November 19, 2014

Cruising Indonesia

The coral had the shape and artistry of a Japanese flower arrangement. The muted reds and golds were perfectly contrasted with flashes of blue—as little clouds of reef fish darted between the fronds of the fan coral. On the other side of the coral I caught sight of a larger shadowy shape; turtle, wrasse? Just as I set off to see, something grabbed at my snorkel.

gorgeous healthy reef
Whipping around, sputtering and startled I discovered I’d been attacked by a floating grocery bag. Freeing my snorkel, I swam through a tide line of garbage and toward a new section of coral. This part looked like a bomb had gone off. The coral was broken off in big gray chunks and the only contrast came from the red lion fish and spiny black sea urchins—invasive creatures thriving in the moonscape.

garbage on a reef
rafts of garbage become beaches of garbage
Dynamite or blast fishing was introduced to Indonesia sometime after WWII, when there was lots of surplus dynamite around. Modern bombs are made from kerosene and ammonium nitrate and when ignited the explosion’s underwater shock wave stuns the fish and causes their swim bladders to rupture. Some of the fish float to the surface where ‘fishing’ is a matter of scooping them up (many sink). From a fisherman’s perspective the illegal technique easier and more productive than traditional methods—providing you don’t run out of coral reefs.

But as we’ve dove reefs that all show some level of damage it’s clear that not only is Indonesia running out of reefs, the reduction of habitat means that the coral that still exists is dangerously overfished. Add the endless flow of garbage that finds its way into the seas and Indonesia is an environmental tragedy on the brink of self-destruction.
joyful hardworking people
We’d been warned about the state of Indonesia before we visited. Friends, who’d traveled with kids who had been brought up on reduce, reuse, recycle and who’d no more toss a water bottle into the ocean than kick a puppy, counselled us to tell Maia to ignore the destruction or it would overwhelm her. Sailing past rafts of garbage or swimming through a gray rubble seascape where there should be colour and life is difficult to ignore though.

Years ago I was working on a high-stakes environmental campaign. A couple of rock-star environmentalists were there and someone asked how they managed to maintain hope when it seemed like saving the world was already a long lost battle.
“Look for the beauty.”
“Look for the successes.”
 “See the threat, but don’t stop seeing the hope,” we’re some of the answers. As was, “I’ve already given up, but what the hell, something could still surprise me…”

wild boar and Timor deer in Komodo National Park

If ever there was a place that appears to be lost, it’s Indonesia. But it also has some of the rawest, most profound beauty I’ve encountered. So we’ve cruised through Indonesia looking for the hope. We’ve visited a village where their reef was bombed so now they harvest seaweed while their reef regenerates. We visited another village that has a plan for garbage disposal and where the ladies in the market were intrigued by our reusable net produce bags rather than puzzled by why we didn’t want plastic. And we visit the parks where the local people can see for themselves that conservation just might sustain them.

Tourism is one hope of Indonesia--but getting people out of Bali and into the parks is the challenge. Especially when the path is strewn with garbage.

Down on the reef Maia and I swam past the rubble toward the healthy coral. A big anemone caught my eye. Swimming toward it Maia asked a passing fish if he’s seen Nemo. Giggling as we reached the anemone we watched as a couple of little orange clown fish popped out at us then darted away. The exuberant little fish made us laugh and briefly forget the rubble. Then a few nights later a beach full of Timor deer made us sigh with wonder. And the next morning when a mama boar brought her babies to swim near the boat we squealed with glee.

The reality of Indonesia is over 238 million very poor people are trying to survive off 17,500 islands. Traveling here is like a glimpse into the beginning of a dystopian future—one with too many people and too few resources. If you focus on the destruction it really does seem hopeless. But the beauty is there, and what the hell, something could still surprise us. 

November 13, 2014

Here Be Dragons: Komodo and Rinca

“Oh, shit,” muttered our guide, Paul, when three formerly slumbering dragons raised their heads to look directly at us. They sampled the air with their tongues, smelling to see if we were meat, mineral or vegetable. Confirming the potential for a meal they began to lumber toward us. Paul, all 5’4” nervous inches of him, and his forked stick, were all that protected us from the deadly reptiles which had recently attacked another ranger, a water buffalo and had pretty much eradicated the island of wild horses.

“Do they know what your stick is?” I asked. “I mean, will it keep them away?” The stick, which all the rangers carry, can discourage a casually inquisitive dragon we learned. But if a dragon is intent on attacking about all you can really do is run fast and climb a tree. Paul looked me over, “I’ll leave you my stick,” he said.

Paul first learned about Komodo Dragons when he was a boy living in a village on Flores Island. He saw their photo in a book and thought they’d be wonderful to see in real life. By the time he’d completed his ranger training and had worked for a couple of years as a guide on Rinca (where several rangers are attacked each year) it became clear to him that the dragons were unpredictable and dangerous; he was looking into a career change. “My parent’s don’t even know this is my job,” he told us. “They think I work in a restaurant.”

We encountered our first dragon before we even learned Paul’s name. Resting under a tree in the afternoon heat it was just off the path that ran between the dock and ranger station. The dragon was bigger but less menacing than expected. “That’s a young male,” Paul told us. It was still well under its potential of three metres and 100 kg. But Maia pointed out if it woke up, “its bite contains toxic bacteria and a protein that stops your blood from clotting.”

Despite Paul’s obvious fear of the dragons he was upbeat about our trek. He sent us into the ranger station to buy our stack of tickets (one for our boat, three for the park, three for conservation, one for the trek, one for the camera…) then explained our trekking options: short, medium or long; jungle or hills.

Deciding on a 1.5 hour hills hike we headed through the camp where the rangers lived and where the dragons like to hang out, just in case food magically falls from the kitchen. While we watched some food did fall and the dragons woke up. Sounding like a Darth Vader fan club they huffed and argued over the scrappy little snacks, and then they began flicking their forked yellow tongues out at us.

“Maybe you would like to hike now,” Paul suggested as he herded us away from the approaching dragons. Assuming the dragon drama was a bit of ranger theatrics I barely glanced back as we headed off along the trail. A few minutes later we spotted a water buffalo lounging in a pool of water. As we neared it was clear the buffalo was in distress. Paul pointed out where a dragon had wounded it and explained it would die soon.

Maia, who had been reading about Komodos explained that the dragons have an efficient way of killing large prey. Rather than fighting to the death they let bacteria from the wound do the work for them. Peering back toward the camp, checking for menacing shapes, I started to understand why Paul was so spooked by the dragons. Puff, they aren’t.

After passing a second healthier buffalo we came across a female Komodo guarding her nest. Then we started the upward climb to take in the view. “The blue posts are where the hotel is going to go,” Paul told us pointing out a half a dozen survey marks the stretched over the hill. Despite being a National Park and a World Heritage Site somehow, someone seems to have paid off the right person and a hotel is planned for a grassy ridge above the ranger station. Paul quietly outlined the problems—from no water on the island during dry season, to the impact a hotel could have on dragon nesting sites. None of the rangers could understand how the hotel had been approved.

At the top of the next crest I stopped to bandage a blister. Paul lost his relaxed look and peered at my foot anxiously, “Is there blood?” The dragons could smell blood up to five kilometres away he explained to Evan in a quiet voice. Satisfied my foot wouldn’t bring out the dragons Paul went back to pointing things out and was thrilled when we caught sight of one of the last remaining wild horses on the island.

Looping back down the hill, we encountered a pair of buffalo-less hooves on the trail. Dragons will eat every part of an animal; bones, hair and all but apparently their digestive system draws a line at feet. With another blister forming I couldn’t help but hope the foot aversion extended to humans, or at least that the hooves were a sign that the local dragons were currently all well-fed. An adult dragon only eats about once a month but it was clear as I hobbled along that if a dragon was looking to pick one of us off, my chances weren’t good.

Despite being potential dragon-fodder I was eager to do a second hike early the next day—to catch the dragons when they were more energetic and to check out a jungle hike. When we reached the dock Ramli introduced himself as our guide. He told us he’d grown up with the dragons on the island—but because his village only had school up until grade six he couldn’t finish high school and was only a volunteer guide (Park Rangers need a High School Diploma).

Curious if growing up with the dragons had made him more confident than Paul; Maia asked if he was afraid of the Komodos. “Oh, yes,” he told us. Then he went on to tell the gruesome story of how one of his friends had been eaten by a dragon one day after school, “His father called him for lunch but he didn’t come. Then he heard the dragon…”
“Oh, shit,” I muttered and we headed into the bush.

November 10, 2014

The $10 Massage

Yesterday we went to Lauban Bajo's Yayasan Ayo Mandiri massage centre. A great idea - people with disabilities are trained to give massages and related treatments (facials, reflexology) and given useful careers. As the brochure I picked up in the centre explained, people in Indonesia with disabilities have it tough - they are stigmatized, dependent, and can be isolated. Some of the therapists are encouraged to start their own centres or work as massage therapists in their own villages once trained.  So you're getting a great massage AND helping some people out. They have a boarding centre for students for other villages too. Total win.

The therapists are deaf or hard of hearing, some are blind, and my guy walked with a severe limp. That didn't stop him from having the strongest hands and arms I've ever seen.

Prices as of Nov 2014:
60 min massage with 10 min footbath - 100,000 Rp. (about $10)
100 min " - 130,000 Rp.
60 min Facial - 80,000 Rp.
Hot stone massage 100 min - 150,000

(They also come to hotels if you're staying in a hotel here.)

Mon - Sat 9-12:30 / 3-8 pm
Closed Sun/public holidays
0062-(0)385-41318 (they said their internet is slow and only got our email asking for an appointment the next day)

They are located on JL. Puncak Waringin. If you are walking from the centre of town, take the side road in front of Hotel Gardena. You pass 2 schools, the 2nd being TK St. Angela.  Take the next side road right up a steep hill, passing a backpacker's hostel and look for the big sign saying "Massage". Alternatively if you walk along the waterfront to the north end of town, the road makes a sharp right turn at the harbour. Follow the road and take the 2nd right turn.  Either way, it's no more than a 10-15 minute walk from town.

There are 2 other massage places in town on the main road, but their prices are bit higher. The facility we went to was clean and welcoming - the showers at the end were a nice bonus for sweaty cruisers!

November 9, 2014

Today could have been better.

Diane and Maia both have colds and are consequently whiny. But we headed to town anyway for a short exploration.  As we ran through a patch of garbage with the dinghy I noticed the outboard motor was only peeing a very small amount of water. ( This is the telltale stream of cooling water that shows that the engine is pumping water.

Thinking the intake had caught a plastic bag, I raised the outboard leg and found nothing. So we decided to slowly return to the boat and check it out. Outboard motors don't have overheat alarms and you can wreck them by overheating them.

I pulled the small hose leading to the pee hole and blew through it. No blockage. I lifted the motor on deck and unbolted the lower unit. Impeller looked fine.  Pulled off the intake plastic grills and found nothing.  Get soaked by the first rain we've had in 3+ months.

Visions of some small bit of plastic blocking the cylinder cooling passages made me unbolt 13 small bolts holding the manifold in place.  Lots of mud and sand but nothing that would block the flow to the telltale. Lots of wrenching in small spaces and a math problem for Maia. .

"If Daddy can only turn each bolt 1/8 of a turn at a time, the thread pitch is about 10/cm, how many wrench movements does it take to tighten just one of the bolts 1 cm"? (80 wrench  movents).

Put everything back together but forget to reattach the pee hose to the manifold.  This meant water sprayed every where when I started the motor. But nothing came out of the pee hole.

Finally I think to look at the tiny plastic fitting where the hose exits the cowling.

Yes, it was blocked with some tiny bits of shell. About 5 hours from first noticing the problem to fixing it.  It could have taken 10 minutes if I had checked the fitting to start with...

Finally head to town and find a curious grocery with oddly priced juice.  $38 for 1 L?? But $0.80 for 2 donuts.  I should have indulged. Instead I bought some canned green tea for something cold. I reminded me of the mouthwash at the dentists.

Tomorrow: 1 hr massages for $10. Its got to better than today.


November 7, 2014

Lightning Protection Aboard

We're sailing into rainy season--which means thunder and lightning

Do you diligently put your portable electronics in your oven or microwave oven during a thunderstorm?  You might be fooling yourself about the lightning protection you have.  Here’s a reasonable test – put a mobile phone in the oven and dial it from another phone.  Do you hear ringing?  If so, radio frequencies are penetrating the box and your oven is NOT an effective Faraday Cage (FC).  We were happily putting our electronics in the oven until I had a ‘oh duh’ moment – the oven has a glass door.  This is a big hole that prevents it acting as an effective FC.  Lightning acts on a variety of frequencies, but much of the high energy radiation is the high frequency radio spectrum (which means short wavelengths – more about this shortly)

A Faraday Cage is named after Michael Faraday, the famous British scientist. He found that an empty metal container will only allow external electrical charges on the surface of the container.  Properly done, they shield the interior from external electromagnetic radiation if the surface is thick enough, and any holes are significantly smaller than the wavelength of the radiation.  Microwave ovens are allowed to leak some amounts of radiation, so depending on the particular oven, they might not be as good as you hope to protect against lightning.  Normal ovens, with their large gaps (or glass doors) are likely very poor FC.  

Construction details:

Start with a metal box, big enough for all your portable electronics.  This might be larger than you think because the modern cruising sailboat is laden with electronics that should go in the box when lightning threatens.  We bought an aluminum tool box and modified it.  Other suitable boxes could be army surplus steel ammunition boxes (though may be hard to explain to customs when they search your boat), cookie tins with tight fitting lids, galvanized garbage pails with lids, etc.  It has to be metal (no, it doesn’t have to be iron or steel, just conductive). 

Seal up all the small holes – this is harder to do than you might think.  We cut off some front facing latches because they prevented our box from fitting into a particular tight spot. We taped over the resulting holes with mylar foil tape, inside and out.  You have to really pay attention to very small gaps for best performance.
conductive foam gasket

The lid was not a tight fit, just a typical shoebox type toolbox construction.  So we fitted a conductive foam gasket to the top of the box.  This is not something you can buy at your local hardware store (check online electronics stores like or – it’s a compressible foam gasket with a very fine metal mesh cover (nickel plated copper in our case) that provides a tight seal that our box lacked.  We added some overcenter clamps to hold the lid down firmly onto the gasket.  These gaskets are specifically designed for FC’s to protect sensitive electronics.

Finally we lined the box with some corrugated plastic sheeting to prevent the electronics from touching the walls of the box – this might be not necessary, but the electrical charge on the outside of the box can travel through the walls of the box.

Do you need to ground your FC?  Nope, not really.  A FC will work if it is grounded or not.  However lightning is attracted to large metallic objects and it is a good idea to ground your box if your regular lightning grounding system conductors (cables from mast or chainplates) pass relatively close to the box to prevent side-flashes.

What lives in our box:

  • 2 laptop computers
  • 3 spare autopilots
  • 240V battery charger (because we are seldom at a dock we use a portable battery charger for our batteries)
  • Spare VHF
  • Spare fishfinder
  • Handheld VHF
  • 4 ebooks
  • Spare GPS
  • 4 x portable hard drives
  • 2 laptops
  • Desktop mini computer
  • 2 phones
  • iPod
  • 2 DSLR cameras
  • About 5 lenses
  • Camera flash
  • Several point and shoot cameras
  • Chargers for cameras
  • Video camera
  • Label maker
  • Pactor Modem

What doesn’t fit:

  • Radar
  • SSB/ham radio
  • Big LCD computer monitor
  • Hard wired autopilot
  • VHF
  • Depthsounder

What about stuff that is hard wired or is too big to go in the box?  Unplug as many antennas, power cables, etc. and hope for the best.  It’s all you can do.

Disclaimer: Evan is a lowly mechanical engineer, not an electrical engineer, so all this advice is at your own risk.

November 3, 2014

What Breaks – and What Spares to Carry?

nothing like watching the sunset while making a repair...

I have lived aboard for about 13 years on two boats, and had many evening conversations with other cruisers. Talk among the men often turns to ‘what am I fixing this week’. 

Here’s a short list of common failure points from our point of view, and other cruisers.  And some suggestions for spares to carry for extended cruising:

  • Pressure water pump (usually the pressure switch fails but it’s faster to swap out an entire pump).

  • Propane regulator (we have had a couple fail, mostly because of exposed lockers that see salt water splashes).

  • Propane solenoid valve (these last us about 2 years, again due to salt water and non-rusting construction).

  • Propane barbeque regulator/valve – the Magma ones are particularly bad.

  • Marine Head – carry a rebuild kit. We have the cheapest Jabsco, both on this boat and the last boat. They are actually pretty good if you go easy on the TP. An entire spare pump assembly is cheaper than the parts for many other more expensive models.

  • Navigation light bulbs – this is obvious, but the plastic lenses on the fittings themselves can also fail due to UV. Errant sheets can tear off or damage side/bow lights.

  • Sea water pump impeller – again, obvious but do have spares.

  • Outboard motor kill switch – I’ve seen lots of these fail on our motors and others. Usually you can easily bypass them, but if your motor won’t even turn over make sure it’s not a missing key or a dead switch.

  • Outboard motor fuel hose connectors – O-rings tend to collect grunge and then leak. They can be repaired sometimes but it’s tricky to get them out without an o-ring pick.

  • Cabin fans – in hot climates you should have at least 1 spare. They can run for 24 hours straight on the hot days.

  • Windlass foot switches – again, an exposed location where they get frequent salt water baths make them likely failure points.

  • Anything made by Raymarine/Autohelm. I think it’s the British legacy of Lucas Electrics coming to haunt them. They can’t seem to keep things watertight. We try to mount all our electronics inside the boat. The only outside electronics is a depthsounder at the helm chair and an external autopilot ram. Everything else is inside, out of the rain and the weather.

  • Submersible bilge pumps – hairs around the impeller are a common source of failure, jamming the rotor and then melting the insulation.

  • Bilge pump float switches – seem to have a lifespan measured in days sometimes.

  • Galley ellectric hand mixers – Diane and Maia can kill one of these in a few short minutes when mixing dough. They tend to miss the smell of melting insulation until it’s too late. J

- Evan