[KensBlog] The 2015 Cruising Season is about to begin!

Greetings all, and welcome to the first blog of the 2015 season!

I am typing this from on an airplane. Roberta and I just left Seattle on our way to our boat, Sans Souci, in San Remo Italy! (On the French-Italian border).

During the off season we had a large number of new people sign up for the blog. To spin them up to speed I’ll start by doing a quick recap of who we are and what our background is.

This will be boring for those of you who’ve been reading the blog for several years, so you may want to skip ahead.

What is KensBlog about?

First off, I should answer the question of, “What is this blog about?”

The quick answer to the question is that my goal with the blog is to educate others about the realities of world cruising. My assumption is that there are thousands (perhaps millions)  of boaters, and people who someday want to buy a boat, and this blog is focused on them.

Imagine a picture in a magazine of a boat sitting at anchor in some idyllic bay with a white sand beach and crystal clear water. That’s the image that sucks you in, that causes people like my wife Roberta and I to empty our bank accounts and buy a boat. Readers of my blog know that there is more to the story than you see in the picture. Real life world cruising involves lots of things that no one tells you about until after you buy a boat. My blog talks about the costs, problems, highlights, low-lights, miseries and joys, of world cruising on a small boat.

There are some things my blog is not. Many people assume that because we cruise so many countries that my blog is a travelogue. There is some of that, but generally speaking there are other sites that are better for that kind of information. I tend to write about things I care about, and I am generally not excited by doing traditional tourist stuff. You will not learn much about the museums in Prague reading my blog, but you could learn some things about their economy and immigration policies. Some travel related things interest me, but others don’t.

Similarly, because Roberta and I are usually alone on the boat, I need to keep the boat running. If we have a break down hundreds of miles at sea, you can’t call a tow truck. If it breaks I need to be able to fix it. That said, my blog is not a “how to” of boat repair. You are far more likely to read about ways to avoid fixing things than you are to read about how to fix things. My philosophy is that boating should be fun, and I am not someone who takes a lot of pleasure in fixing things. You will not read about how to adjust the valves on a diesel engine. But, you might read about how to ensure that the diesel engine won’t need a tune-up at sea. Once in a while my blog does get boat-geeky, and does get technical, but … truthfully, there are better blogs out there if you are seeking information on ultra-technical things.

The bottom line: My blog is a “how-to” manual for someone who dreams of someday exploring the world on a small boat. And, I’m using the word “manual” very loosely. I don’t think anyone reads manuals, as they are usually boring. My goal for the blog is that my readers feel like they are in the boat with Roberta and I. People learn by doing. I want the readers to vicariously experience all the highs and lows of real-world boating. My goal in writing is to make it an immersive experience. The blog is best read “in real time” as the events are happening.

Many of the readers of my blog have been reading it for more than a decade, and parts of the blog have been converted to four different books. There’s a lot to this boating thing!

Who are Ken and Roberta?

I remember seeing a sailboat as a child and thinking, “Someday, I want to retire and see the world. If I had a boat I could go anywhere.”

My wife Roberta and I met when we were in our teens and by our second date I had already told her of my intention to retire at thirty and explore the world. She thought I was crazy but married me anyhow. That was forty-two years ago, and I’m still crazy and we’re still married.

Saying you will retire early, and actually doing it are completely different things.

It probably wouldn’t have happened, except that I happened to be in college at the time that personal computers were invented, and it was love at first site (both with Roberta AND computers!)

When I saw my first personal computer I immediately knew that it held the key to my impossible dream of early retirement and world cruising.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to make money off of a computer, but was convinced personal computers held potential. Roberta and I bought one of the first Apple 2 computers sold. At the time Microsoft was just getting started and Apple was still a tiny company run by two hippies named Steve.

Mystery House, our company’s first game

I wanted to create serious software (a compiler) but Roberta thought we should try to make a game. She designed a game that she thought would be fun, and then talked me into coding her game. It was called Mystery House and was our first game. She did the design and art, while I did the programming. That game became the beginning of what would go on to be a very large company named Sierra On-Line (one thousand employees when we sold the company in 1996.)

Ken and Roberta Williams, Circa 1980

By the time Roberta and I were forty we had raised our children and sent them off to college. We had a non-compete, which precluded our going back into the game business. And after eighteen years making games, we were ready for a new challenge, but what? I had blown my goal of retiring by thirty, but better late than never.

Almost from the day we were married, we had a boat

Roberta and I love travel and we love boating. I don’t know how many different boats we owned over the years, but it was a long succession of larger and larger boats.  Once we retired we started talking about the idea of buying an ocean-crossing capable boat, and “circumnavigating.” Although we said it and did buy an ocean-crossing boat, I don’t think we ever took seriously the idea of doing so. I know that sounds contradictory, and it was/is. It was like when I dreamed of retiring at thirty. There are some things in life that are goals you shoot for but know you are unlikely to achieve.

We were young, and not tied down, with lots of boating experience. But … we had never actually been out of sight of land. Crossing an ocean was an impossible dream.

The NAR (Nordhavn Atlantic Rally)

In 2004 we were living in Seattle and owned a Nordhavn 62 (meaning 62’ long.) For those not familiar with Nordhavn, they are a company who make ultra-rugged boats. Even though our boat had been mostly sitting at the dock, we wanted to own a boat capable of crossing oceans. Think about how many Jeeps and SUVs have been sold to people who like to think they could take their vehicle off-road, but never do. That was us.

Nordhavn 62, Grey Pearl

Even though Nordhavn touted their boat’s ability to cross oceans, only one of their boats had actually done so. Whereas sailboats have been regularly crossing the Atlantic for hundreds of years, privately owned power boats had not been considered reliable enough or to have enough range (fuel capacity.)

Nordhavn, in a brilliant marketing move, wanted to send a message to the world that their boats could easily cross oceans and announced that they would be conducting a rally (a chaperoned trip) across the Atlantic. It was a very bold idea. I saw their announcement, and within 24 hours Roberta and I sent Nordhavn an email saying, “We’re in!” Crossing the Atlantic alone would have been impossible for us, but in the company of other boats, we could do it!

To make a long story short (I wrote a book about the trip) seventy boats signed up and as reality sank in only eighteen showed up for departure. It was a journey that made the front cover of virtually every boating magazine and addicted Roberta and I to world cruising.

At the conclusion of the trip we starting talking about doing a slight remodel to the boat, and as these things go, we wound up selling our boat in Europe and ordering a new boat.

The GSSR (Great Siberian Sushi Run)

It never occurred to us that we’d do something that would top crossing the Atlantic.

However, in 2009 we were to make a journey that I honestly had doubts  we’d complete. It was just too bizarre, and something I thought impossible.

L to R – Tina Jones, Braun Jones Roberta Williams, Carol Argosy, Steven Argosy, Ken Williams

We were at dinner with two other Nordhavn-owning couples when Braun Jones (who with his wife Tina had the Nordhavn 62 called Grey Pearl), brought up the idea of crossing the Pacific via the Bering Sea.

Braun could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. And given the suicidal nature of what Braun was suggesting I’m sure it would have been easier. But, never underestimate Braun. The other couple at dinner, Steven And Carol Argosy, also Nordhavn 62 owners, had just cruised Alaska. Steven was telling stories of freezing cold and icebergs. Steven said he was taking his boat somewhere warm and would never go near cold water again. Meanwhile, I was sharing my enthusiasm for warm water cruising and said I would never cruise Alaska. I really am on a quest to find the white sand beaches and crystal clear water.

Braun explained at dinner that we could make the trip in summer, when the weather would be warmer and island hop across the top of the world, via the Aleutian Islands. And, by going over the top, taking something called The Great Circle Route, we’d be trimming thousands of miles off a typical Pacific crossing. And, best of all we’d get to visit Russia and wind up in Japan!

The Eskimos weren’t buying. Steven and I never considered the trip. We had watched the TV show Deadliest Catch and knew the frozen hell that is the Bering Sea.

However, what Steven and I didn’t know was that at the other end of the table Tina, Braun’s wife, was selling our wives. After dinner, on the way to the car Roberta broke the news. We were going to Japan! I called Steven the next day, who had also gotten the news from Carol. We were [xxx]-ed.

We called the trip The Great Siberian Sushi Run (GSSR).

Once again, I won’t bore you with the details, but it was an eventful trip, and out popped another book, plus lots of attention from the nautical magazines around the world.

Map of GSSR route across the Bering Sea

Very few foreign boats visit Japan. We made headlines!

After Japan our group of three GSSR boats stayed together to cruise Taiwan and Hong Kong, but then the group split apart.

Seabird and Grey Pearl wanted to see Malaysia and Thailand, but Roberta and I decided to split from the pack and load our boat onto a freighter, headed directly to Turkey.

Roberta and I wanted to see Thailand,  but we travel with two little dogs, and we are only on the boat a few months a year. We need to be able  to fly back and forth to the boat, and the problems of getting the dogs back to our home in Seattle from Thailand felt insurmountable. Some parts of the world are dog-friendly, and some aren’t. I think we probably could have gotten the dogs in, but it wouldn’t have been easily, and the flights would have been hard on the dogs.

Roberta, with our pups Toundra and Keeley, at anchor in Croatia

Another factor was piracy. There isn’t a lot of piracy around Malaysia, but there is some, and the rate of piracy seemed to be accelerating. It just didn’t sound fun (or safe) to keep going, so Roberta and I decided to load our boat onto a freighter and go directly to Turkey, while our friends stayed behind to cruise Thailand.

Roberta and I cruised for a year in Turkey and then were joined by Steven and Carol on Seabird. Sadly, Braun and Tina (Grey Pearl) lost their boat in a fire at the dock in Thailand.

Seabird and Sans Souci (The Argosy’s boat and our boat) cruised together through the Eastern Med; Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Italy and more!

And, here we are, at the start of this year’s cruising!

I say each year that the blog is a bit of a tug-of-war between Roberta and I, and all of you. When things go wrong, when the seas are rough, when the sharks are circling, the blog is great fun to read. The readers win and we lose. Boating is worthwhile, or we wouldn’t be doing it. But, I wouldn’t be telling the truth not to admit there are bad days. And, usually they are interesting bad days. On the other hand, there are days when the sea is calm, the hot tub is hot, the wine is just the right temperature, the sea water is warm and clear, nothing is broken and our biggest challenge is deciding which restaurant ashore to dine at. Those days we score for ourselves and the blog-readers lose. The current cumulative score is heavily tilted towards blog readers, so Roberta and I have some catching up to do.

Sans Souci is currently in Italy, on the border with France. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I am a Francophile. By this I mean someone who is captivated by France. I’m also a Boat-a-phile and as regular readers of my blog know boating is not always perfect. Nor is France. Unlike many of the places Roberta and I have explored, France will be like “coming home.” We have been going to France for most of our married life. We have hiked, boated and driven most of the southern coast. Whereas in much of the world we’ve struggled to find moorage, to find safe places to hide from the winds, or struggled to communicate, in France we should have fewer problems. We will cherry pick the coast of France seeking our favorite places. I speak enough French to get us by.

There will be plenty of interesting things in the blog this year, but those will come later in the season. For the next few weeks, my goal is to make the blog as boring as possible.

For the next month we will be on the French border, and I could post daily blogs telling you what we had for dinner, but I suspect that would quickly become boring. There will not be many blog entries over the next month. But, if you do see a blog entry, it will be because something interesting happened. I will not waste your time (or, will try not to!)

And, the big news is….!

Our GSSR group will be reuniting! All three boats; Seabird, Sans Souci and Grey Pearl (actually – Braun and Tina have a new boat called Ocean Pearl) will be meeting in Mallorca Spain.

It isn’t clear when the three boats will be meeting. Ocean Pearl (Braun and Tina) spent the winter in London, Seabird (Steven and Carol) spent the winter on the southern end of Sicily, and Sans Souci (Roberta and I) had our boat on the French-Italian border.

The three GSSR boats, scattered around Europe, converging on Mallorca, then heading to the Caribbean for further adventures

Ocean Pearl is already moving south, and Seabird is headed north-west towards Spain. Sans Souci will start moving in the next few days. We have the least distance to cover, which was our plan. While Seabird and Ocean Pearl will be paddling as hard as they can, Sans Souci will be moseying across the French Riviera.

“Why would I care that the three boats unite?,” you might ask. Well.. longtime readers of my blog know that when you get these three boats together: Adventure happens. Braun and Tina crossed the Atlantic side-by-side with us in 2004 plus on the GSSR run in 2009. The three boats together seem to have a track record of doing fun things, and I doubt that will change.

And, whereas we normally cruise only four months a year, this will be an unusual year. The three boats will be loaded onto a freighter later this year, bound for the Caribbean. Starting in January we’ll cruise the Caribbean together. In short, we’ll be on the boat six or seven of the next nine months. The blog may get off to a slow start, but will gain momentum.

Roberta and I have never cruised the Caribbean. It will all be new to us (except the Bahamas which we cruised in 2005). And, we actually know virtually zero about where we’ll be cruising or where we’ll finish. Will we head north to Florida? Will we head south to the Panama Canal? Will we bring the boat back to Seattle, or make a decision to cruise somewhere else?

I am reminded of the one time I asked Steven where he thought we’d be cruising in the Caribbean. His answer,  “You plan too much. Relax. We can figure out where to go when we get there.”

A look back at the off-season

Newbies to the blog may think that when Roberta and I leave the boat nothing happens. It just sits at the dock. Nope. The boat does occasionally sit quietly at the dock, but very often when Roberta and I aren’t on the boat, mechanics are. It’s like we take turns.

Boats our size and larger tend to have crew. Despite the blog and its many thousands of readers, Roberta and I are very private people. We can’t imagine living on a 68’ boat with a Ship Captain, engineer, chef, or even deck hand.

Boats can easily be a full-time job if you let them. There is always something to be fixed on a boat. Salt water is corrosive, and the sea is rarely flat. Imagine taking your home, hosing it down daily with salt water, then picking it up and slamming it side to side. Would it need maintenance? Nordhavn’s boats are rugged, but nothing can stand up to the abuse the ocean throws at us. Boating is sometimes best described as, “Fixing and cleaning your boat in exotic places.”

Roberta and I run the boat alone, but if all we were doing was constant cleaning and maintenance, the boat would be sold quickly. Our strategy, and it is not a cheap strategy, is to have a Seattle-based team of mechanics who travel to the boat wherever it is, and then they use the time when we’re not on the boat to make it perfect.

The off-season crew who care for Sans Souci: Jose Reyes, Doug Janes, Jeff Sanson, Cameron Stewart

I use Pacific Yacht Management (PYM) out of Seattle, who specialize in working with guys like me. Jeff Sanson at PYM knows my boat as well or better than I do, and at the end of each season I send Jeff a long list of things to fix. Jeff stays busy over the off-season ordering parts and getting them to wherever in the world the boat is. I also hire someone locally to watch over the boat day to day (This year it was Andrea Santore of All Services Inc, in San Remo Italy. Andrea is highly recommended!) A month before the start of each cruising season Jeff flies to the boat and spends weeks doing whatever needs to be done. He usually takes a crew with him of a couple other guys from Seattle (and, one from Mexico,) plus hire a local shipyard. It isn’t easy work. Jeff must have been a drill sergeant in some prior life. His guys work long days six days a week.

Jose took a chance and let the waiter choose his dinner. He received: Some interesting looking sardines. Yum! (not) Jeff’s dinner was even more fun. He ordered “American Pizza.” What he received was a crust loaded up with cheese and a mountain of French fries topped off by tomato sauce. Yum! (not)

At one point in my very distant past I wrote software that manages maintenance and parts for airplanes. When an engine fails on an airplane it is somewhat comparable to what happens when you are in the middle of the ocean on a boat and lose an engine. If you need a part no one is going to bring it to you. At least I have access to my engine on the boat, but… I had better know how to get it going because calling for help is not an option. And, engines don’t fail on sunny calm days. They fail when you are being slammed by huge waves and wind. Airplanes have maintenance and parts replacement standards which are meant to solve problems before they occur. My message to Jeff is that he should go through everything on the boat, every season, and replace anything that is in the last 25% of its useful life. If a fan belt is good for four years, replace it in three. If generators normally last 10,000 hours, replace it at 7,500. Things failing on Sans Souci should be rare.

The system works. In 50,000 miles (literally years of time) at sea, I have never had to be towed to the dock. I haven’t escaped doing maintenance, or changing oil, but I attribute the success more to Jeff than anything I do.

I’ll close out this issue of the blog with a look back at a small sampling of what Jeff, his team, and Andrea did this off-season. This may seem like a lot, but it was actually MUCH more.

More than you really want to know about what Jeff did to my boat

Warning! Only boat-geeks should read beyond this point

Sans Souci has cameras mounted around the boat, allowing me to watch inside the engine compartments while driving. I also have cameras for watching the dock. One project was to replace all the cameras (which were analog) with newer digital cameras, so that I can watch the cameras from an ipad or from anywhere in the world.

This is the “chain stopper” through which the chain holding my anchor feeds. Roberta and I spend the majority of our time on the boat at anchor. Our 350 pound anchor drops and raises dozens of times each season, plus is subjected to enormous forces. I had Jeff replace the chain stopper, which was looking beat up, plus overhaul the windlasses (the hydraulic motors that raise and lower the anchor)

Roberta and I are both computer-centric. We were getting tired of having cables strewn across the pilot house and had his/hers Ethernet jacks installed. There is wifi on the boat, but a wired connection tends to be faster.

Sans Souci’s safety gear gets checked annually and replaced from time to time. This year I replaced all the flares. They also inspected all the fire extinguishers and life rafts (which have to be removed from the boat and sent to a special shop for certification.)

There are more openings under the water on Sans Souci than one might think. I remember that when I was in Captain’s school one of our exercises was to make a list of all the thru-hulls on our boat. There are openings where grey water (laundry, kitchen and showers) exit the boat, black water (toilets), and several more for cooling water to enter the boat, and another couple openings for sea water that we convert to fresh water. Overall, I’d guess there are nearly twenty “Thru-Hulls” in the bottom of Sans Souci, each of which tends to get filled with crud. Jeff’s team cleaned them all (which in some cases meant completely disassembling them.)

To strip Sans Souci’s bottom of crud and put a fresh coat of paint on the bottom the boat has to be hauled out of the water. Sans Souci is very heavy (120 tons!) so there are very few places that can haul her out. Jeff said that this lift struggled to lift her and almost couldn’t do so.

Sans Souci has stabilizers (they look like airplane wings) that sit beneath the water. These pivot to help keep Sans Souci vertical as we move through waves.

Here you see one of my through-hulls completely clogged by crud

Sans Souci has stabilizers (they look like airplane wings) that sit beneath the water. These pivot to help keep Sans Souci vertical as we move through waves.

Here you see the stern lights on Sans Souci. They were completely covered by crud and had to be cleaned carefully, so as to not break the glass.

In addition to cleaning the props they are coated with a special paint which fights crud sticking to them. Also – in this picture you can see the “zincs.” There are four in this picture: The zinc-color knobs at the center of my props, as well as the two bricks bolted to the bottom of the boat. The zincs are there to help with electrolysis. If there is electricity in the water, it will tend to eat away nearby metal. Because the zinc is a softer metal than my propellers and shafts, the hope is that it will be eaten by the electrolysis first.

I probably should pretend I know what part Jeff is showing in this picture, but … I don’t. My best guess would be that it is the valve from one of my thru-hulls. Whatever it is … it is full of crud.

This is one of the giant through-hulls which brings cooling water into the boat. You can see that the inside of it is full of crud. It was removed from the boat, cleaned, and put back.

Sans Souci has an electric “gang plank” (called a Passarelle) for getting from the boat to the dock. It has always bugged me that the hand rail was on the wrong side. In addition to servicing the passarelle  (and, fixing the remote) the hand rail was moved to the opposite side of the gang plank.

There is a lot of different equipment on Sans Souci that uses sea water for cooling; the generators (two of them), the air conditioning chillers, the main engines, the hydraulic system, etc. There is also sea water taken into the boat to be used for making fresh water (by my water makers.) In order to keep the number of openings in the bottom of the boat to a reasonable number this box, called a sea chest, has two sea water feeds, and then distributes water to several different pieces of equipment. I’ve had problems with the seachest having inadequate capacity to keep up with the demand for water, and decided to move the water makers onto their own through-hull.

One of the potential problems on a boat is running over some fishing line or net that is floating in the water. Here you see that behind each of my propellers I have cutting blades which hopefully cut the line rather than it wrapping around my propeller. Jeff had the shaft cutters (spurs) rebuilt.

Some projects are not very sexy, but are still important. One of Jeff’s many projects was to fix the swim ladder.

Part of Jeff’s job was to look everywhere for leaks, corrosion, belts that are getting old, etc. This is one of many leaking valves he found.

More leaks…

The good news is that I have compressed air available at many locations around the boat. I use the air for blowing up fenders and water toys. The bad news is that there is a leak somewhere in the plumbing. After many hours spent chasing the leak we finally decided just to put in a valve, so that I could close off a portion of the system while keeping the air pressure for running my air horn.

The bow of Sans Souci has a five foot steel plate intended to give the boat added protection if I bump into something. Unfortunately, it had a leak which has been driving me crazy. For years we’ve been taking on water whenever the seas were rough. Finally, we removed the plate and are re-fiberglassing it.

The biggest project of the year was the replacement/upgrade of my water makers. Those of you who read my blog last year remember that I fought my water makers all season. Although I did get them working, they were clearly near the end of their life. I decided to replace them with a couple of “work boat” water makers. These are commercial units usually sold to commercial fishermen. I wanted something that was simple and would run forever. We shall see.

I have had to do fiberglass repair to my swim step every year since I’ve owned the boat. No matter how carefully I drive the tender, sometimes the seas are rough and both the tender and the boat attempt to occupy the same space at the same time. If you look closely at the swim step you’ll see we added bumpers to the swim step.

That’s it for this edition of the blog.

Thank you!

Ken Williams (and, Roberta)

MV Sans Souci


PS If you enjoy the blog, also check it out on Facebook. I tend to write a small burst most days.. www.facebook.com/kensblogdotcom

7 Responses

  1. Hi Ken,

    I’ve had a busy summer with long days at work….finally getting sound to start reading this summer’s cruising season for you…..better late than never, but it looks like I have a LOT of catching up to do! 🙂

    On the picture showing the zincs on your boat, the picture says there’s 4 zincs…. Aren’t there 6, as you have 2 on the hull, 2 at the end of the prop shafts, and 2 on the rudder skegs…..???

  2. Hi Ken, I am really curious as to your experiences with boat stability on the Nordhavn. Boating has been my passion for a long while and Nordhavn has been top of my list for a future vessel for longer range cruising. But a recently conversation with someone on a Defever brought stability into question. Can you comment on your experiences (both rolling but also pitchpoling)? Thanks – feel free to email if a longer answer. Appreciate it and so amazing to follow your journey – it is exactly what I have in mind in the future. 🙂

  3. Ken, I remember reading an archived blog entry where you spoke of a couples circumnavigation that ended with the couples separation. If you can remember the link to the blog or the name of the boat could you please post. Thanks in advance. Joseph

  4. You appear to have shifted the blog font to Courier. Maybe it takes up less bandwidth when you send it, but it doesn’t look good to me.

  5. How did the prop coating work?

    On the zincs, I think you meant that zinc is higher on the galvanic scale (#4) than copper (#33).

  6. Ken – Sounds like an exciting 9 months or so coming up! I wonder if some of the issues you’ve experienced — such as the capacity-challenged sea chest — are potential design improvement areas for Nordhavn? Obviously, anyone who travels or hangs out in warm waters is going to get acquainted with “crud” on the boat and in the thru-hulls, but the sea chest, and some of the corrosion examples made me wonder about design implications. Your thoughts? — Best of luck this season!

  7. Good to see you back in the saddle. Always enjoy your posts. Have a great 2015 season.
    We will hope to see you in the Caribbean in 2016.
    Sockeye Blue is currently in Annapolis and working our way up the US east coast for the summer. We will be spending the winter in the Caribbean and one month of it in Cuba.

    —- Reply by Ken — 2015/06/19 —-

    John: We will see you in the Caribbean! It will be a Nordhavn winter. In addition to our three boats, I know of a N46 and an N76 that will be there. As I said in the blog, I have no idea where we’re going in the Caribbean, other than that we won’t start our cruising until January, and will be starting from St Thomas.

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