November 18, 2015

South Africa and/or Bust—a tale of camera gear

It's hard to imagine we'd forget a moment of this trip, but memories fade and photos help keep them close

In our last port before Richards Bay, every single boat we talked to had something that needed repair. Most of us had a lot of somethings that needed repair. The broken gear ranged from biggies like engines (inboard and outboard), dinghies that were on their last legs (or tubes), ripped sails and sail covers, damaged rigging and cranky autopilots to small (but vital) things like rusted out bras (yes, that’s a thing) and worn out bedding.

But for us, the #1 item on our to-do list was to fix our damaged camera equipment.

Because we shoot for both money and memories we have quite a bit of gear aboard. The first time we went cruising, when all of our lenses developed fungus (more on that later), we realized sailing and cameras have an uneasy relationship. And over the course of sailing across the Indian Ocean we proved this was true. We damaged one our main 17-55 F2.8walk-around lens (and may or may not have permanently killed the 7D camera) during a surprise downpour on shore. An older 24-85 lens succumbed to massive fungi infection, while our much loved 10-22 super wide angle took a tumble and broke in half.

By mid Madagascar we were down to our 12-year-old SLR body and a bit of an odd assortment of lenses including two telephoto lenses, an 18-55 that would only communicate with the camera intermittently and the infected lens. Based on our mishaps and experience we learned a few things:

Maia was taught to wrap her sari by tea plantation workers--i love the sweet memory and the photo reminder
Fight the Fungus:
Fungus is an infestation of spores on the outer (not so clean) surfaces of your gear which then germinate and produce more spores on the internal glass surfaces. The damage ranges from cloudiness to opacity and the way to tell if you have it is to hold the lens up to the light and look through the glass for signs of spores. Because there are a lot of fungi options you're looking for anything that's white or grey and may range from faint spotting in one corner to spider webbing across the entire surface.

While camera repair shops do offer to clean fungus, more often than not the delicate work is cost prohibitive. Even if you can get it cleaned for a good price (shops in SE Asia offered good deals) the lens surfaces may be permanently damaged by the metabolic products of the fungus, which destroys the non glare coatings and etches the lens. And even if you're successful getting it cleaned chances are the spores are still there and eventually the fungus will come back.

If you do find fungus, segregate that lens and look into having it professionally cleaned (see above) to prolong its life until you can replace it. If you’re spore free keep in mind that humid salt air is terrible for camera equipment. I’ve learned from a couple of pro shooters that lenses and the internal workings of cameras can develop fungus in as little as a week, especially if you are in a hot and humid environment or if you go in and out of air conditioning frequently. Zeiss warns it can develop even sooner; in relative humidity of at least 70% it may only take 3 days.

The Maldives offered dramatic and complex contrast--something I made sense of later as I went through our photos
Clean and Store:

The key to protecting your gear is keeping it clean and storing it in a dry place. Many pros recommend wiping down the external surfaces of your bodies and lenses with clean cotton rags lightly soaked in alcohol—this helps remove all the ‘food’ for the spores and also removes any salt that’s accumulated. Then you want to store your camera in a dry box with silica gel packs. We use rechargeable ones like these Dry Packs. Keep in mind when storing or carrying your gear that you should avoid leather, fabric and wood containers.

We keep one small drybox in a handy place so we can grab the camera quickly, while the big box with lenses and the backup body are stored in a different place. When you go to shore, don’t forget to pack your camera in a dry bag—or at the very least bring along a heavy Ziploc—just in case.

The Seychelles looked like a postcard
Go for Redundancy:
Even if your photos don’t contribute to your income, they probably contribute to your trip and will definitely contribute to your old age when (if you're like me) you’ll need them to jog your memories. If you shoot SLR it can’t hurt to have a spare body and lens kicking around (check for used and reconditioned gear). If that’s out of your budget, look for a point and shoot that takes decent pictures. But keep in mind if you’re main gear fails, you’ll be relying on back up gear so make sure you like it.

I found our 12-year-old 20D was a big step down from the 7D and recalled immediately why we had upgraded before sailing. Because the results were so disappointing (and super contrasty) my photo output from the middle of the Maldives onward dropped dramatically. When we got to South Africa one of the first things we did after dropping of all the gear for repair was to upgrade our backup equipment to a reconditioned 100D. Not only is it a good backup, but its light weight and compact size make it a great walk-around camera—something we were missing, despite all the gear we carry.
I hope to always recall the colour and life of Comoros
Protect your Photos:
At least once a month we hear from or about someone who’s lost their photos due to abandoning a boat, having a computer stolen, being hit by lightening or experiencing a run of the mill computer crash. Repeat after me: backing up isn’t enough.

While we do backup to at least two hard drives: we backup weekly and keep one in a waterproof container in our ditch kit (dry bags are not submersion bags and their contents will get wet). We also go a step further; we keep all our photo files located somewhere off our boat. Backing up to flikr or the cloud works for people with regular and fast internet, but many of us don’t have that. Our method is to send a hard drive with all our pictures on it home at least once a year. Hard drives are cheap and compact and offer great insurance.

So that's us and our gear. We're always happy to learn more--so if you have more tips please share away.
and lemurs--just because

November 8, 2015

It takes a village-to cross an ocean

Sometime in the next 36 hours we'll find our feet planted on solid motion-free South African soil. If I had any champagne, it would be chilling. 
But we drank the last bottle of bubbles in pretty Moramba Bay while celebrating our Thanksgiving. And as much as this passage deserves marking, we'll have to wait for pub drinks with our little passage making fleet.
Leaving Bazaruto was carefully timed for high tide and diminished wind. Even still the bar crossing left us grateful for lots of past experience. The confidence that our friends on Crystal Blues showed when they plunged into the breaking seas first, reassured the bar crossing neophytes that crossing was possible.
Even more than the Pacific successfully crossing the Indian Ocean has shown me how important our 'village' is. The sense that someone has your back has been profound. While early cruising was much more about encountering locals these days it tends to be more about the company you travel with. With only rare exceptions its easy to move between fleets of boats and be warmly included and made welcome.
We'll miss our tight knit International fleet as we move from the Indian to Atlantic. But first, bring on South Africa!
Papillon makes their first bar crossing at Bazaruto. With a series of 8-10 breaking waves in 3 meters of water, it was a nail biter.

November 1, 2015

Mozambique-shelter from the storm

On the weather GRIB, the approaching low kind of looked like an invading force: Little magenta weather feathers multiplying and marching toward us—bringing 4 meter waves along with them. As the nasty weather feathers advanced, Evan and I used electronic charts overlaid with the approaching low to look at our options. If we held our speed we'd be into Bazaruto before the main army of wind. If we picked up the current we'd we could even bypass Bazaruto and hit the harbour 100 miles further south—but that harbour didn't offer the same protection as Bazaruto, and the stormy weather would overrun it first.

The prudent option was Bazaruto—and when we realized at least eight other boats would be taking shelter here—including friends that needed assistance with engine problems, we opted to duck into the national park.

In a perfect world we'd hoped to make Richard's Bay in one shot. Different from most passages, the trip between Madagascar and South Africa juggles a number of elements which makes route planning more complicated than normal. Not only do you have to have to pick a suitable weather window for an 8+ day passage (when most weather forecasts are really only accurate about 4-5 days out) but you need to decide where to start and end a passage to make the best use of the whirling eddies of current which can run several knots in any direction.

The result of the excessive number of variables is everyone has an opinion. And everyone thinks their opinion is best. But opinions about passage making often end up seeming like opinions about parenting. Most of us only do a passage once and we take in as much information as we can and then do what we can with the conditions we're given. Then despite all the research we've done, nature and circumstance take over. We get the kid we get and the passage we get.

For us—we decided that we wanted to cross the Mozambique Channel at its narrowest, where it offered the best consecutive positive current run and where we could have a bailout option if the weather deteriorated: which it will and so we did.

So we're safely tucked into a pretty bay—with soaring sand dunes, dugongs in the water and friends floating near by. It's all a stormbound sailor could really ask for.

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October 29, 2015

Sailing to South Africa

If you asked us six years ago if South Africa (or Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Chagos or the Maldives) were part of our cruising plans we wouldn't have been sure. For many of us out here this is the ocean we never planned to cross. The Suez canal through to the Med was easier and more alluring (and for Europeans which make up a hefty percentage of IO sailors-it's more direct). But then, pirates. And the decision got tougher. 
But we crossed (almost: knock on wood, make a sacrifice to Tiki, get those bananas eaten...) And now I get to contemplate South Africa.
We're about 1/3 of the way to Richard's Bay. Aside from the first squally night (40 knots out of a little cloud, surprise!) It's been mellow enough. Charlie is out of hiding and the meals I prepared before setting off are being consumed.
While we've had some bumpy and uncomfortable moments we've also been blessed with a bright full moon and clear skies.
So it was sobering when just south of Madagascar a boat was lost while we were sailing along. Fortunately, like the other for boats lost this season, the crew of two was rescued by a passing container ship.
Still it reminds us why we were wary of this ocean. And why so many boats chose pirates over potential storms this year. It will be a great thing to have the Suez canal become a safe route for cruising boats again one day. But with a few hundred Indian Ocean miles to go I'm grateful that circumstance sent us here.

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October 23, 2015

Four Reasons to Sail (and love) Madagascar

With our time in Madagascar quickly running down I wonder how I will remember this magical place. Every country we’ve ever visited (except maybe Tonga) has always been my favourite while I’m there. Immersed in the place I get mesmerized by the culture, intrigued by the politics and inspired by the landscape.

wild sifaka lemurs in Moramba Bay
But Madagascar really is my favourite.

It’s not my favourite just because of the lemurs, the brilliant sailing, the yummy rum, the incredible encounters with manta rays, turtles and giant groupers, or the way the women dance in a way that defies both physics and physiology, or because of the kind of genuine smiles we’re graced with, dozens of times a day, which make you think the world is a really great place.

dancing happens everywhere
It’s also not my favourite because plastic pollution hasn’t taken hold here yet (and the grocery stores in Mahajunga are getting rid of plastic bags so it won’t), and because subsistence living doesn’t necessarily mean abject poverty, and because we can go out for dinner and drinks on under $10. It’s my favourite because combined, all these things make Madagascar ideal for cruisers—it’s exotic, accessible and affordable.

ox carts are almost as common as cars in many places (and more common in others)
1) It’s a sailing country:

Unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, the age of sail came to Madagascar and never left. At sunrise the dhows drift out in the first whispers of wind. Lanteen rigged sails made of canvas or rice sacks and patched with old clothes are set on long yards of lashed together branches. As the breeze fills in the huge sails billow and strain against the willowy tree trunk masts. Filled with all manner of passengers and stuff (fruit, palm fronds, sand, chickens or granite stones) the crews set off with whoops and hollers to cross the wide bays on the sort of dependable breeze that makes motors seem like a foolish investment.

When we sail (race!) beside them we’re amazed by their speed. And gratified by the kind of wind that means during our travels around Madagascar we’ve only burned 40 litres of fuel (most of that because we were impatient and didn’t wait for the twice daily wind shifts). And the boats are beautiful—hewn from logs or built from raw timbers they have the kind of ancient grace that makes sailing seem noble.

And if sailing is noble, sailing around the world must be a worthy thing. Here, more than anywhere we’ve ever been, the idea we sailed here, and will sail to the next faraway place, makes sense to the people we meet.
How else would we travel?

2) Friendly Villages

Maia's dolls found a welcome home
In Moramba Bay, dugouts stopped by the boat each day to trade. Inevitably we’d offer too much for the fresh crab and prawns—but for years we’ve been keeping a box of useful things we no longer need for this very purpose. So a crab would be offered and we’d pull things out of the box: leftover fabric, empty jars, an old pot that never fit on the stove. Items would be selected and another crab would be added to our pile. Then the cadeaux (gifts) would be exchanged: a toy for the paddler’s daughter, bananas for us.

the girls claimed the pink soccer ball and we got a month's worth of mangoes
The trades needed to be fair—we’re not to give too much or it changes the balance from trade to charity. Even though the people are dressed in rags. Rags.

So we visited the three small villages to try and get rid of more stuff without getting too many crab. Each was a tidy cluster of thatch huts. One had a dhow under construction, another had a dugout being hollowed out, and the third had an injured grandfather who needed medical help. We gave out more things for the children, trying to explain they were cadeaux—my child had grown, their children could have her toys and clothes. For the grandfather we went and got medical supplies—then we decided the other village probably needed supplies so we made up another bag.

Later that night the crab arrived, and then the prawns, and the mangoes and bananas.

no diapers on the babies leads to less waste, but you need to cuddle with caution
The next day another boat was going to visit the villages so we asked them to check on the grandfather. Each boat since has been to see him and give him care. He’s healing and the crab is still being given out.

3) It’s Wild:

Andrew on Utopia let us know about the manta rays outside the entrance of Honey River. Stretching 4 meters from wingtip to wingtip the bigger of the two was trying to mate with the smaller one. The action was all on the surface—between our four boats we spent two hours watching them swoop and circle. The way they circled under and around the boats it seemed to us that when they weren’t busy trying to make baby rays they were equally curious about us.

we think they thought they were hiding
It’s not just the undersea life (and the fishing) that’s been remarkable. We’ve seen wild lemurs, incredible bird life, boa constrictors and chameleons. And when we walk the long beaches in some places we’ve been more likely to find shards of ancient Sakalava pottery than modern garbage. Subsistence living means that people haven’t learned to depend on plastic yet. Glass bottles and glass jars with lids are coveted and kept.

4) It’s Affordable:

gorgeous pulled thread table clothes that can take weeks to make sell for under $20 table runners ara less than $10
I would say cheap—but good value seems the better way to describe it. Because the things you can buy—boxes carved from hardwoods, carefully decorated fabrics, dried vanilla beans and various essential oils are all lovely quality. They just cost very little. What we don’t see here is much cheap plastic stuff. It’s not a disposable culture. Even when we traded for crab people would look over our offerings very carefully to make sure they were well made and would last.
From a cruiser perspective—while there are no marinas or big chandleries all the basics are here. There are mechanics and craftsmen and people to dive your boat and scrub the bottom. And then there's the food: fresh and delicious with enough French influence to make it a welcome change after an ocean of fish curry. And everything costs a fraction of what it would in other places. It would be easy to spend a long time here.

But while we love it—South Africa is beckoning (and rainy season is approaching). So we’re hopping down the coast while waiting for a weather window. Collecting more memories and more reasons to love Madagascar.

October 15, 2015

Every Day's a Holiday--except when it's not

Our first Thanksgiving with lemurs. A new tradition?
From the beginning of our cruising life one of Maia’s biggest concerns was how we’d celebrate holidays. Her memories of celebrations at home had that kind of pumpkin-tinted-amber-glow that meant they were hard to live up to. So every (almost-missed) Thanksgiving or looming Halloween was a reason for angst. She wanted to know where we'd be, if we’d have people to celebrate with and if we'd find the right 'stuff' to make the holiday right. No matter how much we tried to reassure her that although each holiday would be different than previous ones it would still be special, she had her doubts.
Maia and Rivers pulled out the stops for a Halloween that was far from home

Waiting for the sun to set so boat to boat trick-or treating cold get under way
Over the years Maia has evolved into a mini Martha Stewart (with a sub-par kitchen and who hopefully won’t do jail time). She loves to plan parties and celebrations and spends hours baking yummy things. The thing that’s really changed though is she’s begun to embrace the uncertainty of our life and make the best of it. When there was a chance her 14th birthday would fall while we were on passage she opted to throw herself (yes—she made the dinner and baked her own cake) a party in an anchorage she liked while it was filled with good friends.

And this past weekend (after finding a pumpkin in the market) she and her friend Rivers decided Halloween needed to coincide with the maximum number of available kids—rather than a date on the calendar. She surprised me even further when she made a couple of Day of the Dead dishes to share.  Apparently the previously declared second-rate Halloweens spent in Mexico had improved with nostalgia and Day of the Dead was now a favourite holiday.

I had so many doubts the first year or two of cruising. I questioned if we were wrecking Maia’s childhood by being nomadic and embracing a sort of traveler’s hypocrisy where we lose our own traditions while simultaneously admiring cultures that are rich with their own. Happily though it seems the promise I made to Maia a couple of Halloweens ago: someday you will love this memory and be happy to have spent Halloween in a bunch of different countries, was actually accurate.
Familiar celebrations in exotic locations

And this year, as kids from four different countries dressed up to trick-or-treat on boats from six different countries, followed by an improvised Canadian Thanksgiving (zebu roasts and pumpkin pie) on a beach with crews from seven different countries, I realized that both kids and traditions are resilient. That’s why they last (the traditions—the kids grow).

It turns out you can take a celebration around the world, introduce it to a diverse crowd, change it to suit the date and location and still have it feel as rich and meaningful as it was meant to.
I’m thankful for that.
Traditional Thanksgiving fare: Pumpkin pie and roast zebu
And I’m grateful that Maia doesn’t feel short changed by holidays that may not resemble the ones we started off with but that still offer a connection to home while tying her to a much wider world.

October 7, 2015

Why Madagascar is great

The rum costs about the same as the mixer (4500 Ariary rum = $1.75 US); (4000 Ariary fruit juice = $1.50). It's actually quite a drinkable rum - the local dance club we've been to a few times uses it in their mixed drinks.

The lovely dhows still bring produce to the town we are anchored in front of.

While this is a rather superficial way of looking at a place, it's been great and we will be sad to leave it behind.


September 19, 2015

Madagascar—slow travel speeds up

I think every country I visit becomes my favourite—and Madagascar’s no exception. We arrived and checked in just over a week ago. And already we’ve done so much and seen so much that it’s almost a blur.

Jeremie, our fabulous guide in the jungle found a baby boa for us to check out
Our whirlwind of activity reminds me of how slowly we normally travel. Rather than careening through a destination, hopping from highlight to highlight or ticking off items on a top ten bucket list, we spend a lot of our time engaged in day-to-day life.

notice the rice sack sail
I spend time each day just watching the local boats head out to fish or transport sand and palm fronds
Like the slow food movement, being part of the slow travel movement (which I just invented) means we typically build our understanding of a place mostly by just hanging out.

We tend to spend our time discovering what people are selling in the markets, or by scanning the shelves of supermarkets (thrilling at the familiar and pondering the unknown). We walk up side streets, poking our heads into hardware stores and dusty little shops in search of that one spare part. We eat what locals eat and go where locals go and typically bypass anything that’s designed for tourists—not out of snobbery but because by taking in a country in smaller, less concentrated moments we have time to absorb it.

Tanihely had great coral and lots of turtles--and a diva batfish that photobombed half my pictures
That said this past week with our friend Allison aboard has been pure fun. We trekked through the jungle in Lokobe National Park in search of lemurs, boa constrictors, chameleons and more. We hiked to the lighthouse and swam with turtles at Tanihely National Park. We visited a remote village up a winding mangrove river. And then visited some habituated (and very friendly lemurs) at Nosy Komba.

Manuro was shy about smiling for photos--but quick to laugh when the camera wasn't pointed her way
Through it all we kept the lessons we’ve learned from travelling slowly—and looked for moments to connect with the local people. In the remote village of Ambaliha, after taking the dinghy up the mangrove-lined river, Evan and Maia passed along some of her old puppets by performing a puppet show for the kids then giving the puppets to a few of the mums. Afterward, a village elder named Manuro toured us around—we didn’t share a language but smiles, hand holding and miming were enough. She showed us where they picked coffee, how rice was hulled and where they did laundry and fetched water. Then she invited us into her tiny home for tea.

In Nosy Komba, after the obligatory cuddle with lemurs, we headed out on a hike up to the top of the island. There we met Bernadette—who took a break from pollinating vanilla flowers to walk us from village to village and explain some of her life to us. She showed us the crops they pick; cacao, jackfruit and vanilla and took us to see a dugout being built on the top of the steep island. Then she took us to her favourite view points so we could enjoy the look out to sea.

Bernadette took time away from her work to teach us about village life

 While walking through a village with a local woman may never make the top ten list for a destination—it’s these moments that we end up returning to in our stories and memories. I’m not sure we would have slowed down enough to seek out these small encounters if we weren’t already used to travelling this way. But each time we do—we’re so grateful.