind when you want to be using the autopilot, but it’s hard to get enough power out of the wind. And it seems kind of silly to decorate the back of your sailboat with something sail-like to harness the wind you need to steer your boat. If only we could borrow some of the power coming from the mainsail and jib in some form we can use to amplify the control input from the windvane into control output on the shaft of the helm. Well there is, and it’s really clever.

Know how you put your hand out the window of a car, and you can use the wind passing over it to make it go up and down? You can do the same thing in the water flowing behind a moving boat!

So a windvane autopilot works like this: you’ve got a rudder-looking thing hanging off the back of the boat down in the water. It is attached by a Rube Goldberg set of ropes and pulleys to the helm by two ropes, a clockwise one and a counterclockwise one. This rudder thing does NOT steer the boat. It steals power out of the water in order to turn the helm. And the helm leads to the rudder via the usual cables. The rudder steers the boat. Above the autopilot’s rudder is the windvane. It is coupled to the rudder with yet another magical set of linkages that turn the input from the windvane flopping back and forth in the wind into instructions to the rudder to swing back and forth through the water, stealing power and steering the boat.

This is by far the coolest analog computer I’ve ever seen!


You may have noticed I’m not sending out many updates. Plenty is going on, it’s just hard to squeze in time to go write an update at an internet cafe. So I’m trying a new system where I write updates offline when I get a chance, then upload them when I am online.

My last update was from Graciosa, a small island in the northeast of the Canaries. That’s where we made landfall after our passage. It was a great place to unwind from the passage-making lifestyle and get back into the cruising lifestyle.

Speaking of passagemaking, I owe you all an explanation of what it is all about.

First, you need to appreciate the scale of the trip. It was about 500 nautical miles from Ayamonte to Graciosa, where we planned to make landfall. A nautical mile is a bit bigger than a statute mile, the kind we use on land. A nautical mile is based not on an arbitrary standard, but on one minute of latitude. Wonderland goes about 100 miles a day when making a passage, so you can see that we expected it to take about 5 days to make the passage. We sail 24 hours a day, so that means we average less than 5 knots per hour. That’s quite slow, so what gives? Why aren’t we averaging more like 7 knots? After all, we hit 7 knots in the Bay Area all the time, right? And the trade winds roar down the coast of Morocco here, so it shouldn’t be a question of wind.

The answer comes down to one thing that comes up over and over again in passagemaking: safety. When you are 200 miles from land, a helicopter can’t reach you. Ship-based rescuers are going to make 15 knots, if they are lucky; that’s about 20 hours when you figure in time to call for help and get it coming to you. You are on your own, more completely and absolutely than during any other activity most of us ever get a chance to do. So lots of aspects of passagemaking are determined by considerations of safety. From a sailing perspective, that means you are almost always flying less sail than you would in comparable on-shore conditions. Evi would have us watch carefully for speeds approaching 7 knots, then retune the boat to slow down. Her reasoning is that if we plan for an average speed less than 5 knots, why put extra stress on the equipment by doing 7? Good reasoning. It took a little getting used to for me to be able to understand and predict Evi’s decisions, but she was patient and answered my questions so that I knew the why and would be able to make good decisions on my own watches.

Another safety consideration is avoiding losing crew overboard. Man overboard is always an emergency, but it is vastly more dangerous when you are all alone on a big ocean. When I learned to sail in the Bay the rule we used was never leave the cockpit unless there’s a job to do that requires doing so. But then we’d go out and do it with just a life preserver on. When I started racing, I found that rule went out the window in order to adjust weight distribution for maximum speed. Racing skippers make other decisions that, strictly speaking, reduce the safety of the situation, but result in better speed (for instance, flying a spinakker in less than perfect conditions). Sailboat racing is simply a higher risk activity than pleasure sailing, and the crew knows it when they sign on. On Wonderland, the rules are much stricter about when to use a safety harness, have a buddy watch you, etc. It is exciting to work on the foredeck in rough conditions, especially when you know you can count on several layers of safety to protect you. Using the safety harness is actually so easy and convienent, I’m wondering why none of my skippers before Evi have insisted on it.

Within line of sight, boats use VHF radios to talk to each other, to marinas and safety crews on land. On the open ocean, however, you can go an entire day without seeing any other boat, so line of sight doesn’t do you much good. So, in addition to the VHF, Wonderland has a marine single sideband (SSB) radio, which can also transmit and receive in the ham radio bands. Evi has both a ship’s radio license and a ham license. There are loose knit groups of skippers who arrange to meet on a certain frequency at a certain time. The crew of the Wonderland is pretty bad about remembering these times, but when we do, we always get a warm welcome from Shadowfax and Tamoray. Even if there are no boats listening, there are always computers listening. We can use packet radio to send and receive email via the SSB and Evi’s laptop. We use it to fetch weather reports for our region, send in position reports, and send updates to our guardian angels telling them when to expect us. The speed on the connection is measured in characters per minute, so you can imagine how careful we have to be when we use it.

I said before that we sail 24 hours a day. That means that during the night we either all go to sleep and just hope nothing goes wrong, or we have to use a watch system to make sure that someone is on watch all throught the night. A few boats don’t do watches, but that’s pretty rare. Of course Evi requires us to do watches! Because there are four of us, it’s not so bad. The 24 hours is broken up into 12 hours of daylight when everyone is awake and we share the duty of keeping watch informally and 12 hours of dark when we do watches. During the dark 12 hours, we do three hour watches. The cushy spots are 2100 to 0000 and 0600 to 0900, because you get to sleep through the night. The not so cushy ones are 0000 to 0300 and 0300 to 0600 (the majorly UN-cushy one). Because Hannah and I were the relatively less experienced crew, we got the easiest watches. Hannah is more of a morning person, so she took the 6 am one.

During your watch you have to scan the horizon every 15 minutes looking for traffic. You’re also looking to make sure that the wind direction, speed, and sail setup all still make sense with respect to where you are trying to go. For minor corrections, or with certain rules (if wind falls below 6 knots, start the engine) we could simply take care of it ourselves. For anything else, Evi had us wake her up. That included cargo ships passing too near to us, major wind shifts, any equipment breaking or not acting like you expected. Finally, at the end of each watch, we’d chart our position and update the log with wind measurements, position, sail setup, etc. After your watch, you go below and get in the bunk of the person who’s replacing you. When we are at port, we have assigned bunks, but not out at sea.

We eat really well on the boat all the time, but it is slightly more challenging to cook when underway. Because the girls get seasick unless they are careful to keep up on deck, Evi and I changed around days with them to do most of the cooking out at sea. We cooked simple hearty meals that could be served in a bowl. For instance, the girls talked me through a seat-of-the-pants recipe for a lentil, potato, and sweet pepper stew. They also talked Evi through cooking vegetables in green thai curry. The nice thing about that kind of cooking is that it is easy to make extra food and have leftovers available for snacking. The funny thing about seasickness is that it comes and goes, so if you can eat the leftovers of the meal you didn’t feel like touching last night the next day, you should!

Evi and I are lucky to get much less seasick than Hannah and Susha. However, the girls are both experienced at passagemaking and know how to keep the symptoms at bay. They were never completely nonfunctional, though during the worst of the storm, Susha was pretty much camped out in the cockpit curled up and sipping soup. Apparently, they don’t have too much trouble laying down in the dark, so when it came to be time to sleep, they’d go below. Nonetheless, with the boat banging around, sleep could be hard to come by. For a passage longer than a few days, you build up a sizeable sleep deficit, which may well contribute to stories you hear about disasters at sea. Evi asked us from time to time how we were sleeping to keep an eye on it. I luckily slept pretty well all the time, even when the boat was really crashing into the waves.

During the first day, I felt during a few hours like I had a choice between continuing to feel seasick, not eating, and spiraling down, or getting better. All I had to do was take very careful care of my symptoms during that time (find some food to eat that didn’t sound gross to me, drink lots of water, stay above decks) and then I kind of broke through and never felt any symptoms after that. I suspected that my body would probably work like that, so I chose not to take the medicine Evi has on board. I figured the medicine would just interfere with the natural adjustment process. How lucky I am that my body is so adaptable!

In the Canaries

Well, I survived my first open ocean passage! We are now in the Canaries on an island named Graciosa. It is very rural, with no paved roads. All the cars here are Land Rovers and models of Toyotas meant for use in Africa! It’s pretty neat to be in a place so different in architecture from Europe. The culture here is still very European, which I guess is good, because it makes the culture shock less. As we head south toward Cape Verde, things will get increasingly less European.

The girls (Susha and Hannah) have decided that we should go to West Africa, specifically to the coast of Senegal. After all, we’re in the neighborhood, right? Evi and I think this is a fine idea, but it is a bit of a pain in the neck trying to get the right shots for Senegal when you are traveling. We tried in Spain, but struck out: a very nice doctor lady was at the clinic in the next town over, and had the vaccines, but her nurse was on vacation, and the doctor was not allowed to administer the shots without the nurse. Because of my trip to Romania a while ago, I’ve got most of what I need already. Poor Evi has to get FOUR shots: yellow fever, typhoid, tetnous, and something else I’ve forgotten already. It was funny watching the doctor pantomime where Evi had to get all the shots. It was like watching the maccarena!

So, we’ll try again here in the Canaries to get shots. Other more fun things coming up in the Canaries might include a camel ride up a volcano, and a visit to a banana plantation owned by a guy Susha met someplace in Spain. Susha is a girl with a guy in every port. When we got within range of the island, the phone started buzzing with SMS pages from all her buddies!

It is my night to cook dinner, and I need to shop still, so I’ve got to cut this short before I get into the story of the ocean passage. To whet your appetite, I’ll just tell you that it took two days longer than we expected (7 days at sea instead of a best case scenario of 5) because we had to weather a storm with sustained winds of 25-30 knots for 36 hours. I also was at the helm for our only squall, which packed winds of 30 knots, with a peak of 41 knots. For the non-sailors out there, 12 to 18 knots is a nice breeze to take a boat out in. In the US, 25 knots triggers “small craft advisories”. 30 knots is the official minimum for a storm to be “gale”. 60 to 80 are well into the hurricane range.