Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Facebook Rant

[EXPLICIT] This post includes explicit language. I was in a Mood.

Mom's Scoping the Business
Mom's Scoping the Business
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I am not a great fan of Facebook. Its user interface lacks elegance, and Zuckerberg's machiavellian approach to privacy is profoundly annoying. It is, however, the AOL of its time. All the people we want to know, all the people with whom we are interact, they live on Facebook. We are, in a word, stuck.

Stuck with the fat ads. Those assholes. I have never in my life clicked an ad for botox, a fad diet, or magical ways to get rid of belly fat. Nevertheless, the pricks that wrote the algorithm on Facebook insist that because I am a woman of a certain age with children, these are my Must See adverts. I imagine a pimply faced, sun-deprived graduate of the Stanford comp sci department sitting in a cubicle in Silicon Valley tweaking the selection algorithm to prioritize diet ads above every other possible option for all self-avowed females who also admit that they eat. I have down-voted these ads countless times. In vain, I once attempted to up-vote a series of "Have Sex with this Russian Beauty" ads that somehow slipped through Facebook's no-porn policy. I figure if I'm having sex with Russian beauties with enormous tits, I am clearly comfortable with my extra tonnage and don't need any further assistance. My next foray will be to up-vote anything having to do with a penis. Penile implant surgery on my non-existent manly appendage would be vastly more appealing to me than a magically surprising way involving eggs and a tire to resize the waistline.

Stuck with the crazy as chick who I vaguely remember from high school who posts semi-nude photos of herself, the one probably also clicking those belly fat ads. How the hell do these make it into my feed, anyway? I mean, yeah… at one point I was stupid enough to agree to join the group devoted exclusively to my fellow high school alumni. I was a problem child. As I had zero social life in high school, loathed most of those people at the time, and abandoned my hometown with no regrets nearly 20 years ago never to return, I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking. I just spent the last 5 years utterly sabotaging the usual geek's revenge of owning the companies where my former class mates work as well as sporting a better hair cut, gorgeous eye candy husband, and fantastically higher standard of income. I suspect that no one 'back home' is going to be impressed with the fact that DrC and I dropped out as it rings eerily familiar to so many of them. I have no interest in their lives or their children, and I am utterly convinced that the feeling is profoundly mutual. So I unsubscribed or declicked or unchecked or something which was another completely pointless exercise. Once a relationship lives on Facebook it is like a stain on a white fiberglass boat deck and remains forever to remind you of the error of your ways. 

Stuck with requests to take this or that poll, join this or that cause, or participate in this or that quiz. I believe that Facebook proves we are all monkeys banging away at the keyboard attempting to produce Shakespeare and instead generating enough demographic data to keep a football stadium full of marketing executives cumming in their boots till they all pass out in brand awareness nirvana. What these clicks do not do is make a damn bit of difference in the greater scheme of things. There are ways that social media is a force for change. Facebook is not a participant in any of them. 

That Steep, Really...
That Steep, Really...
Uploaded by toastfloats
I think the only thing more annoying than a Facebook friend who plays Farmville, participates in every poll, and feels compelled to Share every link in their feed, is a relative who insists that Facebook is the anti-christ, refuses to check their pages, and then whines that they have no idea what's going on in your life because you "don't write any more." Wake up and smell the bits, people. The letter is dead. Frankly, so is the phone. If you want to know what I had for lunch, by all means look it up. I have absolutely no privacy any more, but don't expect me to spoon feed you. This is a pull economy. If you want it, pull it down; I will never send it to you again. You should be thanking me for not filling your life with a monthly, landfill-worthy missive detailing the size of the growth on my nose and the length of the seaweed on Don Quixote's transom. It is so much easier to avoid my drivel now than it ever was before. Just get Facebook to stop displaying it. Oh wait… good luck with that.

Techies know Facebook is crap, hate the cascading absurdity of Facebook's privacy setting changes, and would like to put a gun to head of every Zynga developer and executive while forcibly requiring them to grow strawberries on a real farm surrounded in singing and dancing middle school students dressed as badly drawn mange characters. Nevertheless, it is foolish for us to believe it is going to go away or that we can convince our family and friends of the superiority of any other social network. What we need is time. In the list of great where are they now social sites, we have Orbit, LiveJournal, AOL, and -- perhaps most memorably -- MySpace whose decline and fall signals in my opinion one of the greater triumphs of form and function over sheer numeric dominance. Like Rome, the British Empire, and American Hegemony, Facebook will ultimately fail to be replaced by something even yet more inane and intrusive. 

As long as it includes a heads up display and lets me down vote the bitch who cut me off on the highway this morning, I'll be there.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

School Just Isn't

Mera Goes to High School
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It is time to close the Don Quixote Academy. Homeschool for the Conger family is over. There are two major reasons for making this move: social and financial. While we have met many great homeschooled teenagers, there are definitely some advantages to socializing your children with the great unwashed in the soup which is public high school. Every bit of frustration and mediocrity and pettiness they experience in a big institution will go towards thickening the skin in preparation for leaving home and heading out into the much more challenging working environment. Also, good high schools have opportunities for sport, performance, and hands on science which are almost impossible to replicate in the homeschool environment.

Then there are the financial and professional motivations. We have drained the cruising kitty bone dry. College and/or trade schools loom on the near horizon with almost literally nothing in the bank to fund them. Don Quixote herself needs some expensive upgrades and maintenance. While DrC’s salary is good and we live simply and small, saving is slow with one income. Two would be considerably faster. Moreover, I want to work. I’ve been on sabbatical for a very long time. Even with the contracting, getting back into the professional world will be a difficult and slow process. Women who off-ramp to raise children are inevitably penalized, professional careers damaged sometimes beyond repair. The longer I go without full time work, the less likely I will ever be able to obtain the kinds of responsible management positions which are my favourite way to earn a living.

So, long ago we made the decision to close our homeschool and send the girls to public school on returning to New Zealand. On our arrival, we immediately went to the local schools to enrol the girls only to come up against a number of obstacles. First, it is near the end of the school year. For kids Jaime’s age, exams were about to start. No one saw any point in Jaime attending school for a week and then stopping. Second, the intermediate school refused to enrol Aeron. They said she was too young and must attend primary. Aeron just isn’t primary school material – she’s bigger, more mature, and academically near mid-high school.

This leaves us with only Mera. Mera started school two weeks ago. She attends Takapuna Grammar School as a Year 9 student. Year 9 in New Zealand is roughly equivalent to 8th Grade in the United States except kids in Year 9 attend with all the high school kids. Secondary school as a result is 5 years long – Y9 to Y13. Takapuna Grammar is a high decile school which basically says that we live in a posh neighbourhood with a lot of families who are well-educated and send their kids to university.

While it isn’t a sure bet, high decile schools in New Zealand are generally thought to provide a better quality education as well. Active, engaged, educated, and wealthy parents are highly correlated with good schools. Apocryphally, there are statistics, damn statistics, and reality. While Takapuna is a high decile school, it is still a public high school. There are a lot of children, few teachers, and an insane amount of aerosolized human hormone. While there are lots of really smart kids and probably some fantastic teachers, the pill sorter process which dumped Mera into classes during the final weeks of the school year has ensured that my daughter doesn’t get to see these academic pearls. Mainstreamed into the general school horde, Mera is largely unimpressed.

Part of the problem is that we run a rather strict homeschool. When it is time to study, we try to keep quiet, listen to each other, focus on our work. In the classes Mera attends, students speak out of turn, the teachers yell to little affect, and there appears to be a complete and utter disregard for the learning process. Another issue is the incredibly poor quality of the course materials. Mera mastered the subjects covered in her year 9 textbooks years ago. In fact, the entire tone and level of the books seems grossly dumbed down. I would swear we’ve been using age appropriate texts to teach the girls, but you would never know it comparing the materials used in Don Quixote Academy with those used at Takapuna Grammar. I would be hard pressed to find a lesson in either the science or math books that Aeron has not already mastered long ago, let alone Mera.

Yet, Mera insists that the best thing is to remain at the school in the mainstream classes. Tests for accelerate courses are given later this year, and she has already spoken with the dean to ensure her opportunity to take the placement exams. During the short time before school adjourns for summer, Mera intends to concentrate on learning about the school and making friends. She believes that were she to transfer classes, her efforts to fit in would be seriously hampered.

Rescuing Discovery -- Again
Uploaded by toastfloats
Fair enough. Mera’s probably correct. We don’t really care if she learns much academically during this next month or two anyway. While she may be light years ahead in history, social science and English, she still hasn’t grasped even the basics of being a teenager. Example? Jaime nearly despaired of Mera ever passing Cell Phone 101 after we discovered that my middle daughter had left the thing in the car on a trip to the mall. So it is a very constructive use of her time just meeting people and figuring out how such strange and perverse creatures as high school teens function. For Mera it is an immersive, foreign language experience.

After all these years of worrying if we were “keeping up with the Jones,” it is clear that we drastically overshot the mark. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way. The girls don’t seem abnormally smart or clever. They are bright, healthy kids with reasonably good study habits. It makes sticking to our “close homeschool” plan extremely difficult. It is hard to know if we are doing them any favours enroling them in schools which hardly appear capable of understanding my girls, let alone educating them. Can any amount of socialization balance the fact that they will effectively be treading water intellectually for years until their peer group catches up? There really is no way of knowing.

I do know that I never thought when we started homeschooling that one of the hardest bits would be stopping.

*Update: Another article written during the November push for NaNoWriMo (which again I completely failed to get anywhere near 50K). Mera is out for the summer, accepted into the Y10 accelerate classes for next year. We'll see.

Monday, December 12, 2011

French Class

Our Little Girls
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Aeron and I walk hand and hand down the street past a bake house, dollar stores, and hair cutteries. We have many errands to run. The priority is to get new printer cartridges so that we can print our passport photos, but it would also be nice if we could swing by the hardware store for a bunch DrC requests, the little art shop for felt, and into a dollar store for fold up umbrellas.

However, we are both brought to a halt by a glorious odor wafting across the street. Noses go up, eyes brighten, tails wag. The Conger girls have the scent.

Aeron is the first on point, “Over there!” Arm up, finger out, the baying begins.




Getting closer, the tone of the call changes, “Pastry!!!”

“Ooo…. French pastry. It’s FRENCH!”

Now we are both on point, every fibre of our bodies vibrating in tune to the scent. This isn’t just any bread shop. This is advertising itself as an Authentic French Patisserie. Aeron and I stand quivering on the threshold. We are not allowed in. The rules are that we are not allowed in. The Rules say that we can find places like this but to both reduce expenditure and the probability that we both balloon into fin whales, we are to refrain from patronizing stores of this sort unless the entire family is out on parade together.

So now the rationalization begins. It is an authentic French pastry shop. I spot the signs in front of the pastries. “Aeron, c’est une patisserie.”

Aeron is wise to my ways. She looks up and nods thoughtfully. “Wee, mam on. Ill yah dez bag its.”

I repeat correctly, “Oui, il ya des baguettes.”

Aeron tugs my hands. She doesn’t like to speak French in front of people. It’s obvious, however, that she wants to practice her French in the shop.

I ask, “Aeron, parlez-vous francaise?”

She frowns, “Oui. Je parle francaise.”

Heh, now we have a path to yes. I allow her to drag me into the shop. Pointing to the placard in front of one of the glorious pastries I tell her the New Rules, “Translate the names of these pastries, and we can have one. Translate at least three.”

She starts with the obvious, “Éclair is an éclair.” Of course, it is.

“Bien!” I’ll take it. At this point, I will take anything. The aroma in the shop is an intoxicating blend of fresh bread, sweet French pastry, and newly ground coffee.

Aeron peers at another – the pasty in question looks like a double-decker cream puff drizzled in fudge – and sounds it out, “Rel-ig-eh-ah-sit-ee choclat.” She ponders this for a moment before the light dawns, “Religious chocolate!”

We both laugh in delight. She has not only translated a second placard taking us that much closer to heaven, but we might also have found our treat. What could possibly taste better than religious chocolate?

Now comes the moment of truth, the challenge which actually makes this lesson a true educational experience. “Mille feuilles,” I say. It’s hard. It’s really hard. On the up side, she studied numbers last week and today we had read a short story about Clouchette (Tinkerbell) making a net out of feuilles cerne (oak leaves) and tigues bamboo (bamboo twigs). It’s possible she’ll get it.

Drinking Junk
Uploaded by toastfloats
Frowns, sighs, and frustrated little looks, however, throw doubt on the question. Aeron doesn’t look like she remembers any of the morning’s story. In the meantime, I am salivating, eyes glazing over as a Napoleon and mocha head off towards the back table. I can’t stand it and a hint pops out, “Mille is a number, remember?”

Aeron rapidly runs through all the easy number, “Un deux trois” then forges into the more challenging ones “vinght, trente…” before stumbling desperately. I intervene before disaster can strike, “Math… remember your math!!!” Please remember… And “Cent mille” trips off her tongue.

We are both hopping a little in place now. We can both feel it, victory just out of reach. The tension is high, the stakes higher. One word. One word! “I don’t know this one do I?” she asks me.

“You do,” I assure her. “You learned it this morning!”

A light dawns, her clever little wheels spin greased by the hint, “Not a twig. Not a net. Not a fish. Not a rock. It’s a leaf!... Leaves! Thousand leaves!”

Even, the ladies behind the counter cheer as I order our café au lait and religeuse chocolat. They speak French themselves and were delightfully aware of our bumbling attempts to justify our presence. The marchande leans across the counter as I pay and suggests, “Maybe she could write us a letter next time…”

Friday, December 09, 2011

Introducing Rugby to the Congers

Time to Become Kiwis
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Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand. Sure, they play many sports here. In fact, New Zealand as a country produces world class athletes in any number of sports, not to mention the fact that if a sport is bat shit crazy, it was probably invented here (e.g. bungee jumping, zorbing, jet boating, and jogging). But if you ask the average Kiwi, “What is the national sport?” I suspect most would say rugby.

Prior to coming here, my impression of rugby was a rough and tumble sport played by strapping young men in Ivy League prep schools on green fields in the Northeast. Like polo or lacrosse, it felt distant, not a sport for real people but rather something celebrated amongst old money families in tony locations not accessible to the rest of us. Of the rules or method of play, I knew next to nothing. If I thought about it, I might have speculated that the sport was something like a cross between soccer and smear the queer – a game whose offensively politically incorrect name provides the all the insight necessary into the basic rules. I liked the shirts, though. I remember my favourite purchase from the college clothing shop at Berkeley was a blue and gold rugby shirt emblazoned with a Cal Bear. That thing wore like iron and lasted forever.

Real rugby, the rugby played by everyone outside the United States, is nothing like what I thought. It’s something like proto-football crossed with soccer and spiced with a bit of WWF. The players are HUGE, incredibly fast, strong, and indestructible. The play is rapid and exciting. The rules are utterly baffling when they are not simply amusing: “Penalty: Not removing hand during maul.” Perhaps most importantly, many of the guys are drop-dead gorgeous and without all the padding of American football, you can actually see them.

Watching rugby requires first that you learn an entirely new vocabulary. Scrum, maul, lineout, knock on, ruck, sevens, try, set piece.,, There are so many terms that English as a Second Language sites often include a separate rugby word list. For Americans, it also requires a willing suspension of disbelief. In this case, you must accept that no lawyers are ever going to have an opportunity to bring a suit in any court regarding any aspect of the game. Ever.

Because if the lawyers got involved, the game would cease to exist. Basically, you take a lot of very large, very muscular, very fast men, hand them an oblong ball, and say, “Go. Just… GO.” You can throw the ball (which is done a lot in underhanded tosses which look very odd to devotees of basketball or American football), run with the ball, or kick the ball (a risky manoeuvre due to its peculiar shape). You can jump on an opposing team member trip him, slam into him, and even grab him by the balls and twist hard (as long as no one is looking). Basically, the only thing you can’t do to the other guy is throw him in the air. The rules book is long, complicated, and even the most experienced commentators and players frequently look at the referees in blank incomprehension when a call is made.

For those just getting started, the two basic plays are “lateral the ball until you can find a break in the opposing line” followed by “slam into the other guy and then all pile on top of one another.” There is something like a drop kick which is used frequently to move the ball down to the other end of the field and something like a punt which somehow sometimes inexplicably results in a score. They also have this bizarre bit where the “don’t throw the other guy in the air” rule is suspended while players throw their own team members into the air to catch the ball coming into the field in what looks like a variation on a basketball jump ball.

Kau Laka! [Let's Parade!]
Uploaded by tokisioamerica
Never mind the rules, rugby is seriously fun to watch. We are completely hooked. DrC and I watched a few games during our first year in New Zealand, but we became real fans during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. On our arrival to Tonga, we were greeted by a sea of red and white clad cheering Tongan fans. Tonga played New Zealand for the opening game… in Auckland. With New Zealand hosting the World Cup this year, we were torn: root for our future home or for our present anchorage. This decision was made quickly when we discovered that the entire country essentially shut down for the day to decorate the streets, parade around, and hold massive, noisy parties absolutely everywhere. Prudence dictated that we wear the red and white of Tonga for the night. We watched the game with a bursting crowd of screaming Tongas, ex-pat Kiwis, and bewildered American cruisers at a bar on the water front where we drank beer and took in the Opening Ceremony. Tongans were so proud of their team yet so gracious as the All Blacks inevitably beat the crap out of the Tongan team.

After that, it was all rugby all the time. We caught the USA vs. Russia game during which we handed the Ruski’s their heads. Oh, yes… we too were surprised that the U.S. even fields a rugby team, let alone one capable of qualifying for the World Cup. We watched Tonga beat Canada and then were absolutely delighted to watch Tonga go on to beat France. Everyone should have a chance to beat the French at something. It’s good for morale. Not so good for our spirits was the depressing Australia vs. USA game during which we were reminded that all the big guys in the States gravitate to football leaving the rugby team about half the size of their Oz opponents.

We arrived in Auckland the day before the final game: New Zealand vs France. You have no idea how horrible it would have been for New Zealand to lose that game. The entire country has been in a fever of All Blacks All the Time for over a year, the tension building to an intensity that bordered on a psychosis. The game was a nail-biter, and in all honesty; The French won. They played better. The score, however, was in the All Blacks favour so the entire country stopped biting our nails, sat back, drank another Tui, and started arguing over whether or not Richie McCaw deserves a knighthood.

Now we have to pick a home team. Like everything else with rugby, we’re completely bewildered. There are rugby teams and leagues all over everywhere. Hard to know where to start, but I suspect we’ll try to find the AA version of rugby where we can afford the tickets and don’t have to go to far to watch a game. My Kiwi friends tell me it’s a better game when you can see what’s going on away from the cameras. And you can smell the blood…

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Guessing is Good

Wild Aeron
Uploaded by toastfloats
"The answer is two," Aeron informs me.

"Really?" I peer at the problem. "Are you sure? How do you know?"

"I guessed."

Aeron can appear the most guileless creature on earth. She widens her eyes, smiles at me, and hands me the mathematics book to sign off. She is ready to burst out of the room and into the spring sunshine.

Today is typical of this brief interlude in Bayswater between our arrival as cruisers and our future as liveaboards. By February, the entire family will be fully engaged in work or school. Right now, however, we were divided in our lifestyles. DrC is already hard at work doctoring, Jaime is in her first real job scrubbing the deck of a mega yacht, while Mera attends high school for a few weeks. Only Aeron remains in the Don Quixote Academy, only I remain as her teacher. After breakfast each morning, we move to the cruiser lounge hoping that the change of scenery and the smell of coffee from the vending machine will put us in the right frame of mind.

The solitude and singularity is hard on my youngest. Aeron is a very social creature. She talks, plays, listens, and sings. She has an extraordinary amount of empathy which extends beyond care of her family and to friends, fellow boaters, and now her new liveaboard neighbors. She wants more than anything else to spend the day with like-minded individuals in a state of sound and constant motion. Instead, I have to pin her down like bug to a board and force-feed her grammar, science, math, and French each morning. She struggles, pouts, and inevitably throws at least one attitude tantrum. These occasional storms of stubborn nastiness, infrequent features of our entire homeschooling life, have become a daily occurrence. My patience is fast vanishing, her love of learning is already gone. We merely tolerate each other these days.

I chew my lip. There are two options here. I agree with her guess or I don't. The first option leads me to the next phase of the day during which Aeron runs around like a wild animal in the parks near the marina while I slog away at boat chores and immigration paperwork. She is happy; I am happy. The second option is going to lead to a ripping argument between my daughter and myself as sure as poop stinks. So. Decisions decisions.

"Let's do the problem together," I say plucking the workbook out of her hands and setting it on the table. "You're probably right, but we need to know why."

"No we don't."

I look up at my daughter. She repeats, "No. We. Don't."

Mama Whale with Baby
Uploaded by toastfloats
Good point. We really don't. The number of marbles required to make a cube translated into the number of bananas is not particularly helpful to anyone at any level. Yes, we are seeing here an outstanding attempt to introduce algebra painlessly to an 11 year old. On the other hand, define painless.

"Are you sure?" I make one last ditch attempt to be a responsible parent and teacher.

Aeron states positively, "I am absolutely sure. Guessing is good."

I nod thoughtfully. There is a time and a place for everything. And here, now, this is not the time or place to learn algebra. "Guessing is good."

Friday, December 02, 2011

Working for the Man

Ferried Around
Uploaded by Toastfloats
DrC started work last week.* It was a bit of a shock when he gave us all good bye kisses on his way to start the first day. For six months, we’ve rarely see him wear a shirt, let alone all the trappings of civilized society. He smelled delicious… all shaving cream, deodorant, and shampoo. However, he looked so peculiar in his dress shirt and slacks, leather shoes, and combed hair. We hardly recognized him.

The commute for the good doctor is a long one. He walks 100 feet to the ferry dock. There is a 10 minute ferry ride across the harbour to downtown Auckland. There he walks across the street and down the stairs to climb on to a commute train heading south. Unfortunately, this is where things slow down as the train ride is 45 minutes with another 15 minute walk at the other end. The trip takes an hour and a half each way.

I don’t like it. I don’t like that three hours of his day is ‘lost’ to commuting. I hated it when I had to make a similar journey myself, and I can’t imagine he enjoys it any better than I did. On the upside, we’ll have his iPad replaced by end of this week. With wireless available on the train, he should be able to do all his reading, email, and news while on the train. The commute also has the advantage of not requiring his attention at any time, e.g. at least he doesn’t have to drive.

Driving from here to anywhere is horrid. Bayswater and Devonport are on a narrow peninsula jutting south into Waitemata Harbour. The entire area is densely populated, wealthy, and ridiculously posh. It is served by a single narrow road from end to end. The commute hours of 7 – 9 am and 3 – 7 pm are an absolute nightmare along this route. Aeron and I decided during the first week that we run errands between 9 and 3 or we refuse to do them at all.

DrC’s absence has been hard on the SuperClinic. Combined with some illnesses and vacations, the clinic is way way behind. They had our captain doing surgery the first day. Every day since has been absolutely chock-o-block. He comes home looking completely beat by the commute and work day, grim, quiet, and exhausted. The back log at the clinic will clear over time. He will get used to the commute. Working will get easier. Right now, however, the long hours and hard work are hard on him. I sympathize, but inside I am selfishly cowering a bit in dread and fear. That picture of exhaustion will be me in a matter of weeks. After years of sabbatical and contract work, soon I too will be putting in those days, those hours, that effort. Poor me.

I started the job hunt process this week. Either I am looking at the listings differently or there are more opportunities this time. The job boards offer some promising options. I still haven’t completely committed myself to full time permanent or contract. I miss having a regular ‘crew’ of co-workers – colleagues with whom I can develop lasting relationships and staff who I can hire, train, and pass on to bigger and better things. On the other hand, contract work is so much more flexible, the time commitment less and allowing more opportunities for adventures with my girls and husband. It’s still a toss up. I suspect that the decision will have more to do with fate and opportunity. The best option to open up will be the one I leap on, wrassle to the ground, rope up and drag home.

* Actually, it's been several weeks now. NaNoWriMo got me way ahead on my writing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Where the Hell is the Floor?

“I can’t get it,” I irritably inform my husband.

He retorts with some heat, “It’s right in front you!”

“Yes,” I agree with just the right amount of sarcasm, “I can see that it is right in front of me. And between me and the tool you want are 15 boxes, 5 pieces of plywood, a bag of cat litter, a large pile of dirty laundry, a snarl of rope, three fenders, and an unknown number of unmatched shoes.”

Yesterday, we retrieved the trailer from our friend’s house in Pukekohe and unloaded all the precious gear on to the boat. We’ve decided not to keep the trailer. For the cost of a rental space, we could buy the trailer and everything in it twice year. If it doesn’t fit on the boat, we have to get rid of it. Until then, the girls and DrC dumped all the gear into the cockpit for sorting, analysis, storage, and purging.

I question where my head was last February. Did I really think we were going to have any use for a radiant oil heater? Where the hell did I plan on storing not one but two electric whisks? And all these appliances with New Zealand plugs… what moron saves them for 8 months in a trailer to be used on an American boat?

Like a gopher with ADHD, DrC’s head pops up out of the transom and he points, “There. Walk there. You can get it from that angle.”

What is called for here is a yard sale. Challenging at best given that we have no yard, I think I can get rid of the vast majority of this crap by simply leaving it on the dock. There is a bench, in fact, at the gated entrance to our dock which is used as a sort of freecycle repository. Some of the items can no doubt be sold for cash on trademe. Others should just be taken directly to the trash.

“Can I throw away your old shirts?” I ask my husband, apropos of nothing apparently.

His head bounces up. “The needlenose pliers,” he reminds me.

We are combining two households: our accumulation of land-based goods from our year in Chicken House with the remnants of supplies purchased in Mexico to take us across the Pacific. It occurs to me as I pick past the rough ends of the plywood that we may never again need to buy soap, hand lotion, or bug repellent. I am not sure why the hell I ever thought we would wash our hands while sailing across the Pacific. “Big ones or little ones?” I ask, having finally reached the tool box.

“Both.” Smart man. He may not need it, but he knows there is no chance in hell I’m going to go back to the tool box after the first run.

As I retrace my path back to the 1 foot square clear space in the cockpit, I come to a decision, “Dean, we’re going to sell the children to make room for your tools.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bayswater -- Our New Home

Bayswater Marina
This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.
Bayswater Marina is located across the Waitemata Harbour from Auckland proper. For those familiar with the great bays of the western United States, this is equivalent to living in Sausilito, Berkeley or West Seattle. The view of the city skyline to the south is stunning, the air is crisp and clean, the bay is full ferries, small fishermen, and yachts at nearly all times of day.

The marina itself is a big half circle dredged into the surrounding tidal low. It is stuck out on the end of the thumb of the Bayswater peninsula. There is no protection from prevailing wind and very little from large wakes generated by passing ferries. This would prove problematic in a more aggressively nasty climate, but in Auckland it is reasonably comfortable. The marina hosts 7 docks and nearly 1200 boats ranging in size from the enormous fishing trawler Tom to a swarm of small power boats.

Our marina hosts quite a few liveaboards, including at least two other families with children. Most of us are on docks F and G as these docks support larger craft with attached water and power. They tell us we are extremely fortunate to have a liveaboard slip in Bayswater. Unlike Seattle and San Francisco where increasing NIMBY legal pressure is restricting liveaboards, the problem here at Bayswater is simply one of infrastructure. The shore facilities – laundry, showers, and toilets – can only support so many liveaboards. The staff here feels that we are more than a little over capacity, so they are strictly restricting new boats and families and in fact have a very long waiting list. We’re allowed only because I put our name on the list over a year ago.

However tight we might have slid under the deadline, the folks here have made us feel incredibly welcome. While we are only beginning the process of getting to know our fellow liveaboards, our relationships with the office staff, dock crew, and harbour master are already strong and positive. The whole lot of them are incredibly helpful, friendly, and supportive. Problems disappear when I walk in the office and start chatting with Ed or Magdelena or Kezia. I really like these people.

Which is good, because without a happy dock crew, I fear Don Quixote would not be an easy boat to slide into this marina. For one thing, we don’t fit. We never quite fit, but here we really don’t fit. First, they put us in an 18 meter catamaran slip way out at the end of the dock. Fantastically private and with enough wind to keep us going 24/7 with all the lights on, the computers plugged in and both fridges chugging away, it just wouldn’t suit for the long haul. For one thing, the 10 minute walk from deck to shore is fine in the mild spring and summer weather, but I fear it would have been a heinous slog in winter sleet. More importantly, they were charging us an 18 m price for that slip. We’re an 11 m boat. We were almost paying double for the privilege of privacy and a freezing walk.

So they kindly moved us all the way from the outermost slip to the innermost slip. This is what happens to catamarans. We get the outside or the inside. Now we are practically under the dock ramp. This puts us directly under everyone’s eye, including all the dock crew. Good and bad, right? If we have to stretch, bend, or even break a few dock rules, we’re going to get caught instantly. For example, technically we are not supposed to dry our clothes on the boat. But, we want to hang the towels for an hour or to dry after we use them. On F74, no one would see. On F3, well it’s rather obvious, isn’t it. We look like Po' White Boat Trash. Luckily, the staff is all Kiwi attitude all the time. At least with drying, it’s hard to imagine why the “no dry” rule was ever set up in the first place. This is a country where drier ownership is considerably less than really big, fancy BBQ ownership. But the best bit on this inner slip is the very short walk, and did I mention ½ the cost? Dogz knows that if DQ breaks free or starts to smoke, the entire marina will be on her in a second to help.

The only real problem is that we are wedged in so tight into this slip that we literally can not get in and out on our own. We also shouldn’t – potentially even can’t – get out on a low tide. I feel like a dumpy lady trying to fit into a bridesmaid’s outfit two sizes two small. Maybe once I slide my fat ass into the satin, I’ll look super good… or maybe I’ll just look like mutton masquerading as lamb. To make matters more absurd, the slip next to us has been converted from two slim slips into one monster wide for the beauteous, brand new, blindingly clean, 14 meter catamaran P’zazz. She’s the bride, and she is dazzling.

If you’re thinking of spending a few days or a week here, the facilities are pretty good for mariners. Nice lounge, ferry to Auckland on the same dock as your boat, strong (though moderately pricey) broadband wifi to your boat, super well kept shower ($1/5 min) and laundry ($4/load wash, $4/20 min dry), 24/7 security and gated parking. The downside is that there are absolutely no services within walking distance to Bayswater. We’re at the end of a suburban desert. You can ferry into town or you can take a bus, but there is no walking to get groceries. I can drive you around, if you’d like, but not for too much longer. I really need to get a job.

Speaking of jobs, Jaime immediately found gainful employment with the marina. She is working every day scrubbing decks and docks, cleaning the parking lot, and doing other man-about-the-marina labour. Her boss and co-workers appear quite happy with her work, and she is delighted to finally earn enough pocket money to keep herself in the electronic and clothing style to which she would like to become accustomed. It’s all good.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rough Weather Off the North Island

Auckland - The City of Sails
Auckland - The City of Sails
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Oddly enough to us, practically the first question of every Kiwi on learning that we recently sailed across the Pacific from North America is: “Did you have any really bad weather?” Generally, this isn’t the first question asked by Americans. Americans ask us about pirates, sometimes about banditos and avian bird flu, and memorably once about the availability of Starbucks coffee in Puerto Vallarta.* Experienced cruisers don’t ask either type of question since the answers are well known. Instead, they ask which islands we visited on the crossing and have we yet found a cheap place to do laundry.

Kiwis focus on the weather. This is smart. New Zealand coastal weather is challenging at best. At her worst, New Zealand’s coasts kill boats, boaters, and fishermen with a dreary regularity which provides a steady trickle of articles for page three of the New Zealand Herald. I believe it might even provide enough work to qualify as a journalistic beat. Of course, by far the majority of vessels and individuals lost are very small motor craft and weekend fishers. A well-founded cruising yacht which has already proven herself transiting the world’s oceans with a crew that is alert and on their game is unlikely to come to too much grief. Listen to the regularly broadcast weather reports, pay very close attention to your charts at their most detailed setting as most of the coastline is distressingly shallow and littered with obstacles, and do not get cocky.

Because New Zealand is likely to offer a global sailor some of the worst weather seen since leaving the Pacific Northwest or the Caribbean on the front end of the hurricane season. She certainly served Don Quixote a quick smack in the face translated as roughly, “Wake up you idiots! You’re not in the tropics anymore.” While it is difficult to say with precision since our wind instrument head unit abruptly died in Tonga, we estimate that we saw the highest wind speeds of our entire journey while making the passage from Whangarei to Auckland.

Not surprisingly, we were out in the rough weather because of a calendar. It really can not be said enough times: The most dangerous piece of equipment on a cruising sail boat is the calendar. We were under direct orders from BioSecurity AND Customs to get ourselves down to Auckland by Friday. BioSecurity wanted us to get Dulcinea into quarantine; Customs needed us to import the boat since we were not applying for the temporary import permit used by most vessels entering the country. As a side note, if you are planning to import your yacht into New Zealand and you are going to try to do so under the Work visa personal goods exemption, you must do this in Opua or Auckland. Details details.

It was leave Thursday or not leave until Monday which clearly would not suit New Zealand officialdom, so off we went in spite of rather nasty weather reports. We knew going into it that Thursday would entail very brisk winds from the north sweeping us south at high speed while Friday would clock the wind around 180 degrees and hit us on the nose for the last 20 miles into Auckland. Unlike the vast middle of the planet, the weather reports from Whangarei to Auckland are frequent, broadcast on VHF radio every three hours, and quite accurate out to 3 or 4 days. Trusting the reports, we knew that the trip was going to be unpleasant but completely within our wheelhouse.

The trip was precisely as predicted. On Thursday, we put up our downwind sails wing on wing and sped south roughly 60 NM. We were chased by a truly ominous black cloud virtually the entire time. At one point, we were clocking a steady 10 NM speed over ground. With no swell, virtually no wind waves, pointed downwind with probably 35 knots gusting to 40 behind us, I’m not even certain we could have slowed down if we wanted to. We made the trip in record time. For those keeping score, 10 NM is ridiculously fast for Don Quixote, and we haven’t seen 40 knots since we left the Oregon coast in 2008.

Friday was much much worse. We got up early to make the last bit into Auckland in time to get all our paperwork complete by mid-afternoon. As we rounded the corner into the Whangaparoa Passage, it was clear that the forecast had been depressingly specific and accurate. It was blowing 30, gusts to 35 but now straight on the nose. Rounding the point, it might have been worse as spray was blowing off the tiny wind caps and straight at us. We attempted to tack back and forth for awhile. I stopped looking at the knot meter. Why bother. We suck going upwind. We were making 7 to 8 over ground but our speed towards our destination was virtually negative. Eventually, we gave up, pulled down the sails, and motored into the teeth of gale. Unlike the prior day, the channel in this area caused a seriously nasty tidal current vs. wind wave action so the entire 20 miles was spent in a banging, bashing, smashing slog. We arrived in sunny, breezy Auckland beaten to a pulp and exhausted.

This is normal weather at this time of year off the west coast of New Zealand. It isn’t even particularly exciting to the locals. Yachtsmen here, like in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon have a wary and respectful relationship with their coastline. High tide swings, shallow seas, and thousands of islands, islets and rocks require experience and caution. I am not at all surprised that New Zealand sailors are some of the best in the world. Just navigating their home waters is an incredible proving ground.

This area is also tremendously beautiful and extremely fun to navigate. There are pocket anchorages all over everywhere. The holding for anchors is mud, mud, and more mud putting us back into gunkholing mode. Little towns dot the coastline complete with parks where a cruiser can land a dinghy and go for a walk-about. Small volcanoes dot the seas and spear up on the horizon, wildlife is abundant, and they tell us that the fish leap on to the hooks. We’ll stick to crabbing and mussels since the only thing we do worse than sailing up wind is catching fish.

But it will all have to wait. The family is united on precisely one thing right now. We do not want to go sailing. We absolutely do NOT want to go to some pristine, quiet anchorage and enjoy each other’s company. Stick a fork in us. We are done.

* Yes, there is a Starbucks in Neuvo Vallarta at the mall outside the marina. However, no… they do not sell whole bean coffee. I am not proud I know this.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Exploring: Whangarei and Marsden Cove Marina, NZ

The quarantine dock in Whangarei where you can check into New Zealand is located at Marsden Cove Marina. This is found at Marsden Point, near the mouth of the Hatea River. It’s just past the oil refinery and enormous timber yard. The channel both into Hatea River (S35 52.880 E174 32.550) and then into the marina (S35 49.707 E174 28.585) is well marked and well lit allowing for a night approach if you feel compelled to do so, though as usual I would prefer to avoid it if possible.

Before arrival, give Whangarei Maritime Radio a call on VHF 17. If you call them on 16, they’ll make you change to 17 anyway. Just for manners, it helps to pronounce Whangarei at least close to the way the locals do: fon’-gar-eh. Swallow the ‘n’ if you can and give that ‘r’ the tiniest bit of a roll. If you speak with a Texan or New York accent, prepare in advance to spell your boat name several times. “Two countries separated by the same language…” (probably Bernard Shaw)

If checking into New Zealand, make your way directly to the quarantine dock in Marsden Cove Marina. It is clearly marked to the left of the entrance as you come into the marina basin. You do not need to leave your boat. If you’ve called into Maritime Radio, Customs and BioSecurity will arrive in short order. Cruisers including ourselves report the check in process as quick, friendly, and relatively easy, particularly if you are prepared in advance with your paperwork, an inventory of your items, etc. I wrote this up in detail if you’d like more about our own experience. After you check in, you can either head up river to the Town Basin or spend the night in Marsden Cove Marina. The marina graciously offers the first night free, so there really is no point in moving after a long passage from Fiji or Tonga.

The marina has all basic amenities but is well nigh impossible to live in for the long haul unless you have a vehicle. In the small, adjacent retail mall, you will find a nice little café, a liquor store, a tiny chandlery, and a place to get your hair cut but you will not find any place to buy food stuffs to replace your Biosecurity depleted stocks. Make sure that before making the passage, you squirrel away some canned goods that will pass Biosecurity so you’ll have a bite to eat your first night. Showers are $1/min, laundry $4/load, and wireless Internet at the boat with a very strong signal but prices that make Tonga look cheap. A very nice service offered by the marina is a $20/day plus gas rental vehicle. Make arrangements at the office in advance as the vehicle is understandably in high demand. The fuel dock has both diesel and gas and is self-serve requiring an EFTPOS or Visa with pin to use.

Marsden Cove Marina is quite a distance from Whangarei itself. It takes about 20 minutes to drive to town from the marina and one to one and a half hours to make your way by sailboat up the river to the Town Basin. Even so, it is a good place to stop for a few days, maybe even to settle in for the duration if you are more inclined towards quiet and privacy than convenience and boat services. Increasingly, cruisers planning an extended stay in New Zealand move into this marina, buy a car, and live comfortably in the new, well kept, and very peaceful facility.

If we were still in cruising mode, I think I might be more inclined after a few days to move from Marsden Cove into the densely packed urban Whangarei Town Basin. There are several marinas, but if you plan an extended stay it makes good sense to make reservations well in advance. From the Town Basin, all the services of a very active, prosperous community of nearly 50,000 people are within walking distance. Grocery stores, dentist and doctor offices, boat services, every possible type of restaurant and shop, hair cutteries, Internet cafes with cheap broadband… after over six months at anchor, it’s like landing in a little slice of retail heaven. The downtown area of Whangarei displays what I feel are the best characteristics of New Zealand commercial areas. While on the edge you’ll find a few big box stores and large super markets, the inner town is eminently walkable with many small retail outlets, dollar stores, banks, and places to grab a quick bite or a long sit. It is also very Kiwi, very New Zealand. While a bit larger than most, you’ll find precisely this style of town center in nearly every town and village throughout the country. We love spending a day drifting along the streets, poking into toy shops and shoe stores. It is so much better than visiting a mall.

In addition to the advantages of being in town for all the services and shops, the Town Basin is also chock-o-block full of companies catering to the boat trade. I can’t even begin to do just to the long list of services and goods available there, so just go to their web site. We plan to go back in January to get a bunch of work done ourselves. If you’re going to be there, please let us know. Any excuse to get off the boat while it’s on the hard. Really. Any excuse. You could pull my teeth even.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

But What About the Cat?

Nautical Kitty
Nautical Kitty
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Getting Dulcinea into New Zealand has proven at least as frustratingly difficult as hysterical reports in the cruising blogosphere made it out to be. Despite (or maybe because of) a recent major overhaul of the process to import a cat or dog into the country, the amount of work we have undertaken to bring our pet on this journey has almost made me wish we had left her in Seattle with our friend Greg permanently.

Disclaimer: I am not an import/export specialist. I am not an employee for New Zealand MAF BioSecurity. Do not take anything I write here as The Word on importing your pet. Go to the web site yourself.

The timeline and requirements provided by MAF BioSecurity are pretty confusing, but you can parse them out if you are very careful. The bottom line is that the animal needs a microchip, rabies and rabies titre test, and all sorts of either less serious shots and tests which owners generally administer in any case. All this work needs to be done before you leave North America. The following are the gotchas that got us:

Microchip Type – New Zealand insists that you use an ISO standard microchip. Unfortunately, this standard is relatively new and still not standard, if you know what I mean. Particularly in the United States, many vets administer microchips that do not follow this precise standard. Wiki has a great article if you want to read about how this nonsense all came about and why many American cats and dogs are now running around with multiple chips in their ass. In short, make sure your pet has a 15-digit microchip number and that the chip is scanned and appears on absolutely every scrape of paper relating to your animal.

USDA Stamp - An American animal needs to be USDA approved… sort of like a chunk of beef. You can have your local vet (or any vet for that matter) actually complete all the work. However, you need to then send your paperwork to the nearest USDA veterinary to get a USDA stamp for the application. This stamps isn’t actually a stamp but more like a notary embossment. If you plan to send your paperwork to MAF via PDF or fax, use a soft pencil to darken the stamp so it appears on copies.

Timing is Everything -- Mexico and probably every Central and South American country are decidedly not on the “good country” list. These countries are either uncontrolled for rabies or New Zealand has no idea and is taking it for granted that rabies is in every dog, cat, squirrel, and toddler. You do not want any of those countries on your itinerary within 6 months of your arrival in New Zealand. If it’s a question of sitting off the coastline in the teeth of a 40 knot gale and 5 metre seas for that critical extra day to make it 6 months, I would suck it up and stay off shore. Do not worry about any of the South Pacific islands as apparently they are all on the “good country” list. Actually, this one didn’t get us, but it could have. We were in Mexico 6 months and 2 days prior to our arrival. As it was, it has still been an issue we have had to explain over and over and over again.

Ship Log -- Even though there is no requirement written ANYWHERE that you must do so, BioSecurity is requesting a ship log for every vessel we have spoken to which includes a record of “every berth since leaving the USA.” Now there are several problems with this request.

1) Did I mention that this is not a requirement? It falls into some vague elastic clause which translates as ‘whatever BioSecurity feels like asking for’.

2) Most ship logs are effectively illegible to anyone but intimate family members since folks write in them at all hours, all sea conditions, and in their own cryptic familial short hand.

3) “every berth” What is a berth in this context? Anchorages? Mooring balls? Docks? I’m not clear that they understand that most boats don’t actually touch land for the 6 months between North America and New Zealand. We were in precisely zero “berths” as I think of them – a dock in a marina.

4) “since leaving the USA” Really? Some boats are arriving here after kicking around the Caribbean for a few years, passing through the Canal, and then heading off. Some of have been up in the South Pacific for years. And the law actually specifies the aforementioned 6 month interest in the pet’s location.

I think that the new rules are causing MAF BioSecurity to develop new policy and procedures for private yachts. That is not a bad thing, obviously, and it will surely settle down and be documented in future years. This year, however, it’s a little awkward. Georgia J actually copied their ship log. I pushed back a bit and delivered a summary of all our country entry and exits as well as the brief times tied up to check in to Tonga or take on fuel. I think all vessels arriving with an animal should just pre-emptively supply this information in as easy to use a format as possible. It makes complete sense that they’ll want to know where the animal could have been exposed to diseases since leaving the vets in North America. It makes no sense for them to be wasting time pouring over our insanely detailed descriptions of location, weather conditions, whale sightings and sail changes.

Worms and Fleas -- First, let me state unequivocally that New Zealand hosts some of the most aggressive fleas on the planet. We have friends whose own pets are testimony to the power of Kiwi fleas. To protect this uniquely nasty and pernicious local population, your own animal must be absolutely flea free on arrival in New Zealand. If it is not, the vet at the quarantine facility will make sure it is by bathing it in a toxic soup. If evidence of fleas are found, the process is repeated 14 days later. Same goes for worms. The 14 days is the kicker. If your animal arrived completely parasite free, there would be only a single treatment and the pet released in 10 days. Since every day in a quarantine facility is buckets of money. It behoves you to try to deworm and de-flea your pet before making landfall… perhaps in your copious free time as you sit at Minerva Reef waiting for a good weather window.

* * *
We still do not have Dulcinea, though we are currently scheduled to pick her up on Saturday.* I’ll believe that we are clear of this process when I can hear her scratching her table post in the middle of the night. On an up side, at appears our marina has a firm “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on liveaboards with pets. We’ll keep her boat-bound for the first two weeks, after which we’ll start letting her out at night to prowl a bit. We hope to train her to stay on the boat during the day, out in the evenings.

We have friends to thank – Greg and Deb – for helping us through this incredibly challenging process. Had it not been for Greg in particular, I think we would have had to shave her and pretend I had borne a mutant baby somewhere along the trip. He assures me that it will all be worth it when she’s settled back on Don Quixote. The girls and DrC agree. Next time we import a pet, however, I’m going to make them do the paperwork.

Next Post: Exploring: Whangarei and Marsden Cove, NZ
* We picked Dulci up. She's settling into her marina life, purring a lot, spending most of her time curled up on the bed in our room, and has only managed to fall off the dock once. Literally stretched and rolled herself off the dock... backwards.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Yes, We Really Are Married

Banana Grin by toastfloats
Banana Grin, a photo by toastfloats on Flickr.

Strange as it may seems, New Zealand does not accept a marriage certificate as proof of partnership. Instead, we must prove our relationship in other, sometimes odd and convoluted ways. One of the requests is for:

"Letters of support from family, friends, employers, or others who can confirm your relationship. The writer should include name and contact number."

They also want:

"Photos of you together, especially with other family/friends or at significant events."

I thought this might actually be kind of fun. If you want to play, please send me a Facebook message, blog link, email or even *gasp* hard copy with your letter of support. By all means, include photos. The more detail you provide about the "genuine, stable and ongoing relationship" between DrC and myself the more potentially entertaining and useful your contribution. If you want to share your support with more than just NZ Immigration, go ahead and put it somewhere public but please send me your contact information for the authorities.

Thanks everyone!

Hardcopy should go to:
s/v Don Quixote
Bayswater Marina
Bayswater, Auckland, NZ 0622

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Clearing Customs and MAF BioSecurity

It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Waitemata, where all the women are working their buttocks off and all the children are more annoying than average. The long hiatus from blogging, jotting down notes, tweeting, and acting like a civilized creature of the social media age felt good. It felt necessary and proper. However, now I’m ready to get back to work.

When we last left our intrepid heroes, Don Quixote was dodging shipping traffic off the coast of New Zealand inbound to Whangarei. We had been motoring for several days in an effort to zip ahead of a truly nasty looking weather system. I have since learned from experienced Kiwis that our experience was quite common. On the Tonga/Fiji to New Zealand passage, a sailor frequently must choose between converting the vessel into a slow inefficient motor yacht or getting smacked around by an ugly weather system. So my advice to sailors planning that passage is to load a lot of extra fuel. We burned 50 gallons of diesel between La Paz and Nuka’alofa over 6 months. We burned 70 gallons of diesel from Nuka’alofa and Whangarei in less than 10 days. By the time we made landfall, we were running on fumes and wishing we had loaded more of the jerry cans.

As it was, we barely landed before a storm rolled over us. In fact, the wind began to pick up while we were on the quarantine dock. We had to hustle to get shifted into a slip before the wind topped 30 in the marina. I do not want to think of what was happening out in the open seas. The Georgia J following in our wake reported one of their most miserable nights at sea as they headed into Opua about 36 hours after our landfall.

Clearing through Customs and MAF Biosecurity was considerably easier and more rapid than we had been lead to believe. New Zealand’s biosecurity process has a reputation as fiercely protective, an agency whose broad mandate and list of proscribed items reads as “everything including the kitchen sink”. Fair enough, but in practice, what our biosecurity official seemed most concerned about were meats, dairy, and anything that could sprout. Beans, for example, only needed to be thrown away if it were possible to grow more little baby beans. Same with rice, polenta, and flour.

Even in the case of dairy, the rules in the guides read as though anything with a scrape of lactose would be categorically ejected. In practice, dried and canned milk products must be clearly packaged, labelled, and commercial. We had to throw away a few scrapes of opened cheeses, and we emptied the boat of the last of the veggie and fruit bits, freezer burned meats, and skanky snapper before making landfall. BioSecurity took our alfalfa seeds but not the sesame seeds, left us with all our various flours and grains, and checked the oven to make sure we weren’t hiding a half-roasted chicken (something he said he’d found more than once). He only looked in the bilges and lockers we notified him either had held or currently held food products. He looked at all our local crafts, checked for bugs and egg sacs, and then passed them back without comment or concern.

Now, BioSecurity did make clear that they have the right to be considerably more thorough and conservative. In some cases, the team does bring a dog trained to sniff out contraband. What considerably aided our clearance was that I supplied BioSecurity with a complete inventory of all items on the boat – including their location on the vessel – that could remotely be construed as falling under their jurisdictions. Mind you, this list included all diving gear and fishing tackle, hiking boots, snorkels and masks, crab pot, an inventory of native crafts skimmed from the markets in Mexico, French Polynesia and Tonga, and an exhaustive list of every food item we kept. By declaring everything, our agent could quickly and easily determine what needed his attention. It’s a lot of work, but it seems to make the entire experience much less harrowing.

We even declared our “controlled drugs.” It used to be that travelling with a well-stocked medical kit was illegal in most countries. Codeine, morphine, epinephrine, many steroids, and even some antibiotics are controlled drugs virtually everywhere. A sailor would have to attempt to “smuggle drugs” from one country to another and hope that if the narcotics were found embedded as they were in a sea of bandages, salves, and other medical equipment, the local authorities would look the other way.

At least in New Zealand, this is no longer necessary. Declare your medical kit. Supply it for inspection if requested. Do not hide, in other words. While we were clearly importing controlled substances, Customs seemed very understanding of the needs of globe trotting sail boats and not even slightly interested in taking our medications from us, let alone hauling us off to the nearest jail.

Next Post: But What About the Cat?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Boats on the Horizon

The ocean is starting to get busy. The geography of New Zealand means that the closer you get to Whangarei, the more convergence there is amongst all the possible routes taken by commercial traffic to and from this country. To get to Auckland, you pretty much have to cut through all the shallow small islands at Whangarei and take a wide channel down to the city. If you can imagine all those freighters with Blue Bell chicken chips and Anchor butter, canned corned beef and Wattie's soups off to the Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga to supply all those scantily stocked and ridiculously expensive dairies, then you can imagine that approaching Whangarei is tantamount to poking your bow into a beehive of commercial boat traffic.

This is one of those moments where I strongly regret that Don Quixote does not carry two items of equipment now seen on the well-stocked cruising boat: AIS Tx/Rx and a SeaMe radar repeater. The Automatic Identification System is essentially 'whois' for boats. Hmmm, only computer geeks probably understood that analogy. Let's try this again. Every boat has a unique identity in the global system of radio communication. With an AIS transceiver (Tx), a boat broadcasts this electronically to every boat within several hundred miles -- and incidentally but totally pointlessly except in certain limited emergencies -- to all airplanes as well. The announcement says important things like your boat name and size, location, heading, speed, and registry. With an AIS receiver (Rx), these signals are detected and then plotted on a heads up display. They are often incorporated into your helm navigation station in boats with newer electronics packages. AIS is internationally mandated for all vessels over a certain size. I do not know the size off hand, but think Big. When Don Quixote was commissioned, AIS Tx was illegal for small craft. I guess the thinking is that we would clutter up the display. We met cruisers in Mexico with AIS Rx which they swore saved them from getting run down like chickens on a Tongan street by freighters and cruise boats. Now it is legal for even small craft to own both send and receive. Next time. I like the notion of being able to call out a boat on the horizon by name.

The SeaMe radar repeater we have only seen once on a boat named s/v Catacaos. Lorraine and Graham are registered out of Jersey (look that one up -- a country, not a state). Graham is a coastie for Jersey, and someone who's nautical acumen I trust deeply. I don't know if I'm spelling this correctly, but they had what sounded like a "SeaMe" radar repeater. What it did was sit there passively doing nothing until it detected someone else's radar signal. Then it lit up and started to broadcast a very loud return. Catacaos was one of the most visible boats ever to appear on our radar with a stronger, more steady return than even the floating islands known as cargo containers. Our radar has trouble detecting land, but it had no difficulty telling us precisely where Catacaos was out to 12 miles. I want one of these. Better than being able to call a boat and get its attention is to be so "loud" electronically that the boat's own navigational systems alert the driver.

For these last few hundred miles of our cruising life, however, we are powerful radar toy-less. We've made it this far, so I am optimistic we'll manage to dodge traffic through our last overnight. We are, however, going to light the boat up like a Christmas tree: nav lights and salon lights. We'll be highly visible in these clear, relatively flat seas. If the wind holds, we have roughly 150 miles to Whangarei where we will first give everything of edible value to customs, then anchor the boat, and then find someplace with Indian take aways. I am so ready for a good curry.

~ Toast
Distance: 130/1155/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 15
33 43.00'S 175 45.61'E - Rhumb line to Whangarei
Oct 15 2011 18:30 UTC

Friday, October 14, 2011

Still Not There

For no reason I can currently understand or justify, I left my favorite gift of all time with our trailer in New Zealand. Jaime made it for me two years ago. It is a large fleece poncho,blue and tan pattern of indeterminate purpose. She cut a hole in the middle for a head, reinforced the neck line, and cut and tied knots along the edges. It's the world's ugliest poncho. I slept with it over my head and shoulders every night in New Zealand. I deeply, profoundly regret leaving it there. The temperature last night dropped rudely and precipitously to 62. So much for one degree at a time.

We are not running the heater for these last days as originally planned, because we were unexpectedly run down by a ridiculously large high. Yes, after making three days of record time, Don Quixote dropped ourselves into 300 miles of bright, cold sun and flat calm seas. Normally, we'd just sit here and wait for the wind to build again. Not this time. In a few days, this beautiful calm vista -- right here where we are currently squatting -- is going to be run down by a very nasty low bringing with it rain, thunderstorms, 5 meter (that's 15+ feet) swells, and 35 to 45 knot winds.

Needless to say, we are not letting moss grow on the boat. Actually, we are. Seriously, that whole analogy with moss and rocks is a land thing. Turns out the faster you go at sea, the more you feed the barnacles, fungi, and other assorted greens and live things growing on vigorously on the hull. In any case, we fired up the motors and ground away the last 36 hours in a somewhat feverish attempt to get far enough south to slip below the low before it comes in. This is something we haven't done since we left Mexico. Come to think of it, I can't ever remember grinding away continuously for so long. It's wearying in a whole new way, mostly due to vibration and sound. I suspect it would be like taking a 36 hour plane trip. Dull, loud, and it makes your nerves vibrate unpleasantly.

Keep in mind that like many catamarans, Don Quixote has a relatively low fuel capacity. We supplement with jerry cans as well as the 12 gallon separate tank used for the heater. Routinely, we try to carry about 100 hours of fuel and our maximum is only another 25 beyond that. To motor from here to Whangarei is about 20 hours (and 100 NM) more than the balance of our fuel. So obviously the first safety measure is to reserve our heater tank in case we need it. The crew look like a bunch of tanned sausages stuffed into dirty blue and white and grey fleece rolls. We are baking today -- twice. Even the cat is taking extraordinary measures and actually *gasp* slept with a crew member last night.

So it was with relief that DrC and I put out the jib this morning and got us moving under sail. The longer we sail, the sooner the mathematics of passage making and safety will let us turn ont he heater.

~ Toast
Distance: 124/1075/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 14
31 48.78'S 176 59.06'E - Rhumb line to Whangarei
Oct 14 2011 18:30 UTC

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ignorance is Speed

Distance: 165/453/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 8

Yesterday, we made 165 miles. I may be wrong, but I think that's our single fastest day ever. We averaged roughly 6.8 NM/hour. Now normally, when the boat is rocketing along at 6 to 8 knots, we look at the wind anemometer, get super nervous, and reef ourselves into oblivion. However, the B&G wind transducer gave up the ghost about 2 weeks ago. We have no perfect idea of the wind speed. As a result, we've had to fall back on sailor senses: wind in the face, sound of the wind generator, feel on the helm, white capping and wave heights, riffles on the water. In the absence of scientific, objective evidence that the wind is high, we're looking at the boat and conditions exclusively. Don Quixote looks good. On this beam sea with short period short wind waves, she's happily chugging along at 7. This means that we could have crossed the Pacific in roughly half the time we actually took. So now we know. Don Quixote isn't slow and stupid. Her owners are.

This leaves us with an interesting dilemma, however. We calculated a 10 day passage. At this speed, we'll make landfall in 7 and change. Thing 1) Do not count the wind before it lands on your deck. We probably will not be lucky enough to enjoy these fantastic sailing conditions for five more days. Thing 2) What am I do with all this fresh produce? We can't take any of it into New Zealand. Today, we live on salad and papayas and coconuts. And coconut, papaya salad.

We are now on the magic third day at sea. This is the mythical last day of misery after which the body adjusts to the motion and wonky hours. I believe I have already explained that this is very similar to the mythical forgetfulness of post-partem mothers who blithely reassure their partners that "It didn't hurt... or at least I don't remember it hurting." The best that can be said of passages is that eventually you run out of ocean and into the hard bits on the edges where you finally, blessedly, stop moving. Weather considerations have motivated us to blow right past Minerva Reef and straight on down to New Zealand. This routing might result in us making landfall before boats who left a day or two ahead of us. Oceans are weird that way.

~ Toast
24 19.40'S 178 20.92'W - Rhumb line to Whangarei now
Oct 10 2011 18:00 UTC

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Savor the Moment

Distance: 288/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 7

I remember very clearly the first time I ever sailed on a catamaran. DrC and I had already committed to buying one and sailing away. We had chartered a Fountaine Peujot for day. However in typical Pacific Northwest fashion, the day was bright, beautiful, and utterly windless. So that wasn't the day. No the first day I sailed on a catamaran was on a Lagoon 410 by the name of Sun Baby. It was owned by the Kerns, a family who were in the last stages of their own preparations for a cruising year in Mexico. While we took another year to get out there, this was not our only time on Sun Baby as the second owners cruised with us, and we enjoyed sundowners on her deck several times.

The first sail was perhaps appropriately and a moderately blustery day in Elliott Baby. Dan got the sails up and the boat trimmed on a course for Eagle Harbor and we took off in flat seas at an exhilarating rate. The girls and I donned life jackets and sat on the tramp with the wind our faces. DrC gave me a hug. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. We were all trying to put ourselves on that tramp in a dreamy but eagerly awaited future. The sail was quick, without swell or wind waves. We went out, we tacked and went back to dock. We had a drink and all smiled at each other somewhat smugly and self-congratulatorily. I think we peed at the beautifully appointed restrooms on the immaculately kept grounds of Elliot Bay Marina on our way out. It was marvelous.

That sail had about as much to do with ocean cruising as an Imax movie has to do with hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

For some reason, however, the memory of that first sail was delivered sharply on my mental doorstep yesterday afternoon. Maybe it was simply the closure of the experience. The first sail on a Lagoon and perhaps the last truly big sail on this one. It might have been a trick of the light. Or it might simply be in contrast to some of my other musings as I sat at the helm on a close reach with the wind at 12, the sun shining, and nothing to gaze on but the dwindling lump of Tongatapu receding behind us. One thought that occurred to me is that I used somewhat obsessively and compulsively calculate our travel distance in terms of remaining fuel. There was always this thought that if we ran out of fuel, what would we do? As if somehow, we would get stuck by the side of the road in the desert of ocean between Mazatlan and La Paz and have to walk with a jerry can to the nearest gas station. What would we DO? Well, try putting up the sails. Don Quixote is, when all is said and done, a sail boat. She sails. Another thought that wafted through was that Biosecurity better not be too picky about bugs. I think we have dead bugs all over the walls of all three cabins after our visit to Ha'apai and Tongatapu. Little bloody smears it is going to take bleach, elbow grease, and a putty knife to remove. I also calculated the various permutations of meals it is possible for me to assemble using a can of French ham, half a bag of rice, 2 cups of wheat flour, and the 28 eggs remaining in the galley but not permitted into New Zealand.

So much for savoring the experience.

Minerva Reef is roughly 250 miles south and west of Tongatapu. It is very close to the rhumb line for a southbound vessel following the standard pilot recommended target of 30S 175E then due south to your port of entry. The wind blew hot and cold all night running us sometime up to > 7 knots and then moderating till we were creeping along at 4. It looks like we're averaging about 6 and should make the reef sometime tomorrow morning. The question of whether to stop or push on will be decided there. As of now, the weather looks good all the way down, so we might just run it straight through. We might have to in any case. The kids hate canned ham.

~ Toast
22 01.70'S 176 45.53'W En route to Minerva Reef, SSB 6224.0 at 0700 UTC for updates
Oct 9 2011 18:00 UTC

Friday, October 07, 2011

Do Not Check Out of Nuka'alofa

Distance: 187/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 5

Do not under any circumstances check out of Nuka'alofa.

I can not be any more clear than that. Please everyone cruising TAKE NOTES (and forward to NZ bound friends). Check out of Neiafu. Spend a week or two enjoying Ha'apai. Then go directly to New Zealand. Do not pass Nuka'alofa. Do not collect $200. Just go.

We spent all day ALL DAY in various offices trying to get checked out of Nuka'alofa. For our pains, we spent a ridiculous $235 pa'anga to legally leave the country. This is after the $200 some odd we spent getting into it. The largest expense was a port fee for using the rat invested, muddy, and smelly mooring available in the harbor. They charged us $4.36/pa'anga per gross ton -- which unfortunately for us is 31. Most monohulls will pay considerably less because GRT is based on volume rather than weight which is a legacy of the freighting industry. The price is not dependent on the amount of time you spend, however, so I suppose if you parked there for a month, it's a reasonable fee. The HM Customs guy is almost never in his office, and after three visits, we just parked our stubborn bottoms on their bench until the office workers hunted him down. To get duty free fuel we went to -- and I am not exaggerating... I know I usually do so let there be no mistake here -- six separate offices to get the right paperwork, approvals, stamps, signatures, and blessings.

The town itself is outside of normal walking distance being at least 2 km to the west along the water front. Town is an unavoidable journey since it is there you will find the Immigration office. You can take a taxi for $5 each way. There is no Internet available near the boat, and every cafe in town that advertised wireless services was also fronted by a sign that said their wireless was not functional. There is a Dataline Internet store where you can buy incredibly slow access at $1.50/15 minutes on computers that looked like they were 20 years old and whose keyboards should be put out of their misery via the expedient of bathing them in acid.

There are restaurants along the water front, most of which are on the pricey end of the scale. On an upnote, there is a daily fish market just across from the Med moor line as well as opportunistic local farmers who line the street to sell their wares. The veg and fruits available on the water front as well as those available at the large market downtown are considerably more diverse, better quality, and lower priced than those found in Neiafu. The market downtown also supports a diverse number of artisan and craft sellers whose prices are highly competitive and with whom you can bargain vigorously for a last few trinkets and souvenirs. You can find a marvelous bakery across the street from the downtown market. There are many hardware and a variety of food stores downtown. So provisioning is a bit of a shlep, it is easy enough to find what you need and bail into a cab for the trip back to the boat.

There are few interesting places to anchor in the Tongatapu group. None of them are really viable in a big wind or swell. We are having no difficulty, of course, because as of two days ago, the wind engine delivered an enormous layer of fat, wet clouds and then turned off to leave them sitting pleasantly and helpfully over the watermelon fields of Nuka'alofa. The watermelon is thriving and delicious. Our boat needs to be picked up by a giant hand and wrung out like squigy.

~ Toast
21 05.42'S 175 09.38'W Fao, Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga
Oct 7 2011 21:45 UTC

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Long Distance Grind

Distance: 185/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 4

Yesterday we motored. All day. On the upside, DrC wanted us to burn off the rest of our Mexican diesel. Now I am not saying that we haven't bought fuel since we left Mexico. We have. We just haven't bought a great deal. DrC estimates that we have purchased 50 gallons since we left North America. Until yesterday, we have never been less than half full in the tanks. Now we're down to a fifth in one and a quarter in the other. It is time to fuel up. Tongan diesel from Nuka'alofa is reasonably priced and has a reputation as relatively clean. We'll top up both tanks, the heater, and all the jerry cans and then add preservative to the lot. What we do not use on the trip south, we'll burn over the winter in our heater.

By far, the majority of our fuel has been 'spent' on making water. You could really think of all that diesel as being converted to laundry, pasta, and cocktail ice. Our port engine burns approximately 75/gal/hour during which we can motor at a speed of 4, charge up the batteries (including all the rechargeables and the laptops), and make 30 gallons of water. I figure that given our capacity of 72 gallons, add the 50 we bought, subtract the 17 still in the tanks, and we've burned 105 gallons of fuel, motored 560 miles, made 4200 gallons of water, taken 1000 showers, charged our laptops 500 times, and washed the sheets once.

People ask all the time, "How much fuel do you need to cross the Pacific?" It varies widely. The dependencies are wind, weather, and mood. We know cruisers who sail everywhere. They do not have refrigeration or water makers, they never bathe. They probably burn 10 gallons of fuel to get across used exclusively to anchor and pull anchor. Others turn on the iron genny whenever their speed drops below 5 knots. They have two fridges, make water every day, motor from anchorage to anchorage, run the engines to watch T.V. Heck, some boats out here are *gasp* power boats. They motor everywhere. Don Quixote is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. We try to sail all but the first and last mile. We try to live off our renewable power sources. We get shore water when it is available and the math works so that it costs less than water maker water (e.g. free). Yet, we're not shy about turning on the motors in very light winds. We motored a lot in Vava'u, for example, where the protected waters makes for a Puget Sound-like dearth of usable wind. So to answer this question for your own boat, you must ask yourself about your personal habits, your willingness to bob in the middle of the ocean for a day or two, your standards of cleanliness for both your boat and your bodies.

And then there is the wind... because as obvious as it may sound... you can't sail if there is no wind. Sometimes, like yesterday, you have to go from point A to point B on a schedule and the Wind Gods fail to cooperate. If you are Don Quixote, you turn on the motor and grind the day away. We spent nearly 7 months avoiding such demands on our time. If you don't plan to meet a friend or family member, don't schedule a plane or make a rendezvous with another boat, you can dodge such days completely. Just wait until the wind engine turns back on again, then sail from here to there for free.

But even the most footloose boat will eventually have a schedule to meet. Our visas run out on Friday, October 7. We had no choice but to arrive in Nuka'alofa on Thursday night so that we can spend DrC's birthday dealing with provisioning, customs, immigration, and the bank. After that, our schedule urgency diminishes. While we really want to arrive in Auckland before November 1, we have nearly 3 weeks to travel 1,100 miles. The wind looks super light for the next two days, so we might go around the corner, hide behind an islet and wait till some breeze blows up. Only a low with a squash zone just off the North Island coast is likely to force those motors back on before we arrive in the Auckland Harbor.

~ Toast
21 07.45'S 175 09.80'W Nuka'alofa, Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga
Oct 6 2011 18:30 UTC