Category Archives: Captains Corner

Flight of Fancy

Panama. Hot, steamy, and a good place to evaluate where our voyage was going to take us. Leaping off from Panama meant committing to another five months at sea as we crossed the Pacific.

It was starting to become clear Franklin was finding life on a small boat frustrating and a little lonely and we wondered whether it was a good idea to keep him on the boat for the time necessary to get to Australia. I personally, could not imagine spending thirty days at sea on a boat with a frustrated child. We wondered whether it might have been a good idea to have a second child immediately after Franklin so he would have had a sibling to bounce off.

We had a second problem, Ruby and Darla were due to meet us somewhere on June 27th for a month. We were not sure whether we could get somewhere where the flights were inexpensive enough for us to pay for them. And then when they came we could come up with an affordable plan to accommodate them.

We talked about flying Mary and Franklin or Shane and Franklin to Australia to wait while the other parent completed the crossing. We talked about flying Franklin to one of his Grandmothers while we completed the crossing.

Our finances were tight. In order to harden the boat for the crossing we felt we needed a backup autopilot (preferably a no-power wind vane) and we wanted to replace the standing rigging that we had not yet replaced.  If we flew Franklin and one parent to Australia we would not be able to afford these improvements.

We examined all our options, and in the end we could not envision a good, safe plan to get Sea Change across the Pacific this year. In the end, we mothballed Sea Change II and put her on the hard in the secure yard at Shelter Bay Marina in Panama. A very difficult decision but the right one for us.

We bought plane tickets to Sydney and arrived in early May where we are staying with my brother. Franklin is a much happier little boy, and looks forward eagerly to go to preschool on Wednesdays and Fridays. Mary and I both have work and our finances are turning around. Ruby and Darla are due to fly in on June 27th and we have a plan to accommodate them.

What is the future of Sea Change II? We have put her on the market. If we are offered about 2/3 of the price we would get in the US, we will sell her. If she does not sell this year then we will ship her to Sydney or have her delivered. We must have a sailboat and Sea Change II would be a great boat for Sydney Harbor and surrounds.

Do we see ourselves making another sailing voyage? We both yearn for the sea, but neither of wants do it one a small boat with a small child. For now we are going to enjoy the absolutely fabulous sailing grounds around Sydney on weekends and holidays. Next time we go voyaging we will follow the more traditional path and wait until our children are independent and then join the many other aging sailors on the high seas.

Fort Sherman

Battery Baird, at Fort Sherman.

Battery Baird, at Fort Sherman.

It is a bit of a fib to say we are in Colon. Shelter Bay Marina is located in an abandoned US military base, still know as “Fort Sherman” by the locals. Colon is about thirty minutes by car. The route crosses the Gatun Lock so there is often a long delay as ships lock through.

A view  of the  fort from above.

A view of the fort from above.

Fort Sherman was built at the same time as the Panama Canal, and used by the US to secure the canal. The base was abandoned by US in 1999, and immediately stripped bare by the Panamanians. Shells of US military housing remain, along with both newer and older military installations. The roads through the base now serve as convenient nature trails for visitors to Shelter Bay Marina.

Mary in the brig - "cell 6".

Mary in the brig – “cell 6″.

In Panama, we needed to make up our minds: whether to remain in the Americas for another year, or cross the Pacific this season. A trip to Colon, and a few walks along Fort Sherman’s roads sealed the deal. We like Colon. We like Panama. Panama has it’s own intrinsic culture that is not tourist dominated. The Panamanian jungle is exotic and interesting. We have seen Howling monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, and some oversize rabbity looking thing we do not know the name of. We are able to just scrape enough money to pay our bills.

Mary & Shane in  the rainforest, looking for howler monkeys.

Mary & Shane in the rainforest, looking for howler monkeys.

Shelter Bay Marina is an easy place to stay. At only $24/night for a boat our size staying at least 16 days, $10/week for Internet and $1 happy hours beers we can afford to stay here indefinitely. It is also a great place from which to fly the US, so I will be flying to Minnesota to visit Ruby and Darla, Harvey and Diane, Mark and the SpEd Forms crew, and pick up some parts.

We found some!  Can you spot the monkeys?

We found some! Can you spot the monkeys?

After I return, we will get the boat ready and start making our way to the San Blas Islands and then to Cartagena, Columbia. Our plan is to put the boat on the hard (ie: pull the boat out of the water) do some maintenance on the hull and put Franklin in a Columbian preschool for a few months. We have heard great things about Cartagena and Columbia, and look forward to visiting.

A close up of an interesting tree trunk.

A close up of an interesting tree trunk.

After Cartagena, who knows? Our plans are written in sand.

Our own little monkey, exploring Panama.

Our own little monkey, exploring Panama.


Another breath taking sunset over the Caribbean Sea.

Passage to Panama

The storm brewing over Jamaica.  Glad we were able to outrun it.

The storm brewing over Jamaica. Glad we were able to outrun it.


We had a little hitchhiker. He stayed the night in our produce hammock.

We had a little hitchhiker. He stayed the night in our produce hammock.

The Caribbean Sea is notorious for strong trade winds and steep seas. The trade winds peak from January to March and gradually dissipate from March onwards.  We watched weather patterns in the Caribbean for two weeks before leaving and left Port Antonio as a strong system dissipated on March 20th.

The first thirty miles of the passage took us against the wind and current along the north eastern coast of Jamaica. We motor sailed into the wind and current and then found more favorable conditions as we turned south towards Panama. As night fell the first night, we found ourselves becalmed with strong thunderstorms forming over Jamaica, so we motored again during the night to get a safe distance away from them.

Around midnight, we turned off the engine again, and enjoyed a spectacular lightning show over the island of Jamaica from a safe distance. Becalmed again, a north setting current pushed us eight miles northeast until the wind finally rose enough at dawn. At dawn we raised our full sails and picked up speed as we made for our next waypoint, 50 miles east of the Rancador Bank.

Jamaican produce for the passage.

Jamaican produce for the passage.

If you look at a chart of the Caribbean, you might wonder why we headed towards the Rancador Bank. The Rancador Bank adds about 80 nautical miles to the passage to Panama. However, pilot charts and a study of weather suggested a high likelihood of gale forces winds along the rhumb line to Panama. They also suggested more northerly winds and favorable currents closer the Central America.

Sea Change II is a heavy cruising sailboat which prefers stronger winds, but there was no reason to subject to 30 to 35 knot winds if not necessary. Strong sustained winds make it more likely things on the boat will break and leave less room for error on the part of the crew.

From Monday morning, wind and seas built steadily from light and variable to 20 to 30 kts off the stern quarter by the time we turn south of the the Rancador Bank.  Big, steep, following seas and some current pushed along at up to an impressive 9 kts at times (the nominal hull speed, or maximum speed, of our boat is just under 7 kts).

The steep seas also took a toll on the crew as we adjusted to the motion of the boat. I usually take one Dramamine on the first day of the passage and that usually “cures” me on sea sickness for the remainder of the trip. On this passage, I took four Dramamine over the roughest two days to keep sea sickness at bay. We have always cooked on passage, but we found it much more difficult on this passage. We resolved to bring more easy to prepare comfort foods.

The longer passage also gave us a better opportunity than our shorter passages to learn the ideal watch schedule for us. Remember, we need to maintain a sharp watch all the time which means somebody must always be awake and alert. By the end of the sail we were finding long shifts during the day and evening, followed by 4 hour on, 4 hours off shifts over night. Mary tends to sleep better in the morning and I tended to sleep better in the afternoon.

Another hitchhiker didn't fare so well....  This little flying fish was already dead by the time we found him in the morning.

Another hitchhiker didn’t fare so well…. This little flying fish was already dead by the time we found him in the morning.

We had also been wondering how Franklin would handle his longest passage yet. We found he handled the passage best (perhaps because he was getting plenty of sleep!) and was happy snuggled in his lee cloth during the bumpy times , watching movies, reading books and playing computer games. Mary also found the time and energy to read books to Franklin and snuggle him during the day.

For this passage, there was no question who the stronger crew member was. Mary. She was generally less affected by sea sickness and/or had a stronger will to overcome it. When I first took Mary sailing more than five years ago, no doubt who was the “better” and more experienced sailor. I think on this passage it became abundantly clear we are now increasingly equal in skill. It sure is good to have a competent crew mate. Even nicer to have one so gorgeous and smart.


With the 5 to 30 knots off our quarter for the remainder of our sail we enjoyed an almost perfect trade wind sail from the about 50 nm south of Jamaica to 50 nm east of Panama. During one 26 hour period we made 160 nm, quite impressive for a 34 ft boat with a 26 ft waterline.

Early Friday morning the winds tured light and variable as we approached Panama so we turned on the motor and used the remainder of our diesel to motor into Colon.

Entering Colon harbour we were surrounded by anchored ships and a a procession of ships entering and leaving Colon Harbor. AIS, a technology we have our our boat to track the movement of ships, was never more useful as it helped identify how fast ships were moving and if they posed a danger to us.

We entered Shelter Island Marina around 10:30am on Friday morning after a fantastic sail.






Tracking our passage on Twitter

On Sunday we leave for our longest non-stop passage of this trip so far. A 615  nautical mile (1139Km for you landlubbers) passage from the north coast of Jamaica to Colon, Panama. During the passage we will be sending our GPS position out via Twitter with a short message every day. Thanks Iridium!

The Twitter account to follow is @shanedennis1971.

To see our location on a map, go to Google Maps and enter or copy and paste the GPS coordinates from the Twitter feed into the search field. To try it, put the following GPS coordinates into the Google Maps search field:
N 18 10.842′ W 76 27.197′
and then click “Enter”. You will see our current location in Port Antonio, Jamaica.

Two Brave Fins

Two Brave Fins, Jukka and Paul, joined us for the wet and miserable sail from Lake Worth to Miami.

Jukka is a constant traveller, born in Finland, citizen of Finland and Canada and US permanent resident. Jukka had been dreaming about cruising on a sailboat for 30 years.

Paul is a third generation, 100% Finnish, Yooper (from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). He most recently worked as a electrical troubleshooter for Australian mining giant BHP.

Jukka seem to love every minute of our miserable sail from Lake Worth to Miami, while Paul, I am sure was thinking “Oh lordy, next time Jukka says let’s go sailing with a crazy Australian-Minnesota family I’m gonna make myself invisible quick. Ja, you betcha.”

It was not until after we arrived in Miami Paul confessed in the olden days Fins were not allowed on sailing ships because it was thought they brought bad luck. Now we know who to blame for the miserable conditions! :)

What the old sailors must not have know is that Fins are brave and good company. We loved having them along!


New Anchor

On a cruising sailboat, a good anchor set can make the difference between a sleepless, stressful night and a good nights sleep. Lately we have been having some sleepless nights. If the anchor drags or the worse – fails – the boat could easily drift into another boat, or worse end up on the shore. Needless to say, anchors are one of the most important pieces of equipment on a cruising sailboat.

Up until the 1990′s the available anchors tended to work better on one surface or another. If a sailor planned to travel outside their home range, they usually needed to carry two or three anchors to suit the conditions they expected to encounter. Sea Change II came with a  Bruce and CQR on the dual bow rollers and the Delta hung off the stern.

We used the Delta the first time we used the boat when the engine quit and we found ourselves without power in a narrow channel heading straight towards a luxury motor yacht. We dropped it off the stern and it stopped the boat in it’s tracks. The Delta is a good, light weight easy to store anchor but it has the reputation of being more prone to mechanical failure than some of the other anchors.

The CQR was a good anchor on sandy, hard and weedy bottoms of Lake Superior and Lake Huron.  However, we have found the CQR hard to set (sometimes it takes two or three tries before it sets). We also have found it less than reliable in situations where the wind or tide reverses during the night. In these cases, the anchor needs to pivot up to  180 degrees and then reset itself. For this reason we have only used it occasionally on the US east coast where we are commonly anchored in tidal areas.

Our Bruce anchor excels on the muddy bottoms on which we found ourselves anchored most of the time along the US east coast. We love it. It has held us in 40 knot sustained winds, and through tidal changes in swift currents. It seldom dragged and was always there for us. However, since arriving in South Florida we have found it harder to set and hold. The reason for this is that has a tendency to skip along the harder surfaces on which we now find ourselves anchored.

Both the CQR and Bruce anchors were premium anchors when Sea Change II took her her voyages in the 1990′s. Since then some new all round anchors have been released. These anchors are especially good at setting and resetting themselves. Some include roll bars to prevent the anchor lying on it’s side.

Today we purchased a state-of-the-art Manson Supreme anchor. Our new Manson Supreme has a self righting roll bar and a reputation for fast setting/resetting. We are going to retire our CQR and… if we can get them both to fit snugly… keep both the Manson and the Bruce on the bow. The Bruce works better on soft bottoms than the Manson.

We are hoping for more restful nights!

Floating Retirement Villages

As we travel south the marinas and mooring fields carer more and more to cruising sailors. At the beginning of our trip in Lake Superior, cruising sailors were far and few between so marinas and towns, with few exceptions, were not setup to cater to them.

Three of our last destinations, Melbourne, Titusville and Vero Beach are destinations in their own right. Good protection, staff that caters to most of the needs of cruising sailors, great showers, club room, laundry, grocery stores in walking distance and/or free shuttle buses.   They are very comfortable.

Perhaps a little too comfortable for my taste. But they meet the needs of the typical cruiser – a 50+ couple wanting a comfortable, hassle free cruise down the east coast of the USA to Florida to the Bahamas. They are full of  lots of nice, happy, greying people living their dream.

Tonight we are at anchor again in a strong northerly. We put out an anchor on heavy chain, set it and hope it holds. The Garmin GPSmap 740s anchor alarm is turned on to warn us of dragging, but I am still up during the night visually checking our position. It is work and worry but our trip feels a bit more like an adventure again.

The floating retirement villages are nice, and maybe we will end up in one, but we are not ready for one just yet!

Vero Beach, FL

N29 53.73324 W81 18.69293

Left Melbourne, FL about 8am and sailed down the Indian River until the channel narrowed again. Made Vero Beach  around 2pm. Vero Beach is another sailing hotspot, hosting Thanksgiving potluck every year. Excellent facilities for sailors transiting south. It is so busy at this time of the year there are two to three boats per mooring. (Sailors lingo for this is “rafting”.)

Forecast is for another cold front to come through tonight so we will stay here for a few days. Good place for me to get caught up on work and for us to pick up our mail.

Melbourne, FL

N28 5.38926 W80 34.6833

Cold fronts are coming fast and furious down the east coast of Florida so we are stuck on the ICW again.

Left Titusville around 9am.

Luckily the ICW opens up at Titusville and there was plenty of room to sail on a close reach down to Melbourne, FL in 15kts. Sea Change loves any kind of reach.

Greatest naval shipyard in the world

I am not exactly what we saw in Norfolk, VA. I think we saw four or five aircraft carriers. To active duty, two being dismantled and one being built. We also saw a lot of new fangled warships. The new fangled warships don’t look like warships because they do not have many guns sticking out of them. On the Chesapeake Bay we saw a Stilletto stealth ship that hardly looks like a ship at all. We also saw a retired World War II battleship. It looked tiny compared to the modern ships.

Two active duty carriers

The US has ten aircraft carriers in service, and I think we were lucky enough to see two active duty carriers, one being built, and two being dismantled and while we sailed through Norfolk and Newport News.

Two carriers being dismantled

Norfolk was by far the busiest port we have travelled through with warships and container ships crowding Norfolk Reach. We travelled just outside the shipping channel crossing the shipping channel several times to avoid naval exclusions zones. When we crossed the shipping lanes we were dodging big ships.

Dodging ships