Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Badass Swede

Every time I charter a boat, it seems like I see some incredible maneuver happen. This Spring in the BVI, it was The Gods of Docking, and this summer in the Balearics is was the Badass Swede.

We had entered the anchorage of Cala Pi on Sunday afternoon and gradually worked our way up towards the beach as boats closer in left. As we settled into our final spot, the skipper of a departing boat suggested that we set a stern anchor in order to keep our boat from swaying beam-on to swell throughout the night.We did this and ended up having a very peaceful night.

At this point in the afternoon, the anchorage is pretty full and I thought there was no way that another boat would fit in as close as we were: we were only a boat-and-a-half away from the cliff on the west side of the cove, and we were close enough to the marked-off swim area that squeezing in would have been exceedingly difficult.

Enter the Badass Swede. I have no idea of the his actual nationality, but his boat was flying a flag that looked decidedly like the Swedish flag, so the name stuck.

The Badass Swede drives his 45-ish foot sailboat into the cove looking for a spot. He comes to a stop near us and begins to execute a perfectly stationary 180 degree turn while asking me where our anchor is set. I point it out to him, he nods, and then when his bow is facing out of the cove, he goes reverse slow towards the swim area.

I sincerely regret not grabbing a video camera at this point because what followed was nothing short of maritime ballet.

Shortly after going into reverse, the Badass Swede shouts up to his man on the bow and he nonchalantly kicks the anchor overboard. No slow, measured lowering of the rode, he just lets it all go at once, which means that he had let out a set amount of chain in advance. The Badass Swede keeps going in slow reverse for a moment until the anchor sets, and it sets solidly because the boat stops almost immediately.

At this point, their stern is maybe 20 feet from the edge of the marked swim area.*

Within a heartbeat of stopping, the Badass Swede had another man in their dinghy motoring out with a stern anchor to keep the boat from swinging. Rather like the rode for the main anchor had been measured out in advance, so too had the stern anchor and the dinghy been set before they even entered the cove.

The entire operation took under five minutes. It was seamless, took only a small handful of commands to execute, and I didn't see their boat move a damned inch the whole time we were there.

 Badass Swede (on the right-most boat in the picture above), I don't know who you are or what nation you hail from, but thank you for giving me something to aspire to. Bravo sir, bravo.

*My one beef with the Badass Swede is that his stern anchor was set into a marked swim area, which meant taking the dinghy somewhere it shouldn't have gone. I'm not sure that I would have done that, but given the overall level of badassery involved, I'm willing to let it slide.

Landlocked Part Deux

Just like the last half of 2015, the last half of 2016 has kept me away from 'blogging. Shortly after getting back from Spain we started making preparations to move to Annapolis, and the whole "moving/settling" process obviously took a lot of time. Fortunately, I've managed to spend a lot of time in Annapolis taking pictures, so my Instagram feed has been pretty full until recently when it started getting cold. Brrrr!

We also managed to, rather unexpectedly, buy our first sailboat. I say "rather unexpectedly" not because we were surprised that we bought a boat (what sailor moves to Annapolis and doesn't buy a boat, right?) but because we weren't really planning on buying a boat that quickly, or one quite that old. S/V Bird's Nest (Bird for short), a 1967 Bristol 29, has already provided us with some...interesting times and I've already started on some repairs necessary to get her back into operating condition and we should be able to have fun sailing her this summer.

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I plan to spend some time this winter writing up the story of how we acquired and moved Bird to her new home closer to Annapolis, and the work I've had to do on her engine so far.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Balearic Island Highlights: Cabrera

Cabrera is the largest island in a small archipelago off of the southeastern shore of Mallorca, only a couple hour sail from Colònia de Sant Jordi, Sa Ràpita, or any of the other stopover spots along that stretch of coast.

While there are several well-protected harbors, no anchoring is allowed as the entire archipelago is a nature reserve. However, in the main harbor there is something of a rarity in the Balearics: a mooring field. There are about 50 overnight moorings for vessels of differing sizes, and you must reserve them in advance. Be aware that reservations cannot be made until 20 days before your desired date, and in peak season they go very quickly. You can reserve a spot for 2 days during peak season, or for a whole week when it's less busy.

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To reserve a mooring, follow this link. You will need the full registration/owner information for the boat, so if you are chartering make sure you ask for this before you try to place a reservation. I didn't* and it forced me to reserve a spot a day later than I had hoped, which cost us a whole afternoon there. Reservations are from 6PM local time on the day of your reservation until 5PM the following day. Unless you get stuck on one of the large-ship red moorings at the mouth of the harbor like we did (they were the last ones available), the moorings are in a quite protected part of the harbor. Even our more exposed position was relatively calm while we were there. There are also day-only moorings in the same harbor, and more on the other side of the island, but I am not familiar with how those are reserved.

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So, with the "how" out of the way, let me get into the "why". Cabrera is absolutely beautiful. There is a small pier with limited facilities in the main harbor; the single best dinghy dock we saw all week, restrooms, and a small cantina that serves a variety of delicious tapas. (Note that, unlike many other restaurants on Mallorca, the cantina on Cabrera closes a bit on the early side at 9:30 PM local time.) There is a strict "no trash" policy, so don't expect to be able to bring any rubbish or recycling ashore. From the pier, you can find a series of hiking trails that lead to, among other places, a small medieval castle overlooking the harbor that is partially open to the public. The castle is definitely worth checking out even if you're not a history buff because the views of both the harbor and the Mediterranean are spectacular. There are also a few areas in the south of the harbor where you can dinghy ashore to beaches and some good areas for snorkeling, but we didn't get to any of them.

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But the crown jewel of Cabrera has to be the stars. There is virtually no light pollution there, and with the high cliffs surrounding the harbor you get what Sara calls a "snowglobe" effect where the stars all feel close enough to just reach out and touch. On a clear night like we had, words don't really do the view justice. I'd love to go back an just spend a few hours ashore taking pictures of the stars.

One piece of advice: if you're moored near one of the cliffs in the harbor like we were, keep your anchor light on even though it's not required in a mooring field. Imagine motoring in your dinghy towards a massive wall of blackness, several times taller than your sailboat, that fills your entire field of view and trying to find said sailboat without any lights on it. Even with the anchor light on it was a tad disconcerting, but without a light on it would have been downright unpleasant.

We only got to stay for about 18 hours due to scheduling pressure, which is not nearly enough time to explore, but even in that short time we fell in love with the place. If you ever find yourself planning a trip to Mallorca's southeastern shore, I highly recommend at least a whole day stopover at Cabrera.

*The main base of the charter company did though, and they provided it quickly once I asked. It was the 6-hour time difference that really slowed us down though.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Balearic Island Highlights: Cala Pi

Cala Pi is a small, quiet, protected anchorage along the southern coast of Mallorca that lies about 2 nm east of the lighthouse at Cabo Blanco. There is only room for a six or so yachts of the 12-15 meter range for an overnight stay*, but if you happen to find a spot there you are in for a treat. It is long and narrow and surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs, so it would be easy to miss from the sea were it not for the medieval watchtower situated prominently at its mouth. The cliffs protect the cove from wind coming from any direction but the south.

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At the head of the cove is a small, sandy beach with a well-marked swim area and a set of stairs going up to the town of Cala Pi. The swim area for the beach takes up most of the head of the cove, but there is a channel for dinghies and other small craft. There is a designated dinghy parking area on the beach and sheds for locally-owned small boats are built up along one of the cliff walls.

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The bottom is a mix of sand and thick seagrass so you'll have to be careful about where you set your anchors, but they should hold well in sand. The depth comes up from about 5-6 meters at the mouth to a little under 3 meters** by the edge of the swim area. This provides plenty of depth for yachts of the size I mentioned earlier without needing too much room to swing on a long rode. I haven't seen detailed depth information on any charts I've looked at, so make sure you do a "drive-by" as necessary to get a feel for the depths. There are a few large rocks sitting away from the cliff faces that one could tie off to instead of using a stern anchor if one was so inclined, and we saw at least one boat doing just that while we were there.

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The town of Cala Pi has an assortment of restaurants and a supermarket near the beach, although I can imagine that carrying down a large load of provisions down the stairs to the beach would be a bit treacherous. We had dinner at the Restaurante Miguel, and their seafood was remarkable. But probably the best reason to climb the stairs into town is the view from the aforementioned watchtower. There are stunning views of the sea to the south and east, and to the west you get a fantastic view of the cove itself.

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

If you find yourself sailing east out of Palma and looking for a place to stop that's not just another crowded, run-of-the-mill beach anchorage, I'd highly suggest giving Cala Pi a try.

*A few more boats could easily fit anchored further out, but expect to be in for a rather rolly stay. We started out off there and within five minutes we knew that staying there overnight would have been rather uncomfortable.

**We never did figure out where out depth sounder was calibrated, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. One more reason to do a "drive-by" before you anchor.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Things I (Re)Learned Sailing in The Balearic Islands

Apologies for the unannounced, extended hiatus. My last post back in May was rather draining and getting ready for this trip was rather hectic. But, now we're back and I have a ton to talk about, so hopefully you'll be seeing some more posts soon!

So, without further ado:

1. Not all cruising grounds are the same. When someone asked me to compare sailing in the BVI to sailing in the Balearics, my short answer was this: "Sailing in the BVI is a vacation, sailing in the Balearics is an adventure." In the Balearics, especially in peak season, you will be anchoring most nights as there aren't nearly enough mooring balls or marina spots to accommodate all the boats. The weather is also far less consistent than in the BVI: unlike the constant Easterlies I've experienced there, around Mallorca the wind is shifty and varies considerably with your position relative to land, and over time. Along with the wind, the ocean swell is also rather hard to predict. All of these factors mean that you have to be very flexible with your plan in order to ensure you can find a comfortable anchorage each night. Fortunately, along the southeast coastline of Mallorca, there are plenty of anchorages to choose from.

2. Cleats? What cleats? While all of the boats we saw had the kinds of cleats I'm used to seeing, the docks we pulled up to did not. For larger craft, instead of the standard issue cleat, there was a large, flat-ish hook, facing away from the water, that worked well for wrapping a line around and tying both ends off on your boat. Dinghy accommodations were somewhat more...irregular, with the most common cleat substitute being a metal ring anchored into something. These rings were anchored into items ranging from an actual wooden dock like I have seen elsewhere in the world to the stones of a jetty. Some of them looked like they had been there for a hundred years or more. Everything was functional, if a bit cramped, but it definitely took a little getting used to.

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3. Every sailboat should have at least one set of snorkel gear. Unfortunately, the charter company for this trip did not provide any, nor did I think to bring any and I didn't think anything of it as we sailed away from base. In spite of the utility of a GoPro on a selfie stick (which I had discussed in a previous post), sometimes you just need a pair of Mark I Eyeballs underwater to have a look at things. In particular, there was some confusion as to where our depth sounder was calibrated (depth below keel, depth below waterline, depth from transducer, etc.) which added some guesswork to our anchoring and the GoPro was no good for helping assess that. Also, on one occasion we managed to snag the anchor on a large rock hiding under the otherwise sandy bottom (Blarg!) and having a mask and fins would have likely allowed me to follow the rode down fifteen feet or so and free it. (We did manage to get free, but it took considerable time and some...creative driving.)

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  (Note: This was taken on a different boat last summer.)

4. Every skipper should learn how to properly set a stern anchor. Two of the anchorages we opted to stay in were relatively tight with steep cliff faces at waters edge, so in order to avoid being beam-on to any incoming swell and keep ourselves off of the rocks we set stern anchors at those two locations. I had read about setting stern anchors, but admittedly had never done so in practice. The first anchorage (at Cala Pi) turned out reasonably well, but at the second anchorage (Cala Marmols) our stern anchor dragged during the night. We weren't in immediate danger when I realized our predicament, but we were noticeably closer to one of the cliffs than when we had set the anchor and a quick tug on our stern rode showed that it was not providing any holding power. Not wanting to attempt to reset the stern anchor in the pre-dawn gloom and not wanting to wait another hour until we had sunlight, I woke Sara, we vacated the anchorage in an orderly manner, and motored to an easier-to-anchor-in spot so we could get some sleep. I've since taken stock of my experience (and done some additional reading) and I feel pretty comfortable that I know what I was doing wrong and, hopefully, won't make the same mistake again.

5. Communication with your crew is paramount. Sara & I have sailed before on several occasions, and she's proven to be very a capable crew member. On our recent BVI trip in particular, by the time we finished we could pick up a mooring ball pretty much without talking: I pointed us roughly upwind towards a mooring ball, Sara took the helm, and I directed the final approach from the bow. Seamless. Our first afternoon anchoring at Cala Pi involved multiple anchor sets; partly because of some failed sets, but mostly because we wanted to move to the calmer waters closer to shore as other boats closer-in left. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of assuming that just because I understood what was going on that Sara did too. This was foolish on my part because, even though the to of us were pros at picking up a mooring ball, Sara had only helped me anchor once before, and even then under entirely different circumstances. Needless to say, stress levels began to rise by about the third set. At that point, Sara sat me down and explained that she was very frustrated because she didn't really know what was going on, and I realized that I hadn't been communicating with her nearly enough. I was  more verbose after that, both before and during maneuvers, and things went considerably more smoothly for the remainder of the trip. Thanks baby.

6. Put the camera down and enjoy things. After we checked in our boat near Palma, we took a short hop over to Ibiza and had the extreme pleasure of enjoying a sunset at Kumharas*. I was frantically snapping away until about 10 minutes before sunset, then I put my camera down, sat with Sara, and simply enjoyed the moment together. No number of pictures can ever capture that.

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*If you ever get a chance to go to Kumharas for a sunset dinner, do it. Don't hesitate, ask why, or balk. Just go. You'll thank me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Bit More Time / Gratitude

If you've been following my Instagram feed, you'll know that I was recently in the BVI for a week-long trip on a charter sailboat along with my wife Sara and her mom Cathy (a.k.a. Momma). Sara & I had been to the BVI before with friends back in 2012; we fell in love with the place and vowed that we would eventually go back. After a few years of work taking courses and sailing as crew, I earned my RYA Day Skipper certification last summer which would allow me to charter a boat on our own instead of having to rely on others.

Once the three of us started planning this trip last December, we knew it would be one for the books. It was going to be my first time as the skipper on a multi-day sail, it was the first trip abroad for Sara & I since getting married, and it was going to be Cathy's first trip ever to the Caribbean. From the time we booked the boat until the day we left, Cathy was curious about what we were going to be seeing and where we were going to be going, and Sara & I spent joyful hours telling her all about it. Cathy's excitement was almost palpable. But in addition to all of the excitement and happy anticipation, there was something looming over all of our heads making this trip somewhat urgent.

Cathy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer about sixteen months before our trip.

After she was diagnosed, she started on various rounds of chemotherapy, to which she responded quite well, and spent time traveling domestically to visit friends and family. By the time December rolled around she was still in relatively good health despite the grim prognosis for her kind of cancer, and that's when the three of us decided to take the BVI trip. I had just earned the credentials, we had the money, we just needed a bit more time.

I had never taken the phrase "a bit more time" so seriously in my life.

The trip was everything we dreamed it would be and we all had a fantastic time in spite of a few bumps along the way. Even though she had only been on a sailboat once before with us for a daysail in Pensacola, Cathy took to life aboard very well and enjoyed our time under sail. We hit some of our favorite places from the 2012 trip (The Baths, North Sound, Trellis Bay) along with a few new ones (East End, Cooper Island, Spanish Town). I took a lot of pictures, the ladies did some shopping, we spent much well-needed time just relaxing and enjoying each others' company, and Cathy sent post cards to folks back home, which I thought was a really nice touch.

I had never seen two grown women try so hard to contain their excitement and happiness about visiting new places, doing new things, and simply...being. Having the opportunity to see them have so much fun for the week, especially in light of Cathy's condition, instilled me with a profound sense of gratitude.

A few weeks after we returned, Cathy's health deteriorated rapidly and she finally succumbed to cancer on Saturday, May 14th, 2016. We had been back from the BVI for just over a month.

I am grateful for the wonderful daughters she raised, grateful for the wisdom she shared with me in the brief time that I knew her, grateful for her and her family accepting my daughter and I as one of their own, grateful that she trusted me enough to take her far beyond where she had ever gone before for one last adventure, and profoundly grateful that we had just a bit more time to pull that adventure off.

Love you Momma.  Thanks for making me a better man. <3

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Things I (Re)Learned Sailing In The BVI

And just like that, my much-anticipated return to the Caribbean has come and gone. I'm somewhat settled back into my regular routine and ready to share some lessons.

1. Pack light. I've heard this before and I think I did a reasonably good job packing light on clothes, but my camera bag was another story. I brought just the right amount of gear for my Nikon (probably because I don't really have any gear for my Nikon apart from a charger and a pair of lenses), but I totally over-packed on GoPro stuff. My CamelBak had never felt heavy before, but this time it was stuffed to the gills and I definitely felt it. This over-packing was accentuated by the fact that being sick for a few days kept me from doing much of the snorkeling that I had planned on using it for. Urk. One of the first things I did when I got home (aside from sleeping) was cutting down my standard GoPro kit to something more minimalist for future adventures.

2. "Travel Days" are an absolute Godsend. The last time Sara & I sailed in the BVI, we arrived the day before we set sail and we spent that night on the boat. "First night on the boat" is a common service offered by many charter companies, but after a long day traveling, one more night in a real bed, with a real shower in the morning, would have been nice. And on our last day, we had to drop off the boat, clean up, pack up, and make a flight home all in one day. Needless to say, that last day on our last trip was a blur. With these lessons in mind, I scheduled a "travel day" on either end of our charter this time around; we stayed at a hotel at the marina the night before and the night after our charter. Not only did this mean we were far less rushed and much more rested, since our charter company had a busy day scheduled on our return day and we didn't have to catch a flight, they actually gave us a few more hours out on the boat for free. Score!

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3. Don't panic! The wind on our third day (leaving Spanish Town for North Sound) was erratic and gusty, so the sail up and around Virgin Gorda was a bit...sporty. Once we cleared Mosquito Island to make our turn south into the Sound, we tacked the boat across the wind (which was out of the ENE). After tacking, the boat refused to point anywhere close to the wind and we were getting heeled over pretty badly. My guess was that we had hit a current that was pushing us off course. After fighting this for a moment there was a loud pop and the helm jerked over away from the wind. We regained some of our pointing ability, but the helm had gotten really sloppy; I would spin one wheel half a turn before the other wheel turned in kind or I felt the rudder engage. Immediately I knew that something in the steering gear had broken fighting that current. I decided to drop sail and motor our way into the Sound. I contemplated breaking out the emergency tiller, but I felt had sufficient helm authority, albeit barely, to navigate the entrance to the Sound. By the time we picked up a mooring ball at the Bitter End Yacht Club, my arms were exhausted and looking back I was surprised by how quickly and calmly I handled the situation. Experience pays! The next day, I found the access panels for the steering gear and, sure enough, one of the pulleys had broken. I called the charter company and they had someone out the next morning to fix it. To Dufour's credit, they engineered their steering system with a particular failure mode in mind (the pulley wheels were plastic, and therefore the weakest link) and ensured that that failure mode was easy to access and repair. Well done!

4. I am not a fan of self-tacking foresails. Our Dufour was equipped with a rather well-thought-out self-tacking foresail system that meant the boat could practically sail itself once you got it underway. Tacking was, as expected, as simple as turning the boat through the wind and both sails simply moved over to the new leeward side. Sailing upwind or on a reach, I rather enjoyed the system, even though it did lose some power because of the smaller foresail required. However, sailing downwind was kind of a pain. It was damned-near-impossible to get the foresail to stay on one side of the boat and it was difficult to trim it properly*. While I appreciated the ease of sailing upwind, during our one downwind leg I wanted nothing more than the conspicuously missing pair of cockpit winches and a few extra lines to get that damned sail set properly. Again, kudos to Dufour for making the best of the design principle (and for making the boat available for sale with a traditional foresail rig), but it's a design principle I'm not personally fond of.

5. Be flexible. Our original plan had been, roughly, to sail from East End to Cooper Island, then to Spanish Town, then to North Sound for at least two days, then to Trellis Bay, then wherever the wind took us (within reason) until we had to get the boat back to East End. Our steering casualty tacked on one day in the North Sound, and me getting sick tacked on another. Even though we spent twice as much time in North Sound as we had originally planned, we still got to Trellis Bay, and actually ended up in a great position to make a beeline back to East End on our last day through choppy seas and gusty wind. Had we been further away, that last day would have been far less pleasant. Having that extra time built into our schedule meant there was virtually no stress added by waiting for repairs or me sleeping a day because the blessed cold meds knocked me out while they worked. While you can do a whole circuit of the BVI in a week, I would recommend doing it in two or only doing a partial circuit in a week. The extra time is worth it, and not hitting two or three stops in one day means the trip won't be a blur for you.

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* As much as I present myself as a cruiser, racing sailboats has broken me. I may be okay with meandering wherever the wind may take us, but I want to get there efficiently dammit!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Gods of Docking

On our recent BVI trip, we were docked comfortably at a slip at Leverick Bay on the North Sound of Virgin Gorda. Sara and Momma were making breakfast and I was up on deck enjoying the morning when I saw a sailboat pulling into a slip on the opposite of the pier. They seemed to be coming in rather fast so my gaze stayed fixed on them to see just how abruptly the skipper was going to slow down. The bow of the boat cleared the finger pier and then the boat slowed somewhat but it was still coming in faster than I would consider typical. I began wondering if this was some hotshot skipper trying to show off or some poor sap who didn't know what they were doing.

It was then that I noticed that there was no skipper. The boat was drifting in from the sound and, purely by the most blind of luck, managed to come in, bow first, almost directly into an empty slip. My mind raced for a moment at the near-astronomical odds of this happening. Had the wind or current been moving in any of an infinite number of other directions, this boat would have been washed up on rocks, drifted into one of the buildings on the dock, or crashed into one of the other boats at the dock.

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I quickly put aside all thought of the odds and by the time my feet hit the pier in order to help secure the drifting vessel*, I felt a low thump as the bow hit the pier. Myself and several others managed to wrangle the boat into something of a secure position using lines that were handy, but with no fenders and a bit of a swell on that side of the pier, the longer this boat was there the more likely it was going to sustain some damage. I say "some damage" because the impact with the pier managed to leave only the slightest of dings on the bow; the soft wood on the edge of the pier had absorbed most of the impact, and even the damage to that was minimal. Rather incredible when you consider the circumstances.

Those of us on the dock securing this wayward boat wondered what had happened to it and where its crew were when we noticed that there was a line hanging off of the bow. Someone fished the other end out of the water and discovered that it had been the pendant of a mooring ball and that it had likely been cut by a propeller. Our guess was that someone had taken a dinghy too close, damaged the line, and left the boat to adrift and at the mercy of the wind and tide.

With the marina dockhands on the scene, I left them to their work, still amazed at what  had just seen. Sara & Momma didn't almost didn't believe me when I told them over breakfast. The owners must have been nearby because the boat was gone within an hour or so.

My takeaways from this episode: be careful with your dinghies while in a mooring field...and whatever Boating Gods the owners of that boat pray to seem to be highly effective!

*This was one of those times that I opted to forego snagging my camera to catch the action and just go help. I did take pictures of the minimal damage afterwards, but the boat was gone before I had a chance to offer to share them with the owners. Oh well.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

New Toy: Nikon D3100

Apologies (again) for the lack of posting. It seems that I generally only have time to do two Nautography-related things at a time, and as of late that has largely been shopping for cameras and getting ready for our upcoming BVI trip. (Less than a week away!) Curse you day job!

As someone who's budding social media career depends greatly on taking pictures, I have found myself lacking in the camera department for some time. Most of my experience snapping pics has, sadly, been done with just a smartphone. They're compact and easy-to-use, they're obviously great for uploading images, and doing something as simple as turning on the gridlines on your display make lining up quick shots a breeze, but they are fundamentally limited in what they can do in terms of, you know actually taking pictures.

I addressed part of this limitation last summer when I bought my GoPro Hero4 Silver. (In hindsight, I should have written a post about it at the time, but I got it just before several trips so I was busy posting about them instead. Oh well.) In my GoPro, I gained the ability to shoot while wet (which is kind of important on a boat), take higer-resolution images (my trusty Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini is definitely showing its age in this department), and its wide-angle lens affords me the opportunity to do things take closeups of sailboats without clipping off the mast and also capture good panoramic shots. And yes, it does shoot amazing action videos too and the ability to mount it places and control it remotely is incredibly handy. But as I soon learned, even with my GoPro supplementing my GS4m, I was still largely limited to taking non-landscape pictures of subjects relatively close to me. I referred to that limitation as "the boatlength rule" because I could really only take good pictures of things within about one boatlength* of wherever I was.

This winter, I started on my quest to fill yet another gap. I spent a lot of time asking around and doing some research. While the choice of my GoPro was practically a no-brainer, my next choice for a camera was far less clear. Should I go with a waterproof, ruggedized, point-and-shoot like an Olympus TG-4? Or should I go with a more conventional-yet-less-boat-friendly digital camera like a DSLR or mirrorless? Should I go high end or something with fewer bells and whistles? WiFi enabled? GPS enabled? There were just so many things to consider.

Well, as the title indicates, DSLR won. Specifically, a factory-refurbished version of an older DSLR won. The Nikon D3100 had almost all of the things I was really looking for: manual controls so I can broaden my photographic horizons, exchangeable lenses so the camera can grow with me as I learn, and a low pricetag ($270 with 18-55mm lens and all factory accessories) that went a long way towards sealing the deal. It uses the same media (MicroSD cards with an adapter) as my GoPro and my GS4m, which greatly simplifies logistics. And to top it off, even though it's not WiFi enabled, I can just drop the MicroSD card directly into my GS4m to post pictures in the field if I want to.

Not too shabby for a camera that was released over five years ago.

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

Given the cost of a typical 18-55mm lens, I pretty much only paid $170 for a fairly modern and capable Nikon DSLR. No, it's not brand new and no, it's not top of the line, but as someone who's just learning neither of those things matter to me right now. I can do far more than I could before, and I can do it without having broken the bank, so that's pretty much perfect for me.

The one thing** I sacrificed, and the one advantage that the Olympus I mentioned earlier had over my Nikon, was water resistance. The Olympus would have been wonderful for taking underway (and even underwater) pictures, but it would have been far more limited while working afloat (i.e. docked, moored, anchored, etc.) or ashore. Since I already have some underway/underwater capability in my GoPro, I opted for the camera with more growth potential (both in the camera and in my abilities) with the understanding that I wouldn't necessarily be able to use it while underway. Had I gone with the Olympus, I feel like I would have just gotten another GoPro-like camera, which is really not what I was looking for.

Check back in here (and on Instagram) for pics from my trip, but for now, here's a few teasers:

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

I also have it on good authority that someone took it upon themselves to order me a 300mm telephoto lens as an early birthday gift and had it shipped here. It should arrive just in time to take some fabulous pics in the BVI. THANKS MOM & DAD! B^)

UPDATE: I've got a few weeks of shooting in with my D3100 and I'm now convinced that it is an ideal camera for me at the moment. Coupled with the fantastic Nikon 55-300mm telephoto lens, a lightweight bag, and a few extras, I've got a kit that is light, small, and capable. I'd eventually like to get a few prime lenses (one each for general use & low light, portraits, and wide-angle), but I think what I have right now will work just fine for a while. And even when I do eventually snag a few prime lenses, I'm such a fan of keeping my bag light that I'll likely only ever bring two lenses with me at a time: one on the camera and one spare.

A photo posted by Ben Cushwa (@nautography) on

Here are some specific things about the D3100 that I like and dislike.


Size/Weight: I didn't realize it when I bought it, but the D3100 is one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs available. It's not much bigger (sans lens) than many mirrorless cameras. This makes it ideal for travel use and lugging around all day.

Ergonomics: I can snap pictures, switch modes, and make some basic adjustments with just my right hand. This is very useful on a boat when I'm often using my other hand to hold on to said boat. Nikon's higher-end cameras all have their mode dials on the opposite side of the camera so they require two hands. I added a hand strap for extra security when shooting one-handed.

Capacity: The D3100 has an older, lower-resolution 14MP sensor. It's immediate successor, the D3200, and several other Nikons released around the same time, have 24MP sensors. Unless you are using top-grade professional lenses, digitally zooming your pictures, or blowing prints of your pictures to several feet or larger, 14MP is plenty. I save all of my pictures as full-resolution JPEGS and RAW files, and between the smaller file size of the older sensor and the recently available 64Gb SD cards I have never even come close to running out of space. My whole week in the BVI only took up a little over 5Gb.

Cost: You can find refurbished models with a standard 18-55mm kit lens for under $300. New ones can still be had for under $400. That's hard to beat.


Speed: Powering up and taking single shots seems quick enough, but in continuous shooting mode the D3100 really struggles at about 3 frames per second. This isn't really quick enough to get an action sequence. You can increase this by not saving the RAW file and opting for smaller JPEGs, but not much or for long.

Viewfinder: I like that the viewfinder isn't cluttered (all you see are your image and 11 small auto-focus points), but shooting on my GS4m and GoPro definitely spoiled me to using grid lines to compose my shots. I've tried to use the AF points to help with shot composition and horizon leveling, but it doesn't seem to be as effective. Fortunately, it's easy enough to digitally rotate images in post-processing. (Note: gridlines are available if you shoot using the LCD screen, but the disadvantages of doing that far outweigh the benefits of the gridlines.)

Availability: The D3100 has been discontinued by Nikon, so they're not always available new or used. Fortunately, the D3200 is still in the lineup and it has many of the same advantages, especially if you save your images at less-than-maximum resolution, but it does cost more.

* For reference, I typically sail on boats 40ft in length or less.

**I wouldn't really call this a sacrifice, but I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't shiny and red like in the Amazon listing. At this price though, I'm not going to complain.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: SailChecker

I didn't start Nautography with the intention of reviewing businesses related to my sailing experiences, but after my recent experience with SailChecker, I feel compelled to change that.

SailChecker is a yacht chartering service based in the UK that I have heard good things about, so it seemed natural to give them a go when booking our upcoming sailing trip to the BVI. After putting in inquiries with several charter services, SailChecker got back to me with an offer that was seemingly too good to be true: a week in early April on a 2006 Dufour 385 Grand Large for $2,000 US.

That price is not a typo.

The other offers we had gotten were closer to the $3,800 US range for older, less well-built boats. Needless to say, Sara & I jumped on the opportunity as that price was far less than we were expecting to pay.

The old saying goes that if something seems too good to be true then it probably is. Alas, this was the case with our offer from SailChecker. I received an e-mail from Chris Lait, the CEO of SailChecker, apologizing profusely and explaining to me that the offer had been generated as a result of a technical glitch in one of their databases and extending me another offer. Admittedly, Sara & I were both torn about proceeding with SailChecker at this point: despite their good reputation in sailing circles, their first impression with us had not been all that impressive.

Then, something rather unexpected happened. I got a phone call from Chris. He explained to me the situation in more depth and said that he was willing to work with me to get us on a boat. We talked for a while and I told him specifically what we were looking for and he said he was certain he could help us. That phone call, not from the employee who had made a mistake, but from the CEO of the company, changed my mind. It spoke volumes about his professionalism and the lengths to which SailChecker would be willing to go to meet our needs.

We exchanged e-mails over the next few days (including negotiating a refund policy that we had been offered from another company) and finally settled on an offer. In the end, we got a much newer Dufour, a 2015 Dufour 382 Grand Large, for a price that, while understandably higher than the initial offer, was still less that the offers we had gotten from other companies for older boats. Although we're still a few months out from the trip, everything since that initial database error has been smooth sailing and I suspect it will remain that way.

Dufour 382 Grand Large, stock image


On March 21st, less than two weeks before our charter was scheduled to start, I came across a booking mistake that could very well have jeopardized our trip. Since I caught the error in advance, we were able to make the necessary adjustments and instead of a potentially ruined trip we were only inconvenienced.

I realize that this situation was caused by an error that is probably very rare. However, it is the second such rare error that I have experienced while booking the same trip with SailChecker. Both times they compensated me for the errors, and that compensation was fair and much appreciated. Although I still think very highly of SailChecker's staff because of the lengths they went to in order to do right by me, I will likely not be using SailChecker's services again in the future because, quite frankly, third chances are not something I grant lightly.