Tuesday, May 7, 2013

When Should I Change Course?

In my last post I expressed my frustration with the limited success I have had in plotting my great grandfather-in-law’s dead reckoning course from St John’s Newfoundland to Burin. It was time to change tactics. I figured that since I would be retracing his route, I might as well start planning my own strategy with an eye to the instrumentation and methods available in 1886. 

One of the first lessons that all sailors learn is that a sailboat of any era cannot sail directly into the wind. Even in a modern sailboat we can only sail to within approximately 45 degrees of the wind. (The two courses: one with the wind on the port (left) side and the other with the wind on the starboard (right) side are referred to as lay lines.) In captain Robert’s schooner he may have had to sail even further off the wind, perhaps as much as 60 degrees. Given this necessity, we make progress to windward in a zig zag course first on one lay line then the other. Each zig is called a tack. From plain geometry we know that if we make only one zig and one zag or many of each we will traverse the same total distance. Assuming for simplicity that we want to make the destination with only one change of tack, we are left with the decision how far to travel along the first lay line before we change to the other.

On Virago, we usually answer this question by setting a waypoint at the destination on our chart plotter. This provides a constant display of the bearing to the mark. We start on the lay line closest to the bearing and watch the display of the bearing to the mark until it lies on the lay line of the other tack. Then we tack. All well and good in this 21st century, but how would Captain Roberts have known when to tack? I found my answer in an entry in that same 1829 London Encyclopedia I used in my last post—this time its article “On Plying to Windward”.

On Plying to Windward

Plying to windard Problem

The entry is shown on the left and an explanatory drawing of the problem above. To understand it I had to grapple with two issues.

First, I had to understand the calculations. While rummaging around in some old memory cells I recalled the concept of logarithms. To make math more practical before calculators the author used log sines and number logarithms to turn multiplication and division into addition and subtraction. In practice, sailors often used a Gunter Rule (a precursor of the slide rule.) The logarithmic calculations were accomplished by using ordinary dividers much like pacing off distances on a latitude scale. I don’t know if Captain Roberts had a Gunter Rule, but he well could have.

Gunter Rule

Second, I had to understand how a sailor might use this in practice. To make life simple, suppose I wish to sail from St John’s to Burin Newfoundland with only one tack. Motoring, I would go from St John’s to Cape Spear, to Cape Race, and to Burin’s sea buoy. This would usually be an impossible sail since the prevailing wind is from the Southwest (225º True). Assuming that Virago can tack through 90º, our two lay lines would be 180º and 270º. I would thus set out on the starboard lay line 180º, but when would I tack if I didn’t know when Cape Race was on my port lay line of 225º at Tack Pt 1?

Pro Forma ST John's to Burin

Here’s where the law of sines does its magic. Assume a triangle with angles a,b,and c and opposite sides of A,B, and C. The law tells us that sine a / A equals sine b / B and sine c / C. In our example:

sine 90º/71 = sine 17º / port tack = sine 73º / starboard tack.

This is another way of saying what our 19th century author said. Being a creature of the 21st century, I chose to create a spreadsheet as my digital ‘Gunter Rule’ analog. Given this calculation no matter how done, I can see that I should sail for 68 miles on the starboard leg before tacking. Then I would sail for 21 miles before falling off at Cape Race for the reach to Burin.

Spreadsheet Tacking Angle

In practice, a sailor might choose to sail out to sea (where there is little to hit) at night and head for land during daylight when it is visible. Looking back at Captain Robert’s log, it looks like that was his strategy. He approached land at 1400 hours on July 13th then headed roughly East (away from land). Later he headed West again spotting Cape Race light at 0200 hours on July 14th and headed more Northward for Burin. Given the geometry, I might choose a similar strategy by sailing seaward from Cape Spear for one half the distance (34 miles), turn towards land for 10 miles, return to seaward for the other 34 miles, and then back to the West for the final 10 miles.

In sum, I feel that I have satisfied my desire to understand Captain Robert’s dead reckoning well enough to expand my sailing repertoire. I am working with my navigator for the trip James English to experiment with dead reckoning as a practical procedure rather than just an ‘in case of electronic failure’ backup plane. We will report our results and observations this summer.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Forensic Navigation -- Recreating a Route from an 1886 Schooner's Log

Why would someone with over 10,000 miles of coastal cruising as well as a USCG 50 Ton Masters license pursue a US Sailing Coastal Passage Making certification? My best explanation is that my experience resembles a wheel of Swiss cheese - impressive looking, but full of holes. Take navigation for instance. Even after 18 years of experience cruising keel boats and passing the rigorous Coast Guard exam, I had a new experience in my Club Nautique Coastal Navigation class. As an exercise we plotted a course based only on a vessel log book. As with most textbook examples, it worked perfectly. I have to admit that my own log book is much too sparse to admit such perfection. Could I take what I had learned and apply it to a real life log which recorded heading and speed at regular intervals and whenever the vessel changed course?

Cover of Schooner Runnymede's Log Book
As it happens, I do have such a log. My great grandfather-in-law Nathaniel Roberts was a sea captain sailing out of St John's, Newfoundland in the 1880s. The family still has his chart case containing charts, instruments, ephemeris, sailing directions, and the Book of Common Prayer. I was excited to view his charts with the hope that he had plotted his courses there. Alas, the good captain left his precious charts pristine. In addition to this legacy, a facsimile of his log from the schooner Runnymede has been printed by the Mystic Seaport Museum. That log has become my DIY kit for recreating and eventually following a voyage he made from St John's to Burin in 1886.

What type of vessel was she? There is a register of the British Merchant Navy for 1886 showing two schooners named Runnymede out of St John's. On was of 53 tons and one was of 57 tons. Neither was owned by Nathaniel Roberts. Looking at modern schooners and seeing that the highest speed he recorded in her log was 8 knots, I estimate her to have been about 80 ft overall with a 50 foot waterline. I will try to find more definitive info when I visit St John's this summer. 

Here is the first page of the log describing the first day as he sailed out from St John's harbor. Consulting an almanac for that date obtained from the Google library, we can see that he left with the tide. This was wise as St John's harbor is long and narrow with step hills on either side. I don't know if British practice followed the American rules that gave sailors the Sabbath off except for when leaving or arriving at port, but perhaps not coincidentally July 11, 1886 was a Sunday.

There were of course other aspects of 18th century usage that raised questions:
1: What did the column headings mean? 'H' meant hour, 'K' meant speed in knots, 'HK' meant additional half knot, 'Courses' probably meant course to steer given to the helmsman, although usage could vary, 'Winds' meant directions from which the wind blew and its strength (not strictly adhering to the Beaufort scale), 'Leeway' meant number of points course made good differed from the steered course, and 'Remarks' were just free form text.
Pages for July 11 and 12 1886
2: What are the times? Consulting period publications I found out that 19th century mariners usually kept time from noon to noon as opposed to midnight to midnight. This made sense at sea since the noon sight required precise determination of high noon. For this reason I interpret his locations 'by observation' to be his position at noon. It took some research to discover that the phrase 'on account' referred to what we nowadays call dead reconing.
3: Are the bearings magnetic or true? Today, purists insist that we plot our courses and fill our log books with true bearings. In practice, small vessels usually use magnetic bearings. I plotted this course both ways and found no bearings that were impossible either way. With no hard evidence to go on, I chose to interpret his bearings as magnetic.
32 Points of the Compass
4: How do we translate his 32 point compass readings into degrees? Since there are 360 degrees in a circle, each 32nd must be 11.25 degrees. The easiest way to translate this is with a table like this one.
5: How do we convert his magnetic bearings to true so we can plot his courses? The Newfoundland Almanac for 1886 gives the variation as 32 degrees and 30 seconds (p. 5). Given the degrees magnetic, all navigators know that since "Timid Virgins Make Dull Companions--Add West" means we should subtract the West variation to correct his magnetic bearings to true.
6: How did he do his 'accounting' or what we call dead reckoning? I can't be sure, but my go in assumption is that he recorded his speed for every two hour period and whenever he changed course.
7: How did he establish his true position? In the 1829 edition of The London Encyclopedia, the Navigation entry says that navigators are adept at determining the distance to landmarks and thus consider the bearing and distance to a landmark an accurate fix.
8: Did he use celestial navigation? We have one entry where he listed one latitude 'on account' (by dead reckoning) and another latitude 'by observation' (noon sighting.) Their distance apart of six miles is considered acceptable.
9: Besides navigation information, what do the Remarks tell us? I interpret the liberal sprinkling of boiler plate like "crew employed as duty required" and "pumps attended to" as an indication that his log was subject to review by the ship's owners.

I decided that my first step was to transcribe the log as best I could to make it more easily accessible
Transcription of Pages for July 11 and 12 1886
My second step was to develop a technique for plotting the fixes found in the Remarks that could be electronically illustrated. Let's take the very first one:"5 pm Cape Spear bore North by West distant 3 miles." From our table we see that North by West equals 348 degrees and 45 seconds. To correct this to true we subtract 32 degrees 30 seconds yeilding 316 degrees and 15 seconds. Typically we need to take the reciprical of the bearing to the landmark and plot our bearing line from the landmark to the vessel. The reciprocal is calculated by subtracting 180 degrees giving us a bearing of 136 degrees and 15 seconds. Along this line we measure the distance and voila we have our fix.

First Sighting in iNavX
Route of July 1886 in iNavX

My tool of choice for this exercise was iNavX on my iPad. By using the range tool I can draw a vector from Cape Spear outward for 3 nautical miles at a bearing of 136 degrees. Then I can add a waypoint at that position and label it July 11 1700. By a similar procedure I can enter all the waypoints for this particular trip.

My third step was to create a route in iNavX linking all of the waypoints.The tool calculates all the individual bearings and distances of the legs of the trip. In addition it shows the total distance of 207 nautical. It took the Runnymede just about a week to make the 207 mile trip we see in this overview. iNavX also allows exporting the route to a KML file readable by Google Earth.

Chart of Route in July 1886in iNavX

My fourth step was to follow the bi-hourly entries line by line to recreate an 'account' or as we call it, a dead reckoning. To date, this effort has been a frustration. To take an obvious example, notice the time gap between the last entry for July 11 and the first entry for July 12.  There appear to be no entries for a twenty four hour period. In addition, there are times when he recorded lite winds and yet showed three knot speeds. I am incredulous that his 18th century schooner was capable of making three knots in lite winds. I have tried to recreate the dead reckoning of each leg of this trip as well as the return voyage he made in August of the same year. So far, no luck. I hope his log keeping was not as sparse as my own.

So, what is the net of all this effort?
1: First it is a fascinating exercise in navigation putting to use some of my training.
2: Second, it has pulled me into my wife's family history and piqued our interest in taking Virago from Mane to St John's. To that end, I am planning a cruise from Portland, Maine to St John's Newfoundland and back to Bar Harbor, Maine this summer. On the leg from Burin to St John's I will make an effort to recreate at least some of Captain Roberts' sightings.
3: Third, it has made me more conscious of how valuable a well kept log might be in the future. I intend to be more diligent in my log keeping on any upcoming trip.

Google Earth View of Upcoming Trip in a KML File.

Monday, April 23, 2012

First Weather Delay

As most of you know, Virago has spent the winter on the hard in Yarmouth, Maine. It was due for launch today, April 23rd, but launch has been postponed until tomorrow, the 24th. No big deal, but after 8,000 nautical miles of travel it's the first wait for a weather window! With good luck, we will take her to her summer mooring in Harpswell, Maine tomorrow.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Trip Summary: 5/13/11 to 5/27/11

By Bill Eddy


Nautical Miles





Isla Mujeres, Mx To

Dry Tortugas, US






Dry Tortugas To

Key West, Florida






Key West, To

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida













Virago Crew:

Paul Goss, Captain (Retired Business Consultant)

Bill Eddy, (Retired HR Exec)

Robin Matt, (Labor Arbitrator)

Day by Day Comments and Data:

Friday, 5/13/11:

Travel Day for Bill—Left Oakland at 9:52am. Good US Air flights on time on all counts. ADO Bus for 45 Pesos to Central Cancun taxi terminal, 50 Peso taxi to ferry terminal, and 70 Peso ferry ride from Cancun to Isla Mujeres. Arrived at Isla Mujeres and the Marina Pariaso and Virago at 1215 Saturday. My Captain Paul had a nice cool Vodka waiting for me and we visited and settled in. Robin had arrived earlier in the day from LAX and was sleeping below after a long travel day.

Saturday, 5/15/11:

Up at 0700 to start boat tasks, including total exterior wash down and a food/supplies inventory. Virago had been in a local boatyard for a bottom job and had all the usual dirt and yard scum on her. Temps in the 80’s in the am to 90’s in the pm. Best to do boat tasks in the mornings to beat the heat. In the afternoon, we taxied to the hotel zone for a tour and our first supply run at our favorite Express Market. There were few people in town, given that it was the low season due to heat. Upon return to the boat, we had sundowner cocktails and a pork chop and rice dinner on board. Paul and Robin did the cooking.

Sunday, 5/16/11:

Up at 0630 for tasks. These included a thorough interior sanitize and organization. Paul went up the mast for mast light and Windex repairs and general rig inspection. Upon inspection he found that the Windex was shot due to corrosion so complete replacement would be needed later.

In the pm, we went to town again ($3US taxi for all 3 of us per trip) for more shopping and back to the boat. After sundowner beers, we went to the Soggy Peso shore side palapa for rib night. Paul had discovered this place in the weeks before while he was in bed and breakfast mode. They run a different special every night at reasonable prices. By the time we got there at 6pm, they had run out of ribs. However, the place was really unique with lots of sailors at the bar. We went to town to Angelos for a nice dinner of ribs of course. Like so many other Mexican ports we have visited, the natives and tourists didn’t start to gather for dinner until 8-9pm to beat the heat.

On the way back to the boat around 9pm we walked to the town plaza (zocallo) where they had the Isla Mujeres cultural song and dance night going on. The stage backdrop was the Palacio Municipal, the city hall that was all lit up in colored lights. They had a sound system for the music, and the plaza was filled with friends and relatives of the performers, along with us tourists. It was a little “hokie” but sure fun to watch in the warm evening. We next returned to the Express Market to buy our final bottled waters, all we could reasonably carry and taxied back to the boat.

Upon return, we found that the couple in an Anteres 44 Catamaran adjacent to us had appropriated our boat steps. It wasn’t entirely clear why they took them, but we had a friendly talk with them and retrieved the steps for our departure tomorrow. We think they thought that the harbor master had given them the steps, or that they thought they were theirs. No harm done.

Monday, 5/16/11:

Up at 0700 for breakfast and prep work for departure, a day earlier than our schedule. Mild temperatures today. 76 inside and 81 degrees outside. This is the coolest temps we have experienced in Isla. Sky clear and light breeze at 5-8k NE. Upon final departure rig inspection, we found that both forward running lights were not working. Thus, we delayed our am departure and worked all morning and up until 3pm fixing the fixtures and wiring. It looked like corrosion had eaten the wiring connections on both fixtures and we did not have a spare set so these needed to be refurbished until we could get to the US and a marine store. While this was going on, we did get our passports stamped and Paul got us cleared out of Mexico officially.

At 3:55pm, we cleared our berth at Marina Pariaso, out of Isla Mujeres harbor and into the Yucatan Channel. Light breeze, calm sea state, and had to motor to make progress. Around 7:30pm, we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and cantaloupe for dinner. Nobody was really hungry. We tried our new water flavoring in the small squeeze bottle and it was just as good as the powdered Nestea flavoring we had used in the past. However, with this, all you have to do is put a drop or two in a regular water bottle and shake it up. Much more convenient. We started our watch schedule at 8pm. With only 3 crew, Bill and Robin teamed for 8-midnight, Paul alone from midnight to 4, and Bill and Robin back for the 4-8am shift. Paul kind of got the shaft being alone with us on standby, but hopefully some alone time was good for mind clearing. During the night we passed the cruise ship Carnival Legend doing 6.4k for Cozumel and two freighters heading for Houston and Mississippi at 18k @.

On shift,we averaged around 8k, motoring with a robust 1k following sea and a 20 degree cross track. Full moon, wind at 2.0-5.0k NE, warm and flat sea state. No sailing possible, but good for sleeping below at least. Six ships passed us in the night heading south and west.

Tuesday, 5/17/11:

Up at 0400 for shift change. After Paul briefed us on conditions, Robin and I split the 4 hour shift in two. Seas still calm, wind 2-9k in wrong direction for progress without motor. At 0815, Paul came up after well deserved rest. We had fresh brewed coffee, fresh cut pineapple, hard cooked eggs and toast. Our friend Harry would be proud of us.

Mid morning, the forward head blew up on Robin. Reason unknown, but required lots of nasty cleanup. Will fix later and simply use the aft head for all of us until further notice.

At 1115, we passed the Carnival Inspiration heading to Cozumel from Miami. Thus far, all the sea life we have seen have been a very few flying fish. None have landed on the boat yet. We have covered 122nm by 0900 of the 298 mile leg. We expect to arrive at the Dry Tortugas Islands by mid day tomorrow.

We motored all day, took naps and Paul tried to fix the forward head. At that point it looked like a hose connection was loose so we think we are back in business. At sunset, a pair of little swallows came on board. Real love birds, and very unusual to see typical land based birds this far out in the ocean. Before 2000 shift, we had a nice beef stroganoff dinner and fresh fruit. We had been snacking on fruit, and chips and guacamole all day. By 2000 shift start, we were still motoring in the moonlight, in 2k breeze with a 2 knot following sea, 85 degrees and 3-5 foot swells. Great motoring weather if we had to do this. We were 70 miles north of Cuba in 8000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wednesday, 5/18/11:

Up at 0400 for 4-8 watch. Still no wind, full moon and 85 degrees. Only 2-3 freighters passed on Paul’s watch. At 0800, Virago arrived at the first Dry Tortugas marker. We followed the very narrow channel into the anchorage adjacent to the incredible Fort Jefferson. (See Pictures and brochures) We dropped anchor at 0930 in 15-20 feet of powder blue to white water.

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We Approach Fort Jefferson

Rub a Dub Dub – Robin Rows Us Ashore


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Toyot Establishes a Beachhead

Robin Disguised as Stormtrooper Rows Back to Virago

Remarkably, in literally the middle of nowhere, we met a fellow C-470 owner, anchored next to us. He was Carl Smeigh, the 470 group technical editor for Mainsheet Magazine, on his 470 “Southern Cross”. Carl lives in St. Petersburg Florida. After much Catalina yacht talk, Carl took Paul on his dinghy to the fort to register for our one night stay in the anchorage. Ft. Jefferson is managed by the US Park Service and Paul was charged $5 per person for the stay.

We launched Toyot for a row into the beach and a self guided tour of the extremely large and impressive fort. Robin did the rowing to shore and we spent 3 hours on the walking tour of the property. This was the largest of the Union forts to guard against a Confederate invasion by sea of the lower US and Florida areas. The fort, while essentially finished over several years, never had a battle. There was no water, and vegetation to speak of on these few sand spits of islands. However, millions of birds and turtles. Given its isolated location, the Union army used the fort for a prison for its deserters and other enemies of the north. Life was extremely harsh there and escape not a good option. Ft. Jefferson was built entirely of bricks, hauled by sailing vessels from the Maine area. Millions of them, so many, that the weight of the fort started to sink the near sea level island. This is a huge fort, 3-4 stories tall, massive in armament and gun galleries, with a deep moat all the way around it. Hard to describe how formidable this thing is.

After our walking tour, Robin rowed us back to Virago where all 3 of us took a swim in the 80 degree, crystal clear water. We had cocktail time then a pasta and meat sauce dinner with fresh vegetables. We plan to leave around 0600 tomorrow, following Carl out the northern anchorage exit to Key West, where he was heading home. By 8pm the wind was again calm, and there were 6 other sailboats and a couple of motor yachts in the anchorage. After dishes cleaned, we relaxed and hit the rack at 2200.

Note: The fort has a constant stream of tourists each day from Key West. They arrived by fast ferry and seaplanes each morning, stayed the day and returned home in the afternoon.

Thursday, 5/19/11:

Up at 0515 for departure to Key West, leaving the anchorage at 0620 for open ocean. With his many trips to the Dry Tortugas, Carl confidently guided us out of the anchorage and we buddy boated along, under power. Wind light and on the nose so no sailing today. We had coffee and toast for breakfast, and cup of noodles and fruit for lunch. By noon, we were adjacent to the Marquesas Keys between Dry Tortugas and Key West. Once used as a Navy bombing range, the totally deserted keys were rich with vegetation and palm trees. Quite a difference from the baron Tortugas. Reminded me of a South Pacific Atoll. All the keys for the rest of the leg up to Key West were rich with vegetation, many with fancy homes and resorts dotting their shores, and lots of boats anchored around them. A boaters paradise for sure.

We arrived outside the main channel to enter Key West, and Paul called the West Bight Marina to get a slip and directions. We had considered anchoring out, but the anchorage was a mile or two from land/docks, and without an outboard motor would have been too much work for us to transit. At our crew’s age, we may not have made it rowing. As we approached the town, we passed a small Royal Caribbean cruise ship docked and many other boats coming and going. After getting 30 gallons of fuel, we docked Virago at 1530. Paul made contact with Customs and Immigration and gave them enough information so we could stay and go ashore. We would have to go to the airport here to finalize customs check in and get passports stamped tomorrow.

After securing Virago we all took showers and went to town for dinner at the famous Turtle Kraals. A very good place for happy hour, our CDA, and comfort food. We landed in their rooftop bar overlooking the harbor and the northeast end of town. Quite picturesque. We had cheese burgers, cheese fries, grilled onions and coleslaw for $6.50, and $2.50 beers. Kind of like “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” in Key West. Paul and Robin’s burgers were not done well enough for their tastes, but perfect for me. Note: Didn’t stop Robin from cleaning his plate however.

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Heading for Upper Level Dining at Turtle Kraals

Sign Points to Portland, Maine

After dinner, we took the “Harbor Walk” around the city’s entire outer edge tourist areas. Hundreds of bars and restaurants, food booths, gift shops, craft stands, boutique shops of all kinds, street entertainers (jugglers, fortune tellers, escape artists, fire eaters, skate boarders, and street mimes and musicians).

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As we traversed the walk, at least 8 heavily loaded sunset cruise sailing vessels headed by downtown. The bars were full and the whole scene was noisy and vibrant. The hotels and condos that line the shore were beautiful, most with ocean and bay views. We say museums, theaters and the central town park full of statues of the cities founding fathers.

After our walking tour, we returned to the boat for refreshments and calls home. Great to have strong cell phone coverage. Off to bed at 2230.

Friday, 5/20/11:

Up at 0700 for coffee and toast. At 0840, we headed off to the Key West International Airport by bus, to check in as instructed yesterday afternoon. We took one of the muni bus lines around the town and got a great sightseeing tour. We noted a broad range of home styles and quality. Lots of New Orleans style two story wood homes with large porches. We passed 100’s of small inns and hotels, various inlets full of boats, and the usual sad ghettos.

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FIASCO!! At the airport we found that the customs and immigration officers were all at the cruise dock checking in a Carnival Cruise Line ship. We were told to come back after 1300 to see them. We waited 25 minutes for the next bus back to our docking area. Another sightseeing tour on that route, but no customs results. Back at the boat we gathered and washed our laundry, and did minor tasks on the boat.

At 1400, we again headed to the airport, on yet another sightseeing route and got our documents cleared and the boat checked into the US. Everything went smoothly and there were no “funny fees” to pay like Belize. (Captain’s note: We did have to order a decal from the Homeland Security Administration for $27. I pointed out that Virago had entered San Diego from Mexico without one and the official said, “Those guys don’t follow procedures.”) Robin and I got off the bus mid route at a Winn-Dixie store where we got minor supplies for the rest of our trip to Lauderdale. Once done, we taxied back to the boat with our groceries and put the purchases away. I transferred fuel from deck jugs to the empty port tank, leaving only 6 gallons still in deck.

At 1930 we had pasta and beef bowl for dinner then finished tasks. By 2000 we were relaxing in the cockpit after a big day of riding busses and wasting our time with the Homeland Security processes. A necessary evil! At 2100 Paul and I went in search of a good Key West dive bar with some music. We found the famous Green Parrot, with full bluegrass band, packed house of characters (locals mostly), and loud.

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We then moved next door for better music. Just as we sat down and ordered a drink, the band played their last song and packed up. Should have asked. We finished our drinks and walked around the endless entertainment district and listened to 5-6 more bands.

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The bars and sidewalks were packed with party folks, numerous bachelor and bachelorette parties and such. Unreal atmosphere. Drinking on the streets is legal in a plastic cup. We were told that there are 300 bars and clubs in town. Notwithstanding the customs/immigration fiasco, that delay led to a fun time seeing this unique town for an extra day. Paul and I were home by 1215 for sleep.

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Everybody wants to get into the act!  These are amusing sculptures on the grounds of the old city hall. Key West is truly a party town.
Spring 2011 271 Key West is the Southern terminus for US Route 1 which has its Northern terminus in Fort Kent, Maine. BTW: The captain has been there also, but not by boat.

Saturday, 5/21/11:

Up at 0700 to start the departure process and tasks. We had a nice apple pancake and coffee breakfast, cleared the deck of fuel cans and misc. stuff, hosed the boat off, filled the water tanks and took off for Ft. Lauderdale at 1050.

We exited past the now empty cruise docks, around the city front and out into the Straits of Florida. It was a clear day, 5-8k breeze, flat sea, mid 80’s, and easterly wind on the nose. No sailing for now. Our route took us up the entire chain of keys at 5 miles off shore at the most. We were just outside the various barrier reefs and inside the shipping lanes. Very pleasant conditions, viewing all the islands and their connecting bridges and causeways from the water. Again, a boater’s paradise. The only excitement was on Channel 16 from the Coast Guard. Subjects included a would be bridge leaper in Marathon, a red flare sighting off Biscayne Bay, and a PLB set off near Miami.

Dinner was served at 1900 by Robin. It was the long anticipated Polynesian Surprise (see pictures) This is a concoction of beans, span cubes, pineapple and seasonings we think. It was served in a bowl with bread. One of my pictures is of our Captain actually eating it with a smile on his face. Good fun!! Where is Harry when we need him. The rest of the evening we maintained our same watch schedule that saw 10-12 cargo ships passing n/s about 6 miles off our starboard side in the shipping lanes. Breeze seemed good but on the nose. No sailing yet. Between the reefs and the shipping lanes, we really didn’t have a lot of room to sail anyway, and get to Lauderdale in a timely fashion.

Sunday, 5/22/11:

Up at 0400 to partial moonlight, a view of Key Largo, 8-11k breeze on the starboard bow. At 0200 Paul had deployed the jib for stability and a sail attempt. The current was favorable and by 0500 we were motor sailing at 8 plus knots in 7-10k breeze. However, no true sailing was going to happen. By 0530 we could see Biscayne Bay, the last key area and the large Miami skyline in the distance.

Special Note: Around 0500, in the dark, we passed within 75’ of a large catamaran with 4 crew in the cockpit. We were on opposite headings. The important point is that this very large cat left no radar image on our set at close range settings at all. We know our radar is golden as we saw all kinds of other objects all trip and after this incident. Shows the importance of watch personnel on deck observing at all times. We altered heading by a few degrees for safety once we saw the vessel.

By 0800, we were off So. Miami Beach and floated by the entire city front. We were so close we could see some of the much televised So. Beach hotels. The entire waterfront was full of 30-40 story condos and office building of all shapes and sizes. Boats were everywhere. We had breakfast of cheese toast and coffee and continued to motor to the entrance to the Port Everglades/Ft. Lauderdale port channel. We entered the channel with tanker and freighter traffic, and stopped until the 17th Street drawbridge was to open. We were right in front of the Princess Cruises terminal where Nora and I embark on our cruises. The only cruise ship in the big harbor was the Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, one of the biggest such ships there is. Once the drawbridge opened we motored up to the entrance of the New River that goes roughly into the downtown area of Ft. Lauderdale. We turned to port. Had we turned starboard at the intersection, we would have been in the continuing Inter-coastal waterway. Along the New, we saw hundreds of beautiful water/channel front homes, many with very large motor yachts docked in front of them. Our destination was the Old Town Marina in the thick of the condos and the famous River Walk of Ft. Lauderdale. We found our slip and side tied at 1210 hours.

Special Note: This docking marks the last leg of my journey with Paul, after close to 5000 nautical miles of cruising on Virago, starting in October of 2009 in Alameda, CA. What fun!! Paul is continuing on to Maine from here, to arrive amid fireworks in his favorite anchorage of all time.

We’re side tied right on the River Walk amid the high-rise condos and restaurant areas. On the shore side are walkers and their pets, on the water side is the river channel with its never ending stream of boats traversing the area. We will see the harbormaster later on to figure out where we really are and how to access services here. We all called home. Good to hear Nora’s voice and catch up on home items. 85 degrees inside Virago and 93 outside.

We spent the afternoon putting things away, decanting the last of the deck fuel jugs into our tanks, cleared the deck and went ashore for walk and a shower. Little did I know that the shower was a 25 minute walk in the humid heat up the River Walk . Robin and Paul showered on the boat as I should have done with 20/20 hindsight. The boys went to the market so Robin could use the ATM and Paul could pick up some items for dinner. At 1745, with fresh clothes and body, I relaxed in the cockpit with a vodka until the shoppers returned. At 1900 we had takeout dinner on board, and hit the sack at 2100.

Monday, 5/23/11:

Up at 0745 after much needed sleep. Robin and I walked up to a local Starbucks for coffee and to use their head, since ours was a 25 minute walk. Upon return, we had coffee and planned out boat mtce tasks for the remaining time Robin and I had on board. Paul went by bus to the closest West Marine and got parts to fix the forward head. Upon his return we walked to the harbormaster’s office and got good info on local facilities, vendors and drawbridge operations. We also set up our boat move up the river to a better section of marina called Cooley’s Landing Marina for tomorrow morning. According to

the office staff, our move must be done on slack tide between 0945 and 1030 hours.

We went to the Publix Market for supplies and returned to the boat for tasks. We did deck surface rust removal while Paul worked on the head and Robin cleaned out the refer/freezer boxes. Paul made another trip to West Marine for some electrical parts for the head. By 1900 we were tired so had dinner of angel hair pasta and rotisserie chicken from Publix. By 2230, we folded after calls home. Always good!!

Tuesday, 5/24/11:

Up at 0720. Moving boat this am. Went to Starbucks for coffee and a dump, then back to relo the boat. The slack current in the river was in a tight time frame so we had to be efficient. The bridges are coordinated, so once you give one drawbridge operator your timing and destination, he notifies the successive bridge operators and they automatically open said bridges. We made it to Cooley’s on time and docked up with little trouble. Once set up, Paul continued with head repair, ahead of getting a UPS delivery of a new $500 controller soon. The head was terminal without it after several phone consultations Paul had with the manufacturer. We accomplished tasks and watched a mother duck and 13 babies trailing behind her. She, like boaters trying to dock, waited for slack river flow to traverse across the river. Her nesting and resting area was right in front of Virago on the dock, where long term berthers apparently feed her and her brood regularly.

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  Virago Safe at the Dock

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Brinney’s Irish Pub


We went to dinner at 1800 at Brinneys Irish Pub on the River Walk, to celebrate Robins last night with us. Food was good and the place had a ceiling covered with nautical items. Being an Irish Pub, they had a countdown timer on the wall counting down days, hours, minutes and seconds until St. Patrick’s Day. We returned to the boat at 2000 and enjoyed the busy river boat traffic and a little cool breeze. The drawbridge near our boat was up and down all day and night except during business commute hours. The bridge traffic alarm was our clue that a large boat was coming by soon. The boats ranged from canoes, to multi million dollar mega yachts, some under power and some being towed. Very lively boating community for sure.

Wednesday, 5/25/11:

Up at 0645 for coffee and tasks. Paul went up the mast and installed the new Windex at 0830. Later, we visited and sent Robin on his way to his aunt’s house in Sarasota Florida where he planned a visit before his trek home to Ventura. I washed the boat exterior and Paul retrieved 2 out of 3 boxes he was waiting for from Garhauer Marine containing our new dinghy davits. These boxes had made mistaken journeys to the Bay Area, then redirected by UPS to Florida somewhere, then to our Marina. The third box did not make it. It contained the cross braces and hardware to finish the job. Hopefully coming before Paul has to leave for the next leg of the trip. Paul made another bus trip to West Marine and exchanged one of the interior fans for a new on. Now all fans work beautifully. At 1730, Paul and I unpacked the main davit parts and did a visual first fitting to see if clearances were ok for an install tomorrow. There appeared to be plenty of room below the helm area to access and set bolts for the davit bases. This was a big relief for both of us. We celebrated the day’s accomplishments (see list) with sundowners and returned to Brinneys Pub for dinner. Food good again.

Thursday, 5/26/11:

Up at 0715 for coffee and toast. We then started the davit base install, then the main arms and their attachments to the stern rails. It all went smoothly and we finished all we could do without the missing box of cross braces, by 1130 hours. We had a beer and started interior cleaning and organizing for the benefit of the next crew, arriving tomorrow. (Marj, Jennifer and Lorraine). A dock neighbor who happened to have a Catalina 470, took pity on us and offered to buy and bring back beer on his grocery run. With mid 90’s heat and humidity, we welcomed his offer. We worked through the day cleaning and putting things away. Still waiting for the third UPS box. Around 1700 we took showers and once again went to Brinneys. The place has such a large and diverse menu, you could eat there for 5-10 days and not have the same thing twice. Home to bed by 2150.

Friday, 5/27/11:

Up at 0745. Did boat tasks and extreme cleaning for the final time before it was time to take the bus to the airport. My last time on Virago for this voyage to Maine. Paul left ahead of me to meet the new crew at the airport and I followed shortly thereafter. Alone on Virago, I had time to remember all the great sailing and good times Paul and I and the various crew had together. We visited and enjoyed a lot of countries, their people and cultures. I think we will call this “a once in a lifetime opportunity”. My walk to the bus stop was the first time on this leg that it rained, and rain and thunder it did. When I got on the bus the rain let up but I was soaked. I forgot this part of Florida living. No thanks. Trip home was smooth and on time. I know Paul and the new crew will have a blast going up the east coast, and I look forward to getting the SPOT messages and following their progress.

The End

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fort Étude – Fuerte San Lorenzo, Colon, Panama

Fuerte San Lorenzo is a ruined Spanish fort overlooking the mouth of the Chagres river about seven miles West of the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. It is a short cab ride from the Shelter Bay Marina which is how Harry Reppert and I visited it.

Why This Location?

Map of Camino de Cruces

In the early 16th century the Spanish were stealing the Inca gold from Peru and operating their own mines there using enslaved native Indians. This plunder was shipped to Panama City on the Pacific Ocean then transported across the Isthmus of Panama to the Caribbean for transshipment to Havana then on to Seville, Spain.  The easiest route across the Isthmus was called the Camino de Cruces which followed the Chagres River for its last twenty miles.  Just as this Camino was the easiest route to move gold from Panama City, it was also the easiest route for pirates to follow to attack the city. Therefore: defending the mouth of the Chagres at San Lorenzo was important to Spain.

How important was the Chagres? It has been claimed that the Chagres is the “richest river in the world.” First,  the Spanish extracted as much gold from Peru as had previously existed in the Old World. Second, as much as one to one and one half billion dollars worth of gold was shipped over this route from the gold fields of California in the mid 1800’s. Third, nearly 80% of the water to operate the Panama Canal is provided by the Chagres River.

Why This Site?

Range of Guns

The Chagres empties into a small bay with a high bluff on its Northern shore. Near the bottom of this bluff there is a useful anchorage that supported a harbor for the transshipment workers. The river itself is only navigable to small vessels, actually just large canoes. Goods were transferred from the canoes to coastal ships bound for Porto Bello about thirty miles to the Eas, where they were again reloaded onto ocean going ships bound for Havana. The high bluff gave defenders an excellent gun platform commanding the entire bay and controlling this activity.





Why This Shape?

Aireal View

It is interesting that the fort is “U” shaped with the base of the “U” towards the land not the sea. I surmise that the builders believed that the steep shoreward walls of the bluff would deter  any landing party. Thus the primary threat would be from the land side. Although it isn’t clear in this photo, there are two rows of gun emplacements with a ditch between them facing the land. The inner wall has the usual drawbridge with flanking embrasures. The longer side walls guard the less formidable flanks of the bluff.

Features of the Fort


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Early Spanish forts had sentry posts called garitas overhanging the walls usually at the corners. They are such distinctive features that one is depicted on the city logo of San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the opposite end of the respect spectrum, the government of Mexico remove the garitas from the Fuerte San Diego in Acapulco when it was renovated into a history and culture center.


The Visit

The approach to the fort doesn’t look too formidable since the walls are not very much higher than the surrounding field. This sloped field is actually called a glacis and is designed to set attacking troops up like ten pins to be shot down by point blank cannon fire. To actually reach the first row of canons we must cross the first of two ditches over a narrow bridge. From the distance we see the gun embrasures, many guns,  and the guard post astride the only entrance

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Once across the first ditch we see the first row of canons. Canon aficionados will recognize that some of these are of English manufacture having been left behind by invading British pirates.

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Cannons to the Right of Us

Cannons to the Left of Us

Having passed the first row of cannons (luckily without volley and thunder) we crossed the second ditch over a partial bridge. During active duty there would have been a drawbridge pulled up by chains hanging from the central guard tower.

 Virago Rescue Paul 186 Harry Crossing the Drawbridge

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Notice Embrasure Flanking the Bridge Safely Looking Back Over Bridge

Once safely inside we can see the central court yard often called the parade ground with the ruins of the barracks.

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Looking back from the parade ground we see most of the fort’s innards.

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The fort is well documented with signage in both Spanish and English.

Short History of  San Lorenzo Typical Informative Sign 
1597. The fort was built in the Chagres River’s mouth as one of the fortifications for protecting the coast from pirates attacks.

1671. Henry Morgan captured the fortress and he used it as his base for attacking Panama City. At his return, Morgan blew up the fort.

1677. Spanish rebuilt and fortified the fort, with additional cannons, batteries, and barracks.

1740. English Admiral Edward Vernon bombards, captures and demolishes the fort.

1750. The fort is rebuilt again, which structure is that currently seen in the remaining ruins.

1821. Panama declares independence from Spain, and Spanish troops leave the region boarding from this place.

1942. During World War II, the United States Army installs artillery in the area of the fort as part of the defense system of the coast and of the Panama Canal.
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New News

In 2010  a team of archeologists found the remains of a 17th century ship near San Lorenzo. It has been known that Morgan lost 5 ships in the shallows of Lajas reef as he approached the fort in 1671. Among the lost ships was Morgan’s flagship “Satisfaction”. The team was partially funded by the Morgan Rum Company and they are hoping to find liquor inside some of the cargo boxes recovered from the wreck. 340 year old rum, anyone?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fort Étude – Fuerte San Diego, Acapulco Mexico

Why study forts? Forts where built in contested places of importance and epitomize the design principle “form should follow function”. I enjoy the forts at four levels of detail. First, there is the political level where we look to answer the question: “Who built this fort and why did they build it?” Second, there is the geographical level where we ask, “Why was the fort built at this site?” Third, looking at the geometric level answers the question, “Why was the fort built this way?” Fourth, at the detail level we ponder, “Why was this part of the fort built this way?”

Why This Location?

Acapulco was settled by the Spanish under Cortez in the 1530’s. Spanish explorer Magellan followed the trade winds West across the Pacific to the Philippines in 1521, but true trade could not begin until Andrés de Urdaneta discovered a return route North to the California coast and thence South to Acapulco in 1565. In Spain, Seville was given a monopoly on trade with the new world. What evolved was a trade route from Seville, to Havana, to Veracruz, to Acapulco, then on to Manila and back. Thus, Acapulco became the largest Spanish port on the West coast of the New World. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spanish shipping was left vulnerable to English, French, and Dutch pirates. Something had to be done--convoys and forts were the two primary measures taken.

Spanish Trade Route

Why This Site?

Once the political decision was made to fortify Acapulco, the site had to be chosen. It was critical that the Manila Galleons anchored in the harbor and the warehouses for the Oriental goods awaiting overland trans shipments to Veracruz be protected from pirates. (Keep in mind that pirates like Drake and Morgan were “state supported terrorists” and might command as many as thirty ships with 1,200 troops!) Acapulco Bay is very large, but  the prime anchorage is in the small Northwestern corner. (Both the Acapulco Yacht Club and the cruise ship dock are in this corner of the bay.)

Range of Guns


Canon Ranges The most likely armament to be available had an effective range of about 1,200 yards—enough to sequester the anchored fleet. The actual site chosen was on a bluff which gave the guns an added advantage over shipboard armaments and made frontal assault extremely difficult. The fort was began in 1615 and extensively strengthen in 1776.

Why This Shape?

Fuerte San Diego is a classic bastioned star fort based upon a regular pentagon. The great military engineer Vauban proposed low forts with thick walls to withstand cannon fire that had obsoleted medieval forts with their high thin walls. He also perfected the star fort layout such that each  face of the fort could be swept by some of its own cannons.  Thus, there are no blind spots out of the reach of its guns.  The regularity of the fort suggests that the designers regarded a land based attack as an equal threat to sea side attack. In fact, the only time the fort fell it fell to a land attach during the revolution in the early 1800’s.

Diagram Acapulco 3 Fuerto San Diego 0

Generic Bastion Fort

Fuerte San Diego in Google

Why These Features?

As a tourist, I come upon a fort built and made obsolete long ago and affording no bird’s eye view. What is visible to the casual visitor are the myriad details. Each fort I visit has features and exhibits illuminating only slivers of the whole story. So as I describe the forts different aspects will be described many of which might have been present at previous forts, just inaccessible. 

Moats & Drawbridges

Most forts have a moat even if it’s just a dry ditch. There is usually one entrance to the fort and that is supplied with a drawbridge. These features were carried over from medieval fortification practices since their usefulness was not diminished by the advent of cannons.

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Fuerte San Diego is Now a History Museum

A Low Wall Surrounds the Moat

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The Bridge is Vulnerable to Flanking Fire

Bastion Embrasure for Flanking Gun


Embrasures are the low openings in the fort wall allowing the cannon to traverse an angle of fire while providing some protection for the gun crews. It’s the angle of travel (usually about thirty degrees left or right) that dictates the angles that the bastions can make with the main walls of the fort. Since Fuerte San Diego has cannons only on the parapet, it has only simple embrasures that are just low spots along the walls.


Many forts are currently being maintained as museums. Fuerte San Diego is now a fine history museum. It contains exhibits about the history of Acapulco and the Manila trade. Cruise ship passengers are the only contemporary invaders coming through in an endless series of tour groups. To a fort nut it is a little disappointing that there is not more interpretation of the actual military aspects of the fort.

 Acapulco 3 Fuerto San Diego 9 Tourists Invading Acapulco 3 Fuerto San Diego 14 Bridge to the Ships

Cruise Ships Dock Right Outside the Fort

New Bridge to Cruise Ship Dock